Bannack by Mickey Minner

Bannack
by Mickey Minner

#2 in the Sweetwater Saga

CHAPTER ONE

Dusty walked up to the porch of the ranch house and stopped. Only after the mare snorted several minutes later did one of her riders notice that they were no longer moving. Jennifer, leaning back into the warm cocoon Jesse had created for her, opened one eye and looked at their surroundings.

“Um, Jesse,” she tenderly rubbed the arms wrapped around her. “I think Dusty is trying to tell us that we’re home.”

“Too soon,” Jesse murmured in Jennifer’s ear. “Haven’t been riding that long.” Jesse had spent the entire ride from Sweetwater with her head nestled next to Jennifer’s. Her eyes were open but all she saw was the woman sitting in the saddle in front of her.

“Sweetheart,” Jennifer reached up and took a gentle hold on Jesse’s chin, turning her head to the cabin. “What would you call that?” she asked, teasingly.

Jesse was forced to break her gaze away from the woman in her arms, “um, sure looks like the ranch.” She squeezed Jennifer tight before releasing her and swinging down from the saddle.

Jennifer giggled as she swung her leg over the saddle horn and allowed herself to be helped to the ground. After pulling the saddle bags free, Jesse led Jennifer to the door of the cabin. She pulled the handle and the door swung open easily.

“Welcome home,” Jesse stood aside to allow Jennifer to enter first. “It’s not much, still needs some work. But, it’s ours.”

A lump formed in Jennifer’s throat when she heard Jesse describe the cabin as ‘ours’. She stepped in front of Jesse and captured her lips in a tender kiss.

“Do you know how much I love you?” Jennifer asked, looking into Jesse’s deep brown eyes.

Jesse grinned, “got a pretty good hankering.”

“Good,” Jennifer smiled back and entered the house.

Jesse followed, she placed the saddle bags on a small table in the room. “I’ve got to see to Dusty. Make yourself comfortable, I won’t be long.”

“Can I do anything to help?”

“Nah,” Jesse stopped as her stomach rumbled. She smirked when she saw that Jennifer had also heard the noise, “unless you can cook.”

“I think I can manage something edible,” Jennifer realized Jesse probably didn’t know she was a good cook. She had always eaten in the dining room of the Silver Slipper, the rooming house Jesse owned in Sweetwater. Jennifer thought to herself that this was a wonderful way to surprise her new love.

“Okay, I’ll be back quick as I can,” they heard Dusty whinny her impatience. “Quicker, if you keep that up,” Jesse told the horse as she left the cabin.

Jennifer stood by the door and took in the place she would now call home. The few minutes they had spent at the ranch after she’d broken Jesse out of jail, hadn’t given her much time to really appreciate the ‘house’.

Jennifer found herself standing in a large open room that made up the interior of a structure built of entire logs laid atop each other. The log cabin was rectangular in shape with a fireplace at each end. The door they used to enter the cabin was in the middle of the west wall and Jennifer saw a matching door on the opposite wall. Windows had been cut into the logs between the doors and end walls, allowing plenty of light into the cabin’s interior.

Under the window to Jennifer’s left, a small, crudely made table held Jesse’s saddlebags. Two rickety chairs were tucked under it. A larger, studier table was pushed under the window on the back wall, canisters and boxes of food stuffs underneath. Shelves had been nailed to the log wall on either side of the table and held some plates, cups, and a few cooking utensils. The fireplace at that end of the cabin obviously served as the cook stove and heated water for the tub sitting in the corner between the fireplace and the small table.

On Jennifer’s right was the sitting/sleeping area. A bed, piled with blankets, was positioned lengthwise under the window on the east wall. Jennifer was pleased to see that the bed was bigger than the one in her room at the Slipper. Which when shared with Jesse, she had been afraid to move least one of them was pushed off the mattress and unto the floor. The trunk of clothes left by the ranch’s previous owner, sat at the foot of the bed. A small dresser stood against the wall next to the fireplace, a broken corner propped up by a piece of wood. Along the front wall between the window and door, a neatly made bookcase provided space for several books. Jennifer grinned as she realized that it had to be Jesse’s handiwork.

The fireplace at this end was smaller than the other but plenty large enough to warm the sleeping area. A chair, badly in need of having its stuffing repaired, sat facing the fireplace, a well-used quilt hung over the back. The only other piece of furniture in the room was the tall cabinet near the back door that Jesse kept her guns and ammunition in.

“Well,” Jennifer let out a long sigh. “Jesse’s right, it’s not much. But,” a smile spread across her face, “it’s home.”

****************

Jesse was greeted by the smell of frying bacon when she entered the cabin after rubbing Dusty down and checking on the other animals. Jennifer was stirring a pot hanging on the cooking hook. The rancher quickly crossed the room, wrapping her arms around the schoolteacher.

“Something smells awfully good in here,” Jesse peered over Jennifer’s shoulder.

“Glad you think so,” Jennifer leaned back into Jesse’s embrace. “Go on, get washed up,” Jennifer pointed to a bowl of warm water she had filled moments before. “This is just about ready.”

Jesse reluctantly relinquished her hold on Jennifer. “You find everything you needed?” she asked as she rolled her sleeves up to wash her hands and face.

“No,” Jennifer filled two plates with bacon, beans, and gravy covered biscuits. “Honey, you really need more than flour and beans if you expect me to cook for you.”

“Sorry,” Jesse looked apologetically as she pulled one of the boxes out from under the table and sat down. “Meant to get supplies at Ed’s last week. You best start a list.”

Jennifer placed the plates on the table where Jesse sat and looked around for a chair but saw only the ones at the small table under the window. And, they definitely didn’t look safe to use. “Jesse?” she asked.

“Hey, this is really good,” Jesse said around a mouthful of biscuit and gravy.

“I’m glad you like it,” Jennifer beamed, then returned to her quest. “Jesse, don’t you have any good chairs?”

“Damn,” Jesse sprang from her box. “I’ve been meanin’ to make me a couple. Just haven’t found the time, yet. Here you go,” she pulled a second box out from under the table and gestured for Jennifer to sit.

“Guess we should add chairs to the shopping list,” Jennifer chuckled.

“Yep,” Jesse took another spoonful of gravy covering biscuit. “We can take the wagon into town tomorrow. You make out your list and I’ll have Ed fill it. Don’t know if he’ll have any chairs, though. Probably can take a couple from the Slipper.”

“Okay,” Jennifer took a bite and was surprised at how good the food tasted considering what she’d had to work with.

“This is really good,” Jesse repeated as she finished off her biscuits. “I didn’t know you could cook.”

“One of the few things my father thought was proper for a girl,” Jennifer said.

Jesse heard the sadness in Jennifer’s voice, “I’m sorry, Jennifer.”

Jennifer turned and saw the hurt in Jesse’s eyes. “It’s okay,” she said as she laid her head on Jesse’s shoulder. “I’m here and that’s all that matters now.”

Jesse softly kissed the top of Jennifer’s head, “I’m glad you’re here.”

After several long moments, Jennifer sat back up and returned to her meal. “Well, if I need to make a list of supplies, you’re going to have to tell me what you like to eat.”

“That’s easy,” Jesse said as she cleaned her plate. “You cook it and I’ll eat it.”

“We’ll see,” Jennifer smirked.

Jesse looked at the schoolteacher suspiciously, “something you’re not telling me?”

“Not really,” Jennifer popped the last piece of bacon from her plate into her mouth. “I just like to experiment.”

“Uh, oh.”

*************

Jennifer finished her bath and stepped from the tub drying herself with the tattered towel Jesse had provided. Jesse had filled the tub and offered Jennifer first use of the hot water. Jesse was sitting in the chair near the bed waiting her turn at a bath and trying desperately not to turn around and look at what she knew would be Jennifer’s naked body.

Jesse wanted to look. She really wanted to look. But, she thought it best to give Jennifer some privacy. As Jesse sat, she remembered a moment a few days earlier when she had caught a glimpse of the schoolteacher’s body.

“Where are we going?” Jennifer asked as she pulled on the denim pants. They were too long for her legs and she bent to roll the cuffs up.

Jesse’s breath caught in her chest as she turned to answer and her eyes fell on the half-dressed body of the schoolteacher. She tried to look away but her eyes would not follow her commands and stayed focused on Jennifer as she rolled the pant legs up to free her feet. “You’re beautiful,” Jesse said to herself, or so she thought.

“Jesse,” Jennifer broke into Jesse’s musing. “I, ah,” Jennifer was uncomfortable. “I just realized that all my clothes are at the Slipper. Do you have an extra nightshirt?”

Jesse rose from the chair being careful to keep her back to Jennifer. “I’m pretty sure I have one in here,” Jesse pulled open a drawer in the dresser and began rooting around until she found the requested item. Moving with her back still to Jennifer, she made her way across the room and handed the garment to the schoolteacher.

“Thanks,” Jennifer took the nightshirt. She was disappointed when Jesse immediately retreated to the far end of the cabin without showing any interest in taking advantage of her current undressed condition. She pulled the nightshirt over her head wondering if Jesse would ever look at her again the way she had only days earlier in this very room. Jesse had said she was beautiful, had she changed her mind? Tears sprang to Jennifer’s eyes as she considered that possibility.

Sensing Jennifer’s distress, Jesse twisted in the chair. She immediately rushed to Jennifer’s side when she saw the tears.

“Hey,” Jesse reached for the schoolteacher, “why are you crying?”

Jennifer let Jesse pull her into a warm hug. Jesse may not want her but she craved Jesse.

“When you didn’t want to look at me. Well,” Jennifer blushed. But, only seeing concern in Jesse’s eyes, she continued, “I thought maybe you had changed your mind about me.”

“Never,” Jesse assured the trembling woman in her arms. “I was, well,” it was now Jesse’s turn to blush. “I wanted to look but I was afraid it would bother you.”

“Oh,” Jennifer rested her head against Jesse’s. “It wouldn’t bother me,” she sighed.

For several minutes, the women stood in the embrace soaking up the other’s affection. It was a feeling that both found themselves to be liking more each time they did it.

“Jesse,” Jennifer patted Jesse’s side.

“Um.”

“You better get your bath before the water is too cold.”

“Yeah,” Jesse said but she continued to hold Jennifer until she was gently pushed away.

“Go.”

Jesse made quick work of her bath because the water was, indeed, cold but more so because Jennifer was in bed waiting for her. She climbed from the tub, quickly drying off before pulling her on own nightshirt. When her head popped through the shirt’s opening she saw Jennifer watching her. She felt a blush start in her toes and rise all the way to her face as she followed Jennifer’s eyes in a long, lazy tour of her body.

“Ready for bed, sweetheart,” Jennifer held open the blankets that covered her.

“No fair,” Jesse groused climbing under the blankets to join Jennifer. “You peeked.”

“Guess you’ll just have to wait until my next bath,” Jennifer snuggled next to the pouting woman.

“I could start heating the water now,” Jesse threw back the blankets.

“Uh, uh,” Jennifer recovered their bodies. “You lost your chance for tonight, honey.”

“Spoilsport.”

“Hold me.”

“With pleasure.”

****************

CHAPTER TWO

The next morning, Jesse was backing the draft horse into the buckboard’s harness. Except for pulling the buckboard when she brought supplies from town, she didn’t have much need for the large working horse that had come with the ranch. But, she liked the gentle giant and it provided a companion for Dusty. Dusty, however, had a different opinion on the subject and complained loudly whenever Jesse left her at the ranch in favor of the draft horse.

“Stop it,” Jesse told a snorting Dusty. “You know you don’t like pulling this wagon, so stop whining.”

Dusty snorted again, shook her head several times, and stomped her front hoofs.

Jesse finishing attaching all the buckles of the harness and turned to face her normal ride. “You want me to tie you to the back of the wagon and you can eat dust all the way to town?” she asked the annoyed horse.

Dusty whinnied, snorted, and stomped. Then, took one last look at Jesse before running to the far corner of the corral and turning her rump to her mistress.

“Just once I’d like to take the buckboard to town without you throwing a fit,” she mumbled as she led the big horse to the cabin porch.

Jennifer came out of the cabin just as Jesse pulled the horse to a stop. She was wearing the denim pants and flannel shirt Jesse had given her. “I’m going to change when we get to town. I can’t teach school dressed like this.” Although, she thought, she would really like to. Jennifer found she enjoyed wearing the denim pants, they seem to give her a sense of freedom that being bundled in a dress did not. She had already decided that she would wear the more comfortable pants whenever she could. After all, Jesse wore pants all the time and no one seemed to mind.

“Okay,” Jesse helped Jennifer up into the buckboard before climbing up herself. “‘Course, now if I were one of your students, I wouldn’t mind what you wore to class, just as long as I could look at you all day.”

“Oh, really,” Jennifer blushed and nudged Jesse in the arm.

“Yep,” Jesse slapped the reins and the big horse began to move.

“What’s his name?”

“Who?”

“The big, bad, horse that has Dusty so upset.”

“You noticed,” Jesse grumbled.

“Hard to miss the commotion she was making.”

“She hates being left behind.”

“I’d never know,” Jennifer laughed. “So, what’s his name.”

“Boy.”

“Boy?”

“Yep, he’s my big Boy.”

“You’d think with all the books you read you could have come up with something more…,” Jennifer’s arms flailed wildly. “Oh, I don’t know. Something more original,” she shook in head in amazement at the rancher.

“I like ‘Boy’. So, does he. Don’t ya, boy?” she asked with a gentle slap of the reins on the horse’s broad back.

Boy, hearing his name, raised his head and whinnied. The women laughed.

****************

Jesse pulled the buckboard to a stop in front of the Slipper. She jumped down from the wagon seat, then helped Jennifer down. As they entered the Slipper, Bette Mae was coming out of the kitchen with a fresh pot of coffee.

“Oh,” Jennifer moaned. “I’ve love a cup of that.”

“Well,” Bette Mae smiled at the couple. “Sit yourself down and I’ll pour ya one. Didn’ have any at the ranch this mornin’?”

“No,” Jennifer settled into a chair at the nearest table. “Jesse was out of coffee beans and just about everything else.”

Bette Mae filled a cup with the hot liquid and placed it in front of the schoolteacher, then poured one for Jesse. She saw the sheepish look on Jesse’s face.

“Now, don’ you be tellin’ me you took this littl’ lady home without any food in the place,” she put her free hand on her ample hip and glared at Jesse.

“Hey, I was going to get supplies last week but something,” she smirked at Jennifer. “Or, should I say someone, came up.”

“Don’t worry, Bette Mae. She’ll be spending time with Ed today,” Jennifer assured the older woman

Jesse patted the pocket of her shirt, “Yep, got me a nice, long list of ‘essentials’ to buy.”

Bette Mae winked at Jennifer as she continued to tease Jesse, “good thing she’s a smart one. Now, what about breakfast?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jennifer groaned as she patted her empty stomach. “We are definitely having that.”

Bette Mae chuckled as she made her way back into the kitchen.

*********************

After breakfast, Jennifer went up to her old room and changed into her one and only dress. She carefully folded the pants and shirt and left them on the dresser. Grabbing her bag of lessons and notes, she headed back downstairs.

Not seeing Jesse in the dining room, Jennifer knocked lightly on the door to Jesse’s office.

“Come in, darlin’,” Jesse called. She knew it was either Jennifer or Bette Mae, and the older woman would have just entered after knocking.

Jennifer paused. Jesse had never used that particular endearment before and Jennifer found that she rather liked it.

When no one entered, Jesse thought that maybe it wasn’t Jennifer who had knocked and she rose from her desk. Pulling open the door, she was surprised to see Jennifer standing in front of her.

“Didn’t you hear me?” Jesse asked.

Jennifer looked at Jesse with a big smile, “oh, I heard you alright.”

“Then, why didn’t you come in?” Jesse was puzzled.

Jennifer leaned in and kissed Jesse. “You’ve never called me that before. And, I was just standing here considering how much I liked it.”

“Oh,” Jesse thought for a minute trying to think of just what she had called Jennifer. Finally, remembering, she pulled Jennifer to her and returned the kiss. “Then, darlin’, I’ll just have to remember that.”

Jesse took the bag from Jennifer’s hand, “walk you to school?”

“I’d love that.”

**************

After bidding Jennifer goodbye at the schoolhouse, Jesse walked to the general store. Entering the building, she saw Sweetwater’s sheriff and her friend, Billie Monroe, grab a handful of crackers from a wooden barrel.

“You paying for those, Sheriff? Or, confiscating them as evidence?”

“Dammit, Jesse,” the sheriff dropped the top of the barrel down on his hand. “You could give a man a heart attack doing that,” he smiled at his friend while he rubbed his hand. Jesse noticed that he still maintained a firm grip on the crackers he had taken.

“Morning, Jesse,” Ed Granger, the storekeeper, stood in his usual place behind the store’s long wooden counter. “Don’t worry about Billie. Anything he doesn’t pay for, I just add to Mayor Perkins bill.”

Jesse joined in the amusement at the expense of Sweetwater’s pompous mayor. “Knowing the way his kids eat, I doubt if he’d ever notice.”

“They surely do keep the freight wagons between here and Bozeman busy,” Ed laughed.

“How’s the head, Billie?” Jesse asked when the laughter died down. The sheriff had been injured the night of Jesse’s jailbreak trying to control a lynch mob.

“Hardly bothers me any more. How’s yours?” Billie pointed at the very noticeable path of the bullet that had grazed Jesse’s head. A reminder of just how close she had come to being killed by the Slipper’s previous owner.

“Twitch, now and again. But, not enough to bother me. Headache was the worst part of it.”

“Yep,” Billie nodded. “I didn’t think my head would ever stop ringing.”

“Guess, we both came away lucky,” Jesse patted her friend on the shoulder. “Just, let’s not do it again.”

“Right with ya on that,” Billie agreed heartily. Johnson’s plot against Jesse was the worst criminal act the sheriff had had to deal with since being appointed to the position. And, he was more than happy to go back to dealing with the occasional drunk or card cheat. “Well, I best get back to the office,” Billie tossed a couple of coins on the counter to pay for his crackers.

“Thanks, Billie,” the storekeeper gathered up the coins before turning his attention to the rancher. “Something I can do for you today, Jesse?”

“Yep, need some supplies for the ranch.” Jesse pulled the paper from her pocket and handed it to the storekeeper.

Ed began to read through the items. “Gosh, Jesse, I didn’t know you could cook,.” he was surprised to read many of the spices and other ingredients listed.

“I can’t,” Jesse grinned. “Jennifer made it out. I don’t know what half that stuff is.”

“Well, that explains it,” Ed said as he finished reading. “Not sure I have all of this, Jesse. If I don’t, I can always order it from Bozeman.”

“Nah,” Jesse flinched at hearing the name of the town. It was almost a year since her parents had sold the family ranch and moved into Bozeman, leaving her to fend for herself. And, yet the hurt was still heavy in her heart. “Just give us what you’ve got. Jennifer can decide if she wants it bad enough to special order.”

“Okay,” Ed nodded. “You in a hurry for it?”

“Nope. Jennifer won’t be done at school until after noon. Send word to the Slipper when you’ve got it ready.”

“Sounds good,” Ed was already pulling items off the shelves when Jesse exited the store.

Jesse stood on the boardwalk for several minutes. Was it really such a short time since she had stood in this very spot and watched the town’s new schoolteacher step down from the stage? She smiled as she remembered seeing Jennifer for the first time and how unsettled she had been over her reaction to the newcomer. Now, she realized she had fallen in love with Jennifer at that very moment.

“Yep,” Jesse said to no one in particular. “She hooked me on the first look.”

Whistling happily, Jesse made her way back to the Slipper.

************

It was after noon when Bette Mae knocked on the office door before carrying a tray into Jesse’s office. Jesse had spent the morning after leaving the general store, working on the Slipper’s ledgers. Bette Mae was responsible for the day to day running of the boarding house and saloon but Jesse did the books and paid the bills. It wasn’t that Bette Mae wasn’t capable of doing everything, Jesse just didn’t feel right asking the older woman to carry the entire burden. So, even though, she would much rather spend all her time at the ranch, Jesse would came into town several times a week to take care of the Slipper’s business.

Bette Mae placed the contents of the tray on the desk in front of Jesse before settling onto the couch Jesse used for sleeping if she had to work late at the Slipper.

‘Guess we won’ be seeing the boss workin’ late anymore,’ Bette Mae chuckled to herself.

Jesse took a bite of the ham sandwich set before her, “care to let me know what you find so humorous?”

“Nope,” Bette Mae smiled at the young woman then changed the subject. “Didn’ think I’d see the two of ya in town this morning.”

“Why not?” Jesse washed down the bite of sandwich with a swallow of cold milk. “You know Jennifer had to teach today.”

“Just figured you’d have other things to keep ya busy,” the older woman raised an eyebrow at the rancher.

Jesse put down the glass and looked at the older woman, “I love her so much, Bette Mae. But,” she stopped, too embarrassed to tell her that she hadn’t been brave enough to try to make love with Jennifer.

“Want to talk about it,” Bette Mae saw the distress in Jesse’s face.

“I,” Jesse started. “I wanted to, you know,” Bette Mae nodded. “But, I… I don’t know what to do.”

Bette Mae looked across the room and instead of the confident business owner/rancher she knew, she saw a scared young woman who was experiencing love for the first time. She smiled compassionately at Jesse, “come over here, child.” She patted the cushion next to her.

Jesse rose from the desk and, on shaky legs, crossed to sit next to the woman she hoped could help her. She had once before. When Jesse had been unsure of how to act on her feelings for Jennifer, Bette Mae had told her to “follow your heart”. It was the best advice Jesse had ever received. She hoped Bette Mae was up for a repeat performance.

Taking Jesse’s hands into her own, Bette Mae asked, “what do ya want ta do?”

Reassured by her friend’s caring tone, Jesse began, “I want to hold her so tight I’m afraid I’ll squeeze the breath right out of her. I want to touch her, to feel every inch of her soft skin. I want to kiss her, not just her lips but her neck, her shoulders. I just… I just want so much to show her how I feel.”

“Then, that’s what ya should do,” Bette Mae encouraged her.

“But,” Jesse hesitated.

“But, what?”

“What do I do?” Jesse asked. She had never even kissed anyone before Jennifer. Boys had never held any attraction for her. She hadn’t really avoided them but the idea of doing anything on the romantic side had simply never occurred to her. She was completely unprepared for affairs of the heart.

Jesse’s question was asked in a voice so pitiful Bette Mae had a hard time keeping a straight face. “Believe me, once ya git started, ya won’ have any trouble figurin’ out what ta do next.”

“I won’t?” Jesse looked confused

Bette Mae lifted Jesse head and smiled at her doubting eyes, “no, ya most certainly won’t.”

Outside, the school bell rang sounding the end of the school day.

“Now, ya go wash your face before your sweetie gets here. Then, ya take her home and show her just how much ya love her.”

Jesse couldn’t help but feel encouraged by Bette Mae’s words.

***************

Jesse met Jennifer on the porch of the Slipper and planted a passionate kiss on her lips.

“What did I do to deserve that?” Jennifer was gasping for air but it was well worth the effort.

“I’ve missed you, darlin’.”

“Well, I’ll have to make it a point to go away more often,” Jennifer laid her head against Jesse’s, foreheads touching. “I’ve missed you, too.”

“Come on,” Jesse took Jennifer’s hand and started off the porch. “Ed’s got the supplies ready.”

