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Jesse slowly lifted her eyelids, astounded that the night had passed so quickly. She remembered nothing after carrying Jennifer into the tent and crawling into their bedroll. “’Course, after what you did to me last night, darlin’, that ain’t too surprisin’,” she chuckled softly to the sleeping woman draped over her. Rolling her head over to check on the children, she saw KC sitting up in her bedroll watching her.
“Hi,” KC whispered, a smile spread across her face.
“Mornin’, sunshine,” Jesse whispered back. “Is Charley still sleeping?”
“Yep. Jus’ like momma?”
“Don’ suppose I can get you to go back to sleep?” she asked the toddler, wanting to stay in bed and snuggle with her wife.
Jesse smiled knowing KC, an early riser, was always full of energy for the coming day as soon as her eyes popped open. She wasn’t upset with KC’s response, many mornings she’d ask the girl to go back to sleep and she would so even if today wasn’t one of those that was okay.
Jesse eased out from under Jennifer, doing her best not to awaken her wife. Once free of Jennifer’s hold on her, she slipped out of the bedroll then tucked it in tight around the schoolteacher so she’d stay warm in the morning’s coolness. She knelt beside the bedrolls where the children had spent the night. Carefully, she lifted Charley out of from under his blanket and carried the sleeping baby over to tuck him in with Jennifer.
Even asleep Jennifer sensed the baby presence. She turned on her side stretching a protective hand over the baby’s belly.
“Okay, sunshine,” Jesse whispered to KC. “Let’s get you some clothes and we’ll go out and let them sleep.”
“Otay,” KC pushed up onto her bare feet and toddled over to the pack that held the family’s clothing. Opening the untied flap, she looked inside for something she could wear.
Jesse sat on the tent floor to pull her boots on. One advantage of going to bed in the condition Jennifer and she had the night before, was she was still dressed. She’d wait until her wife woke up before changing into fresh clothes. KC walked over to her, her arms full of a shirt and pair of britches. “Good girl,” Jesse said as she helped KC pull off her sleeping shirt.
Mother and daughter worked together to get KC’s clothes on.
“Where are your moccasins?” Jesse asked of the soft yet resilient doeskin foot coverings that KC had received from their friend Walks on the Wind.
“Over dere,” KC pointed across the tent. “I git dem.”
Jesse stood while her daughter retrieved the moccasins. She snatched a coat off the top of one of the packs where it had been tossed the night before and pulled it on. Then she grabbed KC’s coat off the end of her bedroll.
“Here, momma,” KC whispered, holding up the moccasins. She still had a little trouble pulling the shoes on by herself.
Jesse scooped toddler and moccasins up in her arms to carry them outside.
The sun had been up for a couple of hours but because they were at the base of the mountain range they would be crossing later in the day, the camp was still covered in shadows.
Jesse looked for someplace to sit KC down while she put on her moccasins. Seeing nothing promising as almost everything bore a covering of light morning dew, she settled for kneeling on one leg and placing the toddler on her other. It was awkward but she managed to pull on the moccasins.
“Here, let’s get your coat on,” Jesse stood KC on her feet. “How about we get the fire going?” she asked as she helped KC push her arms into the coat sleeves. “Then we’ll go see about catching some fish out of that creek for breakfast. Your momma likes fish for breakfast.”
“It too hot, mommy,” KC frowned, watching Jesse button up the front of her coat. The weather had been so dry and hot that most days she’d worn little more than a long shirt.
“It’ll be hot soon enough,” Jesse explained. “But you keep it on until the chill leaves the air. We don’t want you catching cold, do we?”
“Otay,” KC reluctantly agreed.
With her daughter dressed, Jesse set to work getting the fire restarted and gathering more firewood. KC worked alongside her mother. When Jesse returned to camp with an armful of large branches, KC carried an armful of smaller twigs. Both piles were dropped next to the ring of stones around the fire. Jesse pulled one of the larger branches from her pile, laying it across the center of the ring so it would burn while they went fishing. KC bent down, pulling a couple of long twigs from her pile and tossed them into the ring.
“Ready to find some fish?” Jesse asked.
“Yep,” KC reached her hand up, smiling when her mother’s much larger hand clasped it firmly. She half walked, half skipped beside Jesse down to the creek.
The creek was contained in a ditch carved over the years in the soft earth by the moving water. The ditch was a little too wide for Jesse to jump across if she was of mind to and was deep enough that most of her body would be swallowed up by it. But the water running along the bottom of the channel was crystal clear and perfect for spotting fish.
