Turn of the Wheel (Part 2)
The Long Road Home
Location: Chaffee Livery Stable, Missoula, Montana
Timeline: Early July 1875
Getting a meal and taking care of their personal errands, including stopping in at a telegraph office to send an alert the Hales they were in Missoula, took Jess and Quentin the better part of two hours. During their time out and about Missoula Mills, Jess could not rid himself of the feeling that they were being watched, maybe even followed. However, even utilizing all his skills, he could not detect anyone. There were just too many people moving around him, and he didn't like the feeling that someone could get the drop on them. By the time they returned to the livery stable, Jess was ready to get as far from Missoula as possible. It didn't help that this place held bad memories for the cowboy.
The yard at Chaffee's was less hectic. It promised to be a hot day, so most of the work was being done inside the big barns. Jess saw that Paladin and Lakota standing loose in the paddock in the shade of the front wall. Their saddles hung on the fence rails near the shed with the bridles hooked over the saddle horns. It looked as if someone had polished the tack even though it had been done by the boy on the train.
From the yard's entry, Jess could see the rear of a coach parked in the breezeway. He uttered a low whistle even though he could only see the vehicle's boot and pointed, nudging Quentin to walk with him and inspect the conveyance. Both men dropped their saddlebags and sacks near the coach's boot and walked down either side of the vehicle.
When H.G. Mercer stated that she would make the rest of the journey in her private coach, Jess had envisioned your basic doctor's type buggy and had been ready to dig in his heels and inform the woman it was not suitable for such a journey. Even though Harriet had told them she was an indifferent horsewoman, Jess knew it would be better to ride the remainder of the distance than constantly deal with an unsuitable carriage and the breakdowns that would be inevitable.
Harriet Mercer's coach was definitely not in the flimsy carriage or buggy category. Jess made his way down one side, trailing his fingers along the glossy paintwork. He paused to look beneath the coach, noting with relief that the throughbraces were wide and heavy-duty. They would have supported a much bigger coach. In overall appearance and layout, the carriage looked like a scaled down stage coach. It was painted a glossy black with silver scrollwork adorning the windows and doors. It looked as if it would comfortably seat four inside with room for a driver and guard or groom on the box. There appeared to be a fold-down cover for the driver as well that could be raised to protect him from inclement weather. Jess also noted that the miniature stage coach had actual glass windows with knobs that suggested they could be opened and closed. He could also see curtains had been hung inside. The upholstered leather seat on the driver's box looked thick and comfortable. His estimation of Harriet Mercer as a woman of means increased.
As he and Quentin completed their inspection of the coach, ending up in the breezeway between the two sides of the main barn, Jess stopped dead still, staring at the team of four horses. The breed had many names but were essentially small draft horses that were most commonly seen pulling tinker's wagons. He'd seen a couple of them in the past, but they had not held a candle to the four animals hitched to the coach. Each horse stood at least sixteen hands and weighed in the neighborhood of thirteen or fourteen hundred pounds. The two wheel horses were the heavier of the four since their job was to help stabilize and assist in braking the coach. All four were black except for white facial markings and had the silky feathering below the knee that was typical of the breed. Proudly arched necks flowed into broad, strong backs ending in powerful hindquarters. Their manes flowed from their necks to their knees. Jess also noted with a mental nod of approval that the harness was well-made and clean, but lacked unnecessary ornamentation.
Harriet stood at the head of one of the two lead horses, gently smoothing his forelock with a gloved hand. She had taken the opportunity while waiting for the two men to change her clothes and was clad in a silk blouse of forest green with long belled sleeves. Over that was a short black leather vest. She had changed from her split, calf-length riding skirt into a pair of tailored riding pants that allowed for easier movement. A flat crown, round-brimmed hat of the type normally worn by the vaqueros of the south hung by its strap on her back. Jess watched her adjust a strap on the harness. He could tell she knew what she was doing with her rig.
"Mind if we store all but the essentials in the boot of your rig?" Jess asked Harriet as he ran a hand down the horse's neck.
