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Shortly before dawn, Jesse woke to the sides of the tent being buffeted by a strong wind. As her eyes adjusted to the lack of light, she felt Jennifer start to stir beside her.
“What’s that?” Jennifer was jerked awake by the sound of a loud crack almost directly over their heads and then something heavy brushing against the side of the tent. “Jesse?”
“Stay here,” Jesse squeezed Jennifer before releasing her to crawl out of their bedroll. “Sounds like the wind comin’ up, probably jus’ a branch breaking.”
“There was hardly any breeze when we went to bed,” Jennifer clutched the bedroll to her naked body, straining to see Jesse as she moved away from her.
“Damn,” Jesse muttered when she untied the tent flap to have it almost ripped out of her hand. “It’s blowing now, darlin’,” she said, sticking her head outside. She ducked back into the relative safety of the tent when her face was assaulted by blowing twigs and leaves. She started to return to Jennifer and their bedroll then stopped. She sniffed the air, her nose detecting the hint of something unusual on the wind.
“What is it?” Jennifer whispered.
“From our fire?”
“Don’t think so,” Jesse said, bending to retrieve her clothes from the end of the bedroll. “I’m going go check on the horses.”
“Jesse, is that safe? It sounds like it’s blowing pretty hard out there.”
“It is,” Jesse sat beside Jennifer, pulling on her boots. “But I need to go make sure they’re alright. You best be getting dressed too.”
“Jesse what aren’t you telling me?” Jennifer placed a hand on her wife’s arm, demanding an answer.
“That glow in the sky last night,” Jesse turned to look at Jennifer.
“If it’s what I think it was, and this wind is a good indication it is, then we’re may have to move. And fast.”
“What do you think it is?” Jennifer asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
“Fire.” Jesse said calmly even though her insides were churning. If it was a forest fire, she was going to have to find a way to get her family to someplace safe and right now they were a long way in any direction from that.
“Are we in danger?”
Jesse took Jennifer’s hands into her own, holding them tight. “I don’t know, darlin’,” she answered honestly. “It that was the beginnin’s of a fire, I doubt it’s come this far. But fire makes it own wind that pulls it along. And as hard as it’s blowing out there, it could pull a fire a long way. You get dressed and get the young ‘uns dressed. We’ll decide what we’re gonna do when I get back. Okay?”
“Think you can see good enough in here as it is, I don’t want to leave the flap open if we don’t need to.”
“I’ll be fine.” Jennifer had a good idea where things were located in the tent so she didn’t think she’d have much trouble maneuvering about in the dark.
“Stay in the tent, please. I don’t want ta have to be worryin’ ‘bout you out there too.”
Jesse leaned forward, placing a quick yet tender kiss on her wife’s lips. “I won’t be long.”
“I promise,” Jesse smiled to assure her wife. Standing, she pulled on her coat. It wasn’t cold enough to need it but it would provide her some protection from the debris blowing about outside the tent.
Jennifer had already pulled on her denim pants by the time Jesse stepped outside. “I’ve got it,” she told the rancher when Jesse paused to re-tie the tent flap. “Go on, I’ll take care of this.”
“Thanks, darlin’,” Jesse said pulling her stetson down tight on her head. She could little in the pre-dawn light and had no idea which direction the horses might have gone. “Dusty,” she called out. “Come on back to camp, girl.”
Jennifer listened to Jesse calling and whistling for the horses as she finished dressing. She was tugging on her boots when she heard the horses trotting by the side of the tent.
“Good girl,” Jesse greeted Dusty as the palomino led Blaze and Boy back to camp. “Looks like we’re in for a tryin’ day, huh?” she rubbed the mare’s neck as she nuzzled the rancher’s head. “Do you smell it, girl?”
Dusty whinnied, shaking her head as if to force the scent from her nostrils.
“I agree with you there,” Jesse wiped at her own nose, the smoke more noticeable outside than it had been inside the tent. “You guys stick close to camp. It’s goin’ be rough enough getting stuff packed up, I don’t want to have to chase you down.”
Dusty whinnied again. She would keep the other horses near by.
“Jesse?” Jennifer called out. She could hear the horses moving about the campsite but she no longer heard her wife.
“Momma,” KC whimpered, rubbing her eyes. Her mother’s shout had awakened her.
“It’s okay, sweetie,” Jennifer knelt beside the girl.
“It dark,” KC told her mother, unaccustomed to being awakened so early.
“I know, sweetie. But mommy thinks we need to leave early today. So I need you to help me get you and Charley dressed. Can you do that?”
“Cha-wie seep,” KC sat up. “He no like dark.”
