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
Nick Dowling frowned. He was sitting in front of the small cabin he and Harlow were using for an office and living quarters until work was started at the fort site. He had been listening to Puck explain how Cole had been injured. “Last thing we need is to have the Indians riled up. Captain Gilford isn't going to like hearing of this.”
“I didn't take kindly to Cole's actions myself.”
“I suppose not.”
“Man at the depot said you might have someone who could see to his wound,” Puck said anxiously.
Dowling nodded then stood. “Army saw fit to include a soldier with some medical training in the Lieutenant's unit,” he said gesturing Puck toward the men working at the riverbank some distance from the cabin. “Corporal Henson,” he called out when they were close enough to be heard.
A shirtless young man of medium height stopped shoveling and looked up. “Sir?”
“This man says his cousin is in need of doctoring. Would you see to him?”
“Yes, sir,” Henson replied already walking to close the gap between them. “What is the problem?” he asked.
“Arrow shot,” Dowling answered.
Henson's eye's widened. “Arrow?”
Dowling nodded. “He's across the river at the depot.”
“I'll get my kit,” Henson informed the pair.
“We'll meet you across the river,” Dowling said as Henson walked past them toward the tents behind the cabin. “I would like to talk to your cousin,” he told Puck then gestured for him to lead the way back to the rope bridge.
“You the doc?” Cole asked when Dowling entered the stage depot behind Puck.
“He's coming,” Puck informed him. “This is Mr. Dowling… he's with the Army.”
“Soldier boy, uh?” Cole sneered.
“No,” Dowling answered, already taking a disliking to the injured man. “I'm an engineer.”
“Ain't no trains in Hellgate,” Cole said smugly.
“He's not that kind of engineer,” Puck informed his cousin. “He builds things.”
Cole studied Dowling but before he could say more Henson entered the depot.
“He's your patient,” Dowling said giving a slight tilt of his head toward Cole.
“Hell, ya ain't nothin' but a boy,” Cole protested when Henson moved toward him.
Henson knelt beside the chair Cole was slumped on. “I assure you, sir, I have been properly trained by the Army to attend to your wound,” he stated reaching to remove the dirty, bloody bandage wrapped around Cole's waist. “I can't do this here,” he said looking up at the other men. “Is there somewhere he can lay down, sir?”
“Name's Whitney… Forrest Whitney. You can put him on one of those,” the station master said pointing to the far corner of the room where half a dozen cots were pushed against the walls.
“Do you need assistance?” Henson asked standing and offering his hand to Cole.
“I ain't dead yet,” Cole snapped slapping at Henson's hand then doubling over when the movement caused stabs of pain to explode from his wound.. “Damn,” he groaned clutching at his side.
“Dammit, Cole,” Puck blurted out in frustration. “Don't you think you've caused enough trouble already?” he asked leaning over to hook his arm under Cole's and jerk him onto his feet.
“That hurts,” Cole screamed.
“I don't care anymore,” Puck told his cousin as he forced him to walk toward the cots. He dropped him onto the first cot they reached then turned away leaving Cole moaning loudly. “Do what you can,” he told Henson before he walked to the rear door of the depot. “I have horses to see to.”
Henson carried his medical kit to the cot and knelt beside it. Pulling a pair of scissors from his kit, he started to cut away the bandage. “Could you boil some water, Mr. Whitney?” he asked not looking up from his task.
Whitney walked to the fireplace where a bucket of water sat beside the health. He lifted a pot off the hearth and filled it from the bucket before hanging it on the spit. Then he stirred up the fire's coals and added some wood from the pile next to the fireplace. He watched the flames for a few moments before turning away to return to Henson and his patient.
“Looks bad,” Dowling said when enough bloodied bandage had been removed to expose the jagged hole in Cole's side.
“Got ‘nother in my back,” Cole grunted.
“Went clear through?” Dowling asked. “You must have been pretty close.”
“Close ‘nuff to see the hate in her Injun eyes,” Cole said smugly.
Startled, Henson stopped and stared at Cole. “Her? A woman did this to you?”
Cole grinned at the shocked expression on the soldier's face. “Ain't no woman. Nothin' but a damn—”
A scream pierced the room.
