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    • It was long, tedious work, even though, for the most part, it was just plodding along with the cows, making sure they all stayed together and went the right way they were supposed to.  Even after the wind picked up, there were only a few mavericks who tried to wander off on their own, but the drag riders managed to coax them back to the herd.   As the day progressed, Annie became less jiggy, and Justus could tell she was getting tired.  "It's all right, Miz Annie."  He patted the horse's neck, then tightened the bandanna that was keeping his hat from blowing away.   "Ya think this is just a dry wind?" Justus called to Loredo, "or somethin' more movin' in?"  There wasn't the smell of rain in the air yet, nor clouds, but he knew that the weather could change quickly.  "Will they try ta settle in camp early?"  It seemed to him that if there was 'weather' moving in, it was better to have the cattle settled than moving, but what did he know? He just hoped it didn't impact supper!   @Flip
    • "Wonderful!"  Jonah almost clapped, for this had been going on for so long, that he really expected that this would be some sort of new setback, and Leah certainly didn't need any more complications.  "I'm sure it's going to be a huge relief when they finally break ground.  It's going to be rewarding to watch it take shape, and for you to know you are responsible for it."   He hoped, for her sake more than anything, that the weather cooperated, and that the progress was swift and without complications.    "You'll be overseeing the project?"  He couldn't imagine that she'd step back now, and not assure that every detail was right.   @Flip
    • "Boss, we found us a herd ripe for the pluckin'. Maybe we oughtta move on it afore they change where they're grazin' 'em, an make it more difficult." Toole suggested. "We can take close to a hunderd head easy enough, they move 'em, thet might not be the way of it."   "'Scuse me men, but Toole here is on to something, and cattle is our other business. We've customers waiting up north." Case said, not happy at being interrupted, yet realizing that what he said was true. It was why they were there, and it was what the did. "So go on and make yourselves to home while I get this job situated."   "Oh sure thing, Case, an thanks for the offer. We appreciate it, 'mon boys." Shannon said, and with that they walked outside to find the other building Case was talking about.   "Alright Toole what did you have in mind?" Case asked.   "The place is just at the foothills where they have their cattle. Now any buildin's 'er maybe a mile, mile'n a half away. What we saw was just maybe four riders wit the cattle, may not hav'ta kill any of 'em. We just filter down through the trees and then rush 'em. Maybe eight 'er ten of us, circle the heard an' push 'em back the way we come which was the long way around , and shore they'll be tracks alomst all the way to the dry river bed, maybe  whot, two mile from the tree line. Hard ground to river bed, but they won't catch us, not seein's they're out numbered."   Case gave it some thought, but Toole had been plotting how they would steal a herd for quite a while, and he knew what he was doing. Besides, no County Sheriff, no problem!   "Pick your men, Toole and get it done." Case said, knowing if they got a hundred head, that would be enough to drive north, once the brands were altered.
    • Having a second thought, to bolster the findings he sent for Fairchild before he could leave for New Orleans, and in the vicinity of Elinor Steelgrave, that could be done at another time after this meeting with Elias himself.   It was like hedging his bet on the situation. He wanted Elias to meet the man who could explain what was in the file in detail, much better than he himself.  might be able to. Nothing like being prepared. Elias could be unpredictable when upset, if a man like Fairchild explaining what he had found could manage to keep Steelgrave manage-ably clam then the expense was worth it to all concerned.   He had to congratulate himself on the idea. It just might work!
    • List in hand, they made their way back to town and to the Anderson's Mercantile where they laid out their list of needs. John and Mary Agnes looked over the list and began adding prices, plus shipping where it was warranted.   "So, you're in the mining business Marshal?" John asked.   "We are." Alice replied with a wide proud smile on her face. Speed just looked at her.   "Amos here found a property to good to pass up, so I bought it myself." Speed said, "Actually two properties, the other on is off to the west, but this one is just north of the Evergreen Ranch a couple of miles."   "Ah that would be the Henshaw mine. Sad about his wife passing on so suddenly. Life can be hard out here, it was just too hard for Martha Henshaw, though she tried as hard as anyone could." Mary Agnes said. "Most all of what you have here we have in stock. Most all of this was on Henshaw's list as well, he just quit before he paid for it. I believe we can give you a good price on the machinery out back. Right John?"   "Yes we can, The fact is Speed I'll let you have it at our cost, plus the shipping expenses, of course. Be good to free up that room back there. Let me see here at my cost, yes, well, it looks to be just under three thousand dollars, without the things we have in stock that wasn't Henshaw's."   Fair enough John, and we appreciate it. Now, if you'll let me get up to the bank, we want to use their money until we get started, and then we'll settle up."   "Makes sense to me, it's what we did. Hated those monthly payments, but it worked for us." John agreed.   "We'll be back." Speed promised.

