Disclaimer: This is an Uber story. The two main characters are the creation of my own imagination though they are inspired by a well-known TV program. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this novella. The story contains non-graphic scenes of violence and descriptions of sex between consenting, adult women.
I would appreciate comments on how to improve (please be on the look out for clichés) and expand the story. Enjoy!
The two men on the train platform were obviously not gentlemen by anyones standards. Their cheap suits, bowlers and the large cases at their feet identified them as traveling salesmen. Watery, bloodshot eyes bulged from beefy faces red from whiskey. In loud voices they shared stories and jokes of the most vulgar kind oblivious to the women and children who shared the platform at the Lathrop station with them. Yes, this was western Montana where manners were not as prescribed as in the East. Yet even in the remotest corners of the state, men did not boast of their relations with the fairer sex where respectable women could overhear them. Unfortunately for the women on the platform that morning, only a timid man waited for the train with them. And he most certainly wasnt going to remind the loutish peddlers of their manners.
All silently breathed a sigh of relief when the train finally pulled into the station. The women quickly herded their children into the train and hoped the salesmen wouldnt settle anywhere near them. The two men made their way into a half full passenger car and chose an empty seat near the front of the compartment. As the train left the station, they pulled flasks out of their coat pockets and fueled themselves with whiskey for the trip to Cameron.
Then they saw her sitting three rows in front, her seat facing theirs. The peddlers eyes narrowed and smirks formed on their lips as they nudged each other. The woman was dressed in mens clothing! She was definitely a woman, in fact a beautiful woman. High sculpted cheekbones and full lips defined her face. Raven black hair twisted into a braid fell from below a narrow brimmed Stetson. But she was wearing trousers!
When the woman boarded the train earlier that day in Missoula, she had not escaped the attention of the passengers. Even in 1910, it was astonishing to see a woman in public wearing trousers. Yet when the woman in trousers entered their car, its occupants exhibited the common sense of westerners that told them not to confront grizzly bears and kept their thoughts to themselves. Eyes darted for quick glances as the powerful looking woman walked down the aisle searching for a seat. She was at least six feet tall, taller than most men. Startling blue eyes in a face brown from the sun swept the car as if daring the passengers to say something. She found a seat and made no attempt to exchange pleasantries with her seatmates. Once the train left the station, the dark woman stared silently out the window.
"Are you wearing your husbands trousers?" shouted the older of the peddlers. His partner quickly joined in. "What so you have in those trousers lady?" He asked as he grabbed at his privates.
Their crude insults filled the car as all chatter suddenly ceased. The other passengers, shocked by the peddlers coarseness, stared at the tall woman and wondered what would happen next. Would she flee red-faced from the car? Would she cry? They did not have long to wait to see what her reaction would be.
In a movement so fast many of the cars occupants missed it, the tall woman came out of her seat, bounded down the aisle and smashed the two drunks heads together. All did hear the crack that resulted from two heads forcefully colliding together. Many would later describe the sound as similar to that of two billy goats butting heads.
The woman returned to her seat and resumed staring out the window. The two louts spent the rest of the trip to Cameron slumped against each other and of no further offense to anyone. The conductor, assuming they were sleeping when he entered the car, fished their tickets out of their pockets. And the passengers in the car that day would have a story to tell that would entertain family and friends for years to come.
Having dealt in her usual direct way with the peddlers, Jesse Tyson gazed out at the passing scenery and speculated about the assignment waiting for her in Cameron. For the last three years Jesse worked for the US Forest Service. She was a member of an elite group who surveyed millions of acres of public lands in the West for their suitability for designation as National Forests. Working in Montana and Idaho, she spent months alone on horseback exploring and mapping remote mountains and pristine forests. It was a hard and lonely life but one Jesse willingly chose for herself.
The tall woman was working in the White Goat Mountains during the summer of 1910. The local ranger had rode out and informed her she was to report immediately to the District Forester at district headquarters in Missoula. Jesse was to bring her saddle and personal gear. The ranger could offer no explanation for the unusual summons to Missoula.
As the train rolled toward Cameron, Jesse thought back to her meeting in Missoula. The tall woman knocked on the District Foresters door and stepped purposefully into his small, sparsely furnished office. As Rod Tyson stood up and stepped around his desk, Jesse strode quickly to him. "Uncle Rod," she said warmly as she wrapped her arms around the tall man and gave him a hug.
He returned the hug with a kiss on her cheek. "Thanks Jesse for coming so quickly."
Rod Tysons blue eyes and graying black hair were clear evidence the two were family. His weather beaten face and lean build indicated a life spent outdoors. The District Forester had forsaken the Tyson family fortune and businesses in Cleveland to live and work in Montana. While a student at Yale, Othniel Marsh, the brilliant Professor of Paleontology, changed Rods life. The District Forester first came to Montana in 1880, as a member of one of the professors expeditions to look for fossils. It was then he made the decision to spend his life in the West.
Rod worked as a cowboy, land surveyor for the government and mining engineer. He was a professor of geology at the University of Montana when he was asked in 1907 to become District Forester of the newly designated District One of the US Forest Service.
Rod Tyson and his wife were a second family to Jesse. When she was 11, her parents sent the girl to Montana to live with her uncle. Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Tyson had decided to leave Cleveland to pursue a brilliant social life among the upper echelons of New York society. They convinced themselves it would be unfair to Jesse to take her to New York where so much of their time would be taken up by the idle pursuits of the very rich.
In Montana Jesse proved to be an adventurous child not much interested in the pursuits of little girls or playing games with her uncles daughters. She quickly grew to love the mountains and plains of the state, and became an experienced outdoorswoman. Rod welcomed Jesses company during the many summers he rode into the wild lands of Montana to explore and study the states fossil beds.
"Jesse, I want you to take the train to Cameron and meet a young woman named Miss Annabelle Thomas. She has traveled from North Carolina to write an article for The Century Magazine on the fossil beds at Lost Soldier Butte. Youre going to guide her there."
Jesse responded immediately and not unexpectedly, "Why me? I still have 100,000 acres to survey this field season. I dont want to nursemaid a lady reporter from the East. Its a hard ride to the Lost Soldier Butte."
The District Forester let her finish. "Jesse, Im directing you to go to Cameron. Former President Teddy Roosevelt personally asked the Chief Forester of the Forest Service to arrange this trip for Miss Thomas. You know the way to Lost Soldier Butte. Youve been there with me and Ill give you my field journal. I dont want Miss Thomas to be alone in the field with a male guide. My secretary has train tickets and money for you. Forest Assistant Ed Kearney is in Cameron arranging for horses and supplies for the trip. Miss Thomas is already there. Remember to get receipts for any money you spend."
The tall woman realized further argument was useless, kissed her uncle goodbye and stalked out of his office. After she left, Rod Tyson mulled over the possible reasons for the former Presidents personal involvement and wondered what the real purpose of the trip was.
Ed Kearney was waiting for Jesse when she stepped off the train in Cameron. About a year out of Yale, he was one of the many young university men brought west to provide the technical expertise needed to administer the new National Forests. He was a tall, handsome man anxious to prove himself to the forest rangers he worked with.
The look on his face was not welcoming. They met before on a project in the Assiniboin National Forest. There he made the mistake of rudely commenting about her masculine attire. Jesse promptly knocked him to the ground with a punch. Ed had been a member of the Yale boxing team. He gamely tried to get up twice before Jesses blows put him down for the count.
The young easterner never forgot what the laughing ranger said who helped him to his feet. "Id rather twist a cougars tail than tangle with that woman."
"Were at the Liberty Hotel two blocks west of the station. Your horses and supplies are at the livery stable behind the hotel." Ed turned abruptly and briskly walked away.
Thanks for the warm welcome. Jesse went to the baggage car to retrieve her saddle and gear. The two peddlers were also getting their cases. They avoided her stare and scurried off without looking at the tall woman.
The young forest assistant was still angry about the telegram in his coat pocket. The previous day he sent an urgent message to the District Forester pleading to be allowed to accompany Miss Thomas on her trip. Ed fell in love with Annabelle Thomas as soon as she stepped off the train the day before. She was an attractive young woman in her mid-twenties with blonde hair and impossibly green eyes. He introduced himself to her and the warm, inviting smile she greeted him with convinced him it was love at first sight. The young womans manners and speech made it obvious she was both educated and refined. The thought of this woman riding into the mountains alone with Jesse Tyson was unbearable. The District Foresters reply arrived that morning; "Miss Thomas is to travel alone with Miss Tyson as discussed."
A smile broke the tension on his face as he entered the Libertys lobby and spotted Annie sitting in a chair. She was dressed in a stylish, white-linen walking suit. Her blonde hair was pinned up in the latest fashion.
"Annie, I wasnt sure you were ever going to leave your room."
Annie smiled, recognizing immediately the infatuation shining from his face. Yes she thought, Eds manly, upright, an honest gentleman . The same words could describe a young man now lying in a small church cemetery on the coast of North Carolina.
"Ill have to admit it took longer than I thought to rest from my train trip to Montana." What Annie would not admit to him was the terrible guilt that held her captive and made it at times so difficult to leave the safe confines of a room.
" I met Miss Tyson, your guide, at the train station. Shell be here shortly."
Ed blushed while nervously fingering the rim of the hat he held in his hands and sheepishly continued. "Miss Tyson is different from most sort of women. I dont think you have to worry though. She never would have been sent to guide you if anyone thought there would be problems." Would she believe him when she met Jesse? Did he believe what he just said?
Suddenly Ed realized Annie was no longer looking at him and knew Jesse had entered the lobby. The young blondes eyes saw only the tall, dark woman. Annies face showed no sign of what she was thinking. Somehow the young forest assistant would have felt better if she had been shocked.
Jesse put her saddle and pack down, and stared across the lobby at the woman sitting by Ed. Is she the woman Im guiding? Is she the reporter?
Their eyes met and all Jesse could think was how pretty the young blonde was. The guide suddenly realized whatever spell had been cast must be broken immediately. Jesse reached the young woman in a few strides.
Annie stared at the woman approaching her. Annie recognized the confidence in her walk. The tall woman was dressed in grey trousers and a light blue cotton shirt with a vest. She wore a cream colored Stetson with a narrow brim and short crown, and lace-up leather boots with heels for riding. She must be my guide. So thats what Ed was trying to tell me. She wears mens clothing.
Women dressed in masculine attire were no surprise to Annie. She thought of London, Stephen and the lesson she learned. Relations with women like Stephen were about power, domination and sex.
And there was something else. A vague recognition fluttered in her mind. Had she met this woman before?
Ed glared at Jesse. "Miss Anabelle Thomas, this is Miss Jesse Tyson."
Jesse ignored the young man and spoke directly to Annie. "Miss Thomas, we will not be traveling to Lost Soldier Butte in a carriage nor will there be hotels along the trail. I hope you have more appropriate clothes for the trip."
"Please call me Annie. I assure you that Im ready for the trip," and then she smiled.
The smile once again reminded Jesse of how attractive the young blonde was. Annie looked directly at her. There was no hint of nervousness or embarrassment in the young womans gaze. Jesse stared back into lovely green eyes that seemed so familiar.
Unsettled by a bond she felt to Annie, Jesse kept her reply short and clipped. "Well be leaving early tomorrow morning. I need to check the horses and supplies". She turned, retrieved her saddle and pack, and left the lobby without a goodbye.
Ed watched as the tall woman left the hotel. I know hes her uncle, but what could the District Forester be thinking sending a lady like Annie out into the wilds with her?
"Annie, if it worries you being guided by Miss Tyson please tell me. Ill telegraph the District Forester with your concerns. Im sure hell let me accompany you."
"I dont have any concerns about being guided by Jesse."
The young blonde came from pioneer stock. The women in her family were well known for their strength, independence and willingness to buck convention. In 1864, her grandmother, Ruth Crawford, gave shelter at the family ranch in eastern Colorado to a small group of Cheyenne fleeing the infamous massacre of Black Kettles band at Sand Creek. Annies grandfather had been gone for a month on a cattle drive. She put the Indians in the barn and then ordered her oldest daughter, Annies mother, to fetch the medicines and muslin from the house.
When a patrol of Colonel Chivingtons soldiers showed up at the ranch tracking the Indians, Ruth ordered the blue coats off her land. Holding a Henry repeating rifle, Annies grandmother told the men that only cowards and blackhearts could have slaughtered the friendly Cheyenne camped at Sand Creek. The sergeant in charge decided killing a few more Indians wasnt worth the risk of a bullet from Ruths rifle in his guts and ordered the soldiers to leave. When Cheyenne war parties roamed eastern Colorado seeking revenge for the massacre, only the Crawford ranch remained untouched.
Annie looked up at the tall young man, "Ed, can we go to supper now?"
They strolled down Camerons wood sidewalks to a nearby restaurant. Cameron was a proud little city located in the foothills of the Sleeping Child Mountains. It had a public school, bank, hotel, four churches, telephone and telegraph service and even a drug store with a soda fountain. Ed and Annie made an attractive couple as they dined in the Bon Serra Restaurant. Their fellow diners assumed they were married. The young couple chatted as a smartly uniformed waitress served them their meal. At the Bon Serra, 75 cents bought a complete meal including coffee and pie in the most modern of dining rooms. Ed told Annie about Yale and his work with the Forest Service. Annie said little about herself.
"I hope I havent bored you. Ive done all the talking. Were you a reporter in North Carolina?" asked the young man.
Annie could sense his frustration at her unwillingness to share her life with him. And what would he think if he knew about London and the murder in North Carolina?
"No, I wasnt a reporter though I did write articles for local newspapers. I worked for the National Audubon Society. My work was to organize junior Audubon Clubs for school children living on the coast of North Carolina. The slaughter of birds for plumage for womens hats and for the food markets of the North could result in many species disappearing from North Carolina forever. The Society hopes that by teaching children to value birds we can stop this from happening."
Their conversation was interrupted when the door of the restaurant flew open. A man dressed in a ragged black suit with the stains of many previous meals on it staggered in. Boone Hyatt was a man who would have been unwelcome at any restaurant. He was in his 50s, lean and had bulging, watery eyes. Under a battered hat there was an unruly mop of long, gray hair tied behind his head. From a distance one might think a large furry animal was sitting on his head.
Boone was a government trapper. He spent over 40 years as a market hunter in the West and had participated in the final slaughter of the buffalo. And now his job was to exterminate the last few wolves, mountain lions and grizzly bears that roamed the wild lands of the West.
Boone looked around the restaurant and then spotted the young couple. He quickly made his way to their table and slid into a chair as they stared at him. The trapper smelled of whiskey. It was obvious he was drunk. Ed was not a timid man but had not been in the West long enough to know how to deal with men like Boone Hyatt. And Boone knew this instinctively.
He stared at Annie in a manner that no gentleman would look at a respectable woman. "You be about as pretty a gal as I seen in a long time."
Certainly it was perfectly proper in a saloon to approach a woman you didnt know, plop yourself at her table uninvited and start a conversation without being introduced. It was an insult though to Annie and a challenge to Ed. Before either Annie or Ed could respond, Boone flew out of the chair as if someone had yanked a chain attached to him.
"Time to leave. Dont come back until youve learned some manners," Jesse snarled.
The tall woman had encountered the trapper several times in western Montana. She knew exactly how to deal with him. She tightened her grip on his collar, easily dragged him to the restaurant door, and then slammed his head on the doorframe. A powerful kick propelled Boone out of the restaurant and onto the dirt street. Jesse followed him to the street. As he groggily tried to stand, she saw the trapper pull a pistol from his waistband. Could she reach him before he aimed and fired?
Suddenly a loud voice commanded, "Drop the pistol".
Both Jesse and Boone turned to see Town Marshal Brent Foster standing near them with a large Colt revolver in his hand. Marshal Foster came at a run when a waitress from the Bon Serra telephoned saying there was trouble at the restaurant. The marshal had been a lawman for 25 years. The fact he was still alive was testament to his prowess with a gun. Boone knew this and gingerly placed his pistol on the ground. Ed and Annies waitress approached the marshal and quickly told him what had happened.
He grabbed Boone by the arm; "Youll be my guest for a couple nights." As the lawman led the trapper to the town jail, he gave Jesse a quizzical look.
Its a damn sad day in Montana when a womans honor has to be protected by another woman.
Jesse turned to Ed and Annie who were standing in front of the restaurant. They make a nice looking couple.
"Everythings ready for tomorrow. Im sleeping in the stable. Well leave at six in the morning." She walked back toward the stable without waiting for a reply.
Jesse had not seen the young blonde slip a pistol out of the holster of a cowboy standing next to her outside the restaurant who was also watching the commotion in the street. Annie moved so quickly he never realized his pistol was gone. As Boone put his revolver on the ground, Annie carefully slid the unsuspecting cowboys gun back into its holster.
Ed saw what happened. He was surprised how easily she handled a pistol. He looked at Annie. "Would you have shot him?"
She looked him directly in the eyes. "Yes. Yes, I would have shot him."
Ed met Annie in the hotel lobby the next morning. They ate a quick breakfast in the hotels small restaurant and then walked to the stable. The horses were saddled and the packhorse loaded by the time Annie and Ed arrived. Ed was still embarrassed by his failure to deal with Boone Hyatt at the Bon Serra. He wasnt afraid to use his fists; he just hadnt known what to do. And then to have Jesse come to Annies rescue!
"Good morning Jesse. Looks like a good day for a ride." Annie smiled at her guide.
Annies stylish clothes had been packed and left behind at the hotel. She wore a split riding skirt that daringly ended mid-shin. An elaborately beaded buckskin vest over a white cotton shirt, a red bandana around her neck and a broad-brimmed hat completed her outfit. She wore her hair twisted in a braid that fell down her back. The young woman carried a satchel in her hand and saddlebags over her shoulder. Those watching from the street might have thought she was riding in a Wild West show.
Jesse fought the desire to return the smile the young blonde greeted her with. She must remain focused, purposeful and fight the appeal of Annies deep green eyes and the warmth that flashed from her smile
"We need to get riding. It will be a long day before we get to our first camp."
