Turn of the Wheel (Part 5)
The Long Road Home
Time & Location: Missoula to Kalispell Trail
Tags & OOCs: Early July, 1875
Jess reined Lakota to a stop at the top of the rise to wait for Quentin and the carriage to catch up with him. He had been primarily riding scout while Quentin rode alongside the carriage as the guard. His eyes continually scanned the landscape, drinking in its beauty from the gently undulating land around him to the rugged magnificence of the Rocky Mountains. Across the clearing from the surprisingly well-maintained road, a small herd of elk grazed within a safe distance of the treeline. They were in no danger. It would be wasteful to kill one of the animals as the meat could not possibly be consumed nor preserved for the remainder of their journey. Besides, another surprise was Harriet Mercer's culinary abilities with a campfire. She had managed to turn simple beans and bacon with a pan cornbread into a passable chili.
They had left Missoula before noon of the previous day and made good progress on the road. It helped that the big Vanners that pulled Harriet's coach could maintain a brisk trot without strain. Even with breaks for those traveling in the vehicle to stretch their legs and for Harriet and Stahl to change out driving duties, they were going to be in Kalispell well ahead of the court date. They had camped at one of the way stations the night before and nooned at Happy's Midway Inn, the only true relay station between Missoula Mills and Kalispell. If there was no trouble, Jess estimated they would reach the south end of Flathead Lake the next day. He and Quentin agreed that it would be prudent to avoid the very rough and rather dangerous trading town of Poison that sat on the lake's southernmost shore. If they really pushed, they might even make it into Kalispell late the next day.
It was hot, but there was a strong wind coming off the mountains that made things bearable. Jess stood in his stirrups so he could pull a bandana from the back pocket of his jeans. Unhooking his canteen, he poured a little water on the cloth, removed his hat and used it to wipe his face. He wrung the cloth out, allowing the water to fall into his hair before he replaced his black Stetson. The carriage was now in sight so he gigged Lakota and moved him off to the side of the road where the horse could pick at the grass while they waited. Moving just those few feet gave him a different line of sight allowing him to spot a dark shape next to an outcropping of rock he couldn't identify at that distance. Jess grumbled mentally. He'd left his field glasses rolled up in his bedroll that was stored in the boot of the carriage. He'd meant to return them to his saddlebags but had forgotten.
Harriet could see against the glare of Montana's blazing afternoon sun that Jess had reined in his horse at the top of the next rise. She had divided her time between driving, riding in the driver's box while Stahl drove, and riding inside the carriage to keep Josephine company although that was more courtesy on her part as her sister mostly ignored her. It had been late when they stopped to make camp the night before, and everyone was exhausted. The conversation had been stilted and limited to what was needed to get camp setup and get them fed. They had not even felt inclined to talk about that morning's events, the shooting in the stable yard. In fact, Harriet found that she really did not want to think overmuch about the incident and the part she had played in it.
Jess had stopped again at the ridge, waiting for them to catch up. Stahl squinted against the bright light of the sun to see if their scout gave any indications of trouble ahead. There was no such sign, at least none that he could read, which was not saying much. He had known the entire traveling company for less than two days. There had not been many words after they had left Missoula, leaving the incident behind there. Stahl sometimes admired the ability of people here to simply let things go. No questions, no explanations asked, no debates - simply going on with the life as it was. Maybe that was what made them free. He liked that thought.
Driving had been an easy duty, Ms. Mercer's horses were a good team, and four-in-hand driving was not much different here than elsewhere. Only the grounds took more watching, as did their surroundings. Jess had been scouting ahead while Quentin rode beside the carriage. When Ms. Mercer had been driving, Stahl had taken Wilhelm and ridden either to the other side or behind. Until now their journey had been uneventful.
One hand held a fan while the other held a copy of Wuthering Heights. Jo loved to read, even now despite the bumps and jarring of the carriage. She had a few other novels in her case as well as some needlepoint, though that was better left for in the evening once they stopped to camp. She'd grown quite frustrated quite quickly the day before after jamming the needle into her finger more than a few times. While she didn't state it out loud, she did appreciate the time Harriet spent inside the carriage. She was honestly still in a bit of shock over her sister's actions the day before. Jo had questions, but she didn't know where to start or how to ask.
The birdcage was nestled securely at her feet, in the shade which she hoped was even just a little cooler for her feathered companions. This heat was horrendous, and she sighed, fanning herself as she turned a page in her book.
