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
Thaddeus Newby looked up when the door to the newspaper office opened. “Mr. Dowling,” he greeted his visitor.
“Newby, you've wasted my day,” Dowling responded gruffly as he strode across the office to stand in front of the newspaper editor's desk.
Leaning back in his chair, Thaddeus gazed up at the unhappy man. “And just how did I accomplish that?”
“Sent me out to talk to that Branson woman.”
“Oh,” Thaddeus muttered uneasily then chewed on his lower lip.
“She turned me down.”
“You don't seem too surprised.”
“I'm not. And I do owe you an apology. Had I thought through why the Army might need a scout familiar with those mountains, I never would have suggested Jesse.”
“There must be some men in this valley familiar with the Indian trails.”
Thaddeus stood then carried his empty cup to the wood stove where a pot of coffee was being kept warm. “Not too many who've traveled them that I know of—except for Jesse, that is.”
“You telling me a woman traveled over them alone?”
“She wasn't alone,” Thaddeus said filling his cup. “Jesse spent time with some of the buffalo hunting parties. Made friends with the Indians and rode with them to their camps east of the mountains. That's why she knows the trails.” He held the coffee pot up. “You want some?”
Dowling shook his head. “I don't need coffee. I need a scout.”
Thaddeus set the pot back on the stove then returned to his desk. “You could ride out to some of the other ranches… might find someone who trapped in those hills before turning to watching over cows.”
“I need to get back to Hellgate. How often does your paper print?”
“Once a week.”
“Pen and paper?”
Thaddeus pushed the requested items across his desk.
Dowling bent over to write something on the page then straightened back up and handed the paper back to Thaddeus. “Print this in your next issue.” He watched the newspaper editor read what he had written. “How much?”
Thaddeus quickly counted up the number of words. “Four bits.”
Dowling reached into his pocket, pulled the required amount of coins out and dropped them on the desk. “You can tell anyone interested to look for me in Hellgate,” he said then abruptly spun around and marched back across the office and out the door.
“And a good day to you, too, sir,” Thaddeus muttered after his office door slammed shut. He placed the piece of paper into a basket holding the various stories he planned to set into type for the next edition of the Gazette then returned to the story he had been editing before Dowling's visit.
With a firm grip on the reins, Dannie urged her team of horses up the steep Chinaman's Grade.
After providing a solution for moving the mining equipment into Garnet, Dannie had returned to her team and hitched them to her wagon. Then she had eaten a can of cold beans while waiting for the signal that the road had been cleared. Sitting on the boulder beside the creek, she could hear the angry voices of the men trying to hitch a team to the heavy equipment and the whinnies of the horses protesting what was being asked of them. It was mid-afternoon when the she heard shouts of jubilation and repeated cracks of a bull whip that she correctly guessed meant the men had finally been successful. She climbed up the side of her wagon and settled on the hard seat. As soon as she heard the stage driver's shouts to begin his team up the grade, Dannie released the wagon's brake and moved her team onto the road.
The steep grade flattened into a more manageable slope as the horses pulled the freight wagon past the first few scattered cabins that marked the beginning of Garnet. Dannie noticed new cabins occupied the gaps between the old ones, a good sign for the freight driver. She guided the team to the foot of the hill at the northwest end of the town and around the sharp left turn that led them directly onto the town's main street. Several minutes later, she pulled the team to a stop in front of mercantile located near the center of town. A wide boardwalk fronted the wooden structure and a false front rose high above it, making it appear much larger than its single story.
Dannie skillfully maneuvered her team of horses to back the wagon right up to the edge of the boardwalk. Then she set the wagon's brake and climbed down from the hard seat. As she took time to stretch out her tired muscles, she glanced further up the street where the offices of the mining company were located. She frowned spotting the mining equipment that had delayed her arrival sitting in front of the offices.
“Figured you'd be here as soon as the road got cleared.”
Dannie turned to see the storekeeper standing on the boardwalk above her. “Could've had the damn road cleared right off if'n they hadn't spent so much time yellin' at each other.”
“So I've heard. Good thing Mr. Jack showed up to tell them what to do.”
Dannie frowned. “Yeah,” she muttered stepping up onto the boardwalk, “good thing.” She knew it would be a waste of her time to correct the man.
“Want to come inside? Lot cooler than standing out here.”
“I'll be unloading now,” Dannie told the storekeeper as she removed the chains that secured the tailgate to the back of the wagon. “I plan ta be off this mountain soon as I can.”
“What's your hurry?”
Grunting with the effort, Dannie lifted the tailgate free. “Already lost a day,” she explained leaning the heavy plank of wood against the front of the store. “Don't plan on losing any more. You gonna stand there or help?”
“I'll get my boy.”
