Spirits (Part 2)
The Long Road Home
Time & Location: Devil's Watchtower, Kalispell Trail, Montana
Tags & OOCs: After Midnight, Early July 1875
Jess remained quiet for several moments after Josephine walked away. Talking to her had been somewhat cathartic, perhaps because she was more of a stranger to him than Quentin. He and the older man had quickly become friends due to their familial connects and shared hardships on the trail. They had shared some of their memories of Chance and Regina and Quentin had told Jess a bit about the older children. In time, they'd probably share more about their late loved ones but, for now, it was rather strange for either man to confide in others.
The wind was blowing from the north and, as if thoughts of the man had conjured up his presence, Jess once again caught the distinct aroma of the cheroots Quentin smoked. Jess usually avoided cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoke if he could, usually finding the smell unpleasant. Quentin used a mild tobacco that carried undernotes of cherry, sage and other spices which toned down the usual pungent scents Jess associated with most tobacco products. Unusual, but not unpleasant.
Walking around the wagon, Jess followed the smell of the cheroot into the rocks of the Devil's Watchtower. The trail into the formation was often hard to see as the larger boulders blocked the moonlight. He'd climbed several feet above the meadow when he spotted the glow of the tip of Quentin's cheroot. It disappeared briefly as the path wound through rocks that had been jumbled together forming a tunnel. Jess exited from that to find himself in a flat area, almost like a small plateau. There, he spotted Quentin seated on a large boulder with another one at his back that he was leaning against.
Jess made sure the other man saw him before he approached although it was likely Quentin had heard him climbing up the trail. He'd made no effort to disguise his progress. From this vantage point, one could see the expanse of the meadow, the road off to the west, and the darker shadows of Wadi's Wells to the south. It was hard to see the wagon in the dark, but in the light of day, it would be visible from the edge of the miniature plateau. The wind blowing from the north had brought the scent of the cheroot down to where Jess stood, the elevation keeping it from becoming lost in the tangled rocks of the formation.
"Couldn't sleep either?" Jess asked as he dropped to the rock not far from Quentin. He realized the question was redundant considering they were both sitting there with dawn only two or three hours away.
Quentin sat still another moment, chewing the cheroot around in a circle as he gathered his thoughts. "Yep..." The sound came out around the cheroot. "Never realized how much actually being here would affect me." Quentin plucked the cheroot from his mouth and held it with finger and thumb in front of him, eyes drawn to the glowing tip. "Seeing the wagon makes it more real for me than the funeral, to be honest..." Quentin's head turned slowly to regard Jess. "Was that Josephine you were talking to?. I only caught a word here and there between the rocks and the breeze."
Jess nodded, "Yeah, she had a notion of paying her respects," he said, answering Quentin's question while he thought about the older man's comments about the effects of finding the wagon. Jess understood. He had at first put his inability to sleep down to being anxious about the final leg of the journey. In the end, he'd had to admit that it was finding the wagon. Like Quentin said, it made it all real.
"Maybe I should have pushed us on a few miles before making camp," Jess admitted at last. "But, there were things I had to know. I guess I'm lookin' for answers that don't exist 'cuz I'm not even sure of the questions." He gestured toward the meadow where the wagon rested, "That burned out husk brought it all home - not the guilt I was wallowing in on the train ride up here - just the reality of it all. Chance, Regina, and two of their children are dead," Jess's voice caught a bit on the last word before he continued, "and that can't be undone. I gotta do right by the two little'uns that are left. The grievin' ain't done, but it'll have to wait." At a loss for words, Jess stopped speaking for a few seconds. He shook his head, and when he spoke again, there was still a faint hitch in his gravelly voice, "Ain't never felt like this before, not even when Father and Mother passed."
Quentin listened to Jess and smiled to himself as he heard the younger man speak. "Your father and mother died...my father and mother died...It's sad, but you and I also understand it's a part of life. People live, and then they die. It helps to handle the loss to understand it's all a part of life..." Quentin waved an arm out in the direction of the wagon. "This isn't life...it's murder. It was the killing of four people who did not ask for or deserve what happened to them. Hell, even in the War, you could come to terms with someone that you knew dying because we all volunteered to be where we were. We might not have deserved to die, but you knew where you were going when you enlisted or got drafted."
Quentin stuck the cheroot back into his mouth and sat up straighter. "Do not blame yourself for not being here in the first place or for stopping here now. If you had been here you would have died...don't try and convince yourself otherwise. You saw the numbers, and you have seen the shell cases. You and I are good with a gun but sometimes good isn't enough."
