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Around the Campfire (Part 1)

Posted on Wed Sep 6th, 2017 @ 5:49pm by Jess Harper & H.G. Mercer & Quentin Cantrell & Josephine Mercer & Adalwin Stahl

Episode: The Long Road Home
Location: Wadi's Well, Kalispell Trail, Montana
Timeline: Early July 1875

By the time Jess returned with four decent sized grouse, the camp was well in hand. In anticipation that his hunt would be successful, Harriet had found and sharpened several sticks to use as skewers. It made Jess glad that he'd taken the time to pluck and dress the birds by a small stream near where he'd shot them. He had also been fortunate enough to find several of their nests which he'd raided for eggs. There'd be enough to scramble and have for breakfast in the morning. Harriet had pounced on the birds when Jess arrived, lamenting in her usual prosaic tones about not having her cooking herbs and spices with her. Quentin had graciously raided his dwindling supplies and offered them up to help enhance their dinner.

While Harriet and Josephine took on the chore of preparing dinner and Stahl and Quentin put the finishing touches on their camp, Jess had made his way through the rocks to the spring to wash up. The well itself was tucked back into a grotto formed by several boulders that had broken away from the main rock formation due to erosion. Three or four, depending on the time of year, natural artesian springs bubbled up from the rocks and formed tiny rivulets that trickled and cascaded into a larger pool. This pool also had its primary source deep underground, but whereas the streams that fed into it were icy cold, the pool was formed by hot springs. If the rains had been heavy, the pool would often overflow, but usually, it simply disappeared back into the earth from whence it had sprung.

Jess had laid aside his saddlebags, taking out soap, a large cloth to dry off with and his shaving kit. After removing his shirt, he bathed as thoroughly as possible, enjoying the hot water from the pool. After a few moments of thought, he'd shed his boots, hanging up a sock on the bushes as a warning he was bathing, pulled off his gun belt and jeans and immersed himself in the pool. By necessity, as he did not want to shock his traveling companions, he made fast work of his ablutions. After shaving and dressing, Jess had stopped by the picket line to check on the horses, fill and hang their feed bags.

The area where they'd chosen to make the main camp seemed to be a popular one with travelers. Logs had been sanded down and left to form a square around a fire pit. The smell of the roasting grouse made Jess's mouth water as he settled on the end of one of the logs, dropping his saddlebags next to him. He reached for the nearest coffee pot, flipping the lid up to make sure it was coffee and not water set to boil for the tea that Harriet and Quentin preferred. He poured a cup, returned the pot to the grate, and slid off the log to sit on the thick meadow grass, using the log as a backrest.

Harriet had made use of the spring. After helping Stahl carry buckets of water for the horses, she had excused herself and cleaned up, finishing in time to help set up the rest of the camp. By the time they had everything situated with pots of water on for coffee and tea, Jess had returned with the grouse, and several eggs packed carefully into the game bag slung over his shoulder. Forgetting her hostility, Harriet had relieved him of the game birds, exclaiming at the fact he'd already dressed them out for cooking. She'd even been quite cheerful and grateful when Quentin offered his treasure trove of cooking spices.

Quentin had finally walked back after spending a short time alone at the wagon. He was very quiet as everyone worked on setting up the camp. Quentin took his turn cleaning up in the spring and ended up back at the camp. He had his saddle resting on the ground, blanket resting on the side as a pillow. Cantrell rested his rifle on the saddle close at hand and the Schofield in its holster beside the rifle. Cantrell still wore the Bird's Head Colt in its shoulder rig as he sat cross legged on the ground, poking through the small mound of shell casings from the wagon site.

Stahl had made himself useful with the small tasks around the camp after the horses were cared for, eventually turning back to H.G. to offer assistance with whatever Jess had brought from his hunting trip.

Another night camping outside, oh, how Jo already missed her bed back at home in California. She was, however, grateful for not having to sleep on the actual ground, so she kept any complaints to herself. When Harriet knocked on the carriage, telling her that they'd stopped for the night, Jo took the birds' cage and made her way to the rock formation, easily locating the little grotto that Harriet told her about. Her feathered companions' comfort came before her own right now. Jo took some time to clean out the bottom of the cage, changing out the cloth that protected the wood against droppings and cracked seed shells. She also washed out their food and water dishes, wishing she could let them out of the cage for a few minutes so they could spread their wings. But she could not take the risk of one of them deciding to fly off or another predator, a larger one, would decide they looked like a nice meal.

After taking a few moments to freshen herself up, Jo with birds in tow returned to the campsite where she tucked the cage neatly back on the floor of the carriage. "Anything I can help with?" She asked, knowing that she wasn't much help when it came to making camp, but she'd do what she could.

With Stahl's help and the addition of the herbs and spices that Mr. Cantrell provided, Harriet had gotten the game birds Jess had brought them seared in the flames of the campfire and put on spits for slow cooking. She smiled when the younger woman offered her help, "I have set Adalwin to helping turn the spits, so our dinner does not burn. We have a few potatoes left from what Mr. Harper and Mr. Cantrell purchased in Missoula. Would you help me peel them?"

