Echo of Another Day (Part 5)
Time & Location: After Dinner - Late Evening, Sunday, 07/11/1875; Family Room, Blackbird Lodge, Lost Lake Ranch, Montana
Tags & OOCs: Part 5 of 5
Quentin muttered to himself. "Well, that's just great. The Steelgraves get legitimacy, a town to call their own, and their own legal tricks department if needed..." Quentin exhaled. "And that new 'ranch' helps them flank us...it keeps us looking in more than one direction all the time now."
"And I killed Ace's baby brother," Jess said dryly. In his heart, he knew that he had not started the feud with the Steelgraves. That did not change the fact that his actions had escalated it.
Harriet leaned forward and placed her teacup on the coffee table which was apparently the signal needed for Josephine to politely excuse herself, pleading exhaustion from the trip. The men all rose to their feet, and Kate made sure the younger woman did not need anything. This gave Harriet the opportunity to get her thoughts in order while they settled themselves again. Her voice was crisp and clear when she began speaking, the one she used in the courtroom. "When Chance and Regina Harper chose to make the long-absent Jess Harper the guardian to their children and to leave him half of this ranch, my associate, Alistair Fang, and I undertook an exhaustive investigation into Jess Harper's life. In the process, we also investigated anyone and anything that could have a future impact on those responsibilities. This included the Steelgrave family who was already a concern due to Carson Tyndall's involvement with them and their antipathy for anything and everything Harper."
Fixing her gray eyes on Quentin and Jess, Harriet continued speaking, "James Steelgrave, better known as Ace, is a gun-for-hire. He's fast enough to be considered a legend. To date, there are no records of anyone surviving a gunfight with him.Ace Steelgrave has never been tied to murder because he's far too clever. Prospective employers take out a personal ad in the El Paso Chronicle that lists a city or town. Once there, he picks up a letter via general delivery, and presumably, his fee. Ace then spends as much time as it takes to goad the walking dead man into a fight."
Harriet leaned back into the sofa cushions, fixed her eyes on Jess and said in a steely-toned voice, "Mr. Harper, you have not been a target because Ace does not pick fights with anyone that he has not been paid to kill. He has never been motivated by revenge. Now that you live in relative proximity to him, family honor is at stake, so this is likely to change. You have too much to lose to let him goad you into a fight. Sticks and stones, Mr. Harper."
Jess's lips twitched into a smile. He read equal amounts of dislike and disgust in Harriet's voice. Her personal opinion of him did not bother him overmuch. He wasn't too fond of her either. Jess was confident that once they were in the courtroom, she would do her best to ensure that Chance's and Regina's wishes were carried out.
"Miss Harriet, Ace Steelgrave isn't the first gunfighter to use bullying tactics to push a showdown, and he won't be the last," Jess allowed the same steely note of disdain to creep into his deep voice. The fact that she had returned to referring him as Mr. Harper indicated to him that the truce was ending. Still, two women could answer to Miss Mercer, so he chose to use the first name in a formal mode of address. Truth be told since she was somewhat older than he was, it was more comfortable for him.
Quentin sat up from his position on the sofa and turned to look at the lawyer. "Harriet, I have tangled with those 'professional victims' before. They make an art of making normally sober, calm men lose their tempers. Real life isn't about turning the other cheek, but you can trust Jess to know when he is being goaded compared to someone who really has a quarrel with him. Start judging Jess by what you've seen instead of what you've read about him."
Harriet's gray eyes turned stormy, and her lips thinned as she glared at Quentin. "And what have I seen of him, Quentin?" His name came out sharper than she intended. A little voice in her head tried to caution her against engaging a client in a verbal battle. At the same time, a rather dispassionate side of Harriet tried to analyze why Quentin Cantrell grated on her nerves. But, it was far too late. Demon Harriet was taking charge. "Yes, Mr. Harper has proven a reliable scout, leading us safely from Missoula to Kalispell where he almost got into a shootout with Deputy Marshal Cory. Before that, on the train, he drew his gun on me, my associate, and my sister. Although the gunfight in Missoula was technically self-defense, he still settled the situation with a shooting. I have not seen anything that would actually render my opinions and observations invalid."