The tall woman took Annies satchel to secure it on the packhorse. It was then she saw the young woman was carrying a Winchester repeating rifle in a leather scabbard. The Winchester was short as if made for a woman and had intricate designs made of brass tacks on its stock.
I have a lot to learn about Annie. "Thats your horse," she indicated with a nod of her head toward a small bay gelding. "Do you need help getting on it?"
"No, I dont any help." The young woman lashed her rifle and saddlebags to the saddle. As Jesse watched, Annie untied the horse and mounted the animal quickly and easily. Shes no tenderfoot. The tall woman put her foot in the stirrup, stepped up and onto her horse, large buckskin. They were ready to leave.
"Annie, Ill be waiting here for you when you return," Ed called out as he watched the two women ride off. I wonder what Annie thinks of me?
Their first days ride was on a rough wagon road that took them out of the foothills Cameron was located in and up into the Sleeping Child Mountains. One would think the long ride that day would give the women the opportunity to talk. But thats not what happened.
It was an unusually hot day even for August. It was a day better spent in the shade of a porch than on a horse under a cloudless blue sky. They rode through open pine forests that provided little protection from the sun. Their horses kicked up dust and large horseflies buzzed around them waiting for the opportunity to land and inflict a painful bite on rider and horse. The smell of smoke lingered in the air from the forest fires burning to the north and south of their route. Only the occasional shrill call of a hawk wheeling overhead broke the silence. Hot and uncomfortable, the women rode without conversation immersed in their own thoughts.
And Jesses thoughts were in Paris. Shortly after her eighteenth birthday, Jesse left Montana to join her parents in New York. The Clifford Tysons were now well established in New York society. They wanted the prestige and satisfaction of introducing their beautiful daughter to society in the most highly anticipated parties and dances of the social season. The luxuries the Tysons wealth purchased seduced Jesse into an idle and frivolous life. The adoration and gifts lavished on her by an army of young men captivated by her beauty and wealth made the transition into a debutante surprisingly easy for her. The independence and self-reliance she learned in Montana became in New York a vanity that delighted in being the center of attention.
In 1902 when Jesse was 22, Mrs. Gertrude Borden Tyson decided it was time for her daughter and her to spend a year in Paris. There Mrs. Tyson could search for the final feather in the Tyson cap, a titled husband for Jesse. What better way to confirm the social standing of the family than to have a duke as a son-in-law?
Like most Americans, Mrs. Tyson had only a dim understanding of aristocratic titles. She wouldnt have been able to describe the difference between a duke and a marquis to save her life. She did know that for the last 30 years rich young American women had been crossing the Atlantic with their mothers and marrying husbands with noble titles. Mrs. Tyson was determined to be as equally successful as those who sailed before her. While she evaluated suitable candidates, Jesse would learn the skills a young woman from a refined background should know including how to order from a menu in French.
She realized it had been a mistake to allow Jesse to spend those years in Montana with her brother-in-law. Jesse learned skills such as using an axe and packing a horse that were most certainly of no value in either society or finding a suitable husband.
Her husband had been almost as bad an influence on her daughter as her bother-in-law. Having inherited a vast fortune, he saw no need to work and lived his life in clubs and on the sporting fields. Perhaps because of guilt about the long separation, he shared his passion for sports with Jesse. She hunted and fished with him in the Adironacks, sailed off Newport in his yachts and learned to drive the familys motorcars.
But what Mrs. Tyson would never forgive her husband for was teaching Jesse to box. She would never understand what possessed Clifford to teach their daughter the most unnatural of sports for a woman. And worst of all, she excelled at boxing. The rugged demands of working outdoors in Montana had resulted in Jesse being astonishingly strong for a woman. This combined with her height and fists that would never be described as dainty made her a feared sparring partner.
Mrs. Tyson worried about her daughter. Though perfectly acceptable suitors in New York besieged the black-haired beauty, Jesse showed no interest in marriage or even a courtship. During her years in Montana, Jesse never joined the idle chatter of her cousins about boys and loathed the romance novels they devoured. She avoided the picnics, dances and parlor visits that comprised the courtship rituals of young people. The endless speculation by her cousins about lovemaking bored her
After her return to New York, Jesse enjoyed the power she held over the men who courted her. She sharpened her skills of seduction with them but never rewarded her suitors with anything more than a chaste kiss and rarely that. She quickly earned the nickname "Ice Beauty".
Mrs. Tyson hoped Jesse would thrive in Paris far from the influence of her father and uncle. And so she did but not in a way intended by her mother. Jesses youth, beauty and money caught the attention of more than titled bachelors from Europes royal families in search of rich American wives. The admiring glances of attractive women did not go unnoticed by the tall woman. The thought of a physical relationship with a woman both intrigued and excited her. With the practicality of an American, Jesse thought, "Why not?"
At the beginning of the 20th century a sexually open society that could be found nowhere else in the world flourished in Paris. Artistic and literary women from America and England settled in Paris with their inherited wealth in search of the freedom to love who they chose. And the center of their social lives was the rich American expatriate, Edith Spaulding.
Ediths home on Rue Dauphine in the Left Bank was always filled with writers, painters and scholars of both sexes enjoying the freedom and excitement her home offered. And above all else, Edith was the most famous lesbian in Paris. She loved the excitement of the chase of beautiful women and professed to worship only at the temple of love. Her natural charm and empathy, her intelligence and sensual manner made her irresistible to both men and women. She was only 26 years old but she was already a promiscuous and very experienced seducer of women. It was into Edith Spauldings world that Jesse entered.
Within a short time of the Tysons arrival, word quickly reached Edith of a magnificent young Amazon from America who rode horses astride in the Bois de Boulogne. Her name and address was determined, and an invitation quickly extended for a party at Rue Dauphine. Mrs. Tyson pleaded unsuccessfully with Jesse not to go. She had heard the stories about Edith and sensed whatever was waiting for her daughter at that house, it was sure to be scandalous.
Jesses arrival at Rue Dauphine was gossiped about for months afterwards. She did not walk into the house but stalked in unannounced, her icy blue eyes sweeping the faces of the men and women who filled the rooms. Jesse was well aware of Edith Spauldings reputation and why she had been invited to her party. Murmurs followed the dark woman as she made her way to Edith, Jesses beauty and power startling her fellow guests. Wagers were quickly taken on how long it would take Edith to bed this magnificent Amazon. Those who bet on sooner rather than later won. All were wrong though in thinking Edith would be the seducer.
Guests at the party that night remembered it was the first and only time any of them ever saw Edith speechless. When Jesse suddenly appeared, towering over her as she sat talking to an aspiring poet, Edith ended her conversation in mid sentence and stared at the beautiful American.
"Miss Spaulding, Im Miss Jesse Tyson. Thank-you for inviting me to your home."
Edith made no response. The less kind of her guests later described her as gaping at the black haired beauty. Ediths guests gathered around the two women savoring this delicious moment. The most notorious seductress in Paris was now the pursued. Edith quite obviously was the prey of this beautiful Amazon.
"Miss Spaulding, does the cat have your tongue?"
"No Miss Tyson, the cat doesnt have my tongue. I think though the cat has the rest of me right where she wants it." Laughter filled the room. Edith had recovered her senses.
Edith and Jesse spent the rest of the evening apart from the other guests, talking quietly. The last guests noted as they left that Jesse was still there. Edith was later to say that when Jesse took her by the hand and suggested they retire to Ediths bedroom, her legs shook so badly she didnt think she would be able to walk. The night of the party Edith Spaulding became Jesses first but most certainly not last woman lover. The tall womans first thought the next morning when she woke in Ediths bed was that it was a shame she had waited so long. Edith was to become Jesses lover, teacher and close friend for the next five years. Days were spent on the wide, tree-lined boulevards of Paris bustling with well-dressed men and women. Evenings were for sampling the many temptations offered by the city.
There were few dull moments at Ediths house. Performances were regularly presented in her large garden before audiences of friends and guests. Women played both male and female roles, and there was always the possibility of lingering kisses between women or better yet an exposed breast.
Edith loved costumes and masquerades. Jesse soon found herself performing "Shepherd Boy and Nymph" and "Sultan and Harem Slave" with Edith. All agreed Jesses role as Lady Godiva was her most memorable. At an afternoon garden party, the tall woman emerged from the overgrown shrubs of Ediths garden riding a white horse. She was naked wearing only a smirk on her face! Unlike the Lady Godiva of legend, Jesses long black hair did not cover her bare breasts. First dead silence and then a collective gasp from the audience greeted her appearance. They would have expected such a sight in a Montmarte dance hall but never in a garden in the 6th Arrondissement. No one could pull their eyes away for the dark womans magnificent body her full breasts, the long, supple legs pressed against the horse Then pandemonium broke out in the audience as Lady Godiva disappeared back into the shrubs. Women fainted and red-faced gentlemen rushed to get them water. Once again Edith had shown her indifference to social conventions. It was a triumph for a woman who enjoyed creating a sensation and then watching the results.
And Edith didnt neglect introducing Jesse to Pariss many cultural events including the never to be forgotten mummy pantomime. It was early spring 1905, and Edith was determined Jesse would accompany her to a pantomime at the Theatre Dumas.
"Edith, I really dont want to go to the theatre. You know I detest Sissy. That woman and her friends treat you like a shop girl." Jesse was adamant she would not attend the opening night of the pantomime Claudette and her lover Sissy were presenting at the Theatre Dumas.
Claudette was the brilliant author of a series of novels about a young French girls rather improper adventures. Once Ediths lover, she was now a close friend. Claudettes lover, the Marquise de Arundel also known as Sissy, was a descendent of Frances most noble and ancient families. Early in her life, Sissy decided she was a man. The Marquise divorced the Marquis, and cropped her hair. From then on she wore masculine attire and affected the mannerisms of a well-born bachelor. It was instinctive for Sissy to look down on Edith. Edith was an American. Though wealthy, she came from a country of immigrants with no traditions, no ancient ties to the soil and no ancestral homes.
"Edith, why is Claudette so determined to perform on the stage. Most French men think actresses are no better than prostitutes."
"Oh Jesse, she needs money. I think youre jealous of Claudette because shes a brilliant writer."
"And how would you know who a brilliant writer is? Ive never seen you read a book. In your whole life have you ever read a book cover to cover?" Replied Jesse sarcastically.
"Just because youve read "The Three Musketeers" doesnt mean you can criticize my reading habits. Anyway I dont pretend to be an intellectual. Ive always said I enjoy the company of brilliant minds. The pantomime will be absolutely delicious. Who would have thought a member of one of Frances most noble families could be persuaded to act on the stage. Goodness knows how Claudette convinced her. Claudette told me Sissy is going kiss her on the lips at the end of the pantomime. Theres sure to be a riot."
Jesse still wasnt convinced. "I think seeing the two of them kiss would make me want to be sick rather than riot. Sissy and her crowd might be of noble birth but they have the morals of alley cats. Theyre never without either an actress or a poodle in their laps."
Edith ignored her companions sarcasm. "Enough Jesse. Youre the last woman in Paris who should comment about anyones morals. Get dressed. We need to hurry if we want to get to the theatre before the performance starts."
A full house waited in the slightly seedy Theatre Dumas for the performance to begin. The best that could be said about the entertainment offered at Theatre Dumas was that it was more respectable than the notorious dancehalls of the Montmarte. The pantomime had been widely discussed in the newspapers due to the Marquise de Arundels involvement and the rumor of a kiss between two women. Angry letters and columns demanded the authorities stop the performance. After carefully reading the program, Jesse discovered the one-act pantomime consisted of a male archaeologist played by Sissy discovering the mummy of a beautiful Egyptian princess played by Claudette and then the mummy coming to life.
"Edith is this all there is to the performance?"
"Be quiet Jesse. The crowd is here to see Claudettes breasts and the kiss. Havent you noticed its mostly men in the audience? If they want to see a play, theyll go to the Theatre National de lOdeon."
A hush came over the audience as the curtain came up. The mummy was discovered and as all had anticipated, it was soon whirling suggestively around the stage shedding its wrappings. Slowly but surely Claudettes body in a very skimpy costume was revealed. Jesse was suddenly glad she attended the performance.
The audiences eyes were riveted on the stage. At last all the mummy wrappings were off revealing Claudettes full body and barely concealed breasts to the audience. Then Sissy was on the stage. Even her walk was wooden. The archaeologist wrapped her arms around the now fully exposed Egyptian princess and a long kiss on the lips was exchanged. Silence, a gasp and then the riot began.
"Shame! Shame!" the audience roared happily. Yes, life was good in Paris. They could admire Mademoiselle Claudettes magnificent body and then riot! Seat cushions, fruit and bottles flew at the stage.
Jesse ducked and pushed Edith down to avoid a flying wine bottle. "Damn it Edith, I told you we shouldnt sit near the stage. Lets get out of here."
"No! We have to help Claudette and Sissy."
A large part of the audience was attempting to climb on the stage. The theatre manager and his stagehands were trying to shove them back. Jesse cleared a path to the stage for Edith tossing Parisians to the right and left. Those who persisted in blocking their route were rewarded with solid punches. Dragging Edith with her, Jesse reached the two very frightened actresses. The theatre manager joined them.
"Quick out the stage door. Theres a carriage waiting for you."
They fled out the door with Jesse and the stagehands leading the way. A crowd waited on the street blocking their way to the carriage. The appearance of Claudette in her revealing costume prompted a cheer from the crowd and another launch of missiles. With shoves, kicks and punches Jesse and the stagehands cleared a path to the carriage.
"Get in." Jesse pushed the three women inside and the carriage quickly pulled away from the theatre.
Sissy and Claudette cowered in each others arms, their eyes wide with fear. Jesses punches ripped the sleeves out of her the stylish new theatre dress and her disheveled hair was now hanging to her shoulders. Her pretty hat lay trampled somewhere in the theatre. Somehow Edith sailed through the riot without a hair out of place. Edith looked out the carriage window and then back at the tall woman.
"Jesse, would you like to use my mirror and brush?"
Icy blue eyes glared back at her. She would never let Edith know she had enjoyed fighting her way through a crowd of rioting Frenchmen. The riot had been much more fun than one of Ediths boring salons where pale little men with droopy mustaches went on forever about the meaning of a poem.
"Edith, the next time you want to attend a riot dont bother to invite me."
Unfortunately Edith also nurtured the dark side of Jesses soul - the pride, selfishness and cruelty. From the beginning of their relationship both women agreed they would share each other with many lovers. They justified their promiscuity by announcing they were letting the world know the love of women was a pleasure and not a sin. What they thrived on was the challenge of seduction, the triumph of conquest and the power of sex.
And how did this happen to Jesse? Why did she yield so quickly, so eagerly to a life unchecked by morality and so indifferent to love? Perhaps it was because women of her era were prohibited by their sex from any type of professional career. Where was an adventurous woman like Jesse to find challenge in life? A man with a buccaneers heart would have found his challenges on Wall Street or the New York Stock Exchange. Instead, Jesse became a jungle cat stalking women. Beautiful to watch, soft to stroke and with claws ready to tear the hearts of unwary women. And this was to lead to the tragedy that would send the dark woman back to the wilds of Montana.
"Jesse, lets stop here for lunch. The horses need a rest and I need a break from the sun." Annie voice brought Jesse quickly back to the present.
Annie pointed to a grove of trees by a creek that ran alongside the wagon road. It offered shade and protection from the fierce heat they endured on the road. The guide nodded and reined the buckskin toward the trees. The two women dismounted, let the horses drink from the creek and then tied them to trees after loosening their saddles.
They sat on the ground against a log and unwrapped the lunch provided by the hotel.
"Jesse, are you going to say more to me than a sentence here and there? Its going to be a very long trip if you wont talk to me."
The blondes abruptness startled the dark woman. "Im sorry. I usually work alone. Im not use to riding with someone." And Ive chosen to live my life alone. And I dont want my life to change.
"Jesse, I want to thank-you for coming to my assistance last night. But did you really need to throw that man out of the restaurant?"
Jesse thought for a moment and then responded, "That man is Boone Hyatt, a government trapper. He lived a rough life on the frontier among hard, violent men. Boone doesnt realize the frontier is gone and theres no place for his type in the West anymore. When hes in the mood to cause trouble, only violence or the threat of it will stop him. Anything else to Boone is a sign of weakness and only invites more trouble."
Annie stared at her guide with a look that indicated she was not entirely convinced. Jesse decided it was time to change the subject.
"You dont have a southern accent?"
"Im not from North Carolina. I was born and raised in Denver." Annie hoped her guide was in a mood to listen because Jesse was going to hear more than she asked for. Annie felt almost as if they were old friends long separated and with much to share.
"My parents sent me to a womens college in the East. After I graduated I traveled throughout America and then in Europe before I was offered work in North Carolina."
Annie continued as they ate lunch. She hardly stopped talking to eat. She talked about her parents and her life in Denver. Her father was a successful banker. Surprisingly her mother was an attorney and of course an ardent suffragette. Annies grandparents raised cattle in eastern Colorado and she spent much of her childhood on horseback at their ranch.
Jesse listened intently and watched how Annies face changed, how her hands moved as she talked. But all too quickly it was time to leave. She could have stayed for the rest of the day in the cool shade of the trees listening to the young woman. But it was still a long ride to their camping spot for the night.
"Annie, we need to pack up and get going. We still have several hours of riding left."
The tall woman got up and walked toward the horses. Then Jesse saw the rattlesnake curled up under a bush near where the horses were tied. Annie followed her gaze.
"Dont worry Annie. Ill get a shovel from the pack and kill it."
"Dont kill it. The snake isnt a threat to us." Annies voice was quiet but firm.
Jesse froze; she couldnt believe what she heard. In the West, if you saw a rattlesnake you killed it. Who ever heard of not killing a rattlesnake?
"What! Theyre dangerous!" she sputtered.
"That snake isnt going to rush over here and bite you. Its frightened of us. Theres no reason to kill it unless youre planning to eat it."
And it was then to Jesses great surprise she realized how important it was to her what Annie thought. How could this have happened so quickly? She only met the young blonde yesterday. "Well Annie, I cant say I have a taste for rattlesnake meat."
Annie bent down and picked up a rock she tossed at the viper. Both women silently watched it slither away.
Unlike the morning, they talked as they rode to their first camp.