Dannie didn't wait for the storekeeper to return with his son before she started to pull boxes out of her wagon and stack them in front of the mercantile.
With his legs stretched out in front of him and his back slumped against the trunk of a Ponderosa pine tree, Cole sat on the ground sucking the last of the water out of his canteen. He looked to where Puck was removing the packs of hides from the horses. “Better ya left ‘em be,” he said. “It'll save time in the morning.”
Puck turned to glare at his cousin. “Dammit, Cole, I only agreed to stop cuz you said you couldn't go no further. I ain't leaving the packs on all night; the horses are tired enough.” Turning away from Cole, he took hold of a bundle of hides and pulled it free. Pausing to peer over the horse toward the mountains they had ridden out of less than an hour before, Puck frowned then added the bundle to the others neatly stacked on the ground near the Cole's resting spot. “We could still make Hellgate by nightfall,” he suggested.
Cole laughed. “Wha's the matter, cousin? You thinkin' them Injuns might follow us into the valley?”
Walking back to the horses, Puck's eyes scanned the terrain between their camp and the nearby forest. “If the horses didn't need resting…” he said, his voice trailing off as he chose not to finish his thought.
Cole squirmed into a more comfortable position, hissing when his injured body protested. “Forget about the horses, I could have bled to death if we tried to make Hellgate tonight.”
Lifting the last bundle free, Puck glanced over at his cousin. “Yeah, you could have,” he muttered then turned back to his task. “'Course, you could bleed to death sitting there.”
Cole's eyes narrowed and his lips curled up into a snarl. “That what you want?” he snapped.
Puck didn't answer. Instead, he picked up a blanket and used it to dry the horses' sweaty coats.
“I need more water,” Cole said tossing the empty canteen toward Puck, the movement pulling at his injury. “Dammit,” he moaned, wincing in pain.
Ignoring his cousin's distress, Puck led the horses to the creek that flowed past their campsite. He tied them to a picket line he had strung from the tree Cole was resting under to an identical tree on the opposite side of the creek. Then he walked back to pick up the discarded canteen and carried it to the creek. Kneeling beside the cold water rushing over a bed of stones tumbled smooth, Puck looked around. Except for the pair of trees at the campsite, the ground was covered in scrub bushes and clumps of grasses growing no higher than his knees. Standing, he had an unobstructed view of the forested slopes to the west and further into the valley to the east where he could just make out the structures of the nearest ranch several miles in the distance. “Hope those cowpokes have good hearing,” he muttered carrying the refilled canteen back to Cole.
“If we are attacked, hopefully they'll hear the shooting and come help out.”
“You make a big enough fire, they'll send someone over to check it out. We can have a couple of ‘em stay here tonight.”
“Doubt they'd give up their bunks to sleep on the ground for the likes of you.”
“Watch yer mouth!”
Glowering at Cole, Puck dropped the canteen in the dirt beside his cousin. “I'll go get something we can burn.”
“What about food?”
Puck moved to where their saddles and saddle bags had been placed. He bent over to retrieve one of the bags. “What we have is in there,” he said tossing the saddle bag at Cole.
“Ain't much,” Cole complained rummaging through the bag's contents.
“I suppose I could ride over to that ranch and see if they'd be willing to share some.”
Cole nervously looked across the clearing to where the valley floor gave way to the mountains' lower slopes. He could see where the trail disappeared into the trees and wondered if there was anyone hiding behind those same trees peering back at him. “Ya can't leave me here that long,” he said anxiously.
“Yeah, I could,” Puck said firmly turning his back to his cousin. “But you're kin,” he mumbled walking away to search for firewood.
Standing in the center of the unfinished root cellar, Jesse swiped her shirt sleeve across her sweaty brow. The walls had been framed, supports for the roof were in place, and the door had been installed at the bottom of the steps. “Guess we've done all we can until we get the last load of lumber,” she told her father.
Stanley bent over the water bucket and pulled the dipper out. He straightened, lifted the dipper to his lips and drank the lukewarm water. “Too bad it ain't here yet,” he said handing the empty dipper to his daughter.
“Thanks,” Jesse said with a smile then she bent over and refilled the dipper from the bucket. “I was hoping Ed would have sent it out by now,” she told him after taking a drink. “But I'm guessing that he's waiting for Dannie to get back from Garnet.” She dropped the dipper back into the bucket.
“We could hitch up the buckboard and go into town?” Stanley offered.
Jesse had already had the same idea. But she shook her head. “I don't want to leave the ranch right now. We can wait for it… probably won't be but another day or two.”
Stanley picked up the tool box. “Seems a waste of time to sit here waitin' fer some Indian,” he grumbled.
“He's a friend,” Jesse snapped.
Stanley peered at his daughter, his lips pressed together in annoyance. “I'll put this in the barn,” he finally said turning toward the steps. “Time I checked on Marie.”
