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    • "We'll have to get on over to the dinning room them. Afraid it's liable to be a bit more like Kalispell than Frisco." He said. "But it'll be good food, just not what we've been used too. Will be up on the hill, for sure.  I was told this is the best hotel because it was a ways out across the river from town, and it was solid built."   "The wealth on the hill is such that all most everything around it is growing at a fast pace. You'll really see that when we visit the Capitol, Carson City. Supposedly discovered by Kit Carson and General John Freemont on their way to Sacramento in. At least Freemont named the river after him back in '43 or '44. Nothin' was there then."   "All that made me hungry too, let's go eat an then take us a walk across the river, or along it, which ever you want." @Bongo
    • That did not take long. Cookie rang the triangle and shouted his best but in the end he sent the kid to roust all but the closest to him. Rance joined young Wheeler in the line, a bit out of the wind, but mostly in it for the moment. It seemed calmer up by the wagon.   "That had ta be bad back there. The wind drivin' the dust an' the smell, but should this wind let up you'll be on flank, left flank, then right, then back to the drag. It'll be me, Dallas, an' Dixie. eatin' dust tomorrow. But at least we got hot grub, won't always be that'a way out here though, every trip is different."   And they moved up steadily. @Bongo
    • "Nothing to discuss? I am surprised, Jonah. Why, if we have time for breakfast, there will be much to discuss regarding the hospital as well as the start of the orphanage. Hopefully that the railroad will be completed, or close to it by then." She smiled brightly. "Things will be different by then."   "My hope is that we get through all of this without my fathers interference causing delays, or real problems with the builders. You know we could get well into October before the snow flies, but I'm not counting on that. The winter will stop construction until the thaw." She stated, but the smile was still there, "But it will be well underway!" @Bongo
    • "Pleased ta meet ya, Rance."  Justus gave the man a nod, then lined up with the others for grub.  Maybe he could get some sleep despite the wind.  He surely was tired enough, and until there was something that concerned him, he didn't need to be concerned.   First, though, a full belly!  As the line progressed, he he nodded to the kid who was the cook's help.  "Times like this, I bet yer glad ya don't have ta be on th' downwind end of a herd'a cows!"   @Flip
    • "It's good to know you'll have the best working on the project, you've come this far, you don't need to risk the quality with less than the best working on it."  Even though he had no doubt that the crew would be excellent, it was reassuring to know that the man hand picked for the job would actually be on site overseeing it.  That way, too, he'd be there if Leah needed to discuss anything with him, and Jonah had a good feeling that was going to happen!   He grinned and took a sip of coffee.  "Just think, this time next year it will all be over!  We'll have a fine hospital with the best equipment...and nothing to discuss over breakfast!"   @Flip  

Arrivals and Departures

Shade Thornton

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It was barely mid-morning, but Shade and the Shermans had been up for hours. Days started just after sunrise, there was always more work to be done than hours of the day to do it in. Stock needed to be fed and watered, fences always needed repair, horses to be shod, teams to be gotten ready for the day's stagecoaches. The Sherman boys were out of school for the summer and were inside the house, already hard at work mending harness while their mother, Marianne, prepared the noon meal for the family and refreshments for the stage's passengers.

It was a beautiful day, typical for southeastern Wyoming. With the Snowy Range on one side and the Laramie Range on the other, the valley tended to catch comfortable breezes which offset the heat of the sun. It had rained just before daybreak, leaving everything smelling fresh and clean. Shade whistled a light-hearted tune as he put fastened the last of the fresh team's harness in place, pausing to speak softly to the big horses. The clanging of metal on metal kept tempo with the tune. The distance sound of thundering hooves made him look up, "Sherm! The stage is coming off the hill."

John Sherman lay the hammer down and stuck the horseshoe he'd been shaping into a bucket of water to cool. He stripped off his leather farrier's apron and strode out from the shed next to the barn. "Coming. Team ready?"

