Around the Campfire (Part 2)
The Long Road Home
Time & Location: Wadi's Well, Kalispell Trail, Montana
Tags & OOCs: Early July, 1875
Harriet's voice faded into the night. For several moments, everyone remained silent, then Jess cleared his throat, "Thanks, Miss Mercer."
"Please," Harriet waved her hand, "at this point, there is no need to stand on formalities. Call me H.G. or Harriet."
Jess offered a slightly lopsided grin, "Thank you, Harriet. Call me Jess. Easier than keepin' which Mr. Harper you're talkin' about straight." Even though she was clad in trousers, he couldn't make himself refer to her by just her initials. There was nothing masculine about her. He handed Harriet the arrowhead he had been looking at and selected another one from the items he'd collected from the meadow and around the wagon. He also handed that one to her. "Notice anything?"
Reaching to the lamp nearest her, Harriet turned up its flame. Between the campfire and the lanterns they had lit, the campsite was quite light and cheery. She studied each arrowhead in turn, then lay them side-by-side and tilted her head. Harriet was not an expert on Indian craftsmanship, but even she could see the differences. "They are both completely different?"
Jess nodded and said, "Even allowing for minor differences in workmanship, each tribe tends to have standards. The width of the base, materials, whether the edges are barbed or smooth, even the knapping tends to be similar within a tribal population. Elders teach the next generation how to do these things. The variances might be significant if the attackers were from two widely separated populations, like say the Cheyenne in eastern Montana would be distinct from the arrows knapped by the Cheyenne in western Wyoming. And, of course, the workmanship would be slightly different from tribe to tribe. There's only so many ways you can do flint-knapping."
Harriet nodded her understanding, noting with interest that although Jess retained his cowboy drawl, it had not been as pronounced as usual. "This arrowhead's base is much wider, this one is longer and thinner overall. You think they are made by members of different tribes? You suspect a combined band of Indians? Do the local tribal nations trade with one another?"
"Not generally for weapons," Jess answered. He pushed his hat back a little and sighed slightly, "I think the arrowheads were either knapped by different tribes entirely and bought or not made by Indians at all." Stretching out a hand, he snagged the coffee pot and refilled his cup, taking a long sip from it before setting the pot back on the fire grate and leaning against the log at his back. He pinned Harriet with his fierce blue eyes, "Do you suspect this Tyndall snake and the Steelgraves?"
"I dislike speculating without more evidence," Harriet said primly, staring grimly at the two arrowheads in her hand before passing them over to Adalwin. "I do think the possibility bears consideration, though." Now, Harriet turned her gaze onto Quentin. "Mr. Cantrell, you said something about the different shell casings while we were at the Watchtower? It looks as if you found some other items as well?" She gestured at what looked like broken lantern bits and a dark, oblong object that she could not see clearly.
Quentin sat back, leaning against the side of his saddle as he pointed at the pile of brass casings. "Just the quantity more than the quality. Ammunition is expensive for most Indian tribes, plus in a lot of places they can't buy any because they are Indians. This amount of used ammunition is a lot for two armed adults...Indians tend to wait for a shot because that's how they were taught to hunt. That also doesn't address why one or more of the attackers had revolvers." Cantrell then pointed at the broken lantern. "It also looks like someone used that lantern to pour the oil on the wagon before burning it. Indians aren't concerned if something catches fire during a battle, but they usually loathe to purposefully set fire to something like a wagon because there are usually a lot of useful things to take. Ammunition, food, blankets...any of that kind of thing can be looted." Cantrell then sat up and lifted the short oblong object. "And this...this is a half smoked cigar. I know neither Chance or Reggie smoked, so that leave one of the attackers..." Cantrell glanced over at Jess. "Do you know any Indians who would throw away half a cigar?"
Jess raised an eyebrow. He was both surprised at Quentin's knowledge regarding Indians and impressed with his logic regarding the items found. It substantially increased his respect for Regina's older brother. "Indians throw nothing away. They'd salvage the tobacco that had not burned and use it somehow."
He fell silent after answering Quentin's question. The next observation he had to offer was painful to say and would be painful for those who had known Chance and Regina to hear, but it had to be said. "I examined the horse's carcass, the hide had the LL bar H brand. Looks like it was shot which could've happened in the melée. Indians would not have targeted the horse and would have taken the wagon and its contents. Indians have a tremendous respect for their own dead, but not for their enemies. The dead would have been left where they fell, not dragged into the rear of the wagon and burned. Considering all of these things, nothing in the army's report makes sense."
Stahl had listened quietly, eyes on the different speakers, letting all the details sink in. "So we have two different types of arrow, suggesting either two different Indian tribes or another maker entirely. We have attackers, who were not careful with their ammunitions, something that you say Indians are always careful with, there is a half-smoked cigarette, and on top of that there is the army claiming that this was an Indian attack." He summed it up, more to sort the facts for himself, line them up and make sense of them. "Could they have been hired? The attackers I mean, get some hired guns and maybe even find one or two outcast Indians, or other of their sort, to make it look what it was meant to look like?" he asked eventually. "Because what reason would the army have to lie about this incident? And... regarding the cigarette you found, do you know for absolutely sure, that there was no one else traveling with them? Someone who might have smoked?" He understood that his companions were sure and whose feet to lay the blame for the attack, which compelled him to ask all the more.