“Jennifer expects you for supper.”
Without responding, Stanley climbed the steps. “Not tonight,” he said heading for the barn, his progress immediately interrupted by his granddaughter.
KC ran around the corner of the ranch house. “Watch out, Grumps,” she called out changing her course so she wouldn't plow into her grandfather. “Charley chasin' me,” she squealed rushing toward the unfinished structure Stanley had just left. Without pausing, she scooted through an opening in one of the open walls and jumped down to the cellar floor. Skidding to a stop, she breathlessly greeted her mother. “Hi.”
Charley rounded the corner of the house, missing Stanley by less than a foot as he ran toward the root cellar. His steps weren't as sure, nor as fast as his sister, but he was just as determined… at least until he reached the wall above the dug out hole.
“Come on, Charley, you can do it,” KC encouraged her brother who stood timidly on the other side of the unfinished wall.
Charley placed his hands on the wood frame then pensively poked his head through and nervously looked into the deep pit. “Too far,” he told his sister who had negotiated the jump with little difficulty.
“Mommy, you help Charley,” KC told Jesse grabbing her pant leg.
Jesse allowed her daughter to tug her closer to where her brother waited. Holding out a strong hand, she asked her son, “Will this help?”
Smiling, Charley grabbed his mother's hand then eased through the opening and jumped. He giggled when he was swung through the air to land on his feet beside his sister. “T'anks,” he said tilting his head back to smile up at Jesse. “I did it.”
“You sure did,” Jesse agreed.
With her brother safely in the cellar, KC took off running. “Come on, Charley, let's go find Grumps,” she called out bouncing up the steps leading out of the cellar. She waited for her brother to follow then, at a full run, led him back across the yard.
Grinning, Jesse watched the children run toward the barn. “Charley is gonna have to grow longer legs to keep up with KC,” she said with a laugh. She grew pensive when Stanley turned around in response to his grandchildren's calls. She picked up the bucket, climbed out of the cellar and carried it to the garden where she poured the water into the shallow ditch that was used for watering the vegetables planted in carefully tended rows. Then she flipped the bucket upside down, set it on the ground and sat down, her eyes gazing westward.
Jennifer walked out of the kitchen onto the back porch. Using her cane to aid her injured leg, she limped to the end of the porch and down the steps then walked toward the garden and her wife.
Jesse looked up when she felt the gentle touch of Jennifer's hand on her shoulder. “Hi.”
Jennifer smiled. “Hi. Finished with the cellar?”
Jesse shifted to wrap an arm around Jennifer's thighs and hugged her. “As much as we can until Ed sends out the wood I ordered.”
“Where are the children?”
“Did you talk to him?”
Jesse pulled Jennifer down onto her lap. “I tried… but…”
Jennifer pulled the Stetson off her wife's head and placed it on her own head, then she brushed the matted hair off Jesse's forehead. “Couldn't find the right words?”
“I don't know what to say to him. He sees Walk just as another Indian to hate.”
“He has his reasons, sweetie.”
“But Walk didn't kill his sister. His reasons don't make any sense.”
“They do to him.”
Jesse frowned. “Ed doesn't hate gamblers.”
“His sister was killed by a gambler.”
“His sister was killed by her worthless husband. And I doubt many would have considered him much of a gambler since he lost more than he won.”
“I'm just saying—”
“I know what you're saying. But do you really want this to come between you and your father?” When Jesse refused to respond, Jennifer added. “Sweetheart, you've worked so hard to bring Stanley back into your life. Is this really your choice?”
“He's making the choices,” Jesse grumbled.
Jennifer wrapped her arms around her contrary wife's shoulders. “Sweetheart, I know you're upset but—”
“I'm not upset—”
“Yes, you are,” Jennifer corrected tightening her hold. “But you love Stanley and he loves you; you have to work this out between you.”
“I tried,” Jesse sulked, refusing to meet Jennifer's eyes.
“All right, you tried and it didn't work. You can try again at supper.”
“Poppa said they won't come tonight,” Jesse whispered.
“They'll come.” Jennifer laughed when Jesse looked up quizzically. “Have you ever known your father to be able to say no to KC and Charley?”
“You didn't send them over to ask?”
“Not yet. But as soon as you get done with your bath, I will.”
“Jennifer Branson, that's sneaky.”
Jennifer grinned. “Yes, it is. Now,” she said standing up, “come on stinky, you really do need a bath.”
Jesse stood and retrieved her hat. “I don't suppose I could get you to join me,” she asked seductively.
Jennifer spun around to face her smirking wife. “Jesse Branson, you are a scandalous woman!”
“Is that a yes or a no?”
