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    • "Where would we put it?"  Emeline grinned as she started to sit beside him, but just at that moment the train's brakes engaged for the first time, sending her sprawling across Barnabas' lap.   "Goodness!"  She started laughing as she looked up at him.  "I'm afraid my husband isn't going to like this!" she giggled.  "He's very jealous, you know, so you'd best kiss me while you can!"   @Flip
    • It was long, tedious work, even though, for the most part, it was just plodding along with the cows, making sure they all stayed together and went the right way they were supposed to.  Even after the wind picked up, there were only a few mavericks who tried to wander off on their own, but the drag riders managed to coax them back to the herd.   As the day progressed, Annie became less jiggy, and Justus could tell she was getting tired.  "It's all right, Miz Annie."  He patted the horse's neck, then tightened the bandanna that was keeping his hat from blowing away.   "Ya think this is just a dry wind?" Justus called to Loredo, "or somethin' more movin' in?"  There wasn't the smell of rain in the air yet, nor clouds, but he knew that the weather could change quickly.  "Will they try ta settle in camp early?"  It seemed to him that if there was 'weather' moving in, it was better to have the cattle settled than moving, but what did he know? He just hoped it didn't impact supper!   @Flip
    • "Wonderful!"  Jonah almost clapped, for this had been going on for so long, that he really expected that this would be some sort of new setback, and Leah certainly didn't need any more complications.  "I'm sure it's going to be a huge relief when they finally break ground.  It's going to be rewarding to watch it take shape, and for you to know you are responsible for it."   He hoped, for her sake more than anything, that the weather cooperated, and that the progress was swift and without complications.    "You'll be overseeing the project?"  He couldn't imagine that she'd step back now, and not assure that every detail was right.   @Flip
    • "Boss, we found us a herd ripe for the pluckin'. Maybe we oughtta move on it afore they change where they're grazin' 'em, an make it more difficult." Toole suggested. "We can take close to a hunderd head easy enough, they move 'em, thet might not be the way of it."   "'Scuse me men, but Toole here is on to something, and cattle is our other business. We've customers waiting up north." Case said, not happy at being interrupted, yet realizing that what he said was true. It was why they were there, and it was what the did. "So go on and make yourselves to home while I get this job situated."   "Oh sure thing, Case, an thanks for the offer. We appreciate it, 'mon boys." Shannon said, and with that they walked outside to find the other building Case was talking about.   "Alright Toole what did you have in mind?" Case asked.   "The place is just at the foothills where they have their cattle. Now any buildin's 'er maybe a mile, mile'n a half away. What we saw was just maybe four riders wit the cattle, may not hav'ta kill any of 'em. We just filter down through the trees and then rush 'em. Maybe eight 'er ten of us, circle the heard an' push 'em back the way we come which was the long way around , and shore they'll be tracks alomst all the way to the dry river bed, maybe  whot, two mile from the tree line. Hard ground to river bed, but they won't catch us, not seein's they're out numbered."   Case gave it some thought, but Toole had been plotting how they would steal a herd for quite a while, and he knew what he was doing. Besides, no County Sheriff, no problem!   "Pick your men, Toole and get it done." Case said, knowing if they got a hundred head, that would be enough to drive north, once the brands were altered.
    • Having a second thought, to bolster the findings he sent for Fairchild before he could leave for New Orleans, and in the vicinity of Elinor Steelgrave, that could be done at another time after this meeting with Elias himself.   It was like hedging his bet on the situation. He wanted Elias to meet the man who could explain what was in the file in detail, much better than he himself.  might be able to. Nothing like being prepared. Elias could be unpredictable when upset, if a man like Fairchild explaining what he had found could manage to keep Steelgrave manage-ably clam then the expense was worth it to all concerned.   He had to congratulate himself on the idea. It just might work!

The Gauntlet

Shade Thornton

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As Montana was opened up for settlement and people of wealth began flocking to the area for the spectacular vistas, hunting, and other recreation, Kalispell had grown along with it. The Belle-St. Regis Hotel was a three-story edifice that offered various levels of accommodations and services. It was a masterpiece of understated elegance and comfort. The first floor offered comfortable rooms at a nightly rate most travelers, including cowboys off the range, could afford. The second-floor rooms and parlors came at a higher price, and the third floor offered several luxurious suites. Other services included an attached saloon, a cafe, and an elegant restaurant offering fine cuisine. There was also a gentleman's club, a lady's club, meeting rooms. Hot baths, barbers and hairdressers, and a laundry service were all included. The Belle-St. Regis was the region's premium five-star establishment, yet it had taken the course of not excluding the average man or woman.

