This story is a continuation of my series, The Sweetwater Saga . You may want to read the preceding stories before reading this one. Sweetwater, Rolling Thunder, and Fireweed can be found on my page here at the Academy or on my website – mickeyminner.com
Montana Territory – 1870s – Summer
With a sweep of her arm, Jesse Branson pushed the Stetson off her sweat covered brow and wiped at the damp skin with the back of her hand, leaving behind a dark smudge of dirt. She squinted up into the cloudless sky while settling the Stetson back into place.
“Mommy, it's hot.”
Jesse tilted her head down to where KC, her young daughter, was standing cradling a large rock in her arms. “It sure is, Sunshine.”
“Shame folks ain't buying rocks,” Stanley Branson grumbled, prying another stone free from the hard ground. “One thing this ground ain't lacking is those blasted things,” he muttered tossing the rock aside.
Jesse nodded her agreement. With her father's help, she had spent the past several days digging a square pit into the sun-baked ground behind the ranch house and it seemed as if they had spent more time removing rocks than dirt. “That's the truth, Poppa. But it does save us the trouble of bringing rocks up from the river for the walls,” Jesse said surveying the results of their labor.
Choosing a location near the garden, they had dug down into the rocky ground almost four feet. The pit, soon to be used as a cool, dry place to store the vegetables grown in their garden, was six strides square and would eventually be covered by a steep pitched roof. The cellar's dirt walls would be reinforced with the uncovered rocks; neatly stacked and kept in place by their own weight. Above the rock walls, thick, upright wood planks would enclose the root cellar protecting the stored vegetables from the summer heat and winter cold. A door would provide access to a series of low steps already carved into the side closest to the garden.
Pulling her kerchief from her back pocket, Jesse bent over to wipe KC's sweaty face. The sound of a screen door thumping against its frame drew her attention and she twisted her head to look back over her shoulder. She spotted her wife limping across the back porch; leaning on a cane in one hand while her other grasped the handle of a full water bucket. “Hold on, darlin'. I'll come give you a hand.”
“No need,” Jennifer said continuing to the edge of the porch where she set the bucket down. Then straightening, she limped to the end of the deck and down a sturdy set of steps to the ground. Walking back along the porch, she retrieved the bucket and carried it across the yard. “I thought you might like some fresh, cool water,” she said settling the heavy bucket down at the edge of nearest cellar wall. “That other bucket has been cooking in the sun long enough.”
“Seems your momma is pretty and smart,” Jesse told KC as she finished wiping her face dry. “Go get some water,” she told the girl who had dropped her rock and was already running toward the steps. “Come on, Charley.” She walked to the toddler sitting on a small pile of rocks at the opposite side of the pit and picked him up. “Bet you're thirsty, too.” Her almost three year old son nodded in agreement. “You too, Poppa,” she said carrying Charley across the pit to the steps. “We all could use a break.”
“Thanks, Momma,” KC said after swallowing several mouthfuls from the dipper her mother had handed her. “That was good.”
Jennifer smiled. “It must have been the way you gulped it down.” She refilled the dipper and held it for Charley to drink, her son still sitting contently in Jesse's arms.
“I been workin' hard, Momma,” KC said proudly.
“It looks like you've all been working hard,” Jennifer replied noting the progress made that morning on the pit. “But I hate to see you working so long in the hot sun,” she told her wife.
Jesse exchanged Charley for the dipper then bent over and filled it with cool water. “Here, Poppa,” she said straightening and passing the full dipper to her father. “Guess we could have dug it closer to the house, where the shade is, but it would have been further from the garden. I didn't want you to have to be carrying things too far, darlin'.”
Jennifer set Charley on the ground and watched him toddle over to join his sister who was splashing water on her face. “Why don't you two use the other bucket for that,” she told the children. “Keep the fresh water for drinking.”
Jesse laughed as the pair moved to the second bucket and plunged their dirty hands into the sun-warmed water. “A little dirt won't hurt us.” She pushed the Stetson off her forehead and leaned close to kiss her wife.
“There's no such thing as a little dirt when it comes to you three,” Jennifer countered reaching for the towel draped over her shoulder. “Good thing I thought to bring this out with me.” She bent over and dipped the end of the towel into the bucket then straightened and reached for Jesse's Stetson, removing it from her wife's head and placing it on her own, before setting to work cleaning the dirty smudge off Jesse's forehead.
“Don't you say a word, Poppa,” Jesse warned.
