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
Jesse walked away from the chicken coop holding a basket of freshly laid eggs in her hand. Her footsteps took her close to her parent's cabin and she paused, her head tilted slightly as she considered an early morning visit to the cabin. After a moment, she continued toward the house where she knew Jennifer would be waiting for the eggs.
The rancher stopped then turned around to see her mother standing beside the cabin. “Morning, Mother.”
“Are you all right?”
Jesse took a few hesitant steps closer. “I'm fine. Are you coming to the house? Jennifer has cornbread in the oven.”
Marie closed the distance between them and placed a hand on Jesse's arm. “I'm worried about you… and your father.” Chewing on her lip, Jesse dropped her eyes to her boots. “He isn't a bad man, Jesse.”
“I know that,” Jesse protested raising her eyes to meet her mother's. “But he—”
“Jesse, he has a lot of pain inside him. I know it's hard… especially with you worried about your friend. But please don't let this come between you. He so loves you.”
Jesse stiffened. “If he did, he'd stop—”
“Jesse, he's talking of leaving.”
“Wha…? Leaving?” Jesse stammered. “You can't leave,” she told her mother. “Not now.” She looked to the cabin. “Why?” she asked softly.
“I think you should be asking him that. I'll take these to Jennifer,” Marie said taking the basket of eggs from Jesse's hand. “He's in the barn,” she added when Jesse started toward the cabin.
Walking toward the barn, Jesse saw that the horses had been moved from their stalls to the corral. She walked inside the barn then paused for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. A lantern hanging on a post provided a circle of dim light where she heard sounds of someone working. She headed for the horse stalls at the back of the large structure. “Poppa?”
Stanley stepped out of one of the stalls to deposit his shovelful of horse droppings into a wheelbarrow. Without a word, he returned into the stall to continue his chore.
Jesse walked to the stall, arriving just as her father reappeared. “Poppa,” she said as he emptied his shovel into the wheelbarrow. “What are you thinking?”
“Muckin' out horse turds don't take much thinkin',” Stanley commented banging the shovel on the edge of the wheelbarrow.
“Why are you talking of leaving?”
Stanley moved back into the stall. “Don't want ta be someplace I ain't wanted.”
Jesse followed her father. “What are you talking about?” she asked grabbing the shovel to prevent him from digging through the straw on the stall's floor. “You know I want you here.”
Stanley released his hold on the shovel then turned to face his daughter. “You don't seem to want my views on them savages you claim to be yer friends.”
“Oh, Poppa,” Jesse murmured. “They are my friends. Why can't you understand?”
“That's what my sister thought. She spoke highly of them that took to her husband's teachings. But that didn't stop them from puttin' an arrow through her heart,” he angrily told Jesse. “Same as they'd do with you, if'n it suited them.”
Jesse sighed. “Poppa, please, you can't think that about Walk. Why can't you understand that he's not the same as the Indians that killed your sister? He's a good man with a wife he loves as much as I love Jennifer. And a family. A son and soon another child— Spotted Fawn was with child last time they visited. And his father, he lives with Walk. Can't you see how much he is like us?”
“He's a savage… born and raised to kill.”
Jesse spun around, carrying the shovel out of the stall she heaved it across the barn where it slammed into the post, almost dislodging the lantern. “Damn it,” she screamed spinning back around to face her father. “Walk is not like that.”
“Do you think we should go in there?” Jennifer asked Marie. They were standing on the front porch of the house listening to the rising voices coming out of the barn.
“They sound pretty angry,” Jennifer said fearfully.
“They'll work it out,” Marie assured her. “We better go finish cooking breakfast. They'll be hungry when they get tired of yelling at each other.”
“How can you be so calm?” Jennifer asked when Marie moved across the porch to the door.
Thankful her own conflicted emotions weren't apparent; Marie opened the door then turned to Jennifer and motioned her into the house. “One thing I know about my daughter is she loves her father,” she said following Jennifer inside, “even if he makes that hard at times. And I know that Stanley, my dear hard-headed husband, loves that girl. And he loves living here,” she said as they walked through the sitting room.
“So you think they'll be okay?” Jennifer asked entering the kitchen.
“They'll survive.” Marie chuckled. “Again.”
Stanley stepped out of the stall and past the wheelbarrow intending to retrieve the shovel. “I'll finish up the stalls. Then I'd be obliged if ya let me borrow the buckboard.”
“No!” Fisted hands on her hips, Jesse planted herself in her father's path.
