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Harriet Mercer

Around the Campfire

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Scene Rating: PG
Scene Type: Joint Scene
Characters: H.G. Mercer, Shade Harper, Quentin Cantrell, Adalwin Stahl
Location: Wadi's Well, Kalispell Trail, Montana
Timeline: Early July 1875

Originally published on Wed Sep 6th, 2017 @ 12:49pm


By the time Shade returned with four decent sized grouse, the camp was well in hand. In anticipation that his hunt would be successful, Harriet had found and sharpened several sticks to use as skewers. It made Shade glad that he'd taken the time to pluck and dress the birds by a small stream near where he'd shot them. He had also been fortunate enough to find several of their nests which he'd raided for eggs. There'd be enough to scramble and have for breakfast in the morning. Harriet had pounced on the birds when Shade arrived, lamenting in her usual prosaic tones about not having her cooking herbs and spices with her. Quentin had graciously raided his dwindling supplies and offered them up to help enhance their dinner.


While Harriet and Josephine took on the chore of preparing dinner and Stahl and Quentin put the finishing touches on their camp, Shade had made his way through the rocks to the spring to wash up. The well itself was tucked back into a grotto formed by several boulders that had broken away from the main rock formation due to erosion. Three or four, depending on the time of year, natural artesian springs bubbled up from the rocks and formed tiny rivulets that trickled and cascaded into a larger pool. This pool also had its primary source deep underground, but whereas the streams that fed into it were icy cold, the pool was formed by hot springs. If the rains had been heavy, the pool would often overflow, but usually, it simply disappeared back into the earth from whence it had sprung.


Shade had laid aside his saddlebags, taking out soap, a large cloth to dry off with and his shaving kit. After removing his shirt, he bathed as thoroughly as possible, enjoying the hot water from the pool. After a few moments of thought, he'd shed his boots, hanging up a sock on the bushes as a warning he was bathing, pulled off his gun belt and jeans and immersed himself in the pool. By necessity, as he did not want to shock his traveling companions, he made fast work of his ablutions. After shaving and dressing, Shade had stopped by the picket line to check on the horses, fill and hang their feed bags.


The area where they'd chosen to make the main camp seemed to be a popular one with travelers. Logs had been sanded down and left to form a square around a fire pit. The smell of the roasting grouse made Shade's mouth water as he settled on the end of one of the logs, dropping his saddlebags next to him. He reached for the nearest coffee pot, flipping the lid up to make sure it was coffee and not water set to boil for the tea that Harriet and Quentin preferred. He poured a cup, returned the pot to the grate, and slid off the log to sit on the thick meadow grass, using the log as a backrest.


Harriet had made use of the spring. After helping Stahl carry buckets of water for the horses, she had excused herself and cleaned up, finishing in time to help set up the rest of the camp. By the time they had everything situated with pots of water on for coffee and tea, Shade had returned with the grouse, and several eggs packed carefully into the game bag slung over his shoulder. Forgetting her hostility, Harriet had relieved him of the game birds, exclaiming at the fact he'd already dressed them out for cooking. She'd even been quite cheerful and grateful when Quentin offered his treasure trove of cooking spices.


Quentin had finally walked back after spending a short time alone at the wagon. He was very quiet as everyone worked on setting up the camp. Quentin took his turn cleaning up in the spring and ended up back at the camp. He had his saddle resting on the ground, blanket resting on the side as a pillow. Cantrell rested his rifle on the saddle close at hand and the Schofield in its holster beside the rifle. Cantrell still wore the Bird's Head Colt in its shoulder rig as he sat cross-legged on the ground, poking through the small mound of shell casings from the wagon site.


Stahl had made himself useful with the small tasks around the camp after the horses were cared for, eventually turning back to H.G. to offer assistance with whatever Shade had brought from his hunting trip.