“Wait,” Jennifer tugged Jesse to a stop. “I want to change first. And, get my things.”

“Already thought of that,” Jesse pointed to the buckboard. Jennifer noticed her small canvas bag under the seat. “Thought you might like to have them at the ranch.”

“Thank you, Jesse,” Jennifer kissed the rancher on the cheek. “That was very sweet of you.”

Jesse looked down at her boots hoping Jennifer didn’t notice the blush coloring her face. Darn, the schoolteacher could sure turn her to mush.

Pretending not to notice Jesse’s predicament, Jennifer told her, “you stay right here. It won’t take me but a minute to change clothes.” She disappeared inside the Slipper thinking how cute Jesse was when she blushed.

True to her word, minutes later Jennifer bounced back out onto the Slipper’s porch wearing the more comfortable denim pants and flannel shirt. Her dress folded neatly under her arm.

“Let’s go.”

Jesse helped Jennifer into the buckboard and then climbed up into the seat beside her. She flicked the reins and Boy started down the street.

“Say, Jesse,” Jennifer watched as a cloud of dust rose from Boy’s hoofs. “Does it ever rain here?”

“Yep,” Jesse took off her stetson and waved it around in an effort to clear the cloud. “But, when it does the dust turns to mud. I prefer the dust.”

Jennifer snatched the hat and placed it on her own head, “then you better get another one of these from Ed.”

Jesse looked at her hat now resting on Jennifer’s head, she liked the look. “I think I can do that,” she chuckled.

Boy stopped in front of the general store. The boardwalk was stacked high with boxes and sacks of supplies.

“Wow,” Jennifer’s eyes fell on the huge pile. “Are all of those ours?”

“Let’s hope not,” Jesse jumped from the wagon. “We’ll have to make two trips to get all of that home.”

Jennifer climbed down from the wagon without Jesse’s help. She immediately regretted her actions when she saw the disappointment in Jesse’s eyes. It was at that moment she realized Jesse didn’t assist her in getting down from the wagon or off Dusty’s back because she didn’t think Jennifer could manage it on her own, but because she genuinely enjoyed doing it. And, she made a vow to stay put in the future so that Jesse could have her pleasure.

Jennifer reached out and grabbed Jesse’s hand. She gave it a loving squeeze as an apology and Jesse accepted it for what it was.

“Well, I was beginning to wonder if you forgot me,” Ed said from the boardwalk.

“Sorry, Ed,” Jesse turned her attention to the big man. “I hope Jennifer’s list didn’t include all of this,” Jesse indicated the pile of goods next to the man.

“Nope. Freight wagon dropped a delivery. Just haven’t got it all put away, yet. Yours is that stack there. The rest is inside.”

“Freight wagon,” Jennifer was excited to hear the storekeeper had received a delivery. Maybe it included the dress material they had ordered.

“Sorry, Miss Jennifer,” the storekeeper shook his head. “Wagon was sent out before they got your order. Should be on the next one, though.”

“Oh,” Jennifer was disappointed. She had arrived in town with only one dress. Bette Mae had taken one look at it and decided it was no longer fit for wearing. The older woman had talked Jesse into buying new clothes for the schoolteacher but, unfortunately, Ed had only the one dress in stock and no decent dress material. An order had been sent to Ed’s supplier in Bozeman but the material had yet to reach Sweetwater.

A thought suddenly came to Jennifer, “say, Ed. You have any pants in your store?”

Both Jesse and Ed looked at Jennifer perplexed.

“Well,” Jennifer informed them as she crossed the boardwalk to enter the store. “I need to get me some britches that fit. And, a hat,” she flipped Jesse’s stetson back to her.

“You heard the lady,” Jesse told the storekeeper. “Best you get in there and see to her needs while I load the wagon.”

An hour later, Jesse had the wagon loaded and Jennifer had found not one but two pairs of pants that fit her. She had also added a couple of new shirts each for herself and Jesse. And, a new stetson hat sat smartly atop her head. Ed was tallying up the damage for the women.

“Thirty two dollars, Jesse.”

Jesse whistled as she counted out enough bills to cover the tab, “darn it, woman. That’s more than I pay for supplies at the Slipper.”

“The Slipper doesn’t have bare cupboards in it’s kitchen,” Jennifer retorted.

“This better last you a while,” Jesse winked at Ed. “If not, I’ll have to raise the prices in the dining room.”

“That might not be a bad idea,” Ed patted his ever growing paunch. It was well known about Sweetwater that Ed loved Bette Mae’s cooking and ate at the Slipper almost every meal. “Just might encourage me to eat at home more often.”

“Oh, don’t say that,” Jesse laughed. “You’re my best customer.”

“It was just a thought,” Ed assured her. “A bad thought, but just a thought.” Ed’s jovial laugh rumbled through the store and the women couldn’t help but add theirs.

“Ready, darlin’,” Jesse asked Jennifer who stood beside her.

“Yes, sweetheart.”

They blushed simultaneously as they realized their use of the endearments in front of the burly storekeeper.

“Ah,” Ed smirked at the matching red faces. “Now, ain’t that just the cutest thing.”

“Come on,” Jesse grabbed Jennifer’s hand and pulled her from the store. The women started to giggle as soon as Boy pulled the buckboard away from the boardwalk.

The wagon passed in front of the jail, then the newspaper office.

“Stop,” Jennifer pulled on Jesse’s arm.

“What’s wrong,” Jesse looked around to find the cause of Jennifer’s alarm.

“I completely forgot about Thaddeus,” Jennifer told Jesse.. Thaddeus Newby was the Gazette’s editor and had employed Jennifer when she had been desperate to find a second job.

“What about Thaddeus?” Jesse still didn’t understand Jennifer’s distress.

“I promised to work afternoons for the Gazette,” Jennifer told her.

“I thought I heard voices out here,” the door to the newspaper office opened and the man being discussed stepped out onto the boardwalk.

“I’m sorry, Thaddeus,” Jennifer began to explain. “I completely forgot about my commitment to you.”

“What commitment?” Thaddeus asked. Then remembering his offer to the schoolteacher only days before, he said, “Jennifer I don’t expect to hold you to that. I kinda figured you’d have other things to keep your afternoons busy now.”

“No, Thaddeus,” Jennifer protested. “I agreed to work afternoons for you and, if my father taught me anything, it was to live up to my responsibilities. Jesse, I’ll meet you at the Slipper when I’m done here.”

“Hold on there,” Thaddeus held up both hands and waved them at the determined woman climbing down from the buckboard. “You just go on with Jesse. I’ll get along just fine without you.”

Jennifer stood in the dusty street and looked at the newspaper editor, “but, you said you needed help with the paper.”

“Well,” Thaddeus chortled. “To be honest, Jennifer. When I heard you discussing your problem with Bette Mae that day, you seemed so desperate that I made up needing an assistant. You go on and don’t worry ’bout me. Not enough news in this town to need two people to write it. Unless, Jesse gets herself in trouble again.”

“Are you sure Thaddeus?” Jennifer was relieved but, if he wanted, she would hold up her end of their agreement.

“Yes, I’m sure. Go on, now,” he told Jennifer.

Jennifer started to climb back into the wagon and wordlessly accepted Jesse’s offer of help. Once she was resettled next to Jesse, she told the newspaper editor, “thank you, Thaddeus. You keep whatever wages I have coming. I don’t really feel like I earned them.”

“Doesn’t seem fair but if it will make you feel better.”

“It will.”

“Alright. Good to see you, Jesse,” he nodded to the woman quietly listening to the exchange.

“You, too, Thaddeus,” Jesse said as the newspaperman went back into his office.

Jesse sat and considered what she had just heard. “Jennifer,” she twisted on the bench seat to face the schoolteacher. “Why were you desperate to find another job? Isn’t your teaching salary enough?”

Jennifer hesitated. So, much had changed since the day she had arrived in Sweetwater. She had barely known who Jesse was when the Slipper’s owner arranged for her to have new dresses and paid for them. She wanted to repay the woman’s generosity and asked Bette Mae about the opportunities in Sweetwater. She had even offered to cook for the Slipper but Bette Mae would have none of that. Thaddeus overheard their discussion and offered to take her on as an assistant at the Gazette.

But, now, Jesse was no longer a mysterious benefactor. She was the owner of Jennifer’s heart and, though, Jennifer still fully intended to pay Jesse back, she didn’t know how Jesse would react to hearing her reason for accepting Thaddeus’ offer.

Jesse waited patiently for Jennifer to answer.

Finally, figuring that the truth was the best course, Jennifer told Jesse, “I wanted to make enough money to pay you back for the dresses. And, my salary, when I receive it at the end of the school year, is just enough to pay Matt back.”

“Matt?”

“He’s the friend I told you about. He paid for my ticket to Denver and gave me a little extra to cover my other needs until I received a position. I promised to pay him back as soon as I could. So, I had to find another way to pay you back.”

Jesse thought for a moment, then smiled at the worried face watching her. “Well, darlin’,” Jesse drawled out slowly, “I would say that you definitely found a way to pay me back. In fact,” Jesse flicked the reins to restart Boy, “I’d say that you have more than paid that debt in full.”

Jennifer scooted close to Jesse and snaked her arm around the rancher’s, “have I told you how much I love you?”

“Can’t say I recall hearing it recently,” Jesse teased.

“I love you.”

“I love you, too, darlin'”

“Chairs,” Jennifer slapped Jesse’s arm. “We forgot chairs.” She was not going back to the ranch without something decent to sit on.

Jesse pulled the wagon to a stop in front of the Slipper, “be right back.” She hopped from the wagon, ran up the steps to the porch, and quickly disappeared inside. Moments later, Jesse reappeared with two chairs taken from the dining room. She stood on the porch and held them up for Jennifer’s inspection. At Jennifer’s nod, the chairs were added to the back of the wagon.

Jesse was climbing back up into the buckboard when Bette Mae came out on the porch.

“Hi, Bette Mae,” Jennifer cheerfully greeted the older woman.

“You headed home?” she asked as Jesse settled next to Jennifer.

“Yep,” Jesse nodded. She smiled when she felt Jennifer place a warm hand on her thigh.

“Good,” Bette Mae said. “No school the next two days. Don’ ‘spect to see ya back around here ‘fore Monday, you hear.”

“Yep,” Jesse smirked. “I’ll do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“Best make sure ya do,” Bette Mae smiled back.

Jesse slapped the reins on Boy’s back. “Come on, Boy. Let’s get home. Dusty’s probably chewed through the new corral fence by now.”

“Jus’ remember what I told ya,” Bette Mae called after them.

“What does she mean by that?” Jennifer asked.

“I’ll tell you later.”

****************

That night when Jennifer stepped from the tub, Jesse was waiting with a brand new towel, bought that day in the general store. Rubbing gently, Jesse dried the wetness from the schoolteacher’s skin. Jennifer body was on fire by the time Jesse had finished rubbing her dry.

“There,” Jesse wrapped the slightly damp cloth around Jennifer. “Now, go get in bed before you get chilled.”

Jennifer didn’t think that was likely. Not with the inferno raging inside her from Jesse’s touch. She reached for the nightshirt she had placed near the tub before her bath, Jesse stopped her.

Pulling Jennifer’s hand to her mouth, Jesse gently kissed it. “You won’t be needing that tonight,” she boldly informed her soon to be lover.

“Oh,” Jennifer shyly retrieved her hand before leaving Jesse to her bath. The bed sheets felt cool on her naked skin and she snuggled comfortably between them. Jennifer watched Jesse undress and climb into the tub. As she watched the rancher bathe, Jennifer worried about making love with Jesse. She had been kissed by a few boys, mostly just pecks on the cheeks. But, beyond that she really had no clue what two people did to make love, except for the whispered comments she had sometimes heard between the women in her mother’s quilting circle. And, many of them had not put a positive spin on the experience.

Jennifer’s body came alive with new sensations as she watched Jesse rise from the tub, water cascading down her long frame. She put aside her concerns and hoped that Jesse had some idea as to what to do because she definitely wanted a more intimate relationship with the woman walking towards her. Oh, yeah. A much more intimate relationship.

“Hi, beautiful,” Jesse slipped between the sheets and pulled Jennifer close. With a confidence she really didn’t possess she began to put Bette Mae’s words, ‘show her how much you love her’ into action.

Jesse leaned down, tenderly pressing her lips against Jennifer’s. After a few moments of enjoying the soft lips, she began to place tender kisses around the schoolteacher’s face and down her neck. Discovering a sensitive spot at the base of her neck when Jennifer moaned in pleasure, Jesse gave it special attention. She felt Jennifer’s arms tighten around her and warm hands began to explore Jesse’s back. A fire began to burn in her belly and spread throughout her body. The feeling was wonderful and spurred Jesse on. She threw off the coverings so that she could see the body beneath her.

“I want to see you,” she whispered when Jennifer shyly tried to pull the blankets back over their nakedness. Reaching a long arm down and placing a hand on Jennifer’s leg, Jesse slowly caressed her way up to the hip and stomach. “So soft,” she sighed. Hesitating for only a moment, Jesse’s hand moved up and cupped a waiting breast. Jennifer arched into the touch.

After that, Jesse had to agree with Bette Mae, she did indeed have no trouble in figuring out what to do next.

***************

The moon’s soft light shone through the window and fell on two entwined bodies. Jennifer lay on her back, her hands running through the auburn hair spread across her chest. Jesse’s head rested between Jennifer’s breasts, her arms wrapped protectively around the schoolteacher’s waist. Their legs were tangled together.

Jennifer marveled at what had just occurred between them, their love-making had been tender, intense, mind-blowing. She lay under Jesse wondering how long it was proper to wait until they could repeat their actions. As she ran her fingers through Jesse’s silky hair, she heard a quiet sob come from her new lover.

“Jesse,” Jennifer asked concerned that even though she had found their love-making more than satisfying, it had somehow disappointed Jesse. When she received no response, she tried again, “Jesse, please tell what’s wrong.”

A deeply inhaled breath, followed by more sobs her only answer.

Close to panicking, Jennifer reached for Jesse’s face. “Please, baby. If I disappointed you, I’m sorry. It was my first time, I’ll do better…”

Realizing that Jennifer had misinterpreted her emotions, Jesse sat up. Leaning against the headboard, she pulled Jennifer into her arms. “Shh,” she stilled Jennifer’s words. “I wasn’t disappointed, love. That was the most beautiful…” Her words caught in her throat. “It’s just…,” she couldn’t continue.

Jennifer scooted around so that she could hold Jesse. Silently, she rocked the sobbing woman, giving her the time to regain her composure. When the sobs began to ease, Jennifer tried again, “tell me what’s wrong, sweetheart.”

Slowly, and between the occasional sob, Jesse began to speak. “I never thought I would ever have this in my life,” she explained.

Not wanting to do anything to cause Jesse to stop, Jennifer remained quiet while continuing to gently rock the distraught woman.

“I grew up so lonely. Never had many friends, even when I started school. I was too isolated on the ranch. As I got older, I wasn’t the kind of girl the boys wanted to ask to a social. Once or twice, my pop took me so I could find a beau but the boys would never asked me to dance. Guess I just came to believe that love wasn’t meant for me. I thought I’d learn to accept it but then I met you.”

A deep sigh stopped Jesse’s words. When she began to speak again, her voice was so full of emotion that she could barely get the words out. “You…. you make me feel so much. When I see you, I smile. When I’m near you, I need to touch you. And, tonight,… tonight, you made me feel more loved than I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Lifting her head from Jennifer’s shoulder, Jesse looked into the sapphire eyes of the woman that had come to mean so much to her. “I love you so much, Jennifer Kinsington.”

Tears streaming down from her own eyes, Jennifer choked out, “I love you too, Jesse…” She paused, “um, Jesse, ummm.”

Thinking for a minute, Jennifer discovered that there was one thing, one very major thing, she didn’t know about Jesse. “Jesse, just what is your last name anyway?”

“Uh?” Jesse was surprised by the question.

“I just realized that I’ve broken you out of jail, helped your track rustlers, ridden a horse like a maniac to get you help, watched you get shot, fallen in love with you.” Jennifer pause to inhale a deep breath of much needed oxygen after her tirade. “And, I don’t even know your full name.”

Jesse’s mood lightened at Jennifer’s admonishment and she grinned. “Sure you do. I’m sure I told you.”

Jennifer poked a finger into Jesse’s chest above one very, lovely bare breast, “you have never, ever told me your full name. Now, give.”

Laughing, Jesse gave. “Jesse Marie Branson,” she proudly declared.

Cocking her head, Jennifer considered what Jesse just told her. She nodded once, then again. “Jesse Marie Branson. I like it.”

“Me, too,” Jesse said as she snuggled back down on the bed, pulling Jennifer with her. “And, now Jesse Marie Branson would like to show Jennifer,” she paused. “Any middle name?”

“Stancey.”

Jesse wrinkled her nose at the name.

“Don’t blame me, it’s a family thing,” Jennifer explained.

“Ok. Jesse Marie Branson would like to show Jennifer Stancey Kinsington just how much she loves her.”

“Well,” Jennifer stretched her body out atop Jesse’s and leaned down until she was nose to nose with her lover. “Jennifer Stancey Kinsington can think of nothing better than to have Jesse Marie Branson do just that.”

Their lips met.

The moon was on its way out of the sky when their cries of passion finally ceased.

***************

CHAPTER THREE

It was Sunday morning. Saturday having been spent in bed getting better acquainted with each other’s bodies. Jennifer had been pleased to discover that propriety did not dictate a set length of time between acts of lovemaking. At least, Jesse had assured her that they could do so as often as they wanted.

Jesse sat on the cabin’s porch, her back resting against the logs that made up the cabin’s front wall. Jennifer sat between her legs and was wrapped in her arms. Cups of freshly made coffee sat within easy reach on the porch’s uneven surface, steam rising in the cool morning air. Songs of morning birds began to fill the stillness as the sun peeked over the mountains to the east.

“We need more chairs,” Jennifer said as she lifted a cup of the hot liquid to her lips.

“Well,” Jesse watched a squirrel race across the yard and scamper up a pine tree. “I was thinking that a swing might be nice.”

Jennifer tilted back her head and scrutinized the porch roof above them. “You sure that can hold a swing?” she pointed to the roof in question.

Jesse bent her head back and took a long look at the overhang. Spotting numerous places where she could see the sky above, she said, “I see your point.” Looking back down at the woman in her arms, “chairs are good. I’ll pick up a couple more from the Slipper’s next time we take the wagon to town.”

“Until then,” Jennifer snuggled back against Jesse. “This is pretty nice.”

“Yep, it sure is.” Jesse took a swallow of coffee. “So, darlin’,” Jesse was becoming quite fond of the endearment. Especially, since she knew Jennifer was extremely fond of it. “What would you like to do today?”

“Um,” Jennifer thought as she took another sip from her cup. “How about you show me the ranch?”

“Really,” Jesse smiled. She loved the ranch but had doubted the schoolteacher would share her enthusiasm.

“Yes, I would really like to see what you have here, Jesse. I’d like to be a part of it.”

“You already are a part of it, darlin’. You already are.”

Jennifer thought her heart would burst at Jesse’s words. How could she love this woman any more?

Pushing herself up from the rough wooden planks that made up the porch floor, Jennifer told Jesse, “what say, you go do your chores while I make breakfast. Afterward, you can give me the grand tour.”

Allowing Jennifer to pull her to her feet, Jesse smiled, “okay.” She drank the last of her coffee before placing the empty cup in Jennifer’s outstretched hand. “I’ll let Dusty know we’ll be taking our lady for a ride later.”

Jennifer shook her head at her lover, “go on, you nut. I’ll have breakfast ready when you’re done.”

As Jesse walked to the barn, Jennifer thought how nice it would be to eat on the small table under the window and look out across their yard at the neighboring forest and distant mountains. Then remembering the condition of that particular piece of furniture, she called out, “a table, Jesse. We need a table.”

“Add it to the list,” Jesse called back. With the speed Jennifer was coming up with things the cabin needed, Jesse knew it wouldn’t be long before she would be hooking Boy to the buckboard for another trip to town.

****************

After breakfast, Jesse helped Jennifer wash the dishes before she led the schoolteacher outside. She took Jennifer into each building and explained their purpose and use. She demonstrated every piece of equipment and even let Jennifer try her hand at some of them. She showed her the barn, corrals, tack room, chicken-less chicken coop – add chickens to the list – and told her of her plans for the ranch’s future. Having grown up in a more civilized environment, it was all new to Jennifer and she wanted to know everything. She asked question after question, and Jesse patiently provided the answers.

Early afternoon found the women standing, hand in hand, at the rear of the cabin inspecting the long, neglected garden.

“It needs some work but we could grow our own vegetables,” Jesse was telling Jennifer. “Be real nice to have some flowers, too.”

“We had a small garden back home,” Jennifer stopped herself. What was she saying, she was home. “Well, back east,” she revised. She didn’t want Jesse to think she considered the ranch less than what she had left behind.

“It’s okay, darlin’,” Jesse squeezed Jennifer’s hand. “I sometimes think that about my folk’s ranch.”

“It’s so hard to know what to call…back east,” Jennifer sat on the edge of the cabin’s wrap-a-round porch. “In only a few days,” she swept her arms out encompassing their surroundings, “this has become more of a home to me than back there ever was. But, still. It was my home… before.”

Jesse joined Jennifer, “I know. It’s really okay if you say it.” After a few heartbeats, “do you miss them?”

Knowing who Jesse meant, Jennifer thought a few moments before answering.

“It’s funny, but since I arrived in Sweetwater, I really haven’t given them much thought. I guess I just wasn’t that much a part of the family. My brothers were older and they spent their days, for as long as I can remember, with Father at the business.”

“Mother,” Jennifer saddened as she thought of the woman who had, at one time, meant so much to her. “When I was young, Mother used to spend all day with me. She’d tell me stories and show me how to do things. We’d take long walks to the parks around town. But, as I got older and started to question some of Father’s rules, we seemed to grow apart.”

Jesse wrapped an arm around Jennifer’s waist and the schoolteacher leaned into her.

“It was almost like she didn’t know what to do with a daughter that asked ‘why’ so often. She never questioned Father and couldn’t understand when I insisted on doing it.”

“Did you ever ask her?”

“Several times, but she would only smile and tell me that some day I would have a husband of my own and would understand. Eventually, I just stopped asking.”

“Do you think they miss you?”

“My brothers, no. I was just a nuisance to them. Mother, maybe. Father…I don’t know if he would miss me or miss the opportunity I represented to him.”

“Do you want to send word to them?”

“No,” Jennifer’s response was quick and sharp. “They have their life. Now, I have mine. And, I have no intention of letting them try to ruin it.” She took Jesse’s hand into her own and clutched it tight.

“What about you?” Jennifer asked. “Do you ever miss your folks?”

“Yeah,” Jesse sighed. “But, I think I loved them a lot more than they ever loved me. I was a disappointment from the moment I was born. They’d always wanted a son, Pop especially. Even had the name picked out.”

“Not…,” Jennifer gasped.

“Yep,” Jesse nodded. “Never even thought of a girl’s name, they were so sure I’d be a boy. Guess it’s lucky for me they had decided not to use my pop’s name, Stanley,” she chuckled sadly. “Anyway, once they figured out they got a girl on their first try, they spent the next year trying again. My brother only lived three days but my folks grieved for the next twenty. The older Pop got, the more he seemed to hold it against me.

