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Shade Thornton

Turn of the Wheel

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Originally published on Tue Aug 1st, 2017 @ 2:30pm 


It was just after daybreak when the train pulled into the station at Missoula Mills. People hustled and bustled to and fro outside the Missoula train depot. Most were retrieving their baggage and departing for unknown places. Shade was feeling the strain of trying to watch everyone at once, people exiting the train, people getting on the train for its return trip to Sacramento. Too many people, he thought, feeling the skin crawl between his shoulder blades. He didn't like the noise, and he most certainly did not like the smells. Shade was already missing the Big Open and wondering if he had made a mistake.


While Quentin stood off to the side, keeping watch and discussing where and how they should meet back up with Harriet Mercer, Shade headed for the horse car. She had told them she needed to go to the nearby livery stable and get her rig and team as well as hire a relief driver. Normally, she and Fang shared the chore of driving. Shade had managed not to snort in disbelief which was hypocritical at the very least. After all, on more than one occasion, Marianne Sherman had driven the stagecoach the final twelve miles into Laramie. That was completely different from handling a four-up for a one hundred twenty mile journey over rough to indifferent roads and terrain.


Both Lakota and Paladin, the only horses in the car, whinnied a greeting as Shade walked up the ramp. He was impressed with the fact that their tack was clean, oiled and waiting. A tall, lanky youth leaped to his feet and hurried to help Shade with the saddles. "I wasn't sure if you would be riding them today so fed them light, gave 'em a good drink," the boy said. "I sure will miss takin' care of 'em."


It was impossible not to hear the wistful note in the boy's light voice. Shade noted the horses' gleaming coats and how calm and settled both were even after the long train journey, a totally new experience for both animals. He snugged the cinch up on Lakota's saddle and glanced over his shoulder at the boy, "If you get tired of working for the railroad, come see Ezra Hale or me at Lost Lake Ranch in Kalispell. You wouldn't get top-hand wages right off, make more stayin' here, but could promise you'd work with good horses."


The boy slipped Paladin's bridle on, adjusting the noseband and fastening the throat latch quickly, "I'll do that someday, Mr. Thornton," he told the older man with a grin. "Gotta send money home for a while yet, but in a few months, I can do what I want."


Ricky led Paladin down the ramp and handed the reins over to Shade when he caught up with Lakota in tow. Shade flipped a five dollar gold piece to the boy, "Thanks for taking such great care of them." Ricky caught the coin and trotted back up into the livestock car. He would have to get it cleaned out and fresh bedding added before the train pulled out in a couple of hours. Shade led both horses the rest of the way over to the platform and tossed Paladin's reins to Quentin. "Since we both have some errands before we head out, I recommend we get one of the livery boys to walk them a bit. They need to get their land legs back under them." He glanced up at Harriet Mercer, "Where's the livery stable?"


Harriet had been studying the two horses with interest. Someone had once told her that you could judge a man's character by his horse. The two horses were well bred and seemed well-mannered. So much for what she'd been told! Harriet gestured toward the street across from the depot, "End of that alley. I will be ready to depart within an hour."


Quentin stood with one hand rubbing Paladin's head and along the spot below his eyes. He could see the horse was still a little out of sorts but doing better now that he was off the train. He leaned over and rested his forehead against Paladin's. "It's okay, I know how being in that box must have felt..." He glanced over at Shade. "I agree. Some peaceful walking would be best for both of them." He then turned to Harriet. "Madame, you may be ready to depart in an hour, but I would like to get a meal and pick up some supplies for the trail. When Shade and I are finished, we will come back to the stable to either meet or wait for you. You are free to be ready to leave whenever you wish, but I will not make similar demands on you."


Harriet narrowed her eyes, and even from where he stood, Shade could see the storm clouds gathering in them. However, she did not respond to Quentin. Instead, she turned to the waiting porter, "Please have our baggage delivered to the livery stable," she paused, and then continued, "within the hour."


Shade watched her turn, gather her sister up with a nod, and stalk off the depot's platform. "It's going to be a long ride north," he stated quietly before following in the direction of the stable. Quentin was right. They needed trail supplies. He had not wanted to pay the extra freight by getting what they needed in Sacramento. Besides, the perishables would have...well...perished.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)

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Chaffee's Livery Stable lay at the end of a short, wide alley. Of the three establishments in Missoula Mills, it had the best reputation when it came to the care of the animals under its roof. The one at the Guardian Arms Hotel was probably a little cleaner and definitely more expensive, but the care of the horses had been indifferent. The third one, McCaskey & Sons, was downright filthy and catered to a clientele that would be considered dodgy at best. In fact, it was usually a toss-up on whether the old man and his boys would be available to take care of clients or locked up at the local jail. In addition to providing long-term and short-term boarding for horses, they also offered storage for private coaches and carriages, drivers for hire, and horse rental. Once it became necessary for Harriet to travel to Missoula and on to Kalispell on a regular basis, she had lodged her team at Chaffee's.


The alley opened up to a large, tidy yard. On the left was a paddock where several horses picked at bales of hay or took advantage of the shade provided by an open-front shed that had been built against the barn. On the right was a long, low two-story building. The first floor housed a tack and feed store and the livery's offices. The upper floor was the Chaffee's home. Between the store and paddock was the entrance to the main barn. Through its breezeway was another area with two larger paddocks for grazing the animals and another large barn. Across from the rear barn was a long shed where carriages, coaches, and wagons were housed. Just beyond that was a blacksmith's shop. School-age boys scurried about, mucking out stalls or carrying feed. Mr. Chaffee and his wife were popular employers because they paid a fair wage, even to the boys, and let them keep their tips.


In front of the feed and tack shop was a wide, covered porch. Several tables were set along its length along with a few comfortable rocking chairs. In mild weather, this was where people would wait for their bill to be drawn up, feed orders to be filled or for their rentals to be brought to the yard. Mrs. Chaffee offered a light breakfast in the mornings, sandwiches at lunch and hot coffee or tea all day long. It was a service that even the hotel's livery stable did not offer its clients.


Shade and Quentin left Harriet near the porch to seek out one of the grooms to arrange for the walking of their saddle horses and to purchase supplies needed for the animals. Charles Chaffee walked out of the office door and down the steps. He glanced at Josephine and nodded toward the building's low porch, "There's seating and shade there, miss. I'll send out the Mrs. Chaffee with some coffee and tea." He turned cheerful brown eyes on Harriet, "We got your telegram, ma'am. Too late to get a reply to you though. Roman is putting the final touches on cleaning your harnesses and coach."


"Thank you, Mr. Chaffee," Harriet answered, offering the older man a pleasant smile. "I trust Mrs. Chaffee is well?"


"Oh yes, ma'am," the older man said with a smile, "family's doing quite well, thank you."


"Mr. Fang is attending to other business, Mr. Chaffee. I will need a relief driver. Is Mr. Bennett available?" There were two men that Harriet employed when Fang was not with her. Both were trustworthy, married men who were good with her horses. Usually, she included the need for a driver in her telegrams informing the Chaffees that she'd need her team ready on a certain date. This time, however, she had not expected to be without Fang.


"I'm sorry, Ms. Mercer, Christopher Bennett broke his arm last week and the other gentleman you normally employ, Mr. Holloway, decided to move to California." Chaffee sounded sincerely saddened to have to inform Harriet of the circumstances. He liked being able to accommodate his customers' needs and it distressed him to be unable to do so.


Harriet frowned. This was a predicament she had not anticipated. Ordinarily, it would not be an issue. She could simply remain in Missoula Mills until a driver became available or Fang could join her. However, time was of the essence on this trip. She did not like taking things like the vagaries of weather, the cooperation of hostile Indians, or the perfect operation of her coach and team to reach Kalispell before the injunction expired for granted. Harriet was also annoyed that she had put herself in this situation by becoming distracted before leaving San Francisco and getting the telegram off to Mr. Chaffee late. She had failed to leave time for him to reply as she normally did. Now, she would have to take a chance on a stranger to help drive her team, if there was one available.


"Mr. Chaffee, it is really quite urgent that I secure the services of a driver immediately," Harriet said, her voice firm although she knew that the man could not force a driver to materialize.


"Well, I don't know, ma'am," Chaffee drawled, "I wouldn't want to send you north with just anyone. His gentle brown eyes brightened, "Wait! I might just know a fella that would be available and would not...uh...take advantage of you." He reached into the pocket of his vest and brought out a folded napkin, "Apples for your team. I'll check and see if the man I'm thinking of would be interested."


"Thank you, Mr. Chaffee," Harriet said with heartfelt relief in her voice. She placed her attaché case and carry-all next to the table where Josephine and her birds were seated. She turned and headed into the barn with light and graceful steps, calling the names of her horses with an almost-girlish voice, "Manny, Traveler, Flint, Dancer!" She was answered by various sounds from the horses as they recognized her voice.


Arthur Chaffee walked around to the side door entrance where the employee break room was. The man he was looking for was not technically an employee of the livery stable, none of the drivers were, but he had a habit of dropping in to check for work. As he'd hoped, he was there. "Mr. Stahl, may I speak with you?"


