Lady Lavender(2)By: Lynna Banning
Wash’s gut tightened. “Oh? Why’s that?”
“The widow Nicolet, that’s why. She owns land in the valley. Small farm, but you can’t get into town without running an eyelash away from her place.”
“Hell’s haystacks, Colonel, a narrow trail alongside her fields is one thing, but a railroad right-of-way? That’s a different breed of bull.”
Wash set his empty shot glass on the bar and caught the man’s eyes. “The railroad owns the land, not the lady.”
“Maybe. But Miz Nicolet thinks it’s hers.” He pronounced the name with a long a at the end. Nicolay.
“You know that for a sure thing?”
The barkeep shrugged. “She hasn’t given in on one single thing in the four years since she settled here. Real stubborn woman. Frenchie, you know. Worst kinda female on the face of the planet.”
Wash quirked an eyebrow. “Why’s that? Because she’s French?”
“Because she’s female. A woman don’t belong out here, farmin’ on her own. Plus that woman don’t allow nothin’ anywhere near her place, not even Fourth of July picnics.”
Wash shifted, hooking his boot onto the bar rail. “That’s a railroad right-of-way her farm’s sitting on. Railroad wants to use it.”
“Huh!” the barkeep spluttered. “Railroad got a few hundred soldiers to back you up?”
“Nope. They got something better—me. I’m a lawyer, and I’m overseeing the railroad crews.”
The red-haired man again swiped his cloth over the bar. “No fancy law-spoutin’ Back-East lawyer’s gonna make a dent in that woman’s spine.”
“I’m not a fancy Back-East lawyer,” Wash said quietly. “And it’s not her spine that interests me. It’s her fence posts.”
All Wash knew about France was that Napoleon was a big overgrown bully and the wine had bubbles in it. Didn’t seem to him that a woman, even if she was French, could be too big an obstacle. If she was halfway intelligent he’d simply point out the advantages the rail line would bring to Smoke River.
And if she wasn’t intelligent, well, then he’d have to maneuver her into relinquishing the land the railroad owned. At his left, Rooney downed a second shot and when he could draw breath, smacked his lips. “Damn good stuff, Wash. Thanks.”
“Don’t know how you could tell, it went down so fast.” He rolled three two-bit pieces down the shiny wood bar and together the two men stepped out into the fading sunlight.
Wash grabbed the reins of the black gelding and swung up into the saddle. “Gonna ride out and take a look at the narrow end of the valley.”
Rooney chortled. “You mean take a look at the lady farmer at the narrow end of the valley.”
“Just reconnoitering the enemy. You coming?”
The stocky man turned back toward the saloon. “Nope. Rather stir up a poker game ’stead of a hornet’s nest. That’s your department.”
Yeah. Hornet’s nests were his specialty. That’s what he’d dealt with in the War and later with the Sioux at Fort Kearney. And that’s what Grant Sykes paid him for now. He reined away from the hitching rail and headed the horse past the whispering maple trees toward Green Valley.
When he got to the overhanging cliff, Wash reined in. Below him stretched an undulating sea of lavender, washing up the surrounding hills like a purple tide. The little farmhouse nestled at the neck of the valley, a long, slim island of green surrounded by hills as brown and dry as old tea leaves. A peaceful place.
He guessed few travelers passed by and those who did kept their horses on the narrow pathway to avoid trampling the purple-topped bushes next to the lane. Wash had to chuckle. Patches of bright green mint grew along the edge, so if a horse strayed off the path, the sharp minty scent alerted the rider. Miz Nicolet must be one canny farmer.
He wondered for the twentieth time why Sykes’s railroad had purchased a right-of-way through this narrow valley. He guessed back then it was the only land the Oregon Central could acquire at a favorable price; the government had set aside the rest for homesteading.
Below him, a movement caught his attention, a flutter of blue swirling across the ocean of purple, a woman running, her apron crushed into one hand, bare legs flashing. She slowed and pointed up at him, then began wading through the field, shouting something.
He spurred the horse, stumbled down the steep edge through crumbling shale that shelved off under the mare’s searching hooves. He shifted his weight to help the animal balance, and when they reached the level valley floor he bent forward, his eyes narrowing.