Spirits (Part 1)
The Long Road Home
Time & Location: Devil's Watchtower, Kalispell Trail, Montana
Tags & OOCs: After Midnight, Early July 1875
Jess rolled over, trying to get comfortable on the hard ground. After turning over again and becoming entangled in his blankets, he flung the covering off and sat up. He scrubbed at his face with his hands and pushed an errant lock of hair off his forehead. Jess was well aware of his sleep patterns. Most nights, he was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow or the underside of his saddle, depending on where he was sleeping. He never slept deeply unless he was seriously injured or very sick, but he did tend to sleep still and quiet. Jess was never the type to transition slowly from sleep to wakefulness, usually simply going from being asleep to being awake.
That was why he knew he would not sleep for the remainder of the night.
A coyote barked in the distance. Other nocturnal animals kept up a cacophony of sounds in accompaniment. Jess sighed and muttered, "Guess you wouldn't let a fella sleep, huh?" Of course, it wasn't the fault of the night animals, they were just going about making their living. The wind rustled the branches of the trees that surrounded the camp, making Jess happy that he was wearing his jacket. Daytime temperatures had been in the high nineties, but at night it dropped into the low fifties, maybe even the high forties.
"Dadblameit, don't this beat all," Jess complained quietly and got to his feet. Reaching down, he picked up his boots from beside his saddle. He also grabbed clean socks from his saddlebags, pulling off the ones from the night before, and padded barefoot to the nearest boulder. He propped his hips there, pulled on his socks and boots. He took a moment to make a neat roll out of his blankets which he left lying across his saddle. He'd laid his bed out between a couple of boulders close to the picket line where he could keep an eye on the horses. It was unlikely there were Indians in the area, but if there were, the horses would be too tempting for them to pass by. Jess picked up his gun belt and rifle and walked toward the picket line. After checking on the horses, he slipped quietly into the main camp.
Everything was quiet. Jess glanced up at the waning gibbous moon. From its position, he figured the time to be well after midnight. He could have taken out his pocket watch to confirm it, but that seemed like cheating. It was too early to stoke up the fire and fix coffee, dawn was still a few hours off. Jess stared off through the trees at the meadow beyond. It was too dark to see the wagon although he could make out the Devil's Watchtower rising above the land. With the barrel of the rifle pointed safely at the ground, Jess set off across the meadow. He moved quietly but did not bother to disguise his footsteps. As he walked, his spurs jingled softly, muffled by the meadow grass. It was doubtful anyone in the camp was awake and would be disturbed by his passage.
It was doubtful but true, Jo found herself unable to sleep. The cushions she and Harriet were sleeping on did not hold a candle to the beds at home in San Francisco. It was more than just the lumps for Josephine. As she lay there, listening to the soft, even breathing of her sister next to her, Jo found her thoughts wandering to Chance and Regina Harper, along with their two children, taken so early from this world.
With her thoughts tossing like a boat on the ocean during a storm, Jo quietly slipped from her makeshift bed, taking an item from her personal belongings and weaving it about her fingers as she quietly exited the carriage, so she didn't wake Harriet. Perhaps walking around the meadow at night was not the wisest thing, not with any manner of poisonous bugs and snakes out, but it didn't make much difference to Jo as she started walking quietly toward where she knew the burnt out wagon rested in the dark. With any luck, the pants and boots that her sister had placed out for her would protect her feet and legs against most things, even just enough to prevent death.
Suddenly, in the dark, Jo's ears picked up the faint jingle of metal on metal up ahead of her, spurs perhaps, if she had to wager a guess. It didn't fully occur to her that it might be either Mr. Harper or Mr. Cantrell. Instead, her mind opted for the dangerous intruder version of the truth, so Jo carefully bent down and picked up a large stick off the ground, wrapping her fingers around it firmly.
Jess's movements through the tall meadow grass had silenced most of the usual cacophony of nocturnal insects. Fortunately, his eyes had quickly adjusted to the dark. Then again, even though the moon was in a waning gibbous phase, its light was enough to cast faint shadows. The sky was mostly clear, only an occasional cloud briefly obscured the moonlight.
Deep down inside, Jess had known where he was going from the moment he rolled clear of his bedroll. He stopped at the wagon, on the side farthest from the Devil's Watchtower formation. Another step closer and a faint breeze brought the remnants of a scent his way. Jess raised his head, going still, and sniffed at the air. Tobacco, with a subtle hint of sage and other herbals. Quentin had been here fairly recently. He turned slowly, but saw no sign of the older man, although he did pick up other smells including the odor of wet, charred wood. Jess exhaled abruptly, clearing his sinuses of the accumulated smells only to pick up another one as the wind changed again. This time it was the faint scent of roses. He also caught the faint sound of grass stalks swishing together. Harriet smelled of citrus and spice. The newcomer had to be her sister, Josephine.
