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
Dannie woke to the sound of horses' hoofs striking hard packed dirt. Frowning, she rolled onto her back and sat up. Her first thought was to check on her team. Her trip into Garnet had been delayed because of the slow wagon that had preceded her up Chinamen's Grade. Not wanting to attempt the steep grade in the dark, she had decided to camp overnight beside the road and continue in the morning. She was relieved to see her horses standing peacefully where she had picketed them. Hearing a shout, she turned to look down the road.
The morning stage rounded the turn, its team of horses straining against their collars as they pulled the coach uphill. Idly, Dannie watched their progress, nodding to the driver when the stage moved past her camp site. She continued to listen as the horses disappeared around the hairpin turn and was surprised when she heard the driver bring his team to a stop.
Dannie threw off her blankets. Retrieving her boots, she pulled them on before standing and taking a few moments to stretch the kinks out of her back. Then she headed up the road, following the sounds of men shouting.
“What do you mean I can't go on?” the stage driver was yelling at the sentry who had stopped him.
“Wagon broke down last night. You can't go ‘til they get it fixed and moved out of the way.”
“I have a schedule.”
“You can't get by so stop yelling at me.”
Dannie walked alongside the stage. “What happened?” she asked the sentry when she reached him standing in the middle of the road in front of the team of horses.
“Broke a wheel.”
“Damn fool,” Dannie muttered. “I tol' him he needed ta stop and fix it. Can't they bring a new wheel down from Garnet?”
“They did. But his load is too heavy. They can't get the axle raised up enough to put it on.”
“Then push the damn thing over the side,” the stage driver shouted. “You can't keep the road closed. I've got two wagons coming up behind me.”
Dannie glared at the driver. “Quit yer shoutin'. He can't do nothin' ‘bout this.” She turned back to the sentry. “Ya best start downhill and stop them wagons somewhere safe.”
“What about me?” the stage driver asked. “I can't hold my team on this grade forever.”
“Back ‘m back ‘round ta where my team is,” Dannie told the agitated man. “There's plenty of room fer both.”
“I can't back them around that turn.”
“Ya could if'n ya was worth yer stones,” Dannie shouted back. “Let me block yer wheels, then ya can unhitch ‘em.”
“Want my help?” the sentry asked.
“Yer best git ta them other wagons.”
The sentry nodded then started downhill at a trot.
Dannie walked to the side of the road. She had no trouble finding rocks big enough to brace against the stage's wheels. After carrying the first rock back to the stage and placing it behind a rear wheel, she moved to the coach's door. “Ya best git out,” she told the passengers as she opened the door. “Ya just addin' weight them horses don' need ta be holdin'.”
Two men climbed down from the stage then turned to help two women down.
“Will we be delayed long?” one of the women asked.
“Don' know,” Dannie answered then returned to her task of gathering rocks. One of the men followed her. “Much obliged,” she acknowledged when he lifted a good size rock and carried it back to the stage.
After the wheels were braced to Dannie's satisfaction, she walked to the front of the stage. “Git down off there and unhitch ‘fore them horses bolt. There's plenty of grass and water back by my wagon.”
“What you planning to do?” the stage driver asked, disappointed that Dannie wasn't going to unhitch his team for him.
“Gonna walk up there and see what's goin' on. I got to be back in Sweetwater tomorrow. If'n the road can't be cleared, best I jus' turn around now,” Dannie said starting up Chinamen's Gulch and away from the stage.
“I need to stop,” Cole called out, he was bent over his saddle clutching his side.
Puck pulled his horse to a stop. At his insistence, they had ridden through the night stopping only when the horses needed resting. “We need to get out of these mountains,” he told his cousin when Cole rode up to him.
“You made this mess, Cole. We keep going until we get into the valley.”
“Dammit, Puck. Ain't no one following us.”
“You don't know that.”
“If they was back there, they would have caught us by now. Help me off this horse.”
Puck looked back, his eyes nervously scanning the route they had just traveled. He looked at Cole. “You're bleeding again.”
“Don't you think I know that?” Cole growled.
“Okay, we'll take a break soon as we find some water… but only cuz the horses need it,” Puck said then nudged his horse forward.
