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
It was late afternoon when Boy pulled the buckboard back through the ranch yard. Jennifer was waiting with KC and Charley at the foot of the front porch steps, having been alerted to Jesse's return by their daughter.
“Where's Poppa?” Jesse asked even before she pulled Boy to a stop.
Jesse set the wagon's brake then jumped down to the ground. She walked around the back of the buckboard to help Bette Mae climb down from the seat.
“Thank you for coming,” Jennifer told the older woman.
“Can'tt say no when sum one be needin' me,” Bette Mae told her. “She feelin' any better?” Jennifer shook her head. “Then ya best be showin' me where she is.”
Jesse pulled Bette Mae's bag out from under the wagon seat then carried it the few steps to the porch and placed it on the wooden deck. “I'll take you to her,” she said returning to the others.
When KC started to follow her mother and Bette Mae, Jennifer placed a hand on her shoulder to stop her. “You need to stay with me, sweetie,” she gently told her daughter.
KC looked up at her mother. “Gramma sick?” she asked sadly.
“I want to see Gramma.”
“I know. We'll go over a little later, after Bette Mae has a chance to talk to her. Right now, why don't you help me take Bette Mae's bag upstairs to the room we fixed up for her?”
“Okay,” KC said unhappily.
Jennifer watched Jesse and Bette Mae until they disappeared around the corner of Marie and Stanley's cabin. Then she turned and led the children back up the steps to the porch. Retrieving Bette Mae's bag, she carried it into the house.
Puck looked up when he heard a horse splashing through the creek.
“Take care of my horse,” Cole demanded as he dismounted, dropped the reins on the ground and headed straight for the coffee pot simmering over the fire.
“Take care of it yourself,” Puck grumbled returning to his chore. He was kneeling over a deer hide stretched out on the ground, scrapping the inside of the hide clean. “I've been working all day while you've been out chasing shadows.”
“Puck, I ain't in no mood for your lip,” Cole snarled pouring coffee into a metal cup.
“I found the horses,” Puck commented remaining in place.
“I seen that. Where were they?”
“Down a ways… in the creek just like I said they'd be.”
Cole slammed the coffee pot back down. The coals hissed as hot coffee sloshed out from its spout, spilling onto them. “Damn waste of a day.”
“I take it you didn't any Indians.”
“Damn family of settlers staking a claim over the ridge yonder.”
“Thought you said that was Indian hunting grounds.”
“T'was. Told them greenhorns they best keep their heads low so I don't accidentally mistake one of ‘em for an Injun.” Puck frowned. “You goin' take care of my horse?” Cole snapped.
Puck shook his head. Cole was older by almost ten years and thought that gave him the right to order his younger cousin about. “No.”
Cole stood up from the fire. He took a swallow of coffee, seemingly unaffected as the hot liquid burned its way down his throat. He carried the cup back to his horse and remounted the lathered pony. “Then I guess I'll go shoot some more deer for you to clean.”
“Take one of the other horses,” Puck told Cole. “That one is winded.”
Cole sneered and took another swallow of coffee. “Would if'n you'd done what I told you.”
“Hang on,” Puck yelled when Cole started to spur the horse into movement. Tossing his scraper onto the hide, he stood up. “Get off that horse. I'll saddle one of the others.”
Cole dismounted, coffee cup still in his hand. Smirking, he walked back to the fire to refill the cup and wait for Puck to prepare a fresh horse for him to ride.
Dannie walked back to her campsite with an armful of dead branches. She had already unhitched the horses and picketed them next to the river where a thick patch of grass grew. She dropped the wood next to the ring of rocks where she had started a small fire after seeing to her team. She added a few of the branches to the flames then walked to the wagon where three wood boxes hung from the wagon's side. She opened the box containing cooking utensils and removed her coffee pot, a frying pan, and a fork. She let the lid drop back into place before unlatching the lid on the next box. She pulled out the sack of coffee grounds then looked at the selection of canned goods. She grabbed a can of beans and a can of peaches then turned to carry the makings of her supper back to the fire pit.