After finishing unloading her wagon at the mercantile, Dannie repositioned the wagon so the horses could take advantage of a small creek that ran off the hill and alongside the road at the east end of town. The sides of the creek were covered in grass and would provide the hungry horses with a nice meal. With the horses settled, she retrieved the package of dresses from the storage box under the driver's seat, tucked the package under her arm and set off for the hotel at the other end of town. It didn't take but a few minutes to cover the short distance and she paused to stomp the dirt and mud off her boots before climbing the steps in front of the hotel. Walking through the glass paneled double doors, she was confronted by a small entry that immediately divided into a narrow hallway leading to the restaurant at the rear of the hotel and a series of steep steps rising up to the second floor where the guest rooms were located. To her left was a small parlor decorated in what looked to be new settees and chairs covered in a thick red velvet-like material. Dannie turned to her right and walked into the hotel's office.
“Have a package fer a Mrs. Struther,” she told the clerk separating envelopes and packages from the mail sack that had arrived on the stage—the hotel's office also served as the town's post office. “Was told I could find her here.”
The clerk, a middle age man, looked up from his task and squinted through his horn rimmed glasses. “Mrs. Struther doesn't like to be bothered by deliveries,” he said, his tone more condescending than conversational. “You can leave it with me and I'll see she receives it properly.”
Dannie shrugged. “Makes no difference ta me who be givin' it ta her,” she said dropping the package on top of the man's neat piles of sorted envelopes. “Ya'll need to sign fer it,” she told the clerk pulling a folded piece of paper from her shirt pocket. “Jus in case this here proper lady makes claim ya didn't deliver it like ya says ya will,” she added with a smirk.
The clerk grunted at the insult then pulled a pen out of the ink well on his desk. Before signing, he carefully read the neat print on the paper. “You're from Sweetwater?” Dannie nodded. “Ah, good,” the clerk said signing the receipt. “I have a load I need taken to Hellgate.” He handed the paper back to her.
“Ain't goin' ta Hellgate,” Dannie told him. She refolded the paper and tucked it back into her pocket. Then she turned and walked out of the office.
The clerk rose from his chair and followed Dannie outside. “Just a minute,” he said to stop her from walking away from the hotel. “Wasn't that your wagon being unloaded in front of the mercantile? Dannie stopped and nodded. “Are you telling me you'd rather drive it back empty?”
Dannie considered the question—she wanted to leave Garnet as soon as possible but could she afford to pass on the money a return load would offer. “What ya got?”
“Furniture,” the clerk answered then motioned for Dannie to follow him around the corner of the hotel. “I sold my old to the hotel in Hellgate. I had made arrangements for it but the wagon I hired was the same that brought Mr. Jack's equipment up the hill. It'll be another week before I can arrange for another.”
Dannie examined the jumble of chairs, tables, and bed frames piled at the side of the hotel. None of the pieces appeared to be in very good condition but she figured that was none of her business. “Plenty of wagons in town,” Dannie said looking up and down the street where half a dozen freight wagons were being loaded or unloaded.
“True. But they're heading onto Coloma or back to Deer Lodge. You seem to be the only one heading to Hellgate.”
“Ya got anyone to help get it loaded?”
“I'll find some boys over at Davey's saloon.”
“Hellgate will add half a day on my trip and I'm already late gettin' back to Sweetwater.”
“I will make it worth your time.”
Dannie looked up into the sky to judge the location of the sun. “I aim ta be past Beartown by nightfall.”
“Pull your wagon up here. I'll find some boys to help you load.”
“Payment ‘fore I leave town.” The clerk nodded. “All right,” Dannie agreed. “Go find sum boys,” she said already walking back to her wagon.
Puck picked up a piece of deadfall and pulled it against his knee breaking it in half. He tossed the pieces on the fire he had started moments before. “Good thing we're heading for Hellgate,” he told Cole, “used the last of our matches to start this.”
“You hear somethin'?” Cole was staring intently into the darkness that surrounded their camp.
“Sounds like somebody's moving out there.”
Puck stopped feeding wood onto the fire to listen. “Probably just deer coming out of the trees,” he said breaking another large piece of wood in two.
Cole reached for the rifle leaning against the tree he was resting against. “Maybe.”
“Don't start shooting at shadows,” Puck warned.
“You afeared I might hit you,” Cole snarled.
“Matter of fact, yes.”
Cole startled when an owl hooted in the distance. “Shoulda gone on to Hellgate,” he said tensely straining to see into the night.
Puck stood up. “Isn't that what I said?” he asked walking to their saddlebags. He removed his bedroll then carried it back and rolled it out next to fire.
“Don't get too comfy… we're leavin' for Hellgate ‘fore dawn.”
“I figured,” Puck muttered lying down on his bedroll. He rolled over to place his back toward the fire then closed his eyes leaving his nervous cousin to keep watch through the night.
To Be Continued...
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