“He’ll be fine because he has his big sister here to help him.”
“Otay,” KC smiled. She liked helping Charley.
“Can you pull off your nightshirt?”
With her daughter’s help, Jennifer got KC dressed then moved over beside the sleeping baby. Just as she lifted Charley into her arms, the tent flap opened and Jesse was swept inside by a gust of wind.
“Where’d you go?” Jennifer asked evenly, not wanting to scare the children.
“To see if I could see anything from atop that boulder of yours,” Jesse explained, shrugging off her jacket.
“Not much more than last night. How you doin’ here?”
“KC is dressed. I was just getting Charley up,” Jennifer said, rocking the whimpering baby to calm him.
“Cha-wie no like dark,” KC explained again to her mothers.
“I’ll start packing thinks up,” Jesse said, reaching down to ruffle KC’s hair. “It’ll be light enough soon to get the packs on Boy.”
“What about breakfast?” Jennifer asked, more for the children than herself.
“Ain’t gonna be anyway to have a fire out there. Feed ‘em what you can. We’ll stop as soon as we can to feed ‘em right.”
“Are we going back?”
“No,” Jesse was rolling up the empty bedrolls. “It’s closer to go on into to Phillipsburg. If we push it, we can be there tonight.”
“What if it’s moving that way?” Jennifer asked, careful not to say ‘fire’ in front of her daughter who had finally stopped being afraid after her experience trapped inside the burning Slipper.
“Even if it is, safer to be there than in the trees. And we’d be in forest almost all the way back to the ranch. We keep going and we’ll leave the forest by midday. Rest of the way is through open valleys. We’ll stick close to the rivers and creeks, they’ll protect us if it gets too close.”
Jennifer wasn’t as convinced as Jesse that going back was a bad idea but she was still learning about living on the frontier and she put her trust in her wife to keep their family safe. “KC, come sit with your brother while I help mommy. Sweetheart, can you help me a moment?” Jennifer asked when she had Charley changed and dressed. Her leg was cramping from being bent for so long and she didn’t think she could stand on her on.
“Do you know where my cane is?” Jennifer asked once Jesse had pulled her to her feet.
“Right here,” Jesse handed the cane to her wife.
“Thanks. What do you want me to do?”
“Get what you need to feed the young ‘uns so I can get the packs tied up. Soon as its light, I’ll get them on Boy and the others saddled and we’ll leave.”
The wind had steadily increased since the morning, blowing about more debris picked up from the forest floor and knocked loose from the trees themselves. The smoke had also increased, irritating noses and eyes but was not yet a serious threat.
Jesse looked back over her shoulder, making sure Jennifer was close behind as the horses cantered across a small meadow. She would have liked to push them faster but didn’t want to strain the burdened pack horse. They had been riding non stop for a couple of hours and she knew she needed to find a place to rest the horses and her family. But here in the middle of a grassy meadow surrounded by forest was not the place; she would have to keep looking. With trees surrounding them, they had only the wind and smoke to judge any danger they might be riding into. She needed to get where they could see what was happening.
“Mommy,” KC bent her head back to look up at her mother. “I tired,” she said, rubbing her eyes.
“I know, sunshine,” Jesse smiled down at her daughter. “We’ll stop jus’ as soon as we get out of the forest. Okay?”
“Otay,” KC sighed. She squirmed about until she could rest her head against the arm holding her tight.
Jesse took another quick glance over her shoulder, worried how her wife was holding up. Riding wasn’t easy for Jennifer under the best of conditions and having to hold on to a fast moving horse for hours was probably taking a heavy toll on her. Jesse was glad that they at least had the carry sack for Charlie so Jennifer didn’t have the added worry of having to hold the baby.
Facing forward again, Jesse saw that they had reached the end of the meadow. If her memory of the area was accurate, they should have only a few miles to go before they would leave the main forest behind them. They would still have some potential problem areas after that but they would at least have the benefit of open ground. She slowed Dusty to a trot; it would do no good for one of the horses to injure a leg on the rougher ground under the trees.
“Jesse,” Jennifer called out as soon as Blaze slowed and she could relax her grip on the saddle. “How far until we can rest?” Her leg was throbbing and she needed to get down and stretch out her cramping muscles.
“Not sure, darlin’,” Jesse called back. “May have to wait until we clear this last stretch of trees.”
“Hour, maybe more.”
“I can’t, Jesse,” Jennifer winced as another spasm sent explosions of pain through her leg. “I have to stop.”
