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

Neighbors: The Good and the Bad - Pt. 2

Clara Redmond Lutz

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Clara returned to her homestead cabin without further incident, her brother greeting her and instantly puzzled why she was dressed like that. She did not even have time to explain when their father showed up. He too was befuddled by the sight of his daughter clothed in garments obviously not hers and the presence of a woman dressed like a man. Answers were quickly forthcoming as Clara not only introduced the female deputy (now that was novel) but also related in full detail her brush with the two cowboys. Outwardly Aurelian took it calmly enough, he was putting on a front for his children but inwardly he was furious. Once Clara was finished, he nodded then requested she go inside and change into her own clothing. And as for Wyatt, he directed he go into the barn to do chores. The tone of his voice brooked no argument from the boy who was old enough to figure out he was being sent out of hearing so adults could talk. That left Hannah and Aurelian alone for a few minutes at least.


"Thank you for your kindness to my daughter.  I am doing my best to remain .........calm...but frankly, I expect something to be done about this. This might be the frontier but civilized people can have no toleration for such behavior directed at a girl...young lady," he declared, the words measured but his eyes blazing.


Hannah studied the man discreetly. She had dealt with her fare share of irate fathers, her own included. Although she was inclined to want to go after Shade Thornton with guns blazing, her duty took precedence. She was mature enough to recognize where desire for revenge and her job conflicted. "If you and your daughter will accompany me to town and swear out a formal complaint, we can investigate the matter fully. I assure you, we take such incidents quite seriously and will do everything within our means and the law to see the miscreants brought to justice." She tilted her head, her blue-green cat's eyes cool and considering, "Truthfully though, Mr. Redmond, it is unlikely we can get them on more than theft. I doubt the prosecutor will bring indecency charges."


"Oh we will go to town to file a formal complaint, that is a given, Deputy," Aurelian did not hesitate to answer in the positive.


"Harassing a teenage girl in her state of undress and - as Clara stated - trying to get her to come out of the water so they can ...how was it?  'See what she's got. That to me is indecency. Don't know what kind of prosecutor you folks got around here," Aurelian pointed out, a bit frustrated. But a part of him knew the woman was probably correct.


"And her clothing, the gun....I want it all back too or monetary compensation. We are not well to do and both will be missed. Now my daughter is down to one dress. You see we only recently arrived here after my original place was attacked by Indians and burnt down. We lost most of our belongings then. More importantly I lost my beloved wife and Clara her mother."


He sighed but continued, it needed to be said before Clara returned, "Clara has not been quite the same since then...I believe she blames herself...unfairly but I cannot convince her otherwise. She was out with her mother that day looking for edibles like mushrooms when the Indians showed up. At first Julia ran but when they got separated she went back for Clara who'd got cornered. Clara took an arrow in the chest and then before the redskin could finish the job Julia shielded her with her body. She took two arrows in her back and died protecting her child. The Indian rode off. I was too late for Julia but ..........thank God, Clara pulled thru. The doctor said that time he doubted she would make it, it was truly a severe wound. But....he didn't know my daughter, she has a lot of spunk, my Clara, I like to say she was too stubborn to die. "


"Sorry ...I run on sometimes," he then smiled.


Hannah's eyes expressed her sympathy over the loss of his wife. She could not imagine surviving such an incident. And to almost lose his daughter as well! It put his anger into perspective for her. "Mr. Redmond, I can't begin to imagine what you and your family have been through and you have my deepest sympathy for your loss." She paused and tried to think of how to explain the legal situation. Their prosecutor was a good man and would do his best. However, she knew he would likely prefer only the charges that he stood a chance of getting a conviction for. The jury would likely be men. Her expression hardened as she recalled what Clara had said about where the two miscreants worked. She knew Ezra Hale would not stand for such behavior from his hands. But, was Ezra truly in charge now that Shade had returned?


"Thank you for your kind thoughts, but I didn't mention it to look for sympathy, just to fill you in on my daughter's particular circumstances," Aurelian nodded.


" With the complaint and Miss Clara identifying the two men that accosted her, there's a chance of getting the entire incident prosecuted. I just wanted to caution you that we stand a better chance of bringing them to justice for theft than a charge of indecency." Hannah looked toward the house and then back at the tall homesteader, "Did Clara tell you where the men claimed to work?"


"Oh yes, they said they were hands at the Thornton ranch. She had already met Shade Thornton.....as did I. He seemed pleasant enough. But Clara had met him in different circumstances. Seems his cattle had trampled our garden plot and Clara confronted him when he rode on up. He chased the cattle off then.  She didn't talk about the particulars with me later so I'm not sure of any more than that."


