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Echoes and Shadows

Posted on Sun May 21st, 2017 @ 8:25pm by Jess Harper
Edited on on Wed Aug 16th, 2017 @ 9:09pm

Chapter: The Long Road Home
Location: Cheyenne Stage Depot, Sherman Ranch, Wyoming
Timeline: [FB] Summer 1873

The stagecoach's driver shifted on the box. Hands skilled by years of experience manipulated the reins, three slotted through the fingers of each hand. Signals went to the pair of big horses closest to the coach, and they slowed, acting as living brakes on the vehicle. These days most towns had enacted ordinances that restricted the speed of coaches and wagons to prevent accidents and injury to citizens. Coaches still moved at considerable speed, but people stood a better chance of getting out of the way of a team of horses moving at a canter instead of a full gallop. The other four horses slowed their pace in response to the pull by the leaders. A driver did not have to work very hard when he had an experienced well-trained team. As much as possible, teams consisted of the same horses for each trip. Like people, horses learned each others' peculiarities, strengths, and weaknesses. With a six-horse hitch, it was vital for the animals to work in concert with one another and the driver.

Jess Harper straightened his shoulders as the stagecoach slowed and came to a stop, precisely in front of the Cheyenne Stage Depot. The trip from Laramie had been without incident, but he still felt as if he had been holding his breath for the entire fifty-mile run. The army had been consolidating its monetary assets in an undisclosed location. Rather than draw attention to the activity by sending it in bulk under army guard, they had chosen to disperse the funds via express carriers in smaller increments. If the transports were hit, the army stood to lose a fraction of the amount over what could be lost if a major shipment were hit. Jess had objected to the callous and cavalier attitude toward the potential loss of life should road agents catch wind of the plans, but the army had assured his employers that all precautions had been taken to ensure the secrecy of the operation. In the end, Jess's worries had proved to be unfounded. This was the last shipment coming through Laramie to Cheyenne.

Two men approached the coach. Both were well-armed and alert. The shorter one stood back, rifle at the ready while the taller man stepped a little closer to the stage. He looked up at Jess, nodded slightly and said, "Good morning, Mr. Harper. The color of the day is orange."

"Good morning, Mr. Smith. I heard the color will change to blue," Jess answered. He recognized both men. Smith and Jones were not their real names, but he had been told that he didn't need to know what they actually were. Per his bosses and Major West, all he needed to know were the recognition codes. The rest of the operation was none of his concern.

Jess propped his rifle against the seat and reached for the heavy metal strongbox resting in the boot. "Bet you're glad to be rid of this," the man called Jones said as his companion took possession of the box. "You can go back to your non-eventful life."

Rather than respond to the subtle jibe from the government man, Jess laughed lightly, "Yeah, sure. I'll take road agents and other honest varmints like them over the government any day." Both men scowled but moved off with the strongbox. It wasn't in the interest of secrecy to get into a verbal altercation with the man riding shotgun for the stage line.

Jess dropped lightly from the stage's box to the ground, deftly avoiding the hostlers and baggage handlers. Suddenly, he stiffened slightly. There it was again! That odd feeling, a tickling between the shoulder blades, usually only felt before someone tried to shoot him in the back. He turned slowly, his dark blue eyes searching shadowed doorways and alleys while his right hand instinctively hovered close to the butt of his gun. It had happened the same way over the last few days, that feeling of being watched. But, if someone were watching him, they were better at hiding than he was at finding.

"You're awfully jumpy for a man with nothing but an easy ride home to look forward to," the stage's driver said, coming to stand beside Jess. "All we have for the run back to Laramie is a handful of passengers and the mail bag."

"I know, Mose," Jess grinned at the older man. "I just can't shake the feeling that someone's been watching this operation. Guess it's not our business now, huh?"

"That's right, boy!" Mose said and clapped him on the shoulder. "You're just overtired, Jess. Let's get our lunch so we can get on the road for home. We'll be pushing it with only a four-hitch." The stage line would not pay the extra cost of running a six-up now that the army wasn't footing the bill.

Mose walked off, and Jess reached back up to the box and grabbed his rifle and saddlebags. The old man was right. He was just paranoid. It had been a hard couple of weeks. Normally, guards got time off between runs because they needed to be rested and alert. Jess, as the line's top shotgun in the area, had been on almost every run. Being constantly on guard duty was stressful enough, the lack of real rest hadn't helped. Mose was probably right.