"Annie, why wouldnt you let me kill the snake? Ive never met anyone who didnt kill a rattlesnake on sight."
Anxious not to appear foolish to her guide, Annie hesitated before speaking. "Theres a reason rattlesnakes are here. Theyre part of the natural order of things. We need to learn how to live in harmony with nature."
Like most Westerners, Jesse viewed nature as a storehouse of commodities for men. Most certainly she loved the freedom, solitude and beauty of pristine forests and rugged mountain wildernesses. Yet to her trees were valuable for the lumber produced, grasslands for the cattle fed and wildlife as food and pelts. The idea of protecting nature for is own sake was quite frankly something the guide never considered.
The skepticism in Jesses face was obvious. "Youve been reading John Muir."
"Yes, Im an admirer of Mr. Muir. I agree with him that all creatures are essential to the completeness of creation. I dont believe the world was made for just man."
Jesse obviously was not yet ready to convert to the teachings of John Muir. "If we meet a grizzly bear on the trail I hope it wants to live in harmony with us."
And so their conversation continued until they reached their camping spot. That evening they set up camp in a small meadow brilliant with alpine flowers. White barked aspen with leaves shimmying in the breeze ringed their camping spot. The two women worked together to unsaddle and brush the horses then let them graze in the meadow after hobbling them. Only after the horses were taken care of did they prepare their own meal. Beef stew from a can and potatoes were cooked over a campfire. Supper ended with canned peaches as desert. Both women thought to themselves how comfortable, how familiar it felt to cook and eat together. It was if this had happened a hundred times before.
Following supper Annie began the ritual she was to repeat every night. She wrote in her journal documenting the days events while there was still light. Jesse quietly mended a harness and then checked on the horses. The tall woman surprised herself again when she returned and realized how reassuring it was that Annie sat at her campfire.
Darkness and cold came quickly after the sun dropped behind the mountains and the evening star appeared in the sky. When Annie put down her journal Jesse asked, "Why were you sent to write an article on Lost Soldier Butte?"
"Ive worked for the last two years for the National Audubon Societies in North Carolina organizing Junior Audubon Clubs. Mr.Gilbert Pearson, the president of the Audubon Society, arranged for me to write the article. He liked the stories I wrote for the societys national magazine and newspapers in North Carolina. Mr. Pearson is a strong supporter of the teaching of evolution in schools. He hopes to help the general public understand the theory of evolution by exposing them to the fossil record.
He thought The Century Magazine readers would be more interested in reading about fossils if the story was written from the perspective of a woman traveling through the wilds of the West to fossil beds." Not the complete story but enough for now.
"Annie, I have to ask. Why are you carrying a rifle? Theres no buffalo left in this part of Montana." In fact the sad reality was there was almost no buffalo left anywhere. The last wild herd in America was in Yellowstone National Park. There were 21 buffalo in that herd.
The young blonde laughed. "No, I wasnt planning to hunt buffalo. Before I went to North Carolina, I was a performer with Buffalo Bills Wild West Show. I was a trick shot and I used the rifle in my act."
The guide would have been less astonished if Annie told her she had been chief of the Sioux Nation. Now it was Jesses turn to laugh. "What fun! How on earth did you come to join the Wild West Show?" And that explains her outfit.
"Colonel Cody is a close family friend. He dined with us whenever he visited Denver. Colonel Cody was in New York City on business shortly after I graduated from college. I arranged to meet him and asked for work with his show. He knew I could ride and that Im a crack shot with a rifle. Colonel Cody is a good man who always tries to help his friends and their families." And Annie could have added that Buffalo Bill knew a pretty young woman was always good for business.
"I didnt know what I wanted to do. I did know that I didnt want to return to Denver and I had no interest in marriage. The show gave me the opportunity to travel and be independent. I was paid $25 a week and whatever I could make from the sale of autographed photographs of myself. My parents werent happy but they didnt try to force me to return to Denver. I started with the show in 1905, and toured in America and England."
Jesse had many more questions to ask. "How did you learn to shoot?"
"I was told my mother was frightened by a rifle when she was pregnant with me." Annie laughed at the puzzled look on her guides face.
"Thats an old wives tale. I learned to shoot on my grandparents ranch. I had a natural skill for it. I cant say where it came from." If Annies mother had been there, she would have proudly told Jesse that the young blonde was born to the skill. It came naturally and easily to her from the day she picked up her first rifle.
"Ill be the first to admit Im no match for Annie Oakley. Thats why my face isnt on a cigarette card. My act was the standard tricks. I shot glass bowls tossed in the air while on a galloping horse, dimes at 50 paces, that sort of thing. I never used buckshot in my cartridges if thats what youre thinking."
"No, I wasnt thinking that," Jesse replied with a laugh. "Annie, how did you get from the Wild West Show to North Carolina?"
"I quit the show at the end of its stay in London in 1907. I met Mr. Pearson at a dinner in London with Colonel Cody. He congratulated me for wearing a hat that didnt have bird feathers on it. We talked about nature, birds and the need to protect wildlife. I told him I wanted to leave the show. He offered me a position in North Carolina and I accepted. Now Jesse, its your turn to tell me how you got your job with the Forest Service. I had no idea women worked in the forests."
Jesse stirred the coals of the campfire. "Youre right. Usually the Forest Service only hires women to work in the office. My uncle is the District Forester for the district that includes Montana. When I was a child, he and my aunt raised me along with their own daughters. I went back to live with my parents in New York when I turned 18. Later I went with my mother to live in Paris. When she returned to America, I remained in Paris. I lived there for five years before I returned to Montana in 1907.
I asked my uncle for outdoors work. He hired me to survey public lands for designation as National Forests. My uncle took a big risk hiring a woman for the job but he knew I could do it and was willing to deal with the complaints from his rangers. I work alone and most people think Im a man anyway because of my first name. The rangers learned to work with me. I proved to them I could do the job. The fact Im a woman doesnt seem to matter much anymore."
The women continued to talk beside the crackling campfire and found a hundred things to share with each other. They could have talked all night as the time flew by. Annie and Jesse recognized the attraction telegraphed by their eyes and that their lives might be changing in a way neither of them would have expected only a day ago. Both women though held secrets. And these secrets formed a wall that protected them from the pain they feared love would bring.
The moon rose above the mountains casting a pale light on them.
Jesse looked to the sky and then stood up. "Its late Annie, we need to get some sleep. Well be leaving at daybreak."
Tomorrow would have to be an early start if they were to reach their camp in the Buffalo Lick Grasslands before nightfall. The women curled up in their blankets near the campfire. Jesse quickly fell asleep but too many thoughts flew through Annies head for her to sleep. The young blonde looked up into the night sky glittering with a blanket of stars and it was 1907, and she was back in London.
The young son of one of the horse wranglers brought the flowers and note to Annie in her tent.
"Miss Thomas, an English lady wanted these delivered to you. She gave me a shilling to bringem to you."
Little Harry made regular trips to the tents of the women performers in the Wild West Show carrying flowers, gifts and notes from male admirers asking for a dinner date, an evening rendezvous or a ride in the park. This was the first time though he delivered flowers and a note to one of the shows women from a female admirer. Annie accepted the gift and rewarded the messenger with a smile and hug. The boy pulled at his cap in thanks and then was off.
She stepped back into her tent and placed the flowers on a table beside a folding cot. Annies home was a canvas A-frame tent with a wood floor covered by rugs. A small coal stove for heat stood in the back of the tent near a large wardrobe trunk that held the young womans clothes. Two canvas chairs sat next to a writing table with a kerosene lamp on it. A rack holding her rifles and pistols flanked the entrance to the tent.
Annie knew who the admirer must be. The young blonde first noticed her a week ago, sitting in an expensive box seat on the edge of the arena. She was a handsome woman in her 30s with chestnut hair worn swept back. The woman favored mannish, well-tailored street suits and plain hats. She appeared in the box for every evening performance. The Englishwoman soon made it clear she was there for only one reason, and that was Annie. When Annie galloped by, her eyes locked on the young American. Annie soon found it impossible to keep from sneaking glances at her. The older woman acknowledged her looks with a slight nod and smile.
Finally the overture was made with flowers and a note. "Join me in Hyde Park for a ride. Ill wait for you at 10 in the morning on Saturday near the bandstand." read the note.
That Saturday morning Annie rode the short distance from the show grounds in West Kensington to the park. She wore one of her trick shot outfits - a split riding skirt, buckskin coat over a cotton shirt and a wide brimmed hat. Her long blonde hair spilled down her back, a somewhat risqué style. The young woman was mounted on the pinto she rode in the show. Colonel Cody encouraged the performers in his Wild West Show to go out in public in their performance outfits to create interest in his extravaganza. She quickly spotted her admirer waiting on horseback and cantered over.
Annie leaned forward in the saddle and offered her hand to the other woman, "My name is Annie Thomas."
The older woman appeared taken aback by that most American of all gestures, the handshake, but quickly recovered. Taking Annies hand in a firm grip, she answered, "Im Stephen Ashcroft. Thank-you for accepting my invitation." The look she gave the young blonde was hard and appraising.
"Stephen is an unusual name for a woman."
"Ah, you Americans are rather direct. My given name is Diane but I have decided to call myself Stephen. A masculine name is more in keeping with the manner in which I choose to live my life. Shall we ride?" And so Annie was given both an explanation and a warning.
They rode together through the park for the next hour with Annie answering her companions many questions about the Wild West Show. The show was a month into its six months stay in London at the showground in West Kensington.
Then it was time for Annie to go. "Stephen, I need to return to the arena and get ready for the afternoon show."
The Englishwoman dismounted and walked over to Annie. She looked up at the blonde, placed her hand on Annies knee and moved it up her thigh coming to rest near her hip. "Annie, must I continue to attend performances of the Wild West Show to see you again?"
"Well, Colonel Cody wants to sell tickets to his show," Annie said teasingly.
Stephen laughed and her hand started its journey back down Annies leg.
Annie continued, "Join me at 9 next Sunday morning at our dining tent for a rib roast breakfast cooked western style. After breakfast Ill show you the showgrounds."
The Englishwomans hand now rested perilously close to the bottom of the blondes riding skirt and Annie was unsure where it would roam next.
"Ill see you next Sunday." Annie kicked the pinto and the horse jumped into a canter.
And why did Annie meet with Stephen that morning and why did she invite the older woman to a second meeting? By the end of their ride it was clear to the young blonde the Englishwomans plans were for more than a sentimental friendship. The answer rested in Annies desire to learn what there could be for two women beyond friendship.
In that more innocent era at the turn of the century, intense friendships between women that included the exchange of passionate notes, long embraces and emotional declarations of love were not considered inappropriate. At the womens college she attended in New York, the young Westerner was much sought after by her fellow classmates for "friendships." The long evenings of gentle caresses and soft kisses in dormitory rooms convinced Annie she wanted more than just the platonic embraces of romantic young women. Up until now her desires had gone unfulfilled.
As for Stephen, she thought about Annie as she rode back to the parks stables. Annie most certainly was much better educated than the older woman had expected and obviously from a refined background. The young blondes independence and straightforward manner was nicely balanced by her warmth and obvious innocence. And those green eyes! Yes, Annie was a most satisfactory challenge. Stephen relished the thought of the triumph she would feel when she finally mastered the young American.
The week flew by for Annie. Though she had had been on tour for two years, she still looked forward to every performance. Billed as the "Colorado Cowgirl", Annie was a favorite of the London show goers. A natural performer, her act combined impressive marksmanship with humor and drama that captivated the audience.
The young blonde felt the excitement build and her heart beat faster at the sound of the bugle calls and pounding Indian drums that announced the start of every performance. The massed performers led by Colonel Cody dashed into the arena on galloping horses. A roar from thousands of spectators always greeted them. Cowboys and cowgirls, Indians and cavalrymen, and Mexican vaqueros wearing big sombreros raced around the arena to the stirring music of the Cowboy Band.
The three-hour performance went quickly. First there a demonstration of riding skills by cowboys, Indians and vaqueros that never failed to astonish the audience. A wagon train was attacked by Indians and rescued by the cavalry. Pony Express riders changed horses, women trick shots displayed their marksmanship skills and cowboys performed stunts with their lassos. Then there was the Indian attack on the Deadwood Stage pulled by six mules. Annie regularly played a passenger on the stage and would hang her head out a window pitifully screaming for help. Fortunately Colonel Cody and the cowboys always arrived in the nick of time to save the stage and its passengers.
The Colonel Codys roast beef breakfast that Sunday was quite a success. One hundred English guests feasted on ribs of beef cooked over glowing coals in an open pit. Proper Englishmen eagerly gnawed on beef ribs they held in their hands. The breakfast was held in the shows immense dining tent. There a crew of 80 meat cutters, cooks and bakers prepared and served meals cooked on a 14-foot kitchen range on wheels for the shows 600 performers and workers.
Following the breakfast, Annie and Stephen began their tour of the Wild West showground. Like most English visitors, the Indian Village fascinated Stephen. They walked among the tipis and watched children play.
"Theres a hundred Indian men, women and children who travel with the show. Colonel Cody recruits them mostly from the Sioux and Cheyenne reservations in the western United States. When the show first started, some of the warriors the Colonel recruited fought Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. During the Ghost Dance troubles in the early 1890s, the Army sentenced 19 Sioux chiefs and warriors to travel with the show in Europe. Colonel Cody wants to prove that now there is peace, white people and Indians can live and work together as Americans."
It was well known that Colonel Cody treated his Indian performers with a respect and dignity that was unusual for white Americans of that era. Yet there was considerable debate in America over how the Indians were presented to the world. Many within the government and charitable groups were angered by the savage, bloodthirsty impression of Indians given by the show.
There is no record of what the Indians thought about the matter. It can be assumed they saw the show as an opportunity to escape the misery of the reservation and travel the world. Hopefully they were proud to once again wear their traditional clothes and display their way of life during the freedom days to thousands of spectators.
Annie enjoyed showing Stephen the small community where the over 600 performers, family members and workers of the Wild West Show lived and worked. They listened to an open-air concert performed by the Cowboy Band and then strolled arm in arm through the stable tents and the corrals that held buffalo, elk and longhorn steers. The two women stopped at the famous Deadwood mail stage pockmarked with bullet holes from past encounters with bandits and Indians.
"Annie, were you riding with Lord Fernley in the Deadwood stagecoach on Friday night?"
Annie hesitated and then smiled. "Yes. He and I were passengers during the Indian attack."
"Do you know how he came to have a black eye? Im told Lord Fernley says he bounced into the side of the coach."
Annies responded immediately. "Actually he bounced into my fist. He tried to hold on to more than the seat of the coach."
Both women laughed so hard that cowboys working nearby stopped and stared. Stephen then looked at her very fashionable wristwatch.
"Annie, I must leave. I have an engagement later this afternoon. Thank-you for inviting me to the breakfast. I must say were quite proud of English roast beef but we would never have thought to cook it over an open fire. Well at least we havent cooked it that way since Elizabethan times. Who would have thought there was so much to learn from Americans? Will you join me for dinner at my club after the evening show on Tuesday? Ill send my motorcar for you."
"Yes Stephen, Ill join you for dinner." Stephen moved her hand down Annies face in a caress, quickly kissed her on the cheek and then left.
And so began Annies exploration of the opportunity now presented to her by Stephen. After Tuesdays dinner there were more dinners in the Englishwomans very discrete club where women wore mannish clothes, drank brandy and smoked cigars. They rode in Hyde Park, made late night visits to music halls with questionable reputations and toured the many attractions of London.
Leaving the fairgrounds to venture into the city was always a challenge for the young American. Noisy crowds of people, horses and vehicles jammed the narrow streets of London. The citys wet, gloomy days and air grey with coal smoke made Annie long for the hot sun and brilliant blue sky of eastern Colorado. Without Stephen, the young American usually found herself quickly lost when she tried to travel through Londons jumble of imperial monuments, department stores, hotels and government buildings.
The young woman friendship with Stephen didnt go unnoticed by Annies fellow performers. A few weeks after she met the Englishwoman, Colonel Cody joined Annie at breakfast in the dining tent.
"Annie, that was a grand performance last night. Ive never heard such cheering from the stands."
"Thank-you. The audience was wonderful."
" How are your parents doing?"
"I just received a letter from them. Theyre fine. Ma is still determined to vote."
Buffalo Bill laughed. "That sounds like Sarah. You know your parents are very proud of you."
Annie looked at the showman. Where is this conversation going? "Yes, I know."
Colonel Cody cleared his throat, fidgeted in his chair and continued. "Annie youre a grown woman and I dont want to be sticking my nose in your private business." He paused, stared down at the table and thought of his own daughters. "Youve been spending a lot of time with that Englishwoman, Diane Ashcroft."
The showman stroked his goatee. It was obvious to Annie he was uncomfortable. "Uhh she strikes me as a kind of hard woman. I think shes seen a lot of this here world. Im afraid her interest in you might not be uhh on the up and up."
Now it was Annies turn to be uncomfortable. She poked at her eggs and then looked up.
"Dianes a good friend. I enjoy her company."
" Annie, Ive known you since you were a little girl. I dont want you taken advantage of by uh that kind of woman."
Annie blushed and then looked directly into his eyes. "Ill be fine Colonel. You dont need to worry."
He looked at her for a few seconds before responding. Annies in love with that woman. I can see it in her eyes. Well theres nothing I can do about that. Maybe shell come to her senses before she gets hurt too bad.
"Im glad to hear that Annie. Say hello for me in your next letter to your ma and pa. Ive gotta go; see you at the afternoon performance."
She watched Buffalo Bill as he walked out of the dining tent. How could he be so wrong about Stephen? Annie looked forward to being with her. She found the older woman an attractive and generous companion. The attention of this worldly woman both flattered and excited Annie. She dreamed of leaving the show and living with Stephen in London. Yes, the young woman was in love or least thought she was in love. She was too young and inexperienced to know the difference between the attentions of a seductress and a lover.
The Englishwoman belonged to a fashionable set who spent their considerable leisure time at horse races, hunting, shooting and playing cards for money. Stephen took Annie to shooting parties at the country houses of her male friends and dinners at their London residences. The young blonde charmed the men. Annies direct manner and high spiritedness delighted them. The American was never at a loss for words and was always ready to tell a story at a moments notice.
