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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.

For Whom the Rooster Crows

Shade Thornton

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Shade had gotten to bed very late the night before. He'd spent the time after dinner and before the twins' bedtime in getting to know them a bit. After the twins went to bed, the adults stayed up talking about the status of the ranch and filling in Ezra and Laura on what had transpired during the journey from Wyoming to Montana. When he finally returned to his bed, Shade expected one of two things. He would be restless and, even though he was exhausted, he would get very little rest due to the strangeness of being back home. On the other hand, Shade had gone without regular rest for several days and had not slept at all the previous night making it a real possibility that he would oversleep.

Having been taught that a person only laid in bed if they were seriously sick or injured and the habit of a lifetime had Shade stirring just before sunrise. He rolled out of bed, shivering a little in the coolness of the predawn morning, shaved, washed up and dressed. Stopping back by his bed, he pulled his gunbelt off the peg he'd hammered into the wall next to the headboard the night before. Before fastening it on, Shade remembered Nettie's warning about no guns at the table and grinned. He was likely up and about long before breakfast would be served, but just in case, he looped the belt over his shoulder instead of strapping it on.

To Shade's surprise, he was not the only person awake and stirring around the house. Lamps, affixed to sconces along the walls, had been lit in the hall, the family room, and its adjoining dining area. Shade had learned the night before that the family rarely used the breakfast room that was across from the family room. It had been turned into a lady's parlor for taking tea with guests. The kitchen was also a blaze of light, and the smell of baking bread emanated from the area of the large cook stove. A woman was seated at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee. Her strong face with its wide, slightly flattened cheekbones, suggested she had Indian blood in her background. Hair, the color of rich peat, hung over her shoulders. Two sleepy looking children sat at the table, sipping hot chocolate and watching the woman peel potatoes.

The woman rose to her feet and wiped her hands on her apron. Despite wearing flat-soled moccasins on her feet, she stood taller than Shade. She wore dark brown trousers and a cream colored blouse. Shade guessed her age to be somewhere around forty, but she had the kind of timeless features that made it hard to tell. Besides, he was hardly an expert at placing a woman's age.

"Mr. Thornton, I'm Mary Miller. I cook and manage things for Mrs. Laura. Before that, I worked for Mrs. Regina." She offered her hand and gripped Shade's firmly. "These are my young'uns, Ellie and Noah."

Shade was initially surprised that she knew his name but then realized that if Mary had worked for Regina, she likely knew Quentin. By the process of elimination, she could've guessed who he was. "Ma'am," he touched his hat brim respectfully, "Please just call me Shade. Mr. Thornton doesn't feel quite right...here."

"Then Mr. Shade it is. Please call me Mary. The twins call me Miss Mary even though I'm married to your night foreman, Sage Miller, so that's fine too. Breakfast won't be for about two hours yet, but there's fresh coffee and rolls if you like," Mary told him, resuming her seat and her task.

Shade had learned from Laura the night before that, as a general rule, the ranch's employees did not work on Sundays or holidays. The hands rotated doing essential chores such as feeding and watering the livestock. Mary and the other women employed at the house had voluntarily given up part of their Sunday to help Laura get things organized for their arrival but had not stayed. He turned to the large stove that took up most of the wall that divided the kitchen from the family room. The coffee pot sat on the side that was coolest where it would stay hot but not scorch or burn. He snagged a large cup from the cabinet next to the stove, filled it and took a sip. The liquid was close to heaven in a cup. According to Ezra, Chance and Regina had expanded the importation of high-end coffees and teas from Celeste and Diego de Sylva's plantations in Brazil. Celeste was one of John Caleb Thornton's younger sisters and their aunts. Over the last few years, they had started supplying local shops and general stores along with buying a supply for the ranch. The difference in taste was phenomenal. Shade inhaled the fragrance of the coffee and smiles appreciatively.

Just as he finished the coffee, Shade's stomach let out a low growl. He grinned sheepishly, "Two hours, huh?"