Surprised at the voice from the side door Stahl turned around, interrupting his talk with one of the employees from the stable. "Of course, Mr. Chaffee," he replied walking up to the man, so they could have a proper conversation. "What can I do for you?"


Chaffee led Stahl out to the stable and down the breezeway to where Harriet stood by her horses' stalls, doling out bits of apple to each. Four pairs of equine eyes and one pair of human eyes turned to survey the newcomers. "Miss H.G. Mercer, this is Mr. Adalwin Stahl. It might be he'd be interested in helping you out, ma'am."


"Thank you, Mr. Chaffee," Harriet said, smiling at the older gentleman. "If you would have my coach wheeled out, I'll harness the horses myself."


As Arthur Chaffee headed off to make sure the coach was ready, Harriet turned her eyes to the gentleman that had accompanied the livery's owner. He was a tall man with blond hair worn slightly long and clear green eyes. She saw nothing that made her immediately uneasy. Harriet used her gut reaction as a barometer when evaluating people, but not as the only gauge. More times than not, however, her instinctive reaction had led her to turn down a client only to learn that they had been dishonest in representing themselves to her. Of course, her internal barometer was not always accurate.


"Mr. Stahl," Harriet greeted the gentleman and offered her hand. "I find that I am in need of a relief driver for the journey to Kalispell." She smiled slightly, "I tend to trust Mr. Chaffee's recommendations."


There were several things that Stahl noticed when Mr. Chaffee introduced him to Fräulein H.G. Mercer. The first was, of course, her appearance and a Lady of her good looks would have stood out anywhere. But she had such a well-kept, well-groomed appearance like she was just going to visit a fellow Lady, that certainly was a contrast to her surroundings. Without even noticing Stahl had straightened up, falling into the straight-backed formal stance that had become ingrained in the past. "Miss Mercer, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance," he responded to the introduction. The second observation of Ms. Mercer came once she spoke, and her words and carriage made it clear she was a woman of education. 


Mr. Chaffee had already headed off to bring out the carriage, so no explanations of the nature of the journey or where this Kalispell indeed might be found were forthcoming. Both had become secondary concerns though, no matter where this Kalispell was, even if it was right on the other side of the continent, denying a Lady the requested assistance was one rudeness Stahl hoped he'd never commit, no matter what else life still held in store for him. "I am quite honored by Mr. Chaffee's trust," he replied, deciding not to wonder what in the world the man based said trust. "I was indeed looking for a company to continue my own journey, so I would gladly accept your offer to be your secondary carter on that tour."


"I have business in Kalispell," Harriet went on to explain, taking note of his accent which, she guessed, placed him from somewhere within the German Empire. She was not good enough with the accents of Europe to narrow it down further than that. "Can you handle a coach and four," she waved a small, gloved hand at her four Gypsy horses.


"A coach and four are no problem," Stahl replied honestly, his eyes turning to the four horses. They were lighter than those he knew from supply wagons and other wagon trains, agiler too. "Tinkers," the observation was made only for himself as he studied them for a moment. "Do you wish me to harness them?" He asked, trying to word it in a way that made clear he did not doubt her own abilities, but kept the politeness that was to offer to take such a task from the hands of a Lady. She also might want to know how well he could handle those four.


Harriet smiled, "Not that I do not trust Mr. Chaffee. He and his establishment do an outstanding job of taking care of the boys." She rubbed the snip of white on Flint's nose as she spoke, "But, for my peace of mind, I like to harness them myself the first time out. It allows me to inspect them and their rig." Reaching up to the peg that held the halters and lead lines, she added, "I would be most appreciative of the help, Mr. Stahl. Will forty dollars for the week be sufficient for your time? Kalispell is one hundred twenty miles north, normally a two or three-day journey for a well-sprung team."


"Your offer is more than sufficient, Ma'am," Stahl replied, meaning it. Her words gave him a first sense where the journey would lead them. Without further ado, he moved to assist her as she harnessed the horses.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)

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Getting a meal and taking care of their personal errands, including stopping in at a telegraph office to send an alert the Hales they were in Missoula, took Shade and Quentin the better part of two hours. During their time out and about Missoula Mills, Shade could not rid himself of the feeling that they were being watched, maybe even followed. However, even utilizing all his skills, he could not detect anyone. There were just too many people moving around him, and he didn't like the feeling that someone could get the drop on them. By the time they returned to the livery stable, Shade was ready to get as far from Missoula as possible. It didn't help that this place held bad memories for the cowboy.


The yard at Chaffee's was less hectic. It promised to be a hot day, so most of the work was being done inside the big barns. Shade saw that Paladin and Lakota standing loose in the paddock in the shade of the front wall. Their saddles hung on the fence rails near the shed with the bridles hooked over the saddle horns. It looked as if someone had polished the tack even though it had been done by the boy on the train.


From the yard's entry, Shade could see the rear of a coach parked in the breezeway. He uttered a low whistle even though he could only see the vehicle's boot and pointed, nudging Quentin to walk with him and inspect the conveyance. Both men dropped their saddlebags and sacks near the coach's boot and walked down either side of the vehicle.


When H.G. Mercer stated that she would make the rest of the journey in her private coach, Shade had envisioned your basic doctor's type buggy and had been ready to dig in his heels and inform the woman it was not suitable for such a journey. Even though Harriet had told them she was an indifferent horsewoman, Shade knew it would be better to ride the remainder of the distance than constantly deal with an unsuitable carriage and the breakdowns that would be inevitable.


Harriet Mercer's coach was definitely not in the flimsy carriage or buggy category. Shade made his way down one side, trailing his fingers along the glossy paintwork. He paused to look beneath the coach, noting with relief that the throughbraces were wide and heavy-duty. They would have supported a much bigger coach. In overall appearance and layout, the carriage looked like a scaled down stagecoach. It was painted a glossy black with silver scrollwork adorning the windows and doors. It looked as if it would comfortably seat four inside with room for a driver and guard or groom on the box. There appeared to be a fold-down cover for the driver as well that could be raised to protect him from inclement weather. Shade also noted that the miniature stagecoach had actual glass windows with knobs that suggested they could be opened and closed. He could also see curtains had been hung inside. The upholstered leather seat on the driver's box looked thick and comfortable. His estimation of Harriet Mercer as a woman of means increased.


As he and Quentin completed their inspection of the coach, ending up in the breezeway between the two sides of the main barn, Shade stopped dead still, staring at the team of four horses. The breed had many names but were essentially small draft horses that were most commonly seen pulling tinker's wagons. He'd seen a couple of them in the past, but they had not held a candle to the four animals hitched to the coach. Each horse stood at least sixteen hands and weighed in the neighborhood of thirteen or fourteen hundred pounds. The two wheel-horses were the heavier of the four since their job was to help stabilize and assist in braking the coach. All four were black except for white facial markings and had the silky feathering below the knee that was typical of the breed. Proudly arched necks flowed into broad, strong backs ending in powerful hindquarters. Their manes flowed from their necks to their knees. Shade also noted with a mental nod of approval that the harness was well-made and clean, but lacked unnecessary ornamentation.


Harriet stood at the head of one of the two lead horses, gently smoothing his forelock with a gloved hand. She had taken the opportunity while waiting for the two men to change her clothes and was clad in a silk blouse of forest green with long belled sleeves. Over that was a short black leather vest. She had changed from her split, calf-length riding skirt into a pair of tailored riding pants that allowed for easier movement. A flat crown, round-brimmed hat of the type normally worn by the vaqueros of the south hung by its strap on her back. Shade watched her adjust a strap on the harness. He could tell she knew what she was doing with her rig.


"Mind if we store all but the essentials in the boot of your rig?" Shade asked Harriet as he ran a hand down the horse's neck.


"Certainly," Harriet agreed readily. "Keep the additional weight off your horses." She paused, seeming to consider what she was going to say next. When she spoke, however, her tone was still friendlier than it had been during the train ride. "If either of you should need a break on the trail, you may ride in the carriage. There are rings attached to the boot for tying horses."


Harriet signaled one of the grooms to take her place at the head of the lead horse. She walked to the rear of the coach, gesturing at the spacious luggage compartment attached to the rear of the coach, "There should be ample room for your supplies and gear." Harriet left Shade and Quentin to deal with stowing their gear and mounted the steps to the porch, sinking gratefully into a chair opposite Josephine. She was ready for a cup of tea. She glanced around for Mr. Stahl as she poured herself a cup of tea. When she did not immediately spot him, she assumed he was occupied getting his horse and gear ready for the trail also.

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It took Shade and Quentin a few minutes to sort out what they needed to add to their saddlebags and what could go into the boot of the carriage. Neither man noticed the two shadows that slipped into the barn from the rear yard and took up positions where they could watch them.


Shade nodded his head back down the breezeway toward the corral and said to Quentin, "Guess we should saddle up and get moving. I'd like to make one of the way stations before dark." There was only one true relay station between Missoula and Kalispell that had overnight accommodations. The way stations were simply a couple of lean-to type sheds set a few yards back from the road. They'd have to spend at least one night camping on the trail.