Hannah's brows drew together. That the Redmonds had already encountered Shade Thornton bothered her. The boy she had known and loved would never purposely harm a woman or child. He had been wild and hot-headed, but he was basically good. Since then, considering the news that drifted back about him and the handbills, she couldn't be sure he wouldn't send ranch hands to harass them. It didn't really matter what she thought though. If the facts bore out the truth of Clara's words, Hannah could get rid of Shade Thornton!


"The best time to catch all of the hands is first thing in the morning. If you will come into town with me now, we can swear out the complaint and go up to the ranch in the morning. Have Miss Clara see if she can pick out the two men that tormented her." Hannah looked at Redmond with a raised brow to see if her plan was acceptable.


"Morning makes sense, yes. I am willing and I am certain Clara will be eager to go. My only reservation is................you don't think they would resort to gunplay at this ranch do you? I do not want to take my daughter into the middle of a gun battle," Aurelian figured this local would know these people far better than he as to how dangerous and violent they might be.


Could Hannah guarantee that the two men at the center of the issue wouldn't go for a gun? She did not see how she could make that promise. Would Shade defend two such men? Hannah didn't know the answer to that either. She looked at Redmond and shook her head slightly, "Mr. Redmond, I cannot promise the two men will not put up a fight. I do know the Hales quite well though and neither of them would harbor such men knowingly. They would not willingly put your daughter at risk either."


"I know...I know you can't make such promises and I don't expect you to either...just thinking out loud I reckon," Aurelian shrugged, "I have met Mrs. Hale and she impressed with her kindness to us, total strangers."


"No...we will go tomorrow of that you can be assured, but I will be riding armed. You have my word I will not start anything but I'm not riding into a possible hornet's nest unarmed either," he assured her.

Edited by Wayfarer (see edit history)
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Scene Rating: Mature
Scene Type: Joint Scene
Characters: Aurelian Redmond, Hannah Cory, Shade Thornton, Ezra Hale, Quentin Cantrell
Location: Lost Lake Ranch, Main Bunkhouse, west of Kalispell, Montana
Timeline: The next day, just after sunrise (July 1875)

Lost Lake Ranch, also known as the LLR, LLHR, or simply the Double L was vast by any standard. What most people did not realize was that much of the land was mountainous. Its grazing lands and farmland were on par with other large spreads in the region and across the country. Because of the mountains, the main buildings, bunkhouses, barns, sheds, workshops, and cabins for the hands with families were situated in the Chogun Valley section of the ranch. In the summer, the ride down from the main house and through the pass known as Ishmael's Gate was quite pleasant. It would likely be far from fun in the winter.

Shade Thornton dismounted from his horse, Lakota, and looped the reins over the hitching post in front of the U-shaped bunkhouse. He glanced over to Quentin who had been mostly silent on the ride down from the main house and across the pass. Rides at sunrise were not things that the older man enjoyed. Shade admired his determination to learn the ins-and-outs of ranch life. Quentin did not ride out with the hands every day. He had other work to attend to that involved the running of the various businesses owned by the Thorntons.

The bunkhouse had started life as a barracks-style building with a little kitchen and dining area at one end. As the ranch grew so had the bunkhouse. A short extension had been added to serve as a kitchen and breakroom for the hands turning it into an L-shaped building. A short time later, another barracks section had been added to provide the single hands more room and more comfortable bunks. The area between the two long buildings was an outdoor courtyard where the men and women of the ranch could relax or take meals outside on pretty days. There were even hooks driven into the ceilings of the beams that held up the veranda roofs so they could string hammocks and sleep outside when it was too hot to sleep inside. Beyond the bunkhouse were the main barns and corrals. Almost all of the buildings lay to the north side of the main trail that snaked through the ranch, sandwiched between the road and the mountains.

Shade had made it a point after the hearing to have breakfast two or three times a week with the men at the bunkhouse. He was the acting foreman while learning the ropes of how the LLR operated. Ezra Hale had been moved up to ranch manager. They usually met the night before to discuss work assignments and what needed to be done the following day. Ezra always arrived by the time breakfast ended so that he could relay additional information and wait for the Nighthawks and Sage Miller, the night foreman, to come in off the range. He would get Sage's report and then ride out to oversee the work getting done. His job was to make sure Shade got up to speed on managing all aspects of the ranch as fast as possible, not to undermine his position. To give the hands credit, they had accepted the changes with no sign of grumbling and looked to Shade to run things.

It was all working out - more or less.

