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 mid-afternoon when Jesse rode into the ranch yard and headed for the back porch of the house.
KC ran to the end of the porch to greet her mother. “Mommy, where da bear?”
Puzzled, Jesse looked down at the little girl looking eagerly back at her. “What bear?”
“Grumps say you bringin' home a bear. Where is it?”
Jesse chuckled then dismounted and looped Dusty's reins around the saddle horn before climbing the porch steps. “He said that, did he?” she asked ruffling KC's hair.
“Yep. Where is it?” KC asked again craning her neck to see if the animal was hidden behind Dusty.
“Well, lucky for me I didn't find one,” Jesse told her holding a hand out.
“Puh,” KC muttered unhappily then took hold of the offered hand.
“Why are you playing out here alone? You didn't do something with your brother, did you?”
KC giggled. “No, Mommy, Charley takin' a nap.”
“I suppose you're too old for naps.”
Jesse grinned. “Bet your Momma might disagree with that,” Jesse told her as they walked to the low table beside the bathtub where a bucket of water and bar of soap was kept for washing dirty hands and faces during the day. She let go of KC's hand to pick up the soap and began to lather up her hands.
KC watched Jesse wash the dust and dirt off her arms and face. “We goin' on picnic when Charley wakes up,” she informed her mother.
“A picnic?” Jesse mumbled scrubbing her face.
“Yep. To the river… Momma says so.”
“So your Momma thinks we should take your rascals for a picnic?” Jesse asked after rinsing her skin of the soap.
“Yep. Gramma and Grumps comin' too,” KC added when Jesse reach for the towel neatly folded at the end of the table.
“Is your grandpa inside?”
“Nope. He checkin' on Gramma.”
Jesse draped the towel over the side of the tub to dry then reached down and scooped her daughter up into her arms. “You,” she said placing her index finger on KC's nose, “better start talking good English or your Momma is going to tan my hide.”
KC giggled and batted the finger away from her face. She squirmed into a more upright position in her mother's arms. “I can talk good, Mommy.
“Then why don't you?”
KC grinned. “Grumps don't,” she said smugly.
Jesse laughed. “I guess I'll leave that battle to your Momma.”
Jesse carried KC into the house to find Jennifer packing food into a reed basket. She set KC down next to the toy box in the corner of the kitchen then joined Jennifer. “Are you sure this is a good idea, darlin'?”
Jennifer added some apples to the basket. “It's a nice day and Marie could use some time in the fresh air.”
“But walking all the way down to the river?”
Jennifer turned to face her concerned wife. “Sweetheart, it isn't that far.”
“I don't know… I think it's a might soon to be asking that of her.”
“I didn't ask, she suggested it.”
Jennifer smiled. “Yes. She said it might feel good to stretch her legs and breathe some fresh air in after lying in bed so long. And I think she's right.”
Jesse sighed. “I don't want her to get tired out.”
“Then hitch up the buckboard.”
Jesse frowned. “That's a lot of work just to go down to the river… it ain't that far.”
“Sweetheart, don't say ain't,” Jennifer scolded.
Jesse turned to glare at a giggling KC.
“If it isn't that far, then it shouldn't be a problem for Marie,” Jennifer said drawing her wife's attention back to her.
Jesse spotted a twinkle in Jennifer's eyes. “You think you've outsmarted me, don't you?” she grumbled.
Grinning, Jennifer wrapped her arms around her frustrated wife. “No, I just let you outsmart yourself,” she said placing her forehead against Jesse's and tightening her hold. “She'll be fine, sweetheart.”
Jennifer adjusted her position just enough so she could press her lips against Jesse's. “I love you,” she told her moments later. “And I love Marie… I wouldn't do this if I thought it wasn't good for her. If she gets tired, we'll come back.”
“If she gets tired, I'll come get the buckboard,” Jesse declared before reclaiming Jennifer's lips.
Named for the men that worked the hard-to-reach placer mines alongside the stretch, Chinamen's Grade was the steepest and narrowest section of the wagon road to Garnet. An almost vertical mountain slope rose on one side of the mile stretch while a precipitous drop off bordered the other side. Any driver fool enough to allow a wagon to get too close to the edge would be lucky to survive the fall should the wagon tumble over. It was impossible for two wagons to pass each other on the grade so lookouts were posted at regular intervals to stop drivers if another was already on the section of road.
