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The next morning after sleeping in, Jesse walked Jennifer to the schoolhouse. It was later than Jennifer normally liked to arrive at school and the children were already arriving.
“Darlin’,” Jesse started to say what had been on her mind since her conversation with Billie the day before.
“Morning, Mrs. Branson,” a trio of girls ran past the couple on their way to the schoolhouse.
“Yes, sweetheart,” Jennifer said after the children ran by.
“Morning, Mrs. Branson,” a boy ran by.
“I was thinking,” Jesse continued.
“Morning, Mrs. Branson. Did you get to see the baby?” another girl asked. It didn’t take long for news to spread in the small town and everyone knew Ruthie had given birth the day before.
“Yes, I did, Kathleen,” Jennifer told the girl. “What were you thinking?” she asked Jesse.
“Morning, Mrs. Branson,” a group of boys shouted as they splashed through the creek instead of using the footbridge.
Jesse gave up. “We’ll talk later,” she shrugged.
“Sweetheart?” Jennifer knew Jesse had slept little the night before and she was worried about what could be causing her wife such distress. “Let me get them settled and busy with their lessons then we can talk.”
“No,” Jesse smiled, shaking her head. “You go on. It’ll keep.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Jesse leaned forward, pressing her lips to Jennifer’s she ignored the snickers coming from the children waiting in front of the schoolhouse. “I love you, darlin’.”
“We’ll talk tonight?”
“I promise. Go on, the children are waiting.”
“I love you, Jesse.”
“Love you, too.”
Jesse waited until Jennifer led the children into the schoolhouse before she turned to go back to the Slipper where her children still slept under Bette Mae’s watchful eyes. She and Jennifer had seen no reason to wake them since Jesse was staying in town to take care of some repairs at the boarding house that Bette Mae had been hounding her to get fixed.
“What next?” Jesse asked, pounding the final nail into a plank of wood she used to patch a hole in the wall of the Slipper. The winter’s winds had taken a toll on the buildings side that faced east.
“Thos’ back steps from the kitch’n upstairs seemed ta be a might wobbly,” Bette Mae told the building’s owner. “I’m afraid someone’s gonna trip one of these days.”
“Okay, let’s take a look,” Jesse tossed her hammer into the toolbox. “Let me get Charley.” Jesse had been moving the children as she went from one job to the next. It wasn’t too convenient when she was trying to work to have the children to look after but the few times they had tried having KC stay at the school with Jennifer had turned into disasters. The inquisitive girl’s endless questions made it impossible for Jennifer to concentrate on her students. And leaving the children at the ranch with their grandparents was not an option considering KC’s fear of having her mothers out of her sight. “Come on, KC,” Jesse told the toddler. “We need to go inside now.”
“Otay,” KC gathered up the toys she and Charley had been playing with then padded around the wrap-around porch to the front door. “Mommy, door too heavy,” she groaned, pushing against the wooden door with all her might.
“Hold on, littl’ angel,” Bette Mae chuckled at the struggling child. “Let me help ya,” she reached over KC’s head, turning the knob. “There ya go,” Bette Mae pushed the door open.
“T’anks,” KC said, marching into the Slipper’s dining area.
“Into the kitchen, KC,” Jesse told her daughter when she carried Charley inside. “You and Charley can play in there while I look at the steps.
“Otay. Come on, Cha-wie,” KC called to her brother even though he was being held by Jesse.
“Um,” Jesse said, looking around the crowded kitchen for a safe place to put the children. “Where do you want them?”
“Can’t put ‘em on the floor,” Bette Mae said, scanning the room. “Too much trouble for my littl’ angel ta git into. Here, I’ll stretch out the blanket here,” she spread the blanket for the children out on the floor of the doorway between the kitchen and the saloon. “It’s a might early for anyone to be in here and we’ll jus’ prop the door open so’s she can see ya. I can keep an eye on them whilst I start the stew fer tonight.”
“Is that okay, KC?” Jesse asked. “I’m going to be right there,” she pointed at the steps that led upstairs from the kitchen.
