Turn of the Wheel (Part 1)
The Long Road Home
Location: Train Station, Livery Stable, Missoula MIlls, Montana
Timeline: Early July 1875
It was just after daybreak when the train pulled into the station at Missoula Mills. People hustled and bustled to and fro outside the Missoula train depot. Most were retrieving their baggage and departing for unknown places. Jess was feeling the strain of trying to watch everyone at once, people exiting the train, people getting on the train for its return trip to Sacramento. Too many people, he thought, feeling the skin crawl between his shoulder blades. He didn't like the noise, and he most certainly did not like the smells. Jess was already missing the Big Open and wondering if he had made a mistake.
While Quentin stood off to the side, keeping watch and discussing where and how they should meet back up with Harriet Mercer, Jess headed for the horse car. She had told them she needed to go to the nearby livery stable and get her rig and team as well as hire a relief driver. Normally, she and Fang shared the chore of driving. Jess had managed not to snort in disbelief which was hypocritical at the very least. After all, on more than one occasion, Marianne Sherman had driven the stagecoach the final twelve miles into Laramie. That was completely different from handling a four-up for a one hundred twenty mile journey over rough to indifferent roads and terrain.
Both Lakota and Paladin, the only horses in the car, whinnied a greeting as Jess walked up the ramp. He was impressed with the fact that their tack was clean, oiled and waiting. A tall, lanky youth leaped to his feet and hurried to help Jess with the saddles. "I wasn't sure if you would be riding them today so fed them light, gave 'em a good drink," the boy said. "I sure will miss takin' care of 'em."
It was impossible not to hear the wistful note in the boy's light voice. Jess noted the horses' gleaming coats and how calm and settled both were even after the long train journey, a totally new experience for both animals. He snugged the cinch up on Lakota's saddle and glanced over his shoulder at the boy, "If you get tired of working for the railroad, come see Ezra Hale or me at Lost Lake Ranch in Kalispell. You wouldn't get top-hand wages right off, make more stayin' here, but could promise you'd work with good horses."
The boy slipped Paladin's bridle on, adjusting the nose band and fastening the throat latch quickly, "I'll do that someday, Mr. Harper," he told the older man with a grin. "Gotta send money home for awhile yet, but in a few months, I can do what I want."
Ricky led Paladin down the ramp and handed the reins over to Jess when he caught up with Lakota in tow. Jess flipped a five dollar gold piece to the boy, "Thanks for taking such great care of them." Ricky caught the coin and trotted back up into the livestock car. He would have to get it cleaned out and fresh bedding added before the train pulled out in a couple of hours. Jess led both horses the rest of the way over to the platform and tossed Paladin's reins to Quentin. "Since we both have some errands before we head out, I recommend we get one of the livery boys to walk them a bit. They need to get their land legs back under them." He glanced up at Harriet Mercer, "Where's the livery stable?"
Harriet had been studying the two horses with interest. Someone had once told her that you could judge a man's character by his horse. The two horses were well bred and seemed well-mannered. So much for what she'd been told! Harriet gestured toward the street across from the depot, "End of that alley. I will be ready to depart within an hour."
Quentin stood with one hand rubbing Paladin's head and along the spot below his eyes. He could see the horse was still a little out of sorts but doing better now that he was off the train. He leaned over and rested his forehead against Paladin's. "It's okay, I know how being in that box must have felt..." He glanced over at Jess. "I agree. Some peaceful walking would be best for both of them." He then turned to Harriet. "Madame, you may be ready to depart in an hour, but I would like to get a meal and pick up some supplies for the trail. When Jess and I are finished, we will come back to the stable to either meet or wait for you. You are free to be ready to leave whenever you wish, but I will not make similar demands on you."
Harriet narrowed her eyes, and even from where he stood, Jess could see the storm clouds gathering in them. However, she did not respond to Quentin. Instead, she turned to the waiting porter, "Please have our baggage delivered to the the livery stable," she paused, and then continued, "within the hour."
Jess watched her turn, gather her sister up with a nod, and stalk off the depot's platform. "It's going to be a long ride north," he stated quietly before following in the direction of the stable. Quentin was right. They needed trail supplies. He had not wanted to pay the extra freight by getting what they needed in Sacramento. Besides, the perishables would have...well...perished.
