Broken Arrow by Mickey Minner

Broken Arrow
by Mickey Minner

#6 in the Sweetwater Saga

CHAPTER ONE

Montana Territory – 1870s – Summer
With a sweep of her arm, Jesse Branson pushed the Stetson off her sweat covered brow and wiped at the damp skin with the back of her hand, leaving behind a dark smudge of dirt. She squinted up into the cloudless sky while settling the Stetson back into place.

“Mommy, it’s hot.”

Jesse tilted her head down to where KC, her young daughter, was standing cradling a large rock in her arms. “It sure is, Sunshine.”

“Shame folks ain’t buying rocks,” Stanley Branson grumbled, prying another stone free from the hard ground. “One thing this ground ain’t lacking is those blasted things,” he muttered tossing the rock aside.

Jesse nodded her agreement. With her father’s help, she had spent the past several days digging a square pit into the sun-baked ground behind the ranch house and it seemed as if they had spent more time removing rocks than dirt. “That’s the truth, Poppa. But it does save us the trouble of bringing rocks up from the river for the walls,” Jesse said surveying the results of their labor.

Choosing a location near the garden, they had dug down into the rocky ground almost four feet. The pit, soon to be used as a cool, dry place to store the vegetables grown in their garden, was six strides square and would eventually be covered by a steep pitched roof. The cellar’s dirt walls would be reinforced with the uncovered rocks; neatly stacked and kept in place by their own weight. Above the rock walls, thick, upright wood planks would enclose the root cellar protecting the stored vegetables from the summer heat and winter cold. A door would provide access to a series of low steps already carved into the side closest to the garden.

Pulling her kerchief from her back pocket, Jesse bent over to wipe KC’s sweaty face. The sound of a screen door thumping against its frame drew her attention and she twisted her head to look back over her shoulder. She spotted her wife limping across the back porch; leaning on a cane in one hand while her other grasped the handle of a full water bucket. “Hold on, darlin’. I’ll come give you a hand.”

“No need,” Jennifer said continuing to the edge of the porch where she set the bucket down. Then straightening, she limped to the end of the deck and down a sturdy set of steps to the ground. Walking back along the porch, she retrieved the bucket and carried it across the yard. “I thought you might like some fresh, cool water,” she said settling the heavy bucket down at the edge of nearest cellar wall. “That other bucket has been cooking in the sun long enough.”

“Seems your momma is pretty and smart,” Jesse told KC as she finished wiping her face dry. “Go get some water,” she told the girl who had dropped her rock and was already running toward the steps. “Come on, Charley.” She walked to the toddler sitting on a small pile of rocks at the opposite side of the pit and picked him up. “Bet you’re thirsty, too.” Her almost three year old son nodded in agreement. “You too, Poppa,” she said carrying Charley across the pit to the steps. “We all could use a break.”

“Thanks, Momma,” KC said after swallowing several mouthfuls from the dipper her mother had handed her. “That was good.”

Jennifer smiled. “It must have been the way you gulped it down.” She refilled the dipper and held it for Charley to drink, her son still sitting contently in Jesse’s arms.

“I been workin’ hard, Momma,” KC said proudly.

“It looks like you’ve all been working hard,” Jennifer replied noting the progress made that morning on the pit. “But I hate to see you working so long in the hot sun,” she told her wife.

Jesse exchanged Charley for the dipper then bent over and filled it with cool water. “Here, Poppa,” she said straightening and passing the full dipper to her father. “Guess we could have dug it closer to the house, where the shade is, but it would have been further from the garden. I didn’t want you to have to be carrying things too far, darlin’.”

Jennifer set Charley on the ground and watched him toddle over to join his sister who was splashing water on her face. “Why don’t you two use the other bucket for that,” she told the children. “Keep the fresh water for drinking.”

Jesse laughed as the pair moved to the second bucket and plunged their dirty hands into the sun-warmed water. “A little dirt won’t hurt us.” She pushed the Stetson off her forehead and leaned close to kiss her wife.

“There’s no such thing as a little dirt when it comes to you three,” Jennifer countered reaching for the towel draped over her shoulder. “Good thing I thought to bring this out with me.” She bent over and dipped the end of the towel into the bucket then straightened and reached for Jesse’s Stetson, removing it from her wife’s head and placing it on her own, before setting to work cleaning the dirty smudge off Jesse’s forehead.

Stanley chortled.

“Don’t you say a word, Poppa,” Jesse warned.

“Hold still,” Jennifer instructed.

Hearing the familiar no-nonsense tone, KC and Charley looked up at their mothers. They giggled while Jesse grimaced but remained still.

“You two are next,” Jennifer informed her children.

KC and Charley looked at each other then dropped their hands back into the bucket, splashing water on their faces and furiously scrubbing the dirt covered surfaces.

“Maybe if you were out here keeping an eye on us, we wouldn’t get so dirty,” Jesse said after Jennifer released her.

Jennifer laughed. “Sweetheart, I could be standing right next to you and you’d be covered in muck before I could recite the alphabet. I think you just like being dirty.” She turned toward the children. “And these two are just as bad.”

“I keen, Momma,” Charley protested when Jennifer reached for him. He batted at her hands with his own much smaller ones.

Jennifer gave up and released the boy. “For the life of me, I don’t know why you and your sister can’t wait to climb into the tub before supper but, during the day, you hate to see a bar of soap.”

“Bathtub is fun, Momma,” KC explained.

Jennifer shook her head in defeat yet couldn’t help but smile at the pair standing before her. Barefoot and dressed in matching loose fitting shirts and pants cut off at the knees, muddy water was dripping off their dirt smeared faces. “I suppose I’d just be wasting my time. You’ll be dirty again before I got back to the porch.” She laughed when the children grinned, their heads bopping up and down in unison. “Go on,” she told them then laughed again as they scampered away, KC helping her brother down the steps into the pit.

“How’s Marie?” Stanley asked once the children were again busy stacking rocks.

“She was sleeping when I left her,” Jennifer told her father-in-law, keeping her voice low so KC and Charley wouldn’t hear. “She’s still awfully pale, Jesse. I think we should send for the doctor in Bozeman.”

“What does Mom say about that?”

“What she always does— we’d be wasting the money. She says she’ll be feeling better in few days.”

“She usually does,” Stanley commented. “Though, this spell does seem to be harder on her.”

“I’m worried about her, Jesse.”

The rancher wrapped her arms around her wife, hugging her tight. “I am too, darlin’.” She thought for a moment. “Poppa, why don’t we call it a day? I’ll get cleaned up and go into town and talk to Bette Mae. If she thinks we should, I’ll have Ed send a telegram to the doctor in Bozeman.”

“Take the buckboard, sweetheart. I think you should bring Bette Mae back here.”

Jesse thought about rejecting Jennifer’s suggestion since she knew how her mother would react if the older woman was brought to tend to her but she was just as worried about her mother as Jennifer. “Sound okay to you, Poppa?”

“Maybe, you should listen to your momma. Seems like a lot of trouble.”

Jennifer freed herself from Jesse’s hold. Limping to where her father-in-law stood, she placed her hand on the stoic man’s large and muscular arm. “I’m sure Marie will be fine, Stanley, but Bette Mae knows more about healing than most doctors.” She knew her words to be true because without Bette Mae she would have lost her leg to infection after being attacked by a mountain lion; and, quite probably, her life. “I’d feel better if she came out and checked on her.”

Stanley’s head bobbed once in a curt nod. “Think I’ll walk over and sit with her for a bit. Then if it’s all the same to you, I’ll keep working. Does me good to have my hands busy.”

After her father walked around the corner of the ranch house toward the cabin he shared with her mother, Jesse turned to Jennifer. “What do you think?” she asked.

Jennifer returned to Jesse’s side and leaned into her offered embrace. “This time does seem worse than before. I think you should go get Bette Mae.”

“Maybe I should just send for the doctor.”

Jennifer looked into Jesse’s eyes, seeing her own concern for Marie reflected back at her. “Maybe you should do both.”

#

Set back fifty feet from the banks of a meandering creek, a log cabin sat tucked against the side of a ravine. The small cabin was crudely constructed with walls made from half a dozen logs set on top of each other; their ends were notched to interlock holding them in place. Gaps between the logs were filled with a mixture of mud from the creek bottom and clumps of the moss and sweet-grass growing along its banks. The cabin’s roof was a layer of smaller tree trunks and branches, none bigger around than a man’s fist. Animal skins of various sizes were spread out over the roof and tacked in place to keep out the wind and rain. Minimum effort had been spent on the cabin’s construction, leaving it windowless with only a hide covered cutout for a door.

Spread haphazardly on the ground around the cabin were half a dozen pack frames, a scattering of bridles and other tack, and several beaver skins stretched on drying frames. Pelts of wolf, deer, elk, moose, and smaller animals hung from the cabin sides while several, as yet, un-skinned carcasses hung heads down from a long branch supported by two forked ones pounded into the ground. A ring of rocks encircled a fire pit where wisps of smoke curled skyward from a thick bed of ashes still smoldering even after being left untended during the night.

Cole Bridger pushed aside the deerskin hanging over the door cutout and stepped outside. The bright morning sun was severe after the darkness of the cabin and forced him to raise an arm to shield his eyes as he scanned the landscape. “Dammit,” he muttered before raising his voice to holler into the cabin. “Git out here, Puck.”

“What’s wrong?” a sleepy voice responded.

“I said git out here.”

Shirtless, a second man emerged as the deerskin was again moved aside. “You’d think I could get dressed ‘fore you started bellowing,” he said as he finished tying the rawhide cord that secured his pants around his waist.

“Thought you said you hobbled the horses.”

“I did.”

“There’s two missing.”

“They’re probably just down in those willows by the creek,” Puck said then stepped back inside the cabin to retrieve his shirt.

“Bring the rifles,” Cole ordered his partner. “Told ya what we seen yesterday meant trouble.”

Puck re-appeared holding a pair of Winchester carbines. “Them tracks we came across?” he asked handing one of the rifles to Cole. “Most likely just another party of trappers; we ain’t the only ones working these hills.”

Cole shook his head. “Savages,” he said matter-of-factly.

“You think Indians stole our horses?” Cole nodded. “Why just take two? Why not take ‘em all?”

“Maybe somethin’ scared ‘em off. Come on, let’s get saddled.”

Puck grabbed Cole’s arm. “Wait. These hills are full of hunting parties. It is their land, after all.”

Cole shrugged off Puck’s hand. “Not any more. Government says they have to move onto the reservations, need to make room for proper folks to move in.”

“Those tracks were made by shod horses; didn’t think Indians shoed their horses.”

“Don’t stop ‘em from stealing ones that are. We’re wasting time.”

“I don’t know, Cole; seems like going after Indians is just askin’ for trouble.”

“You check down by the creek if you want,” Cole snapped as he lifted his saddle off the ground.

“What are you gonna do?”

Cole was already walking away when he answered. “Get saddled up and go find our horses.”

#

In the office of the Sweetwater Gazette, Thaddeus Newby sat at his type table whistling tunelessly as he carefully set type into a composing stick. Reading from a handwritten page, he deftly chose individual letter blocks from the rows of small compartments in front of him, each holding a specific letter, number, or symbol in a specific font. After completing each section of text, he placed it between the spacers of the page frame. Thaddeus looked up from his work when the door to his office opened and Ed Granger entered.

“Morning, Thaddeus,” the storekeeper said cheerfully.

“Morning, Ed,” Thaddeus returned the greeting then set the composing stick down and picked up a rag to wipe ink off his hands. He stood and stretched his sore back.

“Why don’t you hire someone to set type?” Ed asked walking across the newspaper office.

“Wish I could. Paper barely makes enough to pay myself,” Thaddeus said tossing the rag onto his work table. “What brings you away from the store?”

“Taking supplies to the Slipper and thought I’d drop off your mail on the way.”

“Ah. I heard the morning stage go by a while ago,” Thaddeus commented when Ed handed him an envelope. “Anyone get off?” he asked, always interested in possible stories for his newspaper.

“There were a couple of fellas riding through to Hellgate; got off to stretch while the teams were changed. Didn’t talk much though.”

“Hmm,” Thaddeus murmured, slipping an ink stained finger under the envelope flap and carefully working it open.

“Figured that might be important,” Ed told the newspaper editor. “It isn’t often you get mail from Denver.”

Thaddeus pulled a single sheet of paper out of the envelope. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said after reading the letter.

“Good news?”

“Guess that depends.” Thaddeus offered the letter to Ed when he saw the puzzled look on his face. “Here, read it for yourself.”

Ed scanned the sheet. “A fort? What do we need a fort for? We’ve never had any problems in the valley.”

“Seems the Army thinks there’s trouble coming. Guess they figure Hellgate is a good place to stop it.”

“Damn,” Ed said passing the letter back to the newspaper editor.

Thaddeus carried the letter to his workbench and sat down. “Looks like I’ll be changing my headline.”

Ed turned to leave. “I’ll leave you to your work then.”

“Thanks for bringing this over, Ed. If I could ask another favor…”

Ed turned back to face Thaddeus. “Of course.”

“I’d be obliged if you kept this to yourself. At least, until I can get this issue printed.”

Ed smiled. “Sure thing, Thaddeus; I’m not much for breaking that kind of news to folks anyway.”

“There’ll be many who’ll welcome the news.”

“Yes… and there’s going to be some who won’t be happy to hear it.”

Thaddeus nodded. “That there will.”

#

Dannie Northly picked up a box of canned goods off the loading dock behind the mercantile and carried it to the large freight wagon a few feet away. “Is that the last of it?” she asked Billie Monroe standing on the platform wiping his brow with his sleeve.

“Yes. Oh, wait, there’s one more package,” Billie said before turning to walk back inside the store.

“Better not be very big, ain’t got much room left,” Dannie grumbled placing the box into the wagon. Satisfied her load was properly packed, she walked to where the back section was leaning against the loading dock. Lifting it off the ground, she carried it to the rear of the wagon and hoisted it up to drop it into place. Then she hooked the lengths of chain that kept the tailgate secured to the main wagon.

“It’s not big.” Billie walked to the edge of the platform and handed Dannie a package wrapped in paper and neatly tied with a string.

“’Nother dress?”

“Yes. It’s for Mrs. Struther in Garnet; said to ask for her at the hotel.”

Dannie carried the package to the front of the wagon and tucked it into a box under the seat she used for delicate deliveries—like dresses from Sweetwater’s popular seamstress. She closed the lid on the box and secured it place. “I’m gonna walk over to the schoolhouse.”

Billie nodded. “Tell Leevie not to worry. You should be back by end of the week.”

“She worries if’n I just make a run out to Jesse’s,” Dannie griped.

Billie laughed. “Same with Ruth. Can’t tell you how happy you coming to Sweetwater has made her; she never liked me being gone overnight. Same with Jennifer when Jesse would take the deliveries out to the mining camps.”

“Seems I made everyone happy but Leevie,” Dannie groused as she headed toward the schoolhouse.

“What’s she mumblin’ about?” Ed asked walking out from the back of the store.

“You know Dannie… if she ain’t grumbling ‘bout one thing, she’s griping ‘bout another.”

“Woman never seems to be happy about anything, that’s for sure. Makes you wonder how she and Jesse get along so well.”

Billie chuckled. “That’s easy. Leevie and Jennifer are best friends. Jesse and Dannie know better than to not get along.”

Ed laughed. “Sure enough,” he agreed settling into one of the chairs he kept on the loading dock. A second chair was placed on the opposite side of an empty flour barrel holding a checkerboard. He watched as Dannie reached the schoolhouse, stepped up onto the porch and peered into the building. A few minutes later she was joined by the schoolteacher. “Leevie not happy Dannie will be gone for a few days?” Billie nodded. “Least now, with Dannie’s wagon, she can get everything in one trip. Using the buckboard used to take two or three.”

“Yep. But it still leaves Leevie alone. Womenfolk don’t like that,” Billie admitted as he turned and idly looked across Sweetwater’s only street to the dress shop.

#

Black Wolf slipped quietly between a pair of pine trees. His legs ached but he was determined to continue on his hunt until he could return to his family’s camp with a fresh kill. Game had grown scarcer in the mountains where he had learned his hunting lessons from his father and grandfather.

A twig snapped off to his right and Black Wolf swung his bow and cocked arrow in that direction. His eyes scanned the thick brush and spied the slight tremor of the leaves of a chokeberry bush. He eased closer, careful not to make any noise that might cause his prey to scamper away. Pulling back the string of his bow, he released the arrow, smiling when he heard the unmistakable sound of his stone arrow point striking bone.

Black Wolf walked to the chokeberry bush to retrieve the rabbit that would help fill the cook pot that night.

#

Bette Mae ambled out the door of the Silver Slipper’s kitchen, wiping her hands on a flour dusted apron tied around her ample waist. “I do swear tha’ it’s too hot ta be bakin’ pies,” she said to no one in particular before dropping into the oversized rocking chair set on the porch specifically for her.

“But your pies are mighty good, Bette Mae.”

“Miles, don’ ya have town affairs ta be tendin’ to?” Bette Mae asked Sweetwater’s self-important yet indolent mayor seated in another rocker further down the porch.

“Plenty of time for that. Just letting my breakfast settle first.”

Bette Mae grunted at the man whose girth was growing right along with Sweetwater. “Why don’ yer wife feed ya?”

“Now, Bette Mae, you know she has her hands full taking care of my boys.”

“Probably, more like she’s done with cookin’ by the time ya see fit ta start yer day.” Bette Mae was very familiar with the mayor’s daily schedule that brought him into the Slipper’s dining room in the late morning. “Most folks dun a day’s work ‘fore ya git started.”

“Affairs of the town don’t require an early start,” Mayor Perkins protested.

“Don’ seem they ‘quire a late one either since ya is sittin’ here doin’ nothin’. Maybe ya could see fit to help Ed unload the wagon,” Bette Mae suggested watching the buckboard approach.

Perkins unwillingly pushed up from his comfortable chair. “I’d be obliged to, Bette Mae, but I’m expected at the town hall.”

“Pshaw. Ain’t nobody ‘xpectin’ ya.”

“You have a good day, now,” Perkins said as he rushed to the steps down leading to the street.

“No good, lazy…” Bette Mae mumbled after the retreating mayor.

#

Jesse loosely held the reins of Boy, her big draft horse, plodding down the stage road toward the town of Sweetwater. The town still wasn’t big by any standards but it had grown since the day she’d ridden in alone and unsure what her future held.

The Silver Slipper, a brothel when she won it in a poker game, still dominated the near end of town. Now a respectable hotel and rooming house, the Slipper boasted the best restaurant in the territory. At the end of the street with a dozen buildings spread along it, was another two-story building matching the Slipper in size but much newer in construction. It had been built by an eastern mining company intent on finding gold in the nearby hills. But after partially completing what was supposed to be a hotel for visiting company officials and dignitaries; and a bank to securely hold their gold, the mine’s investors soon discovered the supposedly ore bearing mine purchased from a scruffy, uneducated, itinerate miner was worth less than the mud on their boots and they had left town almost as fast as they had arrived.

Jesse’s friend and owner of the town’s mercantile, Ed Granger, had purchased the unfinished hotel for his growing business. He used the ground floor for his store and converted the upstairs into living quarters for himself, and for his employee and Sweetwater’s ex-sheriff, Billie Monroe, and his family. The stage company, desperately in need of vacating the old adobe structure with its crumbling walls and leaky roof, rented space from Ed for their depot. The discarded bank was taken over by the town, a welcomed situation for the valley’s ranchers and business owners who were more than happy to no longer need to make the long trip to Bozeman, location of the nearest banks before Sweetwater’s unexpected acquisition.

Jesse had purchased the old mercantile from Ed and turned it into a dress shop operated by the young woman, Ruth, who had been employed at the Slipper when Jesse arrived in town. Once discovered, her seamstress talents were in great demand by the women of Sweetwater and of the numerous mining camps in the surrounding area. Now married to Billie Monroe and with a young son, Ruth was proving to be a capable businesswoman and the dress shop was turning a good profit for her financiers, Jesse and Jennifer.

Jesse smiled. The past few years had brought not only changes to the town but also to her family. She had arrived in Sweetwater possessing only the horse she rode and the deed to the Silver Slipper. After throwing out the gamblers and offering a stage ticket to any of the working girls who refused to change their profession, she worked hard to turn the Slipper into a respectable rooming house and erase its tawdry past. It wasn’t easy as many men in the valley didn’t think women should be business owners. But Jesse worked hard and with the help of Bette Mae, the robust woman who ran the Slipper’s kitchen, she slowly won over most of her detractors. She had earned enough from the Slipper’s growing business to buy a ranch outside of town and fulfill a dream she’d had since growing up on her father’s ranch in eastern Montana.

Sweetwater’s need for a school teacher had attracted a young, auburn haired woman from the east. Almost as soon as Jennifer Kensington stepped off the stage, Jesse lost her heart to the pretty runaway escaping from a domineering father and the future he had planned for her. Their children, KC and Charley, were adopted. The legal papers, signed by a judge in Bannack, were Jesse and Jennifer’s most prized processions and hung prominently on a wall of the ranch house.

“Wasn’ ‘specting you today,” Bette Mae broke into Jesse’s thoughts.

Jesse shook the memories loose. Surprised to find Boy was standing in front of the Slipper, she looked over at the stout woman leaning on the railing and looking back at her. Setting the buckboard’s brake, she said anxiously, “It’s Mother.”

Bette Mae considered Jesse to be more a daughter than her employer and was concerned seeing her pained face. “She havin’ ‘nother spell?”

“This time is different, Bette Mae. She’s weak; it takes all she’s got just to get out of bed. Jennifer thinks I should send for the doc in Bozeman.”

Bette Mae sniffed. “Ain’t no use sendin’ fer him. Docs don’ have much use fer women problems.”

Jesse climbed down from the wagon. “I’m really worried,” she stated climbing the steps to the wide, wrap-around porch. “We all are.”

“I knows ya are. Come on inside. I just made a fresh pot. Cup of coffee will do ya good whilst I get my things.” Bette Mae placed a loving hand on Jesse’s arm, “Then we’ll go git a look see at what’s ailing ya momma.” When Jesse gave her a relieved smile, Bette Mae turned and led her inside the Slipper.

#

Cole Bridger’s eyes followed the tracks as they left the creek and climbed up the steep embankment opposite from where he stood. Puck had refused to accompany him, insisting that their missing horses couldn’t be far from their cabin. But Cole knew better and the tracks were his proof. He sniffed the air.

“Smoke. Them savages must have a camp nearby.” Cole mounted his horse then spurred it across the creek and up the embankment. Reaching the top, he re-entered the thick forest. Following both horse tracks and the smell of smoke, he cautiously made his way through the trees. When his ears started to pick out muffled voices from the normal forest sounds, he pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted. Looping the reins around a broken branch, he pulled his carbine from its scabbard.

Slowly, he crept toward the sound.

#

The stagecoach bounced over the path that passed for a road as it made its way toward a scattering of buildings, its two jostled occupants had pushed aside the canvas window shades and were looking out at the unimposing tent and log structures. Hearing the stage driver yell commands to his team, the men braced themselves for the stage’s impending stop.

“Hellgate,” a man announced pulling open the coach’s door. “Stage’ll be heading straight back to Sweetwater soon as the horses get water,” he told the passengers to encourage them to get out of the coach.

The men climbed out of the stage, their tired and bruised bodies protesting the activity. As they looked around, they were surprised to find a wide river separating the stage depot from the other buildings.

Nicholas Dowling brushed at his suit, attempting to remove some of the dust that covered it. He followed the stagehand to the rear of the coach where the luggage was stashed in the boot under a canvas covering. He pointed to two worn carpet bags, buried under some packages, having been bounced around along with the passengers during the bumpy trip. “Those two,” he said then took the bags when the stagehand freed them from the other packages. “So which part of this place is Hellgate?”

“’Cross the river. You looking for someone in particular?”

“Mr. Ginsingly”

“Ginsy?” the stagehand responded in surprise. “Didn’t know he was expecting visitors,” he added removing the freight packages from the boot to carry them into the depot.

“Can you tell me where to find him?” Dowling asked, ignoring the man’s comment.

“Looks like he’s waiting for you.” Arms full, the stagehand lifted his chin in the direction of the river.

Dowling turned around. He spotted a man standing on the opposite bank at the end of a rope bridge. “That the only way across?”

“Fraid so. We had a better bridge but it got washed out in the spring floods.”

“Seems it would have made better sense to put the town on this side.” Dowling’s companion had joined the two men.

“Mullen Road is on that side,” the stagehand told him. “Got anything else?” he asked then turned to walk into the depot when the men shook their heads.

Dowling handed one of the bags to the other man. “You want to go first, Ned?” he asked.

Ned Harlow laughed. “Not a chance. I’ll let you have that honor.”

The pair walked toward the suspended bridge constructed by stretching four ropes across the chasm that contained the river. Two ropes were handholds while the other two supported a layer of planks lashed to them. The suspended bridge presented the men with a precarious, at best, crossing to Hellgate.

Dowlng approached the beginning of the bridge and placed a tentative hand on a rope. Then he stepped onto the first plank.

“Best way to cross it is just keep moving,” the stagehand shouted from where he was retying the canvas cover over the luggage boot.

Dowling stepped off the bridge. He slipped his hand through the handle of his bag then took a deep breath. Taking a firm hold of both hand ropes, he stepped back onto the bridge and set out across it with measured steps.

Harlow watched as the bridge began to sway under Dowling’s movement.

“May not look like much but it’s safe,” the stagehand said as he joined Harlow who grunted his misgivings. “You boys got business in Hellgate?”

Keeping his eyes on Dowling, Harlow ignored the question. He began to breath easier when Dowling reached the safety of the opposite bank. “Guess it’s my turn to go,” he said, preventing the man from asking any more questions he wasn’t prepared to answer. He stepped onto the bridge and, following Dowling’s example, moved steadily across the unstable bridge. “Looks like first order of business is to build a better bridge,” he muttered as soon as he reached the waiting Dowling.

“Nick, this is Mr. Ginsingly,” Dowling said, having already come to the same conclusion.

The man smiled broadly and held out a rough callused hand. “Boys call me Ginsy.”

Harlow studied the man as he shook his offered hand. Harlow estimated Ginsy to be a good fifteen years older than his own thirty-one years. He was short in stature but his shoulders were broad and his skin deeply tanned after spending long days working in the hot sun. Dressed in mismatched and numerously patched faded flannel shirt and deerskin pants, and wearing a pair of well-worn leather boots, Ginsy didn’t make much of an impression. “Have you secured us an office?” he asked Ginsy, wanting to get away from the curious men who were appearing out of Hellgate’s collection of shabby buildings.

“Built ya one myself,” Ginsy declared proudly. “Come on, let me show ya,” he added already walking away from the river.

#

Puck used his arm to push aside the cattails that blocked his path to the creek. He heard a whinny and his nose wrinkled at the stringent odor of fresh horse dung. “I knew Cole was wrong,” he muttered moving through the tangled thicket of cattails and sweet-grass. He had walked more than a mile from the cabin as he searched for the missing horses. He was tired, not being used to walking such distances.

The horses were standing in the creek, contently drinking the cool water. The hobbles he had placed around their front fetlocks the night before were gone. The horses raised their heads to eye him suspiciously.

“How’d you get free?” he asked, not expecting an answer. He spoke in soothing tones as he approached the horses and, when he got within reach, grabbed their halters to prevent them from moving away from him. “Stop that,” he barked as one made a half-hearted effort to pull free. He led the horses out of the creek and walked them back through the thicket then to the cabin where he secured them by rope to a sturdy branch.

“Guess I need to string a picket line from now on,” Puck said as he looked around the area. Seeing no evidence that Cole had returned, he moved to the ring of rocks in front of the cabin. ”But first, I missed breakfast chasing the two of you. Right now I can do with some coffee.” He knelt beside the rock ring, picking a twig out of the pile of branches he had gathered the day before, he stirred up the coals. Satisfied, there was enough heat left in some of them to ignite again, he scooped up a handful of dried pine needles and tossed them onto the coals. Then he picked out some smaller twigs and branches from the pile and placed them on top of the needles before leaning over to gently blow on the coals. The needles caught almost immediately and burst into flame.

Puck turned his attention to gathering the makings of a late breakfast.

#

Dannie whistled tunelessly as her team of horses pulled the freight wagon along the stage road. In spite of their heavy load, the horses had made good time since leaving Sweetwater. She was traveling the Mullen Road, constructed by the Army to connect Fort Benton, Montana Territory, with Fort Walla Walla, Washington Territory. The military road was commonly used by muleskinners and freight drivers to access the mountain canyons where the mining camps were located.

Dannie looked over her shoulder to gauge how much time before sunset. “Another hour,” she muttered. Then she would look for a favorite camping site in a small glade of cottonwoods beside the river that paralleled the road. As she scanned down the road, her thoughts turned to the town of Sweetwater and how she had come to live there.

Dannie had been living in Granite, drawn to the growing mining camp by the advertised need for wagon drivers. Her lover, Leevie, had left Bannack to join her there; happy for the possibility of a job in the town’s school and for the opportunity to finally live together. But the bustling town had more teachers than it needed and the mine’s owners and the town’s businessmen had balked at having a woman transporting ore down to the smelter or freight up from Philipsburg.

Leevie had met Jesse and Jennifer when the pair had first visited Bannack and the two schoolteachers became friends, corresponding frequently by mail. When Jesse and Jennifer had visited Dannie and Leevie in Granite, they urged them to move to Sweetwater. Jennifer, the town’s schoolteacher, wanted to spend more time at the ranch she shared with her wife and young children; and Jesse had promised Jennifer she would no longer drive the freight deliveries for Ed that required being away for more than a day. Leevie, being a schoolteacher, and Dannie, owning a wagon and horse team, were deep in debt and both needed work. Distrustful of the rancher, who seemed to have provided the life for Jennifer that Dannie desperately wanted for Leevie, she reluctantly agreed to accept Jesse’s offer of support while they adjusted to their new home.

Dannie smirked. She had since learned that Jesse had been just as distrustful of her. “Seems things worked out for the best,” she muttered, readjusting her position on the wagon’s hard bench. “Mostly,” she grunted slapping the reins on the horse’s rumps to urge them along.

#

CHAPTER TWO

It was late afternoon when Boy pulled the buckboard back through the ranch yard. Jennifer was waiting with KC and Charley at the foot of the front porch steps, having been alerted to Jesse’s return by their daughter.

“Where’s Poppa?” Jesse asked even before she pulled Boy to a stop.

“With Marie.”

Jesse set the wagon’s brake then jumped down to the ground. She walked around the back of the buckboard to help Bette Mae climb down from the seat.

“Thank you for coming,” Jennifer told the older woman.

“Can’tt say no when sum one be needin’ me,” Bette Mae told her. “She feelin’ any better?” Jennifer shook her head. “Then ya best be showin’ me where she is.”

Jesse pulled Bette Mae’s bag out from under the wagon seat then carried it the few steps to the porch and placed it on the wooden deck. “I’ll take you to her,” she said returning to the others.

When KC started to follow her mother and Bette Mae, Jennifer placed a hand on her shoulder to stop her. “You need to stay with me, sweetie,” she gently told her daughter.

KC looked up at her mother. “Gramma sick?” she asked sadly.

“Yes.”

“I want to see Gramma.”

“I know. We’ll go over a little later, after Bette Mae has a chance to talk to her. Right now, why don’t you help me take Bette Mae’s bag upstairs to the room we fixed up for her?”

“Okay,” KC said unhappily.