Jesse slowed Dusty to a walk, hearing the anguish in her wife’s voice. She looked around, seeking any place that would provide a safe haven for a few minutes. She could hear water tumbling over rocks and nudged Dusty in the direction of the source. “Come on,” she told Jennifer. “We’ll find a place by the water.”
Jennifer followed without comment.
After walking several hundred feet, Dusty walked between a pair of trees, stopping when the ground dropped off sharply. “Back up, girl,” Jesse encouraged the horse to back track.
“What’s wrong?” Jennifer asked, unable to see past the larger horse and her wife.
“Need to find a better spot to get to the creek,” Jesse explained as she guided Dusty around a tangled thicket of underbrush. “This is better,” she called back to Jennifer, leading the horse down a gentler slope and out onto an exposed gravel bar in the creek bed. It wasn’t very big but it would allow the horses room to stand and drink while she saw to Jennifer and the young ‘uns. Grabbing hold of KC, she swung her leg over the saddle horn and slipped down to the surface of pebbles. “Stay put,” she told KC, setting the toddler on the ground, “while I help momma.”
“Otay,” KC stood where her mommy had placed her, twisting at the waist to see what was around her.
Jesse stepped back to Blaze, taking hold of Jennifer’s waist and pulling her free of the saddle. The grimace on her wife’s face told her all she needed to know about how she was feeling. With Jennifer leaning heavily against her, she pulled the cane free of the scabbard, “you want to stand or lay down, darlin’?”
“I need the muscles rubbed, Jesse.” Jennifer reached down, kneading her fingers into the aching tissue as she attempted to ease the piercing pain.
Deciding the gravel bar would not be comfortable for Jennifer to lie on; Jesse helped her walk the few steps back to the moss covered creek bank.
“Let me get Charley off you,” Jesse said, lifting the carry sack so Jennifer could pull her arms free. “Come over her, sunshine,” she called to KC who was occupying herself by picking up handfuls of the pea-size gravel and tossing it into the rushing waters, much to the annoyance of the horses.
KC bent down to fill her hands again before following her mommy’s instructions.
“Here ya go, Charley,” Jesse smiled at the baby, pulling him free of the carry sack. “You sit right here for a bit, KC will come sit with you.” With the children taken care of, Jesse turned her attention to Jennifer. “Lay back and I’ll rub that leg for you.”
“Let me roll over,” Jennifer eased herself onto her belly. Before she had the time to lay flat, Jesse was working on her cramped muscles.
KC managed to walk up the slope of the bank without dropping any of her treasures. Plopping down on the ground beside her brother, she opened her hands. “’Ook, Cha-wie. Baby rocks, jus’ wike you.”
Charley reached out, picking a single pebble out of his sister’s hands. He pulled his hand back, intending to put the tiny stone in his mouth.
“No, Cha-wie,” KC laughed. “Ya can’t eat it,” dropping the pebbles she held, KC retrieved the one from her brother. “Dey rocks, ya t’row dem,” she said, demonstrating for the baby. “See,” she giggled when the pebble bounced of a nearby tree.
Charley smiled, reaching for the pile of pebbles between him and his sister. He pulled his hand back before letting the pebble fly. It hit the ground just inches from where he sat.
KC frowned at her brother’s performance. “You too ‘ittle ta t’row rocks,” she grumbled. “You got’s ta grow.”
Jennifer snickered at the exchange between her children.
“Feelin’ better, darlin’,” Jesse asked, massaging her wife’s leg.
“Much,” Jennifer sighed. “You just keep doing whatever it is you’re doing and I’ll be ready to ride in no time.”
“Good,” Jesse smiled. She looked skyward, the smoke was getting thicker and she figured that couldn’t be a good sign.
“Ack,” KC coughed. “Mommy, hurts,” she rubbed her eyes as Charlie did the same.
“I know, sunshine,” Jesse told her daughter.
“Is there something we can do for them?”
“Keep their faces wet down is best I can think of,” Jesse said. “Ain’t much we can do ‘bout the smoke being in the air.”
Jennifer rolled over. “Help me up,” she held her hands out to Jesse.
“Are you sure?” Jesse was surprised that Jennifer would be ready to get up so soon.
“Jesse, let’s wash their faces and get them something to eat. I want to get moving and get them out of this smoke if possible.”
“You sure?” Jesse asked again, not wanting Jennifer to feel they had to move right away but glad she seemed ready to.
“Yes, now help me up, sweetheart.”
“Alright,” Jesse stood, pulling Jennifer to her feet. “What do we have for ‘em?”
“We still have a couple of biscuits left from last night and some cheese. That’ll have to do for now. If you get that out, I’ll get a cloth and wash them down.”