Stanley brought his steps to an abrupt stop to glare at his daughter. “What did you say?”
“No. You let your hard-headed beliefs almost destroy us before and I am not going to let you do it again.”
“Get out of my way.”
“Damn it, Poppa, I'm not a child.”
“You listen to me, girl—”
“No! You listen to me , Poppa. I love you, damn it. For the life of me, I sometimes wonder why, but I do. Poppa, I want you here… with me and Jennifer and the children. And I'll be damned if I'm going to let you throw me out of your life again. Not now. Not after everything we've gone through to be together. No, you and mother mean too much to me… to all of us. You can't use the buckboard. Not today. Not ever. Not if it means you leaving.”
“Are you telling me what to do?” Stanley bellowed.
“Yes, Poppa, I am,” Jesse bellowed right back at him.
Stanley's eyes narrowed. “Jesse Branson, step out of my way!”
Jesse's face softened but she stood her ground. “Poppa, please. Don't go. Please.”
Stanley took half a step back.
“Stay,” she pleaded.
“Don't seem I have much choice.”
Jesse quickly moved close to Stanley. “I love you, Poppa,” she said wrapping her arms around him and squeezing hard.
“I ain't changing my way of thinkin'.”
“I didn't expect you would.” Without releasing her grip on her father, Jesse leaned back so she could look into his eyes. “Just stop saying it in front of me. And Jennifer. And KC and Charley— Walk is their friend, too.”
After a moment, Stanley nodded. “And I still think you're a fool for worrying ‘bout an Injun.”
“I know but I'm going to continue worrying until I hear from him.”
Stanley studied his daughter. “You is a damn hard-headed…” Stanley muttered.
Jesse grinned. “Guess I get that from you, huh?”
“No, you do not,” Stanley bristled. “That there is a trait of your mother's. Speaking of her, you think them women got breakfast cooked by now?” he asked.
Jesse smiled. “I'm sure they do,” she told him as she let her arms relax. “Let's go see.”
Stanley started for the barn door then stopped. “Um, Jesse,” he said nervously. “Don't you be goin' and tellin' yer momma what I said.”
“You mean about her being the hard-headed one?” Jesse asked grinning. Before he could answer, she spun around to run across the barn and out the door.
“Jesse Branson, you ain't so big I won't put you across my knee,” Stanley shouted hurrying after his daughter.
Ned Harlow pushed the dirty plate in front of him to the side of the table then picked up his coffee cup. “I'm riding up to the timber stand with Lieutenant Gage this morning,” he said after swallowing a mouthful of the strong liquid. “We're taking half the men with us to set up camp there and start downing trees. You want to join us?”
Nick Dowling shook his head. “No. I want to look over the plans for the bridge.”
“Think I missed something?”
“Doesn't hurt to have another set of eyes take a look. You plan to go to the fort site?”
Harlow finished his coffee. “Gage and I are riding there afterward. I need to finish staking out the buildings. I doubt we'll be back into town until late.”
Dowling nodded. “Hopefully, the men can finish digging out the approach sites today. You set them pretty far back from the river.”
“After hearing how high the water gets in the spring, I figured it would be safer.”
“It's going to make for a long span.”
“Would you rather we re-route the rest of the wagons through Sweetwater? If we send word to Fort Fetterman, we might catch Captain Gilford before he heads for Bozeman.”
Dowling frowned. “No, the Army had Mullen build the road this side of the river. We'll have to work with that. Besides, I don't fancy a ride back to Sweetwater to send a telegram.
Harlow scooted his chair back from the table then stood up. “It's time I met Lieutenant Gates and Ginsy.”
Dowling nodded and watched Harlow leave before refocusing on the plate of food before him.
Cole pulled his hand away from the bloody bandage wound around his mid-section. “I'm bleeding again,” he cried out.
Puck glanced over his shoulder at his cousin. “You've never stopped bleeding,” he grunted. “You want to stop?”
Cole turned in his saddle to study the road behind them. They had left their campsite just after dawn and had picked up the rutted path marking the Sweetwater-Hellgate road an hour later. “What fer?”
“We could wait for the stage… you could ride it into Hellgate.”
Cole straightened in his saddle. “Damn, Puck, that makes no sense. I'd be shook to death fer we crossed the bridge at the flats.
“Just a suggestion,” Puck grunted turning back to the road.
Jennifer placed a platter of scrambled eggs and strips of bacon on the table where KC and Charley sat eyeing the food hungrily. “Marie, would you mind putting some of these on their plates? If I don't get that cornbread out of the oven right now, it won't be fit to eat.”