“I wrote them once I decided to stay in Sweetwater and got settled. Thought they might want to come visit. Never got an answer though. Figured that kind of said it all.”

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” Jennifer wiped her wet cheeks with the back of her hand.

“Thanks,” Jesse tightened her hold on the woman she loved and placed a kiss on her forehead. “But, I’ve got you now, and that’s all I need.”

The women sat in silence as they considered the life fate had dealt them.

“How about some lunch,” Jesse brightened. “And, then we can take Dusty out and introduce you to the girls.”

“The girls?”

“Yep, fifteen of the sweetest heifers you’ll ever meet.”

“You goof,” Jennifer swatted Jesse.

**************

Dusty was standing on a small rise in a sea of gently rolling hills less than a mile from the ranch house. Sitting atop the golden mare, Jesse and Jennifer surveyed the small herd in the field before them, the young cows were munching happily on the thick grass.

“Soon as we get a breeding bull, we’ll be able to start a real herd,” Jesse informed Jennifer.

“How soon?”

“Hopefully, by the end of the year.”

Jennifer turned her head and studied the land around them. “How much do you own, Jesse?”

“Just under 100 acres. McPherson’s been talking about selling, now that his sons took off for the gold fields. Told him to let me know if he decides. His land would double what we have.”

She used ‘we’ again, Jennifer told herself.

“See that stand of trees over there,” Jesse was pointing to the west. “There’s a small creek running behind them. That marks the west boundary. The dry canyons mark the south, the west boundary is about half mile into the pine forest. And, the gate marks the north.”

Jennifer knew that Jesse was referring to the archway they passed under every day as they traveled the road to and from town. Two large logs stood on either side of the road with a third log arching from the top of one upright log to the other. Jesse had smoothed one side of the top log and had carved J’s Dream into it’s flattened face. It was the name Jesse had bestowed on the ranch after she’d purchased it and the inspiration for the ranch’s brand. Looking at the cows in Jesse’s herd, Jennifer could make out the connected JD, the top of the J curving out and down to reconnect near the bottom of the J to form the D.

Jesse twisted in the saddle, “so, what do you think, darlin’? Is it big enough for us?”

“Or, I think we’ll manage,” Jennifer laughed as Jesse headed Dusty back to the ranch buildings.

“I reckon we will,” Jesse chuckled before calling out a warning. “Hold on,” .

Before Jennifer could question why, Jesse released Dusty from her lazy trot and the mare took off for home at a breakneck gallop.

“Not again,” Jennifer moaned as she grabbed onto the saddle horn, thankful for Jesse’s strong arms around her.

*************

“Well, what do you think?” Jennifer leaned against the hoe she had been using most of the afternoon.

After their ride to see the cattle, she and Jesse had tackled the job of putting the long neglected garden into planting condition. It was still early summer and they decided to try to get a few vegetables and flowers planted.

“I didn’t think this many weeds could grow in such a small space,” Jesse said as she pulled another fistful of the unwanted plants from the ground.

“If the flowers grow as well as the weeds, we should have quite the garden,” Jennifer lifted her stetson and wiped her brow before attacking another overgrown row.

Jesse rose from where she had been kneeling and stretched her long legs, “didn’t know gardening was this much work.” She walked to a bucket set in the porch’s shade and pulled a full dipper of water from it. Carefully, so as not to spill the precious contents, she carried the dipper to the schoolteacher, “here, darlin’.”

“Thank you,” Jennifer took the dipper and tilted it up so she could drink. When she finished, she handed it back to the rancher, “I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to this heat.”

Jesse walked back to the porch and refilled the dipper so she could enjoy the cool water. “Sure you will,” Jesse replaced the dipper. “Come winter, you’ll be wishing to have some of it back.”

Jennifer had returned to her hoeing, “how cold does it get here, Jesse?”

“Cold enough. And, if the wind is blowing, it’ll freeze your words before you can get them out,” Jesse pulled another fistful of weeds from the dry earth. “But, it’s not as bad in the valley as it gets on the east side of the mountains. Wind blows over there all the time and the snow can build into pretty high drifts.” More weeds were thrown from the garden, “had a pretty mild winter in the valley last year. Not too much snow and I hardly ever had to wear my heavy coat. Which reminds me, you’ll be needing some winter clothes.”

“Oh,” Jennifer was hesitate. It was still several weeks until she received her salary from the citizens of Sweetwater. “Um, Jesse,” she paused. “I, ah, I don’t think I’ll be able to afford any new clothes this year.”

Looking up at the schoolteacher, Jesse was puzzled, “what do you mean, can’t afford any?”

“Well,” Jennifer stopped her work, embarrassed to have to again tell Jesse of her poor financial condition. She studied the ground at her feet for a few moments before the words starting rushing out. “You know I don’t get my salary until the end of the school term. And, all of that I have to use to pay Matt back.”

“Whoa,” Jesse threw aside the weeds she had just yanked from the ground. Brushing her hands free of the dirt clinging to them, she stood and walked to Jennifer’s side. Cupping a finger under Jennifer’s chin, Jesse gently lifted it up until she could look into Jennifer’s eyes. “Don’t you know that I’ll buy you anything you need.”

“I can’t let you do that,” Jennifer began to protest.

“You’re not letting me, darlin’. I want to.” Jesse leaned forward and placed a kiss on her cheek. “Besides,” she smiled at the woman she loved, “the Slipper makes enough for both of us.”

“But, Jesse.”

“Nope,” Jesse laid two fingers on Jennifer’s lips stifling her objection. “No, buts. Whatever I have, is yours,” the rancher stated before resuming her weed pulling chore. “Now, just how much money do you owe this Matt fellow?”

Jennifer stood in a daze, she couldn’t believe what Jesse had just told her. The rancher was willing to share all she had with the schoolteacher. Jennifer’s heart melted, again.

“Darlin’?”

“Ow,” Jennifer was brought out of her musings by a dirt clod striking her arm.

“Asked you how much you owed your friend.”

“You didn’t have to throw that at me,” Jennifer whined as she rubbed her arm.

“Did, too,” Jesse snickered at the frown on Jennifer’s face. “So, how much?”

“Jesse, I’ll pay him back as soon as I receive my salary.”

Figuring that she wasn’t going to get an answer out of the stubborn woman glaring at her, Jesse tried a new tack.

“You know,” Jesse pulled out another clump of weeds. “Seems to me that Mayor Perkins can let loose of that money before the school year is over.”

“But, that was the agreement. Room and board would be provided and I wouldn’t be paid until I finished the year.”

“That’s my point. Sweetwater is no longer having to pay for your room and board,” Jesse smirked at the blushing schoolteacher. “So, there ought to be enough funds for you to get paid now.”

“I don’t know, Jesse. That’s not what I agreed to.”

“I’ll have a talk with the mayor. I think he’ll be more than happy to pay your salary early. Then, you can pay your friend. And, as for your clothes, you don’t need to fret none about that. I can’t have my sweetie walking around without decent clothes, now can I? Nope, Bette Mae would tan my hide if I didn’t take proper care of you.”

Jennifer laughed picturing the rancher spread across the older woman’s knees, “I just bet she could do it, too.”

“Oh, she most definitely could.”

Jesse rose once again from the ground, “that’s enough weeds for today. What say we call it a day? I’ll check on Dusty and Boy while you fix dinner. Then, we can have an early bath,” Jesse grinned at her lover.

“Oh,” Jennifer dropped the hoe. “What say we skip dinner and go straight to the bath?”

“I’d say you were a baaaad woman,” Jesse grabbed Jennifer around the waist and swung her around in a circle. “But, you’re my bad woman,” she pressed their lips together.

*******************

CHAPTER FOUR

The long hot days of summer were rapidly passing and the women had fallen into a comfortable routine. During the week, Dusty would carry the rancher and schoolteacher from the ranch to the Silver Slipper. They would share breakfast with Bette Mae, that way they could spend a few more minutes in bed cuddled together. After breakfast, Jesse would walk Jennifer to the schoolhouse, leaving her with a kiss. Jesse would spend the rest of the morning taking care of the Slipper’s business matters or talking with her friends around town.

Afternoons and weekends were spent at the ranch, the schoolteacher working alongside the rancher to make their home more livable. The neglected garden had been cleared of weeds and the carefully tended rows were starting to show signs of new growth. The decaying porch roof had been removed and replaced with one that would shield the porch and, hopefully, one day support a porch swing. Inside the cabin, a new table and chairs sat under the window, the old rickety table and chairs having been used for firewood. The unsteady shelves in the cooking area had been taken down and, in their place, solid cabinets were secured with new dishes proudly displayed.

To Jesse’s surprise, Jennifer had eagerly pitched in on every project. The schoolteacher seemed to revel in learning new skills and attacked each new opportunity with great enthusiasm. At the end of the day, it was hard to tell which of the women had worked harder. But, it really didn’t matter.

The dress material had finally arrived from Bozeman and Ruthie, a young girl that worked at the Slipper and had a natural talent for sewing, made Jennifer some new dresses. She had done a wonderful job with the material that the general store had received but, regrettably, it was not the most flattering. Jennifer refused to complain and wore the dresses proudly. Jesse wished she could provide better for her love.

The school year would soon be over and the women were looking forward to spending more time together at the ranch.

*************

“Morning, Ed,” Jesse greeted the storekeeper as she entered the general store.

“Morning, Jesse,” Ed was pulling a large jar of buttons from a shelf. “Be with you in a minute.”

Jesse leaned against the counter and waited for the big man to finish with his other customer. “Morning, Mrs. Perkins.”

“Morning, Jesse,” the mayor’s wife nodded. “I’ll take those, Ed,” the woman pointed to several buttons now spread out on the counter. “I do declare the way Miles, Jr. is growing, I’ll never keep him in clothes.”

“He does seem to be part bean spout,” Ed laughed as he placed the buttons in a small bag. “I’ll put these on your bill.”

“Thank you, Ed,” Mrs. Perkins, unlike her husband, was always cordial to others. “Jesse, I do want you to tell Miss Jennifer how happy I am with her teaching. My boys actually like going to school. And, Miles, Jr. is reading more every day.”

“I’ve seen him in the Slipper a time or two,” Jesse had a collection of books available to any that asked. “I’ll be sure and pass on what you said.”

“You make sure you do,” Mrs. Perkins smiled at the rancher and gently patted her arm. “You do make such a nice couple,” she walked out leaving the rancher blushing.

After a few moments, Jesse felt the blush finally receding from her cheeks and turned her attention to the storekeeper. “Damn, I wish people would quit telling us that,” she muttered. But, she had to admit, the comment made her proud.

Ed was reading a letter and didn’t hear Jesse. As he read, a scowl replaced his normal smile.

“Problem, Ed?” Jesse asked.

“No,” Ed crumbled the paper into a ball, tossing it into a basket of trash under the counter. He thought for a moment before bending down and retrieving the paper. “My no good brother-in-law got himself in some trouble in Bannack. Wants me to come help him out.”

“You going?”

“Gosh, Jesse. You know I can’t leave the store for that long. It’s what, four, maybe five, days ride to Bannack. For all I care, he can rot in jail. But, I do care about my sister. And, the bastard didn’t put one word about her in this,” he shook the letter at Jesse. “Not one word.”

Jesse considered Ed’s dilemma for a minute, a smile slowly crossing her face.

“What say I take a ride to Bannack for you?”

“Ah, Jesse, that’s mighty nice of you to offer. But, I can’t ask you to do that. You’ve got the ranch to look after and I doubt Miss Jennifer would want to see you gone for that long.”

“Actually, I was thinking of taking her with me. And, Billie can keep an eye on the ranch.”

“No, Jesse, I can’t ask,” Ed shook his head.

“Hear me out, Ed,” Jesse interrupted. “Jennifer told me one of the reasons she came west was because she heard how beautiful the country was. This would give me the chance to show her some of it. Besides,” she grinned, “I hear there’s a dress shop in Bannack.”

“What about her teaching?”

“School term ends this week.”

“Are you sure, Jesse?” the big man asked. “I mean who knows what my brother-in-law has gotten himself into this time. I don’t expect you to get in the middle of whatever it is.”

“We won’t, Ed,” Jesse assured her friend. “We’ll see your sister and make sure she’s okay. Whatever trouble it is, we’ll just find out and let you know when we get back. That way, you can decide if you want to help him or not.”

“Sounds fair,” the storekeeper really didn’t want to travel all the way to Bannack just to find out his sister’s husband had been caught again cheating at cards or trying to jump some miner’s claim. How, the man had lived this long without being shot was a mystery to the storekeeper. “All I really want to know is if my sister is okay. So, if you’re sure,” he held out his hand. “I’ll thank you for your offer. That is, if Miss Jennifer has no objection,” he told the rancher.

Jesse took the large hand and gave it a firm shake, “Don’t worry, I’ll talk to her soon as she’s done teaching today.” After the storekeeper released her hand, Jesse added, “now, Jennifer’s wrote out another list.” Jesse pulled a paper from her shirt pocket and handed it to the storekeeper.

“Way, she keeps making out lists, I should just move my store next to your ranch,” Ed chuckled. It was a rare week that Jesse didn’t come in at least once with a list of items Jennifer discovered lacking at the ranch.

“Actually, I think she’s planning on having the freight wagon stop there before coming into Sweetwater. That way, she gets first pick and it saves us having to bring the buckboard to town,” Jesse joined the big man in his teasing.

*************

“Bannack,” Bette Mae had settled on the couch in Jesse’s office. “Lordy, that’s a long ride jus’ ta show your sweetie some pretty country.”

“Maybe so,” Jesse said from her desk. “But, it’s got what Sweetwater doesn’t, a dress shop.”

“Ah,” Bette Mae smiled. “So, that’s what’s got you so excited.”

Jesse ignored the woman’s comment, “Besides, I told Ed we’d check in on his sister.”

“What’s she got to do with this?” Bette Mae’s mood instantly changed from playful to troubled at the mention of the storekeeper’s sister.

“Ed got a letter saying his brother-in-law was in trouble in Bannack, didn’t make any mention of his sister. He didn’t want to leave the store for two weeks. So, I said we’d go.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“Don’t know. Letter didn’t say.”

“You’re not tellin’ me that you’re takin’ Miss Jennifer all the way to Bannack ta get into the middle of some trouble ya don’ even know what it is?”

Jesse looked at the woman and wondered how she got all that into one sentence. Shaking her head, she answered the perturbed woman, “no. I’m taking Jennifer to Bannack so she can see the country between here and there. Check on Ed’s sister and ask what trouble her husband has managed to get himself into. Spend a little time at the dressmaker’s. Show my girl the town. Maybe, take her out to eat at one of their fancy restaurants,” Jesse smirked at the best cook in the territory. “Then, we’ll come home.”

Bette Mae glared at the rancher, “that all?”

“That’s all,” Jesse pulled a ledger from her desk drawer and opened it.

“Fancy restaurant, my foot,” Bette Mae grumbled. As she watched Jesse make notations in the large book, Bette Mae settled back on the couch.

“You know,” Jesse said not looking up from her work. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard Ed call his sister by name. Her husband, either. Usually, just says ‘my no good brother-in-law’ or ‘that bastard’. Sometimes wonder if they even have names.”

Jesse wasn’t really expecting an answer, she was only putting voice to her thoughts. Bette Mae sat silently for some time before deciding to speak.

“Mary Elizabeth,” the older woman quietly murmured.

“What was that?” Jesse looked up.

“Mary Elizabeth. That’s her name,” her voice was soft as she remembered a summer many years ago.

“Who’s name?”

“Ed’s sister.”

Jesse put her pencil down, “didn’t know you and her were acquainted.”

“It was a long time ago.”

Jesse thought the older woman had never looked sadder. “You were friends?” she asked.

“‘Spose you could say that,” Bette Mae squirmed uncomfortably on the couch but continued. “We met in Fort Benton. I was working in one of the saloons on the river and they’d just arrived on one of them steamboats. Was headed to the gold camps so’s he could start a store. He caught the gamblin’ fever and she came in one night lookin’ for him.

“I saw her come in and knew right off, she was goin’ ta be needin’ someone ta keep the boys away. Saloon’s no place for a lady, ‘specially not at night when the boys are liquored up. So’s, I grabbed her by the arm and took her right back outside. When I found out who she was lookin’ for, I didn’ have the heart ta say that he was upstairs in one of the rooms.

“She was just a spit of girl back then. I wasn’t much older but I’d been around some. She was fresh out of her mama’s house and been drug west by that worthless excuse of a man with nothin’ but gold in his eyes.”

Bette Mae paused to gather her thoughts. Jesse remained silent, allowing Bette Mae to continue the telling of what was obviously a painful time in her life.

Bette Mae had never told anyone about those days but as the story unfolded, she found that it helped to ease an old scar she had been carrying for many years.

“Anyways, over the next several days, we spent many a hour jus’ talkin’. Seemed to have a natural feel ’bout bein’ together. I found that I like her. Liked her a lot,” Bette Mae smiled sadly up at Jesse. “Kinda like you and Miss Jennifer.”

Jesse remembered the discussion she’d had with Bette Mae concerning her feelings for Jennifer and how Bette Mae had seemed to understand.

“Did you follow your heart?” Jesse quietly asked.

A deep sigh preceded the answer, “I didn’ think it would be proper. Considerin’, she was married and all.”

“You never told her?”

Tears tracked down the older woman’s cheeks as she slowly shook her head.

Jesse left her desk chair and crossed to the couch. She sat next to the sad woman and wrapped her long arms around her. Pulling Bette Mae into a hug, she asked, “what about when you met up again here in Sweetwater?”

“It was too late,” Bette Mae sniffled. “By the time I got here, she’d been drugged off ta another gold camp. Only found out by accident that Ed was her kin.” She pulled a hankie from her sleeve and blew her nose. “Always wanted ta ask ’bout her well-bein’ but could never build up the nerve.”

“Maybe it’s not too late,” Jesse needed to offer some hope even if the chance was slim. “Maybe, she’ll come back to Sweetwater.”

“Sun’s done set on that day, Jesse,” fresh tears flooded from the older woman’s eyes as Jesse held her.

*************

“Really,” Jennifer was literally jumping up and down in front of Jesse’s desk. “Oh, Jesse, I’d love to go.”

When Jennifer returned to the Slipper after the school day ended, Jesse told her about her conversation with Ed. She barely had the words out before Jennifer agreed.

The stage, that carried Jennifer from Denver to Sweetwater, had stopped for one night in Bannack. But, it had arrived after dark and had left just after dawn the next day. Unable to explore the bustling mining camp, Jennifer had told herself that if she ever had the chance she would return to Bannack. Now, it looked like she was getting her chance.

“Ed says he’ll agree to us going but only if you’re okay with it,” Jesse smiled at her happy lover.

Over the last several weeks, the jovial storekeeper had taken a interest in the schoolteacher and had become a surrogate father to Jennifer. He encouraged Jennifer to enjoy activities her true father would have said to be unfit for a lady. And, he felt it his duty to look after the young woman even though he knew Jesse would never let anything happen to her. Jesse was glad to see the adoration and approval the storekeeper showed her lover. Jennifer’s numerous trips to the general store always ended with the woman being engulfed in the large man’s arms.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Jennifer flung herself into Jesse’s lap. “I’m very much okay with it. When can we leave?”

“School finishes this week, right?”

“Yes,” Jennifer was planting sweet kisses all over Jesse’s face.

“Then, I’d say first of next week.”

“How will we get there? Will we go by stage?”

“No,” Jesse hugged Jennifer close. “We’ll ride Dusty. Go south out of the valley and pick up an Indian trail that will take us over the pass into the Big Hole. It’ll cut two days off the ride. And, we won’t be eating dust the whole way.”

“Big Hole?”

“That’s what the fur trappers called the valley on the other side of the pass. It’s big, a lot bigger than our valley.”

“Great,” Jennifer leapt up and began to pull Jesse from her chair. “Let’s go tell Ed we’re going.”

Chuckling, Jesse allowed the schoolteacher to pull her from the office.

****************

Jesse’s breath came in ragged gasps. It wouldn’t take much more for Jennifer to bring her to climax and her lover didn’t keep her waiting. Jesse’s body arched as the explosion built and with a cry of her lover’s name, she released. She sank back onto the bed, spent but very happy. Jennifer crawled up to lay beside Jesse and kissed her exhausted lover.

“You sure we aren’t hurting something by doing it so often,” Jennifer traced lazy patterns around Jesse’s sweat covered breasts and down to her stomach. “I mean, we can’t go blind or anything, can we?”

“Nah,” Jesse twitched as Jennifer tracings crossed a ticklish spot. “I asked Bette Mae. She said that was an old wife’s tail.”

“Good ’cause I’m not sure I could stop even if it was true,” Jennifer lay her head on Jesse’s shoulder and draped a leg over her body. “It sure is a lot more fun than what I expected after listening to some of my mother’s friends discussing it.”

Jesse caressed the leg placed so conveniently in her reach. “Bette Mae says that how much you enjoy it depends a lot on the person you’re doing it with,” Jesse stopped Jennifer’s busy hand and brought it to her mouth.

“Hmm,” Jennifer pushed up onto an elbow to look at her lover. “Well, if that’s the case, I must be doing it with the right person because I’m really enjoying it.”

“Oh, are you?” Jesse smirked.

“Oh, yes,” Jennifer smiled back. “Very much so,” she repositioned herself to lay atop Jesse, resting her chin between Jesse’s breasts and wrapping her arms around her lover’s warm body.

“Well, darlin’,” Jesse drawled as she ran her hands up and down Jennifer’s back. “Want to do it some more?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

Jennifer giggled as Jesse flipped them both over and began a new attack on Jennifer’s body.

**************

CHAPTER FIVE

“Okay, you ready?” Jesse stood beside a caramel colored mare waiting for Jennifer as she considered mounting the horse. Two days after agreeing to travel to Bannack, Jesse had surprised Jennifer with her own horse.

Jennifer had dismissed the students for the day and walked back to the Slipper where she would find Jesse. As she neared, the large two-story building she saw Jesse standing in the shade by the porch steps, holding the reins of a beautiful, horse.

“What’s this?” Jennifer asked as she neared the grinning rancher.

“Thought you might want to learn to ride on our trip to Bannack.” As Jesse said the words, she felt disappointment at knowing she wouldn’t be able to wrap her arms around her lover as they rode. But, Dusty would tire easily if she had to carry both women and their supplies on the long ride. Besides, she reminded herself, we can still snuggle at night.

“She’s beautiful,” Jennifer reached up to rub the horse’s soft nose. “Where did you get her?”

“Butler.”

“Butler,” Jennifer bristled. Jennifer had a mammoth dislike for the man that almost cost Jesse her life. Butler owned one of the valley’s larger ranches and had been one of the lynch mob’s instigators. He had a dislike for women who owned businesses, particularly ranches. Didn’t think it was proper. And, he had been more than willing to accept the flimsy evidence that Jesse had stolen cattle.

“I’m surprised you’d buy a horse from him, of all the ranchers in the valley.”

“Well, he might not have much good to say about me but he is the best horse breeder in the territory. Besides, he gave me a real good deal, threw the saddle and tack in for no charge. Seems he’s been feeling right shameful over accusing me of rustlin’.”

“I should think so,” Jennifer ducked under the horse’s neck and wrapped her arms around Jesse’s waist. “What’s her name?”