“Stay put,” KC told Charley as she pushed herself to her feet to follow Jesse down to the horses.
Jennifer smirked, her daughter being so much like her wife. “Come on, little man,” she said, bending down to pick up the baby. Her leg protested the movement but she forced the pain back, refusing to let her leg put her family in any more danger. “Uh, oh,” she wiggled her nose, “somebody needs some fresh britches.”
“I’ll take care of him,” Jesse said, pulling a clean towel out of a pack. “Take this to momma,” she handed the cloth to KC standing beside her.
“Sweetheart, can you help her soak it in the creek first?”
“Yep,” Jesse leaned down, wrapping an arm around KC’s waist she carried her to the edge of the creek. Holding her over the water, she lowered the giggling toddler until she was able to dunk the towel under the surface of the water. “Okay, take that to momma. And try not to get wet,” she set the toddler down, sending her on her way with a playful swat on the bottom.
‘Finally,’ Jennifer thought when Blaze carried her out of the forest. Stretched before her was a long narrow valley with a meandering creek flowing down the center. She pulled Blaze to a stop when they reached Jesse and Dusty.
Jesse was looking to the north and not liking at all what she was seeing. Thick, black smoke billowed high into the sky over a series of hills several miles away.
“Jesse?” Jennifer whispered, alarmed by the frightening sight.
“I know,” Jesse reached out, placing her hand around her wife’s. “Looks like the wind is blowing it west, that’s good.”
“Towards the ranch?”
“Can’t worry about that now,” Jesse said, hoping the fire wouldn’t get that far but understanding that it might.
“What do you think started it?” Jennifer asked, unable to take her eyes off the churning and bulging clouds of smoke.
“Lightening, most likely. Gets dry like it has and we get plenty of dry lightening storms over the mountains. Come on, let’s get movin’.”
Jennifer turned away from the smoke clouds when Blaze moved to follow Dusty. She was glad they were no longer riding amongst the trees but she wondered how safe they were riding through the valley of dried out grasses and bushes. “How far away do you think it is?” she called to Jesse.
“Forty, fifty miles,” Jesse called back.
“How far to Phillipsburg?”
“How fast can the fire move?”
“Fast as it wants,” Jesse shouted, nudging Dusty to increase her gait.
At the end of the narrow valley, the creek the women had been following merged into a larger one and changed directions to flow north along the side of a wider but shorter valley. A wagon road, which was not much more than two parallel ruts worn into the hard ground, appeared over a rise in front of them and veered to follow the creek northward.
Jesse turned Dusty to follow the wagon road.
Jennifer was concerned with the new direction they would be traveling as it was directly toward the angry-looking smoke clouds. “Are you sure we should be riding for the fire?”
“Ain’t got much choice, darlin’,” Jesse explained. “We need to get around this stretch of hills to get to the valley that will take us to Phillipsburg.”
“Can’t we ride over the top?”
“Too hard on the horses. We’ve got a long uphill coming and I don’t want to wear them out before we get to it.” Jesse pulled Dusty to a stop where the bank down to the creek sloped gently enough for them to reach it easily. “Good spot to rest for a bit.”
Jennifer looked into the distance ahead of them. The sky was black with thick clouds of smoke and she was sure she could see bursts of flame every now and then but the fire still looked to be several miles away. She guided Blaze down the slope to the creek.
Jesse was already out of the saddle when Jennifer rode up. Setting KC down a short distance from where the horses were drinking, she walked back to help Jennifer to the ground.
Jennifer smiled as Jesse handed her cane to her, glancing down to check on Charley, the carry sack having been switched to the front so she could calm the agitated baby.
“How’s he doing?” Jesse asked.
“Better since he can see me now. He needs changing.”
“I’ll get a diaper. What do we have to feed them?”
“Not much but the last of the biscuits.” Jennifer and Jesse had gone without food all day so that they could use what they had prepared for the children. Without stopping long enough to build a fire and cook, they were limited in what was readily edible of their supplies. “What about going up on the road in the other direction, Jesse? Is there a town that way?”
“Not that I know of, probably just goes back to some ranch,” Jesse handed the last of the biscuits to Jennifer to dole out to KC and Charley.
“But wouldn’t that be safer? At least, we’d be riding away from the fire.”
“Maybe, if it was the only fire,” Jesse sat on the ground. She took the carry sack from Jennifer, laying Charley on top of it so she could change him. “I don’t know that area so if we got into trouble…”
“What do you mean only fire?” Jennifer asked, breaking off a bite of biscuit and giving it to KC.
“If it was lightening that caused that big one, there’s a good chance there’s other ones out there. That’s why we need to get to Phillipsburg.”