“Hold still,” Jennifer instructed.
Hearing the familiar no-nonsense tone, KC and Charley looked up at their mothers. They giggled while Jesse grimaced but remained still.
“You two are next,” Jennifer informed her children.
KC and Charley looked at each other then dropped their hands back into the bucket, splashing water on their faces and furiously scrubbing the dirt covered surfaces.
“Maybe if you were out here keeping an eye on us, we wouldn't get so dirty,” Jesse said after Jennifer released her.
Jennifer laughed. “Sweetheart, I could be standing right next to you and you'd be covered in muck before I could recite the alphabet. I think you just like being dirty.” She turned toward the children. “And these two are just as bad.”
“I keen, Momma,” Charley protested when Jennifer reached for him. He batted at her hands with his own much smaller ones.
Jennifer gave up and released the boy. “For the life of me, I don't know why you and your sister can't wait to climb into the tub before supper but, during the day, you hate to see a bar of soap.”
“Bathtub is fun, Momma,” KC explained.
Jennifer shook her head in defeat yet couldn't help but smile at the pair standing before her. Barefoot and dressed in matching loose fitting shirts and pants cut off at the knees, muddy water was dripping off their dirt smeared faces. “I suppose I'd just be wasting my time. You'll be dirty again before I got back to the porch.” She laughed when the children grinned, their heads bopping up and down in unison. “Go on,” she told them then laughed again as they scampered away, KC helping her brother down the steps into the pit.
“How's Marie?” Stanley asked once the children were again busy stacking rocks.
“She was sleeping when I left her,” Jennifer told her father-in-law, keeping her voice low so KC and Charley wouldn't hear. “She's still awfully pale, Jesse. I think we should send for the doctor in Bozeman.”
“What does Mom say about that?”
“What she always does— we'd be wasting the money. She says she'll be feeling better in few days.”
“She usually does,” Stanley commented. “Though, this spell does seem to be harder on her.”
“I'm worried about her, Jesse.”
The rancher wrapped her arms around her wife, hugging her tight. “I am too, darlin'.” She thought for a moment. “Poppa, why don't we call it a day? I'll get cleaned up and go into town and talk to Bette Mae. If she thinks we should, I'll have Ed send a telegram to the doctor in Bozeman.”
“Take the buckboard, sweetheart. I think you should bring Bette Mae back here.”
Jesse thought about rejecting Jennifer's suggestion since she knew how her mother would react if the older woman was brought to tend to her but she was just as worried about her mother as Jennifer. “Sound okay to you, Poppa?”
“Maybe, you should listen to your momma. Seems like a lot of trouble.”
Jennifer freed herself from Jesse's hold. Limping to where her father-in-law stood, she placed her hand on the stoic man's large and muscular arm. “I'm sure Marie will be fine, Stanley, but Bette Mae knows more about healing than most doctors.” She knew her words to be true because without Bette Mae she would have lost her leg to infection after being attacked by a mountain lion; and, quite probably, her life. “I'd feel better if she came out and checked on her.”
Stanley's head bobbed once in a curt nod. “Think I'll walk over and sit with her for a bit. Then if it's all the same to you, I'll keep working. Does me good to have my hands busy.”
After her father walked around the corner of the ranch house toward the cabin he shared with her mother, Jesse turned to Jennifer. “What do you think?” she asked.
Jennifer returned to Jesse's side and leaned into her offered embrace. “This time does seem worse than before. I think you should go get Bette Mae.”
“Maybe I should just send for the doctor.”
Jennifer looked into Jesse's eyes, seeing her own concern for Marie reflected back at her. “Maybe you should do both.”
Set back fifty feet from the banks of a meandering creek, a log cabin sat tucked against the side of a ravine. The small cabin was crudely constructed with walls made from half a dozen logs set on top of each other; their ends were notched to interlock holding them in place. Gaps between the logs were filled with a mixture of mud from the creek bottom and clumps of the moss and sweet-grass growing along its banks. The cabin's roof was a layer of smaller tree trunks and branches, none bigger around than a man's fist. Animal skins of various sizes were spread out over the roof and tacked in place to keep out the wind and rain. Minimum effort had been spent on the cabin's construction, leaving it windowless with only a hide covered cutout for a door.