Quentin and Shade had almost made it to the paddock gate nearest the alley entrance to the yard when a man's rough voice rang out, stopping them in their tracks.


"Thornton!" The man's voice was rough and unfamiliar to Shade, but he turned slowly, seeing a tall, well-built man standing near the breezeway entrance to the tack and feed shop. He had apparently entered from the rear yard since Shade had not seen him come in as they walked toward the paddock gate. The man's hat cast his face into shadow, but Shade got the impression of rather angular features and a jutting, bearded jaw. "I was a friend of Calvin's. His best friend, in fact. Been waiting a lot of years for you to come back to these parts." The deep voice held a note of anticipation and anger in it.


Shade flashed a glance at Quentin who stood opposite him and adjacent to the rear corner of the porch. He began to edge slightly away from the paddock preferring that any stray bullets hit the wall and not the horses. At the same time, his mind was racing, this situation didn't smell right. It was too soon after their arrival, too convenient that this man knew Shade had gotten into town that morning. Instinctively, he knew it was a setup and that he'd not be able to defuse the situation with words. He discreetly reached down to ease the hammer strap off his Colt.


"I've not been that hard to find," Shade replied, his easy tone of voice belying the tension he felt. He stopped moving, wanting to keep his position, allowing Quentin a clear line of fire should he miss the target. Fortunately, the paddock fence was higher than normal, and the rails were wide. A missed shot from Calvin's best friend might hit them and not any of the occupants in the corral.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)

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Quentin watched the newcomer and began to move, taking a direction opposite Shade's path to make the man have to decide which one to shoot at if bullets started flying. Quentin noticed the man's attention was locked on Shade. Well, if this genius wanted to lose a gunfight because of being single-minded, Cantrell was happy to oblige. A sudden movement on the opposite side, between the stable door and coach, made Quentin change his focus. Another man stepped through the gap between the coach's boot and the wall. The coach gun in his hands definitely changed the situations of this face off. Cantrell angled to face him and at least try to keep the odds even. His hand drifted down and floated near his Schofield.


Harriet had just set her teacup down when she heard a man's rough voice call Shade's name. She spotted the man that issued the challenge standing between the livery's storefront and the rear of her coach. Almost immediately, a movement on the far side of the coach showed another man easing out of the shadows of the breezeway on the opposite side with a heavy shotgun in his hands.


Cantrell turned to deal with him or to keep the fight fair, Harriet wasn't sure which. She leaped to her feet and snagged Josephine's wrist, pulling her wide-eyed sister to her feet. "Stay behind me," she hissed at her Josephine. She moved so that Josephine was shielded on two sides by the building's walls since there was no time to get her to the building's entrance at the far end of the porch. Besides, that would put her sister in the line of fire from both men.


Shade's eyes flicked to the man that had just entered the yard carrying the coach gun but kept his focus on the other man, the one claiming to be the late Calvin Steelgrave's best friend. He'd been in enough fights with Quentin on the trail to know the man had his back. He also noted with a mental nod of approval that Harriet had dragged her sister back against the wall at the far corner of the veranda. He was still, his body angled slightly, his right hand appearing relaxed as it hovered near the butt of his six-gun. Shade rarely bothered with all of the fancy finger wriggling movements many gunfighters used unless it was very cold outside and he needed to make sure the blood was circulating good in his gun hand. Instead, he flexed his hand once, then waited, still and intent on the situation.


"I promised Mrs. Steelgrave at Cal's funeral that I'd see justice done someday. Appears that day is here." The man's voice held a sneer yet the words seemed to be uttered by rote as if he'd memorized them. Shade wondered idly how the man planned to avoid a murder charge since he did not intend to draw his gun first. 


Shade was not interested in small talk, "If you're gonna draw, mister, then draw." The man's eyes flickered briefly. Obviously, Shade's response was not what he expected. Had he been told he'd be facing a hot-head, a man that always let his temper get the best of him? A man who settled all disputes with his gun?


Harriet watched the scenario unfold, her eyes darting between the newcomer from the stable to Cantrell and then to Shade and the other stranger. Her eyes had just made another circuit when she saw the small door at the far side of the front of the yard ease open. She knew that door gave access to a sidewalk that led along the alley wall and back to the main street. People often used it instead of the main yard entrance since it was safer, less chance of being trampled by horses and rigs coming and going from the barns. She prepared to call out a warning to whoever was entering by the side door to keep them from walking into the middle of a gunfight. She quickly realized that the man sliding in and silently positioning himself with his gun hand raised intended to make sure Shade Thornton did not survive.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)

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"Oh, bloody hell!" Harriet muttered. In a movement too fast to track, she reached over her left shoulder with her right hand and pulled a slender double-edged knife from a hidden sheath. The knife was not an ideal throwing knife, but it had more stopping power. She neatly flipped it and caught it by its blade, following through with a strong move, sighting her target and coordinating the throw by instinct.


The knife struck true, hitting the man's wrist and impaling it to his thigh. He screamed in agony and fired his gun into the dirt at his feet as his finger involuntarily tightened on the trigger. In the same moment, the man that had singled out Shade drew his gun. Shade's right hand flashed down to the gun in his holster. As he drew it, he stepped back with his left foot, angling his body to make it less of a target. The other man fell to the ground, a red stain blossoming on the front of his shirt. Shade's movements had been so fast and fluid, Harriet could barely follow them.


Quentin's eyes were locked on the man with the coach gun. He thought he saw a flicker in the man's eyes as he saw something over Cantrell's shoulder. Suddenly the man's eyes flew wide, and he began to swing the double barrels around. Cantrell's body twisted, left shoulder swinging forward as his right swung back, hand grasping the grip of the Schofield, the motion clearing the revolver from his holster as his knees flexed and he dropped lower. His torso rotated back, and his right hand swung up, the web of thumb cocking the hammer and bringing the pistol up, triggering a shot in a fraction of the time to realize he had done so. A dark hole appeared in the left side of the man's vest. Cantrell was worried about a reflex triggering the shotgun, so his hand kept raising, cocking the hammer a second time and firing a shot into the man's face. The impact kicked his head back, and he spun, sprawling face down on the ground with the shotgun under his body. Cantrell straightened and spun, pistol leveled and cocked a third time as he looked around the area. He saw Harriet crouching over a gunman and Shade' opponent laying lifeless on the ground. Cantrell's eyes moved across both to make sure they were safe then he continued his turn, looking around for any additional threats.


As if they had coordinated their actions ahead of time, Shade and Quentin had taken their shots. Shade glanced over at Quentin to make sure his friend was unharmed and then turned slightly to see who had screamed and fired the shot that had set everything into motion. A man lay near the side entrance to the yard, his hand impaled to his thigh with a large knife. Harriet was approaching him, another smaller knife held in her hand. That explained the scream, Shade thought approvingly.

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For several moments, the only sound in the livery stable's yard was that of the ragged breaths being taken by the man laying against the front wall. No one moved, no one spoke. A few of the horses in the paddock had shied at the sound of the gunshots and stood on the far side, heads up, eyes showing white and ears twitching nervously. To their credit, Harriet's coach horses had not shifted so much as an inch.


The two men that had been shot lay unmoving where they had fallen. Shade left Quentin to deal with the two dead men while he turned and crossed the yard. He kicked the dropped six-gun away from the man with the knife impaling his hand to his thigh who seemed more intent on watching Harriet where she stood with a smaller knife drawn. Her gray eyes were the color of storm clouds, and her lips were drawn back against her teeth. She turned her gaze to Shade, nodding at the whimpering man on the ground, "Can you make sure he is not in possession of other weapons?"


Shade kneeled next to him and performed a quick search, pulling out a thin wallet from inside the man's vest. He handed it to Harriet and rose to his feet. The man watched him with equal amounts of fear and pain showing on his face. Shade nodded at Harriet who rose to her feet. The small knife in her hand disappeared. Shade thought he saw her tuck it beneath the cuff of her blouse but wasn't sure.


"Josephine," Harriet called out, "please find a clean cloth for binding this man's wounds. I want my knife back. Mr. Chaffee, can you send one of your boys to the sheriff?" Chaffee, who had come out of the office after the shooting was over, nodded and sent a groom off to do her bidding. "Please bring your sketchbook too. I would like for you to draw the scene so that we have a record of where each of these villains was."


Jo could not believe what had just gone on, right in front of her eyes as well. This was not something she was accustomed to, gunfights and murder. Her heart was pounding furiously in her chest as she rose to her feet, her hands trying to bat dust from her skirt. And when exactly did her sister...the way she'd thrown that knife? Even though she had seen it with her own eyes, she still didn't quite believe that it wasn't some illusion. "Of course." She replied to her sister's command, moving toward the front door of the store to see if Mrs. Chaffee could spare something.

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"And while we wait for the law," Shade said, his dark blue eyes cold and menace in his voice, "you can tell us who hired you." He reached down and knotted his fist in the front of the man's shirt, dragging him to his feet. When the man set his lips, refusing to answer, Shade dealt him a backhanded blow from his closed fist that sent him back to the ground, whimpering louder as the knife shifted. Shade's body fairly vibrated from equal amounts of tension and temper as he leaned down, preparing to drag the man back up for another blow.


