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
“I figured I'd be seein' ya this morning,” Bette Mae told Jennifer when Dannie pulled the buckboard to a stop in front of the Silver Slipper.
“Is she here?” Jennifer asked anxiously.
“No, honey,” Bette Mae replied sadly. “She dun rode through town like her tail was on fire… her poppa and Billie not fer behind.”
“Didn't you try to stop them?” Jennifer asked, her voice more angry than she meant.
“Didn't give anyone much chance ta do that.”
“Dannie, are you okay?” Leevie asked her lover.
Dannie nodded then climbed down from the buckboard and walked around the back of the wagon.
“No,” Jennifer said when Dannie offered to help her down. “We need to go on to Hellgate.”
“Ain't no reason fer ya ta be doin' any such thing,” Bette Mae said. “Now, ya let Dannie help ya down and cum inside. I've got a fresh pot a coffee brewin'.”
Jennifer glared at the robust woman. “I have to stop her before she…” She broke off afraid to finish the thought.
“She ain't gonna do nothin',” Bette Mae insisted. “I dun sent Frank after ‘em just to make sure of that.”
“No. I know my Jesse. She ain't gonna do nothin' to git herself thrown back inta jail. She knows tha' would hurt ya and the littl' ones too much.”
Jennifer shoulders slumped and she let out a heavy sigh. “I sure hope you're right.”
“'Course I is. Now git down and cum inside. All we's can do is wait so's we mite as well wait together.”
Jennifer turned to look to the other end of Sweetwater and further down the road that led to Hellgate. “I suppose you're right,” she said dejectedly. “I doubt we could get there in time anyhow.” She stood then carefully moved to the side of the wagon and allowed Dannie to assist her down to the ground. “Thanks,” she told the exhausted woman.
“Where's my babies?” Bette Mae asked as Jennifer climbed the steps to the porch.
“I thought it would be better to leave them at the ranch with Marie.”
Bette Mae nodded her approval then led the women into the Slipper. “I'll have Sally start scramblin' up sum eggs.”
“Not for me, Bette Mae,” Jennifer said, “I don't think I can eat anything until I know Jesse is safe.” She limped over to a table set in front of one of the windows that overlooked Sweetwater's only street and sat down. “Damn,” she muttered staring out the window, “it's going to be a long wait.”
“That it is,” Bette Mae agreed as she sat in the chair next to Jennifer while Dannie and Leevie settled on the other two chairs.
“Are you hungry?” Leevie asked Dannie who nodded. “I'll ask Sally to fix you something,” she said standing.
Jennifer turned away from the window. “I'm sorry, Dannie. I should have known you'd be hungry,” she said apologetically.
“Ya got more important things on yer mind.”
Jennifer smiled gratefully then studied her friend. “What do you think she'll do?”
Dannie appeared surprised by the question. “Think ya'd be knowin' better than me,” she sputtered.
“You're a lot like her, Dannie… especially at times like this. What would you do?”
Dannie chewed on her lower lip for a moment. “That's a hard question, Jennifer. Wasn't my friend got kilt.”
Leevie returned from the kitchen carrying a tray with a pot of coffee and cups.
“Thank ya,” Dannie told Leevie when a steaming cup of coffee was placed in front of her.
Leevie smiled then poured coffee into the other cups and passed them to Jennifer and Bette Mae.
Jennifer watched Dannie stir sugar into her cup. “If it had been your friend, would you kill the man that did it?” she asked.
“I'd surely want to.”
“But you wouldn't,” Jennifer asked hopefully.
“I had my chance,” Dannie said regretfully.
“But you couldn't do it,” Leevie said thankfully.
Dannie took a sip of coffee then carefully placed the cup back on the table. “I ain't Jesse,” she said quietly.
Billie pulled his pistol from his holster as he scampered up the river bank, the sound of a rider approaching at a gallop forcing him to move quickly. Reaching the top of the bank, he looked toward Hellgate then, relieved to find the road empty, turned to face the opposite direction. He waved when he recognized the rider. “Over here, Frank,” he called to Sweetwater's sheriff.
“Where's Jesse?” Frank demanded breathlessly.
Replacing his pistol into his holster, Billie nodded toward the river and the form huddled next to it.
“Damn,” Frank grunted swinging his leg over the back of his horse. “Didn't think she'd do it,” he muttered after dismounting.
“Kill that trapper.”
“She wanted to but Stanley talked her out of it.”
Frank looked around. Seeing only two other horses, he asked. “Where is Stanley?”
“Stayed in Hellgate to make sure we weren't followed. That trapper threatened to come after Jesse.”
“Guess I better ride into Hellgate and have a talk with him.” Frank glanced down to where Jesse was hunched over at the river's edge, the cold water lapping over the toes of her boots. “She gonna be all right?”
Billie nodded. “It'll take some time.”
“Glad she didn't do it. I wasn't looking forward to arresting her.”
“Would you have?”
Frank turned to face the man who had given up the badge he now wore. “Would you?”