“Otay,” KC said, plopping down on the blanket. She leaned forward on her hands, stretching her neck to make sure she could see up the narrow stairway.
“Good,” Jesse smiled. “You keep an eye on your brother. Don’t let him wander away.”
“Otay. Cha-wie, KC turned her attention to her brother. “You stay right here.”
“Alright, show me which steps you’re complaining about,” Jesse pulled her hammer and a fistful of nails out of the toolbox.
“Lordy,” Bette Mae fussed. “Seems ya cou’d tell that yo’rself if’n ya jus’ took the time ta walk up them.”
“True,” Jesse laughed. “But I’d rather you show me the ones bothering you so I don’t get blamed for missing any.”
“Don’ know how’s ya ‘xpect a woman ta git any work done around here if’ns I have ta be showin’ ya every thing.”
KC watched Jesse start up the steps, satisfied she could still see her mother’s boots even after the rest of her disappeared up the staircase she decided to play with Charley. But when she looked around the baby was no longer on the blanket. “Cha-wie,” she called.
“Cha-wie Br’nson, where are you?” she called again, trying to sound as much like her momma as possible. She heard a string of Charley’s gibberish coming from inside the saloon. Pushing herself onto her feet she started after her brother. “Cha-wie, come here. Mommy be mad.”
The lodger had had way too much to drink the night before. It was long after midday and his mind was still too groggy to make much sense of where he was or what he was doing. Having awakened with a desperate need to relieve his bladder, his arm hung over the bed, his hand fumbling for the chamber pot underneath.
“Damn,” he muttered as he searched. “I know there has to be one here. Guess I’m just gonna have to go out back to the outhouse,” he grumbled at the necessary but un-welcomed prospect.
Heavy curtains covered the window leaving in the room in complete darkness. He didn’t remember pulling the drapes shut the night before and deciding it must still be nighttime, he reached for the candle and matches on the table beside the bed. His numb fingers fumbling with the match, it took him several tries to finally get it to light so he could hold it to the candle wick until a small flame flickered to life.
“Don’t need this anymore.” Struggling to his feet, he flicked the spent match aside. With candle in hand, he made his way to the room’s door.
Bright daylight flooded the room as soon as he pulled the door open. Startled, he threw his hands up in front of his eye to block out the blinding light. The candle flew out of his hands, bouncing on the floor and rolling under the bed where a wisp of black smoke curled off the wick, its flame now extinguished.
Stumbling out into the hallway, his eyes closed tight against the harsh light, the lodger felt his way down the corridor to the back steps. Half falling, half walking, he journeyed downward, brushing past Jesse and Bette Mae then charged out the back door of the kitchen to the outhouse.
“Rough night?” Jesse asked Bette Mae.
“Drank more than he should have,” Bette Mae said as the back door swung wildly on its hinges. “Had to get Ed to help get him up to his room.”
“Oh,” Jesse went back to work on the steps.
Upstairs in the room the man had vacated, a match smoldered on the bed quilt as a gust of wind rushed into the room from the hallway. Moments later, the bed was engulfed in flame.
Jennifer stepped out onto the schoolhouse porch to call the children back inside after the midday break.
“Mrs. Branson,” one of the children was pointing down to the end of town. “Look, the Slipper is on fire.”
Jennifer’s heart stopped. Without wasting a moment, she stepped off the porch and, using her cane to support her bad leg, ran down the gravel path. The children ran behind her, over the foot bridge and down the dirt street towards the Silver Slipper. Thick black smoke was pouring out of a window at the end of the second floor. Bright red flames could be seen licking their way up the side of the wooden building to the roof.
“Jesse,” Jennifer screamed as she ran. “Jesse, the babies. Where are the babies?”
Ed, helping a customer inside his store, heard the screams and ran outside. Seeing the smoke and flames, he charged off the down the street. “Ring the bell,” he yelled to Billie who was a few feet behind him.
