Two Ride Alone
The Long Road Home
Location: On the road toward Jackson, Wyoming
Timeline: Late June 1875
Jess was mostly silent for the first part of the morning's ride. The boys had clung to him in fierce hugs as they said goodbye, so had Marianne. Sherm had given him the same warm hug he always had when Jess was riding out on the stage or had just returned from a stock buying or selling trip. Jess couldn't help but notice that both Shermans had given Cantrell the same treatment. They were usually very good at judging character, but Jess still had a few reservations. He was wary of letting the fact that Quentin had connections to the family make him too trusting. He had come down on their side in the shootout at the ranch. Jess respected and appreciated that, but only time would tell if the man had another agenda.
There were other reasons for Jess's silence. He'd spent much of the night wrestling with memories and regrets. Chance had made it clear that he could've gone home anytime after his father died, but Jess was accustomed to living on his own by then and chose not to return. His decision meant he had not gotten to know his brother from an adult's perspective, had never met his children or had the pleasure of Regina's company. Even more than that, Jess had failed them. If he had been there, maybe, they wouldn't be dead. That would always be the hard part, he would never know if he could've made a difference.
Several miles outside Laramie, Jess reined Lakota in and waited for Cantrell's buckskin to come alongside. He gestured at a copse of trees a few yards off the road, "There's a stream just through those trees. It's a good place to break, let the horses breathe."
Cantrell nodded. "Good..." Cantrell slowly rode beside Jess as they continued toward the trees. "...are we going to unsaddle them to give them a rest?"
Jess nodded as he lay the rein against Lakota's neck to guide him off the road. "As hot as it is, we need to unsaddle, run a curry comb and brush over them. Don't want to risk saddle sores."
As the narrow path wove amongst the trees, the temperature dropped significantly, and Jess breathed a sigh of relief. The forest opened into a good sized clearing that bordered a wide, fast flowing creek. There were signs of old campfires, but none were recent. Jess unsaddled Lakota, hung the blanket on a low branch to air out and flipped the saddle upside down against a log to be used as a backrest. He usually rode Lakota with a bosal style hackamore, so there was no bit to interfere with the horse's grazing. With the horses' needs taken care of, Jess set about building a fire. Marianne had sent an extra coffee pot that could be used for boiling water for tea. They also had biscuits and sausage from that morning's breakfast.
That set the tone for the three-hundred-eighty-three mile ride to Jackson. They spent long hours in the saddle, sometimes riding into the night, but Jess felt it best to ride longer and take it easier on their mounts. He had made the journey between Laramie and Jackson often enough to know the best spots to camp. He and Cantrell fell into an easy pattern. Quentin took over getting the camp set-up while Jess took care of the horses. Jess would then see what he could find in the way of game animals for dinner and would do the dressing out of the meat. Quentin did the cooking and clean-up. When they camped by water, they shared fishing although Jess proved himself a bit faster at cleaning them.
By the time they reached Jackson, both men were ready to get hot baths and spend a night in a real bed. They also needed to replenish their supplies. While Quentin booked their rooms at one of the better hotels, Jess got their horses settled at the livery stable. An hour later, clean and shaved, Jess was joining Quentin in the hotel's dining room. He took the chair opposite the older man and grinned, one of the few times he'd smiled during the ride, "I sure could go for a big rare steak, or pretty much anything that doesn't taste like rabbit."
Quentin nodded. "It feels good not to have to work so hard for a meal for once." He nodded to the glass in front of Harper. "I figured you would welcome a cold beer after going so long on nothing but water." Cantrell took a drink from his glass of cider.
Jess nodded and picked up the heavy mug. He downed about a third of the beverage in one long swallow. "Thanks. Sure hits the spot. We've made good time so far. I think we can afford a day." He stretched slightly and leaned back in his chair. "Feels good to get rid of the trail dust and dirt too."
