Originally published on Sun Oct 8th, 2017 @ 6:28pm
Most visitors to the region would not be able to tell that the town of Kalispell was less than five years old. Before that, it had been part of a stockade style settlement called Fort Kalispell and lay five miles south of its present location. In its infinite wisdom, the powers that be in Washington D.C. had determined that the newly opened territory of Montana needed a full-time military fort in the western region. They had dispatched the Army Corps of Engineers to make that happen. Their reports indicated that building a fort closer to Flathead Lake was unfeasible due to flooding and that the current location of the trading post was the ideal spot as it was situated on a flat-topped hill between two rivers. D.C. told them to make it happen, and within a few months, the town had been erected five miles north of the fort, and the fort itself had been converted to an all-military establishment with stronger, more secure walls.
While housed within the old trading post's walls, the town's growth had been limited. Once it had been moved and rebuilt, it began to flourish. More and more people settled in the area and fewer of them made the arduous trip to Missoula to do their shopping. Along with the influx of people, more businesses opened, and the town continued to grow. Due to a lack of danger from hostile Indians, more and more people made Kalispell the go-to spot to get away from the hot, crowded cities along the east coast. The more adventurous found the area ideal for exploring the wilderness, hunting, camping, and fishing. The fertile land made the surrounding area ideal for farming and ranching. The town council and local developers avoided mentioning the real dangers of the territory.
Shade Thornton and his traveling companions had broken camp before sunrise that morning. Despite a sleepless night, he had pushed them hard once they were back on the road north, only allowing short rest breaks. He'd allowed a longer break opposite Fort Kalispell, where he'd spent a few minutes staring at the new, higher walls and the sight of armed soldiers pacing its catwalks, watching for trouble. Shade felt sure they'd given him and his friends a good looking over as well. For the next five miles, they'd passed several small ranches, farms and a few scattered homes. The houses became clustered closer together as they approached the south end of Kalispell.
At the sign that announced they were entering the town limits of Kalispell, Shade and Quentin dismounted. Leading their mounts, they walked ahead of Harriet's private coach. Shade felt as if his head were set on a swivel as his eyes swung from one side of the street to the other, trying to watch everything and everyone at once. The only difference in this town and hundreds of others that Shade had been in over the last thirteen years was that it seemed cleaner and the buildings were in better repair, none of them sported peeling paint and broken shutters. Other than that, groups of one and two story buildings liked the street, with wide, elevated boardwalks in front of them. As an added bonus for the shoppers and townspeople, most of the sidewalks were covered. Overall, with its backdrop of towering mountain ranges and peaks, it was a beautiful little town. It also made Shade extremely uneasy.
Just past a sign set atop a low stone wall that announced the presence of the Belle-St. Regis Plaza, Shade saw someone cross from the sidewalk to take up a stance in the middle of the street. He was pretty sure he knew who it was but had been hoping to avoid this particular complication for a little bit longer. As if reading a silent, unseen signal, the team of big Gypsy horses also slowed their pace as Harriet Mercer pulled them into a slow walk.
The woman standing in the street was a stunning vision of wild, unkempt golden brown hair and cat-like hazel eyes. She was clad in tan work pants and a dusty brown man's shirt. Affixed to the left of the shirt was the badge that proclaimed her a deputy marshal. A brown leather gun belt rode low on her slender hips and matched her dark brown leather boots. A round-brimmed hat rested on her back, held by its leather strap around her neck. She also wore a red bandana loosely knotted under the collar of her shirt. Her small, but very capable hands held an 1873 Winchester .44-40 carbine at the ready.
"Stop right there, Thornton." The woman's voice was sultry, low-pitched, and hostile. Apparently, she was not the neighborhood welcoming committee. This was born out by her next words, "Just turn around and ride back the way you came. We don't want your kind here."
As Shade started to reach up to tilt his hat back, she brought the rifle level and ratcheted a round into the chamber. He spread his hands out to either side, "Hello, Hannah."
"Deputy Marshal Cory," Hannah snapped, her eyes flashing dangerously.