Billie looked down kicking a clod of dirt with his boot. “Law says it ain't wrong for a white man to kill an Indian. It also says it's wrong for a woman to kill the man that has.” Billie looked up. “Seems to me that both are wrong.”
“The law or the act?”
“Guess it's a good thing I don't have to choose.”
“Guess it is,” Frank agreed then placed his boot into the stirrup and pulled himself back up onto his horse. He turned his horse back toward the road then pulled back on the reins. “There a fire in Hellgate?” he called back to Billie.
Billie turned to look across the valley where a plume of dark smoke was rising above the small town. “Not when we were there,” he informed the lawman.
“I better go see what's going on,” Frank said wearily. “Looks like Stanley's headed this way,” he added spotting a lone rider in the distance.
Billie watched Frank ride away. After a few moments, the lawman met the rider and they stopped to exchange some words. Frank pointed back to where Billie stood before continuing to Hellgate. Billie gave a wave to Stanley then turned and walked back down the bank to Jesse.
Stanley sat on his horse looking down to where Billie sat next to Jesse, her face buried in her hands. He didn't have to be told that his daughter was sobbing inconsolably. After a few minutes, he dismounted and slowly made his way down the riverbank to them.
Billie looked up when Stanley stood beside them. “You set the town on fire?” he asked.
“Nope. Saw that smoke start up after I crossed the river.”
“You don't think that trapper did ‘cause of what Jesse did?”
“Nope.” Stanley squatted beside the river. Cupping his hands together, he scooped up some of the cold water and scrubbed his face. “Nasty start to a day,” he muttered sitting back and settling in the sand beside Jesse. “I'm sorry, daughter,” he told her. “Ain't a good thing that happened to your friend.”
Jesse raised her head and turned a tear-streaked face to her father. “I… I should have… killed him, Poppa,” she spat out the words.
“No. His kind ain't worth it. ‘Sides, it have only gotten you in trouble with the law.”
“I don't care. What he did…”
“What he did was wrong. But it's done and you can't change it. Your friends won't be comin' back just cuz you kill him.”
“No, you listen to me, girl. You've got a family of your own worried sick about you and that's all you need to be thinking ‘bout. Now, wash your face and let's get home ‘fore that wife of yours has the whole town comin' after us.”
“Wouldn't be the first time she rode to your rescue,” Billie noted.
Jesse couldn't help but smile as a vision of Jennifer facing down a mob popped into her head, the drunken men insistent that she be hung for a crime she hadn't committed. She didn't need to be reminded that if it hadn't been for Jennifer and the pistol she held in trembling hands, the mob would have succeeded in their gruesome objective. “I doubt she'd be as willing to break me out of jail this time,” she commented wiping her nose with the back of her hand.
Billie laughed. “There is no way she'd leave you in jail, no matter what you've done. Here,” he added handing her his handkerchief. “Now, I agree with Stanley. You get yourself cleaned up and let's get back to Sweetwater. Frank can handle that trapper and whatever trouble he finds in Hellgate. No need for us to sit here any longer.”
Jesse dried the tears on her face then blew her nose before handing the handkerchief back to her best friend. “Thanks,” she said with a grin.
Billie grimaced. “Keep it.”
“Go on,” Jesse told him. “Get the horses ready, I want to talk to Poppa.”
Billie nodded then stood and started back up the bank to gather up the grazing horses.
“Poppa,” Jesse said squirming around to face her father. “Thank you.”
“For coming after me. I don't know what I would have done if you hadn't been there.”
Stanley tossed a pebble into the river. “You would have walked away just the same.”
“I don't know…”
Stanley reached out to place a tentative hand on his daughter's arm. “I do. You ain't the kind of woman to take revenge. Not with what you've got waiting at home.”
Jesse placed her hand on top of her father's. “I wasn't thinking about that.”
“I know. Next time…” Stanley gave Jesse's arm a light squeeze. “Next time make sure you do.”
Jesse leaned against her father. “I love you, Poppa,” she murmured feeling strong arms encircle her.
“I love you, too, daughter.”
Leaning on her cane, Jennifer paced restlessly about the dining room.
“Why don't you come sit?” Leevie asked.
“I can't,” Jennifer answered anxiously. “I'm so—”
“They're back,” Sally shouted from the porch where she had been keeping watch for any activity on the road from Hellgate.
“Thank goodness,” Jennifer exclaimed hurrying across the room to the door.
Dannie and Leevie reached the door first but waited for Jennifer before they all rushed out onto the porch to see a cloud of dust billowing behind three horses racing for Sweetwater.
Jennifer struggled to contain her emotions as she descended the steps then limped to meet the riders. She started to cry when Dusty broke from the others and raced toward her. Moments later, the big mare skidded to a stop as Jesse leaped off her back.
“I was so worried,” Jennifer cried when Jesse's arms encircled her.
“I know. I'm sorry,” Jesse apologized tightening her hold.