"Yep. Just need to change the shaft to the four-up," Shade said, leaping easily over the corral fence and joining John to wait in the yard. They could both hear the driver calling to the horses, cajoling them to be steady as he expertly managed the reins, the coach sweeping into the turn and final sprint for the yard as smooth as possible considering the type of conveyance it was.

Quentin Cantrell lifted his head and adjusted his hat while sitting up straighter in his seat. The turn and descent from the hill had awakened him from his nap. He glanced around at the other three passengers and again noticed the purposeful silence of two of the men. All the way from the last stop where the two had boarded they had sat stone-faced in their seats. The last passenger had tried to talk with each in turn but gave up after a few fruitless attempts. The talkative passenger was dressed in a very fashionable suit, and his thick accent had pegged him as a southerner from the first moment he opened his mouth. Cantrell's mouth quirked up in a smile as he had known lots of men like his fellow passenger. He looked out of the stagecoach as it wheeled into the main yard. His eyes passed over the open area but then jumped back to the two men standing ready to receive the stage. The smaller one must be Thornton. Cantrell glanced around as the stage came to a rocking halt. The door on the other side opened, and one of the silent passengers stepped out. The chatty passenger followed him out, and Quentin went out behind him so he could catch the young man. Cantrell's feet hit the ground, and he heard the familiar triple click of a hammer going back just before a shot blasted into the back of the chatterbox. He let out a shocked sound and crumpled face down in the dirt. Cantrell blinked as the passenger that fired leveled his gun at him and the two stagehands nearby. The other passenger was standing to the side, his revolver angled up at the shotgun rider. The man covering the rider looked at the body then up at his partner. "You got him! You got Cantrell!"

The man who shot nodded without looking at the body. "I don't miss...he was foolish to wear that fancy suit all the time." He looked at Quentin. "You...hand that iron over...slowly." His eyes then glanced at the two men standing together. "You...boy...unbuckle that belt and let it drop or I put a bullet in your friend." The man's eyes switched back to Quentin as Cantrell's hand came up, holding his Schofield butt first now and extended toward him. The man's left hand came up for the offered pistol and grabbed empty air as Cantrell let the pistol go, it dropped to hang upside down with Cantrell's finger through the trigger guard. Cantrell's hand twitched, and the Schofield rotated back into firing position as his thumb landed on the hammer. The motion let Cantrell ease back the hammer and fire in almost the same action, the closeness of the burning powder lighting a small fire on the man's shirt as he stumbled back. Cantrell knelt to get out of the line of fire as the man's pistol erupted. He heard movement as the shotgun rider moved and another blast as the other passenger shot the man. The round caught the guard under his arm and pitched him and his Winchester off the wagon box to land with a thump on the ground as everyone erupted into action.

Everything happened fast and seemingly all at the same time but didn't it always? One moment passengers were disembarking from the stage, in the next moment, a man was dead, and Shade was being ordered to drop his gunbelt, an order he was slow to obey. In the process of handing over his gun, the tall dark-clad passenger flipped it in a move too fast for Shade's eyes to follow and shot the man giving the orders. The other man shot Tom, the shotgun. As he crumpled and fell from the driver's box, John launched himself in a graceful arc, grabbing for the fallen Winchester. Shade's gun seemed to leap into his hand of its own volition as he dropped and fired, nailing the other shooter.

Cantrell! Shade only had a second to think that the name sounded familiar before the thunder of horses' hooves sent him scurrying for cover. He registered the sound of the window rattling open and heard Marianne's strong voice, "John! Shade!" The gleam of her rifle barrel let him know that she was alert and ready.

Horses swept into the yard in a turmoil of shouts and gunfire. The chaos was more than the usually calm stagecoach team could stand, and they reared, screaming, in their traces. The lead horses tried to lunge forward but the stage's brakes held, and they were only able to drag it a foot or two. Cover and concealment in the yard were sparse, but neither Shade or John wanted to draw fire toward the house where Marianne and the boys sheltered. Shade jerked his head toward the barn, indicating that he would cover John as he made a break for it. John was taller, a larger target, but he was also an ungodly fast runner, one of the few men that Shade knew who ran for pleasure and exercise.