The woman laughed, and both children giggled, "Take a couple of rolls with you and don't be late. I don't hold up breakfast and let it spoil because you men can't make it to the table on time." Mary split open two rolls and spread them with butter and honey before wrapping them in a napkin for him. "There are metal cups up there too. Take some coffee with you but remember to bring my cup back, you hear?"

"Yes, ma'am!" Shade fixed himself another cup of coffee and took the napkin wrapped roll Mary handed him. He set the items down on the counter and slid the gunbelt off his shoulder, strapping it snugly around his hips and securing the holster ties around at mid-thigh. In the foyer, he had to set the coffee and rolls down again so that he could pull on his jacket. Finally, he stepped out of the house and walked out of the courtyard and down to the main barn.

Inside the barn, he shrugged out of his coat and took a moment to eat the rolls and gulp down the coffee. He used the napkins to wipe his mouth and wipe out the cup and hung it on the peg with his coat so he wouldn't forget it. The last thing he wanted to do was get off on the wrong foot with the cook! Next, Shade took a walk down the barn's main hall, noting what was there and where everything was. He had entered through a large tack and feed room. Presumably, the doors at the other end opened into a paddock or yard. Box stalls lined both sides of the barn, stopping well short of the other set of doors. At the end of each row of stalls, large frames held fresh feed hay and straw for bedding. Pitchforks, shovels, and rakes hung on the wall. Just inside the barn door, on the left, was a flagstone area with a watering trough and hand-pump. Next to it was a bin filled with water buckets. At the tack and feed room end of the barn, there were several stalls designed for grooming and saddling. Shade had noted heavy rings affixed to the posts. Lightweight chains with snaps on both ends were attached to the rings. A person simply backed a horse into the open fronted enclosure and clipped the chains onto the animal's halter. They could then easily walk around the horse to groom and saddle it or go clean the empty stall.

All of the stalls were occupied. The ones down one side held Harriet's team, Stahl's bad-tempered gelding, Paladin, and Lakota. The stalls on the far side held several more horses including a striking red-roan Appaloosa gelding, a beautiful rose-gray mare, and a big black and white gelding with Medicine Hat markings. In the largest stall on the far side, the one closest to the doors, two milk cows stood, idly munching on hay. Brass holders had been affixed to each stall. Cards with the animals' names neatly printed on them had been slid into the holders. A milking station had been built next to the stall between it and the hay bins. Shade assumed the main herd of milk cows was housed in the big cow barn in the valley. Two cows would take care of most of the main house's needs. The barn had looked much bigger from the outside, so Shade looked around, finally finding a door behind the hay bin that led into a large shed attached to the side of the barn where wagons and buggies were kept. There was another huge shed on the other side of the barn. The rear of it was fenced and could be used for livestock if needed while the front was open to a large grazing paddock. Having satisfied his curiosity, Shade returned to the inside of the barn, rolled up his sleeves, and headed over to the stalls. 

The concern he'd felt at having broken the Cowboy Code by not taking care of his horse before taking care of himself the night before was assuaged somewhat as he entered Lakota's stall. The big smoky-dun stallion made a soft whuffling noise at him as Shade ran his hands over the horse's neck and shoulders. He ran his hands down Lakota's legs, noting with satisfaction that they were cool to the touch. Shade then performed the same check on each of the other horses to make sure they'd taken no harm from the hard journey. He'd had just pulled on his gloves and started toward the watering trough with the buckets from two of the Gypsy horses' stalls when the main door to the barn was rolled open, and Ezra walked in.

The older man set his mug of coffee on an upturned wooden barrel and grinned at Shade, "Miss Mary said you were already up and out. I thought you might sleep in."

"In that house," Shade said with a wry note in his deep, gravelly voice, "I wouldn't dare. I'll take care of the stock, Ezra. Not enough time to groom all of them before breakfast, but I can get 'em fed and watered. Come back and groom 'em after. We always used to take care of the Snowlight stock ourselves."