Jess followed the old driver to the washrooms. He scrubbed off the dust and grime from the trip as best as he could and changed into a clean shirt. It sure would be good to get home where he could take a real bath and relax. A few days of ranch work and handling nothing more strenuous than the routine changing of the teams at the relay station would be heaven compared to the last few days. Jess rolled up his dirty clothes and stuffed them into his saddlebags, gathered them and his rifle and headed to the stage depot's cafe. He had a little less than an hour to rest before the fifty-mile return journey to Laramie.

Inside, he chose his favorite table for two. It was at the far end of the counter away from the big windows that overlooked the street. As usual, Jess chose the chair that put his back to the wall, giving him a good view of the door and anyone coming in and out. A pretty waitress brought him a glass of water and a cup of coffee. She waited with a pitcher to refill the water glass after he drained it. Afterward, she took his order and moved off to tend to other customers.

Jess had just finished his bowl of chicken and dumplings and was buttering another biscuit when the bell over the door jingled. He looked up to see a tall, lanky man enter and approach his table. Jess relaxed. He didn't need to see the badge to recognize Deputy Rowland Carter, an old friend, and a good man. Rowland dropped into the chair opposite Jess and lay a leather pouch on the table. "Hello, Jess. I have some dispatches for Sheriff Randall. Can you see he gets 'em?"

"Howdy, Row. Sure, I can do that," Jess answered and leaned back with his coffee cup. "Say, has anyone noted anyone strange hanging about the depot?" His voice, as usual, was pitched low, not designed to carry beyond the range of the man he was speaking to.

"If they have, no one's said anything," Rowland replied, looking up and smiling as the waitress set a cup of coffee in front of him. "Why? You expecting trouble?" An old friend or not, Rowland's voice had a warning note in it.

"No, and I don't aim to start anything either!" Jess bristled slightly. He was sure that Rowland's question contained a subtle warning. As a friend, he was well aware of Jess's past. "Just have had a feeling that someone was watching me is all."

"Maybe someone is," Rowland said after taking a long sip of his coffee and uttering a satisfied sigh. "You're not exactly an unknown element in these parts." He held up a placating hand as Jess's expression darkened and the blue eyes flashed. "Now you know I don't mean anything by that, Jess. It's just that the past, one like yours anyway, is bound to catch up with you from time to time."

This time it was Jess's turn to sigh, "You're right, Row, sorry. Might outlive it, but won't likely outrun it anytime soon."

Rowland finished his coffee in a quick gulp, "I gotta get back to work. Next time you're in Cheyenne and not on stage business, have dinner with Kitty and me."

"Sure. John and I should be here in a couple of weeks to meet a cattle buyer," Jess replied and rose to his feet to shake Rowland's hand. He put some coins on the table for a tip. The stage line paid for employee's meals, so he didn't owe for that. Picking up his saddlebags, the dispatch pouch, and his rifle, Jess headed for the door.

By the time Jess got back outside, the stage's shaft had been replaced with the shorter four-horse hitch one. Out of habit, he checked the shaft and pole pin, making sure there were no cracks or other issues. As the horses were led up and backed into place, Jess tossed his saddlebags and the dispatch pouch onto the driver's seat. He walked around the stage, putting a finger to the hub of each wheel, making sure they had been liberally greased for the return trip. He also checked the brake and glanced beneath the body of the coach to check the thorough braces, the wide, heavy leather straps that the body of the stage rode on. By the time Jess finished his inspection, the passengers, three men and two women, were climbing into the coach. Baggage was being placed in the coach's rear boot, and Mose was climbing into the driver's box. If there were no delays at the relay stations, Jess would be home just after dark.

Jess had just settled into the padded seat next to the driver when movement caught his eyes. He turned his head just in time to see the back of a tall figure disappearing around the corner of the building opposite the depot. All he saw was the man's back, but there was something oddly familiar in the set of the tall figure's wide shoulders. He shook off the feeling, dismissing it as part of his heightened nerves due to the stresses of the last couple of weeks.

"Hold on!" Mose warned as he shook the reins. "Come up Clem, Robin, let's go!" He shouted at the horses who obediently moved off.

~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~ ~*~

Jess had made it home without incident. He sat in his usual place, a comfortable rocking chair in front of the fireplace, his feet propped up on the stone hearth. It was late and well past time for bed, but he was just about too exhausted to actually sleep. John sat in one of the other chairs reading a book, and Marianne was on the sofa, working on some mending. Jess stared absently at the empty fireplace, his mind preoccupied with thoughts of his week on the stagecoach. Somewhere, an owl hooted at the night. Jess sighed softly and closed his eyes, seeing the back of the tall stranger in Cheyenne again in his mind.

