Watching for Shadows
The Long Road Home
Location: Train Nearing Missoula
Timeline: Early July, 1875
Jess's train travel had been limited. He'd gone back east to Tennessee to look at some bloodstock John was interested in and traveled to California a couple of times on stage company business. He was more familiar with stagecoach travel although his preferred mode of transportation was on horseback or via a conveyance that he controlled. Jess stared out at the darkened landscape for a few more minutes before returning to his chair, positioned where he could cover both entrances to the private train coach.
They would be pulling into the station at Missoula Mills in a few hours. He settled into the heavy chair and lay his Winchester across his lap, ready to use if the need arose. Jess actually hoped that there would be no cause to use the gun. He relaxed a little allowing the sway of the coach and the click-clack of its wheels on the track to lull him into that realm where he was still alert to everything around him, but his mind and its thoughts were somewhat detached. It was a trick that allowed him to rest without actually going to sleep. Jess honestly felt that if anything were going to happen, it would be in Missoula. The train had slowed its speed some time back as it wended its way through the mountains and there had been numerous fuel and water stops. Fang, H.G. Mercer's silent bodyguard had exited the train at the last stop with orders to ride hard and locate Judge Mandrell. He was to keep an eye on the man, protect him if needed. This had left Jess and Quentin to handle guard duty. Cantrell's arm was healing, but he had lost quite a bit of blood and needed rest. Jess had napped off and on during the day, offering to take the night watch.
This was Jess's first trip back to Missoula in thirteen years. He'd gone home for his mother's funeral back in '68 but had not contacted his brother. Instead, he'd watched from a distance and ridden off again. On that trip, he'd ridden up through Helena, avoiding the trail through Missoula. Jess was willing to admit if only to himself that he was uneasy about leaving the train when it stopped. Missoula was all mixed up with the reasons he had had to leave Montana in the first place. It was the site of the place where he'd killed his first man. Intellectually, he knew that his feelings about the town were ridiculous. His heart had a harder time reconciling with what had happened before. He also knew that Missoula Mills had changed, had grown. Jess had kept up with what was happening back home via the newspapers and letters from Chance and Regina. It wasn't going to be the same. Few people, if any, would remember that Jess Harper had killed Calvin Steelgrave in a gunfight outside the Missoula Hotel in 1862.
The train hit a rough patch on the track, and the coach gave a slight jolt bringing Jess out of his reverie. From beneath the cover over the cage, the little birds gave alarmed chirps but quickly settled back to sleep. The pocket doors that divided the living area of the car from the sleeping compartments rattled and slid open. Jess remained seated in the rippling shadows of the night-cloaked car. He was watchful, but not alarmed. It was likely one of his three traveling companions coming out for a drink of water or just moving around because the rough bit had awakened them.
Jo had startled awake as the train jolted, the movement jerky compared to the train's rhythm. The slow, even breathing of her sister in the bunk above her told her that Harriet had not been awakened as well. Grateful for small favors, Jo slid quietly from her bunk and pulled a terra cotta-hued silk house jacket over her underdress. It was embellished with black thread and had been a gift from one of Harriet's recent travels. Her hair had been released from its pins at bedtime, flowing long and loose about her shoulders and back.
Taking up a small brass holder, Jo lit the wax candle it held, using it to light her way from the sleeping compartments toward the main living area of the coach. She would have preferred to keep the bird cage with her at night, but as she was sharing the space with Harriet, Angel and Blue had been covered and left alone for the night. Now, having been awakened by the harder jostle, Jo was concerned that the cage had been rocked as well and she wanted to make sure it hadn't tipped over. She also wanted to get a glass of water. The air in Montana was much drier than it had been back home in San Francisco or even Sacremento.
Her steps were soft, and she was quiet as she stepped into the main living compartment, until a soft gasp slipped from her lips as she found herself not alone. It took her a moment to recognize Mr. Harper, but the surprise had already knocked her candle to the floor, snuffing the flame. "Good lord!" She whispered, her heart beating like a hummingbird's.