“What the hell?” Whitney exclaimed, startled by Cole's sudden cry of agony.
“Sorry, sir,” Henson told the men. “My hand slipped. All this blood is making this difficult.”
Silently, Dowling observed the young soldier remove his finger from Cole's wound. “Do you best, Henson,” he said patting the boy on his shoulder. “I think I'll go outside, I've never been fond of the smell of blood.”
“Mr. Whitney, the water?” Henson asked giving no attention to the angry look his patient was directing at him.
Dannie was thankful when her team reached the narrow canyon that marked the final challenge before reaching Hellgate and the wide and relatively flat valley that surrounded it. Clark 's River flowed through the canyon and, due to the fluctuating water level, the road had been scrapped several feet up the canyon's step north wall. It was a precarious path at the best of times but during times of rain or high water next to impassable. Dannie was glad that she had neither to contend with on this trip but she still kept a close watch as the wagon's wheels rolled dangerously close to the edge of the road.
“How is he?” Puck asked peering down at his sleeping cousin. Thankfully for all, Cole had passed out when Henson started to clean out his wounds and had remained unconscious as the ragged edges of his wounds were stitched neatly together by the soldier.
Henson was standing beside the cot wiping his bloody hands on a wet rag. “He's lost a lot of blood and should rest for the next few days… But I see no reason he won't recover.”
“Fool,” Dowling muttered. He had returned from his walk outside and was sitting in a chair several feet away where he was able to watch Henson work without having to actually see what he was doing.
“Sir?” Henson asked.
“Damn fool may have started a war,” Dowling said frowning.
“Then it's a good thing Captain Gilford is on his way,” Henson said keenly.
Dowling pushed himself up from the chair, his head shaking slightly in dismay at the young corporal's enthusiastic comment. “How old are you, Henson?”
“Twenty two, sir.”
“He may be a fool but he was right about one thing… you aren't much older than a boy.”
Dowling held up his hand to stop the objection. “Calm down, I'm not insulting you. I wasn't much older myself when…” Dowling bit his lip as he remembered a time that seemed so long ago yet… “Just saying that war isn't as glorious as the old timers make it sound,” he finally said. “It's foul work with long days and longer nights when all you can think about is how nice it was to be warm and dry and have a full belly.”
“Sounds like you've been there,” Whitney said from where he was standing near the fireplace.
Dowling nodded. “I've seen more of war than I ever wanted. Can't say I look easy on seeing it come round again.”
Knowing feelings still ran strong among veterans of the War Between the States, Dowling didn't answer, preferring to avoid any possibility of a nasty situation if the station master took offense to the side on which he fought. “Corporal, you seem to have things in order. I expect you wish to remain with your charge.” When Henson nodded, he continued. “I will return to my work across the river. I shall inform Lieutenant Gage of your situation when he returns.” Dowling turned to address Puck who had returned from the corral to sit in a chair at the end of Cole's cot. “Mr. Bridger, I would ask that you and your cousin remain in Hellgate until Captain Gilford arrives. He will be in need of a scout with knowledge of those mountains and since you have such knowledge—”
“I have no intention of returning to those mountains,” Puck said forcefully.
“Then perhaps your cousin… When he heals, of course,” Dowling said then turned and walked for the door.
Dannie pulled her team to a stop in front of Hellgate's only hotel and wrapped the reins through the iron loop on the front of the driver's box. She set the brake then stood and climbed down from the tall wagon.
Stretching her back, Dannie acknowledged a man who had stepped out of the building with a nod. “Are you Travis?” she asked.
“Ya know where I can find him?”
Dannie straightened to her full height to glower at the man. “Got me a delivery for Travis. If'n ya ain't willin' ta point me in his direction, git outa my way,” she said striding for the hotel's door.
Noting with some alarm that Dannie wasn't intending to walk around him, the man hopped out of her way. “He's inside,” he said as she marched past him.
“Figured,” Dannie grumbled pushing the hotel's door open. Once inside the building, she stopped to look around and allow her eyes to adjust to the dimly lit room. The layout wasn't much different from other hotels she had entered in the various mining towns she had called home over the years.
