Tomorrow is Yesterday
Time & Location: Early AM, Monday, 07/12/1875; Main Barn, Snowlight Basin
Tags & OOCs: Completed
Jess had just filled two water buckets and started down the barn's corridor when he spotted movement. His first reaction was alarm that he'd allowed himself to be so distracted as not to notice someone else enter the barn. Ezra had already finished the milking, fed the cows, and left while Jess had been readying fresh water buckets and daydreaming. He shook his head. Fortunately, the new arrival was Adalwin Stahl, Harriet Mercer's driver. The man had offered some good insights when they had all discussed the attack on Chance and Regina. He was also good with Harriet's team of big vanners and his own rather unpredictable gelding. Jess was inclined to trust him, but Jess still needed to be more careful.
"Mr. Stahl," Jess stopped next to the man, "good to see you're feeling better, but I'd have taken care of your mount." He nodded at the two rows of stalls, "I won't get them groomed before breakfast, just fed and watered. Figured I'd groom 'em and turn them out to graze while I clean the stalls."
There was a slight shift of stance, a tensing of shoulders that told Stahl he had startled the other man, though the words were spoken totally calm. "Mr. Harper," he returned the curt greeting. "Need a hand with those and the stables?" his eyes went down to the entire row of horses, H.G.'s team needed looking after too. "Putting them out to graze will be great, especially for Wilhelm, he detests stables with a passion."
Jess turned toward the stall where the horse stood munching his feed. To most, the horse probably appeared nondescript. He saw a rich mahogany bay coat that was well cared for, black mane, tail, and stockings, a strong body with powerful haunches and good sloping shoulders. The horse's head was a bit long for Jess's taste but had good bone structure.
The cowboy smiled as the horse's ears twitched nervously. Horses usually didn't like being stared at for long periods. To them, that much focus meant a predator was sizing them up for dinner. "Quite a bit of Mustang blood. I bet he was brought in on a roundup and not handled properly. Mustangs make great mounts. They're very intelligent, strong, unmatched endurance, agile, but they need gentled, not broken. It's also best to cut out the older horses and let them go back to the wild." Horses were in Jess's blood, they were his comfort zone. He was a good cattleman, but far better with horses.
"You know more about him than I learned in one year with his majesty," Stahl replied. It was amazing what Jess could tell about the horse in just a short time. There was a familiarity when he spoke about them, something he was utterly assured of. Stahl wondered how much of his life Jess had spent rearing horses. "He needs patience, though." He cast a look down the row, taking the cue from Jess on where to start with the work.
"They're all the better for having some time taken with them," Jess replied, "unfortunately, some people don't have the patience or the time. It's like supplying the US Cavalry with remounts. The army doesn't always allow the time needed to gentle a wild horse properly. There are costs too. The less time spent breaking and training, the less feed and care that animal requires, and the less the army has to pay for it."
Jess pulled an empty water bucket from one of the vanner's stalls and hung the fresh one in. Someone had taken the time to have one side of all the water buckets flattened, or had had them made that way. Each stall had a hook and a narrow wooden shelf. The buckets slid onto the shelf, the flat side resting against the wall and the handle looped over the hook. A determined horse could pull the bucket loose, but it would take more effort than it would for buckets that were just hung on pegs in the stalls. It was a clever and practical design.
The two men worked quickly and soon each horse had a fresh bucket of water. Jess returned to the end of the barn where the tools were stored and lifted a wheelbarrow off its hook. He checked to make sure it was clean before wheeling it to the feed room to fill with oats and cracked corn. It must have been standard operating procedure because the sound of the wheelbarrow elicited a couple of excited whinnies from the Hales' horses. "This is easier than hauling buckets back and forth," Jess told the other man as he set to measuring enough feed out of the big barrels into the wheelbarrow. He glanced at the German and gave a slight shrug of his shoulders. What little they had spoken as they worked had been somewhat formal. "You can call me Jess if you like," he offered, a genial note in his voice. "I can't help feeling that Mr. Harper is my father or brother, especially here."
There was a strange dichotomy about Mr. Harper... Jess... that Stahl could not help but notice as they worked. On the one side, he was at home in this place, moved about with a sense of familiarity but underlying there was a hesitance that came out even more clearly in his words. "Jess," he repeated the man's first name, "My name is Adalwin, but you might find it easier to call me Stahl. It can't be easy for you to be back here." The words came out more clunky than Stahl had liked, the words seemed too direct, too straight to the point, yet finding a better way to phrase them seemed impossible, at least in English. "How are you holding up?"
Although it was common practice to address a man simply by his surname, it seemed rude to Jess, so he tried pronouncing Adalwin the same way that Stahl had. No matter how hard he tried, it simply did not sound right when spoken in his slightly rough, deep voice. Finally, he shook his head and grinned at the older man, "Okay, Dal it is." His pronunciation of Dal sounded more like dale instead of doll giving a good strong ring to the name when coupled with the man's surname.
Dal... Dale, there was something about the way Jess spoke that name, that elicited a small smile from Stahl. The name was new, but oddly it did not feel foreign. He could not say why but he had the strong feeling he'd keep the name Jess had just given him.