Jess stared out into the night for several minutes after Quentin fell silent. He'd told him the same thing about not feeling guilty for not being there for Chance and Reggie back on the train. The older man was right, of course, but it had taken seeing it all to convince Jess of the fact. Second guessing himself, dwelling on the what ifs, and wallowing in self-recrimination served nothing.
"I don't feel guilty so much as just regrettin' not comin' home back when Chance asked me to, at least to visit," Jess said, his voice almost a sigh, "but I can't change that either. Made the best decision that I could at the time." He shifted on the rock so he could see the other man although the rocks partially shadowed his features. This time, Jess's voice was stronger, and there was an undercurrent of anger in it, "Quentin, I don't believe for a second that this was done by some band of Indians who just happened to be in the area and itchin' to attack some white folks. That makes no sense. Someone planned and organized the killin'. I want the killers, but more'n that, I want the man or woman behind it. I wanna know why and I want them to pay for it."
Quentin nodded. "I agree...and even if we killed everyone who was here, we wouldn't get who was responsible..." His head became wreathed in smoke as he exhaled softly. "...No, this will take some digging...and when we figure out who it is, or they are...they'll pay."
Jess looked at Quentin again. He felt they had just made a pact of some sort and it felt right. The red-hot knot of rage in the pit of his stomach subsided to a cold burn. He nodded his head although he wasn't entirely sure Quentin could see that gesture of affirmation. "And if one of us can't finish it, the other one will."
Quentin looked at Jess. "They cost us almost everything we had left to care about in this world, Jess...there's no doubt about what's going to happen here. They're not ready for or able to deal with what's coming..." Quentin smiled around the cheroot. "I'm not a religious man, but I suspect it will be Biblical."
Jess's answering smile was menacing, and his deep blue eyes were cold. For a moment, he looked every bit as dangerous as his reputation made him out to be. Jess actually preferred walking on the right side of the law. This was one of the rare instances where he felt the situation superseded what law and order could accomplish. The fact that they might be facing off against the United States Army was not lost on him.
The wind suddenly rose and howled through the cracks and crevices of the rock formation where the two men sat. In its wake was other sounds, whispers and cries barely heard. Jess sat up straighter, his brow wrinkled as he turned his eyes toward the meadow. Old, half-remembered superstitions surfaced, making him shiver despite his thick jacket. Deciding that they could not leave until the spirits in this place had been set free, Jess said, "Do you have another of those?" He gestured at Quentin's cheroot. It wasn't perfect for what he had in mind, but he thought he'd smelled sage earlier so it would have to suffice.
Quentin's eyebrows went up together as his hand went to his jacket to tug out the small leather case he used to keep a half dozen at the ready beside the ones packed in his saddlebag. "I didn't think you smoked..." Quentin tugged a fresh cheroot out and the small round metal container he carried his Lucifers in, handing the cheroot and matches to Jess.
Jess took the items and stared down at the cheroot. It was more slender than the more popular expensive cigars and did not taper at the ends, making them somewhat less expensive to roll. This one was a little longer than the average cigarette, leading Jess to believe they were custom-made and cut to Quentin's preferences. Not the most expensive of items, but still a pricey one. The actual ratio of tobacco to other herbals appeared to be a little less too, indicating that the other man used the cheroots for a reason other than a habit he couldn't put away.
"I don't," Jess said in answer to Quentin's comment. "Tried it when I first lit out from home 'cuz it was forbidden and because I thought it'd make me look older, more experienced." He'd thought that appearing to have a man's vices would offset the fact he was nothing more than a tanglefoot kid with a really, really fast gun hand. He'd quickly learned that only time and experience would garner him the respect he needed to stay alive.
"I smelled sage, cherry, and a couple of other herbs along with the tobacco. In many red-stick cultures, burning sage and other herbs is a way to spiritually cleanse a place. They'll burn it in the tipis and wigwams of the dead. Tobacco is also used in certain cleansing and purification ceremonies," Jess explained to Quentin as he looked around for a clump of grass that he could use to wrap around the cheroot. He found what he was looking for and laid the cheroot and matches down on the rock near Quentin. Jess carefully pulled up the long grass so that it remained intact, he deftly wove it into a slender mesh that he then wrapped around the cheroot. "I was raised Catholic, but those rituals don't seem right in this place 'cuz it's sacred to the Indians."