“You could have told me this before now,” Jennifer said, looking around at the ridges of hills and bluffs flanking them.
Jesse sighed in relief when they reached the spot where the valley they had been riding through intersected with two other valleys. They could finally start riding east again.
Almost as soon it turned eastward skirting the base of a knoll, the grade steepened and began the long climb Jesse had warned of.
Looking ahead, Jennifer could see that they would be riding up a ravine between to ridges. “Where’s Phillipsburg?”
“Other side of the crest,” Jesse pointed far above them. “We’ll be able to see it as soon as we get up there.”
“Momma?” KC squirmed in the saddle.
“I know,” Jesse rubbed the toddler’s tummy. It had been a long day and they still had a good distance to travel before it would end. “But we can’t stop until we get over the top.”
KC started to whimper. She was tired, hungry, her eyes stung from the smoke in the air and her bottom was sore from riding all day.
Jesse took pity on the toddler, lifting her up to stand on the saddle. It wasn’t much of a change but it might help for a short time. “How’s this?” she asked KC.
“Dis better,” KC grinned, turning around to face Jesse. “You hold me?”
“Sure,” Jesse agreed, letting KC pick the position. She ended up with the toddler stretched across the saddle, her head resting on one thigh while her feet hung over the other. “But if I need to sit you back up, you go,” she said not knowing what might happen or when.
“Otay,” KC giggled, glad to be able to move a little.
“Wind’s picking up again,” Jennifer commented when a draft of warm air blew past them.
“Yeah,” Jesse said looking around and not at all liking that they were enclosed by the sides of the ravine unable to see more than a few hundred feet in any direction.
The women had ridden almost to the top of the ridge, the higher they climbed the more soot and ash fell out of the sky, coating them and the horses.
Jennifer glanced up the side of the ravine, as she had been doing all along trying to convince herself that her family would be safe just as soon as they reached the top. What she saw might prove otherwise. “Jesse, look,” she pulled Blaze to a stop, pointing to where wisps of smoke was coiling around the trees at the crest.
“Damn,” Jesse stood in the stirrups looking for someplace, any place, her family could seek shelter. The smoke from the main fire was blocking out the sun, leaving everything in shadows and she almost didn’t spot the opening in the side of the hill. When she looked back to the top of the ridge, the smoke had grown substantially and she knew whatever was causing it was moving fast. “Jennifer,” Jesse nudged Dusty as close to Blaze as she could. “See that mine shaft about a third of the way up the hill?” she pointed to the opening.
“Take KC and get up there as fast as you can,” Jesse passed the toddler to her wife. “Cut Blaze loose and go as far back inside as you can.”
“What about you?” Jennifer cried.
The wind was strengthening as gusts of hot air boiled over the top of the ridge and down onto the riders.
“I’ll be there in a minute. I have to do something first. Go, we don’t have time to waste.” As Jennifer rode for the mine, Jesse yanked on Boy’s lead, bringing the pack horse up beside Dusty. Reaching for the bedrolls tied to the top of the packs, she pulled them loose then dropped the lead reins as she sent Dusty galloping back down the ravine to the creek.
Jesse leaped out of the saddle as soon as Dusty got near the water. Running into the creek, she pushed the blankets under the water to soak up as much of the liquid as they could. Carrying the dripping blankets back to Dusty, she swung back up into the saddle. Dusty was galloping for the mine tunnel before she had both boots in the stirrups.
With her arms protecting KC and Charley from the burning debris falling around them, Jennifer slipped off of Blaze as soon as the horse stood beside the mine entrance. Pulling her cane free, she hurried inside the dark tunnel moving several strides down its length before changing her mind and returning to the entrance to wait for Jesse.
Dusty raced back up the ravine, her strong legs plowing up the incline with little trouble.
Jesse swung off the mare’s back, taking a final look up to the top of the ridge that was now fully engulfed in flame. “Get out of here, girl,” she told Dusty. “Take the others and get someplace safe.”
Dusty whinnied then galloped down the ravine followed by Blaze and Boy, the three horses disappearing into the hills.
“You need to get back some,” Jesse told Jennifer, grabbing her around the waist and leading her further into the tunnel. “Here, sit down,” she said, taking KC out of her wife’s arms so she could do as she asked.
Jennifer quickly sat on the ground, thinking Jesse was about to sit beside her.
“Sit with momma,” Jesse placed KC beside Jennifer. “And stay here, all of you.” With no time to lose, Jesse spread out one of the wet bedrolls. “Stay under this, it’ll help keep the smoke away from you. Keep the young ‘uns safe,” she told Jennifer as she dropped the blanket over the top of her wife and children.