Jess sighed and used a stick he'd been poking at the fire with to draw an abstract pattern in the dirt. Stahl had asked intelligent questions that made sense. There was just no easy answers and did any of it dovetail in with the attacks on himself and Quentin? He addressed what he felt he knew to be facts. "I only showed two of the arrowheads that I found. I have quite a collection but need time to study them more. Some might be the result of hunting parties, not the attack. Either way, there were more differences in workmanship than could be accounted for. The ammunition is really pivotal because of the revolver casings. As Quentin said, Indians don't use revolvers. Another thing, if it were an actual Indian war band, they wouldn't have had white men with 'em."
Breaking off for a moment, Jess's eyes went rather distant as he thought of the past few years. "It was never the family's practice to take someone along on the yearly run to Missoula except, on occasion, the Hales or their children. I can't say about Chance and Reggie. Haven't been home in a lot of years."
"Could someone have hired the attackers?" Harriet repeated Stahl's question, "Absolutely. The who and why will have to be determined, and that won't be easy. I am less inclined to believe the army fabricated the report but they may have taken the evidence here at face value to suit an agenda of their own. It would not be the first time that the U.S. Army had its own plans. It might even be innocent, a young and inexperienced commanding officer, for example. As far as Chance and Regina traveling with someone else - they never did except, as Jess said, for the Hales. Ezra Hale has been the ranch's foreman for thirty-odd years. I have never known either Ezra or Kate to smoke." Harriet paused and shook her head. Reaching up, she pushed strands of her hair that had escaped from its braid back from her face. "We have more questions than any way to answer them at the moment, but they needed to be asked. The Harpers' deaths may have nothing to do with the law suit and attempts to stop Jess and Quentin from reaching Kalispell."
For the most part, Jo had been quiet during dinner, which had been good despite some earlier reservations about eating a wild bird. She'd never had grouse, but it hadn't been bad. She would admit to, however, not loving the log she was sitting on. In fact, she was fairly sure there was a splinter in her backside, and no amount of shifting or wiggling would dislodge it. A lot of what Harriet had said, mostly the lawyer aspect of it, hadn't made a whole lot of sense to Jo, but then she'd never really paid too much attention when her sister had gone on with legal-sounding words. She understood enough to get the background, however, and she gave it some thought.
"This is why you are going home," Jo asked, looking at Jess as she recalled their conversation on the train in the dim sitting quarters. It was less of a question and more of a statement really. "Also, is it normal to find that many arrowheads after an attack? Regardless of the inconsistencies, you're finding here. And, please forgive me as I mean no ill, but how many Indians would it take to kill two adults and two small children?"
Jess looked slightly confused for a moment as he processed her questions, finally shaking his head, "The size of the raiding party isn't indicated by the number of arrowheads or spent shell casings found. One Indian can carry twenty or more arrows in their quiver, and in a well-planned attack, three or four men could've discharged a large amount of ammo." He gestured in the general direction of the Devil's Watchtower where the ruined wagon lay, "Both Chance and Regina were good shots. I would bet my last dollar that the two older children weren't bad either. At the very least, they could've reloaded for their parents. If the raiding party was small, Chance and Reggie could've handled them. The fact that Chance was trying to get to a defensible place suggests that he felt the odds were against them. Some of his decision was likely based on the fact they did have the children with them, but all things being equal, Chance wouldn't have run. If it were only Indians looking for plunder, he'd have handed it over. Walking to Poison might've been rough, but doable."
Harriet listened to Jess's words and his opinion of the situation. He made sense. She frowned as she considered everything she had heard and seen that day. There were many reasons why the soldiers had not come to the conclusion that the identity of the attackers was unknown. She also understood why Marshal Cory had not launched a full investigation. Indian attacks fell under the army's jurisdiction, not the town marshal's. Besides, this area was closer to Poison than Kalispell. Scott Cory might have ridden down to have a look around, but in the end, he would have had no choice but accept the army's findings. White settlers were quick to believe that Indians were always the culprits. Jess's response was more reasoned. Harriet sighed softly before speaking, "We need to keep this evidence confidential and secure, perhaps share our theories and findings with Marshal Cory although there is little he can actually do right now."
Quentin had leaned back, head and shoulders resting against the saddle while he thoughtfully puffed on a cheroot. He tugged it out and stared at the glowing end as he blew out a slow stream of smoke. "If...and I do mean if...this Marshal Cory is trustworthy we might share our suspicions with him...otherwise we keep all this among ourselves. One of the few advantages we have right now is that they don't know what we know. I don't want to give that away."
Jess nodded his agreement with Quentin, "Scott Cory used to be a good man, but that was many years ago. People change." He started to lever himself off the ground, "Good dinner, ma'am," he said to Harriet, "I'll clean up."
Harriet shook her head and stood up, dusting off the seat of her britches, "Thank you, Jess, but no. You and Quentin are pulling double duty with guiding and guarding as well as you are doing the lion's share of caring for the horses. The least I can do is the cooking and clean up." She gestured at Stahl to stay put as he made to rise before gathering the used dishes. Harriet scraped the few leftover bites of food on the plates into the fire. The rest, she wrapped securely to carry up and place in the stream for keeping cold. The grouse would be good with breakfast. Leaving the campfire, she made her way up and into the rocks.