Dannie had crawled out of her bedroll before dawn, wanting to get an early start. After a quick breakfast of cold coffee and colder beans left over from the night before, she cleaned up her campsite, harnessed the horses and hitched them to the wagon. She was back on the road when the sun rose in the east.
Noticing a cloud of dust some distance down the road, Dannie stood in the driver's box to get a better look. Not being able to discern the source of the dust cloud she settled back on the hard seat content to wait until she met the other travelers.
"Jesse?" Jennifer called out the screen door of the ranch house.
Jesse had left the chicken coop a few moments before with a basket full of freshly laid eggs and was walking back along the side of the house when she heard her wife call. "Be there in a minute." As soon as she cleared the corner of the house, she spotted Jennifer standing on the back porch holding the screen door open. "Why the hurry?"
"The children are hungry," Jennifer explained.
Jesse laughed. "When aren't they?" She placed a hand against the door and waited for Jennifer to re-enter the kitchen, then she carried the basket of eggs inside. The aroma of sizzling bacon and baking biscuits immediately assaulted her.
"Goodness be, Jesse," Bette Mae grumbled. She was standing next to the stove, flipping the strips of bacon with a fork. "I dun figured I'd have ta go out there and git them eggs myself."
Jesse carried the eggs across the kitchen to place the basket next to the sink.
"Mommy, I is hungry," KC declared. She was sitting at the table, fork and knive already in hand. "So is Charley."
"Goodness, we aren't that late are we?" Jesse asked glancing at Jennifer. They had slept late after spending most of the night talking about Marie.
Jennifer nodded and began cracking open the eggs over a large bowl. "Did you check on Marie?"
"Went by the cabin. Poppa was sitting outside. He said she was still asleep."
"Did you tell him we were fixing breakfast?"
"I did. But he said he had already eaten. I told him to come over but he wanted to stick close… at least, until she woke."
"Soons as I is dun here, I'll walk over and give her a look see," Bette Mae told the worried rancher. "Then I 'xpect ya'll be takin' me back ta town. I's got work ta do at the Slipper."
"I'll hitch up Boy while you check on Mom," Jesse said snatching a couple of strips of bacon from the frying pan. She walked to table and sat on the chair between KC and Charley. "That's hot," she warned the children after placing a strip of bacon on each of their plates. "Blow on it 'fore you try to eat it." She turned to Jennifer. "Do you want to ride into town?"
Jennifer was beating the bowl of eggs with a whisk. "Yes. I think I'd like that. It's been days since I saw Ruthie. I bet little Michael has grown a foot."
Bette Mae bent over to open the oven's door. "Wouldn't go tha' fer," she said removing a pan of biscuits, "but he is sproutin'." She placed the biscuits on the wooden counter beside the sink to cool. Then she returned to the stove to remove the bacon from the frying pan and place the strips on a platter. When she finished, she took the bowl of scrambled eggs from Jennifer and poured the contents into the frying pan. "Ya go sit," she told Jennifer who started to place the hot biscuits on a second platter. "Won' take me but a minute to cook these eggs."
Jennifer carried the platter of biscuits to the table then sat down on the other side of Charley's highchair. She handed the hungry boy a biscuit while Jesse and KC reached for their own.
Ned Harlow sat on his borrowed horse surveying the land around him. "It's a good spot, Nick," he told his companion, "plenty of open ground and close to water." Except for the stage road, the land around them was unoccupied unlike the land around Hellgate that was dotted with small farms and ranches.
Astride his horse, Nicholas Dowling nodded. "Not happy about having to cross the river but I suppose it does afford some protection having the river between the fort and the Indians… if they was to attack."
"They can put a couple of sentries up there," Harlow said pointing to the west and a tall knoll thrusting up high above the valley floor, "and you'd have plenty of time to warn the fort if a war party was riding toward it."
"That's Council Bluff," Ginsy informed the men. "Indians used it the same way when they'd come together in the valley."
"That happened often?" Harlow asked.
"Use to. Not so much now that white folk have moved in. They stay more to the south, less of us down there."
"Around Sweetwater, you mean?" Dowling asked.
Harlow considered the information before turning to Dowling. "Army isn't going to like us changing the location," he said. "Sherman wanted the fort on the military road."
"We can't help it if Mullen put the road on the wrong side of Clark's River," Dowling muttered. "Army sent us out here to pick the best spot. We picked it." Harlow shrugged then nodded. "Where's the closest telegraph?" Dowling asked Ginsy.
"Then I better ride there and let Sherman know what we found. You go back to Hellgate," Dowling told Harlow. "Lieutenant Gage should be arriving any day with the first wagons. Since they'll be coming along Mullen's Road, the first order of business will be to build a proper bridge across Clark's River."
"You riding back to Hellgate tonight?"
"No. I think I'll overnight in Sweetwater, see if they've had any problems. That is, if Sweetwater has a decent place to stay," Dowling said, wishing he had paid more attention to the town when the stage had stopped there.