The hotel was a single story split in two with a bar situated in front of the thin wall that separated the sleeping quarters at the back of the structure from the saloon at the front. Crudely made tables and chairs were scattered about between the front door and the bar providing travelers a place to sit and eat a meal, have a drink, or enjoy a game of cards… or all three, if they chose. A door at one end of the bar led outside to the cook shack, the room being too small to allow for an indoor cooking area. At the other end of the bar a flimsy curtain was nailed over the opening providing access to the back of the hotel where cots were arranged in narrow rows—privacy not being an option offered by the small hotel. A rear door allowed quick access to the privy in the back of the hotel.
“Looking for someone?”
“Looking fer Travis,” Dannie responded to the man cleaning off the top of the bar with a rag.
“You found me.”
Dannie walked toward the bar. “Got ya sum furniture from Garnet.”
“Ah,” Travis smiled. “Been expecting it.”
Dannie leaned against the waist high bar and gave the room a second critical look. “Don't seem ta have room fer what yer gettin',” she told the hotel owner.
Travis laughed. “Not in here that's for sure. I'm building a bigger place next door.
“Ya got that many people wantin' ta stay in Hellgate?”
“We will… once the fort gets built.”
“Saw me sum Army boys on the road,” Dannie said indifferently. “Tol' ‘em they be wastin' time to build a fort where there ain't no problem with Indians.”
“There is now.”
Dannie adjusted her position to look at Travis. “And that would be?” she asked curiously.
“Trapper came in this morning… had him an arrow in his side.”
“How'd he come by it?”
“Ran into some trouble on the other side of the pass. From what I hear, Injuns didn't take kindly to him taking hides.”
“Doubt they would,” Dannie said. “That's their land.”
“You sidin' with the Injuns?” Travis asked with a sneer.
Dannie shook her head. “Ain't sidin' with ‘em or again' ‘em. Just think if ya go where ya ain't welcome, ya sured to find trouble.”
“I'd be careful expressin' those opinions around here,” Travis warned her. “'Specially now we got the Army here to set the Injuns right.”
Dannie nodded recognizing a lost cause when she heard it. “You know where ya be wantin' me ta put yer furniture?” she turned the conversation back to the business that had brought her to Hellgate.
“I'll give ya a hand,” Travis told her as he walked around from behind the bar.
“Help me up,” Cole ordered. He had awakened a few minutes before to discover he was patched up and in much less pain than when he had arrived in Hellgate.
“Mr. Bridger, I recommend you don't try—”
“Ya damn fool… I don't much care what ya recommend,” Cole snarled at Henson as the corporal tried to force him back onto the cot. “Git outa my way.”
“Cole, you need to rest,” Puck jumped to Henson's defense.
“What I need is a damn bottle of whiskey,” Cole snapped trying to loosen Henson's grip on his shoulders.
“Lay back,” Henson said firmly refusing to budge.
“Lay down, Cole, I'll bring you a bottle,” Puck offered hoping to satisfy his cousin.
“I ain't staying in this cot like some sick whelp,” Cole insisted. “Get this lug off me.”
Puck sighed in defeat. “You best let him up,” he told Henson. “He won't shut up ‘til you do.”
“I don't think that is best.”
Puck placed a hand on Henson's shoulder. “You don't know him. Let him be.”
“He could open those wounds.”
“I know. If he does, you'll have to fix him back up.”
Henson released his grip then straightened and backed away from the cot as Cole struggled to sit up. “I can't be responsible if he doesn't rest.”
Puck nodded. “I appreciate you seeing to him,” he held his hand out to Henson. “Sorry, if Cole won't tell you the same.”
“Quit blathering like some old woman and give me a hand,” Cole snarled.
Cole bent down. Placing his hands under Cole's arms, he pulled him upright.
“Ugh,” Cole grunted and clutched onto Puck when the room began to spin around him, his face twisting into a grimace from the pain.
“Want to sit back?”
“What I want is the closest saloon,” Cole answered.
“You won't make it across the bridge,” Puck insisted.
“Then put me on a horse and I'll ride across.”
“You're a fool, Cole,” Puck said adjusting his grip on his determined cousin.
Henson stared at the men in disbelief when Puck eased Cole toward the back door of the depot. “Mr. Bridger, you aren't…? If you put him on a horse, it could kill him.”