With everyone pitching in, dinner was soon ready to be served. Along with the perfectly seared and fire-roasted grouse, the campers had rosemary-dill boiled potatoes and cold sweet-tasting water from the artesian spring. For the first few minutes after the meal was served, the weary travelers ate in silence. However, Harriet took note of the items Harper and Cantrell had gathered and laid out on the log between them. The copse of trees where they now sat obscured the Devil's Watchtower and the wagon that lay at its foot.

Harriet chewed and swallowed a bite of meat. She did not normally care for the taste of game birds, preferring chicken and turkey to duck or pheasant, but the grouse tasted wonderful. It was a welcome change to the usual fare of bacon and beans. Turning her twilight colored eyes on Harper and Cantrell, she said, "While it is not likely there will be more trouble this close to Kalispell, it could happen. Mr. Harper, Mr. Cantrell, I'd like to request your leave to state the reasons for our journey to Kalispell. I will not betray client-attorney privilege without your permission, but this actually could become a matter of life and death."

Jess had finished his meal and was grateful for that since Harriet's words caused a knot to form in his stomach. He'd set his plate aside and had been running his fingers over one of the arrowheads he'd dug out of the burned wagon's frame. "I don't have a problem with it, ma'am. After all, everyone's gonna learn about it all sooner or later anyway. Not many secrets in Kalispell. So if Quentin doesn't object, I surely don't."

Cantrell looked up from taking a bite of his dinner. He thought for a moment and then shrugged. "I don't see why not...everyone here is in the same boat now and in just as much danger..." He took another bite and looked around at the group, "...Ignorance never stopped a bullet."

Taking a deep breath, Harriet settled into attorney mode, "First, what is said here is strictly confidential. While some of it will be or will become public knowledge once we reach Kalispell, I ask that no one confirm or deny anything they hear, are told, or are asked." She paused until Josephine and Stahl had nodded their understanding. "Please be patient as I have to give you some history to explain the current circumstances."

"In 1862, Mr. Cantrell's sister, Regina Cantrell, married Mr. Chance Harper, Jess Harper's older brother. That is how and why Mr. Cantrell and Mr. Harper are connected to one another in all of this. In 1868, Mr. John Caleb Harper and Mrs. Isadora Harper, Chance and Jess's parents, died within a few months of one another leaving all of their business assets and a 500,000-acre ranch to their eldest son. Shortly after that, Mr. Chance Harper requested my services for an in-depth financial audit of all Harper assets. I found issues. I also found that their current attorney was also, under-the-table, working for the Steelgrave family who had vowed to eventually ruin the Harpers. Chance and Regina fired Mr. Carson Tyndall forthwith and retained my services as their attorney-of-record."

Harriet paused to clear the hitch in her throat. It was hard talking about Chance and Regina in the past tense. Until she began the story, she had not realized how hard it would be. "In addition to their regular legal work, Chance asked me to undertake to have the Harper Legacy Trust which entailed the ranch and all assets to the eldest son only legally dissolved. It took some time, but I was able to eradicate the trust leaving Chance and Regina free to create wills leaving the ranch and businesses to whomever they wished, which they did. Their wills leave the custody of any surviving minor children to Mr. Jess Harper. He was also to inherit one-half of Lost Lake Ranch. Mr. Cantrell was named as guardian should Mr. Harper be unable or unwilling to discharge that duty. He was also slated to inherit an interest in the various businesses."

"On June 2nd of this year, on their way home from Missoula, Chance, Regina, and their two oldest children, Beth and Grant were killed in what was reported to be an attack by renegade Indians. Their youngest son managed to hide in the Watchtower and was found by a stagecoach en route to Kalispell the following day. Their youngest daughter was not with them as she had a bad cold. Cody Harper has been unable to clearly articulate the events. He is only five years old." Harriet's voice had taken on a cold edge of anger, not only for the loss of her friends but for the fact that someone had been willing to murder children and she strongly suspected that it was not an Indian attack.

"It took some time for the notice of their deaths to reach me as I was on business back east. In the meantime, however, Mr. Cantrell was contacted and arrived in Kalispell to learn that Mr. Carson Tyndall was challenging the wills and bringing suit for the custody of the twins. The judge was willing to grant an injunction on the law suit and custody hearing for thirty days, allowing Mr. Cantrell time to locate Mr. Jess Harper and bring him back to Kalispell," Harriet paused to sip her tea and then continued. "Due to being delayed by two attempts on their lives, Mr. Harper and Mr. Cantrell traveled to Sacramento where they could get a train to Missoula. We encountered them there. I should also add that I took the precaution of sending my business associate, Alistair Fang, ahead of us to Kalispell to make sure the judge does not meet with any accidents."

~ To be Continued in Around the Campfire (Part 2) ~


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