"Ya can't go wrong staying at the Silver Slipper," Ginsy told the man. "Bette Mae will take good care of ya and she's the best cook around these parts."
"After last night's meal, I could use some decent food," Dowling muttered.
"I told ya Dave ain't much of a cook," Ginsy defended himself.
"Yeah, you told us," Dowling grumbled turning his horse around. "When those engineers arrive, send them over to look at the bridge here. It might be good enough for the stage once a day, but I doubt it would hold up to a couple dozen military wagons."
"Will do," Harlow told him then turned his horse around and nudged it into action after Dowling rode toward the rickety bridge on the stage road.
Ginsy took his time following Harlow back toward Hellgate.
Puck was kneeling beside the fire ring holding the coffee pot upside down to let the grounds fall onto the coals. Then he dipped the pot into a bucket of water, swishing the liquid around inside before pouring it out causing the coals to hiss. He set the pot in the dirt beside the ring of rocks then picked up their dirty breakfast plates and scrapped the food remains into the fire before dunking them into the bucket.
"How long you plan to be?" Cole asked irritably after emerging from the cabin with their rifles.
Puck ignored the question. He placed the tin plates beside the pot then washed out their cups and placed them on top of the plates. "I'm ready," he said standing. "I just need my carbine." He caught the weapon Cole tossed at him then walked toward the saddled horses and shoved his rifle into the scabbard on his saddle. "Don't you think it's time we took the hides we got to the trading post?" he asked his cousin.
Cole mounted his horse before answering. "Another couple of hides won't hurt."
"We've almost got more now than the horses can carry."
"Come on," Cole grunted leading his horse toward the creek. "More we shoot, less the Injuns have to eat."
Dannie guided her wagon to the side of the road. A group of five wagons and a dozen riders were approaching in the opposite direction. She pulled her team to a stop.
Unlike her own wagon which was fifteen feet long with sides over ten feet high and capable of carrying several tons of freight, four of the approaching wagons were ten feet long with three and half foot sides and a freight capacity much less. The wagon beds were covered by a sheet of canvas stretched over high arching ribs. The fifth wagon was long and round with twelve foot long wooden strips held together by metal rims. The driver sat uncomfortably on a seat attached to the top of the long barrel. Dannie had seen the type of wagon many times before and knew it was for transporting water. She wasn't surprised to see U.S. stenciled on the canvas and that the men riding alongside the wagons wore military uniforms; after all she was traveling on a military road.
"Morning," the lead rider pulled his horse to a stop beside Dannie's wagon.
Dannie looked the man over. "Morning, Lieutenant," she responded recognizing the insignia on his shoulder.
"Coming from Hellgate?"
"Fort Walla Walla?"
"Not much of a talker, are you?" the officer asked reaching for his canteen.
"Don't like answering questions less I know why they be asked," she said looking down at the man who, though he was mounted, had to look up at her perch on the high wagon.
The officer looked surprised. "You're a woman."
"Ain't tellin' me nothin' I don' already know."
"Don't see many women driving freight wagons."
"Do tell," Dannie grumbled.
"Don't get riled, I was just making an observation."
Dannie glared at the man. "Sumthin' else on yer mind?"
The lieutenant untied the cord that secured his canteen to his saddle horn. "We're headed for Hellgate, wondering how much further we have to go," he explained.
"Should have jus' asked then." Dannie shifted on the seat. "You should be there by nightfall."
The lieutenant took a long swallow of water. "Good to hear," he said wiping an errant drop off his chin with the back of his hand.
"You boys plan on spending some time in Hellgate?" Dannie asked watching the wagons move slowly past and spotting cut lumber sticking out the back of the first two.
"Army plans to build a fort there."
"Control the Indians," the soldier answered then retied his canteen to his saddle.
"Can't say it surprises me none," Dannie told the soldier. "But I think yer wasting yer time."
"General Sherman thinks different."
Dannie shrugged and tightened her hold on the reins that had hung loosely in her hands during the exchange. "I'm due in Beartown 'fore nightfall," she told the officer as the last of the soldiers rode past. She released the wagon's brake and slapped the reins on the horse's rumps. She braced herself when wagon began to move, the horses straining against their collars.
The lieutenant stepped his horse back away from the freight wagon then, with a curious look on his face, followed the rest of his outfit.
Black Wolf sat beside the campfire warming his tired bones. He looked up when the flap on the tepee near the fire was thrown back. "Good morning, my son," he greeted Walks on the Wind in their native tongue.
"Good morning, Father. The air is cold," Walk noted squatting beside the older man. He held his hands out, vigorously rubbing them together as the fire heated the chilled skin.
"Yes, but the sun rises in a clear sky. A good day to travel."