The entrance into the bunkhouse was to the left side of the common room as the hands called it. This kept drafts from blowing through the kitchen while meals were being prepared. Shade could see that most of the hands were already seated at the long table in the courtyard enjoying their coffee while they waited for breakfast to be served. He grabbed a cup of coffee and grinned as the cook's assistant handed Quentin a cup of tea. Surprisingly, Ezra Hale was already at the table also. There were sleepy greetings as the two men settled in their seats, Shade at the end of the table, Quentin to his left and Ezra to his right.

As soon as breakfast was served, discussions began on what needed to be done that day. Shade had implemented a routine where the men reported on the progress of their work assignments. He believed that those that worked the range likely saw things that needed to be done. After a couple of mornings of getting reports from the hands, Ezra had implemented it as a permanent routine. It made the riders feel engaged and that their skills and expertise were appreciated. Ezra and Shade made sure that it did not turn into a case of running the ranch by committee. They were still clearly in charge.

Edited by Stormwolfe (see edit history)
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Hannah reined Jingo in close to the Redmonds' wagon. She had arrived at their home just before daybreak so that she could ride with them to the ranch. As always, the spectacular landscape that made up Lost Lake Ranch made her catch her breath. It was breathtakingly beautiful. It helped that the Thorntons had taken care with the ranch's buildings, seeing that they blended with the area and were kept in good repair. Local lumber and river stone had been used, and they had all been painted a natural dark shade of gray. 

To the east of the towering mountains that surrounded the pass called Ishmael's Gate lay the main ranch buildings. The U-shaped stone and timber bunkhouse lay closest to the road. Beyond it was the barns, corrals, paddocks and other outbuildings that were needed to keep the sprawling ranch operational. The fencing was painted the same deep slate color, matching the timbers of the buildings. It all promoted a scene of understated prosperity. Hannah signaled Aurelian to pull his wagon in at the end of the hitching rails. She noted that there were already three horses tied up. Two duns, one near black, the other a silvery color, and a golden buckskin. Hannah recognized all three horses. The mouse-colored dun was Ezra Hale's. The buckskin and the grullo belonged to Quentin Cantrell and Shade Thornton respectively. Her sigh as she dismounted and looped Jingo's reins over the hitching post was one of annoyance. She had hoped to conduct the identification of the two men responsible for terrorizing Clara Redmond before Ezra or Thornton arrived. At least it seemed as if they had gotten there before the hands left for the day's work.

Hannah rapped hard on the door and called out so that any men that were not quite dressed could dart back into the bunkrooms. No sound of scurrying feet reached her, so she pushed the door open. The reason why was immediately apparent. The door on the far side of the room was open, and she could see that the men were having their breakfast in the courtyard. She led the way outside, stopped just short of the end of the table closest to the building and cleared her throat.

The hum of conversation ended and twelve pairs of eyes swiveled in her direction. The expressions on the faces of the men ranged from mildly curious to indifferent. No one appeared uneasy or upset by their arrival or the badge pinned to the front of Hannah's vest. No one looked in the least bit guilty. There was a shuffle of chairs and feet as the men rose to their feet in polite recognition of her presence.

Ezra Hale was the first one to speak. He gestured at the table and a few spare seats close to the end of the table where she and the Redmonds stood. "Deputy, this is an unexpected and pleasant surprise," he said, his mellow baritone clear and easy to understand. "Will you and your friends join us for breakfast?" He turned his keen blue-gray eyes on the Redmonds, "I'm Ezra Hale, the ranch manager."

Hoping that no one heard her stomach rumble at the mention of breakfast, Hannah shook her head. She had left home without eating so that she could get to the Redmond homestead early. She did not want niceties to get in the way. "No, thank you, Mr. Hale. I am here on business."

Hannah touched Clara's shoulder gently, "Take a good look, Miss Redmond. Do you recognize any of these men?" She purposely did not state where or how the girl should recognize them. Hannah wanted to keep the element of surprise on her side for as long as possible.

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The family got up early normally anyhow as animals needing tending and one always wanted to take best advantage of the long daylight hours of summer but on this morning Clara had been wide awake before even rising and dressing. Yes, she also had to dress in some of her father's things too, trousers too long for her stuffed into boots too big for her also. Even the man's belt was far too big for her wrapped about her oversized man's coat.  She missed her dress, her shoes...well everything that was stolen including her father's Dragoon Colt. Today though maybe they would get some justice. And also her things back.


Before Deputy Cory showed up, Aurelian had sat down with his daughter and together they went over once more what had happened, the ground rules over how she should act once they arrived at the ranch, and the importance of not losing one's temper. This was a legal matter not revenge, he pointed out. Clara assured her father she would keep her emotions and temper in check.


