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The heavy freight wagon crested the top of the ridge. The team of horses, just moments before straining to pull its weight uphill, now struggled to keep the wagon from overtaking them as the grade shifted downward.
“Is that Phillipsburg?” Jennifer asked, spotting a cluster of buildings on the opposite side of the valley.
“Yes,” Dannie grunted while pulling on the wagon’s brake handle to help control their descent.
“Top of the mountain behind it,” Dannie answered.
“Oh,” Jennifer sighed. She had hoped their journal would soon be ending but by the looks of the distance they still had to cover, it would be long after nightfall before they reached the mining camp. Her eyes surveyed the hillside the road sliced across on its way to the valley floor, the blackened path of the fire that had threatened them clearly stood out on the otherwise untouched terrain. The flames had begun in a coppice of trees far to the south, burning along the ridgeline until finally flowing over the crest to endanger her family.
Jennifer twisted around in the seat at the sound of Jesse suffering with another bout of coughing. “We need to stop,” she told Dannie, seeing the drawn look on her wife’s face and the tired children that were draped over her body.
“We’ll be there in ‘nother couple of hours,” Dannie said, not anxious to delay her homecoming any longer. She had left Granite before dawn the day before to make the delivery of supplies to a ranch several miles south and had promised Leevie she’d be home tonight. She’d already lost precious time when she’d stopped to help the woman sitting beside her. She turned to look into the back of the wagon, Jesse’s coughing had lessened. “She’ll be fine.”
Jennifer frowned. Facing forward again, she searched for someplace they could stop and rest, maybe even camp for the night. A thicket of trees beside the road at the base of the hill caught her eye. “Is there water there?” she asked, pointed at the copse.
“Looks ta be.”
“Then please stop when we get there.”
“You need only drop us there,” Jennifer told the freight driver. “Then you can go on. We’ll continue to Granite after Jesse’s has time to recover.”
“Ain’t sure that’s safe,” Dannie glanced to the north where the boiling smoke clouds continued to darken the sky. “Don’t know what direction that thing could take.”
“We’ll be fine,” Jennifer said, her mind already made up. “Jesse needs to rest and bouncing around in the back of this wagon is not allowing her that. And the young ‘uns are tired. We’ll camp there.”
“It’s right next ta the road,” Dannie frowned. “Ain’t safe for ya.”
Jennifer chuckled. “After what Jesse and I have been through, I’m sure we can manage spending a night or two by the side of this road. Besides,” she looked along the length of the rough dirt path, empty from where they were all the way into Phillipsburg. “It doesn’t look to be too well traveled,” she said seeing no other wagons or even a rider on horseback on the road.
“Ain’t safe. Best you stick with me to Granite.” Dannie made no effort to slow the wagon as it approached the thicket.
“Dannie, stop the damn wagon,” Jennifer ordered.
“Best do as she says,” Jesse growled from directly behind the wagon driver’s head. Hearing Dannie’s reluctance to do as Jennifer was asking, the rancher had struggled to her feet and climbed up the inside of the wagon bed to reach the back of the wagon seat.
“Jesse,” Jennifer cried out, concerned that her wife would be exerting herself in her weakened condition. “Get down from there before you fall.”
“I’m fine, darlin’,” Jesse wheezed before turning her attention back to the wagon driver. “Pull this thing over or I’ll climb up there and do it for ya.”
Dannie didn’t much care to be ordered about by the rancher, especially since she thought Jesse had already proven her poor judgment by taking a crippled wife and two babies into the wilderness. She thought about driving her elbow into the side of the rancher’s head, sure that it would knock Jesse senseless, but didn’t. Having to explain her reasons for doing so to Leevie would be difficult. Dannie pulled on the reins, letting the horses slow to a stop at their own pace.
“Fine, you want to stay out here, stay,” Dannie set the brake when the wagon stilled then climbed down to help the other women out.
Jesse was lifting the rear gate free by the time Dannie walked to the back of the wagon. Leaning the piece of wood against the side of the wagon bed, she dropped to the ground then turned to pull KC and Charley out. Carrying the babies around to the side of the wagon, she set them on the ground to help Jennifer who was climbing down from the wagon seat.