Wanting to rest the team before facing Chinamen's Grade, Dannie had pulled them off the road before reaching the last hairpin turn at the start of the grade. She was kneeling next to a small creek that ran out of a side gully with her wagon parked well off the road and her horses enjoying the grass that covered the ground beside the creek. With her canteen refilled, she stood and carried it back to the wagon, hanging it over the hub of one of the large wheels. Then she lifted the lid of the box that held her food, pulled out a can of beans and a fork and carried them to a large boulder beside the creek that offered a place to sit while she ate.
Dannie had just finished opening the can with her knife when she heard the unmistakable sounds of a team straining up the road. She set the can on the rock then stood and moved closer to her team to take hold of the lead horse's bridles. “Don' go bucking on me when that group gets here,” she softly told her horses. “Goin' ta be a lot of noise and dust but they won't be knockin' inta ya,” she assured her team keeping an eye on the road.
A team of eight horses grunted into view as they rounded the turn below where Dannie stood. They were pulling a large, flatbed wagon with an odd piece of machinery perched on top. A man sat atop one of the lead horses shouting commands to the team while two men sat in the drivers' box struggling to control the horses' lines.
“Swing it wide,” one of the men on the wagon shouted to the man riding. “We won't make the turn otherwise.”
Dannie watched in fascination as the men worked together to keep team and wagon on the road. She could tell by the way the horses were straining that the wagon's load was heavy. “Ya think I ask a lot from you,” she told her horses and received a nervous whiney in response. “Be still, they'll be past soon enough.”
The wagon slowly inched uphill nearing the spot where Dannie stood.
“Road ahead clear?” the rider yelled.
“Don' know,” Dannie yelled back. The closest lookout was further up the road. “Best you stop here and make sure.”
“Can't stop.” The horses were closer now and the man didn't need to shout. “Horses can't get started again.”
“Ya don't wanna have ta back down.”
“We'll take the chance.”
When the wagon came even with Dannie, she noticed something. “Hey, you've got a wheel going bad,” she cautioned the men.
The driver on the near side of the wagon looked over the side. “Been like that for a bit now,” he said unconcerned. “We'll have it fixed in Garnet.”
“Won't make it to Garnet,” Dannie warned.
“Don't be a fool. Pull up.”
The men ignored her and kept shouting instructions to the horses.
Stunned, Dannie watched helplessly as the wagon with its wobbly wheel rolled past her and continued up the road. Releasing the bridles, she walked out into the road to watch the wagon's progress as it maneuvered around the hairpin turn and disappeared. “Damn fools,” she muttered walking back to the boulder and her can of beans.
Still lying where he had fallen, Cole's eyes blinked open. He started to sit up but stopped, collapsing back down with a groan when a burning pain shot out from his side. “What the hell?” he grunted through clinched teeth grabbing grabbed his side.
“Better not mess with that, the bleeding might start again,” Puck told his cousin.
Cole turned his eyes toward the voice. “What are you doing?” he asked when his eyes focused enough for him to discern Puck's activity.
“Loading up. We have more than enough hides for the trader in Hellgate.”
“Hellgate? I ain't in no shape to ride to Hellgate.”
Puck finished tying a pack of skinned hides to the back of one of their horses then he walked over to where Cole lay. “You best be able to,” he said standing over his cousin.
“That wound needs looking after.”
“You can do that.”
Puck laughed humorlessly. “After what you did, I have no intentions of sticking around. I'm taking the hides and heading for Hellgate. You can ride with me or stay here… alone.”
“You ain't goin' nowhere. Take those packs off the horses.” When Puck failed to obey, Cole pick up a rock and threw it at him, missing his head by mere inches. “What the hell are ya afeared of?” he shouted.
“Dammit, Cole, don't you think I know what's hanging on your belt. I'm getting out of here before it's too late. If you want to stay, stay.”
Cole reached for his belt. He smiled when his hand came into contact with the scalps he had taken that morning. “Found me some Injuns needin' skinnin',” he calmly informed his cousin.
Disgusted, Puck turned away. “That's sick,” he muttered walking back to the horses.
“Get over here and help me up,” Cole demanded. “Ain't no use me laying in the dirt when we have beds in the cabin.”
Puck spun around. “I've waited too long already, Cole,” he shouted. “I'll help you on a horse if you want. But, if you're staying, get yourself to the cabin. What's it going to be?”
Cole glared at Puck as he considered his options.
“I'm not sticking any longer,” Puck told him. “I'll leave you the horse you winded this morning,” he said turning away from his cousin.