Cole groaned when his horse followed, his side screaming in pain from the jarring motion. “Puck! We stop now.”
Puck ignored Cole's screams and continued down the trail.
“Morning, sweetheart,” Jennifer snuggled closer to her wife.
Wrapping her arms around her wife, Jesse tightened her hold. “Mornin', darlin',” she replied placing a kiss on Jennifer's brow. “We seem to be making a habit of sleeping late,” she added looking out the window to see a clear blue sky. After putting the children to bed, they had stayed up discussing the events at the river and Marie's revelations.
“I'm surprised KC and Charley are still in bed.”
Jennifer raised her head just enough to look into Jesse's eyes. “They're not?”
“Nope.” Jesse nodded toward the open bedroom door.
Jennifer sat up then laughed when she spotted the children sitting in the hallway. Both sat in their nightshirts cross-legged with elbows resting on knees and chins cupped in their hands. They looked hopefully back at her. “I suppose you're hungry.”
“Yep,” KC answered for both of them.
“How long have you been sitting there?”
“Long time,” Charley said earnestly.
“A really long time,” KC agreed.
Jesse bit her lip to keep from laughing.
Smacking her giggling wife, Jennifer told the children, “Why don't you go get dressed and Mommy and I will get dressed.”
“You dress quick,” KC said jumping to her feet.
“Quick,” Charley repeated as he climbed to his feet. “We hungry, Momma,” he called back to his parents as he ran down the hall after his sister.
Jesse burst out laughing when Jennifer collapsed back onto the bed. “I never knew young ‘uns could be so hungry.”
“Do you think they'll ever get enough to eat?” Jennifer asked with a groan.
“Doesn't seem like it.”
Jennifer rolled onto her side. She smiled at her laughing wife. “Then I guess it's a good thing their mommy owns a cattle ranch.”
Jesse wrapped her arms around Jennifer then pulled her on top of her. “It's your fault, you know.”
“Yep,” Jesse said with a grin. “If you wasn't such a good cook, they wouldn't want to eat so much.”
“Jesse Branson, I swear, if you don't stop talking like some uneducated bumpkin, I'm going to—”
“Momma! Why you not dressed?”
Startled by KC's shrill scream, Jennifer's head dropped against Jesse's chest.
“Ow,” Jesse grunted when Jennifer's head landed on her breastbone with an audible thud.
Jennifer raised her head to kiss her wife's chest. “Sorry.” She tried to roll off of Jesse but was held in place.
“KC,” Jesse addressed her impatient daughter. “You go back to your room and stay there until we come get you,” she told her in an overly serious tone. “And you tell Charley to stay put, too.”
KC sighed loudly. “Yes, Mommy,” she said then turned and ran back down the hall.
“We better get up,” Jennifer said. “They won't stay put for long.”
“They better,” Jesse growled. “At least long enough for me to kiss my girl.” She slipped her hand behind Jennifer's head and gently pulled her down until their lips met.
Lieutenant Gage pushed open the flap of his tent and stepped out into the bright sunlight. He wasn't surprised to see little activity from the other tents and he saw no reason to rouse the men who had had to set up camp in the dark after arriving in Hellgate just before sunset. He secured the flap on his tent, tying it down so it wouldn't flail in the morning breeze then he walked to the cabin Harlow's cabin.
Harlow was stepping out of the cabin when Gage appeared around the corner of it. “Ah, good morning, Lieutenant. I was just coming to see if you were interested in getting breakfast.”
“I'm interested in anything that isn't trail rations,” Gage answered. “And you can show me around Hellgate, we didn't get to see much of town last night.”
“There isn't much to see,” Harlow said pointing down the street. “Hotel is down there, food is nothing to write home about. Stage depot is across the river,” he said pointing out the structure as he headed for the hotel.
Gage followed checking out the odd spattering of buildings as he walked. “Not much of a town.”
“And the location for the fort?”
“Across the river. Which brings me to your first order of business.”
“A bridge. Only one now is a rope bridge that's hardly safe for a man to cross.”