Shade had been slightly intimidated by the building's elegant brick exterior and more so with its posh interior decor. However, a good meal and the convivial company of his companions had relaxed him. The twins had been well-behaved although excited by being allowed to join the adults in the dining room. After the meal, Kate and Ezra excused themselves saying that Cody and Nettie needed their naps. This left Shade, Quentin, and Harriet to enjoy their coffee and drinks.

Although Harriet still had reservations about Quentin and Shade, she was feeling quite euphoric over the court win. The judge's stipulation that she remain in Kalispell and take on the job of oversight on Lost Lake business, Harriet still felt it was a win. There were so many unanswered questions swirling around the deaths of Chance Thornton and his family. Judge Mandrell could have put their entire estate into probate and appointed a guardian for the children. Overall, she counted it a win.

Shade took a sip of his bourbon, enjoying the smooth feel of the liquid and its velvety burn as it slid down his throat. He watched Harriet swirl the contents of her brandy snifter around. The woman had done a great job for them and looked ready to stay for the long haul. It was quite likely she would be needed again.

Holding his cut crystal whiskey tumbler up, Shade tilted it in a salute to the woman seated across from him, "To you, Miss Mercer. Thank you for keeping my brother's legacy intact."

"Please call me Harriet. As I am to be your watchdog for an unknown period of time, formalities will quickly become tedious," Harriet responded. "The Thornton Legacy isn't entirely out of the woods yet. There are the conditions the Judge set to be dealt with."

Nodding, Shade grinned, "And one of the first ones is to find a suitable female companion and caregiver for the little'uns. Something we need to do with or without the judge's stipulating it. Kate loves the children, but she has other work that's vital to keeping the ranch running. She can't do that and wrangle the twins too. I'm just not sure where to start."

Harriet smiled at the two men, "I might have an idea on that, but I need to think about it for a little while before presenting a solution."

Quentin smiled. "I am sure it will probably be as creative as whatever magic show you just put on in the courtroom to leave us in the shape we are in..." He then stood, picking up his saucer and cup from the table. "...now if you will excuse me, I need a refill on my tea." Quentin turned and made his way past the tables, heading for the far end of the bar where the bartender had the kettle and items to add to his tea.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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A commotion by the entrance to the dining room caught Shade's attention and interrupted what he was about to say to Harriet. A man and a woman entered the room, putting Shade on instant alert. Few people in the west would fail to recognize the man. He was tall with well-groomed dark hair that was beginning to show gray at the temples. He was probably eight to ten years older than Shade and was neither remarkable looking or nondescript. In fact, Shade guessed that many women would find him relatively attractive.

The woman on his arm was another matter entirely. She was tall, elegantly slender and simply stunning. Dark gold hair hung in curls and waves to her waist. Large eyes, set aslant like a cat's proclaimed her kinship to the man for they were a light golden brown in color. Her features were delicate with high cheekbones and a small, almost pointed chin which again reminded Shade of a feline. 

Shade was not terribly surprised when they stopped next to where he and Harriet were sitting. He politely rose to his feet, regarding both the man and the woman steadily. "My younger sister, Leah," the man said in a deep, oddly accented voice. He obviously assumed that he needed no introduction. Twin pairs of golden brown eyes, both devoid of warmth, gazed first at Harriet and then at Shade. The man continued, drawing his words out, "Welcome back, Thornton...sorry you won't be here long."

Harriet's eyebrows rose, and she stared at their retreating back in consternation. She looked at Shade, "What was that about?"

"You just met Case Steelgrave and his baby sister, Leah Steelgrave," Shade said dryly. He kept his eyes on the man and woman until they left the room. He had no doubt about the purpose behind Steelgrave's appearance in the dining room. It just surprised him that there weren't more Steelgraves putting in an appearance.