Billie ran for the schoolhouse. The school bell also served as the emergency bell for the small town. By the time he reached the pole and started yanking on the rope to sound the alarm, the street was full of people rushing for the Slipper.
Fire in a town where almost all buildings were constructed of wood was a serious affair. If the flames weren’t stopped, the entire town could be consumed destroying people’s homes and livelihoods. No effort was spared to stop any fire that might get started.
Ed quickly overtook Jennifer. He scooped her up with one of his strong arms and kept running.
“Jesse,” Jennifer cried as Ed carried her to the Slipper. “Where’s Jesse? Where are the babies?”
“We’ll find them,” Ed assured the distraught schoolteacher. “Don’t you worry, we’ll find.” And he was determined to do just that.
“Buckets,” someone yelled. “We need more buckets.”
Men, women and even the school children were using anything they could to fill with water from the horse troughs and creek. Since the fire was burning on the second floor it was hard to throw the water high enough to have any effect on the flames.
“Get the rest of the building wet,” Ed yelled when he saw men heaving water up as high as they could only to have it fall short of the fire. “You stay put,” he ordered Jennifer, setting her on her feet near the front of the building. “Billie, get that buckboard over by the side there. We can stand in it to get the water higher. Set up a bucket line,” he told an older boy running past with an empty bucket. “It’ll save time.”
Jennifer wanted to run inside the Slipper to find her family but she knew that would be foolish, she had no idea where in the large building they might be. All she could do was stand and wait for Jesse to come out with the children. And hope. And pray. “Jesse, please sweetheart, bring our babies to me,” she cried.
“Is that smoke?” Jesse sniffed the air. “You burnin’ something?” she teased Bette Mae.
“Ya know better ‘en that,” Bette Mae huffed, swatting Jesse on the leg.
“Do you smell that?” Jesse asked when she detected a stronger whiff of smoke.
“Now, tha’ ya mention it,” Bette Mae sniffed the air. “I do smells something.”
Jesse took a few steps upward until she could see down the hall. Smoke was billowing out of the room at the far end. “Fire,” she called down to Bette Mae. “Get everybody outside. Hurry.” She was already halfway down the staircase when she finished yelling her instructions, Betty Mae rushing down in front of her.
“I’ll get the girls,” Bette Mae called out, hurrying out into the dining room where Sally and a couple of the other women that worked at the Slipper were clearing off the tables after the midday diners finished their meal.
“KC,” Jesse called out, running across the kitchen to where she had left the babies. Her heart stopped when she found the blanket empty. “KC, where are you?” she screamed.
The room on fire was located above the saloon. It didn’t take long for the flames to start burning through the ceiling of the saloon sending its acrid smoke downward into the room.
KC sniffed, rubbing her nose when the foul smelling smoke invaded it. “Cha-wie,” she called for her brother. Not seeing the baby in the main room, she walked around the end of the bar and peeked down the space between it and the wall lined with shelves of bottles and glasses. It was an area that had always intrigued her, the shiny glasses drawing her attention whenever she was in the room. But her mothers had forbid her from playing around the bar, afraid she could get hurt if any of the bottles fell from their shelves. She knew she wasn’t supposed to be there but she had to find Charley.
“Cha-wie,” KC called out again, coughing a bit as the smoke around her thickened. She heard a soft whimper from the other end of the bar and headed for it. “Cha-wie, is that you?”
Charley had crawled behind the bar. Hearing his sister’s calls, he crawled under a low hanging shelve thinking it was a game to hide from KC. He giggled, listening as she looked around the room searching for him. His nose started twitching, something smelled really bad. He rubbed it, trying to rid his nose of the burning sensation. His wiped his eyes, blinking to ease the irritation caused by the smoke. This time, when he heard his sister call out for him, he whimpered hoping she’d come and take him back into the kitchen. His game wasn’t fun anymore.
“Cha-wie?” KC stood next to her brother’s hiding place. She bent over looking under the shelf, “why you hidin’? Come on, mommy be mad,” she reached for her brother. A fit of coughing caused her to sit abruptly, her arms waving around her head in hopes of chasing the smoke away.
