Posted on Wed Jul 12th, 2017 @ 6:52pm by Ezra Hale
Edited on on Sat Jul 29th, 2017 @ 2:01am
The Long Road Home
Location: Lost Lake Ranch (Double L), Montana Territory
Timeline: July 1875
Ezra Hale reined in his big appaloosa. The gelding tossed his head against the bit, anxious to keep moving. Ezra spoke quietly to the animal as he twisted in the saddle to look out over the herd of cattle where they placidly grazed not far from the banks of the Chogun River. The river was deep and quiet here, the current slow-moving and there was a gentle slope to the bank making it an ideal place to water the stock. Although it was July, the grass was still plush and green. There would be no need to move the herd through the pass to the meadow anytime soon.
The cattle were a mix of Angus, Hereford, Texas Longhorn and Scottish Highland Cattle. Each of the foundation breeds brought special traits to the Lost Lake herd. The Texas Longhorns were known for their high drought-stress tolerance. Sustained droughts were not usually an issue in the Montana high country, but the summers could be hot and dry. The Highland Cattle were a hardy breed that was accustomed to living in the mountains and had a superior tolerance for the cold. Likewise, the Angus, a superb beef cow, had a high tolerance for the harsh winters of northwest Montana. The Herefords added muscle to the mix. The animals bred on Lost Lake Ranch provided an excellent grade of meat and were able to withstand being driven to market, the various forts, and Indian reservations with little loss of muscle tone. They retained more of their meat.
Some people called the Lost Lake breed mongrels. Ezra called them survivors.
The ranch also maintained purebred herds, housed in separate pastures. Those animals were kept for sale to other ranches and breeding. Like the cattle, the horses that the ranch raised for sale were a mix of Spanish Mustang and Quarter Horse. They were strong, fast, and agile which made them excellent stock horses and ideal for the often grueling work of the United States Cavalry. They kept the off-color animals for ranch use, one of the perks of working for the Harpers. Along with better pay than most ranches, excellent living facilities, and hearty three or four-course meals, each cowhand was given a horse, tack, and a rifle after ninety days of work. Sure, they had a few cowpokes that only wanted to work long enough to pay their way to the next place, the next job, but for the most part, the hands stayed on at Lost Lake.
Yes, the Double L Bar H, Lost Lake Ranch's brand, was a good place to work. Ezra should know. He'd been there nearly forty years.
Ezra had not been a rancher when John Caleb Harper hired him. He had degrees in history and literature, had served with the Army Corps of Engineers as a land surveyor, and worked as both a scout and wagon master for the wagon trains moving people around the vastness of the western United States' territories. He knew what everyone did about cattle and was a good horseman. It had been his superior knowledge of Indian culture and the land in general that had made Caleb Harper hire him. That and the fact that he was married and wanted to settle down. Ezra had worked his way up the ladder from hand to top-hand to foreman and now ranch manager. He had learned the business of ranching from anyone and everyone, no one was too young or too old to listen to. Now, Ezra was the man people sought out for advice on how to operate a ranch at a profit.
Solomon snorted and sidled restlessly, bringing Ezra's attention back to the present. He pulled his dusty Stetson off his head, dusted it lightly against his leg and put it back on, seating it firmly. Blue-gray eyes, still sharp despite the fact that Ezra was in his sixties, scanned the cattle again, taking a mental count. He figured there was about fifty head on this range and when a physical head count was taken, he'd only be off by five or less. It was a skill any cowhand learned over time. Lost Lake grazed their animals in herds of fifty to a hundred individuals, only combining the herds for a major drive to market. It made it less likely that disease or parasites could take hold and wipe out all the stock and kept the numbers manageable by a few riders.
Today they'd be moving this group to join the one grazing the pasture north of the river. It would bring the herd up to around a hundred which was what the latest Army contract called for. The animals would be fat and ready to travel by the end of the month which was when Fort Kalispell wanted them.
A wrangler on a spotted gray galloped up, sliding his horse to a stop and tipping his hat to Ezra. "The boys are ready to move 'em."
Ezra nodded, "Move 'em out, Tom. Try to keep them off the trail except for crossing. We'll have people coming in and out with supplies. It's that time of the week."
"Yes, sir!" The young man wheeled his gray and galloped back to the waiting group of wranglers. Ezra smiled, enjoying the men's energy. Despite it being July, which was usually hotter than Hades, the day was cool and even slightly crisp due to a northern wind coming in off the mountains. It made working the range a downright pleasure.