Ezra scratched his head and thought for a moment, "Nothing's changed there, Shade. Unless one of us is down sick, we don't ask the hands to take care of the stock up here. The older man smiled at Shade, "Okay, boy. Guess you might as well jump back in. I'll do the milking. Don't forget the chickens. Their coop is just beyond the paddock, closer to the house. Glad for the help."

"Might need to borrow a couple of saddle horses," Shade told him, "I'd like to give ours a few days of rest."

"The Appaloosa is mine, and the rose-gray mare is Laura's. That big paint belonged to Chance. He'd make a real good remount. Good stock horse, but strong-willed and spirited. Not to everyone's taste." Ezra said and nodded to the big gelding, walking with Shade down to the stall to take a closer look.

Shade glanced at the name affixed to the door, "Harlequin. Quite a mouthful," he said and grinned, admiration in his voice as he looked at the horse. It was like Chance to have chosen a flashy mount like the paint. 

"We call him Harle," Ezra told him, pronouncing the shortened form of the name as har-lee. "Good animal. Spanish Mustang and Quarter horse cross. The dappled-gray over there," Ezra nodded at the next stall, "was Regina's. Good stock horse too, but a little light-boned to carry a man's weight. Arabian. Thought I'd offer him to H.G."

Curious, since Arabian horses were rare in the west, Shade slid open the stall door to look over the gray. He couldn't help admiring the animal's beautiful delicately-shaped head with its slightly concave face. The horse was around fifteen and a half hands in height, light-boned, and a mottled dark and silver gray. His long, flowing mane and tail were silver. Definitely a stunning looking horse, but as Ezra said, he was more a lady's mount. Even though Shade was not a big man, the gelding wouldn't hold up under his weight out on the range.

Shade turned to the stall that housed Chance's gelding. Speaking quietly to the big gelding, Shade slid the door open and stepped into the stall. The horse was big, standing just over sixteen hands. That was fine with him. He'd always liked a big horse, finding that most of them had better temperaments than smaller animals. The gelding's mixed blood wasn't readily apparent. His conformation showed the powerful hindquarters, strong shoulders, and shorter back of the Quarter horse breed. His neck was slightly longer than usual for the breed and held a bit of an arch, traits inherited from his Spanish Mustang bloodlines. Harle's head, however, was less refined, a bit larger than was characteristic of the average Mustang.

Harlequin's base coat was white with black markings and black points including a flowing black mane and tail. His head was white from just below his eyes to his muzzle. The white continued on his face, ending in a point at the center of his forehead. From his eyes up, he was black, giving him the distinctive markings that made it appear he was wearing a hat. Hence the term Medicine Hat marked paint. Harle's left eye carried a distinctive blue ring around the iris, making the eye appear blue. A blue eye was uncommon, but not detrimental. A horse with blue eyes could see just as well as one with normal dark eyes and was no more prone to eye disease than others of their kind.

Shade peeled the horse's lips back and looked at the teeth. No sign of Galvayne's Groove, a dark brown mark that appears and fades at predictable ages, meant the horse was under ten years of age. The teeth were starting to slope and meet at an angle instead of at the verticle, so he was likely over four years old. He slipped his hands in and pulled the horse's mouth open, looking for cups, marks, and stars, as well as wear on the teeth. Shade glanced back at Ezra, "About seven or eight?"

Ezra nodded, "Just turned eight." Shade had always been an incredible horseman. It seemed that the years had not changed that.

Shade smiled, "I like him, and I'll need a spare once I get to workin' the range. Left my bay in Wyoming with the Shermans. Brimstone was gettin' on in years." A wave of homesickness for the Sherman ranch hit Shade, but he pushed it down. "Best get to work. Miss Mary warned me about being late." He let go of the horse's head, gave him a pat on the neck and stepped out of the stall. "Alright if I claim Harle as my remount?"

