Lady Lavender - Page 74

The sporadic rustling continued, not loud, and not often—just enough to let her know she was not alone. Probably just a deer, she thought. Or a squirrel or a rabbit or…

If it was a deer or a rabbit, she could make a noise and scare it off. Carefully she scooped up a handful of leaves and crackled them into her palm.

Nothing moved.

The derringer in her right hand began to wobble. She wrapped her other hand over the grip to steady it and tried hard to keep her breathing slow and even. Surely whatever, or whoever, it was could hear her heart thudding against her ribs.

Would he spy her mare?

Ah, no, he would not. She had tied the animal in a thick copse that was screened from view on all sides.

Sweat dripped off her forehead. Her nose itched, but she dared not lift her hand to scratch it. She waited. And waited.

She thought she would scream, but she waited.

It was dark and quiet in the small grove of trees Wash had used as a camp before. Unnaturally quiet. No evening sparrow trilled from the cottonwoods; no small animals rustled in the undergrowth. Reminded him of how night noises went suddenly still when Indians lay waiting in an ambush.

He had purposely ridden past the campsite, then circled around and approached from the opposite direction. He dismounted quietly, slid an oat-filled feedbag over General’s muzzle, and made his way to the campfire site he remembered. Whatever noise the horse made would draw the attention of whoever was hiding among the thick growth of trees.

Sure enough, a twig cracked where he’d left the horse. General was growing restless.

Wash himself jumped at a different sound, a sharp noise that rose over the gentle gurgling of the spring. He listened for a long time, holding his body absolutely still. There it was again! A chattery noise, like stepping on dry leaves.

Whoever was hiding in the shadows was taking his sweet time making his presence known. Now that he thought about it, he had to ask himself why. An outlaw? Somebody on the run?

The back of his neck got that crawly feeling he remembered from Indian ambushes. Very deliberately he fished a small stone out of his shirt pocket and tossed it into a clump of weeds. The slight rattle faded into silence. He tried another, larger stone.

Same thing. With caution, he edged one foot forward, settled it on the ground without breaking the quiet, and only then rocked his weight onto it. Indians walked silent like that; Rooney had taught him. He lifted the other boot and set it down the same way. One more step and he’d—

“Stand where you are or I will shoot.” A kid’s voice, pitched low to sound like a man.

Wash peered in the direction of the voice but could see only the outline of shaggy pine trees. “Who’s there?”

“None of your business.” Real young kid. Voice was shaky.

“Okay if I picket my horse here?”

A pause. “Okay.”

“Thought I might get some shut-eye. Okay with you?”

A longer pause. “Perhaps.”

Perhaps! A kid who used formal English?

“I’m not coming anywhere near you, boy. Just don’t shoot if you hear some noise.”

No answer. Did the kid really have a gun trained on him? Maybe he was just bluffing.

“Hey, kid? I’d appreciate it if you put your sidearm away.”

“No.” Something about that word sounded odd. In fact, something about the kid himself didn’t make sense.

“How old are you, boy?”

“None of your business.”

This time Wash heard a soft sound, maybe a body rolling up in a blanket. Good. He guessed the boy’s gun was no longer pointed at him. He tramped noisily over to his horse, rummaged in his saddlebag for a couple of biscuits he’d swiped from Mrs. Zwenk’s breakfast platter and grabbed his water canteen. Then he loosened the saddle cinch, kicked away any stone he felt under his boots and rolled out the blanket.

He lay in the dark trying to visualize his unfriendly companion and chewed a single bite of Mrs. Zwenk’s iron biscuit until his belly stopped growling. He had to laugh. The kid’s voice had hardly reached a man’s lower register. Kinda throaty and with a funny—

He yelped as the knowledge hit him. Somewhere near him a gun went off with a sharp snap, and a bullet zinged into the tree behind him.

Wash scrambled toward the sound. “Don’t shoot!” he shouted. “Dammit, Jeanne, don’t shoot!”

A stifled cry came from the cottonwoods. He crawled toward it.

“Jeanne? I know it’s you.” His knee landed on a rock and he groaned with frustration. “For Heaven’s sake, don’t pull the trigger!”

“Why should I not?” came the wavery voice.

“Because if you kill me, we’ll have to have a wake instead of a wedding!”