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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.

That Woman!

Harriet Mercer

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The dinner dishes were clean and put away, ready for use the next morning. Harriet had set everything up to her satisfaction, ready for her to fix breakfast. Shade had cautioned them not to stay up too late as he wanted to pull out at daybreak. Antipathy aside, Harriet understood that being this close to his destination must be making the younger man anxious. He had gone to check the picket line and offer the horses one last drink of water for the night. Adalwin had rolled into his bedroll and appeared to be asleep. Josephine had taken her birds to the carriage, saying she would get the seats folded out and their beds made. That left herself and Quentin, who had moved to perch on a boulder a little distance away so the smoke from his cheroot would not disturb everyone else.

Harriet picked up the second coffeepot that she had been using for tea and shook it gently. There was enough for two more cups. For a moment she glared at the pot willing herself to pour the extra tea out. However, the side of her that was very frugal could not waste the beverage. Besides, there was something she needed to do. She filled two cups, picked them up and headed toward the rocks where Quentin lounged. She made sure to make noise, so he knew she was approaching. Getting shot was not how she wanted to end the day. Settling on a rock opposite him, she held out one of the cups, waiting for him to take it before wrapping both hands around her cup. It might be July but the western Montana nights were quite chilly.

Nodding at the tea, Harriet said, "I did not want to waste it. The blend is hard to get."

Quentin blinked and sat up from where he had been lounging between two boulder halves. His mouth moved the cheroot to one side as he accepted the cup. "Well, thank you, Ms. Mercer...your tea is quite delicious." Quentin switched the cup to his left hand and used the right to tug the cheroot from his mouth, holding it between two fingers as he sipped at the warm tea. After a moment, Quentin watched Harriet then he juggled the cheroot to his hand with the cup. He reached and lifted his coat from the rock and handed it over. "I know it's not your typical fashion, but it's warm..."

Hoping that she had kept her suspicious looks at the coat to a minimum, Harriet gestured at her serviceable riding pants, shirt and vest, "I am hardly a maven of high fashion. Thank you," she accepted the coat gratefully and set her tea mug down so she could pull it on. She refrained from asking if he would not be chilled without the coat since he had not been wearing it to begin with. "The situation we find ourselves in promises to continue for a while yet, perhaps we can dispense with formalities for now? Please call me H.G. or Harriet. I have no doubt we will be at loggerheads again - and often - so there will be plenty of time to resort to more formal means of address." The last was added with a wry note to her voice.

Cantrell grinned, shifted his shoulders and nodded. "Fair point...and you can call me Quentin...Mr. Cantrell was my father, or me at West Point." Cantrell took another sip of tea and replaced the cheroot between his lips, drawing on the slender cigar so that the end glowed bright red a moment. "I know that you and I don't see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, and I also know you think myself and Shade are a couple of unprincipled savages, but you do think enough of us to help us keep the ranch and the children." Cantrell looked at Harriet. "You're a bit of a mystery to me, Mis...Harriet. You are intelligent, sharp, and don't think I forgot about that knife throw in the stable..."

"I would not say that I view you and Shade as savages, but you are correct that I view you both as unprincipled. The dossiers I have built on both of you seem to support my conclusions," Harriet remarked. "Gathering information on Shade Thornton was not incredibly difficult. He is a gunfighter. Where a person can literally trip over Shade's skeletons, you've buried yours far deeper. This makes you something of a conundrum as well." 

Harriet shifted her position on the boulder, staring into her teacup as if looking for answers there, or perhaps, just the right words. "Chance and Regina were first and foremost my friends. They meant the world to me and their loss, as well as that of Beth and Grant, is almost incomprehensible to me. I want justice for them and for their children. Whatever I may think of you and Thornton personally, I feel that the two of you stand a better chance of securing that justice than anyone else. I objected to them leaving half the ranch to Thornton, and I made no bones about that. Their surviving children belong with family, not strangers. I will fight for that."

Lifting her eyes, H.G. regarded Quentin squarely, "You do not have to like me, and I do not have to like you. You are my clients as are Cody and Nettie Thornton. So too are Chance and Regina as it is their legal wishes I must see carried out. In this matter, neither you or Shade are acting with criminal intent." For a moment she felt at a loss for more words. Finally, she said softly, "Quentin, I do sincerely offer my condolences on the loss of your sister, her husband, and their children. I cannot imagine how hard all this has been. Rest assured that I shall do the job they, and you, have entrusted to me to the very best of my ability." Harriet had not forgotten Quentin's comments regarding her being a mystery to him as well as his pointed remark about her knife throwing expertise. With some luck, he would not steer the conversation back to that point.

Quentin leaned his head back and let his eyes focus on the distance. "You are right. Accept my apologies for not thinking about the fact you did know them personally. I let myself consider you as just their attorney, and that was unfair of me." Quentin sat in a decent silence with Harriet and sipped his tea. After several minutes he looked up at the lady lawyer. "They don't teach knife throwing at law school...how did you learn that?"

Harriet huffed out a soft sigh. She had hoped her discourse on her association with the case had distracted him. A slight shiver ran down her spine. Quentin's deep voice with its soft Southern drawl brought up memories and longings that Harried would rather not think about. It was rare that she missed the mansion on Telfair Square in Savannah, but hearing the cultured cadence and honeyed tones of a Southern accent always made her miss Georgia. The memories that were also associate were less pleasant. Harriet determinedly locked them back in their mental closet.

"When I was a child, my guardian felt bad that I was teased for being horribly clumsy and ungraceful," Harriet said, deciding that the truth was probably best as it would close the subject better than being vague would. "He began teaching me an Oriental form of self-defense and meditation. My ability to calculate angles, speed, the ascent and descent of objects was also noted, so he began teaching me how to handle knives and throwing stars."