Harlow stopped and pointed across the river to the southwest. “All the trees you'll need for the bridge and the fort are in that canyon. I already laid claim to it for the Army.”
“Are you telling me we'll have to cut and split trees?”
Harlow resumed his steps toward the hotel. “For now.”
“Until we get a sawmill built. I've already sent word back to Fort Benton to send us the workings of one.”
Gage frowned. “If I'd known that, I would have doubled the number of men I brought.”
“Didn't know myself until I arrived here.”
“Thought Hellgate was a bigger town.”
“So did I. We'll ride out to the fort site after breakfast.”
“I'd rather check out those trees you laid claim to,” Gage told Harlow. “I may need to move the men there so they can start cutting down what we'll need.”
Frank Wilson stood on the boardwalk in front of his office. “Morning, Ed,” he greeted the storekeeper walking in the street.
“Heading for the Slipper?”
Wilson stepped off the boardwalk, falling into step with Ed. “Army fellow is sure an early riser,” he commented spotting Dowling leading his horse out of the stables.
Ed turned his head toward where Wilson was looking. “Maybe he's heading back to Hellgate.”
“Doubt it,” Thaddeus Newby interjected hurrying to catch up with the men. He'd heard their voices while working inside his newspaper office and had decided to join them.
“You know something about his business, Thaddeus?” Ed asked.
“He asked me last night how to find Jesse's ranch.”
“What's he want with Jesse?” Wilson asked.
“He needs a scout… one that knows the mountains. I told him Jesse was the best.” Newby shrugged uncertainly when both men's heads swiveled around to stare at him in amazement. “I… ah… I didn't know why he wanted a scout until after I told him about Jesse,” he explained nervously.
Wilson shook his head at the embarrassed man. “You'll be lucky if Jesse don't come into town and shoot you,” he told Thaddeus.
“If she doesn't, Jennifer will,” Ed noted.
Jennifer was standing at the bedroom door leaning on her cane. “Sweetheart?”
“Hmm?” Jesse looked up from the chair where she was seated.
“Are you…? Um, do you plan…?”
Jesse finished pulling on her boots then stood. “I'm going to work on the root cellar,” she told Jennifer who visibly relaxed at the news. Jesse walked across the room to stand in front of her wife. “I'm worried about Walk,” she said. “But there's no sense me going off to look for him, he could be anywhere between here and his village. Best thing is for me to stay here and take care of the ranch. If he doesn't show soon, I'll see about sending word to the buffalo camps.”
Jennifer placed a hand on Jesse's arm. “I know you're worried,” she said. “It's just that—”
Jesse smiled. “I need to put you and the young ‘uns first,” she said. “I know. And it's what Walk would want, too.” She took Jennifer's hand and lifted it to her lips. “Come on, let's go get the rascals and get them fed.”
They walked down the hallway to find KC and Charley waiting just inside their bedroom doorway. Both were dressed although the buttons on Charley's shirt had been placed in the wrong button holes. Jesse knelt down to correct the situation. “Okay, little man,” she said lifting the boy into her arms as she stood. “Should we go help Momma make us breakfast?”
Charley grinned. “Yep,” he declared nodding.
KC raced out of the bedroom for the stairway. Hopping down the steps, she led her family downstairs. “I go get eggs,” she announced when she reached the bottom of the stairway.
“Hang on there, Sunshine,” Jesse told her daughter. “You best wait for me.”
“Mommy, I can do it,” KC stated.
“You still best wait for me. You know how the chickens get when you charge into their coop.”
KC pouted but waited for her mothers to descend the steps.
“Will you stop at the cabin and ask Stanley and Marie to come eat with us?” Jennifer asked, hoping to start mending the damage done the night before to the relationship between Jesse and her father.
Jesse reached the bottom of the steps and set Charley down on the floor. “Go play at your toy box,” she told him and sent him on his way with a loving smack on his bottom. Then she followed Jennifer into the kitchen. “I don't think—”
Jennifer spun around to face her, sometimes, very stubborn wife. “Jesse, we can't all live on this ranch and not talk to one another.”
“I know that,” Jesse muttered.
“And you need his help with the cellar.”
“I know that, too.”