Unconcerned, Jess turned back to the wagon, reaching out to lay one black-gloved hand its frame, and bowing his head. He stood that way for a moment or two, then pulled his hand away and removed his gloves, tucking them into the belt at his waist. Once again, he lay his hand on the husk of the wagon. This time, as if contact with his bare hand released them, memories began to flow, and he almost gasped in pain. Regina laughing at him while trying to improve his swimming skills. Chance stepping between him and his father, taking the blame for another of Jess's pranks. The ghosts of the children caused a tear to form in the corner of one eye although it remained there, not slipping free to roll down his face. He had never met Chance and Regina's eldest two children. He'd chosen to stay away from the ranch, to keep drifting.
Jess did not move or speak when the soft footsteps stopped close by.
As she grew closer to the wagon, the burnt wood still somehow sharp in the cooler night air, the moonlight gave Jo a clear enough look to see that the person walking ahead of her was only Mr. Harper. She let the stick fall gently to the ground, stepping over it quietly. There was a moment where she paused, not wanting to disturb the man but there was something about his body language that suggested he was hurting. She couldn't imagine the pain he was suffering, standing in the very spot where his family had been killed. The questions surrounding those untimely deaths made things that much worse as well.
Stepping up to his side, Jo's expression was one of understanding as she touched his arm gently, her rosary beads still woven through her fingers. "I'm afraid there's very little that I can say that can ease your pain. I wish it weren't so."
Jess had to take several slow breaths. The simple kindness and gentle words came close to breaking the iron control that he was exerting over his emotions. His face was set, and the expression in his eyes was bleak although a small muscle jumped in his jaw as he gritted his teeth. "It's alright," he finally said, his deep, gravelly voice somewhat rougher than usual. "Can't go around it, just gotta push through it."
He glanced at Josephine for a moment and then, without really understanding why since he tended to keep things to himself, he said, "Chance asked me to come home several times after our parents died. Most recently, just a few months ago. Wouldn't have done any good here, but I should've at least gone home to see him, Reggie, and the kids."
Jo barely knew this man, Jess Harper, but she felt like she could hear the grief in his voice, buried beneath the grit she'd noticed early on into this journey. The pain behind his eyes though, that she could see and it made her heart ache in her chest. She nodded, understanding what he meant about dealing with the pain. She'd lost her own parents when she was but a child herself. Mother's illness had made her passing expected, and Jo had been able to say her goodbyes before, and she'd been even younger when her father had been killed in a duel two years prior, and she couldn't recall mourning for him very much. It had been nearly twenty years ago now.
Chance had been his brother, she remembered Harriet's tale that night over dinner. "There was no way you could have known what was going to happen." God had a plan for all of them. If Mr. Harper had been meant to visit his brother and his family at that time, he would have found his way home then. She didn't voice that thought. However, not everyone shared the same faith, and she was unsure which Harper followed. "Are you a religious man, Mr. Harper?" She asked.
It took Jess a second to mentally process her question. Considering his alleged line of work, it wasn't one he was often asked. "Lapsed Catholic," he said with a wry note in his voice. "Went to church a few times with the folks I was living with for a while back in Laramie. If you're askin' if I believe in God, before this, I'd have said yes. Now, not so sure." Jess's voice had hardened again as he finished speaking and he was glad his hat helped shield his face and eyes.
Jo nodded softly. Her fingers running over the smooth beads of her rosary. "I can understand that," she replied. "however, I asked as I thought I might offer a prayer for your family but I didn't want to offend you at the same time." She told him.
Catching sight of the rosary in Josephine's hands, Jess let his hand slip into his pocket, fingers finding the cool stone beads of the one he'd carried since the age of sixteen. It seemed so very long ago that his mother had given him the rosary as one of his birthday gifts that year. He might not regularly attend Mass, but it reminded him of her soft voice with its Spanish accent, her kind dark eyes, and gracious beauty. Despite the situation, he smiled. Turning his dark blue eyes to the young woman, he gestured at the wagon, "Prayer never did any harm, ma'am. They would think kindly of you for it."
Jo smiled, seeing his own smile, something she had not seen too much of in the few days since their unexpected introduction. "Good." She said, glancing down at the meadow floor for a few wildflowers to lay on the floor of the wagon. Spotting a small gathering of delicate purple flowers growing at one of the wheels. Moving to pluck a few from the earth, Jo didn't see the rock that caught her boot, sending her to her knees and her rosary scattering in the grass. "Oh for crying out loud.." She muttered as she slid her fingers through the grass, hoping to find the chain.