Annie did though wonder why the only other women present at the shooting parties and dinners always seemed to be actresses and dancers from Drury Lane. These pretty young women were obviously not the wives of Stephens friends. The goings-on at the country houses and London town houses quite frankly shocked Annie. The supposed gentlemen drank too much, told questionable jokes, and kissed and fondled their actresses in front of everyone! And there was Stephen matching the men drink for drink and story for story. Fortunately she never tried to kiss Annie. The American had attended formal dinners in London with Colonel Cody and knew how men of this class behaved when their wives were present. What Annie didnt know was what the gentlemen were saying about her. They shook their heads, laughed and once again commented on Stephens good luck with women. Only six months ago it was an exotic French opera singer. Now the Englishwoman had snared a very attractive American indeed.
As the weeks passed by, Stephen grew bolder with Annie. They shared lingering kisses in the very private rooms of her club where they dined. The Englishwomans hands roamed freely as the two women said their farewells at the end of an evenings entertainment. The time for conquest was near. Stephen planned a party at her London home and invited her women friends. What is triumph without an audience?
The night of the party arrived and Stephens driver picked up Annie at the end of the performance. Her butler met the motorcar and led the young American into the large town home off Grosvenor Square. Annie entered the drawing room where the guests, all women, were gathered and walked to the Englishwoman who was standing in a corner with a few of her friends. For the first time the blonde saw Stephen in trousers as other women in the room were also wearing. Stephen and her masculine looking friends were drinking glasses of whiskey and a few smoked cigarettes.
Their eyes met. "Annie, Id like you to meet my friends. This is Annie Thomas, my cowgirl from America."
Stephans friends introduced themselves, giving her hard, appraising looks.
"Well done Stephen."
"Shes quite lovely Stephen."
"Are there more like her at the showground Stephen? Can you introduce me to a cowgirl?"
Annie forced a smile on her face. Why dont they speak directly to me? Theyre making me feel like Im Stephens prize horse.
A tall woman wearing what looked to be a riding jacket asked, "Does she play the banjo?"
The group roared with laughter at the question. Annie stared at the woman, a puzzled look on her face. Why are they laughing? Are they laughing at me?
Stephen took her by the hand and explained the laughter. "Consuelo Yznaga was one of the first rich young American heiresses to cross the Atlantic. Her family was merchants and planters from Lousisana. Consuelo, now Duchess of Manchester, was well known for playing the banjo and singing minstrel songs at London social events. Needless to say she created rather a stir."
Stephen smiled and enjoyed the envious looks of her companions. But she had important matters to discuss with them and Annies time would come later in the night.
"Annie, were talking about boring matters that wouldnt interest you. Why dont you join the girls over there." Stephen pointed to a group of pretty young women clustered around a punch bow and then turned back to her friends.
Puzzled by Stephens dismissal, Annie walked away. Stephens friends watched her with eyes shining with excitement at the thought of their hostesss plans that night for her cowgirl. The American joined the young women at the punch bowl and quietly observed them. She quickly realized these music hall singers and actresses were the companions of the women clustered around Stephen. They wore showy dresses appropriate for women who made their living on the stage and more makeup than would be considered appropriate for a lady. The young women drank cups of champagne punch and chattered in loud voices about shopping expeditions to Oxford Street and expensive gifts from admirers.
A short, plump brunette with a fur draped around her shoulders finally turned to Annie, "We havent met before. Youre new here."
Conversations ceased as the others directed their attention to Annie. Who was this pretty young blonde? Her dress was stylish yet subdued and she wore only a hint of make-up. She didnt look like a performer.
"My name is Annie Thomas. Im a friend of Stephens."
"Youre an American! How did you meet Stephen? Are you a performer?"
"Im a performer in Buffalo Bills Wild West Show. Im a trick shot. I make fancy shots with a rifle from horseback. I met Stephen when she attended a performance."
The young Englishwomens faces lit up when they heard Annie was from the Wild West Show. They crowded around her eager to hear more.
"Weve all been to the Wild West Show. We loved it. Can you introduce us to a cowboy?"
Annie laughed and then answered their many questions. Yes, she was from the West. No she never fought Indians or shot a buffalo or was in a gunfight. Yes, the shows cowboys were very handsome. No, the cowboys did not suffer from the lack of female companionship. And on it went as Annie captivated them with her stories.
"Oh Annie, its been wonderful listening to your stories." Then the young performers turned from the American and whispered among themselves. A chorus member from the Royal Opera then spoke for the group,
"Annie, we like you and we can tell youre a real lady. Stephens not one for romance. She likes the chase whether its a fox or a woman." The others solemnly nodded their heads in agreement.
There was no doubt they were warning her about Stephan. Annie felt the romance slowly draining out of her future with the older woman.
"I love her!" Annie blurted out. As unconventional as her liaison was with Stephen, what Annie wanted more than anything else was a respectable romance.
Sighs rippled through the women as they knowingly shook their heads. One of them called out, "Oh luv, Stephens looking for a mistress not a wife."
A mistress! Thats how Stephen viewed her, as a potential mistress! Why only women of the lowest morals were mistresses! In Denver respectable citizens talked about that type of woman in the most scornful of tones. Just because she performed with the Wild West Show didnt mean she had the morals of a performer!
The chorus member continued, "She has an agreement with her husband "
"Her husband! Stephens married?" Annie wasnt sure if her head was spinning from the information the women shared with her or too many cups of champagne punch.
"Why yes. Her husband is Sir Bradley Ashcroft. Hes with the government and is posted to the embassy in Paris. Thats his portrait over the fireplace."
With that news, Annie was off in search of Stephen who had retired to another room with her companions. The young women stared in surprise as Annie stormed off. With a startled look on her face, the chorus member wailed to the group, "Blimey, what did I say?"
The young American walked into the study and scanned the room for Stephen. A stout woman in a dinner jacket read aloud to the group from a lecherous novel for gentlemen.
"Lady Winterbottom smiled suggestively at Mimi, the new French maid. Mimi, Lord Winterbottom is away on business and wont return for a week. Can you come to my bedroom and help me remove my corset?
Stephen, your cowgirl has joined us."
Annie stalked over to Stephen. "We need to talk and we need to talk right now." Annies face was flushed and her voice shook.
"We cant talk here. Lets go upstairs to my bedroom. Its private there." Stephen put her arm around the young blonde and led her out of the study. As they left, she turned and gave her friends a knowing look.
The Englishwomans bedroom had a masculine look to it. Large furniture made of dark mahogany filled the room. Prints of horse racing and fox hunting hung on the walls. A bed with a massive headboard dominated the room. Only an elegant vanity table with a silver brush set and perfume bottles on it hinted this was a womans bedroom.
Annie faced the older woman, her voice still shaking with emotion, "Youre married!"
"Yes, Im married."
"You have a husband and you want me to be your mistress."
"Quite frankly Annie, at times I find your naiveté rather tiresome. My husband does not live with me. We have an agreement. As long as there is no scandal, he does not begrudge me my pursuits."
"So thats what I am to you? A pursuit? You pursued me like you do one of those poor foxes you chase?"
"Oh Annie. Kiss me." Stephen grabbed Annie and pressed her lips against the young Americans mouth in a hard kiss. Annie could taste the whiskey on the Englishwomans lips.
She squirmed out of her grasp and shoved Stephen away. "No!"
Stephen grabbed for Annie again not knowing what many cowboys in the Wild West Show and Lord Fernley learned the hard way. When Annie said no, she meant no. And the end result for anyone who didnt believe that was usually a black eye.
Annies fist sailed through the air.
"Owww you hit me! I cant believe you hit me! Youve hurt me! I need a doctor!" Stephen clamped a hand over the side of her face and staggered backwards.
Annie stormed out of the bedroom and down the stairs. Partygoers stood waiting at the bottom of the stairs drawn by the shrieks that obviously were not ones of passion. Annie marched through them and out the front door.
And with that image in her mind, the young woman finally fell asleep under the black night sky of Montana.
The next day Annie and Jesse made breakfast and broke down their camp in the cold darkness of the early morning just before the sun rises. At daybreak when the last of the stars vanished, the horses were saddled and packed.
Both women shivered though they wore coats. The saddle creaked as Jesse swung up onto her horse that was mouthing its cold bit. "It always seems like its the coldest just before the sun comes up. By noon well be complaining how hot it is."
Yesterdays conversation marked a change in the two womens relationship. There now was a warm companionship missing at the beginning of the trip.
"I promise I wont complain for the rest of the trip how hot it is," laughed Annie from her horse.
"About a mile from here well leave the wagon road and ride up a trail that will take us to Peep Sight Pass. From there the trail drops down into the Buffalo Lick Grasslands. Im hoping we can reach our camping spot early this evening. Well be camping at an abandoned homestead with a well that still has water. It will be another long ride today. Lets get going."
The stands of conifers became open and scattered as they climbed to Peep Sight Pass. The higher they went, the smaller and more twisted the trees became. The two women rode through granite basins carved by glaciers and dotted with small alpine lakes filled with pale green water. Jagged ridges rising hundreds of feet above them framed the landscape. Scattered mats of small yellow and pink flowers brightened the grey rock. The high country sky was a thin kind of blue that made Annie think she could see through it to the stars.
Their horses carefully picked their way up the steep rocky trail as the high-pitched whistles of marmots followed their progress. After a long climb they reached the pass. From there the two riders looked down on a sea of mountains with peaks that formed waves topped by white caps of snow. The broad open grasslands of the Buffalo Lick spread to the east. They drank in the cool, bracing air at 10,000 feet.
"Oh Jesse, I could stay here all day."
"I knew youd like the view from here." And somehow the view seemed better now that Annie was there to share it with.
After a long ride down the eastside of the Sleeping Child Mountains, they reached the grasslands. It was a vast, wide-open country that spread as far as they could see. Low rolling hills covered in short grass turned brown and dry by summer appeared to merge with the open sky at the horizons edge. Men who wanted nothing but the big sky over their heads, who wanted only the company of the wind rode this untamed land.
The two women traveled a trail first used by Indians, then the Army and later settlers. Large prairie dog towns lay scattered along their route. The little rodents stood guard on the mounds of dirt surrounding their burrow entrances and barked warnings as the riders came closer. Jesse reined her horse to a stop. They watched as prairie dogs cautiously poked their heads out of burrows to evaluate the threat.
Jesse turned in her saddle toward Annie. "Prairie dogs exchange kisses with members of their family group. Its a greeting and a way of determining if a prairie dog is family and friend. If the other prairie dog doesnt return the kiss then its identified itself as a stranger and trespasser."
Annies response was quick and not particularly well thought out. "Should we be kissing?" Why did I say that? Jesse will think Im a fool. Blushing Annie continued, " I mean like the prairie dogs to show were friends." I need to keep my mouth shut.
The young womans comment startled the guide but then she smiled, kicked her horse and the journey resumed. It was early afternoon when the crack of gunshots snapped them out of their daydreams.
Annie looked at her guide. "Whats that all about?"
"I dont know. Whatever it is, its trouble. I need to go see whats happening. Stay here with the packhorse."
Jessie reached behind her, pulled a revolver in its holster from the saddlebag and buckled it around her waist. It was still the unwritten law of the West that you must go to the aid of those in trouble even at the risk of your life.
Annie then reminded the tall woman that she had a mind of her own. "No Jesse. Im going with you. You might need help."
"Annie, it could be dangerous. I dont want you getting hurt."
"We can stay here all afternoon arguing or we can go find out if someone needs our help."
Jesse could see there was no changing her mind. She would have to hogtie Annie to make her stay. "Looks like were in this together. Lets go."
They rode toward the sound of gunfire that echoed in the distance. The two women stopped at the bottom of a rise in the grasslands. They listened to the crack of rifle fire that seemed to come from the other side of the hill. Jesse got off her horse and looked at Annie. There was no uncertainty in the young womans face, no sign of fear. The guide saw only determination to join the fight.
"Those are real bullets. Buffalo Bill and the cowboys arent going to be coming to the rescue if we get in trouble."
Annie jumped off her horse and pulled her rifle from its scabbard. "Im ready." And by her actions the young woman announced she was always ready to be at the tall womans side when there was trouble.
Jesse pointed to the top of the rise. "Well go up there and get a look at whats happening. Keep low to the ground and your head down when we get to the top."
They crawled the last few feet and then peered down onto what was happening below them. A man with a pistol was trapped in an old buffalo wallow. Several hundred feet away, two men with rifles were slowing working their way toward the trapped man, skillfully using the terrain to conceal themselves. They alternated firing shots to keep the man in the wallow pinned down as they moved closer. A short distance behind them, another man held three horses.
Annie whispered, "Do you have any idea who those men are?"
"No. I dont know whats happening down there. The man in the wallow doesnt stand a chance. Theyll pick him off with their rifles. Theyre too far away for him to get a shot at them with his pistol."
"We need to even the odds."
Before the tall woman could respond, Annie brought her rifle to her shoulder and snapped off two quick shots. Jesse saw the bullets hit at the feet of the two men with rifles. They along with the trapped man looked up at them. It was plain to all the odds had suddenly changed. The two men ran back to their horses and with the third man galloped off. The man in the wallow waved at the two women.
Annie grinned at the surprise in the guides face. Jesse finally spoke, "That sure worked. Lets get the horses and find out whats going on."
The man was standing and waiting with a big smile on his face when they reached the wallow. He was tall and sturdy looking, and wore a small badge pinned to his vest.
Jesse stared at him from her horse. "Rangers are getting thicker in western Montana than fiddlers in Hell."
Forest Ranger Bob Lynchford laughed and his smile got bigger. "Glad you came along Jesse. Things werent looking so good for me. Nice shooting."
"It wasnt me." Jesse nodded toward Annie. "You can thank Miss Annie Thomas formerly of Buffalo Bills Wild West Show for saving your hide."
The forest ranger smiled again and tipped his hat to Annie. "Thank-you Miss Thomas. As youve just seen, the real West is still plenty wild."
Jesse got off her horse and walked over to the ranger. "Bob howd you almost get yourself shot?"
"I got a report that cattle were illegally grazing on this part of the Buffalo Lick. I rode out to investigate and got bushwhacked by William Statton, a local cattleman, and two of his cowhands. I think they would have killed me if you hadnt shown up."
Rangers were not popular in the grasslands of Montana. Cattle had been grazing on the Buffalo Lick since the 1860s. Ranchers fought first Indians, then gangs of rustlers and finally homesteaders to control the Buffalo Lick. For fifty years there were no rules, only bullets. Cattlemen reigned over the land like warlords with armies of hired guns. Now for the first time they had to abide by the governments regulations if they wanted to graze on grasslands managed by the Forest Service. Fortunately only a few ranchers expressed their unhappiness with bullets.
"Why are you two ladies out here?"
As she always did, Jesse flinched at being called a lady. "Im guiding Miss Thomas to Lost Soldier Butte. Shes writing a story for The Century Magazine on the fossil beds there. Were going to camp tonight at the old homestead."
"I wish I could talk to you more but I need to get back to Ripley and telegraph the US Marshal for help."
Jesse looked at the ranger. "Bob, will you be alright riding back alone? Those cowboys wont try and finish what they started?"
"Ill be fine. I know Statton. Hes heading for his cattle as we speak. Hell try to round them up and get them back to his range before I return with a marshal. Can you help me find my horse? I chased it off when I took cover in the wallow."
The two women found his horse a short distance away, returned it to him and then backtracked to the trail. They talked as they rode toward the homestead.
"Jesse, I didnt realize being a forest ranger was so dangerous."
"Cattlemen dont like the government telling them what to do. Men like Statton see it as their God given right to use the land as they see fit. Most of them are law abiding though and dont shoot rangers to make their point."
"Are gunfights a regular part of your job?"
Jesse laughed, "No, frontier days are long gone. I cant remember the last time I fired my pistol. Im glad you were along. I cant say Im much of a sharpshooter."
Annie smiled at the compliment. "That ranger didnt seem rattled about almost being shot."
Jesse turned in her saddle to look at Annie. "Bobs typical of the type of man that becomes a forest ranger. The Forest Service wants men from the West who can shoot straight, handle a horse and take care themselves outdoors. Bob worked a small ranch here in Montana before he became a ranger two years ago. He passed a written Civil Service test that covered everything from livestock brands to cooking biscuits. Then he took a practical test on riding and packing a horse, shooting a rifle and a pistol, and surveying and mapping. Bob gets paid $60 a month, has to furnish his own horse and pay for its feed out of his paycheck. Ive never known much that could rattle him."
Annie was strangely quiet for the rest of the ride. Jesse assumed the excitement of the gunfight had worn off leaving the young blonde tired and introspective. What she didnt know was Annies mind was back in North Carolina. Annie was remembering what happens when no one comes to the rescue.
And Jesse thought about Annie and how the young woman demanded to ride with her to a gunfight. Annie didnt know what she was getting into but went anyway because she thought I might need help. Now the guide knew that Annie would never let her face trouble alone, that the young woman would stay by her side whatever might come.
The sun was low in the sky when they arrived at the old homestead. A small, collapsed log cabin and an equally ruined barn was all that remained of a familys failed attempt to make a life in Montana.
"Our camp for the night." Jesse knew her riding companion would have questions about the old homestead.
The tall woman spoke as they unpacked the horses and set up camp. "A family from back east homesteaded here in the 1880s. It took a lot of work to bring logs from the mountains to build the cabin and barn. They tried to grow wheat but were ruined by drought and grasshoppers. They abandoned the land and no one knows where they went. During frontier days, thousands of buffalo and antelope grazed on this grassland. There were grizzly bears and wolves too. The Blackfeet, Cree and Assiniboin hunted and fought here.
Theyre all gone. The buffalo and antelope hunted out years ago. Cattle have taken their place. The bears and wolves exterminated, and the Indians forced into reservations."
Annie thought for a minute as she rolled out her blankets. "I think thats a sad story."
"Thats just the way things happened in Montana. Lets get supper going. Im hungry and Im guessing so are you."
