Next Stop, Missoula, Montana (Part 3)
The Long Road Home
Location: Train from Sacramento to Missoula
Timeline: Early July, 1875
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. The ticket agent should not have sold you the fare for this coach. You will be recompensed the different and moved to one of the passenger cars."
Cantrell looked at the woman standing quite imperiously in the doorway of the coach and the small entourage behind her. "Apologies, Madame, but what we 'will' be doing is staying right here. We bought two tickets that we both possess and unless you are the President of this railroad you have no right to demand anything..." Cantrell got angrier the longer he thought about what this woman had just done. He stood up from the table he had been sitting at. "...and while we are at it, just who the hell are you, lady?"
Her demeanor amply made up for her lack of inches although having her hair twisted up on top of her head, and the hat helped to add the image of height. Harriet automatically reached into the pocket cleverly hidden in the folds of her skirt and fished out a small, plain leather card case. She fished out one of her business cards and handed it to the tall man. "H.G. Mercer, attorney. And, as a matter of fact, the president of California-Northern is a client of mine. The steward will help you with your things." She did not ask the names of either man because they were simply obstacles to be moved out of her way. Who they were did not matter.
Jess studied the woman and her entourage as she and Quentin spoke to one another. He did not see guns, but that did not make him relax his watchfulness. For one thing, the days spent in Cantrell's company had taught him that the other man was pretty good at sizing up people and situations. He'd also never seen the man ruffled or angered. His reaction to the woman was enough to keep Jess on edge.
Quentin looked at the card, and his eyebrows did climb a bit. "Alright, so you're an attorney. Congratulations, Counselor...but that doesn't change one thing about your right to throw us out of this car..." Quentin's eyes shot over to the steward as he had been moving toward the berths for their bags. "...I suggest you stop right there, Bellboy." The steward straightened and looked into Quentin's eyes, then back at the woman. He then backed up toward the door past the young woman and Asian man as they stood side by side watching the encounter. Cantrell held the card out to the side toward Jess. "You know an H.G. Mercer, Jess?"
Jess glanced at the card and shook his head, "Never heard of her," he told Quentin. "Whoa, there, Mister!" In less time than it took to blink, Jess's gun was out and trained on the tall Oriental who had moved to place himself between the younger woman and H.G. Mercer. The man stopped moving but was no less menacing as he stood wary guard at Mercer's shoulder. "The last thing I want to do is shoot anyone over a train car, but as my friend said, we paid our fare and aren't moving."
Harriet's eyes surveyed the two men from head to toe, and then her eyes narrowed at the younger one. She tilted her head to one side, lips pursed for a moment as she tried to recall where she had seen the face before. Her gasp was not audible, merely mental as it leaped out at her. "You're Jess Harper! I've seen your face on wanted posters." That also made him the recipient of her services, at least until the issue of the Harper twins' inheritance and guardianship was resolved. Harriet saw no need to mention that at the moment. The legal, mental gears were grinding, and she was considering a compromise although Harriet was not ready to give up on acquiring the private coach just yet.
The gun in Jess's hand did not waver nor did he show a reaction to H.G. Mercer's recognition. He shrugged slightly, "None current, ma'am."
Quentin looked at the mysterious man Jess was covering and decided his caution was probably not misplaced. "Everyone easy...just take a breath..." His eyes flicked to the lady lawyer. "Keeping up with wanted posters seems like something a lawyer has no time to be doing, and Jess is hardly Jesse James..." Cantrell waved a calming hand in Jess' direction. "...no offense."
Jess's lips twitched slightly, "None taken, partner." He turned his deep blue eyes on the woman who continued to regard them both with an unreadable expression on her face. "Does beg the question, though. Like he said, why would a lawyer lady be familiar with an old wanted poster of mine."
Harriet looked from one man to the other and made a slight gesture with her hand. It was imperceptible to everyone except Fang. There was no obvious change in his demeanor, but Harriet knew he had gotten the signal to stand down. "Mr. Cantrell," she turned her steel gray eyes on him, "I believe I have a satisfactory solution to our...situation. In fact, you are going to have need of my skills very soon."
Cantrell's eyebrows climbed. "We will?...that's not what I expected to hear..." He looked at the group opposite them then reached for the chair he had been sitting in. "Jess...put that away. Would you care to have a seat, Miss Mercer?" Cantrell waved a hand to the two chairs on the opposite side of the table.