“Hasn’t got one. Thought, you might want to christen her. After all, you don’t seem to care much for my taste in names.”

Jennifer chuckled when she thought of their draft horse named ‘Boy’.

“Good idea, sweetheart.” She stood back and gave the horse a good look over. She stood as tall as Dusty, but not as broad across the back. And, except for the horse’s nose, the mare was a solid, light brown color. On her nose, a white mark began at the eyes and traveled down the nose in the shape of a thunderbolt, ending just above the animal’s nostrils.

Jennifer studied the unusual marking before declaring, “Blaze. I’m going to call you, Blaze,” she told the horse now nuzzling her head.

“I’m ready, I think,” Jennifer wavered. “Jesse, are you sure this is a good idea. I mean, I haven’t had that much practice.”

“You’ll do just fine, darlin’,” Jesse assured her lover. “We’ll take it nice and slow until you get more comfortable. Besides, you’ve had no trouble the last couple of days.” Jesse had given Jennifer a lesson each afternoon after they returned to the ranch. Jesse thought that Jennifer showed a natural talent that would take over once her nervousness faded.

“Okay,” Jennifer positioned a booted foot in the stirrup and lifted herself into the saddle. She watched as Jesse mounted Dusty, “I’m ready when you are, partner.”

“Well, then,” Jesse nudged Dusty forward knowing Blaze would follow. “Let’s go.”

****************

Jesse and Jennifer left the ranch and headed to the southern end of the Sweetwater valley. Bannack was to the southeast and there wasn’t much between it and Sweetwater except some scattered mining camps. Jesse would guide them clear of the camps because a traveler never knew what trouble they were likely to run into in the camps. And, Jesse wanted this trip to be fun for Jennifer. Yep, this trip would have no unnecessary adventures. Just the two of them and the beautiful Montana country that Jennifer wanted to see.

As the day stretched toward late afternoon, Jennifer had, indeed, become comfortable on Blaze. The mare was a good match for the schoolteacher and provided a easy ride.

Riding two horses, they made good time reaching the end of the valley. They had already passed the dry canyon country at the south end of the valley and the site of Jesse’s almost murder. The rancher led them in a wide berth around the meadow, not wanting Jennifer to begin their trip reliving the events that had taken place there just weeks earlier.

“How you doing?” Jesse asked as the trail began to climb. They were leaving the valley behind and making their way up the Indian trail into the mountains.

“Alright,” Jennifer smiled at the rancher. She missed having Jesse’s arms wrapped around her but she enjoyed the freedom of her own horse. Never, not even when she would sit for hours and wonder what life might be like in the west, had she dreamed she would be accompanied by a very beautiful woman, who just happened to be her lover. as they rode together free to do as they pleased. She sometimes wondered if she would wake up one morning and be back in her father’s house. The idea of not having Jesse in her life brought her such sorrow that her heart could not bear the thought.

“Darlin’,” Jesse saw the dark cloud cross Jennifer’s features. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” Jennifer shook her head. “It’s just sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I was to end up in Sweetwater. I mean, of all the towns the office in Denver could have sent me, they sent me here. Sometimes, it just seems so fantastic. Almost like it’s unreal.”

“Nah, darlin’,” Jesse stepped Dusty alongside Blaze and leaned over to kiss Jennifer. “It’s very real.”

“So, it is,” Jennifer returned the kiss.

Dusty, not liking being that close to Blaze, stepped away inconveniently breaking apart the lovers.

“Dusty, be sociable,” Jesse chastised the mare but Dusty refused to close the distance between herself and the other horse. Jesse shrugged at Jennifer, “guess we’ll just have to do our kissing on the ground.”

Jennifer giggled at the palomino’s actions. “Speaking of the ground,” she had begun to notice some unusual pain and soreness in her thighs. “How much longer are we riding today?”

Jesse looked at the position of the sun in the sky, it was still a couple of hours before dusk. “I’d like to get a few more miles up the trail. The last few miles before the pass are pretty rough. Don’t want the girls to have to travel too much before we reach that section.”

“Oh,” Jennifer was hoping that they would be stopping sooner.

Seeming to sense Jennifer’s discomfort, Jesse rushed to continue, “but, we could stop sooner, if you want. We’ll just take it easy in the morning and take a rest when we reach the bad stuff.”

Jennifer considered Jesse’s words and decided that it really wouldn’t be fair to make the horses work harder than necessary just because she was sore. After all, she had the easy task of being the rider, Blaze and Dusty would have the hard part.

“No, that’s okay. Let’s keep going,” she told Jesse. “Although, you may have to give me a rub down when you’re done with Dusty tonight.”

“Oooh,” Jesse dropped her voice down to a seductive purr. “I’ll look forward to doin’ just that, darlin’.”

Just before dusk, Jesse called a halt to the day’s travels. They began setting up camp in a small clearing beside the trail. A creek gurgled nearby and Jesse picketed Blaze next to it. Dusty was set free but had not gone far due to the forest that surrounded them.

Jennifer was gathering firewood, an abundant amount available close to the camp. Dropping her armful of dried branches, Jennifer returned to gather more. She had quickly learned how the temperature dropped in the mountains and wanted to have a ample supply for the night. Jennifer dropped her second armful and looked around to see Jesse coming back from the creek with two freshly cleaned mountain trout.

“Don’t you tell me you found those in that little, bitty creek,” Jennifer confronted the rancher.

“Okay, I won’t,” Jesse snickered. “You want to cook them now or after your rub down?”

Shaking her head, Jennifer poked through the saddlebags and found their frying pan, “now. I’m not sure I’ll be awake later.”

“Ah, darlin’,” Jesse sighed. “You just ruined my plans for the evening.”

Jennifer blushed.

*************

Jesse sat with her back against a tall pine tree close to the fire. Jennifer was nestled between her legs, her back resting on Jesse’s chest. Jennifer reached down and pulled Jesse’s arms tight around her waist.

“It’s so beautiful,” Jennifer watched the sky change colors with the setting sun. Their camp spot allowed them a wide, panoramic view of the forest that stretched for miles on the mountain ridges around them. It was an endless sea of deep green, broken only by the occasional bare rocky slope. High in the darkening sky above them, an eagle soared scanning the ground for a late meal. Off in the distance, the calls of coyotes floated on the still mountain air.

A low grunt accompanied by the sound of something moving rapidly through the trees not too far from their camp alarmed the schoolteacher.

“What’s that?” Jennifer looked around expecting something to come bursting from the trees at them.

“Bull elk,” Jesse said. “Getting close to mating season. He’s probably just letting the other bulls know he’s in the area.”

Jennifer settled back against Jesse.

The rancher sighed deeply and tightened her hold on Jennifer. “This is nice,” she murmured in Jennifer’s ear.

Jennifer watched as the last of the sun’s color disappeared from the sky, “I know something that would be nicer.” She turned her head and kissed Jesse.

After several moments, Jennifer broke the kiss and pushed herself up from the ground. She offered to pull Jesse up beside her. The two lovers wasted no time in snuggling under their blankets.

**************

It was midday on their second day of travel. Jesse and Jennifer had led their horses up the last mile of the climb to the mountain pass and stopped to rest when the crest was reached. Expecting to be looking down the other side of a mountain, Jennifer was astonished to see more forest covered ridges extending before them.

“Thanks,” the schoolteacher took a welcomed drink from the canteen Jesse held out. “Jesse, how wide are these mountains?”

“Oh,” Jesse looked around. “We’ll be out of them by nightfall. But, you won’t hardly know we’re traveling downhill from here. It’ll seem that we’re riding along the top and then all of a sudden we’ll be out of the mountains and in the valley.”

“I’ve never seen mountains that go on like this. The ones back east don’t come close to comparing to these.”

“What about on your trip, darlin’?” Jesse remounted Dusty. “You traveled through the mountains between Denver and Sweetwater.”

Jennifer squirmed on Blaze’s saddle, her legs were sore and it took some doing to find a comfortable spot. “Guess I wasn’t really paying much attention. I was too excited just to be making the trip. Besides, the dust those stagecoaches throw up can block out the sun at noon.”

“Yep, that’s for sure. I’ve found there’s only two ways of traveling by stage, dusty or muddy. Best to to avoid either one, if you ask me.”

The trail they followed proved to be a easy ride, just as Jesse had said. The forest would open and they would ride across beautiful mountain meadows before the trees reclaimed their path. Jennifer was in awe of the wildlife they encountered. Birds of every size and color flew in and out of the trees. Beaver and muskrat worked the creeks and streams in the meadows. Moose, foraging on tasty water plants, gave them little more than a casual look as they passed. The woman was even startled to see a young black bear rumble out of a tangle of berry bushes they passed.

Jennifer could not get enough of the wide open sky and the beautiful land they traveled through. Growing up in the east, she had never gone for so long without encountering a town or settlement of some sort. But, they were two days out of Sweetwater and had not seen a single person or even a cabin. All of this openness was a bit overwhelming. She couldn’t imagine making such a trip alone and she was very glad that Jesse was with her. For many reasons.

“Jesse, what’s that?” Jennifer pointed to the side of a hill several hundred feet away. It was covered in loose rock and an animal was carefully making its way across the face of rock. A smaller version of the animal trailing close behind.

Jesse turned to look. “Big horn sheep and she’s got a lamb with her.”

“Big horn sheep,” Jennifer repeated as she watched the animals’ progress.

“Yep. The rams have huge horns that wrap around in a circle. When they fight over the ewes, you can hear the clash of their horns for miles.” Jesse picked up the movement of a third animal on the rocky face and pulled her rifle from the saddle scabbard. “Hold tight to your reins,” she warned Jennifer as she spotted on the third animal.

“What’s wrong?” Jennifer asked alarmed at the sight of the rifle in Jesse’s hands.

Jesse gently pulled the trigger and crack of the rifle startled both Jennifer and Blaze. Had Jesse not warned her, Jennifer would probably have been unseated by the horse’s sudden movement. After regaining control of her mare, Jennifer looked at the hillside. The ewe and her lamb were running straight up the rocky slope. Jesse fired a second shot and Jennifer saw rock explode less than fifty feet from where she had originally spied the ewe. As Jesse fired a third shot, Jennifer saw a large cat-like animal rise out of the rocks it had been hiding among and run down the rock slope away from the ewe and lamb.

Jesse lowered her rifle but kept watch on the large cat.

“That’s the biggest cat I’ve ever seen,” Jennifer exclaimed. From head to tail, the cat had to be longer than Jesse was tall.

“Mountain lion,” Jesse said as she kept her eyes on the cat.

“Mountain lion,” Jennifer had heard of the big cats but had not imagined them to be so big. “Shouldn’t we be getting away from here?” she asked nervously.

“Nah, it’s climbed up a tree. It’ll wait a while then go after the ewe again,” Jesse replaced the rifle.

Jennifer sadly said, “it’s too bad you missed it.”

“Wasn’t aiming to kill it,” Jesse replied.

“Why not?” Jennifer asked, perplexed.

“Darlin’,” Jesse turned to the schoolteacher. “We can’t go about killing every thing we don’t like or fear. It serves a purpose. Without the mountain lions, the sheep and other wild animals would become overpopulated. That would weaken the herds and eventually, you’d have fewer and smaller animals.”

“But, if that’s the case, why did you chase it away?” Jennifer was puzzled.

Jesse had to consider the question. If she’d been riding alone, she would have let nature take it’s course. So, why did she prevent it this time. She was looking at the answer. She hadn’t wanted Jennifer to witness the death of the lamb.

Jesse shrugged, not wanting to tell Jennifer the truth. “Don’t rightly know. Come on, let’s get going.” Jesse nudged Dusty and the mare moved away, Blaze following.

Jennifer smiled at Jesse’s back. She had seen the look in Jesse’s eyes as she considered Jennifer’s question. It was the same look Jesse had when she tried to protect Jennifer from Johnson, the crazed ex-owner of the Slipper. ‘She was protecting me,’ Jennifer thought. ‘That is so sweet.’ As Blaze pulled alongside of Dusty, Jennifer reached over and took her lover’s hand in her own. Jesse looked over at Jennifer and smiled.

Later, in the early evening, with the high summer sun beginning to drop, Jesse recommended making camp in a small meadow. As Jennifer gathered firewood, Jesse performed her magic and caught a pair of trout in the meadow’s creek. After dinner, Jennifer received another rubdown before the women crawled into their blankets and snuggled together. Jennifer spent the better part of the night showing Jesse just how much she loved her..

************

Traveling on the third day, Jennifer was sorry to see the forest fade behind them. Without the cover of the trees, the sun’s heat beat down on the riders and horses. Jesse called a halt at every creek to allow the horses to rest. Behind them, jagged peaks, some still dotted with snow, rose well above the forest they had ridden through and Jennifer could tell that the pass on the old Indian trail did not cross the mountains anywhere near the highest peaks.

Before them lay the biggest valley the schoolteacher had every seen. It was ringed by mountain ranges and Jennifer traced their ridges for as far as she could see. Inside, the ring, gently rolling mounds of grassland flowed unbroken except for the sporadic stand of willows and cottonwoods along meandering creeks. In the huge expanse of open land, Jennifer could see no sign of human occupation.

“Doesn’t anyone live in this valley?”

“Wasn’t anyone the last time I came through this way,” Jesse led Dusty down the side of a gulley. “Trappers come through every so often to trap the beaver. And, the Indians come to hunt the antelope and elk.”

“Antelope?” Jennifer had never heard the name before.

“Yeah, kinda like a small deer but lighter in color. And, faster than any other animal. Heck, they can outrun a bullet. Just as well, since they’re not too good for eatin’.”

“Think we’ll see any?” the schoolteacher was scanning the horizon for any evidence of the fast moving animals.

“Probably,” Jesse turned Dusty in a more southerly direction. “There’s a lot of ’em in this valley.”

“Jesse, is that smoke?” Jennifer asked as the climbed out of the gulley.

Far in the distance, a column of gray-black smoke rose from behind a small rise. “Seems so,” Jesse pulled Dusty to a stop and searched for any sign of activity. “Strange, I don’t recall a cabin being around there.”

“Maybe it’s just someone’s campfire,” Jennifer had also stopped Blaze who was standing easily alongside Dusty.

“That’s a lot of smoke for a campfire.”

Dusty raised her head and started to sniff the air. The golden mare sidestepped uneasily, Blaze picked up on this and began to twitch nervously.

Jennifer patted the mare’s neck, “whoa, girl. What’s got into you?”

Jesse patted Dusty’s neck to calm the agitated animal, “settle down, Dusty. You’re upsetting Blaze.” A loud whinny and vigorous shake of the head was Dusty’s answer but she calmed. Blaze seemed to understand the reason for Dusty’s uneasiness and also raised her head to sniff the air.

“What’s wrong?” Jennifer asked tensely.

“Don’t know,” Jesse reached for her rifle before she nudged Dusty forward. “Could be trouble,” Jesse said as she spotted the buzzards circling high above the smoke. Not wanting to worry Jennifer, she didn’t say anything.

As they made their way to the source of the smoke, the horses became more skitterish. Taking on their mounts’ moods, the women were not anticipating a welcome sight. But, nothing could have prepared them for the shock of what awaited them.

A Conestoga wagon lay partially on its side, it’s contents scattered about on the ground. Both wagon and contents had been set on fire. The body of a man was laying face down next to the wagon, his body covering that of a woman’s. The women could see that both had been shot in the head.

Jennifer gasped, her face buried in her hands to block out the horrific sight. Jesse was on the ground instantly and she gently pulled Jennifer from her saddle. She wrapped her arms around Jennifer, hugging the crying woman.

“Don’t look,” Jesse felt her own cheeks wet with tears. “Please, darlin’. Don’t look.”

“Why?” Jennifer moaned into Jesse’s shoulder. “Why would someone do this?”

Jesse looked at the burning wagon and wondered that herself.

It took several minutes for the women to compose themselves enough to deal with the tragedy before them.

“Sit here,” Jesse lowered Jennifer onto a convenient rock. “Let me get them buried.”

“I’ll help,” the schoolteacher began to stand even as Jesse gently pushed her back down.

“No, darlin’,” Jesse whispered. “I don’t want you to see…”

Jennifer reached up and cupped Jesse’s tear-streaked face in her hands. “Jesse, I want to help,” she said quietly. “Please, sweetheart. I need to help them.”

Understanding, Jesse nodded.

**************

Jesse carefully lifted the lifeless man.

“He must have been trying to protect her,” Jennifer commented as she helped carry the body to where she and Jesse had dug side-by-side graves. After laying the man out in one of the graves, they returned for the woman.

“Why don’t you see if you can find anything with their names or their next of kin,” Jesse suggested as she began to fill in the graves. A search of the victim’s clothing had turned up nothing to identify them.

Jennifer nodded and began to search the items scattered about the smoldering wagon. It was obvious that whoever was responsible for the couple’s death had ransacked the wagon and contents before setting them on fire. There wasn’t much left worth trying to save.

Jennifer flipped upright a small travel trunk and found it to be empty. As she tossed it aside, Jennifer thought she heard a faint noise under the wagon. Stopping her activity to listen, she heard the noise again. She was astounded when it sounded like a child’s whimper.

“Jesse,” Jennifer called as she approached the wagon. “Jesse, come here. There’s someone under the wagon.”

Jesse dropped her shovel and rushed to Jennifer’s side. “Watch out,” Jesse grabbed Jennifer’s arm and stopped her from crawling under the smoldering wood.

“Jesse, I heard a child,” Jennifer cried out as she struggled to get loose of Jesse’s hold.

“Hold on,” Jesse pulled Jennifer back. “Let me get it back upright,” Jesse whistled for Dusty. After swinging up into the saddle, Jesse looped one end of her rope around one of the wagon’s ribs and tied the other around her saddle horn. With rope stretched taut, she backed Dusty slowly from the wagon. “Wait until I have it up before you crawl under.”

Jennifer nodded and waited anxiously for the wagon to sit again on it’s large wooden wheels. She could no longer hear the sound that had caught her attention and she wondered if she’d been mistaken.

Dusty strained against the weight of the large wagon but it slowly began to right itself. Both women held their breath as the wagon rocked over onto its wheels. They waited to see if the burnt wood would hold. It groaned but stayed in one piece.

“Now,” Jesse grunted.

Jennifer quickly dropped to the ground and eased her way beneath the wagon bed. At first, she saw nothing but what appeared to be a pile of clothing. She heard the tiny whimper again. As she pulled aside the clothing, her hand hit something solid. She quickly removed the rest of the pile to reveal a small wooden crate laying upside down. Lifting it carefully, Jennifer was amazed to see a baby staring back at her.

“Oh, goodness,” Jennifer carefully lifted the infant and scooted out from under the wagon. “It’s a baby,” she said as she held the child out for Jesse to see.

Jesse’s eyes widened at the small bundle in her lover’s arms.

Dusty took one look at the little person, shook her head and sneezed.

The noise startled the baby and a earsplitting wail erupted.

****************

“Hush, little one,” Jennifer rocked the crying infant. “You’re okay.”

Jesse carefully poured water from a canteen, drenching a clean cloth she’d removed from her saddlebags. She handed the dripping material to Jennifer. “It’s not milk but it will have to do for now.” She watched as Jennifer placed the wet cloth in the infant’s mouth. The baby sucked on the cloth for a few moments before spitting it out, crying again.

“Here,” Jesse sat next to Jennifer. “Let me try something.”

She began to sing an old lullaby that she remember her mother had sung when, as a child, she’d had trouble sleeping. Jennifer smiled as the baby soon quieted.

“Let’s see if she’ll stay that way while I finish up,” Jesse left Jennifer to rock the child as she returned to the task of filling in the graves. When she had finished, she walked back to where Jennifer sat with the now sleeping child.

“Did you find anything saying who they were?” Jesse asked, softly.

Jennifer shook her head.

“I’m going to take a short ride,” Jesse informed the schoolteacher. “The bandits took their horses but, by the looks of the tracks, they had a cow tied to the wagon. Now, we know why,” .Jesse indicated the baby. I’ll take a look around and see if I can spot it. If you have any trouble, fire this,” she placed a revolver next to Jennifer. “I’ll come back.”

“Jesse,” Jennifer looked worried.

“I won’t be long, darlin’,” Jesse bent to place a tender kiss on Jennifer’s forehead. “I promise.”

Jennifer softly hummed to the baby as Jesse rode away. Less than an hour later, Jesse returned. Trailing behind Dusty, at the end of a long rope was the cow.

Jennifer walked up to Jesse as she dropped from the saddle, “thank goodness you found that. This little one is starting to fuss again.”

“Found this, too,” Jesse held up a wallet. “Money, if they had any, is gone. But, say’s their names were Kenneth and Catherine Williams. No name for the baby, though.” Jesse put the wallet into her saddlebag and pulled a small pot out of one of their gear sacks. “Let’s see what we can get.”

Jesse knelt beside the cow and massaged it’s teats coaxing out the milk. It didn’t take long for the pot to be filled.

“Now, how do we get this into that little thing,” Jesse asked as she pointed to the baby’s small mouth. She was startled when the baby wrapped it’s tiny hand around her finger and held tight.

“Well, since she’s already got a hold of you, you hold her while I see if I can find something to use to feed her,” Jennifer traded the baby for the pot of milk.

“How do you know it’s a her?”

“She needed her diaper changed while you were gone. I checked her over, didn’t find any injuries. The box she was in must have protected her,” Jennifer told Jesse as she searched the wagon’s contents.

“So, how old do you think she is?” Jesse run a finger down the baby’s soft cheek. She took a good look at the infant. She was small, barely stretching the length of her arm from elbow to hand. Soft, downy hair, almost the same ginger color of Jennifer’s, covered the small head. Bright curious blue eyes looked up at Jesse.

“Can’t be very old. I’m guessing eight, maybe nine, months.”

“Damn, that’s young.”

Not finding any unbroken bottles for feeding the baby, Jennifer decided to improvise and emptied one of their canteens.

“Give me your knife,” she held out her hand. Jesse pulled the knife from her boot and handed it to the schoolteacher.

“What are you planning to do?” she asked as the baby continued to play with her fingers.

“I’m hoping to put a small hole in the cap so we can pour small amounts of milk into her mouth. It’s not the best way to feed a baby but it’ll have to do until we get to Bannack.” Jennifer finished with the knife and handed it back to Jesse. Then, she carefully poured the milk into the canteen and tightened the cap down. “Shall we give it a try?”

Jesse sat on the ground and provided a nest for Jennifer to sit in while she carefully fed the infant the milk. Both women sat mesmerized by the tiny person in their arms.

Jennifer turned to look into Jesse’s eyes, “what are we going to do with her?”

“Take her into Bannack, that’s probably where her folks were coming from. We’ll see if anyone there knows who they were. The sheriff might be able to help. Need to report the bandits to him anyway.”

“Think he’ll find them?” Jennifer asked, referring to the bandits.

“Hard to tell.”

“Jesse, are we in danger?” Jennifer was scared, she had heard of bandits attacking travelers but had never imagined the consequences could be so terrible.

“It’ll be okay, darlin’,” Jesse assured the schoolteacher.

“Promise,” Jennifer leaned her head against Jesse’s shoulder as she continued to pour tiny swallows of milk into the baby’s mouth.

“Promise,” Jesse hoped she could fulfill the promise to her lover. “Country is pretty open between here and Bannack. We’ll keep a sharp eye out.”