It was the kind of day that Regina Harper had loved. Ezra's smile dimmed a bit, and his chest tightened. Chance Harper had been a toddler when the Hales arrived in the Chogun Valley. Ezra and Kate, his wife, had quickly become good friends with Caleb and Isadora Harper, so they had come to know the Harper's two sons as well. When Chance had married Regina, it had felt as if one of his sons were marrying. And Regina had meant as much to him as a daughter. Chance loved the ranch, but Regina had been in love with it and with the thought of making it a profitable working ranch instead of a gentleman's ranch. She had been the driving force behind finding outlets for marketing their beef and horses, the breeding programs, and in securing contracts for the sales. Regina had loved spending her day in the saddle, riding the fences, moving the herds, and seeing to the day-to-day ranch work. Like Ezra, Reggie had learned the business of ranching from the ground up. She could do almost every job in the place and do it as well as any of the hands.
The deaths of Chance, Regina, and the two older children, Grant and Beth, had been like losing members of their own family. Kate and Ezra were still grieving the losses, but the ranch still had to be managed, stock cared for, fences mended. Life had to go on, especially since, for now, he and Kate were the only family the five-year-old Harper twins had. God willing, their uncles would arrive safely, and soon.
As if his thoughts had conjured it from thin air, Ezra heard the sound of hooves and wheels on hard-packed earth and gravel. He turned Solomon toward the trail that led through the valley, through Ishmael's Gate, and up to the mountain basin where the house was. A black buggy with the ranch's logo and name painted in a deep sky blue was approaching. It was pulled by a handsome blue roan mare who arched her neck and neighed a greeting to Ezra's gelding. He trotted his horse over as the buggy rolled to a stop.
Ezra tipped his hat, a smile lighting his blue-gray eyes, "Good morning, ma'am. Lovely day for a drive."
The woman smiled, and Ezra's chest tightened again, but not in sorrow. This time it was with pride and love. Even though she was in her sixties, Kathryn Hale was a trim and stunningly beautiful woman. Her short silver-gray hair was silky and full of body although she kept it cut short for ease of management. Like Ezra's, Kate's hair had gone gray early and was one of her most striking features. "It is a gorgeous day for a drive," Kate responded, her dark eyes dancing with delight at the fact that the wrangler was her husband.
Seated to either side of Kate was the Harper twins. Cody, older by a full thirty minutes, held the reins in his little hands. Kate had been letting him drive while she stayed ready to take charge of the horse if necessary. Cody smiled proudly, "Auntie Kate was letting me drive. She says I am getting really good."
"That you are, boy," Ezra told him as he sidestepped Solomon to stand next to the buggy. "You're gonna be the best driver on the place soon." Cody's grin widened, belying the slightly haunted look in his eyes. Meanwhile, Antoinette, generally known as Nettie, was standing on the seat of the buggy and holding her arms out to Ezra, "Ride Sol," she announced, making it sound like a command.
"May I ride Sol?" Kate corrected the child calmly. "Ask, don't demand."
"But I want to ride Solomon, not you," Nettie protested, pursing her lips as a stubborn expression appeared on her face.
Kate couldn't help a soft chuckle as she stared at the defiant little face, "No, I do not want to ride Sol, but if I did, I would ask Ezra not demand it. So, ask nicely, Nettie."
Nettie's face lost its mutinous look, and she looked up at Ezra, fluttering her long lashes in a winsome manner, "May I ride Solomon, Uncle Ezra?"
"You are a cheeky little thing, just like both of your parents," Ezra told her, affection for the child making his gruff voice warm. "Come on up, girl."
Nettie held out her arms, and Ezra scooped her off the seat of the buggy and settled her in front of him on the saddle. He let her take the reins, but he kept a cautious watch to make sure she was managing the horse. "Okay, pull alongside the buggy. Mind if we ride a ways with you, ma'am?" A smile lit his rugged features as he doffed his hat to Kate again.
"We would be delighted to have an escort, kind sir," Kate answered, as enthralled and in love with Ezra as on the day they had married. "After all, there are all kinds of dangers between here and there. What if we're attacked by a pack of bears or a tribe of wolves?"
Both of the twins laughed and Cody said, "Bears don't come in packs, wolves run in packs." Nettie nodded vigorously in agreement with her twin brother's statement. "Only Indians live in tribes."
"Well, that's not quite true, Nettie," Ezra told the little girl. "Other people in other lands live in tribes. There are tribes in Africa and South America. A tribe can be any group of people with common ancestry, customs, and traditions." The professorial side of Ezra came out as he explained the word to the twins.
"But not here?" Nettie asked. She and Cody were only five, but both had quick minds, were quite intelligent and seemed to seek out and absorb knowledge like tiny sponges. Regina and Chance had always encouraged their children to learn and to never turn their faces away from knowledge, even if it sometimes made them uncomfortable.
"No, most people do not use the term tribe here unless referring to the Indians," Ezra agreed. Satisfied with the explanations, Nettie leaned back against him, holding the reins lightly but firmly in each of her small hands. Ezra rode with romal reins, ones that made a continuous loop, instead of the more common split type. Even if Nettie tired and dropped one, it wouldn't fall to the ground.
"Shopping?" Ezra queried, pointing at the canvas bags secured behind the rear seat on the short flatbed section of the carriage.