"One moment, please," Harriet turned to Fang and spoke quietly to him. "I'm sorry, but I need the coach for a meeting with my clients. Perhaps you could take Josephine to the dining car? We missed breakfast this morning. Her birds will be safe here." As Fang moved to do her bidding, she turned to the steward, "Everything is resolved." She reached into her pocket and brought out a few coins which she handed the man. "Please bring us coffee and tea as well as whatever the dining car has available for breakfast."
As soon as Josephine, Fang, and the steward left the coach, Harriet took a moment to make sure her sister's birds' cage was safe from tumbling to the floor when the train pulled out of the station. She also picked up a fine hand-tooled leather attaché case before returning to take a seat at the table. From it, she took a stack of files all neatly bound together with dark ribbon and a pair of wire-rimmed reading spectacles which she slipped on. She continued to busy herself until the steward returned bearing a large tray which contained the requested coffee and tea services and covered dishes of bacon, sausage, eggs, and toast. Once again, Harriet tipped the man generously before glancing over the rim of her glasses at Quentin, "Would you do the honors, Mr. Cantrell?" She indicated the coffee and tea.
Cantrell nodded and proceeded to pour coffee for Jess and then a cup of tea for himself and H.G. He asked her preference for milk and sugar and set the cup beside her and sat back down with his own.
Jess had been reluctant to holster his gun until after the tall Oriental left the coach with the younger of the two women. He took the cup of coffee that Quentin poured for him, finally settling in a chair that he angled in a way that allowed him to watch the coach's two doors. It also put his rifle near to hand where it leaned against the table. "Who are you? Why do you have old wanted posters on me and how do you know his name?" He nodded at Quentin. Jess's entire demeanor and body language showed how suspicious he was of the sudden developments in the car and of the woman seated at the table, prosaically sipping tea and sorting files.
"I am, or was, the attorney on retainer for Mr. and Mrs. Chance Harper," Harriet answered the first of Jess Harper's questions. She flipped through the files and pulled out a neatly bound document. "This is the contract for my services duly signed by all three of us, witnessed by Mr. and Mrs. Hap Forest and notarized." Harriet handed the document to Cantrell as he was seated nearest to her. "I have old wanted posters on you because I do my due diligence on behalf of all clients. Before I wrote you into Mr. Harper's will, I wanted to make sure his estate and the ranch were not being handed to a total criminal. While your flirtation with the other side of the law is reprehensible, I found no evidence suggesting you'd settled into a life of crime. Lastly, if you were Jess Harper, it stood to reason, based on the Harpers' wills and the letter I received from Judge Mandrell, that this gentleman was Quentin Cantrell. I must admit, though, that I never expected to encounter you before reaching Kalispell. I assumed you would be traveling there directly from Wyoming Territory."
"We did try that, but apparently the people behind this little land grab decided to get rid of us with some story that we were money couriers. It almost worked, so Jess came up with this little idea to circumvent most chances at ambush with this train ride." Cantrell took another drink of tea as he finished recounting their recent troubles.
Harriet frowned. She was not surprised that Tyndall had made an effort to insert himself back into the Harpers' business, taking advantage of her absence to try and further the cause of his clients. That it had gone to the point of violence disturbed her. It also brought up concerns regarding the safety of the two heirs. Her frown deepened. Make that four heirs, she thought as her gaze swept over Quentin Cantrell and Jess Harper.
"I want it known that I was not in favor of the recent changes Chance and Regina made to their wills," Harriet's gaze fell on Jess again, noting the dust and the gunbelt. "However, as their attorney, it is my duty to make sure their wishes are carried out. I do not know how much you know about the conditions of the original trust?" She raised an eyebrow at Jess.
Jess shrugged slightly, "My grandfather put the ranch and all his business interests into a trust that he called the Harper Legacy Trust. Its terms dictated that the eldest male child of each generation inherited everything. The younger children would be given a monetary endowment when they reached twenty-one years of age that was to be used as each determined." He paused for a moment, "The trust further stipulated that the younger children would leave the ranch to make their own way in life."
"There were other conditions, and terms as well which would come into play should the eldest son not have children," Harriet added as she tapped another thick folder with a long, perfectly manicured fingernail. "In essence, however, Ishmael's children received a generous portion of the estate and scattered to the four winds. John Caleb Harper inherited the ranch and businesses. He increased the success of the businesses, but never worried much about putting the ranch on a profitable basis until after the end of the Civil War saw a severe reversal in the family's various business interests. Before all that happened, Caleb Harper took legal steps to have you removed from the trust," Harriet's attention was on Jess, watching for his reaction. He merely nodded, showing no overt reaction.