Ezra laughed, "Oh yes, Mary's a stickler for being on time for meals." The older man shook his head, "You don't have to ask me, boy, but yes, consider him one of your string." Ezra patted Shade on the shoulder, "I best get to the milkin', so Mary doesn't shoot us both." He turned and headed off to take care of his chores leaving Shade to the business of getting the horses fed and watered.

From outside the barn came the sounds of two roosters heralding the start of the day. Shade grinned and turned to start the job of ferrying water and feed to the impatient equines.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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Guest Valandhir

The House of One's Youth



Stahl straightened his shoulders as he walked down towards the barn in the morning, soup and sleep had done away with most of the cold, though he still felt like he had not slept at all. You are getting old, soldier, and now move it, he told himself. Miss H.G., his employer and the people of the farm had been friendly enough to give him the day to recover, which he appreciated. But now he best see to Wilhelm and get his bearings before reporting to H.G. to finish their agreement. 

The barn was not empty, he could hear Shade’ voice further down the building, probably tending to his horse too. Wilhelm had been stabled right beside H.G.’s team, exactly where Stahl had put him the evening before. The horse raised its head slightly, ears peeked as Stahl walked up to him. “Alles gut, euer Majestät,” (All good, your Majesty) Stahl said softly, gently patting the horse's strong neck. “Kein Grund sich gleich aufzuregen.” (No reason to get excited.) 

Like so often it took some talking, some patience to make the tall beast relax and rein in its more ill-tempered nature. Carefully, Stahl took his time to check the horse. Wilhelm's legs were cool, no signs of swelling or other exhaustion. The hooves…well that was another issue. “We’ll have to get you new irons before long, Wilhelm,” Stahl said, he knew that it might look weird to talk to the horse, but he had learned that the animal responded to his voice, it had become part of their partnership. “Especially if we get further up those mountains,” He paused the work to check on two scars on the horse's left flank. The scar tissue was cool and dry, no strain. “What do you think? We can go until autumn hits and find someplace further up to work.”

The horse huffed and gave him a soft push, an almost playful move that heralded as much affection as there was from it. “I know,” Stahl chuckled, getting up. “You want out again, I have no idea where that old man found you, but you were not born in a stable, that much is obvious.” 

Stahl went to get the bucket for water, if he did not leave today, he’d have to see he got that horse outside, or he’d really become ill-tempered. Spotting Shade working further down in the barn, Stahl wondered how the man was holding up. He had learned parts of the tragic story during their ride, the ‘Indian’ attack that might be many things, the death of his family, a family he had been away from for long, and now returning to find children he was responsible for and the home of his youth…changed. It had to take a toll on him, whatever crime - real or imagined - had driven him to leave, to be wanted, now standing here again could not be easy on the man’s mind. 

For a moment Stahl simply watched Shade work. There were no outward signs of distress or tension. None that were easily detected, except maybe a certain fervor with which he took to his work. Carrying the bucket back to the box, he gently patted Wilhelm’s flank but keeping his eye trained on Shade. “Heimkommen ist oft schwer, Wilhelm,” (Coming home is often hard, Wilhelm), he said softly. Leaning closer to the horse, he closed his eyes, the picture of the small, picturesque marketplace of a town far far away rising before his mind’s eye. He had come through there again, briefly, on an escort errand, escorting some courier or other from Potsdam to Altenburg. They had stopped in Meuselwitz, the courier totally oblivious of Stahl’s link to the town. The Apothecary was long run by a different family, the house changed somewhat. Peering into the so familiar shop behind the tall glass window he saw a strange man stocking the shelves. The only inn at the place had not changed, but no one remembered or had recognized him. At the time it had been a blessing, none of them quite making the connection between the young man who had left and the officer now staying overnight on an errand. Only the old lady still running the bakery had eyed him strangely. “Your eyes… they remind me of Georg Stahl,” she had said, when they had been just mounting to leave, he had not replied but nudged the horse to canter off, not looking back. It had been the last time he had come close to that town.