Jennifer watched Jesse and Bette Mae until they disappeared around the corner of Marie and Stanley’s cabin. Then she turned and led the children back up the steps to the porch. Retrieving Bette Mae’s bag, she carried it into the house.

#

Puck looked up when he heard a horse splashing through the creek.

“Take care of my horse,” Cole demanded as he dismounted, dropped the reins on the ground and headed straight for the coffee pot simmering over the fire.

“Take care of it yourself,” Puck grumbled returning to his chore. He was kneeling over a deer hide stretched out on the ground, scrapping the inside of the hide clean. “I’ve been working all day while you’ve been out chasing shadows.”

“Puck, I ain’t in no mood for your lip,” Cole snarled pouring coffee into a metal cup.

“I found the horses,” Puck commented remaining in place.

“I seen that. Where were they?”

“Down a ways… in the creek just like I said they’d be.”

Cole slammed the coffee pot back down. The coals hissed as hot coffee sloshed out from its spout, spilling onto them. “Damn waste of a day.”

“I take it you didn’t any Indians.”

“Damn family of settlers staking a claim over the ridge yonder.”

“Thought you said that was Indian hunting grounds.”

“T’was. Told them greenhorns they best keep their heads low so I don’t accidentally mistake one of ‘em for an Injun.” Puck frowned. “You goin’ take care of my horse?” Cole snapped.

Puck shook his head. Cole was older by almost ten years and thought that gave him the right to order his younger cousin about. “No.”

Cole stood up from the fire. He took a swallow of coffee, seemingly unaffected as the hot liquid burned its way down his throat. He carried the cup back to his horse and remounted the lathered pony. “Then I guess I’ll go shoot some more deer for you to clean.”

“Take one of the other horses,” Puck told Cole. “That one is winded.”

Cole sneered and took another swallow of coffee. “Would if’n you’d done what I told you.”

“Hang on,” Puck yelled when Cole started to spur the horse into movement. Tossing his scraper onto the hide, he stood up. “Get off that horse. I’ll saddle one of the others.”

Cole dismounted, coffee cup still in his hand. Smirking, he walked back to the fire to refill the cup and wait for Puck to prepare a fresh horse for him to ride.

#

Dannie walked back to her campsite with an armful of dead branches. She had already unhitched the horses and picketed them next to the river where a thick patch of grass grew. She dropped the wood next to the ring of rocks where she had started a small fire after seeing to her team. She added a few of the branches to the flames then walked to the wagon where three wood boxes hung from the wagon’s side. She opened the box containing cooking utensils and removed her coffee pot, a frying pan, and a fork. She let the lid drop back into place before unlatching the lid on the next box. She pulled out the sack of coffee grounds then looked at the selection of canned goods. She grabbed a can of beans and a can of peaches then turned to carry the makings of her supper back to the fire pit.

She placed most of the items on the ground before carrying the coffee pot down to the river and filling it with fresh water. Returning to the fire, she added a handful of grounds to the pot then placed it on the fire to boil. Then she pulled free the large knife she carried in the scabbard tied to her right boot. Placing the point of the knife at the edge of the top of the can of beans, she picked up a rock and slammed it down on the handle’s butt. She repeated the action until she could peel the top of the can back just enough to pour the beans out into the frying pan. She tossed the empty can into the fire pit then set the frying pan on the fire. Grabbing the can of peaches, she again used her knife to open it. Then she sat back to enjoy the sweet peaches while she waited for her beans and coffee to cook.

The evening was pleasant, just warm enough that she was sure to have a good night’s sleep. A gentle breeze swept up from the cool waters of the river, helping to keep the gnats and biting flies from settling on her skin. As the sky darkened, Dannie kept watch down the road in both directions to see if any other travelers were setting up camp near hers. She was relieved when she failed to spot the telltale signs of other campfires. If no one was camping nearby, she wouldn’t have to worry as much about unexpected visitors during the night.

Finishing the peaches, Dannie reached for the handle of the frying pan. The beans had heated in their bubbling sauce and she removed the pan from the fire before they started to burn. Placing it on the ground in front of her, she reached for the coffee pot and poured boiling coffee into a cup. Dannie blew on the steaming coffee to cool it then took a cautious sip. She grimaced, mentally kicking herself for refusing to allow Leevie to add a sack of sugar to her supplies. Sugar was expensive, she had told her lover. Now she wished she had been willing to add the cost to the tab they ran at Ed’s mercantile. After all, the storekeeper wasn’t worried about being paid; any balance she and Leevie couldn’t cover at the end of each month was paid by Jesse.

“Won’t be too long I won’t have to count on Jesse to make up my shortfalls,” Dannie muttered into the night. She picked up the frying pan and began to fork beans into her mouth.

#

“Being on this side of the river is going to cause problems,” Harlow told the other two men standing around a table inside a windowless log cabin.

The rough hewn cabin was rectangular with a single large room and a single door. A wood stove occupied one corner of the room. Except for having the name of the company that had manufactured it stamped into its door, the square cast iron stove was devoid of decoration. Standing on four sturdy legs, it had a flat top; the back half was taken up by the chimney pipe that carried smoke up through a hole in the roof while the front half was just large enough to place a pot or frying pan for cooking. Offering the only opportunity for sitting, two decrepit cots had been placed near the stove; their straw filled, lumpy mattresses covered by tattered Hudson’s Bay wool blankets. The table was placed at the opposite side of the room, with barely a stride’s length between it and the foot of the cots. Lanterns set on the table and hanging from the cabin walls provided insufficient light for the dark interior.

Dowling moved one of the lanterns closer to the hand drawn map that was spread out on the table. “No, this location won’t work. It’s on the military road but when trouble comes, it’ll come down this canyon,” he said pointing to a spot on the map some distance south of the town’s location. “If the Army has to move across the river and the valley, it’ll take too long. We need something closer to the south end of the valley.”

Harlow placed his figure on the map. “What about here?”

Dowling considered the new location. “Still next to a river.”

“Different one though,” Ginsy inserted. “And there’s already a bridge crossing it. Ya came across it on the stage.”

Harlow thought back to their recent trip over the stage road. Remembering the rickety bridge, he said, “It will have to be made stronger.”

“We need to take a ride out there. Did you secure us horses?” Dowling asked Ginsy.

“Got ya a pair at my place. But it’s gettin’ too late ta go anywhere tonight.”

“All right. Be here in the morning. We’ll ride out then.” When Ginsy nodded, Dowling glanced around the scarcely furnished cabin. “I hope there’s a place in Hellgate to get some supper.”

“Stage depot puts up a good meal.”

“Anything this side of the river? I don’t fancy crossing that bridge after dark.”

“Hotel at the end of the street… but Dave ain’t much of a cook.”

“It’ll have to do.”

“I best be goin’, I want ta get back to my place before dark,” Ginsy said as he turned for the door. He pulled the wood panel open to reveal the darkening sky.

Following Ginsy outside, Harlow and Dowling stood in front of the cabin to observe the town. Lanterns had been lit in most of the structures, the lamps flickering flames casting odd shadows on the few windows. One building at the end of the street stood out from the rest. Its interior was brightly lit and lamps hung on both sides of its door.

“Hotel is down there,” Ginsy told the men. “Tis the one all lit up.”

“Thanks,” Harlow acknowledged the man’s assistance.

“Um, just one more thing,” Dowling said before Ginsy turned to walk away. “Why is this place called Hellgate?”

Ginsy shuddered. Then he pointed east where the river had carved a narrow gap in the middle of a mountain ridge. “That’s ‘bout the only way from this valley ta points east. The river and mountains don’t leave much wiggle room. Indians used it for ambushing their enemies. The trappers used ta say that going through there was like going through the gates of Hell. Even these days, if ya look real close, ya can still see piles of bones.”

#

Jesse was sitting outside her parent’s cabin on the bench she and her father had made the winter before.

The cabin door opened and Stanley stepped out into the cool evening air. He moved to the bench and sat beside his daughter. “Bit crowded inside,” he stated looking at the quarter moon rising over the forests to the east.

Jesse nodded but remained silent, understanding her father wanting to leave the cabin while Bette Mae looked after Marie.

Both their heads turned as KC ran around the corner of the cabin. Stanley didn’t protest when his granddaughter climbed into his lap. “We bring Gramma soup,” KC told them.

Jesse stood and left to meet Jennifer who had yet to appear. She met her halfway between the ranch house and the cabin, carrying a pot of hot soup in one hand while leaning on her cane with the other.

Walking slowly so that Charley could keep up, Jennifer was glad to see her wife. “I thought Marie might be hungry,” she said as Jesse picked Charley up then relieved her of the heavy pot. “How’s Stanley?”

“He’s not saying much.”

Jennifer wrapped her now free arm around Jesse’s waist.

When they reached the front of the cabin, Jesse set Charley down on the bench beside his grandfather. “You two stay out here for now,” she told the children before pushing open the cabin’s door and allowing Jennifer enter. “You can come in and say goodnight to your grandma in a bit,” she told the disappointed children then she followed Jennifer inside.

“Been ‘xpectin’ you,” Bette Mae said when the women entered.

Jennifer limped across the room to the bed. “I made some soup for Marie.”

“She dun fell asleep a few minutes ago,” Bette Mae told them. “But maybe the smell of this soup will bring her back. She said she was feelin’ hungry.”

Jesse set the pot on top of the cabin’s wood stove to keep it warm.

“Is it all right if KC and Charley come in?” Jennifer asked. “They wanted to say goodnight,” she explained.

“Ya bring them angels in here,” Bette Mae told Jesse earnestly. “I can’t think of any better medicine for Marie than a kiss from them two young ‘uns.”

Jesse went to the door and motioned her children inside. “Shhh, Grandma’s sleeping,” she warned them. She picked up KC and carried her to the bed where she held her close enough to Marie for the girl to kiss her cheek. Then she lowered KC to the floor and picked up Charley to do the same.

“Sweetheart, why don’t we all go back to the house?” Jennifer suggested after Charley had kissed his sleeping grandmother. With all the people in the cabin, space was too tight for comfort. “I have supper ready.”

“I think tha’s a fine idea,” Bette Mae declared. “I could do with gettin’ off my feet,” the robust woman added.

Jesse turned to her father who was quietly standing near the door. “You all right with that, Poppa?” she asked and Stanley nodded.

“There should be plenty of soup for the both of you,” Jennifer told Stanley. “But if you want more, ring the bell and we’ll bring some more out.” They had strung a line to the cabin years before when Jennifer’s mother had visited the ranch. A quick yank on the string would cause a bell inside their own log cabin to ring and bring immediate assistance to the woman who, living all her life in a large city back east, was not comfortable being alone during the quiet nights of the frontier. After their cabin had been burned to the ground, Jesse had restrung the line into their new house.

“We’ll be fine. Go on, now,” Stanley said ushering the women out of the cabin. “Ain’t no need for you womenfolk to be making such a fuss.”

#

Jesse came down the stairs after putting KC and Charley to bed. She found the kitchen empty but the sound of soft voices filtering through the screen door told her that Jennifer and Bette Mae were sitting on the back porch. She walked out to join them. Jennifer was sitting on the porch swing while Bette Mae sat in the rocking chair Jesse had carried out to the porch earlier for her.

“Did they go to sleep?” Jennifer asked when her wife joined her on the swing.

“They did. I expected KC to put up more of a fight,” Jesse informed her.

Jennifer leaned against Jesse, glad to have her strong arms encircle her. “It’s been a long day… for all of us.”

“That it has.” Jesse turned her attention to Bette Mae. “Should we send word to Bozeman for the doc?”

Bette Mae rocked in her chair for several moments before answering. “Won’ do Marie no good,” she answered with a slight shake of her head. “Life’s been hard on her, Jesse. Time’s jus’ dun caught up with her.”

“What are you saying?”

“She’s worn out.”

Jesse fought down the lump forming in her throat. “She’s dying?” she asked in a whisper.

“We all is dying, Jesse. Yer momma jus’ cumin’ to it ‘fore the rest of us.”

Jennifer felt the arms around her go slack as Jesse slumped back on the swing. She quickly turned to look at her wife. “Are you okay?” she asked alarmed to see the color draining from Jesse’s face.

“How long?” Jesse asked, her voice breaking.

“Think tha’s up ta her.”

“How long!”

“I can’t tell ya that.”

Jennifer shifted so she could wrap her arms around her stunned wife. “Jesse?”

“Why? Why now? I just got her back,” Jesse asked, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Bette Mae pushed herself up out of the rocking chair and shuffled over to distraught young woman who had already suffered a lifetime of heartache. She bent over to tenderly cup her plump hands around Jesse’s face then gently tilted her head up so she could look into her eyes. “Yer momma never was a strong woman but she’s dun her best. She’s tired, Jesse. It’s time she rested.”

“I don’t want her to die,” Jesse declared in a whisper.

“I knows ya don’. And ta tell ya the truth, I don’ think she’s ready ta go jus’ yet. But she’s gonna keep havin’ these spells. Each time, they gonna git a bit longer than the last.”

“What can we do?” Jennifer asked, her arms wrapped tightly around Jesse.

Bette Mae straightened but left her hands cupping Jesse face. “Jus’ what yer been doin’. Give her a nice home and let her watch yer young ‘uns grow. Them angels do more good fer her than anythin’.”

“Do you know how long?” Jennifer asked softly.

“Ain’t nobody can answer tha’ but Marie.” Bette Mae turned her eyes back to Jesse. “She knows she and you lost a lot of years. But yer together now and tha’ makes her happy.” Bette Mae patted Jesse’s tear streaked cheeks. “She loves ya, Jesse. Always has.” Bette Mae turned to Jennifer. “Speakin’ of tired bones… I’ll be goin’ ta bed now.”

Jennifer started to withdraw her arms from around Jesse.

“You stay right there,” Bette Mae said stopping her. “I can find my way up them stairs to tha’ room you fixed fer me. Jesse needs ya now.”

“Thank you,” Jennifer whispered, tightening her arms back around her wife.

When Bette Mae reached the screen door, she paused turning back for a moment. Then she pulled open the door and shuffled into the house leaving a sobbing Jesse in Jennifer’s arms.

#

CHAPTER THREE

Dannie had crawled out of her bedroll before dawn, wanting to get an early start. After a quick breakfast of cold coffee and colder beans left over from the night before, she cleaned up her campsite, harnessed the horses and hitched them to the wagon. She was back on the road when the sun rose in the east.

Noticing a cloud of dust some distance down the road, Dannie stood in the driver’s box to get a better look. Not being able to discern the source of the dust cloud she settled back on the hard seat content to wait until she met the other travelers.

#

“Jesse?” Jennifer called out the screen door of the ranch house.

Jesse had left the chicken coop a few moments before with a basket full of freshly laid eggs and was walking back along the side of the house when she heard her wife call. “Be there in a minute.” As soon as she cleared the corner of the house, she spotted Jennifer standing on the back porch holding the screen door open. “Why the hurry?”

“The children are hungry,” Jennifer explained.

Jesse laughed. “When aren’t they?” She placed a hand against the door and waited for Jennifer to re-enter the kitchen, then she carried the basket of eggs inside. The aroma of sizzling bacon and baking biscuits immediately assaulted her.

“Goodness be, Jesse,” Bette Mae grumbled. She was standing next to the stove, flipping the strips of bacon with a fork. “I dun figured I’d have ta go out there and git them eggs myself.”

Jesse carried the eggs across the kitchen to place the basket next to the sink.

“Mommy, I is hungry,” KC declared. She was sitting at the table, fork and knive already in hand. “So is Charley.”

“Goodness, we aren’t that late are we?” Jesse asked glancing at Jennifer. They had slept late after spending most of the night talking about Marie.

Jennifer nodded and began cracking open the eggs over a large bowl. “Did you check on Marie?”

“Went by the cabin. Poppa was sitting outside. He said she was still asleep.”

“Did you tell him we were fixing breakfast?”

“I did. But he said he had already eaten. I told him to come over but he wanted to stick close… at least, until she woke.”

“Soons as I is dun here, I’ll walk over and give her a look see,” Bette Mae told the worried rancher. “Then I ‘xpect ya’ll be takin’ me back ta town. I’s got work ta do at the Slipper.”

“I’ll hitch up Boy while you check on Mom,” Jesse said snatching a couple of strips of bacon from the frying pan. She walked to table and sat on the chair between KC and Charley. “That’s hot,” she warned the children after placing a strip of bacon on each of their plates. “Blow on it ‘fore you try to eat it.” She turned to Jennifer. “Do you want to ride into town?”

Jennifer was beating the bowl of eggs with a whisk. “Yes. I think I’d like that. It’s been days since I saw Ruthie. I bet little Michael has grown a foot.”

Bette Mae bent over to open the oven’s door. “Wouldn’t go tha’ fer,” she said removing a pan of biscuits, “but he is sproutin’.” She placed the biscuits on the wooden counter beside the sink to cool. Then she returned to the stove to remove the bacon from the frying pan and place the strips on a platter. When she finished, she took the bowl of scrambled eggs from Jennifer and poured the contents into the frying pan. “Ya go sit,” she told Jennifer who started to place the hot biscuits on a second platter. “Won’ take me but a minute to cook these eggs.”

Jennifer carried the platter of biscuits to the table then sat down on the other side of Charley’s highchair. She handed the hungry boy a biscuit while Jesse and KC reached for their own.

#

Ned Harlow sat on his borrowed horse surveying the land around him. “It’s a good spot, Nick,” he told his companion, “plenty of open ground and close to water.” Except for the stage road, the land around them was unoccupied unlike the land around Hellgate that was dotted with small farms and ranches.

Astride his horse, Nicholas Dowling nodded. “Not happy about having to cross the river but I suppose it does afford some protection having the river between the fort and the Indians… if they was to attack.”

“They can put a couple of sentries up there,” Harlow said pointing to the west and a tall knoll thrusting up high above the valley floor, “and you’d have plenty of time to warn the fort if a war party was riding toward it.”

“That’s Council Bluff,” Ginsy informed the men. “Indians used it the same way when they’d come together in the valley.”

“That happened often?” Harlow asked.

“Use to. Not so much now that white folk have moved in. They stay more to the south, less of us down there.”

“Around Sweetwater, you mean?” Dowling asked.

“Yeah.”

Harlow considered the information before turning to Dowling. “Army isn’t going to like us changing the location,” he said. “Sherman wanted the fort on the military road.”

“We can’t help it if Mullen put the road on the wrong side of Clark’s River,” Dowling muttered. “Army sent us out here to pick the best spot. We picked it.” Harlow shrugged then nodded. “Where’s the closest telegraph?” Dowling asked Ginsy.

“Sweetwater.”

“Then I better ride there and let Sherman know what we found. You go back to Hellgate,” Dowling told Harlow. “Lieutenant Gage should be arriving any day with the first wagons. Since they’ll be coming along Mullen’s Road, the first order of business will be to build a proper bridge across Clark’s River.”

“You riding back to Hellgate tonight?”

“No. I think I’ll overnight in Sweetwater, see if they’ve had any problems. That is, if Sweetwater has a decent place to stay,” Dowling said, wishing he had paid more attention to the town when the stage had stopped there.

“Ya can’t go wrong staying at the Silver Slipper,” Ginsy told the man. “Bette Mae will take good care of ya and she’s the best cook around these parts.”

“After last night’s meal, I could use some decent food,” Dowling muttered.

“I told ya Dave ain’t much of a cook,” Ginsy defended himself.

“Yeah, you told us,” Dowling grumbled turning his horse around. “When those engineers arrive, send them over to look at the bridge here. It might be good enough for the stage once a day, but I doubt it would hold up to a couple dozen military wagons.”

“Will do,” Harlow told him then turned his horse around and nudged it into action after Dowling rode toward the rickety bridge on the stage road.

Ginsy took his time following Harlow back toward Hellgate.

#

Puck was kneeling beside the fire ring holding the coffee pot upside down to let the grounds fall onto the coals. Then he dipped the pot into a bucket of water, swishing the liquid around inside before pouring it out causing the coals to hiss. He set the pot in the dirt beside the ring of rocks then picked up their dirty breakfast plates and scrapped the food remains into the fire before dunking them into the bucket.

“How long you plan to be?” Cole asked irritably after emerging from the cabin with their rifles.

Puck ignored the question. He placed the tin plates beside the pot then washed out their cups and placed them on top of the plates. “I’m ready,” he said standing. “I just need my carbine.” He caught the weapon Cole tossed at him then walked toward the saddled horses and shoved his rifle into the scabbard on his saddle. “Don’t you think it’s time we took the hides we got to the trading post?” he asked his cousin.

Cole mounted his horse before answering. “Another couple of hides won’t hurt.”

“We’ve almost got more now than the horses can carry.”

“Come on,” Cole grunted leading his horse toward the creek. “More we shoot, less the Injuns have to eat.”

#

Dannie guided her wagon to the side of the road. A group of five wagons and a dozen riders were approaching in the opposite direction. She pulled her team to a stop.

Unlike her own wagon which was fifteen feet long with sides over ten feet high and capable of carrying several tons of freight, four of the approaching wagons were ten feet long with three and half foot sides and a freight capacity much less. The wagon beds were covered by a sheet of canvas stretched over high arching ribs. The fifth wagon was long and round with twelve foot long wooden strips held together by metal rims. The driver sat uncomfortably on a seat attached to the top of the long barrel. Dannie had seen the type of wagon many times before and knew it was for transporting water. She wasn’t surprised to see U.S. stenciled on the canvas and that the men riding alongside the wagons wore military uniforms; after all she was traveling on a military road.

“Morning,” the lead rider pulled his horse to a stop beside Dannie’s wagon.

Dannie looked the man over. “Morning, Lieutenant,” she responded recognizing the insignia on his shoulder.

“Coming from Hellgate?”

“Nope.”

“Fort Walla Walla?”

“Nope.”

“Not much of a talker, are you?” the officer asked reaching for his canteen.

“Don’t like answering questions less I know why they be asked,” she said looking down at the man who, though he was mounted, had to look up at her perch on the high wagon.

The officer looked surprised. “You’re a woman.”

“Ain’t tellin’ me nothin’ I don’ already know.”

“Don’t see many women driving freight wagons.”

“Do tell,” Dannie grumbled.

“Don’t get riled, I was just making an observation.”

Dannie glared at the man. “Sumthin’ else on yer mind?”

The lieutenant untied the cord that secured his canteen to his saddle horn. “We’re headed for Hellgate, wondering how much further we have to go,” he explained.

“Should have jus’ asked then.” Dannie shifted on the seat. “You should be there by nightfall.”

The lieutenant took a long swallow of water. “Good to hear,” he said wiping an errant drop off his chin with the back of his hand.

“You boys plan on spending some time in Hellgate?” Dannie asked watching the wagons move slowly past and spotting cut lumber sticking out the back of the first two.

“Army plans to build a fort there.”

“What fer?”

“Control the Indians,” the soldier answered then retied his canteen to his saddle.

“Can’t say it surprises me none,” Dannie told the soldier. “But I think yer wasting yer time.”

“General Sherman thinks different.”

Dannie shrugged and tightened her hold on the reins that had hung loosely in her hands during the exchange. “I’m due in Beartown ‘fore nightfall,” she told the officer as the last of the soldiers rode past. She released the wagon’s brake and slapped the reins on the horse’s rumps. She braced herself when wagon began to move, the horses straining against their collars.

The lieutenant stepped his horse back away from the freight wagon then, with a curious look on his face, followed the rest of his outfit.

#

Black Wolf sat beside the campfire warming his tired bones. He looked up when the flap on the tepee near the fire was thrown back. “Good morning, my son,” he greeted Walks on the Wind in their native tongue.

“Good morning, Father. The air is cold,” Walk noted squatting beside the older man. He held his hands out, vigorously rubbing them together as the fire heated the chilled skin.

“Yes, but the sun rises in a clear sky. A good day to travel.”

Walk looked to the west and the snowcapped peaks between them and the valleys where they would find the buffalo herds. “Another day of rest,” he told his father. “Spotted Fawn is weak. My daughter’s birth was not an easy one.”

Black Wolf turned back to the fire. He was weary of the long journey to the buffalo herds he had made many times. “Then it is good she rests. We travel tomorrow,” he informed Walks on the Wind.

Walk smiled. It was his family his father traveled with but he was content to let the old man talk as if he led the group. “Are you up for a hunt today?”

“My bow is strong,” Black Wolf replied, not directly answering the question.

Walk pointed to a grass covered hill less than a mile from the camp. “I saw elk on that ridge as the sun set yesterday,” he said.

Black Wolf smiled. “It is nearby,” he said, glad for the possibility of a short ride to hunt for food.

Walk nodded. “I shall tell Spotted Fawn of our plans.” He turned toward the tepee when a young boy stepped outside. “Come here, Red Moon.”

The boy of twelve years walked to the fire. “Yes, Father.”

“Your grandfather and I will hunt today. You will stay here to protect your mother and sisters.” The boy looked disappointed but said nothing. Walk stood and returned to the tepee and his wife.

Black Wolf studied his upset grandson out of the corner of his eye. “It is brave of a boy your years,” he said.

“Grandfather?”

“To stand alone against any that might threaten our camp,” Black Wolf saw the boy’s shoulders straighten, “it is brave.”

Red Moon smiled. “Thank you, Grandfather. I hope your hunt is successful.”

Black Wolf bristled. “When have you known my bow not to shoot straight,” he demanded.

Red Moon colored with embarrassment. “I meant you no disrespect, Grandfather,” he said quickly. “I know your arrows will be true.”

Black Wolf slowly pushed himself upright. He smiled when his grandson reached out to aid him. “You are a good grandson, Red Moon,” he told the boy as he stood on painful legs. “Now, I must go prepare for the hunt.”

Red Moon walked with his grandfather to the tepee and helped him through the opening. “I will gather your ponies,” he told his father then ducked back out of the tepee and ran to where their horses were hobbled.

#

“She’s stronger than yesterday,” Bette Mae told the Jesse, Jennifer, and Stanley. “Let her rest long as she wants. She’ll know when it’s best to be gettin’ outa bed. And feed her.” She looked directly at Stanley. “Not none a tha’ slop you call food. Make sure she gets lots of Jennifer’s cookin’.”

Hearing a chuckle come from the bed, Stanley frowned but nodded.

Jesse leaned over to speak to the woman in the bed. “Are you feeling better, Mom?” she asked softly.

Marie poked a hand out from under the quilts that covered her and placed it on top of her daughter’s. “Yes,” she said in a tired voice as she lovingly patted Jesse’s hand.

Jesse smiled. She tried to say more but couldn’t get any words around the lump that had suddenly formed in her throat.

Jennifer stepped beside Jesse and wrapped an arm around her waist. “I put a pot of soup on the stove to simmer,” Jennifer told Marie. “And some biscuits made fresh this morning.”

KC tugged on Jennifer’s hand. “Momma, I sit with Gramma?”

“Me too,” Charley said.

The children were standing on tiptoes beside the bed, trying to peek over the top of the mattress at their grandmother.

“Marie?” Jennifer asked.

Marie smiled. “Please,” she said then pushed the blankets off her shoulders.

“Let me help,” Jesse managed to force out seeing her mother’s struggles to sit up. She slipped an arm around her mother’s back and gently helped her sit. Then she fluffed up the pillows and placed them against the headboard so Marie could lean back against them. “Okay, you rascals,” she told the children. “You can sit up here but don’t be bouncing around,” she added bending down to lift Charley up.

“Hush, Jesse,” Marie scolded then laughed when KC scrambled up the side of the bed unassisted. “They can bounce all they want.”

Jesse sat Charley beside his grandmother who was receiving hugs and kisses from his sister.

“Give Charley a chance,” Jennifer told the exuberant girl.

Reluctantly, KC gave Marie a final hug then moved back so Charley could take her place. Carefully, she climbed over Marie to sit beside her. “We missed you, Gramma.”

Marie wrapped an arm around each of the children and hugged them with what little strength she had as tears filled her eyes.

#

Billie stepped out of the stage office that occupied one end of the mercantile’s main floor. He walked to the opposite end of the store where Ed was restocking a shelf with canned goods.

“Wonder where you wandered off to,” Ed said.

“Looking through the mail that came in on the morning stage,” Billie informed his employer. The storekeeper usually delivered the mail with any other deliveries he had for the valleys ranches.

“Anything interesting?”

“Two packages of material Ruth ordered for the dress shop and there’s something for Mayor Perkins.”

“Oh?” Ed asked. “From where?”

“Didn’t say.”

“Seems last time Miles started receiving strange packages, Sweetwater had no end of trouble.” Ed placed the last can of beans on the shelf then turned to face Billie. “Let’s hope he hasn’t come up with another one of his schemes to make Sweetwater into the west’s Boston.”

“Doubt he could get by with that again.”

Ed leaned over to pick up the empty box at his feet. “Don’t sell Miles short,” he said straightening back up. “His head is so empty he has to fill it with devious plans or he’d echo when he talked.”

Billie laughed. “You needing me right now? Thought I’d take those packages over to Ruth.”

“Go ahead. You can take that box of ink and paper over to Thaddeus while you’re at it.”

Billie nodded. “Give a whistle if something comes up,” he said as he turned to walk back to the stage office to retrieve his wife’s packages.

Ed carried the empty box out to the loading dock and added it to the stack of others he stored there until he needed them to fill orders. Pulling his kerchief from his back pocket, he settled into one of the chairs next to the checker board. Hearing a door slam shut, he looked up the street to the building that housed the sheriff, newspaper, and mayor offices.

#

When his office walls unexpectedly shook, Thaddeus Newby almost dropped the composing stick he was removing type from. “Damn it, Miles,” he yelled, guessing at the cause of the disturbance. He glared toward the door when it opened and the mayor poked his head into the office.

“You say something, Thaddeus?”

“Is it possible for you to shut a door without shaking the whole building?” the newspaper editor growled.

Perkins stepped into the office. “Thaddeus, I’m a busy man,” he blustered. “Why would you bother me with such things?” He spun around to leave the office.

“Don’t—“ Thaddeus held onto his desk as the office shuddered. “Slam the door,” he groaned.

#

Leaving the newspaper office, Miles stomped across the boardwalk in front of the offices. He stepped off the wooden surface to the street and set off, kicking up puffs of dirt with each step.

“Wonder what bee he’s got stuck up his shorts,” Ed muttered to himself as he watched the town’s mayor march toward the mercantile.

Breathing heavily, Perkins mounted the steps to the loading dock. “Did a package arrive for me?” he asked abruptly.

“Good day to you, too, Miles,” Ed responded with a smirk.

“Good day, good day,” Perkins said annoyed with the store owner’s obvious response to his lack of manners. “Well?” he asked impatiently.

“I do believe Billie mentioned something about a package. What are you expecting, Miles?”

“Sorry, official town business,” Perkins told him then he hurried into the store for the stage office.

Ed pushed up from the chair and followed the mayor inside. “Well, this ought to be interesting,” Ed said chuckling. As expected, he found Miles in the stage office studying a parcel wrapped in brown paper. “What you got there, Miles?” he asked when the mayor turned the package over in his hand; it was slightly larger than a sheet of paper but much thicker.

Perkins head whipped around. “Is it your habit to watch people open their mail?” he asked brusquely.

“You said it concerned town business,” Ed said casually. “Seems since I’m part of this town I have a right to know what it is.”

Miles shoved the package under his arm. “When the time is right,” he stated officiously then brushed past the storekeeper and out of the depot.

Ed watched the mayor storm away then turned to the clerk. “Any ideas?”

“Nope.”

Frowning, Ed walked back into his store.

#

“We won’t be too long, Poppa,” Jesse said lifting KC over the buckboard’s side. She watched her daughter scampered to the front of the bed to sit beside her waiting brother.