Spirits


Shade Thornton
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Shade rolled over, trying to get comfortable on the hard ground. After turning over again and becoming entangled in his blankets, he flung the covering off and sat up. He scrubbed at his face with his hands and pushed an errant lock of hair off his forehead. Shade was well aware of his sleep patterns. Most nights, he was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow or the underside of his saddle, depending on where he was sleeping. He never slept deeply unless he was seriously injured or very sick, but he did tend to sleep still and quiet. Shade was never the type to transition slowly from sleep to wakefulness, usually simply going from being asleep to being awake.


That was why he knew he would not sleep for the remainder of the night.


A coyote barked in the distance. Other nocturnal animals kept up a cacophony of sounds in accompaniment. Shade sighed and muttered, "Guess you wouldn't let a fella sleep, huh?" Of course, it wasn't the fault of the night animals, they were just going about making their living. The wind rustled the branches of the trees that surrounded the camp, making Shade happy that he was wearing his jacket. Daytime temperatures had been in the high nineties, but at night it dropped into the low fifties, maybe even the high forties.


"Dadblameit, don't this beat all," Shade complained quietly and got to his feet. Reaching down, he picked up his boots from beside his saddle. He also grabbed clean socks from his saddlebags, pulling off the ones from the night before, and padded barefoot to the nearest boulder. He propped his hips there, pulled on his socks and boots. He took a moment to make a neat roll out of his blankets which he left lying across his saddle. He'd laid his bed out between a couple of boulders close to the picket line where he could keep an eye on the horses. It was unlikely there were Indians in the area, but if there were, the horses would be too tempting for them to pass by. Shade picked up his gun belt and rifle and walked toward the picket line. After checking on the horses, he slipped quietly into the main camp.


Everything was quiet. Shade glanced up at the waning gibbous moon. From its position, he figured the time to be well after midnight. He could have taken out his pocket watch to confirm it, but that seemed like cheating. It was too early to stoke up the fire and fix coffee, dawn was still a few hours off. Shade stared off through the trees at the meadow beyond. It was too dark to see the wagon although he could make out the Devil's Watchtower rising above the land. With the barrel of the rifle pointed safely at the ground, Shade set off across the meadow. He moved quietly but did not bother to disguise his footsteps. As he walked, his spurs jingled softly, muffled by the meadow grass. It was doubtful anyone in the camp was awake and would be disturbed by his passage.


It was doubtful but true, Jo found herself unable to sleep. The cushions she and Harriet were sleeping on did not hold a candle to the beds at home in San Francisco. It was more than just the lumps for Josephine. As she lay there, listening to the soft, even breathing of her sister next to her, Jo found her thoughts wandering to Chance and Regina Thornton, along with their two children, taken so early from this world. 


With her thoughts tossing like a boat on the ocean during a storm, Jo quietly slipped from her makeshift bed, taking an item from her personal belongings and weaving it about her fingers as she quietly exited the carriage, so she didn't wake Harriet. Perhaps walking around the meadow at night was not the wisest thing, not with any manner of poisonous bugs and snakes out, but it didn't make much difference to Jo as she started walking quietly toward where she knew the burnt out wagon rested in the dark. With any luck, the pants and boots that her sister had placed out for her would protect her feet and legs against most things, even just enough to prevent death. 


