Next Stop, Missoula, Montana (Part 2)
The Long Road Home
Location: The Carlton Hotel, Sacramento
Timeline: Early July, 1875
The Sacramento Carlton Hotel was much younger than the Misión St. Eligius which stood across the street from it. In its day, the St. Eligius had been a Spanish mission and a nobleman's villa. As Sacramento's population and prestige increased, it had been bought and converted into a two-story hotel complete with an elegant Spanish style courtyard whose burbling fountains made a peaceful respite for its clientele. The Carlton, far younger, but no less elegant generally catered to a younger generation of patrons. It boasted five floors and several suites, three dining rooms to the St. Eligius' one, and baths in every room and suite. Both attracted the upper echelon of society, travelers passing through, residents who needed the hotel's function rooms, and visitors to the city.
Despite its attractions and the fact that everything was shiny and new, less worn than at the St. Eligius, Harriet Mercer preferred the older hotel. However, the thought of sharing a single room with her sister and continuing to be the recipient of heartfelt sighs, hostile looks, and silent tears, made the idea unpalatable. The St. Eligius had no suites available, and the Sacramento Carlton had several. The decision of which hotel to stay at for the three-day wait for the train to Montana had been made for her.
Harriet, better known as H.G., looked over the bill the clerk handed her and decided it was not worth questioning and getting a new one drawn up over a two dollar discrepancy. Normally, she demanded all accounts be accurate to the penny. Today, she was feeling generous. She reached into her purse and pulled out her wallet, unfolded the requisite number of bills plus a few coins for a gratuity. Promising that she would consider the Carlton for her next stay in Sacramento, but not meaning it, H.G. exited the building. An attendant handed her into the waiting carriage where she took a seat opposite her younger sister.
After smoothing the folds of her dark green traveling skirt, H.G. looked at her sister, noting the small cage with its two feathery occupants on the seat beside her. "You should have allowed Fang to take them to the train station for you."
"No, thank you." Jo's reply was curt as she barely glanced in her sister's direction. "I prefer to handle them myself." She ran a gloved finger along the cage gently before picking up a seed and offering one first to Angel, and then to Blue. "I like their company." If she closed her eyes and tried to tune out everything except for the lilting twitters of her budgies, she could almost forget where they were going. Sadly, it only worked for a second or two before the carriage jostled and she was jarred back into reality. A reality she despised, ambushed at the train station where she and Jeremy had met to elope, then dragged kicking and screaming away from her warm and comfortable home in San Francisco, heading east toward the desolate dust bowl that was Montana. She hadn't been dragged in the literal sense as such a thing is unladylike, but she wouldn't have put it against Fang to do such a thing.
Harriet held in a sigh, instead remarking with a slight, very slight edge of exasperation to her voice, which was all she ever allowed herself. "You could make an effort to act like an adult and not an unruly teenager." She then turned her gaze to the city beyond the carriage. She liked Sacramento and had considered relocating there on occasion, but her heart belonged to the rugged wilderness of Montana. Until this trip, her visits to the territory had been brief. She'd always been assured of her welcome by Chance and Regina Harper. Harriet's throat tightened with grief held firmly in check. Perhaps once they were settled in their private coach on the train, she could give vent to her emotions, releasing the anger and heartbreak she felt over her friends' deaths.
There was a tone to Harriet's voice, most might not have picked up on it, but Josephine knew her well enough to detect it, and it made her smile a little inwardly. Yes, her behavior toward her older sister was a little childish and immature, but Jo was angry, hurting and heartbroken. After humiliating her at the train station like she had, Harriet deserved less than favorable manners from Jo. She deserved far more than just that. However, Jo would have to settle for picturing Harriet's face imprinted on her embroidery as she could pretend to stab her repeatedly with a needle. "You're right, I could." She replied. But she wouldn't. Acting her true age and setting aside her hostility, no, Jo wasn't quite ready to do anything that would please Harriet just yet.
Harriet studied her sister's averted profile for a moment, noting the fall of her pale hair and her mutinous expression. She probably should not have interfered. She should have allowed Josephine to escape the confines of her life in San Francisco, but she found the thoughts of her being subjected to the same life as their mothers totally repellant. With luck, time and distance would end any vestige of romantic feelings for young Fitzpatrick. Harriet gave herself a mental shake. No, whether Josephine ever forgave her not, she had done the right thing.