Quentin idly moved his horse's reins, his mount slowly wandered into the line of fire between the woman in the street and Shade. Cantrell reached up and touched the front brim of his hat. "Howdy, ma'am. My name is Quentin Cantrell...might I ask why you seem so intent on shooting my friend in broad daylight in front of all these witnesses?" Cantrell's intentionally thickened accent helped push the message through to indicate all the people watching from the sidewalks and windows of the buildings on either side of their little encounter.
Cantrell's movements, though subtle, were not lost on Hannah. He had deftly maneuvered his big buckskin gelding between her line of fire and Shade Thornton. She couldn't help but take a moment to admire the horse as, next to her father, she loved horses more than anything else. The animal was tall, at least sixteen hands, and his coat gleamed with good health and care. The dark gold of his coat was offset by the dark seal-brown color of his luxurious mane and tail. His off hind leg sported a white stocking that faded into deep brown at the hock while the other three legs were dark brown from the knee and hocks down to near the fetlock where white socks gleamed in the sunlight. The gelding had a beautifully refined head noting good breeding. From the good muscle and powerful body, Hannah guessed he had a purebred Colonial Quarter horse in his lineage. A refined head and slender inward tipped ears suggested he also had Spanish Mustang in his breeding as well. His intelligent face was marked by a stripe of white that started in the shape of a crescent moon and ran down to near his muzzle which was dark and marked by a small flesh-toned snip.
Hannah realized she had lost focus and scowled. In any other situation, she would likely be dead now! She turned her eyes back to Cantrell who was just almost as striking as his horse. He was tall, probably around six foot, medium in build and appeared to be in extremely good physical shape. He had thick, nearly black hair that was neatly barbered. Cantrell's eyes were wide-set and deep brown with flecks of gold. She put his age at a few years older than Shade, but still under forty. Hannah knew that because Regina Thornton often spoke of her older brother.
Cantrell's voice was really arresting. Hannah had never heard a Southern accent spoken, only read descriptions in books and they did not do it justice. Phrases like 'dripping with honey' or 'dulcet tones' could not accurately describe the man's deep voice or the softer enunciation of consonants and vowels that was still clear, concise and clearly understood. Some of the books she'd read had to have been written by pro-Union authors because they also equated the slower mode of speech with a lack of intelligence. One look at this man's face and eyes dispelled that notion immediately.
Hannah made a quick scan of the area. Cantrell was right. People were stopping to watch the tableau play out in the street although several had ducked into shops for safety. The man and woman seated in the driver's box of the coach had not moved. She didn't recognize him but had seen Harriet Mercer in town occasionally and recognized the private coach. There had only been a brief glimpse of the passenger leaving Hannah with the impression of youth and golden hair. Actually shooting Shade Thornton was obviously out under the circumstances. Besides, he was keeping his hands well away from the six-shooter resting on his hip.
Blue-green eyes slid over the man who was at the center of the standoff, such as it was, but Hannah did not want to really look at Shade Thornton. She didn't want to know if his eyes were still the same dark blue as the depths of Lost Lake or if that one lock of his raven black hair still stubbornly dropped on his forehead. Hannah did not want to really see him at the moment. She wanted to stay safely wrapped in her anger and hatred.
"Maybe you're not aware of the kind of company you're keepin', Mr. Cantrell? Or," Hannah briefly turned her attention to Thornton, "maybe you didn't think we'd get the wanted posters and handbills way off up here? I know why you're here, but they will be better off without a man like you around, safer. So maybe you ought to continue on through town with your party, Mr. Cantrell, and send Thornton back to wherever he's been holed up lately."
Cantrell's eyes narrowed, but he held his temper at her comments. Obviously, something was going between the two of them, but he seriously did not have time for this sort of nonsense...badge or no. "Deputy Marshal Cory..." Quentin said, some of the accent dropping from his voice. "...I understand you believe what you are saying, but you are laboring under a misapprehension." Cantrell straightened in his saddle and gestured at Shade with one hand. "...Mr. Thornton has been cleared of the accusations that caused those handbills and has papers with him that certify his innocence. I can also testify to the fact that when I found Shade, he was working at a ranch and stage relay with the full trust and love of the family that owned it." Quentin then leaned back over in his saddle and spoke lower between the two of them. "You do what you think you need to, Deputy, but if you point that rifle at Shade again, I will take it very personally." Cantrell's right hand rested lightly on the butt of his Schofield as he spoke.
