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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.

Echo of Another Day

Laura Hale

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"Ezra will see to your gear and get the horses taken care of. We'll sort out introductions inside," Laura said firmly, "I don't want to let dinner burn."

Before Laura could disappear inside, Harriet gestured to Adalwin, "Please, could we get Mr. Stahl sorted into a room? I think he may have taken cold during our journey."

"Sorry to hear that. We'll get you settled immediately," Laura said and turned to call out to someone inside the house, "Mary, could you show Mr. Stahl to the lower guest room and get him some tea." She smiled at the man, "We'll send you a dinner tray when it's ready."

Stahl gave the young woman that came outside, presumably Mary, a smile and thanked Harriet and the silver-haired lady. He muffled another cough and followed the young woman across the courtyard, disappearing through a door set into the breezeway. 

Shade lingered on the front terrace, watching as Laura Hale took charge of Harriet and her sister. Quentin followed, holding the hands of the two small children which he assumed were the twins, Cody and Nettie Thornton, his niece and nephew. It was Laura's voice calling his name from the doorway that finally got him moving. Until then, Shade had not realized how reluctant he was to step inside the house.

It was almost a relief to see that things had changed. Not the big things, of course. The walls of the foyer were still plastered and painted a pleasant cream color. Exposed timbers and ceiling beams added a rustic touch. The floor was made from knotted white pine, stained a golden hue, and polished to a high shine. Colorful rugs added warmth to the room. To the right was the main staircase that spiraled up to the second floor. Across from the foyer was the formal great-room, but Laura led them to the left, down a short hall and into the less formal family room. The main thing Shade noticed was that the decor had improved. The portraits of his mother's ancestors that used to adorn the walls were gone. Shade had always felt that their sole purpose was to stare disapprovingly at small boys. In their place hung oil paintings and watercolors depicting the local flora, fauna, and scenic landscapes.

The family room was dominated by a massive fireplace on the left. A huge oil painting of Lost Lake hung over the fireplace. It was so well done, Shade could almost feel the wind blowing off the mountains and across its waters. Inset in the rear wall were huge plate glass windows interspersed by doors leading out to the rear terraces. Dark wood shutters hung from iron tracks like the ones often used to hang large barn or warehouse doors. Duplicate shutters were attached to the home's exterior walls and provided protection during inclement weather. Well-made but comfortably worn leather and wood sofas and chairs were scattered around the room, including a grouping in front of the fireplace. A large heavy wood dining table and chairs, worn by many years of use, stood to the far right. Just beyond that was the kitchen. On the other side of the kitchen was the formal dining room. Shade was pleased that a smaller dining area had been added to the massive family room. It somehow made it seem warmer and cozier.

Shade's fear of familiarity gave way to a feeling of comfort as he looked around. It was the same, yet Chance and Regina had put their stamp on it and in the process made it more of a home than he remembered. Being home wasn't nearly as unsettling as he had expected it would be.

"Laura, this is my sister, Josephine," Harriet was saying, introducing her sister to the older woman. "I am sorry to bring unplanned guests..."

"Pleased to meet you, Miss Josephine. I'm Laura Hale. Don't fret about it, Harriet," Laura gestured into the family room, "the more, the merrier, although I am sure you both would like to wash the trail dust off. There's a washroom at this end of the breezeway, just across the hall, and another one down the hall on the right, just past the main stairs."

Harriet smiled. She had been sure of Laura's non-nonsense welcome, but she was happy to hear it anyway. "I know where the one in the breezeway is. Josephine, there are clean towels and washcloths in the cupboard." She directed her sister down the hall and headed for the other washroom, discreetly giving Laura time to introduce the children to their new uncle before overloading them with more strangers.

"Cody, Nettie, this is your uncle, Shade. You know how your Uncle Quentin is your mother's brother?" Laura waited until she got identical, simultaneous nods before continuing. "Well, Shade is your father's brother."

Two pairs of blue eyes looked up at Shade. The girl's eyes were light blue and intense like Chance's had been, but she had her mother's golden brown hair. The boy's eyes were deep blue, like Shade's, and his hair was raven black. Although their hair differed in color, in texture it was thick and wavy with a tendency to curl at the front. Both children wore matching haircuts although Nettie's was not cropped quite as short and was brushed into a much more feminine style. With the delicate features of the extremely young, it was difficult to tell which of their parents they favored the most. Shade found both of them disconcertingly beautiful children.