“We’ll be fine,” Stanley assured his daughter.

“Anything you need in town?”

“Nope.”

Jesse stood in front of her father for a moment then climbed up to the wagon’s seat and settled beside Jennifer. She twisted around to check on KC and Charley and saw her father was walking around the back of the buckboard. “No standing up,” she reminded the children before turning back around. Gathering up the reins, she placed a booted foot on the buckboard’s brake.

Stanley moved to stand beside the wagon where Bette Mae was seated on the other side of Jennifer. He studied his dirty boots for a moment then looked up at the robust woman. “I’m obliged,” he told her.

Bette Mae smiled. “You pay my words sum mind.” Stanley nodded. “She’s a good woman.” Stanley nodded again.

When her father stepped back from the buckboard, Jesse released the brake and lightly slapped the reins on Boy’s broad rump.

Stanley turned and walked back to the cabin.

#

His stomach grumbling, Thaddeus pushed his chair back from the desk and stood and stretched his back. Pulling a watch out of his vest pocket, he used his thumbnail to press the tiny lever that released the cover protecting the glass shielded face. After noting the time, he closed the watch and returned it to his pocket. He walked to the door of the newspaper office, removed his hat from a peg next to the door then stepped outside. After shutting the door, he walked to the end of the building, hopped off the boardwalk and headed for the Silver Slipper.

The newspaper editor was climbing the steps to the Slipper’s wide porch when a man rode up to the building and dismounted. “Afternoon,” Thaddeus greeted the stranger from the top of the steps. “You coming from Hellgate?” Thaddeus asked as the man brushed road dust off his pants.

The man mounted the steps. “There aren’t too many ways into this town, seems you can pretty much guess the answer to your question,” he commented when he stood on the porch.

Thaddeus smiled. “Sorry,” he apologized holding out his hand. “Professional curiosity. I run the Sweetwater Gazette… Thaddeus Newby. I’m interested in just about anything and anybody.”

“Nicholas Dowling. And, yes, I rode in from Hellgate,” he said accepting the offered hand and explanation. “I was told I could get a decent room here.”

“Better than any you’ll find in Hellgate. You have business there… or here?”

“Maybe both.”

“Let me buy you a meal,” Thaddeus told him enthusiastically, “and you can tell me all about it.” He led Dowling into the Slipper and directly to a table in the corner of the dining room. “Ah, Sally,” he said when a redhead came out of the kitchen moments later. “Two plates of the best you have and a pot of hot coffee.” The waitress nodded then returned to the kitchen. “Now… about your business.”

“You’re not shy are you?” Dowling asked leaning back in his chair.

“I’ll be honest with you, I noticed the U.S. brand on your horse,” Thaddeus said then leaned close so he wouldn’t be overheard by the other diners. “Rumor has it the Army plans to build a fort around here. I’m guessing,” he continued sitting back upright, “your business may have something to do with that.”

Sally returned with a coffee pot and two cups. She filled the cups then set the pot on their table before telling them, “I’ll be right back with your plates.”

The men remained silent while they waited. Thaddeus studying the quiet man seated across from him and Dowling spooning sugar into his cup and slowly stirring the contents. He nodded his thanks when Sally returned to place a plate in front of him piled high with slices of roasted beef, fried potatoes and onions, cooked carrots, all buried under a generous helping of thick gravy. She placed an identical plate in front of Thaddeus.

“Am I right?” Thaddeus asked after Sally left them alone.

Dowling took his time to answer, preferring to enjoy the food instead. Finally, he looked across the table at the newspaperman. “What if you are?” he asked.

Not expecting it, the question confused Thaddeus. “Sorry?”

Dowling looked around the room. Only a few of the tables were occupied and none of the other diners displayed much interest beyond their own companions. He looked back at Thaddeus. “Sometimes folks don’t want the Army around.”

“Ahh,” Thaddeus nodded in understanding. “Maybe so, but I think most look at what the Army can mean.”

“Which is?”

“Soldiers… and soldiers mean payrolls and places to spend that pay. For a town like Hellgate, that’s good news.”

“What about Sweetwater?”

“Soldiers need feeding… lots of ranchers around here with cattle to sell.”

“You said ‘most’”.

“Some aren’t going to look favorably on the trouble the Army brings.”

“Trouble?”

“Bored soldiers are trouble. If they aren’t kept busy at the fort, they go looking for trouble. Hellgate might not care… Sweetwater will.”

“You don’t think the Indians will keep them busy?”

Thaddeus drained his cup then refilled it. “We don’t have much trouble with Indians around here. More coffee?”

#

Jesse pulled Boy to a stop in front of the Slipper. She set the buckboard’s brake and tied the reins around the metal loop screwed into the front of the driver’s box for that purpose. Then she climbed down from the wagon, immediately turning to help Jennifer down.

“Thanks,” Jennifer said when her feet were on firm ground. She waited, leaning on her cane while Jesse walked around to help Bette Mae. “Mommy will help you in a minute,” she told the children standing impatiently in the wagon bed.

“Hurry, Mommy,” KC urged. “I smells cookies.”

Bette Mae chuckled. “Ain’t been no cookies bakin’ in there,” she told KC. “Ain’t nobody but me knows how ta make ‘em special like ya likes ‘em.”

KC ran to the opposite side of the bed and hung her arms over the side. “You make me cookies… pease.”

“Stop that, KC,” Jennifer scolded.

Jesse lifted the little girl out of the wagon and set her on the ground. “You better go see your momma,” she told her smiling when KC ducked under the wagon and disappeared. She lifted Charley free then followed Bette Mae back around the wagon to the porch. Setting her son directly onto the porch, she helped Jennifer climb the steep steps then walked around the corner of the Slipper where Ed was unloading supplies onto the porch next to the kitchen’s door. “Need any help?”

Standing at the back of his delivery wagon, Ed looked up when he heard the question. “Ah, Jesse,” he said smiling. “Could have used you a bit ago but I’m about done now.

“Where’s Billie?” Jesse asked. Usually her friend helped the storekeeper with deliveries.

“With Ruthie.”

“At the shop?” Ed nodded. “I expect Jennifer will be heading over there soon.”

“Brought the family with you?”

Before Jesse could answer, KC ran around the corner of the Slipper. She held out an arm to catch hold of her mother’s leg and stop her forward momentum. “Hi,” she greeted the storekeeper.

Expecting the girl to run right off the edge of the porch, Ed had lunged forward to break her fall. “KC, you sure can put the fear into a man,” he tensely told the girl as he reached for his kerchief to wipe his sweaty brow.

“Come on inside, Ed. I’ll buy you a cup of coffee,” Jesse said grinning.

“Think I might be needin’ something a bit stronger after that,” Ed grumbled then winked at KC standing beside her mother and smiling sweetly at him. He reached out a beefy finger and gently poked her in the stomach. “Bet you’ll be wanting one of Bette Mae’s cookies.” KC giggled and nodded. Ed shoved the kerchief back into his pant’s pocket then moved to the steps a few feet away. He climbed up to the porch and joined Jesse. “How’s your momma?” he asked concerned.

“She was better this morning,” Jesse answered as she turned to walk with Ed back to the front of the Slipper.

“What about you?”

“I’m better now that Bette Mae has had a look at her.”

Ed reached up and gave Jesse’s shoulder a gentle squeeze.

#

Kneeling at the edge of a small meadow, Walks on the Wind lifted his rifle to his shoulder, careful not to make a sound as he cocked the weapon. Black Wolf was kneeling beside him, an arrow notched on the string of his bow pointed at an elk grazing fifty feet away from the men. Walk would let his father have the first shot at the elk but, if the arrow failed to drop the animal, he would kill it with his rifle. The elk was large and would feed his family for many days.

Walk felt a slight shift in the breeze and hoped his father had also noticed as it would change the trajectory of his arrow.

Black Wolf pulled the string of his bow as far back as he could. He took a moment to re-sight down the length of the arrow.

Walk steadied the rifle, adjusting his aim on the elk that had taken a step away from his previous spot.

Black Wolf took a breath and held it. He uncurled his fingers, releasing the bow’s string.

Walk watched the arrow fly toward the elk.

At the last second, the animal seemed to sense the danger. It crouched in anticipation of leaping out of the way.

Walk squeezed the trigger.

Black Wolf started in surprise when the rifle exploded, shattering the stillness of the tranquil meadow. His head jerked around toward his son still holding the rifle, a wisp of smoke escaping from the end of its barrel. Then he turned back to see the elk crumbling to the ground, his arrow uselessly stuck in the animal’s hindquarters.

#

The horse standing in front of the Slipper shifted when Jesse, holding KC’s hand, walked back to where her wife and son waited. Bette Mae had carried her travel bag into the Slipper while Jesse talked to Ed.

“Something wrong?” Jennifer asked when Jesse’s head tilted to the side as she studied the horse.

“Army brand,” Jesse answered with a quick jerk of her chin toward the pony.

“Noticed that earlier,” Ed concurred.

“Does that mean anything?” Jennifer asked limping toward the door Ed was holding open.

Jesse shrugged then bent down to pick up Charley.

“You must not have had a chance to read the latest issue of the Gazette,” Ed told them.

“What are we missing?” Jesse asked.

“Army plans to build a fort around here.”

“What for?” Jennifer asked in surprise.

“Seems they’re expecting Indian trouble.”

“Damn,” Jesse muttered.

“What’s wrong?” Jennifer asked, concerned with the tense set of her wife’s jaw.

“Let’s sit down first,” Jesse said guiding Jennifer toward an empty table. “KC come here,” she called to her daughter who had skipped across the dining room and was peeking under the swinging half-doors that led into the kitchen. She sat down settling Charley in her lap.

“Must be the Army boy over there with Thaddeus,” Ed observed as he helped Jennifer into a chair next to Jesse. When the women turned to look across the dining room, he moved to the chair opposite the table from Jesse and sat down.

KC jumped out of the way just as the kitchen doors swung open and Sally walked out carrying a tray holding silverware, glasses, cups, a coffee pot, and a pitcher of milk. She skipped alongside the woman to the table and climbed into the chair beside Ed while Sally unloaded the tray onto the table.

“We don’t have any cookies today,” Sally told the family and Ed, “but we have an apple pie… fresh baked yesterday morning.”

“That will be fine, Sally,” Jennifer said with a smile. She turned to Jesse when Sally left to retrieve the pie. “You don’t think they’ll build a fort here, do you?”

“More likely up at Hellgate,” Jesse answered pouring milk into glasses. “Closer to Mullen’s Road up there.”

“Jesse, I don’t like this.”

“Don’t like it myself, darlin’. But I don’t think we can do anything about it.”

“What about Walk? And his family. Won’t it be dangerous for them to come here if there’s a fort?”

Jesse frowned, already having had the same thoughts. “He’s a friend,” she said.

“Won’t stop them soldiers from shooting him,” Ed stated.

“Mommy, Walk get shooted?” KC asked anxiously.

“No, Sunshine,” Jesse assured her daughter as she wiped a milk mustache off her face. “No one is going to shoot Walk.”

KC relaxed. “Good,” she said.

Sally brought the pie and a stack of plates to the table. “You be wanting anything else, let me know. I best clear the rest of these tables before Bette Mae comes out and finds them still with dirty dishes,” she said looking nervously toward the kitchen door.

Jennifer pulled the pie toward her. Picking up a knife, she cut the pie into pieces then served a piece to everyone. “Jesse, do you think we should send word to Walk and let him know about the fort?” she asked when she slid Jesse’s plate to her.

“No need,” Jesse answered lifting a forkful of pie to her mouth. She took the time to chew and swallow before continuing. “I’ve been expecting him to show up at the ranch.” She placed a smaller bite of pie on her fork and offered it to Charley. “It’s time for their buffalo hunt.”

“More,” Charley demanded.

“Chew up what you’ve got in there first,” Jesse told her son then prepared another forkful for herself.

“Isn’t he a little late this year?” Ed asked.

Jesse nodded and offered more pie to Charley.

“My goodness,” Bette Mae exclaimed as she burst out from the kitchen. “I is gone one day and ya’d think no one had the mind ta do what needs bein’ dun.” She stomped over to the table, picked KC up, plopped down on the chair and placed her back down in her lap. “What ya think ‘bout that pie?”

“It good,” KC said shoving a forkful into her mouth.

She wrapped her arms around KC, giving her a gentle hug. “It surely better be, littl’ angel. I dun baked it myself.”

“You bake almost as good as Momma,” KC mumbled around a mouthful of pie.

“Ya dun need be teachin’ this one sum manners,” Bette Mae muttered.

“Oh, she has manners,” Jennifer responded. “She gets them from Jesse.”

Bette Mae groaned. “Dun should have figured tha’ out fer meself.” KC looked up questioningly when the grownups laughed. “Don’ ya never mind,” Bette Mae assured the girl, “ya is a littl’ angel even if’n ya ma ain’t.”

#

Thaddeus pushed his chair back from the table and stood up matching Dowling’s actions. “I hope you don’t mind if I ride up to Hellgate in a few days to check on your fort,” he said.

“Won’t be much to see.”

“Always something to see for a newspaperman. And I expect you’ll be getting your share of visitors when word gets around the valley.”

“I expect.” Dowling reached into his pocket when Sally walked up to them.

“No, no, no, Thaddeus protested. “Said I’d pay. Sally, you put this on my account and Mr. Dowling will be needing a room for the night.”

“Certainly. We have a real nice one upstairs.” Sally waited for Dowling to acknowledge her then turned and led him across the room.

Thaddeus walked over to the table where Jesse and the others were sitting. He grabbed a chair from a nearby table and placed it between Jennifer and Ed but slightly behind them. “How do?” he greeted with a smile.

“Ya gonna tell us or we gotta wait fer the next issue of the Gazette?” Bette Mae grumbled at the grinning man.

“Well, I should make you wait…” Thaddeus said inching his chair closer to the table and leaning forward. “His name is Dowling, Nicholas Dowling.”

“And?” Ed asked.

“He was sent here by General Sherman to build a fort… going to put it up at—”

“Hellgate,” Jesse, Jennifer, and Ed said at the same time.

Thaddeus leaned back, his shoulders slumping. “How’d you know?” he asked dejectedly.

“Makes most sense,” Jesse explained.

“But we don’t need a fort,” Jennifer injected with a shake of her head. “Not even at Hellgate.”

“That is a good point,” Ed agreed. “Did you ask him about that?”

“I did. He said the Army is expecting trouble in the west.”

“Then why not build their fort there?”

“They don’t want the Indians trying to come this way when they make them go onto reservations over there. Putting the fort at Hellgate is supposed to stop that from happening.”

Jesse grunted. “They know more ways across those mountains then the Army ever will. What makes Sherman think they won’t just cross further south?”

“Asked that too. Army doesn’t think they will… that’s what he said.”

“That kind of thinking has cost more than a few boys in blue to lose their hair,” Ed muttered.

“I don’t think I want KC and Charley to hear any more of this,” Jennifer said wiping her son’s face.

“Sorry, Jennifer,” Ed apologized. “I forgot about the young ‘uns. I should be heading back to the store.”

Jennifer laid a hand on Ed’s arm, stopping him from standing. “You stay and talk. I’m going to walk over to see Ruthie; KC and Charley can come with me.” She stood. “Don’t be too long,” she told Jesse. “We should get back at the ranch before dark.”

#

Dannie turned the team off Mullen’s Road and started up the rough wagon road that would eventually take her to Garnet. She would spend the night near Beartown, a smaller mining camp at the bottom of the gulch, where she would drop off a third of her load. She was happy to do so as it would mean a lighter load for the horses to have to pull up the steep, narrow road to Garnet that twisted around an endless number of hairpin turns. It took a skilled driver to maneuver a team and wagon up the road—Dannie was one of the few who managed to do so regularly and without damage to her team, wagon, or freight.

Her early start meant she arrived in Beartown with plenty of hours left in the day. That was a good thing since the steep forested sides of the gulch allowed little of the sun’s light and heat to penetrate the canyon except at midday. The canyon was cold in the middle of summer and she often wondered how the people of Beartown survived the long winters.

Dannie pulled the team to a stop in front of the general store, set the brake, and looped the reins around the handle. She was climbing down off the wagon when a boy walked out of the store onto the loading dock.

“Afternoon, Dannie.”

“Afternoon, George.”

“Wasn’t expecting you this early.”

“Got me an early start this morning,” Dannie said as she reached the ground.

“Cyrus won’t be here for another hour,” George said of his boss, the store’s owner.

Frowning, Dannie looked up at the boy who was no more than fifteen years old. She scratched her nose. “Guess you’ll have to do then,” she said turning back to the wagon to untie the ropes holding the canvas that covered her load.

George looked into the back of the large wagon. “That’s a lot for two of us.”

“Ain’t got a choice. I need to unload and get up the road a bit for night falls.”

“Ya could stay at the hotel.”

“Can’t afford it.” Dannie unchained the tailgate. “Get down from there and give me a hand,” she instructed the boy as she lifted the heavy plank of wood free. She carried it to the front of the loading dock then set it on the ground, leaning it against one of the dock’s supports.

George hopped off the dock.

“Them first boxes are yours,” Dannie instructed. “They ain’t too heavy for a scrawny boy like you,” she prodded when her unwilling helper was slow to move. Returning to the back of the wagon, she easily lifted one of the boxes and carried it to the dock letting it drop with a loud thump.

George struggled to lift another box. “What’s in these?” he grunted.

“Ain’t my business,” Dannie said lifting one end of the box off the wagon. “I just deliver ‘em,” she added when George managed to lift the other end. They carried the box to the dock.

“Seemed ya’d want to know,” George said after setting his end of the box down.

“Don’t.”

“I would.”

Dannie glared at the boy. “Ya plan on gabbin’ all afternoon?”

“Guess not,” George muttered.

#

“You hear that?” Cole asked his cousin.

Puck pointed to the south. “Sounded like it came from over there.”

“Let’s go check it out.”

“What for?” Puck asked. He was ready to return to their camp after a long day of hunting that found them shooting and skinning three more elk.

Cole turned his horse toward where the gunshot had come. “Might be Injuns.”

Puck reached out and grabbed the bridle of Cole’s horse. “Dammit, Cole. I’m not about to head off on another of your goose chases. Most likely it was that family of greenhorns you run across yesterday.”

“Let go my horse, Puck,” Cole snarled yanking on his reins. “Won’t take that long to check out what’s going on.”

Puck released his hold. “I’m going back to camp,” he told his enraged cousin. “I’m tired.”

“You’re useless,” Cole snapped then spurred his horse.

Puck flinched when the horse snorted in protest. He watched his cousin gallop away then turned his own horse back in the direction of their camp.

#

Jesse swallowed the last of the milk in her glass. “I better get over and pick up Jennifer.”

“Wait a minute, Jesse,” Thaddeus said seeing the military man coming back downstairs. “Dowling wants to meet you.”

Surprised by the comment, Jesse looked questioningly at her friend. “What for?”

Thaddeus had stood up. “I’ll explain in a minute,” he said then motioned Dowling over to the table.

Dowling crossed the dining room in measured steps. “Newby?” he asked approaching the table.

“I wanted you to meet Jesse Branson.”

“Same Jesse Branson you were telling me about?” Dowling asked looking at Jesse dubiously.

“The very same.”

“You didn’t say she was a woman.”

“Guess we don’t think of Jesse that way.”

“Gee, thanks,” Jesse objected.

“Ah, Jesse,” Thaddeus stammered, realizing what he had said. “That isn’t what I meant.”

“Best not have been,” Bette Mae snapped. “Else I might have ta slap ya upside yer head meself.”

Jesse looked up at Harlow standing on the opposite side of the table staring at her. “Care to explain what this is about,” she said impatiently. “My wife is waiting for me.”

“Your… your what?”

Jesse pushed up from the chair. Standing at full height, she was several inches taller than Dowling. “My wife,” she repeated, enunciated each word clearly.

Dowling stared at Jesse then turned his gaze to Thaddeus, shifting nervously from one foot to the other.

“Seems ya left tha’ out too,” Bette Mae told the embarrassed newspaperman.

“Jesse is married to Jennifer,” Thaddeus explained. “We all just accept it… after awhile, you just kinda forget about it being… um… different.”

Dismayed by the awkward exchange, Jesse picked her Stetson up off the table. “Whatever business you think you have with me,” she told Thaddeus and Dowling, “will have to wait for another day. Thanks for the pie, Bette Mae… and everything else.”

“Ya take care of yer momma.”

Jesse nodded. “Ed,” she acknowledged the storekeeper.

“Safe ride home, Jesse.”

With a last look at Dowling who was still standing slack jawed, she turned away from the table and walked to the door.

#

Cole rode through the trees. When he neared a clearing, he pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted. Tying the reins to a branch, he pulled his carbine out of the saddle scabbard and checked to make sure it was loaded. Then he continued on foot to where the forest ended at a meadow.

Standing in the shadows of the large pine trees, Cole was able to see the whole meadow. He estimated that there wasn’t more than one hundred feet of grass before the trees closed back in. Movement at the center of the clearing caught his eye. As he watched the two men butchering an elk, his eyes narrowed and his lips curled into a sneer.

“Injuns,” he hissed. “I knew them savages were around.”

#

Dannie was back sitting on her wagon as her team pulled it away from Beartown. Unloading had taken longer than she wanted; George being of little help with the task. But she had managed to have everything stacked on the loading dock by the time the store owner arrived and signed off on the delivery.

She looked up at the sky and frowned, it was already beginning to darken. It wasn’t far to the small glade she liked to use as a camping spot on her trips to and from Garnet but she knew it would be dark by the time she unhitched and settled the team. Setting up camp in the dark wasn’t something she liked to do.

As the horses plodded along the rocky road, she turned her thoughts to Sweetwater and Leevie.

#

WARNING: Events in this part of Broken Arrow may disturb some readers and they may want to skip the ending of the chapter.

CHAPTER FOUR

It was still dark when Dannie climbed up into the wagon’s driver’s box. The trip up to Garnet would be hard on the team and she wanted to complete it before the afternoon sun began to beat down on the gulch’s granite walls. She maneuvered the team and wagon away from her campsite and back onto the wagon road. “Sure hope ain’t no greenhorns up ahead,” she mumbled settling back. The day’s trip would be rough enough without getting stuck behind an outfit outmatched by the narrow, steep, windy road.

#

Yawning, Puck pushed aside the hide covering the cabin’s empty door opening and stepped out. The morning was chilled just enough that his exhaled breaths hung in the air for a few seconds before dissipating. He looked to where the horses were picketed, unsurprised to see his cousin’s horse was not with the others after awakening to find Cole’s bedroll empty. He walked away from the cabin and knelt beside the ring of rocks to coax the fire back to life. With the flames rekindled, he set about preparing his breakfast and wondering how long he should wait before setting out to find his missing cousin.

#

Bette Mae poured coffee into the cup on the table. “You is a early riser,” she commented to Dowling who had appeared in the dining room shortly after she had emerged from her own room next to the kitchen. She had barely had time to start the fire in the stove before the man asked for coffee. “Be a few minutes ‘fore the biscuits are ready.”

“That’s fine. I’ll be happy with a couple of fried eggs and ham… if you have those.”

“I surely do.” Bette Mae set the coffee pot on the table. “I’ll be leavin’ this here ‘til more folks come in,” she told Dowling then left to return to the kitchen.

Dowling had chosen to sit at a table next to a window at the front of the Slipper’s dining room where he would have an unobstructed view Sweetwater. Unlike Hellgate which was spread out with structures erected with no apparent thought or order, Sweetwater’s commercial buildings were lined along the stage road and the town’s only true street. Personal residences were scattered further back from the road’s noise and dust and the town’s schoolhouse occupied the top of a knoll a short walk from the creek that ran alongside the road.

Dowling turned away from the window when he heard steps approaching.

Bette Mae was carrying a plate across the dining room. “Biscuits still ain’t quite dun,” She said as she set the plate in front of the waiting man. “I’ll bring ya a couple when they is.”

“Thank you.”

“Ya plannin’ on stayin’ tonight?”

“I haven’t decided.”

“Then I’ll have yer room fixed up fer ya, if’n ya does.”

“I don’t notice any defenses for the town,” Dowling said as Bette Mae picked up the coffee pot and refilled his cup.

“Defenses fer what?”

“An attack by savages.”

“Don’ know who ya be callin’ savages,” Bette Mae told him.

“The Indians… have you had trouble with them?”

Bette Mae laughed. “Only trouble we have here is the cowpokes over at the Oxford. They keep the sheriff plenty busy when they gets ta drinkin’,” she said placing the pot back on the table.

“Valley full of cattle and you say the savages have never been here to raid the herds?”

“Don’ need ta raid if’n they be wantin’ beef. Ranchers glad to sell ‘em cows.”

“The ranchers trade with the savages?”

“Ranchers trade with anyone got the right goods… Indian or not. Better than havin’ ta drive the cows east and take whatever the buyers be wantin’ ta give.”

“Do you have many savages coming into Sweetwater?”

“Ya talkin’ Indians or cowpokes?”

Dowling frowned. “Indians.”

“Got more cowpokes.”

Convinced he would not get any usable information from the woman, Dowling asked, “Can you tell me where I can find the sheriff?”

Bette Mae pointed out the window. “See them offices,” she pointed to a row of three attached single story buildings on the left side of the road. “Ya’ll find him there, right next to the Gazette. But if’n ya not in a hurry, the sheriff’ll be comin’ here fer his breakfast.”

“And when would that be?”

“Ain’t never know. Few folks in town rise ‘fore the chickens. I need ta be gettin’ back ta my stove, I smell my biscuits,” she said turning away from the table.

Dowling turned his attention back to the window and the town beyond. He spotted a man with a white apron tied around his generous girth stepping out from the back of a two story building at the opposite end of town. He was soon joined by another man. “Looks like some get up with the sun,” he noted to himself cutting off a piece of ham.

#

“Do you think Marie is awake?” Jennifer asked. She was standing in front of the kitchen stove scrambling eggs in a frying pan.

“She might be,” Jesse answered. She was setting plates and silverware on the table while the children played in the corner of the room where their toy box was located. “There was a light in the cabin when I walked back from the chicken coop.”

“Maybe she’d like to come over for breakfast. It might do her some good to get out of the cabin. Could you walk over and ask?”

Jesse moved to stand behind Jennifer. “I sure can, darlin’,” she said wrapping her arms around her wife.

Jennifer leaned back into the embrace and smiled when Jesse kissed the back of her neck. “Take the children with you. She won’t say no to them.”

“All right. Do you need me to do any more here?”

“No. I’ll have breakfast on the table when you get back.”

Jesse placed another light kiss on Jennifer’s soft skin. “I won’t be long,” she said giving her wife a gentle squeeze. “Come on, you rascals,” she called to the children. “Let’s go get your grandma and grandpa.”

KC was already helping her brother to his feet when Jesse called to them. “Hurry, Charley. We gots to get back ‘fore the biscuits get cold.”

Jennifer laughed.

Jesse walked toward the screen door at the back of the kitchen. “Sunshine, don’t be pullin’ your brother’s arm loose,” she told her daughter intent on quickening the toddler’s steps.

“Charley’s legs too short,” KC complained.

Jesse lifted her son into the safety of her arms. “His legs are just fine,” she told KC while tussling Charley’s hair. “He just likes to take his time gettin’ places.”

“More fun to run,” KC countered then pushed the door open.

“Maybe so,” Jesse said following her daughter out onto the porch. “But what say we walk this morning? We don’t want to be scaring your grandma, do we?”

KC reached for Jesse’s hand, smiling when her mother’s fingers curled around her own. “I knock on door?” she asked.

“Sure, Sunshine, you can do the knocking.”

With KC half-skipping, half-hopping alongside of her, Jesse walked to the edge of the porch and down the steps.

#

“I’m glad you’re feeling better,” Jesse told her mother. She had found Marie already dressed and sitting at the table beside the cabin’s window, a steaming cup of tea in front of her.

KC was standing beside Marie, her arms draped over the older woman’s legs and her head in her lap. “Grandma, you come eat breakfast with us?” she asked looking up with hopeful eyes.

Marie smiled at her granddaughter and brushed errant locks of ginger hair back from her pleading eyes. “I’d like that.”

“You too,” Charley told the man now holding him.

“Seems since Bette Mae thinks yer momma’s cookin’ is the best for yer grandma,” Stanley grumbled then winked at his grandson, “I say that’s a fine idea.”

KC straightened up. “We gots ta hurry,” she told her grandmother.

“We run?” Charley asked after KC ran to the cabin door and pulled it open.

“Not likely,” Stanley grunted.

Jesse helped her mother to her feet. “KC can run if she wants,” she told her son. “But I think the rest of us will walk.”

“I walk,” Charley told Stanley who nodded then set him down on the floor.

“I tell Momma you comin’,” KC said then spun around and ran out the doorway.

Charley grabbed hold of one of Stanley’s fingers then started for the door, the big man following obediently along.

Marie smiled as she wrapped her arm around Jesse’s much stronger one.

Allowing her mother to set the pace, Jesse watched her father and son walked around the corner of the cabin. “He’s changed, Momma.”

Marie patted Jesse’s arm. “He’s older, daughter.”

Jesse pulled the cabin door shut then helped her mother as she stepped off the porch. When they resumed walking, she slipped her arm around her mother’s waist. “I’m glad you came here.”

“So are we.”

#

Having been unsure if the pair of men he had found butchering the elk the day before were alone or members of a larger hunting party, Cole had decided to follow them back to their camp. The sun had set by the time he had spotted a single tepee in a clearing next to a creek and he, unwilling to approach any closer in the dark, had hunkered down in the thick grass to wait until dawn.

The sun was just starting to peek over the tops of the mountains in the east, when Cole saw the flap covering the tepee’s opening thrown back and a boy step out. He inched forward through the thick uneven clumps of grass that covered the side of the hillock and eased back the hammer of his carbine, taking careful aim on his target.

The rifle shot startled Walks on the Wind awake. He threw off the buffalo blanket covering the reed mat he shared with his wife, Spotted Fawn, and reached for his rifle. Rushing for the tepee’s opening, he quickly glanced over to see his father had also been awakened and was grabbing his bow and arrow quiver. Walk charged outside sure his father would follow.

Red Moon was on his knees, a bloody hand clasped to against his shoulder where a bullet had torn through the skin and muscles then shattered the bone. “There,” he screamed to his father, pointing at the hillock with his other hand.

Walks turned his rifle to where his son was pointing.

Cole squeezed the trigger a second time. Then re-aimed and squeezed it again.

Walks was unable to fire a single shot before a bullet ripped through his neck. A second bullet immediately followed, entering his chest and traveling through his heart before exiting his back. His lifeless body remained standing for a moment, the rifle falling from his useless fingers. Then he crumbled to the ground.

Red Moon lunged for his father’s rifle, his fingers wrapping around its barrel. But before he could pull the weapon free, a bullet shattered his skull.

Cole saw movement at the tepee’s opening and fired.

Black Wolf was spun around by the force of a bullet entering his side, his bow and quiver flying through the air. Before he could regain his footing, a second bullet shattered his spine. He fell to the floor of the tepee; his newborn granddaughter’s cries the last sound to reach in his ears.

Cole calmly waited. When no one else emerged from the tepee, he slowly rose to his feet and moved cautiously down the hillock. Shifting his carbine to his left hand, he pulled his pistol free of its holster. Keeping an eye on the tepee, he moved first to where Walks on the Wind lay and kicked the dead man with the toe of his boot. Then he moved to Red Moon who was lying face down beside his father. Slipping his boot under the boy’s body, he kicked it over.

