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    • "Ain't hardly nothin' to do but hunker down till she blows herself out." The man squatted, "Rance, is the name. Been watchin' you, doin' a fine job. You'll do Wheeler, you'll do. Try and get some rest, might end up bein' a long night. Least you won't be ridin' drag come daylight, there's a plus for ya."   He stood and made his way to his shelter to await the grub that was coming.   @Bongo
    • Meanwhile, in the main house, Reb Culverson was visiting with his old friend Fightin' Joe Hooker, who was the ramrod for the fledgling Montana Territory Stockgrowers Association, Northern District. He was there to convince ranchers to join and support the organization, hoping it would take root.   "And just what good is this here association ya got started?" Reb asked.   "It'll give us a voice in the territorial government, Reb, that's what it'll do. Once that happens we'll be able to git us some sortta range police to protect the herds, and the ranchers." Hooker responded. "Rustlin' might not be the threat it was, but you know as well as me, it can come back."   "You get anywhere with Lost Lake, 'er that cow thief on the Evergreen?" Reb asked.   "Can't say as I have, startin' with the smaller spreads an' workin' my way up to them two. I'm well aware of both spreads, and the men that own 'em."   -------------0------------   They swept down out of the trees whooping and hollering and firing off a couple of shots as they closed on both sides of a big group of cattle, just as they had planned. The  lone night hawk knew he had no chance of stopping the raiders, or of saving the cattle while he watched the chunk of the herd moving toward and then into the trees at a run.  He emptied his Colt at the raiders, the whipped out his Winchester  and levered several shots in the area where they had disappeared.   He could not know that one of his shots had found its mark. A man that had just joined took a slug in his back and toppled from his horse. Toole and the men continued to drive the cattle toward the dry riverbed as planned. It was an acceptable loss.   The sound of the shots, mere pops at the distance to the main house and the bunk house alerted everyone, and men boiled out of the bunk house guns in hand, only to watch the night man shooting after the rustlers.
    • Out on the boardwalk they stopped, "So we managed ta git a deal right off, thet's good, it is. Now all we gotta do is convince ol' Wentworth to free up the money so's ya don't have ta use yers right off." Amos commented, "Seems a fair deal but like you say, minin's not no sure thing."   "John and Mary are good folks. It's not a sure thing, but you saw the vein, went to the floor and it looks rich," Speed responded. "And it looks to be wider where they stopped digging. I can't wait to get it assayed to see what we've really got our hands on."   "And it should assay out pretty good from the looks of it, though I know so little about copper ore." Alice admitted.   "Well, you saw the copper ore, which is clearly distinguishable from the surrounding rock due to its reddish, mottled appearance. And that surrounding rock is granite which is not easy to work, but it can be done, and, if we have hit it, the veins could be as much as a mile long, a mile wide, and a mile deep!" Speed explained with a grin. "With that equipment we'll be able to not only dig deeper, we'll be able to tunnel, and we have the property to do just that."   "Jumpin' Jehoshaphat!" Amos exclaimed. Might oughtta buy up what ground ya can aound 'er, jest ta be certain!"   "First things first, let get on up to the bank." Speed suggested.
    • Justus was more than happy to have a chance to get out of the bulk of the wind, although he knew this was far from over.  And he knew they'd be hacking up dirt for days.     With the picket lines set, he moved over to help put up the shelters for the night, pretty quickly deciding that it was a fool's errand...they were all going to be miserable until this let up.   Squinting, he looked out toward the herd, not able to see but a few in the dust, it looked like they had been swallowed by the big, dirty cloud, and weren't even there.  In fact, he had the eerie sensation that all that was left in the world was this small circle of men and horses.   "Ya need me ta do anythin' else?" he called over the din of the wind.   @Flip
    • Doc Gilcrest walked into the bunck house to see Carson on his feet, dressed. "I may not be able to ride, but I can darn sure walk some. Tired of layin' in that bed."   "I reckon you kin do thet, sure 'nough. No body said ya had ta lie there if'n ya didn't want to. Yer stitched up plenty good. Jest leave thet hog leg where she's hangin' fer now, don't need the weight in thet wound."   "So anybody come sniffin' around?" He asked.   "Not so's you'd notice. There's four men down there keepin' watch, but it don't look like Lost Lake's lost any sleep over their man, that is if'n they even know he's gone." Gilcrest offered.   "He seen that brand an' went ta shootin'!" Carson reflected. "I jest shot straighter. Had no choice in the matter. Fool could'a rode on, but, well, that just ain't what happened. Hell of a mess."   "Oh I dunno. So far nobodies come huntin', the boss ain't upset over it, neither's Granger, so you got nothin' ta worry on 'cept gettin' better."   "I should'a been more careful, but maybe there just wasn't no way to be more careful. Up on the side of that mountain is the purdiest view a man could look at. You can see fer miles, see right where they got them cows of theirs. Now that ain't gonna be no easy matter to get to any of 'em. They're deep on Lost Lake range. Gonna be hard to get at, an' worse to get out. We'll lose some men tryin' this one, that's for sure!'   Gilcrest rubbed his chin. It wasn't like Carson to go on about the prospects of a job.

