One for the Road
The Long Road Home
Location: Sherman Ranch, Laramie, Wyoming
Timeline: Evening, Late June, 1875
The ride to town had been uneventful although conversation had been sporadic, limited to the information necessary to get them to Laramie and where to meet once their errands were complete. Jess had stopped by the sheriff's office to sign statements regarding the attack at the Shermans' ranch and to request the sheriff keep an eye on things for a few days. Sheriff Randall had genuinely been sad over the news that his young friend and favorite deputy sheriff would be leaving for an unknown length of time, but he promised to keep an eye on the Shermans. Jess then headed for the stagecoach offices to give his official notice. The scene there had played out much the same way it had with the sheriff. Angus Frasier had ended their conversation with a promise of Jess's job being there for him should he be able to return.
From there, Jess had gone to the bank to take care of some business before heading to the general store where he met back up with Cantrell. With far more experience at living off the land and riding the high country, Jess was the one that gathered the supplies they would need for the first part of the trip. The route he had planned in his head would allow them to spend most nights in a town, but they would have to make camp along the way. Jess didn't want to strip the Shermans of supplies.
Jess and Quentin made it back to the ranch just as the shadows were lengthening into the night. Andy and Mike had been allowed to wait up and have dinner with them although both boys were quite subdued with the knowledge that Jess would be leaving the next morning. He promised them he'd not leave before breakfast and was the one to go in and read to them when Marianne finally insisted they go to bed.
Marianne had outdone herself on dinner. They'd had roasted rosemary and thyme chicken with new potatoes as the main course. For desert, there had been Jess's favorite, apple pie with clotted cream. Now, well fed and replete, the adults sat on the porch, enjoying the cool breeze and the sounds of various nocturnal animals. John and Marianne sat on the swing leaving the rocking chairs for Jess and Quentin. Jess had his feet propped on the porch railing, one leg bent slightly so that he could push the rocker back and forth. Jess did not want to go to bed yet, he didn't want the next morning to come any faster than it had to.
Sherman cleared his throat. He'd also been putting off dealing with the other man's departure, but business had to be dealt with. "Jess, about your brand..."
Jess stirred and glanced over at the swing. Just over a year before, Sherman and Marianne had asked Jess to become a full partner in the ranch and relay station. Jess had declined but agreed to take a share of the livestock. He had worked hard to build up the bloodlines of the cattle and horses and was proud of them. "I've had my eye on the Grossly place. It goes up for auction in a month. Try to get it. I've had a power of attorney drawn up so you can legally purchase it in my name. Mr. Frasier will go the purchase price, and I'll pay him."
John leaned forward, his eyes lighting up. It sounded as if Jess hoped to come back someday. "There's a good house on the land, good water too. We can use the extra grazing, maybe lease the house and a couple of acres."
Marianne lay aside the shirt she'd been mending for Jess, "It's a beautiful little house."
"If you can't lease it outright, see about offering it to your next ranch hand. You'll have to replace me," Jess told them.
Sherman nodded. Jess was right. They'd have to get someone in, but replacing him would be impossible. He shook his head and changed the direction of the conversation, "How'd that buckskin go for you, Mr. Cantrell?"
Cantrell stirred. He had been feeling the atmosphere of Jess departure the next day and hated the way it made the Shermans feel. Cantrell's rational side knew he had done the right thing, but it did not ease the awkwardness he felt tearing Harper away from a family he obviously was a part of. "That is a damned fine horse...ahem...sorry, ma'am." Cantrell nodded toward Marianne before continuing. "He liked me for some reason, and I didn't feel like I had to prove which one of us was in charge." Cantrell took a drink of tea from his cup and smiled. "Most horses I have ridden in the past ten years were rented livery animals...it feels great to have a good horse under me for a change."
Marianne laughed lightly, "You wouldn't know it now, but he threw Jess at least five times a day while he was breaking him in. Once he decided that there was no getting out of it, he settled right down. Incredibly smooth gaits. I am glad he suited you." She leaned forward to lift the teapot off the small table Sherman had brought outside. After refilling her cup, she freshened Quentin's. "Pardon me if I'm prying, Mr. Cantrell, but you're from the South?" Marianne gave a self-conscious chuckle, "I couldn't help noticing your lovely accent."
Cantrell added some sugar and sat back, stirring his cup. "I am, and that's the nicest way anyone has asked me that in a long time..." Cantrell actually grinned. "Those conversations usually end with gunfire or a fistfight. I was born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina...at least until I went to West Point. The war came about a year after I graduated and after...well there wasn't much left keeping me there, and I headed out here." He sat silently for a moment then inhaled as he sat up straighter. "So where are y'all from?" Cantrell's gaze passed across both Shermans.
"Here," John said with a rueful laugh. "I was born and raised right here, this ranch, this house."
"St. Louis," Marianne answered for herself. "My folks came west on a wagon train, looking for something better. I found John," her eyes danced with mischief. "I've heard that Charleston is lovely although I'm sure that wasn't the truth at the end of the war." She did not want to open old wounds, but she did want to know more about the man Jess would be riding north with. Her motherly instincts would not be routed. "How did your sister come to be in Montana?" She asked. "If it's not too painful to talk about, of course," she immediately added, a kind note in her gentle voice.