After the baby fell asleep, Jesse patted Jennifer’s leg, “let’s get out of here. It’ll be safer.”

Jennifer looked down at the baby sleeping peacefully in her arms, “alright.”

*************

Jennifer tucked what clothes for the baby they could salvage from the burned wagon into her saddlebags. She had also found some cloth that could serve as diapers until they reached Bannack.

“Here, put this over your head,” Jesse stepped next to Jennifer. She had torn a dress skirt into a makeshift sling that she placed over Jennifer’s head. Next, the baby was placed into the pocket of the sling. “It’ll make carrying her easier. We can take turns.”

Jennifer adjusted the baby in the sling and was pleased to see the infant didn’t seem to mind the awkward position.

Before mounting their horses, Jesse and Jennifer stood at the foot of the newly dug graves. The mounds of earth had been covered with rocks to keep animals from digging up the bodies. Two crosses made from pieces of wood pulled from the wagon’s side were placed at the head of the graves. Using a piece of charred wood, Jesse had scratched the couple’s names onto the crosses.

“We’ll take care of your baby,” Jennifer told the graves’ occupants. “I promise.”

“Let’s go,” Jesse helped Jennifer onto Blaze before handing up the baby. Once, Jennifer was settled with the infant, she pulled herself up onto Dusty. The cow’s lead rope was wrapped around the saddle horn. “Ready,” she asked Jennifer who was making sure the infant was comfortable.

Jennifer nodded.

The women left the scene of the grisly attack behind them.

***************

CHAPTER SIX

Jesse and Jennifer rode until dark, stopping only to rest the horses or feed and change the baby. They had kept a lookout for any other riders but had seen none. As the sun dropped from the sky, they set up camp alongside a small creek. Jesse tended the horses and cow while Jennifer took care of the baby and set out their bedroll and blankets.

“Best we do without a fire tonight,” Jesse said as she joined Jennifer, a fresh pot of milk in hand.

“Won’t it be cold?” Jennifer had laid the baby on their blankets and she was happily playing with her toes.

“Yes, but an open fire can be seen for miles at night. I think we better do without,” Jesse sat beside the blanket and began to tickle the child’s tummy. The baby smiled at the rancher.

“She likes you,” Jennifer said as she poured the milk into the canteen they used for feeding the baby.

“Nah,” Jesse picked up the baby and bounced her on her leg. “She just likes the fact I bring the milk.”

“Come on, little one,” Jennifer took the baby to feed her.

“You know, we should come up with something to call her besides ‘baby’ and ‘little one’,” Jesse rummaged through their saddle bags looking for the jerky and hard biscuits they had brought with them.

“Hmm,” Jennifer was trying not to put too much milk in the baby’s mouth but it was difficult in the growing darkness. “Any suggestions?”

“Nope,” Jesse found the food and placed it near the blankets. “She done eating? We better get under cover before we start to get cold,” Jesse crawled into the blankets and held them open for Jennifer.

Jennifer handed the baby to Jesse before joining her under the blankets. “I think she was too worn out to eat much. She’ll probably wake up during the night to finish.”

Jesse rolled onto her back and placed the baby on her chest, she thought it would be warmer for the infant than laying on the ground. She gently rubbed the tiny back as the baby sleepily played with the buttons on her shirt. With her other hand she reached for the jerky and biscuits. “Here, this will have to do for dinner.”

“Thanks,” Jennifer turned onto her side and snuggled up to Jesse. “What about KC?”

“Uh?,” Jesse chewed on the meat.

“For the baby? KC after her parents, Kenneth and Catherine.”

“Oh. Well, KC it is,” Jesse wrapped an arm around Jennifer and pulled her close.

“Jesse, what’s going to happen to her?” Jennifer tucked the blankets in tight around their bodies.

“Don’t know. If she has relatives, she’ll probably go to them. If not, there’s probably a orphans home in Bannack. Or, maybe a church that will take her in.”

“Oh,” Jennifer rested a hand on top of Jesse’s that held the baby. After several long moments watching the tiny child slowly fall asleep, “Jesse, did you ever think about having children?”

Jesse thought before answering, it surprised her to admit that she never had. “No, can’t say I ever gave it much thought,” Jesse wove her fingers into her lover’s. “What about you?”

“I always thought that I’d have a big family, lots of children. But, I guess that isn’t going to happen now.”

Jesse could hear the melancholy in Jennifer’s voice. She knew that the schoolteacher loved children and it wasn’t unexpected that she would have wanted to have her own. But, Jennifer was right, there wasn’t much chance of her having children with Jesse.

“Guess that’s one thing I can’t give you, darlin’,” Jesse sadly turned her head to face Jennifer.

Seeing the anguish in her lover’s eyes, Jennifer gently caressed Jesse’s face. “I love you, Jesse. And, I wouldn’t trade a day with you for all the children in the west.” Jennifer lay her head back on Jesse’s shoulder. Carefully, so as not to wake the baby, she draped an arm and leg across Jesse and settled into her favorite sleeping position half on the rancher’s familiar body.

“I love you, too, darlin’,” Jesse kissed the top of Jennifer’s head.

In the distance, the moon was rising over one of the mountain peaks, it’s pale glow not enough to brighten the dark night. Jesse felt Jennifer begin to relax as sleep claimed her. It wasn’t long before the only sound in their camp was the peaceful breathing of her lover and the baby on her chest. Jesse smiled. She felt content. It was a good feeling,

“I love you, too,” she whispered.

****************

Jesse woke just after dawn. The baby was still asleep on her chest and Jennifer was snoring softly in her ear. She scanned the horizon and saw nothing to cause concern. She was additionally comforted that Dusty and Blaze were calmly grazing not too far from where they lay. Jesse knew the mares would have alerted them to any danger.

Carefully, slipping out from under Jennifer, Jesse lay the baby in the warm blankets she had just vacated. In her sleep, Jennifer reached out a protective arm and covered the child.

It didn’t take long for Jesse to get a fire going and to put a pot of coffee in the flames to heat. She milked the cow so the baby would have warm milk for breakfast and then went to the nearby creek to look for fish. Pickings were slim but she managed to catch a couple of trout for their morning meal.

Jesse had just placed the fish in the frying pan when Jennifer woke.

“Morning,” Jennifer greeted the rancher as she stretched under the blanket. “And, good morning to you, KC,” she said as she felt the baby grab unto her shirt. “Uh, oh. Someone needs some dry britches,” Jennifer made a face as she picked up the baby.

“Not me,” Jesse said from where she knelt beside the fire. She patted her backside, “my britches are nice and dry.”

“Funny,” Jennifer pushed the blanket out of the way. “Sweetheart, can you get me a diaper?”

“Right there,” Jesse pointed to a cloth resting on top of the canteen they used to feed the baby. A rag sat in a bowl of water beside it. “Figured, she’d be needing a change when she woke up.”

Jennifer removed the soiled diaper and grabbed the wet cloth. “Hey, this is warm water,” she noted as she picked it up.

“Yep. Pretty sure she wouldn’t want us to use water straight from that creek. It’s a mite on the chilly side.”

“You’re pretty smart for an old rancher,” Jennifer washed the baby before putting on the fresh diaper.

“Who you callin’ old?” Jesse scowled as she handed Jennifer a clean baby gown. “Here you go. And, there’s warm milk in the canteen.”

Jennifer finished dressing KC, then settled the baby in her arms for feeding. The baby swallowed the milk as quickly as Jennifer could pour the liquid into her mouth. “Looks like she’s hungry this morning.”

“Don’t doubt that,” Jesse returned to cooking the fish.

Jennifer looked at the fire quizzically, “thought you said it was safer not to have a fire?”

“Last night. Besides,” Jesse turned the fish in the frying pan, “whoever it was is long gone by now.” She hoped.

KC finally drank her fill and pushed the canteen away. Jennifer wiped the baby’s face clean then joined Jesse by the fire.

“Oh, that feels good,” Jennifer said as she felt the fire’s warmth against her skin.

Jesse handed a plate of fish to Jennifer. She poured a cup full of coffee and set it on the ground at Jennifer’s side.

“Here, let me hold her while you eat,” Jesse lifted the baby from Jennifer. KC smiled and wrapped her fingers around Jesse’s much larger one. “She’s got a good grip for such a tiny thing,” Jesse began to play with the child.

Jennifer watched as her lover made faces and funny sounds to entertain KC. Jesse was a natural with the child and Jennifer wondered what it would be like to raise KC as their own. She sighed knowing that in another day, they would have to give the baby up.

“What’s wrong, darlin’?” Jesse asked when she saw the sad look on Jennifer’s face.

“I was just thinking.”

“Must not have been anything good by your expression,” Jesse lifted the baby’s gown and tickled KC’s belly, producing a small baby laugh.

“Don’t know that I would say it was bad. I was just thinking about having to leave her in Bannack,” Jennifer finished her breakfast and picked up the cup of coffee, sipping the hot drink.

“Yeah,” Jesse sat KC in her lap. “Guess we shouldn’t get too attached to her,” as she spoke the words both women realized that they already were.

“Yeah,” Jennifer said sadly. “You better eat before it gets cold, sweetheart. You want me to hold her?”

“Nah,” Jesse picked up her plate. “She can help me eat this fish.”

“Jesse, she’s too young to eat fish,” Jennifer laughed.

“Maybe,” Jesse laughed as a tiny hand plopped squarely in the middle of her plate. “But, she’s not too young to play with ’em.”

Jennifer left Jesse to her game of grabbing pieces of fish away from KC’s busy hands. By the time she had rolled up their blankets and bedrolls, and tied them in place on the saddles, both rancher and baby were in need of a good scrubbing. Jennifer warmed water to wash KC but Jesse was sent to clean up in the frosty water of the creek. It was mid-morning before the rancher quit grumbling about life’s unfairness.

*****************

Jesse called a halt to the day’s travels earlier than she had the previous day. They hadn’t seen any sign of the bandits all day and she felt there was no need to ride until dark. The women were setting up camp and KC had been placed in the middle of the blankets while the women worked.

“Jesse, look,” Jennifer called excitingly to the rancher.

“What?” Jesse was rubbing down the horses after the day’s ride.

“KC. She just rolled over,” Jennifer was pointing to the blanket. KC was now laying on her stomach, trying to push up on her tiny arms.

“Well, I’ll be,” Jesse said as she walked over to the blanket. She lay flat on the ground so she would be nose to nose with the baby. “Showing off, are ya?” she asked KC.

The baby answered by trying to reach out and grab Jesse’s nose. Unfortunately, the movement left her with only one hand on the ground and her tiny body couldn’t balance. She fell to the side and the motion rolled her back over to the position she had originally been placed on the blanket. Surprised by all the unexpected action, KC began to whimper.

“Hey, there,” Jesse stretched her head over the blanket so she could look down at the baby. “Nothing to be upset over. You’re just learning somethin’ new.”

Looking up into the smiling upside down face above her, KC’s whimper turned into a giggle.

Jesse laughed with the girl, “that’s better.”

Jennifer sat on the blanket and tickled the baby, “won’t be long and you’ll be crawling. Bet, you’ll be a handful then.”

“Heck, darlin’,” Jesse winked at her lover as she sat up. “She ain’t much more than a handful now,” she spread her fingers to denote the baby’s small size.

Jennifer reached out and grabbed Jesse’s hand pulling her onto the blanket. She quickly covered Jesse’s body with her own and began to plant kisses all over Jesse’s face. Jesse’s hands found their way to Jennifer’s back and began to work her shirt loose of her pants. Jennifer felt Jesse’s warm hands on her bare skin and her body instantly reacted. She pressed her lips against her lover’s.

Jesse broke the kiss and looked at the baby laying beside them. KC was happily carrying on a gibberish conversation with herself.

“Should we be doing this with her right there?” Jesse questioned.

Jennifer straddled Jesse’s hips and began to unbutton her shirt, “doesn’t look like she minds.”

“Maybe not, but it feels kinda strange,” Jesse stopped Jennifer’s hands. “I mean, shouldn’t we wait until she’s asleep, at least.”

Jennifer collapsed down onto Jesse, “tonight?”

“I promise,” Jesse kissed the top of Jennifer’s head before rolling the schoolteacher off her. She stood and walked back to the horses, buttoning up her shirt.

Jennifer remained on the blanket, somewhat frustrated and thinking of the promise she would definitely hold her lover to. Her thoughts were interrupted by a small arm smacking her side as KC again experimented with her newly discovered skill.

Later that evening, as KC slept, Jesse made good on her promise.

**************

Dusty and Blaze carried their riders down a small hill then began to climb up the backside of another. At the crest, a road could be seen less than a mile in the distance. A wagon rumbled along it, a cloud of dust billowing behind. The few riders sharing the road pulled to the side and let the wagon pass.

“That’s the stage road,” Jesse answered Jennifer’s unasked question. “We should be in Bannack by noon.”

Jennifer adjusted KC who had fallen asleep. She looked at Jesse, both women felt a sadness at the thought that they would soon need to part with the infant.

“She’ll be okay, won’t she Jesse?”

Jesse could hear the distress in the schoolteacher’s voice, “yes, darlin’. We’ll make sure of it.”

“Alright,” Jennifer urged Blaze forward. “Best not to prolong this.”

“Whoa, hold up there,” Jesse called to Jennifer.

“What?” Jennifer asked as she pulled Blaze to a stop.

Jesse nudged Dusty alongside Blaze, “folks in Bannack might not be as accepting of us as our friends in Sweetwater. Might be best if we tell folks we’re sisters.”

At first, Jennifer wondered what Jesse was talking about then she realized and had to agree that her lover was regrettably right. She turned to Jesse and smiled, “hmmm. Jennifer Branson. Kinda has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?”

Jennifer rode on leaving Jesse staring after her.

After several seconds, Jesse told Dusty, “it does sound right pretty.”

Dusty nodded in agreement before trotting ahead to catch up with Blaze.

**************

CHAPTER SEVEN

Jesse and Jennifer rode slowly toward Bannack. As the road turned to parallel Grasshopper Creek, they began to see miners working the gravel creek bed. Jesse explained the different methods the miners engaged to coax the gold from the gravel. Jennifer watched the dirty and back breaking work. She wondered why men who would not accept a regular job would work so hard for the chance of finding a nugget or two of the shiny metal.

The women rode across the creek and past the small community of Yankee Flats, where Union sympathizers separated themselves from the southern leaning population of Bannack. It was made up of several roughly thrown together shacks and lean-tos. In a few more years, gold dredges working the creek would destroy the community, leaving no trace of it behind.

Several studier built houses announced their arrival in Bannack. The residences at the beginning of town gave way to businesses of every description. Dusty and Blaze walked down the center of the main street, a wide boardwalk lined the front of the buildings bordering both sides. As they passed, the buildings became closer together until adjoining buildings walls touched. Stores selling a variety of goods were intermingled with saloons, laundries, doctor’s offices, hotels, boarding houses, mining offices, and much more. At the far end of the road, Jesse recognized the unique rooftop of a church building.

Most of the buildings were made from rough-hewn logs or wood planks. As yet, Bannack had no brick or stone buildings attesting to the town’s young age. In the hills surrounding the community, Jesse and Jennifer could see activity at several mines dug into the hillsides. Bannack was a hive of activity and the women were quickly overwhelmed by it all.

Jesse pulled Dusty to a stop in front of a two story, wooden structure. Jennifer looked the building over. It had an plain front with four pillars supporting a second floor balcony and the building’s over-hanging roof. A rough wood sign nailed to the side of the building and jutting out over the boardwalk and street proclaimed it to be the ‘Goodrich Hotel’.

“Let’s get a room and find out where we can find the sheriff,” Jesse said as she swung down from Dusty. The one building she had not seen along the main street was a jail. She reached up to take the baby from Jennifer so she could dismount.

“Sounds good,” Jennifer joined Jesse and they stepped up onto the boardwalk.

As soon as they opened the door to the Goodrich Hotel, they were greeted by a older man standing behind a counter on the other side of the hotel’s small lobby. He was a good foot shorter than the woman and was well on his way to losing what was left of his hair. He wore a black vest over a smartly pressed white shirt.

“Good afternoon, ladies,” the man merrily greeted them. “How can I be of service to you, this fine day.”

“Afternoon,” Jesse nodded at the overly cheerful clerk. “My sister and I need a room for a few nights.”

“Fine,” the man smiled. As he turned the hotel register for Jesse to sign, he continued, “good thing you came in when you did. I have only one room available and the stage is due in an hour. It only has the one bed, though,” he said, apologetically.

“That’s okay,” Jesse signed the register. “My sister and I are used to sleeping together.”

Jennifer hid her smile behind a hand. She coughed, trying to cover the chuckle that had burst forth. Jesse looked at her lover and raised an eyebrow, daring her to behave. Jennifer shrugged.

“Good, good,” the man turned the register back around, reading what Jesse had just written. “Sweetwater, uh. What brings you to Bannack? Business or meeting up with your husbands?” It wasn’t uncommon for women to travel alone but it happened seldom enough that it was always noticed.

“Business,” Jesse answered, leaving out the part that they had no husbands.

The clerk watched as the baby in Jesse’s arms began to fidget. He noticed the remarkable resemblance the baby showed to the woman’s sister and smiled at Jennifer, “beautiful baby, ma’am. You and your husband must be very happy.”

Jennifer smiled at the man, “yes, she is beautiful but, regrettably, she’s not mine. We found her parents on the trail, murdered.”

“Bandits. So, they’ve struck again,” the man stated as he shook his head. Both women were bewildered that he showed no surprise at the news.

“You don’t seem surprised,” Jesse settled the fussing baby on her shoulder and lovingly patted her back. KC settled against the rancher and calmed.

“I wish it wasn’t so,” the clerk reached for a key from the rows of hooks hanging on the wall behind him. “But, bandits have been attacking travelers on the roads between here and Virginia City for the last few months. Always seem to know who’s carrying gold dust or other valuables.”

“Hasn’t the sheriff been able to do anything?” Jennifer asked.

“He goes out looking but always comes back empty handed,” the man made a notation next to Jesse’s name. “The room is six bits a night. Bath is two bits extra. Supper is served between 6 and 9 in the dining room in the back and breakfast from 5 to 9. Meals are extra, too.”

“We’ll need a cradle for the baby,” Jesse told the man as she handed him a five dollar bill. Bannack was going to cost some, she thought. At the Slipper, meals and bath came with the room.

“Sorry,” the man took the money and made another notation next to Jesse’s name. “Don’t have any.”

“That’s okay,” Jennifer said. “We’ll make do.”

“Need a place to board our horses,” Jesse said.

“Livery is on the north road, you can board them there. Tell Jasper you’re a guest of the Goodrich. He’ll take care of you. Your room is at the top of the stairs, front of the building. Let me know when you want your bath.” The clerk handed Jesse the key.

Jesse took the room key. “You happen to remember a Conestoga wagon coming through town few days back.”

“That what you found?”

“Yes.”

“Let me think. Conestoga, don’t see many of those in these parts. Most stay on the Oregon trail. Country around here is too rough for ’em.”

“Did you see one?” Jesse asked impatiently. She wasn’t looking for a lesson in transportation.

“Well, seems I do recall one coming through. Didn’t stay long. Was parked across the street for a spell in front of Chrismans’ store. Sheriff might know more.”

“Where can we find the jail?”

“Across the street, in the alley behind the store. But, you won’t find the sheriff there. He keeps a office in the back of the store.”

“Thanks,” Jesse started to re-cross the lobby but thought better of it when she felt a growing wetness on her arm holding the baby. She grinned at Jennifer, “I think someone needs fresh britches.”

Jennifer took the baby and key from Jesse, “you get the saddle bags. I’ll take KC up to the room. She’s probably hungry, too.”

*************

As Jennifer finished cleaning up KC, Jesse looked out the room’s window.

“Jennifer, I don’t want you wandering around Bannack alone,” the rancher said as she watched the activity on the street.

Jennifer lifted KC into her arms and joined Jesse at the window, “Jesse, you don’t have to watch over me every minute of the day. I can take care of myself, you know.”

Jesse reached out and wrapped her arm around the schoolteacher pulling her close. “It’s not you I’m worried about, darlin’. It’s them,” she nodded down at the street.

Jennifer looked where Jesse had indicated and saw cowboys and miners hustling along the boardwalks. It was early afternoon and many of them were already showing signs of having had too much to drink. There were women on the boardwalk but all were accompanied by a male companion.

“Alright, sweetheart,” Jennifer saw the wisdom in Jesse’s concern.

“Thank you,” Jesse leaned down and captured Jennifer’s lips. “Now, let’s go get Dusty and Blaze boarded, and that cow. Then, we’ll go find the sheriff.”

**************

After taking the horses and cow to the livery and arranging for their feed and care for the next few days, the women strolled the length of the main street and started back. Jesse didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to find the sheriff and Jennifer wasn’t about to question her reasons. They discovered the east end of the street mirrored the west, being populated mostly with private residences. As they made their way back, they passed a log cabin serving as the town’s school. Jennifer excitingly looked in but found the building empty. Jesse told her they could come back the next day so she could talk with the Bannack schoolteacher.

The women continued their stroll along the boardwalk and eventually found themselves in front of Chrismans’ store that housed the sheriff’s office. Jesse held the door to the store open for Jennifer to enter. The interior of the store wasn’t much different from the general store in Sweetwater. They walked up to the counter where the storekeeper stood watching them.

“Afternoon ladies,” the man greeted them guardedly. He stood of medium height and was so skinny his apron strings were wrapped twice around his body before being tied in a crooked bow.

“Afternoon,” Jesse nodded at the man. “We’re looking for the sheriff. We were told he has an office here.”

“You ladies have some trouble?” the man asked.

“You might say that,” Jesse said. “Rather discuss it with the sheriff, if you don’t mind.” Jesse was getting impatient, nothing seemed to be simple in Bannack. And, she was getting an uneasy feeling about it.

“Office is around back,” the man jerked a thumb towards the back of the building.

“Thank you.”

While Jesse talked to the storekeeper, Jennifer searched the shelves for the supplies they needed for KC. Jesse smiled at Jennifer as she placed two baby bottles and some cloth she could cut up for diapers on the counter.

“How much for these?” Jennifer asked the man.

“Four bits,” he reached under the counter and produced a bag to put the items in. Taking the money from Jesse, he handed her the bag in return.

“Thank you,” Jesse picked up the bag and handed KC to Jennifer.

Jesse led Jennifer outside and along a small alley at the side of the building to an unmarked door in the back. She pulled the door open and cautiously looked inside.

A large man with a handlebar mustache sat behind a small table. He eyed Jesse and then Jennifer as they entered his small office. Standing slowly, he asked, “something I can do for you ladies.” He looked both women over carefully before his eyes came to rest on Jennifer.

“You can if you’re the sheriff,” Jesse stood slightly in front of Jennifer, in a protective stance.

“Sheriff Plummer,” the lawman informed them. “Now, what’s your business?”

Jesse pulled a chair from the front of the table and offered it to Jennifer. “We just rode in from Sweetwater. Found some trouble on the trail.”

“What kind of trouble?” the sheriff slumped back into his chair leaving Jesse standing.

“Found a wagon overturned. Man and woman it belonged to had been shot.”

“They dead?” the sheriff asked tensely.