Another night camping outside, oh, how Jo already missed her bed back at home in California. She was, however, grateful for not having to sleep on the actual ground, so she kept any complaints to herself. When Harriet knocked on the carriage, telling her that they'd stopped for the night, Jo took the birds' cage and made her way to the rock formation, easily locating the little grotto that Harriet told her about. Her feathered companions' comfort came before her own right now. Jo took some time to clean out the bottom of the cage, changing out the cloth that protected the wood against droppings and cracked seed shells. She also washed out their food and water dishes, wishing she could let them out of the cage for a few minutes so they could spread their wings. But she could not take the risk of one of them deciding to fly off or another predator, a larger one, would decide they looked like a nice meal. 


After taking a few moments to freshen herself up, Jo with birds in tow returned to the campsite where she tucked the cage neatly back on the floor of the carriage. "Anything I can help with?" She asked, knowing that she wasn't much help when it came to making camp, but she'd do what she could.


With Stahl's help and the addition of the herbs and spices that Mr. Cantrell provided, Harriet had gotten the game birds Shade had brought them seared in the flames of the campfire and put on spits for slow cooking. She smiled when the younger woman offered her help, "I have set Adalwin to helping turn the spits, so our dinner does not burn. We have a few potatoes left from what Mr. Harper and Mr. Cantrell purchased in Missoula. Would you help me peel them?"


With everyone pitching in, dinner was soon ready to be served. Along with the perfectly seared and fire-roasted grouse, the campers had rosemary-dill boiled potatoes and cold sweet-tasting water from the artesian spring. For the first few minutes after the meal was served, the weary travelers ate in silence. However, Harriet took note of the items Harper and Cantrell had gathered and laid out on the log between them. The copse of trees where they now sat obscured the Devil's Watchtower and the wagon that lay at its foot.


Harriet chewed and swallowed a bite of meat. She did not normally care for the taste of game birds, preferring chicken and turkey to duck or pheasant, but the grouse tasted wonderful. It was a welcome change to the usual fare of bacon and beans. Turning her twilight colored eyes on Harper and Cantrell, she said, "While it is not likely there will be more trouble this close to Kalispell, it could happen. Mr. Harper, Mr. Cantrell, I'd like to request your leave to state the reasons for our journey to Kalispell. I will not betray client-attorney privilege without your permission, but this actually could become a matter of life and death."


Shade had finished his meal and was grateful for that since Harriet's words caused a knot to form in his stomach. He'd set his plate aside and had been running his fingers over one of the arrowheads he'd dug out of the burned wagon's frame. "I don't have a problem with it, ma'am. After all, everyone's gonna learn about it all sooner or later anyway. Not many secrets in Kalispell. So if Quentin doesn't object, I surely don't."


Cantrell looked up from taking a bite of his dinner. He thought for a moment and then shrugged. "I don't see why not...everyone here is in the same boat now and in just as much danger..." He took another bite and looked around at the group, "...Ignorance never stopped a bullet."


Taking a deep breath, Harriet settled into attorney mode, "First, what is said here is strictly confidential. While some of it will be or will become public knowledge once we reach Kalispell, I ask that no one confirm or deny anything they hear, are told, or are asked." She paused until Josephine and Stahl had nodded their understanding. "Please be patient as I have to give you some history to explain the current circumstances."


"In 1862, Mr. Cantrell's sister, Regina Cantrell, married Mr. Chance Harper, Shade Harper's older brother. That is how and why Mr. Cantrell and Mr. Harper are connected to one another in all of this. In 1868, Mr. John Caleb Harper and Mrs. Isadora Harper, Chance and Shade's parents, died within a few months of one another leaving all of their business assets and a 500,000-acre ranch to their eldest son. Shortly after that, Mr. Chance Harper requested my services for an in-depth financial audit of all Harper assets. I found issues. I also found that their current attorney was also, under-the-table, working for the Steelgrave family who had vowed to eventually ruin the Harpers. Chance and Regina fired Mr. Carson Tyndall forthwith and retained my services as their attorney-of-record."


Harriet paused to clear the hitch in her throat. It was hard talking about Chance and Regina in the past tense. Until she began the story, she had not realized how hard it would be. "In addition to their regular legal work, Chance asked me to undertake to have the Harper Legacy Trust which entailed the ranch and all assets to the eldest son only legally dissolved. It took some time, but I was able to eradicate the trust leaving Chance and Regina free to create wills leaving the ranch and businesses to whomever they wished, which they did. Their wills leave the custody of any surviving minor children to Mr. Shade Harper. He was also to inherit one-half of Lost Lake Ranch. Mr. Cantrell was named as guardian should Mr. Harper be unable or unwilling to discharge that duty. He was also slated to inherit an interest in the various businesses."