Satisfied, neither the man nor boy posed him any further threat, Cole looked at the tepee where Black Wolf’s twisted body had come to rest with his head and shoulders outside while his legs were inside. With carbine and pistol at ready, he stepped over Black Wolf.

As soon as Cole’s booted foot appeared, Spotted Fawn pulled back the string of Black Wolf’s bow. Still weak from the recent birth of her daughter, she strained to hold the arrow steady and took careful aim at the man invading her tepee.

Cole grunted in surprise when the arrow thudded into his body and looked down to see only the fletching had failed to pierce the skin of his side. He looked up, his lips twisting into a sneer. “You really think you can do that again?” he snarled as Spotted Fawn tried to notch a second arrow with fumbling fingers. He raised his pistol. “Go ahead, Injun,” he taunted her. “I’ll let ya try.”

Glaring at the man, Spotted Fawn notched the arrow, pointed it at Cole, and pulled back the string.

Pulling the pistol’s trigger, Cole laughed.

Spotted Fawn felt the bone in her arm shatter and watched the arrow fall harmlessly to the floor of the tepee. She dropped the bow and frantically reached for her crying baby, screaming when the infant was jerked out of her grasp.

Cole fired again.

A wisp of smoke curled out from the barrel of Cole’s pistol and the tepee grew silent.

#
CHAPTER FIVE

Ned Harlow stepped out of the hotel and started walking back to the log cabin he was using for housing and an office. The distance from the hotel to the cabin wasn’t much longer than two hundred feet and he had covered half of it when he spotted Ginsy also walking toward the cabin leading two horses.

“Figured ya’d be wantin’ to ride out to the place,” Ginsy said when Harlow arrived at the cabin.

“I do,” Harlow responded taking control of the reins for one of the horses. When Ginsy turned to mount the other, he stopped the old scout. “I need you to stick to town. Lieutenant Gage and his men should arrive sometime today and, with Nick not back from Sweetwater, one of us needs to be here to meet them. While you wait, you can clear the area behind the cabin for them to set their camp. And gather up some firewood; they’ll need a few days worth.”

“I signed on to scout,” Ginzy countered.

“You signed on to do as the Army required. If you don’t like your duties, I’m prepared to pay you your due and find someone else.”

Ginzy frowned. “Ain’t no reason to get yer back up,” he muttered. “I be needin’ some help. Guess I’ll send yer soldier boys after the wood.”

Harlow looked toward the hotel where a few men were sitting on the porch talking. “Hire a couple of those men,” he told Ginzy, “they don’t look to have much to do.”

“They’ll want to know how much ya be payin’.”

“Two bits for the day… a full day.”

“Two bits ain’t much.”

Harlow smiled. “Since it appears they are earning nothing at the moment, I’m sure two bits will be welcomed,” he said as he mounted his horse and turned him toward the river leaving Ginzy alone to determine how to approach the men with the offer.

#

Dannie pulled her team to a stop when they reached the final crossing of Bear Creek. She loosened her hold on the reins to allow the horses to lower their heads and drink the cold mountain water. While the horse drank, she stood up in the driver’s box to stretch out her leg and back muscles. She looked up the road.

After crossing the creek, the wagon road would leave the gully floor and begin the climb up to the town of Garnet. The next few hours would test Dannie’s skills as she would have to maneuver her team and heavy wagon up the steep grade and around several hairpin turns that allowed little room for miscalculations.

Dannie sat back down and bent down to pick up the canteen she kept under the seat. She took a long drink before replacing the canteen’s cork stopper and setting it back in place. She tightened her hold on the reins. “Git up there,” she called to the team and slapped the reins on their rumps. “Ain’t goin’ climb this hill by standin’ here.”

The horses reluctantly lifted their heads and strained against their harnesses. The wagon bounced through the rocky bed of the creek and back onto the rutted road. Almost immediately, both driver and horses felt the road’s grade increase.

#

“That was delicious,” Marie told Jennifer as she watched her daughter-in-law remove the dirty breakfast plates from the table.

Jennifer smiled. “I think you were just hungry.”

“I was,” Marie agreed. “I always wished Jesse would have shown an interest in learning to cook.”

Jennifer laughed as she carried the dishes to the sink and placed them in the hot, soapy water. “You’re lucky she didn’t… she probably would have burned the house down.”

“Marie chuckled. “You might be right.” She scooted her chair back from the table. “Here, let me help.”

“No,” Jennifer said placing a hand on Marie’s shoulder. “You sit right there. I can take care of these dirty dishes.”

“I feel like I should be doing something,” Marie protested.

“You are,” Jennifer said gathering up empty platters and used silverware. “You’re getting back your strength.”

Marie sighed. “Getting old isn’t very pleasant,” she said softly.”

Carrying a book, KC walked into the kitchen from the sitting room. With Charley trailing behind her, she padded right to where her grandmother sat. “Gramma, you read to us?” she asked placing the book into her grandmother’s lap.

“That’s an excellent idea,” Jennifer said relieved that her daughter’s question had prevented her from having to respond to Marie’s comment. “KC, you and Charley help your Grandmother into the sitting room. You can all sit on the couch while she reads to you.”

Grinning, KC held one of her hands up. “Come on, Gramma. We helps you.”

Charley followed his sister’s example and held up one of his hands. “Gramma, come.”

Marie smiled at the children. “Who could say no to such a nice request,” she told them then stood up. Tucking the book under her arm, she took hold of their upraised hands and let them guide her to the sitting room.

Smiling, Jennifer watched Marie and the children walk out of the kitchen before she returned to the sink and dirty dishes.

#

Dowling turned the knob on the door, pushed the door open, and stepped inside the sheriff’s office.

The single room contained a stove located in a back corner next to a doorway that separated the prisoner cells from the main office. A desk was positioned near the back of the office, close enough to the stove to benefit from its heat in the colder months. A single chair was placed behind the desk while two chairs had been placed in front of it. In the corner opposite the stove was tall cabinet, its shelves overflowing with papers haphazardly piled on its shelves. The front of the office was free of furniture.

Not seeing anyone inside the office, Dowling turned to leave.

“You friend or foe?”

Dowling looked to the doorway at the back of the office where the question seemed to have emanated. “Just looking to ask a few questions,” he called back to the disembodied voice.

“Guess that could make you either one.”

“Guess it could,” Dowling agreed as a man walked through the doorway.

“Sorry, I was sweeping out the cells.”

Dowling noticed the man did not wear a pistol as was the habit of most frontier sheriffs. “Are you the sheriff?”

“That’s what this shiny badge says,” the man said pointing at the piece of tin on his shirt. “Frank Wilson. And you are?” he asked leaning his broom against the wall.

“Nicholas Dowling.”

“I was about to walk over to the Slipper for breakfast,” Wilson told his visitor. “You want to join me or are your questions of a private nature.”

“Just came from the Slipper,” Dowling said then sat in one of the chairs in front of the sheriff’s desk. “And, yes, I’d rather talk in private.”

Wilson frowned when his stomach grumbled. “All right,” he said walking to the stove and the pot of coffee he had made earlier. He turned back to Dowling. “Want a cup?”

“No, thanks.” Dowling studied the sheriff.

Wilson was average height but had muscular arms and shoulders usually seen on a man who did physical labor and not sit in an office.

“If you don’t mind me saying, you don’t look much like a lawman.”

Wilson filled a cup with steaming coffee then carried it to his desk and sat down. “Guess we can’t all be tall and handsome like Earp and Hickok,” he said then took a swallow of coffee. “But, then, I haven’t made a living out of killin’ people.”

“I, ah…” Dowling stammered, flustered by the unexpected response.

“Since you’re wondering, I needed a job and the town needed a sheriff,” Wilson explained. “Now, what about your questions…”

“As you may have heard,” Dowling began, relieved to be back on familiar ground, “the Army is building a fort at Hellgate.” Wilson nodded. “I was sent here to set the location and get the fort built.”

Wilson leaned back in his chair to eye the man keeping him from his breakfast. “If you’re Army, why aren’t you in uniform?” he asked, thinking Dowling looked as much an Army man as he looked like a sheriff.

“I work for the Army; I’m not part of it.”

Wilson took another drink of coffee. “If you’re putting the fort at Hellgate, what’s your business in Sweetwater?”

“Part of what I do is to determine the threat from savages in the area.”

Wilson smiled wryly. “What makes you think we have one?”

“General Sherman thinks you do.”

“Don’t recall Sherman ever being this far west… he decide that sitting in his office in Washington?”

“Sheriff Wilson, I do not have any intention of second guessing General Sherman,” Dowling snapped. “What’s wrong with the people of Sweetwater? Seems you’d be thankful to have the Army come to protect you.”

Unbothered by Dowling’s flash of anger, Wilson stood and walked over to the stove. He opened the stove’s door to check on the fire burning inside. Only after he had closed and latched the door did he turn to look at the Army representative. “Mr. Dowling, folks around here have been taking care of themselves for many years without the Army’s help. And as for trouble with Indians, we don’t have any. Fact is, many around here consider them to be friends… not enemies. So I think you’d do better to focus your attentions to Hellgate and points north.”

“Are you warning me to keep the Army away from Sweetwater?”

“No. I’m just telling you like it is. And, now,” Wilson said walking past his desk to the front of the office, “if you are done asking questions, I’m going over to get my breakfast.” He pulled the door open the stood waiting for Dowling to follow.

After a few moments, Dowling finally pushed himself up from the chair. “One day, you may regret your words,” he said when he joined the sheriff at the door.

“Let’s hope that day never comes,” Wilson responded pulling the door shut behind the men. “Good day to you,” he added before setting off down the boardwalk in the direction of the Silver Slipper.

Frowning, Dowling stood in front of the sheriff’s office for several minutes before he stepped off the boardwalk and headed for the stables.

#

“What are you lookin’ fer?” Stanley asked when his daughter again turned to study the mountains west of the Sweetwater valley. After breakfast, they had mounted horses and rode out to check on Jesse’s herd of cattle. “You worried ‘bout that Injun?”

Jesse turned in her saddle to look at her father. “Yes… and his name is Walks on the Wind.”

“Can’t understand you bein’ friends with an Injun.”

Jesse sighed. She had tried to explain her friendship with Walks and his family to her father many times. “Poppa, Indians aren’t any different than you and me. And if it wasn’t for Walks letting me join his hunting party, I probably wouldn’t have survived those years after I left Bozeman.”

“Ya know what General Sheridan said—”

“Sheridan was a fool,” Jesse snarled. “And so is Sherman if the rumors are true about a fort at Hellgate.”

“Jesse, don’ ya think Sherman might have a better knowin’ than you ‘bout the Injuns?”

“No. Poppa, you’ve met Walks. You’ve seen them come to the ranch and trade for cattle. KC and Charley both wear moccasins that Walks made for them. Why can’t you change how you talk about them?”

“Injun’s an Injun, Jesse. They never taken kindly to us coming onto their lands. You trust my words, daughter, turn yer back on an Injun and he’ll take yer scalp.”

“Oh, Poppa,” Jesse moaned. “They’re not like that.”

Stanley shook his head but didn’t comment further, knowing he didn’t want to push his daughter too far on her loyalty to the area’s original occupants. “I’m going to ride down and make sure none of the calves got themselves caught up in that bog,” he told Jesse.

“All right. I’m going to ride over to check on the water tank we built in the high meadow, I want to make sure it hasn’t been pulled apart again by some bear. I’ll see you back at the house.” After her father rode away, Jesse twisted in the saddle to look at the mountains, her brow creasing in concern.

#

Puck looked up from the hide he was cleaning to see Cole ride back into camp. He stood when his cousin dropped off the lathered horse. “Where you been?” he asked grabbing the horse’s bridle. “Dammit, Cole, you ‘bout ran this one to death.”

“Shut up,” Cole snarled pulling his rifle free of its scabbard. “Ugh,” he groaned.

“What?” Puck cried out when Cole doubled over in pain. Releasing the horse, he moved quickly to his cousin’s side.

Cole grunted. “Pull this damn thing out of me,” he ordered through clinched teeth.

When Cole forced himself back upright, Puck saw the blood stain on his shirt and an arrow’s fletching sticking out from it. “Aw, dammit, Cole, what the hell did you get yourself into?”

“Just pull it out!”

“I can’t pull it out,” Puck screamed back. “The arrow head will rip you apart.”

“You dumb fool,” Cole hissed. “It went clean through. Break it off and pull it out the back.”

Puck moved to look at Cole’s back where another bloodstain colored his shirt. He moved back to stand in front of his cousin. “All right. Hold still,” he told Cole taking hold of the arrow below the fletching and snapping the end of the arrow off. He grabbed the larger man when his knees buckled from the pain.

“I’m alright,” Cole barked. “Pull it out.”

“You want to lay down first?”

“No.”

Puck let go of Cole then positioned himself behind him. Wrapping on hand around the bloody arrowhead, he braced his other hand on Cole’s back. Then with a yank, he pulled the arrow free.

Cole’s eyes rolled back and he crumbled to the ground.

“Aw, dammit, Cole,” Puck whispered spotting the new ornamentation hanging from his cousin’s belt. “What the hell have you done?”

#

Dannie’s wagon was pulled to the side of the road, her team shifting impatiently as she held them in place. “Hold on there,” she yelled at the horses then turned her attention to the driver of the wagon that had caused her to clear the road. “Can’t ya git any control on them horses?” she yelled at the man struggling to control his team and to keep his wagon from overtaking the horses on the steep down grade.

“Shaddup,” the driver screamed snapping his bullwhip over the lead horses’ heads.

“Damn fool,” Dannie muttered when the horses, startled by the crack of the whip, began to rear up against their harnesses. She quickly tied her reins around the hook at the front of the driver’s box then jumped over the side of the wagon and landed with a thud in the dirt next to it. Without stopping to think of the danger she was putting herself in, she ran toward the frightened team.

It took some effort to grab hold of the lead horses’ bridles but Dannie finally managed it. “Hold on there, girls,” she told the horses, keeping her voice calm while she tried to settle their nerves. “Ya crack that whip again,” she snarled at the driver who was raising it above his head to do just that. “And I’ll wrap it around yer head and shove the handle down yer throat,” she threatened before returning her attention to the horses. “Come on, now,” she said soothingly while backing down the grade, her hands still keeping a tight grip on the bridles. “Keep yer foot on the brake,” she ordered the driver as she led the horses past her own team and then her wagon. She continued to walk them down the road until she reached a relatively level stretch where a road to a mine branched off from the main wagon road.

“Whipping horses ain’t a way to control ‘em,” she told the driver after she released the now settled horses and walked back alongside of them to the wagon.

“I’ll use it if’n I see fit,” the driver snapped.

Breathing heavily, Dannie pushed back her hat and used her sleeve to wipe the sweat off her brow. “Ya been doin’ this much?” she asked looking up at the ungrateful man.

“What business is that to you?”

“It’s my business when ya almost run my team off the road, you damn fool,” Dannie grumbled resetting her hat squarely on her head.

“Didn’t ask fer yer help,” the driver snarled lifting his bullwhip and cracking it over his team’s head. “Don’t be ‘xpectin’ me ta thank ya.”

Dannie jumped out of the wagon’s way as it jerked into motion. “Ya best sell that outfit in Bear Town,” she called after the driver, “fer ya take it over the side.”

Another crack of the whip was her only answer.

When the dust settled, Dannie walked back to her wagon and climbed up to the seat. She picked up the canteen and emptied it down her throat, trying to wash away the dust and dryness. Dropping the canteen, she untied the reins with shaky hands. The horses needed little more than the release of the brake to start back up the road. She waited until they were moving at a comfortable pace before she reached up to take off her hat and fan her face with it. “Damn fool thing ta do,” she muttered. “Best I not tell Leevie ‘bout this.”

#

Sitting astride his horse standing in the center of what would be the open square in the middle of the fort, Harlow scanned the surrounding land. In his mind’s eye, he visualized the layout of the buildings.

The fort would be constructed on the north bank of the river that flowed out of the Sweetwater Valley and joined Clark’s River below the fort. And, unlike military citadels of the east, the post would not be surrounded by stockade walls as most western forts were open and unfortified. The soldiers stationed at the post would have to patrol the area continuously and raise a warning if danger threatened the fort.

Like the fort, the square would be open on the southern side nearest the river while the northern side would be lined with cabins for the commanding officer and for the ranking captains and lieutenants. The square’s east and west sides would be where the barracks for each of the four companies to be assigned to the fort would be located. A large building would be constructed to the east of the officer’s cabins to serve as a warehouse for the quartermaster to store food and supplies for the troops. Behind the quartermaster storehouse would be stables and corrals. Near the river and east of the other buildings, a stone structure would be erected to safely store munitions.

Once those structures had been erected, secondary buildings would be added. Behind each barracks would be built a hut for a company laundress to wash uniforms, other clothing, and bedding. A second storehouse would be constructed next to the quartermaster’s to house subsistence stores where the soldiers could buy supplies and goods not provided to them by the military. Also to be added would be a kitchen and dining hall, bakery, hospital, guard stations, and quarters for married officers.

Satisfied with the plan he had drawn out the night before, Harlow dismounted. He reached into his saddlebag and removed a hatchet, large ball of string, and several sticks cut into twelve inch lengths with one end sharpened to a point. With a determined look, he set off to outline the location of each building.

#

CHAPTER SIX

It was mid-afternoon when Jesse rode into the ranch yard and headed for the back porch of the house.

KC ran to the end of the porch to greet her mother. “Mommy, where da bear?”

Puzzled, Jesse looked down at the little girl looking eagerly back at her. “What bear?”

“Grumps say you bringin’ home a bear. Where is it?”

Jesse chuckled then dismounted and looped Dusty’s reins around the saddle horn before climbing the porch steps. “He said that, did he?” she asked ruffling KC’s hair.

“Yep. Where is it?” KC asked again craning her neck to see if the animal was hidden behind Dusty.

“Well, lucky for me I didn’t find one,” Jesse told her holding a hand out.

“Puh,” KC muttered unhappily then took hold of the offered hand.

“Why are you playing out here alone? You didn’t do something with your brother, did you?”

KC giggled. “No, Mommy, Charley takin’ a nap.”

“I suppose you’re too old for naps.”

“Yep.”

Jesse grinned. “Bet your Momma might disagree with that,” Jesse told her as they walked to the low table beside the bathtub where a bucket of water and bar of soap was kept for washing dirty hands and faces during the day. She let go of KC’s hand to pick up the soap and began to lather up her hands.

KC watched Jesse wash the dust and dirt off her arms and face. “We goin’ on picnic when Charley wakes up,” she informed her mother.

“A picnic?” Jesse mumbled scrubbing her face.

“Yep. To the river… Momma says so.”

“So your Momma thinks we should take your rascals for a picnic?” Jesse asked after rinsing her skin of the soap.

“Yep. Gramma and Grumps comin’ too,” KC added when Jesse reach for the towel neatly folded at the end of the table.

“Is your grandpa inside?”

“Nope. He checkin’ on Gramma.”

Jesse draped the towel over the side of the tub to dry then reached down and scooped her daughter up into her arms. “You,” she said placing her index finger on KC’s nose, “better start talking good English or your Momma is going to tan my hide.”

KC giggled and batted the finger away from her face. She squirmed into a more upright position in her mother’s arms. “I can talk good, Mommy.

“Then why don’t you?”

KC grinned. “Grumps don’t,” she said smugly.

Jesse laughed. “I guess I’ll leave that battle to your Momma.”

“Yep.”

Jesse carried KC into the house to find Jennifer packing food into a reed basket. She set KC down next to the toy box in the corner of the kitchen then joined Jennifer. “Are you sure this is a good idea, darlin’?”

Jennifer added some apples to the basket. “It’s a nice day and Marie could use some time in the fresh air.”

“But walking all the way down to the river?”

Jennifer turned to face her concerned wife. “Sweetheart, it isn’t that far.”

“I don’t know… I think it’s a might soon to be asking that of her.”

“I didn’t ask, she suggested it.”

“She did?”

Jennifer smiled. “Yes. She said it might feel good to stretch her legs and breathe some fresh air in after lying in bed so long. And I think she’s right.”

Jesse sighed. “I don’t want her to get tired out.”

“Then hitch up the buckboard.”

Jesse frowned. “That’s a lot of work just to go down to the river… it ain’t that far.”

“Sweetheart, don’t say ain’t,” Jennifer scolded.

Jesse turned to glare at a giggling KC.

“If it isn’t that far, then it shouldn’t be a problem for Marie,” Jennifer said drawing her wife’s attention back to her.

Jesse spotted a twinkle in Jennifer’s eyes. “You think you’ve outsmarted me, don’t you?” she grumbled.

Grinning, Jennifer wrapped her arms around her frustrated wife. “No, I just let you outsmart yourself,” she said placing her forehead against Jesse’s and tightening her hold. “She’ll be fine, sweetheart.”

“You sure?”

Jennifer adjusted her position just enough so she could press her lips against Jesse’s. “I love you,” she told her moments later. “And I love Marie… I wouldn’t do this if I thought it wasn’t good for her. If she gets tired, we’ll come back.”

“If she gets tired, I’ll come get the buckboard,” Jesse declared before reclaiming Jennifer’s lips.

#

Named for the men that worked the hard-to-reach placer mines alongside the stretch, Chinamen’s Grade was the steepest and narrowest section of the wagon road to Garnet. An almost vertical mountain slope rose on one side of the mile stretch while a precipitous drop off bordered the other side. Any driver fool enough to allow a wagon to get too close to the edge would be lucky to survive the fall should the wagon tumble over. It was impossible for two wagons to pass each other on the grade so lookouts were posted at regular intervals to stop drivers if another was already on the section of road.

Wanting to rest the team before facing Chinamen’s Grade, Dannie had pulled them off the road before reaching the last hairpin turn at the start of the grade. She was kneeling next to a small creek that ran out of a side gully with her wagon parked well off the road and her horses enjoying the grass that covered the ground beside the creek. With her canteen refilled, she stood and carried it back to the wagon, hanging it over the hub of one of the large wheels. Then she lifted the lid of the box that held her food, pulled out a can of beans and a fork and carried them to a large boulder beside the creek that offered a place to sit while she ate.

Dannie had just finished opening the can with her knife when she heard the unmistakable sounds of a team straining up the road. She set the can on the rock then stood and moved closer to her team to take hold of the lead horse’s bridles. “Don’ go bucking on me when that group gets here,” she softly told her horses. “Goin’ ta be a lot of noise and dust but they won’t be knockin’ inta ya,” she assured her team keeping an eye on the road.

A team of eight horses grunted into view as they rounded the turn below where Dannie stood. They were pulling a large, flatbed wagon with an odd piece of machinery perched on top. A man sat atop one of the lead horses shouting commands to the team while two men sat in the drivers’ box struggling to control the horses’ lines.

“Swing it wide,” one of the men on the wagon shouted to the man riding. “We won’t make the turn otherwise.”

Dannie watched in fascination as the men worked together to keep team and wagon on the road. She could tell by the way the horses were straining that the wagon’s load was heavy. “Ya think I ask a lot from you,” she told her horses and received a nervous whiney in response. “Be still, they’ll be past soon enough.”

The wagon slowly inched uphill nearing the spot where Dannie stood.

“Road ahead clear?” the rider yelled.

“Don’ know,” Dannie yelled back. The closest lookout was further up the road. “Best you stop here and make sure.”

“Can’t stop.” The horses were closer now and the man didn’t need to shout. “Horses can’t get started again.”

“Ya don’t wanna have ta back down.”

“We’ll take the chance.”

When the wagon came even with Dannie, she noticed something. “Hey, you’ve got a wheel going bad,” she cautioned the men.

The driver on the near side of the wagon looked over the side. “Been like that for a bit now,” he said unconcerned. “We’ll have it fixed in Garnet.”

“Won’t make it to Garnet,” Dannie warned.

“Has to.”

“Don’t be a fool. Pull up.”

The men ignored her and kept shouting instructions to the horses.

Stunned, Dannie watched helplessly as the wagon with its wobbly wheel rolled past her and continued up the road. Releasing the bridles, she walked out into the road to watch the wagon’s progress as it maneuvered around the hairpin turn and disappeared. “Damn fools,” she muttered walking back to the boulder and her can of beans.

#

Still lying where he had fallen, Cole’s eyes blinked open. He started to sit up but stopped, collapsing back down with a groan when a burning pain shot out from his side. “What the hell?” he grunted through clinched teeth grabbing grabbed his side.

“Better not mess with that, the bleeding might start again,” Puck told his cousin.

Cole turned his eyes toward the voice. “What are you doing?” he asked when his eyes focused enough for him to discern Puck’s activity.

“Loading up. We have more than enough hides for the trader in Hellgate.”

“Hellgate? I ain’t in no shape to ride to Hellgate.”

Puck finished tying a pack of skinned hides to the back of one of their horses then he walked over to where Cole lay. “You best be able to,” he said standing over his cousin.

“Why?”

“That wound needs looking after.”

“You can do that.”

Puck laughed humorlessly. “After what you did, I have no intentions of sticking around. I’m taking the hides and heading for Hellgate. You can ride with me or stay here… alone.”

“You ain’t goin’ nowhere. Take those packs off the horses.” When Puck failed to obey, Cole pick up a rock and threw it at him, missing his head by mere inches. “What the hell are ya afeared of?” he shouted.

“Dammit, Cole, don’t you think I know what’s hanging on your belt. I’m getting out of here before it’s too late. If you want to stay, stay.”

Cole reached for his belt. He smiled when his hand came into contact with the scalps he had taken that morning. “Found me some Injuns needin’ skinnin’,” he calmly informed his cousin.

Disgusted, Puck turned away. “That’s sick,” he muttered walking back to the horses.

“Get over here and help me up,” Cole demanded. “Ain’t no use me laying in the dirt when we have beds in the cabin.”

Puck spun around. “I’ve waited too long already, Cole,” he shouted. “I’ll help you on a horse if you want. But, if you’re staying, get yourself to the cabin. What’s it going to be?”

Cole glared at Puck as he considered his options.

“I’m not sticking any longer,” Puck told him. “I’ll leave you the horse you winded this morning,” he said turning away from his cousin.

Cole’s eyes returned to the distance hills, the hair on the back of his neck standing up when he thought he heard the faint sound of a mourning wail being carried on the wind. “Wait,” he quickly yelled at Puck. “Yer right, I best go to Hellgate and get looked at.”

Grudgingly, Puck led a horse over to Cole. He helped his cousin stand then boosted him up onto the saddle. “Want me to tie you on?” he asked shoving Cole’s booted foot into the stirrup.

“I can ride,” Cole snarled. “Let’s go.”

Puck returned to the other horses and mounted. He checked the leads to the others that were wrapped around his saddle horn. Then with a gentle nudge he led them away from the camp.

Cole took a last look toward the hills where earlier he had left five bodies to rot in the hot sun before following Puck.

#

In the shade of a large cottonwood tree, Jennifer sat on a blanket spread out on the soft ground. Marie sat beside her with her back resting against the tree’s rough trunk. Jesse had removed her boots and rolled up her pant legs to stand in the shallow pool she had created by stacking rocks in a semi-circle next to the shore. The rocks protected the pool and the children from the rushing water that swept down the river’s main channel. KC and Charley, both stripped naked, were playing in the pool happily splashing their mother. Stanley sat on a boulder a safe distance away.

Jennifer laughed when Jesse feigned disgust with the children’s splashing which only encouraged them to do more. “Sometimes I think I have three children,” Jennifer commented pulling the reed basket closer. “Are you hungry?” she asked Marie.

“Yes.”

“Good. Because I think I brought enough to feed us for a week.” She started removing carefully wrapped food items from the basket.

“That’s lovely,” Marie commented on the basket. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen another like it.”

“It is, isn’t it,” Jennifer replied smiling. The basket was rectangular in shape with a flat bottom and a handle arching from side to side at its center. Woven from light colored reeds, it bore little decoration with only a band of dark stained reeds near the top of its sides. “Spotted Fawn made it for me. She’s going to show me how to make one when they come to the ranch this year.”

The women turned to look at Stanley when they heard him grunt disapprovingly.

“Are you hungry, Stanley?” Jennifer asked, ignoring her father-in-law’s unspoken objection. “I have sandwiches, apples, carrots, boiled eggs, biscuits, cookies…”

“Sandwich be just fine,” Stanley said pushing off the boulder to retrieve his sandwich.

“Jesse, why don’t you come eat,” Jennifer called to her wife and laughed when Jesse scooped the children up, one under each arm, and carried them onshore. “Goodness, me,” Jennifer exclaimed when two very wet children were set down on her lap.

“Give your Momma a great big hug,” Jesse instructed KC and Charley who immediately complied.

“Jesse Branson, you get them off of me,” Jennifer screamed while the children squealed excitedly.

“Don’t worry, Momma,” KC told Jennifer, “the sun dry you off quick.”

“Jesse!”

Laughing, Jesse sat on the blanket and snatched a pair of cookies out of the basket. “Who wants a cookie?” she asked in a voice loud enough to be heard over the children’s laughter and her wife’s howls.

“Me,” KC and Charley screamed together.

“Then leave your poor Momma alone and come get them.”

KC and Charley released one mother and ran for the other.

Jesse wrapped her arms around the children pulling them into her lap. “Here, you go,” she said handing them the cookies. “Now, eat them quick fer ya Momma takes them away and makes ya eat carrots.”

Jennifer removed one of the vegetables from the basket and hurled it at Jesse.

With her arms full of squirming children, the rancher could do little but sit and wait for the carrot to bounce off her head. “That hurt,” she pouted.

“Serves you right.”

#

Watching KC and Charley play in the pool, Jesse sat on the river shore with her legs stretched out in front of her, her feet covered by the pool’s water. She looked up when she sensed someone standing behind her.

Jennifer smiled down at Jesse. “Mind some company?” she asked.

Jesse smiled back. “Nope,” she said patting the sand beside her. She waited for Jennifer to sit then draped her arm around her waist. “Your picnic was a good idea.”

“We should do this more often.”

Jesse nodded in agreement.

“You’ve been pretty quiet since you ate— something wrong?”

“Just thinking.”

“About Walk?”

Another nod.

“Maybe he rode past without stopping.”

Jesse sighed. “Maybe.”

“But you don’t think so.” Jennifer’s comment was not a question.

“No.”

“Then he must just be late this year,” Jennifer said reaching for Jesse’s hand. “I’m sure he’ll show up any day now,” she added confidently.

“I hope so,” Jesse said absently, her eyes moving to focus on the mountain peaks in the east.

“Sweetheart, you’re not thinking of going to find him… are you?”

Jesse turned to face Jennifer, worry written clearly on her wife’s face. “He’s family,” she said quietly.

“Family?!” Stanley snapped. He was standing beside the boulder where Marie was now perched and had heard the exchange between his daughter and daughter-in-law.

“Stanley,” Marie placed a hand on her husband’s arm. “It’s not your business.”

“Not my business! I’ll not have my daughter riding after no Injun.”

Jesse jumped up. “She’s right, Poppa. It’s not your business.”

Hearing the angry voices, KC and Charley made their way to the shore and the comforting arms of Jennifer.

“Ya should be thinkin’ of them young ‘uns not that Injun,” Stanley shouted back.

“You gave up any right to tell me what to do a long time ago,” Jesse snarled.

“Jesse?” Marie had slipped off the boulder and approached her upset daughter. “Would you walk me back? I’m feeling tired.”

Jesse looked at her mother then gazed over her at her father. “I—”

“Please,” Marie insisted.

Jesse’s eyes returned to her mother. “All right.” She turned to Jennifer. Seeing the frightened looks on her family’s faces, she dropped to her knees.