The trip to the ranch was not a short one but it did allow the trio to see all the natural beauty of the area. Clara still could not quite get over how much more impressive Montana looked than Pennsylvania. Upon arrival at the ranch, both Redmonds were also impressed with the place. The buildings were more than just big, they were sprawling and everything looked kept up and organized. The ranch obviously employed a lot of men. Aurelian silently hoped that not all the cowboys were the low caliber of the pair who harassed his daughter.  Otherwise they were going into a hornet's nest but he had to trust the local deputy's assessment and his own impressions of the Hales, Mrs. Hale anyhow.


The Redmonds parked the wagon and clambered off then followed Hannah who made her way for the bunkhouse door, knocking they received no answer but that didn't stop the woman who then opened it and continued on leading them right on out again to where a good dozen men were having morning breakfast at a large table outside. Well, that drew everyone's eyes to them. Clara instantly was scanning the faces, eagerly expecting to see that Billy and the other older ruffian. Yes, she recognized Shade Thornton alright but while she was angry with him, he was not her current target.


A man, he introduced himself as Ezra Hale the manager invited them to sit to join them in their breakfast. Hannah declined and ushered Clara forward to get a nice hard look at the assemblage. Aurelian glanced over to the deputy, he had expected her to explain this to these men. Or was he to? The whole situation was uncomfortable enough. Fortunately Clara did not take long at all.


"They are not among these men. Are there any others about the place?" Clara's answer was laced with disappointment, frustration.

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Shade was still on his feet and now flashed a look at Quentin and then to the Redmond girl. He had not mentioned the run-in with Hannah during their arrival in Kalispell. What with settling in at the ranch and preparing for the hearing, he'd actually forgotten all about it. Now, he felt a quiver of anger course through him at being inspected and interrogated in his own home, but he forced himself to remain calm. 


"There are the nighthawks. They won't come in until they're relieved," Shade answered, his voice slightly terse  but calm enough overall. He turned his gaze on Hannah, "I think, Deputy Marshal Cory, it's about time that you explain what's going on here."


Hannah locked her gaze with Shade's. She did not flinch or waiver although her eyes flicked to his waist taking note of the gunbelt. Hannah swallowed, realizing that she was counting on the decency of a man that she also believed to be an outlaw. "This is Aurelian Redmond and his daughter, Clara. Two men from this ranch verbally accosted Miss Clara yesterday and stole from her. I am here to recover her belongings and, once she identifies them, to arrest the two men for indecency. Now, how about you tell me which two of your hands you ordered to harass the Redmonds?" By the end of her speech, Hannah had a good head of steam going. She was doing the right thing!


"Ordered..." Shade spluttered. His temper had increased the longer Hannah had spoken. Now, he glared at her, lost for words


"Careful, Deputy..." Quentin said from where he was still sitting. He wiped his mouth with his napkin and set it aside. "...You're making quite the leap in logic here. First of all, I doubt those two men are even from our ranch, and even if they are, their actions when not here on the job are their own."


Clara didn't know the man of course but she glared at his contention - it did so matter! He was no doubt covering up for the miscreants.


Quentin stood and rested a hand on Shade's shoulder. "Easy..." He moved around the table to stand in front of the women and the man with them. "Now, my name is Quentin Cantrell. Perhaps we can start this from the beginning instead of barging in here with accusations and start with some questions?" He stuck his hand toward the man by way of introducing himself.


Aurelian sidled just barely noticeably as if to shield his daughter but slowly took the man's offered hand and the two exchanged a shake.


"The Deputy did not barge in, Mr. Cantrell, we knocked and no one answered. Plus she is here on legal matters, I have registered a written complaint against the two men who robbed her of her belongings and in addition offered threats of further harassment if we did not leave our homestead. I bought the Sidwell's place, I have a legal bill of sale. "


Quentin nodded. "Mr. Redmond, I am not saying your daughter is a liar about what happened to her. I am only saying she may be mistaken as to those two men being from our ranch. Either way it's a serious accusation with no evidence to back it up..." He cut a look at Deputy Cory. "...An experienced law officer would know to be careful throwing around words too recklessly."


"Clara was found by the deputy and immediately told what had happened to her. I can assure you my daughter is a principled young lady and she would not lie or make up all of this."


Off to one side of Aurelian but visible nonetheless, Clara nodded firmly. If any of these people would just let her tell it, she would let them know the particulars, it was as clear in her memory as their faces were also.