Jennifer smiled, feeling the familiar hands encircling her waist. “Thank you, sweetheart,” she turned in Jesse’s arms as soon as her feet touched the ground. “How do you feel?” she asked, her hand tenderly brushing matted hair away from the rancher’s forehead.
“Tired and dirty,” Jesse smiled, “but breathin’ is a little easier.”
“You sure you want to stay here?” Jesse asked as a piece of ash floated out of the sky, settling on Jennifer’s nose. “She’s right about the fire.”
“I know. But you’re tired, the babies are tired and I’m tired. And we don’t know that being in Phillipsburg or Granite is actually any safer than us being here. I want to be someplace I can just sit without moving,” she looked at Jesse, hoping the rancher understood.
“Me too,” Jesse gently leaned her forehead against her wife’s. “And someplace I can hold you.”
“You sure ‘bout this?” Dannie walked up, interrupting the women.
“Yes,” Jennifer said, now wrapped in Jesse’s arms. “Thank you for your help, Dannie,” she smiled at the other woman. “Please tell Leevie not to worry about us. We’ll be in Granite in a day or two but first we’re going to take some time to rest.” She sighed, had it really only been that morning when she and Jesse had awakened to the danger of the approaching fire? It seemed so much longer. “We need some time to regroup.”
“Momma,” KC was tugging on Jennifer’s pant leg.
“What, sweetie?” Jennifer looked down at her daughter.
“I know,” Jennifer smiled at the baby looking up at her. “We’ll get something made up just as soon as we get a fire started. Okay?”
“Otay,” KC nodded, toddling away from her mothers in search of firewood.
“Hold on there,” Jennifer called to KC. “Wait for me to help, sweetie.”
“If’n you’re sure ‘bout staying put,” Dannie told Jesse, “I’ll be heading home.”
“We’re sure,” Jesse nodded.
“Seems like a fool thing ta do,” Dannie muttered, watching the schoolteacher limb after her daughter.
“I appreciate you stopping to help Jennifer,” Jesse bristled at the wagon driver’s tone. “But my wife is right about us being able to handle whatever might come up. We’ve done pretty well so far.”
“Yeah,” Dannie grunted, climbing back up into the wagon seat. “I can see how well you’ve done.” She released the brake, slapping the reins over the flanks of the horses.
Jesse’s blood boiled as she watched the wagon move away. “Why you arrogant…”
“Sweetheart?” Jennifer returned with KC and an armload of firewood.
“Who the hell does she think she is talkin’ to us like that?”
Jennifer dropped the kindling in order to wrap her arms around her angry wife. “It’s been a long day, Jesse. Let it go, please.”
Jesse looked at Jennifer, the dark circles under her eyes and the deeply etched worry lines across her brow reminded the rancher she had more important things to be concerned about. “I’ll get the fire started,” she kissed the tip of her wife’s nose.
“I’ll do that if you can get the packs off Boy so I can start cooking.”
“Can you do it alone, Jesse?” Jennifer asked, still troubled with the raspy sound of her wife’s voice.
“I’ll give a holler if I can use some help.”
“Let’s set camp a little further off the road,” Jesse looked around. They were standing right at the edge of the path where it curved sharply as it left the side of the hill and turned to cross the valley for Phillipsburg. “Maybe over there in that low spot,” she nodded toward a depression closer to the thicket of trees where a shallow creek flowed.
It took much longer than normal since she had to stop and rest several times, but Jesse finally managed to pull the packs and saddles off the horses. “Sorry, girl,” she patted Dusty’s neck. “Looks like you’re gonna have ta wait ‘till tomorrow to get brushed down.”
Dusty whinnied, her head bopping up and down as if she understood her mistress was struggling just to breathe at the moment.
Jennifer set a bucket of water on top of the stone in the middle of the fire ring, placing more pieces of firewood around it she left it to heat. “KC, watch your brother while I help mommy,” she said walking over to Jesse. “Sweetheart, go sit down.”
“Got to get the tent up,” Jesse rasped. It was warm enough to sleep on the ground but with the air still full of ash and soot she wanted her family protected as much as possible.
“Go sit down before you fall down,” Jennifer hardened her tone. “I’ll take care of the tent.
Jesse looked into her wife’s determined eyes. “I can help,” she offered, weakly.