Spread haphazardly on the ground around the cabin were half a dozen pack frames, a scattering of bridles and other tack, and several beaver skins stretched on drying frames. Pelts of wolf, deer, elk, moose, and smaller animals hung from the cabin sides while several, as yet, un-skinned carcasses hung heads down from a long branch supported by two forked ones pounded into the ground. A ring of rocks encircled a fire pit where wisps of smoke curled skyward from a thick bed of ashes still smoldering even after being left untended during the night.
Cole Bridger pushed aside the deerskin hanging over the door cutout and stepped outside. The bright morning sun was severe after the darkness of the cabin and forced him to raise an arm to shield his eyes as he scanned the landscape. “Dammit,” he muttered before raising his voice to holler into the cabin. “Git out here, Puck.”
“What's wrong?” a sleepy voice responded.
“I said git out here.”
Shirtless, a second man emerged as the deerskin was again moved aside. “You'd think I could get dressed ‘fore you started bellowing,” he said as he finished tying the rawhide cord that secured his pants around his waist.
“Thought you said you hobbled the horses.”
“There's two missing.”
“They're probably just down in those willows by the creek,” Puck said then stepped back inside the cabin to retrieve his shirt.
“Bring the rifles,” Cole ordered his partner. “Told ya what we seen yesterday meant trouble.”
Puck re-appeared holding a pair of Winchester carbines. “Them tracks we came across?” he asked handing one of the rifles to Cole. “Most likely just another party of trappers; we ain't the only ones working these hills.”
Cole shook his head. “Savages,” he said matter-of-factly.
“You think Indians stole our horses?” Cole nodded. “Why just take two? Why not take ‘em all?”
“Maybe somethin' scared ‘em off. Come on, let's get saddled.”
Puck grabbed Cole's arm. “Wait. These hills are full of hunting parties. It is their land, after all.”
Cole shrugged off Puck's hand. “Not any more. Government says they have to move onto the reservations, need to make room for proper folks to move in.”
“Those tracks were made by shod horses; didn't think Indians shoed their horses.”
“Don't stop ‘em from stealing ones that are. We're wasting time.”
“I don't know, Cole; seems like going after Indians is just askin' for trouble.”
“You check down by the creek if you want,” Cole snapped as he lifted his saddle off the ground.
“What are you gonna do?”
Cole was already walking away when he answered. “Get saddled up and go find our horses.”
In the office of the Sweetwater Gazette, Thaddeus Newby sat at his type table whistling tunelessly as he carefully set type into a composing stick. Reading from a handwritten page, he deftly chose individual letter blocks from the rows of small compartments in front of him, each holding a specific letter, number, or symbol in a specific font. After completing each section of text, he placed it between the spacers of the page frame. Thaddeus looked up from his work when the door to his office opened and Ed Granger entered.
“Morning, Thaddeus,” the storekeeper said cheerfully.
“Morning, Ed,” Thaddeus returned the greeting then set the composing stick down and picked up a rag to wipe ink off his hands. He stood and stretched his sore back.
“Why don't you hire someone to set type?” Ed asked walking across the newspaper office.
“Wish I could. Paper barely makes enough to pay myself,” Thaddeus said tossing the rag onto his work table. “What brings you away from the store?”
“Taking supplies to the Slipper and thought I'd drop off your mail on the way.”
“Ah. I heard the morning stage go by a while ago,” Thaddeus commented when Ed handed him an envelope. “Anyone get off?” he asked, always interested in possible stories for his newspaper.
“There were a couple of fellas riding through to Hellgate; got off to stretch while the teams were changed. Didn't talk much though.”
“Hmm,” Thaddeus murmured, slipping an ink stained finger under the envelope flap and carefully working it open.
“Figured that might be important,” Ed told the newspaper editor. “It isn't often you get mail from Denver.”
Thaddeus pulled a single sheet of paper out of the envelope. “Well, I'll be damned,” he said after reading the letter.
“Guess that depends.” Thaddeus offered the letter to Ed when he saw the puzzled look on his face. “Here, read it for yourself.”
Ed scanned the sheet. “A fort? What do we need a fort for? We've never had any problems in the valley.”
“Seems the Army thinks there's trouble coming. Guess they figure Hellgate is a good place to stop it.”
“Damn,” Ed said passing the letter back to the newspaper editor.
Thaddeus carried the letter to his workbench and sat down. “Looks like I'll be changing my headline.”
Ed turned to leave. “I'll leave you to your work then.”
“Thanks for bringing this over, Ed. If I could ask another favor…”
Ed turned back to face Thaddeus. “Of course.”