Quentin nodded and stepped around Aurelian a bit but still stayed back from Clara. "Now ma'am, would you like to run through what happened and what those men looked like? We'll be happy to help with finding out if they actually are from here." He let his eyes go past to Shade with an obvious hint to not lose his temper.


"That would be Miss, " Clara primly corrected but then launched into her recounting.


"First of all the other day, some of your cattle came onto our property and they trampled a considerable section of our back garden plot. Mr. Thornton showed up then ...conveniently with a basket from the Hales. I admit to being startled and perhaps a bit upset as his cows were despoiling our future foodstuffs. I will say this....he did after some discussion round up the animals and I allowed him a drink from our well. Father showed up then. At the time I thought the cattle was just an accident, no accounting for the whims of animals after all. But now I think it was perhaps deliberate."


Her deep brown eyes burned into Shade as she spoke.  She had liked him there for a bit but now she was onto his tricks!


"Kate and our cook, Mary, always try to send welcome baskets to new arrivals in our area," Ezra stated mildly, hopefully putting paid to any suspicion that there had been a nefarious reason for Shade to ride onto the Redmonds' property. He actually caught the younger man's eyes and gave an almost imperceptible nod toward the waiting men.


Aurelian thought that sounded most plausible but then he wasn't the suspicious one of the Redmonds, Clara remained dubious.


Shade cleared his throat and signaled the hands with a nod at the door, "Head on out and relieve Sage and his nighthawks. Tell him we need to see them here." The men seemed to heave a collected sigh of relief as they began filtering toward the door.


Before any of them could leave the courtyard, Hannah stepped in front of Nicholas Hale, Ezra's son who also acted as work foreman for the ranch. "Do not tell them what has transpired here." Nicholas gave her a short, sharp nod and stepped around her. Hannah was still fuming from Quentin Cantrell's insinuation that she was not an experienced officer of the law. She had been on the job for more than five years. Yet, stomping her foot and retaliating at his assumption did not seem appropriate either. Especially since, in this case, she was more like a legal watchdog there to make sure weapons did not get used. Of course, arresting Shade Thornton would be a bonus in her books!


With the men out of the room, Shade turned his eyes on Clara. He spoke far more calmly than he felt, "Miss Clara, as I told you, Mrs. Hale asked me to bring the basket and goods to you because she could not get away. The mob of cattle that trampled your garden managed to get on your property because the ravine that used to be a natural barrier between has washed down. I found where they crossed. We've since started fencing on our side. It should be complete in another week." He took a deep breath, staring steadily at the young woman and her father, "Now, what happened yesterday that makes you think you are being harassed by riders from this ranch?"


"That's why we are here, Clara, not for the cattle in the garden. Tell them what happened to you, dear," Aurelian encouraged her with a supportive smile.


Clara nodded, she was more than willing to give them all an earful.


"Very well. I was at the lake and decided to take a swim, what with it being so oppressively hot. No one else was around so I removed my clothing then went in. Soon enough two men come riding up and saw me. They accused me of trespassing. I immediately informed them I was certainly not trespassing and that my father was owner of the Sidwell property now.  They then told me to get out of the water. I declined and asked them nicely to leave me to my privacy. They thought that was funny. The one of them....he was named Billy. He was the younger of the two....I would hazard a guess at least a few years older than I am. I am fifteen. The other I heard no name for. He had a greying beard, very scruffy. He looked mean but I realize that is mere opinion. Billy then dismounted and started pawing over my clothing and found the Dragoon Colt. They both pestered me to come out of the water. As they said......they wanted to take a look at what I got. I certainly know what that means. I of course refused, I was not about to give them their way in things."


A slight pause to take a breath then she continued, "Billy said if I did not come out he was going to take all of my belongings and ride off to present them to his boss. Unless.....I got out of the water and they promised me that they would do nothing to me if I did. I did not believe them for an instant. Of course I refused again, telling them if they wanted me they were going to have to come in after me. At that point he packed up my clothes and the gun into his saddle bags and they rode off but before they did they said that this was just the start. If my father did not leave this property this was only the beginning. I asked them before they left who they worked for and Billy said the Thornton ranch. They worked for the Thornton ranch."


There! Now they knew the cause of her distress and anger, she eyed Shade for a hint that she had struck home?


Quentin spoke up. "I am sorry for your experience, Miss Redmond, but I could say I was from the Moon but there is nothing to prove I was except my word..." He raised a hand to forestall their outbursts. "I am fully prepared to let you see every man who works here, I am just saying once we have seen all of them I want you to believe us when we say we have no designs on your land, ranch, or even you, Miss Redmond. You have heard what brought Shade to your farm and even if you don't believe his account, I would think Ezra's word about the matter would be good enough for you. He doesn't lie, and I don't appreciate anyone insinuating that he does."