Walk looked to the west and the snowcapped peaks between them and the valleys where they would find the buffalo herds. "Another day of rest," he told his father. "Spotted Fawn is weak. My daughter's birth was not an easy one."
Black Wolf turned back to the fire. He was weary of the long journey to the buffalo herds he had made many times. "Then it is good she rests. We travel tomorrow," he informed Walks on the Wind.
Walk smiled. It was his family his father traveled with but he was content to let the old man talk as if he led the group. "Are you up for a hunt today?"
"My bow is strong," Black Wolf replied, not directly answering the question.
Walk pointed to a grass covered hill less than a mile from the camp. "I saw elk on that ridge as the sun set yesterday," he said.
Black Wolf smiled. "It is nearby," he said, glad for the possibility of a short ride to hunt for food.
Walk nodded. "I shall tell Spotted Fawn of our plans." He turned toward the tepee when a young boy stepped outside. "Come here, Red Moon."
The boy of twelve years walked to the fire. "Yes, Father."
"Your grandfather and I will hunt today. You will stay here to protect your mother and sisters." The boy looked disappointed but said nothing. Walk stood and returned to the tepee and his wife.
Black Wolf studied his upset grandson out of the corner of his eye. "It is brave of a boy your years," he said.
"To stand alone against any that might threaten our camp," Black Wolf saw the boy's shoulders straighten, "it is brave."
Red Moon smiled. "Thank you, Grandfather. I hope your hunt is successful."
Black Wolf bristled. "When have you known my bow not to shoot straight," he demanded.
Red Moon colored with embarrassment. "I meant you no disrespect, Grandfather," he said quickly. "I know your arrows will be true."
Black Wolf slowly pushed himself upright. He smiled when his grandson reached out to aid him. "You are a good grandson, Red Moon," he told the boy as he stood on painful legs. "Now, I must go prepare for the hunt."
Red Moon walked with his grandfather to the tepee and helped him through the opening. "I will gather your ponies," he told his father then ducked back out of the tepee and ran to where their horses were hobbled.
"She's stronger than yesterday," Bette Mae told the Jesse, Jennifer, and Stanley. "Let her rest long as she wants. She'll know when it's best to be gettin' outa bed. And feed her." She looked directly at Stanley. "Not none a tha' slop you call food. Make sure she gets lots of Jennifer's cookin'."
Hearing a chuckle come from the bed, Stanley frowned but nodded.
Jesse leaned over to speak to the woman in the bed. "Are you feeling better, Mom?" she asked softly.
Marie poked a hand out from under the quilts that covered her and placed it on top of her daughter's. "Yes," she said in a tired voice as she lovingly patted Jesse's hand.
Jesse smiled. She tried to say more but couldn't get any words around the lump that had suddenly formed in her throat.
Jennifer stepped beside Jesse and wrapped an arm around her waist. "I put a pot of soup on the stove to simmer," Jennifer told Marie. "And some biscuits made fresh this morning."
KC tugged on Jennifer's hand. "Momma, I sit with Gramma?"
"Me too," Charley said.
The children were standing on tiptoes beside the bed, trying to peek over the top of the mattress at their grandmother.
"Marie?" Jennifer asked.
Marie smiled. "Please," she said then pushed the blankets off her shoulders.
"Let me help," Jesse managed to force out seeing her mother's struggles to sit up. She slipped an arm around her mother's back and gently helped her sit. Then she fluffed up the pillows and placed them against the headboard so Marie could lean back against them. "Okay, you rascals," she told the children. "You can sit up here but don't be bouncing around," she added bending down to lift Charley up.
"Hush, Jesse," Marie scolded then laughed when KC scrambled up the side of the bed unassisted. "They can bounce all they want."
Jesse sat Charley beside his grandmother who was receiving hugs and kisses from his sister.
"Give Charley a chance," Jennifer told the exuberant girl.
Reluctantly, KC gave Marie a final hug then moved back so Charley could take her place. Carefully, she climbed over Marie to sit beside her. "We missed you, Gramma."
Marie wrapped an arm around each of the children and hugged them with what little strength she had as tears filled her eyes.
Billie stepped out of the stage office that occupied one end of the mercantile's main floor. He walked to the opposite end of the store where Ed was restocking a shelf with canned goods.
"Wonder where you wandered off to," Ed said.
"Looking through the mail that came in on the morning stage," Billie informed his employer. The storekeeper usually delivered the mail with any other deliveries he had for the valleys ranches.
"Two packages of material Ruth ordered for the dress shop and there's something for Mayor Perkins."
"Oh?" Ed asked. "From where?"
"Seems last time Miles started receiving strange packages, Sweetwater had no end of trouble." Ed placed the last can of beans on the shelf then turned to face Billie. "Let's hope he hasn't come up with another one of his schemes to make Sweetwater into the west's Boston."
"Doubt he could get by with that again."
Ed leaned over to pick up the empty box at his feet. "Don't sell Miles short," he said straightening back up. "His head is so empty he has to fill it with devious plans or he'd echo when he talked."