“I'd be obliged if you kept this to yourself. At least, until I can get this issue printed.”
Ed smiled. “Sure thing, Thaddeus; I'm not much for breaking that kind of news to folks anyway.”
“There'll be many who'll welcome the news.”
“Yes… and there's going to be some who won't be happy to hear it.”
Thaddeus nodded. “That there will.”
Dannie Northly picked up a box of canned goods off the loading dock behind the mercantile and carried it to the large freight wagon a few feet away. “Is that the last of it?” she asked Billie Monroe standing on the platform wiping his brow with his sleeve.
“Yes. Oh, wait, there's one more package,” Billie said before turning to walk back inside the store.
“Better not be very big, ain't got much room left,” Dannie grumbled placing the box into the wagon. Satisfied her load was properly packed, she walked to where the back section was leaning against the loading dock. Lifting it off the ground, she carried it to the rear of the wagon and hoisted it up to drop it into place. Then she hooked the lengths of chain that kept the tailgate secured to the main wagon.
“It's not big.” Billie walked to the edge of the platform and handed Dannie a package wrapped in paper and neatly tied with a string.
“Yes. It's for Mrs. Struther in Garnet; said to ask for her at the hotel.”
Dannie carried the package to the front of the wagon and tucked it into a box under the seat she used for delicate deliveries—like dresses from Sweetwater's popular seamstress. She closed the lid on the box and secured it place. “I'm gonna walk over to the schoolhouse.”
Billie nodded. “Tell Leevie not to worry. You should be back by end of the week.”
“She worries if'n I just make a run out to Jesse's,” Dannie griped.
Billie laughed. “Same with Ruth. Can't tell you how happy you coming to Sweetwater has made her; she never liked me being gone overnight. Same with Jennifer when Jesse would take the deliveries out to the mining camps.”
“Seems I made everyone happy but Leevie,” Dannie groused as she headed toward the schoolhouse.
“What's she mumblin' about?” Ed asked walking out from the back of the store.
“You know Dannie… if she ain't grumbling ‘bout one thing, she's griping ‘bout another.”
“Woman never seems to be happy about anything, that's for sure. Makes you wonder how she and Jesse get along so well.”
Billie chuckled. “That's easy. Leevie and Jennifer are best friends. Jesse and Dannie know better than to not get along.”
Ed laughed. “Sure enough,” he agreed settling into one of the chairs he kept on the loading dock. A second chair was placed on the opposite side of an empty flour barrel holding a checkerboard. He watched as Dannie reached the schoolhouse, stepped up onto the porch and peered into the building. A few minutes later she was joined by the schoolteacher. “Leevie not happy Dannie will be gone for a few days?” Billie nodded. “Least now, with Dannie's wagon, she can get everything in one trip. Using the buckboard used to take two or three.”
“Yep. But it still leaves Leevie alone. Womenfolk don't like that,” Billie admitted as he turned and idly looked across Sweetwater's only street to the dress shop.
Black Wolf slipped quietly between a pair of pine trees. His legs ached but he was determined to continue on his hunt until he could return to his family's camp with a fresh kill. Game had grown scarcer in the mountains where he had learned his hunting lessons from his father and grandfather.
A twig snapped off to his right and Black Wolf swung his bow and cocked arrow in that direction. His eyes scanned the thick brush and spied the slight tremor of the leaves of a chokeberry bush. He eased closer, careful not to make any noise that might cause his prey to scamper away. Pulling back the string of his bow, he released the arrow, smiling when he heard the unmistakable sound of his stone arrow point striking bone.
Black Wolf walked to the chokeberry bush to retrieve the rabbit that would help fill the cook pot that night.
Bette Mae ambled out the door of the Silver Slipper's kitchen, wiping her hands on a flour dusted apron tied around her ample waist. “I do swear tha' it's too hot ta be bakin' pies,” she said to no one in particular before dropping into the oversized rocking chair set on the porch specifically for her.
“But your pies are mighty good, Bette Mae.”
“Miles, don' ya have town affairs ta be tendin' to?” Bette Mae asked Sweetwater's self-important yet indolent mayor seated in another rocker further down the porch.
“Plenty of time for that. Just letting my breakfast settle first.”
Bette Mae grunted at the man whose girth was growing right along with Sweetwater. “Why don' yer wife feed ya?”
“Now, Bette Mae, you know she has her hands full taking care of my boys.”