Jesse squatted on the edge of the creek bank, KC squatting beside her.
“Dere’s one,” KC whispered excitedly as a good size trout swam lazily against the current.
“That’s a nice one,” Jesse agreed.
“You catch,” KC told her momma, as if the outcome was already determined.
“I’ll give it a try,” Jesse smiled at her daughter’s faith in her. “You stay put.”
“Otay,” KC sat on the ground, wiggling around until her legs hung over the side.
Jesse dropped off the top of the bank, landing in a small patch of wet sand next to the water. Being careful to stand so her shadow wouldn’t fall over the creek’s surface, she slowly dropped a self-made fishing net into the cool waters.
The net was made from a sewing hoop she had spotted in the dress shop she and Jennifer owned in town. Floating behind the hoop was a couple of feet of a very fine lace-like material she’d also found in the dress shop and had carefully secured to the hoop. All that a fish had to do was swim through the hoop and into the net. Simple or so Jesse hoped. It was the first time she had tested the net.
Jesse stood, frozen in place holding the hoop under the water and letting the net sway in the current behind it. The trout she and KC had seen before came back into view, swimming right for the hoop. Jesse held her breath as the fish came nearer. As soon as it was within reach, she swiped the hoop over it. Pulling the net free of the water, Jesse struggled to keep control on the fish thrashing about inside. Not wanting to take any chances losing what she’d caught, she tossed the net, fish and all, up over her head in the direction of the bank.
KC saw the fish flying towards her. “Momma,” she screamed, falling over backwards to avoid being smacked in the face with the squiggly fish.
Jesse turned at her daughter’s scream to see KC tumbling back away from the bank. Afraid she’d hit the toddler with the fish, she scrambled up the steep slope, her fingers fighting to gain any hold possible. Her boots slipped more than once on the muddy bank but she managed to scale it and check on her daughter. She started to laugh when she saw the girl was obviously uninjured but quite occupied.
KC was sitting on the ground, laughing hysterically. Her little hands hanging on to the trout still trapped inside the net. As the fish flopped about, it took KC’s arms with it, causing them to flail around uncontrollable.
“I don’t suppose I want to ask what you two have been up to,” Jennifer stood a few feet away, trying to keep from laughing at what she was seeing.
“Momma catch fish,” KC squealed.
“Looks to me like the fish has caught you, sweetie,” Jennifer sniggered. “See, Charley,” she told the baby in her arms. “I told you we’ve find them up to no good.”
“Morning, darlin’, Jesse walked towards Jennifer, arms extending and fully intending to wrap them around her wife.
“Don’t you come any closer,” Jennifer held out a warning hand.
“Huh?” Jesse stopped dead in her tracks. “What I do?”
“It’s not what you’ve done,” Jennifer giggled. “It’s what you’re going to do.”
“And what would that be?” Jesse started forward again, now that she knew Jennifer wasn’t mad at her. Or, so she thought.
“Jesse Branson, I’m warning you. Do not even think about hugging me.”
“Huh?” Jesse stopped again.
“Mommy, you dirty,” KC giggled.
“Bleck,” Charley pointed at Jesse, scrunching up his nose at her appearance.
“What do ya mean?” Jesse dropped her head to look down the front of her. “Oh,” she smirked seeing her mud smeared clothing. She held up her hands revealing two mud covered appendages. “You mean you won’t hug me like this?” Jesse asked, poking her lower lip out in a mock pout that mimicked her daughter’s.
“If you have any plans on hugging me, you get right back in that creek and get washed off,” Jennifer growled.
“But, darlin’,” Jesse protested.
“And take KC with you,” Jennifer bit her lower lip in a worthless attempt to maintain her stern demeanor.
Jesse looked down at the toddler who was now also covered in dirt from rolling around on the ground with their breakfast.
“Go on,” Jennifer pointed for the creek. “I’ll bring you some towels and clean clothes. We’ll have to wash those before we leave today.”
Jesse bent down, taking the fish away from KC. She carried it to a bucket of water, dropping it in with a loud plop then returned to her daughter. “Come on, sunshine. We need to take a bath.”
“Otay,” KC stood up. Before Jesse could grab her, the toddler raced to the edge of the bank.
Jesse and Jennifer watched in shock as KC leaped into the air. Seconds later they heard a loud splash followed by their daughter’s high pitched giggling.