Echoes and Shadows

Shade Thornton

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The stagecoach's driver shifted on the box. Hands skilled from years of experience manipulated the reins, three slotted through the fingers of each hand. Signals went to the pair of big horses closest to the coach, and they slowed, acting as living brakes on the vehicle. These days most towns had enacted ordinances that restricted the speed of coaches and wagons to prevent accidents and injury to citizens. Coaches still moved at considerable speed, but people stood a better chance of getting out of the way of a team of horses moving at a canter instead of a full gallop. The other four horses slowed their pace in response to the pull by the leaders. A driver did not have to work very hard when he had an experienced well-trained team. As much as possible, teams consisted of the same horses for each trip. Like people, horses learned each others' peculiarities, strengths, and weaknesses. With a six-horse hitch, it was vital for the animals to work in concert with one another and the driver.

Shade Thornton straightened his shoulders as the stagecoach slowed and came to a stop, precisely in front of the Cheyenne Stage Depot. The trip from Laramie had been without incident, but he still felt as if he had been holding his breath for the entire fifty-mile run. The army had been consolidating its monetary assets in an undisclosed location. Rather than draw attention to the activity by sending it in bulk under army guard, they had chosen to disperse the funds via express carriers in smaller increments. If the transports were hit, the army stood to lose a fraction of the amount over what could be lost if a major shipment were hit. Shade had objected to the callous and cavalier attitude toward the potential loss of life should road agents catch wind of the plans, but the army had assured his employers that all precautions had been taken to ensure the secrecy of the operation. In the end, Shade's worries had proved to be unfounded. This was the last shipment coming through Laramie to Cheyenne.

Two men approached the coach. Both were well-armed and alert. The shorter one stood back, rifle at the ready while the taller man stepped a little closer to the stage. He looked up at Shade, nodded slightly and said, "Good morning, Mr. Thornton. The color of the day is orange."

"Good morning, Mr. Smith. I heard the color will change to blue," Shade answered. He recognized both men. Smith and Jones were not their real names, but he had been told that he didn't need to know what they actually were. Per his bosses and Major West, all he needed to know were the recognition codes. The rest of the operation was none of his concern.

Shade propped his rifle against the seat and reached for the heavy metal strongbox resting in the boot. "Bet you're glad to be rid of this," the man called Jones said as his companion took possession of the box. "You can go back to your non-eventful life."

Rather than respond to the subtle jibe from the government man, Shade laughed lightly, "Yeah, sure. I'll take road agents and other honest varmints like them over the government any day." Both men scowled but moved off with the strongbox. It wasn't in the interest of secrecy to get into a verbal altercation with the man riding shotgun for the stage line.