“Dammit, boy, we're only goin' as fer as the saloon,” Cole growled.
“Come on, Cole,” Puck encouraged. “Let's get this over with.”
Henson started after the cousins but stopped when Whitney stepped in front of him. “Best to let them go.”
“I am responsible for him,” Henson started to protest.
Whitney shook his head. “Man like that don't take kindly to being told what he can and can't do.”
“Don't be a fool, Henson. Didn't you see the knife he wore in his belt? You push him too far and he'll cut you from bow to stern. Go on back with the rest of your boys,” Whitney told Henson gently shoving him toward the front door of the depot. “Leave Bridger be. It'll be safer for everyone.”
Henson took a final look toward Puck who was awkwardly maneuvering his cousin through the depot's rear door with Cole loudly protesting his clumsy efforts. “I'll gather my kit,” he said giving up his opposition to his patient leaving.
Unloading the wagon had taken little time as Travis only required the furniture to be piled next to his existing building. Dannie had prepared to climb back into the driver's box as soon as the hotel owner had signed off on her delivery papers.
“You're not staying in town?” Travis asked.
“Heading back to Sweetwater.”
“I can offer you a cot… only two bits.”
“This load already put me behind. Should have been back already.”
“How ‘bout a hot meal then? You've still got a ways to go, hot meal can't hurt.”
Dannie considered the offer. “S'pose it can't,” she agreed not looking forward to another can of beans for dinner.
“Good, good,” Travis said smiling. “Come back inside and I'll fix you up a steak in no time.”
Dannie followed Travis back into the hotel and took a seat at a table near the front where she could keep an eye on her team out one of the grimy windows. Travis had disappeared out the side door to the cook shack when the front door opened and a pair of men entered, one half carrying, half dragging the other inside. She watched as the men dropped into the chairs of the table on the opposite side of the door.
“Whiskey, barkeep,” Cole bellowed. When no one responded, he turned his attention to Dannie. “Git me a bottle,” he ordered.
“Git it yerself.”
Cole studied Dannie. “Yer a woman,” he said in surprise.
Dannie ignored the comment, turning her attention back out the dirty window.
“Hey, I'm talkin' ta you.”
“Cole, leave her be,” Puck said pushing up out of his chair to retrieve a bottle from the bar.
“I said yer a woman,” Cole insisted.
Slowly, Dannie's head swiveled back, her eyes boring into Cole's.
“Ya is a woman ain't ya?”
“So ya said.”
Cole lifted his arm then slammed it down on the table top. “Where's that whiskey, Puck? I aim to have me a drink with this here woman.”
“I'm coming,” Puck said from behind the bar where he was removing a pair of glasses from the shelf on the wall.
“Why don' ya come over here?” Cole told Dannie. “I'll buy ya a drink.”
Dannie looked disgustedly at the man. “I choose who I do my drinkin' with,” she told him firmly.
“Ah, come on over,” Cole insisted. “I ain't seen me a woman in a mighty long time.”
“Leave her be, Cole,” Puck warned setting a bottle and the glasses on the table. “She's not interested in you.”
Cole laughed. “That Injun wasn't interested either. But I showed her.” He reached for his belt. “Maybe I should take yer hair like I took hers,” he told Dannie holding up his trophies.
Dannie's stomach flip-flopped and she swallowed to force back the bile rising in her throat at the sight of the scalps. She tried to look away but couldn't, her eyes refused to move from the beads carefully woven into the hair of one of the scalps. She forced the chair back from the table, her hand dropping to her boot as she stood.
“Get another glass, Puck,” Cole said triumphantly. “Looks like we're having sum company.”
Dannie took a cautious look at the distance between herself and the door.
“Ah, I thought I heard voices,” Travis said entering from the cook shack carrying a platter holding a slab of cooked meat. “I'll just grab the coffee pot—”
“No need,” Dannie told Travis without taking her eyes off Cole. “I won't be staying.”
“What? You can't leave, I've already cooked this,” the businessman protested the loss of payment.
Holding her right hand down at her side, Dannie placed her left hand into the pocket of her shirt and pulled out some coins. “I'll pay for the steak but I won't stay to eat it,” she repeated dropping the coins on the table.
