Wash dragged himself off the bar stool and headed for the saloon entrance. He sure wished his mother hadn’t sold the ranch. One of the things that had kept him going the two years he’d spent in that prison hellhole in Richmond was thinking about the ranch near Smoke River. He’d dreamed about running fifty head of cattle and maybe some horses on the rolling seven hundred-acre Halliday Double H spread. There was something special about a place you called Home. Something worth fighting for.
Now, working for Sykes and the railroad kept him moving all over the Oregon and Washington territories. He never slept in the same bed more than twenty days at a time, but the money was good. And he was glad the railroad had sent him to Smoke River.
He could understand how Jeanne felt about being uprooted, forced out because a railroad line was coming through. She was caught between a slab of granite and a block of steel. His mother had sold out in a heartbeat after his father died; but Wash knew Jeanne would fight like a tiger to the end.
He pushed through the swinging doors and stepped out onto the board walkway. Just as he reached the barbershop where Whitey Kincaid offered haircuts and shaves and hot baths for fifty cents, a grumble of angry male voices spilled out of the open doorway. He strode on past but someone inside yelled the name “Nicolet.” Instantly he doubled back.
And wished he hadn’t. The small shop teemed with shouting men. They weren’t getting shaves or haircuts or anything else, but they were getting plenty worked up over something. A premonition slowed his footsteps and he slipped inside to melt into the crowd.
“It ain’t right!” someone yelled.
A clamor of voices rose in agreement and then Wash recognized the low, silky voice of Joe Montez. The Spaniard was shouting something to a chorus of cheers. “She thinks she is too good for us!”
“We gotta do something,” an older man roared.
A prickly sensation crawled up the back of Wash’s neck. That damned Spanish rabble-rouser, what was he trying to do?
Montez was standing upright on one of Whitey’s leather-upholstered barber chairs, addressing the unruly crowd. Wash stood up and made eye contact, and the man’s face blanched.
Without thinking, Wash lunged for him, but Montez scrambled off the barber chair and vanished out the back door. By the time Wash reached the alley in pursuit, the only sign of his quarry was a swirl of dust stirred up by the man’s boots and the fading thud of horse’s hooves.
The raucous gathering at the barbershop set off a warning bell in his head. He didn’t like the way his spine itched when he’d looked the men over, and he sure didn’t like not knowing where Montez was headed.
He angled through a narrow vacant lot to the main street, noticing that the once lit-up barbershop interior was now black as the inside of a pistol barrel. He swore he could hear men’s heavy breathing in the darkness.
Something was afoot. His instinct whispered that he wasn’t going to like it.
The next morning Rooney stumbled into the empty boardinghouse dining room, squinting against the sunshine pouring through the yellow curtains. He was just in time for the last stack of Mrs. Rose’s buckwheat pancakes, the same ones Wash was about to spear with his fork.
“Clearing crew’s here,” Wash announced. He shoved the maple syrup bottle toward Rooney’s elbow.
“They’re a day early. Got to delay them until…”
“Yeah,” Rooney grunted again. “Guess Miz Nicolet’s gotta move out of her cabin pronto.”
“She’s not going to budge until she harvests that lavender crop she’s so proud of.”
Rooney slopped syrup over the tower of pancakes on his plate. “Damned stubborn woman. Folks are itchin’ to see some progress.”
Wash gritted his teeth. “They’ll have to wait.”
Rooney’s gray-and-black eyebrows did a little dance. “Don’t the lady have a place to go?”
“No. Back to New Orleans, maybe. If I still had the ranch she could bunk out there.”
“But you don’t have the ranch. Yer momma saw to that. Guess she thought you were never comin’ home.”
Wash didn’t answer right away. “The truth is I hadn’t planned to come back to Smoke River. I figured everything I saw would remind me of Laura.”
Rooney mopped syrup off his beard. “Well, the railroad sent you back here. Is it as bad as you thought?”
It was and it wasn’t, he acknowledged. Memories of Laura and his sweet-sad time with her permeated every field and horse trail and flower-dotted meadow in the county. Even the bitterness was still there.
Rooney peered at him across the lace-covered dining table. “Still scared, are ya?”