“Jesse,” Jennifer screamed, realizing Jesse wasn’t going to join them. “Where are you going?”
“Ta try and keep the smoke out of the tunnel,” Jesse yelled as she ran for the entrance where smoke was already curling around the tunnel’s opening. Spreading the other bedroll out, she held it up to cover the tunnel entrance. As the fire approached, the wind grew stronger and Jesse had to stand on the bottom of the blanket to keep it in place.
Outside of the tunnel, the side of the ravine was ablaze with fire consuming everything in its path. Fed by the dried out grass and brush, it raced downhill in front of the wind it was creating.
Jesse was having trouble breathing as smoke billowed into the mine shaft around the edges of the blanket. She stretched her arms and legs trying to cover more of the opening, the heat of the fire rapidly evaporating any moisture the blanket had once held. Jesse knew that any minute the blanket itself could burst into flames but she wasn’t about to let go of it and give the smoke and fire free access to her family huddling behind her.
Jesse struggled to draw air into her lungs, coughing violently when smoke filled them instead. She struggled to remain conscious but was fighting a losing battle against the thick smoke. As her legs buckled beneath her, her last thoughts were of Jennifer and the babies.
The freight wagon rumbled up over the top of the rise, the driver working hard to control the team of horses. With so much smoke and burning debris in the air, the horses were spooked and on the verge of becoming runaways at every step. As the wagon approached the junction of the three valleys, the driver saw the dark swath left behind by the flames. The horses slowed their steps, not anxious to cross the still smoking ground.
“Whoa, ya nags,” the driver pulled back on the reins. “No sense goin’ any further ‘til I can see what’s goin’ on.” Standing, gave the driver a bit more of a view of the aftermath of the fire. It was apparent the flames had come over the top of the ridge, swept down the ravine and burned themselves out when the met up with the creek waters. “Lucky for us it must hav’ been movin’ too fast ta spread much,” the driver told the team of horses. “Come on,” the driver sat back down, flicking the reins to start the team moving. “We’ve been lollygagging long enough. Let’s get moving. I said I’d be home by dark and I don’ aim ta keep her waitin’.”
The team moved out slowly, pulling the heavy wagon behind it. As they started the climb up the ravine, the driver was surprised to see three horses coming out of a gully and walk to the creek.
“Wonder who those belong to? Whoa,” the driver stopped the team. “Best have me a look, ‘case someone’s hurt.” Setting the wagon brake, the driver climbed down from the high seat. Walking across the blackened earth, the driver’s boots kicked up small clouds of dust and soot. Approaching Blaze, the driver held out a hand ready to grab the reins when they were with reach.
Seeing what was about to happen, Dusty whinnied and Blaze moved back a few feet.
The driver tried again and Dusty again warned Blaze away.
“If’n tha’s the way you plans to be, ta heck wit’ ya. I can’ stick around here all day,” the driver grumbled, returning to the wagon and waiting team. “Jus’ hope whos’ever ya belongs to ain’t needin’ no help.”
Jennifer could stay under the blanket no longer. She’d heard Jesse coughing then, for the past several minutes, no sounds had come from the end of the tunnel where her wife was supposed to be. Tentatively, she lifted the edge of the blanket, peeking underneath it. She could see the mine opening starkly outlined by the dark tunnel walls. There was no sign of Jesse.
Jennifer threw the blanket off her.
“Momma?” KC, glad to be free of the stifling blanket, searched for her mother in the darkness.
“I’m right here, sweetie,” Jennifer reached out to reassure her daughter. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know but we’ll go look for her as soon as I can get up.” Jennifer’s leg was stiff from sitting on the cold ground for so long. She reached out with her hands, searching for her cane and grateful when her fingers wrapped around it. She struggled to her feet, standing for several moments to allow her body to become orientated to the new position.
KC moved closer to her mother, hugging her leg.
“Give me your hand, sweetie,” Jennifer reached down to take hold of the toddler’s outstretched hand. “Let’s go find mommy.”
Jennifer wasn’t sure what she would find when she reached the end of the tunnel but it couldn’t be any worse than not knowing. She could tell the fire had moved past because there were no flames visible outside the opening and the smoke was not nearly as bad as it had been when she and the children were hunched under the blanket. She had almost reached the tunnel entrance when she spotted her wife’s crumpled form. “Jesse,” she cried.
KC saw her mommy at the same time. Pulling free of Jennifer, she ran to Jesse’s side. “Mommy,” KC cried, patting Jesse arm. “Mommy.”