Shade was angrier than he had been in a long time. Of course, there was the seething quiet rage he felt over the death of his brother and his brother's family. The quick flare of temper that was a hallmark of his personality, that had not been triggered in quite a while. Now, hearing of the treatment of the Redmond girl by the strangers ignited that flash of fire that had gotten him into so much trouble over the years. If he ever ran across either man, they would - at the very least - get a beating they wouldn't soon forget! Shade had liked the girl, admired her spirit and fire. On top of that, treating any woman, old or young, to that sort of behavior went against the grain with him. There was never a situation in which that was the right thing to do.


Quentin had made the points in favor of why Shade had ridden to the Redmond ranch. Good points too. Ezra did not lie to people. Shade doubted that he was physically capable of lying. He turned his gaze on Clara and said, his voice low and steady, "I would never sanction anyone subjecting a woman to such degradation, no matter her age. No one on this ranch would. If we find that some of our men are engaging in such behavior, they will immediately cease to be employees of Lost Lake Ranch. I won't lie and say that I hold much with homesteadin'. But everyone has the right to make a life for themselves out here. You acquired your place legally and that's all I need to know to respect it and your rights to it and to defend your right to it."

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Clara had said her piece, so she felt it only proper to hear them out now too as Quentin spoke first. She frowned a bit as he said he could be from the moon, well that was rather silly wasn't it, of course, no one would believe him. She felt this incident was quite different. As for her insinuating that this Ezra Hale fellow was a liar - well she never said that. On second reflection, it could have been interpreted that way, but her anger had been focused on Shade's convenient arrival right after his cows caused their damage.  She kept silent, but her father did not.

"I have no reason to doubt Mr. Hale, and in fact, I was greatly impressed with Mrs. Hale when we met at the general store. It was kind of your wife to send the basket, sir," he addressed.

Ezra nodded and smiled at the other man, now that he was not worried about a gunfight breaking out, "Kate mentioned meeting you, sir. She likes to know our neighbors. Always good to know who a person can rely on."

Clara couldn't disagree with that. Besides, now Shade was starting to speak up, and he looked very angry. Nonetheless, Clara Redmond was not one to be buffaloed easily, and she braced for it, standing her ground with her typical stubbornness as she listened.

She had an immediate comeback though, "As your friend just said you could say you were from the moon, does not make it so. You may be lying here too."

Aurelian nudged her daughter, "Clara, uncalled for unless you have proof and frankly, your issue was with those two men, not Mr. Thornton here. Don't let your temper get the best of you."

Clara took a deep breath, he DID sound convincing. But he had been convincing the first day too and then this happened. Still....maybe she was jumping the gun? If only they could find those two men, she could confront them? This was not easy....it was frustrating and hard to decide just what to believe. She eyed Shade again then sighed.

"I may possibly have jumped to conclusions."   Lord, that was so hard to say!

Quentin smiled a bit. "Miss Redmond, I have just met you, but I understand how hard it is to have to admit something like that...I am not a fan of doing it myself..."


Clara nodded, nice of him to say that. Aurelian smiled, things seemed to have calmed down a bit. By now he was rather certain none of these men had anything to do with Clara's incident though he also knew she had not made it up.


Quentin turned and indicated the table. "...now please...everyone have a seat, something to drink, and we can wait for the nighthawks to get back. I want you to see every man working here."


Aurelian nodded to his daughter and the two of them made for the table, they would fools to turn down a free meal given their current situation. Food was at a premium.


"Thank you, don't mind if we do," he smiled.

Ezra signaled the cook to bring more coffee and hot water for tea. He again gestured at the table, "There's plenty of food. We make plenty for the nighthawks coming in off a night's work. It's their dinner," he explained. "We'd be right honored if you'd share our meal."

Shade stepped around the table to see Clara seated and waited for Hannah to have a seat before resuming his own and pouring a fresh cup of coffee.


Clara noted his act of courtesy and nodded, "Thank you."


He looked over at the girl, "Sorry I haven't gotten back to pick up the accounting for the damages. The boss has kept me a bit busy," he said and rolled his eyes in Ezra's direction.


"It is alright. I was unfortunately rather occupied myself," she replied dryly then went wide eyed at the sight of the platters of food the cook was bringing in.  My goodness, bacon and biscuits, and scrambled eggs. Her mouth watered as she watched the man set the plates down.