In retrospect it had been easy for him, he had known that his siblings were not there anymore, there was nothing left for them there, except maybe for his mother’s grave. His sisters married in different places, one in greater Saxony, the other in Saxe-Weimar, both relatively happy or unhappy, respectively. His brother… the only one to whom he wrote occasional letters, living in Vienna, having left this town and all that had happened there behind him, just like Adalwin had. But… imagine having to go back, or to go to Vienna, to seek out whatever was left of Max's family… 

Looking up he saw that Shade had moved on with the work, carrying on. What else could he do? There was no choice here for him, none at all. Had he spoken about it at all? Not about the duty, but about what he felt? What he thought of it all? That usually was a talk the pastor may have with the respective person… or the Doctor of the regiment did it before a man cracked up and did things he regretted later. Stahl wondered if Shade had spoken to Quentin about it, he certainly butted heads easily enough with H.G. He straightened up, seeing Wilhelm happily munching away on his food, and decided to go and see if he could assist Shade.

Edited by Valandhir (see edit history)
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Shade had just filled two water buckets and started down the barn's corridor when he spotted movement. His first reaction was alarm that he'd allowed himself to be so distracted as not to notice someone else enter the barn. Ezra had already finished the milking, fed the cows, and left while Shade had been readying fresh water buckets and daydreaming. He shook his head. Fortunately, the new arrival was Adalwin Stahl, Harriet Mercer's driver. The man had offered some good insights when they had all discussed the attack on Chance and Regina. He was also good with Harriet's team of big vanners and his own rather unpredictable gelding. Shade was inclined to trust him, but Shade still needed to be more careful.

"Mr. Stahl," Shade stopped next to the man, "good to see you're feeling better, but I'd have taken care of your mount." He nodded at the two rows of stalls, "I won't get them groomed before breakfast, just fed and watered. Figured I'd groom 'em and turn them out to graze while I clean the stalls."

There was a slight shift of stance, a tensing of shoulders that told Stahl he had startled the other man, though the words were spoken totally calm. "Mr. Thornton," he returned the curt greeting. "Need a hand with those and the stables?" his eyes went down to the entire row of horses, H.G.'s team needed looking after too. "Putting them out to graze will be great, especially for Wilhelm, he detests stables with a passion."

Shade turned toward the stall where the horse stood munching his feed. To most, the horse probably appeared nondescript. He saw a rich mahogany bay coat that was well cared for, black mane, tail, and stockings, a strong body with powerful haunches and good sloping shoulders. The horse's head was a bit long for Shade's taste but had good bone structure. 

The cowboy smiled as the horse's ears twitched nervously. Horses usually didn't like being stared at for long periods. To them, that much focus meant a predator was sizing them up for dinner. "Quite a bit of Mustang blood. I bet he was brought in on a roundup and not handled properly. Mustangs make great mounts. They're very intelligent, strong, unmatched endurance, agile, but they need gentled, not broken. It's also best to cut out the older horses and let them go back to the wild." Horses were in Shade's blood, they were his comfort zone. He was a good cattleman, but far better with horses.

"You know more about him than I learned in one year with his majesty," Stahl replied. It was amazing what Shade could tell about the horse in just a short time. There was a familiarity when he spoke about them, something he was utterly assured of. Stahl wondered how much of his life Shade had spent rearing horses. "He needs patience, though." He cast a look down the row, taking the cue from Shade on where to start with the work.

"They're all the better for having some time taken with them," Shade replied, "unfortunately, some people don't have the patience or the time. It's like supplying the US Cavalry with remounts. The army doesn't always allow the time needed to gentle a wild horse properly. There are costs too. The less time spent breaking and training, the less feed and care that animal requires, and the less the army has to pay for it."

Shade pulled an empty water bucket from one of the vanner's stalls and hung the fresh one in. Someone had taken the time to have one side of all the water buckets flattened, or had had them made that way. Each stall had a hook and a narrow wooden shelf. The buckets slid onto the shelf, the flat side resting against the wall and the handle looped over the hook. A determined horse could pull the bucket loose, but it would take more effort than it would for buckets that were just hung on pegs in the stalls. It was a clever and practical design.

