Next Stop, Missoula, Montana (Part 1)
The Long Road Home
Location: Train from Sacramento to Missoula
Timeline: Early July, 1875
The private train car was older but well-appointed and, to all appearances, would make the journey far more comfortable than sitting in a regular passenger car. The combination sitting and dining area was at the rear of the coach. The sitting area had a couple of chairs and settees arranged near a wood-burning stove. The color scheme was muted, but quite pleasant. The settees and chairs were upholstered in dark green velvet with cream-colored accent pillows. The heavy drapes that covered the car's windows matched the upholstery with cream colored ties and tassels.
To one side, beneath the windows was a heavy dining table and chairs for four. The table could be folded out to accommodate more diners, but on the comparatively short trip from Sacramento to Missoula, dinner parties were unlikely. All of the furniture was fastened to the car's floor with metal brackets to keep it from shifting with the train's motion.
The sleeping compartment was located at the front of the coach, separated from the living area by a dividing wall and pocket door. A narrow corridor ran between the four compartments. Each berth contained two bunks, and a tiny wash stand and a small built-in at the head of each bunk offered storage. The top bunk was made to fold up so that occupants would have more space when it was not needed. Sliding doors offered the occupants privacy when they retired for the night. The small corridor ended at the door that led to the platform between the private coach and the dining car.
Jess made his way from the horse car and through the dining car, nodding pleasantly at the few people sitting at the tables having coffee while they waited for the train to leave the station. He had been making sure Lakota and Paladin were settled for the journey and had been surprised to see that the horse's accommodations were better than some livery stables he had seen. In fact, it seemed the California-Northern Railroad Company, for all it was one of the smaller lines, took the comfort of all of their passengers quite seriously. Jess slid open the car's door and stepped out on the landing, crossing into the private coach he'd hired, and pausing to look it over. Quentin was already there, having been seeing to stowing their gear, both men preferring to keep their things with them rather than having them loaded into the baggage car. He noted with approval that the car offered separate sleeping compartments. Jess and Quentin had become accustomed to one another over the course of the journey, but a little privacy would still be more than welcomed. He was also pleased to note that the hotel doctor's care and a full day of rest had mostly restored his new friend to his old self.
"The horses are fine. They seem resigned to the fact that they'll be on another train," Jess told the other man as he hung up his hat and walked toward one of the chairs, the sound of his boots and jingling of his spurs muffled by the car's thick green and cream carpet. "After reaching Missoula, we'll still have a couple of days of riding to make Kalispell." He dropped into the chair, instinctively stretching his feet toward the warmth of the woodstove although at this time of year it wouldn't be lit unless the temperature dropped drastically at night when they reached the mountains.
Jess fell silent then. Sooner or later he needed to tell Quentin his version of the events that had occurred in Missoula thirteen years before. The events that had led to his self-exile and later banishment from his home and that had changed his life. He knew that Chance and Regina had probably filled Quentin in, but the story would have been from their perspectives, not his, so it had to be done, just not yet.
Quentin looked up from the open newspaper he had picked up at the station. "Deep down they probably don't mind having some rest. We rode them quite a ways..." Quentin nodded his head in the direction of the sleeping compartments. "...I put your gear and rifle in the one on the right. I have the one on the left. There's a basin and pitcher of water in both and in that cabinet over there are a few bottles of beer and harder stuff...must be a perk of the car."
Jess nodded, his eyes surveying their temporary domain, "It was more than I anticipated with goin' to Missoula. Rail to the territory has been added since I left. I was rather surprised there was anything this nice going that way." Using the toe of his boot, he tilted the chair back precariously on two legs. "Conductor said it'd take us somewhere between forty and forty-five hours to reach Missoula, what with stops for passengers and water, freight loading, and unloading." He went quiet for a moment, his mind calculating the journey, "Then a two or three day ride up to Kalispell so with resting up a day in the city and gathering supplies, we should be at the ranch well ahead of the expiration of the injunction."
Cantrell nodded. "That sounds good...you think they'll keep trying to stop us? If they keep on, we'll have some good grounds for charges against the attorney trying to take your land."