“Yes, we buried them.” Jesse watched the sheriff closely. Somehow, his reaction to her story didn’t seem right and he seemed to relax when she told him the couple hadn’t survived. The knot in her stomach began to grow . “Found this not too far from the wagon,” Jesse tossed the wallet she had found onto the table.

The sheriff opened the wallet and pulled out a piece of paper. “Hmm, Williams. Seem to remember a couple by the name of Williams came through here a few days back. They were driving an old Conestoga they’d bought south somewhere. Trailing a cow, if I remember.”

“That would be them. Wagon was burned. Bandits took the horses but the cow is over at the livery.”

“Never could figure out why they were dragging that old milk cow,” the sheriff put the paper back into the wallet.

“For her,” Jesse motioned to KC sitting happily in Jennifer’s lap. “Found her under the wagon.”

“Well, I’ll be damned. Didn’t know they had a young ‘un with ’em,” the sheriff pushed back his hat and scratched his head. He seemed confused to be confronted with the baby.

“We were hoping you could tell us if the Williams had any kin in the area,” Jennifer said.

“Don’t know much about ’em. Like I say, they came through here like a lot of folks do. Most only stop long enough to buy supplies and check on which roads are safe to travel. Don’t usually say much about where they’re going or where they’ve been.”

“Did the Williams?” Jesse asked.

“Did they what?” the sheriff looked suspiciously at the tall woman still standing.

“Did they check on how safe the roads were?”

“Yep, he came in and we talked. I told them bandits were in the area, they always are around mining camps. But, most of their activity has taken place between here and Virginia City. Asked if they were carrying anything of value. They denied it. Guess they figured if they kept it a secret, they’d be alright. Guess, they was wrong.”

“Looks that way,” the knot in Jesse’s stomach tightened.

“Well, I’ll ride out tomorrow and take a look. Where exactly did you find the wagon?”

“‘Bout a day and half ride into the Big Hole, northwest of the cutoff.”

The sheriff shrugged, “I should be able to find it. Though, ain’t much I can do this long after it happened. Bandits have probably split up by now.”

“You will try?” Jennifer asked not caring for the sheriff’s obvious lack of enthusiasm.

“Like I said, I’ll ride out there tomorrow,” the sheriff sat up in his chair anxious for the women to leave. “Anything else I can help you with?”

“Yes,” Jesse told the sheriff. “Stuart Cassidy, got word he was in your jail.”

“That’s right,” the sheriff wondered what the women had do to with the murderer awaiting trial. “You related to him.”

“No,” Jesse shook her head. “We’re checking for a friend. Mine telling us what he’s done.”

“Shot his wife.”

Jennifer gasped at the sheriff’s words and Jesse rested a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“What happened?”

“Cassidy had a problem with gambling. Problem was he couldn’t win no matter how much he played,” the sheriff laughed at his own joke. “And, he played a lot. Wife came into to town one night looking for him. He was losing and drunk, as usual. Didn’t take too kindly to her ordering him home. Pulled his revolver and shot her. She died two days later. Trial starts next week, if you’re interested.”

“We’re not,” Jesse said.

“What will happen to him?” Jennifer asked, her eyes brimming with tears. She had never realized the west could be so brutal for women. First the women working at the Slipper and the way they were forced to earn a living before Jesse took over, then Mrs. Williams being killed when her baby was only months old, and now Ed’s sister. She wondered how such a beautiful country could hold such hardship for the people who made it their home.

“Not much doubt as to him being guilty. Once the judge arrives, he’ll hang.”

KC had sensed Jennifer’s sadness and had began to whimper. Jesse bent down and lifted KC from Jennifer’s trembling arms.

“What do you plan to do with the young ‘un?” the sheriff asked.

“If we can’t locate any kin, I guess we’ll see if one of the churchs will take her in,” Jesse said as she helped Jennifer stand.

“Shouldn’t be a problem. Folks are always looking for extra hands to help with chores. ‘Course, most prefer boys than girls. They can do more work.”

Jennifer looked at the man as if he had just sprouted a second head. Was he really saying that orphaned children were treated like nothing more than an extra plow horse. Why it was no different then the way her own father had treated her. There was no way she would allow KC to face such a future. No way.

As the women turned to leave his office, Sheriff Plummer asked, “you want to see the prisoner?”

“No,” Jesse said. There was nothing she had to say to the man.

“Say, you never told me your names,” the sheriff pushed back his chair and stood.

“Jesse Branson,” Jesse turned back to the sheriff. “And, this is my sister, Jennifer.”

“Going to be in town long?”

“Couple of days. We’re staying at the Goodrich. Appreciate it if you’d let us know if you find out anything on the bandits.”

“Alright,” the sheriff said but he had no intention of telling the women what he knew about the bandits and their activities. “See me ‘fore you leave town. Especially, if you’ll be carrying anything of value.”

Jesse looked at the man puzzled. Why would he need to know that, she wondered. “Thanks for the information, sheriff. By the way, where is Mrs. Cassidy buried?”

“Up on the hill. Cassidy didn’t have enough for a tombstone. Gravedigger can point out her grave, if you ask.”

Jesse could feel her anger rising. The sheriff spoke as if he was talking about the morning’s weather instead of a someone’s loved one. How could he be so indifferent to what was happening around him? Before she could grab the sheriff around the neck and throttle some sensitivity into him, Jennifer placed a warm hand on her back.

“Let’s go back to the hotel, Jesse. The baby’s tired.”

Without saying a word, Jesse followed Jennifer outside.

Sheriff Plummer waited until the women disappeared around the corner of the building before he left his office and crossed the alley to the jail buildings. He had two jails at his disposal. One was used for men needing a place to sleep off a drunk. The other held the violent prisoners. Sheriff Plummer unlocked the door to the second.

The jail was built from logs and separated into three parts. Half of the building consisted of a room where a guard sat to keep watch on the prisoners. It could also be used to hold prisoners if the other jail cells were occupied. The other half of the building consisted of two jail cells approximately six feet square. These cells had solid log walls and were entered through a small door. A heavy ring was anchored into the logs that made up the building’s floor and prisoners were chained to the ring. This prevented escapes through the building’s sod roof. The cell doors had a small opening covered by a panel that could only be opened from the outside. The cells had no windows and when the door was closed and the opening covered, a prisoner sat in total darkness.

Sheriff Plummer nodded at his deputy and opened the door shutter on the occupied cell. After looking inside, the sheriff unlocked the door. Inside sat his prisoner, Stuart Cassidy. The man looked dazed and slowly raised his head when he heard the door pulled open.

“Any word from Sweetwater?” Cassidy asked, hopefully..

Sheriff Plummer stood in the cell’s doorway and wondered what he should tell the man about the women who were just in his office. “You know a Jesse and Jennifer Branson?”

“No.”

“Too bad,” the sheriff stepped back and started to close the cell door.

“Are you sure my letter was sent?” the prisoner was desperate

“Yep, it got sent. Maybe they just don’t give a damn,” the sheriff slammed the heavy door shut and locked it. “Probably, just as well,” he said to his deputy as he left the building.

*************

“Sweetheart, we’re going to need more milk before morning,” Jennifer said as she poured the last of the milk from the canteen into one of the bottles they’d purchased at the store.

“Okay, I’ll take a walk to the livery. Want to check on Dusty and Blaze, anyway.”

Jesse sat on the hotel room’s bed, her long legs spread wide. KC lay between her legs playing with a piece of cloth that would soon serve as a diaper. The baby’s giggles helped lighten the mood of the women.

Jennifer sat beside Jesse and leaned against her. “Are we going to the grave today?”

“Nah,” Jesse draped her arm across Jennifer’s shoulders and kissed the top of her head. “I think I’ve had enough for one day. What about you?”

“Yeah, more than enough.”

The women sat silently for several minutes. KC’s happy playing noises the only sound in the quiet room. Outside the sun was beginning it’s long drop from the sky as the women considered all the things they had been told since arriving in town.

“Jesse,” Jennifer entwined her hand with her lover’s.

“Hmm,” Jesse looked down and regarded the hand in hers. It never failed to amaze her how Jennifer’s touch made her tingle all over. It was a nice feeling and she smiled.

“I don’t think I like that sheriff,” Jennifer stated.

“My stomach’s been in a knot every since we talked to the clerk downstairs. Knot got bigger when we talked to Plummer. I think it’s best we stay to ourselves the rest of our time here.” Jesse looked into Jennifer’s eyes, “I’m sorry, darlin’.”

“For what?”

“This isn’t exactly the trip to Bannack I was hoping for. I wanted you to have a good time.”

“Ah, Jesse,” tears came to Jennifer’s eyes. “Sweetheart, you couldn’t have known we’d find the Williams. Besides, I wouldn’t say it’s all been bad,” she smiled down at KC, who had managed to roll herself over and was pushing up on her tiny arms, looking at the two women sharing the bed. “We found her.”

“That we did,” Jesse reached down and lifted the baby up. She planted a kiss on the KC’s soft cheek before handed her to Jennifer. “I’ll go to the livery and get her some fresh milk. Then, what say I take my girls to supper in the dining room.”

“KC and I would love to,” Jennifer accepted the squirming baby.

“Good,” Jesse climbed off the bed. “I won’t be long. Lock the door and don’t open it for anyone except me. There’s a pistol in the saddlebag.”

“Be careful,” Jennifer said as she followed Jesse to the door.

“I will.”

****************

Jesse carried KC as she and Jennifer entered the hotel’s dining room. A table against the back wall sat empty and the women headed for it. They were greeted by a friendly girl who filled their coffee cups and told them of the choices for the evening meal. Both women ordered a steak with all the “fixin’s” and apple pie. The girl rushed off to the kitchen to place their order. Jesse and Jennifer talked quietly as they waited for their meals to arrive. KC sat in the crook of Jesse’s arm and looked around the room. Quickly becoming bored, the baby yawned and promptly fell asleep.

Their meals arrived and the women attacked the food after they realized it had been some time since they had last eaten. Jesse was finishing the last bite of her apple pie when a distinguished looking man wearing a long black coat walked into the dining room. He scanned the diners before making a beeline to the women’s table.

“Excuse me,” the man addressed the women as he approached them. “Are you the young women from Sweetwater with the baby.” Spotting KC asleep in Jesse’s lap, he continued, “ah, I see that you are. I am Reverend Tobias. I must say that we don’t normally get children this young but let me assure you that we do find them all nice, decent homes. Why, just last week, we sent a young boy to a family near Dillon where he’ll have a fine home.”

Jennifer looked at Jesse, panic written all over her face.

“Whoa, there, Reverend. I think you’ve got the cart before the horse,” Jesse held a hand up stopping the man as he leaned down to take KC from her.

“But, I thought,” the man looked quizzically from one woman to the other.

Jesse cut the man off, “you thought wrong. We’re looking for her kin.”

“Well, I’m sorry to say, Miss,” he hesitated a moment. “Branson, isn’t it?” When Jesse nodded, he continued, “Yes, Miss Branson. I’m sorry to say that you won’t be finding any of her kin. I, myself, talked to the Williams when they passed through. They had no kin, that’s why they were traveling west. Indians attacked their settlement in Wyoming and kilt most everyone. They lost their entire families. Poor things, and so young they were. Why, not much older than yourselves.”

Jennifer asked, “the boy you sent to Dillon. What does the family do?”

“Why, they have a farm just outside of town. Nice family. They’ve taken two other boys so the young lad will have brothers to grow up with. Why do you ask?”

“Just wondering,” Jennifer smiled sadly at the reverend but her heart was breaking as she imagined the life ahead for the boys.

“Now, about this child,” the reverend asked.

“Thank you for your offer, Reverend,” Jesse said as she lifted KC from her lap and placed the sleeping infant against her shoulder. “But, I think we’d still like to try to find any family. If we can’t,” Jesse paused. She looked at Jennifer and saw fear in her pale eyes. Jesse was as attached to the small baby as she knew Jennifer was. But, could they take on the responsibility of raising the tiny girl as their own. They were so young themselves and just starting their own lives. Jesse wasn’t sure that would be best for KC.

“If we can’t find any kin, we’ll let you know,” Jesse stood. “If you’ll excuse us, it’s been a long day and KC isn’t the only one needing sleep.”

“Of course,” the reverend backed away as Jennifer rose and joined Jesse. “My church is just down the street. You can come by anytime, the doors are always open.”

“Thank you, Reverend.”

Jennifer followed Jesse from the room. She said nothing. She couldn’t. The thought of leaving KC in Bannack had cut her heart and she knew if she tried to speak, she would not be able to control the emotions flowing through her.

That night the two women clung to each other as the object of their distress shared their bed.

*************

CHAPTER EIGHT

After breakfast, Jesse and Jennifer made the steep climb up to the cemetery. They had learned that the gravedigger lived at the foot of the trail and had stopped at his small cabin. Finding no one home, they decided to chance that he would be at the cemetery.

The cemetery occupied the top of a knoll just behind the buildings on the north side of town. The trail leading up to it was steep and rocky and Jesse took care not to loose her footing while carrying KC. The trail led to a gate in the sturdy, wooden fence surrounding the well cared for cemetery. As they approached, the women could see a man working at the far end of the graveyard. Jesse and Jennifer passed through the gate and walked to where the man was struggling to dig a fresh grave in the hard, rocky ground.

“Morning,” Jesse said.

The man stopped his work to look at his visitors. “Morning,” he leaned on his shovel and pulled a bandana from his pant’s pocket to wipe his brow. “Don’t recall seeing you before. Visiting a relative?” he asked regarding the numerous graves around them.

“Friend,” Jesse replied. “Mary Elizabeth Cassidy.”

The man shoved the dirty bandana back into his pocket, “Cassidy, that’s the missus got herself shot.”

“Yes,” Jennifer nodded. “We were told you could point out her resting place.”

“Sure, be glad to show you,” the man dropped his shovel into the hole he had begun and walked to the western side of the graveyard. “She’d be right here,” he stood beside a recently covered grave. “I thought she’d like a nice view of town.”

“It’s a lovely view,” Jennifer told the man. “I’m sure she appreciates it.”

From the site of the grave, the women had a panoramic view of the hills surrounding Bannack and Yankee Flats. And, they had an excellent view of the streets of Bannack and the buildings lining them.

“Well, least I could do. Not many folks showed up for her burying. Don’t know why not, she was a pleasant sort, always had a kind word. Not at all like her husband. Surprised someone hadn’t plugged him ‘fore now. Guess the hangman will take care of him, from what I hear.”

“Can we arrange for a headstone?” Jesse asked.

“Stonemason’s shop is behind the livery. Take a couple of weeks. You goin’ be in town for long?”

“Another day or two,”

“Well, you tell him what you want and I’ll make sure it gets placed right. Nice lady like her deserves a stone.”

“Thank you,” Jesse pulled a bill from her pocket and handed it to the man. “I’d appreciate it if you’d keep care of her grave. It would mean a lot to a friend of ours.”

The man took the bill and his eyes widened as he saw more money than he made in a month of digging graves. “Well, I’d be might proud to look after her. Yes, ma’am, might proud.” The man tucked the bill into his pocket. “I best be gettin’ back to my digging. Like to get it done ‘fore the sun gets too high. ‘Spose you’d like to be spending some time alone with her.”

“Thank you,” Jennifer said as the man walked away.

Jesse reached out and placed her arm around Jennifer’s waist. She didn’t care what the gravedigger thought, she needed the closeness of her lover. And, she knew Jennifer felt the same when she leaned against her.

“Poor woman,” Jennifer sighed softly. “What are we going to tell Ed?”

“I’m more concerned in breaking the news to Bette Mae,” Jesse had told Jennifer about Bette Mae and the woman in the grave.

Tears filled Jennifer’s eyes and overflowed down her cheeks.

As they stood next to the grave, Jesse noticed three men come out of Skinner’s saloon and mount their horses. The men rode down the main street to the intersection with the north road, where they turned. The horses charged up the road, past the livery and took the sweeping turn around the cemetery at full gallop. They quickly disappeared over the rise behind the graveyard.

“Wonder where they’re going in such a hurry,” Jennifer said as she placed her stetson over KC’s face to protect her from the dust cloud the riders left behind.

“I wonder,” Jesse said absently as she watched another figure come out of the saloon and walked across the main street and down the alley alongside Chrismans’ store.

“Isn’t that the sheriff?” Jennifer asked as she caught a glimpse of the man before he entered the back of the building and was lost from sight.

“Yep.”

“Do you think he had anything to do with those riders?”

“Maybe.”

“Jesse, what have we gotten into?”

“Not sure, darlin’,” Jesse shifted the restless baby in her arms. “But, let’s try to stay as far away from it as we can.”

“How are we going to do that?”

“By going down to that dress shop and buying you some pretty dresses,” Jesse smiled at her lover. “Then we’ll go see if we can find the schoolteacher and you two can talk the rest of the afternoon.”

“Like you’d sit still for that,” Jennifer laughed as they made their way amongst the graves and back to the gate.

“Yep, I surely will, darlin’. Me and KC here will sit nice and quiet,” Jesse tickled the baby and received a baby chuckle in response. “‘Course, we’ll be sound asleep. But, we’ll be nice and quiet.”

“Brat,” Jennifer swatted Jesse.

As the women carefully picked their way down the stony path, they observed the sheriff walk from his office to the livery. After a few minutes, he casually rode out of town on the west road.

“Think he’s going out to look for the Williams?” Jennifer asked as they reached the bottom of the path.

“Nope.”

Surprised, Jennifer turned to Jesse, “why not?”

“No saddle bags. Go out there and back is a three day ride. Isn’t going to do that without taking some supplies. Probably just making a show of going. Then, he’ll come back and tell us the trail was too cold.”

“What are we going to do?”

“Believe what he says.”

“Jesse, are you sure about this?”

Jesse stopped and looked around to see if anyone was paying them any attention. Being early morning, the streets were almost empty as the miners and cowboys had other places to be. And, the few people on the boardwalks were hurrying about their business, paying them no mind.

“Darlin’, we are in a town we don’t know. We don’t know the good folks from the bad. Let’s just do what we came to do and get back to Sweetwater. We can tell Billie about the bandits and the sheriff and let him decide what to do. I don’t want you or KC to get hurt because I guessed wrong. Alright?”

Jennifer looked into Jesse’s eyes and saw fear. She was shocked, she couldn’t conceive of Jesse being afraid of anything or anyone. But, Jesse was afraid. She was afraid for her and she was afraid for the baby.

“I love you,” Jennifer smiled at Jesse.

“Love you, too, darlin’,” Jesse smiled back. “Now, let’s go buy you some pretty duds.”

*************

Jesse and Jennifer decided to visit the stonemason before going to the dressmaker. They walked past the livery to a small shack behind. Stones of various shapes and sizes littered the ground in front of the shack, many had engravings already started in their hard surface.

“Mornin’,” a boy appearing to be no older than some of Jennifer’s students came out of the shack.

“Good morning,” Jennifer greeted the boy. “We’re looking for the stonemason.”

“That would be my pa,” the boy told the women. “But, he ain’t here right now.”

“When’s the best time to talk to him?” Jesse asked. “We want to arrange for a stone.”

“I can do it,” the boy said. “What kinda stone you lookin’ for?”

Jesse started to say they’d wait until they could talk to the boy’s father, then decided it probably wouldn’t make much difference.

“A headstone for a friend.”

“Okay,” the boy scrounged around for a paper and pencil. “Write down the name you want on it,” he instructed.

Jennifer took the items from the boy. “Mary Elizabeth…”

“Granger,” Jesse supplied.

Jennifer nodded and wrote Granger on the paper. Then she added, ‘beloved sister and friend’. Holding the paper up for Jesse to read, she smiled when Jesse nodded her agreement. She handed the paper back to the boy.

“And, an angel,” Jesse said. “Put a nice angel above her name.”

The boy read the paper. “Don’t recall any Granger being buried lately. Don’t know if’n I can locate a grave.”

“She was buried last week,” Jesse told the boy. “Name of Cassidy.”

The boy looked at Jesse, “you ain’t puttin’ her man’s name on the stone?”

“No,” Jesse shook her head. “No need for her to carry it where she’s going.”

The boy thought for a moment, “alright. Guess it don’t much matter.”

“How much?” Jesse asked.

“Let’s see,” the boy began to count the letters on the paper. “Two bits a letter and the angel will cost ya a dollar. Ten dollars, total.”

Jesse handed the boy the money, “let the gravedigger know when its ready. He’ll take care of it.”

“Alright,” the boy stuck the money into his pocket. “Thanks,” he said to the departing women.

*************

Jennifer stopped in front of the dress shop and looked at the dress displayed in the glass window, a simple but beautiful wedding gown.

Jesse opened the shop’s door and paused when she realized Jennifer wasn’t following. She looked to see what was holding the schoolteacher’s attention. The look on her lover’s face almost broke her heart as Jennifer looked pensively at the dress. Jesse thought for a minute, an idea began to take shape and a smile flickered across her face as she made a decision.

“Jennifer,” Jesse softly asked. “Coming?”

“Yes,” Jennifer pulled her eyes away from the dress and joined Jesse.

Entering the shop, the women were greeted by a petite woman sewing precise stitches into a child’s dress. “Good morning, ladies. What can I do for you?”

“My sister needs some dresses. She’s a schoolteacher and needs something fit to wear,” Jesse proudly told the woman as Jennifer looked around at the dresses and other garments in the shop.

“Well,” the dressmaker put down her work to observe Jennifer. “You look familiar. Have we met before?” the seamstress asked Jennifer.

“No, I don’t believe we have,” Jennifer told the woman. “I’ve only been in Bannack once before and that was only overnight for the stage.”

“Oh,” the woman brought a tape measure to where Jennifer stood. “Perhaps, back east. My husband and I left there a short time ago.”

“I’m sorry,” Jennifer said calmly but inside she was tied in knots. What if this woman knew her father? She frantically searched her memory for any hint that she had met the woman. She could come up with nothing.

“Jennifer,” Jesse picked up on her distress. “Is something wrong?”

Turning to see the worry on the rancher’s face, Jennifer hurried to assure her. “No, I’m fine,” she smiled but her eyes reflected her concern.

“Do you want to go back to the hotel?” Jesse asked.

Shaking her head, Jennifer said, “no. I’m fine. Really.” Turning her attention back to the dressmaker, Jennifer asked, “why don’t you show me what you have?”

After measuring Jennifer and showing her several different designs and bolts of material, the schoolteacher settled on six dresses. Each a different color and style. She would have settled for half as many but Jesse insisted she have enough so she could go a whole week between wash days. Jesse sat with KC, offering her opinion when asked. The baby had intently watched the action before tiring and falling asleep in the rancher’s arms.

“Well, if there is nothing else you’ll be needing,” the dressmaker finished making notes on Jennifer’s selections and looked up at the women now standing next to her desk.

“No,” Jennifer began to answer.

“Yes,” Jesse quickly said. “We’ll take the dress in the window.”

Jennifer looked confused, “but, Jesse, that’s a wedding dress.”

“I know,” Jesse smiled at the schoolteacher.

“But,” Jennifer stopped, could Jesse be saying… “Are you sure?” Jennifer asked quietly.

“Very sure. That is,” Jesse hesitated, maybe Jennifer didn’t feel the same. “I mean, if it’s alright with you,” she shyly said.

“Nothing would make me happier,” Jennifer reached out and lovingly touched Jesse’s face.

“Um, excuse me,” the dressmaker was uncomfortable. She thought that for sisters, the women showed an unnatural closeness. “That dress will have to be lengthened.”