Cole's eyes returned to the distance hills, the hair on the back of his neck standing up when he thought he heard the faint sound of a mourning wail being carried on the wind. “Wait,” he quickly yelled at Puck. “Yer right, I best go to Hellgate and get looked at.”
Grudgingly, Puck led a horse over to Cole. He helped his cousin stand then boosted him up onto the saddle. “Want me to tie you on?” he asked shoving Cole's booted foot into the stirrup.
“I can ride,” Cole snarled. “Let's go.”
Puck returned to the other horses and mounted. He checked the leads to the others that were wrapped around his saddle horn. Then with a gentle nudge he led them away from the camp.
Cole took a last look toward the hills where earlier he had left five bodies to rot in the hot sun before following Puck.
In the shade of a large cottonwood tree, Jennifer sat on a blanket spread out on the soft ground. Marie sat beside her with her back resting against the tree's rough trunk. Jesse had removed her boots and rolled up her pant legs to stand in the shallow pool she had created by stacking rocks in a semi-circle next to the shore. The rocks protected the pool and the children from the rushing water that swept down the river's main channel. KC and Charley, both stripped naked, were playing in the pool happily splashing their mother. Stanley sat on a boulder a safe distance away.
Jennifer laughed when Jesse feigned disgust with the children's splashing which only encouraged them to do more. “Sometimes I think I have three children,” Jennifer commented pulling the reed basket closer. “Are you hungry?” she asked Marie.
“Good. Because I think I brought enough to feed us for a week.” She started removing carefully wrapped food items from the basket.
“That's lovely,” Marie commented on the basket. “I don't think I've ever seen another like it.”
“It is, isn't it,” Jennifer replied smiling. The basket was rectangular in shape with a flat bottom and a handle arching from side to side at its center. Woven from light colored reeds, it bore little decoration with only a band of dark stained reeds near the top of its sides. “Spotted Fawn made it for me. She's going to show me how to make one when they come to the ranch this year.”
The women turned to look at Stanley when they heard him grunt disapprovingly.
“Are you hungry, Stanley?” Jennifer asked, ignoring her father-in-law's unspoken objection. “I have sandwiches, apples, carrots, boiled eggs, biscuits, cookies…”
“Sandwich be just fine,” Stanley said pushing off the boulder to retrieve his sandwich.
“Jesse, why don't you come eat,” Jennifer called to her wife and laughed when Jesse scooped the children up, one under each arm, and carried them onshore. “Goodness, me,” Jennifer exclaimed when two very wet children were set down on her lap.
“Give your Momma a great big hug,” Jesse instructed KC and Charley who immediately complied.
“Jesse Branson, you get them off of me,” Jennifer screamed while the children squealed excitedly.
“Don't worry, Momma,” KC told Jennifer, “the sun dry you off quick.”
Laughing, Jesse sat on the blanket and snatched a pair of cookies out of the basket. “Who wants a cookie?” she asked in a voice loud enough to be heard over the children's laughter and her wife's howls.
“Me,” KC and Charley screamed together.
“Then leave your poor Momma alone and come get them.”
KC and Charley released one mother and ran for the other.
Jesse wrapped her arms around the children pulling them into her lap. “Here, you go,” she said handing them the cookies. “Now, eat them quick fer ya Momma takes them away and makes ya eat carrots.”
Jennifer removed one of the vegetables from the basket and hurled it at Jesse.
With her arms full of squirming children, the rancher could do little but sit and wait for the carrot to bounce off her head. “That hurt,” she pouted.
“Serves you right.”
Watching KC and Charley play in the pool, Jesse sat on the river shore with her legs stretched out in front of her, her feet covered by the pool's water. She looked up when she sensed someone standing behind her.
Jennifer smiled down at Jesse. “Mind some company?” she asked.
Jesse smiled back. “Nope,” she said patting the sand beside her. She waited for Jennifer to sit then draped her arm around her waist. “Your picnic was a good idea.”
“We should do this more often.”
Jesse nodded in agreement.
“You've been pretty quiet since you ate— something wrong?”
“Maybe he rode past without stopping.”
Jesse sighed. “Maybe.”
“But you don't think so.” Jennifer's comment was not a question.
“Then he must just be late this year,” Jennifer said reaching for Jesse's hand. “I'm sure he'll show up any day now,” she added confidently.
“I hope so,” Jesse said absently, her eyes moving to focus on the mountain peaks in the east.
“Sweetheart, you're not thinking of going to find him… are you?”