The two men worked quickly and soon each horse had a fresh bucket of water. Shade returned to the end of the barn where the tools were stored and lifted a wheelbarrow off its hook. He checked to make sure it was clean before wheeling it to the feed room to fill with oats and cracked corn. It must have been standard operating procedure because the sound of the wheelbarrow elicited a couple of excited whinnies from the Hales' horses. "This is easier than hauling buckets back and forth," Shade told the other man as he set to measuring enough feed out of the big barrels into the wheelbarrow. He glanced at the German and gave a slight shrug of his shoulders. What little they had spoken as they worked had been somewhat formal. "You can call me Shade if you like," he offered, a genial note in his voice. "I can't help feeling that Mr. Thornton is my father or brother, especially here."

There was a strange dichotomy about Mr. Thornton... Shade... that Stahl could not help but notice as they worked. On the one side, he was at home in this place, moved about with a sense of familiarity but underlying there was a hesitance that came out even more clearly in his words. "Shade," he repeated the man's first name, "My name is Adalwin, but you might find it easier to call me Stahl. It can't be easy for you to be back here." The words came out more clunky than Stahl had liked, the words seemed too direct, too straight to the point, yet finding a better way to phrase them seemed impossible, at least in English. "How are you holding up?"

Although it was common practice to address a man simply by his surname, it seemed rude to Shade, so he tried pronouncing <em>Adalwin</em> the same way that Stahl had. No matter how hard he tried, it simply did not sound right when spoken in his slightly rough, deep voice. Finally, he shook his head and grinned at the older man, "Okay, Dal it is." His pronunciation of <em>Dal</em> sounded more like <em>dale</em> instead of <em>doll</em> giving a good strong ring to the name when coupled with the man's surname.

Dal... <em>Dale</em>, there was something about the way Shade spoke that name, that elicited a small smile from Stahl. The name was new, but oddly it did not feel foreign. He could not say why but he had the strong feeling he'd keep the name Shade had just given him.  

Stahl's last question had been uttered directly but not unkindly. At first, Shade was hesitant to respond, his instinct was to hold such feelings close and private. It was how he'd been raised. It was also not in his nature to lie, so he gestured at the barn, waving his hand to indicate the land beyond it, "I'd put away how much I loved this place while I was away. Now that I'm home, it's confusing. I feel at home and out of place all at the same time." Shade paused, not sure how to explain, "It was never meant to be mine, even in part." And that was the crux of it. The ranch, the land, all of the family's assets were supposed to have been Chance's and then it would have gone to his children. Shade had grown up here, but he hadn't worked for it. It went against his grain to simply be given half the ranch.

"Coming home into one's fatherhouse to find it empty..." Dal could understand that all too well. The way Shade's shoulders sagged, he could almost see the burden that was on the other man now. "It may not have been <em>meant</em> to be yours, but maybe you were <em>meant</em> to be here now," Dal said softly. "So the children still have an uncle, a family to take care of them, to make sure they grow up safe. Someone to make sure, they still have a home."

"Maybe," Shade conceded with a note of doubt lingering in his voice. "It is what it is. For now anyway. The Judge might have a different idea." Part of him dreaded the hearing. He'd never had many good brushes with the judicial system. Backing down or running were not options either. "What about you? Kind of far from home for you." Shade couldn't help but wonder what would send someone like Dal, an obviously well-educated man from a foreign nation to the American frontier.

"The Judge is H.G.'s task, and I have the feeling that she will make him see things her way," Dal replied. He could hear the doubt in Shade' voice, the pain would not go away for quite some time. Were Chance and the family buried decently, he suddenly wondered. They might have to scrounge up whatever passed for a pastor in these parts and have a service there for Shade and the others to attend. The question Shade asked chased away those thoughts. He had sometimes been asked when people noticed he was a doctor, or he was a soldier or both. The accent gave the rest away, though he had rarely told them much. Somehow Shade deserved an answer, honesty always went both ways. 