Jess muttered softly under his breath, "Here we go." There was little else he could add at the moment. He was far too tired to take on a character debate with Harriet Mercer, even if the character being debated was his. Hoping he'd derail the impending storm by leaving, he rose to his feet. "Kate," he crossed over and leaned down to kiss her cheek, "thank you for dinner. Ezra, I'll talk to you tomorrow. I'm about beat tonight. Miss Harriet, Quentin, goodnight."
Ezra also rose to his feet, pulling Kate with him, "We should retire as well. Good night to you both."
Kate gave her husband a look that said she wasn't quite ready to leave the room, but the gentle tightening of his fingers on her hand dissuaded her from comment. "It is getting late. I'll clean everything up before Mary gets here in the morning." She leaned down to kiss first Harriet and then Quentin on the cheek before heading for the stairs with Ezra.
Harriet remained quiet until the sound of the Hales' footsteps faded away, meaning they were well out of earshot. On the night before, Harriet had offered a truce with Quentin until after the trial. With the dangers of the trail behind them, she was less inclined to honor the temporary treaty. Oh, she would still do her job to the best of her ability, but she was less sanguine about her clients' pasts now that the immediate danger over. There was no longer the need to cooperate to ensure survival. Admittedly, a small part of her liked being able to needle the cool, debonair Cantrell.
"At least the majority of Mr. Harper's misdeeds and brushes with the law are well documented and easy to uncover," Harriet pinned Quentin with her cool gray eyes, "You, on the other hand, have buried your skeletons far deeper. You have left nothing on the surface for others to easily find. On the trail, you told me that your job entailed doing whatever it took to fix other people's problems. What did it take to fix those problems, Quentin? Where are those bodies buried, hmmm?" She almost purred the last question at him.
Quentin's eyes blazed, and his nostrils flared as he stood. "We all have skeletons...even you, Counselor..." Quentin moved around to the fireplace and rested his hands on the mantle, head dropping forward a moment as he stared into the fire. "...Am I proud of everything I have done in my life? No. Am I able to live with the choices I have made after a certain point? Absolutely." Quentin pushed up straight from the mantle and turned around to face Harriet. "Perhaps if someone prepared to do whatever it took to help you had found you back before whatever damaged you happened, you might not be the person sitting in front of me today."
It took more will than Harriet realized she had to not reveal her alarm at his words. The pounding of her heart subsided as she occupied herself by primly folding her hands in her lap. Her personal skeleton was well and truly buried. Quentin Cantrell could not know about it. He had not even known of her connection to his sister and brother-in-law until they met on the train. No, she was safe for now. Harriet had long ago stopped concerning herself with other skeletons. Frank Mercer's skeletons were not her responsibility.
But that damned insufferable man's last statement had hit the center ring on the target. She allowed a touch of frost to enter her voice, "Are all women who manage to have a successful career in a male-dominated profession considered damaged by your standards, Quentin?" She felt satisfied with her response. Deflection was, after all, one of a lawyer's stock tools of his - or her - trade.
Quentin smiled. "Harriet, I may be a gentleman, but don't mistake me for the typical vacuous southern gentleman you're used to destroying with your looks and brain. I have been sliced to ribbons by some of the best and have learned my lessons..." Quentin paced in front of the fireplace now. "...You don't wish to talk about your previous problems, fine...but don't go digging for mine."
"If I have previous problems, they will not influence the outcome of the hearing. If Carson Tyndall's research was more profitable than mine, despite what I feel is a lack of legal substance, it could see you both lose everything. Worse, it could lose the children's inheritance," Harriet said, watching Quentin pace to and fro, likening his movements to that of a caged lion she had seen at a wildlife exhibit many years ago.
"Think about it," Harriet advised in a far milder voice as she rose to her feet. "For now, it is very late, and I have business in town tomorrow." She looked at the coffee and tea service and the soiled dessert dishes and cups, "I simply cannot leave this for Kate to deal with in the morning. Will you help me take the dishes through to the kitchen?"
Quentin readily agreed, seemingly ready to let their discussion end for the night. She assumed he felt as she did, tired and worried about the upcoming hearing on Tuesday. Harriet could not help feeling as if Chance's and Regina's ghosts hovered just outside her view. If she felt that way, surely Quentin did too. A good night's sleep was needed by all. She bade Quentin goodnight at the bottom of the stairs, pausing on the first landing to look back and saw him watching her, but his face was in shadow. What his thoughts were had been hidden by the darkness.