KC remained in the safety of Jennifer’s arms but Charley walked hesitantly toward Jesse. “Mommy, you mad?” he asked stopping a few steps from her.

“Not at you,” Jesse told the boy opening her arms. She hugged him tight when he ran to her.

“Go give Mommy a hug,” Jennifer whispered to KC.

KC kissed Jennifer on the cheek then ran to Jesse. “You scared us, Mommy,” she said when Jesse held her tight.

“I’m sorry,” Jesse told the children then looked at Jennifer. “I didn’t mean to,” she added.

Jennifer smiled. “I know. Take Marie home. We’ll come in a bit… when the children are done playing.”

Jesse nodded relaxing her arms. “Don’t keep your Momma too long,” she told KC.

#

After assuring herself that Jennifer and the children were okay, Jesse left with her mother to walk back to the ranch.

“Come inside,” Marie told Jesse when they reached the cabin she shared with her husband.

“I should go back for Jennifer and the children.”

“Please, come inside. Your father will see to them.” Jesse followed her mother into the cabin. “It’s chilly in here,” Marie said. “The fire must have burned out.”

Jesse walked to the stove and opened the door. Using the poker, she stirred up the coals then added a few pieces of wood.

“Your father has strong feelings.”

Jesse looked over her shoulder to see her mother was sitting at the table. “He’s wrong,” she said bitterly adding more wood to the fire.

“Not this time, Jesse,” Marie continued in a calm voice. “This time he has good reason, his sister was killed by Indians.”

Surprised by the comment, Jesse shut the oven door and spun to face her mother. “What are you saying?”

“Come sit,” Marie told Jesse. When her daughter complied, she started the story she never thought she would need to tell. “Before you were born, your father’s sister married a man with a strong faith. After they married, they went to live at a place even further west than here… a place called Whitman’s Mission. They went with good intentions to help people… both white and Indian. She wrote such wonderful letters to us telling of the Indian people they met and all the wonderful things they were doing for them… teaching them how to plant crops and dig ditches to bring water to those crops. And teaching them their faith.

“One day your father told me we were going to join his sister and her husband. He said there would be plenty of land to lay claim to and lots of white folk to help us start a better life than what we had back in Missouri—that’s where your father and I come from. You didn’t know that, did you?” Jesse shook her head. “No, we never told you.” Marie paused for a moment then continued her story. “We sold everything we owned, which wasn’t all that much, and we headed west. We made it as far as Fort Laramie when word came that the Indians had attacked the mission. Your father’s sister and husband were killed with several others. He’s had a hate for Indians since that day. They took what was left of his family, he couldn’t…”

“He had you,” Jesse said quietly reaching across the table to envelope her mother’s hands in her own.

“It’s not the same as blood… least not to him.”

“How can he think that?”

“I learned long ago not to question his thoughts,” Marie said dolefully.

“What did you do? How’d you end up in Bozeman?”

“We couldn’t keep going. He said was no reason; and the soldiers at the fort told us it wasn’t safe. Not with the Indians killing white folks. Someone said there was land to be had in Montana so we left Fort Laramie and headed north.”

“Why didn’t you ever tell me? Why didn’t Poppa?”

Marie sighed then smiled lovingly at her daughter. “I wouldn’t allow it. He’s a strong man with strong feelings, Jesse. I knew he would be hard on you… you being a girl. I didn’t want him passing his hate onto you.”

#

CHAPTER SEVEN

Dannie woke to the sound of horses’ hoofs striking hard packed dirt. Frowning, she rolled onto her back and sat up. Her first thought was to check on her team. Her trip into Garnet had been delayed because of the slow wagon that had preceded her up Chinamen’s Grade. Not wanting to attempt the steep grade in the dark, she had decided to camp overnight beside the road and continue in the morning. She was relieved to see her horses standing peacefully where she had picketed them. Hearing a shout, she turned to look down the road.

The morning stage rounded the turn, its team of horses straining against their collars as they pulled the coach uphill. Idly, Dannie watched their progress, nodding to the driver when the stage moved past her camp site. She continued to listen as the horses disappeared around the hairpin turn and was surprised when she heard the driver bring his team to a stop.

Dannie threw off her blankets. Retrieving her boots, she pulled them on before standing and taking a few moments to stretch the kinks out of her back. Then she headed up the road, following the sounds of men shouting.

“What do you mean I can’t go on?” the stage driver was yelling at the sentry who had stopped him.

“Wagon broke down last night. You can’t go ‘til they get it fixed and moved out of the way.”

“I have a schedule.”

“You can’t get by so stop yelling at me.”

Dannie walked alongside the stage. “What happened?” she asked the sentry when she reached him standing in the middle of the road in front of the team of horses.

“Broke a wheel.”

“Damn fool,” Dannie muttered. “I tol’ him he needed ta stop and fix it. Can’t they bring a new wheel down from Garnet?”

“They did. But his load is too heavy. They can’t get the axle raised up enough to put it on.”

“Then push the damn thing over the side,” the stage driver shouted. “You can’t keep the road closed. I’ve got two wagons coming up behind me.”

Dannie glared at the driver. “Quit yer shoutin’. He can’t do nothin’ ‘bout this.” She turned back to the sentry. “Ya best start downhill and stop them wagons somewhere safe.”

“What about me?” the stage driver asked. “I can’t hold my team on this grade forever.”

“Back ‘m back ‘round ta where my team is,” Dannie told the agitated man. “There’s plenty of room fer both.”

“I can’t back them around that turn.”

“Ya could if’n ya was worth yer stones,” Dannie shouted back. “Let me block yer wheels, then ya can unhitch ‘em.”

“Want my help?” the sentry asked.

“Yer best git ta them other wagons.”

The sentry nodded then started downhill at a trot.

Dannie walked to the side of the road. She had no trouble finding rocks big enough to brace against the stage’s wheels. After carrying the first rock back to the stage and placing it behind a rear wheel, she moved to the coach’s door. “Ya best git out,” she told the passengers as she opened the door. “Ya just addin’ weight them horses don’ need ta be holdin’.”

Two men climbed down from the stage then turned to help two women down.

“Will we be delayed long?” one of the women asked.

“Don’ know,” Dannie answered then returned to her task of gathering rocks. One of the men followed her. “Much obliged,” she acknowledged when he lifted a good size rock and carried it back to the stage.

After the wheels were braced to Dannie’s satisfaction, she walked to the front of the stage. “Git down off there and unhitch ‘fore them horses bolt. There’s plenty of grass and water back by my wagon.”

“What you planning to do?” the stage driver asked, disappointed that Dannie wasn’t going to unhitch his team for him.

“Gonna walk up there and see what’s goin’ on. I got to be back in Sweetwater tomorrow. If’n the road can’t be cleared, best I jus’ turn around now,” Dannie said starting up Chinamen’s Gulch and away from the stage.

#

“I need to stop,” Cole called out, he was bent over his saddle clutching his side.

Puck pulled his horse to a stop. At his insistence, they had ridden through the night stopping only when the horses needed resting. “We need to get out of these mountains,” he told his cousin when Cole rode up to him.

“I’m hurtin’.”

“You made this mess, Cole. We keep going until we get into the valley.”

“Dammit, Puck. Ain’t no one following us.”

“You don’t know that.”

“If they was back there, they would have caught us by now. Help me off this horse.”

Puck looked back, his eyes nervously scanning the route they had just traveled. He looked at Cole. “You’re bleeding again.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” Cole growled.

“Okay, we’ll take a break soon as we find some water… but only cuz the horses need it,” Puck said then nudged his horse forward.

Cole groaned when his horse followed, his side screaming in pain from the jarring motion. “Puck! We stop now.”

Puck ignored Cole’s screams and continued down the trail.

#

“Morning, sweetheart,” Jennifer snuggled closer to her wife.

Wrapping her arms around her wife, Jesse tightened her hold. “Mornin’, darlin’,” she replied placing a kiss on Jennifer’s brow. “We seem to be making a habit of sleeping late,” she added looking out the window to see a clear blue sky. After putting the children to bed, they had stayed up discussing the events at the river and Marie’s revelations.

“I’m surprised KC and Charley are still in bed.”

“They’re not.”

Jennifer raised her head just enough to look into Jesse’s eyes. “They’re not?”

“Nope.” Jesse nodded toward the open bedroom door.

Jennifer sat up then laughed when she spotted the children sitting in the hallway. Both sat in their nightshirts cross-legged with elbows resting on knees and chins cupped in their hands. They looked hopefully back at her. “I suppose you’re hungry.”

“Yep,” KC answered for both of them.

“How long have you been sitting there?”

“Long time,” Charley said earnestly.

“A really long time,” KC agreed.

Jesse bit her lip to keep from laughing.

Smacking her giggling wife, Jennifer told the children, “Why don’t you go get dressed and Mommy and I will get dressed.”

“You dress quick,” KC said jumping to her feet.

“Quick,” Charley repeated as he climbed to his feet. “We hungry, Momma,” he called back to his parents as he ran down the hall after his sister.

Jesse burst out laughing when Jennifer collapsed back onto the bed. “I never knew young ‘uns could be so hungry.”

“Do you think they’ll ever get enough to eat?” Jennifer asked with a groan.

“Doesn’t seem like it.”

Jennifer rolled onto her side. She smiled at her laughing wife. “Then I guess it’s a good thing their mommy owns a cattle ranch.”

Jesse wrapped her arms around Jennifer then pulled her on top of her. “It’s your fault, you know.”

“My fault?”

“Yep,” Jesse said with a grin. “If you wasn’t such a good cook, they wouldn’t want to eat so much.”

“Jesse Branson, I swear, if you don’t stop talking like some uneducated bumpkin, I’m going to—”

“Momma! Why you not dressed?”

Startled by KC’s shrill scream, Jennifer’s head dropped against Jesse’s chest.

“Ow,” Jesse grunted when Jennifer’s head landed on her breastbone with an audible thud.

Jennifer raised her head to kiss her wife’s chest. “Sorry.” She tried to roll off of Jesse but was held in place.

“KC,” Jesse addressed her impatient daughter. “You go back to your room and stay there until we come get you,” she told her in an overly serious tone. “And you tell Charley to stay put, too.”

KC sighed loudly. “Yes, Mommy,” she said then turned and ran back down the hall.

“We better get up,” Jennifer said. “They won’t stay put for long.”

“They better,” Jesse growled. “At least long enough for me to kiss my girl.” She slipped her hand behind Jennifer’s head and gently pulled her down until their lips met.

#

Lieutenant Gage pushed open the flap of his tent and stepped out into the bright sunlight. He wasn’t surprised to see little activity from the other tents and he saw no reason to rouse the men who had had to set up camp in the dark after arriving in Hellgate just before sunset. He secured the flap on his tent, tying it down so it wouldn’t flail in the morning breeze then he walked to the cabin Harlow’s cabin.

Harlow was stepping out of the cabin when Gage appeared around the corner of it. “Ah, good morning, Lieutenant. I was just coming to see if you were interested in getting breakfast.”

“I’m interested in anything that isn’t trail rations,” Gage answered. “And you can show me around Hellgate, we didn’t get to see much of town last night.”

“There isn’t much to see,” Harlow said pointing down the street. “Hotel is down there, food is nothing to write home about. Stage depot is across the river,” he said pointing out the structure as he headed for the hotel.

Gage followed checking out the odd spattering of buildings as he walked. “Not much of a town.”

“Not much.”

“And the location for the fort?”

“Across the river. Which brings me to your first order of business.”

“Which is?”

“A bridge. Only one now is a rope bridge that’s hardly safe for a man to cross.”

“Sawmill?”

“None.”

“Lumber?”

Harlow stopped and pointed across the river to the southwest. “All the trees you’ll need for the bridge and the fort are in that canyon. I already laid claim to it for the Army.”

“Are you telling me we’ll have to cut and split trees?”

Harlow resumed his steps toward the hotel. “For now.”

“For now?”

“Until we get a sawmill built. I’ve already sent word back to Fort Benton to send us the workings of one.”

Gage frowned. “If I’d known that, I would have doubled the number of men I brought.”

“Didn’t know myself until I arrived here.”

“Thought Hellgate was a bigger town.”

“So did I. We’ll ride out to the fort site after breakfast.”

“I’d rather check out those trees you laid claim to,” Gage told Harlow. “I may need to move the men there so they can start cutting down what we’ll need.”

“All right.”

#

Frank Wilson stood on the boardwalk in front of his office. “Morning, Ed,” he greeted the storekeeper walking in the street.

“Morning, Sheriff.”

“Heading for the Slipper?”

Ed nodded.

Wilson stepped off the boardwalk, falling into step with Ed. “Army fellow is sure an early riser,” he commented spotting Dowling leading his horse out of the stables.

Ed turned his head toward where Wilson was looking. “Maybe he’s heading back to Hellgate.”

“Doubt it,” Thaddeus Newby interjected hurrying to catch up with the men. He’d heard their voices while working inside his newspaper office and had decided to join them.

“You know something about his business, Thaddeus?” Ed asked.

“He asked me last night how to find Jesse’s ranch.”

“What’s he want with Jesse?” Wilson asked.

“He needs a scout… one that knows the mountains. I told him Jesse was the best.” Newby shrugged uncertainly when both men’s heads swiveled around to stare at him in amazement. “I… ah… I didn’t know why he wanted a scout until after I told him about Jesse,” he explained nervously.

Wilson shook his head at the embarrassed man. “You’ll be lucky if Jesse don’t come into town and shoot you,” he told Thaddeus.

“If she doesn’t, Jennifer will,” Ed noted.

#

Jennifer was standing at the bedroom door leaning on her cane. “Sweetheart?”

“Hmm?” Jesse looked up from the chair where she was seated.

“Are you…? Um, do you plan…?”

Jesse finished pulling on her boots then stood. “I’m going to work on the root cellar,” she told Jennifer who visibly relaxed at the news. Jesse walked across the room to stand in front of her wife. “I’m worried about Walk,” she said. “But there’s no sense me going off to look for him, he could be anywhere between here and his village. Best thing is for me to stay here and take care of the ranch. If he doesn’t show soon, I’ll see about sending word to the buffalo camps.”

Jennifer placed a hand on Jesse’s arm. “I know you’re worried,” she said. “It’s just that—”

Jesse smiled. “I need to put you and the young ‘uns first,” she said. “I know. And it’s what Walk would want, too.” She took Jennifer’s hand and lifted it to her lips. “Come on, let’s go get the rascals and get them fed.”

They walked down the hallway to find KC and Charley waiting just inside their bedroom doorway. Both were dressed although the buttons on Charley’s shirt had been placed in the wrong button holes. Jesse knelt down to correct the situation. “Okay, little man,” she said lifting the boy into her arms as she stood. “Should we go help Momma make us breakfast?”

Charley grinned. “Yep,” he declared nodding.

KC raced out of the bedroom for the stairway. Hopping down the steps, she led her family downstairs. “I go get eggs,” she announced when she reached the bottom of the stairway.

“Hang on there, Sunshine,” Jesse told her daughter. “You best wait for me.”

“Mommy, I can do it,” KC stated.

“You still best wait for me. You know how the chickens get when you charge into their coop.”

KC pouted but waited for her mothers to descend the steps.

“Will you stop at the cabin and ask Stanley and Marie to come eat with us?” Jennifer asked, hoping to start mending the damage done the night before to the relationship between Jesse and her father.

Jesse reached the bottom of the steps and set Charley down on the floor. “Go play at your toy box,” she told him and sent him on his way with a loving smack on his bottom. Then she followed Jennifer into the kitchen. “I don’t think—”

Jennifer spun around to face her, sometimes, very stubborn wife. “Jesse, we can’t all live on this ranch and not talk to one another.”

“I know that,” Jesse muttered.

“And you need his help with the cellar.”

“I know that, too.”

“Then you’ll ask?”

Jesse sighed. “I’ll ask.”

Jennifer leaned forward to kiss Jesse on the cheek. “I love you.”

“Mush, mush, mush,” KC grumbled.

Jesse reached down, grabbed a fistful of KC’s shirt and lifted her up. Tucking the girl under her arm, she told her, “Someday, you’ll be kissing a young man and I’m going to stand right next to you saying mush, mush, mush.” She snatched her Stetson off its peg and carried her giggling daughter out the screen door to the back porch.

“Mommy,” KC protested, “I no kiss boys… that’s icky.”

#

Dannie heard angry screaming before she could see the men standing around the broken down wagon. “Damn fools,” she muttered walking up to the steep grade.

The wagon was leaning at an awkward angle on the down slope side of the road. The horses had been unhitched and led further up the road to a safe location.

“We have to get that off of it so we can put the wheel on,” one of the men was telling the wagon’s driver.

“If we do, we’ll never get it back on.”

“We can’t lift the wagon with it up there.”

“There has to be a way,” another man said.

“Dammit,” the driver screamed in frustration. “You’ve been saying that all night. Shaddup if you can’t say anything else.”

Dannie walked up to the wagon and stood at its side studying the piece of equipment it carried. It appeared to be a rather odd looking axle with attached wheels. But the huge iron wheels were less than two feet apart and the axle stuck out a good three feet on either side of the wheels. Twelve iron spokes radiated out from the wheels’ hubs, and each spoke, from hub to rim, was six feet long. At one end of the axle was a gear four feet across with hundreds of teeth notched around its outside edge. Several similar yet much smaller gears were attached to the other end of the axle—some parallel to the large wheels, some perpendicular to them. The axle between the wheels was also notched with teeth.

“What is it?” Dannie asked, wondering what the purpose of the strange looking object might be.

“What the hell ya think it is?” the driver snarled.

Dannie shrugged. “Can’t say I ever seen ‘nother one,” she answered calmly. “But I spent sum time in Granite… minds me of sum of the ‘quipment they used at the mine.”

“We ain’t got time to be wastin’ on a woman’s foolish questions,” one of the men grumbled.

“Don’ know why ya is havin’ such a bad time fixin’ this here problem,” Dannie continued unconcerned with the hostility being directed at her.

“You think you can get this wheel on?”

“Don’ know why ya’d want to.”

“You want us to drag the wagon to Garnet without a wheel?”

“Nope.”

“You ain’t making much sense.”

“Dannie smiled. “Damn fools,” she told the men. “Ya dun been screamin’ at one ‘nother and none of ya has took the time to see wha’s right in front of yer noses.”

“Do you have an idea for fixing this?” a much calmer voice came from behind Dannie.

Dannie turned to see the passenger from the stage had followed her up the road. She smiled at him. “Thanks for the help back there.”

“I figured it was better than just standing there watching you do all the work.”

“Did the horses get settled?”

He nodded. “We picketed them with yours.”

“Hey, Jack,” one of the men interrupted. “Didn’t know you was here.”

“I was on the stage,” Jack answered. “Do you have an idea?” he again asked Dannie.

Dannie slowly walked around the wagon to look at the load from all angles. “Yep,” she finally said when she returned to where Jack was standing. “I believe I do tho I don’ think they will be wantin’ to hear it.”

“I’d be interested in hearing it,” Jack told her.

“Don’ know why ya jus’ don’ roll it up to Garnet.”

Except for Jack, all the men began yelling and screaming indignantly at Dannie. After a few minutes, she shrugged then headed back down Chinamen’s Grade. “Best be headin’ back to Sweetwater,” she mumbled.

“Wait a minute,” Jack called after Dannie.

“Best you head back to the stage and tell the driver to turn around and go back to Beartown. Ain’t nothin’ goin’ ta be movin’ on this road fer a long time,” she continued without slowing her downhill pace.

“Wait, wait, wait,” Jack yelled running after Dannie, grabbing her arm when he caught up to her. “Please,” he said when she spun around knocking his hand away. “I need that equipment in Garnet. If you know a way to get the road clear…”

“Them boys could figure it out if they wasn’ so busy yelling at one ‘nother,” Dannie replied.

“Maybe so but it might take them another day or two.”

“It’ll be shoved over the side ‘fore then.”

“Then I’m doubly glad you have an idea.”

“Wha’s ya interest in that ‘quipment.”

“I can’t run my mine without it,” Jack told her.

“Wha’s it do?”

“Let’s me drop equipment down the shaft and pull ore up out of it.”

“How deep does ya shaft go?”

“Pretty deep.”

“Can’t understand how anyone can be ‘neath the ground tha’ way. Gives me shivers jus’ thinkin’ ‘bout it.”

Jack laughed. “To tell you the truth, I can’t stand it myself. Will you help?”

Dannie glanced back up the grade where the men were still standing and grumbling. “Don’ want them fools screamin’ at me,” she told Jack.

“You have my word.”

“All right, ya helped me… guess I can help ya.”

Dannie and Jack walked back to the wagon.

“First man to raise his voice will find himself over the side,” Jack warned before any of the waiting men could speak. “Okay, Dannie, what needs to be done?”

“That there thing isn’t much more than a pair of wheels and an axle. Seems ta me all ya need to do is hitch yer team to it and pull it up to Garnet. Ya shouldn’ need no wagon to git it there.”

Jack grinned as the men stood looking at one another dumbfounded. “I’m surprised none of you gentlemen thought about that,” he told them. “Like Dannie said, it seems to be a rather obvious solution.

“How are we supposed to hitch a team to that?” one of the men finally asked.

Jack turned to Dannie.

“That’s fer ya to figure out.”

“Damn,” someone muttered.

“Go get that team,” another ordered and two men broke away from the group to run up the grade to where the horses waited.

Shaking her head in disgust, Dannie turned around and again started down hill. “Damn fools,” she muttered as she walked. “Spent all night screamin’ at one ‘nother ‘stead of clearin’ the road. Damn fools.”

Amused, Jack watched Dannie walk around then turned back to figure out how to hitch the horses to the equipment.

#

Puck helped Cole down from his horse and over to a log where he could sit. He pulled Cole’s hand away from the wound. “I probably should re-bandage that,” he said.

“Leave it be,” Cole grunted pressing his hand back against his side. “We got any food?”

Puck straightened up. “Not much,” he said walking back to the horses.

“Go find a rabbit or something.”

“Horses need resting.”

“You don’t need a horse to hunt a rabbit.”

Puck dug into one of the saddlebags. “Eat this,” he said tossing a piece of smoked venison to his cousin.

Instinctively, Cole reached out to catch the venison then instantly regretted the movement and doubled over in pain, the meat falling to the dirt at his feet. “Dammit, Puck,” he hissed.

Ignoring his cousin, Puck led the horses to the small creek they had found. The horses dropped their heads to drink the cool water and graze on the grasses growing alongside the creek.

Keeping hold of the reins, Puck jumped across the creek to sit on the opposite bank. While the horses refueled, he chewed on a chuck of venison and, occasionally, glanced over at Cole.

#

Dowling rode under the arch at the top of the hillock that bordered the north end of the ranch yard. He looked over the buildings as his horse trotted down the knoll’s gentle slope.

KC, playing in the yard with her brother, was the first to spot the rider and ran to the front porch where Jennifer and Marie were sitting in the shade. “Momma, look,” she called pointing toward the hillock.

Jennifer pushed up from her chair and limped to the front of the porch to get a better look at the rider. “Go get your mommy,” she told KC. “Charley come here,” she called to her son.

“Who is it?” Marie asked.

“I can’t tell.”

Jesse was pounding nails into the frame that would be covered in thick planks to form one of the root cellar’s walls when KC ran around the corner of the house. “Mommy, rider coming. Momma says come.”

“Rider?”

“Yep, hurry.”

Jesse dropped her hammer. “Come on, Poppa.” She hurried for the back porch, hopping up onto the wood surface without bothering to walk to the steps at the end of it. She entered the kitchen and headed straight to the cabinet where her rifle and pistol were kept high above the reach of small hands. She grabbed the rifle and quickly loaded it then she headed through the house to the front porch.

Jennifer turned when she heard the screen door open behind her. “I can’t make out who it is,” she told Jesse.

Jesse quickly crossed the porch. “It’s the Army man,” she told Jennifer after recognizing the man who Thaddeus had introduced her to in the Slipper days earlier. “Take the children inside,” she said.

Marie stood and ushered KC and Charley inside while Stanley climbed the porch steps holding his own rifle.

Jennifer joined Jesse as she waited.

Dowling rode across the yard, stopping in front of the steps. He looked at Jesse then at Stanley; then at the rifles they both held. He carefully folded his hands on top of his saddle horn. “I just want to talk,” he informed them.

“Most people wanting to talk to me do so in town,” Jesse responded.

“Tried that once.”

“You chose a bad time,” Jesse reminded him.

“My apologies. I’m hoping this is a better time.”

“Nope.”

“Miss Branson—”

“Mrs.” Jesse corrected sternly.

Dowling swallowed hard. “Mrs. Branson, I’m on official Army business. I won’t take up any more of your time than is necessary.”

“You already have.”

“Jesse,” Stanley interrupted, “you better hear him out or he’ll never go away.”

“He’s right, sweetheart.”

“State your business then,” Jesse grudgingly agreed.

Dowling started to dismount.

“Ain’t no need for that,” Jesse stopped him.

Dowling settled back down on his saddle. “I believe you know I have been sent here by the Army,” he paused. When Jesse nodded, he continued. “I am under orders from General Sherman to procure a scout with knowledge of the mountains and the Indian trails through them. I was told you are that person.”

Stunned by the statement, Jennifer gripped Jesse’s arm.

“You were told wrong,” Jesse said placing her hand atop Jennifer’s.

“I don’t believe I was.”

“Think what you want, I’m not your scout.”

“Mrs. Branson, let me make this clear to you… the Army plans to control the savages in this area. To do so, they will follow them into the mountains, if need be. Your knowledge of their trails and their habits make you the perfect scout.”

“Let me make something very clear to you,” Jesse said struggling to hold her anger in check. “I do not intend, nor will I ever, lead Army troops against people I consider to be my friends. I suggest you go back to Sherman and tell him his orders mean nothing to me.”

“What about you, sir?” Dowling addressed Stanley. “Perhaps you would be willing to serve your country.”

Stanley shook his head. “Sorry, soldier boy, don’t know them mountains. Now, if you was talking about the Bridgers, or Gallatins, I could do you some good.”

“It’s time you left my land,” Jesse told Dowling.

Dowling studied the determined woman. Without a word, he turned his horse and rode away from the house.

Stanley started down the steps.

“Thank you, Poppa.”

“Told him the truth,” Stanley answered without stopping. “Don’t know them mountains. If’n I did…” He didn’t finish as he headed for the cabin to return his rifle to its resting place.

Jesse sighed watching her father walk across the yard.

“Come on, sweetheart,” Jennifer tugged Jesse toward the door. “The children must be worried.”

#

“Time to go,” Puck told Cole after an hour had passed. “I’ll leave you here,” he threatened when his cousin was slow to respond.

“You do that,” Cole barked back.

Puck checked the cinch on his saddle. Then he walked to Cole’s horse and did the same before walking to the log where Cole still sat. He leaned down, hooked an arm under Cole’s and forced him to stand. “Come on,” he said guiding Cole to his horse.”

“Give me a minute to catch my breath, will ya?” Cole asked. He reached for the saddle horn with his good arm then hung onto it hoping his pain would ease. “How much further you plan to go today?”

“We’ll find a place to camp as soon as we get out of this canyon. Come on, get your foot up in the stirrup.”

“It hurts too much,” Cole complained without making any attempt to mount his horse.

“Dammit, Cole.” Puck bent over then entwined the fingers on his hands to provide Cole with a boost. When his cousin still didn’t move, he grabbed his pant leg and hoisted his foot off the ground. Placing his hand under Cole’s boot, he let go of his pants and grabbed the boot with both hands. Then with a loud grunt, Puck hoisted Cole onto the horse.

Cole had to grab the saddle horn with both hands to keep from falling off before he managed to balance himself and shove his boots into the stirrups. “Ya could’ve dropped me on my head,” he snarled.

Puck mounted his horse and nudged him forward. “Maybe I should have,” he muttered leading the string of pack horses away from the creek. He didn’t bother to look back to see if Cole was following.

#

CHAPTER EIGHT

Thaddeus Newby looked up when the door to the newspaper office opened. “Mr. Dowling,” he greeted his visitor.

“Newby, you’ve wasted my day,” Dowling responded gruffly as he strode across the office to stand in front of the newspaper editor’s desk.

Leaning back in his chair, Thaddeus gazed up at the unhappy man. “And just how did I accomplish that?”

“Sent me out to talk to that Branson woman.”

“Oh,” Thaddeus muttered uneasily then chewed on his lower lip.

“She turned me down.”

“Ah.”

“You don’t seem too surprised.”

“I’m not. And I do owe you an apology. Had I thought through why the Army might need a scout familiar with those mountains, I never would have suggested Jesse.”

“There must be some men in this valley familiar with the Indian trails.”

Thaddeus stood then carried his empty cup to the wood stove where a pot of coffee was being kept warm. “Not too many who’ve traveled them that I know of—except for Jesse, that is.”

“You telling me a woman traveled over them alone?”

“She wasn’t alone,” Thaddeus said filling his cup. “Jesse spent time with some of the buffalo hunting parties. Made friends with the Indians and rode with them to their camps east of the mountains. That’s why she knows the trails.” He held the coffee pot up. “You want some?”

Dowling shook his head. “I don’t need coffee. I need a scout.”

Thaddeus set the pot back on the stove then returned to his desk. “You could ride out to some of the other ranches… might find someone who trapped in those hills before turning to watching over cows.”

“I need to get back to Hellgate. How often does your paper print?”

“Once a week.”

“Pen and paper?”

Thaddeus pushed the requested items across his desk.

Dowling bent over to write something on the page then straightened back up and handed the paper back to Thaddeus. “Print this in your next issue.” He watched the newspaper editor read what he had written. “How much?”

Thaddeus quickly counted up the number of words. “Four bits.”

Dowling reached into his pocket, pulled the required amount of coins out and dropped them on the desk. “You can tell anyone interested to look for me in Hellgate,” he said then abruptly spun around and marched back across the office and out the door.

“And a good day to you, too, sir,” Thaddeus muttered after his office door slammed shut. He placed the piece of paper into a basket holding the various stories he planned to set into type for the next edition of the Gazette then returned to the story he had been editing before Dowling’s visit.

#

With a firm grip on the reins, Dannie urged her team of horses up the steep Chinaman’s Grade.

After providing a solution for moving the mining equipment into Garnet, Dannie had returned to her team and hitched them to her wagon. Then she had eaten a can of cold beans while waiting for the signal that the road had been cleared. Sitting on the boulder beside the creek, she could hear the angry voices of the men trying to hitch a team to the heavy equipment and the whinnies of the horses protesting what was being asked of them. It was mid-afternoon when the she heard shouts of jubilation and repeated cracks of a bull whip that she correctly guessed meant the men had finally been successful. She climbed up the side of her wagon and settled on the hard seat. As soon as she heard the stage driver’s shouts to begin his team up the grade, Dannie released the wagon’s brake and moved her team onto the road.

The steep grade flattened into a more manageable slope as the horses pulled the freight wagon past the first few scattered cabins that marked the beginning of Garnet. Dannie noticed new cabins occupied the gaps between the old ones, a good sign for the freight driver. She guided the team to the foot of the hill at the northwest end of the town and around the sharp left turn that led them directly onto the town’s main street. Several minutes later, she pulled the team to a stop in front of mercantile located near the center of town. A wide boardwalk fronted the wooden structure and a false front rose high above it, making it appear much larger than its single story.

Dannie skillfully maneuvered her team of horses to back the wagon right up to the edge of the boardwalk. Then she set the wagon’s brake and climbed down from the hard seat. As she took time to stretch out her tired muscles, she glanced further up the street where the offices of the mining company were located. She frowned spotting the mining equipment that had delayed her arrival sitting in front of the offices.