Jesse turned to face Jennifer, worry written clearly on her wife's face. “He's family,” she said quietly.
“Family?!” Stanley snapped. He was standing beside the boulder where Marie was now perched and had heard the exchange between his daughter and daughter-in-law.
“Stanley,” Marie placed a hand on her husband's arm. “It's not your business.”
“Not my business! I'll not have my daughter riding after no Injun.”
Jesse jumped up. “She's right, Poppa. It's not your business.”
Hearing the angry voices, KC and Charley made their way to the shore and the comforting arms of Jennifer.
“Ya should be thinkin' of them young ‘uns not that Injun,” Stanley shouted back.
“You gave up any right to tell me what to do a long time ago,” Jesse snarled.
“Jesse?” Marie had slipped off the boulder and approached her upset daughter. “Would you walk me back? I'm feeling tired.”
Jesse looked at her mother then gazed over her at her father. “I—”
“Please,” Marie insisted.
Jesse's eyes returned to her mother. “All right.” She turned to Jennifer. Seeing the frightened looks on her family's faces, she dropped to her knees.
KC remained in the safety of Jennifer's arms but Charley walked hesitantly toward Jesse. “Mommy, you mad?” he asked stopping a few steps from her.
“Not at you,” Jesse told the boy opening her arms. She hugged him tight when he ran to her.
“Go give Mommy a hug,” Jennifer whispered to KC.
KC kissed Jennifer on the cheek then ran to Jesse. “You scared us, Mommy,” she said when Jesse held her tight.
“I'm sorry,” Jesse told the children then looked at Jennifer. “I didn't mean to,” she added.
Jennifer smiled. “I know. Take Marie home. We'll come in a bit… when the children are done playing.”
Jesse nodded relaxing her arms. “Don't keep your Momma too long,” she told KC.
After assuring herself that Jennifer and the children were okay, Jesse left with her mother to walk back to the ranch.
“Come inside,” Marie told Jesse when they reached the cabin she shared with her husband.
“I should go back for Jennifer and the children.”
“Please, come inside. Your father will see to them.” Jesse followed her mother into the cabin. “It's chilly in here,” Marie said. “The fire must have burned out.”
Jesse walked to the stove and opened the door. Using the poker, she stirred up the coals then added a few pieces of wood.
“Your father has strong feelings.”
Jesse looked over her shoulder to see her mother was sitting at the table. “He's wrong,” she said bitterly adding more wood to the fire.
“Not this time, Jesse,” Marie continued in a calm voice. “This time he has good reason, his sister was killed by Indians.”
Surprised by the comment, Jesse shut the oven door and spun to face her mother. “What are you saying?”
“Come sit,” Marie told Jesse. When her daughter complied, she started the story she never thought she would need to tell. “Before you were born, your father's sister married a man with a strong faith. After they married, they went to live at a place even further west than here… a place called Whitman's Mission. They went with good intentions to help people… both white and Indian. She wrote such wonderful letters to us telling of the Indian people they met and all the wonderful things they were doing for them… teaching them how to plant crops and dig ditches to bring water to those crops. And teaching them their faith.
“One day your father told me we were going to join his sister and her husband. He said there would be plenty of land to lay claim to and lots of white folk to help us start a better life than what we had back in Missouri—that's where your father and I come from. You didn't know that, did you?” Jesse shook her head. “No, we never told you.” Marie paused for a moment then continued her story. “We sold everything we owned, which wasn't all that much, and we headed west. We made it as far as Fort Laramie when word came that the Indians had attacked the mission. Your father's sister and husband were killed with several others. He's had a hate for Indians since that day. They took what was left of his family, he couldn't...”
“He had you,” Jesse said quietly reaching across the table to envelope her mother's hands in her own.
“It's not the same as blood… least not to him.”
“How can he think that?”
“I learned long ago not to question his thoughts,” Marie said dolefully.
“What did you do? How'd you end up in Bozeman?”
“We couldn't keep going. He said was no reason; and the soldiers at the fort told us it wasn't safe. Not with the Indians killing white folks. Someone said there was land to be had in Montana so we left Fort Laramie and headed north.”
“Why didn't you ever tell me? Why didn't Poppa?”
Marie sighed then smiled lovingly at her daughter. “I wouldn't allow it. He's a strong man with strong feelings, Jesse. I knew he would be hard on you… you being a girl. I didn't want him passing his hate onto you.”
To Be Continued...
Return to the Academy