The incoming riders, at least six of them, were leaping from their horses to shelter behind fence rails and a watering trough. It wasn't great concealment, but it was better than being sitting ducks aboard their mounts. Shade rolled into the shadow provided by the stage as instinct took over. Barely needing to aim, he clipped one of the riders that hadn't yet gotten clear of his horse.

Cantrell looked around as the stage moved but only went about a foot. He crouched tighter and then rolled under the stage away from the area where the group of riders had dismounted. He heard some shots beside him and glanced over. He recognized Shade Thornton and then saw the other man running for the barn, holding the shotgun guard's rifle. Thornton locked eyes with him, and Cantrell yanked his head in the direction of the barn as he stood and began a steady firing, emptying his Schofield in five steady shots under the stagecoach, keeping the other men's heads down or knocking wood from the fence and water trough. Cantrell heard shots from the barn and house, and he rolled, coming to his feet and dashing the short distance to the barn then throwing himself through the gap between the large door, landing with a sprawl in on the ground inside and rolling out of the line of fire. Cantrell lay on his back and broke open the Schofield, dumping the empty shells, and tugging reloads from his belt loops, shoving them in as quick as he could as the other two men kept up their fire.

Sherman renewed his covering fire as Shade broke for the barn as well. He twisted as he ran, firing a couple of shots before arcing his body into a swan dive and roll through the barn doors. He came to his feet in a smooth move and reached John's side in quick strides. Sherm exchanged places with his friend, grabbing a box of ammo from the ledge just inside the barn door. He quickly reloaded as Shade reached for a rifle tucked out of sight between a two-by-six and the wall. "Marianne covered until Mose could get inside the house," John said, reporting on the whereabouts of the stage's elderly driver. "I'm going up."

Shade nodded. Kneeling just inside the door, he opened fire with the rifle while Sherman yanked cartridges from Shade's belt and reloaded his six-gun. Shoving it back into his holster, John rose and sprinted to the side of the barn to the hayloft's ladder. A moment later, the two men below heard his footsteps as he crossed to the loading window and opened fire.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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Cantrell crawled to the gap beside Thornton and peered out. The raiders minus their casualties were shooting at both the barn and house as they huddled among the items near the corral. Cantrell's eyes narrowed then he rolled on his side and looked at the other end of the barn. He stared at the large doors, then flicked the barrel of his Schofield to get Thornton's attention. "I'll go out the other end and try to circle opposite the house. Maybe we can get these fellas in a 3-way crossfire..." Quentin scooted back a few and then rolled to his feet. He jogged back to the other doors and pushed one open a bit and looked out, then he pushed through and out of sight.

To cover any noise, although it was likely not necessary with the cacophony of gunfire, Shade renewed his assault on their attackers, firing rapidly. There had not been much of a pause in gunfire from the house. That meant that Marianne likely had one of the boys reloading for her. Good girl, he thought. She was a trooper, not to mention a deadly shot with the Winchester. As best as he could see, Mose was still hunkered down out of sight. He hoped so, the elderly driver was a good man and a good friend.

Gunfire sounded from the far side of the barn. Shade rolled out of the line of fire, making sure he was safe from stray shots coming through the wood of the barn door. He reloaded and prepared to resume his kneeling position just inside when he heard the distinctive thump of a body hitting the wooden floor of the loft. "Sherm!" Shade rose to his feet, teeth clenched and eyes blazing.

Cantrell was moving along the back wall of the small blacksmith shed beside the barn. He took a quick peek and then began moving along the wall toward the corner so he could see the riders' strong point. The sudden sound of Thornton's voice made Cantrell start and flatten against the wall. He realized the yell must have been about the man in the loft. Cantrell noticed the shooting decrease, so he poked his head out. He saw the younger man step out of the barn and bring his rifle up. Thornton dropped to one knee and began levering the rifle, jumping from target to target with each shot. Not every shot hit but he saw at least one man, then another stagger back or collapse.

