Wash hoisted the bag of flour off his hip and into the bed of the wagon, where it landed in a dusty cloud. He twitched his nose, wiping his face with the back of his arm. “Aye, I think that’s the last of it, so it is.”
The kitchen back at the station had been sorely in need of supplies by the time Miss Lily, Saint, and Hellbender had returned from their trip to Point of Rocks. And Mister Thomason at the mercantile had been very happy to see Wash and Bender when they’d walked in. In all honesty, Wash had been happy to be there. Standing in the tidy shop stacked high with household goods felt calming. Like things were easing back into some semblance of normalcy.
Beside him, Bender heaved the last sack up besides the one Wash had loaded. “Do we eat this much?” he said, looking a little perplexed.
“Aye, we do when it’s Miss Lily doing the cooking.” Wash pulled his hat brim down against the glare of the afternoon sun and dusted the loose flour from his hands onto his thighs.
Bender shook his head, raising an eyebrow skeptically. “How about we cool off with some sarsaparilla before we head back, yeah?”
“Aye, let me just...” He narrowed his eyes, focusing on the figure headed up the street towards the wagon. That’s Miss Sullivan. She’s headed this way... He felt his pulse quicken, an unbidden excitement rippling through him. “Go along with you, lad,” he said, watching the teacher approach. “I’ll catch up.”
Bender gave the approaching figure a knowing appraisal, nodded, and headed down the wooden sidewalk towards the Silver Star. “Take your time, mate,” he said, a knowing half-smile twitching in the corner of his mouth.
Wash pulled his hat from his head and held it in front of him, the sudden brightness of the sunlight feeling like arrows piercing his eye sockets. “How’s things, Miss Sullivan?”
“Good day, Mr. Monahan,” she said, her smile tight as she stepped past him on her way towards the mercantile doorway. It was as if she swept a winter gust with her as she walked, an air of tension so thick Wash could almost see it shimmering in the air like a mirage.
“I’m...” he cocked his head, wondering at her demeanor. She seemed pleasant enough, but back home, his life had often depended on reading people. Miss Sullivan was not happy. And he couldn’t shake the feeling that she was not happy because of him. What did I do? “I enjoyed supper last night, so I did,” he ventured, watching her closely. I wouldn’t mind...”
She turned, facing him, and there was a sadness in her eyes that startled him. “Mister Monahan...” She paused, collecting her thoughts. “I will continue to tutor you. You are doing well on your lessons, and I am glad for that. But do not think our contact will be anything other than...” she shook her head. “We will meet at the schoolhouse with Missus Plunkett from now on.”
...what? his eyebrows shot skyward. “Aye lass,” he said, his face flushing with confused heat. “Why...what...?” He felt self-conscious and embarrassed, and had no idea why. He couldn’t help but notice her own face was flushing pink as well. “Did I do or say something...?”
“No, I just think...”
“I’ve offended you somehow, so I have.”
“No.” She drew in a deep breath. “Mister Monahan, I know your business is your business and you don’t have to tell me anything about your past...but...” Her words fell over themselves in an awkward tumble. “I don’t know who you are, sir.”
Jaysus. She’s sodding right. Wash closed his eyes, mentally chastising himself. He stepped up onto the wooden sidewalk, where the sun wasn’t so brutal. She flinched, stepping back, and Wash felt one of the stitches holding his heart together start to come unraveled. “You know who I am, lass,” he said quietly. “I’m just a sad, gormless bloke that works as a coach guard because I can’t do anything else.”
“Mister Monahan...” she said, shaking her head. “We both know you did do something else before you came here. Because you didn’t work for the company. Did you.”
Wash’s face was burning. Suddenly, he was six years old and about an inch tall. “Does it matter, lass?” he muttered, thoroughly undone and humiliated. “Why is it so important?”
“Because I have to think there’s a reason you feel you can’t be honest.”
“Oh, and there it is.” He felt another stitch inside him pull, tearing, leaving a hole. “I suppose I could say the same, couldn’t I?” he said defensively. He thought about the look on her face when she’d told him she had come all the way out the Green from back east ‘looking for work’. He’d known she was hiding something even then. “I suppose you’re a lucky lass, to find the one and only job open from the east coast to Green River.”
Miss Sullivan’s mouth dropped open. “What are you implying, sir?”
“Nary a thing. I’m just saying I asked you and you avoided answering it. So I’m thinking we both have our secrets we’d rather keep buried, so we do.”
She was looking at him with a mixture of resentment and sadness in her eyes, and Wash realized he was bleeding inside, the pieces of his bruised heart becoming loose and rattling around in his chest. She’s...is she...afraid? Of me? “What sort of things are you thinking about me, lass? You think maybe me face is on poster or something? That I’m some sort of outlaw, and the law’s on me tail?”
She visibly recoiled, startled, as if she’s been slapped. Her face went pale.
He shoved his hands in his pockets, his shoulders slumping. “The law’s not after me, lass,” he said, feeling hurt and angry.
She drew in a deep breath, and let it out in a shaking sigh. Her hands were trembling. “I don’t think that about you, Mister Monahan,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. “I’ll be back in the classroom at the usual time, if you want to continue.”
She turned away, and instead of going into the mercantile, she headed quickly down the sidewalk, her heeled footfalls on the dusty boards fading away down the street.