"I have an apartment at the Bell-St. Regis in Kalispell. It is an extremely nice hotel. I have to work, but there should still be time to drive about the countryside, look at houses near the town?" Harriet knew that sooner or later she would have to tell Josephine why she was in Montana, but right now she could not bear to say the words aloud. Chance and Regina Harper are dead.
Jo managed to hold back a scathing remark about another location where she preferred her sister go, it was going to be a very long train ride if she continued as she was. She was already exhausted, and it had only been a few days. She could just as easily hate Harriet silently. "If you have time. I'm sure there will be little of any interest for me there, but it is better than being cooped up in a hotel room."
For several moments, Harriet seriously considered having Jim turn the carriage around and take them to the Sisters of Mercy at St. Agatha's where she would proceed to have her sister interred for life at the convent. Why could Josephine not see Jeremy Fitzpatrick as clearly as Harriet did? Was she completely oblivious to his rampage through all the young women of a certain age and income in San Francisco? Harriet had had him investigated. Not only had he been a total cad with the women of his hometown, San Francisco, but he had also been forced to leave Philadelphia for the same reason. One young woman had killed herself when she discovered he had deserted her and their unborn child because the grass was sweeter, and wealthier, on the other side of High Street.
Josephine was young, but in Harriet's opinion, she was far too old to be suffering from a schoolgirl's crush. She recalled discussing her younger sister's foibles with Regina Harper one day. Reggie had smiled, her dark eyes full of humor, as she stated that all normal young women went through highly emotional and susceptible periods in their lives. Harriet had replied scathingly that she had never been misled by a handsome countenance and charming smile. To which, Regina had replied archly, "I did say all normal young women, H.G.!" Even you? Harriet had asked Regina. The other woman had leaned back, patted her abdomen that was swollen with her third pregnancy and laughed. "Even me, Harriet. I just happened to have married mine." Harriet felt her heart break all over again. "Oh, Regina!" She said silently, her gray eyes smoky and troubled.
So, what would Regina and Chance do if Josephine were Lilah Beth or Nettie? They would mete out appropriate punishment. Harriet put a check mark next to that item. Removing Josephine from San Francisco and Fitzpatrick's presence was the punishment. They would then explain why the child was being punished. Harriet left that item unticked. She had not explained, not beyond a terse statement or two regarding his character or lack thereof. This part was far more difficult. Harriet was not in the habit of explaining herself to anyone, except maybe Fang.
Explanations would likely be met with rejection, but as Regina often said, one would never know if they did not try. Besides, perhaps it was time for some hard truths. They had time. The rail depot was still some distance away, and they could remain in the carriage. The train wasn't scheduled to depart for more than an hour. "Josephine, you are really behaving abominably when you should be grateful I cared enough to keep that fortune hunter away from you. Jeremy Fitzpatrick is the mirror image of our dear, departed father, right down to leaving death in his wake. I would not have you suffer the same fates as our mothers did. If you wish to see the documentation I have on Mr. Fitzpatrick, I will show it to you once we're aboard the train. He is a cad and a ne'er-do-well no less than Franklin Hartwell Mercer was. Once he learned you could not provide the living he had married you for, he would have been just as cold and just as cruel as Frank was to your mother, mine, and...others." Harriet had almost said and to me, but her father's cruelty to her was not germane to the conversation.
For those long moments where Harriet went quiet, probably pondering things over in her head, Josephine occupied herself with her birds. Peeling one glove off, she carefully slid her fingers through the bars of the cage and waited. She had only been gifted the budgie pair a little over a month before, and she was still getting used to handling them bare-handed. A soft smile curled her lips as Angel, the braver of the pair, hopped along her little wooden bar toward Jo's fingers. The bird herself then waited and held still as Jo gingerly stroked her pure white feathers with a gentle touch. Jo often allowed them out of the cage at home so that they could fly more freely in her bedroom, however, there was not room enough to do so in the carriage.
Looking over when Harriet spoke once more, Jo slowly removed her fingers from the cage, not wanting to startle either of the birds. The trip itself was likely stressing them out somewhat as they did not go out of the house ever. She held back an internal sigh at her sister's words. Every time Harriet spoke Jeremy's name out loud, it was like someone had taken a fist and punched Jo right in her heart. "I'm not ready to be grateful." She stated quietly. "I'm far too angry to even think about gratitude." It was the truth, but at least she didn't spit the words like venom from her mouth. "You call him a fortune hunter, but I know he loved me. I could feel it in my heart Harriet and you..." She shook her head, determined not to let her anger get the better of her in such close quarters. There was nowhere to walk off to cool her temper.