Jennifer forced herself back just enough to look into her wife's eyes. “Did… did you?”
Jesse shook her head. “No,” she whispered.
Jennifer relaxed against Jesse. “Would I be a bad person if I said I was sorry you didn't?” she asked quietly.
Jennifer again adjusted her position so she could meet Jesse's eyes. “I am… but I'm also glad you didn't. I'm so mixed up inside, Jesse,” she explained. “I hate what that man did. But I'm glad you didn't… I just… Oh, sweetheart,” she sighed leaning back against her wife. “I'm so glad you're back.”
“So am I,” Jesse said then bent her head to press her lips against Jennifer's.
“Come on,” Jennifer said breathlessly several moments later, “let's go inside. I think I need to sit down before I fall down.”
“Good idea.” Jesse relaxed her hold so they could walk back to the Slipper. She stopped when they met Dannie standing nervously at the bottom of the steps. “I didn't thank you properly,” she told the freight driver.
“No need,” Dannie started.
“Yes,” Jesse cut her off placing a hand on her shoulder. “It was a nasty piece of business; most would have let it go without tellin'. Thank you,” she said earnestly. “You're a good friend.”
Not knowing what to say, Dannie stood speechless as a slight blush colored her neck.
Jesse laughed. “Come on, you ol' muleskinner,” she chortled draping her arm around Dannie's shoulders. “I'll buy you breakfast.”
“Already dun ate,” Dannie muttered as she was forced up the steps by the rancher.
“Does that mean you ain't hungry?”
“Didn't think so.” Jesse ushered everyone back into the Slipper.
Jesse and Jennifer sat at a table with Dannie, Leevie, Bette Mae, Ruthie, and Sally listening to Billie tell them about the morning's events in Hellgate.
“So ya jus' walked away?” Bette Mae asked after Billie finished.
“Poppa was right,” Jesse said smiling at Jennifer. “Trapper wasn't worth what I had here.”
“What will happen to him?” Jennifer asked.
“Nothing,” Billie answered. “There's no law against what he did.”
“So he can do it again?”
The ex-lawman shrugged. “Nothin' to stop from doing so.”
The others sitting around the table nodded.
“Where is Stanley?” Jennifer asked.
“He said he was going to ride back to the ranch and let Marie know you were back safe,” Ruthie told them.
“I think we best be heading that way, too,” Jesse said.
“Yes, the children weren't very happy that I left them,” Jennifer said pushing her chair back from the table.
Jesse stood then helped Jennifer stand as the others began to shuffle their chairs.
“Leevie, why don't you take Dannie upstairs and put her to bed,” Jennifer suggested seeing the exhaustion on the freight driver's face. “I bet she hasn't had any sleep for two days.”
“Ya'd be ‘bout right,” Dannie mumbled, already half-asleep.
“Ruthie, you best do the same with Billie. He isn't used to being roused out of bed before dawn,” Jesse said with a laugh.
“Ain't that the truth,” Billie said yawning. “I wish I could go back to bed but I'm sure Ed's expecting me over at the store.”
While Leevie guided Dannie upstairs to their room, Jesse led Jennifer outside with Billie, Ruthie, and Bette Mae following. After helping Jennifer into the buckboard, she tied Dusty to the back of the wagon then climbed up into the driver's box and sat down next to her wife.
“Ya be bringin' my babies in ta see me soon,” Bette Mae told the women.
“We'll come back into town in a day or so,” Jennifer assured her as Jesse slapped the reins on Boy's wide rump.
Bette Mae waited until the wagon disappeared around the corner of the Slipper before she turned and walked back into the building.
Stanley had pulled his borrowed horse to a stop under the archway that announced the entrance to his daughter's ranch. Sighing deeply, he wrapped the reins around the saddle horn then he held his hands palms up and studied the leathery skin lined by hard work and old age. “Never thought I'd be using you to kill a man,” he told his appendages. “Ain't right what I did,” he added squeezing his hands into fists. “But he would have come looking for Jesse… men like that always do.” He relaxed his hands and stretched the fingers as wide as he could. “Ain't fittin' what I done,” he repeated placing his hands palms down on his legs then looking skyward. “That's wasn't the way you raised me, Momma. I reckon you'll be having some words for me some day but, until then, I'll be keepin' this betwixt us. Way I see it, ain't no purpose adding more burden to Jesse's heart.” He lowered his head and reclaimed the reins. With a gentle nudge, he urged the horse down the slope to the ranch house.
Boy was plodding along the rode about halfway between Sweetwater and the ranch, his passengers having been silent since they left the town.
Jennifer's hand was resting on her wife's thigh. “Are you all right?”
“I'll miss them.”
“We all will.”
“I brought the… I, um…”
“The scalps… I made the trapper give them to me.”
Jennifer was quiet for a moment. “We'll lay them to rest at the ranch,” she finally said leaning against Jesse's. “On the knoll where Wolf liked to sit in the morning.”
Jesse smiled. “He'd like that.”
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