"On June 2nd of this year, on their way home from Missoula, Chance, Regina, and their two oldest children, Beth and Grant were killed in what was reported to be an attack by renegade Indians. Their youngest son managed to hide in the Watchtower and was found by a stagecoach en route to Kalispell the following day. Their youngest daughter was not with them as she had a bad cold. Cody Harper has been unable to clearly articulate the events. He is only five years old." Harriet's voice had taken on a cold edge of anger, not only for the loss of her friends but for the fact that someone had been willing to murder children and she strongly suspected that it was not an Indian attack.


"It took some time for the notice of their deaths to reach me as I was on business back east. In the meantime, however, Mr. Cantrell was contacted and arrived in Kalispell to learn that Mr. Carson Tyndall was challenging the wills and bringing suit for the custody of the twins. The judge was willing to grant an injunction on the lawsuit and custody hearing for thirty days, allowing Mr. Cantrell time to locate Mr. Shade Harper and bring him back to Kalispell," Harriet paused to sip her tea and then continued. "Due to being delayed by two attempts on their lives, Mr. Harper and Mr. Cantrell traveled to Sacramento where they could get a train to Missoula. We encountered them there. I should also add that I took the precaution of sending my business associate, Alistair Fang, ahead of us to Kalispell to make sure the judge does not meet with any accidents."

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Harriet's voice faded into the night. For several moments, everyone remained silent, then Shade cleared his throat, "Thanks, Miss Mercer."


"Please," Harriet waved her hand, "at this point, there is no need to stand on formalities. Call me H.G. or Harriet."


Shade offered a slightly lopsided grin, "Thank you, Harriet. Call me Shade. Easier than keepin' which Mr. Harper you're talkin' about straight." Even though she was clad in trousers, he couldn't make himself refer to her by just her initials. There was nothing masculine about her. He handed Harriet the arrowhead he had been looking at and selected another one from the items he'd collected from the meadow and around the wagon. He also handed that one to her. "Notice anything?"


Reaching to the lamp nearest her, Harriet turned up its flame. Between the campfire and the lanterns they had lit, the campsite was quite light and cheery. She studied each arrowhead in turn, then lay them side-by-side and tilted her head. Harriet was not an expert on Indian craftsmanship, but even she could see the differences. "They are both completely different?"


Shade nodded and said, "Even allowing for minor differences in workmanship, each tribe tends to have standards. The width of the base, materials, whether the edges are barbed or smooth, even the knapping tends to be similar within a tribal population. Elders teach the next generation how to do these things. The variances might be significant if the attackers were from two widely separated populations, like say the Cheyenne in eastern Montana would be distinct from the arrows knapped by the Cheyenne in western Wyoming. And, of course, the workmanship would be slightly different from tribe to tribe. There's only so many ways you can do flint-knapping."


Harriet nodded her understanding, noting with interest that although Shade retained his cowboy drawl, it had not been as pronounced as usual. "This arrowhead's base is much wider, this one is longer and thinner overall. You think they are made by members of different tribes? You suspect a combined band of Indians? Do the local tribal nations trade with one another?"


"Not generally for weapons," Shade answered. He pushed his hat back a little and sighed slightly, "I think the arrowheads were either knapped by different tribes entirely and bought or not made by Indians at all." Stretching out a hand, he snagged the coffee pot and refilled his cup, taking a long sip from it before setting the pot back on the fire grate and leaning against the log at his back. He pinned Harriet with his fierce blue eyes, "Do you suspect this Tyndall snake and the Steelgraves?"


"I dislike speculating without more evidence," Harriet said primly, staring grimly at the two arrowheads in her hand before passing them over to Adalwin. "I do think the possibility bears consideration, though." Now, Harriet turned her gaze to Quentin. "Mr. Cantrell, you said something about the different shell casings while we were at the Watchtower? It looks as if you found some other items as well?" She gestured at what looked like broken lantern bits and a dark, oblong object that she could not see clearly.