Suddenly, in the dark, Jo's ears picked up the faint jingle of metal on metal up ahead of her, spurs perhaps, if she had to wager a guess. It didn't fully occur to her that it might be either Mr. Thornton or Mr. Cantrell. Instead, her mind opted for the dangerous intruder version of the truth, so Jo carefully bent down and picked up a large stick off the ground, wrapping her fingers around it firmly.


Shade's movements through the tall meadow grass had silenced most of the usual cacophony of nocturnal insects. Fortunately, his eyes had quickly adjusted to the dark. Then again, even though the moon was in a waning gibbous phase, its light was enough to cast faint shadows. The sky was mostly clear, only an occasional cloud briefly obscured the moonlight.


Deep down inside, Shade had known where he was going from the moment he rolled clear of his bedroll. He stopped at the wagon, on the side farthest from the Devil's Watchtower formation. Another step closer and a faint breeze brought the remnants of a scent his way. Shade raised his head, going still, and sniffed at the air. Tobacco, with a subtle hint of sage and other herbals. Quentin had been here fairly recently. He turned slowly, but saw no sign of the older man, although he did pick up other smells including the odor of wet, charred wood. Shade exhaled abruptly, clearing his sinuses of the accumulated smells only to pick up another one as the wind changed again. This time it was the faint scent of roses. He also caught the faint sound of grass stalks swishing together. Harriet smelled of citrus and spice. The newcomer had to be her sister, Josephine.


Unconcerned, Shade turned back to the wagon, reaching out to lay one black-gloved hand its frame, and bowing his head. He stood that way for a moment or two, then pulled his hand away and removed his gloves, tucking them into the belt at his waist. Once again, he lay his hand on the husk of the wagon. This time, as if contact with his bare hand released them, memories began to flow, and he almost gasped in pain. Regina laughing at him while trying to improve his swimming skills. Chance stepping between him and his father, taking the blame for another of Shade's pranks. The ghosts of the children caused a tear to form in the corner of one eye although it remained there, not slipping free to roll down his face. He had never met Chance and Regina's eldest two children. He'd chosen to stay away from the ranch, to keep drifting.


Shade did not move or speak when the soft footsteps stopped close by. 


As she grew closer to the wagon, the burnt wood still somehow sharp in the cooler night air, the moonlight gave Jo a clear enough look to see that the person walking ahead of her was only Mr. Thornton. She let the stick fall gently to the ground, stepping over it quietly. There was a moment where she paused, not wanting to disturb the man but there was something about his body language that suggested he was hurting. She couldn't imagine the pain he was suffering, standing in the very spot where his family had been killed. The questions surrounding those untimely deaths made things that much worse as well.


Stepping up to his side, Jo's expression was one of understanding as she touched his arm gently, her rosary beads still woven through her fingers. "I'm afraid there's very little that I can say that can ease your pain. I wish it weren't so."


Shade had to take several slow breaths. The simple kindness and gentle words came close to breaking the iron control that he was exerting over his emotions. His face was set, and the expression in his eyes was bleak although a small muscle jumped in his jaw as he gritted his teeth. "It's alright," he finally said, his deep, gravelly voice somewhat rougher than usual. "Can't go around it, just gotta push through it."


He glanced at Josephine for a moment and then, without really understanding why since he tended to keep things to himself, he said, "Chance asked me to come home several times after our parents died. Most recently, just a few months ago. Wouldn't have done any good here, but I should've at least gone home to see him, Reggie, and the kids."


Jo barely knew this man, Shade Thornton, but she felt like she could hear the grief in his voice, buried beneath the grit she'd noticed early on into this journey. The pain behind his eyes though, that she could see and it made her heart ache in her chest. She nodded, understanding what he meant about dealing with the pain. She'd lost her own parents when she was but a child herself. Mother's illness had made her passing expected, and Jo had been able to say her goodbyes before, and she'd been even younger when her father had been killed in a duel two years prior, and she couldn't recall mourning for him very much. It had been nearly twenty years ago now. 