She placed most of the items on the ground before carrying the coffee pot down to the river and filling it with fresh water. Returning to the fire, she added a handful of grounds to the pot then placed it on the fire to boil. Then she pulled free the large knife she carried in the scabbard tied to her right boot. Placing the point of the knife at the edge of the top of the can of beans, she picked up a rock and slammed it down on the handle's butt. She repeated the action until she could peel the top of the can back just enough to pour the beans out into the frying pan. She tossed the empty can into the fire pit then set the frying pan on the fire. Grabbing the can of peaches, she again used her knife to open it. Then she sat back to enjoy the sweet peaches while she waited for her beans and coffee to cook.
The evening was pleasant, just warm enough that she was sure to have a good night's sleep. A gentle breeze swept up from the cool waters of the river, helping to keep the gnats and biting flies from settling on her skin. As the sky darkened, Dannie kept watch down the road in both directions to see if any other travelers were setting up camp near hers. She was relieved when she failed to spot the telltale signs of other campfires. If no one was camping nearby, she wouldn't have to worry as much about unexpected visitors during the night.
Finishing the peaches, Dannie reached for the handle of the frying pan. The beans had heated in their bubbling sauce and she removed the pan from the fire before they started to burn. Placing it on the ground in front of her, she reached for the coffee pot and poured boiling coffee into a cup. Dannie blew on the steaming coffee to cool it then took a cautious sip. She grimaced, mentally kicking herself for refusing to allow Leevie to add a sack of sugar to her supplies. Sugar was expensive , she had told her lover. Now she wished she had been willing to add the cost to the tab they ran at Ed's mercantile. After all, the storekeeper wasn't worried about being paid; any balance she and Leevie couldn't cover at the end of each month was paid by Jesse.
“Won't be too long I won't have to count on Jesse to make up my shortfalls,” Dannie muttered into the night. She picked up the frying pan and began to fork beans into her mouth.
“Being on this side of the river is going to cause problems,” Harlow told the other two men standing around a table inside a windowless log cabin.
The rough hewn cabin was rectangular with a single large room and a single door. A wood stove occupied one corner of the room. Except for having the name of the company that had manufactured it stamped into its door, the square cast iron stove was devoid of decoration. Standing on four sturdy legs, it had a flat top; the back half was taken up by the chimney pipe that carried smoke up through a hole in the roof while the front half was just large enough to place a pot or frying pan for cooking. Offering the only opportunity for sitting, two decrepit cots had been placed near the stove; their straw filled, lumpy mattresses covered by tattered Hudson's Bay wool blankets. The table was placed at the opposite side of the room, with barely a stride's length between it and the foot of the cots. Lanterns set on the table and hanging from the cabin walls provided insufficient light for the dark interior.
Dowling moved one of the lanterns closer to the hand drawn map that was spread out on the table. “No, this location won't work. It's on the military road but when trouble comes, it'll come down this canyon,” he said pointing to a spot on the map some distance south of the town's location. “If the Army has to move across the river and the valley, it'll take too long. We need something closer to the south end of the valley.”
Harlow placed his figure on the map. “What about here?”
Dowling considered the new location. “Still next to a river.”
“Different one though,” Ginsy inserted. “And there's already a bridge crossing it. Ya came across it on the stage.”
Harlow thought back to their recent trip over the stage road. Remembering the rickety bridge, he said, “It will have to be made stronger.”
“We need to take a ride out there. Did you secure us horses?” Dowling asked Ginsy.
“Got ya a pair at my place. But it's gettin' too late ta go anywhere tonight.”
“All right. Be here in the morning. We'll ride out then.” When Ginsy nodded, Dowling glanced around the scarcely furnished cabin. “I hope there's a place in Hellgate to get some supper.”