Quentin was finishing putting some sugar in his tea while the confrontation was happening at the table. He turned from the bar, leaving his tea sitting as the Steelgraves had headed for the entry of the restaurant. Case's eyes met Quentin's as they passed, too far apart for words but none were needed in the short interaction. Quentin kept walking and returned to the table as Harriet and Shade watched the Steelgraves' exit. "So what was that all about?"

"That was...." Shade started to answer but was cut off by an obviously angry Harriet.

Straightening in her seat, Harriet's gray eyes flashed at Quentin, "That man just threatened Shade!" She fairly spit out the sentence.

"...Case Steelgrave," Shade finished, an almost amused note to his voice.

Quentin glanced back at the now empty doorway. "So that's the man himself...first time I ever saw him in person. He's not like those other idiots in his family..." Quentin looked back around at Shade. "...there any more like him back at their ranch?"

"Depends on what you mean by like him," Shade answered. "I never knew any of them well. Old Elias and Elinor Steelgrave have molded the lot of them in their own image. From what I gathered from Chance's letters, Benjamin, the eldest, just wants to run the ranch and the businesses. The problem is, Elias and Elinor still manage the manager." He leaned back in his chair and pushed the tumbler of whiskey away. Suddenly, Shade did not feel much like celebrating.

"I will report this to Marshal Cory," Harriet said, her eyes still flashing, storm clouds in their gray depths.

"Miss Harriet," Shade's voice was quiet and slightly amused, "just what are you going to report? That Mr. Case Steelgrave stopped by our lunch table in a public dining room to say hello and expressed his regrets that I would not be remaining in the area long?"

Quentin glanced back at the door as he resumed his seat. "You know what he meant...I know what he meant....Shade knows what he meant...but it won't carry any weight with the Law." Quentin sat staring off into space, fingers idly drumming on the tabletop. "I have the distinct feeling Case, and I will have an unpleasant encounter very soon."

Harriet remained quiet, obviously still concerned and trying to figure out a legal option for dealing with Case Steelgrave. Shade narrowed his eyes a bit and looked at Quentin. He kept his voice neutral as he rose to his feet, "It's not your fight, Quentin." He pushed his chair back under the table. "I need to go check on the horses."


Quentin moved closer and rested a hand on Shade's shoulder. "You're wrong there. Maybe because of his brother, you and Case have some kind of personal thing going on, but that whole family has their sights on our whole family, that includes the children, us, and anyone else who is on our side. There's too much at stake for personal vendettas."


Shade straightened his shoulders a bit more and gave Quentin a fleeting smile, "You're right there, Quentin. Where it involves the family, the ranch, and the businesses - it's our fight.  If it wasn't Case, it'd be another of the Steelgrave brood or they'd hire someone.  Just...where it does get personal between me and Case because of Calvin, it's my fight. I don't want someone hurt or killed for something I did." His blue eyes searched Quentin's face for understanding.


Quentin looked into Shade's face, the two men's eyes met and stayed steady for several seconds. "You're right...what's between you and Case is personal because of Calvin. I understand that..." The older man dropped his hand from Shade's shoulder. "...I'm just not so sure Case will play it straight with you. If you ask him, I am sure he will admit his dead brother was an idiot, so is this revenge or just an excuse to go for you?"


"Who knows? Reputation says he won't kill anyone he doesn't get paid for. Whether or not that extends to someone who killed a member of his family is debatable," Shade answered, dredging up the information he'd heard regarding Case Steelgrave. "Don't worry, Quentin. I know his methods and I now know he and his family intend to kill me or drive me off. I'm not gonna make either one easy for 'em. Won't let Case goad me into drawing on him. If it comes down to a gunfight, I'll play it right."


Quentin's mouth was still fixed in a grim line. "That's easy to say but a lot harder to put into practice..." Cantrell exhaled and finally nodded. "Okay, we'll play it your way, but just don't go around being alone too much when you are in town. I don't trust the Steelgraves any farther than I can throw them...fair enough?"


"Fair enough," Shade replied affably. "After I check on the horses, I'll stick close to the hotel. No straying since we know they're in town." He smiled and tipped his hat at Harriet before sauntering toward the exit.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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  • 3 weeks later...

