Arrivals and Departures (Part 2)
The Long Road Home
Location: Sherman Ranch, Laramie, Wyoming
Timeline: Late June 1875
Marianne ushered her husband and their unexpected guest into the modest ranch house that also served as the waiting area for stage passengers. The walls were whitewashed, and cheerful curtains hung over the windows. A screen hung askew from the window furthest from the front door, a victim of Marianne and her rifle. The glass windows had been removed for the summer months and screens hung in their place. In inclement weather, there were storm shutters that could be closed to block the rain. A dark leather sofa stood against the wall beneath the windows, and three comfortable rocking chairs were arranged in front of the fireplace. A beautiful oak rolltop desk stood against the opposite wall between two doors that led to bedrooms.
On the far side of the room, nearest the open doorway that led into the kitchen, was a long, heavy table. Several chairs were arranged around it, and it was to it that Marianne gestured, "Please, have a sit. May I get you anything?" She waved her hand at a pitcher of water that set on the table and the glasses that stood beside it.
"Mama? May we come in now?" The voice belonged to Andy, the oldest of her two children. He was peering around the corner of the door to the bunkhouse that had been annexed onto the house to serve as Jess's bedroom.
"You may, but stay away from the windows," Marianne ordered, "and bring me some clean clothes and hot water."
After settling into his usual chair at the table, Sherman looked at the tall stranger from the stagecoach, "Thank you for your help out there, Mister...?" His voice ended in a query for the man's name.
Cantrell finished reloading the smaller Colt and closed the loading gate. He shoved it back into the shoulder rig under his coat then pulled the Schofield. He broke it open and began sticking shells into the cylinder. "Quentin Cantrell. I want to thank you all for helping me out there, but to be honest, they were only partly after me..."
Marianne and Sherman spoke at the exact same moment and in almost identical tones of worry and fear, "Jess!" Husband and wife exchanged a look, glancing guiltily toward the door, realizing it had just opened.
"What have I done this time?" Jess's voice asked from the door just as a clatter of hooves signaled the stagecoach was on its way to Laramie. His wrinkled eyebrows with their inner upward curve gave him the look of a worried puppy.
Marianne got up from her seat as Andrew came in with the requested first aid supplies. She indicated the table nearest to where her husband was seated. Andy set the bowl of hot water and cloths on the table. He'd also thought to bring the small bottle of denatured alcohol. She glanced at Jess while helping John ease his shirt off his shoulder, "There's fresh coffee, Jess. Get us a cup. Andy, bring in the sandwiches, please."
Realizing he would not be allowed to get an answer to his question until he did Marianne's bidding, Jess headed for the kitchen and returned with the coffee pot and cups. He poured cups for himself, Marianne, and Sherman, and then raised his eyebrows in question at their guest, "Coffee?"
Cantrell slid his Schofield into its holster and shook his head as he reached to pour a glass of water. "No thanks, Not a big coffee drinker." Cantrell stood and sipped his water until everyone had their choice of beverage, then he cleared his throat. "Jess...have a seat...please."
Jess gave the dark-clad man a curious look, but since Sherman and Marianne seemed to accept his presence without question, he took a seat. He was exhausted in a way that only came after an intense surge of adrenalin. In the midst of the gunfight, Jess had not realized how it was pumping through him, keeping him alert, on point and on target. Now, he felt as if he had run ten miles carrying his saddle, and maybe his horse as well. He took a sip of his coffee and looked at the man expectantly. Was it possible this stranger from the stage knew why those gunslingers had hit the ranch? Had he been the target?
He watched the man as he seemed to be gathering his thoughts. Jess took note of the well-cut black trousers, shirt, and a supple leather jacket. The wide leather gunbelt was also black worn so that the holster rested against his thigh, each to reach the gun holstered there. His dark hair was cut short, and his dark brown eyes were fathomless. Still, Jess thought there was something familiar about the stranger's eyes although he could not place what it was. He was sure they had never met before.
Cantrell stood there a moment, gathering his thoughts, then he took a deep breath. "Jess, there's no easy way to say this, but your brother, my sister, and two of their children are dead. Their coach was set upon by Indians on the road. I did not get many details before I had to leave to come here."
A literal, visceral pain lanced through Jess at the man's words. Chance was dead? Regina? A niece and nephew that he'd never met! All of them dead. Two of their children? They'd had more children after he was there in '68 for his mother's funeral? Obviously. Jess almost moaned as he tried to make his thoughts stop ricocheting like a bullet bouncing from one hard surface to another. He barely registered John's strong, comforting grip on his arm, or that Marianne now stood protectively next to him, her expression one of pain on his behalf.
Cantrell watched Harper trying to process the news. "The only good news is there were survivors. Your niece, Nettie, was not with the family and her twin, your nephew Cody, survived somehow. They are at the ranch being watched over by the staff...but there's a problem. There are people after the ranch and the land, and they have attorneys who claim the children are not old enough to inherit. Technically, they have a point, but the judge also saw in the will that your brother listed a guardian who could assume the ownership until they came of age..."
