Smoke River Family

By: Lynna Banning
Chapter One

Smoke River, Oregon

August 1871

The train chuffed to a stop and Winifred peered out at the town. A seedy-looking building with two large dust-covered windows faced the station; Smoke River Hotel was emblazoned across the front in foot-high dirty white printed lettering. Winifred groaned at the sight. The thought of two whole weeks in this rough Western town made her stomach tighten.

“End of the line, miss,” the conductor bawled.

She blew out a shaky breath and straightened her spine. Most definitely the end of the line. Where else on God’s earth would one see such an array of ramshackle structures leaning into the wind? Could Cissy really have been happy in such a place?

The passenger car door thumped open. “Ya might wanna catch yer breath a minute when you get to the station. Heat can get to ya, ya know.”

No, she did not know. She eyed the purple-hazed mountains in the distance. St. Louis was flat as a sadiron and the downtown area was extremely well kept. She had no idea Oregon would be so...well, scruffy.

She twitched the dirt from her forest green travel skirt and set one foot onto the iron step. The conductor, a short, squat butterball of a man, extended a callused hand.

“Watch yer step, now. Can’t have any passenger fallin’ on her—” He coughed and cleared his throat. Winifred noted his cheeks had turned red. She grasped his outstretched hand and stepped onto the ground.

Her head felt funny, as if her brain were stuffed with wet cotton. Her ears rang. She released the conductor’s hand and took a single step, then grabbed the man’s beefy hand again.

“Dizzy, are ya?” He steadied her arm and peered into her face. “Happens all the time. Folks don’t notice the climb on the train, but the el’vation rises up little by little and then, kapow! With this heat, feels like dynamite’s exploded inside yer body.”

It felt, she thought, like stage fright, only her hands didn’t shake.

“Ya wanna set a spell at the station house while I get somebody to tote yer portmantle?”

Portmanteau, she corrected automatically. “N-no, I am quite all right.” She took three unsteady steps and stopped.

“Hard to breathe, ain’t it? Kinda hot today.”

Hot? The air seemed to smother her every breath, as if she were trapped inside a bell jar. She struggled for oxygen, opening her mouth like a hungry goldfish. It didn’t help that her corset was laced too tight.

“Where d’ya want yer luggage toted, miss?”

“Dr. Dougherty’s residence.” She panted for a moment, fighting the whirly sensation in her brain. “Dr. Nathaniel Dougherty.” She swallowed hard to keep inside the bitter words she’d like to level at the man.

“Right. Top of the hill, past the new hospital, ’bout six blocks. Ya sure you’re all right?”

“I will be quite all right in a moment.” She could see the large white house at the end of the main street. It looked to be at least a mile away, and straight up a mountainside.

“Suit yerself, miss.” The conductor stepped past her.

“Charlie,” he yelled to a gray-bearded man lounging on the station house bench. “Carry this lady’s bag up to Doc Dougherty’s, will ya?”

The man nodded, hefted her travel bag onto his rounded shoulder and set off at a fast clip. She took a step in the same direction. Oh, my. Could she really walk that far with her head reeling like this?

She followed the man up the hill, trying not to totter even though she felt disturbingly unsteady. She would not arrive at Dr. Dougherty’s doorstep shaking and out of breath. She would need all her wits about her.

She plodded up past the new-looking two-story building. Samuel Graham Hospital, the sign said. That was where Cissy...

She swallowed hard.

The last fifty yards up the hill she slowed to conserve her energy and met the man—Charlie—tramping back down.

“I put yer portmantle on the doc’s porch,” he said jauntily. “Good luck to ya, miss. He’s home, so I’m bettin’ ye’ll need it.”

An odd juxtaposition, Winifred thought. Why would she need luck because Dr. Dougherty was at home? The doctor must be extremely bad-tempered.

The lawn swing on the wide front porch beckoned, but to reach it she had to climb five—no, six steps. She paused before the first step to catch her breath. Then she managed one-two-three-four—and... She halted at the fifth step, panting, then heaved herself up onto the sixth.

Such thin air was surely not good for a baby. Especially a newborn. She propelled herself up onto the porch and sank down in the swing.

* * *

Zane laid his fingertips on either side of the bridge of his nose and pressed hard. The headache throbbed behind his eyes and deep within both temples, and he shut his eyes against the relentless pain. It came upon him every afternoon ever since Celeste—he could not finish the thought. He gulped the half glass of whiskey at his elbow and bent his head. God in heaven, help me.