“Then you'll ask?”
Jesse sighed. “I'll ask.”
Jennifer leaned forward to kiss Jesse on the cheek. “I love you.”
“Mush, mush, mush,” KC grumbled.
Jesse reached down, grabbed a fistful of KC's shirt and lifted her up. Tucking the girl under her arm, she told her, “Someday, you'll be kissing a young man and I'm going to stand right next to you saying mush, mush, mush .” She snatched her Stetson off its peg and carried her giggling daughter out the screen door to the back porch.
“Mommy,” KC protested, “I no kiss boys... that's icky.”
Dannie heard angry screaming before she could see the men standing around the broken down wagon. “Damn fools,” she muttered walking up to the steep grade.
The wagon was leaning at an awkward angle on the down slope side of the road. The horses had been unhitched and led further up the road to a safe location.
“We have to get that off of it so we can put the wheel on,” one of the men was telling the wagon's driver.
“If we do, we'll never get it back on.”
“We can't lift the wagon with it up there.”
“There has to be a way,” another man said.
“Dammit,” the driver screamed in frustration. “You've been saying that all night. Shaddup if you can't say anything else.”
Dannie walked up to the wagon and stood at its side studying the piece of equipment it carried. It appeared to be a rather odd looking axle with attached wheels. But the huge iron wheels were less than two feet apart and the axle stuck out a good three feet on either side of the wheels. Twelve iron spokes radiated out from the wheels' hubs, and each spoke, from hub to rim, was six feet long. At one end of the axle was a gear four feet across with hundreds of teeth notched around its outside edge. Several similar yet much smaller gears were attached to the other end of the axle—some parallel to the large wheels, some perpendicular to them. The axle between the wheels was also notched with teeth.
“What is it?” Dannie asked, wondering what the purpose of the strange looking object might be.
“What the hell ya think it is?” the driver snarled.
Dannie shrugged. “Can't say I ever seen ‘nother one,” she answered calmly. “But I spent sum time in Granite… minds me of sum of the ‘quipment they used at the mine.”
“We ain't got time to be wastin' on a woman's foolish questions,” one of the men grumbled.
“Don' know why ya is havin' such a bad time fixin' this here problem,” Dannie continued unconcerned with the hostility being directed at her.
“You think you can get this wheel on?”
“Don' know why ya'd want to.”
“You want us to drag the wagon to Garnet without a wheel?”
“You ain't making much sense.”
“Dannie smiled. “Damn fools,” she told the men. “Ya dun been screamin' at one ‘nother and none of ya has took the time to see wha's right in front of yer noses.”
“Do you have an idea for fixing this?” a much calmer voice came from behind Dannie.
Dannie turned to see the passenger from the stage had followed her up the road. She smiled at him. “Thanks for the help back there.”
“I figured it was better than just standing there watching you do all the work.”
“Did the horses get settled?”
He nodded. “We picketed them with yours.”
“Hey, Jack,” one of the men interrupted. “Didn't know you was here.”
“I was on the stage,” Jack answered. “Do you have an idea?” he again asked Dannie.
Dannie slowly walked around the wagon to look at the load from all angles. “Yep,” she finally said when she returned to where Jack was standing. “I believe I do tho I don' think they will be wantin' to hear it.”
“I'd be interested in hearing it,” Jack told her.
“Don' know why ya jus' don' roll it up to Garnet.”
Except for Jack, all the men began yelling and screaming indignantly at Dannie. After a few minutes, she shrugged then headed back down Chinamen's Grade. “Best be headin' back to Sweetwater,” she mumbled.
“Wait a minute,” Jack called after Dannie.
“Best you head back to the stage and tell the driver to turn around and go back to Beartown. Ain't nothin' goin' ta be movin' on this road fer a long time,” she continued without slowing her downhill pace.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Jack yelled running after Dannie, grabbing her arm when he caught up to her. “Please,” he said when she spun around knocking his hand away. “I need that equipment in Garnet. If you know a way to get the road clear…”
“Them boys could figure it out if they wasn' so busy yelling at one ‘nother,” Dannie replied.
“Maybe so but it might take them another day or two.”