Fortunately, the dropped candle did not ignite the carpet. Jess's lips twitched slightly as he shifted the Winchester and reached out to turn the flame up on the kerosene lantern. He had kept the area darkened, giving him the advantage should anyone try to break in. Normally, he'd have stood up when a lady entered the room, but in this case, Jess figured any move on his part might send the girl screaming for her sister. She seemed quite alarmed at his presence, although to be fair, the girl probably had not often encountered men with rifles in what amounted to her living room.
Jess regarded Josephine Mercer with a hint of amusement in his eyes. He had not spent much time with their traveling companions once their legal affairs had been taken care of by the older sister. Jess had been guarding the night leaving Quentin to look after things during the daylight hours of their journey. Even with the limited amount of time that Jess had spent with the sisters, he was aware of the tension between them although H.G. showed it less. Her tone of voice never betrayed her, only the occasional flash of her eyes gave evidence of her annoyance. Josephine seemed to Jess as if she was more sheltered and softer than the elder Mercer. There were the physical contrasts between the sisters as well. Whereas Harriet Mercer had dark auburn hair with glints of fire in it, Josephine's was the color of sun-ripened wheat. Her eyes were green instead of gray, but also had the distinctive darker ring around the iris that emphasized their color.
"Ma'am," Jess said politely, "sorry I startled you."
"It's alright," Jo spoke, kneeling down to retrieve the candle holder, the flame no longer dancing on the wick. "Forgive me if I woke you. I was not expecting anyone to be here" She stated as she rose to her feet. "I wanted to make sure their cage hadn't tipped over when the car jostled." Walking as she explained, Jo crossed over to the table where the bird cage had been set, pleased that they seemed alright and were undisturbed at the moment. They were fortunate in that regard. Jo herself felt like a tightly coiled spring. She did not know this man beyond his name and the very large rifle in his grip made her quite wary although Harriet would not have sent Fang elsewhere if she felt that they were in any danger from either of their male traveling companions.
Jess watched her as she checked on her birds. Having a bird as a pet would have never occurred to him. Maybe an eagle or hawk that could hunt, but not a small bird in a cage. He shrugged in response to her comment, "I was standing watch, not sleeping." Not sure what else to say to the girl, he added, "We'll be in Missoula in a few hours, just after dawn."
A small feeling of relief settled over Jo's shoulders when he stated she had not woken him, though she wasn't entirely sure she felt safe with him standing watch. "Oh good, thank the Lord." She spoke, finding herself somewhat pleased that this leg of the journey would be over in a few more hours, even if they did have the next part to deal with before she knew Harriet would be ready to return to San Francisco and she could go home where she belonged.
Casting a glance at the man seated, Jo walked over to a table where a large silver pitcher was resting on a tray, and she poured herself a glass of water, still cool in the dark of the very early morning. "Would you...?" She asked, holding up one of the glasses, asking if he wanted one as well. "May I inquire as to why you and your companion are traveling to the middle of nowhere?" If she was going to be stuck traveling with the two men aboard the coach, she may as well know a little bit about them.
Jess shook his head at her offer of water and indicated the pot of coffee sitting nearby. He'd gotten his battered old camp cup out of his gear and was letting the coffee he'd just poured cool a bit. "I'm going home," he replied quietly, barely a hint of sadness in his voice. He quirked an eyebrow at her, "You?" If she considered Kalispell the middle of nowhere, Jess couldn't imagine she was traveling there voluntarily.
The blond nodded gently, setting the second glass down and pouring only for herself. Jo took note of the quietness behind his words and wondered about it. If it were herself and she was the one going home, she'd stand to shout it from the rooftop of the coach. In fact, on the return trip, she might actually do it... at least until Harriet's pinched face came to mind and all the fun fizzled out of the idea like a balloon losing air. *I was being courted by a man my sister deemed unworthy, and she basically ambushed us before we could be married. She does not believe that I can be trusted on my own at home right now.* The words nearly came out of her mouth, but Jo took a sip of water instead, opting not to air her grievances with Harriet in public. "Unexpected vacation with my sister." That was one way to put it at least. "Have you been away from home long?"