Chance had been his brother, she remembered Harriet's tale that night over dinner. "There was no way you could have known what was going to happen." God had a plan for all of them. If Mr. Thornton had been meant to visit his brother and his family at that time, he would have found his way home then. She didn't voice that thought. However, not everyone shared the same faith, and she was unsure which Thornton followed. "Are you a religious man, Mr. Thornton?" She asked.


It took Shade a second to mentally process her question. Considering his alleged line of work, it wasn't one he was often asked. "Lapsed Catholic," he said with a wry note in his voice. "Went to church a few times with the folks I was living with for a while back in Laramie. If you're askin' if I believe in God, before this, I'd have said yes. Now, not so sure." Shade's voice had hardened again as he finished speaking and he was glad his hat helped shield his face and eyes.


Jo nodded softly. Her fingers running over the smooth beads of her rosary. "I can understand that," she replied. "however, I asked as I thought I might offer a prayer for your family but I didn't want to offend you at the same time." She told him.


Catching sight of the rosary in Josephine's hands, Shade let his hand slip into his pocket, fingers finding the cool stone beads of the one he'd carried since the age of sixteen. It seemed so very long ago that his mother had given him the rosary as one of his birthday gifts that year. He might not regularly attend Mass, but it reminded him of her soft voice with its Spanish accent, her kind dark eyes, and gracious beauty. Despite the situation, he smiled. Turning his dark blue eyes to the young woman, he gestured at the wagon, "Prayer never did any harm, ma'am. They would think kindly of you for it."


Jo smiled, seeing his own smile, something she had not seen too much of in the few days since their unexpected introduction. "Good." She said, glancing down at the meadow floor for a few wildflowers to lay on the floor of the wagon. Spotting a small gathering of delicate purple flowers growing at one of the wheels. Moving to pluck a few from the earth, Jo didn't see the rock that caught her boot, sending her to her knees and her rosary scattering in the grass. "Oh for crying out loud.." She muttered as she slid her fingers through the grass, hoping to find the chain.


She absolutely had to find that rosary, it had belonged to her mother, Evelyn until she'd passed away when Jo was only ten and had belonged to her maternal grandmother before that. In fact, it was the only thing that she owned that had been passed down from that side of the family as they'd disowned Evelyn when she'd fallen pregnant. There! Her fingers grasped the cool metal chain and brought it out from the grass. Her brow furrowed in confusion as the chain in her hand was not her own. Jo's rosary was made of silver with small pearls, the one she'd found was not quite as refined with rougher-looking blue stones. Another quick comb through the grass gave Jo her own rosary, and she rose to her feet. 


"Mr. Thornton, look." Surely it had to have belonged to one of his family. Otherwise, finding the second rosary here at this exact spot was a huge coincidence.


Shade had been on his way to help Josephine back to her feet when she called his attention to what was in her hand. He was proud of the fact that his hand didn't shake when he took the object from her. He tipped his hat back and breathed out a shaky sigh.


The rosary was heavier and more rugged than average. Isadora Thornton had had several heavy, and her in her opinion, hideously ugly candlesticks melted down to make the chains and crucifixes. That made each rosary a heritage item because the candlesticks had been in her family for hundreds of years. His father's had had beads made from polished agates, Isadora's had been made from freshwater pearls. The one Shade now held had beads fashioned from Montana sapphires. The stones were found in abundance around the Bell Mountain Range, but these, a deep cornflower blue in color, had been found on the Thornton ranch in the rugged Chogun Mountain Range. The gems had been roughly polished to bring out their color but had not been cut and faceted, allowing some of their natural origins to show. Isadora had wanted the rosaries to connect her menfolk to the land where they were born as well as the faith in which they'd been raised.