And once again the two women fell into the routine of camp life. Tend to the horses, lay out bedding, cook supper, clean up and prepare for the next day. They didnt speak much to each other as they went about their work. Yet it was a comfortable kind of silence. It was the kind of silence shared by two people who dont need words to convince each other they share a bond.
Following supper Jesse read her uncles field notes, every now and then glancing at the young blonde as she wrote in her journal. The dark woman knew what she felt for her traveling companion was far more than desire for a very attractive woman. She could have fought desire; she could have controlled it. The tall woman thought she had accepted the loneliness of her life in Montana. Now Jesse couldnt imagine a life anywhere without the smile, the laugh and the stories of the woman sitting a few feet from her. How could Annie have settled so quickly, so easily into her life?
Jesse noticed the physical contact between them was becoming more frequent and lingering longer. Their hands would meet when they worked around the horses. They sat closer to each other as they ate. When they touched Annie would look into her guides eyes, shyly smile and then look away. Jesse tried to tell herself she would be content being the young blondes friend. But the tall woman knew she wanted to be much more than a friend to Annie.
Was it just wishful thinking to believe Annie felt the same way? But Jesse knew how quickly she could steal the warmth and kindness from her traveling companion leaving behind only pain and heartbreak. That was her gift to her lovers in Paris. For Annies sake she must keep her distance and then say good-bye forever to the young woman when they returned to Cameron.
"Annie, Im turning in. Its another early start tomorrow morning. Its a full days ride to Badger Creek where well camp. Therell be water and trees for shade. Its about a half hour ride from the camp to the fossil beds at Lost Soldier Butte."
The tall woman then leaned over and lightly brushed Annies lips with hers. "Goodnight friend."
Annie could only stare in surprise as her guide stood up, moved to her own bedroll and crawled under the blankets after removing her clothes.
The women were up before sunrise and riding to Lost Soldier Butte as dawn lightened the night sky. After a long day in the saddle they entered the badlands, a heavily eroded landscape covering several thousand acres on the edge of the grasslands. A maze of steep canyons, gullies and ridges carved by wind and water cut through the land. It was a wilderness of startling shapes created by erosion - columns, towers, spires and pinnacles of rock. The grey, red and yellow colors of the peaks and ridges shifted with the changes of light as clouds moved across the sun. The desolate land was almost empty of vegetation except for a sparse cover of grass and salt brush. Even the Indians had avoided traveling through the stark landscape.
Tired from the long ride, they finally arrived at Badger Creek hidden in the bottom of a canyon. The creek fed by springs provided a welcome relief to the fierce heat of the badlands. Green sedges and willows covered the marshy flats along the creek. Tall cottonwoods lining the watercourse offered cool shade. Small pools of water could still be found in the creek. The tracks of coyotes and other animals that drank there covered the stream banks. Two days would be spent at Lost Soldier Butte and then they would begin the return trip to Cameron. Already the time was passing too quickly for Jesse.
After supper Annie decided to draw her guide into a conversation rather than write in her journal. There was so much more she wanted to know about the dark woman. Soon into their journey the young woman recognized she felt far more for her guide than her initial admiration of Jesses independence and strength, the way she seemed part of this wild, lonely land. Could there be something between them more than the expected companionship of two women alone on the trail?
Yes, there was a strong physical attraction. Annie couldnt deny the soft ache of desire she felt when they would touch while working around the horses and in camp. But that was only part of it. It was so comfortable, so easy being around her. A lifetime with Jesse could pass in the blink of an eye. Is this where she belonged with Jesse in this untamed land? Someday would she call home a camp in the middle of a wilderness with only the sky for a roof and walls formed by the impenetrable blackness of the night beyond the campfire?
"Jesse, what do you do during the winter? You cant work in the mountains."
"I live with my uncle and his family, and attend classes at the University of Montana."
"What are you studying?"
"Geology. My uncle is a former professor of geology at the university and still teaches there. He got me into the department. The professors and male students fought having a woman in their classes. They seem to at least tolerate me now. " I cracked a few heads before I got there.
"What will you do when you graduate?"
"Id like to join the scientific expeditions that are traveling the world to excavate fossils. The American Museum of Natural History is sending expeditions to the Gobi Desert in Mongolia to look for dinosaur eggs."
Once again Annies response startled the tall woman. "How are you ever going to settle down with someone if youre always in some remote corner of the world." Ive done it again! Whats gotten into me?
Jesse paused for a moment puzzled by the young womans comment. "Ive never really thought about that. Im not looking for anyone to be in my life."
Annie felt a wave of disappointment wash over her when she heard her guides answer. Im fooling myself when I think there could be something between us.
Never one though to completely give up, Annie continued with her questions. "Tell me more about Paris. What did you do there?"
"I had a close friend, an American woman named Edith Spaulding, who was also living in Paris. Edith enjoyed surrounding herself with artists, writers and poets. There was always something happening at her home - salons, parties and plays. Edith introduced me to the theatre, opera and museums of Paris. I wont mention what else she introduced me to. We spent summers in her villa in the south of France or traveling in Europe. One summer was on the Greek island of Lesbos. We hoped the spirit of Sappho would inspire us to write poetry. Sapphos spirit must have been long gone because our poetry was pretty bad. Then it was time for me to return to America."
"Wasnt it difficult going from Paris to Montana." Edith Spaulding sounds like more than a friend to me.
"No, I dont miss Paris and my life there. Id rather wake up on a mountain in Montana than any city on Earth. Annie, I need to check the horses before it gets too dark and then get some sleep." The tall woman stood up. There would be no further conversation that night about Paris.
But Jesse couldnt help thinking of Paris as she tended to the horses. Every now and then she did miss Edith and the company of clever, attractive women. And most of all she missed a womans soft touch. Her world in Montana was made up of tough, hard men who worked in the grasslands and forests rangers, loggers and ranchers. A soft touch, a kind voice, a gentle nature were not found in those who rode the wild lands.
Yes, there were times when Jesse recognized the emptiness of her life and would seek the company of others. Occasionally the tall woman would attend summer dances at the ranches of stockmen who grazed their cattle and sheep in the mountains. Neighbors from miles away would come for the party. A wood dance floor would be built, paper lanterns hung and tables loaded with food and drink. The tall woman would watch as fiddlers played, and husbands and wives, fathers and daughters, courting couples danced through the night. At the end of these evenings, loneliness would settle on the dark woman like a blanket. But thats how she wanted it, until now.
By the time the guide returned to camp it was dark. An owl hooted in the night beyond the fire as Annie slept wrapped in her blankets. The tall woman knelt by her and listened to the soft sounds of Annies breathing. She reached out and gently stroked the young womans hair. Jesse had every intention of keeping her distance from Annie. As she watched the young woman sleep in the glimmer of the stars of an August night, she knew she was powerless to resist Annies smile, her warmth. With a sigh, the guide decided it was time to turn to her own bedroll and sleep.
It was dark and foggy on the Pont Neuf that crossed the Seine linking St-Germain-des-Pres with the Ile de la Cite. Jesse could see the back of a woman standing on the bridges railing preparing to jump into the fast flowing river.
"NO, NO! STOP!" Jesse tried to run to the woman but her feet felt like weights had been strapped to them. She would never reach her in time to prevent her from jumping. The woman turned her head and looked at Jesse. It was Annie! The young blonde stepped off the bridge, dropped into the water and disappeared from sight.
"Jesse, Jesse. Wake-up. Youre having a nightmare."
Jesse bolted up, the blankets tangled around her feet. Wide eyed she looked at Annie who knelt beside her. She grabbed the young womans arm.
"Jesse, youre hurting me."
The tall woman quickly released her arm. "Im sorry. Im sorry I woke you up. Ill be all right. You can go back to sleep."
"Are you sure? Would you like to talk? Ill stay with you."
"No. Try and get back to sleep."
Reluctantly Annie returned to her blankets. Neither woman though was able to fall asleep again before it was time to get up. Just after dawn, they rode to the fossil beds. The badlands glowed pink in the first light of the rising sun. The turret like formation of Lost Soldier Butte rose above them as the two women sat on their horses staring at the broken land that lay before them.
Jesse was the first to speak. "What do you think of this country?"
"I think its beautiful."
The tall woman smiled. "So do I. Millions of years ago the badlands climate was subtropical. It was warm and rainy, and marshes and mudflats covered the land. I know thats hard to believe now. Hundreds of thousands of dinosaurs lived and died here leaving behind their bones.
Geologists first explored the badlands with army escorts in the 1870s. During one expedition, a cavalryman disappeared. They woke up in the morning and he was gone. His horse and gear were still in the camp. Guards had been posted but no one saw or heard him leave. They searched for the soldier but never found any evidence about what happened. Thats where the name Lost Soldier Butte comes from.
Annie, Ill show you some of the biggest and best-known concentrations of fossils. My uncles field notes will help explain what youre seeing. Ill do my best to answer your questions. We need to get back to camp by noon. Itll be too hot to stay out any later."
Annie took notes and pictures with the small Kodak box camera she carried. The fossilized shell of a giant turtle fascinated the young woman. Most of all she enjoyed being with Jesse as they explored the fossil beds. By noon they were back in camp. They ate a lunch of cheese, crackers and dried meat; loafed and talked in the shade of the trees to a background of the high-pitched buzz of insects. Too soon it was time for the evening chores. After supper Annie attempted to sketch in her journal the turtle shell that so intrigued her.
"Jesse, what do you think of my drawing?"
The guide knelt in front the young blonde and took the journal from her hands. "Are you planning to illustrate the article with your drawings?"
She looked up, smiled and thought how attractive Annie was and how much she wanted to kiss her.
Annie didnt answer; her attention focused on Jessies brilliant blue eyes, her mouth, her closeness. Annie could hear the soft whinny of a horse, the sharp clear notes of a bird singing. A warm breeze rattled leaves in the trees. Everything seemed so right, so perfect. She leaned forward, put her hand behind the tall womans head and gently pulled the guides lips onto hers. The tall woman offered no resistance surrendering immediately to the young blonde. Their kiss was soft and tentative, more an act of discovery than of urgent passion. Suddenly, unexpectedly Jesse pulled away from Annie and stood up.
"Whats wrong?" Annie also stood up and reached for the guides arm. Whats happening? Why does she want to stop?
"Im sorry; Im so sorry." Jesses face was anxious, her eyes uncertain. "I have to stop. Its not fair to you. You must know what happened in Paris and the kind of woman I am."
"I dont care about what happened in Paris." Annie tightened her grip on the tall womans arm but knew Jesse would not allow her another embrace.
"I cant pretend my life began in 1907 in Montana. You must listen to me."
And once again the lovely face of Charlotte Mornay returned to haunt the dark woman.
The two women sat by the campfire as choruses of frogs filled the night with songs.
"Annie, I told you I spent five years in Paris before I came to Montana. I went with my mother and remained in Paris after she returned to New York. She left to avoid the scandal about my involvement with Edith. Edith was more than just my close friend; she was my lover.
I didnt care what anyone thought. I had my own income from a trust fund left me by my grandmother and was ready to live my life as I chose. Here in America we cant even imagine what it means to have the right to be exactly who you are, to be free to love whoever you choose."
"Did you love Edith?"
"No, I never loved her. Edith didnt love me either. We were intoxicated with each other. I think thats the best way to describe our relationship. Being with her was all about passion, living your life freely and openly, accepting no barriers to desire. When I was with her I felt so alive. My entire body ached with sensation. Just seeing Edith excited me.
I was involved with many more women than Edith. It was never about love with any of them. Seduction was a game for Edith and me. Ive spent a long time trying to understand why I behaved that way. I still cant explain it."
Jesse looked up at Annie. The young blondes face was expressionless in the dim light cast by the campfire. It was impossible to tell what she was thinking. And then the tall guide was back in Paris.
"I first saw Charlotte Mornay riding in a carriage with her family in the Bois de Bologne. I couldnt take my eyes off her. She was young, beautiful and had the most appealing smile. Her two children and husband were with her. I found out who she was and then arranged to be introduced.
I discovered her cousin, Marie Briand, was a friend of Ediths. Madame Briand was eager to help. She thought Charlottes life was much too dull and took a delight in imagining what might be the result of introducing her cousin to me.
She brought Charlotte to a card game at Ediths. I found her even more attractive than when I saw her in the park. She was bright, full of life and had the most marvelous laugh. Charlotte wasnt naïve though. She was aware of my reputation but didnt appear either hesitant or uncomfortable when we met.
It really wasnt much of a challenge to bring Charlotte to my bed. She was very willing, almost eager to be seduced. She was filled with a desire and passion that surprised me. Her husband was a junior minister in the government. Most of his time and emotion was devoted to his work and colleagues. He wasnt abusive to Charlotte. He just had greater passions in his life than her.
We would meet for lovemaking while her husband was at his ministry or traveling, and her children were with their governess. This went on for about six months, much longer than most of my affairs.
Her need for me was unsettling. Usually it wasnt difficult to end a relationship with a woman, married or not. There would be tears and pleas but then in the face of my indifference they would accept our involvement was over. I knew it would be different with Charlotte. She took greater and greater risks to be with me. It was early on a March evening and I was writing letters in my study." And once again Jesse relived the tragic events of that night.
"Excuse me Mademoiselle." Jesses housekeeper entered the room with a look indicating something out of the ordinary had happened. "Madame Mornay has arrived and desires to talk with you."
Jesse put down her pen and stood up. The news of Charlottes arrival startled the dark woman. They hadnt made arrangements to meet and her husband, Henri, would be home at that time of the evening.
"Thank-you Madame Philippe. Please bring Madame Mornay to me."
A few minutes later the housekeeper led Charlotte into the room and then left after closing the studys door. Jesse noticed immediately Charlottes alarmingly flushed face and the excitement shining in her eyes. She wondered if the young French woman had a fever. Charlotte quickly crossed the room to Jesse, threw her arms around the tall womans neck and kissed her on the lips. Jesse responded with little warmth. She slipped out of Charlottes embrace and stepped back.
"Charlotte, why are you here?"
"Oh Jesse, do I need an appointment to see you?"
"Your husbands home at this hour. What did you tell him when you left?"
"Dont worry my love. His nose is buried in ministry reports. He wont notice Im gone. Darling, I have the most wonderful news for you. Ive decided to leave Henri. Ive come to live with you. We can always be together."
Jesses response was not what Charlotte expected. "Have you gone mad? Henri will divorce you. Youll be disgraced and lose your children."
"Jesse, I love you. Ill sacrifice anything to be with you. Ill never return to the passionless life I lived with Henri."
Jesse moved away from Charlotte, back to her desk. She riffled through papers on it before answering. "Charlotte, you cant stay here with me. It wouldnt be appropriate. Ive told you many times I prefer to live alone. If you wont come to your senses and return to your family, then you must go to your cousin Madame Briand."
"Charlotte begged to be allowed to stay. She finally realized neither her pleas nor tears would change my mind and she left. Ill never forget first the pain and bewilderment on her face and then the resignation. I thought she would go home or to her cousin. Edith came to my flat the next afternoon. She brought horrifying news. Charlotte was dead; drown in the Seine. After Charlotte left my house that night, she walked to Pont Neuf. There she threw herself into the river. The Seine was swollen from recent rains. Witnesses said she disappeared almost immediately. The authorities recovered her body the next morning. The newspapers reported she accidentally fell off the bridge. No one wanted to believe she killed herself.
I went to Charlottes burial. Edith begged me not to go. She said it would accomplish nothing and if I was recognized there might be a scene. I had to go. I had to see what I had done. Her husband and children were there with the rest of her family. They were grief stricken. I could see how much they loved Charlotte. As I was leaving the cemetery Madame Briand approached me. She saw me standing in back of the mourners. She knew what really happened. Charlotte must have told her she was leaving her husband for me. Im sure Madame Briand was guilt stricken over her role in the affair. Ill never forget what she said."
Murderer. You murdered her. You stole Charlotte from her family who loved her. You cared nothing for her.
"Then she slapped me across the face. I wanted Madame Briand to hit me harder. I wanted physical pain to match the pain caused by my guilt. If I could have switched places with Charlotte in her grave I would have. I nearly went mad with regret and grief. I didnt leave my bedroom for a month. I saw no one; ate almost nothing and thought only of killing myself. Edith was frantic to see me but I refused her entry. Then I decided I would leave Paris and return to Montana. I wanted to be alone. I wanted to be where Id never have the opportunity to destroy another womans life. I didnt even say goodbye to Edith."
Annie stared into the fire. She looked tired; all emotion drained from her face.
"Why didnt you help Charlotte? Why didnt you give her shelter at your house?"
Jesse sighed and then looked at Annie. Pain and regret filled the tall womans eyes.
"I was fond of Charlotte but I was already involved with another woman."
What would Annie now think about her guide? Surely no affection for Jesse could linger in the young blondes heart after that confession. But Jesse knew she would rather lose Annie than hide from her young companion the woman she had been in Paris and could still be.
Annie didnt move her gaze from the fire. So Jesse had been no different than Stephen, a predator on the prowl for women to devour. The blonde wondered if any women had thrown themselves into the Thames because of Stephen.
She looked up at Jesse. "Its been a long day; Im tired. Im going to turn in."
The guide remained at the campfire every now and then stirring the white glowing coals. She was sure whatever bond, whatever affection they shared was gone, never to be recaptured. A deep sense of loss for what a life with Annie might have been rested on Jesse like a heavy weight. When it got too cold to remain at the dying fire, she moved to her bedroll.
The next morning the women prepared breakfast in silence. Once again they rode to the fossil beds and Jesse pointed out sites of interest. Annie said little as the bad memories about Stephen flooded back. She gave the Englishwoman her love, trusted her and then learned a hard lesson. To Stephen she was no more than a highly anticipated notch on the older womans bedpost.
They were back in camp by noon. Annie went for a walk along the creek while Jesse prepared the gear and horses for the return trip to Cameron the next morning. When the young woman returned, she avoided looking at the guide. They prepared supper without talking. Jesse made no attempt to speak with Annie about the previous nights confession. She was a proud woman. She wouldnt plead; she wouldnt demand that Annie remain with her. In a few days they would be back in Cameron and that would be the end of it.