“Stage depot puts up a good meal.”
“Anything this side of the river? I don't fancy crossing that bridge after dark.”
“Hotel at the end of the street… but Dave ain't much of a cook.”
“It'll have to do.”
“I best be goin', I want ta get back to my place before dark,” Ginsy said as he turned for the door. He pulled the wood panel open to reveal the darkening sky.
Following Ginsy outside, Harlow and Dowling stood in front of the cabin to observe the town. Lanterns had been lit in most of the structures, the lamps flickering flames casting odd shadows on the few windows. One building at the end of the street stood out from the rest. Its interior was brightly lit and lamps hung on both sides of its door.
“Hotel is down there,” Ginsy told the men. “Tis the one all lit up.”
“Thanks,” Harlow acknowledged the man's assistance.
“Um, just one more thing,” Dowling said before Ginsy turned to walk away. “Why is this place called Hellgate?”
Ginsy shuddered. Then he pointed east where the river had carved a narrow gap in the middle of a mountain ridge. “That's ‘bout the only way from this valley ta points east. The river and mountains don't leave much wiggle room. Indians used it for ambushing their enemies. The trappers used ta say that going through there was like going through the gates of Hell. Even these days, if ya look real close, ya can still see piles of bones.”
Jesse was sitting outside her parent's cabin on the bench she and her father had made the winter before.
The cabin door opened and Stanley stepped out into the cool evening air. He moved to the bench and sat beside his daughter. “Bit crowded inside,” he stated looking at the quarter moon rising over the forests to the east.
Jesse nodded but remained silent, understanding her father wanting to leave the cabin while Bette Mae looked after Marie.
Both their heads turned as KC ran around the corner of the cabin. Stanley didn't protest when his granddaughter climbed into his lap. “We bring Gramma soup,” KC told them.
Jesse stood and left to meet Jennifer who had yet to appear. She met her halfway between the ranch house and the cabin, carrying a pot of hot soup in one hand while leaning on her cane with the other.
Walking slowly so that Charley could keep up, Jennifer was glad to see her wife. “I thought Marie might be hungry,” she said as Jesse picked Charley up then relieved her of the heavy pot. “How's Stanley?”
“He's not saying much.”
Jennifer wrapped her now free arm around Jesse's waist.
When they reached the front of the cabin, Jesse set Charley down on the bench beside his grandfather. “You two stay out here for now,” she told the children before pushing open the cabin's door and allowing Jennifer enter. “You can come in and say goodnight to your grandma in a bit,” she told the disappointed children then she followed Jennifer inside.
“Been ‘xpectin' you,” Bette Mae said when the women entered.
Jennifer limped across the room to the bed. “I made some soup for Marie.”
“She dun fell asleep a few minutes ago,” Bette Mae told them. “But maybe the smell of this soup will bring her back. She said she was feelin' hungry.”
Jesse set the pot on top of the cabin's wood stove to keep it warm.
“Is it all right if KC and Charley come in?” Jennifer asked. “They wanted to say goodnight,” she explained.
“Ya bring them angels in here,” Bette Mae told Jesse earnestly. “I can't think of any better medicine for Marie than a kiss from them two young ‘uns.”
Jesse went to the door and motioned her children inside. “Shhh, Grandma's sleeping,” she warned them. She picked up KC and carried her to the bed where she held her close enough to Marie for the girl to kiss her cheek. Then she lowered KC to the floor and picked up Charley to do the same.
“Sweetheart, why don't we all go back to the house?” Jennifer suggested after Charley had kissed his sleeping grandmother. With all the people in the cabin, space was too tight for comfort. “I have supper ready.”
“I think tha's a fine idea,” Bette Mae declared. “I could do with gettin' off my feet,” the robust woman added.
Jesse turned to her father who was quietly standing near the door. “You all right with that, Poppa?” she asked and Stanley nodded.
