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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.

Homecoming


Shade Thornton
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Lost Lake Trail ran from the outskirts of Kalispell through nearly two miles of rolling meadows dotted with forests, a preamble to entering the foothills of the Chogun Mountains. The towering ranges and peaks of the Rockies loomed on every horizon. Chogun was the Blackfoot word for blackbird, and most locals referred to the mountains as the Blackbirds. They were an impressive range on their own, made more spectacular with the Rocky Mountains at their backs. The road continued west to where the boundary of the Thorntons' property, Lost Lake Ranch, was marked by an impressive arched gate and a series of sturdy fence posts set roughly six feet apart. Beyond the gate was the two-mile expanse known as Drover's Meadow which included the rolling foothills of the Blackbirds.


Six-foot high log and mortar walls provided support for the heavy wrought iron entrance. The name of the ranch and its registered brand told visitors they were at Lost Lake Ranch. The ranch's name and brand were also made of wrought iron. The actual gate was also six-foot high and made of timber and mortar. It moved on small steel wheels, like a train's, set on a low train-track type rail. The entrance was high enough and wide enough to allow the passage of large wagons or several animals abreast. Traditionally, the gate stood open, and no wire was strung between the fence posts. This only changed when the meadow was reaching capacity for the amount of livestock it could support and over-grazing threatened to damage it permanently. The only other time the gate would be closed and wire strung on the waiting fence posts was when the Thorntons needed to keep their livestock separate from other animals grazing the meadows.


Shade and his traveling companions met no obstacles after leaving Kalispell until they passed through the gate at Lost Lake Ranch. There, a ranch hand that was working on settling a herd of glossy black Angus cattle broke off from his task and rode over to stop them. It would soon be dusk, and the men were getting the animals bedded down for the night. Near a rise and close to a treeline, Shade spotted two log cabins, one slightly longer and larger than the other. They were new since his time at the ranch and likely for use by the hands when animals were grazing the meadow.


The rider pulled his horse to a stop on the trail in front of them, tipped his hat respectfully, and said politely, but firmly, "This here's private property. There's hotels and a livery stable back in Kalispell."


"This is Mr. Quentin Cantrell, and I'm Shade Thornton. We're expected," Shade responded mildly.


Another rider trotted his mount over and caught the tail-end of the conversation, "They are expected, Tommy," the older man said to the one that had stopped them. "Ride on ahead to the ranch and let Mr. Hale know they made it." The man named Tommy whirled his horse around and set his heels to his flanks, galloping toward the foothills. "Sorry for that," the man said, tipping his hat to them. "Can never be too careful. That was Tommy Lightfoot, and I'm Sage Miller, night foreman. The Hales are at the lodge, ride on through."


Miller wheeled his horse out of their way, and Shade rode back to the coach. He looked up at Harriet Mercer, "Are you okay to drive 'em through the pass, Miss Mercer?" He knew from their conversations that she had been a frequent guest at the ranch, but he wasn't sure how often she'd driven over the pass, especially with night creeping in.


"I can manage, Shade. The team is used to the road. Thank you." Harriet glanced at the man seated beside her on the driver's box. Stalh had started coughing before they reached Kalispell and she was pretty sure he had contracted a head cold or flu.


Shade sent Quentin to keep an eye on things from the rear while he turned Lakota to lead the way. The road led through the fertile Chogun Valley where he noted herds of grazing livestock, including a small group of bison, and buildings that all seemed in good repair with fresh coats of paint. More riders were tending the herds, but there were no more challenges to their passage. Apparently, the men trusted Sage Miller's authority to let them pass. They crossed a wide, sturdy bridge that spanned one branch of the Chogun River. From there, the road began climbing through the foothills toward the pass, following the course of the river.


There had always been a rough trail or game path through the lower end of the Choguns. Long before Shade had been born, the locals began calling it Ishmael's Gate, named after his grandfather. Shade was pleased to see that it had been widened and packed into a well-maintained road. The cliffs to their right as they road west had been shored up with stout railroad timbers and gravel. On their left, the edge of the road and the drop to the river, now several hundred feet below, was marked by a whitewashed split-rail fence. Each fence post was topped by a carriage lantern that had been recently lit. Even with being so high above the river, its roar was easy to hear and would have deafened any effort at conversation. The road itself was rather curvy as it had to follow the contours of the mountain with some of the curves being very sharp switchbacks. Despite the fence marking the edge of the gorge and the flickering light of the lamps, Shade would not like to make the ride at night.


Another bridge spanned the river and a short distance from there, it and the river forked. The west fork would lead to another valley and a small lake. It was where the majority of the ranch's main facilities were located, the larger barns, paddocks, corrals, cabins, and bunkhouses. Shade chose the north fork which rose steeply through the spectacular landscape of the mountains. They passed into a small circular valley called Snowlight Basin. In the gathering shadows, they passed fenced in paddocks, a large barn, and a few other outbuildings. Several yards past the large barn, the hard-packed dirt of the road passed through two stone pillars topped by lanterns and into a large stone-paved courtyard.


Shade mirrored his horse's sigh of weariness as he pulled him to a stop, waiting for Harriet to expertly turn the team, and pull them to a stop before actually dismounting himself. Turning, he looked at the house where he had grown up, and as always, was stunned by its rugged grandeur. The entry was covered by a steeply inclined metal roof supported by a frame made of massive logs and timbers. Two towering oaks had been carved to look like they had grown up through the stones. They stood to each side of large double doors that had a scene depicting antlered elks and forests. The lower floor of the main house and adjoining guest house had walls of heavy river stone while the remainder was made of beautifully dressed logs, carefully joined, to ensure a sturdy structure that could withstand the worst weather the northwestern Montana mountains could throw at it. The house was grand but still offered the impression that it, like the mountains that cradled it, had always been there, standing strongly against the elements. Shade knew that if you were looking up at Snowlight Basin from the lake, you had to know the house was there to be able to see it unless fires were lit and you could see the smoke drifting upward on the wind.


The double doors opened just as Quentin rode up and dismounted. The men had barely completed looping the reins over a timber hitching post when two small figures came running out and across the front terrace. "Uncle Quentin, Uncle Quentin! You're home," a little boy and little girl cried out in unison.


An older man and woman followed them, stopping just short of the hitching rail. The man nodded a greeting while the woman surged forward to wrap her arms around Shade in a powerful hug, "Shade," she breathed, dark eyes glistening with tears, "Oh, welcome home."


Ezra Hale extended his hand, first to Quentin and then to Shade. He smiled, his eyes lighting with warmth, "Welcome home, boy."

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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