Chaffee's Livery Stable lay at the end of a short, wide alley. Of the three establishments in Missoula Mills, it had the best reputation when it came to the care of the animals under its roof. The one at the Guardian Arms Hotel was probably a little cleaner and definitely more expensive, but the care of the horses had been indifferent. The third one, McCaskey & Sons, was downright filthy and catered to a clientele that would be considered dodgy at best. In fact, it was usually a toss-up on whether the old man and his boys would be available to take care of clients or locked up at the local jail. In addition to providing long-term and short-term boarding for horses, they also offered storage for private coaches and carriages, drivers for hire, and horse rental. Once it became necessary for Harriet to travel to Missoula and on to Kalispell on a regular basis, she had lodged her team at Chaffee's.
The alley opened up to a large, tidy yard. On the left was a paddock where several horses picked at bales of hay or took advantage of the shade provided by an open-front shed that had been built against the barn. On the right was a long, low two-story building. The first floor housed a tack and feed store and the livery's offices. The upper floor was the Chaffee's home. Between the store and paddock was the entrance to the main barn. Through its breezeway was another area with two larger paddocks for grazing the animals and another large barn. Across from the rear barn was a long shed where carriages, coaches, and wagons were housed. Just beyond that was a blacksmith's shop. School age boys scurried about, mucking out stalls or carrying feed. Mr. Chaffee and his wife were popular employers because they paid a fair wage, even to the boys, and let them keep their tips.
In front of the feed and tack shop was a wide, covered porch. Several tables were set along its length along with a few comfortable rocking chairs. In mild weather, this was where people would wait for their bill to be drawn up, feed orders to be filled or for their rentals to be brought to the yard. Mrs. Chaffee offered a light breakfast in the mornings, sandwiches at lunch and hot coffee or tea all day long. It was a service that even the hotel's livery stable did not offer its clients.
Jess and Quentin left Harriet near the porch to seek out one of the grooms to arrange for the walking of their saddle horses and to purchase supplies needed for the animals. Charles Chaffee walked out of the office door and down the steps. He glanced at Josephine and nodded toward the building's low porch, "There's seating and shade there, miss. I'll send out the Mrs. Chaffee with some coffee and tea." He turned cheerful brown eyes on Harriet, "We got your telegram, ma'am. Too late to get a reply to you though. Roman is putting the final touches on cleaning your harnesses and coach."
"Thank you, Mr. Chaffee," Harriet answered, offering the older man a pleasant smile. "I trust Mrs. Chaffee is well?"
"Oh yes, ma'am," the older man said with a smile, "family's doing quite well, thank you."
"Mr. Fang is on other business, Mr. Chaffee. I will need a relief driver. Is Mr. Bennett available?" There were two men that Harriet employed when Fang was not with her. Both were trustworthy, married men who were good with her horses. Usually, she included the need for a driver in her telegrams informing the Chaffees that she'd need her team ready on a certain date. This time, however, she had not expected to be without Fang.
"I'm sorry, Ms. Mercer, Christopher Bennett broke his arm last week and the other gentleman you normally employ, Mr. Holloway, decided to move to California." Chaffee sounded sincerely saddened to have to inform Harriet of the circumstances. He liked being able to accommodate his customers' needs and it distressed him to be unable to do so.
Harriet frowned. This was a predicament she had not anticipated. Ordinarily, it would not be an issue. She could simply remain in Missoula Mills until a driver became available or Fang could join her. However, time was of the essence on this trip. She did not like taking things like the vagaries of weather, the cooperation of hostile Indians, or the perfect operation of her coach and team to reach Kalispell before the injunction expired for granted. Harriet was also annoyed that she had put herself into this situation by becoming distracted before leaving San Francisco and getting the telegram off to Mr. Chaffee late. She had failed to leave time for him to reply as she normally did. Now, she would have to take a chance on a stranger to help drive her team, if there was one available.
"Mr. Chaffee, it is really quite urgent that I secure the services of a driver immediately," Harriet said, her voice firm although she knew that the man could not force a driver to materialize.
"Well, I don't know, ma'am," Chaffee drawled, "I wouldn't want to send you north with just anyone. His gentle brown eyes brightened, "Wait! I might just know a fella that would be available and would not...uh...take advantage of you." He reached into the pocket of his vest and brought out a folded napkin, "Apples for your team. I'll check and see if the man I'm thinking of would be interested."
"Thank you, Mr. Chaffee," Harriet said with heartfelt relief in her voice. She placed her attaché case and carry-all next to the table where Josephine and her birds were seated. She turned and headed into the barn with light and graceful steps, calling the names of her horses with an almost-girlish voice, "Manny, Traveler, Flint, Dancer!" She was answered by various sounds from the horses as they recognized her voice.