Quentin knelt and pushed his opponent over onto his back. He reached and grasped the shotgun and pulled it from under the body. Cantrell stood and turned, walking back toward the group. "Shade, leave him..." Quentin noticed the man turning his attention to his approach. Cantrell pushed the thumb switch and broke the shotgun open, tugging one of the brass shells from a barrel. Quentin raised the shell to his ear and shook it a few times. "Buckshot..." Cantrell thumbed the shell back into the barrel, and his hands snapped the weapon closed. Cantrell's thumb pulled both hammers back with two clicks that were loud in the quiet stable. "I will be honest...I'm pretty sick and tired of all the effort someone has taken to try and get rid of Shade and me. I would like some information but really...I could care less at this moment..." Cantrell brought the shotgun up with one hand and tucked the stock against his side under his elbow, the twin barrels focused on the man's face. "...You get one chance. Give us something useful with the next words you speak, or I pull both triggers."


Harriet watched with interest, noting that Shade stopped trying to pound the information out of the other man when Cantrell quietly told him to back off. It was information that she filed in the back of her mind. Although they had only known one another for a short period of time, Cantrell and Thornton seemed to respect and like one another. She had been somewhat surprised, considering how furious Thornton was, that he'd backed down. It was well played. The man had three choices: tell the two men what they wanted to know, get shot in the face, or be beaten to a pulp by the enraged Thornton. Harriet did not envy him his decision.


"I...I," the man shivered as his eyes moved wildly between Shade, Cantrell, and the woman that had thrown the knife that still impaled his hand. "It hurts..." he whined slightly as he spoke, "...get this knife outta me." He tried to reach with his left hand but stopped moving the second Shade started toward him.


Cantrell tipped the shotgun up and rested the butt on his hip to keep everyone safe in case it had a hair trigger. "Easy...we don't want him bleeding to death before we can torture him, do we?" Cantrell gaze shifted over to Harriet. "We'll let you save his life...but I can't promise it will be a permanent condition."

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)

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Stahl had been busy with Wilhelm when he had heard the voices, at first it had been part of a loud if unclear conversation. All too many of that kind he had heard and not reacted to in the past. Someone telling someone that he had been waiting for him and someone telling someone that he had promised his death at this or that funeral. Only this time the voices came right from where their carriage was prepared for departure, meaning Miss Mercer might well be in the line of fire of whoever had decided to fight out their feud might well put her into the line of fire. Drawing his bayonet knife from his belt, Stahl moved soft-footed inside the paddock shed towards the door, from whence he had heard the voices, hoping to get a view on the situation. Carefully checking the outside, he saw two men standing outside the paddock not far from their coach, two others further down the lane. The next moment shots were fired, and the two men by the carriage went down. He also spotted Miss Mercer on the porch from where she had disabled a third attacker, remarkably calm and collected regarding the circumstances. 


Not knowing whether she had been in any danger, Stahl sheathed his knife and hastened across the paddock towards her, to make sure she had not been injured. She reached the two other men and the injured man before him. Stahl caught quite clearly what was exchanged between them. For a moment Stahl was torn, he had ignored such situations in the past, knowing he could not afford getting caught in any squabble exploding around him. He had interfered often enough to know the consequences. The suggestion of torture though made his blood freeze. When one of the two males - a square-faced man with dark hair - suggested Miss Mercer might save that man's life... for the time being, Stahl's patience went out of the window. 


"Instead of ordering a Lady about, one of you might have inquired about her well-being first," he stated sharply, before moving past them with practiced ease to squat down beside the injured man and take a look at the hand. Light fingers traced over the hand, left and right beside the knife. "Went clean through without hitting the bone, the tendons remain to be seen." he observed, looking up to Miss Mercer. "if the knife is removed swiftly and the wound cleaned, he is in no danger to die." His words were directed at his employer, whatever she decided would happen.


Harriet looked at Mr. Stahl with one delicately arched eyebrow raised. He spoke confidently regarding the man's injury. It was obvious that he had had some medical training. Her intent had not been to kill, but she did hope that her knife had permanently maimed the man's gun hand. Beyond that, they did need whatever information the man had regarding the attack. While on the train, Harriet had learned that Thornton and Cantrell had been the target of two other attacks, one of them resulting in a gunshot injury to Cantrell's arm. It was that information that had made her decide to take the precaution of sending Fang on to Kalispell. Now, this incident made it clear that the other two were not simply far-fetched coincidences. Someone wanted to prevent Cantrell and Thornton from arriving at their destination.


"I asked Josephine to secure clean cloth for bandaging," Harriet told Stahl, her voice crisp while her gray eyes surveyed the injured man icily. "If you can help him, please do so, but not until we have the information we need. I suggest you cooperate and answer Mr. Thornton's question if you wish to avoid the alternatives." Harriet gave a nod of her head to indicate Cantrell and his shotgun and Shade whose dark blue eyes still blazed with anger.


"Mrs. Chaffee also has a kettle on to boil should we need to sterilize anything." Josephine's voice came up on their side, a bundle of white linens in her hand, already torn into strips. "May I be of assistance?" She asked, not wanting to be in the way of the interrogation but also knowing that her medical training courtesy of the Sisters might come in handy.


"This is my sister, Josephine," Harriet said quietly. "She trained with the Sisters of Mercy at St. Agatha's in Sacramento. They're a medical order. Josephine, this is Mr. Adalwin Stahl, our new driver." Her voice raised slightly in question in case the man had changed his mind. "He also seems to have a considerable amount of medical knowledge."

Edited by Adalwin Stahl (see edit history)

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Cantrell watched the byplay, flicking between Harriet and the newcomer as she quickly settled any question regarding her safety or ability. He reached and eased the twin hammers down on the shotgun and then angled it back over his shoulder to hold comfortably as the conversation continued. He caught Shade' eyes on him and gave a slight shrug as the two men continued watching.


Stahl saw the unasked question in her words, in the way she looked at him. There would be questions to answer later. He rose, his eyes meeting Miss Mercer's. "Miss Josephine's help would be much appreciated, ma'am," he replied, keeping the words and tone in a way that indicated an answer to her question. Yes, he was still working for her. "and a kettle of boiling water will be helpful too." He may dislike leaving, and by that sparing himself the debate about the interrogation that was to follow, but he also saw little option otherwise. 


"Miss Josephine," he turned to the other Lady. "If you could help me get my things? I have some supplies, disinfectant, bandages and such with my horse."


"One moment, please, Mr. Stahl," Harriet said, her voice still calm and cool. She had taken note of the look that passed between Quentin and Shade. After only a few hours on a train, she could not state she knew them well. Her dislike and prejudices based on her view of their history was firmly in place and would not be easily changed. However, during that train ride, they had become her clients. More than that, their well-being directly impacted the wishes stated by Chance and Regina Thornton in their wills. These were the men chosen by her clients and two of her dearest friends to oversee their estate and take care of their children. Her opinion of Quentin Cantrell and Shade Thornton was immaterial to the situation at hand.


"What is your name?" H.G. asked the man who now sat with his back against the fence.


"Royce, Jed Royce," he answered, his tone sulky and slightly defiant.


"Mr. Royce, you and your late companions have committed numerous crimes including conspiracy to commit murder," Harriet informed him coldly. "You will be arrested, charged, incarcerated and tried. What the final charges against you will depend on your cooperation now. If you cooperate, I will recommend a lesser charge which could mean the difference between time in prison and hanging. Do you understand me, Mr. Royce?"


Royce's eyes slid from Harriet to her two traveling companions. Thornton still looked ready to tear him apart. Although Cantrell no longer pointed the shotgun at him, he was no less menacing. The woman was frankly scary while the man that had examined his wound seemed most likely to be his salvation should either of the other two decide to harm him. Escape was impossible, especially with his injured hand and leg. There was nothing for it, he would be going to jail...again.


"Blackie hired me," Royce said flatly, pointing toward the man Thornton had killed.


"Hired you to do what?" Harriet demanded.


"Rickert and me were to get two-thousand dollars each to make sure Thornton and his traveling companions didn't make it outta Missoula," Royce's eyes slid sideways. "Didn't know that meant we had to kill women though." It was clear from his tone of voice that Royce thought not knowing he was being paid to kill women as well as two men made being hired to murder people was perfectly okay.


"Mr. Stahl will attend your injury now," Harriet turned and offered the tall blond man a slight smile and nod. "Thank you for your patience, Mr. Stahl."

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)

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Stahl inclined his head to Ms. Mercer, grateful for her solution to the situation. It also had taught him another lesson about her, she was smart. She had waited patiently for the two ruffians to threaten the man for the debate to ensue to then come out with her calm, logical, well-thought-out threat - she had taken him cold. Of all the people involved she certainly had come out on top, making the entire male company, him included, look somewhat lame. Yet there was no time to be wasted on further debate. "Ms. Josphine, if you'd be so kind to get that kettle of water from Mrs. Chaffee?" he asked, turning to head to his horse and get what he needed.


