Smoke River, Oregon 1867
When Wash Halliday came home from the war, Smoke River gave him a hero’s welcome. The tattered remains of the marching band gathered in the town square wearing their faded green uniforms and once-gold buttons and blared “Hail the Conquering Hero” only slightly off-key.
His ears rang with the noise, and he felt it all the way down to his feet. He glanced down at the leather boots in which, a year ago, he had marched from the union prison at Richmond all the way to Fort Kearney. Now, he was back in Smoke River.
Midsummer sunlight glanced off the tuba and Wash stifled an urge to duck; the flash of light looked exactly like an exploding mortar.
Thad McAllister, the graying band leader, pumped his skinny arms rhythmically up and down, up and down, but now Wash could hear nothing. A roaring noise bloomed in his head, rolled and echoed like thunder, and then a high-pitched scream began. He pressed both hands over his ears.
Stop. Stop. Behind his closed eyes the red-gold explosions began again.
“Havin’ one of yer spells, are ya?” his grizzled companion queried softly.
“What? No…no. Just can’t stop remembering.”
The sun-blackened half-Comanche furrowed his salt-and-pepper eyebrows. “Let’s get away from this headache powwow and have a drink. Saloon’s just across the street.”
Rooney was usually thirsty for some Red Eye about this time of day. Wash usually wasn’t. But today it was the other way around.
He waved his thanks at the bandleader and the two men marched through the crowd across the main street of hard-packed dirt. The hot afternoon breeze rustled the leaves of maple and poplar trees, already turning gold even though it was only August.
The buildings were sparse but well-kept. Livery stable, sheriff’s office, mercantile and two saloons. “Damn small town for a railway station,” Rooney muttered.
“It’ll grow,” Wash said with conviction. “When the railroad comes through it’ll be the biggest town in Jefferson County.”
Rooney shot him a look and spat tobacco juice from one side of his mouth. “Railroad ain’t comin’ if you don’t get the surveyin’ done and get yer clearing crews out here.”
Wash didn’t answer. He had plenty of time. Grant Sykes of the Oregon Central Railroad wouldn’t expect a route plotted for another week; that gave him four days to inspect the area and get the survey crew started.
He resettled his Stetson and gestured at the rickety-looking two-story building with a fancy gold-lettered sign out front. “Golden Partridge. Jupiter! Oregon settlers sure have a knack for fancied-up names.”
“Name don’t mean nothin’,” Rooney said in a dry tone. “It’s the whiskey that counts.”
Wash gritted his teeth. “Names always mean something. Just look at George Washington Halliday here and tell me you don’t see the gold braid and spit-polished boots Pop thought went with the name.”
Rooney grunted. “Get over it, Wash. Your pa named you, but it was you went off to be a big hero in the War. You said your momma like to die when she seen you all bony and crippled up after Gettysburg. Anyway, that was back then, and the Golden Partridge is in the sweet here and now.”
Wash tramped up the board sidewalk, glanced at the horse he’d tied up at the hitching rail and pushed through the double doors of the saloon. Rooney puffed through the entrance behind him.
“Howdy, gents,” the grinning barkeep called. “Beer?”
Wash planted both elbows on the polished wood bar. “Whiskey.”
The place smelled of sour chicken mash and off in a dim corner a black man was playing a twangy-sounding piano. “Oh, Suzanna.” Rooney, already humming the tune, held up two fingers and the barkeep nodded.
“Welcome home, Colonel,” the barkeep murmured while the whiskey gurgled out of the bottle. “War kept you busy, I hear. Sorry about your leg.”
Wash swallowed hard. That wasn’t the worst of it, getting his hip half shot off with a minié ball. The worst was that Laura had gone off and married someone else before he’d even left for the War. His chest had ached for weeks. The years after Laura had been pretty damn dark. Still were, he acknowledged.
The barkeep, short and round with a swatch of red hair and a mustache to match, swiped a rag across the counter. “What’ll you do now?”
“Now I’m working for the railroad.”
“Heard it was coming. Good thing, too. Where you plan to route it?”
“My boss had a choice between Scarecrow Hill and Green Valley. He’s choosing the valley.”
“Not this valley he won’t.” The barkeep recorked the whiskey and set the bottle at his elbow.