"You had no right to do things as you did, humiliating me in public like that? I would never have done that to you, regardless of the reason or circumstances. One minute, I'm...yes eloping was probably not the wisest choice, and the next, I'm being shuffled onto a train completely blindsided." Jo looked at her sister for a moment, the pain clear in her green eyes. "You can have all the documents in the world as you like, but I know how I felt and I know he loved me."
"Humiliate you in public?" Harriet stared at Josephine, her expression one of wonder. "You mean at the train depot at an ungodly hour of the morning when there was only me, you, and Fang on the platform? You never cease to amaze me."
Leaning back, Harriet pursed her lips and tapped one finger on the arm of the carriage's seat. "Very well. If you truly believe that Fitzpatrick is madly in love with you and not just himself as his frequent passes in front of the ballroom mirrors indicate, I will give you your train fare home. You are, after all, twenty-five years old. I am certain that the two of you will find some way to support yourselves until you receive your full inheritance at thirty. Your monthly stipend from your trust fund might be stretched to paying rent - you will have to rent, it is not enough to allow you to purchase a place to live - buying groceries, and the like. I doubt it will run to paying for a housekeeper."
"It was still not behind closed doors," Jo replied shortly, folding her arms across her chest as she prepared for yet another argument. However, her sister's next words gave her pause, and she actually put them to thought. If Harriet were this sure of the truth behind Jeremy's motives, could there actually be truth to it? Harriet was not the type to lie but... no, she had to be this time. Josephine refused to admit to even the smallest grain of possibility. Even as her heart believed one truth, her brain must have believed another, even in the furthest possible corner, as the words that came from her own mouth were not what she expected. "No." She found herself saying. "I do not wish to return home like that. I will accompany you instead."
Harriet was taken by surprise at Josephine's sudden acquiescence, but before she could respond, her eyes were caught by the advance of a harried-looking ticket agent. She raised her delicately arched eyebrows as he stopped by the carriage, "Miss Mercer, ma'am," his voice wavered, and Harriet's gray eyes darkened with impatience, "there has been a mistake. The only available private coach has already been hired."
Now her visage truly darkened. Harriet had no intention of spending the next forty or more hours sandwiched into a seat in one of the regular passenger cars. Cyrus Thorne, the owner of California-Northern, was a client of hers and part of her fee was the understanding that if he were not using the private coaches, they were at her disposal. This was rarely a problem on the lines running north and south along the Pacific coast as there were usually two or more private cars available. The Missoula line was new, and one private car was all that was available. Harriet smoothed the folds of her dark green skirt, "Then Mr. Thorne is traveling to Missoula?" Her voice was pleasant as she made the inquiry, but the ticket agent visibly quivered.
"N-no, ma'am. Seeing as you weren't expected, Miss Mercer, the agent hired the coach to two gentlemen traveling to Montana Territory," he gestured toward the train, "You usually telegraph your travel plans..."
Harriet gestured impatiently, "This trip is something of an emergency. You will inform the gentlemen that your ticket agent made a mistake and remove them from the coach."
"I don't see how we can do that, ma'am," the man replied, quelling before the flash of her steel gray eyes. "They paid the full fare..."
"Then I will remove them," Harriet snapped and stood up, glad that they had used the open carriage, so she did not have to worry about dislodging her hat. Jim, the driver, sprang from the driver's seat to help her alight, nodding slightly at her low-voiced order, "Find Fang, he might be needed."
A steward who looked no less agitated than the ticket agent clambered out of the caboose and fell in behind Harriet as she swept along the platform toward the private coach. From somewhere, Fang appeared and dropped in step behind Josephine. Normally, he'd have taken the birds' cage from her, but with Harriet determined to claim the private coach, he might just need his hands-free. In other circumstances, he'd have tried to reason with Harriet, pointing out that the fare had been paid, and the men were entitled to the coach, but he knew how deep her grief was over the deaths of the Harpers and that grief was hidden beneath her anger.
Harriet opened the door, managing to not fling it open, and swept into the coach. Her steel-gray eyes took in the two men, one a bit older, taller and well-clad, the other wearing faded and dusty denim with a gunbelt low on his hips. She turned her attention to the better dressed of the two, "There has been a mistake..."
~ To be continued in Part 3 ~