Shade dropped lightly from the stage's box to the ground, deftly avoiding the hostlers and baggage handlers. Suddenly, he stiffened slightly. There it was again! That odd feeling, a tickling between the shoulder blades, usually only felt before someone tried to shoot him in the back. He turned slowly, his dark blue eyes searching shadowed doorways and alleys while his right hand instinctively hovered close to the butt of his gun. It had happened the same way over the last few days, that feeling of being watched. But, if someone were watching him, they were better at hiding than he was at finding.

"You're awfully jumpy for a man with nothing but an easy ride home to look forward to," the stage's driver said, coming to stand beside Shade. "All we have for the run back to Laramie is a handful of passengers and the mailbag."

"I know, Mose," Shade grinned at the older man. "I just can't shake the feeling that someone's been watching this operation. Guess it's not our business now, huh?"

"That's right, boy!" Mose said and clapped him on the shoulder. "You're just overtired, Shade. Let's get our lunch so we can get on the road for home. We'll be pushing it with only a four-hitch." The stage line would not pay the extra cost of running a six-up now that the army wasn't footing the bill.

Mose walked off, and Shade reached back up to the box and grabbed his rifle and saddlebags. The old man was right. He was just paranoid. It had been a hard couple of weeks. Normally, guards got time off between runs because they needed to be rested and alert. Shade, as the line's top shotgun in the area, had been on almost every run. Being constantly on guard duty was stressful enough, the lack of real rest hadn't helped. Mose was probably right.

Shade followed the old driver to the washrooms. He scrubbed off the dust and grime from the trip as best as he could and changed into a clean shirt. It sure would be good to get home where he could take a real bath and relax. A few days of ranch work and handling nothing more strenuous than the routine changing of the teams at the relay station would be heaven compared to the last few days. Shade rolled up his dirty clothes and stuffed them into his saddlebags, gathered them and his rifle and headed to the stage depot's cafe. He had a little less than an hour to rest before the fifty-mile return journey to Laramie.

Inside, he chose his favorite table for two. It was at the far end of the counter away from the big windows that overlooked the street. As usual, Shade chose the chair that put his back to the wall, giving him a good view of the door and anyone coming in and out. A pretty waitress brought him a glass of water and a cup of coffee. She waited with a pitcher to refill the water glass after he drained it. Afterward, she took his order and moved off to tend to other customers.

Shade had just finished his bowl of chicken and dumplings and was buttering another biscuit when the bell over the door jingled. He looked up to see a tall, lanky man enter and approach his table. Shade relaxed. He didn't need to see the badge to recognize Deputy Rowland Carter, an old friend, and a good man. Rowland dropped into the chair opposite Shade and lay a leather pouch on the table. "Hello, Shade. I have some dispatches for Sheriff Randall. Can you see he gets 'em?"

"Howdy, Row. Sure, I can do that," Shade answered and leaned back with his coffee cup. "Say, has anyone noted anyone strange hanging about the depot?" His voice, as usual, was pitched low, not designed to carry beyond the range of the man he was speaking to.

"If they have, no one's said anything," Rowland replied, looking up and smiling as the waitress set a cup of coffee in front of him. "Why? You expecting trouble?" An old friend or not, Rowland's voice had a warning note in it.

"No, and I don't aim to start anything either!" Shade bristled slightly. He was sure that Rowland's question contained a subtle warning. As a friend, he was well aware of Shade's past. "Just have had a feeling that someone was watching me is all."

"Maybe someone is," Rowland said after taking a long sip of his coffee and uttering a satisfied sigh. "You're not exactly an unknown element in these parts." He held up a placating hand as Shade's expression darkened and the blue eyes flashed. "Now you know I don't mean anything by that, Shade. It's just that the past, one like yours anyway, is bound to catch up with you from time to time."

This time it was Shade's turn to sigh, "You're right, Row, sorry. Might outlive it, but won't likely outrun it anytime soon."

Rowland finished his coffee in a quick gulp, "I gotta get back to work. Next time you're in Cheyenne and not on stage business, have dinner with Kitty and me."