Billie laughed. "You needing me right now? Thought I'd take those packages over to Ruth."
"Go ahead. You can take that box of ink and paper over to Thaddeus while you're at it."
Billie nodded. "Give a whistle if something comes up," he said as he turned to walk back to the stage office to retrieve his wife's packages.
Ed carried the empty box out to the loading dock and added it to the stack of others he stored there until he needed them to fill orders. Pulling his kerchief from his back pocket, he settled into one of the chairs next to the checker board. Hearing a door slam shut, he looked up the street to the building that housed the sheriff, newspaper, and mayor offices.
When his office walls unexpectedly shook, Thaddeus Newby almost dropped the composing stick he was removing type from. "Damn it, Miles," he yelled, guessing at the cause of the disturbance. He glared toward the door when it opened and the mayor poked his head into the office.
"You say something, Thaddeus?"
"Is it possible for you to shut a door without shaking the whole building?" the newspaper editor growled.
Perkins stepped into the office. "Thaddeus, I'm a busy man," he blustered. "Why would you bother me with such things?" He spun around to leave the office.
"Don't-" Thaddeus held onto his desk as the office shuddered. "Slam the door," he groaned.
Leaving the newspaper office, Miles stomped across the boardwalk in front of the offices. He stepped off the wooden surface to the street and set off, kicking up puffs of dirt with each step.
"Wonder what bee he's got stuck up his shorts," Ed muttered to himself as he watched the town's mayor march toward the mercantile.
Breathing heavily, Perkins mounted the steps to the loading dock. "Did a package arrive for me?" he asked abruptly.
"Good day to you, too, Miles," Ed responded with a smirk.
"Good day, good day," Perkins said annoyed with the store owner's obvious response to his lack of manners. "Well?" he asked impatiently.
"I do believe Billie mentioned something about a package. What are you expecting, Miles?"
"Sorry, official town business," Perkins told him then he hurried into the store for the stage office.
Ed pushed up from the chair and followed the mayor inside. "Well, this ought to be interesting," Ed said chuckling. As expected, he found Miles in the stage office studying a parcel wrapped in brown paper. "What you got there, Miles?" he asked when the mayor turned the package over in his hand; it was slightly larger than a sheet of paper but much thicker.
Perkins head whipped around. "Is it your habit to watch people open their mail?" he asked brusquely.
"You said it concerned town business," Ed said casually. "Seems since I'm part of this town I have a right to know what it is."
Miles shoved the package under his arm. "When the time is right," he stated officiously then brushed past the storekeeper and out of the depot.
Ed watched the mayor storm away then turned to the clerk. "Any ideas?"
Frowning, Ed walked back into his store.
"We won't be too long, Poppa," Jesse said lifting KC over the buckboard's side. She watched her daughter scampered to the front of the bed to sit beside her waiting brother.
"We'll be fine," Stanley assured his daughter.
"Anything you need in town?"
Jesse stood in front of her father for a moment then climbed up to the wagon's seat and settled beside Jennifer. She twisted around to check on KC and Charley and saw her father was walking around the back of the buckboard. "No standing up," she reminded the children before turning back around. Gathering up the reins, she placed a booted foot on the buckboard's brake.
Stanley moved to stand beside the wagon where Bette Mae was seated on the other side of Jennifer. He studied his dirty boots for a moment then looked up at the robust woman. "I'm obliged," he told her.
Bette Mae smiled. "You pay my words sum mind." Stanley nodded. "She's a good woman." Stanley nodded again.
When her father stepped back from the buckboard, Jesse released the brake and lightly slapped the reins on Boy's broad rump.
Stanley turned and walked back to the cabin.
His stomach grumbling, Thaddeus pushed his chair back from the desk and stood and stretched his back. Pulling a watch out of his vest pocket, he used his thumbnail to press the tiny lever that released the cover protecting the glass shielded face. After noting the time, he closed the watch and returned it to his pocket. He walked to the door of the newspaper office, removed his hat from a peg next to the door then stepped outside. After shutting the door, he walked to the end of the building, hopped off the boardwalk and headed for the Silver Slipper.
The newspaper editor was climbing the steps to the Slipper's wide porch when a man rode up to the building and dismounted. "Afternoon," Thaddeus greeted the stranger from the top of the steps. "You coming from Hellgate?" Thaddeus asked as the man brushed road dust off his pants.
The man mounted the steps. "There aren't too many ways into this town, seems you can pretty much guess the answer to your question," he commented when he stood on the porch.
Thaddeus smiled. "Sorry," he apologized holding out his hand. "Professional curiosity. I run the Sweetwater Gazette… Thaddeus Newby. I'm interested in just about anything and anybody."
"Nicholas Dowling. And, yes, I rode in from Hellgate," he said accepting the offered hand and explanation. "I was told I could get a decent room here."