"Everyone, help yourselves," Ezra said kindly as Shade resumed his seat. "We do not stand on ceremony here." He had said the blessing earlier and would do so again when the next shift arrived for their meal.


Once seated, Aurelian let Clara help herself first but, typically for the girl, she first dished out a heaping helping of eggs onto his plate then two biscuits and a small heap of bacon slices. He almost said that perhaps she was a bit too generous with other people's food but then realized the cook was used to serving a large number of hungry men and was no doubt preparing even more for the next shift. Clara then did her own plate and did not stint on the amounts.  A meal this good and large was too good an opportunity to let slide. Soon both of them were eating. Both had table manners of course but it was pretty obvious they were rather hungry as they dug in.


Aurelian paused to say, "Thank you, Mr. Hale, again....for your kindess. This really hits the spot......and I believe I can speak for my unusually quiet daughter too."


Mouth full Clara nodded.


After allowing a few moments for Redmond and his daughter to get settled, Ezra asked the girl, "Can you describe the two men who accosted you in detail? Draw them maybe? If you cannot draw, Hannah used to be a pretty good sketch artist. Maybe you could describe them and she could draw them?"


Hannah looked startled. She used the skill so rarely that she often forgot about it entirely. She paused in the act of buttering her biscuit, "I've done a few sketches for complainants before. Mind you, I'm not an artist, but could probably get the idea down on paper." She shrugged and looked at Aurelian and Clara, "I'm sorry. I do it so seldom, I forgot all about it."


Clara swallowed to clear her mouth to speak, "I can describe them in quite detail. Unfortunately I cannot draw, no. I am very good at reading, writing, and arithmetic but God did not see fit to bless me with any artistic gifts."


"Good!" Shade said, catching Hannah's eyes with a slightly challenging stare of his own, "When the two men are not identified with our nighthawks, you will be able to put a flyer out on them."


"If the two men are not identified!" Hannah snapped in response and would have added more, but a commotion in the bunkhouse heralded the arrival of the nighthawks.

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Sage Miller had been an employee of Lost Lake Ranch almost as long as the Hales. He was a man with craggy good looks that had not changed overmuch in more than twenty years. His eyes were the most notable feature. They were a clear deep shade of sage green and the reason for his nickname. Truthfully, it had been so long since anyone had used his real name of Hieronymous that he probably wouldn't answer to it. Sage suited him.

Mary, Sage's wife, worked in the main house as the head cook. She also nominally oversaw the cooks assigned to the bunkhouse and chuckwagon. He often joked that their marriage was so good because he worked nights and she worked days. In fact, the schedule suited both of them. Sage had always been a night owl, preferring to sleep during the day. He and Mary had the same days off, and he often had supper in the kitchen at the main house so he could eat with her and his kids. It was a life that suited both of them.

The other nighthawks had dispersed to the washrooms to clean up after a long night in the saddle. As was his habit, Sage had waited until they were all ready to head out for their morning meal. He didn't believe in putting himself before his men. Seeing two strangers, Shade Thornton, Quentin Cantrell, and Deputy Marshal Cory seated at the table sent a murmur of unease through the gathered men. Ezra was always there to take Sage's report. Shade and Quentin usually rode out with Nick Hale and the day wranglers.


So here was the rest of the ranch crew, the so-called nighthawks. Clara put down her fork and turned her head to watch them come in, sharp eyes taking in each one's face. One by one they all passed her test. She tried not to give anything away though while Shade then spoke to the assembled cowhands.

Ezra deferred to Shade as the nighthawks approached the table. The shift in power from himself to the younger man was being done subtly so as not to disrupt the ranch's routines. "Sage," Shade said and nodded to the table, "everyone, please have a seat. No sense in letting your breakfasts get cold."


Aurelian couldn't make an identification so he was dependent on Clara to do so but if any of the men glanced his way he simply nodded acknowledgement, not a hint of anger. He was beginning to believe they were not going to find the guilty men on this ranch because they did not work here at all. The one man had lied, more likely to throw off blame.  Clara was going to be frustrated but he knew she would never settle for accusing an innocent person.

He waited for everyone to settle in their seats before continuing. Shade watched each man for any hint of unease or guilt. He did not know the nighthawks as well as he did the day crew. Although Hannah received a few uneasy looks, the Redmonds only elicited a bit of curiosity on the faces of the men. "Most of you know Hannah Cory. This is Miss Clara Redmond and her father, Aurelian Redmond.  They purchased the Sidwell homestead. Miss Clara had a run-in with a couple of men late yesterday. Deputy Marshal Cory wants to eliminate everyone from this ranch before investigating further." Shade's voice was cool and quiet, understated confidence in the innocence of the assembled men in its depths.