"Of course," Jo said, turning to make her way back to the store and Mrs. Chaffee inside. Frankly, she was glad to put some distance between herself and the insanity outside. She had seen more than enough, and she quite honestly was ready to go home to San Francisco, which was not an option, unfortunately. This was not her world, where men were murdered right there in the street. If she weren't focused on the task at hand and trying to help, she'd probably break down in tears. 


Swiftly crossing the paddock again, Stahl whistled for Wilhelm, one of the very few tricks he had been able to teach His Majesty was to come to him when called. The horse came trotting out of the shed and stopped beside him. Without much ado, Stahl retrieved a few things from the saddle-bag. He did not take much of the bandage material he had, as Ms. Mercer had said Ms. Josephine had procured some. The smaller bottle on the side of the bag contained the solution of vinegar, salt water, and chamomile he had used only two days ago for the Buttes. It was still good, and he would not need to mix a new concoction for this injury. The second bottle was small, often re-used brown glass bottle, containing a syrupy substance. Wild lettuce syrup. He was not sure he'd need it, but Royce had reacted strongly in pain, so it might be necessary. The last bottle was a small reused liquor bottle that Stahl carefully took with him. Purple Coneflower was not ideal, but it did help with infections. He was still more used to its other variant so he'd be very cautious about it. The last thing he took from the saddlebag was a rather flat wooden box, scraped and scarred from too much time in the saddle bag. The oak wood was sturdy, but the box had seen many a journey before these last years. The box held maybe his most valuable possession, having that kit of medical knives, pincettes, and tools made in Solingen had cost him almost a year's payback when he'd still had been a paid soldier. Without losing any more time, Stahl took his bag and strode towards the front fence again.


Thanking Mrs. Chaffee once more, Josephine took the boiling kettle by the handle and held the bottom with a thick pad of the bandages she'd procured from the other woman. With her stride careful, so she didn't burn herself, Jo carried the pot out to the porch, down the steps and over to the front fence where the injured man lay, "Mr. Stahl, when you're ready." She gestured to the kettle with a nod. "Let me know if I can help."


Royce was not a brave man, that much was clear, and while Stahl usually had little patience for whiners, he could see how the man was shaking and noticed the sheen of sweat on his skin. His own erratic movements had already been rubbing along the blade in his hand making things worse. Stahl picked a small wooden cup from his bag along with the bottle of Wild lettuce syrup carefully estimating the man's size and weight before measuring the thick liquid. "Get that down, it will help," he told the man, giving him the cup to hold with his healthy hand. 


While the syrup took effect, Stahl went on with his preparations. Miss Josephine had thankfully returned with the hot water kettle. Stahl added some of the vinegar solution to the scalding water, which would be used to clean yarn and other necessities. A small part he set aside, mixed with cooler water and vinegar to clean his hands. He had pushed the sleeves of his shirt up, so they'd be out of the way, cleaning his hands and wrists carefully, before approaching the injured man. He had calmed somewhat, his breathing deeper, less hectic. Good. 


Removing the knife caused a fresh yelp from the man along with a hot stream of blood from the wound. Stahl let it bleed for a moment, blood carried infections outward he could deal with some blood loss far easier than with infection and wound fever. Stopping the immediate bleeding and cleaning the wound was the next step. It took some older bandage material to catch the first bleeding and then more material which came from the scalding water-vinegar solution to clean the wound. Stahl worked methodically and carefully. Never touching the wound with his bare hands, always using a tool. There were some small splinters from the porch that needed removing from the wound, but the blade luckily had left no broken off piece inside. The bones in the hand had taken no damage, but Stahl could see that two of the man's fingers were hanging. The cut might have severed the tendons that connected the muscles and carpals. 


The cut needed to be stitched over to heal cleanly. Stahl had the thread cleaned in the vinegar solution. It was something he had picked up only during the last war from a younger doctor who had seen great successes with "clean" wiring of wounds, and it truly helped lots to avoid wound infection. Royce was pale, shaking during part of the treatment but he made some conscious effort to keep still. When the wound was tended to, Stahl took the clean bandage, pouring some of the coneflower liquid on it. The inner bandage best was drained with something to further clean the wound, before carefully adding the outer layers. The bandage was thick and held the two affect fingers in a clear position. If the tendon was not fully severed, it might heal enough to retain some movement in those two fingers. A third finger showed no reaction to touch or feeling at all. Stahl knew that there was little hope for that one, but if the other two fingers regained some use, that hand might still be used to do honest work. 


While he had been working Stahl had ignored anything around him that was not the patient, his tools or the task at hand. Only now he slowly took it the people around again. He looked at Royce. "That bandage is good for the day and most of the night. When it is changed, make sure it is clean. Get Garlic salve, vinegar or coneflower solution to keep it clean, especially when the threads are pulled eventually." he said. 


Josephine had been quiet as she watched Mr. Stahl work on the injured would-be murderer. She had always been utterly fascinated when she had trained with the nuns at the convent, and this, well this seemed to be something entirely new from what she'd learned herself. She couldn't help the smile that tugged at her lips, despite the severity of the situation. "I may wish to pick your brain at some point if you don't mind Mr. Stahl." She spoke quietly, quite impressed with the man's skill and learned hand.


For a moment Stahl interrupted his packing of his things, looking up. "I never was much of a teacher, Miss Josephine, but I will gladly answer questions and share what I know." , he replied.

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Cantrell reached out and lightly tugged Shade' sleeve so the two men could back out to the edge of the activity going on while still keep an eye on the area. "It looks like there's more than meets the eye with our new lawyer..." Cantrell cradled the coach gun in his left arm with the barrel pointing up and to the side in a safe direction. He had already decided to keep the weapon...it wasn't like the former owner would object.


Shade nodded, but motion at the entrance to the yards heralded the arrival of the sheriff and two deputies. Harriet moved to stand next to Quentin and Shade, "Say nothing, gentlemen." She turned to the tall man with salt and pepper hair and a badge pinned to the front of his tan leather vest. "Sheriff, I am H.G. Mercer, an attorney. These two men are my clients. Can you take our statements here?"


The sheriff blinked at the woman who had preempted his plan to ask exactly what had happened at the usually quiet stable yard. He gestured at his two deputies, "See what you can find out from any onlookers, check those two men over there." He spared a brief glance at the man and a younger woman who seemed to be attending to an injured man. "He one of the shooters?"


"Mr. Royce would have participated, but I interfered with his plans," Harriet answered. "Mr. Stahl, my driver, has medical training as does my sister, but he will need ongoing care after his arrest. Sheriff...?" She looked expectantly at the man.


"Benjamin Gaines, ma'am," the man replied. "Sorry about that, forgot my manners. As for your request to take the statements here, I..."


Harriet held up a hand, "Sheriff Gaines, I know my request is irregular, but we have a hearing scheduled with Judge Oliver Mandrell in Kalispell, and it is vital we not miss the court date which could result in contempt charges. I will see that my clients return for any subsequent proceedings here, sir." Her tone was reasonable with the barest hint of urgency in it to reinforce the importance of being allowed to continue their journey.


"As you say, ma'am, it is highly irregular," Sheriff Gaines replied, reaching up to run a hand through his thick hair. "Under the circumstances, if you can provide proof of the court appointment, I will allow it as long as I know how to reach you."


"I have the letter requesting my presence and naming these two men as well," Harriet answered, turning to lead the way to the porch area. "I just need to get my attaché case from the carriage."


Gaines watched the woman walk off and gave another shake of his head. Turning to the two men she had indicated were her clients, he pointed toward the porch, "Maybe we can have a seat?" He grinned at the hovering form of the stable's owner, "Could we get some coffee, Charlie?" Chaffee hurried off while Ben walked to the porch with H.G. Mercer's two clients. By the time they were settled at one of the tables, Mrs. Chaffee was delivering a coffee and tea service, and the female attorney was back with a slim, expensive looking briefcase.


Harriet took out a sheet of paper and handed it to the Sheriff, watching him as he read the short missive requesting that she along with Mr. Quentin Cantrell and Mr. Shade Thornton present themselves for a hearing regarding the custody of two children and their property. The sheriff read through the letter twice, requested paper and a pencil which she provided and wrote down a few notes.


"I'll follow up with a telegram to Judge Mandrell," Ben Gaines said and then took a sip of coffee. He fixed his warm, intelligent brown eyes on the younger of the two men. "I recognize you, Mr. Thornton, so that means you must be Mr. Cantrell. I was sorry to hear about Chance, Regina, and the children. Knew them a long time, they were good people." Gaines leaned back in his seat, "I was the deputy that took your and Mrs. Thornton's statements when you killed Calvin Steelgrave. Is that what all this was about?"


Shade started to answer but subsided when Harriet shook her head at him. "Sheriff Gaines," she said, "there have been attempts to keep my clients from making the mandated court date. Those two incidents and this one could, of course, be bizarre coincidences, and I have no concrete evidence to indicate otherwise. It seems unlikely, however, since the man who has challenged my clients' wills was fired by them several years ago." Harriet went on to repeat Royce's statement to her and what she had overheard of the challenge from "Blackie" to Shade.