"What kind of plan is that?" Cantrell muttered to himself as he swung his gun around the corner and fired. The Schofield's banging was lost in the general chaos as he put two bullets into the rider closest to his side of their little huddle. One of the last few men noticed the fall and his eyes caught sight of Cantrell, His warning yelp stopped as a dark hole appeared on his forehead, and he sprawled bonelessly in the dirt. Cantrell moved from cover with his pistol leveled. He walked toward the area, glimpsing Thornton in his peripheral vision as they both advanced. Cantrell's Schofield clicked on an empty chamber as he kept walking. One last rider broke from cover and ran for the horses to their rear. He reached for the saddle horn to mount but realized he would never complete the action. He spun, eyes desperate before his hand clawed for the pistol he had holstered before his dash. Cantrell let the Schofield drop, and his right hand shot across his body and under his coat. His fingers closed around the bird's head grip on the short Colt in his shoulder rig. The pistol came out and Cantrell's left hand chopped at the hammer, putting four rounds into the man from several paces away. The wounded man dropped to his knees then toppled onto his face as Cantrell stopped, eyes and pistol covering the area as he waited for anyone else to make a move.

Shade rose to his feet, rifle still at the ready, his body tense. His eyes roved around the yard, counting bodies. A movement beyond the stagecoach made him swing the rifle up and level it. 

"Whoa, boy! It's just me!" Mose, the elderly stagecoach driver, crept out of his hiding-place from the far side of the house. "Don't shoot Sherm either," the old man warned as the tall rancher walked slowly out of the barn.

"It's me, Shade," Sherman decided it was probably best to speak despite Mose's warning. Shade's reflexes might outstrip the information he was getting.

Shade's eyes scanned his friend, "I heard you fall, thought you were hit."

Sherman continued walking, slowing as they approached the stranger from the stage. "I was. Bullet creased my shoulder."

The front door of the house opened, and Marianne darted across the yard to where the men stood group, except for Mose who had gone around to the horses, still firmly hitched to the stage. She scanned her husband, Shade, and the stranger before reaching up and running her finger along Sherman's left shoulder. "And I just mended this shirt," she complained lightly.

"Why not take everyone inside, Marianne?" Shade suggested, nodding to John and their unexpected guest. "Keep the boys inside. They don't need to see this. Mose can help me drag the dead into the stage. I'll write a note for Sheriff Randall."

Marianne nodded and turned to usher her husband and the unknown stage passenger into the house, all the while giving him the usual welcome spiel she offered other stage guests. The door closed and Shade turned to Mose, "Let's search them first."

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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Marianne ushered her husband and their unexpected guest into the modest ranch house that also served as the waiting area for stage passengers. The walls were whitewashed, and cheerful curtains hung over the windows. A screen hung askew from the window furthest from the front door, a victim of Marianne and her rifle. The glass windows had been removed for the summer months and screens hung in their place. In inclement weather, there were storm shutters that could be closed to block the rain. A dark leather sofa stood against the wall beneath the windows, and three comfortable rocking chairs were arranged in front of the fireplace. A beautiful oak rolltop desk stood against the opposite wall between two doors that led to bedrooms.

On the far side of the room, nearest the open doorway that led into the kitchen, was a long, heavy table. Several chairs were arranged around it, and it was to it that Marianne gestured, "Please, have a sit. May I get you anything?" She waved her hand at a pitcher of water that set on the table and the glasses that stood beside it.

"Mama? May we come in now?" The voice belonged to Andy, the oldest of her two children. He was peering around the corner of the door to the bunkhouse that had been annexed onto the house to serve as Shade's bedroom.

"You may, but stay away from the windows," Marianne ordered, "and bring me some clean clothes and hot water."

After settling into his usual chair at the table, Sherman looked at the tall stranger from the stagecoach, "Thank you for your help out there, Mister...?" His voice ended in a query for the man's name.

Cantrell finished reloading the smaller Colt and closed the loading gate. He shoved it back into the shoulder rig under his coat then pulled the Schofield. He broke it open and began sticking shells into the cylinder. "Quentin Cantrell. I want to thank you all for helping me out there, but to be honest, they were only partly after me..."