Shade kneeled so that he was at eye level with the children, "Howdy," he said, tipping his hat to Nettie before pushing it back, so it didn't shadow his face and eyes. "It's good to meet you both."

Cody shrugged closer to Quentin's leg and gripped his hand tighter. His dark blue eyes were a bit baleful as he spoke, but his voice was polite, "Hello, sir." He refused to offer his hand to shake. Shade didn't push.

Nettie, on the other hand, was obviously the bolder of the two, at least in the current situation. She stepped closer to Shade and tilted her head to study him. "You need a bath." Her statement was made calmly and matter-of-factly.

Shade chuckled and grinned, "You're right Tigress. Been a long spell on the road."

The little girl pointed to a heavy timber that ran to a ceiling beam providing support for the upper floor. Shade could see pegs driven into it. "No guns at the dinner table," Nettie stated firmly.

Shade's lips twitched, "Yes, ma'am."

Quentin grinned. "You heard her..." He slipped his hand from both children and unbuckled his Schofield and slid off his jacket to be able to shrug off the rig for his smaller Colt. Quentin checked the hammer loops and then turned around to see Cody standing behind him with both arms outstretched. He gently draped both belts over his arms, watching him grunt and show some effort with his determined expression as he held them. Quentin nodded and then scooped him up, walking over to the pegs and leaning so Cody could hang both from a pair of pegs at the end. He moved back to let Cody free his arms and then set him back down. "Good job, Trooper."

Under Nettie's commanding gaze, Shade rose to his feet and unfastened his gunbelt. Like Quentin, he checked that the loop was fastened over the gun's hammer before hanging it on one of the empty pegs. He looked over at Laura, "Guess the little'un is right about needing clean up too. Where do you want us?"

Laura pursed her lips, regarding Shade and Quentin steadily. She was well aware of the terms of Chance's and Regina's wills. They had sat down with the Hales since they wanted them to know they were being included in their final wishes. To her way of thinking, there was no time like the present for handing the job of running things over to the children's guardians. "Well, I don't know, boss," Laura drawled, dark eyes sparkling, "Where do you want to be." She relented slightly at Shade's worried expression, "Chance and Regina kept the upper suite of the guest house exclusively for Quentin's use. Miss Harriet usually stays in the front guest room upstairs when she doesn't stay at the Belle-St. Regis in town. By rights, you should take over the master suite upstairs, Shade."

Shade paled slightly and shook his head, "No...I couldn't."

Softening her voice, Laura stepped closer, easing the two children slightly out of earshot. She placed her hand on Shade's arm, "Ezra and I have been staying in the middle room upstairs, near the children. I took the liberty of packing up everything in the master and putting them in the storage barn where they'll stay safe, cool, and dry. They aren't there anymore, Shade."

He shook his head again while his mind raced. He gave a rapid mental review of the lodge and its available rooms. They needed the Hales nearby. The children were used to them and very attached as well. It would be cruel to make another major change to their lives so soon after losing their parents. Shade slanted a glance at Quentin as he made the decision, "We need you and Ezra here, Laura. I'd count it a great favor and an honor if the two of you took the master suite permanent-like. Since Quentin and Mr. Stahl are in the guest wing, the Mercer sisters can take the other two rooms upstairs. I'll take my old room down here."

"Then it's settled," Laura said. "In anticipation of your arrival, Mary and I cleaned all of the rooms, changed the linens, and put clean towels in the bathing rooms. There's one attached to each bedroom now. When Chance had the house remodeled to put in the whole-house heating and plumbing, he cannibalized some of the extra bedrooms to make closets, water closets, and bathing rooms. It's all very posh and grand now with galvanized iron and copper pipes, even if the boiler breaks down more often than it works." She didn't mention that she'd also packed up her and Ezra's things and left them in the schoolroom, ready for them to move back into their comfortable home in the valley below the main house.

Shade smiled and visibly relaxed, "That's good then. Quentin and I will get everyone's bags sorted and get cleaned up ourselves." He nodded to the older man as Laura stepped over to where the twins were chatting in low voices with one another.