Stahl's last question had been uttered directly but not unkindly. At first, Jess was hesitant to respond, his instinct was to hold such feelings close and private. It was how he'd been raised. It was also not in his nature to lie, so he gestured at the barn, waving his hand to indicate the land beyond it, "I'd put away how much I loved this place while I was away. Now that I'm home, it's confusing. I feel at home and out of place all at the same time." Jess paused, not sure how to explain, "It was never meant to be mine, even in part." And that was the crux of it. The ranch, the land, all of the family's assets were supposed to have been Chance's and then it would have gone to his children. Jess had grown up here, but he hadn't worked for it. It went against his grain to simply be given half the ranch.
"Coming home into one's fatherhouse to find it empty..." Dal could understand that all too well. The way Jess's shoulders sagged, he could almost see the burden that was on the other man now. "It may not have been meant to be yours, but maybe you were meant to be here now," Dal said softly. "So the children still have an uncle, a family to take care of them, to make sure they grow up safe. Someone to make sure, they still have a home."
"Maybe," Jess conceded with a note of doubt lingering in his voice. "It is what it is. For now anyway. The Judge might have a different idea." Part of him dreaded the hearing. He'd never had many good brushes with the judicial system. Backing down or running were not options either. "What about you? Kind of far from home for you." Jess couldn't help but wonder what would send someone like Dal, an obviously well-educated man from a foreign nation to the American frontier.
"The Judge is H.G.'s task, and I have the feeling that she will make him see things her way," Dal replied. He could hear the doubt in Jess' voice, the pain would not go away for quite some time. Were Chance and the family buried decently, he suddenly wondered. They might have to scrounge up whatever passed for a pastor in these parts and have a service there for Jess and the others to attend. The question Jess asked chased away those thoughts. He had sometimes been asked when people noticed he was a doctor, or he was a soldier or both. The accent gave the rest away, though he had rarely told them much. Somehow Jess deserved an answer, honesty always went both ways.
"During the ride here I heard that you killed a man in these parts, Jess." Dal began, without any judgment in his voice. "Somewhere over there, they will have me wanted for a similar crime, for killing a man, a Major of no mean estate and title, and leaving the troops before they could court-martial and shoot me for it." It was the truth as much as it would remain. Even if by some smart thinking someone pointed out to them that it was exceedingly unlikely Stahl could have won that illegal duel, the fact that he had left, made it fact that he had to be the killer. Which was best that way.
Jess scooped another bucket of feed out of the barrel and poured it into the wheelbarrow. Then, he looked up, regarding Dal steadily out of his blue eyes. "Murder or self-defense?" His voice echoed Dal's lack of judgment. For Jess, who had been on both sides of more than his share of gunfights and no doubt would be again, the circumstances mattered.
There was something about that calm question that reached Dal more than had any question asked about that night ever. He grabbed a bucket, keeping up the work, for a moment he was silent. "It was not self-defense, it was not my life he threatened," he replied emptying the bucket into the wheelbarrow. "One might call it murder. I did not give him a fair chance. He had already caused one death and was about to cause another, which, like the first, would never be laid at his feet."
Continuing to regard the other man steadily, Jess thought about what Dal had just said. Most of the men he'd killed had been cases of self-defense. They had either challenged him or pulled their gun on him first. There had been others that he'd shot to save someone else. Of those, he'd been the one to draw first or challenge the other man first. Jess was quick-tempered but had a fairly strict personal code when it came to drawing his gun. He'd never broken that code without regretting it later. "The first man I killed, the one when I was seventeen...he'd tried to rape Regina Cantrell the day before. The next day, he shot at her. It wasn't self-defense. I was putting down a rabid dog." Jess surprised himself by his last admission. With those words, he realized that killing Calvin Steelgrave would never haunt his conscience again. He might have to face the fallout from it someday, but he realized his soul was clean when it came to that day thirteen years ago.
Seventeen...the words took Dal by surprise. At seventeen Jess had been forced to kill a man to protect Regina Cantrell, probably the very same woman, married to Chance and now deceased in an Indian raid. At seventeen, Dal's life too might have changed. He could have gone from worrying about passing Latin and Greek exams to seeing his father judged and imprisoned for life, and the family's possessions taken away. Death, in the form of killing or being responsible for it, had not entered Dal's life for some years to come. For which he was grateful. He regarded Jess with a new respect now, seeing that the man had been forced to make a life-and-death decision at such a young age and come out on the right side of it. No matter how angry or helpless Dal might have felt back then, in 1850...he doubted he could claim the same, had the test come to him. "Standing up to a man willing to commit such a crime...that takes courage," he said. The work had never quite stopped for both of them, though the wheelbarrow was now nearly full. "I too was young, when I left home," he said, surprising himself. "Hearing your story reminds me that I was lucky there, though it did set me on the path of becoming a soldier."
Regina Cantrell...her rescue and the death resulting from it might have been the reason Jess left his home, and in turn, her death was what brought him back to this place, with all the dangers that came with it. Suddenly Dal realized that he was not sure anymore if he could just wander on, ride off come morning and forget about the people he'd met. For the first time in almost four years, he felt that he should stay and help. Strange though that was.
Soldier or not, Jess felt that a man who had become a doctor would not willingly take someone's life lightly. He dropped the bucket he'd been using to scoop the feed out of the barrel. "This could be a good place to settle down in. There's good land to be had. You could make a good life here." Jess then offered a smile and added, "We'd better get these broomtails fed before we're late for breakfast. I understand that Miss Mary, the cook, has a strict policy regarding meal times." He winced and chuckled as his stomach growled in response to the mention of food.
"Then we better not give Miss Mary any reason to have our hides," Stahl replied, taking the other bucket and joining Jess distributing the food to the horses.