Reaching into his jean's pocket, Shade brought out the rosary he'd carried with him since his sixteenth birthday. It too was made with a chain of dull, heavy silver with a plain, but beautifully wrought crucifix. The beads were made of blue river stones, slightly darker in color than Shade's eyes, and worn smooth from being carried, held, and touched over the years. The jeweler that had crafted the beads had only polished the rougher edges off of them and shaped them slightly. Isadora had not thought cut, faceted, and polished gemstones suited her youngest son. He held both rosaries out for Josephine to see, "Our mother had them made for us and gave them to us when we turned sixteen. She also had one made for herself and one for our father."


"They're beautiful," Josephine remarked quietly, seeing the almost matching chains. She couldn't help but reach out and trail a finger over the rougher stones. The craftsmanship that went into each piece was exquisite. "Mine belonged to my maternal grandmother, it's the only thing I have from that side of the family." She explained, making sure that her own rosary was wound firmly around her fingers as she did not want to lose it again. "I know you may not believe in God very much these days, but this may be His way of telling you that you are on the right path." She offered him a warm smile in the dark, not oblivious to the pain he must be in. "I believe you'll find your place in the world, Mr. Thornton." Yes, she had faith in that, even if he didn't right now.


Shade tucked both rosaries into his pocket. His niece or nephew might want to keep Chance's rosary. He also thought he might offer his to the other child, but not right off. Shade wasn't an expert on child-rearing, but he figured they were still dealing with the aftermath of their family's death. The time to offer keepsakes would present itself.


"If this," Shade waved a leather gloved hand at the wagon and meadow, "is God's way of setting my feet on another path, I coulda' done without it." His voice was slightly rough with emotion, but he felt he held the fury well in check. Reaching out, he grazed the charred wagon frame with his hand. "I was alright with my place in the world, Miss Mercer," he said and meant it. Shade had lived hard after leaving Montana at age seventeen, but he'd always landed on his feet.


After a few moments of silence, Shade glanced up at the sky, noting the location of key constellations and the moon. He nodded back toward the camp, "You may want to go and try to catch some sleep. We'll be pulling out in less than four hours."


"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to offend you," Jo said gently, feeling now like she had overstepped, which she had tried to avoid. She felt for the man. There was no greater loss than that of family, even if you did not always get along. "I believe you." She stated quietly as she looked out across the meadow bathed in moonlight and shadows. 


Turning back to the charred wagon remains, Jo stepped quietly back to it, resting a hand on the door frame, her rosary wrapped around her other hand as her fingers slid over the pearls. Her prayers were quiet, a simple blessing of peace for the departed. Green eyes slid over toward Mr. Thornton, a nod was given at his suggestion. Sleep would be wise, even just a few hours of it, if she got any at all with her sister's snoring. "Of course." She told him, giving him a small smile. "Good night." She said before making her way back through the meadow toward the carriage.


"Good night, ma'am," Shade replied. He watched Josephine make her way across the meadow toward the camp. Shaking his head, he turned back toward the wagon. Shade couldn't figure out why she felt she'd offended him. He was pretty certain he'd been speaking mildly. Shade shrugged and grinned, "I was never that good at figurin' women," he told the wind, although in his heart he was speaking to Chance. "Don't worry about your little'uns, big brother, we'll take care of 'em."

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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Shade remained quiet for several moments after Josephine walked away. Talking to her had been somewhat cathartic, perhaps because she was more of a stranger to him than Quentin. He and the older man had quickly become friends due to their familial connects and shared hardships on the trail. They had shared some of their memories of Chance and Regina and Quentin had told Shade a bit about the older children. In time, they'd probably share more about their late loved ones but, for now, it was rather strange for either man to confide in others.


The wind was blowing from the north and, as if thoughts of the man had conjured up his presence, Shade once again caught the distinct aroma of the cheroots Quentin smoked. Shade usually avoided cigarette, cigar, and pipe smoke if he could, usually finding the smell unpleasant. Quentin used a mild tobacco that carried undernotes of cherry, sage and other spices which toned down the usual pungent scents Shade associated with most tobacco products. Unusual, but not unpleasant.


