She must stop imagining him in her life! He would never see her new farm.
She hated the word never. She liked words like forever. And always.
Manette climbed the wood porch steps, plopped herself down beside her and patted her hair. “Don’t cry, Maman.”
She lifted her head to hear her daughter ask a question: “Will Wash come back?”
Jeanne choked on an unexpected sob. “Non, chou-chou. I think not.”
Manette rolled her lower lip under her small baby teeth. “Does he not like us anymore?”
Jeanne blinked away the stinging in her eyes. “He does like us, Manette. He likes us very much.” He likes us too much, and it makes him afraid.
He was a fool. A coward. A heartless man.
Non, that was not true. Wash had plenty of heart. He had plenty of courage, too. He was neither a fool nor a coward, he was…simply a man. A scarred, wounded man.
Her pulse leaped at the sound of hoofbeats, but it was Rooney who cantered his strawberry roan down the lane from the town road. With a sinking sensation, Jeanne noted the bulging saddlebags behind the saddle. Rooney, too, was moving on.
He dismounted and she stood to greet him, but found she could not speak. He tramped up the two steps to the porch and lifted both her hands in his great paws.
“I’m leavin’, Jeanne.” His voice went hoarse. “Sure is hard.”
She could only nod. He folded her against his beefy chest and pressed his lips against her forehead. “Damn,” he said. He released her, blew his nose into a large white handkerchief and bent to pat Manette.
“Well, Little Miss…” It was all he could get out be fore his voice cracked.
Manette flung her arms around his legs and spoke a single word in her decisive child’s voice. “No.”
Rooney went down on one knee and wrapped her in his arms. “I have to go, honey.”
“No!” She clung to him, her small arms tight around his neck, her head burrowing between his jaw and his shoulder. He held her without moving for a long, anguished minute; when he raised his head at last, his lips formed a grim line and his eyes glittered with tears.
Jeanne clamped one hand over her mouth and with the other wrapped her fingers around the medal Wash had left for her. For Valor. She wore it on a chain, next to her skin.
Oh, why did valor have to hurt so much!
Rooney cleared his throat. “Well then, how ’bout I adopt you, Little Miss? Would you like me to be yer grandfather?”
Manette clung to his hand. “Forever and ever? You promise?”
“Forever and ever. You have my word.” He blew into his handkerchief again.
Manette’s face shone. “Will you teach me how to cook a rattlesnake?”
“I sure will, honey. You got one waitin’ to be sliced up for the fryin’ pan?”
The girl giggled. “First we have to catch it. You promised to show me how to hunt, remember?”
Rooney blinked and made a show of folding his damp handkerchief and stuffing it into his trouser pocket. “Well, now, Little Miss, huntin’ is a real art, ’specially the Comanche way. Takes time to learn, and it takes practice, too. How ’bout we practice huntin’ when I come back to visit?”
Manette nodded but her head stayed down in a drooped position. “Would you push me in the swing?” Her voice was almost inaudible and she did not look up.
“You got a swing?”
Jeanne caught his eye and pointed to the pepper tree in the yard.
“Oh, yeah, I see it.” He sent Jeanne a grin. “Mighty fine swing. You ready?”
Manette darted away to the swing. Rooney clumped a few paces behind her, lifted her into the contraption and gave the wooden seat a shove. He’d never in his life pushed a swing. Jes’ goes to show ya, it’s never too late to learn somethin’ new.
Manette sailed away from him, then swung back and Rooney reached out to push her once more.
“Higher!” she called in her determined voice.
Rooney decided he kinda liked her determined voice. He pushed the swing while the girl yelped in delight. He could have continued for hours, but suddenly he remembered where he had been heading when he’d ridden out and why he’d come in the first place.
To say goodbye.
He lifted Manette out of the swing, strode over to the porch and kissed them both once more. “I’ll be back,” he managed over the lump in his throat.
Jeanne watched him mount and ride away down the dusty lane. She knew she and Manette would see Rooney again. Not Wash, maybe, but certainly Rooney. After all, Rooney Cloudman had just adopted a granddaughter!
Jeanne tugged one of Manette’s braids. “Do you not think it is time for our afternoon café?” She knew how much her daughter loved their grown-up “teatime talks.” Today they would probably talk about Rooney. Manette did not answer. She was gazing down the lane after Rooney.