"After Caleb Harper's death, Chance Harper retained me to investigate certain suspicious business activities and requested that I break the Harper Legacy. He heartily disliked the structure of the trust. While he focused his energy on the businesses, Regina focused on the ranch which she loved. She also agreed with Chance regarding dismantling the trust. It was not an easy task and took some years in court to accomplish, but we did it," Harriet now turned her attention to both men. "Now for how it all affects the two of you."
"Once the trust was broken, Chance restructured things to give Regina controlling interest in some of the businesses and made her the ranch manager. They rewrote their wills as separate documents to cover all contingencies. Regina's will left Mr. Cantrell her interests in the shipping, mining, and timber businesses, not quite a controlling interest, but significant. She also left you some of her personal property, a few things belonging to the Cantrell family that had been shipped to her over the years before the war. The remainder of her assets were to be divided between her living children." Harriet paused for a nod of understanding from both men before continuing.
"Chance Harper's will left the majority of his assets to his children, to be divided equally amongst them. It also left them one-half of Lost Lake Ranch and building sites for homes of their own should they wish to remain on the ranch. The other half of the ranch and Blackbird Lodge, the main house, was left to Mr. Jesse Wade Harper, his younger brother." This time there was more of a reaction. Jess Harper looked faintly stunned. She found his reaction interesting.
"Chance Harper and Regina Harper named you as the legal guardian of their minor children and trustee of their estate. Should it be determined that Mr. Jesse Wade Harper cannot discharge his duties and responsibilities in that regard, the guardianship devolves to Mr. Quentin Aloysius Cantrell."
After this very long discourse, Harriet leaned back in her seat and picked up her teacup to sip from it. There was more. She had the letter from Judge Mandrell, but she needed to gather her thoughts and allow the two men a few moments to digest the full contents of their relatives' wills. She also did not consider it the proper time to encourage Jess Harper to consider renouncing his inheritance in favor of the Harper twins. Harriet would tackle that in good time. Right now, it was not in the children's best interest that their paternal uncle be maneuvered out of the picture.
Cantrell's eyes widened, and he looked over at Jess. "Don't you dare do anything to lose this inheritance...I am no patriarch!" He shook his head. "I can't go from a bachelor to a gentleman rancher and family man in one day's time."
Harriet looked from one man to the other. In other circumstances, she would have been amused. This situation, however, was far from laughable. Quentin Cantrell was all good looks and charm in his tailored suit, but something about him set her teeth on edge. Jess Harper looked as if he'd just stepped in off the trail. At least Cantrell gave off some semblance of being civilized. She had her doubts about the younger man.
Rising to her feet, Harriet crossed to the sideboard and surveyed the heavy cut crystal decanters arrayed along its top. Frank Mercer had made sure that she knew how to recognize the finer things in life, such as how to tell one hard liquor from another by the subtleties of its color. She picked up two matching crystal whiskey tumblers, selected a decanter and poured the dark honey-colored liquid into the glasses. She carried them back and set them on the table, one in front of each man. "Here, this may help. Bourbon."
Jess picked up the glass, his eyes drawn to the rainbow colors of the light being reflected in the crystal. He polished it off in one gulp, grateful for the liquid's fiery burn as it flowed down his throat. He wanted to ask what the hell Chance had been thinking, but there wasn't much point. And, there wasn't anyone else, not that he'd hand off his responsibilities even if there were others able to take them on. "That's more than..." Jess looked at the empty glass, "...more than I expected." His mind balked completely. He'd thought after Quentin had told him about the twins, that he was to be their guardian, that maybe Chance had gone around him and left him the ten acres by the lake. Never could he have imagined that it would be half the ranch. He didn't want it! Not like this!
~ To be continued in Part 4 ~
*History Note: In the classic era of the Old West—1870s and 1880s—most reward posters were just handbills or postcards sent to law enforcement officials with printed descriptions of the wanted men. No photos—although an exception was made in the case of the assassins of President Abraham Lincoln. For game purposes, we will go with how wanted posters were portrayed on television and in movies, some with images (usually sketches, occasionally a photograph), and some with just descriptions..