Quentin looked at Harriet for several seconds then he nodded his head once. "I am sorry if that was uncomfortable for you. I am always very curious when someone shows a skill that doesn't seem normal for them to have. I do not like surprises..." Quentin then held his cup up. "...and I really do not remember if I thanked you for that timely intervention in the stable. It gave us the chance we needed."

Harriet shrugged her shoulders, "It is less about comfort and more about preferring my privacy. I dislike being the object of pity as such admissions tend to elicit." She set her empty cup on the rock next to her and pulled the borrowed coat closer around her shoulders. Harriet loved Montana in all her mercurial moods but needed to remember to change into warmer clothes for the evenings. She dipped her gaze for a moment then looked back at Quentin, "I appreciate the thank you although it is not strictly necessary. We each did what had to be done at the time. No doubt, none of us would be alive if you and Shade were less proficient with firearms."

She wanted to know more about Cantrell. The dossier she and Fang had on him was, to say the least, thin. Harriet wanted to fill in the blanks. Most men of her acquaintance that had actually fought in the Civil War preferred not to speak of it. She respected that. All wars were horrific, and the American Civil War had been particularly horrible. Besides, she had been able to build a fairly detailed profile on Quentin Cantrell up through the end of the war. There was no need to bring those memories to the surface.

Harriet decided to turn the subject back to Quentin's statement about disliking surprises. It might gain her nothing, but it could serve as a notice that she would be pursuing this line of inquiry later. "You said you disliked surprises, Quentin. I feel the same way, especially when I get in the courtroom and learn facts and information from my opposition that I really should have been told by my client. Am I going to be surprised in the courtroom, Quentin?"

Cantrell leaned his head back after drawing on the cheroot. He blew out a slow stream of smoke into the air over his head. "I can't speak for Shade, but...as far as I know...I am not wanted for any crimes or being hunted by any other lawyers or law officers..." Quentin tipped his head forward to look at Harriet. "...I'm no saint, Harriet...I am sure that's not news to you. I have been in more than my share of scrapes, and I have some blood on my hands, but I have never killed someone who didn't try to kill me first or didn't deserve what they got because of their own choices. There are a lot of men who live or die by using a gun. I suppose you could say I am one, but I never did it just for money."

"There are a considerable number of handbills with Mr. Thornton's name on them, but he has been cleared or cleared himself of the charges," Harriet responded although she figured Quentin already knew that his friend was not carrying any current crimes on his head. "As far as being paid for his gun, he's skirted the line in some range wars, but to the best of my knowledge he never hired on for saddle bounties."

"Your military record was exemplary, and I do not consider doing one's duty a crime. As you say, you're no saint, and if you were strictly a gun for hire, Fang and I were unable to discover the bodies on your gun. And, so far as I am aware, being a professional gambler is not a crime. However, Quentin, your business cards are rather vague. What exactly does a troubleshooter do?" Harriet tilted her head to regard him steadily. She was not ready to trust him or Thornton, but she was adjusting her view of them in light of this conversation and their actions to date. 

The Thorntons' wills left a share of the ranch outright to Shade as well as guardianship of the children. They assumed he was more likely to settle down on the ranch. Harriet felt that after thirteen years of living life on the drift, it was doubtful he would stay in one place. They also knew that Cantrell had a penchant for travel although he had made his home base in San Francisco. Since a great deal of the Thorntons' business interests was on the west coast, they made the decision to leave him percentages of those. Should something happen to Shade, it all fell to Quentin Cantrell. Harriet really needed to know that he intended for both of them to be at the hearing three days hence.

Quentin looked down and finally looked a little abashed. "Well...to be honest...I found it a good way to let people know I was willing to do whatever it took to fix their problem..." Quentin took a last drag on the cheroot and let the smoke drift from his lips as he looked at the small stub then pinched off the coal and stuck it into a shirt pocket. "...I was usually willing to do more than just be a gun-for-hire, and I was not a fan of being looked at that way if people saw me as one. 'Gentleman Killer' also was not an image I wanted to project. I dealt with more than a few of those over the years. Looking a certain way and acting a certain way can keep a lot of bad things from happening, hence my wardrobe and affectations."

Harriet huffed out a soft breath that she had not been aware of holding while the man spoke. She and Quentin Cantrell had far more in common than she would ever willingly admit aloud. She understood a certain need for using wardrobe and mannerisms to sow impressions amongst the people one had to work with or for. She had gone one step further by all but eradicating her Southern accent, purposefully affecting an almost British sounding voice. Harriet had added to that a very clipped and brusque manner, attempting to downplay any semblance of helpless feminism.

Despite her effort to keep her facial expression and body language neutral or even aloof, Harriet's face exhibited a certain amount of sympathy. She had also unconsciously leaned forward slightly showing some empathy for what Cantrell said. Her innate dislike for unfairness and lying exerted itself when she spoke. "Your chosen profession has more in common with mine than I anticipated. As long as you remove the gunplay, of course."

Cantrell looked up and after a moment smiled. "You use a law book and a pen..." His eyes glanced down toward where the dagger was hidden, "...well, mostly. In the world I move around in, a gun is just another tool. It can be very hard to live with one...but try living without one."

Harriet rose to her feet, a genuine smile on her face as she shrugged out of Quentin's coat and laid it neatly on the rock near him. She picked up her cup and took his empty cup too, "Pax then? At least until after the hearing?"

"Pax," Quentin agreed, offering a smile and getting one in return. After Harriet said good night, he watched her head toward the camp. He stayed in place a moment longer, then gathered his coat and stood up. After a quick reconnaissance of the camp, he still felt too restless to sleep. Without much thought regarding direction, he walked toward the meadow.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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