“Probably, more like she's done with cookin' by the time ya see fit ta start yer day.” Bette Mae was very familiar with the mayor's daily schedule that brought him into the Slipper's dining room in the late morning. “Most folks dun a day's work ‘fore ya git started.”
“Affairs of the town don't require an early start,” Mayor Perkins protested.
“Don' seem they ‘quire a late one either since ya is sittin' here doin' nothin'. Maybe ya could see fit to help Ed unload the wagon,” Bette Mae suggested watching the buckboard approach.
Perkins unwillingly pushed up from his comfortable chair. “I'd be obliged to, Bette Mae, but I'm expected at the town hall.”
“Pshaw. Ain't nobody ‘xpectin' ya.”
“You have a good day, now,” Perkins said as he rushed to the steps down leading to the street.
“No good, lazy…” Bette Mae mumbled after the retreating mayor.
Jesse loosely held the reins of Boy, her big draft horse, plodding down the stage road toward the town of Sweetwater. The town still wasn't big by any standards but it had grown since the day she'd ridden in alone and unsure what her future held.
The Silver Slipper, a brothel when she won it in a poker game, still dominated the near end of town. Now a respectable hotel and rooming house, the Slipper boasted the best restaurant in the territory. At the end of the street with a dozen buildings spread along it, was another two-story building matching the Slipper in size but much newer in construction. It had been built by an eastern mining company intent on finding gold in the nearby hills. But after partially completing what was supposed to be a hotel for visiting company officials and dignitaries; and a bank to securely hold their gold, the mine's investors soon discovered the supposedly ore bearing mine purchased from a scruffy, uneducated, itinerate miner was worth less than the mud on their boots and they had left town almost as fast as they had arrived.
Jesse's friend and owner of the town's mercantile, Ed Granger, had purchased the unfinished hotel for his growing business. He used the ground floor for his store and converted the upstairs into living quarters for himself, and for his employee and Sweetwater's ex-sheriff, Billie Monroe, and his family. The stage company, desperately in need of vacating the old adobe structure with its crumbling walls and leaky roof, rented space from Ed for their depot. The discarded bank was taken over by the town, a welcomed situation for the valley's ranchers and business owners who were more than happy to no longer need to make the long trip to Bozeman, location of the nearest banks before Sweetwater's unexpected acquisition.
Jesse had purchased the old mercantile from Ed and turned it into a dress shop operated by the young woman, Ruth, who had been employed at the Slipper when Jesse arrived in town. Once discovered, her seamstress talents were in great demand by the women of Sweetwater and of the numerous mining camps in the surrounding area. Now married to Billie Monroe and with a young son, Ruth was proving to be a capable businesswoman and the dress shop was turning a good profit for her financiers, Jesse and Jennifer.
Jesse smiled. The past few years had brought not only changes to the town but also to her family. She had arrived in Sweetwater possessing only the horse she rode and the deed to the Silver Slipper. After throwing out the gamblers and offering a stage ticket to any of the working girls who refused to change their profession, she worked hard to turn the Slipper into a respectable rooming house and erase its tawdry past. It wasn't easy as many men in the valley didn't think women should be business owners. But Jesse worked hard and with the help of Bette Mae, the robust woman who ran the Slipper's kitchen, she slowly won over most of her detractors. She had earned enough from the Slipper's growing business to buy a ranch outside of town and fulfill a dream she'd had since growing up on her father's ranch in eastern Montana.
Sweetwater's need for a school teacher had attracted a young, auburn haired woman from the east. Almost as soon as Jennifer Kensington stepped off the stage, Jesse lost her heart to the pretty runaway escaping from a domineering father and the future he had planned for her. Their children, KC and Charley, were adopted. The legal papers, signed by a judge in Bannack, were Jesse and Jennifer's most prized processions and hung prominently on a wall of the ranch house.
“Wasn' ‘specting you today,” Bette Mae broke into Jesse's thoughts.
Jesse shook the memories loose. Surprised to find Boy was standing in front of the Slipper, she looked over at the stout woman leaning on the railing and looking back at her. Setting the buckboard's brake, she said anxiously, “It's Mother.”
Bette Mae considered Jesse to be more a daughter than her employer and was concerned seeing her pained face. “She havin' ‘nother spell?”
“This time is different, Bette Mae. She's weak; it takes all she's got just to get out of bed. Jennifer thinks I should send for the doc in Bozeman.”