Quentin sat back, leaning against the side of his saddle as he pointed at the pile of brass casings. "Just the quantity more than the quality. Ammunition is expensive for most Indian tribes, plus in a lot of places they can't buy any because they are Indians. This amount of used ammunition is a lot for two armed adults...Indians tend to wait for a shot because that's how they were taught to hunt. That also doesn't address why one or more of the attackers had revolvers." Cantrell then pointed at the broken lantern. "It also looks like someone used that lantern to pour the oil on the wagon before burning it. Indians aren't concerned if something catches fire during a battle, but they usually loathe to purposefully set fire to something like a wagon because there are usually a lot of useful things to take. Ammunition, food, blankets...any of that kind of thing can be looted." Cantrell then sat up and lifted the short oblong object. "And this...this is a half-smoked cigar. I know neither Chance or Reggie smoked, so that leave one of the attackers..." Cantrell glanced over at Shade. "Do you know any Indians who would throw away half a cigar?"


Shade raised an eyebrow. He was both surprised at Quentin's knowledge regarding Indians and impressed with his logic regarding the items found. It substantially increased his respect for Regina's older brother. "Indians throw nothing away. They'd salvage the tobacco that had not burned and use it somehow."


He fell silent after answering Quentin's question. The next observation he had to offer was painful to say and would be painful for those who had known Chance and Regina to hear, but it had to be said. "I examined the horse's carcass, the hide had the LL bar H brand. Looks like it was shot which could've happened in the melée. Indians would not have targeted the horse and would have taken the wagon and its contents. Indians have a tremendous respect for their own dead, but not for their enemies. The dead would have been left where they fell, not dragged into the rear of the wagon and burned. Considering all of these things, nothing in the army's report makes sense."


Stahl had listened quietly, eyes on the different speakers, letting all the details sink in. "So we have two different types of arrow, suggesting either two different Indian tribes or another maker entirely. We have attackers, who were not careful with their ammunition, something that you say Indians are always careful with, there is a half-smoked cigarette, and on top of that there is the army claiming that this was an Indian attack." He summed it up, more to sort the facts for himself, line them up and make sense of them. "Could they have been hired? The attackers I mean, get some hired guns and maybe even find one or two outcast Indians, or other of their sort, to make it look what it was meant to look like?" he asked eventually. "Because what reason would the army have to lie about this incident? And... regarding the cigarette you found, do you know for absolutely sure, that there was no one else traveling with them? Someone who might have smoked?" He understood that his companions were sure and whose feet to lay the blame for the attack, which compelled him to ask all the more.


Shade sighed and used a stick he'd been poking at the fire with to draw an abstract pattern in the dirt. Stahl had asked intelligent questions that made sense. There was just no easy answers and did any of it dovetail in with the attacks on himself and Quentin? He addressed what he felt he knew to be facts. "I only showed two of the arrowheads that I found. I have quite a collection but need time to study them more. Some might be the result of hunting parties, not the attack. Either way, there were more differences in workmanship than could be accounted for. The ammunition is really pivotal because of the revolver casings. As Quentin said, Indians don't use revolvers. Another thing, if it were an actual Indian war band, they wouldn't have had white men with 'em."


Breaking off for a moment, Shade's eyes went rather distant as he thought of the past few years. "It was never the family's practice to take someone along on the yearly run to Missoula except, on occasion, the Hales or their children. I can't say about Chance and Reggie. Haven't been home for a lot of years."


"Could someone have hired the attackers?" Harriet repeated Stahl's question, "Absolutely. The who and why will have to be determined, and that won't be easy. I am less inclined to believe the army fabricated the report but they may have taken the evidence here at face value to suit an agenda of their own. It would not be the first time that the U.S. Army had its own plans. It might even be innocent, a young and inexperienced commanding officer, for example. As far as Chance and Regina traveling with someone else - they never did except, as Shade said, for the Hales. Ezra Hale has been the ranch's foreman for thirty-odd years. I have never known either Ezra or Kate to smoke." Harriet paused and shook her head. Reaching up, she pushed strands of her hair that had escaped from its braid back from her face. "We have more questions than any way to answer them at the moment, but they needed to be asked. The Harpers' deaths may have nothing to do with the lawsuit and attempts to stop Shade and Quentin from reaching Kalispell."