Walking around the wagon, Shade followed the smell of the cheroot into the rocks of the Devil's Watchtower. The trail into the formation was often hard to see as the larger boulders blocked the moonlight. He'd climbed several feet above the meadow when he spotted the glow of the tip of Quentin's cheroot. It disappeared briefly as the path wound through rocks that had been jumbled together forming a tunnel. Shade exited from that to find himself in a flat area, almost like a small plateau. There, he spotted Quentin seated on a large boulder with another one at his back that he was leaning against.


Shade made sure the other man saw him before he approached although it was likely Quentin had heard him climbing up the trail. He'd made no effort to disguise his progress. From this vantage point, one could see the expanse of the meadow, the road off to the west, and the darker shadows of Wadi's Wells to the south. It was hard to see the wagon in the dark, but in the light of day, it would be visible from the edge of the miniature plateau. The wind blowing from the north had brought the scent of the cheroot down to where Shade stood, the elevation keeping it from becoming lost in the tangled rocks of the formation.


"Couldn't sleep either?" Shade asked as he dropped to the rock not far from Quentin. He realized the question was redundant considering they were both sitting there with dawn only two or three hours away.


Quentin sat still another moment, chewing the cheroot around in a circle as he gathered his thoughts. "Yep..." The sound came out around the cheroot. "Never realized how much actually being here would affect me." Quentin plucked the cheroot from his mouth and held it with finger and thumb in front of him, eyes drawn to the glowing tip. "Seeing the wagon makes it more real for me than the funeral, to be honest..." Quentin's head turned slowly to regard Shade. "Was that Josephine you were talking to?. I only caught a word here and there between the rocks and the breeze."


Shade nodded, "Yeah, she had a notion of paying her respects," he said, answering Quentin's question while he thought about the older man's comments about the effects of finding the wagon. Shade understood. He had at first put his inability to sleep down to being anxious about the final leg of the journey. In the end, he'd had to admit that it was finding the wagon. Like Quentin said, it made it all real.


"Maybe I should have pushed us on a few miles before making camp," Shade admitted at last. "But, there were things I had to know. I guess I'm lookin' for answers that don't exist 'cuz I'm not even sure of the questions." He gestured toward the meadow where the wagon rested, "That burned out husk brought it all home - not the guilt I was wallowing in on the train ride up here - just the reality of it all. Chance, Regina, and two of their children are dead," Shade's voice caught a bit on the last word before he continued, "and that can't be undone. I gotta do right by the two little'uns that are left. The grievin' ain't done, but it'll have to wait." At a loss for words, Shade stopped speaking for a few seconds. He shook his head, and when he spoke again, there was still a faint hitch in his gravelly voice, "Ain't never felt like this before, not even when Father and Mother passed."


Quentin listened to Shade and smiled to himself as he heard the younger man speak. "Your father and mother died...my father and mother died...It's sad, but you and I also understand it's a part of life. People live, and then they die. It helps to handle the loss to understand it's all a part of life..." Quentin waved an arm out in the direction of the wagon. "This isn't life...it's murder. It was the killing of four people who did not ask for or deserve what happened to them. Hell, even in the War, you could come to terms with someone that you knew dying because we all volunteered to be where we were. We might not have deserved to die, but you knew where you were going when you enlisted or got drafted."


Quentin stuck the cheroot back into his mouth and sat up straighter. "Do not blame yourself for not being here in the first place or for stopping here now. If you had been here you would have died...don't try and convince yourself otherwise. You saw the numbers, and you have seen the shell cases. You and I are good with a gun but sometimes good isn't enough."


Shade stared out into the night for several minutes after Quentin fell silent. He'd told him the same thing about not feeling guilty for not being there for Chance and Reggie back on the train. The older man was right, of course, but it had taken seeing it all to convince Shade of the fact. Second guessing himself, dwelling on the what ifs, and wallowing in self-recrimination served nothing.


"I don't feel guilty so much as just regrettin' not comin' home back when Chance asked me to, at least to visit," Shade said, his voice almost a sigh, "but I can't change that either. Made the best decision that I could at the time." He shifted on the rock so he could see the other man although the rocks partially shadowed his features. This time, Shade's voice was stronger, and there was an undercurrent of anger in it, "Quentin, I don't believe for a second that this was done by some band of Indians who just happened to be in the area and itchin' to attack some white folks. That makes no sense. Someone planned and organized the killin'. I want the killers, but more'n that, I want the man or woman behind it. I wanna know why and I want them to pay for it."