Jesse shook her head in frustration and amusement as she walked for the creek. Standing on the edge of the bank, she looked down at the toddler who was standing in the middle of the channel splashing happily. “KC Branson,” Jesse scowled, hopping on one foot while she pulled the boot off the other. “You have got to stop,” she switched feet to pull her other boot off. “Doing that,” she laughed, leaping into the air to join her daughter.
Jennifer watched as Jesse disappeared beneath the creek bank and listened to the squeals of delight when she joined KC in the creek. She hugged Charley, “it’s a dang good thing that you don’t take after them two. Let’s go get our young ‘uns some clean clothes,” she laughed.
Jesse guided Dusty along the leaf and pine needle covered ground. There was no trail to follow as she was leading her family over the mountains using a rarely traveled pass. It was a route she had explored shortly after arriving in Sweetwater when she was still trying to decide if she wanted to stay in the small town or sell the Silver Slipper and go back to her life drifting around the frontier. As she swayed easily with the movements of the horse, she remembered back to that day so long before and how at peace she had felt riding through the thick forest accompanied only by the calls of the forest animals and the sound of water tumbling over rocks near by. That sense of peace was the reason she had remained in Sweetwater. It made her feel that something good was going to happen to her if she stayed. Twisting around in the saddle to look at the woman riding behind her, she knew exactly what that had been.
“How ya doin’, darlin’?” Jesse asked, smiling at the woman she loved.
“I’m fine but I wouldn’t say no to a break,” Jennifer smiled back.
“There’s a right pretty spot not too far up ahead,” Jesse told her wife. “I figured we stop there for the night.”
“Sounds good,” Jennifer nodded. “Charley is probably ready to get out of this carry sack for the day. How’s KC?”
“Asleep,” Jesse had her arm wrapped securely around the sleeping girl.
“I thought so,” Jennifer smiled. “It’s been way too quiet for the last hour.”
“Yep.” Jesse twisted back around in the saddle. Her eyes scanning the terrain in front of them as she looked for a clearing next to the creek they were roughly following.
Less than a half mile later, Jesse spotted the gap in the trees she had been seeking. She turned Dusty towards it, letting the big horse pick her own path over the rocky ground and around large boulders that had, hundreds of years before, tumbled down the steep slope on the opposite side of the creek.
The clearing was relatively flat compared to the stony, uneven ground they had been traveling. It was big enough for the tent to be sent up and to have so space around it before the trees closed back in. On the side facing the creek, a gentle slope dropped down a few feet to another level area much smaller than the clearing. Then a second drop off ended right beside the creek. Unlike the clearing, the creek bed was angled matching the tilt of the surrounding ground. Its clear water rushed downward, plummeting over and around the boulders and fallen trees that littered its course.
Jesse swung out of the saddle, cradling KC as she dropped to the ground then walked back to Blaze to help Jennifer to the ground with her free arm.
“It’s a beautiful spot, sweetheart,” Jennifer pulled her cane out of the scabbard she used to carry it. Leaning heavily on the cane, she walked around the clearing, both to look where they would be camping and to stretch out her tired muscles.
“We’ll have to keep the young ‘uns away from the creek,” Jesse said, “Water’s too swift here.”
“Yes,” Jennifer studied the rapidly flowing creek. “I do not want KC anywhere near that.”
“Here, darlin’,” Jesse handed Jennifer her camp stool. It was the last thing she tied to the packs on Boy’s back so that it would be the first to be removed whenever they stopped. “Sit for a bit.”
“Actually, it feels better to be up and stretching it,” Jennifer smiled at her wife’s thoughtfulness, always concerned about her damaged leg. “But maybe we can spread out a blanket for the babies.”
“Good idea,” Jesse grunted. “What have you been feeding this one? She weighs more than Dusty,” she laughed, hefting the sleeping toddler in her arms.
Dusty whinnied at the comment, shaking her neck a few times. She reached back, nibbling at the saddle blanket on her back.
“I get the hint,” Jesse growled at the horse. “Let me get the young ‘uns taken care of then I’ll get your saddle off. They’re a little more important than you are right now.”
Dusty swung her tail around, slapping Jesse in the back of the head.
Jennifer giggled. “Sweetheart, let me hold KC while you get the blanket. That way you can take care of Dusty before she waps you again.”
“Too many folk giving orders in this family,” Jesse grumbled, handing the sleeping toddler to her wife as Dusty snorted behind her.
“Momma?” KC was climbing up Jesse’s back.