Jess said, "You're Reggie's brother, Quentin." His voice was flat and unemotional with shock. He felt a shudder pass through his body. "Those men were here for you?" Jess wasn't ready to ask questions about Chance and his family yet.
Cantrell nodded. "I am, and if it had only been the two in the stage I would agree, but I don't think those riders were for me. I think they planned to kill everyone here and make it look like an outlaw attack...maybe trying to get money." Cantrell's eyes moved to Sherman and his wife. "I am sorry for bringing trouble with me, but I had to find Jess fast."
Marianne continued to stand behind Jess, rubbing his upper back, in the same manner as she did when one of the boys was sick or hurt. Andy had disappeared into the bedroom he shared with his brother. He was young enough to be excited and curious and old enough to feel responsible for Mike. It was John who now focused his attention on Cantrell, "Jess was named the boy's guardian? Trustee for the estate too, I take it?"
Cantrell settled into an empty chair as he nodded. "There isn't anyone else, and if he doesn't come home, or isn't judged suitable, the Harpers...such as are left...will lose everything."
'...the Harpers...such as are left...'
That line, spoken in the man's honeyed Southern drawl made Jess actually shudder. He glanced over at John and leaned back slightly into Marianne's hand, needing the warmth that seeped through his vest and shirt. Jess's mind continued to balk at directly confronting his brother's death. "I have to go back to Montana, Sherm. I can't let the boy lose everything. I owe it to him and to Chance, Reggie, and the other two kids."
John nodded, his expression sad, "It's the right thing to do, Jess."
Jess straightened in his chair slightly, "Do we have enough time for me to take care of some business here? I'm guessing the boy is with Hap Forest and his family? Hap's the ranch's foreman or was. Been there forever."
Cantrell nodded. "Mr. Forest and his wife are staying at the ranch to care for the children. He retired several months ago, but has been helping out until the new foreman, Rory McKenna, settles in." He paused for a moment, then continued, "We are on a deadline, but you can settle things here. I need to send a telegram to let the judge know I found you and we will be heading in. Where is the nearest telegraph?"
"Laramie, next to the stage depot which is where I need to go. I'll ride in with you," Jess rose to his feet. "Mose was gonna tell Sheriff Randall what happened and get him to send a wagon for the dead. I'll stop by too and let him know what we've learned from Mr. Cantrell here. It'll be dark when we get back, keep supper warm."
"What did you do with...them?" Marianne asked, hesitant to use the word bodies for some reason.
"Mose helped me drag them to the shed and put a tarp over 'em," Jess walked to the fireplace and reached up to slide a section off the mantel. He pulled out a box and brought it back from the table where he sat down and pulled out an oil wrapped gun. If possible, his expression was even sadder and his eyes more shadowed as he looked at the shiny Colt Peacemaker that lay within the folds of the oilcloth. The gun had been customized for a purpose that he knew the Shermans would rather not think about and that he thought he'd put behind him. The front sight had been filed down, and the smooth ivory grips added. Jess had also had the internal works of the gun modified to make it fast shooting. It had been optimized for a life where those changes to the weapon made a difference to his chances to survive a fight.
Jess looked up as Sherman made a small sound when he pulled his other gun from the holster and slipped the shiny Colt in. He looked at his friend and a slight smile hovered for a moment, "I know, but it can't be helped."
Cantrell watched Harper pull the box out and open it. As soon as he laid his eyes on the Colt within, he realized there was probably more to the man than he had first suspected. A weapon like that would cost a normal cowhand a month's pay, possibly two. No one would buy a weapon like that without the need and skill to use it. "Jess is right, I expect the people out to get the ranch will try more than once to win this little war." Cantrell set his glass down and then blinked. "Oh, I just remembered...I came in with the stage. Might I buy or borrow one of your horses? I doubt we will be using any public transport back to Kalispell."
Sherman looked Cantrell over, then raised an eyebrow at Jess, "The buckskin?"
"Yeah, good choice," Jess replied and then said to Cantrell, "Try the buckskin Sherm just mentioned. If he goes all right for you, can make you a good price. He's a good horse."
Jess led the way to the barn, "He's in the last stall. You'll find tack in the room at the back. Pick a bridle with a low curb." He walked off, stopping by a stall that housed a big black and white paint. Fishing some dried apple out of his pocket, he handed it to the horse. A few minutes later, he was leading Lakota out to the yard. Grasping the saddle horn, he gave a little hop, setting his foot in the stirrup - a harder move than it appeared - and swung easily into the saddle. The big horse sidled restlessly as they waited for Cantrell.
Once Cantrell was mounted on the big buckskin, Jess swung Lakota into an easy gallop and led off toward the east.