Cantrell nodded. "I think the bath attendant nearly fainted when I left my clothes to be cleaned." Both men paused as a woman came by and asked for their meal choices. She bustled off with a promise to bring them both more drink. Cantrell stretched in his chair. "Remind me, tomorrow I need to pick up a rifle. I did not have a handy place to carry one on the train or stage."
"Wharton's. Best gunsmith in these parts. I need to stock up on ammo. Didn't wanna strip all that John had," Jess replied, pausing as the waitress brought fresh drinks and told them their meal would be ready soon. He studied the other man for a few moments, then asked, "So, when not dragging itinerant drifters back home, what do you do?"
Cantrell looked at Harper while he thought. "Well...normally I make my living finding people for other people. I found out I had a talent for it and just kept on..." He smiled a bit. "It beat what I did when I was coming out here...most folks don't consider poker an honest living."
"Guess it all depends on how you play," Jess said, then gestured at himself. "Guess you are pretty good at finding people."
"Well as for the poker...I never cheat, and I never play anyone who dresses better than me." Cantrell finished his glass of cider. "As for finding you, I really did not have a choice. I was not going to let that suit wearing snake steal your family's legacy."
The waitress brought their meals and started to take Jess's beer mug for a refill. He shook his head, "Just water, please. Cold, if you have it." The girl hurried off, and Jess turned his gaze back to Cantrell. "When you're good enough, you don't have to cheat," Jess remarked mildly, pausing to smile a thank you when the waitress sat a clean mug and pitcher of cold water on the table. "This suit wearing snake got a name?"
Cantrell nodded around a mouthful of steak then swallowed. "He does. Carson Tyndall. It's like the old saying about real snakes. You can see a thousand harmless rat snakes, and they are marked up like a rattler, but when you see a rattler, you know the difference. He doesn't care one bit about your family."
"Carson Tyndall of Tyndall Associates," Jess said the name almost musingly. "I remember the name. The firm handled Father's business. I don't remember meeting him though. Can't say as I know legal stuff much, but don't figure as to how he'd have rights over the twins' blood family - you or me. We're their uncles after all."
Quentin leaned back and regarded Jess levelly for several seconds. "Well then take a long look. You haven't been home for a long time, and the last the town knew, you may or may not have been an outlaw." Cantrell's hand came up, and he tapped his chest with a finger. "...and I am hardly the epitome of a stable role model for two children." He smiled wider. "It's not exactly hard work for a competent lawyer to say that we are hardly inheritance or adoption material."
"You're right there, I guess. I've skated along the edge more than once." Jess ran his finger up and down the heavy mug, idly drawing his initials in the condensation on the glass. "Did you know Chance well?" Jess was curious. He wanted to get someone else's perspective on his brother.
"As well as an occasional visitor can. We always spent some time talking. He was steady...level headed...but not like you and me. He was fully able to protect himself and his family, but as far as I know, he never had to actually kill anyone." Cantrell took a drink. "He loved Reggie and his children and would do anything for them..." Cantrell looked at Jess once again. "And he missed you. He talked about you a few times, and at length once he got going."
"Chance always tried to be the bulwark between Father and me, at least when he wasn't away at school," Jess said, his voice quiet and reflective. "After Father passed in '68, a letter from Chance caught up with me, offering me a few acres of the ranch. I countered with my own offer. Asked him to hold it until I'd saved enough to buy it. That was in '70, right after I hired on with the stage company and settled in Laramie."
Jess looked up, regarding Cantrell steadily, "Regina once told me that she was the family scamp. She said you or your parents constantly had to drag her off your ships and the docks. She loved the ranch, but missed the sea."
Cantrell grinned genuinely. "That's partly why she got sent out here. My parents were terrified that one day she would manage to get on board an outbound ship and who knows where she might end up." Cantrell's face solidified after a few moments. "Yeah, I miss her too. She meant as much to me as your brother did to you...let's hope that somehow we can end up worthy of what they thought of us."