After eating, the young woman wrote in her journal until it was too dark to continue. Jesse passed the time repairing the wooden tree of the packsaddle. As the moon began to cross the night sky, both women crawled under their blankets to sleep knowing it would be an early start the next morning.
In the grey light of the moon Annie looked at her guide snug in her bedroll. Questions flew through young womans mind. What did Jesse really mean to her? What did she mean to Jesse? Was she to be just another conquest the tall woman would walk away from once the journey ended?
As she lay under her blankets, Annie knew she had the answers. The person Jesse had been in Paris was not the woman she shared the casual intimacies of the trail with over the last several days. What ever had possessed the tall woman that had made her so selfish, so cruel was now gone, driven out in the wilds of Montana.
She loved Jesse. What the dark woman had done, who she had been could not change that. Annie never doubted she could trust Jesse with her life. Now she would trust the tall woman with her heart.
Yes, she wanted to be under the blankets with Jesse. She wanted to press against her, feel her warmth on this cold, dark night. Annie pushed out of her bedroll and moved to Jesse. The young blonde slipped under the blankets and nestled against her guides back.
"Cold?" Jesse asked.
"I love you," Annie whispered.
Jesse thought of the many times foolish women told her during games of seduction that they loved her. Then, claims of love meant nothing to her. Now the dark woman knew those words spoken by Annie would forever change her life.
Jesse rolled over, propped herself up on an elbow and stared into Annies deep green eyes. She looked so young, so in love.
" I need you Annie."
The guide pulled Annie against her and kissed her lightly on the forehead. "We have to sleep. Itll be long day tomorrow."
They were exhausted. Battered by storms of doubt and guilt, neither of them had slept much the night before. The fierce heat of the badlands drained what little energy they had left. Now the world seemed so peaceful, so right.
Wrapped together they fell asleep.
It was dark and stars still filled the sky when the smell of frying bacon and brewing coffee woke Annie. Jesse had quietly slipped from her to prepare breakfast. For a few moments Annie watched her companion cook at the campfire. She wished for the hours to fly by, for night to quickly arrive so she could sleep in Jesses arms again. With a sigh the young woman got up, quickly dressed and moved beside Jesse.
"Mmmm, breakfast smells good."
"Good morning." The tall woman smiled, gave Annie a quick kiss and then handed her a cup of coffee that steamed in the morning cold.
Annie sipped from the cup. "You know what I want first thing in the morning and in what order."
"I hope youll want more from me than a good morning kiss and coffee."
The young woman lowered her cup and looked at Jesse. "I want to spend the rest of my life with you Jesse. When were old and grey, I want to be together in rocking chairs on a porch watching the sun set."
Jesse remembered everything about the previous night - the feel of Annies body, the soft murmurs the young woman made as she slept. The dark woman smiled again, leaned down and kissed Annie. This time it was a lingering kiss that threatened to spiral into much more. They pulled apart with a slight gasp.
"I could kiss you all day Jesse."
The tall woman grinned. "If we dont eat and get riding well be old and grey by the time we get back to Cameron."
They laughed, filled their plates with food from the frying pan and quickly ate. The breakfast dishes were cleaned; the horses saddled and packed. The two women didnt talk much that morning. They were content with occasional glances and touches. There was no need to discuss what happened between them or why it happened or what their future would be. Somehow they found each other. Now the two women were together as it was meant to be. At dawn they were on their way back to Cameron.
Later that morning as they rode back through the Buffalo Lick, both women heard whining coming from a draw. Annie reined her horse to a stop. Sentimental by nature, she never hesitated to fly to the rescue of an animal in trouble.
"Is that a dog? What would a dog be doing way out here? Im going to see what it is."
The young blonde kicked her horse and guided it into the draw. Jesse followed equally curious. What they found astonished them. A large grey wolf with its paw caught in a steel trap looked at the two women, whining in pain and fear. It was a female wolf and obviously nursing pups.
"A wolf! I thought they were gone from this part of Montana. Boone Hyatt must be working nearby. Ill put it out of its misery." The guide reached for her revolver.
"No Jesse, dont shoot the wolf. Im going to release it from the trap."
Before Jesse could say a word or draw her pistol from its holster, Annie was off her horse and kneeling beside the wolf. Had Annie gone mad to think she could free the wolf without being attacked?
As she knelt beside the animal, the young woman looked into its fierce yellow eyes. The wolf whined softly as if realizing she wanted to help. Annie reached down and pushed open the trap releasing the animals paw. Fortunately the trap had not badly injured the wolf. The animal continued to stare into Annies eyes, whined again and then loped off toward the top of a ridge beside the draw.
Jesse couldnt believe what she saw. Why didnt the wolf attack Annie?
Annie turned to her. "Her pups are in a den on the other side of the ridge. Boone has found them. We need to save the pups."
The young blonde was on her horse in flash, whipped it with her reins and flew out of the draw and up the side of the ridge. Speechless, Jesse watched her race off.
How on earth did Annie know about the wolf pups? The wolf couldnt have told her. Whats happening? Jesse dropped the lead rope to the packhorse and galloped after the young blonde.
They crested the ridge with Annie keeping just ahead of Jesse. They rode about half a mile when Jesse spotted Boone. As they closed on the trapper she saw a squirming wolf pup under his boot and a shovel in his hands. Boone was too intent on his task to notice the two riders rapidly coming up on him. He raised the shovel over his head. The guide knew immediately what the trapper was planning to do. Boone was going to crush the pups head with the shovel!
Annie would never reach him in time to save the wolf. Jesse pulled her eyes away from Boone and looked at the blonde. Annie had her rifle out and pressed against her shoulder as her horse flew across the ground! Was she going to try and shoot the trapper?
BANG. A shot rang out and the shovel flew from Boones hand! Annie had almost reached the trapper when she saw him try and pull a pistol out of a holster on his waist. She yanked her horse to a stop and clubbed the trapper over the head with the barrel of her rifle. Boone dropped to the ground as the wolf pup raced back into the den the trapper had pulled it from. Annie jumped off her horse, levered another bullet into the chamber of the rifle and waited to see what Boone would do. The man lay motionless on the ground
"My God have you killed him?"
Jesse came off her horse and ran to Boones side. She could hear him softly moaning. Thank God he was alive. She pulled his pistol from the holster and shoved in her belt.
"Are you crazy? You cant attack a man for trying to kill a wolf! If you had killed him they would have hanged you."
Jesse was both angry and confused. Why did Annie care so much for varmints that in the West were killed on sight? Why would she risk killing a man to protect a wolf? The guide had no love for Boone and his kind but killing wolves was legal and well rewarded with bounties. Wildlife management as practiced by both the state and federal governments was quite simply the extermination of any large predators that might kill livestock or the deer, elk and antelope that hunters sought.
And most of all Jesse was frightened about what might have happened if the young blonde had killed Boone. To save her from hanging, they would have had to flee the country or worse yet remain and try and keep the crime a secret.
Annies response was immediate; her green eyes flamed with anger and her voice shook.
"You say you love the wilderness but you accept the killing of everything that makes this land wild. To men like Boone its a job. Whats your reason? Its just the way things are done in Montana? That everything thats wild and dangerous will be killed to make it easier for someone to make money?"
Annies response left the guide the speechless. Unfortunately for Boone he chose that moment to regain his senses becoming the target of both womens wrath.
"Youre going to jail. Youre both going to jail. Whyd you attack me? You coulda killed me." He struggled to his knees, rubbing his head. His thick mop of hair and hat had fortunately for him cushioned the impact of Annies rifle on his head. Boone looked up at Jesse.
Not that damn she-devil in trousers again! What did she have against him? And the pretty blonde gal from the restaurant! Are they sidekicks?
As Boones eyes focused he saw the rifle in Annies hand. Her angry eyes and the grim look on her face frightened him.
Why did she want to kill him? Was she still angry about the restaurant? He was just having a little fun.
Annie moved closer to him, the rifle aimed at his chest. "Did you set anymore traps after the one in the draw?"
What? She wanted to know about his traps? Then he realized it was the wolves she was protecting and he forgot his fear.
"You attacked me because of the wolves? Are you crazy? Who cares about wolves?"
"I asked you if there were any more traps out there."
The hard look on the young blondes face reminded the trapper he was not out of danger and that he better answer the question fast.
"I only set the one in the draw before I found the den."
Annie walked to his packhorse that was standing nearby and found a sack containing steel traps. She grabbed it and carried the traps back to her horse.
"You wont need these anymore."
"You cant take them traps. Theys mine. Thats stealing."
Then all three heard a whine and looked over to see the mother wolf standing in a swale about a hundred feet from them. Three pups charged out of the den and ran to her. Quick licks were exchanged before they trotted off.
"Damn, fifty dollars in bounty money just run off. Im goin have you arrested. See how you two like jail."
"Shut your mouth Boone," Jesse snarled. "Im tired of listening to you. Im taking your horses with us. Ill release them in a couple hours."
"You be hoss thieves too!"
"Boone." Annies voice was cold and flat; the trapper felt the fear return.
"If you try and hurt those wolves again, Ill kill you and bury your body out here. No one will ever know what happened."
Annies threat finally silenced the trapper. Jesse stripped the saddle and packsaddle from Boones horses and then put halters on them. The trapper cursed under his breath as he watched the two women ride off leading his horses.
Damn them. They stole the wolf money, my traps and hosses. Im not gonna bother with the marshal. Im gonna take care of them myself like in the old days. And that pretty blonde gal. Im gonna have some fun before I kill her.
They quickly found their packhorse not far where the wolf had been trapped. As she told Boone, Jesse released his horses later in the day and then the two women buried the traps. The guide tied the shovel to the packsaddle and turned to Annie.
"What happened back there?"
"I dont feel much like talking right now. Can it wait?"
"Annie, at least tell me how you knew about Boone and the wolf pups?"
"I just figured it out. I dont know exactly how. I just did. Are you angry with me Jesse?"
"No, Im worried about you."
"You dont need to worry. Im alright."
Unconvinced, the tall woman got on her horse. "Well be taking a different route back to the wagon road. We wont be camping at the homestead. Boone might try and follow us. If we head directly into the mountains he wont be able to easily track us. Its a hard ride but its safer this way. Theres a good camping spot beside a creek where we can bathe."
Annie nodded her head and they kicked their horses into a trot. The two women rode for the rest of the day without much conversation. Still shaken and puzzled by the encounter with the trapper, Jesse hoped the young blonde would be willing to talk. There had to be a reason for Annies violent protection of the wolves.
During the long ride that day, Jesse also thought about her future with the Forest Service. Actually she thought about the end of her job with the Forest Service. Even her Uncle wouldnt be able to save her job once Boone reported what happened.
The two women lost track of how many hours they spent in the saddle before arriving at the creek where they would spend the night. It was late in a dry summer and water no longer rushed through the streams rocky channel. Water though still remained in deep pools cut over the centuries in the rock of the streambed. Once again the two women unpacked the horses and set up camp. Annie gave no indication she wanted to talk about the wolves and Boone.
"Annie, through those alder theres a deep pool you can bathe in. You can leave your clothes on a rock ledge by the water. My horse has a loose shoe. I need to take care of it. Soon as I finish Ill join you."
The young blonde quickly disappeared from sight as she pushed through the brush. Jesse nailed the horseshoe back on and checked the other horses hooves. She was tired, hot and worried about Annies silence. What was happening? What memories had returned to Annie? What secrets was her young companion keeping from her? The guide finished with the horses, took off her boots and socks, and headed for the creek. Jesse hoped the cool water of the stream would make her feel better and clear her head.
The guide emerged from the alder and saw Annie treading water in the middle of the pool. Her companion was naked; her clothes folded neatly on the ledge. Jesse stared openly at the young woman.
Annie returned her stare without embarrassment and swam to the ledge. She pushed out of the water with her arms and spun around so her back faced Jesse. The young woman sat on the flat rock hugging her knees against her chest. It was then Jesse saw the still red scars from shotgun pellets that covered Annies back.
"Youve been shot! How did that happen?"
Jesse heard a long sigh come from Annie. The young woman didnt turn to face her guide when she began to speak.
"When I worked in North Carolina I met a young man named James Ridgeway. He was a warden for the Audubon Society. He was a former poacher who changed his ways and dedicated his life to protecting waterfowl and the plumed birds that were being slaughtered to decorate womens hats. The attitude on the coast of North Carolina was that man shall have dominion over all creatures. It was their right to profit from killing wildlife. There was no limits or laws on how much they could kill or when they could kill. That is until the Audubon Society ensured the passing of wildlife protection laws and hired men like James to enforce them.
James wasnt an educated man but he was kind and honest. There was nothing he didnt know about the coast and its wildlife. His former poaching partners didnt appreciate his work as a warden. He constantly received death threats. For $35 a month he risked his life to protect birds.
He helped me teach the children about birds. James fell in love with me and asked me to marry him. I said yes. James was a good man but I didnt love him. I was lonely and didnt think I had any other options but marriage.
It was a full moon that October night. Annie and James didnt need to light the lanterns they carried as they walked across the beach to the wardens rowboat.
"Its a beautiful night to be on the water Annie. Look at the sound. Its as smooth as glass." The wardens soft coastal drawl seemed to melt into the warm night air. James was eager to show Annie the magnificent rafts of sea ducks floating off Black Beards Point. At night it was fairly easy to approach the ducks as they slept on the water.
They reached his rowboat and worked together to drag it into the sound.
"Step in Annie. Youre awful quiet tonight."
"Sorry." Annie smiled weakly at the warden and took hold of his hand as she stepped into the boat. A handsome man in his late 20s, he was tall and slender with sandy hair, bright blue eyes and a quick smile. Fortunately he wasnt aware of the conflict that turned the young womans thoughts inward. How could she tell him she no longer wanted to marry him? He was such a kind man, a good man. The children loved him. James would be a wonderful husband and father. But she didnt love him and never would. Accepting his proposal of marriage had seemed like the right thing to do. The loneliness of life in a small community on the coast of North Caroline was almost unbearable. Yet now loneliness seemed preferable to giving up forever the hope of finding love. She must tell him. James deserved a wife who loved him. Shed tell him when they returned to shore.
The warden rowed for about 30 minutes before they reached the first raft of hundreds of sea ducks quietly floating on the water.
"Annie, aint that a beautiful sight?"
Before Annie could answer a blast tore through the night. A hole blossomed in James chest as he fell backwards into the bow of the rowboat.
A second blast exploded, partially muffled by the frenzied beating of wings as the ducks took to flight. A terrible burning pain filled Annies back as she pitched forward onto the warden. He didnt move. Blood covered his chest; his eyes were open and stared at nothing.
"James, James," she whispered. There was no response.
Annie pushed herself off the wardens body. Blood covered her but she wasnt sure if it was hers or James.
What had happened? They had been shot! Why and by who? Terrified, Annie waited for the next blast that would end her life. There was only the sound though of the water lapping against the boat. Whoever attacked them had left. She had to get help for James. The young woman moved beside his body, grabbed the oars and began to row. Every time she pulled the oars through the water it felt like white-hot nails were being driven into her back. Annie heard screams of pain and thought James must still be alive. Then she realized the screams were hers.
"I dont know how long I rowed before I fainted. Fishermen found us at daybreak floating just off the shore. James was dead and I was nearly dead. Poachers had been on the water that night but we never saw them. They must have recognized James rowboat and thought he was coming to arrest them. They shot us as soon as we got close.
It took me several months to heal physically. My parents came from Denver to be with me. I refused to leave my bed even after the doctor told me I was completely recovered. I spent hours crying and when I wasnt crying I slept. Everyone thought the horror of the ambush and James death affected my mind. They were partially right.
What drove me almost mad was guilt. Not guilt over not being able to make it to shore and get help for James. The doctor told me he died almost instantly when shotgun pellets tore through his heart. I was guilty because I was relieved he had died and I didnt have to marry him. Before we went out that night, I finally admitted to myself I didnt want to spend my life with him. I knew there had to be someone else for me; someone I would recognize from the first moment we met. I didnt have the courage though to end the engagement. Poor James had to die for me to be free from my promise.
My parents wanted me to return with them but I refused. There was nothing for me in Denver. Mr. Pearson hoped a trip and a special assignment might help me recover. He arranged for me to write an article about the fossil beds in Montana for The Century Magazine. The editor is a personal friend of his. Mr. Pearson asked former President Roosevelt to arrange for the Forest Service to assist me. When President Roosevelt heard about James murder he wanted to collect his guns and charter a train to North Carolina to search for the killers. Mr. Pearson said it took a lot of talking by his aids to convince him not to go. No one has been arrested for James murder."
As Annie talked, Jesse moved to her and knelt behind the young woman making no attempt to speak.
So thats why Annie was willing to kill Boone to protect the wolves. In her mind the trapper was no different than the poachers who shot her and killed the warden.
" I cant help thinking James had to die for me to find you Jesse."
Jesse wrapped her arms around Annie and leaned into her companions back.
"Annie, I love you. Regardless of what happened in our lives we would have found each other."
As Jesse talked, Annie could feel the tall woman lips and breath warm against skin chilled by the cold water of the creek. Then came gentle kisses on her neck and shoulders. Annie closed her eyes and trembled at the contrast between the softness of Jesses lips and tongue, and the roughness of the guides shirt moving across her bare skin
"Jesse." They must be able to hear my heart thudding in Missoula.
"Your clothes have to come off."
"Ill need your help."
"I can do that."
Annie turned around and with her eyes staring into Jesses, slowly unbuttoned the tall womans shirt and pushed it off her shoulders. She slipped her hands under Jesses undershirt, lightly running them up her ribs and over her breasts before pulling the garment over the tall womans head and throwing it to the side. The young woman paused to look at Jesses half-naked body the powerful lines of her shoulders and arms, her full breasts, the contrast between tanned arms and face, and the white skin protected by her shirt.
She lightly traced Jesses shoulders and collarbone with her fingers. "Youre so beautiful Jesse."
"Please Annie, dont stop or Ill die."
"I wouldnt want that to happen. You need to stand up."