“What, sunshine?” Jesse asked. She was kneeling over Charley, changing his diaper.
“Not tonight, sunshine. The water is too fast here.”
“Humpft,” KC grunted, pulling herself up using fistfuls of Jesse’s shirt until she could hang her head over her mother’s shoulder. “Hi, Cha-wie.”
Charley giggled when his sister popped into view.
“You catch fish?” KC asked, making faces at her brother.
“Don’t think we’d find many in that creek. Stop teasing your brother or I’ll never get his britches changed.”
“Otay,” KC let loose of Jesse’s shirt, sliding down her back to the ground. “Where momma?”
“Good question,” Jesse looked around the camp which showed no sign of her wife. “Darlin’?” she called out.
“I’m here, sweetheart.”
Jesse looked in the direction Jennifer’s reply had come but she didn’t see her wife.
“Back in the trees about twenty paces.”
“What ya doing back there?”
“Jesse!” Jennifer laughed.
“Oh,” Jesse smirked when she quickly figured out what her wife must be doing. “Sorry, darlin’. You okay, you’ve been gone a while.”
“Yes, I’m fine. But can you come take a look at something?”
“Sure, just let me finish with Charley’s britches.”
Jesse quickly completed the task of changing the baby’s diaper. Walking to a pan of water, she set the dirty diaper aside to be washed out later then used the soap bar Jennifer had put out earlier and scrubbed her hands.
“Let’s go find momma,” Jesse told KC moments later as she lifted Charley off the blanket.
KC held her hands in the air.
Jesse grabbed the toddler’s hand, lifting her up into her free arm. “Give a holler, darling’, so I can find ya.”
“I’m here, Jesse. Back the way we rode in, at that big boulder we passed.”
“What ya doing all the way back there?” Jesse asked, making her way through the trees to find her wife.
“I saw something and I was hoping I could see it better from here.”
“Jennifer?” Jesse had found the boulder but not her wife.
Jesse looked up. Standing several feet above her head was Jennifer. “How’d you get up there?”
“Walk around to the back, there’s a dirt mound.
Jesse followed the directions. She hadn’t made much notice to the boulder when they rode past it earlier. About ten paces long and half that wide and tall, the boulder’s size was impressive. The end of the mammoth rock was partially buried by a mountain of dirt worn smooth by rain and wind. It wasn’t a difficult walk up the side of the mound for Jesse but she wondered how Jennifer had managed it with her cane.
“What ya doing all the way up here, darlin’?” Jesse asked when she reached the top of the mound and stepped onto the boulder.
“What do you think that is?” Jennifer pointed over the top of the forest trees. “I glimpsed it through the trees from down there. It looks strange.”
Jesse looked to the north where far in the distance a portion of the sky appeared to be glowing red. She turned to look for the sun and saw it was still too high in the sky to be causing the odd glow. “Don’t rightly know, darlin’,” she said. “Could just be a trick of the eye. This time of day, with the sun starting to drop, things look different.”
“I know but there’s something about that,” Jennifer shuddered. “It makes me feel…”
“I’m not sure. But it’s almost like it’s a warning or something.”
Jesse looked again at the strange glow. “Well, it’s a good distance away,” she said to assure her wife. “We’ll keep an eye on it as we ride. But I don’t see how whatever is causing it can do us any harm.”
“Yeah,” Jesse said, even as her stomach began to twitch at a sense of foreboding. It was the same feeling she’d had when her father had tried to get her to move the cattle to higher ground. Jesse shook off the feeling. “Let’s get off this rock before it gets any darker,” she told Jennifer. “Don’t know how you got up here in the first place.”
“I’m not helpless, Jesse,” Jennifer bristled at the comment. Her leg limited her in many ways but she refused not to do some things just because someone thought she shouldn’t.
“Hey,” Jesse softened her tone. With her arms full of babies, she could not do much more than stand and look at her upset wife. “I know you’re not helpless. I’ve never said…”
Jennifer placed her fingers against Jesse’s lips. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, leaning against her stronger wife. “I know you’ve never said anything like that.”
“Or thought it,” Jesse kissed Jennifer’s brow.
“I know,” Jennifer looked up, smiling warily at her wife.
“Yes. It’s just that every since I saw that,” Jennifer’s eyes turned towards the strange glow. “I’ve been a little edgy. Forgive me?”
“Nope,” Jesse grinned. “Nothing to forgive. Now, let’s get off this rock while we can still see.”
Continued in Part 8
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