“Please, go,” Jennifer cupped her hand against the rancher’s cheek. “You can barely stand up,” she said softly.
Jesse nodded. Jennifer was right; it was taking all the energy she had just to remain upright. She walked over to where KC and Charley were waiting for their mothers to finish setting up camp. She eased her exhausted body onto the ground, gasping for breath.
Jennifer pulled the tent off the pack, dragging it to the lowest area of the depression where the ground was flattest. Unrolling the heavy canvas, she stretched out the sides. Picking up the longest support pole, she slipped it underneath the tent top and forced it upright raising the center of the tent into position. She carried the rest of the support poles inside, working as quickly as she could to position them before stepping back outside. She found KC waiting for her.
“Mommy, seeping,” KC whispered.
Jennifer looked over to the fire to see Jesse collapsed on the ground. Charley had crawled over to his mother and was asleep in the crook of her arm. She looked down at her daughter who was yawning widely and rubbing her eyes. “Seems we all need sleep a lot more than we need food right now,” she murmured. She walked back to the packs, pulling their bedrolls free. She carried them to the tent, spreading them out on the canvas floor. One more trip to the packs to retrieve clean sleeping shirts and diapers and some towels and she was ready to get her family ready for bed.
“Sweetie,” Jennifer told KC, “go inside and get those dirty clothes off while I get Charley.
“Otay,” KC said tiredly, stepping into the tent. She began to pull off clothes as soon as she was inside.
Jennifer carefully lifted Charley out of her sleeping wife’s arms. Picking the bucket up as she passed the fire, she carried the baby into the tent. “Wash your face and hands, sweetie, while I get Charley’s britches changed,” she set the bucket of heated water down.
Naked, KC toddled over to the bucket. She dipped her hands into the warm water, splashing it on her face. When that didn’t seem to get much of the sooty grime off her skin, she bent over dipping her face into the water. Something she’d watch Jesse do many times. With her face under water, she scrubbed vigorously with her little hands. Her head popped up moments later, water dripping off it back into the bucket. “Keen?” she asked.
Jennifer looked at the soot smeared face. “Good enough for tonight,” she smiled. “We’ll all have to take baths tomorrow. Can you get your night shirt on?” Jennifer asked, dipping a towel into the bucket to clean some of the grime of Charley.
“Yep,” KC pulled the clean piece of clothing over her head.
“Good girl,” Jennifer grinned. “Now get into bed.”
KC ran to Jennifer, wrapping her arms around her neck and kissing her. “Wuv you, momma,” she said before scampering back to the bedroll she shared with her brother and crawling inside.
“I love you, too, sweetie,” Jennifer said, slipping Charley in beside KC. She leaned over, kissing both children. “Sweet dreams, my darlings.”
“Mommy seep out dere?” KC asked as Jennifer pushed herself up onto her feet.
“No. I’m going to go get her now.”
Jennifer stepped out of the tent. The sun was setting in the west painting the sky blood red as its last rays of light shone through the thick layer of smoke hanging above her. She knelt beside Jesse, wincing at the sound of her wife’s labored breathing. “Jesse,” she gently rocked the sleeping woman’s shoulder. “Sweetheart, wake up.”
“Huh?” Jesse’s eyelids slowly lifted. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Jennifer smiled in the fading light. “But you need to get up so we can get you into the tent.”
“Oh.” Jesse rolled onto her side, then bracing one hand against the ground pushed herself up onto her hands and knees. She stayed in that position several minutes before she could force herself upright. Leaning heavily on Jennifer, she let her wife guide her into the tent.
Jennifer thought about undressing Jesse who had fallen back asleep as soon as she was laid out on the bedroll but decided that removing the rancher’s boots would be enough for the night. With Jesse and the children settled in bed and fast asleep, she made one last trip outside before she joined her wife.
Dusty walked up, nuzzling Jennifer’s head as she pulled the rifle free of Jesse’s saddle scabbard.
Jennifer reached up, patting the mare’s neck. “She’ll be fine, girl. She just needs lots of rest for a while. Keep an eye on things out here tonight, okay? I don’t think I’d wake up if an entire herd of buffalo ran through the camp.”
Dusty whinnied softly, letting her mistress know she do as she asked.