Marianne and Sherman spoke at the exact same moment and in almost identical tones of worry and fear, "Shade!" Husband and wife exchanged a look, glancing guiltily toward the door, realizing it had just opened.

"What have I done this time?" Shade's voice asked from the door just as a clatter of hooves signaled the stagecoach was on its way to Laramie. His wrinkled eyebrows with their inner upward curve gave him the look of a worried puppy.

Marianne got up from her seat as Andrew came in with the requested first aid supplies. She indicated the table nearest to where her husband was seated. Andy set the bowl of hot water and cloth on the table. He'd also thought to bring the small bottle of denatured alcohol. She glanced at Shade while helping John ease his shirt off his shoulder, "There's fresh coffee, Shade. Get us a cup. Andy, bring in the sandwiches, please."

Realizing he would not be allowed to get an answer to his question until he did Marianne's bidding, Shade headed for the kitchen and returned with the coffee pot and cups. He poured cups for himself, Marianne, and Sherman, and then raised his eyebrows in question at their guest, "Coffee?"

Cantrell slid his Schofield into its holster and shook his head as he reached to pour a glass of water. "No thanks, Not a big coffee drinker." Cantrell stood and sipped his water until everyone had their choice of beverage, then he cleared his throat. "Shade...have a seat...please."

Shade gave the dark-clad man a curious look, but since Sherman and Marianne seemed to accept his presence without question, he took a seat. He was exhausted in a way that only came after an intense surge of adrenalin. In the midst of the gunfight, Shade had not realized how it was pumping through him, keeping him alert, on point and on target. Now, he felt as if he had run ten miles carrying his saddle, and maybe his horse as well. He took a sip of his coffee and looked at the man expectantly. Was it possible this stranger from the stage knew why those gunslingers had hit the ranch? Had he been the target?

He watched the man as he seemed to be gathering his thoughts. Shade took note of the well-cut black trousers, shirt, and a supple leather jacket. The wide leather gunbelt was also black worn so that the holster rested against his thigh, each to reach the gun holstered there. His dark hair was cut short, and his dark brown eyes were fathomless. Still, Shade thought there was something familiar about the stranger's eyes although he could not place what it was. He was sure they had never met before.

Cantrell stood there a moment, gathering his thoughts, then he took a deep breath. "Shade, there's no easy way to say this, but your brother, my sister, and two of their children are dead. Their coach was set upon by Indians on the road. I did not get many details before I had to leave to come here."

A literal, visceral pain lanced through Shade at the man's words. Chance was dead? Regina? A niece and nephew that he'd never met! All of them dead. Two of their children? They'd had more children after he was there in '68 for his mother's funeral? Obviously. Shade almost moaned as he tried to make his thoughts stop ricocheting like a bullet bouncing from one hard surface to another. He barely registered John's strong, comforting grip on his arm, or that Marianne now stood protectively next to him, her expression one of pain on his behalf.

Cantrell watched Thornton trying to process the news. "The only good news is there were survivors. Your niece, Nettie, was not with the family and her twin, your nephew Cody, survived somehow. They are at the ranch being watched over by the staff...but there's a problem. There are people after the ranch and the land, and they have attorneys who claim the children are not old enough to inherit. Technically, they have a point, but the judge also saw in the will that your brother listed a guardian who could assume the ownership until they came of age..."

Shade said, "You're Reggie's brother, Quentin." His voice was flat and unemotional with shock. He felt a shudder pass through his body. "Those men were here for you?" Shade wasn't ready to ask questions about Chance and his family yet. 

Cantrell nodded. "I am, and if it had only been the two in the stage I would agree, but I don't think those riders were for me. I think they planned to kill everyone here and make it look like an outlaw attack...maybe trying to get money." Cantrell's eyes moved to Sherman and his wife. "I am sorry for bringing trouble with me, but I had to find Shade fast."