Quentin sat his horse, reins loose in one hand as Paladin ambled along, easily keeping up with the wagon with a walking pace beside the wagon. He reached and tugged his loose bandana from a pocket and wiped his neck and face. The heat was amazing as always this time of year. After their little skirmish in town, the group had been trying to be extra alert, but the heat and the monotony of the trail could dull the sharpest senses. The thought of not being alert hit Cantrell, and he raised his head, seeing Jess at the top of a rise near the road. He was sitting still and looking off the other side. Cantrell sat up and spurred, sending Paladin loping along the flat ground, then up the small hill toward where Jess sat. He slowed and reined in beside the younger man. Cantrell reached back and undid one saddle bag, tugging out his field glasses. "You see something?"
"Not sure," Jess replied, feeling Lakota sidle a bit toward Paladin. He'd heard Quentin cantering up behind him, but had become accustomed to the older man's coming and going as he took Jess's empty canteens to refill and brought him fresh ones or a bit of jerky to nibble on. Overall, they had settled into a comfortable working relationship on the trail. Lakota and Paladin seemed to take their queues from their riders, usually merely touching their noses and inhaling one another's scent to reaffirm a friendly arrival and not something that would eat them.
Jess pointed diagonally off to his right toward the farthest of the two substantial rock outcroppings. The heat made the image shimmer, and he narrowed his eyes, "Something...over there maybe?"
Cantrell pulled out the sunshades on the ends of his field glasses and raised them to his eyes. His finger turned the focus wheel a few times. "Yeah...there's something...hard to make out...wait..." Cantrell lowered the glasses and looked at Jess. "...I think I saw a broken wagon wheel..."
Feeling a cold lump forming in the pit of his stomach, Jess held his hand out for the field glasses. Even after Quentin handed the to him, he hesitated to raise them to his eyes. In his heart, Jess knew what he was going to see. Finally, feeling Quentin's scrutiny, he raised the glasses to his eyes, triangulating in on the rock outcropping in the near distance. Jess took a sharp, deep breath. "It's the wagon," he told Cantrell as he swung his leg over the saddle and dropped to the ground. He handed the field glasses back to his friend as well as Lakota's lead line.
Jess prowled the edge of the road, soon finding what he needed in the form of a thin branch from a tree. He quickly stripped it of its dead leaves and tested it against the long grass. Satisfied that it would do what he needed it to do, he signaled Quentin to follow him. Jess walked along the verge of the road for several feet before spotting the signs that someone else had ridden off the road into the meadow. By itself, that meant very little. Many travelers used the rocks as landmarks and campsites. But what he had spotted was the faint impressions of wider than normal wheels. A fairly heavily laden wagon had left the road and made a diagonal route toward the larger of the two rock formations. Jess used the stick to push aside the grass, letting him see the ground. Periodically, he'd stoop to pick up objects, wrap them in his spare bandana and tuck them into the pocket of his vest.
Cantrell let his right hand drop and pull his Schofield from its holster. He let the pistol rest across his lap while he nudged Paladin into a slow amble to follow Jess and lead Lakota. His eyes lifted up past Jess to watch the nearby area warily as they moved slowly. "You sure you want to do this right now, Jess?"
Jess kneeled to pick up several items hidden by the grass. He handed them up to Quentin; several shell casings, an arrow head, and two broken arrows. "I have to, Quentin. I have to know." His eyes begged for understanding before he turned to continue along the unseen trail. Although he continued to occasionally stop and pick up items strewn on the ground, he picked up the pace.
The carriage crested the rise and came to a stop. Harriet had noted that Jess and Quentin were looking at something in the distance with the aid of field glasses. She now noted that they had angled off the road a few yards below the summit of the ridge and were making slow progress toward a large rock formation. Curious, she pulled her field glasses from the leather pouch that hung just under the driver's seat. The blackened hulk of a wagon leaped into focus, making Harriet gasp in consternation. "Oh, good Lord no!" She leaned forward, taking in deep cleansing gulps of air to keep the morning's meal from leaving her stomach. "Mr. Stahl, we need to follow them, carefully."
Stahl squinted, but he could not see clearly what had startled Ms. Mercer. He followed her order to get moving again, but only slowly. Whatever it was, something was not right ahead, and they lacked a clear signal from their scouts. As the carriage began to move again, Stahl cast a short look at the Lady beside him. Her exclamation made it clear that whatever was ahead was terrible. In light of how calm she had been during the attack on them, it had to be all the more nasty to get such a reaction from her. "How bad is it?" he asked softly, eyes never leaving the terrain the carriage slowly moved toward.