"Certainly," Harriet agreed readily. "Keep the additional weight off your horses." She paused, seeming to consider what she was going to say next. When she spoke, however, her tone was still friendlier than it had been during the train ride. "If either of you should need a break on the trail, you may ride in the carriage. There are rings attached to the boot for tying horses."
Harriet signaled one of the grooms to take her place at the head of the lead horse. She walked to the rear of the coach, gesturing at the spacious luggage compartment attached to the rear of the coach, "There should be ample room for your supplies and gear." Harriet left Jess and Quentin to deal with stowing their gear and mounted the steps to the porch, sinking gratefully into a chair opposite Josephine. She was ready for a cup of tea. She glanced around for Mr. Stahl as she poured herself a cup of tea. When she did not immediately spot him, she assumed he was occupied getting his horse and gear ready for the trail also.
It took Jess and Quentin a few minutes to sort out what they needed to add to their saddlebags and what could go into the boot of the carriage. Neither man noticed the two shadows that slipped into the barn from the rear yard and took up positions where they could watch them.
Jess nodded his head back down the breezeway toward the corral and said to Quentin, "Guess we should saddle up and get moving. I'd like to make one of the way stations before dark." There was only one true relay station between Missoula and Kalispell that had overnight accommodations. The way stations were simply a couple of lean-to type sheds set a few yards back from the road. They'd have to spend at least one night camping on the trail.
Quentin and Jess had almost made it to the paddock gate nearest the alley entrance to the yard when a man's rough voice rang out, stopping them in their tracks.
"Harper!" The man's voice was rough and unfamiliar to Jess, but he turned slowly, seeing a tall, well-built man standing near the breezeway entrance to the tack and feed shop. He had apparently entered from the rear yard since Jess had not seen him come in as they walked toward the paddock gate. The man's hat cast his face into shadow, but Jess got the impression of rather angular features and a jutting, bearded jaw. "I was a friend of Calvin's. His best friend, in fact. Been waiting a lot of years for you to come back to these parts." The deep voice held a note of anticipation and anger in it.
Jess flashed a glance at Quentin who stood opposite him and adjacent to the rear corner of the porch. He began to edge slightly away from the paddock preferring that any stray bullets hit the wall and not the horses. At the same time, his mind was racing, this situation didn't smell right. It was too soon after their arrival, too convenient that this man knew Jess had gotten into town that morning. Instinctively, he knew it was a setup and that he'd not be able to defuse the situation with words. He discreetly reached down to ease the hammer strap off his Colt.
"I've not been that hard to find," Jess replied, his easy tone of voice belying the tension he felt. He stopped moving, wanting to keep his position, allowing Quentin a clear line of fire should he miss the target. Fortunately, the paddock fence was higher than normal, and the rails were wide. A missed shot from Calvin's best friend might hit them and not any of the occupants inside the corral.
Quentin watched the newcomer and began to move, taking a direction opposite Jess's path to make the man have to decide which one to shoot at if bullets started flying. Quentin noticed the man's attention was locked on Jess. Well, if this genius wanted to lose a gunfight because of being single minded, Cantrell was happy to oblige. A sudden movement on the opposite side, between the stable door and coach, made Quentin change his focus. Another man stepped through the gap between the coach's boot and the wall. The coach gun in his hands definitely changed the situations of this face off. Cantrell angled to face him and at least try to keep the odds even. His hand drifted down and floated near his Schofield.
Harriet had just set her tea cup down when she heard a man's rough voice call Jess's name. She spotted the man that issued the challenge standing between the livery's storefront and the rear of her coach. Almost immediately, a movement on the far side of the coach showed another man easing out of the shadows of the breezeway on the opposite side with a heavy shotgun in his hands.
Cantrell turned to deal with him or to keep the fight fair, Harriet wasn't sure which. She leaped to her feet and snagged Josephine's wrist, pulling her wide-eyed sister to her feet. "Stay behind me," she hissed at her Josephine. She moved so that Josephine was shielded on two sides by the building's walls since there was no time to get her to the building's entrance at the far end of the porch. Besides, that would put her sister in the line of fire from both men.