“Figured you’d be here as soon as the road got cleared.”

Dannie turned to see the storekeeper standing on the boardwalk above her. “Could’ve had the damn road cleared right off if’n they hadn’t spent so much time yellin’ at each other.”

“So I’ve heard. Good thing Mr. Jack showed up to tell them what to do.”

Dannie frowned. “Yeah,” she muttered stepping up onto the boardwalk, “good thing.” She knew it would be a waste of her time to correct the man.

“Want to come inside? Lot cooler than standing out here.”

“I’ll be unloading now,” Dannie told the storekeeper as she removed the chains that secured the tailgate to the back of the wagon. “I plan ta be off this mountain soon as I can.”

“What’s your hurry?”

Grunting with the effort, Dannie lifted the tailgate free. “Already lost a day,” she explained leaning the heavy plank of wood against the front of the store. “Don’t plan on losing any more. You gonna stand there or help?”

“I’ll get my boy.”

Dannie didn’t wait for the storekeeper to return with his son before she started to pull boxes out of her wagon and stack them in front of the mercantile.

#

With his legs stretched out in front of him and his back slumped against the trunk of a Ponderosa pine tree, Cole sat on the ground sucking the last of the water out of his canteen. He looked to where Puck was removing the packs of hides from the horses. “Better ya left ‘em be,” he said. “It’ll save time in the morning.”

Puck turned to glare at his cousin. “Dammit, Cole, I only agreed to stop cuz you said you couldn’t go no further. I ain’t leaving the packs on all night; the horses are tired enough.” Turning away from Cole, he took hold of a bundle of hides and pulled it free. Pausing to peer over the horse toward the mountains they had ridden out of less than an hour before, Puck frowned then added the bundle to the others neatly stacked on the ground near the Cole’s resting spot. “We could still make Hellgate by nightfall,” he suggested.

Cole laughed. “Wha’s the matter, cousin? You thinkin’ them Injuns might follow us into the valley?”

Walking back to the horses, Puck’s eyes scanned the terrain between their camp and the nearby forest. “If the horses didn’t need resting…” he said, his voice trailing off as he chose not to finish his thought.

Cole squirmed into a more comfortable position, hissing when his injured body protested. “Forget about the horses, I could have bled to death if we tried to make Hellgate tonight.”

Lifting the last bundle free, Puck glanced over at his cousin. “Yeah, you could have,” he muttered then turned back to his task. “’Course, you could bleed to death sitting there.”

Cole’s eyes narrowed and his lips curled up into a snarl. “That what you want?” he snapped.

Puck didn’t answer. Instead, he picked up a blanket and used it to dry the horses’ sweaty coats.

“I need more water,” Cole said tossing the empty canteen toward Puck, the movement pulling at his injury. “Dammit,” he moaned, wincing in pain.

Ignoring his cousin’s distress, Puck led the horses to the creek that flowed past their campsite. He tied them to a picket line he had strung from the tree Cole was resting under to an identical tree on the opposite side of the creek. Then he walked back to pick up the discarded canteen and carried it to the creek. Kneeling beside the cold water rushing over a bed of stones tumbled smooth, Puck looked around. Except for the pair of trees at the campsite, the ground was covered in scrub bushes and clumps of grasses growing no higher than his knees. Standing, he had an unobstructed view of the forested slopes to the west and further into the valley to the east where he could just make out the structures of the nearest ranch several miles in the distance. “Hope those cowpokes have good hearing,” he muttered carrying the refilled canteen back to Cole.

“What for?”

“If we are attacked, hopefully they’ll hear the shooting and come help out.”

“You make a big enough fire, they’ll send someone over to check it out. We can have a couple of ‘em stay here tonight.”

“Doubt they’d give up their bunks to sleep on the ground for the likes of you.”

“Watch yer mouth!”

Glowering at Cole, Puck dropped the canteen in the dirt beside his cousin. “I’ll go get something we can burn.”

“What about food?”

Puck moved to where their saddles and saddle bags had been placed. He bent over to retrieve one of the bags. “What we have is in there,” he said tossing the saddle bag at Cole.

“Ain’t much,” Cole complained rummaging through the bag’s contents.

“I suppose I could ride over to that ranch and see if they’d be willing to share some.”

Cole nervously looked across the clearing to where the valley floor gave way to the mountains’ lower slopes. He could see where the trail disappeared into the trees and wondered if there was anyone hiding behind those same trees peering back at him. “Ya can’t leave me here that long,” he said anxiously.

“Yeah, I could,” Puck said firmly turning his back to his cousin. “But you’re kin,” he mumbled walking away to search for firewood.

#

Standing in the center of the unfinished root cellar, Jesse swiped her shirt sleeve across her sweaty brow. The walls had been framed, supports for the roof were in place, and the door had been installed at the bottom of the steps. “Guess we’ve done all we can until we get the last load of lumber,” she told her father.

Stanley bent over the water bucket and pulled the dipper out. He straightened, lifted the dipper to his lips and drank the lukewarm water. “Too bad it ain’t here yet,” he said handing the empty dipper to his daughter.

“Thanks,” Jesse said with a smile then she bent over and refilled the dipper from the bucket. “I was hoping Ed would have sent it out by now,” she told him after taking a drink. “But I’m guessing that he’s waiting for Dannie to get back from Garnet.” She dropped the dipper back into the bucket.

“We could hitch up the buckboard and go into town?” Stanley offered.

Jesse had already had the same idea. But she shook her head. “I don’t want to leave the ranch right now. We can wait for it… probably won’t be but another day or two.”

Stanley picked up the tool box. “Seems a waste of time to sit here waitin’ fer some Indian,” he grumbled.

“He’s a friend,” Jesse snapped.

Stanley peered at his daughter, his lips pressed together in annoyance. “I’ll put this in the barn,” he finally said turning toward the steps. “Time I checked on Marie.”

“Jennifer expects you for supper.”

Without responding, Stanley climbed the steps. “Not tonight,” he said heading for the barn, his progress immediately interrupted by his granddaughter.

KC ran around the corner of the ranch house. “Watch out, Grumps,” she called out changing her course so she wouldn’t plow into her grandfather. “Charley chasin’ me,” she squealed rushing toward the unfinished structure Stanley had just left. Without pausing, she scooted through an opening in one of the open walls and jumped down to the cellar floor. Skidding to a stop, she breathlessly greeted her mother. “Hi.”

Charley rounded the corner of the house, missing Stanley by less than a foot as he ran toward the root cellar. His steps weren’t as sure, nor as fast as his sister, but he was just as determined… at least until he reached the wall above the dug out hole.

“Come on, Charley, you can do it,” KC encouraged her brother who stood timidly on the other side of the unfinished wall.

Charley placed his hands on the wood frame then pensively poked his head through and nervously looked into the deep pit. “Too far,” he told his sister who had negotiated the jump with little difficulty.

“Mommy, you help Charley,” KC told Jesse grabbing her pant leg.

Jesse allowed her daughter to tug her closer to where her brother waited. Holding out a strong hand, she asked her son, “Will this help?”

Smiling, Charley grabbed his mother’s hand then eased through the opening and jumped. He giggled when he was swung through the air to land on his feet beside his sister. “T’anks,” he said tilting his head back to smile up at Jesse. “I did it.”

“You sure did,” Jesse agreed.

With her brother safely in the cellar, KC took off running. “Come on, Charley, let’s go find Grumps,” she called out bouncing up the steps leading out of the cellar. She waited for her brother to follow then, at a full run, led him back across the yard.

Grinning, Jesse watched the children run toward the barn. “Charley is gonna have to grow longer legs to keep up with KC,” she said with a laugh. She grew pensive when Stanley turned around in response to his grandchildren’s calls. She picked up the bucket, climbed out of the cellar and carried it to the garden where she poured the water into the shallow ditch that was used for watering the vegetables planted in carefully tended rows. Then she flipped the bucket upside down, set it on the ground and sat down, her eyes gazing westward.

#

Jennifer walked out of the kitchen onto the back porch. Using her cane to aid her injured leg, she limped to the end of the porch and down the steps then walked toward the garden and her wife.

Jesse looked up when she felt the gentle touch of Jennifer’s hand on her shoulder. “Hi.”

Jennifer smiled. “Hi. Finished with the cellar?”

Jesse shifted to wrap an arm around Jennifer’s thighs and hugged her. “As much as we can until Ed sends out the wood I ordered.”

“Where are the children?”

“With Poppa.”

“Did you talk to him?”

Jesse pulled Jennifer down onto her lap. “I tried… but…”

Jennifer pulled the Stetson off her wife’s head and placed it on her own head, then she brushed the matted hair off Jesse’s forehead. “Couldn’t find the right words?”

“I don’t know what to say to him. He sees Walk just as another Indian to hate.”

“He has his reasons, sweetie.”

“But Walk didn’t kill his sister. His reasons don’t make any sense.”

“They do to him.”

Jesse frowned. “Ed doesn’t hate gamblers.”

“Huh?”

“His sister was killed by a gambler.”

“His sister was killed by her worthless husband. And I doubt many would have considered him much of a gambler since he lost more than he won.”

“I’m just saying—”

“I know what you’re saying. But do you really want this to come between you and your father?” When Jesse refused to respond, Jennifer added. “Sweetheart, you’ve worked so hard to bring Stanley back into your life. Is this really your choice?”

“He’s making the choices,” Jesse grumbled.

Jennifer wrapped her arms around her contrary wife’s shoulders. “Sweetheart, I know you’re upset but—”

“I’m not upset—”

“Yes, you are,” Jennifer corrected tightening her hold. “But you love Stanley and he loves you; you have to work this out between you.”

“I tried,” Jesse sulked, refusing to meet Jennifer’s eyes.

“All right, you tried and it didn’t work. You can try again at supper.”

“Poppa said they won’t come tonight,” Jesse whispered.

“They’ll come.” Jennifer laughed when Jesse looked up quizzically. “Have you ever known your father to be able to say no to KC and Charley?”

“You didn’t send them over to ask?”

“Not yet. But as soon as you get done with your bath, I will.”

“Jennifer Branson, that’s sneaky.”

Jennifer grinned. “Yes, it is. Now,” she said standing up, “come on stinky, you really do need a bath.”

Jesse stood and retrieved her hat. “I don’t suppose I could get you to join me,” she asked seductively.

Jennifer spun around to face her smirking wife. “Jesse Branson, you are a scandalous woman!”

“Is that a yes or a no?”

#

After finishing unloading her wagon at the mercantile, Dannie repositioned the wagon so the horses could take advantage of a small creek that ran off the hill and alongside the road at the east end of town. The sides of the creek were covered in grass and would provide the hungry horses with a nice meal. With the horses settled, she retrieved the package of dresses from the storage box under the driver’s seat, tucked the package under her arm and set off for the hotel at the other end of town. It didn’t take but a few minutes to cover the short distance and she paused to stomp the dirt and mud off her boots before climbing the steps in front of the hotel. Walking through the glass paneled double doors, she was confronted by a small entry that immediately divided into a narrow hallway leading to the restaurant at the rear of the hotel and a series of steep steps rising up to the second floor where the guest rooms were located. To her left was a small parlor decorated in what looked to be new settees and chairs covered in a thick red velvet-like material. Dannie turned to her right and walked into the hotel’s office.

“Have a package fer a Mrs. Struther,” she told the clerk separating envelopes and packages from the mail sack that had arrived on the stage—the hotel’s office also served as the town’s post office. “Was told I could find her here.”

The clerk, a middle age man, looked up from his task and squinted through his horn rimmed glasses. “Mrs. Struther doesn’t like to be bothered by deliveries,” he said, his tone more condescending than conversational. “You can leave it with me and I’ll see she receives it properly.”

Dannie shrugged. “Makes no difference ta me who be givin’ it ta her,” she said dropping the package on top of the man’s neat piles of sorted envelopes. “Ya’ll need to sign fer it,” she told the clerk pulling a folded piece of paper from her shirt pocket. “Jus in case this here proper lady makes claim ya didn’t deliver it like ya says ya will,” she added with a smirk.

The clerk grunted at the insult then pulled a pen out of the ink well on his desk. Before signing, he carefully read the neat print on the paper. “You’re from Sweetwater?” Dannie nodded. “Ah, good,” the clerk said signing the receipt. “I have a load I need taken to Hellgate.” He handed the paper back to her.

“Ain’t goin’ ta Hellgate,” Dannie told him. She refolded the paper and tucked it back into her pocket. Then she turned and walked out of the office.

The clerk rose from his chair and followed Dannie outside. “Just a minute,” he said to stop her from walking away from the hotel. “Wasn’t that your wagon being unloaded in front of the mercantile? Dannie stopped and nodded. “Are you telling me you’d rather drive it back empty?”

Dannie considered the question—she wanted to leave Garnet as soon as possible but could she afford to pass on the money a return load would offer. “What ya got?”

“Furniture,” the clerk answered then motioned for Dannie to follow him around the corner of the hotel. “I sold my old to the hotel in Hellgate. I had made arrangements for it but the wagon I hired was the same that brought Mr. Jack’s equipment up the hill. It’ll be another week before I can arrange for another.”

Dannie examined the jumble of chairs, tables, and bed frames piled at the side of the hotel. None of the pieces appeared to be in very good condition but she figured that was none of her business. “Plenty of wagons in town,” Dannie said looking up and down the street where half a dozen freight wagons were being loaded or unloaded.

“True. But they’re heading onto Coloma or back to Deer Lodge. You seem to be the only one heading to Hellgate.”

“Ya got anyone to help get it loaded?”

“I’ll find some boys over at Davey’s saloon.”

“Hellgate will add half a day on my trip and I’m already late gettin’ back to Sweetwater.”

“I will make it worth your time.”

Dannie looked up into the sky to judge the location of the sun. “I aim ta be past Beartown by nightfall.”

“Pull your wagon up here. I’ll find some boys to help you load.”

“Payment ‘fore I leave town.” The clerk nodded. “All right,” Dannie agreed. “Go find sum boys,” she said already walking back to her wagon.

#

Puck picked up a piece of deadfall and pulled it against his knee breaking it in half. He tossed the pieces on the fire he had started moments before. “Good thing we’re heading for Hellgate,” he told Cole, “used the last of our matches to start this.”

“You hear somethin’?” Cole was staring intently into the darkness that surrounded their camp.

“Hear what?”

“Sounds like somebody’s moving out there.”

Puck stopped feeding wood onto the fire to listen. “Probably just deer coming out of the trees,” he said breaking another large piece of wood in two.

Cole reached for the rifle leaning against the tree he was resting against. “Maybe.”

“Don’t start shooting at shadows,” Puck warned.

“You afeared I might hit you,” Cole snarled.

“Matter of fact, yes.”

Cole startled when an owl hooted in the distance. “Shoulda gone on to Hellgate,” he said tensely straining to see into the night.

Puck stood up. “Isn’t that what I said?” he asked walking to their saddlebags. He removed his bedroll then carried it back and rolled it out next to fire.

“Don’t get too comfy… we’re leavin’ for Hellgate ‘fore dawn.”

“I figured,” Puck muttered lying down on his bedroll. He rolled over to place his back toward the fire then closed his eyes leaving his nervous cousin to keep watch through the night.

#
CHAPTER NINE

Jesse walked away from the chicken coop holding a basket of freshly laid eggs in her hand. Her footsteps took her close to her parent’s cabin and she paused, her head tilted slightly as she considered an early morning visit to the cabin. After a moment, she continued toward the house where she knew Jennifer would be waiting for the eggs.

“Jesse?”

The rancher stopped then turned around to see her mother standing beside the cabin. “Morning, Mother.”

“Are you all right?”

Jesse took a few hesitant steps closer. “I’m fine. Are you coming to the house? Jennifer has cornbread in the oven.”

Marie closed the distance between them and placed a hand on Jesse’s arm. “I’m worried about you… and your father.” Chewing on her lip, Jesse dropped her eyes to her boots. “He isn’t a bad man, Jesse.”

“I know that,” Jesse protested raising her eyes to meet her mother’s. “But he—”

“Jesse, he has a lot of pain inside him. I know it’s hard… especially with you worried about your friend. But please don’t let this come between you. He so loves you.”

Jesse stiffened. “If he did, he’d stop—”

“Jesse, he’s talking of leaving.”

“Wha…? Leaving?” Jesse stammered. “You can’t leave,” she told her mother. “Not now.” She looked to the cabin. “Why?” she asked softly.

“I think you should be asking him that. I’ll take these to Jennifer,” Marie said taking the basket of eggs from Jesse’s hand. “He’s in the barn,” she added when Jesse started toward the cabin.

#

Walking toward the barn, Jesse saw that the horses had been moved from their stalls to the corral. She walked inside the barn then paused for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. A lantern hanging on a post provided a circle of dim light where she heard sounds of someone working. She headed for the horse stalls at the back of the large structure. “Poppa?”

Stanley stepped out of one of the stalls to deposit his shovelful of horse droppings into a wheelbarrow. Without a word, he returned into the stall to continue his chore.

Jesse walked to the stall, arriving just as her father reappeared. “Poppa,” she said as he emptied his shovel into the wheelbarrow. “What are you thinking?”

“Muckin’ out horse turds don’t take much thinkin’,” Stanley commented banging the shovel on the edge of the wheelbarrow.

“Why are you talking of leaving?”

Stanley moved back into the stall. “Don’t want ta be someplace I ain’t wanted.”

Jesse followed her father. “What are you talking about?” she asked grabbing the shovel to prevent him from digging through the straw on the stall’s floor. “You know I want you here.”

Stanley released his hold on the shovel then turned to face his daughter. “You don’t seem to want my views on them savages you claim to be yer friends.”

“Oh, Poppa,” Jesse murmured. “They are my friends. Why can’t you understand?”

“That’s what my sister thought. She spoke highly of them that took to her husband’s teachings. But that didn’t stop them from puttin’ an arrow through her heart,” he angrily told Jesse. “Same as they’d do with you, if’n it suited them.”

Jesse sighed. “Poppa, please, you can’t think that about Walk. Why can’t you understand that he’s not the same as the Indians that killed your sister? He’s a good man with a wife he loves as much as I love Jennifer. And a family. A son and soon another child— Spotted Fawn was with child last time they visited. And his father, he lives with Walk. Can’t you see how much he is like us?”

“He’s a savage… born and raised to kill.”

Jesse spun around, carrying the shovel out of the stall she heaved it across the barn where it slammed into the post, almost dislodging the lantern. “Damn it,” she screamed spinning back around to face her father. “Walk is not like that.”

#

“Do you think we should go in there?” Jennifer asked Marie. They were standing on the front porch of the house listening to the rising voices coming out of the barn.

“No.”

“They sound pretty angry,” Jennifer said fearfully.

“They’ll work it out,” Marie assured her. “We better go finish cooking breakfast. They’ll be hungry when they get tired of yelling at each other.”

“How can you be so calm?” Jennifer asked when Marie moved across the porch to the door.

Thankful her own conflicted emotions weren’t apparent; Marie opened the door then turned to Jennifer and motioned her into the house. “One thing I know about my daughter is she loves her father,” she said following Jennifer inside, “even if he makes that hard at times. And I know that Stanley, my dear hard-headed husband, loves that girl. And he loves living here,” she said as they walked through the sitting room.

“So you think they’ll be okay?” Jennifer asked entering the kitchen.

“They’ll survive.” Marie chuckled. “Again.”

#

Stanley stepped out of the stall and past the wheelbarrow intending to retrieve the shovel. “I’ll finish up the stalls. Then I’d be obliged if ya let me borrow the buckboard.”

“No!” Fisted hands on her hips, Jesse planted herself in her father’s path.

Stanley brought his steps to an abrupt stop to glare at his daughter. “What did you say?”

“No. You let your hard-headed beliefs almost destroy us before and I am not going to let you do it again.”

“Get out of my way.”

“Damn it, Poppa, I’m not a child.”

“You listen to me, girl—”

“No! You listen to me, Poppa. I love you, damn it. For the life of me, I sometimes wonder why, but I do. Poppa, I want you here… with me and Jennifer and the children. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you throw me out of your life again. Not now. Not after everything we’ve gone through to be together. No, you and mother mean too much to me… to all of us. You can’t use the buckboard. Not today. Not ever. Not if it means you leaving.”

“Are you telling me what to do?” Stanley bellowed.

“Yes, Poppa, I am,” Jesse bellowed right back at him.

Stanley’s eyes narrowed. “Jesse Branson, step out of my way!”

Jesse’s face softened but she stood her ground. “Poppa, please. Don’t go. Please.”

Stanley took half a step back.

“Stay,” she pleaded.

“Don’t seem I have much choice.”

Jesse quickly moved close to Stanley. “I love you, Poppa,” she said wrapping her arms around him and squeezing hard.

“I ain’t changing my way of thinkin’.”

“I didn’t expect you would.” Without releasing her grip on her father, Jesse leaned back so she could look into his eyes. “Just stop saying it in front of me. And Jennifer. And KC and Charley— Walk is their friend, too.”

After a moment, Stanley nodded. “And I still think you’re a fool for worrying ‘bout an Injun.”

“I know but I’m going to continue worrying until I hear from him.”

Stanley studied his daughter. “You is a damn hard-headed…” Stanley muttered.

Jesse grinned. “Guess I get that from you, huh?”

“No, you do not,” Stanley bristled. “That there is a trait of your mother’s. Speaking of her, you think them women got breakfast cooked by now?” he asked.

Jesse smiled. “I’m sure they do,” she told him as she let her arms relax. “Let’s go see.”

Stanley started for the barn door then stopped. “Um, Jesse,” he said nervously. “Don’t you be goin’ and tellin’ yer momma what I said.”

“You mean about her being the hard-headed one?” Jesse asked grinning. Before he could answer, she spun around to run across the barn and out the door.

“Jesse Branson, you ain’t so big I won’t put you across my knee,” Stanley shouted hurrying after his daughter.

#

Ned Harlow pushed the dirty plate in front of him to the side of the table then picked up his coffee cup. “I’m riding up to the timber stand with Lieutenant Gage this morning,” he said after swallowing a mouthful of the strong liquid. “We’re taking half the men with us to set up camp there and start downing trees. You want to join us?”

Nick Dowling shook his head. “No. I want to look over the plans for the bridge.”

“Think I missed something?”

“Doesn’t hurt to have another set of eyes take a look. You plan to go to the fort site?”

Harlow finished his coffee. “Gage and I are riding there afterward. I need to finish staking out the buildings. I doubt we’ll be back into town until late.”

Dowling nodded. “Hopefully, the men can finish digging out the approach sites today. You set them pretty far back from the river.”

“After hearing how high the water gets in the spring, I figured it would be safer.”

“It’s going to make for a long span.”

“Would you rather we re-route the rest of the wagons through Sweetwater? If we send word to Fort Fetterman, we might catch Captain Gilford before he heads for Bozeman.”

Dowling frowned. “No, the Army had Mullen build the road this side of the river. We’ll have to work with that. Besides, I don’t fancy a ride back to Sweetwater to send a telegram.

Harlow scooted his chair back from the table then stood up. “It’s time I met Lieutenant Gates and Ginsy.”

Dowling nodded and watched Harlow leave before refocusing on the plate of food before him.

#

Cole pulled his hand away from the bloody bandage wound around his mid-section. “I’m bleeding again,” he cried out.

Puck glanced over his shoulder at his cousin. “You’ve never stopped bleeding,” he grunted. “You want to stop?”

Cole turned in his saddle to study the road behind them. They had left their campsite just after dawn and had picked up the rutted path marking the Sweetwater-Hellgate road an hour later. “What fer?”

“We could wait for the stage… you could ride it into Hellgate.”

Cole straightened in his saddle. “Damn, Puck, that makes no sense. I’d be shook to death fer we crossed the bridge at the flats.

“Just a suggestion,” Puck grunted turning back to the road.

#

Jennifer placed a platter of scrambled eggs and strips of bacon on the table where KC and Charley sat eyeing the food hungrily. “Marie, would you mind putting some of these on their plates? If I don’t get that cornbread out of the oven right now, it won’t be fit to eat.”

“I do it, Momma,” KC immediately offered squirming about to stand on her chair so she could reach the platter.

“You let Grandma help,” Jennifer insisted. “Last time you did it by yourself I was finding bits of egg in Charley’s hair for days.”

KC giggled. “That was funny.”

“I don’t think Charley thought so.”

Charley shook his head. “Nope.”

Marie placed a spoonful of eggs on each child’s plate then added a pair of bacon strips.

“More,” Charley said.

“Eat that first,” Marie told her grandson.

“He need more, Gramma,” KC told her. “He wants to be big and strong like me,” she added settling back onto her chair.

“I’m sure he’ll grow big and strong,” Marie said with a smile. “But he needs to eat what he has first. And you need to eat what you have, too.”

Jennifer pulled the pan of cornbread out of the oven and set it on the counter. The sound of the screen door opening caused her to turn toward the sound.

“Somethin’ sure smells good in here,” Jesse said walking casually across the kitchen to where Jennifer stood looking at her anxiously.

“Jesse? Is everything all right?”

Jesse wrapped her arms around Jennifer and kissed her. “Everything is fine,” she said with a smile after their lips parted.

“Where’s Stanley?” Marie asked.

Jesse laughed when the sound of rapid boot strikes came through the screen door. “Sounds like he’s on the porch,” she told her mother.

Stanley burst through the screen door. He looked at Jesse then at Marie. “What did she tell you?” he demanded of his wife.

“Stanley, what is wrong with you? She just now walked through that door. What could she possibly have told me?”

Stanley’s head slowly turned toward a grinning Jesse.

“Hungry, Poppa?” Jesse asked. “I sure am. And the smell of this cornbread is making me even hungrier.” She picked up the pan and carried it to the table. Then she returned to Jennifer. “Is there anything else?”

“No.”

“Then shall we join our children,” Jesse asked offering her arm to her bewildered wife. “Sit, Poppa. You, too, Mother,” she said as she assisted her wife to the table. “We don’t want this getting cold.”

Jennifer had begun to sit then abruptly rose again. “Oh, Jesse, the coffee.”

Jesse gently yet firmly pushed Jennifer down onto the chair. “Sit, darlin’, I’ll get it.”

Marie glanced at Jennifer who wore a similar puzzled look. Then she turned to her husband. “What was it you thought Jesse had told us?”

“Coffee, Poppa,” Jesse quickly asked leaning across the table to fill her father’s cup.

“Thank you, daughter.” As soon as the cup had been filled, Stanley lifted it to his lips and took a generous gulp to avoid answering Marie’s question. His eyes almost popped out of his head as he fought to swallow the steaming coffee without spitting it out.

“What is going on with you two?” Jennifer asked Jesse sitting beside her.

“Nothing,” Jesse answered innocently.

“I take it you settled your differences,” Marie said.

“Yep,” Jesse responded spooning eggs onto Jennifer’s plate. “All settled.”

“We’re not leaving?” Marie asked Stanley.

“No,” Stanley wheezed, his throat burning. “We’re staying.”

“Where you going, Grumps?” KC asked. “Me go?”

“Me go?” Charley repeated.

“Your grandfather isn’t going anywhere,” Jesse said jubilantly. “And neither are you two rascals.”

#

Dannie backed the last pair of horses into the waiting harness. The sun was a few hours up in the morning sky but she wasn’t concerned with the late start. She had pushed her team well after dark the night before, refusing to stop until after they had put Beartown behind them. She wasn’t worried about straining her team as the wagon wasn’t heavy, the furniture it carried barely taking up a third of the space in the wagon’s deep bed and the road being fairly flat after getting off the grade from Garnet. She had decided to be out of the canyon and back beside the Clark Fork River before she made camp.

Her horses harnessed, Dannie climbed up into the driver’s box and, with a slap of the reins on the horse’s broad rumps, she was on her way to Hellgate and her final delivery before heading home to Sweetwater.

“Sure hope the crossin’ in Hellgate is passable,” Dannie told her uninterested team. “Hate ta hav’ ta backtrack to the crossing this side of the pass.” She squinted up at the sun. “By my reckonin’, we should be in Hellgate by suppertime. If’n we can cross the river, we should be home by morning,” she mumbled. “I’ll probably have ta wake Leevie up but,” she smiled, “I don’ think she’ll complain much.”

#

“Are you going to tell me what happened?” Jennifer asked after Stanley left to walk Marie back to their cabin, KC and Charley trailing behind them.

Jesse carefully stacked dirty dishes on the serving platter then carried them to the sink to be washed. “We talked.”

“Sweetheart, you were pretty loud.”

“You heard us?” Jesse asked lowering the platter of dishes into the hot, soapy water.

Jennifer nodded. “I wanted to come after you but Marie said to let you work it out. Did you?”

Jesse turned around the leaned back against the sink. “He was going to leave.”

“I know. Marie told me.”

“He said he didn’t want to be where he wasn’t wanted. How could he think that?” Jesse asked sadly.

Jennifer wrapped her arms around her despondent wife and hugged her. “Sweetheart, he was confused. And you not talking to him these past few days hasn’t helped.”

“Just cuz I didn’t talk didn’t mean I don’t want him here.”

“I know. But, sometimes, it helps if you tell people how you feel. So, what did happen? Does he understand how you feel?”

Jesse shook her head. “I don’t think he ever will. But he agreed to stop talking about Walk and his people in a bad way.”

“You mean he agreed to stop talking about him… in any way.”

Jesse shrugged. “Yeah.”

“And you agreed to start talking to him again?” Jesse nodded. “Good. Now what was it that he doesn’t want you to tell Marie?”

Jesse grinned. “He said I got my hard-head from her.”

Jennifer giggled. “Oh, my, no wonder he looked so concerned.”

#

Puck led the horses to the corral at the back of the stage depot. He swung his leg over the back of his horse then dropped to the ground groaning when his tired legs were jarred by the impact. He looped the reins over the top rail of the corral then turned and walked back to Cole’s horse. His cousin was leaning heavily to his injured side and it took all of Puck’s strength to help the bigger man out of his saddle.

Cole groaned when Puck circled his waist with his arm. “Where ya takin’ me?”

“Inside.”

“Ain’t gonna be no doc in there.”

“You want to try and cross that damn swing bridge?” When he received only a glare for a response, Puck continued to guide Cole toward the depot’s door. “Don’t know what you’re griping for, probably ain’t no doc in town. Never has been before.”

“Dammit, Puck, what we doin’ here then?”

“Ain’t no doc in Sweetwater either. Hell, I doubt there’s a doc this side of Deer Lodge,” Puck said as he pushed the door inward. “But coming here was better than staying in those hills.”

The depot was a single room with stone walls. The large stones had been pulled from the nearby riverbed, their sharp edges tumbled smooth by the force of the water. A large fireplace had been molded into one of the end walls with a chimney rising above it and through the roof. The door sat in the center of the front wall and a matching door was in the center of the rear wall. Glassless and covered by wood shutters, openings for windows were on either sides of the doors. A single table sat in the corner of the room with chairs set around it. Another pair of chairs were positioned in front of the fireplace.

A man was sweeping dirt off the floor and out of the room through the rear door. “Stage ain’t due for another hour,” he said without looking away from his chore.

Puck eased Cole down onto the closest chair. “We’re not looking for the stage. My cousin needs some tending.”

The man turned, his eyes taking in the pair of men on the opposite side of the room. “Tending?” he asked leaning the broom against the wall.

“I need a doctor,” Cole growled.

“Ain’t got one in Hellgate.”

“Anyone who can do some stitching will do,” Puck told the stationmaster who was moving closer.

“What’s the trouble?”

“Damn Injun stuck me with an arrow,” Cole snapped.