Bette Mae sniffed. “Ain't no use sendin' fer him. Docs don' have much use fer women problems.”
Jesse climbed down from the wagon. “I'm really worried,” she stated climbing the steps to the wide, wrap-around porch. “We all are.”
“I knows ya are. Come on inside. I just made a fresh pot. Cup of coffee will do ya good whilst I get my things.” Bette Mae placed a loving hand on Jesse's arm, “Then we'll go git a look see at what's ailing ya momma.” When Jesse gave her a relieved smile, Bette Mae turned and led her inside the Slipper.
Cole Bridger's eyes followed the tracks as they left the creek and climbed up the steep embankment opposite from where he stood. Puck had refused to accompany him, insisting that their missing horses couldn't be far from their cabin. But Cole knew better and the tracks were his proof. He sniffed the air.
“Smoke. Them savages must have a camp nearby.” Cole mounted his horse then spurred it across the creek and up the embankment. Reaching the top, he re-entered the thick forest. Following both horse tracks and the smell of smoke, he cautiously made his way through the trees. When his ears started to pick out muffled voices from the normal forest sounds, he pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted. Looping the reins around a broken branch, he pulled his carbine from its scabbard.
Slowly, he crept toward the sound.
The stagecoach bounced over the path that passed for a road as it made its way toward a scattering of buildings, its two jostled occupants had pushed aside the canvas window shades and were looking out at the unimposing tent and log structures. Hearing the stage driver yell commands to his team, the men braced themselves for the stage's impending stop.
“Hellgate,” a man announced pulling open the coach's door. “Stage'll be heading straight back to Sweetwater soon as the horses get water,” he told the passengers to encourage them to get out of the coach.
The men climbed out of the stage, their tired and bruised bodies protesting the activity. As they looked around, they were surprised to find a wide river separating the stage depot from the other buildings.
Nicholas Dowling brushed at his suit, attempting to remove some of the dust that covered it. He followed the stagehand to the rear of the coach where the luggage was stashed in the boot under a canvas covering. He pointed to two worn carpet bags, buried under some packages, having been bounced around along with the passengers during the bumpy trip. “Those two,” he said then took the bags when the stagehand freed them from the other packages. “So which part of this place is Hellgate?”
“'Cross the river. You looking for someone in particular?”
“Ginsy?” the stagehand responded in surprise. “Didn't know he was expecting visitors,” he added removing the freight packages from the boot to carry them into the depot.
“Can you tell me where to find him?” Dowling asked, ignoring the man's comment.
“Looks like he's waiting for you.” Arms full, the stagehand lifted his chin in the direction of the river.
Dowling turned around. He spotted a man standing on the opposite bank at the end of a rope bridge. “That the only way across?”
“Fraid so. We had a better bridge but it got washed out in the spring floods.”
“Seems it would have made better sense to put the town on this side.” Dowling's companion had joined the two men.
“Mullen Road is on that side,” the stagehand told him. “Got anything else?” he asked then turned to walk into the depot when the men shook their heads.
Dowling handed one of the bags to the other man. “You want to go first, Ned?” he asked.
Ned Harlow laughed. “Not a chance. I'll let you have that honor.”
The pair walked toward the suspended bridge constructed by stretching four ropes across the chasm that contained the river. Two ropes were handholds while the other two supported a layer of planks lashed to them. The suspended bridge presented the men with a precarious, at best, crossing to Hellgate.
Dowlng approached the beginning of the bridge and placed a tentative hand on a rope. Then he stepped onto the first plank.
“Best way to cross it is just keep moving,” the stagehand shouted from where he was retying the canvas cover over the luggage boot.
Dowling stepped off the bridge. He slipped his hand through the handle of his bag then took a deep breath. Taking a firm hold of both hand ropes, he stepped back onto the bridge and set out across it with measured steps.
Harlow watched as the bridge began to sway under Dowling's movement.
“May not look like much but it's safe,” the stagehand said as he joined Harlow who grunted his misgivings. “You boys got business in Hellgate?”
Keeping his eyes on Dowling, Harlow ignored the question. He began to breath easier when Dowling reached the safety of the opposite bank. “Guess it's my turn to go,” he said, preventing the man from asking any more questions he wasn't prepared to answer. He stepped onto the bridge and, following Dowling's example, moved steadily across the unstable bridge. “Looks like first order of business is to build a better bridge,” he muttered as soon as he reached the waiting Dowling.