Shade looked to Quentin where he sat on Paladin, effectively blocking Hannah's clean line of fire. Various emotions played inside him, although little was betrayed on his face. He wasn't accustomed to anyone taking his part in a fight. At least, not since childhood when Chance often intervened on his behalf, even against their father. In those few moments, Quentin seemed to establish something Shade had often heard Marianne Sherman say, "...family doesn't always consist of people you're blood-related to, Shade. Sometimes, circumstances create familial bonds that are just as strong..." He stepped away from Paladin, pulling Lakota with him. Shade was prepared to take on Hannah's ire since he knew from where it stemmed.
Before Shade could speak, a deep, beautifully modulated voice, called out from the sidewalk, "Deputy Marshal Cory! Lower your weapon and stand down." The order was given in an almost laconic tone, but there was steel in the voice of the man that spoke.
A slender, well-built man in his early sixties stepped out from under cover and off the boardwalk. He moved briskly, but not as if harried. His black hat was tilted back from his face showing short salt-and-pepper colored hair and dark brown eyes with hints of gold in their depths. He had a good-looking face with a strong, square jaw, firm lips, and straight nose. The man wore clean, pressed denim pants, a light colored shirt, and a dark vest with a bad affixed to the front of it. A black leather gun belt supported a holstered Remington .44.
Marshall Scott Cory was the epitomé of the steely-eyed lawman, even if he was the deputy marshal's father. He tipped his hat politely in the direction of the coach, "Miss Mercer, it's good to see you back in town." He turned his attention to the two men and offered his hand to Quentin, "Good to see you back, Mr. Cantrell." Finally, he looked directly at the younger man, "Shade, sorry you had to come home under these circumstances."
Shade relaxed a bit more. Evidently, his past with Hannah was not going to be held against him. That was good to know although it might have been a different matter had he successfully eloped with Hannah thirteen years before. He flashed a glance at the woman but said nothing. No need to add salt to the wounds. Hannah spared a glare for her father, turned and walked toward the building that was labeled Marshal's Office. She stopped at the hitching rail to slide her rifle into the scabbard strapped to the bareback rig of a big black roan Appaloosa. Grabbing the reins, she vaulted easily onto the gelding's back, spun him around, and galloped south.
Scott watched his daughter ride off and shook his head ruefully, "Sorry about that," he said to the two men. "I'll speak to her."
"No need, sir," Shade said, gathering his reins and preparing to mount Lakota. "She has her reasons for hatin' me."
"She does, boy, but I can't have one of my deputies goin' off half-cocked," Scott said affably. "Once you both get yourselves settled and that meeting with Judge Mandrell out of the way, stop in and see me. I have some things to go over before I can close my file." That wasn't exactly true. Scott had no intention of completely closing out the file on the deaths of the Thorntons. He just couldn't say that out loud on Main Street.
"Much appreciated, Marshal. I would have hated to have to do something to stop her, but I wasn't going to let her use her badge to hurt Shade..." Quentin glanced back at the wagon. "Everyone okay back there?"
Shade grabbed the saddle horn and pulled himself up, expertly setting his foot in the stirrup and swinging his leg over the saddle in his signature style of mounting. As he settled into the saddle, he turned to glance back at the coach. Harriet nodded to Quentin's inquiry, "We are fine, Mr. Cantrell." Shade saw her gather the reins, obviously intending to take over driving since she was familiar with the area. Scott Cory stepped back out of the road and Shade reined Lakota in next to Quentin, intending to lead the way.
Out of the town's laws regarding speed, they kept the horses to a walk. Just past Kalispell's northern town limits, a signpost indicated that Whitefish was fifteen miles north and Lost Lake Ranch was west, no distance was given. Quentin reined Paladin in next to Lakota, close enough that he could speak in a low voice that only Shade could hear, "I'm not expecting you to explain all this to me right now and right here, but we will talk about this...soon."