Arthur Chaffee walked around to the side door entrance where the employee break room was. The man he was looking for was not technically an employee of the livery stable, none of the drivers were, but he had a habit of dropping in to check for work. As he'd hoped, he was there. "Mr. Stahl, may I speak with you?"
Surprised at the voice from the side door Stahl turned around, interrupting his talk with one of the employees from the stable. "Of course, Mr. Chaffee," he replied walking up to the man, so they could have a proper conversation. "What can I do for you?"
Chaffee led Stahl out to the stable and down the breezeway to where Harriet stood by her horses' stalls, doling out bits of apple to each. Four pairs of equine eyes and one pair of human eyes turned to survey the newcomers. "Miss H.G. Mercer, this is Mr. Adalwin Stahl. It might be he'd be interested in helping you out, ma'am."
"Thank you, Mr. Chaffee," Harriet said, smiling at the older gentleman. "If you would have my coach wheeled out, I'll harness the horses myself."
As Arthur Chaffee headed off to make sure the coach was ready, Harriet turned her eyes to the gentleman that had accompanied the livery's owner. He was a tall man with blond hair worn slightly long and clear green eyes. She saw nothing that made her immediately uneasy. Harriet used her gut reaction as a barometer when evaluating people, but not as the only gauge. More times than not, however, her instinctive reaction had led her to turn down a client only to learn that they had been dishonest in representing themselves to her. Of course, her internal barometer was not always accurate.
"Mr. Stahl," Harriet greeted the gentleman and offered her hand. "I find that I am in need of a relief driver for the journey to Kalispell." She smiled slightly, "I tend to trust Mr. Chaffee's recommendations."
There were several things that Stahl noticed when Mr. Chaffee introduced him to Fräulein H.G. Mercer. The first was, of course, her appearance and a Lady of her good looks would have stood out anywhere. But she had such a well-kept, well-groomed appearance like she was just going to visit a fellow Lady, that certainly was a contrast to her surroundings. Without even noticing Stahl had straightened up, falling into the straight-backed formal stance that had become ingrained in the past. "Miss Mercer, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance," he responded to the introduction. The second observation of Ms. Mercer came once she spoke, and her words and carriage made it clear she was a woman of education.
Mr. Chaffee had already headed off to bring out the carriage, so no explanations of the nature of the journey or where this Kalispell indeed might be found were forthcoming. Both had become secondary concerns though, no matter where this Kalispell was, even if it was right on the other side of the continent, denying a Lady the requested assistance was one rudeness Stahl hoped he'd never commit, no matter what else life still held in store for him. "I am quite honored by Mr. Chaffee's trust," he replied, deciding not to wonder what in the world the man based said trust. "I was indeed looking for a company to continue my own journey, so I would gladly accept your offer to be your secondary carter on that tour."
"I have business in Kalispell," Harriet went on to explain, taking note of his accent which, she guessed, placed him from somewhere within the German Empire. She was not good enough with the accents of Europe to narrow it down further than that. "Can you handle a coach and four," she waved a small, gloved hand at her four Gypsy horses.
"A coach and four are no problem," Stahl replied honestly, his eyes turning to the four horses. They were lighter than those he knew from supply wagons and other wagon trains, agiler too. "Tinkers," the observation was made only for himself as he studied them for a moment. "Do you wish me to harness them?" He asked, trying to word it in a way that made clear he did not doubt her own abilities, but kept the politeness that was to offer to take such a task from the hands of a Lady. She also might want to know how well he could handle those four.
Harriet smiled, "Not that I do not trust Mr. Chaffee. He and his establishment do an outstanding job of taking care of the boys." She rubbed the snip of white on Flint's nose as she spoke, "But, for my peace of mind, I like to harness them myself the first time out. It allows me to inspect them and their rig." Reaching up to the peg that held the halters and lead lines, she added, "I would be most appreciative of the help, Mr. Stahl. Will forty dollars for the week be sufficient for your time? Kalispell is one hundred twenty miles north, normally a two or three-day journey for a well-sprung team."
"Your offer is more than sufficient, Ma'am," Stahl replied, meaning it. Her words gave him a first sense where the journey would lead them. Without further ado, he moved to assist her as she harnessed the horses.
To be continued in Part 2...