“There should be plenty of soup for the both of you,” Jennifer told Stanley. “But if you want more, ring the bell and we'll bring some more out.” They had strung a line to the cabin years before when Jennifer's mother had visited the ranch. A quick yank on the string would cause a bell inside their own log cabin to ring and bring immediate assistance to the woman who, living all her life in a large city back east, was not comfortable being alone during the quiet nights of the frontier. After their cabin had been burned to the ground, Jesse had restrung the line into their new house.
“We'll be fine. Go on, now,” Stanley said ushering the women out of the cabin. “Ain't no need for you womenfolk to be making such a fuss.”
Jesse came down the stairs after putting KC and Charley to bed. She found the kitchen empty but the sound of soft voices filtering through the screen door told her that Jennifer and Bette Mae were sitting on the back porch. She walked out to join them. Jennifer was sitting on the porch swing while Bette Mae sat in the rocking chair Jesse had carried out to the porch earlier for her.
“Did they go to sleep?” Jennifer asked when her wife joined her on the swing.
“They did. I expected KC to put up more of a fight,” Jesse informed her.
Jennifer leaned against Jesse, glad to have her strong arms encircle her. “It's been a long day… for all of us.”
“That it has.” Jesse turned her attention to Bette Mae. “Should we send word to Bozeman for the doc?”
Bette Mae rocked in her chair for several moments before answering. “Won' do Marie no good,” she answered with a slight shake of her head. “Life's been hard on her, Jesse. Time's jus' dun caught up with her.”
“What are you saying?”
“She's worn out.”
Jesse fought down the lump forming in her throat. “She's dying?” she asked in a whisper.
“We all is dying, Jesse. Yer momma jus' cumin' to it ‘fore the rest of us.”
Jennifer felt the arms around her go slack as Jesse slumped back on the swing. She quickly turned to look at her wife. “Are you okay?” she asked alarmed to see the color draining from Jesse's face.
“How long?” Jesse asked, her voice breaking.
“Think tha's up ta her.”
“I can't tell ya that.”
Jennifer shifted so she could wrap her arms around her stunned wife. “Jesse?”
“Why? Why now? I just got her back,” Jesse asked, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Bette Mae pushed herself up out of the rocking chair and shuffled over to distraught young woman who had already suffered a lifetime of heartache. She bent over to tenderly cup her plump hands around Jesse's face then gently tilted her head up so she could look into her eyes. “Yer momma never was a strong woman but she's dun her best. She's tired, Jesse. It's time she rested.”
“I don't want her to die,” Jesse declared in a whisper.
“I knows ya don'. And ta tell ya the truth, I don' think she's ready ta go jus' yet. But she's gonna keep havin' these spells. Each time, they gonna git a bit longer than the last.”
“What can we do?” Jennifer asked, her arms wrapped tightly around Jesse.
Bette Mae straightened but left her hands cupping Jesse face. “Jus' what yer been doin'. Give her a nice home and let her watch yer young ‘uns grow. Them angels do more good fer her than anythin'.”
“Do you know how long?” Jennifer asked softly.
“Ain't nobody can answer tha' but Marie.” Bette Mae turned her eyes back to Jesse. “She knows she and you lost a lot of years. But yer together now and tha' makes her happy.” Bette Mae patted Jesse's tear streaked cheeks. “She loves ya, Jesse. Always has.” Bette Mae turned to Jennifer. “Speakin' of tired bones… I'll be goin' ta bed now.”
Jennifer started to withdraw her arms from around Jesse.
“You stay right there,” Bette Mae said stopping her. “I can find my way up them stairs to tha' room you fixed fer me. Jesse needs ya now.”
“Thank you,” Jennifer whispered, tightening her arms back around her wife.
When Bette Mae reached the screen door, she paused turning back for a moment. Then she pulled open the door and shuffled into the house leaving a sobbing Jesse in Jennifer's arms.
To Be Continued...
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