She absolutely had to find that rosary, it had belonged to her mother, Evelyn until she'd passed away when Jo was only ten and had belonged to her maternal grandmother before that. In fact, it was the only thing that she owned that had been passed down from that side of the family as they'd disowned Evelyn when she'd fallen pregnant. There! Her fingers grasped the cool metal chain and brought it out from the grass. Her brow furrowed in confusion as the chain in her hand was not her own. Jo's rosary was made of silver with small pearls, the one she'd found was not quite as refined with rougher-looking blue stones. Another quick comb through the grass gave Jo her own rosary, and she rose to her feet.
"Mr. Harper, look." Surely it had to have belonged to one of his family. Otherwise, finding the second rosary here at this exact spot was a huge coincidence.
Jess had been on his way to help Josephine back to her feet when she called his attention to what was in her hand. He was proud of the fact that his hand didn't shake when he took the object from her. He tipped his hat back and breathed out a shaky sigh.
The rosary was heavier and more rugged than average. Isadora Harper had had several heavy, and her in her opinion, hideously ugly candlesticks melted down to make the chains and crucifixes. That made each rosary a heritage item because the candlesticks had been in her family for hundreds of years. His father's had had beads made from polished agates, Isadora's had been made from freshwater pearls. The one Jess now held had beads fashioned from Montana sapphires. The stones were found in abundance around the Bell Mountain Range, but these, a deep cornflower blue in color, had been found on the Harper ranch in the rugged Chogun Mountain Range. The gems had been roughly polished to bring out their color but had not been cut and faceted, allowing some of their natural origins to show. Isadora had wanted the rosaries to connect her menfolk to the land where they were born as well as the faith in which they'd been raised.
Reaching into his jean's pocket, Jess brought out the rosary he'd carried with him since his sixteenth birthday. It too was made with a chain of dull, heavy silver with a plain, but beautifully wrought crucifix. The beads were made of blue river stones, slightly darker in color than Jess's eyes, and worn smooth from being carried, held, and touched over the years. The jeweler that had crafted the beads had only polished the rougher edges off of them and shaped them slightly. Isadora had not thought cut, faceted, and polished gemstones suited her youngest son. He held both rosaries out for Josephine to see, "Our mother had them made for us and gave them to us when we turned sixteen. She also had one made for herself and one for our father."
"They're beautiful," Josephine remarked quietly, seeing the almost matching chains. She couldn't help but reach out and trail a finger over the rougher stones. The craftsmanship that went into each piece was exquisite. "Mine belonged to my maternal grandmother, it's the only thing I have from that side of the family." She explained, making sure that her own rosary was wound firmly around her fingers as she did not want to lose it again. "I know you may not believe in God very much these days, but this may be His way of telling you that you are on the right path." She offered him a warm smile in the dark, not oblivious to the pain he must be in. "I believe you'll find your place in the world, Mr. Harper." Yes, she had faith in that, even if he didn't right now.
Jess tucked both rosaries into his pocket. His niece or nephew might want to keep Chance's rosary. He also thought he might offer his to the other child, but not right off. Jess wasn't an expert on child-rearing, but he figured they were still dealing with the aftermath of their family's death. The time to offer keepsakes would present itself.
"If this," Jess waved a leather gloved hand at the wagon and meadow, "is God's way of setting my feet on another path, I coulda' done without it." His voice was slightly rough with emotion, but he felt he held the fury well in check. Reaching out, he grazed the charred wagon frame with his hand. "I was alright with my place in the world, Miss Mercer," he said and meant it. Jess had lived hard after leaving Montana at age seventeen, but he'd always landed on his feet.
After a few moments of silence, Jess glanced up at the sky, noting the location of key constellations and the moon. He nodded back toward the camp, "You may want to go and try to catch some sleep. We'll be pulling out in less than four hours."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you," Jo said gently, feeling now like she had overstepped, which she had tried to avoid. She felt for the man. There was no greater loss than that of family, even if you did not always get along. "I believe you." She stated quietly as she looked out across the meadow bathed in moonlight and shadows.
Turning back to the charred wagon remains, Jo stepped quietly back to it, resting a hand on the door frame, her rosary wrapped about her other hand as her fingers slid over the pearls. Her prayers were quiet, a simple blessing of peace for the departed. Green eyes slid over toward Mr. Harper, a nod was given at his suggestion. Sleep would be wise, even just a few hours of it, if she got any at all with her sister's snoring. "Of course." She told him, giving him a small smile. "Good night." She said before making her way back through the meadow toward the carriage.
"Good night, ma'am," Jess replied. He watched Josephine make her way across the meadow toward the camp. Shaking his head, he turned back toward the wagon. Jess couldn't figure out why she felt she'd offended him. He was pretty certain he'd been speaking mildly. Jess shrugged and grinned, "I was never that good at figurin' women," he told the wind, although in his heart he was speaking to Chance. "Don't worry about your little'uns, big brother, we'll take care of 'em."
~ Continued in part 2....~