Harriet glanced at Adalwin while she considered how much she could say without betraying client-attorney privilege. Finally, she gestured toward the dark image that lay close to the rock formation they were slowly approaching, "If that is what I think it is, it is the reason my clients and I are journeying to Kalispell. I apologize for being so vague, but there are things they will have to reveal. As their attorney, I cannot."
Her words cast an entirely new light on the reasons for her journey, he had not asked for her reasons to travel when they met, it had not been necessary. Strange though it might be to see a woman in a legal role like this, she was bound by the law to keep her confidences. He respected that. Frowning, he studied the scene before them, the traces that were hard to miss. This looked like danger, trouble, and maybe a very dark reason for his employer to travel. "I understand," Stahl confirmed out loud that he respected Miss Mercer's position. "Nevertheless, we should be careful."
The group continued to progress toward the rocks in the same manner with Jess leading on foot, stopping to search the ground periodically. Quentin rode behind him, often pointing out objects from his vantage point that Jess missed. The carriage followed at a slight distance to make certain the team of big Vanners did not crowd the two saddle horses.
The objective gradually resolved itself into the burned out hulk of a wagon built in the style of a Conestoga prairie schooner. It was the type of vehicle bringing people to settle in the west although there were a few notable differences. The wagon was not an actual Conestoga. Those were built in the Conestoga River region of Pennsylvania's Lancaster County. This one had been designed and built by a custom craftsman in St. Louis, Missouri for a couple making the journey by wagon train to Oregon. It had been shorter in length than standard covered wagons, a bit wider, and the wheels had been wider as well. Jess knew all this because his father had purchased the wagon at auction in Sacramento. It was the one that he'd learned driving a heavy team on.
Now, the beautifully polished wooden sides and bed lay charred and blackened. The bows, large wooden or metal hoops that supported the bonnet, could be seen sticking up like the ribs of some dead animal. In this wagon, the bows were of metal and had darkened but survived the fire intact. Only a trace of the bonnet, the canvas cover that gave covered wagon its name, remained. A fragment of the canvas, darkened but not badly burnt, could be seen still attached to one of the bows where it attached to the side of the wagon. The wheels on the side nearest the rock formation, some twenty feet away, had been burned away while the ones nearest the travelers were mostly intact. This caused the wagon to lay with its bed tilted toward the rocks, away from the group that now stood a few feet away.
As if in a trance, Jess moved closer, reaching out to rest his hand on the wagon's charred side. Wind and rain had scoured away the smells of death, and he was grateful. Jess had once helped search a burned out farmhouse after an Indian raid near Laramie. The unique scents associated with the dead in that house had remained with him to this day. It was something he never wanted to experience again. The only scent remaining was the faint acrid smell of burned wood. Jess glanced down at the ground. Here, the long meadow grass had been charred to the earth leaving dirt and rock exposed where it met the stonier ground leading to the rock formation. A few yards east of the wagon and rock formation, Jess could see the rib bones of a large animal peeking through new shoots of grass.
Cantrell dismounted and let the reins go. As they dropped the horses just stood in place, grazing on the grass in front of them. He slid his pistol back into its holster and walked up beside Jess. He stood looking at the wagon silently, feeling the weight of what it represented. Absently he reached up and tugged his hat off and held it at his side and ran the fingers of his free hand through his hair as he inhaled and then let out a long shaky breath. His arm came up, and one hand rested on Jess's shoulder, giving a squeeze once.
Jess met Quentin's eyes, his own expressing gratitude for the older man's understanding. He hoped that Cantrell knew that he felt the same. They shared more than the trail north. The two men shared the pain of having lost those they loved. Jess frowned and pointed to the bones in the grass, "One of the horses." No doubt he would find scraps of hide amongst the skeletal remains, but he was in no hurry to inspect the carcass. Predators and carrion eaters would have picked it clean. Finding evidence of whether the animal had been an incidental casualty of the attack on the wagon would be next to impossible. Instead, he pointed past the wagon to the outcropping of massive boulders and spires of rock.
