Arrivals and Departures (Part 1)
The Long Road Home
Time & Location: Late June 1875; Sherman Ranch, Laramie, Wyoming
It was barely mid-morning, but Jess and the Shermans had been up for hours. Days started just after sunrise, there was always more work to be done than hours of the day to do it in. Stock needed to be fed and watered, fences always needed repair, horses to be shod, teams to be gotten ready for the day's stagecoaches. The Sherman boys were out of school for the summer and were inside the house, already hard at work mending harness while their mother, Marianne, prepared the noon meal for the family and refreshments for the stage's passengers.
It was a beautiful day, typical for southeastern Wyoming. With the Snowy Range on one side and the Laramie Range on the other, the valley tended to catch comfortable breezes which offset the heat of the sun. It had rained just before daybreak, leaving everything smelling fresh and clean. Jess whistled a light-hearted tune as he put fastened the last of the fresh team's harness in place, pausing to speak softly to the big horses. The clanging of metal on metal kept tempo with the tune. The distance sound of thundering hooves made him look up, "Sherm! The stage is coming off the hill."
John Sherman lay the hammer down and stuck the horseshoe he'd been shaping into a bucket of water to cool. He stripped off his leather farrier's apron and strode out from the shed next to the barn. "Coming. Team ready?"
"Yep. Just need to change the shaft to the four-up," Jess said, leaping easily over the corral fence and joining John to wait in the yard. They could both hear the driver calling to the horses, cajoling them to be steady as he expertly managed the reins, the coach sweeping into the turn and final sprint for the yard as smooth as possible considering the type of conveyance it was.
Quentin Cantrell lifted his head and adjusted his hat while sitting up straighter in his seat. The turn and descent from the hill had awakened him from his nap. He glanced around at the other three passengers and again noticed the purposeful silence of two of the men. All the way from the last stop where the two had boarded they had sat stone-faced in their seats. The last passenger had tried to talk with each in turn but gave up after a few fruitless attempts. The talkative passenger was dressed in a very fashionable suit, and his thick accent had pegged him as a southerner from the first moment he opened his mouth. Cantrell's mouth quirked up in a smile as he had known lots of men like his fellow passenger. He looked out of the stagecoach as it wheeled into the main yard. His eyes passed over the open area but then jumped back to the two men standing ready to receive the stage. The smaller one must be Harper. Cantrell glanced around as the stage came to a rocking halt. The door on the other side opened, and one of the silent passengers stepped out. The chatty passenger followed him out, and Quentin went out behind him so he could catch the young man. Cantrell's feet hit the ground, and he heard the familiar triple click of a hammer going back just before a shot blasted into the back of the chatterbox. He let out a shocked sound and crumpled face down in the dirt. Cantrell blinked as the passenger that fired leveled his gun at him and the two stagehands nearby. The other passenger was standing to the side, his revolver angled up at the shotgun rider. The man covering the rider looked at the body then up at his partner. "You got him! You got Cantrell!"
The man who shot nodded without looking at the body. "I don't miss...he was foolish to wear that fancy suit all the time." He looked at Quentin. "You...hand that iron over...slowly." His eyes then glanced past to the two men standing together. "You...boy...unbuckle that belt and let it drop or I put a bullet in your friend." The man's eyes switched back to Quentin as Cantrell's hand came up, holding his Schofield butt first now and extended toward him. The man's left hand came up for the offered pistol and grabbed empty air as Cantrell let the pistol go, it dropped to hang upside down with Cantrell's finger through the trigger guard. Cantrell's hand twitched, and the Schofield rotated back into firing position as his thumb landed on the hammer. The motion let Cantrell ease back the hammer and fire in almost the same action, the closeness of the burning powder lighting a small fire on the man's shirt as he stumbled back. Cantrell knelt to get out of the line of fire as the man's pistol erupted. He heard movement as the shotgun rider moved and another blast as the other passenger shot the man. The round caught the guard under his arm and pitched him and his Winchester off the wagon box to land with a thump on the ground as everyone erupted into action.