Quentin nodded. "I agree...and even if we killed everyone who was here, we wouldn't get who was responsible..." His head became wreathed in smoke as he exhaled softly. "...No, this will take some digging...and when we figure out who it is, or they are...they'll pay."


Shade looked at Quentin again. He felt they had just made a pact of some sort and it felt right. The red-hot knot of rage in the pit of his stomach subsided to a cold burn. He nodded his head although he wasn't entirely sure Quentin could see that gesture of affirmation. "And if one of us can't finish it, the other one will."


Quentin looked at Shade. "They cost us almost everything we had left to care about in this world, Shade...there's no doubt about what's going to happen here. They're not ready for or able to deal with what's coming..." Quentin smiled around the cheroot. "I'm not a religious man, but I suspect it will be Biblical."


Shade's answering smile was menacing, and his deep blue eyes were cold. For a moment, he looked every bit as dangerous as his reputation made him out to be. Shade actually preferred walking on the right side of the law. This was one of the rare instances where he felt the situation superseded what law and order could accomplish. The fact that they might be facing off against the United States Army was not lost on him.


The wind suddenly rose and howled through the cracks and crevices of the rock formation where the two men sat. In its wake was other sounds, whispers and cries barely heard. Shade sat up straighter, his brow wrinkled as he turned his eyes toward the meadow. Old, half-remembered superstitions surfaced, making him shiver despite his thick jacket. Deciding that they could not leave until the spirits in this place had been set free, Shade said, "Do you have another of those?" He gestured at Quentin's cheroot. It wasn't perfect for what he had in mind, but he thought he'd smelled sage earlier so it would have to suffice.


Quentin's eyebrows went up together as his hand went to his jacket to tug out the small leather case he used to keep a half dozen at the ready beside the ones packed in his saddlebag. "I didn't think you smoked..." Quentin tugged a fresh cheroot out and the small round metal container he carried his Lucifers in, handing the cheroot and matches to Shade.


Shade took the items and stared down at the cheroot. It was more slender than the more popular expensive cigars and did not taper at the ends, making them somewhat less expensive to roll. This one was a little longer than the average cigarette, leading Shade to believe they were custom-made and cut to Quentin's preferences. Not the most expensive of items, but still a pricey one. The actual ratio of tobacco to other herbals appeared to be a little less too, indicating that the other man used the cheroots for a reason other than a habit he couldn't put away.


"I don't," Shade said in answer to Quentin's comment. "Tried it when I first lit out from home 'cuz it was forbidden and because I thought it'd make me look older, more experienced." He'd thought that appearing to have a man's vices would offset the fact he was nothing more than a tanglefoot kid with a really, really fast gun hand. He'd quickly learned that only time and experience would garner him the respect he needed to stay alive.


"I smelled sage, cherry, and a couple of other herbs along with the tobacco. In many red-stick cultures, burning sage and other herbs is a way to spiritually cleanse a place. They'll burn it in the tipis and wigwams of the dead. Tobacco is also used in certain cleansing and purification ceremonies," Shade explained to Quentin as he looked around for a clump of grass that he could use to wrap around the cheroot. He found what he was looking for and laid the cheroot and matches down on the rock near Quentin. Shade carefully pulled up the long grass so that it remained intact, he deftly wove it into a slender mesh that he then wrapped around the cheroot. "I was raised Catholic, but those rituals don't seem right in this place 'cuz it's sacred to the Indians."