“Nick, this is Mr. Ginsingly,” Dowling said, having already come to the same conclusion.
The man smiled broadly and held out a rough callused hand. “Boys call me Ginsy.”
Harlow studied the man as he shook his offered hand. Harlow estimated Ginsy to be a good fifteen years older than his own thirty-one years. He was short in stature but his shoulders were broad and his skin deeply tanned after spending long days working in the hot sun. Dressed in mismatched and numerously patched faded flannel shirt and deerskin pants, and wearing a pair of well-worn leather boots, Ginsy didn't make much of an impression. “Have you secured us an office?” he asked Ginsy, wanting to get away from the curious men who were appearing out of Hellgate's collection of shabby buildings.
“Built ya one myself,” Ginsy declared proudly. “Come on, let me show ya,” he added already walking away from the river.
Puck used his arm to push aside the cattails that blocked his path to the creek. He heard a whinny and his nose wrinkled at the stringent odor of fresh horse dung. “I knew Cole was wrong,” he muttered moving through the tangled thicket of cattails and sweet-grass. He had walked more than a mile from the cabin as he searched for the missing horses. He was tired, not being used to walking such distances.
The horses were standing in the creek, contently drinking the cool water. The hobbles he had placed around their front fetlocks the night before were gone. The horses raised their heads to eye him suspiciously.
“How'd you get free?” he asked, not expecting an answer. He spoke in soothing tones as he approached the horses and, when he got within reach, grabbed their halters to prevent them from moving away from him. “Stop that,” he barked as one made a half-hearted effort to pull free. He led the horses out of the creek and walked them back through the thicket then to the cabin where he secured them by rope to a sturdy branch.
“Guess I need to string a picket line from now on,” Puck said as he looked around the area. Seeing no evidence that Cole had returned, he moved to the ring of rocks in front of the cabin. ”But first, I missed breakfast chasing the two of you. Right now I can do with some coffee.” He knelt beside the rock ring, picking a twig out of the pile of branches he had gathered the day before, he stirred up the coals. Satisfied, there was enough heat left in some of them to ignite again, he scooped up a handful of dried pine needles and tossed them onto the coals. Then he picked out some smaller twigs and branches from the pile and placed them on top of the needles before leaning over to gently blow on the coals. The needles caught almost immediately and burst into flame.
Puck turned his attention to gathering the makings of a late breakfast.
Dannie whistled tunelessly as her team of horses pulled the freight wagon along the stage road. In spite of their heavy load, the horses had made good time since leaving Sweetwater. She was traveling the Mullen Road, constructed by the Army to connect Fort Benton, Montana Territory, with Fort Walla Walla, Washington Territory. The military road was commonly used by muleskinners and freight drivers to access the mountain canyons where the mining camps were located.
Dannie looked over her shoulder to gauge how much time before sunset. “Another hour,” she muttered. Then she would look for a favorite camping site in a small glade of cottonwoods beside the river that paralleled the road. As she scanned down the road, her thoughts turned to the town of Sweetwater and how she had come to live there.
Dannie had been living in Granite, drawn to the growing mining camp by the advertised need for wagon drivers. Her lover, Leevie, had left Bannack to join her there; happy for the possibility of a job in the town's school and for the opportunity to finally live together. But the bustling town had more teachers than it needed and the mine's owners and the town's businessmen had balked at having a woman transporting ore down to the smelter or freight up from Philipsburg.
Leevie had met Jesse and Jennifer when the pair had first visited Bannack and the two schoolteachers became friends, corresponding frequently by mail. When Jesse and Jennifer had visited Dannie and Leevie in Granite, they urged them to move to Sweetwater. Jennifer, the town's schoolteacher, wanted to spend more time at the ranch she shared with her wife and young children; and Jesse had promised Jennifer she would no longer drive the freight deliveries for Ed that required being away for more than a day. Leevie, being a schoolteacher, and Dannie, owning a wagon and horse team, were deep in debt and both needed work. Distrustful of the rancher, who seemed to have provided the life for Jennifer that Dannie desperately wanted for Leevie, she reluctantly agreed to accept Jesse's offer of support while they adjusted to their new home.
Dannie smirked. She had since learned that Jesse had been just as distrustful of her. “Seems things worked out for the best,” she muttered, readjusting her position on the wagon's hard bench. “Mostly,” she grunted slapping the reins on the horse's rumps to urge them along.
To Be Continued...
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