Cantrell saw the byplay between Shade and Harriet and played along. "She's not trying to be evasive, Sheriff. I have the hole in my arm to prove we've been attacked recently. We are both sorry to have had trouble follow us into your town, but we did not really have a choice. Neither one of us will be hard to find if you need us to return. Too many responsibilities to be drifters."


Gaines continued writing for a few moments, occasionally nodding as Harriet Mercer and then Cantrell spoke. "George "Blackie" Calder and Calvin Steelgrave were thick as thieves back in the day," he remarked as he finished writing and laid the pencil down. "In fact, had Calder been in town when Steelgrave attacked Miss Regina, things might have ended very differently. He was always fond of ambush attacks or stacking the odds in his favor, so none of this surprises me in the least." He handed the sheet of paper to Harriet, "Please read for accuracy and if you agree with it, sign it and have your clients sign it. If our prosecutor or the judge thinks we need you back for the trial, I'll send word to you. Good enough?"


Harriet read the pages that Gaines handed to her, "I would like to change the verbiage in a couple of places." She took a clean pad of paper and quickly rewrote the pages to suit herself and then handed them back to the sheriff. "If you agree to the changes, Sheriff," she said sweetly, "and once my clients have read it and agreed, we will sign it."


Shade watched Harriet Mercer work and had to stop himself from grinning. These types of situations usually found him trying to convince the local law that he had not started the fight and that it had all been straight up and fair. To have someone running interference with the sheriff and actually defending his actions left him feeling a bit bemused. It was evident that Mercer took her duty as their attorney very seriously which, despite the fact that he had not taken a liking to her personally, made him feel better about the situation.


Cantrell was also showing his mettle by reinforcing what Harriet was saying to the sheriff. The man was as cool, calm and logical as the attorney in his statements to the sheriff. Shade knew he would not be handling things as calmly. Even now, as his gaze turned back to the small knot of people by the wall where Stahl and Miss Josephine were dealing with Royce, his blood boiled. There was nothing that made his blood boil like a back-shooter, whether it was his back being targeted or someone else's. 


Shade's thoughts were interrupted as Ben Gaines finished reading the changes Harriet had made and handed the pages back to her, "Looks fine to me, ma'am." He tore up the draft he had written to make sure the pages didn't get confused with the new draft.


"Thank you, Sheriff Gaines," Harriet said and quickly set her signature to each page before handing them off to Shade and Quentin to read and sign. While they did that, Harriet rewrote the statements from memory. She then pulled a small leather box out of her case that had an ink-darkened sponge in it. She also took a small tightly stoppered jar of ink out, removed the stopper and poured a little on the sponge. Another tiny case held a rubber notary stamp. She quickly affixed the stamp to each page, wrote the date and her signature again and handed the sheaf of papers back to the sheriff who also initialed each page. "There you are, Sheriff. One copy for you and one for me."


Sheriff Gaines folded the signed statements and tucked them into the inside pocket of his vest just as one of the deputies walked up. "Carl's gone for the wagon so we can move the bodies to the doc's place." His expression was full of suspicion as he looked at the two men seated at the table with the sheriff.


"Good job. Anything else, Jeff?" Gaines raised his eyebrows at the young deputy.


"We didn't find anything other than six-guns on Blackie and the other man and no identification either," Jeff stated, now openly glaring at Cantrell.


Cantrell gave a slow smile and reached, scooping the coach gun from where it had been resting on the edge of the table. He brought it up and broke the breech open, and tipped it, catching the two brass shells as they slid out into his waiting hand. "There...all safe, Sheriff. However, I will be keeping this because I plan to give it back to whoever paid these men to try and kill us..." Cantrell's smile was slow to widen and maddening in its obvious malice at the deputy as he set the shotgun on the tabletop while he handed the shells to the Sheriff. "Run along, Jeff. Adults are talking."


Gaines rose to his feet, shouldering the glaring boy aside, "Go round up the prisoner before you get into more trouble than you can handle, boy," he said affably to the deputy. The sheriff had not missed the fact that Shade's hand had dropped toward his sidearm. "I think that about does it, ma'am, gentlemen. I'll be in touch." He tugged the brim of his hat and ushered the deputy over to take charge of Royce.


Shade lounged back in his chair, watching the two men cross the yard, stopping to take the injured man into custody, before heading out through the side gate. Once they were gone, he turned his eyes toward Quentin and gave the man a long, considering look although he refrained from saying anything. The snapping of the catches on the attaché case brought his attention back to Harriet Mercer. She looked at each man as she smoothed her trousers with one hand, the other closing about the handle of the case, "We should get going. We've lost too much time as it is. Would one of you be so kind as to retrieve my knife? It was a gift." Shade's gaze followed the woman's trim figure as she stepped off the porch and headed for the carriage.


"I'll let you retrieve her knife while I saddle the horses. You shouldn't be trying to sling a saddle around yet," Shade told Quentin, rising easily to his feet. "Wonder what we've gotten ourselves into?" He mused quietly.


Cantrell stood up and handed the shotgun to Shade. "Stick this in my saddle somewhere while I see about our lawyer's knife..." Cantrell watches Harriet walk away. "That woman..." He snorted to himself and headed to the front fence area toward where Josephine and the newcomer were cleaning up their work.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)

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Shade reined Lakota to a stop at the top of the rise to wait for Quentin and the carriage to catch up with him. He had been primarily riding scout while Quentin rode alongside the carriage as the guard. His eyes continually scanned the landscape, drinking in its beauty from the gently undulating land around him to the rugged magnificence of the Rocky Mountains. Across the clearing from the surprisingly well-maintained road, a small herd of elk grazed within a safe distance of the treeline. They were in no danger. It would be wasteful to kill one of the animals as the meat could not possibly be consumed nor preserved for the remainder of their journey. Besides, another surprise was Harriet Mercer's culinary abilities with a campfire. She had managed to turn simple beans and bacon with a pan cornbread into a passable chili.


They had left Missoula before noon of the previous day and made good progress on the road. It helped that the big Vanners that pulled Harriet's coach could maintain a brisk trot without strain. Even with breaks for those traveling in the vehicle to stretch their legs and for Harriet and Stahl to change out driving duties, they were going to be in Kalispell well ahead of the court date. They had camped at one of the way stations the night before and nooned at Happy's Midway Inn, the only true relay station between Missoula Mills and Kalispell. If there was no trouble, Shade estimated they would reach the south end of Flathead Lake the next day. He and Quentin agreed that it would be prudent to avoid the very rough and rather dangerous trading town of Poison that sat on the lake's southernmost shore. If they really pushed, they might even make it into Kalispell late the next day.


It was hot, but there was a strong wind coming off the mountains that made things bearable. Shade stood in his stirrups so he could pull a bandana from the back pocket of his jeans. Unhooking his canteen, he poured a little water on the cloth, removed his hat and used it to wipe his face. He wrung the cloth out, allowing the water to fall into his hair before he replaced his black Stetson. The carriage was now in sight so he gigged Lakota and moved him off to the side of the road where the horse could pick at the grass while they waited. Moving just those few feet gave him a different line of sight allowing him to spot a dark shape next to an outcropping of rock he couldn't identify at that distance. Shade grumbled mentally. He'd left his field glasses rolled up in his bedroll that was stored in the boot of the carriage. He'd meant to return them to his saddlebags but had forgotten.


Harriet could see against the glare of Montana's blazing afternoon sun that Shade had reined in his horse at the top of the next rise. She had divided her time between driving, riding in the driver's box while Stahl drove, and riding inside the carriage to keep Josephine company although that was more courtesy on her part as her sister mostly ignored her. It had been late when they stopped to make camp the night before, and everyone was exhausted. The conversation had been stilted and limited to what was needed to get camp setup and get them fed. They had not even felt inclined to talk about that morning's events, the shooting in the stable yard. In fact, Harriet found that she really did not want to think overmuch about the incident and the part she had played in it.


Shade had stopped again at the ridge, waiting for them to catch up. Stahl squinted against the bright light of the sun to see if their scout gave any indications of trouble ahead. There was no such sign, at least none that he could read, which was not saying much. He had known the entire traveling company for less than two days. There had not been many words after they had left Missoula, leaving the incident behind there. Stahl sometimes admired the ability of people here to simply let things go. No questions, no explanations asked, no debates - simply going on with the life as it was. Maybe that was what made them free. He liked that thought. 

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Driving had been an easy duty, Ms. Mercer's horses were a good team, and four-in-hand driving was not much different here than elsewhere. Only the grounds took more watching, as did their surroundings. Shade had been scouting ahead while Quentin rode beside the carriage. When Ms. Mercer had been driving, Stahl had taken Wilhelm and ridden either to the other side or behind. Until now their journey had been uneventful. 


One hand held a fan while the other held a copy of Wuthering Heights. Jo loved to read, even now despite the bumps and jarring of the carriage. She had a few other novels in her case as well as some needlepoint, though that was better left for in the evening once they stopped to camp. She'd grown quite frustrated quite quickly the day before after jamming the needle into her finger more than a few times. While she didn't state it out loud, she did appreciate the time Harriet spent inside the carriage. She was honestly still in a bit of shock over her sister's actions the day before. Jo had questions, but she didn't know where to start or how to ask. 