Quentin nodded. "Those cigars are a form of...payment, I guess you could say. I once lent a hand to a man who was running a tobacco shop. Some local toughs had been taking a large amount of his profits as part of a protection racket. He was a retired British Colour Sergeant who came here to enjoy his retirement. I was in his shop one day when they stopped by for their 'tax'..." Quentin smiled in the dark. "...That was a bit of fun. None of them died, but I expect a few will be eating mighty careful for a long time...or limping...or both. I refused any money from him. Hell, That's the whole point of what I did. So, he offered me a trade. He would make me a special blend and have it sent to wherever I wished for free. I agreed since it was from stock he normally kept on hand and was not an imposition."


Shade stopped what he was doing and looked at Quentin, shrugging expressively while adding to his mental notes and impressions of the older man's integrity, "I need to do something for them here where they died." He reached into his pocket and pulled out Chance's rosary that Josephine had found beside the wagon earlier. It had become tangled with his, so he handed both to Quentin. "The one made with the blue gems is Chance's. Miss Josephine found it a little bit ago when we were talkin'. He must have dropped it during the attack."


Quentin took the tangled chains and held them. The moonlight did not reveal all the details, but he appreciated the weight and sturdiness of the rosaries. "Your mother was right to make them tougher and stronger for the two of you. A regular rosary would never stand up to the normal days both of you have...she was a smart woman."


Shade looked at the tangled rosaries, "When Mother gave me mine, Chance said she'd gathered the stones on the ranch. Mine's river rock, Chance's are rough sapphires. The silver came from candlesticks in her dowery. He said she wanted our faith to connect us to the land, to each other, and our heritage. Didn't really take for me, I guess." He finished fastening the woven grass around the cheroot. Taking the rosaries back from Quentin, he entwined them through the fingers of the hand carrying the makeshift smudge stick.


He led the way back down to the wagon, hearing Quentin's sure steps in his wake. Shade fumbled a bit as he tried to light the cheroot, and murmured a quiet thank-you when Quentin took it and lit it with practiced ease before handing it back. Shade blew out the active embers, leaving it smoking. He didn't have a feather which was the normal item used to fan the smoke so he would use the back of his free hand to fan the smoke outward. Glancing at Quentin, he shrugged again, "I don't know the proper words, but hoping the spirits of this place understand the intent."


Quentin stood quietly as Shade began to speak, then suddenly reached up and yanked his hat off his head with a soft curse for having forgotten. He held it in both hands in front of him as Shade continued with the ritual. One hand came up and pulled the cheroot out to drop it beside his right boot, and he ground it out quietly.


"Great Spirit, look upon the spirits of your children, that they may face the winds and walk the good road to the day of quiet. This is my prayer' hear me," Shade said the words with a humble note in his voice, using the back of his hand to direct the smoke in all four compass directions and out over the wrecked wagon. After he finished speaking, he lay the remainder of the smudge-stick in the bed of the wagon, and pulled off his hat, holding it in one hand and the entwined rosaries in the other. Shade bowed his head and spoke again, "Lord, those who die still live in Your presence. Their lives change but do not end. I pray in hope for our family, and for all the dead known to You alone. Amen."


It might have been Shade's imagination, but he felt as if the atmosphere lightened considerably. The shadows of the night appeared to visibly retreat and the tension he'd felt ever since spotting the wagon from the road eased. He was still angry, still determined to find and destroy those that had murdered Chance, Regina, and their children, but now he felt as if he could approach it with logic and even patience.


Shade raised his head and looked over at Quentin. He had not wanted to force his beliefs on the other man but was glad for his presence. He smiled and said quietly, "We've done all we can here. Ready to go home, partner?"


Quentin nodded as he placed his hat back on his head. "Seems strange to call it home even though I have spent a lot of time there, but I guess we both need to get used to calling it that."


Shade turned slightly so that he could look out over the night-shadowed landscape, his eyes seeking the direction of which he knew the ranch lay. He'd used the word home on several occasions since starting the journey from Laramie but realized that this was the first time he'd said in that context. It was also the first time that Shade had thought about the fact that Quentin's life was likely changing completely as well. "Yeah, guess we both need to get used to that and a lot of other things too." He tucked the rosaries back into his pocket, placed his hat back on his head, then gave Quentin a gentle, companionable slap on the shoulder. "Let's go...home."

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