"Better than any you'll find in Hellgate. You have business there… or here?"
"Let me buy you a meal," Thaddeus told him enthusiastically, "and you can tell me all about it." He led Dowling into the Slipper and directly to a table in the corner of the dining room. "Ah, Sally," he said when a redhead came out of the kitchen moments later. "Two plates of the best you have and a pot of hot coffee." The waitress nodded then returned to the kitchen. "Now… about your business."
"You're not shy are you?" Dowling asked leaning back in his chair.
"I'll be honest with you, I noticed the U.S. brand on your horse," Thaddeus said then leaned close so he wouldn't be overheard by the other diners. "Rumor has it the Army plans to build a fort around here. I'm guessing," he continued sitting back upright, "your business may have something to do with that."
Sally returned with a coffee pot and two cups. She filled the cups then set the pot on their table before telling them, "I'll be right back with your plates."
The men remained silent while they waited. Thaddeus studying the quiet man seated across from him and Dowling spooning sugar into his cup and slowly stirring the contents. He nodded his thanks when Sally returned to place a plate in front of him piled high with slices of roasted beef, fried potatoes and onions, cooked carrots, all buried under a generous helping of thick gravy. She placed an identical plate in front of Thaddeus.
"Am I right?" Thaddeus asked after Sally left them alone.
Dowling took his time to answer, preferring to enjoy the food instead. Finally, he looked across the table at the newspaperman. "What if you are?" he asked.
Not expecting it, the question confused Thaddeus. "Sorry?"
Dowling looked around the room. Only a few of the tables were occupied and none of the other diners displayed much interest beyond their own companions. He looked back at Thaddeus. "Sometimes folks don't want the Army around."
"Ahh," Thaddeus nodded in understanding. "Maybe so, but I think most look at what the Army can mean."
"Soldiers… and soldiers mean payrolls and places to spend that pay. For a town like Hellgate, that's good news."
"What about Sweetwater?"
"Soldiers need feeding… lots of ranchers around here with cattle to sell."
"You said 'most'".
"Some aren't going to look favorably on the trouble the Army brings."
"Bored soldiers are trouble. If they aren't kept busy at the fort, they go looking for trouble. Hellgate might not care… Sweetwater will."
"You don't think the Indians will keep them busy?"
Thaddeus drained his cup then refilled it. "We don't have much trouble with Indians around here. More coffee?"
Jesse pulled Boy to a stop in front of the Slipper. She set the buckboard's brake and tied the reins around the metal loop screwed into the front of the driver's box for that purpose. Then she climbed down from the wagon, immediately turning to help Jennifer down.
"Thanks," Jennifer said when her feet were on firm ground. She waited, leaning on her cane while Jesse walked around to help Bette Mae. "Mommy will help you in a minute," she told the children standing impatiently in the wagon bed.
"Hurry, Mommy," KC urged. "I smells cookies."
Bette Mae chuckled. "Ain't been no cookies bakin' in there," she told KC. "Ain't nobody but me knows how ta make 'em special like ya likes 'em."
KC ran to the opposite side of the bed and hung her arms over the side. "You make me cookies… pease."
"Stop that, KC," Jennifer scolded.
Jesse lifted the little girl out of the wagon and set her on the ground. "You better go see your momma," she told her smiling when KC ducked under the wagon and disappeared. She lifted Charley free then followed Bette Mae back around the wagon to the porch. Setting her son directly onto the porch, she helped Jennifer climb the steep steps then walked around the corner of the Slipper where Ed was unloading supplies onto the porch next to the kitchen's door. "Need any help?"
Standing at the back of his delivery wagon, Ed looked up when he heard the question. "Ah, Jesse," he said smiling. "Could have used you a bit ago but I'm about done now.
"Where's Billie?" Jesse asked. Usually her friend helped the storekeeper with deliveries.
"At the shop?" Ed nodded. "I expect Jennifer will be heading over there soon."
"Brought the family with you?"
Before Jesse could answer, KC ran around the corner of the Slipper. She held out an arm to catch hold of her mother's leg and stop her forward momentum. "Hi," she greeted the storekeeper.
Expecting the girl to run right off the edge of the porch, Ed had lunged forward to break her fall. "KC, you sure can put the fear into a man," he tensely told the girl as he reached for his kerchief to wipe his sweaty brow.
"Come on inside, Ed. I'll buy you a cup of coffee," Jesse said grinning.
"Think I might be needin' something a bit stronger after that," Ed grumbled then winked at KC standing beside her mother and smiling sweetly at him. He reached out a beefy finger and gently poked her in the stomach. "Bet you'll be wanting one of Bette Mae's cookies." KC giggled and nodded. Ed shoved the kerchief back into his pant's pocket then moved to the steps a few feet away. He climbed up to the porch and joined Jesse. "How's your momma?" he asked concerned.