"People call this formation the Devil's Watchtower. The region's Indians have many names for it. The one over there," Jess pointed to the south formation, "is called Wadi's Well because of the spring. It's long been considered a place of peace, a sanctuary." He rested one black-gloved hand on the wagon, "Chance was trying to reach the Watchtower. It's defensible. There's a narrow entrance where the rocks have tumbled together, no way in from the back, top or sides. One or two people can defend against a large party. Most Indians in the region avoid it, believing the nooks and caves to harbor evil spirits. Tribal names vary, but all have one thing in common, they refer to monsters or evil creatures that live in the dark places. It's bad medicine, bad luck." Something caught his attention, and he dug at an item embedded in the wagon's frame managing to pry loose yet another arrowhead for their growing collection.
Harriet dropped to the ground from the driver's box, pausing to dust off the seat of her britches before approaching the wagon, stopping not far from where Jess stood. He'd stopped speaking and stood with one hand resting on the wagon and his head slightly bowed. He was so still that it seemed as if he were not breathing. Her misty gray eyes darkened slightly. She might be a hard and cold business woman, but she was not cruel by nature. Harriet instinctively knew that the younger man would not welcome her touch. Against all expectations, she understood that. He might have made a connection to Quentin Cantrell, but he was a long way from being comfortable with the rest of them. After giving Jess a few more moments, she asked, "What are you searching for, Mr. Harper?"
Jess glanced back at Quentin and then at Harriet, noting that her crisp, cold voice had softened marginally. He gestured at the wagon and the ground around it, "Evidence. Something isn't right, doesn't make sense..." his voice trailed off making it clear that he knew something wasn't right about the deaths of his family, but he wasn't sure what didn't fit.
Nodding, Harriet pulled the bandana from around her throat. She was an attorney. The concept of evidence was something she understood. Leaving Jess to look for the more obscure things that only a man raised to this life would see, she began looking for more obvious bits and pieces.
Quentin began to walk around the wagon and the area nearby. Occasionally his foot would scuff on the ground. Every so often he would kneel, and his fingers would scrape at the ground. After several minutes he stood and looked in his hand at a pile of various objects. He placed the hat back on his head so his free hand could push and sort through the things in his palm. Finally, he looked up. "Jess...are the Indians who live around here well off?...I mean money wise?"
Jess shook his head, "Financially, no. They have it a little better regarding feeding themselves because they never relied as heavily on the buffalo. Some of the nations were also willing to learn agriculture as white men settled the area. In general, they're more willing to barter and trade with us for what they need."
Cantrell nodded. "That's about what I figured...I'm beginning to think something's wrong with this picture."
Stahl had remained on the driver's box, at first because it was unclear if they intended to stop for longer and then because the elevated position gave him something of a good look at the surroundings. When he saw Miss Mercer take the bandana to make ready to take a closer look at the carnage, he was very much tempted to give the two ruffians a sharp bark to not leave a Lady to wander the site on her own. He could not just go with her, it would leave the carriage and the passenger unattended. The only thing stopping him from barking something very much akin to an order toward Harper was the man's countenance, the way he stood, walked...the way he looked at this place. This was not shock. If a man living like this could still be shocked by the random violence, this was closer to home, personal in some manner. Be it because he knew the place and region, or maybe he knew the people. His wish to look for evidence and was traveling with an attorney only added to the picture. Something had happened here. He whistled softly for Wilhelm. The horse came trotting along, stopping beside the carriage.
Leaving the drivers box only for the short moment he needed to get the pistol from where he had stored it, Stahl was swiftly back in his place. The weapon had come to him in his first year in the new world and he hardly ever used it, but it was more familiar than the rifles he had encountered here. He loaded the weapon, keeping it ready, as he kept an eye on Miss Mercer and her search. If someone had remained behind or had come to plunder what was left, this place was still dangerous.
Harriet's search yielded several large scuffed stones and more shell casings. She had kept an eye on Jess and Quentin, watching while they both circled the wagon. Like her, neither seemed inclined to search its bed although the remains of those killed had long since been removed. Her eyes were drawn past the wagon to the rock formation towering behind it. She had not studied geology in college, but she could tell it had taken terrific earth-born forces to leave the rock formations that dotted the meadow. Harriet imagined she felt a cold wind spiral out from the rocks behind the fallen wagon as if something had expelled its icy breath. The rock formation that Jess called the Devil's Watchtower consisted of a wide swath of giant jumbled boulders. Rising behind them were taller, solid rocks, some worn into spiral shapes and narrow spires. A path led into the rocks, but it was shadowed, darkened by the massive stone monoliths that loomed over it. It was nowhere that Harriet wanted to walk, but even her unpracticed eyes could see that if someone made it into the interior, it would be a defensible position. In all her journeys back and forth, Harriet had never stopped to camp at the Well or near this formation.