"If either of us is left to press charges," Jess stated in a dry tone. "They came mighty close to ventilating your hide at Crippled Horse, and I don't want to be the next one." He lifted an eyebrow at Quentin, "Either way I think we can provide grounds enough to offset Tyndall's objections."
"They got lucky because I was not expecting them to actually go so far as to physically kill us..." Cantrell leaned back in his chair. "...from now on we play by their rules. Someone starts something with us, they don't walk away."
Jess frowned slightly as he lowered the chair, so all four legs rested on the floor of the coach. "The man I roughed up back at the pass said that someone was noising it around Jackson that two special couriers for Wells Fargo would be riding in with a large payroll. They described our horses and us, even said we'd be hitting the Montana Trail. They want us dead, Quent, they just don't want anyone else to figure out it was murder."
Cantrell folded the newspaper closed. "Our best bet is to move as fast as possible. The more we stop, the more chances they get. The closer to home we get the more desperate they will get. I suspect we both shouldn't sleep at the same time. It would not take much work to figure out what train we're taking."
"We'll stop as little as possible after we get to Missoula," Jess paused and uttered a short, sharp sound that was halfway between a snort and a laugh. He indicated the train, "Less than five years ago, none of this existed. You traveled to Montana territory by foot, on horseback or in a wagon. There were some steamboats that ran the Missouri River, and I heard they put in a steamboat at Poison on the south shore of Flathead Lake that runs to the north shore." He looked over at Quentin, "In fact, Kalispell didn't exist until 1872. Before that, it was part of the old Fort Kalispell trading settlement. Gold sure changes things in a hurry."
Jess stopped speaking again, turning his attention to the floor of the private train car. His eyes traced the intricate cream and gold pattern on the thick carpet. He finally looked up at Quentin again, "Do you remember the first man you killed outside the war?"
Quentin had been in the middle of taking a drink of tea when Jess spoke. The motion had stopped for a few seconds before he set the cup back down. Quentin let his hand rest beside the cup, fingers drummed once before he spoke. "I do...one year after I signed my parole..." Cantrell's eyes got a little bit unfocused as his mind's eye watched the event unfold. "...I was on my way out west after giving up on rebuilding anything in Charleston. I stopped in St. Louis to spend a few days and got into a card game. It seemed friendly enough. The place was as nice as it gets in St. Louis. Anyway...I had made good progress at cleaning two of the men at the table out and one of them...he was already drunk and just got angrier the longer he played. He suddenly stood up and called me a coward. I called him a liar and gave him a chance to apologize. He...decided not to apologize and went for his gun. He probably would have been way too slow sober, but from that distance, he might have gotten lucky."
Cantrell smiled "I wasn't wearing this yet..." his hand tapped his Colt under his left arm. "...so I kicked my chair back into the floor and shot him with my pistol that was still in my holster. I never tried to draw it...just shot him down the side of my leg." The ex-soldier exhaled. "It was a little comical. He missed me twice from that distance, and I missed him once. I guess it was just luck that my second shot hit square. He went down, and I was finally able to crawl to my feet. He died...but it took a few minutes. I got to stand there and watch him while someone fetched the sheriff and the doctor."
Cantrell reached up and rubbed two fingers at his temple. "He was gone before either man got there...it's funny...I probably killed a few dozen personally during the war, but it was quick. A flashing target pistol shot from my saddle...a saber slash during a melee...a distant form with my carbine. This...this was completely different. I watched him die, and he looked at me as he did. I will never forget it."
Jess's eyes studied Quentin's face for a few moments. When he spoke, his voice was a bit distant as he recalled things he wished he could forget. "From the first time Father took my out and started teaching me to shoot and how to handle firearms, I was good with them. The stories of gunfighters, military heroes, all the rest that goes with it seemed so glamorous back then so I practiced anytime I could. By the time I was sixteen, taking down a deer with one shot was no effort." He looked up and smiled, chuckling softly, "It was the one thing I was far better at than Chance was."