“Night, girl,” Jennifer yawned, carrying the rifle into the tent. After placing the weapon on the tent floor an arm length above Jesse’s head, she pulled off her dirty clothes. Dipping a towel into the bucket’s cooled water she washed what she could off her face and arms, leaving the rest for the morning bath. Setting the bucket outside of the tent, she pulled the flap down and tied it securely. One last check on the babies then she padded over to the bedroll, slipping inside with Jesse.
Jesse rolled over, curling her body around Jennifer’s. “Love you,” she mumbled in her sleep.
“I love you, too,” Jennifer kissed the top of her wife’s head.
Jesse woke to find her self alone in the tent. The bright sunlight flooding through the opened tent flap and the hint of freshly cooked biscuits and bacon still lingering in the air told her she had slept long past breakfast. She stretched out her long body, surprised at how tired she still felt. Her throat was dry and scratchy and her chest ached. She figured that was caused by a combination of the smoke she had inhaled and all the coughing she had done since. Rising up on her elbows to look outside, she smiled at the sight that greeted her.
KC and Charley sat just outside the open flap, watching their mother sleep. As soon as Jesse’s eyes opened, broad smiles spread across their worried faces.
“Momma,” KC called to Jennifer who was standing barefoot in the creek washing the clothes she had worn the day before. “Mommy wake.”
“Thank goodness,” Jennifer sighed, carefully stepping up onto the creek bank. By the time she reached the tent, her children had already crawled atop their mother. “Good afternoon,” Jennifer smiled, sitting beside Jesse. “How you feeling?”
“Tired, but okay,” Jesse reached out, slipping a hand behind Jennifer and pulling her down to her.
Jennifer melted into Jesse’s embrace. “I was worried about you,” she sniffled. “You coughed so much last night, I was so worried.”
“Sorry, darlin’,” Jesse turned her head to nuzzle her wife’s hair. “You’ve been busy this morning,” she grinned when she smelled soap. Looking at KC and Charley, she saw they had also had baths, their skin no longer bearing the dark coloring of the day before. “And where are your boots?”
“I was washing clothes in the creek. Seemed easier just to take them off.”
“Mommy,” KC crawled up Jesse’s body. Knees on her mother’s chest and hands braced against her shoulders, she looked down into Jesse’s face. “We make biscuits. Cha-wie want eats all bacon but momma said no. Momma said it for you.”
Jesse squirmed as her daughter’s sharp knees dug into her soft skin. “That was nice of momma,” Jesse chuckled at the serious expression on her daughter’s face.
“You gets up. You eats. Otay?”
“Sure, sunshine,” Jesse tweaked the toddler’s nose, sending her into a fit of giggles and causing her to collapse onto her chest. “Ugh,” she grunted.
“Sweetie,” Jennifer gently pulled KC closer to her, “get off mommy until she feels better.”
Charley crawled up to take KC’s place. Draping his arms and legs over Jesse’s sides, he laid his head between her breasts.
Jesse placed her hand on the baby’s back. “Guess if it ain’t one, it’ll be the other,” she told Jennifer.
“They were worried about you,” Jennifer whispered.
Jesse was quiet for a few minutes. “Seems like just once we’d be able to take a trip without something happening,” she murmured, rubbing the baby’s back. “Seems we’ve earned it.”
“We’re safe,” Jennifer whispered. “That’s good enough for me.”
Jesse turned her head to look into her wife’s eyes, smiling at the love reflected in them. “Me too.”
“We eats?” KC bolted upright, looking hopefully from one mother to the next.
“I could use a little something,” Jesse agreed. “Not ta mention, a bath and change of clothes. I must smell right awful ‘bout now.”
“I like you just the way you are.”
“Come on, Cha-wie,” KC pushed herself to her feet and balancing for an instant on her mommy’s legs, she jumped to the tent floor. “Come on, Cha-wie,” she called, running for the opening.
“Bleck,” Charley watched his sister go but remained where he lay.
“Uh, oh,” Jesse chuckled. “Looks like Charley is starting to think for himself.”
“KC will be devastated,” Jennifer laughed.
“Cha-wie,” KC’s head popped back inside the tent. “Come on.”
Continued in Part 10
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