“I do it, Momma,” KC immediately offered squirming about to stand on her chair so she could reach the platter.
“You let Grandma help,” Jennifer insisted. “Last time you did it by yourself I was finding bits of egg in Charley's hair for days.”
KC giggled. “That was funny.”
“I don't think Charley thought so.”
Charley shook his head. “Nope.”
Marie placed a spoonful of eggs on each child's plate then added a pair of bacon strips.
“More,” Charley said.
“Eat that first,” Marie told her grandson.
“He need more, Gramma,” KC told her. “He wants to be big and strong like me,” she added settling back onto her chair.
“I'm sure he'll grow big and strong,” Marie said with a smile. “But he needs to eat what he has first. And you need to eat what you have, too.”
Jennifer pulled the pan of cornbread out of the oven and set it on the counter. The sound of the screen door opening caused her to turn toward the sound.
“Somethin' sure smells good in here,” Jesse said walking casually across the kitchen to where Jennifer stood looking at her anxiously.
“Jesse? Is everything all right?”
Jesse wrapped her arms around Jennifer and kissed her. “Everything is fine,” she said with a smile after their lips parted.
“Where's Stanley?” Marie asked.
Jesse laughed when the sound of rapid boot strikes came through the screen door. “Sounds like he's on the porch,” she told her mother.
Stanley burst through the screen door. He looked at Jesse then at Marie. “What did she tell you?” he demanded of his wife.
“Stanley, what is wrong with you? She just now walked through that door. What could she possibly have told me?”
Stanley's head slowly turned toward a grinning Jesse.
“Hungry, Poppa?” Jesse asked. “I sure am. And the smell of this cornbread is making me even hungrier.” She picked up the pan and carried it to the table. Then she returned to Jennifer. “Is there anything else?”
“Then shall we join our children,” Jesse asked offering her arm to her bewildered wife. “Sit, Poppa. You, too, Mother,” she said as she assisted her wife to the table. “We don't want this getting cold.”
Jennifer had begun to sit then abruptly rose again. “Oh, Jesse, the coffee.”
Jesse gently yet firmly pushed Jennifer down onto the chair. “Sit, darlin', I'll get it.”
Marie glanced at Jennifer who wore a similar puzzled look. Then she turned to her husband. “What was it you thought Jesse had told us?”
“Coffee, Poppa,” Jesse quickly asked leaning across the table to fill her father's cup.
“Thank you, daughter.” As soon as the cup had been filled, Stanley lifted it to his lips and took a generous gulp to avoid answering Marie's question. His eyes almost popped out of his head as he fought to swallow the steaming coffee without spitting it out.
“What is going on with you two?” Jennifer asked Jesse sitting beside her.
“Nothing,” Jesse answered innocently.
“I take it you settled your differences,” Marie said.
“Yep,” Jesse responded spooning eggs onto Jennifer's plate. “All settled.”
“We're not leaving?” Marie asked Stanley.
“No,” Stanley wheezed, his throat burning. “We're staying.”
“Where you going, Grumps?” KC asked. “Me go?”
“Me go?” Charley repeated.
“Your grandfather isn't going anywhere,” Jesse said jubilantly. “And neither are you two rascals.”
Dannie backed the last pair of horses into the waiting harness. The sun was a few hours up in the morning sky but she wasn't concerned with the late start. She had pushed her team well after dark the night before, refusing to stop until after they had put Beartown behind them. She wasn't worried about straining her team as the wagon wasn't heavy, the furniture it carried barely taking up a third of the space in the wagon's deep bed and the road being fairly flat after getting off the grade from Garnet. She had decided to be out of the canyon and back beside the Clark Fork River before she made camp.
Her horses harnessed, Dannie climbed up into the driver's box and, with a slap of the reins on the horse's broad rumps, she was on her way to Hellgate and her final delivery before heading home to Sweetwater.
“Sure hope the crossin' in Hellgate is passable,” Dannie told her uninterested team. “Hate ta hav' ta backtrack to the crossing this side of the pass.” She squinted up at the sun. “By my reckonin', we should be in Hellgate by suppertime. If'n we can cross the river, we should be home by morning,” she mumbled. “I'll probably have ta wake Leevie up but,” she smiled, “I don' think she'll complain much.”
“Are you going to tell me what happened?” Jennifer asked after Stanley left to walk Marie back to their cabin, KC and Charley trailing behind them.