"Sure. John and I should be here in a couple of weeks to meet a cattle buyer," Shade replied and rose to his feet to shake Rowland's hand. He put some coins on the table for a tip. The stage line paid for employee's meals, so he didn't owe for that. Picking up his saddlebags, the dispatch pouch, and his rifle, Shade headed for the door.

By the time Shade got back outside, the stage's shaft had been replaced with the shorter four-horse hitch one. Out of habit, he checked the shaft and pole pin, making sure there were no cracks or other issues. As the horses were led up and backed into place, Shade tossed his saddlebags and the dispatch pouch onto the driver's seat. He walked around the stage, putting a finger to the hub of each wheel, making sure they had been liberally greased for the return trip. He also checked the brake and glanced beneath the body of the coach to check the thorough braces, the wide, heavy leather straps that the body of the stage rode on. By the time Shade finished his inspection, the passengers, three men and two women, were climbing into the coach. Baggage was being placed in the coach's rear boot, and Mose was climbing into the driver's box. If there were no delays at the relay stations, Shade would be home just after dark.

Shade had just settled into the padded seat next to the driver when movement caught his eyes. He turned his head just in time to see the back of a tall figure disappearing around the corner of the building opposite the depot. All he saw was the man's back, but there was something oddly familiar in the set of the tall figure's wide shoulders. He shook off the feeling, dismissing it as part of his heightened nerves due to the stresses of the last couple of weeks.

"Hold on!" Mose warned as he shook the reins. "Come up Clem, Robin, let's go!" He shouted at the horses who obediently moved off.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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Shade had made it home without incident. He sat in his usual place, a comfortable rocking chair in front of the fireplace, his feet propped up on the stone hearth. It was late and well past time for bed, but he was just about too exhausted to actually sleep. John sat in one of the other chairs reading a book, and Marianne was on the sofa, working on some mending. Shade stared absently at the empty fireplace, his mind preoccupied with thoughts of the week spent on the stagecoach. Somewhere, an owl hooted at the night. Shade sighed softly and closed his eyes, seeing the back of the tall stranger in Cheyenne again in his mind.

John Sherman heard the soft sigh from his friend and lay his book down in his lap. Shade looked exhausted but seemed oddly reluctant to pack it in for the night and head to his bed. John took a moment to study the younger man's face. It was hard to tell when Shade was actually frowning because of the way his dark eyebrows angled slightly upward on the inside giving him a perpetually worried look, somewhat like a puppy waiting to be hit. Shade was rarely verbose, but he'd been quieter than normal during dinner, not responding to the teasing from John and the boys in his usual gruff manner.

It has been just over a year since Shade's horse had wandered into the ranch's main yard with Shade barely hanging on, a bullet lodged in his shoulder and running a high fever. Trouble had followed in the form of two men, bounty hunters from Texas, determined to take Shade back and they did not care how. Marianne, in the course of taking care of the injured man, had found the papers acquitting him of the crimes he allegedly committed and that was all John needed to stand up for him. Upon recovering, Shade had told them that he'd not only been acquitted, but he'd also turned himself in so he could stand trial and clear his name. Unfortunately, although recalls on the wanted posters had gone out, remote towns often didn't get the notices, or the lawmen were lax in removing the posters. Shade had been on his way to Laramie to take up his new position as a stagecoach guard. Despite having a policy against hiring drifters, John had offered him a second job at the ranch and relay station, and a place to live. He had yet to regret that decision. He loved Shade like a brother. More than that, he trusted him with his life.

"Shade?" John's quiet voice roused the other man from his reverie. "What's troubling you? Problems on the runs?" Marianne lay her stitching aside and looked up as her husband spoke.

"No...no, surprising ain't it?" Shade answered with a brief grin. "Military said it was done with the utmost secrecy. That usually means everyone and their old auntie knows what is going on."

John chuckled, "Yeah, you got that right, partner. So, what's wrong 'cause something's been bothering you since you got home."

Home. There was that word again, only it no longer made Shade as uneasy as it once had. The feeling that he needed to get on his horse and keep riding had faded more and more. Thoughts of returning to Montana had faded along with his urge to keep roaming. Maybe the old saying was true? 'Home was where the heart was,' and his heart was on this ranch with John and his family.

