Posted on Wed Oct 11th, 2017 @ 1:57am by Wade Morgan
Edited on on Fri Jan 5th, 2018 @ 11:38pm
Location: Blackbird Lodge, Lost Lake Ranch, Montana
Timeline: Late Afternoon, Sunday, July 11, 1875
Lost Lake Trail ran from the outskirts of Kalispell through nearly two miles of rolling meadows dotted with forests, a preamble to entering the foothills of the Chogun Mountains. The towering ranges and peaks of the Rockies loomed on every horizon. Chogun was the Blackfoot word for blackbird, and most locals referred to the mountains as the Blackbirds. They were an impressive range on their own, made more spectacular with the Rocky Mountains at their backs. The road continued west to where the boundary of the Harpers' property, Lost Lake Ranch, was marked by an impressive arched gate and a series of sturdy fence posts set roughly six feet apart. Beyond the gate was the two-mile expanse known as Harper Meadow which included the rolling foothills of the Blackbirds.
Six-foot high log and mortar walls provided support for the heavy wrought iron entrance. The name of the ranch and its registered brand told visitors they were at Lost Lake Ranch. The ranch's name and brand were also made of wrought iron. The actual gate was also six-foot high and made of timber and mortar. It moved on small steel wheels, like a train's, set on a low train-track type rail. The entrance was high enough and wide enough to allow the passage of large wagons or several animals abreast. Traditionally, the gate stood open, and no wire was strung between the fence posts. This only changed when the meadow was reaching capacity for the amount of livestock it could support and over-grazing threatened to damage it permanently. The only other time the gate would be closed and wire strung on the waiting fence posts was when the Harpers needed to keep their livestock separate from other animals grazing the meadows.
Shade and his traveling companions met no obstacles after leaving Kalispell until they passed through the gate at Lost Lake Ranch. There, a ranch hand that was working on settling a herd of glossy black Angus cattle broke off from his task and rode over to stop them. It would soon be dusk, and the men were getting the animals bedded down for the night. Near a rise and close to a treeline, Shade spotted two log cabins, one slightly longer and larger than the other. They were new since his time at the ranch and likely for use by the hands when animals were grazing the meadow.
The rider pulled his horse to a stop on the trail in front of them, tipped his hat respectfully, and said politely, but firmly, "This here's private property. There's hotels and a livery stable back in Kalispell."
"This is Mr. Quentin Cantrell, and I'm Shade Harper. We're expected," Shade responded mildly.
Another rider trotted his mount over and caught the tail-end of the conversation, "They are expected, Tommy," the older man said to the one that had stopped them. "Ride on ahead to the ranch and let Mr. Hale know they made it." The man named Tommy whirled his horse around and set his heels to his flanks, galloping toward the foothills. "Sorry for that," the man said, tipping his hat to them. "Can never be too careful. That was Tommy Lightfoot, and I'm Sage Miller, night foreman. The Hales are at the lodge, ride on through."
Miller wheeled his horse out of their way, and Shade rode back to the coach. He looked up at Harriet Mercer, "Are you okay to drive 'em through the pass, Miss Mercer?" He knew from their conversations that she had been a frequent guest at the ranch, but he wasn't sure how often she'd driven over the pass, especially with night creeping in.
"I can manage, Shade. The team is used to the road. Thank you." Harriet glanced at the man seated beside her on the driver's box. Stalh had started coughing before they reached Kalispell and she was pretty sure he had contracted a head cold or flu.
Shade sent Quentin to keep an eye on things from the rear while he turned Lakota to lead the way. The road led through the fertile Chogun Valley where he noted herds of grazing livestock, including a small group of bison, and buildings that all seemed in good repair with fresh coats of paint. More riders were tending the herds, but there were no more challenges to their passage. Apparently, the men trusted Sage Miller's authority to let them pass. They crossed a wide, sturdy bridge that spanned one branch of the Chogun River. From there, the road began climbing through the foothills toward the pass, following the course of the river.
There had always been a rough trail or game path through the lower end of the Choguns. Long before Shade had been born, the locals began calling it Ishmael's Gate, named after his grandfather. Shade was pleased to see that it had been widened and packed into a well-maintained road. The cliffs to their right as they road west had been shored up with stout railroad timbers and gravel. On their left, the edge of the road and the drop to the river, now several hundred feet below, was marked by a whitewashed split-rail fence. Each fence post was topped by a carriage lantern that had been recently lit. Even with being so high above the river, its roar was easy to hear and would have deafened any effort at conversation. The road itself was rather curvy as it had to follow the contours of the mountain with some of the curves being very sharp switchbacks. Despite the fence marking the edge of the gorge and the flickering light of the lamps, Shade would not like to make the ride at night.
Another bridge spanned the river and a short distance from there, it and the river forked. The west fork would lead to another valley and a small lake. It was where the majority of the ranch's main facilities were located, the larger barns, paddocks, corrals, cabins, and bunkhouses. Shade chose the north fork which rose steeply through the spectacular landscape of the mountains. They passed into a small circular valley called Snowlight Basin. In the gathering shadows, they passed fenced in paddocks, a large barn, and a few other outbuildings. Several yards past the large barn, the hard-packed dirt of the road passed through two stone pillars topped by lanterns and into a large stone-paved courtyard.
Shade mirrored his horse's sigh of weariness as he pulled him to a stop, waiting for Harriet to expertly turn the team, and pull them to a stop before actually dismounting himself. Turning, he looked at the house where he had grown up, and as always, was stunned by its rugged grandeur. The entry was covered by a steeply inclined metal roof supported by a frame made of massive logs and timbers. Two towering oaks had been carved to look like they had grown up through the stones. They stood to each side of large double doors that had a scene depicting antlered elks and forests. The lower floor of the main house and adjoining guest house had walls of heavy river stone while the remainder was made of beautifully dressed logs, carefully joined, to ensure a sturdy structure that could withstand the worst weather the northwestern Montana mountains could throw at it. The house was grand but still offered the impression that it, like the mountains that cradled it, had always been there, standing strongly against the elements. Shade knew that if you were looking up at Snowlight Basin from the lake, you had to know the house was there to be able to see it unless fires were lit and you could see the smoke drifting upward on the wind.
The double doors opened just as Quentin rode up and dismounted. The men had barely completed looping the reins over a timber hitching post when two small figures came running out and across the front terrace. "Uncle Quentin, Uncle Quentin! You're home," a little boy and little girl cried out in unison.
An older man and woman followed them, stopping just short of the hitching rail. The man nodded a greeting while the woman surged forward to wrap her arms around Shade in a powerful hug, "Shade," she breathed, dark eyes glistening with tears, "Oh, welcome home."
Ezra Hale extended his hand, first to Quentin and then to Shade. He smiled, his eyes lighting with warmth, "Welcome home, boy."