Jesse stood up on legs that felt like jelly. Annies hands slipped up the tall womans legs and over the swell of her hips to the trouser buttons. Accompanied by Jesses soft moan, the young woman tugged the buttons open one by one. She gathered the trousers and under clothes in her hands and pulled them down and over the tall womans feet.
"Annie, Im not going to be able to stand much longer."
The young woman looked up, smiled, took Jesses hands in hers and pulled the tall woman to her knees. They leaned into an embrace as the electric charge of desire surged through their bodies.
"Are you ready?" Jesse whispered into Annies ear.
Stretching out on the rock there was no hesitation, no doubts - only the need to touch, to share, to please. Their hands traveled each others bodies in gentle, easy caresses as their mouths tasted, nipped and teased. Murmurs of encouragement and gasps revealed where to touch and stroke. They let the tension build slowly as they explored with their hands and mouths. Release finally came as their bodies arched again and again into shudders and spasms.
The two women rested on the rock still warm from the sun. Jesse lay on her back with Annie sprawled across her, the young womans head resting on her shoulder. She was so quiet Jesse thought she might be sleeping.
"Is it always going to be this wonderful?"
"It will be even better on a bed."
Annie lifted her head to look at her guide. "Oh, youre uncomfortable?"
"Im about as comfortable as you can be lying on a rock."
Laughing they got up, grabbed their clothes and headed back to camp.
The fire season of 1910 was a bad one in western Montana. It had been a dry spring with no late snowstorms and almost no rain. There were record high temperatures in April and May, and the mountain snow pack melted early. High country trails that usually werent free of snow until late July could be easily traveled on horseback by early June. A hot, windy summer resulted in tinder dry forests ready to explode in flames. Lightning storms swept through the Montana mountains late in July and continued into August causing hundreds of wildfires. Thousands of men including Army soldiers were sent into the forests to fight the flames.
Forest Assistant Ed Kearney was dispatched on August 16, with a 15-man crew to fight a lightning fire near Pine Marten Creek just north of the trail to Peep Sight Pass. Ed met his crew in Cameron where they arrived by the morning train. Like most of the firefighters that summer, the men were recruited from the saloons and hobo camps of Montana and Idaho. They might be drunks, drifters and ex-convicts but if they could swing an ax they were hired. Firefighters were paid 25 cents an hour, fed three meals a day and given a wool blanket to sleep on. Axes, mattocks, shovels and crosscut saws to fight the fire with were purchased in Cameron. The men left that afternoon in wagons that transported them and their tools to within walking distance of the fire. The forest assistant rode on horseback and led two packhorses that carried food and supplies.
When they reached the fire, Ed taught his inexperienced crew how to scrape a line through the pine needles and litter on the forest floor down to bare soil. As men with crosscut saws and axes cut down trees ahead of them, the rest of the crew dug a line three-feet wide line around the flames. The crew learned quickly and worked hard. By the 20th, the fire was surrounded by a line. The men shoveled dirt on the remaining flames within the line and fell trees that were still burning.
Dead tired at the end of the day, Ed bedded down in his blankets shortly after supper. By the time the stars appeared in the black sky, the crew was sleeping soundly. Strong winds that came up suddenly that night and blew through the treetops went unnoticed by the sleeping camp.
Just before daybreak Charlie Strong, the crews cook, woke Ed up.
"Boss, boss wake up. Theres something I want you to see."
Ed sat up and rubbed his face before crawling from his blankets.
"Whats happening Charlie? You should be starting breakfast."
"Look over there on the hill. I just saw a shooting star fall there and start a fire."
The forest assistant knew it was unlikely a meteor had landed nearby. He looked toward the west and what he saw spurred him into action. The whole sky was glowing red across a width of several miles. The shooting star had been a chunk of burning wood hurled miles ahead of the flames of a huge forest fire.
What Ed didnt know was that on August 20th unexpected winds howled through western Montana from the Canadian border to the Salmon River in Idaho. Hundreds of small forest fires exploded and then merged. A firestorm a 100 miles long and up to 25 miles wide was roaring down on the crew. Whirlwinds of superheated air and gases preceded a flame front hundreds of feet high. The winds blew thousands of trees into the air like toothpicks. The fire consumed everything in its path. Towns, cabins and logging camps disappeared. Nothing living survived the flames.
"Men, get up now!! Weve got to get out of here. Theres a fire heading right for us. Leave everything behind except your tools, canteens and blankets. You two help me get the horses ready to go."
Ed knew he had to control the fear he saw in the mens faces. If he lost control of his crew, they would panic and scatter blindly into the forest where they would burn to death.
"Trust me. Ill get you out of this. Do what I tell you and youll live."
If trust failed, Eds backup would be the Army Colt .45 semiautomatic he wore in a holster on his hip. It was a very large handgun. If the men wouldnt listen to him, the .45 would hold their attention.
They were ready to leave in minutes. Ed knew there was an old prospecting tunnel about six miles away just off the Morgan Wagon Road. The tunnel was only 75 feet long but it was their only hope for refuge from the oncoming flames. Would they be able to reach it before the fire overtook them?
Within an hour of leaving their camp, a thick blanket of smoke turned the day dark. Blinded by smoke and barely able to breathe, Eds crew finally arrived in the vicinity of the tunnel. The forest assistant remembered it was near the ruins of a cabin that stood beside the wagon road. Twice during their retreat from the fire the forest assistant pulled his pistol to keep the men from scattering in panic. Fear had driven a crewman mad. He babbled incoherently as his friends pulled him along.
"Wait here. The tunnel is nearby. It will only take me a couple minutes to find it. Stay put and hang on to each other. Charlie, dont let the men scatter. Use your pistol if you have to."
Huddled together, the terrified men gasped for air in the dense smoke. The powerful winds fed by the firestorm snapped the tops out of trees that crashed down all around them. One spruce top drove into the ground like a giant spear. They covered their heads and shoulders with blankets to protect themselves from burning embers raining down through the smoke. Small fires popped up on the forest floor as the embers ignited bone-dry pine needles. The distant roar of the flames reminded the men a horrible death was racing down on them.
Ed stumbled through the smoke. The dense smoke and his burning eyes made it difficult to see anything. Hed find the damn tunnel; he wasnt going to lose his crew to the fire. There it was, the portal to the tunnel! Ed returned to his crew.
"Ive found it. Follow me."
They ran into the tunnel pulling the horses with them.
"Tie the horses to the rings in the wall and cover their eyes with your bandanas. Get to the back of the tunnel, lay down and cover yourselves with blankets."
Ed counted the crew as they moved into the tunnel. One was missing!
"Wheres Simmons?" No one answered. He must have gotten separated from the crew in the smoke.
"Charlie, Im going back out to look for Simmons. Keep the men in the tunnel." The roar of the fire was now so loud Ed shouted to be heard.
At daybreak that same day, Annie pulled herself away from the warmth of her sleeping guides body, intent on being the first one up. It was about time Jesse woke to the smell of breakfast being cooked. The two women were again camped in the high country meadow where they spent their first night on the trail.
"Its snowing!" Annie couldnt believe her eyes.
The tall womans eyes flashed open. Snowing? It cant be snowing.
Jesse jumped up and looked around. She too saw the red glow on the horizon and knew what it was.
"Thats not snow. Its ash from a forest fire. We need to get riding. Saddle your horse and bring your blankets. Leave everything else behind."
Annie knew they were in trouble, big trouble. Jesses voice was calm but the blonde could see the concern in her eyes. "Were in a bad spot?"
"We could be in worse trouble. Not much worse. Everything will be all right."
Annie shoved her journal into her saddlebags, grabbed the saddle and bridle, and moved to her horse. Jesse quickly saddled her horse, and strapped blankets and a shovel behind the saddle. She left the packsaddle off the other horse.
"The fires coming fast. We wont be able to outrun it. Theres a mining tunnel not too far from here. We can make it there before the fire reaches us. Well be safe in the tunnel. Lets get riding."
Jesse had fought forest fires in Montana. She knew the fire that was coming was huge and what would happen if the flames caught them. The tall woman had been on a crew that had been burned over on the Crook National Forest. She and the other firefighters had been lucky that time and survived.
They had been working a lightning fire for three days. The crew was eating lunch at their camp beside a creek when Forest Guard Roy LaMonte arrived in a big hurry from scouting the fire.
"The fires blown across Big Bear Creek and is running up the drainage toward us."
Lunch was quickly forgotten. Ranger Bill Kaufman, the crew boss, dropped his can of sardines and stood up.
"Roy, how long before the fire reaches us?"
"Id say about 15 minutes." There was not time to escape the flames.
Fear showed on the faces of the crew as they looked anxiously at their boss. Three days ago most of them had been sitting in saloons in Missoula. Only a couple of the men had any experience fighting fires before this one.
Bill Kaufman then stepped up on a log and told the crew in a loud, calm voice how he was going to save them.
"Dont panic men," he smiled and looked at Jesse. "And women. Well survive if we stay together and you do what I tell you. Get into the creek with your blankets. Wet down your blankets and clothes then lay down in the water. Cover yourself with the blankets. Whatever happens dont leave the creek. If you run into the woods, youll die. Now move the gear into the creek and cover it with the canvas."
The crew responded immediately to his orders. They were frightened but the rangers orders gave them hope they would live. They liked him; he was a good boss. Now theyd trust him with their lives. And then there was the woman, Jesse. There was no fear on her face as she helped stack their supplies and tools in the creek.
When they first saw her they thought she was the crews cook. They all silently thanked their lucky stars that they were in the woods with a very good- looking woman. A solid punch by Jesse that put a big Swede on his back informed them all they could keep their amorous thoughts to themselves. Much to their surprise, when they got to the fire she worked with an ax and shovel like the men.
After the supplies were covered, Jesse joined the crew in the wide, shallow creek. The water was only about eight inches deep. Near her three men struggled with a firefighter who fought to break free of their grip and run for his life. As he shrieked hysterically, his companions wrestled him into the water, covered his body with a blanket and held him down.
Within ten minutes of entering the water, the fire roared over them. Peeking from under her blankets, Jesse saw a writhing mass of red flames with dense black smoke curling above it explode through the tops o f the trees. The fire looked like a fiery red dragon a hundred feet high. The dragon roared like a hundred locomotives. A blast of intense heat smashed into the tall woman and forced her head down into the water. The winds that accompanied the flames tore at her blankets trying to rip them from her body. Jesse could feel the heat scorch her back as she pressed her body into the creek bottom. She fought every instinct she had that told her to jump up and flee from the flames as fast as she could run.
Jesse felt another crewmember move against her but the roar of the fire made it impossible to talk. Fortunately for the firefighters the wind pushed the fire quickly over them.
They all heard Bills voice. "The fire has passed over us. Its safe to leave the creek".
Jesse slowly stood up and removed the blankets from her head. She looked at the crewman next her. Only it wasnt a crewman; it was a black bear. Like the firefighters, the bear also sought shelter in the creek. It looked at Jesse without fear, woofed and then slowly walked up the creek and out of sight of the firefighters. Laughter rolled through the crew at the astonished look on the tall womans face.
With a big smile on his face the ranger called out, "Jesse, you almost had yourself a fur coat."
A quick roll call was taken. Two crewmen didnt answer.
Bill looked at Jesse and Roy. "Shorty and Hank are missing. They must have panicked and run. As soon as it cools down I want you two to go look for them." He turned to the rest of the crew. "Cook, grab a man and see if our coffee survived. If you can find some, get a pot brewing."
They all jumped when a burning tree crashed to the ground near them. The crew boss waited until the men settled down. "Keep your heads up and look out for falling trees. You didnt survive the fire to be crushed by a tree."
It didnt take them long to find the missing crewmen. Jesse never forgot what their bodies looked like. She stepped over one of them thinking it was a charred log.
She wasnt going to lose Annie that way.
The sun was bright red and the sky yellow when Annie and Jesse left their camping spot. After riding several miles, smoke and darkness descended on the two women as the fire closed on them.
"Annie, we need to lead the horses. I cant see anything from horseback. Keep close to me so we dont get separated in the smoke." They tied shirts around the eyes of the horses to keep them calm.
The guide knew there wasnt much time left before the flames reached them. The winds were picking up and she could hear the distant roar of the fire. She had only seen the tunnel once years ago on a trip with her uncle. The heavy smoke wasnt making it any easier to find. They wore bandanas over their mouths to help them breath, squinted their eyes against the smoke, and slapped at embers that burned holes in their clothes. Talking was nearly impossible. The two women could hear but not see trees crashing to the ground as winds howled through the forest
They must be close to the tunnel. She remembered the large pine snag standing next to the ruins of a small cabin. A sudden change in the wind lifted the smoke. Now was their opportunity to find the tunnel.
Then Jesse saw him standing in the middle of the road, a black demon from Hell with a rifle in his hands. It was Boone! He was horribly burned. The fire must have caught the trapper. His skin was charred black and hanging in patches from his body. His hair was gone. The trapper pointed a Sharps rifle, a relic from his buffalo hunting days, at them.
Jesse stared at Boone. My God, the rifles barrel is big enough for me to crawl down. What does he want?
"Boone put the rifle down and come with us. Theres a mining tunnel nearby. Well be safe there," Jesse called to him.
She couldnt tell what the badly burned man was saying if anything. Was he smiling at them? Or had the charred flesh of his face pulled his mouth into a permanent grin?
"Boone, your only hope is to let us find the tunnel."
The tall woman had to shout over the roar of the rapidly approaching fire. But Jesse and Annie both heard Boones reply.
"Im already dead."
Jesse slowly dropped her hand toward her pistol. She was no gunfighter but shed have to draw and shoot Boone if they were to survive. Boone wants us to die in the flames with him. Can I draw and fire before he pulls the trigger? If he shoots me first I need to stay alive long enough to get a bullet into him and get Annie to the tunnel. Jesse could see the young blonde inching toward her rifle.
BANG! Jesse flinched expecting the big slug from the trappers rifle to rip through her body. Instead she saw Boone fly backwards and drop to the ground.
"Jesse, Annie, over here."
They turned to see Ed Kearney with a pistol in his hand step out from behind a tree. He shot the trapper!
"Theres a tunnel just through the trees," he shouted. "Follow me."
He saw the women hesitate and look toward Boones body.
"Forget about him. We dont have much time. Hurry!"
The two followed him to the tunnel.
"Annie, take the horses and tie them where mine are. Grab your blankets and join my crew at the end of the tunnel. Jesse, stay here with me. We have to try and keep the tunnel support timbers from catching fire."
Annie didnt move. Jesse knew the young blonde didnt want to leave her.
"Annie, do as Ed says. Ill be alright."
Annie threw an arm around Jesses neck and hugged her. "I love you."
Reluctantly the young woman turned and tugged the horses to the back of the tunnel. She tied the horses to the rings and then joined the men lying covered in blankets on the tunnel floor. The firefighters lay huddled together almost on top of each other. Frightened men, they instinctively sought the touch of each other to comfort them in their terror.
"Maam, over here," Charlie Strong called. "Put your blankets next to me. The floor of the tunnel is wet here from a seep." He sat with a pistol in his hand making sure none of the crew panicked and ran for the tunnel entrance. "What ever happens in here, stay under your blankets. Remember maam however bad it gets, itll be a thousand times worse outside the tunnel."
Annie could hear some of the crew praying under their blankets while others sobbed. She lay down next to Charlie and covered herself. Within a few minutes a terrible roar announced the fire was at the tunnel entrance. The fierce heat of the flames pulled the cool air from the tunnel replacing it with dense smoke that choked everyone inside. Annie tried to control her fear and the almost uncontrollable urge to leap up and run. Desperate for air, she jammed her face into the floor of the tunnel. Was she going to die in the tunnel? Would she see Jesse again? Over and over again she repeated the childhood prayers her mother taught her. And then everything went dark.
Jesse and Ed frantically beat with blankets at the flames on the timber supports. Jesse could feel embers burning her clothes and skin. Breathing was almost impossible. It was like working in a lit furnace. Only half conscious, the tall woman watched Ed collapse to the floor of the tunnel. She took a step towards him and then she felt herself falling.
"Is she dead," Charlie Strongs voice asked?
"Jesse, Jesse are you alright?"
Jesse slowly opened her eyes. Her head throbbed and someone was shaking her shoulder. It was Annie who was kneeling beside her. A man with a worried look on his face stood next to the young blonde.
"No, Im not dead." The tall woman sat up and looked toward Ed. She saw him sitting with his head in his hands. Jesse looked at her clothes and hands. She was burned but not badly.
" Dont try and stand up yet." Annie threw her arms around Jesse and hugged her.
The guide looked at Annie and smiled weakly. The tall womans white teeth contrasted sharply with a face that was black from smoke and ash. "Youre looking a little worse for wear."
Then it was Annies turn to smile. "Youre one to talk. Youre lucky my mirror is in my saddlebags."
"Wed scare our own mothers if they could see us now," added Charlie.
Ed lifted his head. "Hows my crew?"
"Theyre all alive including the horses. Several of the men are burned. A couple of them cant see." Annie paused and looked at the back of the tunnel. "We passed out from the smoke. All of us must have been out for a couple hours."
They stood up on wobbly legs and walked outside the tunnel. The air was clear of smoke. The green, living forest they so recently rode through was gone. As far as they could see were thousands of charred trees lying jackstrawed on the ground. There was only a grey desert of ash. Nothing green was left.
The crew straggled out behind them. They gazed in astonishment at what the fire had left behind. Several of the men approached Ed and shook his hand.
"Thanks boss. You saved our lives."
Annie firmly gripped Jesses arm, helping her stand.
Ed took charge of the crew again. "Get the horses, your tools and blankets. Were heading back to Cameron."
The small group slowly made its way down the Morgan Wagon Road. Those blinded from the smoke and heat or badly burned rode the horses. They were all as black as coal miners at the end of their shift. Their clothes were scorched and torn, and most of their hats were gone. Every footstep kicked up clouds of powdery ash. The men were desperate for water but the creeks were choked with burned debris and there was nothing to drink. Their heads pounded from breathing smoke and coughs wracked their bodies. No one talked as the group stumbled down the road. They made slow progress having to climb over or walk around the many down trees that blocked their way.