Jennifer slipped the carry sack off, setting it on the ground just outside the tunnel entrance. “KC come sit with Charley while I get mommy out of there.” Standing at Jesse’s head, she bent over grabbing hold under her wife’s arms. It took a couple of tries but she finally managed to pull Jesse outside into the fresher air. Once she had her wife out of the tunnel, Jennifer examined her for injuries. Except for a few minor burns on her wife’s hands, Jennifer could find nothing to explain why Jesse wasn’t awake. But she was breathing and she could hear a heartbeat when she placed her ear to the rancher’s chest and that was all that mattered.
“Momma, ook,” KC called to Jennifer.
Jennifer glanced up to see a team of horses slowly pulling a freight wagon up the road below them. She stood, waving and calling to the driver. Without their horses, she and Jesse were going to need help to get to Phillipsburg.
The driver heard the calls and looked up to see a woman standing just outside a mine entrance. There appeared to be someone lying on the ground beside her and a child sitting nearby. Not wanting to leave the team standing on the grade with the full weight of the wagon dragging on them, the driver guided the horses to a relatively flat piece of ground just off the road before climbing down from the seat.
“Do you have water?” Jennifer called down to the driver.
Climbing back up to retrieve a canteen from under the seat, the driver dropped to the ground then began to scramble up the ravine’s side to the woman.
“Thank you,” Jennifer took the canteen, holding it so both KC and Charley could take a drink. Then she carried it to Jesse.
“What happened?” the driver asked.
“The fire came over the ridge. Jesse got us inside,” Jennifer said, pouring small sips of water into the unconscious rancher’s mouth.
The driver looked around. No wagon. No horses. “How’d ya git here?”
“We set our horses free.”
“Must be the three I seen down at the creek. You’ve a long walk ta try and catch them.”
“We won’t have to, they’ll come back.”
Remembering how the horses had shied away earlier, the driver said, “doubt it.”
“They’ll come,” Jennifer smiled.
“What’s wrong with him?” the driver asked.
“I’m not sure. I can’t find any place she’s hurt…”
“Yes, Jesse is my…” Jennifer almost said wife but stopped herself. She and Jesse were careful not to reveal their true relationship when they traveled outside of Sweetwater. “Sister,” she finished.
“Probably sucked in too much of the smoke.”
“Is there something we can do for her?” Jennifer asked, concerned that Jesse was showing no signs of waking up.
“Nothin’ I know of. Whare ya from?”
“Ya a long way from home. What ya doin’ out here?”
“We’re going to Granite. We have a friend there.”
“Mind me askin’ the name of ya friend?”
“Leevie Temple. Do you know her?”
“Dang,” the driver took off her hat to scratch her head.
“You’re a woman,” Jennifer said, startled to see the woman’s long hair tumble free. She looked at the freight wagon then back at the woman. “You’re Dannie.”
“Dang. Leevie didn’ say nothin’ ‘bout havin’ visitors.”
“Oh, she doesn’t know we’re coming. I, uh. I wanted to surprise her.”
“You that schoolteacher she’s always talkin’ ‘bout?”
Jennifer smiled. “I guess I probably am.”
“Then that ain’t yo’r sister is it?” Dannie nodded at Jesse.
“No, Jesse is definitely not my sister.”
“Thought she was smarter ‘en that by the way Leevie talks ‘bout her.”
“Smarter than what?” Jennifer’s eyes narrowed as she waited for an explanation of the woman’s comment.
“Smarter than to bring her wife and young ‘uns out like this. Damn fool thing ta do.”
Jennifer was about to give the patronizing woman a piece of her mind, when Jesse started coughing.
“Mommy, you dirty,” KC sat at Jesse’s shoulder, the soot covered rancher was still having trouble breathing and couldn’t yet sit up.
“You look a might dirty yourself,” Jesse rasped, her throat irritated by the smoke she’d inhaled.
Jennifer poured a few drops of water into her wife’s mouth, the rancher’s head resting in her lap. “You shouldn’t try talking, sweetheart.”
Charley crawled to Jesse and started to climb up on top of her.
“Best you keep him off her,” Dannie said.
“Come here, little man,” Jennifer started to remove the baby.
“No,” Jesse coughed. “Leave ‘im be.”
“Are you sure, sweetheart?” You’re having trouble breathing as it is.”
Dannie shook her head, “fool thing ta do.”
Jennifer glared at the woman, “I wish you’d stop referring to Jesse that way. She’s not a fool.”
“Momma,” KC pointed down the ravine. “’Ook, Dusty comin’. And Baze.”
“Thank goodness,” Jennifer sighed, glad to see the horses appear. “I wonder if Boy is with them?”
