Today should be an easy day laying the iron track the rest of the way through the Cut; he hoped the storm hadn’t washed out the smoothed bed his crew had labored over. As soon as the tracks reached the level ground outside Green Valley, Rooney would take over supervising the Chinese crew and Wash would move on to Gillette Springs as Sykes had ordered.
He gazed up into the hot sunshine and closed his eyes. Usually he looked forward to readying a new site, bossing the survey crew, organizing the graders and powder monkeys. This morning a pang of regret nibbled at him; he wanted to spend another night with Jeanne.
When she had kissed him on the back porch last night, his brain had gone into another crazy spin. She’d looked so enticing, even wrapped up in an old plaid bathrobe Mrs. Rose had lent her. But when he’d made a move toward her she had pressed her arms over her rib cage.
“Non. There is Manette to think of. She is well now, and she…she sleeps lightly.”
Devil take it! He liked Manette—quite a lot, in fact; he wouldn’t want to disturb her. But dammit, he couldn’t take Jeanne to his own room upstairs because Rooney was already snoring like a crosscut saw in the one bed. The night before, Wash had slept on a pallet on the hard floor.
He yanked his thoughts back to what faced him today. The site was wet, and the railbed the crew had graded had washed out in a few places. But by midmorning, Sam and his crew had the damage repaired, and by noon shiny silver rails ran the entire length of the valley and through the Green Valley Cut onto level ground. His job at the valley site was finished.
He should celebrate. Instead he stacked wood for the Chinese cook’s stove and walked the entire length of track, checking whether the spikes were pounded in level with the metal rails. He then reversed his direction to double-check each joint bar. Hell and damn, the truth was he wanted to delay his leaving as long as possible.
When the silver-and-black locomotive engine fired up its boilers and chuffed through the Green Valley Cut, pushing the three-tier bunkhouse and the cars of railroad ties and rails ahead of it, Wash knew his time in Smoke River was over.
What he didn’t know was how to say goodbye to Jeanne.
After the lunch break, Sam shouldered him toward his horse. “Job finished here, boss. You go to next place.”
Wash took a last look at what had once been Jeanne’s lavender farm and kicked General into a canter. On his way through town, he stopped in at the Golden Partridge. The redheaded bartender poured a shot of his favorite whiskey and slid it down the length of polished mahogany. He sipped it in silence and was grateful the barkeep wasn’t in a talking mood.
With each passing minute he thought more and more about Jeanne, and his throat grew tighter and tighter. Finally he drained his glass, signaled a goodbye to the barman and headed for the boardinghouse to say goodbye. He felt worse with every step he took, as if a black mist was settling over his heart.
Jeanne was out in the front yard, hunched over a section of fence with a hammer in her hand, pounding nails while Rooney and Manette and Mrs. Rose’s grandson propped up the collapsed slats.
He felt like he always did when he first saw her, like a horse had kicked him in the chest with all four hooves. The sensation increased to agony when he realized he’d be leaving within an hour.
Jeanne looked up, her lips closed around a mouthful of nails. She tried to smile, then clapped her hand over the nails to keep them in place. He wanted to laugh but he didn’t have the energy.
While Jeanne watched, her face white and pinched, he dragged the saddlebag off his horse and forced himself to turn away from her and mount the porch steps. Mrs. Rose was in the kitchen, peeling a sinkful of potatoes. He paid Jeanne’s board for the next six months.
“Chances are she won’t be here that long, Colonel. She won’t say why, neither.”
Wash stepped back. He guessed Jeanne had some sort of plan up her sleeve. He didn’t want to know what it might be. At least he knew she had money, and beyond that he couldn’t let himself think.
With slow steps he hefted his saddlebag up to his room and began packing his things. When he finished, he walked across the hall and laid on Jeanne’s bed a small engraved medal he’d carried with him since the War.
Rooney spied him coming out of the front door, his bulging saddlebag over his shoulder. “Leavin’ now, are ya?”
Jeanne dropped her hammer with a clunk and turned toward him. She wasn’t smiling.
Wash shook hands with Rooney, then with Sarah’s grandson Mark, then with Rooney again. “Pick us a place that serves pancakes for breakfast,” his partner ordered.
Manette sprinted across the yard and flung both her arms around Wash’s knees. He ruffled her flyaway hair and she hugged his legs even tighter. Wash swallowed hard. He would remember this moment for the rest of his life.