Shaking herself back to reality, Harriet walked over to stand near Jess and Quentin. She opened the bandana to reveal her collection of rocks and shell casings. Jess reached out and picked up one of the larger, flattish stones. He traced one gloved finger over the couple of streaks of white that crossed its surface. The rains had obliterated most of the tracks, but he'd still found a few.
"Shod hooves," Jess stated. "Most of the tracks were lost due to weather, but I've seen a lot of rocks scuffed like this and the harder ground retained a track or two. Indians don't shoe their ponies."
Quentin looked at some of the items in her hand and then held his own up. "There are a lot of empty casings around here. Far more than some Indians with rifles would leave. They shoot to hit a target, not to keep someone's head down..." He then fished out two casings from the group in his palm. "...and I have never seen an Indian who could afford or would even want to use a revolver."
Stahl had observed their search form his vantage point, though his main focus had been on Ms. Mercer most of the time. Now that Quentin spoke, he frowned. "Who said that it was an Indian attack?" he asked. Ms. Mercer's words If this is what I fear had indicated someone had known of this attack or told of it. Not all things that were said to have happened to men who have died were what actually happened, Stahl had seen a few of these things in war.
Harriet glanced at Stahl, taking a moment to calculate how much she could say without betraying confidentiality. Sadly, she concluded that what she could divulge would likely leave everyone more confused. Keep it simple, she told herself. "The report from the military that investigated the incident concluded it was an Indian attack. Since the army concluded it was Indians, it fell to their jurisdiction. Kalispell's town marshal was not allowed much leeway to investigate."
Her words made Stahl's eyes stray over the field again. Soldiers here should have noticed what Quentin was pointing out, should they? Or had there been a reason not say all there was about what had happened here? In a short blink of an eye, Stahl did not see the rock formation or the burned out wagon remains anymore, but again saw that sun-burned railway station in France and the haggard, drained face of a young soldier. Whispered, feverish words that he was later told, he better never had heard. "Barring gross incompetence on the side of their officers, that leaves either Indians too well armed or asks for a reason why the army would not say what really happened here," he said slowly. "Could the people of the wagons have had someone with them? A criminal or other that the soldiers were after?"
Harriet shook her head and reached out to lay a slender, leather gloved hand on the wagon's side boards, "No. The people traveling in this wagon were completely innocent and traveled only with the innocent."
Alright, they'd stopped once again, only this time, everyone but Jo seemed incredibly interested in something outside. Granted, there wasn't much outside to look at so the younger blond couldn't help but wonder just what held their fascination as it did. Not to mention, they'd been traveling for a few hours, and she could most definitely use a break to stretch.
After making sure the birds were settled, Jo carefully stepped out of the carriage, blinking against the brightness of the sun, which seemed to glare down upon the earth as if it were angry with it. "What's going on?" She asked, watching the others walk around, examining things carefully, even picking them up. She didn't miss the burnt out husk of a wagon, but weren't those fairly commonplace out here? Harriet clearly hadn't broken her lawyer-client privileges in telling her anything about her ties to the two men they'd met on the train. However, Jo wasn't stupid. She knew something was going on. Harriet had known their names, if not their faces before they'd left San Francisco.
Harriet took Josephine's arm and gently tugged her a short distance away from where Quentin and Jess were still looking for anything out of place amongst the wreckage. Truthfully, she welcomed not having to look at the burned husk of what had once been something a family enjoyed. Her heart ached for the loss, but she would have to grieve in private until and unless her clients chose to share the reasons for their sad journey home. "This is connected to my clients so I cannot tell you anything right now," Harriet told her sister. "They are looking for evidence to support what they have been told happened."
Jo allowed her sister to guide them away from the wreckage, turning green eyes onto the older Mercer woman. When Harriet stated that it was confidential, she nodded, glancing back at the two men searching through the dirt and vegetation. This entire experience had been rather surreal as it was, so she turned back to her sister and nodded. Jo knew better than to press for answers when it came to Harriet's work and her clients. "I understand. I would offer to help look, but I would not know what to look for. Do you want me to wait in the carriage?"
"No, walk around a bit and stretch your legs. Just don't wander out of sight. We will be breaking this up soon," Harriet told her, offering a bit of a smile and even a reassuring pat on her sister's arm.
After another half hour, Jess glanced up at the sun and suggested they make camp at the Wadi's Well rock formation. They left Quentin still looking over the wreckage and made their way across the rock strewn meadow to the less formidable outcropping.