The barkeep was even more crabby than Mrs. Zwenk. “Make up your mind, mister. I’ve got other customers.”
Wash was beginning to feel out of place. And running out of patience. He didn’t much like the town anymore. He felt something inside him ignite, and if he didn’t do something about it, he was going to explode. It was like a short fuse was smoldering in his gut and if he stood still for very long it would detonate.
He’d never felt this unsettled, not even after Laura. Maybe he was getting old. Burned-out. Maybe he was tired of moving on every month or so. A brimming shot glass slid in front of him, and Wash hunkered over it. Then he shoved it out of the way with his elbow and dropped his head in his hands. He needed to think.
Everything had changed and he had no idea why. Yeah, the town was older and more run-down than the last time he’d ridden through. Mrs. Zwenk was more than crabby. And his survey crew, which was just now stumbling into the saloon, looked like they were already drunk. He recognized three of them; the fourth was even younger than Lacey, the blond kid from Minnesota.
He nodded at the men and felt duty tug at him. He shrugged the feeling away. None of those things—the crabby landlady, the weathered town—had mattered before. Why did they matter now?
He needed his work for the railroad; it kept him steady. It helped him heal from the scars of the War. And Laura. It felt good to fire black powder charges drilled into a hill of rocks instead of cannons aimed at ragged reb soldiers.
The railroad was a clean thing. It was building civilization, not destroying it.
In a strange way it felt like it wasn’t enough anymore.
His head spun. He hadn’t downed a drop of the whiskey sitting in the glass at the edge of the bartop, but it sure felt like he had. And then a thought blazed into his mind. The simplicity of it, the clarity, was almost blinding.
There had to be more to life than a job well done. More to life than the railroad.
He was drunk all right, but it wasn’t on whiskey. Even his shirt felt different—too tight, as if he’d chosen the wrong size. He pulled the constricting collar away from his neck.
What was wrong?
Nothing is wrong, a voice inside his head hammered. This is what life is, some good, a lot bad.
He’d lived through Antietam and Bull Run and more Indian skirmishes than he could count. He’d survived. He was thirty-eight years old and he was whole and strong.
He gazed through the streaked front window at the empty street outside. The door of the mercantile was shut, its front blinds rolled down. Only three horses were tied up in front of Polly’s Cage; not even enough men for Rooney’s nightly poker game.
Is this what he wanted for the rest of his years on earth? Hotel breakfasts and crabby landladies?
Something tightened inside him, like he was pulling on muscles he hadn’t used in a long time. It felt a lot like the growing pains he’d had as a kid. He’d hated the feeling then, and he hated it now.
For the next three days Jeanne kept herself so busy she could not stop and let the wrenching emptiness inside consume her. She scrubbed the filthy plank floor of the farmhouse she’d bought; dusted down the bare ceiling beams; scoured the battered old Windsor kitchen range until the nickel trim gleamed; and washed all the windows, upstairs and down, with hot water and vinegar.
Her hands were red and swollen, her back stiff and her neck and shoulders ached, but not one inch of her new farmhouse—right down to the wide front porch—had escaped her broom and brush. This afternoon she’d even dragged an old, rickety ladder she’d found in the barn and teetered on it long enough to mount a swing for Manette in the pepper tree in the front yard. Her daughter spent most of the afternoon dangling her feet on the ground, begging Jeanne to come and push her.
But Jeanne was busy boiling sheets and pillowcases in the big tin washtub and sewing curtains for the upstairs bedroom windows—yellow gingham for Manette’s cozy room, blue gingham for her own. How Wash would have teased her about all that gingham! Her heart constricted as if a claw were closing around it.
Now Manette was collecting bugs from the dry grass in the yard, and Jeanne sat exhausted on the porch steps, her head in her hands, trying hard not to think of Wash Halliday. He cared about her; she knew he did. He’d shown it in a dozen ways, including making it possible for her to purchase this place and move on with her life.
But move on into a life without Wash. Her throat closed. He would have liked this farmhouse. He would tease her about the gingham napkins and her gingham work dresses, about the milk cow she’d bought from Thad MacAllister, about the lopsided swing under the tree.