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Standing in the Shadows

Posted on Sun May 21st, 2017 @ 8:27pm by Jess Harper

Chapter: Shadows of the Past
Location: Cheyenne Stage Depot, Cheyenne, Wyoming
Timeline: Summer 1873

For the third day in a row, the tall man stood where he could watch the stagecoach depot without being observed himself. It wasn't easy to go unnoticed, even in the hustle and bustle of disembarking passengers, offloading luggage and freight, and changing horses. He stood a good head taller than most men in the area and was well-groomed although his attire was not out of the ordinary for the time and the place. He also exuded an easy air of command that made people tend to defer to his presence. This was not conducive to discreet observations.

The man smiled wryly, realizing that he would have never made a good spy. Likely, he would have been better served to have hired someone for this job, but there were things that he had to see for himself to make the decision and only observing the subject directly would answer the questions he needed answered. The thud of hooves on the hard-packed earth of the road and the rattle of the stagecoach itself brought the man's attention back to his surroundings, and he slid deeper into the shadows of his vantage point.

The stagecoach, a well-sprung Concord, drew to a stop amidst calls from the driver meant to soothe his tired but fractious team. He set the brake and looped the lines around the stick but remained seated on the box. The shotgun, a much younger man, surveyed the area warily. Simply having made it to the stage depot did not automatically mean there was no danger. Two well-armed men approached the front of the coach and spoke to the guard. The man in the shadows was too far away to hear what was said, but he knew they were exchanging recognition codes, a safeguard put into place after several robberies occurred at the stage line's depots and relay stations. The shotgun's body relaxed marginally, and he propped his rifle against the seat as he leaned down to take hold of a heavy metal strongbox and swing it over the side to the two waiting men. More words were exchanged, this time apparently lighter in nature because the shotgun smiled and laughed lightly.

Hostlers scurried to unhitch the six horses. The stage line had been running a six-hitch for the last several trips. The leaders were unfastened first, followed by the swings and then the big wheelers. The coach had an hour's layover for food and rest before continuing its journey to the town of Laramie.

The man in the shadows watched closely as the shotgun dropped lithely to the ground. The man that had been riding guard on the stage for the last few days was a bit shorter and leanly muscled. His features were also lean with high cheekbones, aquiline nose, and a fine-lipped mouth. Thick black hair waved back from a high-intelligent forehead, and deep-set dark blue eyes surveyed the world from a tangle of long, thick lashes. His complexion was tanned from a life outdoors but not ruddy or weathered. The guard moved easily and quickly, and the watcher knew he was also preternaturally fast when the need arose.

Suddenly, the shotgun stiffened, a frown marred his handsome features, and his right hand hovered just over the butt of the six-gun riding in the holster at his side. He turned in a slow circle, his eyes searching the shadowed doorways and alleys. The watcher remained still, glad that he was dressed in dark clothing and that the black hat he wore shielded his face and hid his bright gold hair. By now, the stage's driver had alighted and walked around to stand next to the shotgun. He spoke to the younger man who shook his head and relaxed slightly although his hand remained close to the gun. The driver walked away, and the guard reached back into the driver's box to retrieve his rifle and saddlebags before following the driver.

The routine was the same. The shotgun would head inside to wash off the trail dust and dirt and then head for the depot's cafe for coffee and a meal. This gave the watcher just enough time to move to another secure vantage point. What really mattered to him was how people reacted to the other man. That information would tell him if the decision he needed to make was a good one.

The cafe was already crowded. Unlike other towns, Cheyenne had more than one coach coming in and leaving. Passengers waiting for the next outbound and those that had just arrived occupied the tables. The cafe's decor was plain and simple, but the place was clean, and the food was plentiful and good. There was a small table behind a pony wall opposite the service counter. It had been placed there for the waitresses to use as a staging spot for coffee pots, water pitchers, and extra condiments. The waitresses, however, found it easier to use the end of the counter and the flat top of the low, half wall. The table's location provided plenty of concealment for the big blonde man from Montana. He was pleasant, always ordered one of the higher priced meals, and tipped well. No one questioned his choice of tables.

The man entered the cafe and took his usual place at a small table with his back to the wall. The staff was familiar with him, some of the passengers seemed to know him too. Likely they were frequent patrons of the stage line with business interests in the area. The bell above the door jingled, and a tall, lanky man with a badge affixed to his vest came in. He made his way to the table near the counter and dropped into the seat opposite the stage's shotgun. His melodious voice carried to where the watcher sat, "Hello, Jess. I have some dispatches for Sheriff Randall. Can you see he gets 'em?"

Jess's voice was low, deeper in tone and slightly raspy. His answer was lost amidst the clatter of dishes and conversations. Still, it turned heads, and people visibly reacted, smiling, relaxing. And that was in keeping with what the watcher had noted for the last few days. People deferred to the shotgun, not in the obsequious manner they used toward him, but because something in the guard's presence told them they should. Some of the men watched him warily, eyes often going to the worn, well-cared for gunbelt that rode low on trim hips. Others seemed to envy his quiet self-confidence and easy demeanor. The watcher smiled as a waitress filled his coffee cup. The self-confidence had been earned, but the easy-going manner covered an intense personality and quick temper. He had had personal experience with the latter. Women, old and young alike, watched him speculatively and with interest. No doubt, they were wondering if he had a girl or a wife back home.

Lunch ended. The guard stood up, picked up his rifle and saddlebags, said goodbye to the deputy and headed for the door, stopping to answer and inquiry or two on the way out. The opening of the door briefly let in the sounds from the street, then closed and Jess Harper was gone.

The watcher rose to his feet, fished in his pocket for coins to pay for his meal, and left the cafe. He faded into the crowd, following the sidewalk to the nearest telegraph office. The telegrapher handed him a sheet of paper and a pencil. He leaned against the counter, wet the tip of the pencil and began writing.

He is more than we expected. Home soon. . . Chance.

He looked up in time to see the stage clatter past, the guard sitting alert next to the driver, eyes watching everything around him. How odd it was, he thought, to be the one standing in the shadows this time.

 

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