Reminded of their present surroundings, Jennifer stepped away from the rancher. Jesse answered the dressmaker, “that’s alright.”

“It’ll cost more,” the woman said as she retrieved the dress from the window, a sharp edge in her tone. She wasn’t sure she liked what she was sensing between the two women.

Jesse picked up on the woman’s edginess. “If you would rather we take our business somewhere else…,” she left the rest of the comment hanging.

“No,” the woman quickly assured the angry rancher. “Let me recheck your sister’s measurements, it won’t take much to let out the hem. She’s a bit taller than most,” the woman scrambled to regain her customers’ good will.

Jesse stood and asked, “how long before the dresses are ready?”

“Three weeks. Maybe more.”

“Make it two,” Jesse told the dressmaker. “We’ll be taking the wedding dress with us, you’ll have to ship the rest to Sweetwater. We’ll be in town another day. If you need anything, we’re staying at the Goodrich.” Jesse carefully passed the sleeping baby to Jennifer and pulled her wallet out. “How much do we owe you?”

After paying for the dresses and the cost of having them shipped to Sweetwater, Jesse led Jennifer from the shop. As they left, the dressmaker’s husband entered the shop from the back of the building. He watched the two women walk pass the shop’s window.

“Isn’t that Martin Kinsington’s daughter?”

“I knew she looked familiar. Called herself Branson and said they were sisters. But, they were awfully close for sisters.”

“What do you mean?” the man asked as he continued to watch from the window.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” the dressmaker said. It was really no concern of hers. After all, they had paid up front for the dresses, unlike most of her customers.

“Where’d they say they were from?” her husband asked.

“Sweetwater. Why?”

“Think I’ll send Kinsington a telegram.”

**************

“Where did the hotel clerk say the schoolteacher lived?” Jesse asked as they walked along the boardwalk.

“East end of town in a small cabin. But, he said we might find her at the school.”

Jesse walked beside Jennifer who was carrying KC. The baby was snuggled into Jennifer’s shoulder and looked curiously at the passing sights.

“I’ll sure be glad to get back to Sweetwater,” Jesse said as they approached the old cabin that served as the school.

“Why’s that?”

“Well, for one thing, town ain’t so big. We could have walked the length of Sweetwater and back, half a dozen times by now. For another, Bannack is just too noisy,” Jesse had to raise her voice so Jennifer could hear over the noise of a passing ore wagon. The wagons clamored through town day and night. Jesse, Jennifer, and KC had all had trouble sleeping the night before.

“There’s one more reason I’ll be glad to get home,” Jennifer added.

“What”

Leaning close so only Jesse could hear, Jennifer whispered, “because we can’t touch one another. And, I need your touch, sweetheart,” Jennifer purred.

Jesse looked at the smirking schoolteacher. “Darlin’,” Jesse purred right back, “touch isn’t all that I’m needing.”

Jennifer blushed. They had refrained from any physical activity because they had decided to keep their true relationship hidden while in Bannack and because of the thin walls between the hotel’s rooms.

Jesse waited at the walk leading to the school building as Jennifer composed herself. When her lover brushed by, Jesse heard her growl, “I’ll get you for that.”

“Ah,” Jesse chuckled, “I’m definitely counting on that.”

Pulling the door open, Jennifer entered the log building. Although, it looked large on the outside, it was smaller than her own schoolhouse on the inside. Jennifer guessed that the size of the logs used to build the cabin was the reason for the deception. Three rows of benches stretched the length of the building. A blackboard was nailed to the logs at the front of the room. On the back wall, a heater occupied one corner and in the other, a small desk sat. But the room was unoccupied.

“Guess, we try to find her cabin,” Jesse said as they exited the school.

Continuing, their walk on the boardwalk, the women passed a small restaurant. As they walked by the windows of the restaurant, a pretty Chinese woman working inside the building smiled at them.

“Jesse,” Jennifer smiled back at the woman. “Have you ever eaten Chinese food?”

“Once or twice,” the rancher replied. It was common for western towns to have a significant population of Chinese. Especially, the mining camps.

“Did you like it?”

“Yep, it’s pretty good.”

“Oh,” Jennifer walked beside Jesse and wanted desperately to hold her hand but refrained from doing so. “Can we try it tonight?” The smells coming from inside the restaurant intrigued Jennifer.

“Sure.”

After reaching the end of the commercial buildings, they walked past private residences. A small, log cabin sat back off the boardwalk, a dirt path leading to a covered porch. Sitting on the porch was a young woman not much older than Jesse.

“Good morning,” the woman said. “Is there something I can help you with?”

“Yes,” Jennifer approached the woman. Taking a chance that this was the woman they sought, Jennifer continued, “I’m the schoolteacher in Sweetwater and I was hoping to talk with you. That is, if you not busy,” she hastened to add.

“Another teacher. That’s wonderful,” the woman rose, smiling broadly. “Oh, what a beautiful baby.”

“Thank you,” Jennifer smiled at KC. “Her parents were killed by bandits. We’re hoping to find someone who might know if she has any other family.”

“Terrible,” the woman shook her head. “It’s a shame that Sheriff Plummer can’t find those men.”

“We heard there’s been several attacks,” Jesse said.

“Yes. It’s amazing but the bandits always seem to know who is carrying valuables and who isn’t. Travelers with nothing to steal are left alone. But, have a gold nugget in your pocket when you leave Bannack or Virginia City, and, most likely, you won’t get far.”

Jennifer looked at Jesse, she could tell by the look on her lover’s face that Jesse was not happy with what they had just heard.

“My, look at my manners,” the young woman chastised herself. “I haven’t even asked your names. I’m Mary Temple and you are?”

“Jennifer,” she told the woman. “Jennifer Branson. And, this is my sister, Jesse.”

“Please to meet you, both,” the schoolteacher acknowledged Jesse. “I was just about to enjoy some cold lemonade. Would you join me?”

“Yes, we’d like that.”

The woman reached up to tickle the baby. KC buried her head against Jennifer’s shoulder, refusing to look at the stranger.

“My, she seems to have taken a liking to you, hasn’t she?” the woman asked. “Who did you say her parents were?”

“Kenneth and Catherine Williams. Came through Bannack three or four days ago.”

“Driving a Conestoga and trailing a milk cow,” Jesse added.

“Oh, yes. I remember them,” Miss Temple said excitingly. “Don’t see too many of those this far off the Oregon Trail. Young couple from Wyoming, I believe.”

“Did you talk with them?” Jennifer asked.

“Spoke with her a little. Saw the wagon in front of Chrismans’ store one morning. She was sitting in it and I said ‘good morning’. He must have been inside the store, never did see him. But, I do know that Reverend Tobias spoke with them. Have you talked to him?”

“Yes,” Jennifer sighed. “Unfortunately, he did not have good news.”

KC started to fuss and whimper. She was hungry.

“I’m sorry,” Jennifer said as she pulled a bottle of milk from the small bag Jesse was carrying.

“Don’t you be apologizing. Just go ahead and feed her.” She offered the women chairs in the shade of the front porch. Jesse settled with KC and fed the baby while Jennifer engaged the women in conversation.

As the schoolteacher talked, both Jesse and Jennifer were surprised to learn that, although she wasn’t much older than Jesse, she had been teaching for almost five years. Jennifer was thrilled to be able to ask all the questions she had been storing up since taking on the teaching duties in Sweetwater. And, Jesse smiled as her lover gleaned all the information she could from the more experienced woman. It was late afternoon by the time both schoolteachers had exhausted their subject and sat back in their chairs.

“Well, I guess I can tell which of you is the talker,” Miss Temple teased Jesse who had barely said more than ten words all afternoon.

Jesse smiled and shrugged.

“Yes. But, my sister,” Jennifer emphasized the word, “has other talents that make up for it.”

Jesse choked on the sip of lemonade she had just taken from her glass. KC looked up at the choking woman puzzled as to why her afternoon playmate was suddenly jerking about and turning red.

Once Jesse had regained her breath, she rose from the chair. Jennifer quickly followed.

“I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed this,” Miss Temple said to the women. “It isn’t often I get to talk with someone who understands the difficulty of teaching so many different levels of students in one class.”

“I’m happy to say my students in Sweetwater don’t seem to cause me quite the challenges yours do. And, they should cause me even less with the ideas you’ve given me. If you ever get to Sweetwater, you must come see my school.”

“I’d love the opportunity but I don’t see me doing any traveling for a while. At least, not until the bandits are dealt with. And, speaking of that, you be careful on your ride back.”

“We will,” Jennifer assured her.

“What will you do with KC?”

“We’ll,” Jennifer stopped. “If we can’t find any family, Reverend Tobias has offered to find her a home.”

Jesse heard the heartbreak in Jennifer’s words and she felt it herself. “Thank you,” she told Miss Temple as she guided Jennifer away from the cabin.

“Seems to me, that baby has already found a home,” the woman said to herself as she watched the women walk away.

***************

Jesse and Jennifer returned to their hotel room. KC was tired, wet, and hungry and the women saw to her needs.

“There you go, KC,” Jennifer laid her in Jesse’s arms. “You’ve got nice and dry britches and a full belly. And, I bet Jesse will sing you a lullaby if you promise to go to sleep.”

Jesse smiled at KC as the baby snuggled against her chest. She started to sing in low, soothing tones and it wasn’t long before KC was sound asleep. Jesse placed the baby in the middle of the bed and carefully tucked a blanket around the small body.

“Well, she should be out for a while,” Jesse said as she joined Jennifer next to the room’s window. Wrapping her arms around her lover, Jesse nuzzled Jennifer’s hair. “What’s going on in this pretty head?”

“What makes you think anything is going on?” Jennifer asked as she leaned back into Jesse’s caress.

“You always get real quiet when you’re bothered by something,” Jesse tightened her hold. “Want to talk about it?”

Jennifer stood quietly, just enjoying the feel of Jesse’s body pressed against her own. She could feel her body tingling wherever it touched Jesse’s and she wanted nothing more than to take the rancher to the bed and show her how much she loved her. “Jesse, about the wedding dress,” she started.

“What about it?” Jesse tensed. Had Jennifer changed her mind? Jesse was afraid that Jennifer was upset over the crude proposal in the dress shop. “I know it wasn’t too romantic the way I sort of sprung it on ya. But, I love you so much, darlin’. And, I would be honored if you would like to, ya know. I mean, that is, if you want to,” the words tumbled out of Jesse.

Jennifer replied, “it’s just…,” she hesitated. “Well, I know things are different out here in the west but will a church really marry us?”

Jesse looked into the blue eyes she adored, “well, don’t rightly know about that. But, then Sweetwater doesn’t have any churches. Mayor Perkins presides over marriages and funerals. So, we’ll just have to ask him to marry us.”

Jennifer smiled at the rancher, “sweetheart, I would be very proud to be your wife.”

Jesse beamed at the words and placed a tender kiss on Jennifer’s lips.

When their lips parted, Jennifer asked, “but, how do you know Mayor Perkins will do it?”

“Oh, he’ll do it alright. Mrs. Perkins will make sure of that.”

Jennifer looked puzzled.

“She thinks we make a nice couple,” Jesse explained.

“How do you know that?”

“She told me that day in Ed’s store. And, besides, Bette Mae would tan his hide good if he refused.”

Jennifer laughed. “Alright, sweetheart. Then, I think when we get back to Sweetwater we should announce that we’re getting… How do you say it out west? Getting hitched.”

Jesse pulled Jennifer tight and reclaimed the sweet lips of her soon to be wife.

******************

Jesse carried KC as she and Jennifer walked to the Chinese restaurant where the schoolteacher wanted to dine. It was early evening and the boardwalk was becoming crowded with miners and cowboys in town to sample the entertainment at the town’s many saloons. Jennifer stayed close to Jesse as they walked. Luckily, the section of street where the restaurant was located was far enough away from the saloons that the women didn’t have much trouble from the growing throng of men.

The restaurant was located on the ground floor of a two story wood plank building. A sign on the front of the building advertised rooms for rent on the top floor. As soon as Jesse pulled open the restaurant’s door, the women were greeted by the pretty woman they had seen earlier that day.

She motioned the women inside, “come in, please.”

Jesse and Jennifer were led to a table near the front window and a hot pot of tea was quickly placed on the table with two small cups for drinking. Having sampled Chinese cooking before, Jesse ordered for both women and they were left alone to enjoy the tea.

KC tried to reach for Jesse’s cup but her hand was gently captured in a much larger one.

“Uh, uh,” Jesse cautioned the baby. “That’s too hot for you. What say you play with this, instead,” she pulled a small toy horse from her shirt pocket and handed it to the baby. KC took hold of the toy and looked at it before lifting it to her mouth and chewing on it.

“Where’d you get that?” Jennifer asked of the toy.

“When I went to check on Dusty and Blaze this afternoon, saw it in the window of the candy store. Thought she might like something to play with besides her toes,” Jesse watched as the baby waved the slobber covered horse around.

“Seems she likes it,” Jennifer smiled at Jesse.

Their meals were brought to them. Jesse grinned as the schoolteacher entertained her with much ooh-ing and ah-ing over the food. When her plate was empty, Jennifer pushed it away and patted her stomach.

“That was delicious,” she told the woman who came to clear their table.

“I pleased you like,” the woman said in broken English. “You like more?”

“Oh, no thank you,” Jennifer shook her head. “I couldn’t eat another bite. But, I would like more tea.”

The woman nodded and left to refill the empty pot. Coming quickly back, she refilled Jennifer’s cup before placing the pot on the table. The woman glanced around the small dining room, pleased to see that all the diners were Chinese except Jesse and Jennifer.

The woman hesitantly whispered to the women, “you be very careful, the sheriff is very bad.”

Jennifer looked at Jesse and saw that she had also heard the woman’s words. “Why do you say that?” she asked the nervous woman.

“He sends bandits to hurt people. You not trust.”

Everything was starting to make sense. Why the sheriff had not been surprised when told of the bandits activities. Why he was so interested in what valuables travelers might be carrying. Why he had come out of Skinner’s saloon right after the men who had left town so quickly.

“If you know this, why doesn’t the town do something about him?” Jesse asked the woman.

“They don’t want to believe. But, many die. Baby’s parents died. They talked to sheriff before leave town and, now, they dead. If you trust sheriff, you die.”

A man standing in the door of the kitchen called to the woman. He said something in a language Jesse and Jennifer couldn’t understand. The woman nodded rapidly at the man before turning back to the women.

“I’m glad you enjoy. Four bits, please.”

Jesse handed the woman the money, “thank you.”

Before the woman returned to the kitchen, she again whispered, “be careful. No trust sheriff.”

Jesse and Jennifer made their way back to the hotel. Neither spoke, their thoughts full of the warning they had just been given and the events of the last couple of days. Both women wanted nothing more than to leave Bannack behind them.

As they entered the Goodrich Hotel’s lobby, the clerk greeted them.

“Evening, ladies. Sheriff Plummer was in earlier looking for you,” the man informed them.

Jennifer instinctively reached out and grabbed Jesse’s hand. Jesse gently squeezed it while she asked the clerk, “did he say what he wanted?”

“No. Word is there was another attack today,” the man said.

“Where?” Jesse asked.

“North road. Mining company wagon coming from Virginia City. Some say it was carrying mine’s payroll.”

“Thanks,” Jesse led Jennifer upstairs.

Once the room’s door was securely closed behind them, Jennifer said, “Jesse, let’s go home. There’s no reason for us to say here any longer. Who knows what that sheriff wants with us. Let’s just go home.”

Jesse placed the baby on the bed so she could hug and reassure her upset lover. “We’ll go home, darlin’. But, tomorrow we have to finish our business here. We’ll go the next day. I promise. And, I’m sure, Plummer wants nothin’ more than to tell us he tried but couldn’t find anything. Even though he probably just went for a ride and came back.”

Jennifer leaned into Jesse’s embrace, “alright. One more day.”

“Tell you what, tomorrow, we’ll ask around town to see if anyone else might have talked to KC’s folks and learned anything more. We’ll stop by the dress shop and get your wedding dress. Then, we’ll go to bed early so we can leave at daybreak. How’s that sound?”

“Sounds good,” Jennifer said but she didn’t sound convinced. “Jesse, what if we don’t find out any more about KC’s folks? We’re not going to leave her with the Reverend, are we?”

“Darlin’,” Jesse sighed. “I don’t want to anymore than you do. But, can we handle a baby? I mean we’re barely old enough to have one of our own. And, we’ve got the Slipper to run and the ranch. And, you’ve got your teaching. I don’t think it would be very good for her, do you?”

“She’d be loved, Jesse. Isn’t that all that’s important?” Jennifer asked, tears streaming down her face. “Please, Jesse. My heart would break if we left her behind.”

Jesse felt the same. The tiny baby had taken a firm hold on Jesse’s heart and she could no more bear the thought of leaving her than Jennifer could. A baby. A little girl. Their little girl. Jesse would have her family. Well, it really wasn’t that bad of an idea, was it?

“Alright, darlin’,” Jesse hugged Jennifer tight. “We’ll keep her. Besides, it sure doesn’t appear likely she has any kin.” As she spoke the words, a huge weight lifted from Jesse’s heart.

Jennifer cried in Jesse’s arms, “thank you.”

Later, that night as they lay in bed with KC sleeping on Jesse’s chest, Jennifer asked, “if we’re not going to leave her here, do we have to stay another day? I’d really like to get home, Jesse.”

“Fair enough,” Jesse agreed, she was also ready to leave Bannack behind them. “We’ll leave right after we pick up your dress.”

“Jesse,” the schoolteacher snuggled close to the rancher. “I love you.”

“I love you, too, darlin’. And, I love you, KC,” Jesse spoke the words that both women had been carefully avoiding the past few days.

“I love you, KC,” Jennifer happily repeated.

****************

CHAPTER NINE

Jesse and Jennifer woke early and, so as not to wake the baby, quietly prepared to leave Bannack. Saddlebags were packed neatly with their belongings. Jennifer softly hummed as she carefully folding the child’s clothing and tucked them into a saddlebag. She hadn’t expected to be taking the items with them and now, that they had decided to keep KC with them, she bubbled with delight. Even Jesse seemed to move about the room with a lighter step.

“What’s the plan, sweetheart?” Jennifer asked as she removed her nightshirt and tucked it into the saddlebag.

Jesse stopped in the process of pulling on her boots and observed her naked lover. Oh, would she be happy to put Bannack behind them, she thought as she felt her body respond to Jennifer’s nakedness. She said nothing as she watched Jennifer dress.

“Sweetheart,” Jennifer said when she received no response. “Is something wrong?”

“Nope, darlin’. I was just enjoying the view.”

Jennifer smiled. She loved it when Jesse looked at her in that way, she knew the rancher wanted her in the same way she wanted the rancher. Oh, would she be ever so glad to get out of Bannack.

“Figured we might as well eat here. Then, we’ll go get Dusty and Blaze. We’ll find the Reverend and let him know we’re keeping KC with us. Then, pick up your dress on the way out of town.”

“What about the sheriff?” Jennifer asked remembering the sheriff had come looking for them the previous evening.

“What about him?” Jesse finished with her boots and stood from the room’s only chair so that Jennifer could use it. “If he wants to talk to us, he can come and find us. Otherwise, we leave town without talking to him. He’s not going to tell us anything we want to hear, anyway.”

“Okay,” Jennifer picked up her boots and carried them to the chair. “Jesse, why do you think the town doesn’t do something about him?”

“Don’t know, darlin’,” Jesse tied the flaps on the saddlebags and made sure they were secure. “Maybe, they don’t think they can. Or, maybe, they just haven’t got a gut full of him yet.”

“Think they ever will?” Jennifer tugged her pant legs over the top of her boots.

“Eventually,” Jesse said as she placed the saddlebags by the bed. She looked around the room to make sure they weren’t forgetting anything.

“Sad to think how many more people will fall victim to the sheriff before they do,” Jennifer walked to where Jesse stood and wrapped her arms around her. Jesse returned the hug.

As the women stood in each other’s embrace, KC began to stir. The women watched as the tiny child that was now so much a part of their lives, opened her eyes and looked around until she found them. As the baby’s eyes settled on the women, a smile immediately spread across KC’s face. Tiny arms reached out for the women.

“Morning, sunshine,” Jesse greeted the baby. “Let me guess, you need dry britches and you’re hungry.”

Jennifer laughed as she sat on the bed and tickled the baby’s tummy. KC rolled over onto her stomach and pushed herself up on her hands and knees. She rocked for a few moments in the position before falling face first back to the bed.

“I think you need a little more practice on that,” Jennifer said as she lifted the annoyed baby from the bed and kissed her tenderly on the forehead. “Let’s get you changed and cleaned up. I’m starving.”

“After all you ate last night?” Jesse asked as she filled the water bowl from the pot she had warming on the room’s stove. She soaked a cloth in the warm water.

“Yep,” Jennifer removed the soiled diaper from the baby and accepted the damp cloth from Jesse. The baby shivered in the morning coolness.

Jennifer quickly washed KC and dressed her in clean clothes. Jesse sat on the bed next to her with a bottle of milk for the baby. “Here you go sunshine,” she offered the bottle to the baby as Jennifer placed KC in her arms. It didn’t take long for KC to start sucking on the bottle’s contents.

“Looks like we’ve got another milk drinker in the family,” Jennifer chuckled, knowing that Jesse’s favorite beverage was a cold glass of milk.

“Family, uh,” Jesse pondered the concept as she watched the baby drink.

Jennifer wrapped an arm around Jesse, “family,” she repeated.

Jesse turned to look at her lover, “kinda has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it.”

Jennifer smiled, “it sure does.” She rested her head against Jesse’s and they watched the baby watching them.

****************

Breakfast was a quiet affair as Jesse and Jennifer ate quickly, both wanting to leave Bannack as soon as possible. KC seemed to sense their mood and sat propped in Jesse’s lap quietly playing with her toy horse.

“Ready?” Jesse asked as Jennifer finished the last of her coffee.

“You bet,” Jennifer pushed away from the table and stood. “I want to check her britches before we go.”

“Alright. Why don’t you do that and I’ll settle up with the clerk. Then meet you up in the room,” Jesse said as she followed Jennifer from the hotel’s dining room.

“Okay.”

Jennifer carried KC upstairs to their room. She inserted the key into the door and swung it open, then placed the baby on the bed.

KC looked around for her tall playmate and frowned when she couldn’t locate her. She started to whimper and reach out for the missing woman.

“It’s alright, sweetie,” Jennifer tickled the unhappy baby. “Your mommy is downstairs.” She stopped when she realized how she had referred to Jesse. It was true, wasn’t it? They were going to be KC’s mothers. The enormity hit Jennifer and she dropped on the bed like a ton of bricks were on her shoulders.

A baby. Their baby. Were they really ready for that responsibility? She took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. Then, she took another.

“Well,” Jennifer said to KC, “a momma.”

She smiled, it sounded good.

KC looked up at the woman and reached for her. When Jennifer picked her up, the baby wrapped her tiny arms around Jennifer’s neck.

“Think I’ll make you a good momma?”

“I think you’ll make a wonderful mother,” Jesse said from the door. She walked over and sat next to Jennifer. “Everything alright?” she asked uneasily.

“Everything is fine. I just realized the responsibility we’re taking on with KC,” Jennifer rubbed light circles around the baby’s back. KC snuggled into her touch. “Guess you could say we were having our first mother-daughter conversation.”

