Jeanne took her hand. “Come, chou-chou. I will race you to the kitchen.”
Rooney looked back to see Jeanne and Little Miss waving from the porch. Abruptly they pivoted, raced for the screen door and clattered into the house. By jingo, he hoped Jeanne had some good whiskey stashed in her pantry so she could “damn the match.”
He twisted in the saddle one more time, and with a long sigh dug out his damp handkerchief again.
Inside Polly’s Cage, Wash sat hunched over the bar, his elbows resting on the smooth mahogany. A full shot glass perched on the far edge of the bartop. Rooney settled himself into the adjacent space and signaled to the barkeep.
“Congratulate me, Wash.” He grinned and followed with a wink.
“What for, Rooney? You get married?”
Rooney’s eyebrows danced up and down. “Now, it’s interestin’ you thought of gettin’ married right off. Isn’t it? Huh?”
Wash ignored the innuendo. “Win a big pot in a poker game?”
“Naw. I got somethin’ I never had before.”
Wash glanced slantwise at his partner. “New horse? Fancy dress-up suit? Chinese girlfriend?”
“Naw—” He broke off to order a double shot of whiskey from the barkeep. “Ya know there’s no women in that Celestial bunkhouse on wheels. Not sure I’d care if there was.”
“Well, what, then?” It wasn’t like Rooney to be secretive—or, come to think of it, to smile like a barn cat with a mouse cowering under its paw.
Rooney gurgled down a swallow of his whiskey and turned his beaming face full on Wash. “Got me a granddaughter!”
Wash knew his jaw dropped open, but for a few seconds he couldn’t seem to close his mouth. “Don’t you have to have a wife first, and then a daughter who grows up and gives you a—”
“Granddaughter!” Rooney chortled. “Little Miss and me, we adopted each other.” He downed another slug of spirits.
Wash stared at his friend. A happier man he’d rarely seen unless he was drunk or simple-minded. Rooney was neither.
“Before I left Smoke River I rode out to see Jeanne and Little Miss. Nice little town, Smoke River. And Sarah Rose—by Jupiter, that woman’s a real prize. Anyway…” He stopped long enough to swallow his remaining whiskey. “So I’m sayin’ goodbye an’ Little Miss, she—”
Rooney stopped and swallowed hard. “She wouldn’t let go of me till I promised I’d be her grandfather. Forever and ever. Now, ya gonna congratulate me or not?” He looked pointedly at Wash’s untouched glass of whiskey.
Wash felt an awful jolt inside, as if somebody had fired a shotgun just past his ear. So Rooney had a granddaughter. That was the last word he thought he’d ever hear out of his partner’s mouth, granddaughter. Things were sure changing.
And what about you? a voice nagged.
He was glad for Rooney. He grabbed his drink, clinked the shot glass against his partner’s. “Damn the match!” he choked out.
The two men laughed, drained their glasses, pounded each other on the back and laughed some more.
“Jeanne, now…” Rooney began.
Instantly Wash sobered. “Yeah? What about Jeanne?”
Rooney gave him a sly look. “Why, she’s doin’ right fine. Moved out to that farm she wanted to buy—place about a mile outta town and pretty as a painting. She has a milk cow penned up next to the barn and a whole mess of chickens in that coop she nailed together. She’s tradin’ eggs and lavender wreaths and smelly silk pouches for food and supplies at the mercantile. Real enterprisin’ woman.”
He sneaked another glance at Wash. “Kinda surprises ya, don’t it?”
Wash waited for the stab of longing in his gut to ease. “Yeah. Enterprising.” Dammit to hell, he didn’t want Jeanne to thrive so easily without him! Of course he wanted her to have food and shelter but…
Doesn’t she need you at all? A woman who could do just fine without him sure was a blow to a man’s pride.
Rooney finished the last of his whiskey. “You all right? Look kinda gob-smacked.”
Rooney leaned closer. “No, yer not. Don’t waste yer time lyin’ to me, son. My Comanche half can read yer mind without even tryin’.”
“I’m fine,” Wash repeated. But he knew he wasn’t fine. Wasn’t even close. He was barely functioning. Sooner or later he’d have to face up to it.
“Lemme tell you somethin’,” Rooney muttered. “It’s an old Indian saying. ‘Those who have one foot in the canoe and one foot on the dock will fall into the river.’”