Jess's eyes flicked to the man that had just entered the yard carrying the coach gun but kept his focus on the other man, the one claiming to be the late Calvin Steelgrave's best friend. He'd been in enough fights with Quentin on the trail to know the man had his back. He also noted with a mental nod of approval that Harriet had dragged her sister back against the wall at the far corner of the veranda. He was still, his body angled slightly, his right hand appearing relaxed as it hovered near the butt of his six-gun. Jess rarely bothered with all of the fancy finger wriggling movements many gunfighters used unless it was very cold outside and he needed to make sure the blood was circulating good in his gun hand. Instead, he flexed his hand once, then waited, still and intent on the situation.
"I promised Mrs. Steelgrave at Cal's funeral that I'd see justice done someday. Appears that day is here." The man's voice held a sneer yet the words seemed to be uttered by rote as if he'd memorized them. Jess wondered idly how the man planned to avoid a murder charge since he did not intend to draw his gun first.
Jess was not interested in small talk, "If you're gonna draw, mister, then draw." The man's eyes flickered briefly. Obviously, Jess's response was not what he expected. Had he been told he'd be facing a hot-head, a man that always let his temper get the best of him? A man who settled all disputes with his gun?
Harriet watched the scenario unfold, her eyes darting between the newcomer from the stable to Cantrell and then to Jess and the other stranger. Her eyes had just made another circuit when she saw the small door at the far side of the front of the yard ease open. She knew that door gave access to a sidewalk that led along the alley wall and back to the main street. People often used it instead of the main yard entrance since it was safer, less chance of being trampled by horses and rigs coming and going from the barns. She prepared to call out a warning to whoever was entering by the side door to keep them from walking into the middle of a gunfight. She quickly realized that the man sliding in and silently positioning himself with his gun hand raised intended to make sure Jess Harper did not survive.
"Oh, bloody hell!" Harriet muttered. In a movement too fast to track, she reached over her left shoulder with her right hand and pulled a slender double-edged knife from a hidden sheath. The knife was not an ideal throwing knife, but it had more stopping power. She neatly flipped it and caught it by its blade, following through with a strong move, sighting her target and coordinating the throw by instinct.
The knife struck true, hitting the man's wrist and impaling it to his thigh. He screamed in agony and fired his gun into the dirt at his feet as his finger involuntarily tightened on the trigger. In the same moment, the man that had singled out Jess drew his gun. Jess's right hand flashed down to the gun in his holster. As he drew it, he stepped back with his left foot, angling his body to make it less of a target. The other man fell to the ground, a red stain blossoming on the front of his shirt. Jess's movements had been so fast and fluid, Harriet could barely follow them.
Quentin's eyes were locked on the man with the coach gun. He thought he saw a flicker in the man's eyes as he saw something over Cantrell's shoulder. Suddenly the man's eyes flew wide, and he began to swing the double barrels around. Cantrell's body twisted, left shoulder swinging forward as his right swung back, hand grasping the grip of the Schofield, the motion clearing the revolver from his holster as his knees flexed and he dropped lower. His torso rotated back, and his right hand swung up, the web of thumb cocking the hammer and bringing the pistol up, triggering a shot in a fraction of the time to realize he had done so. A dark hole appeared in the left side of the man's vest. Cantrell was worried about a reflex triggering the shotgun, so his hand kept raising, cocking the hammer a second time and firing a shot into the man's face. The impact kicked his head back, and he spun, sprawling face down on the ground with the shotgun under his body. Cantrell straightened and spun, pistol leveled and cocked a third time as he looked around the area. He saw Harriet crouching over a gunman and Jess' opponent laying lifeless on the ground. Cantrell's eyes moved across both to make sure they were safe then he continued his turn, looking around for any additional threats.
As if they had coordinated their actions ahead of time, Jess and Quentin had taken their shots. Jess glanced over at Quentin to make sure his friend was unharmed and then turned slightly to see who had screamed and fired the shot that had set everything into motion. A man lay near the side entrance to the yard, his hand impaled to his thigh by a large knife. Harriet was approaching him, another smaller knife held in her hand. That explained the scream, Jess thought approvingly.
To Be Continued in Part 3...