"I'll get these little monkeys cleaned up for dinner and let the ladies know where they are staying in case they also want to change clothes." Laura ushered the children out of the room and toward a door across the hall which hid the shallower stairs that had always been called the children's stairs. The door could be locked, and there was a lockable wrought iron gate at the upstairs entrance as well. Several of the stairs on the winding main staircase had been engineered to squeak loudly, making it next to impossible to sneak up and down them. The only other stairs were located in the south hall, just off the guest wing.

Shade and Quentin headed toward the foyer where Ezra and one of the hands had dropped their gear and bags. With the two of them carrying everything, it would only take one trip to get everything sorted.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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Shade walked along the downstairs hall and a short cross hall at the end. Curious, he turned to his right and opened the door, walking into the room that had been Chance's and, later, Chance's and Regina's. At least it had been until after the deaths of their parents in 1868. The room felt a bit sterile to Shade although it was nicely decorated. It just had that hard-to-define not used feel to it. He shook his head and exited the way he had come walking the short distance to the other door.

He found a large tin of matches on the mantel over the fireplace. It took a couple to light the lamps. For a moment, he considered lighting the wagon-wheel style fixture that hung from the ceiling, but then decided it was too much effort to lower it, light all its lamps, and raise it again. He'd never much cared for the overhead lighting, felt it was too harsh and bright. The bedroom furniture was the same as when he'd lived there. A large, oak sleigh bed, two side tables with polished marble tops, a large dresser with a mirror, a chest of drawers, and a small oak gun stand and rack - one he had made in shop class at school. His old wardrobe was gone, probably stored out in one of the barns. Two rocking chairs with ottomans now sat in front of the fireplace, and a small sofa was set under the big window that overlooked the rear of the house. To the left of that was a door that led out to the room's private terrace.

The chair and ottoman cushions and the pillows on the leather sofa were all quilted in the prairie star pattern. The bed's piecemeal quilt was also done in the same pattern. The colors ranged from a pale sky blue to dark midnight blue resting on a pristine white background. No curtains or drapes were hanging over the windows which suited Shade. He preferred the clean look of the wooden shutters.

The biggest change was the addition of two doors to the right of the bed. The first one, set into the wall a few feet to the right of the headboard, led into a small closet. Small though it was, it was still far larger than Shade needed. He didn't have much in the way of personal belongings to store. To the right of that and facing toward the front of the house was the door that led into the private bathroom and water-closet, along with another, even larger clothes closet. 

With the tour of the bathroom and privy complete, Shade returned to the bedroom and quickly unpacked his saddlebags and bedroll, storing them neatly away in the smaller closet. He placed his rifle on the gun rack, then put his clean shirts, jeans and other clothes away on the dresser, leaving out a change for after he'd cleaned up. After enjoying a shave with the readily available warm water, Shade turned and eyed the large clawfoot tub and the nearby standup shower. The Shermans had showers out back of their house for use in the summer and Laura had warned Shade that the hot water was unreliable in the showers here. Still, he did not want to take the time to draw a bath so stripped off his dirty trail clothes and stepped into the shower, closing the half-door behind him. The operation appeared to be simple and straightforward. There were three pull chains, one for hot water, one for cold water, and one that pulled both of the other two, allowing a mix of hot and cold.

Taking a deep breath, Shade grabbed the third chain, managing not to yelp too loudly when icy cold water rushed in a torrent from the showerhead. Still, it felt good to wash the dust and grit off, despite nearly freezing himself several times and grabbing the hot water chain by mistake once. At least he was clean and presentable.

Shade grabbed one of the large thick towels and dried himself off. He then returned to the bedroom to don clean blue jeans and a dark blue bib-front shirt. A few minutes later, he'd polished his worn boots, blew out the lamps, closed the shutters and crossed to open the door to the hall. Shade paused for a moment and looked back into the room where he'd spent a good part of his childhood. It was going to take awhile to get used to everything again, to being home, and to being in charge. He sighed as he closed the door, "God, Chance, I hope you knew what you were doing. Hope I'm up to the job you left to me."

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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Harriet had been grateful when Laura, with twins in tow, had told her that their bags were being taken upstairs. She'd quickly reached the conclusion that she was simply too dusty and dirty to clean up thoroughly in the washroom. There would not be enough time before dinner for a long, soaking bath, but she would be able to take a quick one and put on clean clothes. In the end, she had taken a bit more time and washed her hair, pulling it back into a thick braid afterward. Clad in a gaucho-style, calf-length riding skirt, a full-sleeved gray blouse, and boots, Harriet made her way back downstairs to the family room, nearly colliding with Shade as he passed by the main staircase.