“Ah, come on,” Cole cajoled. “We'll be glad to share that steak with you. Won't we, Puck?”
Puck eased around the table to stand between Cole and the door. “You best be on your way,” he told Dannie. “I apologize for Cole, he's not feeling himself.” He nudged his head toward the door. “Best be going,” he urged her.
Before Dannie could take a step, Cole surged out of his chair. He shoved Puck aside sending him staggering several feet across the floor before he regained his footing. “Ya ain't leavin' just yet,” he told Dannie. “Man asks a woman to have a drink, last thing she should be thinkin' is sayin' no,” he added reaching for his belt.
Dannie closed the distance between them so fast that Cole didn't have time to pull his knife from its scabbard before she had her own pressed against his neck. “Yer ain't no man,” she sneered at him. “Yer no better than a rabid dog. I don' eat with them and I won' eat with you.”
“Pull her off me,” Cole screamed when Dannie pressed the shape blade further into his skin.
“I told you to let her be,” Puck yelled back but stayed where he was.
“You damn bitch,” Cole directed angrily at Dannie.
“I'll slit yer worthless throat if'n ya call me that again,” Dannie warned increasing the force on her knife.
“Back off,” Travis ordered cocking the shotgun he had removed from the back of the bar. “Back off or I'll drop you where you stand.”
Dannie eased the knife off Cole's neck but kept a firm grip on the handle. “I jus' want ta leave,” she told Travis. “He brought this on hisself.”
“Step back,” Travis told Dannie.
When Dannie moved to comply, Cole pulled his own knife free. “No bitch is goin' ta cut me,” Cole growled.
“Drop it or I'll drop you,” Travis shouted at Cole.
The knife fell to the floor when Cole felt the barrel of the shotgun pressed against his cheek.
“Now she's going to leave and you ain't doing nothing to stop her,” Travis warned Cole. He had managed to cross the room unnoticed by either of them as they were so focused on each other.
Dannie inched her way to the door and slipped outside. She wasted no time climbing up the side of the tall wagon and was urging her team into motion before she had even settled on the seat.
“What ya aimin' ta do with that shotgun?” Cole asked after Dannie left.
“Depends. You sit down and eat a meal, I'll put it aside. You try to go after her and I'll blow your head off.”
“You puttin' a woman ‘fore me?” Cole asked furiously.
“Yes. So what is it to be? You sitting?” Having no choice, Cole nodded. Travis pulled the shotgun away from his head and waiting until he dropped back into the chair. Then he walked back to the bar where he exchanged the weapon for the platter of meat and carried it back to Cole. He dropped the platter in front of the angry man then he moved over and picked up the coins Dannie had left. “It's on the house.”
Puck pulled out a chair at another table and sat down. “I'll take one of those,” he told the hotel owner as he walked past the table on his way back to the bar.
Travis picked up the shotgun and placed it on the table where Puck was sitting. “Hafta go out to the cook shack. He tries to leave, shoot him.”
“He's my cousin.”
Travis looked at Cole then at Puck. “You go hungry or you shoot him… he ain't goin' after a woman from my place,” he said then waited.
Cole laughed wiping steak juice off his chin with his sleeve. “He ain't got the guts.”
Puck reached for the shotgun. “I'll shoot him,” he said pulling it closer to him.
“Make sure you don't miss,” Travis said then walked for the side door.
Dannie managed to drive the team to the river ford, make the crossing, and get almost to the bridge at the flats before she had to pull them to a stop, her whole body shaking so hard she could barely keep hold of the reins. For several minutes she just sat and replayed the events at the hotel over in her head.
“I almost kilt him,” Dannie mumbled when a vision of Leevie came into her head. “I never kilt a man, Leevie. Never. But I almost kilt him.” She reached for the canteen under the seat. It took several attempts before she was able to pull cork stopper free and then her numb fingers dropped it. She took several gulps of water but her stomach was too tied up in knots to accept the liquid. The canteen slipped out of her hand as she leaned over the side of the wagon when the water came back up.
Dannie forced her body back onto the seat. “Damn,” she whispered as tears started to flow from her eyes. She bent over burying her head in her hands. “How am I goin' ta tell Jesse?”
To Be Continued...
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