"During the ride here I heard that you killed a man in these parts, Shade." Dal began, without any judgment in his voice. "Somewhere over there, they will have me wanted for a similar crime, for killing a man, a Major of no mean estate and title, and leaving the troops before they could court-martial and shoot me for it." It was the truth as much as it would remain. Even if by some smart thinking someone pointed out to them that it was exceedingly unlikely Stahl could have won that illegal duel, the fact that he had left, made it fact that he had to be the killer. Which was best that way.

Shade scooped another bucket of feed out of the barrel and poured it into the wheelbarrow. Then, he looked up, regarding Dal steadily out of his blue eyes. "Murder or self-defense?" His voice echoed Dal's lack of judgment. For Shade, who had been on both sides of more than his share of gunfights and no doubt would be again, the circumstances mattered.

There was something about that calm question that reached Dal more than had any question asked about that night ever. He grabbed a bucket, keeping up the work, for a moment he was silent. "It was not self-defense, it was not my life he threatened," he replied emptying the bucket into the wheelbarrow. "One might call it murder. I did not give him a fair chance. He had already caused one death and was about to cause another, which, like the first, would never be laid at his feet."

Continuing to regard the other man steadily, Shade thought about what Dal had just said. Most of the men he'd killed had been cases of self-defense. They had either challenged him or pulled their gun on him first. There had been others that he'd shot to save someone else. Of those, he'd been the one to draw first or challenge the other man first. Shade was quick-tempered but had a fairly strict personal code when it came to drawing his gun. He'd never broken that code without regretting it later. "The first man I killed, the one when I was seventeen...he'd tried to rape Regina Cantrell the day before. The next day, he shot at her. It wasn't self-defense. I was  putting down a rabid dog." Shade surprised himself by his last admission. With those words, he realized that killing Calvin Steelgrave would never haunt his conscience again. He might have to face the fallout from it someday, but he realized his soul was clean when it came to that day thirteen years ago.

Seventeen...the words took Dal by surprise. At seventeen Shade had been forced to kill a man to protect Regina Cantrell, probably the very same woman, married to Chance and now deceased in an Indian raid. At seventeen, Dal's life too might have changed. He could have gone from worrying about passing Latin and Greek exams to seeing his father judged and imprisoned for life, and the family's possessions taken away. Death, in the form of killing or being responsible for it, had not entered Dal's life for some years to come. For which he was grateful. He regarded Shade with new respect now, seeing that the man had been forced to make a life-and-death decision at such a young age and come out on the right side of it. No matter how angry or helpless Dal might have felt back then, in 1850...he doubted he could claim the same, had the test come to him. "Standing up to a man willing to commit such a crime...that takes courage," he said. The work had never quite stopped for both of them, though the wheelbarrow was now nearly full. "I too was young, when I left home," he said, surprising himself. "Hearing your story reminds me that I was lucky there, though it did set me on the path of becoming a soldier."

Regina Cantrell...her rescue and the death resulting from it might have been the reason Shade left his home, and in turn, her death was what brought him back to this place, with all the dangers that came with it. Suddenly Dal realized that he was not sure anymore if he could just wander on, ride off come morning and forget about the people he'd met. For the first time in almost four years, he felt that he should stay and help. Strange though that was.

Soldier or not, Shade felt that a man who had become a doctor would not willingly take someone's life lightly. He dropped the bucket he'd been using to scoop the feed out of the barrel. "This could be a good place to settle down in. There's good land to be had. You could make a good life here." Shade then offered a smile and added, "We'd better get these broomtails fed before we're late for breakfast. I understand that Miss Mary, the cook, has a strict policy regarding meal times." He winced and chuckled as his stomach growled in response to the mention of food.

"Then we better not give Miss Mary any reason to have our hides," Stahl replied, taking the other bucket and joining Shade distributing the food to the horses.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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