“Boy?” Dannie asked.
“Our pack horse,” Jennifer explained watching the horses’ slow progress up the ravine.
“Dere Boy,” KC shouted, excitedly when the big draft horse walked into view.
Jennifer sighed, her family was back together. “And he still has the packs,” she smiled. After seeing the horses galloping away from the fire, she’d been sure the packs would get shook loose and fall off.
“Need ta make sure they’re alright,” Jesse rasped, trying to sit up.
“Stay put,” KC scolded her mother. “Momma says so.”
“She’s right, sweetheart,” Jennifer smirked, patting Jesse’s shoulder. “You need to rest. I’ll check them over when they get here but from here they look to be okay.”
Dusty walked up to stand beside her prone mistress. She dropped her head, nuzzling Jesse’s face.
“You okay, girl,” Jesse coughed, rubbing the mare’s nose.
For an answer, Dusty blew out a short blast of air.
KC broke into giggles, her arms waving uselessly at the cloud of soot resettling on Jesse.
Charley sneezed. “Bleck,” he scratched his nose.
“We best get moving,” Jesse looked up at Jennifer. “Help me up so’s I can get mounted.”
“Tha’ ain’t too good an idea,” Dannie said as she checked the horses for injuries.
“What do you mean?” Jennifer asked.
“She tries ta ride, she’ll be fallin’ off in no time. Lungs are still full of smoke, she needs ta let them clean out.”
“How long will that take?”
“How much smoke she breathed in.”
Jennifer studied Jesse. She could see her wife was struggling to draw in air with each breath she took. “I guess we’ll have to camp here for a few days, sweetheart. At least, we won’t have to worry about a fire coming this way.”
Dannie scratched her head, unsure what to do. She could go about her business, leaving the women and their children to fend for themselves but Leevie would skin her alive when she found out. “Best we load her into the back of the wagon,” she told Jennifer. “It’ll be a rough ride, but she won’ be fallin’ off no horse that way.”
Jennifer smiled, “thank you.”
With Dannie’s help, the women managed to get Jesse down to the empty wagon and stretched out in the back of it. KC and Charley were put in to sit with their mommy.
“Let me get the horses tied up,” Dannie said, securing the removable gate at back of the wagon.
“You don’t need to tie them,” Jennifer said, wrapping Blaze’s reins around the saddle horn, leaving plenty of slack in the rawhide for the horse to have free movement. She stepped beside Dusty to do the same.
“Ain’t ya afraid they’ll run away?”
“No,” Jennifer rubbed Dusty’s neck. “Dusty won’t leave Jesse and Blaze and Boy follow Dusty.”
Dannie thought about arguing but after seeing the mare’s behavior at the creek, she figured Jennifer must know what she was talking about. “Alright,” she looped Boy’s lead around the packs to keep it from dragging on the ground. “Let’s get you up in the seat and we’ll go.”
Jennifer let Dannie help her climb up into the wagon seat. The freight wagon was much bigger then the ranch’s buckboard and she was grateful for the assistance. Her only regret was it wasn’t Jesse’s hands on her waist as she used the spokes of the large wagon wheel to clamber up.
“Do you?” Jennifer hesitated when Dannie climbed up to sit beside her. She didn’t want to ask too much of the woman helping them but she knew her babies were hungry. “Would you happen to have any food the young ‘uns could eat? They’ve had so little all day.”
“Don’t have much but,” Dannie reached under the wagon seat, pulling out a basket and handing it to Jennifer. “You’re welcome to what’s here. Leevie always sends me off with a nice basket.” Wrapped in a cloth were the remains of a loaf of bread, some cheese, a couple of slices of ham, and pieces of an apple. “Sorry, I ate most of it.”
“Thank you. It’s more than enough.” Jennifer leaned over the back of the wagon seat. “KC take this,” she held the basket for her daughter. “Give Charley little bites.”
“Otay,” KC carried the basket back to where she’d been sitting beside Jesse. Plopping down with the basket in her lap, she smiled, “’ook, Cha-wie. Lots a treats. You eats dis,” she pulled a hunk of bread free, handing it to her brother. “Mommy, you eats,” she held a piece of apple out for Jesse.
“Thank you,” Jesse rasped, taking the fruit.
“No talks,” KC frowned at her mother. “Momma says no talks.”
Jesse smiled, ruffling her daughter’s hair.
Dannie slapped the reins on her team’s rumps and the horses strained against their harnesses to start the wagon in motion. As she guided the team back onto the road, she looked over her shoulder to see the three horses were indeed following behind.
Continued in Part 9
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