Jesse carefully stacked dirty dishes on the serving platter then carried them to the sink to be washed. “We talked.”
“Sweetheart, you were pretty loud.”
“You heard us?” Jesse asked lowering the platter of dishes into the hot, soapy water.
Jennifer nodded. “I wanted to come after you but Marie said to let you work it out. Did you?”
Jesse turned around the leaned back against the sink. “He was going to leave.”
“I know. Marie told me.”
“He said he didn't want to be where he wasn't wanted. How could he think that?” Jesse asked sadly.
Jennifer wrapped her arms around her despondent wife and hugged her. “Sweetheart, he was confused. And you not talking to him these past few days hasn't helped.”
“Just cuz I didn't talk didn't mean I don't want him here.”
“I know. But, sometimes, it helps if you tell people how you feel. So, what did happen? Does he understand how you feel?”
Jesse shook her head. “I don't think he ever will. But he agreed to stop talking about Walk and his people in a bad way.”
“You mean he agreed to stop talking about him… in any way.”
Jesse shrugged. “Yeah.”
“And you agreed to start talking to him again?” Jesse nodded. “Good. Now what was it that he doesn't want you to tell Marie?”
Jesse grinned. “He said I got my hard-head from her.”
Jennifer giggled. “Oh, my, no wonder he looked so concerned.”
Puck led the horses to the corral at the back of the stage depot. He swung his leg over the back of his horse then dropped to the ground groaning when his tired legs were jarred by the impact. He looped the reins over the top rail of the corral then turned and walked back to Cole's horse. His cousin was leaning heavily to his injured side and it took all of Puck's strength to help the bigger man out of his saddle.
Cole groaned when Puck circled his waist with his arm. “Where ya takin' me?”
“Ain't gonna be no doc in there.”
“You want to try and cross that damn swing bridge?” When he received only a glare for a response, Puck continued to guide Cole toward the depot's door. “Don't know what you're griping for, probably ain't no doc in town. Never has been before.”
“Dammit, Puck, what we doin' here then?”
“Ain't no doc in Sweetwater either. Hell, I doubt there's a doc this side of Deer Lodge,” Puck said as he pushed the door inward. “But coming here was better than staying in those hills.”
The depot was a single room with stone walls. The large stones had been pulled from the nearby riverbed, their sharp edges tumbled smooth by the force of the water. A large fireplace had been molded into one of the end walls with a chimney rising above it and through the roof. The door sat in the center of the front wall and a matching door was in the center of the rear wall. Glassless and covered by wood shutters, openings for windows were on either sides of the doors. A single table sat in the corner of the room with chairs set around it. Another pair of chairs were positioned in front of the fireplace.
A man was sweeping dirt off the floor and out of the room through the rear door. “Stage ain't due for another hour,” he said without looking away from his chore.
Puck eased Cole down onto the closest chair. “We're not looking for the stage. My cousin needs some tending.”
The man turned, his eyes taking in the pair of men on the opposite side of the room. “Tending?” he asked leaning the broom against the wall.
“I need a doctor,” Cole growled.
“Ain't got one in Hellgate.”
“Anyone who can do some stitching will do,” Puck told the stationmaster who was moving closer.
“What's the trouble?”
“Damn Injun stuck me with an arrow,” Cole snapped.
“Other side of the mountains… west of the pass.”
“That's Indian land.”
“Injuns don't have the right to no land,” Cole grumbled.
“Is there anyone in town?” Puck asked again.
“He looks bad. Doubt anyone would want to try.”
“Dammit, stop beatin' yer jaws and find me a doc.”
“Might be one of the Army boys could fix him up.”
“Army?” Puck asked.
“Arrived last week. Plan to build a fort on the flats.”
Cole groaned. “We just rode past there, didn't see no Army boys.”
“That's because they're across the river. Gonna build us a new bridge before they start on their fort.”
“Where across the river?” Puck asked.
“You can't miss ‘em. They've got their tents spread out behind Ginsy's shack.”
“Can he stay here?”
“Long as you don't expect me to tend to him.”
“We've got a string of horses tied up to your corral. Can you keep an eye on them?”
“How many you got?”
“I can put ‘em in the corral, if you want. Be six bits for the day, food and water.”
“We ain't gonna pay ya ta—”
“Be obliged,” Puck cut Cole off. “I'll settle with you soon as I come back.” When the station master nodded, he walked back out through the door and headed for the rickety swing bridge.
To Be Continued...
Return to the Academy