He blinked and reached out to steady her, "Miss Mercer! I'm sorry, afraid I wasn't watching where I was goin'."

"That is quite alright, but - Shade - would you mind continuing to call me Harriet, H.G., or even Miss Harriet if you prefer?" Harriet smiled, "As I told Quentin last night, I am sure there will be ample opportunity for hostilities, but for now, we are on the same side." She still was not sure how she felt about the younger man, but it was best for everyone if they presented a united front - leastways, until after the judge's ruling on Wednesday.

They walked into the huge, open family room to find Ezra setting the table for dinner and the twins playing near the huge fireplace. Laura poked her head out of the kitchen, "Good, you two are here. Start ferrying in the food, will you?"

Shade grinned and winked, "Not home one full day and gettin' put to work!"

Quentin walked into the family room. He had just climbed out of his outfit of the last several days and left it on the floor. He planned to deal with it later after he got a good whiff. Quentin had showered and then poked through his closet. One advantage of staying at the ranch occasionally was that he had left a good selection of clothes because a lot of times he had been riding from one place to another. Quentin was wearing a hunter green shirt with the sleeves rolled back to his mid-forearm and a pair of dark black pants that came down over a pair of low cut boots. Quentin had walked in at the end of Shade' comment. "The secret is not to be caught standing around waiting for the food..."

Harriet shot a look at Quentin and said sweetly, "Which means you can help us." She smiled at Laura and headed into the kitchen.

Jo was also more than grateful for the chance to freshen up, to wash the dust from her skin and hair and to put on clean clothes, this time a dress in dark green with a light silver underlay. Having taken the offer given by Mrs. Hale for a guest bedroom, she'd been able to wash her hair quickly, allowing it to dry in neat little curls, which she pinned up off her face to cascade down her neck to below her shoulders. She didn't know how long they were going to be here in Montana, so she figured she'd just have to make the best of it. The bedroom itself was lovely; the furniture was hand-crafted and well made with cream colored linens, gently accented with pale lilac. Jo was definitely looking forward to sleeping on an actual bed tonight, a bed that was quite soft and filled with feathers. She hadn't been able to resist laying back on it for a few moments after disrobing of her dusty travel clothes. 

After a quick tending to her birds, a few treats, and fresh, cool water, Jo made her way through the halls toward the family room where the others were gathering. Stepping quietly over to Laura, she spoke gently. "May I help in any way?"

"No, dear, just go ahead and grab a seat. Save the far side of the table for me and the twins. They sometimes need supervision," Laura's eyes sparkled as she answered. She knew one or both of the twins would want to sit with Quentin. He'd been very popular with all four of the children. Now, he was a familiar face and family member in a sea of uncertainty. Laura also did a quick count to make sure there was enough room. Six adults and two children. Ezra had already secured the children's booster seats onto two of the chairs. Everything was as ready as possible.

Once all of the food had been set on the table, everyone was seated. Ezra said grace and then passed the first dish, a serving platter heaped with fried chicken. That was the signal for everyone to fill their plates. During dinner, the conversation was casual. Ezra and Laura filled everyone in on child-friendly local news and gossip. She made it clear by her choice of topics that everything else could wait until after dinner.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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After dinner was over, Laura left the other adults to put away the leftovers and do the washing up while she escorted two very tired and cranky children to bed. Dinner had been served later normal, and it was well past the twins' bedtime before it was finished. Once she had them tucked into their beds, Laura returned to the family room to send Shade and Quentin upstairs to read bedtime stories and tell them goodnight. It was the first step in getting Cody and Nettie adjusted to their new living situation and the new adults in their lives. While the two men dealt with their uncle duties, Laura put on a pot of water for tea and a fresh pot of coffee to have with dessert. She expected it to be a later than normal night for all of them.

Shade and Quentin returned to the family room after reading the obligatory bedtime story just as Ezra was carrying in a large silver tea and coffee service. The large coffee table was already set up with the fresh blackberry cobbler, cups, napkins, and silverware. Shade liked the way the two long sofas were arranged, facing one another with the coffee table in the center. Situated in front of the hearth and facing into the room with their backs to the fireplace were two large, cushioned rocking chairs. A small, gray marble-topped table was positioned between them. Underneath the furniture and taking up a good portion of the floor was a beautiful Navajo rug. Despite its large size, the small groupings of furniture made it seem cozy.