"She was better this morning," Jesse answered as she turned to walk with Ed back to the front of the Slipper.
"What about you?"
"I'm better now that Bette Mae has had a look at her."
Ed reached up and gave Jesse's shoulder a gentle squeeze.
Kneeling at the edge of a small meadow, Walks on the Wind lifted his rifle to his shoulder, careful not to make a sound as he cocked the weapon. Black Wolf was kneeling beside him, an arrow notched on the string of his bow pointed at an elk grazing fifty feet away from the men. Walk would let his father have the first shot at the elk but, if the arrow failed to drop the animal, he would kill it with his rifle. The elk was large and would feed his family for many days.
Walk felt a slight shift in the breeze and hoped his father had also noticed as it would change the trajectory of his arrow.
Black Wolf pulled the string of his bow as far back as he could. He took a moment to re-sight down the length of the arrow.
Walk steadied the rifle, adjusting his aim on the elk that had taken a step away from his previous spot.
Black Wolf took a breath and held it. He uncurled his fingers, releasing the bow's string.
Walk watched the arrow fly toward the elk.
At the last second, the animal seemed to sense the danger. It crouched in anticipation of leaping out of the way.
Walk squeezed the trigger.
Black Wolf started in surprise when the rifle exploded, shattering the stillness of the tranquil meadow. His head jerked around toward his son still holding the rifle, a wisp of smoke escaping from the end of its barrel. Then he turned back to see the elk crumbling to the ground, his arrow uselessly stuck in the animal's hindquarters.
The horse standing in front of the Slipper shifted when Jesse, holding KC's hand, walked back to where her wife and son waited. Bette Mae had carried her travel bag into the Slipper while Jesse talked to Ed.
"Something wrong?" Jennifer asked when Jesse's head tilted to the side as she studied the horse.
"Army brand," Jesse answered with a quick jerk of her chin toward the pony.
"Noticed that earlier," Ed concurred.
"Does that mean anything?" Jennifer asked limping toward the door Ed was holding open.
Jesse shrugged then bent down to pick up Charley.
"You must not have had a chance to read the latest issue of the Gazette," Ed told them.
"What are we missing?" Jesse asked.
"Army plans to build a fort around here."
"What for?" Jennifer asked in surprise.
"Seems they're expecting Indian trouble."
"Damn," Jesse muttered.
"What's wrong?" Jennifer asked, concerned with the tense set of her wife's jaw.
"Let's sit down first," Jesse said guiding Jennifer toward an empty table. "KC come here," she called to her daughter who had skipped across the dining room and was peeking under the swinging half-doors that led into the kitchen. She sat down settling Charley in her lap.
"Must be the Army boy over there with Thaddeus," Ed observed as he helped Jennifer into a chair next to Jesse. When the women turned to look across the dining room, he moved to the chair opposite the table from Jesse and sat down.
KC jumped out of the way just as the kitchen doors swung open and Sally walked out carrying a tray holding silverware, glasses, cups, a coffee pot, and a pitcher of milk. She skipped alongside the woman to the table and climbed into the chair beside Ed while Sally unloaded the tray onto the table.
"We don't have any cookies today," Sally told the family and Ed, "but we have an apple pie… fresh baked yesterday morning."
"That will be fine, Sally," Jennifer said with a smile. She turned to Jesse when Sally left to retrieve the pie. "You don't think they'll build a fort here, do you?"
"More likely up at Hellgate," Jesse answered pouring milk into glasses. "Closer to Mullen's Road up there."
"Jesse, I don't like this."
"Don't like it myself, darlin'. But I don't think we can do anything about it."
"What about Walk? And his family. Won't it be dangerous for them to come here if there's a fort?"
Jesse frowned, already having had the same thoughts. "He's a friend," she said.
"Won't stop them soldiers from shooting him," Ed stated.
"Mommy, Walk get shooted?" KC asked anxiously.
"No, Sunshine," Jesse assured her daughter as she wiped a milk mustache off her face. "No one is going to shoot Walk."
KC relaxed. "Good," she said.
Sally brought the pie and a stack of plates to the table. "You be wanting anything else, let me know. I best clear the rest of these tables before Bette Mae comes out and finds them still with dirty dishes," she said looking nervously toward the kitchen door.
Jennifer pulled the pie toward her. Picking up a knife, she cut the pie into pieces then served a piece to everyone. "Jesse, do you think we should send word to Walk and let him know about the fort?" she asked when she slid Jesse's plate to her.
"No need," Jesse answered lifting a forkful of pie to her mouth. She took the time to chew and swallow before continuing. "I've been expecting him to show up at the ranch." She placed a smaller bite of pie on her fork and offered it to Charley. "It's time for their buffalo hunt."
"More," Charley demanded.
"Chew up what you've got in there first," Jesse told her son then prepared another forkful for herself.
"Isn't he a little late this year?" Ed asked.
Jesse nodded and offered more pie to Charley.