"Yes," Kate said, helping Cody to shake the reins and get the roan moving again. "We need a few things at the house," she told her husband, "and we're short on flour and salt at the lodge."
Ezra thought about having one of the hands escort his wife and the twins into town. He couldn't rid himself of the feeling that trouble lay around the ranch and those that lived on it. Besides, the twins, while not bad kids, were high-spirited and sometimes hard to handle. Kate would need to focus on the terrain and the road while driving. There were areas of the trail that rose several feet above the river. A mistake could land them all at the bottom of the gorge.
"Kate, how'd you feel if I had one of the boys ride with you? Or I could go?" Ezra asked, unable to keep the worry out of his voice.
Kate shifted one booted foot until it contacted the rifle secured to the seat box. She knew that Ezra was not belittling her ability to take care of herself and the children or her skill at driving the horse and buggy. They had both been worried since the attack that had killed the Harpers. The when and where the Indian attack had happened was odd, the why was unknown. Then there had been that odious Carson Tyndall and his assertion that he would be taking charge, that he had the legal right and obligation to do so. None of it felt right. She looked at the curly dark head of the boy perched on the seat beside her and then at Nettie, cradled safely in Ezra's embrace.
"I'd be right glad for the company, Ezra if you can be spared," Kate told him.
Ezra reached around and gripped Nettie's hands, "Tell him to whoa, honey." The little girl obeyed, and Solomon obediently came to a stop although he mouthed the bit indicating he'd prefer to be moving along with the buggy. Nettie chattered at the horse, urging him to be still as Ezra removed his hat, rose slightly in the stirrups and waved it high in the air to catch the attention of the busy wranglers.
It was Tom again who broke off from the rest and cantered his horse over to Ezra. "Ma'am," he nodded politely to Kate, "What's up, boss?"
"I'm going to ride in to Kalispell with Kate," Ezra told the man. "Chuckwagon will be down around noon. Get the herd settled and break off for the day except for the usual chores. You boys have earned a rest."
Tom grinned, "Yes, sir! Do you want us to post guards again?" The younger man's brow furrowed. No one had been totally at ease since the deaths of the Harpers. Some of it was that no one knew what was going to happen with the ranch and the two little ones. All the hands were devoted to the children and had been equally devoted to Chance and Regina.
"I think we should, Tom. A stampede would scatter these fool critters, and we'd have the dickens of time gathering enough back up to meet the contract," Ezra told him. "Pick some of the younger boys that might find it an adventure, but make sure they understand how serious and important a job it is."
The younger man grinned and nodded, "Glen Forbes, Bill Scott," he said immediately. They were younger but experienced, not quite top-hands, but good men and deadly serious about their job.
Tom returned to the herd, and Ezra leaned down, "Better get old Sol to moving, Nettie. We gotta catch up to Auntie Kate." The little girl giggled with delight as Ezra set his heels to the horse's sides and sent him off at a canter. They easily caught up to the carriage and Ezra helped Nettie rein the horse back down to a walk. In due course, the trail began to be hemmed in by the rough ridges and foothills of the southern Choguns where they were broken and worn away by time and Mother Nature. The towering, jagged cliffs of the Chogun Pass loomed ominously ahead, and the river roared onward, cutting the land and carving its path deeper and deeper into the landscape.
At Ezra's suggestion, Caleb had had engineers in to plan out widening the road, to stabilize it and make it safer for man and beast. Later, as the ranch began moving larger herds to and from the meadow beyond the pass, Chance had had road crews come in again. Nothing could be done about the places where it dropped off to the river gorge and to reroute the trail lower down was impossible, so a heavy split rail fence lined the road on the gorge side. It was whitewashed and painted in a bright glossy white making it visible even on a gloomy night. It was more stable and better going, but still not truly safe since hard rains could bring about landslides or cause the road to crumble into the river.
Ezra returned Nettie to the carriage, promising that Cody could ride Solomon on the way back. Both children were moved to the rear seat and admonished to behave themselves so Kate could concentrate on driving. Ezra reined in behind it the carriage, stopped the big gelding and turned in the saddle. His eyes scanned the rolling hills and valley he had just ridden through, then gazed for a moment at the soaring peaks of the Chogun Mountains that surrounded the valley, protected it and sometimes trapped those that lived within it. In the distance, he could see the deep blue waters of the small lakes that dotted the land and glimmered in the sun. Across the valley and well up on the side of one of the mountain slopes, Ezra caught another glint of light. It was the sun reflecting off the windows of Blackbird Lodge, the main ranch house. It was a beautiful and peaceful place, a stunning vista in a territory that majored in spectacular landscapes. And, it was a heritage that needed cherished and protected for another generation.
Sighing, Ezra turned Solomon back to the road and sent him off at a slow, easy trot. He would check for telegrams in town. Maybe Quentin Cantrell had found young Jess. Maybe they were on their way home right at that moment. God forbid that anything happened to them on the long road home!