Everything happened fast and seemingly all at the same time but didn't it always? One moment passengers were disembarking from the stage, in the next moment, a man was dead, and Jess was being ordered to drop his gunbelt, an order he was slow to obey. In the process of handing over his gun, the tall dark-clad passenger flipped it in a move too fast for Jess's eyes to follow and shot the man giving the orders. The other man shot Tom, the shotgun. As he crumpled and fell from the driver's box, John launched himself in a graceful arc, grabbing for the fallen Winchester. Jess's gun seemed to leap into his hand of its own volition as he dropped and fired, nailing the other shooter.
Cantrell! Jess only had a second to think that the name sounded familiar before the thunder of horses' hooves sent him scurrying for cover. He registered the sound of the window rattling open and heard Marianne's strong voice, "John! Jess!" The gleam of her rifle barrel let him know that she was alert and ready.
Horses swept into the yard in a turmoil of shouts and gunfire. The chaos was more than the usually calm stagecoach team could stand, and they reared, screaming, in their traces. The lead horses tried to lunge forward but the stage's brakes held, and they were only able to drag it a foot or two. Cover and concealment in the yard were sparse, but neither Jess or John wanted to draw fire toward the house where Marianne and the boys sheltered. Jess jerked his head toward the barn, indicating that he would cover John as he made a break for it. John was taller, a larger target, but he was also an ungodly fast runner, one of the few men that Jess knew who ran for pleasure and exercise.
The incoming riders, at least six of them, were leaping from their horses to shelter behind fence rails and a watering trough. It wasn't great concealment, but it was better than being sitting ducks aboard their mounts. Jess rolled into the shadow provided by the stage as instinct took over. Barely needing to aim, he clipped one of the riders that hadn't yet gotten clear of his horse.
Cantrell looked around as the stage moved but only went about a foot. He crouched tighter and then rolled under the stage away from the area where the group of riders had dismounted. He heard some shots beside him and glanced over. He recognized Jess Harper and then saw the other man running for the barn, holding the shotgun guard's rifle. Harper locked eyes with him, and Cantrell yanked his head in the direction of the barn as he stood and began a steady firing, emptying his Schofield in five steady shots under the stagecoach, keeping the other men's heads down or knocking wood from the fence and water trough. Cantrell heard shots from the barn and house, and he rolled, coming to his feet and dashing the short distance to the barn then throwing himself through the gap between the large door, landing with a sprawl in on the ground inside and rolling out of the line of fire. Cantrell lay on his back and broke open the Schofield, dumping the empty shells, and tugging reloads from his belt loops, shoving them in as quick as he could as the other two men kept up their fire.
Sherman renewed his covering fire as Jess broke for the barn as well. He twisted as he ran, firing a couple of shots before arcing his body into a swan dive and roll through the barn doors. He came to his feet in a smooth move and reached John's side in quick strides. Sherm exchanged places with his friend, grabbing a box of ammo from the ledge just inside the barn door. He quickly reloaded as Jess reached for a rifle tucked out of sight between a two-by-six and the wall. "Marianne covered until Mose could get inside the house," John said, reporting on the whereabouts of the stage's elderly driver. "I'm going up."
Jess nodded. Kneeling just inside the door, he opened fire with the rifle while Sherman yanked cartridges from Jess's belt and reloaded his six-gun. Shoving it back into his holster, John rose and sprinted for the side of the barn to the hayloft's ladder. A moment later, the two men below heard his footsteps as he crossed to the loading window and opened fire.
Cantrell crawled to the gap beside Harper and peered out. The raiders minus their casualties were shooting at both the barn and house as they huddled among the items near the corral. Cantrell's eyes narrowed then he rolled on his side and looked at the other end of the barn. He stared at the large doors, then flicked the barrel of his Schofield to get Harper's attention. "I'll go out the other end and try to circle opposite the house. Maybe we can get these fellas in a 3-way crossfire..." Quentin scooted back a few and then rolled to his feet. He jogged back to the other doors and pushed one open a bit and looked out, then he pushed through and out of sight.