Marianne continued to stand behind Shade, rubbing his upper back, in the same manner as she did when one of the boys was sick or hurt. Andy had disappeared into the bedroom he shared with his brother. He was young enough to be excited and curious and old enough to feel responsible for Mike. It was John who now focused his attention on Cantrell, "Shade was named the boy's guardian? Trustee for the estate too, I take it?"

Cantrell settled into an empty chair as he nodded. "There isn't anyone else, and if he doesn't come home, or isn't judged suitable, the Thorntons...such as are left...will lose everything." 

'...the Thorntons...such as are left...'

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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That line, spoken in the man's honeyed Southern drawl made Shade actually shudder. He glanced over at John and leaned back slightly into Marianne's hand, needing the warmth that seeped through his vest and shirt. Shade's mind continued to balk at directly confronting his brother's death. "I have to go back to Montana, Sherm. I can't let those children lose everything. I owe it to them and to Chance, Reggie, and the other two kids."

John nodded, his expression sad, "It's the right thing to do, Shade."

Shade straightened in his chair slightly, "Do we have enough time for me to take care of some business here? I'm guessing the boy is with Ezra Hale and his family? Ez is the ranch's foreman or was. Been there forever."

Cantrell nodded. "Mr. Hale and his wife are staying at the ranch to care for the children." He paused for a moment, then continued, "We are on a deadline, but you can settle things here. I need to send a telegram to let the judge know I found you and we will be heading in. Where is the nearest telegraph?"

"Laramie, next to the stage depot which is where I need to go. I'll ride in with you," Shade rose to his feet. "Mose was gonna tell Sheriff Randall what happened and get him to send a wagon for the dead. I'll stop by too and let him know what we've learned from Mr. Cantrell here. It'll be dark when we get back, keep supper warm."

"What did you do with...them?" Marianne asked, hesitant to use the word bodies for some reason.

"Mose helped me drag them to the shed and put a tarp over 'em," Shade walked to the fireplace and reached up to slide a section off the mantel. He pulled out a box and brought it back to the table where he sat down and pulled out an oil wrapped gun. If possible, his expression was even sadder and his eyes more shadowed as he looked at the shiny Colt Peacemaker that lay within the folds of the oilcloth. The gun had been customized for a purpose that he knew the Shermans would rather not think about and that he thought he'd put behind him. The front sight had been filed down, and the smooth ivory grips added. Shade had also had the internal works of the gun modified to make it fast shooting. It had been optimized for a life where those changes to the weapon made a difference to his chances to survive a fight.

Shade looked up as Sherman made a small sound when he pulled his other gun from the holster and slipped the shiny Colt in. He looked at his friend and a slight smile hovered for a moment, "I know, but it can't be helped."

Cantrell watched Thornton pull the box out and open it. As soon as he laid his eyes on the Colt within, he realized there was probably more to the man than he had first suspected. A weapon like that would cost a normal cowhand a month's pay, possibly two. No one would buy a weapon like that without the need and skill to use it. "Shade is right, I expect the people out to get the ranch will try more than once to win this little war." Cantrell set his glass down and then blinked. "Oh, I just remembered...I came in with the stage. Might I buy or borrow one of your horses? I doubt we will be using any public transport back to Kalispell."

Sherman looked Cantrell over, then raised an eyebrow at Shade, "The buckskin?"

"Yeah, good choice," Shade replied and then said to Cantrell, "Try the buckskin Sherm just mentioned. If he goes all right for you, can make you a good price. He's a good horse."

Shade led the way to the barn, "He's in the last stall. You'll find tack in the room at the back. Pick a bridle with a low curb." He walked off, stopping by a stall that housed a big grullo-colored horse. Fishing some dried apple out of his pocket, he handed it to the horse. A few minutes later, he was leading Lakota out to the yard. Grasping the saddle horn, he gave a little hop, setting his foot in the stirrup - a harder move than it appeared - and swung easily into the saddle. The big horse sidled restlessly as they waited for Cantrell.

Once Cantrell was mounted on the big buckskin, Shade swung Lakota into an easy gallop and led off toward the east.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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