Harriet had listened to the two men discuss the situation and her frown deepened. Still, she said nothing. She wanted to talk to Quentin, but not in front of Shade. She was learning more and more about the younger man's character and gradually coming to the conclusion that her opinions on him might just be based on prejudices rather than cold, clinical facts as she'd insisted. Quentin too. He had been an enigma from the beginning. Now, she was looking at having to revise what she'd thought about him as well. Of course, much of her hostility toward Cantrell was based solely on the fact that he was from the South and from a class of society that her father had taught her to be suspicious of and despise with all her heart. Too much was changing too fast! However, she needed to sort where she stood in all of it since Judge Mandrell had mandated she remain involved in the business and thus the lives of Quentin Cantrell and Shade Thornton.


She followed Shade's progress through the dining room until he exited. A moment later she saw him pass in front of the windows as he headed toward the livery stable. Harriet turned her eyes back to Quentin, concern showing plainly on her face, "Can he beat Steelgrave in a fair fight? Can you?"


Quentin sat in his chair and watched Shade go by the window. His chin rested in one hand as he rubbed his jaw slowly. After a few moments he realized Harriet had been speaking to him. "Honestly, I doubt it. Shade's got plenty of speed but that's not the only thing you need to beat someone like Case..." Quentin then looked over and locked eyes with Harriet. "Can I?...Hell, I don't know. I am good, but I haven't had the practice a man like Case has. Not having a soul takes away a lot of worries between the brain and the gun."


Harriet tapped a manicured nail against the side of her glass. "I have not changed my opinion regarding either one of you," she said, her voice stern. "However, Nettie and Cody cannot stand any more loss. Their heritage is at stake." She leaned toward Quentin and lowered her voice, "Do what you need to in order to make sure you can defeat Case Steelgrave if it ever comes down to a fight. Do what you need to in order to make sure Shade can beat him." Her gray eyes were cold, "Short of outright murder that is."


Quentin smiled a bit. "You sure don't ask for much, do you?" His smile then washed away as if blown by the wind. "I don't want to die and I sure as hell don't want Shade to die. I will do what I can to keep both of us alive, but I can't make promises." Quentin then looked Harriet directly in her eyes. "Maybe you should hope we are as unsavory as you first thought." The slow wink that followed let Harriet know Quentin was not meaning it as an insult.


Humor lit Harriet's twilight-colored eyes and a smile pulled at the corner of her lips, "Oh, I think both of you are likely far more unsavory in reality than I could imagine." Her words held no animosity. "Quentin, I need to learn to shoot. I know the basic mechanics of picking up a gun and firing it at a target. That is not good enough." She stared at the man steadily. "I am very good with knives and can defend myself more than adequately. Fang saw to that. However, there is an old adage that says never bring a knife to a gunfight."


Quentin nodded. "True, this is definitely the age of the firearm..." He looked thoughtful another few moments. "...I recommend something like I carry under my jacket. Small enough for you to control but enough power to handle most threats. I will let you try it out and if you can handle it we will get you one to carry."


Harriet looked down at her tailored and tightly fitted jacket. Fortunately, she had other jackets for most of her wardrobe, ones that allowed her to fit her larger knife sheaths beneath it. Her tailor was accustomed to making two of each one. Women's clothing was generally unsuited to the discreet carrying of firearms. She might have to set a new trend in lady's business clothing. "That sounds like a reasonable suggestion. I will go change. Hopefully, Shade will not be alarmed when he returns to the hotel to find us absent.


Quentin glanced down at his own suit and nodded. "That's probably a good idea. I'll change also and run over to the store and buy a box of shells and come up with some targets for us. Meet in the lobby in half an hour?

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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Scene Rating: PG
Scene Type: Joint Scene
Characters: Quentin Cantrell, H.G. Mercer
Location: Meadow, east of Kalispell, Montana
Timeline: Afternoon, Tuesday, July 13, 1875


Harriet had met Quentin precisely a half hour later clad in a split riding skirt, jacket and tall boots. She had loosened her hair and pulled it back into a clasp at the nape of her neck. On her head, she wore a flat brimmed gaucho-style hat. With the court case behind them and despite Case Steelgrave's threat, she felt an odd sense of abandon and good spirits. At the livery stable, there had been no sign of Shade. Harriet felt a mild quiver of concern, but set it aside. He had been taking care of himself for several years so she turned her attention to the selection of horses and vehicles. They had driven from the ranch in a comfortable carriage, but it was large and bulky for just two people. After a few moments of conversation with the owner of the livery stable, Harriet chose a smart high-wheeled buggy, well-sprung and lightweight. To pull it, she chose a tall, liver chestnut mare that the stable manager said was a cross between a Standardbred and Hackney Coach Horse. After watching him trot the mare the length of the barn, she pronounced her satisfaction with the animal and proceeded to follow behind the man double checking the harness and traces.