Charley crawled out of hiding and into his sister’s lap, sniffling and wiping at his burning eyes.
“Its okay, Cha-wie,” KC hugged her brother. “Don’t cry. Mommy come git us.”
“Mommy,” the baby whimpered.
“Yep,” KC nodded in the thickening smoke. “Mommy come. You see.”
“KC,” Jesse yelled into the saloon, the room filled with blinding smoke. “Sunshine, where are you?”
KC sucked in a lungful of air to answer her mother but the smoke burned her throat and all she could do was cough weakly, “here, mommy. We here.”
Jesse heard the faint cry but couldn’t tell where it had come from. “KC, where are you?”
As soon as he heard Jesse’s voice, Charley began to cry, his sobs intermixed with coughing.
“See,” KC rocked her brother, “Mommy comin’.”
“KC?” Jesse yelled. She pushed her way into the smoke in search of her children, banging her knee hard as she walked into a table used by the saloon’s patron for their card games.
“Here, mommy,” KC cried out, her voice weak but unwavering.
Jesse’s outstretched hands found the edge of the bar and she followed. “KC,” she continued to call as she inched around to the end of the bar, the thick smoke preventing her from seeing more that a few inches.
“Here, mommy,” KC reached out and tugged on Jesse’s pant leg as soon as she saw it appear out of the smoke.
“KC,” Jesse knelt down. “Is Charley with you?”
“Yep.” KC’s vigorous nodding unseen by her mother. “He right here. He cryin’ ‘cause he scared.”
More by feel than sight, Jesse gathered her children into her arms. “You hurt?”
“No,” KC snuggled against her mother, glad to be safe in her arms.
“Okay, let’s get you out of here,” Jesse stood. She squinted, her eyes straining to see through the smoke. Going back to the kitchen was out of the question, the wall at that end of the room was on fire. She thought about trying to make it across the room to the door that would take them into the dining room but without knowing how far the fire had spread that might put them in a worst situation. “Guess the only way out is through the window,” she told the children clinging to her. “I need to sit you down for a minute,” she said as she leaned forward to place the babies on top of the bar.
“Mommy,” Charley cried out as soon as Jesse set him down.
“I’m right here, little man,” Jesse kissed the top of the boy’s head. “Just let me get my coat fixed,” she said, unbuttoning the jacket she’d worn that day because a chilly wind had been blowing in from the east. She tucked the bottom of the coat in her pants forming a pocket to carry the babies in. “Okay, come on,” she gathered the children back into her arms, wrapping the coat around them and fastening a couple buttons to keep it in place.
The smoke was getting thicker and a second wall in the room was starting to show flames.
Jesse made her way to the front of the room and the row of windows along that wall. She hadn’t gone more than a few feet when part of the ceiling gave way, crashing down on the other end of the bar. “Hang on, we’re getting out of here,” Jesse yelled to the babies bundled in her coat.
Jesse calculated that if she timed her jump just right she could break through a window and land on the porch on the other side. From there it would be a simple jump over the railing to the safety of the ground. As Jesse started to run, she tried to visualize where the tables at that end had been set the last time she had been in the room.
Charging forward, Jesse managed to miss all the tables and chairs she sped past. A soft glow of sunlight outlined the windows and she headed for the closest one. Leaping into the air, she crashed through the glass using her shoulder as a battering ram. Her boots hit the surface of the porch, wet from the efforts of the townsfolk trying to save the stop the flames. Unable to control herself on the slick wood, she skidded for the railing her hip slamming into it. Her momentum was too much and her body flipped head over tea kettle.
Jesse landed on her back with a THUD, the force of the landing knocking all the air out of her lungs.
Jennifer saw glass explode from the window, followed by her wife. She watched in relief as Jesse landed on the porch then in horror as the rancher’s body continued across the porch and cart-wheeled over the railing. “Jesse,” she screamed, running for the prone woman.