Ezra and Laura settled on the sofa that had its back to the windows, so Shade dropped into one of the rocking chairs, sighing as he leaned back into the thick cushion. Laura passed the dessert dishes of blackberry cobbler topped with fresh thick cream around, leaving it up to each person to choose coffee or tea. Shade, naturally, chose coffee, carefully setting the cup on the side table next to his chair. He was almost too tired to eat the delicious looking dessert, but the enticing scent won out. His body might be tired, but his sweet tooth wasn't taking no for an answer.

Having formed the habit while on the trail, Harriet automatically poured two cups of tea as she settled on the sofa that faced the rear windows. Realizing what she had done, she blushed slightly and said, "I hope you wanted tea, Quentin."

Quentin smiled in response and picked up the cup as he moved over and settled on the end of the sofa opposite Harriet. "You thought correctly. Thank you for doing so. I am going to end up owing you a whole case of this flavor." Quentin set the cup down and dug into the cobbler. "This is amazing. Now I remember why I found excuses to drop by when in the area. I never ate this good when on the trail."

Harriet took a bite of her cobbler and sighed, "Even Mildred didn't cook like this," she sighed. "The tea is actually from the same plantation in Brazil as the coffee here. It's grown and blended by the de Sylvas. Mrs. de Sylva is Shade's Aunt Celeste, John Caleb Thornton's sister."

Laura smiled her appreciation for the compliments. She enjoyed cooking and was generally considered quite good at it although she was not in the same class as Mary Hannaford, the lodge's cook. "I'm glad you're enjoying it," she said to Quentin and Harriet. Smiling, she settled her gaze on the other Mercer sister, "Would you like cobbler, Miss Josephine?"

"Oh, no thank you, Mrs. Hale," Jo stated, realizing she'd been spoken to directly. She'd been fairly quiet during dinner and after. "I'm afraid I'm a little too tired to eat anything more tonight." She explained, giving the older woman a soft smile. "Dinner was wonderful, however, thank you." Being around this family, sensing the love they seemed to share even if it had been some time since they'd shared a meal together, it made her homesick for San Francisco. Mildred was a wonderful cook, and Jo suddenly missed the way the house used to smell when she'd bake bread or her infamous biscuits. What she wouldn't do to have one of them right now. She didn't belong here, sitting down to tea and dessert with this family, whom, unlike every other person in the room, she had no connection to. No one had treated her unfairly or spoken an unkind word, but this was not home, not for her at least.

Shade polished off his cobbler and poured himself another cup of coffee, leaned back in the rocking chair and sighed slightly. He wasn't sure yet if being here was a good thing for him, but he was glad for the warmth and something other than the ground, rock, or a log to sit on. Seeing the Hales again brought back good memories of his childhood and early youth on the ranch. Ezra and Laura had been surrogate parents back then and treated him much the same way now, only adjusting the way they interacted with him a bit to allow for the fact that he was now thirty, not thirteen.

"Anything we need to know about the ranch before the hearing on Tuesday?" Shade asked after taking a sip of his coffee. 

Harriet finished her cobbler and carefully set the dish on the table. She leaned back into the corner of the sofa, her twilight gray eyes watching Shade. She had several questions about the confrontation between Shade and Deputy Marshal Hannah Cory, but they needed to be asked in private. There had been several witnesses, and if the opposition became aware of them, the entire incident could come up in court and negatively impact her case. Harriet loathed surprises. As a child, surprises had rarely been pleasant, and in her work, they could be downright disastrous. There would be time tomorrow to interview Shade and do final preparation on her arguments for the court.

"We have a few contracts for beef coming due. Will need to put out a flyer for extra drovers," Ezra said, "preferably some men that can handle a gun as well as a cow. We need to deliver fifty head to Fort Rossville up on the border." Ezra went on to give them the details.

Fort Rossville was a small garrison shared between Canada and the United States. There was also a decent sized settlement and, Ezra informed them, a new stockyard had recently opened. The stockyard was beginning to attract buyers from all over the northern territories and nearby locations in Canada. The problem, he told them, was that the trail took them too near Eureka which was even more lawless than the legendary Tombstone. It was a haven for outlaw gangs, rustlers, and gunslingers. Sheriffs and marshals did not last long in Eureka.