If Quentin had been expecting a sedate drive to the country, he was doomed to disappointment. Harriet took charge of the reins and whip. She kept the mare to a brisk walk until they cleared the town's speed ordnances. As soon as they were on the open road, she expertly snapped the whip. Its tip never touched the mare's flanks. Striking the horse was not required. Just the sound sent the mare into a fast trot.  The buggy was nowhere near as good as Harriet's racing sulkies, but it was quite well-made and stable, even on the sharper curves. As they descended a hill onto a flat, straight stretch of road, she called out to the mare to get a move on. The horse proved her mettle. Without ever breaking her gait, she fairly flew along the road. Finally, well-clear of Kalispell where gunshots would alarm no one, Harriet pulled the mare to a walk and guided the carriage off the road for some distance.


Flashing Quentin a laughing smile, she leaped from the buggy and walked to the mare's head, "Oh you beauty. I might have to see if the stable manager will sell you." Harriet offered the mare a few bites of dried apple.


Quentin slowly released his white knuckled grip on his side of the buggy. He took a breath and looked around then at Harriet. "Good lord, woman..." He slowly climbed down from the buggy, his legs just a little rubbery from being braced so tight for so long. He shook each one lightly. "...Do you normally drive like that?" He held on to the buggy as he stepped around to the small rear compartment, getting out the small box of items he had bought at the general store. Quentin had been smart enough to tie it down before they left town. He tugged the blanket off the top and picked out the canteen he had placed inside. He then twisted the cap off and took a drink, then held it out toward Harriet.


Harriet laughed, her eyes sparkling with excitement as she took the canteen and took a long drink, "Not usually in a buggy not suited to racing. I need to find a place of my own with a stable so I can bring my racers. Perhaps I can start a new fad here in Kalispell."


Quentin shook his head as he set the canteen down. "Well if its all the same, I'll watch from the stands if you get that kind of racing started." Quentin left one box covered with a blanket and rummaged in the first one. He pulled out some wooden boards, leaving a set of glass bottles still inside the first box and lifted out some boxes of bullets. "So just how much shooting have you done?"


"Fang saw that I learned the basics. I can load and unload, point, aim, fire. I can also do basic maintenance," Harriet reported dutifully. "However, I have not fired a gun in many years - probably not since Fang's lessons in my late teens. In fact, until Shade handed me the rifle when we road into town yesterday morning, I have barely touched one. You have my permission to treat me as a total beginner as about all I do know about the things is that I should not point one at anything I do not wish to harm."


Quentin nodded and reached under his jacket and tugged the bird's head Colt from the holster under his arm. He pulled it out and let Harriet see it, then he flipped the loading gate open and pulled the hammer to half cock. He then turned the cylinder and let the rounds slide into his palm until the weapon was empty. He then ran the cylinder around again and then closed the gate and lowered the hammer and handed it butt first to Harriet. "Here, feel the weight and get familiar with it. I would recommend something this size but a lighter caliber unless you think you want to hit very hard."


Harriet took the gun and did as he instructed, mimicking his previous actions. With it still unloaded, she raised in order to get a feel for holding it and sighting on a target. Slanting a glance at her new mentor, she said with a faint wry tone in her voice, "Quentin, if I am going to use a gun, I want to hit very hard. Otherwise, I would rely on my knives and throwing stars." She handed the gun back to him butt-first. "We will soon know if I cannot manage this caliber, yes?"


Quentin nodded as he took the pistol back and opened the loading gate, sliding the shells back into the cylinder. He closed the gate and half cocked the Colt, checking the load before turning the weapon around and handing it to her butt first. "You're absolutely right...and my money is on you being able to handle it..." He nodded as she took the weapon. "Let me set up a target..." He went to the back of the buggy and came back with a small square of wood. He walked over a short distance, maybe fifteen feet, and set the wood in the branches of a tree. Quentin then walked back over and stood beside Harriet. "Alright, first let's just get an idea of your basic accuracy..." Quentin pointed at the board. "That's about the right height for a normal man's chest...and this is about the normal distance for a gunfight inside a room. Shoot as fast and as straight as you can...try and keep the bullets as close together as possible. Fire whenever you are ready."