"Mother, Father, and the nuns and priest at St. Francis made sure I knew killin' was wrong. Father tempered that with unless you're defending yourself or someone else," Jess shook his head. "No one thought there'd be any problem with me escorting Regina to Missoula Mills. She needed to shop for the wedding and..." this time his voice trailed off and stopped entirely. Jess took a really deep breath before going on, "...and I was getting married in just a few days. I wanted to get something really special for Hannah. I spotted a locket in a jeweler's shop and went in to ask the price. Reggie said she'd meet me at the hotel and kept going. I bought the necklace but left it at the shop to be engraved. I walked back outside and heard what sounded like a muffled scream, then heard it again and realized it was Reggie. Calvin Steelgrave had dragged her into an alley next to the shop and was trying to...attempting to assault her. I was so incredibly angry that anyone would try to hurt Reggie that I'd beat him bloody before I realized she was trying to pull me off. She got through to me, and we found a deputy and reported the incident. After that, we went on to the hotel."
"The next day, we had a few more errands because it was our last day in town. We walked out of the hotel, and I heard something, a high-pitched whining sound, go past my head. Took me a moment to realize I'd also heard the sound of a gunshot. Reggie was frozen, and there was Calvin waving his gun and screaming that if he couldn't have her no one could and no worthless harlot got away with refusing him. I didn't even think about it. He was bringing his gun back up to fire again. I drew and shot him. Didn't think, didn't even realize I'd done it for a second, and I didn't care. I was so angry. Then Reggie was holding my arm, crying a little but more angry than afraid I think. I walked over. Calvin Steelgrave was dead, his eyes were staring at the sky, empty, cold. I remember feeling this weird rush and feeling shaky and sick all at the same time. I've never felt exactly the same way since...when I've had to kill, I mean. Don't really want to, never want to feel that rush, that thrill at having killed a man."
"Anyway," Jess looked up to meet Quentin's eyes, "we found ourselves in the sheriff's office again. No charges were brought, but there were Steelgraves all over town promising revenge. I made sure Reggie was sent home safe, then I lit out. Hoped to draw anyone planning on trouble away from home. Not long later Chance got word to me not to come back. Father had disowned me. Went on the drift until I finally settled in Laramie with the Shermans."
Quentin listened to Jess and smiled. "You felt guilty because you and this Steelgrave fella shot it out and you came out on top..." The ex-soldier took another drink of his tea and set it down. "...that feeling you had was your brain savoring the sensation of surviving. I would be lying if I said I never felt it. I felt it after every charge when I was still in my saddle, and I am sure every man who had bullets fly by him or a bayonet or a cannon shell felt it too." Cantrell took a deep breath and then looked Jess square in the eye. "If you did not go looking for the fight or hunt this man down just so you could shoot him then you did no wrong. The only person wrong in this was your father. If he wanted you dead so badly maybe he should have shot you himself...that seems to have been his wish considering the outcome."
Jess visibly twitched, startled at Quentin's final proclamation regarding his father. Instinctively, he defended his father's decision to disavow him with a slight shrug of his shoulders. "It was about the only he had left. I had issues with discipline. Father said I took after my mother and grandmother. Mother was Spanish. Grandmother was Blackfeet, Piegan. I think...I like to think...Father thought it was safer for me if I stayed away. Chance tried to mend the fences. I could've gone home after Father died, so the last few years of traveling the Big Open was my choice." Jess's eyes were troubled, "I should have gone home. Should've been there." There! He'd said it. Maybe not in so many words, but the unspoken words hung clearly between them. If I had just been there, maybe Chance, Regina, and their two children would be alive.
Quentin rested his chin on his hand as he watched Jess flog himself mentally. "Jess, if you had been with them you would be dead also. You know Chance was no slouch with a gun. He could hit anything he could see. He was probably hugely outnumbered. One more gun might have meant a few more Indians died, but the end result would have been the same...Chance, Reggie...all would still be dead, and in your version so would you."
"My head knows all that, Quent. It'll just take my heart some time to believe it as well," Jess told the other man with a small smile. "I'll go find out if we're pulling out of the station on time..." He rose to his feet and turned toward the coach's door.
Before Jess could make a move toward it, the door opened, and a woman swept in followed by a flustered steward, another woman and a tall, well-dressed man with Oriental features. The woman's eyes settled on the two men, "There has been a mistake......."
~ To be continued in Part 2 ~