When Ezra finished speaking, Laura looked at him and then to Shade and Quentin, "The Steelgraves bought up several small spreads about five years ago and turned them into one big ranch. Its border runs along our northern boundary. Last year, Case Steelgrave became the town marshal in Whitefish. The word is, he's cleaned it up, drove all the bad actors out of Whitefish."

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Quentin muttered to himself. "Well, that's just great. The Steelgraves get legitimacy, a town to call their own, and their own legal tricks department if needed..." Quentin exhaled. "And that new 'ranch' helps them flank us...it keeps us looking in more than one direction all the time now."

"And I killed Case's baby brother," Shade said dryly. In his heart, he knew that he had not started the feud with the Steelgraves. That did not change the fact that his actions had escalated it.

Harriet leaned forward and placed her teacup on the coffee table which was apparently the signal needed for Josephine to politely excuse herself, pleading exhaustion from the trip. The men all rose to their feet, and Laura made sure the younger woman did not need anything. This gave Harriet the opportunity to get her thoughts in order while they settled themselves again. Her voice was crisp and clear when she began speaking, the one she used in the courtroom. "When Chance and Regina Thornton chose to make the long-absent Shade Thornton the guardian to their children and to leave him half of this ranch, my associate, Alistair Fang, and I undertook an exhaustive investigation into Shade Thorntons life. In the process, we also investigated anyone and anything that could have a future impact on those responsibilities. This included the Steelgrave family who was already a concern due to Carson Tyndall's involvement with them and their antipathy for anything and everything Thornton."

Fixing her gray eyes on Quentin and Shade, Harriet continued speaking, "Case is a gun-for-hire. He's fast enough to be considered a legend. To date, there are no records of anyone surviving a gunfight with him. Case Steelgrave has never been tied to murder because he's far too clever. Prospective employers take out a personal ad in the El Paso Chronicle that lists a city or town. Once there, he picks up a letter via general delivery, and presumably, his fee. Case then spends as much time as it takes to goad the walking dead man into a fight."

Harriet leaned back into the sofa cushions, fixed her eyes on Shade and said in a steely-toned voice, "Mr. Thornton, you have not been a target because Case does not pick fights with anyone that he has not been paid to kill. He has never been motivated by revenge. Now that you live in relative proximity to him, family honor is at stake, so this is likely to change. You have too much to lose to let him goad you into a fight. Sticks and stones, Mr. Thornton."

Shade's lips twitched into a smile. He read equal amounts of dislike and disgust in Harriet's voice. Her personal opinion of him did not bother him overmuch. He wasn't too fond of her either. Shade was confident that once they were in the courtroom, she would do her best to ensure that Chance's and Regina's wishes were carried out.

"Miss Harriet, Case Steelgrave isn't the first gunfighter to use bullying tactics to push a showdown, and he won't be the last," Shade allowed the same steely note of disdain to creep into his deep voice. The fact that she had returned to referring him as Mr. Thornton indicated to him that the truce was ending. Still, two women could answer to Miss Mercer, so he chose to use the first name in a formal mode of address. Truth be told since she was somewhat older than he was, it was more comfortable for him.

Quentin sat up from his position on the sofa and turned to look at the lawyer. "Harriet, I have tangled with those 'professional victims' before. They make an art of making normally sober, calm men lose their tempers. Real life isn't about turning the other cheek, but you can trust Shade to know when he is being goaded compared to someone who really has a quarrel with him. Start judging Shade by what you've seen instead of what you've read about him."

Harriet's gray eyes turned stormy, and her lips thinned as she glared at Quentin. "And what have I seen of him, Quentin?" His name came out sharper than she intended. A little voice in her head tried to caution her against engaging a client in a verbal battle. At the same time, a rather dispassionate side of Harriet tried to analyze why Quentin Cantrell grated on her nerves. But, it was far too late. Demon Harriet was taking charge. "Yes, Mr. Thornton has proven a reliable scout, leading us safely from Missoula to Kalispell where he almost got into a shootout with Deputy Marshal Cory. Before that, on the train, he drew his gun on me, my associate, and my sister. Although the gunfight in Missoula was technically self-defense, he still settled the situation with a shooting. I have not seen anything that would actually render my opinions and observations invalid."