“Around here?”

“Other side of the mountains… west of the pass.”

“That’s Indian land.”

“Injuns don’t have the right to no land,” Cole grumbled.

“Is there anyone in town?” Puck asked again.

“He looks bad. Doubt anyone would want to try.”

“Dammit, stop beatin’ yer jaws and find me a doc.”

“Might be one of the Army boys could fix him up.”

“Army?” Puck asked.

“Arrived last week. Plan to build a fort on the flats.”

Cole groaned. “We just rode past there, didn’t see no Army boys.”

“That’s because they’re across the river. Gonna build us a new bridge before they start on their fort.”

“Where across the river?” Puck asked.

“You can’t miss ‘em. They’ve got their tents spread out behind Ginsy’s shack.”

“Can he stay here?”

“Long as you don’t expect me to tend to him.”

“No.”

“Okay, then.”

“We’ve got a string of horses tied up to your corral. Can you keep an eye on them?”

“How many you got?”

“Six.”

“I can put ‘em in the corral, if you want. Be six bits for the day, food and water.”

“We ain’t gonna pay ya ta—”

“Be obliged,” Puck cut Cole off. “I’ll settle with you soon as I come back.” When the station master nodded, he walked back out through the door and headed for the rickety swing bridge.

#
CHAPTER TEN

Nick Dowling frowned. He was sitting in front of the small cabin he and Harlow were using for an office and living quarters until work was started at the fort site. He had been listening to Puck explain how Cole had been injured. “Last thing we need is to have the Indians riled up. Captain Gilford isn’t going to like hearing of this.”

“I didn’t take kindly to Cole’s actions myself.”

“I suppose not.”

“Man at the depot said you might have someone who could see to his wound,” Puck said anxiously.

Dowling nodded then stood. “Army saw fit to include a soldier with some medical training in the Lieutenant’s unit,” he said gesturing Puck toward the men working at the riverbank some distance from the cabin. “Corporal Henson,” he called out when they were close enough to be heard.

A shirtless young man of medium height stopped shoveling and looked up. “Sir?”

“This man says his cousin is in need of doctoring. Would you see to him?”

“Yes, sir,” Henson replied already walking to close the gap between them. “What is the problem?” he asked.

“Arrow shot,” Dowling answered.

Henson’s eye’s widened. “Arrow?”

Dowling nodded. “He’s across the river at the depot.”

“I’ll get my kit,” Henson informed the pair.

“We’ll meet you across the river,” Dowling said as Henson walked past them toward the tents behind the cabin. “I would like to talk to your cousin,” he told Puck then gestured for him to lead the way back to the rope bridge.

#

“You the doc?” Cole asked when Dowling entered the stage depot behind Puck.

“He’s coming,” Puck informed him. “This is Mr. Dowling… he’s with the Army.”

“Soldier boy, uh?” Cole sneered.

“No,” Dowling answered, already taking a disliking to the injured man. “I’m an engineer.”

“Ain’t no trains in Hellgate,” Cole said smugly.

“He’s not that kind of engineer,” Puck informed his cousin. “He builds things.”

Cole studied Dowling but before he could say more Henson entered the depot.

“He’s your patient,” Dowling said giving a slight tilt of his head toward Cole.

“Hell, ya ain’t nothin’ but a boy,” Cole protested when Henson moved toward him.

Henson knelt beside the chair Cole was slumped on. “I assure you, sir, I have been properly trained by the Army to attend to your wound,” he stated reaching to remove the dirty, bloody bandage wrapped around Cole’s waist. “I can’t do this here,” he said looking up at the other men. “Is there somewhere he can lay down, sir?”

“Name’s Whitney… Forrest Whitney. You can put him on one of those,” the station master said pointing to the far corner of the room where half a dozen cots were pushed against the walls.

“Do you need assistance?” Henson asked standing and offering his hand to Cole.

“I ain’t dead yet,” Cole snapped slapping at Henson’s hand then doubling over when the movement caused stabs of pain to explode from his wound.. “Damn,” he groaned clutching at his side.

“Dammit, Cole,” Puck blurted out in frustration. “Don’t you think you’ve caused enough trouble already?” he asked leaning over to hook his arm under Cole’s and jerk him onto his feet.

“That hurts,” Cole screamed.

“I don’t care anymore,” Puck told his cousin as he forced him to walk toward the cots. He dropped him onto the first cot they reached then turned away leaving Cole moaning loudly. “Do what you can,” he told Henson before he walked to the rear door of the depot. “I have horses to see to.”

Henson carried his medical kit to the cot and knelt beside it. Pulling a pair of scissors from his kit, he started to cut away the bandage. “Could you boil some water, Mr. Whitney?” he asked not looking up from his task.

Whitney walked to the fireplace where a bucket of water sat beside the health. He lifted a pot off the hearth and filled it from the bucket before hanging it on the spit. Then he stirred up the fire’s coals and added some wood from the pile next to the fireplace. He watched the flames for a few moments before turning away to return to Henson and his patient.

“Looks bad,” Dowling said when enough bloodied bandage had been removed to expose the jagged hole in Cole’s side.

“Got ‘nother in my back,” Cole grunted.

“Went clear through?” Dowling asked. “You must have been pretty close.”

“Close ‘nuff to see the hate in her Injun eyes,” Cole said smugly.

Startled, Henson stopped and stared at Cole. “Her? A woman did this to you?”

Cole grinned at the shocked expression on the soldier’s face. “Ain’t no woman. Nothin’ but a damn—”

A scream pierced the room.

“What the hell?” Whitney exclaimed, startled by Cole’s sudden cry of agony.

“Sorry, sir,” Henson told the men. “My hand slipped. All this blood is making this difficult.”

Silently, Dowling observed the young soldier remove his finger from Cole’s wound. “Do you best, Henson,” he said patting the boy on his shoulder. “I think I’ll go outside, I’ve never been fond of the smell of blood.”

“Mr. Whitney, the water?” Henson asked giving no attention to the angry look his patient was directing at him.

#

Dannie was thankful when her team reached the narrow canyon that marked the final challenge before reaching Hellgate and the wide and relatively flat valley that surrounded it. Clark’s River flowed through the canyon and, due to the fluctuating water level, the road had been scrapped several feet up the canyon’s step north wall. It was a precarious path at the best of times but during times of rain or high water next to impassable. Dannie was glad that she had neither to contend with on this trip but she still kept a close watch as the wagon’s wheels rolled dangerously close to the edge of the road.

#

“How is he?” Puck asked peering down at his sleeping cousin. Thankfully for all, Cole had passed out when Henson started to clean out his wounds and had remained unconscious as the ragged edges of his wounds were stitched neatly together by the soldier.

Henson was standing beside the cot wiping his bloody hands on a wet rag. “He’s lost a lot of blood and should rest for the next few days… But I see no reason he won’t recover.”

“Fool,” Dowling muttered. He had returned from his walk outside and was sitting in a chair several feet away where he was able to watch Henson work without having to actually see what he was doing.

“Sir?” Henson asked.

“Damn fool may have started a war,” Dowling said frowning.

“Then it’s a good thing Captain Gilford is on his way,” Henson said keenly.

Dowling pushed himself up from the chair, his head shaking slightly in dismay at the young corporal’s enthusiastic comment. “How old are you, Henson?”

“Twenty two, sir.”

“He may be a fool but he was right about one thing… you aren’t much older than a boy.”

“Sir, I’m—”

Dowling held up his hand to stop the objection. “Calm down, I’m not insulting you. I wasn’t much older myself when…” Dowling bit his lip as he remembered a time that seemed so long ago yet… “Just saying that war isn’t as glorious as the old timers make it sound,” he finally said. “It’s foul work with long days and longer nights when all you can think about is how nice it was to be warm and dry and have a full belly.”

“Sounds like you’ve been there,” Whitney said from where he was standing near the fireplace.

Dowling nodded. “I’ve seen more of war than I ever wanted. Can’t say I look easy on seeing it come round again.”

“Yankee?”

Knowing feelings still ran strong among veterans of the War Between the States, Dowling didn’t answer, preferring to avoid any possibility of a nasty situation if the station master took offense to the side on which he fought. “Corporal, you seem to have things in order. I expect you wish to remain with your charge.” When Henson nodded, he continued. “I will return to my work across the river. I shall inform Lieutenant Gage of your situation when he returns.” Dowling turned to address Puck who had returned from the corral to sit in a chair at the end of Cole’s cot. “Mr. Bridger, I would ask that you and your cousin remain in Hellgate until Captain Gilford arrives. He will be in need of a scout with knowledge of those mountains and since you have such knowledge—”

“I have no intention of returning to those mountains,” Puck said forcefully.

“Then perhaps your cousin… When he heals, of course,” Dowling said then turned and walked for the door.

#

Dannie pulled her team to a stop in front of Hellgate’s only hotel and wrapped the reins through the iron loop on the front of the driver’s box. She set the brake then stood and climbed down from the tall wagon.

“Afternoon.”

Stretching her back, Dannie acknowledged a man who had stepped out of the building with a nod. “Are you Travis?” she asked.

“Nope.”

“Ya know where I can find him?”

“Yep.”

Dannie straightened to her full height to glower at the man. “Got me a delivery for Travis. If’n ya ain’t willin’ ta point me in his direction, git outa my way,” she said striding for the hotel’s door.

Noting with some alarm that Dannie wasn’t intending to walk around him, the man hopped out of her way. “He’s inside,” he said as she marched past him.

“Figured,” Dannie grumbled pushing the hotel’s door open. Once inside the building, she stopped to look around and allow her eyes to adjust to the dimly lit room. The layout wasn’t much different from other hotels she had entered in the various mining towns she had called home over the years.

The hotel was a single story split in two with a bar situated in front of the thin wall that separated the sleeping quarters at the back of the structure from the saloon at the front. Crudely made tables and chairs were scattered about between the front door and the bar providing travelers a place to sit and eat a meal, have a drink, or enjoy a game of cards… or all three, if they chose. A door at one end of the bar led outside to the cook shack, the room being too small to allow for an indoor cooking area. At the other end of the bar a flimsy curtain was nailed over the opening providing access to the back of the hotel where cots were arranged in narrow rows—privacy not being an option offered by the small hotel. A rear door allowed quick access to the privy in the back of the hotel.

“Looking for someone?”

“Looking fer Travis,” Dannie responded to the man cleaning off the top of the bar with a rag.

“You found me.”

Dannie walked toward the bar. “Got ya sum furniture from Garnet.”

“Ah,” Travis smiled. “Been expecting it.”

Dannie leaned against the waist high bar and gave the room a second critical look. “Don’t seem ta have room fer what yer gettin’,” she told the hotel owner.

Travis laughed. “Not in here that’s for sure. I’m building a bigger place next door.

“Ya got that many people wantin’ ta stay in Hellgate?”

“We will… once the fort gets built.”

“Saw me sum Army boys on the road,” Dannie said indifferently. “Tol’ ‘em they be wastin’ time to build a fort where there ain’t no problem with Indians.”

“There is now.”

Dannie adjusted her position to look at Travis. “And that would be?” she asked curiously.

“Trapper came in this morning… had him an arrow in his side.”

“How’d he come by it?”

“Ran into some trouble on the other side of the pass. From what I hear, Injuns didn’t take kindly to him taking hides.”

“Doubt they would,” Dannie said. “That’s their land.”

“You sidin’ with the Injuns?” Travis asked with a sneer.

Dannie shook her head. “Ain’t sidin’ with ‘em or again’ ‘em. Just think if ya go where ya ain’t welcome, ya sured to find trouble.”

“I’d be careful expressin’ those opinions around here,” Travis warned her. “’Specially now we got the Army here to set the Injuns right.”

Dannie nodded recognizing a lost cause when she heard it. “You know where ya be wantin’ me ta put yer furniture?” she turned the conversation back to the business that had brought her to Hellgate.

“I’ll give ya a hand,” Travis told her as he walked around from behind the bar.

“Obliged.”

#

“Help me up,” Cole ordered. He had awakened a few minutes before to discover he was patched up and in much less pain than when he had arrived in Hellgate.

“Mr. Bridger, I recommend you don’t try—”

“Ya damn fool… I don’t much care what ya recommend,” Cole snarled at Henson as the corporal tried to force him back onto the cot. “Git outa my way.”

“Cole, you need to rest,” Puck jumped to Henson’s defense.

“What I need is a damn bottle of whiskey,” Cole snapped trying to loosen Henson’s grip on his shoulders.

“Lay back,” Henson said firmly refusing to budge.

“Lay down, Cole, I’ll bring you a bottle,” Puck offered hoping to satisfy his cousin.

“I ain’t staying in this cot like some sick whelp,” Cole insisted. “Get this lug off me.”

Puck sighed in defeat. “You best let him up,” he told Henson. “He won’t shut up ‘til you do.”

“I don’t think that is best.”

Puck placed a hand on Henson’s shoulder. “You don’t know him. Let him be.”

“He could open those wounds.”

“I know. If he does, you’ll have to fix him back up.”

Henson released his grip then straightened and backed away from the cot as Cole struggled to sit up. “I can’t be responsible if he doesn’t rest.”

Puck nodded. “I appreciate you seeing to him,” he held his hand out to Henson. “Sorry, if Cole won’t tell you the same.”

“Quit blathering like some old woman and give me a hand,” Cole snarled.

Cole bent down. Placing his hands under Cole’s arms, he pulled him upright.

“Ugh,” Cole grunted and clutched onto Puck when the room began to spin around him, his face twisting into a grimace from the pain.

“Want to sit back?”

“What I want is the closest saloon,” Cole answered.

“You won’t make it across the bridge,” Puck insisted.

“Then put me on a horse and I’ll ride across.”

“You’re a fool, Cole,” Puck said adjusting his grip on his determined cousin.

Henson stared at the men in disbelief when Puck eased Cole toward the back door of the depot. “Mr. Bridger, you aren’t…? If you put him on a horse, it could kill him.”

“Dammit, boy, we’re only goin’ as fer as the saloon,” Cole growled.

“Come on, Cole,” Puck encouraged. “Let’s get this over with.”

Henson started after the cousins but stopped when Whitney stepped in front of him. “Best to let them go.”

“I am responsible for him,” Henson started to protest.

Whitney shook his head. “Man like that don’t take kindly to being told what he can and can’t do.”

“But—”

“Don’t be a fool, Henson. Didn’t you see the knife he wore in his belt? You push him too far and he’ll cut you from bow to stern. Go on back with the rest of your boys,” Whitney told Henson gently shoving him toward the front door of the depot. “Leave Bridger be. It’ll be safer for everyone.”

Henson took a final look toward Puck who was awkwardly maneuvering his cousin through the depot’s rear door with Cole loudly protesting his clumsy efforts. “I’ll gather my kit,” he said giving up his opposition to his patient leaving.

#

Unloading the wagon had taken little time as Travis only required the furniture to be piled next to his existing building. Dannie had prepared to climb back into the driver’s box as soon as the hotel owner had signed off on her delivery papers.

“You’re not staying in town?” Travis asked.

“Heading back to Sweetwater.”

“I can offer you a cot… only two bits.”

“This load already put me behind. Should have been back already.”

“How ‘bout a hot meal then? You’ve still got a ways to go, hot meal can’t hurt.”

Dannie considered the offer. “S’pose it can’t,” she agreed not looking forward to another can of beans for dinner.

“Good, good,” Travis said smiling. “Come back inside and I’ll fix you up a steak in no time.”

Dannie followed Travis back into the hotel and took a seat at a table near the front where she could keep an eye on her team out one of the grimy windows. Travis had disappeared out the side door to the cook shack when the front door opened and a pair of men entered, one half carrying, half dragging the other inside. She watched as the men dropped into the chairs of the table on the opposite side of the door.

“Whiskey, barkeep,” Cole bellowed. When no one responded, he turned his attention to Dannie. “Git me a bottle,” he ordered.

“Git it yerself.”

Cole studied Dannie. “Yer a woman,” he said in surprise.

Dannie ignored the comment, turning her attention back out the dirty window.

“Hey, I’m talkin’ ta you.”

“Cole, leave her be,” Puck said pushing up out of his chair to retrieve a bottle from the bar.

“I said yer a woman,” Cole insisted.

Slowly, Dannie’s head swiveled back, her eyes boring into Cole’s.

“Ya is a woman ain’t ya?”

“So ya said.”

Cole lifted his arm then slammed it down on the table top. “Where’s that whiskey, Puck? I aim to have me a drink with this here woman.”

“I’m coming,” Puck said from behind the bar where he was removing a pair of glasses from the shelf on the wall.

“Why don’ ya come over here?” Cole told Dannie. “I’ll buy ya a drink.”

Dannie looked disgustedly at the man. “I choose who I do my drinkin’ with,” she told him firmly.

“Ah, come on over,” Cole insisted. “I ain’t seen me a woman in a mighty long time.”

“Leave her be, Cole,” Puck warned setting a bottle and the glasses on the table. “She’s not interested in you.”

Cole laughed. “That Injun wasn’t interested either. But I showed her.” He reached for his belt. “Maybe I should take yer hair like I took hers,” he told Dannie holding up his trophies.

Dannie’s stomach flip-flopped and she swallowed to force back the bile rising in her throat at the sight of the scalps. She tried to look away but couldn’t, her eyes refused to move from the beads carefully woven into the hair of one of the scalps. She forced the chair back from the table, her hand dropping to her boot as she stood.

“Get another glass, Puck,” Cole said triumphantly. “Looks like we’re having sum company.”

Dannie took a cautious look at the distance between herself and the door.

“Ah, I thought I heard voices,” Travis said entering from the cook shack carrying a platter holding a slab of cooked meat. “I’ll just grab the coffee pot—”

“No need,” Dannie told Travis without taking her eyes off Cole. “I won’t be staying.”

“What? You can’t leave, I’ve already cooked this,” the businessman protested the loss of payment.

Holding her right hand down at her side, Dannie placed her left hand into the pocket of her shirt and pulled out some coins. “I’ll pay for the steak but I won’t stay to eat it,” she repeated dropping the coins on the table.

“Ah, come on,” Cole cajoled. “We’ll be glad to share that steak with you. Won’t we, Puck?”

Puck eased around the table to stand between Cole and the door. “You best be on your way,” he told Dannie. “I apologize for Cole, he’s not feeling himself.” He nudged his head toward the door. “Best be going,” he urged her.

Before Dannie could take a step, Cole surged out of his chair. He shoved Puck aside sending him staggering several feet across the floor before he regained his footing. “Ya ain’t leavin’ just yet,” he told Dannie. “Man asks a woman to have a drink, last thing she should be thinkin’ is sayin’ no,” he added reaching for his belt.

Dannie closed the distance between them so fast that Cole didn’t have time to pull his knife from its scabbard before she had her own pressed against his neck. “Yer ain’t no man,” she sneered at him. “Yer no better than a rabid dog. I don’ eat with them and I won’ eat with you.”

“Pull her off me,” Cole screamed when Dannie pressed the shape blade further into his skin.

“I told you to let her be,” Puck yelled back but stayed where he was.

“You damn bitch,” Cole directed angrily at Dannie.

“I’ll slit yer worthless throat if’n ya call me that again,” Dannie warned increasing the force on her knife.

“Back off,” Travis ordered cocking the shotgun he had removed from the back of the bar. “Back off or I’ll drop you where you stand.”

Dannie eased the knife off Cole’s neck but kept a firm grip on the handle. “I jus’ want ta leave,” she told Travis. “He brought this on hisself.”

“Step back,” Travis told Dannie.

When Dannie moved to comply, Cole pulled his own knife free. “No bitch is goin’ ta cut me,” Cole growled.

“Drop it or I’ll drop you,” Travis shouted at Cole.

The knife fell to the floor when Cole felt the barrel of the shotgun pressed against his cheek.

“Now she’s going to leave and you ain’t doing nothing to stop her,” Travis warned Cole. He had managed to cross the room unnoticed by either of them as they were so focused on each other.

Dannie inched her way to the door and slipped outside. She wasted no time climbing up the side of the tall wagon and was urging her team into motion before she had even settled on the seat.

“What ya aimin’ ta do with that shotgun?” Cole asked after Dannie left.

“Depends. You sit down and eat a meal, I’ll put it aside. You try to go after her and I’ll blow your head off.”

“You puttin’ a woman ‘fore me?” Cole asked furiously.

“Yes. So what is it to be? You sitting?” Having no choice, Cole nodded. Travis pulled the shotgun away from his head and waiting until he dropped back into the chair. Then he walked back to the bar where he exchanged the weapon for the platter of meat and carried it back to Cole. He dropped the platter in front of the angry man then he moved over and picked up the coins Dannie had left. “It’s on the house.”

Puck pulled out a chair at another table and sat down. “I’ll take one of those,” he told the hotel owner as he walked past the table on his way back to the bar.

Travis picked up the shotgun and placed it on the table where Puck was sitting. “Hafta go out to the cook shack. He tries to leave, shoot him.”

“He’s my cousin.”

Travis looked at Cole then at Puck. “You go hungry or you shoot him… he ain’t goin’ after a woman from my place,” he said then waited.

Cole laughed wiping steak juice off his chin with his sleeve. “He ain’t got the guts.”

Puck reached for the shotgun. “I’ll shoot him,” he said pulling it closer to him.

“Make sure you don’t miss,” Travis said then walked for the side door.

#

Dannie managed to drive the team to the river ford, make the crossing, and get almost to the bridge at the flats before she had to pull them to a stop, her whole body shaking so hard she could barely keep hold of the reins. For several minutes she just sat and replayed the events at the hotel over in her head.

“I almost kilt him,” Dannie mumbled when a vision of Leevie came into her head. “I never kilt a man, Leevie. Never. But I almost kilt him.” She reached for the canteen under the seat. It took several attempts before she was able to pull cork stopper free and then her numb fingers dropped it. She took several gulps of water but her stomach was too tied up in knots to accept the liquid. The canteen slipped out of her hand as she leaned over the side of the wagon when the water came back up.

Dannie forced her body back onto the seat. “Damn,” she whispered as tears started to flow from her eyes. She bent over burying her head in her hands. “How am I goin’ ta tell Jesse?”

#

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Instead of stopping the team at the mercantile or driving to the livery where she kept her horses, Dannie encouraged them to keep moving along Sweetwater’s only street. It was still dark and she was relieved to see few lights glowing in the town’s dark buildings; with a little luck she would be able to continue through town without anyone noticing. But looking down the street to the far end of town, she couldn’t help seeing the two story building emerging out of the night’s darkness and the brightly lit window of the room she shared with her lover. A shadow crossing the window confirmed that Leevie was awake and moving about the room.

The team had yet to reach the Silver Slipper when the boarding house’s front door opened and Leevie stepped out onto the wide porch. Barefoot and wearing her winter coat over her nightgown, she quickly walked across the expanse and down the steps to meet the wagon.

Reluctantly, Dannie pulled on the reins to stop the horses. “Leevie, ya shouldn’t be out here,” she said quietly setting the wagon’s brake.

“Where have you been?” Leevie asked as her lover climbed down from the tall wagon. “I’ve been so worried.”

Dannie stomped the tiredness out of her legs then opened her arms to embrace Leevie. “I picked up a ‘xtra load in Garnet. Had ta take it ta Hellgate.”

Welcoming the feel of familiar strong arms surrounding her, Leevie slipped her arms around Dannie’s waist squeezing her tight. “You look exhausted,” she murmured.

“Been a long night,” Dannie agreed.

“Then let’s get the team put up and you into bed.”

“Can’t,” Dannie said decisively.

Leevie tilted her head back to look into Dannie’s eyes. “What do you mean?”

“I have… I seen sumthin’ in Hellgate I… I have ta… it’s… it’s sumthin’ Jesse will be wantin’ ta know,” Dannie finally forced the words out.

“Then you can ride out to tell her after you’ve had some sleep,” Leevie insisted.

“No,” Dannie said in a firm voice. “It needs ta git done now.” She released her hold on Leevie. “Ya go back ta bed. I’ll be back soon as I talk ta Jesse.” Then she turned to climb back up into the driver’s box.

“Dannie, stop!” Leevie demanded reaching out to take hold of her lover’s arm. “You can’t go.”

Dannie spun around. “I have ta. Now, go back inside,” she ordered.

“Your team is as exhausted as you are,” Leevie persisted. “They won’t make it to Jesse’s.”

“Dammit, woman,” Dannie grunted when she saw the glow of lanterns being lit in some of the other buildings. “Ya is wakin’ up the town.”

“I’ll wake up the whole territory if it’ll keep you from this fool idea,” Leevie snapped.

“What the hell is goin’ on out here?”

Dannie and Leevie turned to see Bette Mae storming out of the Slipper, shotgun in hand.

“Sorry,” Leevie called to the agitated woman. “It’s just us.”

Shuffling across the porch to stand at the top of the steps, Bette Mae relaxed her grip on the shotgun’s trigger. “So’s, ya finally found yer way home, didja?” she addressed Dannie.

“Yes, and she’s insisting she has to go out to talk to Jesse right now.”

“What fer?” Bette Mae asked from the top of the steps.

Dannie frowned. “Ain’t no bizness I want ta talk ‘bout ‘cept with Jesse,” she muttered.

Also awakened by the loud voice in the otherwise still night, Sally came out of the Slipper to stand beside Bette Mae. “What’s wrong?” she asked sleepily.

“Tha’s what I is tryin’ to find out,” Bette Mae responded.

“I ain’t gonna stand here jawin’ with ya,” Dannie said angrily. “I aim ta go talk ta Jesse, so go back ta bed and let me be.”

Leevie tightened her grip on Dannie’s arm. “You are not going anywhere—”

“Leave me be,” Dannie grunted twisting her arm free to start the climb up the tall wagon to the driver’s box.

“Dannie, no!”

“Go wake up Billie,” Bette Mae told Sally then waited for her to hurry down the steps and past the wagon before returning her attention to the women in the street. “Leevie’s right,” she told Dannie. “Best ya wait ‘till daylight.”

“Ya don’ know what I seen,” Dannie shouted back, her voice breaking when the image she had spent most of the night trying to suppress flooded back.

“Then tell us,” Leevie implored.

Gritting her teeth in an attempt to control her churning stomach, Dannie released the wagon’s brake. The tired animals were slow to respond to her urgings and it took several moments before they were all straining against the harnesses.

“Dannie, please stop,” Leevie called out when the wagon began to inch away from her.

The team had barely made it past the Slipper when Billie ran up. Grabbing the bridles of the lead horses, he brought the wagon to a stop.

“Let ‘em go,” Dannie ordered reaching for the bull whip she carried but seldom used.

“Can’t do that,” Billie said, “these horses are too tired to be going anywhere.”

Dannie glared at Billie standing stubbornly in front of her team. Dropping the reins, she moved to the side of the wagon away from where Leevie stood. “Then I’ll git me a horse from the livery,” she told them swinging her leg over the side of the wagon.

While Leevie hurried around the back of the wagon, Billie turned the horses to lead them to the stables behind the Oxbow saloon.

“Will you stop,” Leevie cried as she tried to catch up to her lover.

Dannie spun around. She waited for Leevie to reach her then placed her hands on Leevie’s shoulders. “I tol’ ya I have ta do this,” she hissed.

Leevie looked into Dannie’s eyes and was shocked at what she saw. Though it was still dark, the sky had lightened a little as the night had begun to be replaced by the dawn. Dannie’s eyes were bloodshot and swollen and they were filled with a sorrow so intense that Leevie gasped seeing it. She lifted a hand to her lover’s face and gently caressed her cheek. “Dannie,” she said softly, “I’ve never seen you like this. Please tell me what’s wrong,” she begged.

“I think that’d be a right good idea,” Bette Mae added having left the porch to walk with Billie. They were now standing beside the distraught pair, the team of horses shuffling impatiently behind them.

“Goodness,” Ed huffed running up to the others with Sally. “What is this all about?” he panted.

Dannie looked at the anxious faces then sighed heavily.

#

It took several minutes for Dannie to force the words past the lump in her throat but she finally managed to explain what she had seen in Hellgate.

“Why?” Leevie asked, her arms circling Dannie in a loving embrace. “Why would anyone do that?”

“Can’t account fer the hate some men carry,” Bette Mae told her.

“Damn,” Ed said shaking his head in disgust. “That’s just not right.”

“Poor Jesse,” Sally said.

“Ya understand now?” Dannie asked. “I have ta go tell her.”

Ed looked sympathetically at the wagon driver. “It might be better to let Billie and me ride out—”

“No!” Dannie interrupted firmly.

“Dannie, I know what you’re feeling—”

“Ain’t none of ya know what I is feeling,” Dannie protested angrily. “But I’m the one that seen it and I’m the one that’s gonna tell her ‘bout her friend. It’s the right thing ta do.”

“Dannie’s right,” Billie interjected. “Knowing Jesse, she’d want to hear it from her. I’ll ride out with you,” he said directly to Dannie. “If that’s alright?”

Dannie nodded. “I’d… I’d like that. But if we’re doin’ it, let’s be goin’. Don’t know how much longer I can keep my gut in check.”

Seeing that Leevie wasn’t yet willing to release her hold on Dannie, Billie told them, “I’ll see to your team and saddle some horses.” Then he started for the stables, leading the team and wagon behind him.

“I’ll give you a hand,” Ed offered falling into step with Billie.

Bette Mae waited until the dust settled after the horses had walked away then she turned back to the Slipper. “Come on, Sally, let’s get the stove heatin’. Looks like we is in for a busy day.”

Dannie watched Bette Mae and Sally until they had climbed the porch steps and disappeared back inside the Slipper before turning her attention to Leevie. “I’m sorry, honey,” she whispered wiping the tears off her lover’s cheeks with the back of her fingers. “I didn’t want ya ta know.”

“It’s not right, Dannie,” Leevie sniffled.

“I know.”

“It’s so terrible what Walk and his family must have… Oh Dannie, how will you tell Jesse?”

Danny pulled Leevie close. “Been askin’ myself that all the way from Hellgate.”

“I should come with you.”

“No. It’s bad ‘nuff that ya had ta hear that jus’ now. No reason ya should have ta hear it again when I tell Jesse.”

“But Jennifer…”

Dannie realized the reasoning behind Leevie’s concern. “Perhaps, you can ride out later; take Bette Mae or Ruthie with ya.”

Leevie sighed. “All right.”

“Sure you want to do this?” Billie asked when he walked up to Dannie and Leevie with two saddled horses.

“Thought ya was seein’ ta my team.”

“Ed is taking care of them,” Billie assured the horses’ owner.

Dannie bent to kiss Leevie on the lips then straightened and grabbed the reins to one of the horses and swung herself up into the saddle with a groan.

“Be careful,” Leevie told Dannie.

“Ya wait fer morning fer ya ride out ta Jesse’s,” Dannie told Leevie. “I don’ want ya on the road whilst it’s still too dark to see.”

Leevie nodded.

Dannie turned the horse’s head toward the end of town. “Let’s go,” she said urging the pony forward.

#

Jesse was sitting in a chair on the front porch of the ranch house when she heard the distinctive pattern of horses’ hoofs beating against the ground. She looked toward the hillock south of the house to see a pair of horses trotting under the high arch that marked the entrance to her ranch. Recognizing one of the riders as Billie by the way he sat in the saddle, she resumed the task of pulling on her boots. With boots on, she stood to wait for her friend and the other rider to approach. Walking to the edge of the porch, she was surprised, and confused, when she realized Dannie was the second rider.

“Slipper burning down?” Jesse asked when the horses were pulled to a stop in front of the house. Receiving no reply, she looked at the pair perplexingly. “Something must have brought you out here,” she said. “Want to tell me or do you want to sit them horses while I get a start on my chores?”