“It'll be shoved over the side ‘fore then.”
“Then I'm doubly glad you have an idea.”
“Wha's ya interest in that ‘quipment.”
“I can't run my mine without it,” Jack told her.
“Wha's it do?”
“Let's me drop equipment down the shaft and pull ore up out of it.”
“How deep does ya shaft go?”
“Can't understand how anyone can be ‘neath the ground tha' way. Gives me shivers jus' thinkin' ‘bout it.”
Jack laughed. “To tell you the truth, I can't stand it myself. Will you help?”
Dannie glanced back up the grade where the men were still standing and grumbling. “Don' want them fools screamin' at me,” she told Jack.
“You have my word.”
“All right, ya helped me… guess I can help ya.”
Dannie and Jack walked back to the wagon.
“First man to raise his voice will find himself over the side,” Jack warned before any of the waiting men could speak. “Okay, Dannie, what needs to be done?”
“That there thing isn't much more than a pair of wheels and an axle. Seems ta me all ya need to do is hitch yer team to it and pull it up to Garnet. Ya shouldn' need no wagon to git it there.”
Jack grinned as the men stood looking at one another dumbfounded. “I'm surprised none of you gentlemen thought about that,” he told them. “Like Dannie said, it seems to be a rather obvious solution.
“How are we supposed to hitch a team to that?” one of the men finally asked.
Jack turned to Dannie.
“That's fer ya to figure out.”
“Damn,” someone muttered.
“Go get that team,” another ordered and two men broke away from the group to run up the grade to where the horses waited.
Shaking her head in disgust, Dannie turned around and again started down hill. “Damn fools,” she muttered as she walked. “Spent all night screamin' at one ‘nother ‘stead of clearin' the road. Damn fools.”
Amused, Jack watched Dannie walk around then turned back to figure out how to hitch the horses to the equipment.
Puck helped Cole down from his horse and over to a log where he could sit. He pulled Cole's hand away from the wound. “I probably should re-bandage that,” he said.
“Leave it be,” Cole grunted pressing his hand back against his side. “We got any food?”
Puck straightened up. “Not much,” he said walking back to the horses.
“Go find a rabbit or something.”
“Horses need resting.”
“You don't need a horse to hunt a rabbit.”
Puck dug into one of the saddlebags. “Eat this,” he said tossing a piece of smoked venison to his cousin.
Instinctively, Cole reached out to catch the venison then instantly regretted the movement and doubled over in pain, the meat falling to the dirt at his feet. “Dammit, Puck,” he hissed.
Ignoring his cousin, Puck led the horses to the small creek they had found. The horses dropped their heads to drink the cool water and graze on the grasses growing alongside the creek.
Keeping hold of the reins, Puck jumped across the creek to sit on the opposite bank. While the horses refueled, he chewed on a chuck of venison and, occasionally, glanced over at Cole.
Dowling rode under the arch at the top of the hillock that bordered the north end of the ranch yard. He looked over the buildings as his horse trotted down the knoll's gentle slope.
KC, playing in the yard with her brother, was the first to spot the rider and ran to the front porch where Jennifer and Marie were sitting in the shade. “Momma, look,” she called pointing toward the hillock.
Jennifer pushed up from her chair and limped to the front of the porch to get a better look at the rider. “Go get your mommy,” she told KC. “Charley come here,” she called to her son.
“Who is it?” Marie asked.
“I can't tell.”
Jesse was pounding nails into the frame that would be covered in thick planks to form one of the root cellar's walls when KC ran around the corner of the house. “Mommy, rider coming. Momma says come.”
Jesse dropped her hammer. “Come on, Poppa.” She hurried for the back porch, hopping up onto the wood surface without bothering to walk to the steps at the end of it. She entered the kitchen and headed straight to the cabinet where her rifle and pistol were kept high above the reach of small hands. She grabbed the rifle and quickly loaded it then she headed through the house to the front porch.
Jennifer turned when she heard the screen door open behind her. “I can't make out who it is,” she told Jesse.
Jesse quickly crossed the porch. “It's the Army man,” she told Jennifer after recognizing the man who Thaddeus had introduced her to in the Slipper days earlier. “Take the children inside,” she said.