Now who is being less than truthful, Jess wondered but kept the thoughts from being visible on his face or in his voice. The tension between the two women had been palpable although both had been invariably polite to one another. Maybe that was it? During his years on the drift, Jess had taken jobs with families. The siblings, even close ones, were rarely so stilted and polite to one another. Still, it was none of his business. They would have to deal with Harriet Mercer awhile longer once they reached Kalispell, but after that, they would all go their separate ways. Jess shrugged slightly, reached for the coffee pot, and refilled his cup, "Since I was seventeen," he answered Josephine's question. "Been on the drift about thirteen years now." Jess chuckled internally. Would the knowledge that she was in the presence of a bona fide saddle tramp shock her?
"Thirteen years, goodness," Jo said, taking a sip of water from her glass as she stood behind a chair, her free hand resting on the back. "That's a long time to be away from home. Do you miss it?" She asked, offering him a small smile in the dim light of the room. "Was it work that kept you so long?"
This time Jess's lips did twitch although he did not quite smile, "You could say it was work," he answered. "Yes, I miss parts of it." Jess shifted and leaned back in his chair, switching his hold on the rifle so that he could take a sip of his cooling coffee. "What about you, Miss Mercer? Take many unexpected vacations with your sister?"
There was a soft chuckle before Josephine managed to swallow it back, covering it with a polite cough. "No, fortunately, I do not." She replied. "We are..." Pausing briefly to try and put things delicately, Jo took a sip of her water. "in the middle of a disagreement and Harriet feels that I can not be trusted at home alone." And that was putting it nicely. So, what sort of work do you do?" Jo asked lightly.
"You can sit down, you know?" Jess said, amusement evident in his gravelly voice. "I don't bite, and I've never shot a woman." He continued to regard her, actually offering a slight smile. "Work? I guess ranchin' is the best answer," he paused and tapped the rifle, "and other jobs as needed. What about you?" Jess knew that Harriet Mercer was an attorney, but in his experience, most women of means rarely had a vocation to go along with it. Unlike many working class men and women, he saw nothing wrong with that. It wasn't right for him, but for someone else, it might be. Judge not..., he thought as he waited for Miss Mercer to take a seat and answer.
Yes, she could indeed sit down, however, considering Jo barely knew the man who was seated, the gun in his lap and the lateness of the hour, she didn't feel it entirely proper at the moment. A small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth at his assurances that he didn't bite or that he'd never shot a woman. Still, she didn't take a seat, preferring to stay on her feet in case he did try something. Harriet had mentioned wanted posters after all and she'd never actually questioned her sister about it. Jo nodded when he explained his occupation, as best he could anyway. "Before we left San Francisco, I was planning on applying to Toland Medical College. I went to a convent school in Sacremento, and the Sisters were a nursing order, so that was incorporated into our schooling. I also manage the house while Harriet is away." She replied, sipping from her glass.
"A woman doctor?" Jess queried although there was no judgment in his tone. He'd never had much to do with doctors despite numerous injuries over the years. From his experience, it seemed a gory business for a woman of refinement - or any woman for that matter - to voluntarily engage in.
Jo nodded, giving him a soft smile. "Yes. I really enjoyed working with the Sisters and learning everything they had to teach. I even considered taking the Oath and joining the order myself but I chose to apply to college instead. I just have not gotten around to that part yet." She told him, going to take a sip of water but finding her glass empty. Setting it with the others, Jo turned and took her candle over to the kerosene lamp Jess had turned up earlier. Opening a small door on the lamp, Jo used its flame to reignite the candle. "I should return to bed, see if I can get a few more hours in before we stop next." She stated, using her free hand to create a wind block to keep the flame from petering out as she walked. "I will see you in the morning, Mr. Harper. I hope the rest of your night is uneventful." With a gentle nod and another small smile, Jo turned back toward the hallway, disappearing into the dark as she moved back toward her shared quarters with Harriet.