Hannah gave the Redmonds an encouraging smile. Inwardly, she was impressed with the fact that Shade had not telegraphed anything to the men in his introductions. She had to reluctantly admit that his actions and reactions were not those of a man guilty of ordering the harassment of others. This case was not going to be as easy to solve as she had hoped. There was another large ranch in the immediate area. The Redmonds' property was bordered on the north by the Steelgraves' place, Evergreen Ranch. Explaining to them why she could not simply ride in and do the same thing there as they had done at Lost Lake was not a conversation she was looking forward to.

"Miss Clara, are any of these men the ones that threatened you yesterday?" Hannah asked to the accompaniment of low sounds of consternation. It was another good indication that Sage and his night crew had had nothing to do with the incident.


Clara didn't need to take a second look at any of them, she'd read their faces in detail upon their entry.  She folded her hands and shook her head in the negative.


"None of these men were there that day. Unless we have not seen everyone ............well....I was told a lie then," she spoke very calm and in clear tones then looked to Shade.


"I apologize. I only went by what I had been told," she declared in all sincerity.


"We are sorry we bothered you all," Aurelian quickly added.


"There is no need to apologize and you are not a bother," Shade answered both Redmonds. "We try hard not to hire the type of men you were describing but we're not infallible. If a couple slipped by us, we needed to know."


Aurelian nodded, those things can indeed happen. When you have a lot of apples in a barrel, a few might be rotten and not noticed til discovered.


Quentin stepped over beside Shade. "If you would not mind, Miss Redmond, if you could describe these men we would be very happy to keep an eye out for them. It's possible they might pass through here or even make camp on our land if they are still in the area. If we encounter them I can promise you we will hold on to them until we can let Deputy Cory know they are here and she can bring you over to identify them. Regardless of them claiming to be working for us, I care more for the fact of what they did to you. They might try the same thing with another lady before they decide to move on."


"I do not mind. As I told the deputy, I have their faces clearly etched in my mind," Clara agreed.


There was a rumble of assent from the men around the table as Quentin raised his voice above the sound. "I mean it, boys...if you find a pair of strangers on our land, you hold them...I don't want to hear any stories of them having any accidents. Any vigilantes will be both in jail and without a job...right, Shade?"


Shade nodded in agreement with Quentin, "I will make sure the day riders are aware as well. Once Deputy Cory has the drawings, we will post them here." He looked over at Clara and smiled, "It was very brave of you to report what happened. Not everyone would have. As tempted as any of us might be to deal with these men personally, we will let the law handle it." His voice was calm and adamant. It did not mean that if the scoundrels were found that they would make it to the jail totally unscathed. However, they could not hold a line if they allowed it to be crossed without consequences.


Clara nodded, "They think they got the best of me but we will see."


She then turned to Hannah but her words were meant for the whole group as she spoke clearly and calmly, rather like she was describing a scene out of some book than an actual incident and one in which she was the victim.


"There were two of them as I said. They were nothing alike as far as looks. The younger one, the other called him Billy, he was the one who stole my clothing and the Dragoon. He looked to me at most only a few years older than me. But I realize looks can be deceiving for things like that. He was average height, thin, long face on him, long nose, too far away to see the color of his eyes, brown hair though. He could not grow a beard or mustache I believe. He did not sound educated."


"The older one was shorter, stocky with an awful beard, he was possibly in his forties or even fifties. Big thick head, pushed in nose, again do not know his eye color. No woman would marry him for his looks, I can assure you that much," she then finished.


"I will bring copies of the drawings here if I can make good enough sketches," Hannah said. "If not, we'll write up a good be on the lookout poster with detailed descriptions." Her earlier anger had dissipated. Everyone at Lost Lake was being cooperative and just as outraged as the Redmonds were. Of course, they could be putting on an act, but that seemed unlikely. She knew that the ranch had always encouraged long-term employment by offering living quarters for married men and men with families. Ezra had always been as discriminating as possible when hiring.


Shade and Quentin walked the Redmonds and Hannah out. The goodbyes were far more affable than the greetings had been. Even Hannah seemed to have lost the edge to her anger at Shade over the past. Hannah vaulted onto her horse, reining the feisty gelding in as he jibbed at the bit. "Once the drawings are made, if I can do Miss Clara's description justice, I will send copies here." She paused and looked at both men, "Thank you."


Watching the wagon draw away, Shade shook his head. His temper urged him to ride over to Evergreen and demand to see all of their hands. Logic kept him from following his instincts. That and the suspicion that Quentin would find a way to stop him.

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