Quentin nodded. "Those cigars are a form of...payment, I guess you could say. I once lent a hand to a man who was running a tobacco shop. Some local toughs had been taking a large amount of his profits as part of a protection racket. He was a retired British Colour Sergeant who came here to enjoy his retirement. I was in his shop one day when they stopped by for their 'tax'..." Quentin smiled in the dark. "...That was a bit of fun. None of them died, but I expect a few will be eating mighty careful for a long time...or limping...or both. I refused any money from him. Hell, That's the whole point of what I did. So, he offered me a trade. He would make me a special blend and have it sent to wherever I wished for free. I agreed since it was from stock he normally kept on hand and was not an imposition."
Jess stopped what he was doing and looked at Quentin, shrugging expressively while adding to his mental notes and impressions of the older man's integrity, "I need to do something for them here where they died." He reached into his pocket and pulled out Chance's rosary that Josephine had found beside the wagon earlier. It had become tangled with his, so he handed both to Quentin. "The one made with the blue gems is Chance's. Miss Josephine found it a little bit ago when we were talkin'. He must have dropped it during the attack."
Quentin took the tangled chains and held them. The moonlight did not reveal all the details, but he appreciated the weight and sturdiness of the rosaries. "Your mother was right to make them tougher and stronger for the two of you. A regular rosary would never stand up to the normal days both of you have...she was a smart woman."
Jess looked at the tangled rosaries, "When Mother gave me mine, Chance said she'd gathered the stones on the ranch. Mine's river rock, Chance's are rough sapphires. The silver came from candlesticks in her dowery. He said she wanted our faith to connect us to the land, to each other, and our heritage. Didn't really take for me, I guess." He finished fastening the woven grass around the cheroot. Taking the rosaries back from Quentin, he entwined them through the fingers of the hand carrying the makeshift smudge stick.
He led the way back down to the wagon, hearing Quentin's sure steps in his wake. Jess fumbled a bit as he tried to light the cheroot, and murmured a quiet thank-you when Quentin took it and lit it with practiced ease before handing it back. Jess blew out the active embers, leaving it smoking. He didn't have a feather which was the normal item used to fan the smoke so he would use the back of his free hand to fan the smoke outward. Glancing at Quentin, he shrugged again, "I don't know the proper words, but hoping the spirits of this place understand the intent."
Quentin stood quietly as Jess began to speak, then suddenly reached up and yanked his hat off his head with a soft curse for having forgotten. He held it in both hands in front of him as Jess continued with the ritual. One hand came up and pulled the cheroot out to drop it beside his right boot, and he ground it out quietly.
"Great Spirit, look upon the spirits of your children, that they may face the winds and walk the good road to the day of quiet. This is my prayer' hear me," Jess said the words with a humble note in his voice, using the back of his hand to direct the smoke in all four compass directions and out over the wrecked wagon. After he finished speaking, he lay the remainder of the smudge-stick in the bed of the wagon, and pulled off his hat, holding it in one hand and the entwined rosaries in the other. Jess bowed his head and spoke again, "Lord, those who die still live in Your presence. Their lives change but do not end. I pray in hope for our family, and for all the dead known to You alone. Amen."
It might have been Jess's imagination, but he felt as if the atmosphere lightened considerably. The shadows of the night appeared to visibly retreat and the tension he'd felt ever since spotting the wagon from the road eased. He was still angry, still determined to find and destroy those that had murdered Chance, Regina, and their children, but now he felt as if he could approach it with logic and even patience.
Jess raised his head and looked over at Quentin. He had not wanted to force his beliefs on the other man but was glad for his presence. He smiled and said quietly, "We've done all we can here. Ready to go home, partner?"
Quentin nodded as he placed his hat back on his head. "Seems strange to call it home even though I have spent a lot of time there, but I guess we both need to get used to calling it that."
Jess turned slightly so that he could look out over the night-shadowed landscape, his eyes seeking the direction of which he knew the ranch lay. He'd used the word home on several occasions since starting the journey from Laramie but realized that this was the first time he'd said in that context. It was also the first time that Jess had thought about the fact that Quentin's life was likely changing completely as well. "Yeah, guess we both need to get used to that and a lot of other things too." He tucked the rosaries back into his pocket, placed his hat back on his head, then gave Quentin a gentle, companionable slap on the shoulder. "Let's go...home."