"My goodness," Bette Mae exclaimed as she burst out from the kitchen. "I is gone one day and ya'd think no one had the mind ta do what needs bein' dun." She stomped over to the table, picked KC up, plopped down on the chair and placed her back down in her lap. "What ya think 'bout that pie?"
"It good," KC said shoving a forkful into her mouth.
She wrapped her arms around KC, giving her a gentle hug. "It surely better be, littl' angel. I dun baked it myself."
"You bake almost as good as Momma," KC mumbled around a mouthful of pie.
"Ya dun need be teachin' this one sum manners," Bette Mae muttered.
"Oh, she has manners," Jennifer responded. "She gets them from Jesse."
Bette Mae groaned. "Dun should have figured tha' out fer meself." KC looked up questioningly when the grownups laughed. "Don' ya never mind," Bette Mae assured the girl, "ya is a littl' angel even if'n ya ma ain't."
Thaddeus pushed his chair back from the table and stood up matching Dowling's actions. "I hope you don't mind if I ride up to Hellgate in a few days to check on your fort," he said.
"Won't be much to see."
"Always something to see for a newspaperman. And I expect you'll be getting your share of visitors when word gets around the valley."
"I expect." Dowling reached into his pocket when Sally walked up to them.
"No, no, no, Thaddeus protested. "Said I'd pay. Sally, you put this on my account and Mr. Dowling will be needing a room for the night."
"Certainly. We have a real nice one upstairs." Sally waited for Dowling to acknowledge her then turned and led him across the room.
Thaddeus walked over to the table where Jesse and the others were sitting. He grabbed a chair from a nearby table and placed it between Jennifer and Ed but slightly behind them. "How do?" he greeted with a smile.
"Ya gonna tell us or we gotta wait fer the next issue of the Gazette?" Bette Mae grumbled at the grinning man.
"Well, I should make you wait…" Thaddeus said inching his chair closer to the table and leaning forward. "His name is Dowling, Nicholas Dowling."
"And?" Ed asked.
"He was sent here by General Sherman to build a fort… going to put it up at-"
"Hellgate," Jesse, Jennifer, and Ed said at the same time.
Thaddeus leaned back, his shoulders slumping. "How'd you know?" he asked dejectedly.
"Makes most sense," Jesse explained.
"But we don't need a fort," Jennifer injected with a shake of her head. "Not even at Hellgate."
"That is a good point," Ed agreed. "Did you ask him about that?"
"I did. He said the Army is expecting trouble in the west."
"Then why not build their fort there?"
"They don't want the Indians trying to come this way when they make them go onto reservations over there. Putting the fort at Hellgate is supposed to stop that from happening."
Jesse grunted. "They know more ways across those mountains then the Army ever will. What makes Sherman think they won't just cross further south?"
"Asked that too. Army doesn't think they will… that's what he said."
"That kind of thinking has cost more than a few boys in blue to lose their hair," Ed muttered.
"I don't think I want KC and Charley to hear any more of this," Jennifer said wiping her son's face.
"Sorry, Jennifer," Ed apologized. "I forgot about the young 'uns. I should be heading back to the store."
Jennifer laid a hand on Ed's arm, stopping him from standing. "You stay and talk. I'm going to walk over to see Ruthie; KC and Charley can come with me." She stood. "Don't be too long," she told Jesse. "We should get back at the ranch before dark."
Dannie turned the team off Mullen's Road and started up the rough wagon road that would eventually take her to Garnet. She would spend the night near Beartown, a smaller mining camp at the bottom of the gulch, where she would drop off a third of her load. She was happy to do so as it would mean a lighter load for the horses to have to pull up the steep, narrow road to Garnet that twisted around an endless number of hairpin turns. It took a skilled driver to maneuver a team and wagon up the road-Dannie was one of the few who managed to do so regularly and without damage to her team, wagon, or freight.
Her early start meant she arrived in Beartown with plenty of hours left in the day. That was a good thing since the steep forested sides of the gulch allowed little of the sun's light and heat to penetrate the canyon except at midday. The canyon was cold in the middle of summer and she often wondered how the people of Beartown survived the long winters.
Dannie pulled the team to a stop in front of the general store, set the brake, and looped the reins around the handle. She was climbing down off the wagon when a boy walked out of the store onto the loading dock.
"Wasn't expecting you this early."
"Got me an early start this morning," Dannie said as she reached the ground.
"Cyrus won't be here for another hour," George said of his boss, the store's owner.
Frowning, Dannie looked up at the boy who was no more than fifteen years old. She scratched her nose. "Guess you'll have to do then," she said turning back to the wagon to untie the ropes holding the canvas that covered her load.
George looked into the back of the large wagon. "That's a lot for two of us."
"Ain't got a choice. I need to unload and get up the road a bit for night falls."
"Ya could stay at the hotel."
