Jeanne stood watching him in silence, her eyes anguished. He slung the saddlebag onto his horse and turned to her.
“Jeanne.” He stepped toward her just as she moved forward toward him. “I’ll take a week off come Christmas,” he murmured. “I’ll come to see you then.”
She raised her head to look into his eyes. “Do not,” she whispered. “This is difficult enough.”
“I want to come. I’ll want to see you.”
“Do not,” she repeated. “Please do not.” Her voice broke.
She cleared her throat and looked up at him. “Besides, I have…I am buying a farm, Wash. My life will go on.”
She stepped into his arms and lifted her face to his. “Kiss me,” she whispered.
She could feel the trembling of his tall frame even before his mouth touched hers. She gave herself up to his lips, his scent, his strength, his being. She knew what his leaving meant; she would never see him again.
And in a flash of clarity she also knew that she loved him.
Without speaking, he kissed her again, then deliberately set her apart from him. When she glanced up she saw that his eyes were wet.
She carried the image of his face throughout the remainder of the day while she hammered nails into the broken fence. That night she found the silver medal Wash had left on her bed. On one side was engraved “To George Washington Halliday.” She turned it over. “For Valor.”
She didn’t stop crying until breakfast the next morning.
It was forty miles to Gillette Springs, a ten-hour ride. After saying goodbye to Jeanne, Wash didn’t have the stomach to push hard, so he camped out under a stand of cottonwoods near the Santiam River. The next morning he rode on into the town.
He remembered Gillette Springs as a pretty little place, with whitewashed storefronts and wide, clean-swept boardwalks on both sides of the main street. Sure didn’t look that way now. The false building fronts looked weathered and gray even in the hot midday sunshine, the noon whistle at the sawmill had a gritty sound and the yellow roses that used to ramble over the lattice in the town square were withered and dry.
He ate a lunch of ham and fried potatoes in the Gillette Hotel dining room and inquired about boardinghouses.
“Got three,” the shiny-faced young waitress told him. “One takes in ladies only. One has a—” she blushed all the way up to her hairline “—shady reputation. And one’s all right except the landlady is crabby. Which one do you fancy?”
“Crabby,” Wash said. “If she can cook.”
“Oh, Mrs. Zwenk can cook, all right. Third house from the corner.”
The place looked immaculate—matching curtains in every window, two bright redbrick chimneys, even the orange zinnias along the front walk were identical to each other. He knocked at the glass-paned door.
A tall, angular woman with her gray hair caught in a bun and wearing a stiff-starched white apron jerked open the door.
“I am Eleanora Zwenk, yes. What do you want?”
“I’m Wash Halliday. I work for the Oregon Central Railroad, and my partner and I will be spending a month here in Gillette Springs. We’d like to rent a couple of rooms.”
“Railroad, eh? Gonna run it right down Main Street?”
“No, ma’am. The railroad doesn’t own that land. Most likely the tracks will run alongside the river.
She firmed her mouth. She didn’t look welcoming, but the longer Wash stood there on her tidy front porch the less he cared. Might as well get down to essentials.
“Do you serve pancakes for breakfast? My partner is partial to pancakes.”
“Who’s your partner?” she snapped.
“His name’s Rooney Cloudman.” He didn’t think it prudent to mention Rooney’s half-Comanche heritage.
Mrs. Zwenk looked him up and down with narrowed gray eyes. “Got a jail record? I don’t rent to outlaws—” she studied him again “—no matter how tall and handsome they are.”
“We’re both working men, Mrs. Zwenk.” He tried not to let his exasperation show, but he was developing a powerful thirst for a shot of whiskey. “Ma’am? About the room?” He peeled a bill out of his wallet and thrust it into the woman’s knob-fingered hand.
Mrs. Zwenk’s eyebrows went up and she blinked at the money.
“Dollar a day. Each. No breakfast on Sundays.”
“Deal. I’ll bring my things over later.” He grasped her dry hand, shook it and headed for the saloon across from the hotel.
Polly’s Cage. Funny name, but it didn’t matter. He felt miserable. He ached all over, especially when he thought of Jeanne.