To cover any noise, although it was likely not necessary with the cacophony of gunfire, Jess renewed his assault on their attackers, firing rapidly. There had not been much of a pause in gunfire from the house. That meant that Marianne likely had one of the boys reloading for her. Good girl, he thought. She was a trooper, not to mention a deadly shot with the Winchester. As best as he could see, Mose was still hunkered down out of sight. He hoped so, the elderly driver was a good man and a good friend.
Gunfire sounded from the far side of the barn. Jess rolled out of the line of fire, making sure he was safe from stray shots coming through the wood of the barn door. He reloaded and prepared to resume his kneeling position just inside when he heard the distinctive thump of a body hitting the wooden floor of the loft. "Sherm!" Jess rose to his feet, teeth clenched and eyes blazing.
Cantrell was moving along the back wall of the small blacksmith shed beside the barn. He took a quick peek and then began moving along the wall toward the corner so he could see the riders' strongpoint. The sudden sound of Harper's voice made Cantrell start and flatten against the wall. He realized the yell must have been about the man in the loft. Cantrell noticed the shooting decrease, so he poked his head out. He saw the younger man step out of the barn and bring his rifle up. Harper dropped to one knee and began levering the rifle, jumping from target to target with each shot. Not every shot hit but he saw at least one man, then another stagger back or collapse.
"What kind of plan is that?" Cantrell muttered to himself as he swung his gun around the corner and fired. The Schofield's banging was lost in the general chaos as he put two bullets into the rider closest to his side of their little huddle. One of the last few men noticed the fall and his eyes caught sight of Cantrell, His warning yelp stopped as a dark hole appeared in his forehead, and he sprawled bonelessly in the dirt. Cantrell moved from cover with his pistol leveled. He walked toward the area, glimpsing Harper in his peripheral vision as they both advanced. Cantrell's Schofield clicked on an empty chamber as he kept walking. One last rider broke from cover and ran for the horses to their rear. He reached for the saddle horn to mount but realized he would never complete the action. He spun, eyes desperate before his hand clawed for the pistol he had holstered before his dash. Cantrell let the Schofield drop, and his right hand shot across his body and under his coat. His fingers closed around the bird's head grip on the short Colt in his shoulder rig. The pistol came out and Cantrell's left hand chopped at the hammer, putting four rounds into the man from several paces away. The wounded man dropped to his knees then toppled onto his face as Cantrell stopped, eyes and pistol covering the area as he waited for anyone else to make a move.
Jess rose to his feet, rifle still at the ready, his body tense. His eyes roved around the yard, counting bodies. A movement beyond the stagecoach made him swing the rifle up and level it.
"Whoa, boy! It's just me!" Mose, the elderly stagecoach driver, crept out of his hiding-place from the far side of the house. "Don't shoot Sherm either," the old man warned as the tall rancher walked slowly out of the barn.
"It's me, Jess," Sherman decided it was probably best to speak despite Mose's warning. Jess's reflexes might outstrip the information he was getting.
Jess's eyes scanned his friend, "I heard you fall, thought you were hit."
Sherman continued walking, slowing as they approached the stranger from the stage. "I was. Bullet creased my shoulder."
The front door of the house opened, and Marianne darted across the yard to where the men stood group, except for Mose who had gone around to the horses, still firmly hitched to the stage. She scanned her husband, Jess, and the stranger before reaching up and running her finger along Sherman's left shoulder. "And I just mended this shirt," she complained lightly.
"Why not take everyone inside, Marianne?" Jess suggested, nodding to John and their unexpected guest. "Keep the boys inside. They don't need to see this. Mose can help me drag the dead into the stage. I'll write a note for Sheriff Randall."
Marianne nodded and turned to usher her husband and the unknown stage passenger into the house, all the while giving him the usual welcome spiel she offered other stage guests. The door closed and Jess turned to Mose, "Let's search them first."