Dropping to her knees, Jennifer stared at her unmoving wife. Afraid to touch her in case she was injured but needing to know if she was alive, Jennifer reached out and tentatively caressed the rancher’s cheek. “Jesse, sweetheart,” she whispered. “Are you okay? Sweetheart, say something. Please,” she pleaded.
“Ugh,” was all Jesse could force out.
“The babies, Jesse,” Jennifer cried, at least Jesse was alive. “Where are the babies?” she asked, not noticing the unusual bulge under her wife’s clothing.
KC wiggled up her mother’s body just enough for her head to pop out of the coat that protected her. “Here, momma,” KC grinned. “Cha-wie, here too.”
“KC,” Jennifer was shocked to see the girl’s head suddenly appear. “Are you okay?”
“Yep,” KC continued wiggling free of the coat.
Jennifer scrabbled to get the buttons opened. Once she did, she fell on top of Jesse and the exposed babies, hugging and kissing them as tears rolled down her cheeks. “You’re okay,” she murmured between sobs. “Thank goodness, you’re okay.”
“Get off me,” Jesse managed to gasp, her wife’s loving hugs making it impossible for her lungs to fill with much needed air.
Charley wrapped his arms around Jennifer’s neck, refusing to let go as she sat up. “Sweetheart, are you alright?”
“Can’t breath,” Jesse wheezed.
“Mommy,” KC was bouncing on Jesse’s stomach, straddling the prone body. “That fun. We go ag’in?”
Jesse struggled for air, something not helped by her daughter’s activity. She slowly raised an arm, placing a shaky hand on top of KC’s head. “Don’t…bounce…,” she gasped.
“Otay,” KC stopped bouncing. “We go ag’in?” she grinned happily.
The sun was setting in the west, the brilliant colors of the sunset muted by the smoke that still hung in the air over Sweetwater. One end of the Silver Slipper continued to smolder but the flames had finally been distinguished. Most folks had gone back to their own homes and business, thankful the fire had been contained to a single building. Bette Mae and Sally were inside the Slipper, taking inventory of what remained. Ed and Billie, with the help of some of the older schoolboys, were passing burned furniture out of broken window and tossing it over the porch railing into the street to prevent it from starting any new fires.
Jesse sat on the steps of the Slipper, her arms wrapped around Jennifer and the children.
“What is it with us and fires?” Jennifer asked referring to the log home she had first shared with Jesse that had also been destroyed by flames.
“Don’t think we have anything to do with it, darlin’,” Jesse tightened her arms around her wife. “We build everything out of wood. Somethin’ gets started, it’s hard ta stop. Only thing in town safe from fire is the bank,” she said, looking down the street at the brick and stone building. “Just a fact of life out here. We’re lucky folks saved as much of the Slipper as they did.”
“Do you know what started it?”
“Nope,” Jesse shrugged. “Probably never will.”
“Well, I’m just glad you and the babies are safe.”
“We’re going to go see Leevie,” Jennifer announced, the fire cementing a decision she had come to several days earlier. It had been terrifying to see the Slipper on fire and realize her family was inside. But it was the knowledge they wouldn’t have been there if she hadn’t needed to be at the schoolhouse that really frightened her. It was definitely time to make some changes in her life. But before she could, she had to talk to her friend.
“Right now?” Jesse asked, not surprised by her wife’s comment but confused as to its timing.
“Not right now, silly,” Jennifer giggled. “But as soon as the school term ends at the end of the month, we’re going to Granite.”
“You’re not going to argue?”
“You don’t want to know why?”
“Nope.” Jesse didn’t really care why Jennifer was so adamant about traveling to the mining camp. Right here, right now, all she cared about was their children were safe and she had everything important to her wrapped in her arms.
“What now?” Jennifer asked, glancing over her shoulder at the ruined building.
“Let’s go home.”
“What about the Slipper?”
“It’s not going anywhere. I’ll worry about it later. Right now, I want to take go home, put the babies to bed and make love to my wife.”
“Sounds wonderful,” Jennifer sighed, melting into Jesse’s embrace.
Continued in Chapter Five
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