"Can't afford it." Dannie unchained the tailgate. "Get down from there and give me a hand," she instructed the boy as she lifted the heavy plank of wood free. She carried it to the front of the loading dock then set it on the ground, leaning it against one of the dock's supports.
George hopped off the dock.
"Them first boxes are yours," Dannie instructed. "They ain't too heavy for a scrawny boy like you," she prodded when her unwilling helper was slow to move. Returning to the back of the wagon, she easily lifted one of the boxes and carried it to the dock letting it drop with a loud thump.
George struggled to lift another box. "What's in these?" he grunted.
"Ain't my business," Dannie said lifting one end of the box off the wagon. "I just deliver 'em," she added when George managed to lift the other end. They carried the box to the dock.
"Seemed ya'd want to know," George said after setting his end of the box down.
Dannie glared at the boy. "Ya plan on gabbin' all afternoon?"
"Guess not," George muttered.
"You hear that?" Cole asked his cousin.
Puck pointed to the south. "Sounded like it came from over there."
"Let's go check it out."
"What for?" Puck asked. He was ready to return to their camp after a long day of hunting that found them shooting and skinning three more elk.
Cole turned his horse toward where the gunshot had come. "Might be Injuns."
Puck reached out and grabbed the bridle of Cole's horse. "Dammit, Cole. I'm not about to head off on another of your goose chases. Most likely it was that family of greenhorns you run across yesterday."
"Let go my horse, Puck," Cole snarled yanking on his reins. "Won't take that long to check out what's going on."
Puck released his hold. "I'm going back to camp," he told his enraged cousin. "I'm tired."
"You're useless," Cole snapped then spurred his horse.
Puck flinched when the horse snorted in protest. He watched his cousin gallop away then turned his own horse back in the direction of their camp.
Jesse swallowed the last of the milk in her glass. "I better get over and pick up Jennifer."
"Wait a minute, Jesse," Thaddeus said seeing the military man coming back downstairs. "Dowling wants to meet you."
Surprised by the comment, Jesse looked questioningly at her friend. "What for?"
Thaddeus had stood up. "I'll explain in a minute," he said then motioned Dowling over to the table.
Dowling crossed the dining room in measured steps. "Newby?" he asked approaching the table.
"I wanted you to meet Jesse Branson."
"Same Jesse Branson you were telling me about?" Dowling asked looking at Jesse dubiously.
"The very same."
"You didn't say she was a woman."
"Guess we don't think of Jesse that way."
"Gee, thanks," Jesse objected.
"Ah, Jesse," Thaddeus stammered, realizing what he had said. "That isn't what I meant."
"Best not have been," Bette Mae snapped. "Else I might have ta slap ya upside yer head meself."
Jesse looked up at Harlow standing on the opposite side of the table staring at her. "Care to explain what this is about," she said impatiently. "My wife is waiting for me."
"Your… your what?"
Jesse pushed up from the chair. Standing at full height, she was several inches taller than Dowling. "My wife," she repeated, enunciated each word clearly.
Dowling stared at Jesse then turned his gaze to Thaddeus, shifting nervously from one foot to the other.
"Seems ya left tha' out too," Bette Mae told the embarrassed newspaperman.
"Jesse is married to Jennifer," Thaddeus explained. "We all just accept it… after awhile, you just kinda forget about it being… um… different."
Dismayed by the awkward exchange, Jesse picked her Stetson up off the table. "Whatever business you think you have with me," she told Thaddeus and Dowling, "will have to wait for another day. Thanks for the pie, Bette Mae… and everything else."
"Ya take care of yer momma."
Jesse nodded. "Ed," she acknowledged the storekeeper.
"Safe ride home, Jesse."
With a last look at Dowling who was still standing slack jawed, she turned away from the table and walked to the door.
Cole rode through the trees. When he neared a clearing, he pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted. Tying the reins to a branch, he pulled his carbine out of the saddle scabbard and checked to make sure it was loaded. Then he continued on foot to where the forest ended at a meadow.
Standing in the shadows of the large pine trees, Cole was able to see the whole meadow. He estimated that there wasn't more than one hundred feet of grass before the trees closed back in. Movement at the center of the clearing caught his eye. As he watched the two men butchering an elk, his eyes narrowed and his lips curled into a sneer.
"Injuns," he hissed. "I knew them savages were around."
Dannie was back sitting on her wagon as her team pulled it away from Beartown. Unloading had taken longer than she wanted; George being of little help with the task. But she had managed to have everything stacked on the loading dock by the time the store owner arrived and signed off on the delivery.
She looked up at the sky and frowned, it was already beginning to darken. It wasn't far to the small glade she liked to use as a camping spot on her trips to and from Garnet but she knew it would be dark by the time she unhitched and settled the team. Setting up camp in the dark wasn't something she liked to do.
As the horses plodded along the rocky road, she turned her thoughts to Sweetwater and Leevie.
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