The birdcage was nestled securely at her feet, in the shade which she hoped was even just a little cooler for her feathered companions. This heat was horrendous, and she sighed, fanning herself as she turned a page in her book.

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Quentin sat his horse, reins held loosely in one hand as Paladin ambled along, easily keeping up with the wagon at a walking pace. He reached and tugged his loose bandana from a pocket and wiped his neck and face. The heat was amazing as always this time of year. After their little skirmish in town, the group had been trying to be extra alert, but the heat and the monotony of the trail could dull the sharpest senses. The thought of not being alert hit Cantrell, and he raised his head, seeing Shade at the top of a rise near the road. He was sitting still and looking off the other side. Cantrell sat up and spurred, sending Paladin loping along the flat ground, then up the small hill toward where Shade sat. He slowed and reined in beside the younger man. Cantrell reached back and undid one saddle bag, tugging out his field glasses. "You see something?"


"Not sure," Shade replied, feeling Lakota sidle a bit toward Paladin. He'd heard Quentin cantering up behind him, but had become accustomed to the older man's coming and going as he took Shade's empty canteens to refill and brought him fresh ones or a bit of jerky to nibble on. Overall, they had settled into a comfortable working relationship on the trail. Lakota and Paladin seemed to take their cues from their riders, usually merely touching their noses and inhaling one another's scent to reaffirm a friendly arrival and not something that would eat them.


Shade pointed diagonally off to his right toward the farthest of the two substantial rock outcroppings. The heat made the image shimmer, and he narrowed his eyes, "Something...over there maybe?"


Cantrell pulled out the sunshades on the ends of his field glasses and raised them to his eyes. His finger turned the focus wheel a few times. "Yeah...there's something...hard to make out...wait..." Cantrell lowered the glasses and looked at Shade. "...I think I saw a broken wagon wheel..."


Feeling a cold lump forming in the pit of his stomach, Shade held his hand out for the field glasses. Even after Quentin handed them to him, he hesitated to raise them to his eyes. In his heart, Shade knew what he was going to see. Finally, feeling Quentin's scrutiny, he raised the glasses to his eyes, triangulating in on the rock outcropping in the near distance. Shade took a sharp, deep breath. "It's the wagon," he told Cantrell as he swung his leg over the saddle and dropped to the ground. He handed the field glasses back to his friend as well as Lakota's lead line.


Shade prowled the edge of the road, soon finding what he needed in the form of a thin branch from a tree. He quickly stripped it of its dead leaves and tested it against the long grass. Satisfied that it would do what he needed it to do, he signaled Quentin to follow him. Shade walked along the verge of the road for several feet before spotting the signs that someone else had ridden off the road into the meadow. By itself, that meant very little. Many travelers used the rocks as landmarks and campsites. But what he had spotted was the faint impressions of wider than normal wheels. A fairly heavily laden wagon had left the road and made a diagonal route toward the larger of the two rock formations. Shade used the stick to push aside the grass, letting him see the ground. Periodically, he'd stoop to pick up objects, wrap them in his spare bandana and tuck them into the pocket of his vest.


Cantrell let his right hand drop and pull his Schofield from its holster. He let the pistol rest across his lap while he nudged Paladin into a slow amble to follow Shade and lead Lakota. His eyes lifted up past Shade to watch the nearby area warily as they moved slowly. "You sure you want to do this right now, Shade?"


Shade kneeled to pick up several items hidden by the grass. He handed them up to Quentin; several shell casings, an arrowhead, and two broken arrows. "I have to, Quentin. I have to know." His eyes begged for understanding before he turned to continue along the unseen trail. Although he continued to occasionally stop and pick up items strewn on the ground, he picked up the pace.

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The carriage crested the rise and came to a stop. Harriet had noted that Shade and Quentin were looking at something in the distance with the aid of field glasses. She now noted that they had angled off the road a few yards below the summit of the ridge and were making slow progress toward a large rock formation. Curious, she pulled her field glasses from the leather pouch that hung just under the driver's seat. The blackened hulk of a wagon leaped into focus, making Harriet gasp in consternation. "Oh, good Lord no!" She leaned forward, taking in deep cleansing gulps of air to keep the morning's meal from leaving her stomach. "Mr. Stahl, we need to follow them, carefully."


Stahl squinted, but he could not see clearly what had startled Ms. Mercer. He followed her order to get moving again, but only slowly. Whatever it was, something was not right ahead, and they lacked a clear signal from their scouts. As the carriage began to move again, Stahl cast a short look at the Lady beside him. Her exclamation made it clear that whatever was ahead was terrible. In light of how calm she had been during the attack on them, it had to be all the more nasty to get such a reaction from her. "How bad is it?" he asked softly, eyes never leaving the terrain the carriage slowly moved toward.


Harriet glanced at Adalwin while she considered how much she could say without betraying client-attorney privilege. Finally, she gestured toward the dark image that lay close to the rock formation they were slowly approaching, "If that is what I think it is, it is the reason my clients and I are journeying to Kalispell. I apologize for being so vague, but there are things they will have to reveal. As their attorney, I cannot."


Her words cast an entirely new light on the reasons for her journey, he had not asked for her reasons to travel when they met, it had not been necessary. Strange though it might be to see a woman in a legal role like this, she was bound by the law to keep her confidences. He respected that. Frowning, he studied the scene before them, the traces that were hard to miss. This looked like danger, trouble, and maybe a very dark reason for his employer to travel. "I understand," Stahl confirmed out loud that he respected Miss Mercer's position. "Nevertheless, we should be careful."


The group continued to progress toward the rocks in the same manner with Shade leading on foot, stopping to search the ground periodically. Quentin rode behind him, often pointing out objects from his vantage point that Shade missed. The carriage followed at a slight distance to make certain the team of big Vanners did not crowd the two saddle horses.


The objective gradually resolved itself into the burned out hulk of a wagon built in the style of a Conestoga prairie schooner. It was the type of vehicle bringing people to settle in the west although there were a few notable differences. The wagon was not an actual Conestoga. Those were built in the Conestoga River region of Pennsylvania's Lancaster County. This one had been designed and built by a custom craftsman in St. Louis, Missouri for a couple making the journey by wagon train to Oregon. It had been shorter in length than standard covered wagons, a bit wider, and the wheels had been wider as well. Shade knew all this because his father had purchased the wagon at auction in Sacramento. It was the one that he'd learned driving a heavy team on.


Now, the beautifully polished wooden sides and bed lay charred and blackened. The bows, large wooden or metal hoops that supported the bonnet, could be seen sticking up like the ribs of some dead animal. In this wagon, the bows were of metal and had darkened but survived the fire intact. Only a trace of the bonnet, the canvas cover that gave covered wagon its name, remained. A fragment of the canvas, darkened but not badly burnt, could be seen still attached to one of the bows where it attached to the side of the wagon. The wheels on the side nearest the rock formation, some twenty feet away, had been burned away while the ones nearest the travelers were mostly intact. This caused the wagon to lay with its bed tilted toward the rocks, away from the group that now stood a few feet away.

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As if in a trance, Shade moved closer, reaching out to rest his hand on the wagon's charred side. Wind and rain had scoured away the smells of death, and he was grateful. Shade had once helped search a burned-out farmhouse after an Indian raid near Laramie. The unique scents associated with the dead in that house had remained with him to this day. It was something he never wanted to experience again. The only scent remaining was the faint acrid smell of burned wood. Shade glanced down at the ground. Here, the long meadow grass had been charred to the earth leaving dirt and rock exposed where it met the stonier ground leading to the rock formation. A few yards east of the wagon and rock formation, Shade could see the rib bones of a large animal peeking through new shoots of grass.


Cantrell dismounted and let the reins go. As they dropped the horses just stood in place, grazing on the grass in front of them. He slid his pistol back into its holster and walked up beside Shade. He stood looking at the wagon silently, feeling the weight of what it represented. Absently he reached up and tugged his hat off and held it at his side and ran the fingers of his free hand through his hair as he inhaled and then let out a long shaky breath. His arm came up, and one hand rested on Shade's shoulder, giving a squeeze once. 


Shade met Quentin's eyes, his own expressing gratitude for the older man's understanding. He hoped that Cantrell knew that he felt the same. They shared more than the trail north. The two men shared the pain of having lost those they loved. Shade frowned and pointed to the bones in the grass, "One of the horses." No doubt he would find scraps of hide amongst the skeletal remains, but he was in no hurry to inspect the carcass. Predators and carrion eaters would have picked it clean. Finding evidence of whether the animal had been an incidental casualty of the attack on the wagon would be next to impossible. Instead, he pointed past the wagon to the outcropping of massive boulders and spires of rock.


"People call this formation the Devil's Watchtower. The region's Indians have many names for it. The one over there," Shade pointed to the south formation, "is called Wadi's Well because of the spring. It's long been considered a place of peace, a sanctuary." He rested one black-gloved hand on the wagon, "Chance was trying to reach the Watchtower. It's defensible. There's a narrow entrance where the rocks have tumbled together, no way in from the back, top or sides. One or two people can defend against a large party. Most Indians in the region avoid it, believing the nooks and caves to harbor evil spirits. Tribal names vary, but all have one thing in common, they refer to monsters or evil creatures that live in the dark places. It's bad medicine, bad luck." Something caught his attention, and he dug at an item embedded in the wagon's frame managing to pry loose yet another arrowhead for their growing collection.