Billie swung his leg over the rump of his horse, dropping to the ground with a thud. Dannie followed, groaning when her tired body was jarred by the impact with the dirt.

“Didn’t know you rode,” Jesse told Dannie.

“I do,” Dannie answered rubbing her behind. “Jus’ don’ like it much.” She limped to the bottom of the steps. “Got sumthing ta tell that ya be wantin’ ta know,” she said solemnly looking up at Jesse partially hid in the early morning shadows.

Jesse felt uneasy when she saw the serious expression on the wagon driver’s face. “Come on up,” she told her friends. “I can get coffee if you’d like.”

“Think it best we talk first,” Dannie said halfway up the steps.

“Doesn’t sound like good news you’re bringing.”

“It’s not.”

“Shall we sit?” Jesse asked fretfully while involuntarily backing away a couple of hesitate steps.

“I best stand,” Dannie said. She moved to stand in front of Jesse. After a glance over her shoulder at Billie who nodded his encouragement, she faced the rancher. “Was in Hellgate yesterday,” she began. “Had me a run-in with a trapper there.” Unsure how the events being relayed could be of any interest to her, Jesse listened quietly, yet apprehensively, as a somber Dannie continued. “What he dun said don’ much matter but…” She stopped swallowing hard. “Ain’t much likin’ havin’ ta tell ya this, Jesse…” She swallowed again. “Trapper was wearing… they was hangin’ from his belt.”

“What, Dannie? What?” Jesse asked in a whisper.

Dannie took a deep breath, willing the words the come out. “Scalps… he had him scalps hangin’ off his belt. I’m sorry, Jesse, but one of ‘em was… it was…” She reached out to place a comforting hand on the rancher’s shoulder then she forced the words from her mouth. “One of ‘em b’longed to tha’ friend of yers… the Indian.”

Jesse’s knees buckled as she blindly reached out for something to hold onto. Dannie reacted in time to get her arm around her friend’s waist before Jesse could collapse.

“You must have seen wrong,” Jesse muttered as she was helped across the porch to one of the chairs. She twisted about to look into Dannie’s eyes. “You must have seen wrong,” she repeated more forcefully.

Dannie shook her head. “Only seen that beadwork once,” she told Jesse softly.

Stunned, Jesse allowed them to place her in a chair. “Can’t be,” she mumbled.

“I’m sorry, Jesse,” Billie said kneeling beside the chair and placing a hand on her thigh. “I’m so sorry.”

“No,” Jesse spat out, her head moving rapidly from side to side. “No. I don’t believe it.” She looked up at Dannie standing nervously on the opposite side of her chair. “You’re wrong. It wasn’t him. It wasn’t.”

“It…” Dannie’s voice hitched as she bit back a sob. “Damn, Jesse, I wouldn’t make up sumthin’ like this. It weren’t sumthin’ I took pleasure in seein’ but it was there. I seen it and I been wishin’ I hadn’t ever since.”

Having been drawn away from his cabin by the unexpected early morning activity, Stanley called out walking across the ranch yard, “What’s the problem?” He quickened his steps when he saw the look on Jesse’s face. “What the hell is going on?” he demanded loudly.

Billie stood then pulled Stanley aside to repeat the grisly news. “Someone needs to go wake up Jennifer,” Stanley told him.

“I’ll go,” Dannie quickly offered wanting to escape the anguish her information was causing the rancher. She stepped to the screen door, pulled it open and disappeared into the house before anyone could object.

Jesse turned grief stricken eyes to Billie. “She said scalps,” she asked choking on the words.

Billie sighed and nodded; then stood helplessly as Jesse began to cry.

At a loss as to how he could help his sobbing daughter, Stanley stood nervously wringing his hands.

#

Jennifer was slowly making her way down the stairs when Dannie rushed inside the house. “Goodness, it’s you,” she greeted the sudden appearance of the woman. “Is Leevie sick?”

Hearing Jennifer’s question, Dannie came to an abrupt stop in the middle of the sitting room. “Um, no,” she stammered.

Jennifer reached the bottom of the stairs then, leaning heavily on her cane, limped over to her friend. “Dannie, if it’s not Leevie then why are you here before daylight.” Hearing the screen door open, they both turned toward the sound.

#

Suddenly, Jesse pushed herself up from the chair then dragged her sleeve across her tearstained face. She walked purposely to the door and entered the house. She moved through the sitting room with measured steps ignoring Jennifer’s pleas to stop. Entering the kitchen, she walked to the cabinet that held her guns and retrieved her holster. After strapping it around her waist, she lifted her revolver off one of the shelves and loaded it. Then she closed the cabinet and walked out of the kitchen to again move through the sitting room and past her confused wife without saying a word. “Take care of Jennifer,” she told her father as she crossed the porch.

“Just a minute,” Stanley exclaimed when Jesse started down the step. “What are you doing?”

Jesse didn’t answer as she broke into a run for the barn. Moments later, Dusty burst out of the barn already at full gallop. Before anyone could react, the mare was racing away from the house with her bareback rider.

“Stop her,” Jennifer screamed through the screen door.

Billie leaped off the porch and remounted his horse to chase after his friend.

Stanley looked at Jennifer then spun around to bounce down the steps two at a time. He mounted the second horse and was soon galloping up the knoll after Jesse and Billie.

When Dannie tried to move by Jennifer on her way outside, she was stopped by a cane being forced against her chest.

“No, you don’t,” Jennifer growled pushing Dannie backward. “You better tell me what the heck is going on and you better be damn quick about it.”

#

Dusty charged through Sweetwater leaving a cloud of dust behind her.

“Was that Jesse?” Bette Mae asked Ed who was standing at the door of the Slipper.

“Sure looked like it.”

“Ya don’ think…?”

“I surely do.”

“You best go roust Frank out of bed.”

Ed nodded then left to wake up the sheriff.

“Lordy me,” Bette Mae muttered watching the dust settle back to the ground. The fine particles shimmering pink in the morning light. “What is tha’ girl thinkin’.”

#

Jesse face was twisted into a look of pure hate when Dusty plowed through Clark’s River knee deep water at the crossing in Hellgate. It was still early enough in the morning that few of the town’s occupants were visible. She spotted a man walking back to a cluster of tents and guided Dusty straight for him.

“Where is he?” she demanded, barely pulling Dusty to a stop before the big mare slammed into the shirtless soldier.

“Who?”

“The trapper.”

The soldier reached down and slipped his arms through the loops hanging at his sides then he pulled his suspenders up into place. “Which one?” he asked showing little worry with the annoyance being directed at him.

“The one showing off his trophies,” Jesse snarled.

“Oh, him,” the soldier muttered distastefully. “Last I saw him he was down at the hotel passed out at one of the tables.”

Jesse turned Dusty back to the road, not caring the mare was kicking dirt clods at the soldier as they rode away.

#

Jesse was swinging her leg over Dusty’s neck before the mare reached the hotel. She slipped off the horse’s side and hit the ground running straight for the hotel, the poorly hung door giving way without protest when her shoulder slammed into it. She charged into the dark room, her eyes quickly detecting a dark form slumped over one of the tables. She strode to the table and, when the man gave no reaction to her presence, she kicked the chair out from under him.

Cole hit the floor with a grunt and rolled onto his back. “What the hell?” he called out from his whiskey induced haze.

Jesse sneered down at the man sprawled at her feet. Then she saw them—five scalps hanging from the trapper’s belt. Her stomach roiled when she saw the beadwork that was definitely the pattern Spotted Fawn had lovingly woven into Walks on the Wind hair. She also recognized the light brown hair of Spotted Fawn. But it was the tiny hair piece that hung from Cole’s belt that sickened her most and she had to fight back the urge to empty her stomach right then and there.

“Whadda ya want?” Cole barked at the form standing over him, his glassy eyes unable to focus in the dark room.

Jesse bent down reaching for the scalps but before she could rip them free the room was suddenly flooded with light.

Awakened by Jesse’s crashing entry, Puck emerged from the back room with a lantern. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes with one hand, he held the brightly burning lamp high with his other.

Momentarily blinded by the harsh light, Jesse froze. Cole didn’t hesitate to take advantage and slapped her hands away then struck out with his foot. Jesse dodged his clumsy attempt to kick her and responded by driving the toe of her boot into his side. Cole screamed in pain.

“What are you doing?” Puck yelled.

Jesse ignored Puck. “Those were friends of mine,” she snarled at Cole. “You ain’t walking out of here with them.”

“Ya ought to pick yer friends better,” Cole snarled right back at her. He rubbed his side, glad the enraged woman hadn’t kicked his other side still healing from the arrow wound. He rolled onto his side to hide the motion of reaching for his knife. “Where’s my knife?” he screamed in surprise finding the scabbard empty.

“Took it away from you last night,” Puck explained. He was standing behind the bar content to see how events played out from a safe distance. “You were getting too nasty from the whiskey.”

“I’ll show ya nasty,” Cole directed his anger at his cousin. “Get me my knife or I’ll cut yer liver out when I find it.”

Puck didn’t move.

Jesse pulled her pistol free of the holster then pointed it at Cole, very slowly, very intentionally. “I should shoot you like the dog you are.”

“What is it about crazy women in this town?” Cole asked to no one in particular. “Help me up, Puck.”

“Not this time.”

“Jesse, don’t do it,” Billie yelled running through the door-less entry.

“Stay back, Billie,” Jesse warned. “You, too, Poppa.”

“Poppa?” Cole mocked. “This yer whelp?” he asked Stanley who burst into the room on Billie’s heels. “Don’ seem ya used a belt on her often ‘nuff,” he said pushing up into a sitting position. “If ya plan to shoot me, go ‘head and do it,” he told Jesse. “If’n ya got the nerve,” he added with a laugh.”

“He isn’t worth it, Jesse,” Billie told her.

“He killed Walk.”

“Was that what he was called?” Cole asked. “Dumb Injun name.”

“Shut up!” Jesse shouted cocking the pistol.

“Jesse, don’t,” Stanley called out in alarm.

“He killed them… all of them. Even their baby.”

“Ya got yer own babies ta worry over,” Stanley told her. “Think ‘bout them.”

Her father’s words penetrated her hate clouded brain. “He has to pay,” Jesse said determinedly. “We have to take him back to Sweetwater. Frank can keep in jail until the judge comes.”

“Ain’t no law ‘gainst killin’ Injuns,” Cole said confidently.

“He’s right, Jesse,” Billie agreed grudgingly. “Even if we took him back, Frank can’t charge him with any crime.”

“Walk was your friend, too,” Jesse screamed. “Don’t tell me the law won’t do anything to him.”

“Jesse, I understand—”

“No, you don’t,” Jesse cut off her father. “You don’t see them as people any more than he does,” she said jabbing her pistol at Cole. “He killed them. Don’t you get it, he killed them.”

“They was stealing my elk,” Cole said matter-of-factly as he struggled to stand.

“Move one more inch and I’ll blow your head off,” Jesse warned.

“Shoot him,” Stanley bellowed. “Shoot him and git this over with. But ‘fore ya do, ya be tellin’ me what I should tell Jennifer and yer momma. What do I tell ‘em when ya don’ come home with us? Tell me, daughter… what?”

Jesse turned her gaze from Cole to her father then to Billie and back to Cole who was kneeling on the floor smirking at her. She glared at him. “Give him his knife,” she barked at Puck.

“Jesse?”

“Stay out of this,” Jesse ordered Billie. “Get him his knife,” she ordered again.

Puck scampered into the back room to retrieve the knife. When he came back, he would get no closer to his cousin than before and had to slide the weapon across the floor to come to a skittering stop right in front of Cole.

“Pick it up,” Jesse told the trapper who instantly complied gripping the handle firmly and jabbing the blade at her. Knocking the blade aside, she grabbed a fistful of the trapper’s greasy hair and pressed the barrel of her pistol to his forehead. “Uh, uh. I didn’t give that to you so you could cut me.”

“Then whatja want me ta do with it?”

“Cut your belt free.”

“My belt?”

“Cut your belt. I’m taking those with me.”

Cole laughed. “Plan on wearin’ these yerself, does ya?”

“Cut your belt free or I’ll do it myself.”

“I might take a likin’ ta that.”

Aggravated with Cole, Stanley pulled a knife from his boot and sliced through the trapper’s belt before he knew what was happening. “Give me yer gun,” he said holding out the gruesome object to Jesse.

“I don’t ever want to see you in Sweetwater,” Jesse told Cole as she straightened up pulling her pistol away from his head. Then, swallowing hard, she exchanged the gun for the belt. Reverently, she carefully removed the scalps from the belt before tossing it back at Cole. Then without a word, she turned and walked out of the hotel.

“Go with her,” Stanley told Billie who had finally allowed himself to breath.

“What about—”

“I’ll keep an eye on ‘im ‘til yer safely out a town.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Billie asked eyeing Puck suspiciously.

“Don’t be worrying about me,” Puck told the men. “Cole makes his own trouble. I want no part of it.”

“Shut up and bring me some whiskey,” Cole snapped. He had managed to lug his body off the floor and into a chair while the others talked.

“Go on,” Stanley urged Billie. “She’ll be needin’ a friend.”

“Seems like she ain’t too good pickin’ those,” Cole laughed.

After Billie left, Stanley walked over to the bar. “I’ll take a glass of that whiskey,” he told Puck who was holding a bottle of the liquor.

Puck pulled two glasses off a shelf behind the bar and filled them almost to their rims then pushed one toward Stanley.

“What about me?” Cole asked.

“You want one, come get it,” Puck answered.

Grumbling, Cole forced himself to his feet. “Ought ta go after that bitch,” he muttered.

“Ya try and I’ll shoot ya.”

“Ya let that dumb whelp—”

“Tha’ ain’t no whelp,” Stanley said angrily.

“Ya a Injun lover?” Cole asked leaning on the bar several feet from the angry man who held a pistol loosely in his hand.

Stanley lifted the glass of whiskey to his lips and drained it, grimacing as the bitter liquid burned its way down his throat. “Ain’t got no use for Injuns,” he said slamming the glass down onto the bar.

Cole laughed. “Injuns. Don’ mean nothin’ to nobody,” he said snatching the whiskey bottle out of Puck’s grasp.

Stanley eyed the trapper who drank straight from the bottle. “They meant sumthin’ ta Jesse,” he said calmly raising the pistol and aiming it at Cole’s head. “Ya hurt my kid… hurt her bad.”

Puck dove for cover behind the bar just as Stanley pulled the trigger.

Stanley watched Cole’s body crumble to the floor then he turned and walked toward the door. Mounting the horse waiting for him, he rode away from the hotel as those alerted by the shot ran toward it.

#

Puck was standing by the bar looking curiously down at his lifeless cousin when Lieutenant Gage ran into the room followed closely by several of his troopers.

“Go stop that man,” Gage ordered his men.

“No need,” Puck told them.

“What do you mean? This man’s been shot dead.”

“So he has.

“Aren’t you his kin?”

“Yes.”

“You saw what happened?”

“All of it.”

“And you don’t want that man arrested?”

“I think he got what he had it coming to him.”

Confused by Puck’s casual demeanor, Gage shook his head in disbelief. “Guess if you want to let it go… You want help carrying him to the graveyard?”

“Nope. I’ve cleaned up enough of his messes,” Puck explained picking up the lantern. “Besides, he isn’t worth digging a hole for.”

“What do you plan to do?” Gage asked troubled by Puck removing the lantern’s chimney.

“I plan to give him a nice burial right here.”

“Don’t think Travis will appreciate that.”

Puck considered the statement. “Probably not,” he agreed. “There’s enough pelts over at the depot to pay for the damages. You can tell him they’re his.” He started for the door carrying the lantern with him. “Now I suggest you clear this room.”

“What about the back room?”

“It’s empty,” Puck assured Gage then waited for the soldier to hustle his men and the other curious town folk who had arrived at the hotel back outside. “To you, cousin,” he said lifting the lantern in the air in a final salute. “May you burn in hell.” Then he hurled it across the room, watching it shatter when it struck the front of the bar. Within moments flames were licking their way across the floor toward Cole’s body.

Puck walked outside to find a crowd of townspeople and soldiers standing in the street. He spotted Travis among them, the building’s owner not appearing too bothered by the demise of his business. “I apologize for Cole,” Puck told him.

“He needed killin’,” Travis replied. “Thanks for the pelts.”

“They’re prime… cleaned and stretched them myself. They’ll bring top dollar.”

“You stickin’ around?”

“No. Heading home.” Puck took a final look at the hotel— the wood building was already fully engulfed in hungry flames. Then he set off down the street heading east.

Travis tossed him a wave before turning back to watch his building burn. “If you boys want breakfast,” he told the men milling around, “you best grab some buckets and save the cook shack from burning.”

#

CHAPTER TWELVE

“I figured I’d be seein’ ya this morning,” Bette Mae told Jennifer when Dannie pulled the buckboard to a stop in front of the Silver Slipper.

“Is she here?” Jennifer asked anxiously.

“No, honey,” Bette Mae replied sadly. “She dun rode through town like her tail was on fire… her poppa and Billie not fer behind.”

“Didn’t you try to stop them?” Jennifer asked, her voice more angry than she meant.

“Didn’t give anyone much chance ta do that.”

“Dannie, are you okay?” Leevie asked her lover.

Dannie nodded then climbed down from the buckboard and walked around the back of the wagon.

“No,” Jennifer said when Dannie offered to help her down. “We need to go on to Hellgate.”

“Ain’t no reason fer ya ta be doin’ any such thing,” Bette Mae said. “Now, ya let Dannie help ya down and cum inside. I’ve got a fresh pot a coffee brewin’.”

Jennifer glared at the robust woman. “I have to stop her before she…” She broke off afraid to finish the thought.

“She ain’t gonna do nothin’,” Bette Mae insisted. “I dun sent Frank after ‘em just to make sure of that.”

“Bette Mae—”

“No. I know my Jesse. She ain’t gonna do nothin’ to git herself thrown back inta jail. She knows tha’ would hurt ya and the littl’ ones too much.”

Jennifer shoulders slumped and she let out a heavy sigh. “I sure hope you’re right.”

“’Course I is. Now git down and cum inside. All we’s can do is wait so’s we mite as well wait together.”

Jennifer turned to look to the other end of Sweetwater and further down the road that led to Hellgate. “I suppose you’re right,” she said dejectedly. “I doubt we could get there in time anyhow.” She stood then carefully moved to the side of the wagon and allowed Dannie to assist her down to the ground. “Thanks,” she told the exhausted woman.

“Where’s my babies?” Bette Mae asked as Jennifer climbed the steps to the porch.

“I thought it would be better to leave them at the ranch with Marie.”

Bette Mae nodded her approval then led the women into the Slipper. “I’ll have Sally start scramblin’ up sum eggs.”

“Not for me, Bette Mae,” Jennifer said, “I don’t think I can eat anything until I know Jesse is safe.” She limped over to a table set in front of one of the windows that overlooked Sweetwater’s only street and sat down. “Damn,” she muttered staring out the window, “it’s going to be a long wait.”

“That it is,” Bette Mae agreed as she sat in the chair next to Jennifer while Dannie and Leevie settled on the other two chairs.

“Are you hungry?” Leevie asked Dannie who nodded. “I’ll ask Sally to fix you something,” she said standing.

Jennifer turned away from the window. “I’m sorry, Dannie. I should have known you’d be hungry,” she said apologetically.

“Ya got more important things on yer mind.”

Jennifer smiled gratefully then studied her friend. “What do you think she’ll do?”

Dannie appeared surprised by the question. “Think ya’d be knowin’ better than me,” she sputtered.

“You’re a lot like her, Dannie… especially at times like this. What would you do?”

Dannie chewed on her lower lip for a moment. “That’s a hard question, Jennifer. Wasn’t my friend got kilt.”

Leevie returned from the kitchen carrying a tray with a pot of coffee and cups.

“Thank ya,” Dannie told Leevie when a steaming cup of coffee was placed in front of her.

Leevie smiled then poured coffee into the other cups and passed them to Jennifer and Bette Mae.

Jennifer watched Dannie stir sugar into her cup. “If it had been your friend, would you kill the man that did it?” she asked.

“I’d surely want to.”

“But you wouldn’t,” Jennifer asked hopefully.

“I had my chance,” Dannie said regretfully.

“But you couldn’t do it,” Leevie said thankfully.

Dannie took a sip of coffee then carefully placed the cup back on the table. “I ain’t Jesse,” she said quietly.

#

Billie pulled his pistol from his holster as he scampered up the river bank, the sound of a rider approaching at a gallop forcing him to move quickly. Reaching the top of the bank, he looked toward Hellgate then, relieved to find the road empty, turned to face the opposite direction. He waved when he recognized the rider. “Over here, Frank,” he called to Sweetwater’s sheriff.

“Where’s Jesse?” Frank demanded breathlessly.

Replacing his pistol into his holster, Billie nodded toward the river and the form huddled next to it.

“Damn,” Frank grunted swinging his leg over the back of his horse. “Didn’t think she’d do it,” he muttered after dismounting.

“Do what?”

“Kill that trapper.”

“She didn’t.”

“She didn’t?”

“She wanted to but Stanley talked her out of it.”

Frank looked around. Seeing only two other horses, he asked. “Where is Stanley?”

“Stayed in Hellgate to make sure we weren’t followed. That trapper threatened to come after Jesse.”

“Fool.”

Billie nodded.

“Guess I better ride into Hellgate and have a talk with him.” Frank glanced down to where Jesse was hunched over at the river’s edge, the cold water lapping over the toes of her boots. “She gonna be all right?”

Billie nodded. “It’ll take some time.”

“Glad she didn’t do it. I wasn’t looking forward to arresting her.”

“Would you have?”

Frank turned to face the man who had given up the badge he now wore. “Would you?”

Billie looked down kicking a clod of dirt with his boot. “Law says it ain’t wrong for a white man to kill an Indian. It also says it’s wrong for a woman to kill the man that has.” Billie looked up. “Seems to me that both are wrong.”

“The law or the act?”

“Guess it’s a good thing I don’t have to choose.”

“Guess it is,” Frank agreed then placed his boot into the stirrup and pulled himself back up onto his horse. He turned his horse back toward the road then pulled back on the reins. “There a fire in Hellgate?” he called back to Billie.

Billie turned to look across the valley where a plume of dark smoke was rising above the small town. “Not when we were there,” he informed the lawman.

“I better go see what’s going on,” Frank said wearily. “Looks like Stanley’s headed this way,” he added spotting a lone rider in the distance.

Billie watched Frank ride away. After a few moments, the lawman met the rider and they stopped to exchange some words. Frank pointed back to where Billie stood before continuing to Hellgate. Billie gave a wave to Stanley then turned and walked back down the bank to Jesse.

#

Stanley sat on his horse looking down to where Billie sat next to Jesse, her face buried in her hands. He didn’t have to be told that his daughter was sobbing inconsolably. After a few minutes, he dismounted and slowly made his way down the riverbank to them.

Billie looked up when Stanley stood beside them. “You set the town on fire?” he asked.

“Nope. Saw that smoke start up after I crossed the river.”

“You don’t think that trapper did ‘cause of what Jesse did?”

“Nope.” Stanley squatted beside the river. Cupping his hands together, he scooped up some of the cold water and scrubbed his face. “Nasty start to a day,” he muttered sitting back and settling in the sand beside Jesse. “I’m sorry, daughter,” he told her. “Ain’t a good thing that happened to your friend.”

Jesse raised her head and turned a tear-streaked face to her father. “I… I should have… killed him, Poppa,” she spat out the words.

“No. His kind ain’t worth it. ‘Sides, it have only gotten you in trouble with the law.”

“I don’t care. What he did…”

“What he did was wrong. But it’s done and you can’t change it. Your friends won’t be comin’ back just cuz you kill him.”

“Poppa—”

“No, you listen to me, girl. You’ve got a family of your own worried sick about you and that’s all you need to be thinking ‘bout. Now, wash your face and let’s get home ‘fore that wife of yours has the whole town comin’ after us.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time she rode to your rescue,” Billie noted.

Jesse couldn’t help but smile as a vision of Jennifer facing down a mob popped into her head, the drunken men insistent that she be hung for a crime she hadn’t committed. She didn’t need to be reminded that if it hadn’t been for Jennifer and the pistol she held in trembling hands, the mob would have succeeded in their gruesome objective. “I doubt she’d be as willing to break me out of jail this time,” she commented wiping her nose with the back of her hand.

Billie laughed. “There is no way she’d leave you in jail, no matter what you’ve done. Here,” he added handing her his handkerchief. “Now, I agree with Stanley. You get yourself cleaned up and let’s get back to Sweetwater. Frank can handle that trapper and whatever trouble he finds in Hellgate. No need for us to sit here any longer.”

Jesse dried the tears on her face then blew her nose before handing the handkerchief back to her best friend. “Thanks,” she said with a grin.

Billie grimaced. “Keep it.”

“Go on,” Jesse told him. “Get the horses ready, I want to talk to Poppa.”

Billie nodded then stood and started back up the bank to gather up the grazing horses.

“Poppa,” Jesse said squirming around to face her father. “Thank you.”

“What fer?”

“For coming after me. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been there.”

Stanley tossed a pebble into the river. “You would have walked away just the same.”

“I don’t know…”

Stanley reached out to place a tentative hand on his daughter’s arm. “I do. You ain’t the kind of woman to take revenge. Not with what you’ve got waiting at home.”

Jesse placed her hand on top of her father’s. “I wasn’t thinking about that.”

“I know. Next time…” Stanley gave Jesse’s arm a light squeeze. “Next time make sure you do.”

Jesse leaned against her father. “I love you, Poppa,” she murmured feeling strong arms encircle her.

“I love you, too, daughter.”

#

Leaning on her cane, Jennifer paced restlessly about the dining room.

“Why don’t you come sit?” Leevie asked.

“I can’t,” Jennifer answered anxiously. “I’m so—”

“They’re back,” Sally shouted from the porch where she had been keeping watch for any activity on the road from Hellgate.

“Thank goodness,” Jennifer exclaimed hurrying across the room to the door.

Dannie and Leevie reached the door first but waited for Jennifer before they all rushed out onto the porch to see a cloud of dust billowing behind three horses racing for Sweetwater.

Jennifer struggled to contain her emotions as she descended the steps then limped to meet the riders. She started to cry when Dusty broke from the others and raced toward her. Moments later, the big mare skidded to a stop as Jesse leaped off her back.

“I was so worried,” Jennifer cried when Jesse’s arms encircled her.

“I know. I’m sorry,” Jesse apologized tightening her hold.

Jennifer forced herself back just enough to look into her wife’s eyes. “Did… did you?”

Jesse shook her head. “No,” she whispered.

Jennifer relaxed against Jesse. “Would I be a bad person if I said I was sorry you didn’t?” she asked quietly.

“You are?”

Jennifer again adjusted her position so she could meet Jesse’s eyes. “I am… but I’m also glad you didn’t. I’m so mixed up inside, Jesse,” she explained. “I hate what that man did. But I’m glad you didn’t… I just… Oh, sweetheart,” she sighed leaning back against her wife. “I’m so glad you’re back.”

“So am I,” Jesse said then bent her head to press her lips against Jennifer’s.

“Come on,” Jennifer said breathlessly several moments later, “let’s go inside. I think I need to sit down before I fall down.”

“Good idea.” Jesse relaxed her hold so they could walk back to the Slipper. She stopped when they met Dannie standing nervously at the bottom of the steps. “I didn’t thank you properly,” she told the freight driver.

“No need,” Dannie started.

“Yes,” Jesse cut her off placing a hand on her shoulder. “It was a nasty piece of business; most would have let it go without tellin’. Thank you,” she said earnestly. “You’re a good friend.”

Not knowing what to say, Dannie stood speechless as a slight blush colored her neck.

Jesse laughed. “Come on, you ol’ muleskinner,” she chortled draping her arm around Dannie’s shoulders. “I’ll buy you breakfast.”

“Already dun ate,” Dannie muttered as she was forced up the steps by the rancher.

“Does that mean you ain’t hungry?”

“No.”

“Didn’t think so.” Jesse ushered everyone back into the Slipper.

#

Jesse and Jennifer sat at a table with Dannie, Leevie, Bette Mae, Ruthie, and Sally listening to Billie tell them about the morning’s events in Hellgate.

“So ya jus’ walked away?” Bette Mae asked after Billie finished.

“Poppa was right,” Jesse said smiling at Jennifer. “Trapper wasn’t worth what I had here.”

“What will happen to him?” Jennifer asked.

“Nothing,” Billie answered. “There’s no law against what he did.”

“So he can do it again?”

The ex-lawman shrugged. “Nothin’ to stop from doing so.”

“That’s wrong.”

The others sitting around the table nodded.

“Where is Stanley?” Jennifer asked.

“He said he was going to ride back to the ranch and let Marie know you were back safe,” Ruthie told them.

“I think we best be heading that way, too,” Jesse said.

“Yes, the children weren’t very happy that I left them,” Jennifer said pushing her chair back from the table.

Jesse stood then helped Jennifer stand as the others began to shuffle their chairs.

“Leevie, why don’t you take Dannie upstairs and put her to bed,” Jennifer suggested seeing the exhaustion on the freight driver’s face. “I bet she hasn’t had any sleep for two days.”

“Ya’d be ‘bout right,” Dannie mumbled, already half-asleep.

“Ruthie, you best do the same with Billie. He isn’t used to being roused out of bed before dawn,” Jesse said with a laugh.

“Ain’t that the truth,” Billie said yawning. “I wish I could go back to bed but I’m sure Ed’s expecting me over at the store.”

While Leevie guided Dannie upstairs to their room, Jesse led Jennifer outside with Billie, Ruthie, and Bette Mae following. After helping Jennifer into the buckboard, she tied Dusty to the back of the wagon then climbed up into the driver’s box and sat down next to her wife.

“Ya be bringin’ my babies in ta see me soon,” Bette Mae told the women.

“We’ll come back into town in a day or so,” Jennifer assured her as Jesse slapped the reins on Boy’s wide rump.

Bette Mae waited until the wagon disappeared around the corner of the Slipper before she turned and walked back into the building.

#

Stanley had pulled his borrowed horse to a stop under the archway that announced the entrance to his daughter’s ranch. Sighing deeply, he wrapped the reins around the saddle horn then he held his hands palms up and studied the leathery skin lined by hard work and old age. “Never thought I’d be using you to kill a man,” he told his appendages. “Ain’t right what I did,” he added squeezing his hands into fists. “But he would have come looking for Jesse… men like that always do.” He relaxed his hands and stretched the fingers as wide as he could. “Ain’t fittin’ what I done,” he repeated placing his hands palms down on his legs then looking skyward. “That’s wasn’t the way you raised me, Momma. I reckon you’ll be having some words for me some day but, until then, I’ll be keepin’ this betwixt us. Way I see it, ain’t no purpose adding more burden to Jesse’s heart.” He lowered his head and reclaimed the reins. With a gentle nudge, he urged the horse down the slope to the ranch house.

#

Boy was plodding along the rode about halfway between Sweetwater and the ranch, his passengers having been silent since they left the town.

Jennifer’s hand was resting on her wife’s thigh. “Are you all right?”

“I’ll miss them.”

“We all will.”

“I brought the… I, um…”

“What sweetheart?”

“The scalps… I made the trapper give them to me.”

Jennifer was quiet for a moment. “We’ll lay them to rest at the ranch,” she finally said leaning against Jesse’s. “On the knoll where Wolf liked to sit in the morning.”

Jesse smiled. “He’d like that.”

THE END

KC and Grumps Short Stories

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