Cantrell could not help but smile at Marianne's protective probing. "Oh, no no...nothing like that. When the war was getting started, we had no way to know how bad things might get. Some people thought we would whip the Yankees in a month, but others knew it would never be that easy. My parents thought it would be best if Reggie...Regina...was sent west to not be in danger. There was nothing they could do about my level of danger, but they could not bear to think about the possibility of both of us dying. My father and Jess's had a long-standing business arrangement, and he trusted Mr. Harper."
Jess had remained quiet, listening to the conversation flow around him. Marianne was an excellent hostess, kind, gracious and charming unless given reason to be otherwise and then she could be a lioness. She had the gift of being easy to talk to and confide in. John was the same way, good at drawing people out, making them feel welcome and wanted. Now, he stirred and reached for the coffee pot, refilling his cup before leaning back. "Reggie always spoke highly of you, Mr. Cantrell. She adored her big brother and was quite proud of you. I didn't recognize your name at first. She always referred to you as my older brother, and I'd gotten into the habit of thinking of her as Mrs. Harper, or Chance's wife." Jess's deep, gravelly voice was quiet with reflection, and he had lost some of the usual cowboy drawl.
Cantrell nodded and smiled. "Reggie took what life dealt her and made something she was proud of. I figure she made it out of the war with the most treasure of anyone..." Cantrell's face closed down tight as he stared out into the night. "Someone knows who killed her and her family, or the person or people who did will let slip word they did. That's all I need."
Jess looked startled and turned to face Cantrell, "So you don't believe it was Indians, renegade or otherwise?"
Cantrell shrugged. "Don't misunderstand me, Jess...Indian, white man...I don't care who...but whoever killed our family members will die."
"Indians, even the most warlike tribes, rarely attack without some kind of provocation," Jess said, almost musingly. "The northern and western Montana tribes have lived in peace with us better than most. The Nez Perce just want to be left alone, same, in general, for the Northern Blackfeet. I know that better than most, my grandmother was of the Deepwater Clan...at least half." He stretched slightly, "Attacking a lone family traveling the road and not through their lands is just...odd." Jess shrugged, "Not sayin' it never happens."
Cantrell nodded. "I bow to your more extensive knowledge on that subject. I thought it seemed unusual. They would know a single family heading back from town would not be loaded with much useful stuff for them, so that can't be a motive, and if your family was as friendly with them as you say, why make an enemy for no reason?"
"Not much use speculatin', I reckon," the languid drawl was back in Jess's voice as he slipped easily back into his guise of saddle tramp. "Guess I'd best be turnin' in. Promised the boys I'd spend time with them in the morning and I'd kinda like to do my chores before lighting out." Jess rose to his feet and gathered his coffee cup. He needed a little time alone to grieve for his brother, Regina, and for the children that he would never know. He offered Cantrell a slight smile, "I'll leave the lamp on low so you can find your bunk."
Cantrell nodded. "I'll try not to wake you up..." Cantrell watched Harper disappear into the house and sighed, then he reached into his nearby jacket for a leather case. He tugged a cheroot from the pouch and held it up to the Shermans. "Do you mind...?"
Sherman waved his hand, "No, sir. Marianne makes a fuss if someone smokes inside the house, but out here is fair game. I take it that you did not or do not reside permanently at the Harper ranch? Will you be staying on with Jess?"
Cantrell fished a match out of the pouch and struck it off the heel of his boot, he used it to get the end of the cheroot glowing with a few puffs before he waved the match out and stuck it back in the pouch. He leaned back and exhaled a long stream of smoke. "No...normally I live in San Francisco. I visited Reggie a few times a year, or if my business brought me to the area I would stop in and see how they were doing..." Cantrell reached up and tugged the cheroot from his mouth and held it in one hand. "...I never thought about staying on after all this. I am no rancher by any stretch of the imagination..." Cantrell raised his arm and waved his hand at everything beyond the porch. "You have something to be proud of here, Mr. Sherman, and Jess has the same back in Montana...but I'm not sure it's something I would be any help with."
"Thank you. It's hard work, but we're proud of it. And, please, call me John or Sherm. In a way, you're Jess's family, makes you a friend," Sherman leaned back. "Jess'll need help. He's good. Good with our boys. A hard worker. He's part of the reason this ranch and the relay station are doing as good as they are, but it's not a one man...or...," he glanced at Marianne, "a one-woman job."
Okay, John...call me Quentin..." Cantrell took another draw on the cheroot and blew out a thin stream of blue smoke. "...I know Jess did a lot to help you. Maybe we can find some way to keep you all in touch. I still hate pulling him away from here."
Sherman waved his hand and smiled, "We'll write and visit when we can. Montana is a long way off, but it's not in another country. Besides, if he's serious about Old Man Grossly's place, he'll have to visit down here as well. Five years ago, he nearly died on our doorstep. Time and distance won't damage the ties we all have to one another."
Marianne leaned forward, her fingers reaching out to graze Quentin's nearest hand, "You had to come for him, Quentin. He'd never forgive himself if he didn't go and we'd never hold him here. We don't want him to leave, but we couldn't do anything better for him than to make it as easy as we can for him to go. Sometimes, distance strengthens bonds instead of harming them."
Cantrell nodded. "That's kind of you to say, and I know both of you mean it. I won't let Jess forget to work on what he has here as much as what he is going home to..."
Sherman and Marianne both smiled. John gave Cantrell a nod, "We won't think of it as losing Jess, but as gaining a friend."