Ed was worried after several hours of travel. He didnt think his crew would be able to walk much further that day or the next day without food and water. The forest assistant stopped the men and let them drop to the ground to rest while he tried to figure what to do. He sat apart from the crew with the two women.
After a few moments to think he asked them, "Who was the man I shot back at the mine? Why was he trying to kill you?"
Jesse looked at Annie and then turned to Ed. "His name was Boone Hyatt. He was the man who caused the trouble in the restaurant in Cameron. He was too badly burned for you to recognize him. We had a run in with him in the Buffalo Lick a couple days ago. Boone might have been following us and got caught by the fire."
Jesse moved closer to the young man. Her voice was hoarse from the fire and smoke. "Ed, he would have killed Annie and me if you hadnt fired. Boone was already dead when you shot him. Even he knew that. You just sent him back to Hell where he belonged."
"Ed, you saved our lives and the lives of your crew. Youre a hero." Annie added.
The young man hesitated only a second before replying. "Well have to tell the marshal what happened. I cant kill a man, and then try and keep it a secret."
Both Annie and Jesse nodded their heads in agreement. They would talk to the marshal when they returned to Cameron and tell him what happened. Marshal Foster would understand why Ed had to shoot the trapper.
As they talked Ed realized whatever hopes he had for a future with Annie were now gone. He could tell the two women had forged a relationship. He didnt completely understand its nature but knew there was no room in it for him. But right now that didnt seem very important to the young man. He saved his crew and thats what really mattered to him. The three of them talked about what to do, reached an agreement and then stood up. They would keep the crew moving toward Cameron. When the men could go no further, Jesse would take Charlie Strong with her and continue on for help.
"Do you hear horses coming up the road?" Jesse asked.
They stopped talking and listened. Yes, they could hear click of hooves on rocks in the road and the creaking of saddle leather. A cavalry patrol leading a packhorse suddenly appeared from around the bend in the road. The lieutenant leading the troopers halted his men, dismounted and walked to them.
"Im Lieutenant Canby. Im looking for Forest Assistant Ed Kearney and his crew."
"Thats me. Im sure glad to see you. My men need food and water."
"Weve brought supplies for you on the packhorse. There are two wagons behind me to transport your crew back to Cameron. We brought the wagons to bring back your bodies. It will be awhile before they reach us. The rest of my troopers are with the wagons. Its been slow going. Theyve had to cut a lot of trees out of the road. Are you two Miss Jesse Tyson and Anabelle Thomas? I was also sent to look for you."
The young officer had not been sure they were women when he first saw them. They were as black as the ace of spades. The startling contrast of the tall ones blue eyes with her black face held his attention.
"Im Annie Thomas; this is Jesse Tyson."
"I didnt think Id find any of you alive. How did you survive?"
"We made it to a mining tunnel about six miles east of here," Ed answered.
"Did you lose any of your crew?"
"Only one man. He got separated from the crew in the smoke. Im assuming hes dead. Whats the fire doing?"
The young officer paused for a moment. "I think all western Montana is on fire. Hundreds of thousands of acres have burned. Taft, North Fork and Madison are gone. Rescue trains pulled hundreds of people out just ahead of the flames."
"Is Cameron still standing," Jesse asked.
"Yes. Only a few outbuildings burned. There are still hundreds of firefighters who havent been accounted for. The telephone and telegraph lines are down. It will be several days before we know the extent of the disaster. Have you seen a government trapper by the name of Boone Hyatt?"
The three of them stiffened and looked at the young army officer. Jesse hoped they didnt look guilty.
Jesse answered for them. "The fire caught him. His body is probably on the road near the tunnel." They would tell the rest of the story to Marshal Foster in Cameron.
"That saves the state the cost of a trial and hanging." The army officer noted the surprised look on their faces and continued.
"Theres a warrant out for his arrest for murder. Seems he and another fellow robbed and murdered a rancher near Sweetwater a couple months ago. The law caught his partner who confessed and told them about Boone. Ill have my troopers start handing out food and water."
The officer looked at Ed. "After theyve eaten will your men be able to keep walking toward the wagons?"
Ed turned toward his crew. "I think so. Charlie, I need your help." So Boone got what he deserved.
With a tug on his hat, the officer returned to his patrol. Ed and Charlie followed him to help with the food and water. Jesse brushed off her trousers and looked to Annie.
"Well weve been saved by the Army. When we get back to Cameron, Ill have to leave you and help look for the missing crews. Will you wait for me in Missoula? You can stay with my uncle and his family."
Annies response was immediate, her intentions clearly expressed. "No. After what weve been through together Im not leaving you in Cameron. Ill go with you to look for the crews. Youll need help."
Jesse nodded and smiled. I thought shed say that.
Just before nightfall the crew reached the wagons. They arrived back in Cameron by noon the next day. Army officers directing the search for missing firefighters met them as they entered the town. The soldiers talked with Jesse and Ed, taking notes as they listened to their accounts of what happened. The two were then given orders for the following day.
Jesse walked back to Annie. "Well be leaving tomorrow morning with an army patrol to look for missing crews. Ed is staying behind to set up a camp and medical aid for the crews. We need to arrange for packhorses and supplies for the trip."
As the two women walked through Cameron people stopped them, asked where they had come from and if they knew the fate of missing family and friends.
"Do you know what happened to the pack train that was taking supplies to the crews at Yellow Pine?"
"Did the Burton cabin on Horse Creek burn?"
The streets were filled with men, women and children who had fled their homes. Many were in wagons piled high with their possessions. Others were able to escape the flames with only the clothes on their backs. They all shared the vacant look that said they still didnt understand what had happened to them.
Jesse and Annie worked through the afternoon and into the evening finding horses, purchasing supplies and replacing their ruined clothes. It was late before they had time for supper. The two women ate large sandwiches and pie, and drank coffee served at an aid station set up by a church.
There was no soft bed for Jesse and Annie in Cameron. Every spare room, every spare bed in the town was already occupied by refugees from the fire or officials and relief workers flooding in to organize rescue and recovery efforts. Their lodging for the night was the stable where their journey began and their bath a bucket filled with water dipped from the horse trough.
The two women looked around the stable and then rolled their blankets out in the hay near the tack room. Jesse picked up a bucket. "Looks like were right back where we started from. Ill get water; lets try and cleanup."
They stripped off their clothes, knelt by the bucket and tried to wash with a bar of soap and feedbags used as towels.
Annie spoke as she scrubbed the tall womans back. "If the stableman returns and sees us like this theres going to be a scandal. That is if the shock doesnt kill him."
"Dont worry Annie. I gave him a dollar and told him to have a few beers on me. He wont be back until late."
"You gave him a dollar! He wont be back for a week."
"I know. I wanted to take a leisurely bath."
"Jesse, Ive forgotten what its like to sleep in a bed and bathe in water that doesnt have frogs in it."
The tall woman smiled. "Next time hitch yourself to a banker if you want a soft bed and indoor plumbing. Owww. Youre going to take the skin off my back!"
"Jesse Tyson, I dont plan to hitch myself to anyone else, ever again."
"You wouldnt trade me for a hot bath?"
"Well, Id have to think about that."
"Dont think too long if you want your back washed."
"Its nice and private in here, and the hay looks comfortable."
Suddenly Jesse forgot how tired she was. She jumped up and grabbed her clothes.
"I need to go out to the corral and check on the horses. Ill be right back Annie."
The young blonde smiled. "Dont take too long."
Annie moved to her blankets and sat on them to wait for the tall woman. It was warm in the stable, and smelled of hay and leather. Hmmm, its so comfortable here. Ill just lie back and close my eyes until Jesse returns.
In a few minutes the guide was back.
The young blonde was sleeping peacefully. Not tonight. With a smile, Jesse covered her with a blanket, undressed and slipped beside her. Soon she too was fast asleep.
It was pitch black in the stable when Jesse felt the rough hands on her shoulder. What the hell is going on? Still confused with sleep she lashed out blindly with her fists and then threw herself into the dark where she thought her assailant was.
"NO LADY, NO!! Its me the stableman, you told me to wake you up before sunrise."
Annie bolted up from her blankets. She could hear the commotion in the dark but couldnt see anything. Whats happening? Whys Jesse fighting with the stableman? She heard Jesse shout.
"Light a damn lantern so I can see!"
Im naked! "NO! Wait a minute before you light the lantern," Annie called back.
Wrapped in a blanket, the young woman crawled to where she thought her clothes were and groped for them in the dark. Luckily she quickly found the clothes and pulled on the boys shirt and trousers she purchased the day before.
"You can light the lantern now."
It was obvious the stableman had just returned from his night on the town and was still drunk. In the dim light of the lantern he stared at them wide eyed with surprise, his mouth hanging open. Fortunately Jesses punches missed him in the dark. The tall, fierce looking woman in underclothes though still frightened him.
"You told me to wake you up. I was just doing what you told me to do," he bleated.
"I know, I know." Jesse replied. "Go feed the horses. Well be right out to help you."
The two women watched him leave the stable, looked at each other and laughed.
Annie spoke first. "Im sure being attacked in the dark and then seeing you in your underclothes sobered him right up."
"What a way to wake up. Next time were in Cameron maybe we can find a hotel room." They laughed again, finished dressing and joined the stableman in the corral.
Working together they loaded food, water, blankets and tools on the horses, and then waited for the soldiers ordered to join the search for the missing crews. Jesse and Annie were standing by the pack string eating sandwiches and drinking coffee brought by churchwomen when the patrol of black soldiers from Fort Missoula arrived.
Sergeant Benjamin Cook was in charge and halted his men by the packhorses. He looked at the two women and noted they were wearing trousers. Poor gals. Their dresses must have burned up in the fire. He dismounted and walked to Jesse.
"Excuse me maam. Im looking for Jesse Tyson. Do you know where he is?"
"Im Jesse Tyson."
"What! Youre a woman!" sputtered the surprised soldier.
"Sergeant, tell me something I dont know. Are your men ready to move out?"
Anger clouded the black mans face and his jaw tightened. A woman was running the rescue mission? Who ever heard of such a thing? It must be a sign of disrespect for the black soldiers that a woman was placed in charge. Sergeant Cook was a proud man serving in a black regiment that was his home, his life. In his thirty years in the Army he had fought the Apache in Arizona, chased outlaws throughout the West and helped beat the Spanish in Cuba. He knew what a soldiers life demanded. Like it or not, the sergeant would obey his orders and follow the tall woman.
"Yes maam, were ready to ride." He returned to his horse, mounted up and gave the order to move out.
Annie finished her sandwich, stepped into the stirrup and up onto her horse. "The sergeant doesnt appear to be very happy about you being in charge."
Jesse watched the black soldiers riding down the street. "Hell get over it. Theyre good soldiers. Lets go."
The guide led the long pack string carrying their supplies with Annie riding along beside her. A doctor in a wagon pulled by two horses joined them as they left town. The rescue party traveled slowly because of the many fallen trees that had to be cut out of the road. When they reached the first down trees, Jesse unlashed the crosscut saws and axes from the packsaddles and turned to the sergeant.
"Have your men grab tools and start clearing the road. Ill need one of your soldiers to partner with me on a saw."
Sergeant Cook smiled broadly and called for Trooper Jackson, a very large man.
"Jackson, I want you showing that woman what a real man can do with a saw. You work as hard as youve ever worked. I want to see her behind dragging on the ground. Then Ill send a man over to replace her on the saw. Now get going."
Three hours later sweat was pouring off Trooper Jackson. His uniform was so wet it looked like he had fallen in a lake. The big man staggered as he moved to the next tree with Jesse and appeared ready to collapse. Jesse called for the sergeant.
"Jackson needs a rest. Replace him with another man. I dont want to slow down. We need to clear these trees faster."
Sergeant Cook looked at the tall woman with a newfound respect. What kind of woman is she? "Yes maam."
On the second day they found the crews. The exhausted men were sprawled on the ground beside the charred ruins of a cabin. Ranger Jacob Eastland greeted them. Barely able to talk he whispered, "Therere two crews here, mine and Joe Copelands."
Jesse got off her horse and offered him her canteen. "What happened Jacob?"
The ranger took a long drink. "Thanks Jesse. Joes crew and mine made it to Horse Thief Meadow just ahead of the flames. We burned out around the meadow and rode the fire out under blankets."
"You were lucky. How are your men?"
"Some of them are burned and a couple are blind from smoke. Joe can hardly see. Hes sleeping right now. One mans gone completely mad. Thats him over there shaking under the blanket. Joe is missing five men from his crew. They ran just before the flames reached the meadow. We havent seen them since the fire burned over us. Weve been walking for the last two days. The men havent had anything to eat or drink since yesterday afternoon. Thank God you found us. We couldnt have gone any further."
"Theres a doctor with us. Thats him, Dr. Samuelson, in the wagon. Hell take care of your men." Jesse motioned for the doctor to join them. "This is Ranger Eastland. Several of his men need help."
The two men shook hands and the ranger led the doctor to the injured firefighters. As he examined a man with badly burned hands, Annie joined him.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
Dr. Samuelson looked up. "I can sure use you Annie. Please bring me the box with the medical supplies from the wagon."
While Annie and the doctor helped the injured men, the soldiers set up camp and began preparing a meal. After supper, Jesse sat with Ranger Eastland and by lantern light tried to figure out on a map where the missing men might be. Late that night she finally had a chance to talk with Annie. She could see the exhaustion in the young womans face. They all had the dark rings under their eyes and pale, doughy looking faces that announced a long rest was needed.
Annie was the first to speak. "Those men are incredible. Some of them are badly burned and must be in terrible pain but they dont complain. They just keep thanking me for helping them." Tears came to her eyes for the first time since their journey began.
Jesse wrapped her arms around Annie and hugged her. "Youre exhausted. You need to get some sleep." The tall woman led her to where their bedrolls were spread out a short distance from the sleeping men.
"Annie, Im leaving early tomorrow morning with some of the soldiers to look for the missing firefighters. I want you to stay behind with the doctor and help get the crews moving toward Cameron. Ill catch up with you after weve found the men."
Annie nodded her head in agreement. She was too tired to argue and knew the doctor still needed her help. The young woman didnt bother to ask why Jesse wasnt taking Dr. Samuelson with her. There was no chance the missing men were still alive. The two women crawled under their blankets and quickly fell asleep curled against each other.
Early the next morning Jesse rode out of the camp with the soldiers. She was relieved Annie agreed to stay behind. Jesse didnt want her seeing the bodies she expected to find.
They discovered the charred corpses of the five men about a quarter mile from Horse Thief Meadow. The firefighters died spread out in a line where the fire caught them as they were trying to run. There was no point in checking their clothes for identification. Nothing was left on their bodies except for the leather shoes on their feet. Their faces were burned beyond recognition. No one would ever know for sure who they were. The men had been hired been off the street and sent immediately to the fires. There hadnt even been a chance to list their names on the payroll records before they died.
Jesse and the soldiers spent the night a short distance from the bodies they covered with blankets. None of them felt much like eating. It was a restless night for Jesse. She found it difficult to sleep with the bodies so close. And the tall woman missed the comfort of lying beside Annie.
The nearly full moon was red from the smoke in the sky and cast an eerie light on the burned out landscape. Large dark snags loomed over them and the silence of the now lifeless forest was unsettling. The only sound was the occasional thud of charred trees falling to the ground. Jesse could hear the soldiers moving under their blankets as if they were fighting nightmares.
They welcomed the morning sun when it came up over the mountains. The small group quickly made coffee and ate breakfast out of cans. Then they dug shallow graves, wrapped the bodies in blankets and buried the men where they died. A soldier said a prayer over the graves while others placed rocks as headstones. Crews that came later would retrieve the bodies for proper burial in a cemetery. There wasnt much talk or laughter as Jesse and the soldiers rode back to their companions and Cameron.
Ed Kearney greeted the long line of soldiers and firefighters when they returned to town. The forest assistant smiled at Jesse and Annie, and then walked to the doctor in his wagon with its cargo of injured men.
"Dr. Samuelson, a medical aid station has been setup in the school. You can take the injured men there."
Ed leaned into the wagon and grasped Joe Copeland by the arm. "Joe, its Ed Kearney. How are you doing?"
The rangers eyes were bandaged; he looked toward Ed. " The doctor thinks I should be able to see in a few days. Can you telegraph Martha and tell her Im all right? Dont tell her about my eyes. I dont want her to worry."
"Sure I will. Theyll take good care of you at the school. Ill visit you as soon as I get things taken care of here."
Joe nodded as the doctor slapped the horses with the reins and the wagon rolled toward the aid station.
The young man turned back to the crews. "Jacob, a camp has been set up for the men over by the train station. Theyll be fed there and paid off. After youre finished with them I need you to write your report and get it to me."
Jesse quietly spoke with Sergeant Cook as the soldiers prepared to return to their camp. "Thanks for your help. Your men are as fine a soldiers as Ive ever worked with."
The sergeant smiled broadly, saluted Jesse and returned to his patrol. He had been angry when he discovered a woman would be in charge of the rescue mission. His dismay as well as that of his men quickly turned to respect for Jesse as the days passed. She never ordered the soldiers to do the hard dirty work while she watched like most white bosses would have. The tall woman worked harder than the men cutting trees out of the road. His troopers would be pleased by Jesses compliment.
Ed watched the crews and soldiers leave before talking with the two women. "I told Marshal Foster about what happened with Boone. He smiled and said he was glad I finally figured out how to deal with men like Boone. The marshal said he would report him as having died in the fire. Theres not going to be an investigation."
Jesse and Annie made no attempt to hide the relief they felt at Eds news.
"Whats happening with the fires?" Jesse asked.
"The latest reports say over three million acres have burned in Montana and Idaho. Theyre already calling the fire the Big Burn. Some of the fires wont be out until the snow comes. So far it looks like about 100 people died."
Jesse winced at the news. Ed continued, "The District Forester put me in charge of the recovery efforts in this part of Montana. Jesse, I could use your help inventorying the damage. Will you think about it?"
Jesse stared at Annie. The expression in the tall womans face clearly said the decision was Annies to make.
The young blonde looked directly into Jesses eyes. "I made my decision several days ago. Where ever you go, Im riding with you."
Smiling Jesse answered, "Sure well work for you."