Harriet dropped to the ground from the driver's box, pausing to dust off the seat of her britches before approaching the wagon, stopping not far from where Shade stood. He'd stopped speaking and stood with one hand resting on the wagon and his head slightly bowed. He was so still that it seemed as if he were not breathing. Her misty gray eyes darkened slightly. She might be a hard and cold businesswoman, but she was not cruel by nature. Harriet instinctively knew that the younger man would not welcome her touch. Against all expectations, she understood that. He might have made a connection to Quentin Cantrell, but he was a long way from being comfortable with the rest of them. After giving Shade a few more moments, she asked, "What are you searching for, Mr. Thornton?"


Shade glanced back at Quentin and then at Harriet, noting that her crisp, cold voice had softened marginally. He gestured at the wagon and the ground around it, "Evidence. Something isn't right, doesn't make sense..." his voice trailed off making it clear that he knew something wasn't right about the deaths of his family, but he wasn't sure what didn't fit.


Nodding, Harriet pulled the bandana from around her throat. She was an attorney. The concept of evidence was something she understood. Leaving Shade to look for the more obscure things that only a man raised to this life would see, she began looking for more obvious bits and pieces.


Quentin began to walk around the wagon and the area nearby. Occasionally his foot would scuff on the ground. Every so often he would kneel, and his fingers would scrape at the ground. After several minutes he stood and looked in his hand at a pile of various objects. He placed the hat back on his head so his free hand could push and sort through the things in his palm. Finally, he looked up. "Shade...are the Indians who live around here well off?...I mean money wise?"


Shade shook his head, "Financially, no. They have it a little better regarding feeding themselves because they never relied as heavily on the buffalo. Some of the nations were also willing to learn agriculture as white men settled the area. In general, they're more willing to barter and trade with us for what they need."


Cantrell nodded. "That's about what I figured...I'm beginning to think something's wrong with this picture."

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)

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Stahl had remained on the driver's box, at first because it was unclear if they intended to stop for longer and then because the elevated position gave him something of a good look at the surroundings. When he saw Miss Mercer take the bandana to make ready to take a closer look at the carnage, he was very much tempted to give the two ruffians a sharp bark to not leave a Lady to wander the site on her own. He could not just go with her, it would leave the carriage and the passenger unattended. The only thing stopping him from barking something very much akin to an order toward Thornton was the man's countenance, the way he stood, walked...the way he looked at this place. This was not shock. If a man living like this could still be shocked by the random violence, this was closer to home, personal in some manner. Be it because he knew the place and region, or maybe he knew the people. His wish to look for evidence and was traveling with an attorney only added to the picture. Something had happened here. He whistled softly for Wilhelm. The horse came trotting along, stopping beside the carriage. 


Leaving the drivers box only for the short moment he needed to get the pistol from where he had stored it, Stahl was swiftly back in his place. The weapon had come to him in his first year in the new world and he hardly ever used it, but it was more familiar than the rifles he had encountered here. He loaded the weapon, keeping it ready, as he kept an eye on Miss Mercer and her search. If someone had remained behind or had come to plunder what was left, this place was still dangerous.


Harriet's search yielded several large scuffed stones and more shell casings. She had kept an eye on Shade and Quentin, watching while they both circled the wagon. Like her, neither seemed inclined to search its bed although the remains of those killed had long since been removed. Her eyes were drawn past the wagon to the rock formation towering behind it. She had not studied geology in college, but she could tell it had taken terrific earth-born forces to leave the rock formations that dotted the meadow. Harriet imagined she felt a cold wind spiral out from the rocks behind the fallen wagon as if something had expelled its icy breath. The rock formation that Shade called the Devil's Watchtower consisted of a wide swath of giant jumbled boulders. Rising behind them were taller, solid rocks, some worn into spiral shapes and narrow spires. A path led into the rocks, but it was shadowed, darkened by the massive stone monoliths that loomed over it. It was nowhere that Harriet wanted to walk, but even her unpracticed eyes could see that if someone made it into the interior, it would be a defensible position. In all her journeys back and forth, Harriet had never stopped to camp at the Well or near this formation.


Shaking herself back to reality, Harriet walked over to stand near Shade and Quentin. She opened the bandana to reveal her collection of rocks and shell casings. Shade reached out and picked up one of the larger, flattish stones. He traced one gloved finger over the couple of streaks of white that crossed its surface. The rains had obliterated most of the tracks, but he'd still found a few.


"Shod hooves," Shade stated. "Most of the tracks were lost due to weather, but I've seen a lot of rocks scuffed like this and the harder ground retained a track or two. Indians don't shoe their ponies."


Quentin looked at some of the items in her hand and then held his own up. "There are a lot of empty casings around here. Far more than some Indians with rifles would leave. They shoot to hit a target, not to keep someone's head down..." He then fished out two casings from the group in his palm. "...and I have never seen an Indian who could afford or would even want to use a revolver."


Stahl had observed their search form his vantage point, though his main focus had been on Ms. Mercer most of the time. Now that Quentin spoke, he frowned. "Who said that it was an Indian attack?" he asked. Ms. Mercer's words If this is what I fear had indicated someone had known of this attack or told of it. Not all things that were said to have happened to men who have died were what actually happened, Stahl had seen a few of these things in war.


Harriet glanced at Stahl, taking a moment to calculate how much she could say without betraying confidentiality. Sadly, she concluded that what she could divulge would likely leave everyone more confused. Keep it simple, she told herself. "The report from the military that investigated the incident concluded it was an Indian attack. Since the army concluded it was Indians, it fell to their jurisdiction. Kalispell's town marshal was not allowed much leeway to investigate."


Her words made Stahl's eyes stray over the field again. Soldiers here should have noticed what Quentin was pointing out, should they? Or had there been a reason not say all there was about what had happened here? In a short blink of an eye, Stahl did not see the rock formation or the burned out wagon remains anymore, but again saw that sun-burned railway station in France and the haggard, drained face of a young soldier. Whispered, feverish words that he was later told, he better never had heard. "Barring gross incompetence on the side of their officers, that leaves either Indians too well armed or asks for a reason why the army would not say what really happened here," he said slowly. "Could the people of the wagons have had someone with them? A criminal or other that the soldiers were after?"

Edited by Adalwin Stahl (see edit history)

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Harriet shook her head and reached out to lay a slender, leather gloved hand on the wagon's sideboards, "No. The people traveling in this wagon were completely innocent and traveled only with the innocent."


Alright, they'd stopped once again, only this time, everyone but Jo seemed incredibly interested in something outside. Granted, there wasn't much outside to look at so the younger blond couldn't help but wonder just what held their fascination as it did. Not to mention, they'd been traveling for a few hours, and she could most definitely use a break to stretch.


After making sure the birds were settled, Jo carefully stepped out of the carriage, blinking against the brightness of the sun, which seemed to glare down upon the earth as if it were angry with it. "What's going on?" She asked, watching the others walk around, examining things carefully, even picking them up. She didn't miss the burnt out husk of a wagon, but weren't those fairly commonplace out here? Harriet clearly hadn't broken her lawyer-client privileges in telling her anything about her ties to the two men they'd met on the train. However, Jo wasn't stupid. She knew something was going on. Harriet had known their names, if not their faces before they'd left San Francisco.


Harriet took Josephine's arm and gently tugged her a short distance away from where Quentin and Shade were still looking for anything out of place amongst the wreckage. Truthfully, she welcomed not having to look at the burned husk of what had once been something a family enjoyed. Her heart ached for the loss, but she would have to grieve in private until and unless her clients chose to share the reasons for their sad journey home. "This is connected to my clients so I cannot tell you anything right now," Harriet told her sister. "They are looking for evidence to support what they have been told happened."


Jo allowed her sister to guide them away from the wreckage, turning green eyes onto the older Mercer woman. When Harriet stated that it was confidential, she nodded, glancing back at the two men searching through the dirt and vegetation. This entire experience had been rather surreal as it was, so she turned back to her sister and nodded. Jo knew better than to press for answers when it came to Harriet's work and her clients. "I understand. I would offer to help look, but I would not know what to look for. Do you want me to wait in the carriage?"


"No, walk around a bit and stretch your legs. Just don't wander out of sight. We will be breaking this up soon," Harriet told her, offering a bit of a smile and even a reassuring pat on her sister's arm.


After another half hour, Shade glanced up at the sun and suggested they make camp at the Wadi's Well rock formation. They left Quentin still looking over the wreckage and made their way across the rock-strewn meadow to the less formidable outcropping.

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About Sagas

Sagas of the WIld West is a roleplaying game set in a fictionalized version of the town of Kalispell in Montana territory. Our stories begin in 1875 and are set against the backdrop of actual historical events.Sagas was inspired by the classic television and movie westerns. Our focus is on writing, storytelling and character development.

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