"Not sure anything is really wrong, John," Shade finally answered, his brows furrowed even more than normal. "I felt all week like I was being watched. Kept thinking someone might be planning on hitting the shipment, but nothing ever happened. Then today, right as we were pulling out from the Cheyenne station, I thought I saw someone..." He stopped speaking, not sure if he wanted to share his suspicions.

"Someone from your past?" Marianne's voice inquired gently. Her voice held a note of worry. Shade was a man with a past. It was the one fear that she and John lived with where he was concerned. Someday, he might ride out, and that past would catch up with him, and he'd never come home.

"No...well not exactly, not from that past anyway," Shade said. "I thought I saw my brother in Cheyenne. Just saw the man from the back. But it was something about how he moved. It can't have been Chance, though." He shrugged, "Surely if it were, he'd have spoken up."

"Maybe he didn't see you or didn't recognize you?" John said, "It's been a lot of years, people change."

"Maybe. Don't think I've physically changed all that much though." Shade had been a whip-slender boy when he left Montana at the age of seventeen. Chance had been twenty-five, and the two of them had not seen one another often in the years just prior. When Shade had been sent to boarding school at the age of twelve, his brother had already graduated and was attending college. Chance was still away at college when Shade had left home. Ten years had passed since then.

John was quiet. A man who had lived the life Shade had over the last several years learned to trust his instincts. He had too if he were going to survive. A shiver rippled down John's spine. He didn't want to think about that right now. "You should write to him." The words came out reluctantly. John would never stand between Shade and his family, but he would miss the man if he left.

Shade shook his head, "No. Someday maybe. But," he paused and smiled, "no hurry." He stood up and stretched, "I'm sure it wasn't him. I'm just overtired from the last couple of weeks. Going to hit the sack. 'Night Marianne." He gave John's shoulder a friendly squeeze as he passed. "Goodnight, John."

"Goodnight, Shade. Sleep safe," John said, and Marianne echoed his words. He watched his friend head to the kitchen and the door to the bunkhouse that had been converted into a bedroom for him.

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For the third day in a row, the tall man stood where he could watch the stagecoach depot without being observed himself. It wasn't easy to go unnoticed, even in the hustle and bustle of disembarking passengers, offloading luggage and freight, and changing horses. He stood a good head taller than most men in the area and was well-groomed although his attire was not out of the ordinary for the time and the place. He also exuded an easy air of command that made people tend to defer to his presence. This was not conducive to discreet observations.

The man smiled wryly, realizing that he would have never made a good spy. Likely, he would have been better served to have hired someone for this job, but there were things that he had to see for himself to make the decision and only observing the subject directly would answer the questions he needed answered. The thud of hooves on the hard-packed earth of the road and the rattle of the stagecoach itself brought the man's attention back to his surroundings, and he slid deeper into the shadows of his vantage point.

The stagecoach, a well-sprung Concord, drew to a stop amidst calls from the driver meant to soothe his tired but fractious team. He set the brake and looped the lines around the stick but remained seated on the box. The shotgun, a much younger man, surveyed the area warily. Simply having made it to the stage depot did not automatically mean there was no danger. Two well-armed men approached the front of the coach and spoke to the guard. The man in the shadows was too far away to hear what was said, but he knew they were exchanging recognition codes, a safeguard put into place after several robberies occurred at the stage line's depots and relay stations. The shotgun's body relaxed marginally, and he propped his rifle against the seat as he leaned down to take hold of a heavy metal strongbox and swing it over the side to the two waiting men. More words were exchanged, this time apparently lighter in nature because the shotgun smiled and laughed lightly.

Hostlers scurried to unhitch the six horses. The stage line had been running a six-hitch for the last several trips. The leaders were unfastened first, followed by the swings and then the big wheelers. The coach had an hour's layover for food and rest before continuing its journey to the town of Laramie.