Marie stood and ushered KC and Charley inside while Stanley climbed the porch steps holding his own rifle.
Jennifer joined Jesse as she waited.
Dowling rode across the yard, stopping in front of the steps. He looked at Jesse then at Stanley; then at the rifles they both held. He carefully folded his hands on top of his saddle horn. “I just want to talk,” he informed them.
“Most people wanting to talk to me do so in town,” Jesse responded.
“Tried that once.”
“You chose a bad time,” Jesse reminded him.
“My apologies. I'm hoping this is a better time.”
“Mrs.” Jesse corrected sternly.
Dowling swallowed hard. “Mrs. Branson, I'm on official Army business. I won't take up any more of your time than is necessary.”
“You already have.”
“Jesse,” Stanley interrupted, “you better hear him out or he'll never go away.”
“He's right, sweetheart.”
“State your business then,” Jesse grudgingly agreed.
Dowling started to dismount.
“Ain't no need for that,” Jesse stopped him.
Dowling settled back down on his saddle. “I believe you know I have been sent here by the Army,” he paused. When Jesse nodded, he continued. “I am under orders from General Sherman to procure a scout with knowledge of the mountains and the Indian trails through them. I was told you are that person.”
Stunned by the statement, Jennifer gripped Jesse's arm.
“You were told wrong,” Jesse said placing her hand atop Jennifer's.
“I don't believe I was.”
“Think what you want, I'm not your scout.”
“Mrs. Branson, let me make this clear to you… the Army plans to control the savages in this area. To do so, they will follow them into the mountains, if need be. Your knowledge of their trails and their habits make you the perfect scout.”
“Let me make something very clear to you,” Jesse said struggling to hold her anger in check. “I do not intend, nor will I ever, lead Army troops against people I consider to be my friends. I suggest you go back to Sherman and tell him his orders mean nothing to me.”
“What about you, sir?” Dowling addressed Stanley. “Perhaps you would be willing to serve your country.”
Stanley shook his head. “Sorry, soldier boy, don't know them mountains. Now, if you was talking about the Bridgers, or Gallatins, I could do you some good.”
“It's time you left my land,” Jesse told Dowling.
Dowling studied the determined woman. Without a word, he turned his horse and rode away from the house.
Stanley started down the steps.
“Thank you, Poppa.”
“Told him the truth,” Stanley answered without stopping. “Don't know them mountains. If'n I did…” He didn't finish as he headed for the cabin to return his rifle to its resting place.
Jesse sighed watching her father walk across the yard.
“Come on, sweetheart,” Jennifer tugged Jesse toward the door. “The children must be worried.”
“Time to go,” Puck told Cole after an hour had passed. “I'll leave you here,” he threatened when his cousin was slow to respond.
“You do that,” Cole barked back.
Puck checked the cinch on his saddle. Then he walked to Cole's horse and did the same before walking to the log where Cole still sat. He leaned down, hooked an arm under Cole's and forced him to stand. “Come on,” he said guiding Cole to his horse.”
“Give me a minute to catch my breath, will ya?” Cole asked. He reached for the saddle horn with his good arm then hung onto it hoping his pain would ease. “How much further you plan to go today?”
“We'll find a place to camp as soon as we get out of this canyon. Come on, get your foot up in the stirrup.”
“It hurts too much,” Cole complained without making any attempt to mount his horse.
“Dammit, Cole.” Puck bent over then entwined the fingers on his hands to provide Cole with a boost. When his cousin still didn't move, he grabbed his pant leg and hoisted his foot off the ground. Placing his hand under Cole's boot, he let go of his pants and grabbed the boot with both hands. Then with a loud grunt, Puck hoisted Cole onto the horse.
Cole had to grab the saddle horn with both hands to keep from falling off before he managed to balance himself and shove his boots into the stirrups. “Ya could've dropped me on my head,” he snarled.
Puck mounted his horse and nudged him forward. “Maybe I should have,” he muttered leading the string of pack horses away from the creek. He didn't bother to look back to see if Cole was following.
To Be Continued...
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