Shade muttered softly under his breath, "Here we go." There was little else he could add at the moment. He was far too tired to take on a character debate with Harriet Mercer, even if the character being debated was his. Hoping he'd derail the impending storm by leaving, he rose to his feet. "Laura," he crossed over and leaned down to kiss her cheek, "thank you for dinner. Ezra, I'll talk to you tomorrow. I'm about beat tonight. Miss Harriet, Quentin, goodnight."

Ezra also rose to his feet, pulling Laura with him, "We should retire as well. Good night to you both."

Laura gave her husband a look that said she wasn't quite ready to leave the room, but the gentle tightening of his fingers on her hand dissuaded her from comment. "It is getting late. I'll clean everything up before Mary gets here in the morning." She leaned down to kiss first Harriet and then Quentin on the cheek before heading for the stairs with Ezra.

Harriet remained quiet until the sound of the Hales' footsteps faded away, meaning they were well out of earshot. On the night before, Harriet had offered a truce with Quentin until after the trial. With the dangers of the trail behind them, she was less inclined to honor the temporary treaty. Oh, she would still do her job to the best of her ability, but she was less sanguine about her clients' pasts now that the immediate danger over. There was no longer the need to cooperate to ensure survival. Admittedly, a small part of her liked being able to needle the cool, debonair Cantrell. 

"At least the majority of Mr. Thornton misdeeds and brushes with the law are well documented and easy to uncover," Harriet pinned Quentin with her cool gray eyes, "You, on the other hand, have buried your skeletons far deeper. You have left nothing on the surface for others to easily find. On the trail, you told me that your job entailed doing whatever it took to fix other people's problems. What did it take to fix those problems, Quentin? Where are those bodies buried, hmmm?" She almost purred the last question at him.

Quentin's eyes blazed, and his nostrils flared as he stood. "We all have skeletons...even you, Counselor..." Quentin moved around to the fireplace and rested his hands on the mantle, head dropping forward a moment as he stared into the fire. "...Am I proud of everything I have done in my life? No. Am I able to live with the choices I have made after a certain point? Absolutely." Quentin pushed up straight from the mantle and turned around to face Harriet. "Perhaps if someone prepared to do whatever it took to help you had found you back before whatever damaged you happened, you might not be the person sitting in front of me today."

It took more will than Harriet realized she had to not reveal her alarm at his words. The pounding of her heart subsided as she occupied herself by primly folding her hands in her lap. Her personal skeleton was well and truly buried. Quentin Cantrell could not know about it. He had not even known of her connection to his sister and brother-in-law until they met on the train. No, she was safe for now. Harriet had long ago stopped concerning herself with other skeletons. Frank Mercer's skeletons were not her responsibility.

But that damned insufferable man's last statement had hit the center ring on the target. She allowed a touch of frost to enter her voice, "Are all women who manage to have a successful career in a male-dominated profession considered damaged by your standards, Quentin?" She felt satisfied with her response. Deflection was, after all, one of a lawyer's stock tools of his - or her - trade.

Quentin smiled. "Harriet, I may be a gentleman, but don't mistake me for the typical vacuous southern gentleman you're used to destroying with your looks and brain. I have been sliced to ribbons by some of the best and have learned my lessons..." Quentin paced in front of the fireplace now. "...You don't wish to talk about your previous problems, fine...but don't go digging for mine."

"If I have previous problems, they will not influence the outcome of the hearing. If Carson Tyndall's research was more profitable than mine, despite what I feel is a lack of legal substance, it could see you both lose everything. Worse, it could lose the children's inheritance," Harriet said, watching Quentin pace to and fro, likening his movements to that of a caged lion she had seen at a wildlife exhibit many years ago.

"Think about it," Harriet advised in a far milder voice as she rose to her feet. "For now, it is very late, and I have business in town tomorrow." She looked at the coffee and tea service and the soiled dessert dishes and cups, "I simply cannot leave this for Laura to deal with in the morning. Will you help me take the dishes through to the kitchen?"

Quentin readily agreed, seemingly ready to let their discussion end for the night. She assumed he felt as she did, tired and worried about the upcoming hearing on Tuesday. Harriet could not help feeling as if Chance's and Regina's ghosts hovered just outside her view. If she felt that way, surely Quentin did too. A good night's sleep was needed by all. She bade Quentin goodnight at the bottom of the stairs, pausing on the first landing to look back and saw him watching her, but his face was in shadow. What his thoughts were had been hidden by the darkness.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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