The man in the shadows watched closely as the shotgun dropped lithely to the ground. The man that had been riding guard on the stage for the last few days was a bit shorter and leanly muscled. His features were also lean with high cheekbones, aquiline nose, and a fine-lipped mouth. Thick black hair waved back from a high-intelligent forehead, and deep-set dark blue eyes surveyed the world from a tangle of long, thick lashes. His complexion was tanned from a life outdoors but not ruddy or weathered. The guard moved easily and quickly, and the watcher knew he was also preternaturally fast when the need arose.

Suddenly, the shotgun stiffened, a frown marred his handsome features, and his right hand hovered just over the butt of the six-gun riding in the holster at his side. He turned in a slow circle, his eyes searching the shadowed doorways and alleys. The watcher remained still, glad that he was dressed in dark clothing and that the black hat he wore shielded his face and hid his bright gold hair. By now, the stage's driver had alighted and walked around to stand next to the shotgun. He spoke to the younger man who shook his head and relaxed slightly although his hand remained close to the gun. The driver walked away, and the guard reached back into the driver's box to retrieve his rifle and saddlebags before following the driver.

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The routine was the same. The shotgun would head inside to wash off the trail dust and dirt and then head for the depot's cafe for coffee and a meal. This gave the watcher just enough time to move to another secure vantage point. What really mattered to him was how people reacted to the other man. That information would tell him if the decision he needed to make was a good one.

The cafe was already crowded. Unlike other towns, Cheyenne had more than one coach coming in and leaving. Passengers waiting for the next outbound and those that had just arrived occupied the tables. The cafe's decor was plain and simple, but the place was clean, and the food was plentiful and good. There was a small table behind a pony wall opposite the service counter. It had been placed there for the waitresses to use as a staging spot for coffee pots, water pitchers, and extra condiments. The waitresses, however, found it easier to use the end of the counter and the flat top of the low, half wall. The table's location provided plenty of concealment for the big blonde man from Montana. He was pleasant, always ordered one of the higher priced meals, and tipped well. No one questioned his choice of tables.

The man entered the cafe and took his usual place at a small table with his back to the wall. The staff was familiar with him, some of the passengers seemed to know him too. Likely they were frequent patrons of the stage line with business interests in the area. The bell above the door jingled, and a tall, lanky man with a badge affixed to his vest came in. He made his way to the table near the counter and dropped into the seat opposite the stage's shotgun. His melodious voice carried to where the watcher sat, "Hello, Shade. I have some dispatches for Sheriff Randall. Can you see he gets 'em?"

Shade's voice was low, deeper in tone and slightly raspy. His answer was lost amidst the clatter of dishes and conversations. Still, it turned heads, and people visibly reacted, smiling, relaxing. And that was in keeping with what the watcher had noted for the last few days. People deferred to the shotgun, not in the obsequious manner they used toward him, but because something in the guard's presence told them they should. Some of the men watched him warily, eyes often going to the worn, well-cared for gunbelt that rode low on trim hips. Others seemed to envy his quiet self-confidence and easy demeanor. The watcher smiled as a waitress filled his coffee cup. The self-confidence had been earned, but the easy-going manner covered an intense personality and quick temper. He had had personal experience with the latter. Women, old and young alike, watched him speculatively and with interest. No doubt, they were wondering if he had a girl or a wife back home.

Lunch ended. The guard stood up, picked up his rifle and saddlebags, said goodbye to the deputy and headed for the door, stopping to answer an inquiry or two on the way out. The opening of the door briefly let in the sounds from the street, then closed and Shade Thornton was gone.

The watcher rose to his feet, fished in his pocket for coins to pay for his meal, and left the cafe. He faded into the crowd, following the sidewalk to the nearest telegraph office. The telegrapher handed him a sheet of paper and a pencil. He leaned against the counter, wet the tip of the pencil and began writing.

He is more than we expected. Home soon. . . Chance.

He looked up in time to see the stage clatter past, the guard sitting alert next to the driver, eyes watching everything around him. How odd it was, he thought, to be the one standing in the shadows this time.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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