John Sherman heard the soft sigh from his friend and lay his book down in his lap. Jess looked exhausted but seemed oddly reluctant to pack it in for the night and head for his bed. John took a moment to study the younger man's face. It was hard to tell when Jess was actually frowning because of the way his dark eyebrows angled slightly upward on the inside giving him a perpetually worried look, somewhat like a puppy waiting to be hit. Jess was rarely verbose, but he'd been quieter than normal during dinner, not responding to the teasing from John and the boys in his usual gruff manner.

It has been just over a year since Jess's horse had wandered into the ranch's main yard with Jess barely hanging on, a bullet lodged in his shoulder and running a high fever. Trouble had followed in the form of two men, bounty hunters from Texas, determined to take Jess back and they did not care how. Marianne, in the course of taking care of the injured man, had found the papers acquitting him of the crimes he allegedly committed and that was all John needed to stand up for him. Upon recovering, Jess had told them that he'd not only been acquitted, but he'd also turned himself in so he could stand trial and clear his name. Unfortunately, although recalls on the wanted posters had gone out, remote towns often didn't get the notices, or the lawmen were lax in removing the posters. Jess had been on his way to Laramie to take up his new position as a stagecoach guard. Despite having a policy against hiring drifters, John had offered him a second job at the ranch and relay station, and a place to live. He'd yet to regret that decision. He loved Jess like a brother. More than that, he trusted him with his life.

"Jess?" John's quiet voice roused the other man from his reverie. "What's troubling you? Problems on the runs?" Marianne lay her stitching aside and looked up as her husband spoke.

"No...no, surprising ain't it?" Jess answered with a brief grin. "Military said it was done with the utmost secrecy. That usually means everyone and their old auntie knows what is going on."

John chuckled, "Yeah, you got that right, partner. So, what's wrong 'cause something's been bothering you since you got home."

Home. There was that word again, only it no longer made Jess as uneasy as it once had. The feeling that he needed to get on his horse and keep riding had faded more and more. Thoughts of returning to Montana had faded along with his urge to keep roaming. Maybe the old saying was true? 'Home was where the heart was,' and his heart was on this ranch with John and his family.

"Not sure anything is really wrong, John," Jess finally answered, his brows furrowed even more than normal. "I felt all week like I was being watched. Kept thinking someone might be planning on hitting the shipment, but nothing ever happened. Then today, right as we were pulling out from the Cheyenne station, I thought I saw someone..." He stopped speaking, not sure if he wanted to share his suspicions.

"Someone from your past?" Marianne's voice inquired gently. Her voice held a note of worry. Jess was a man with a past. It was the one fear that she and John lived with where he was concerned. Someday, he might ride out, and that past would catch up with him, and he'd never come home.

"No...well not exactly, not from that past anyway," Jess said. "I thought I saw my brother in Cheyenne. Just saw the man from the back. But it was something about how he moved. It can't have been Chance, though." He shrugged, "Surely if it were, he'd have spoken up."

"Maybe he didn't see you or didn't recognize you?" John said, "It's been a lot of years, people change."

"Maybe. Don't think I've physically changed all that much though." Jess had been a whip-slender boy when he left Montana at the age of seventeen. Chance had been twenty-five, and the two of them had not seen one another often in the years just prior. When Jess had been sent to boarding school at the age of twelve, his brother had already graduated and was attending college. Chance was still away at college when Jess had left home. Ten years had passed since then.

John was quiet. A man who had lived the life Jess had over the last several years learned to trust his instincts. He had too if he were going to survive. A shiver rippled down John's spine. He didn't want to think about that right now. "You should write to him." The words came out reluctantly. John would never stand between Jess and his family, but he would miss the man if he left.

Jess shook his head, "No. Someday maybe. But," he paused and smiled, "no hurry." He stood up and stretched, "I'm sure it wasn't him. I'm just over tired from the last couple of weeks. Going to hit the sack. 'Night Marianne." He gave John's shoulder a friendly squeeze as he passed. "Goodnight, John."

"Goodnight, Jess. Sleep safe," John said, and Marianne echoed his words. He watched his friend head to the kitchen and the door to the bunkhouse that had been converted into a bedroom for him.

 

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