For the most part, Jo had been quiet during dinner, which had been good despite some earlier reservations about eating a wild bird. She'd never had grouse, but it hadn't been bad. She would admit to, however, not loving the log she was sitting on. In fact, she was fairly sure there was a splinter in her backside, and no amount of shifting or wiggling would dislodge it. A lot of what Harriet had said, mostly the lawyer aspect of it, hadn't made a whole lot of sense to Jo, but then she'd never really paid too much attention when her sister had gone on with legal-sounding words. She understood enough to get the background, however, and she gave it some thought. 


"This is why you are going home," Jo asked, looking at Shade as she recalled their conversation on the train in the dim sitting quarters. It was less of a question and more of a statement really. "Also, is it normal to find that many arrowheads after an attack? Regardless of the inconsistencies, you're finding here. And, please forgive me as I mean no ill, but how many Indians would it take to kill two adults and two small children?"


Shade looked slightly confused for a moment as he processed her questions, finally shaking his head, "The size of the raiding party isn't indicated by the number of arrowheads or spent shell casings found. One Indian can carry twenty or more arrows in their quiver, and in a well-planned attack, three or four men could've discharged a large amount of ammo." He gestured in the general direction of the Devil's Watchtower where the ruined wagon lay, "Both Chance and Regina were good shots. I would bet my last dollar that the two older children weren't bad either. At the very least, they could've reloaded for their parents. If the raiding party was small, Chance and Reggie could've handled them. The fact that Chance was trying to get to a defensible place suggests that he felt the odds were against them. Some of his decision was likely based on the fact they did have the children with them, but all things being equal, Chance wouldn't have run. If it were only Indians looking for plunder, he'd have handed it over. Walking to Poison might've been rough, but doable."


Harriet listened to Shade's words and his opinion of the situation. He made sense. She frowned as she considered everything she had heard and seen that day. There were many reasons why the soldiers had not come to the conclusion that the identity of the attackers was unknown. She also understood why Marshal Cory had not launched a full investigation. Indian attacks fell under the army's jurisdiction, not the town marshal's. Besides, this area was closer to Poison than Kalispell. Scott Cory might have ridden down to have a look around, but in the end, he would have had no choice but accept the army's findings. White settlers were quick to believe that Indians were always the culprits. Shade's response was more reasoned. Harriet sighed softly before speaking, "We need to keep this evidence confidential and secure, perhaps share our theories and findings with Marshal Cory although there is little he can actually do right now."


Quentin had leaned back, head and shoulders resting against the saddle while he thoughtfully puffed on a cheroot. He tugged it out and stared at the glowing end as he blew out a slow stream of smoke. "If...and I do mean if...this Marshal Cory is trustworthy we might share our suspicions with him...otherwise we keep all this to ourselves. One of the few advantages we have right now is that they don't know what we know. I don't want to give that away."


Shade nodded his agreement with Quentin, "Scott Cory used to be a good man, but that was many years ago. People change." He started to lever himself off the ground, "Good dinner, ma'am," he said to Harriet, "I'll clean up."


Harriet shook her head and stood up, dusting off the seat of her britches, "Thank you, Shade, but no. You and Quentin are pulling double duty with guiding and guarding as well as you are doing the lion's share of caring for the horses. The least I can do is the cooking and clean up." She gestured at Stahl to stay put as he made to rise before gathering the used dishes. Harriet scraped the few leftover bites of food on the plates into the fire. The rest, she wrapped securely to carry up and place in the stream for keeping cold. The grouse would be good with breakfast. Leaving the campfire, she made her way up and into the rocks.

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Sagas of the Wild West is a roleplaying game set in the American Wild West of the 1870s. It is based on the classic television and movie westerns of the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s.

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