Taking a deep breath, Harriet tried to make herself relax. Bringing the gun up, she squeezed off the first round and then the other five in quick succession. She opened her eyes slowly and looked over at Quentin, "How did I do?"


Quentin looked at the board, then back at Harriet. "Actually not bad, but next time keep your eyes on your target. Anything can happen while you are shooting at someone..." Quentin reached into the box and pulled another handful of shells and handed six to her. "Here you go. Reload...do it as fast as you can but still not drop any. If anything helps your shooting it will be knowing that once you are empty this is how long it will take to get reloaded."


Harriet was fairly quick with the reloading process despite being a self-proclaimed novice. Her ability with timing and numbers kicked in allowing her to precisely calculate the time it took to reload and fire the gun to empty. Unfortunately, she failed the command to keep her eyes open. At the first loud explosion of the weapon, her eyes snapped shut and stayed that way until it clicked on empty. She sighed inwardly, recalling why she had not pursued the sport of shooting. She loathed the noise. Cutting her eyes sideways at Quentin, she shrugged, "It is the noise."


Quentin nodded and rubbed his chin as he thought. "I might have an idea while you practice and get used to it." He walked back to the wagon and rummaged around, then came back with some small pieces of the blanket in the other box. He handed these over. "Put these in your ears, that should drop the noise enough for you to keep your eyes open...eventually you will be able to keep them open without effort." Quentin stopped. "Wait. I have an idea..." He ran back and then returned with some small empty bottles. He walked a short distance to the side and set them on some low rocks. "There. That should also force you to keep your eyes open as you move from target to target."


"Sadist," Harriet muttered. She took the bits of cloth and did as he instructed, resolving to start carrying some cotton with her until she was comfortable with the weapon. Harriet kept it on hand at home to use when she wanted to tune out noise when reading or working through her martial arts moves. Sometimes, she liked her surroundings to be quieter than it was possible to make them without artificial intervention.


Harriet turned to the new targets and brought the gun up. Following Quentin's previous instructions, she sighted in and fired as rapidly as possible. Despite the bits of cloth in her ears, the sound of the weapon discharging still made her flinch and blink her eyes although she did not close them entirely. Pleased with her results, Harriet smiled a bit at him and removed one of the earplugs. "Better, but I have a long way to go to reach proficient."


Quentin nodded. "Hey, you're not doing too bad for your first real shooting practice. You need practice and you will start practicing." He smiled. "Don't be too hard on yourself. It's not easy to learn especially if you are picking it up a little late." He then pointed at the Colt in Harriet's hands. "You hang on to that...I want you to go out behind the ranch house every day and fire a box of shells. We have plenty in the gun room and can buy more." Quentin rubbed his chin as he thought. "So, any questions about shooting in general? It might be life and death considering what we are dealing with.


Turning the gun in her hand, Harriet studied it. Aesthetically, she really liked guns. The look and feel of one in her hand gave her a thrill. For practical purposes, she was not a fan. She found them cumbersome and noisy. Her choice of weapons, the throwing stars and knives,  were elegant and all but silent. Of course, they were impractical in many situations. "Thank you. I will take good care of it until I can purchase my own at the gun shop in town or order one." Quickly, she made certain the cylinder was empty and tucked the pistol under her arm. Reaching inside her jacket, she slid out one of the steel kill-stars she carried and handed it to Quentin. "No questions just now, Quentin. Those will come as I familiarize myself with shooting."


Quentin took the star carefully. "I'll probably end up cutting my own throat with this before I damage anyone with it." He carefully slid it into a shirt pocket. "Anytime you have a question about shooting, just ask me...I am happy to help you..." He then grinned. "...And just so you know...I happen to have picked up a basket of fried chicken with some water, sarsaparilla, and root beer in the back of the buggy...care to have some lunch?"


Surprisingly, considering the fact that she had a light lunch right after the hearing, Harriet's stomach rumbled quietly at the mention of food. "That sounds wonderful, Quentin! If you will get the food, I will make sure the mare can graze," she told him and started toward the buggy.

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