Jesse wrapped an arm around Jennifer’s shoulder, “you know, it’s not too late…”

Jennifer shook her head. “No,” she said stopping Jesse’s thought. “I want to keep her, sweetheart. It’s just I never really considered what that meant until now. Guess it was when I said ‘momma’ that it really hit me. She’s going to count on us to be her mommas. That’s a lot to take on.”

“Darlin’,” Jesse took Jennifer’s hand into her own. “I don’t want you to do this unless you really want to.”

Jennifer twisted to look into Jesse’s eyes, she saw concern and more. Much more. Love. She saw the depth of Jesse’s love for her and she knew that Jesse could see her love reflected back. “Sweetheart,” Jennifer smiled at her lover, “let’s take our daughter home.”

Jesse nodded, “I’d like that.” She looked to make sure the room’s door was shut, then claimed Jennifer’s lips in a tender kiss.

*****************

It didn’t take long to pick up Dusty and Blaze from the livery. With the milk cow trailing behind they rode the horses to the main street and then to Reverend Tobias’ church. The reverend was opening the large wooden doors to the building as the women rode up.

“Ah, morning, ladies,” the reverend greeting them. “Looks like you’re leaving town,” he said as he walked down the building’s steps to stand on the boardwalk. “Guess that means you’ll be leaving the child with me. I talked to a nice couple just yesterday that are looking for a daughter.”

“Sorry, Reverend,” Jesse cut the man off. “We’ve decided to keep KC with us. If any of her family makes inquiries, you can have them contact us in Sweetwater.”

“Now, ladies,” the reverend began to protest. “You can’t be thinking of raising her yourselves. A child needs to be raised in a decent home with both a loving father and mother.”

“Don’t worry, Reverend,” Jennifer readjusted the restless baby in her arms. “KC will be raised with all the love she’ll need. And, as for a loving father, mine didn’t hold much in that. So, I doubt, KC will miss it.”

“Miss Branson,” the reverend sputtered. “You can’t be suggesting that you can raise a child without the firm hand of a father.”

Jennifer began to answer the indignant man but Jesse spoke first, “we thank you for your offer, Reverend. But, KC is going home with us. Come on, Jennifer,” she said as she turned Dusty back to the street.

“I must protest,” the reverend called after them.

Jennifer sadly shook her head at the angry man, “you can protest all you want. But, KC is not going to grow up in a home where she is no better thought of than the family mule.” With that she turned Blaze to follow Dusty, leaving a still sputtering reverend on the boardwalk.

The women had not ridden fifty feet when they heard someone calling to them. Looking to the opposite side of the street, they spotted the schoolteacher, Miss Temple, standing on the small porch of her cabin. As the women rode over, she walked to meet them.

“You’re leaving?” the schoolteacher asked.

“Yes,” Jennifer smiled at her.

“From the look of the reverend over there, I’d say you decided to keep KC with you.”

“Yes. If you hear from any of her kin, please let them know where we are.”

“I’ll do that but I doubt if we will. Too many children without family in the mining camps for anyone to take notice of one more. It’s a real shame but what can you do?” The schoolteacher had seen her share of orphans and abandoned children to know that most were never sought even if they did have family living.

“Besides,” the schoolteacher smiled at the women, “I’d say that KC is one lucky little girl to grow up with two loving mothers.” The schoolteacher winked at the women, “you take care of each other. You have something special, don’t loose it.”

Jennifer was speechless. Could this woman know about them?

Jesse reached down and offered her hand to the schoolteacher, who took it. “Thank you. I promise, I’ll take care of them both.” As she sat back up in the saddle, she added, “you come visit us in Sweetwater anytime you like. We’d be glad to have you.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Be careful, those bandits are still out there,” the schoolteacher waved as Jesse nudged Dusty down the street, Blaze following.

“We will. Goodbye,” Jennifer waved back. “Thank you.”

As Blaze pulled up alongside Dusty, Jennifer asked, “Jesse, do you think she knew about us?”

“Seems so.”

“How?”

“Don’t know. Maybe, she just sensed it.”

“You think maybe she’s like us?”

“Could be,” Jesse smiled at her lover. “We can’t be the only ones.”

“No, I guess we can’t.”

The women stopped in front of the dress shop.

“Stay here, I won’t be long,” Jesse said as she swung down from the saddle.

When she entered the shop, Jesse was surprised to see a man standing inside the shop and staring intently at Jennifer outside. The man’s interest in her lover made Jesse more than a little nervous.

“Good morning,” the dressmaker said as she reached for a neatly tied package on a shelf. “I have your sister’s dress right here. I must say that she’ll make a beautiful bride. Who’s the lucky man?”

Jesse turned to the woman and took the package. “Yes, she’ll make a very beautiful bride. Thank you. You’ll send the rest as agreed?”

“Oh, yes. Two weeks, as you requested.”

Jesse turned to leave. The man watching Jennifer had moved to the back of the shop. He no longer was paying any attention to Jennifer and Jesse shrugged off her uneasy feeling. “Thanks, again,” she said as she left the shop.

The man walked back to the front of the shop and watched as Jesse placed the package into one of the saddlebags.

“That’s definitely Kinsington’s daughter.”

“What do you think he’ll do when he receives your telegram?” the dressmaker asked her husband.

“Who knows? Probably, come out here and drag her home,” he turned away from the window as the women rode off.

The dressmaker watched as the women rode away, “I think he’ll have a fight on his hands if he tries.”

“From her ‘sister’?” the husband asked.

“No, from her.”

“What makes you say that?”

“She’s got something worth fighting for,” the woman informed her husband, who looked at her puzzled before wandering to the back of the shop.

Outside on the street, Dusty and Blaze were walking past Chrismans’ store.

Sheriff Plummer stepped off the boardwalk and into the street. He reached out for Dusty’s reins but the horse snorted and pulled her head away.

“Something we can do for you sheriff?” Jesse asked as she settled Dusty down.

“Leaving town?” giving up on grabbing the nervous horse’s reins, the sheriff leaned against the horse hitch in front of the store.

“Looks that way,” Jesse pushed her stetson back on her head.

“I was looking for you last night. Did Jackson tell you?” the sheriff said referring to the hotel clerk.

“Yes, he told us.”

“Aren’t you interested in why?”

“Not particularly. But, I have the feeling you’re going to insist on telling us,” Jesse leaned nonchalantly back in her saddle. She casually dropped a hand until it was within easy reach of her rifle. She definitely did not trust this sheriff.

Plummer laughed but there was no humor in it, “thought you’d be interested in what I found yesterday.”

“Do tell.”

Plummer looked hard at Jesse before answering. “Well, no point in telling if you’re not interested,” he decided to try a different tack with the women. “Thought you was goin’ stop by before you left town.”

“Had no reason to,” Jesse said. “We’re not carrying anything of value, unless you count my sister’s wedding dress.”

The sheriff looked at Jennifer who was sitting quietly, allowing Jesse to do the talking for the pair.

“Word is you’ve been spending pretty freely since you hit town. You sure, you aren’t taking any back with you?”

“No secrets in your town, are there, sheriff?” Jesse asked not expecting an answer. “If you know we’ve been spending freely, as you put it. Then, you know we’re tapped out. That’s why we’re going home.”

“Takin’ the young ‘un with you, I see. Reverend Tobias okay with that?”

Jesse smiled at the man but her eyes held no amusement as they bored into the sheriff. She was tired of this conversation and his questions. “Wasn’t up to the Reverend. Now, if you’re done, we’d like to get moving.”

“Best you keep a sharp lookout, the bandits may still be in the Big Hole,” the sheriff warned, his voice edged with more menace than necessary.

“Maybe, you’d do better out looking for them than bothering two women and a baby,” Jesse told the sheriff as she flicked Dusty’s reins. The big mare snorted before moving away from the sheriff.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Plummer told the women as they moved off.

“Don’t worry, sheriff. We’ll be looking out for you,” Jesse said in a voice too low for the sheriff to hear. She nudged Dusty into a trot, Blaze immediately picked up the pace. They couldn’t be out of Bannack soon enough.

As the women rode past Skinner’s saloon, they didn’t notice the three pairs of eyes that followed their progress. After they had rode from sight, Plummer walked across the street and entered the saloon.

“We going after them?” a man asked the sheriff as he walked to the bar.

“Yes. Give ’em a couple hours lead,” Plummer threw a coin on the bar’s surface and received a glass of whiskey in return.

“What are they carrying?” the second man asked.

“Nothing.”

“Nothing. Did why bother?” the first man questioned.

“I don’t trust ’em. If they go back and say something to Monroe in Sweetwater, we might as well pack up and move on. You know there’s already talk in Virginia City of vigilantes forming to put an end to the bandits.”

“So, what do you want us to do?” the third man looked at the sheriff.

“Kill ’em. And, make sure you get the brat this time. I don’t want it showing up again and people askin’ questions,” Sheriff Plummer slammed his empty glass on the table and stormed out of the saloon.

“I don’t know boys,” the second man said. “Killin’ babies ain’t what I signed on for.”

“You can’t stomach this, I can take care of that right now,” the third man said as he pulled a pistol from his holster and pointed it at the second man.

“Didn’t say I won’t do it,” the second man scrambled to save his life. “Just said I didn’t like it.”

“You can stay here ifn’ you ain’t willing to hold up your end. We’ll tell Plummer you chickened out,” the first man offered.

“Hell, he’d shoot me ‘fore I could leave town.”

“You’re choice. Make it,” the third man growled.

“Shit,” the second man muttered as he scratched his week old beard. “I’ll go get the horses.”

***************

Dusty and Blaze trotted comfortably along the stage road leading from Bannack. Jesse and Jennifer rode in silence, the baby asleep in the sling resting on Jennifer’s shoulders. At the fork, Jesse lead the horses northwest into the Big Hole valley away from the mining camps. They would ride a more direct route to the mountain pass and cut a full day’s ride off their return journey. The sooner they were back in Sweetwater, the happier the women would be.

Around mid-day, KC began to stir. She woke hungry and out of sorts due to being confined in the sling used to carry her. Jennifer tried to calm the unhappy baby but she would have none of it.

“I think we need to stop,” Jennifer told Jesse.

“Alright, let’s head for those trees. It’ll be cooler there,” Jesse turned Dusty toward a small stand of cottonwoods several hundred feet off their route.

Jennifer turned Blaze to follow.

The horses had covered half the distance to the trees when a shot shattered the stillness. Jesse turned just in time to see Jennifer knocked from her saddle, she hit the ground hard and lay still.

“No,” Jesse screamed as she pulled her rifle from the scabbard and turned to fire in the direction the shot had come. As soon as the last bullet was fired, Jesse hit the ground running. She covered the short distance to Jennifer’s prone body and dived to the ground next to it.

Jennifer was laying on her back, the baby still tucked securely in the sling. As soon as KC saw Jesse, she let out a wail.

“It’s okay, sunshine. It’s okay,” she tried to calm the baby and hoped that her words were true. Jesse tried to find Jennifer’s injury but with the struggling baby it was impossible. Jesse gently pulled the baby free. “Please, KC, I need you to be quiet,” Jesse begged the crying child.

Panicked by the fall and Jesse’s obvious concern, the baby continued to wail. Holding the child in one arm, Jesse examined Jennifer for wounds. She found none.

“It’s okay,” Jesse told herself as well as the baby. “She just had the breath knocked out of her when she hit the ground.”

Relieved, Jesse laid the still crying baby next to Jennifer. “You stay right here and keep an eye on your momma,” she placed a kiss on the baby’s forehead. “I’m going to take care of whoever is shooting at us.”

Jennifer had fallen into the a small depression. It wasn’t much but it did provide some protection from the gunmen’s bullets. Jesse carefully crawled to the side of the depression and raised her head just enough to peer over the top of the shallow side. Dusty and Blaze stood between her and the area the shot had come from.

Being careful to keep the horses between her and the unseen gunmen, Jesse quickly pulled the saddle bags from the horses and dropped them into the depression.

“Go on, find somewhere safe but don’t go too far,” Jesse told Dusty. Dusty raised her head and whinnied before taking off at a gallop, Blaze on her heels. The milk cow, still tied to Dusty’s saddle horn, struggled to keep up with the racing horses. As soon as Dusty took off, Jesse leaped back into the protection of the small depression.

*************

CHAPTER TEN

Hidden in the stand of cottonwoods, the three gunmen waited. They had watched the women leave Bannack and had received their orders from Sheriff Plummer to kill them. Riding from Bannack, the gunmen had kept to the back side of hills and ridden in gulches and ravines to keep themselves out of sight from the women. The men had managed to get in front of the women and made their way to a small stand of cottonwoods next to a small creek. They waited in the shade of the large trees.

“Damn,” one of the bandits said as they watched the women turned their horses toward the trees where they waited. “They’re headed straight this way.”

“Good,” another said. “Let them get good and close, then shoot. Make your shots count, remember what Plummer said. He wants them dead. All of them.”

“I ain’t shootin’ no kid,” the third outlaw muttered to himself and moved slightly away from the other two.

As the women neared the stand of trees, the first gunmen got antsy and fired. His shot went wide but one of the horses reared, throwing it’s rider to the ground. The other rider pulled a rifle and fired several shots at the trees, causing the men to seek cover behind the thick trunks.

“You fool,” the second gunmen hissed. “Now, they know we’re here.”

“So what? What can a couple of women and a kid do to us?” the man who had fired shouted back.

“I guess, we’re about to find out,” the second gunmen looked for a better position to hide.

“Look, one of them is standing behind the horses,” the first gunman took aim on the closer of the horses. But, before he could fire, the rifle was knocked from his hands.

“Don’t shoot the animals,” the second outlaw spat the words out. “They ain’t got nothin’ on ’em. At least, we can sell the horses and make some money out of this.”

As the gunman bent to pick up his rifle, the horses took off at a gallop. He straightened and watched the horses disappeared over a rise. “How you gonna sell them now?” he asked the other man, disgustedly.

The third gunman fired at the woman but it was too late as she had already dove to safety.

***************

Jesse hit the ground and rolled. A bullet screamed overhead and buried itself in the dirt about five beyond the depression she landed in. Her roll came to a stop next to Jennifer and KC.

Scared by all the events happening around her and by the lack of response from the woman she lay beside, KC was crying loudly. Careful, to keep her head below the level of the depressions’ sides, Jesse placed a large hand on the baby’s tear soaked face, “it’s okay, sunshine. It’s okay.”

With her other hand, Jesse pulled the saddle bags close. She untied the flap of one and reached in for the box of rifle cartridges it carried. Pulling the box out, she quickly reloaded her rifle.

“Ugh,” Jennifer groaned as she began to regain consciousness.

Jesse turned to the sound. “Jennifer,” her voice was thick with concern. “Darlin’, can you hear me.”

“Yeah,” a shaky reply. “What happened?”

“You got thrown off Blaze and landed hard. Knocked the breath out of you,” Jesse filled her pockets with the rest of the bullets.

Hearing the baby’s wails, Jennifer immediately became concerned, “KC?”

“She’s fine, just scared.”

Jennifer started to sit up.

“Whoa,” Jesse gently held her down. “Keep down.”

Jennifer looked around and saw that they were in the bottom of a shallow depression. She rolled onto her side and pulled the wailing baby into her protective arms.

“Try to get her to quiet down,” Jesse said as she crawled to the top of the depression’s side.

Jennifer spoke soothingly to the baby and rocked her as best she could in the prone position she was forced to remain in. “What’s going on, Jesse?” she asked unsure as to why Jesse was suddenly armed.

“We were ambushed. They’re hiding in the stand of trees we were heading for,” Jesse carefully lifted her head only high enough out of the depression to steady her rifle on the ground and take aim on the trees.

“Plummer’s men?”

“Probably,” Jesse could see movement in the trees but couldn’t get a clear shot at any of the gunmen. Patiently, she waited.

“If they’re in those trees, why didn’t they wait until we rode closer?”

“Don’t know. But, I’m sure glad they didn’t.”

KC had stopped crying and was clinging to Jennifer. “It’s alright, sweetie. Mommy will take care of us,” Jennifer gently rubbed the infant’s back.

Jesse heard the words and her heart swelled. Jennifer’s faith in her under the circumstances was all she needed. Tears began to fill her eyes as she thought how much Jennifer and, now, KC meant to her. She’d find a way to get her family home safe. She blinked the tears away. Now, was not the time. The safety of her family required clear vision. As her eyes dried, Jesse saw a man step out from behind a tree. She took aim and squeezed the trigger.

***************

The bandits had been watching the ground where the women were holed up. After several minutes and no movement, the first gunman decided to get a closer look. He started to inch his way from behind the cottonwood tree where he had been hiding.

“Stay where you are,” the second gunman commanded.

“Why? They’re obviously hurt or dead, or they’d be doing something,” he ignored the warning.

“Listen,” the third gunman said from his hiding place. “The kid quit crying.”

The second gunman stepped clear of the tree. Before he could take another step, a shot rang out. He stood a moment longer before slowly collapsing backwards. He came to rest on his back, blood oozing out of a hole in his forehead.

“Damn,” the third bandit looked at the dead man. “Plummer didn’t say they could shoot like that.”

“Plummer didn’t say a lot of things,” the second bandit began firing at the women’s hiding spot.

************

After seeing the man fall, Jesse ducked back down and covered Jennifer and KC with her body. Seconds later the ground around the depression became alive with bullets striking the earth. When the firing stopped, Jesse rolled off and crawled back to where she could watch the trees hiding the bandits.

KC started to whimper again. Her tiny arms and legs flaying and kicking. Jennifer tightened her hold on the frightened child. She reached into one of the saddlebags and pulled out a bottle they had filled before leaving Bannack. Luckily, the bottle had not broken when Jesse dropped the bags into the depression. Rolling on her side, so the baby could lay flat beside her, Jennifer offered the bottle to KC, who accepted it and began to suck hungrily.

“That’s my girl,” Jennifer smiled down at the baby before turning her attention to the rancher. “Jesse, how many are there?”

Jesse eyes constantly scanned the trees for movement, “one less than there was before.”

“You mean one left?” Jennifer hated not being able to see what was happening.

“Not quite,” Jesse answered. “How’s KC?”

“Scared. But, she took a bottle, so that’s a good sign,” Jennifer gently stroked the baby’s cheek as she drank.

“How about you?”

“I’m scared, too.”

“Yeah, guess that makes three of us,” Jesse wiped her sweating hands on her shirt. “Don’t worry, darlin’, we’ll get out of this.”

“Jesse, is there anything I can do? Just laying here is starting to drive me crazy.”

“You are doing something. You’re taking care of our daughter,” Jesse took a moment to smile at her lover.

Jennifer smiled back.

*************

“What do we do now?” the third gunman asked his only remaining companion.

“We wait them out,” the other man snarled. “Come dark, we’ll move in closer and take care of them.”

Not happy with the answer but not having any real choice, the third gunman looked around for a more comfortable place to wait. He was just about to move to a small stump near the creek when the other man stepped away from his hiding spot to claim the stump. Just as the man reached the stump, a shot took his leg out from under him. Before he hit the ground, a second shot blew through his shoulder.

Unable to move, the third bandit watched as the gunman fell and listened to his screams. “Shit,” was all he could manage.

*************

Jesse saw the man step from his hiding place and move deeper into the shadows of the trees. Probably thinking he was out of her range, he didn’t count on the determination of a woman protecting her family. She took careful aim and squeezed off two shots, one right after the other. She watched the man fall and was satisfied with her aim when the man did not get back up.

Jennifer jumped at the sound of the rifle blasts, “Jesse?”

“It’s okay. Now, they’re two short,” she reached into her pocket and reloaded the rifle.

“You killed him?” Jennifer asked uneasily.

“Sure hope so,” Jesse resumed her vigil.

The sound of horses running could be heard before Jesse saw the solitary rider leaving the stand of trees. He rode away from the women at full gallop, trailing behind were two rider-less horses. Jesse watched until the man disappeared from sight.

“Stay here,” she told Jennifer. “The pistols are in the saddlebags. Get them out and use them if you have to.”

Jennifer reached out and grabbed Jesse’s boot before she could leave the depression, “Jesse, where are you going?” The fear in Jennifer’s voice stopped the rancher.

“I think they’ve gone. I’m going to check it out,”

“Jesse, please don’t go,” tears filled Jennifer’s eyes and flowed down her cheek.

Jesse reached down and took Jennifer’s hand in her own. “I have to.”

“Come back to me,” Jennifer refused to release her lover’s hand.

“I promise,” Jesse smiled at her lover. “I love you.” With that she disappeared from the depression.

Jennifer clutched the baby to her. “You’re mommy better come back,” she told KC. Pulling a pistol from the saddlebag, “because, if she doesn’t, I don’t think I can go on without her.” Her throat was so choked with emotion that Jennifer barely managed to force the words out. Slowly, she edged her way to the rim of the depression so that she could keep an eye on Jesse.

***************

“Help me,” the bandit called. He had fallen half in the creek and the cold waters were quickly freezing his already numb body. The bullets had done major damage to his leg and shoulder and the water flowed red with his blood.

The other bandit stood rooted in place watching his comrade’s life slowly ebbing away. He could only think of how much he did not want to suffer the same fate. Ignoring, the fallen man’s calls for assistance, he eased his way to where their horses were tied.

“You can’t leave me,” the injured man begged as he watched the other man mount his horse.

“Like you said at Skinner’s, it’s my choice,” the man said as he grabbed the reins of the other horses. “And, I’m making it.”

Spurring his horse, the bandit left the protection of the trees and rode as fast as he could away from the women and the comrade he was leaving behind. He would not return to Bannack to face the sheriff but would ride to the mining camps in the mountains to the northeast where he could sell the horses. They should get him enough money to get out of the territory. He figured his days in Montana were numbered. He just didn’t know how true that was.

“Come back here, you bastard,” the gunmen called weakly. Loss of blood and the cold water were draining his strength. He tried to pull himself out of the water but the pain in his shoulder preventing him from succeeding. As he struggled, he became aware of someone standing near him. Turning his head, he saw a woman cradling a rifle in her arms.

“Help me.”

“Why should I?” Jesse asked. “Seems you got what was coming to you.” Her voice was hard and her expression held no sympathy for the man who had attempted to kill her and her family.

Assuring herself that there were no others hiding in the trees, Jesse turned to return to Jennifer and KC.

“You can’t leave me,” the man’s voice was so weak it could barely be heard.

Jesse turned back to the man, “seems your friends left you. So, why shouldn’t I?”

“Please. At least, finish it,” the man requested.

Jesse studied the man for a moment before responding. “You’re already finished.” She turned away and walked back to her family.

“Damn you, Plummer,” the man swore with his last breath. Before, Jesse left the shadows of the trees, the bandit was dead.

***************

“Are they gone?” Jennifer asked as Jesse returned to the depression.

“Yes,” she wasn’t about to tell the schoolteacher of the two men left in the trees. “You okay?” she asked Jennifer as she opened her arms to the woman. Jennifer rushed into the embrace and the women held on to each other.

When KC started to whimper, Jesse bent down and lifted the baby into her arms. KC’s tiny arms encircled Jesse’s neck while Jennifer’s encircled her waist.

After several minutes, Jesse cupped a hand under Jennifer’s chin and lifted her face. She leaned forward and kissed her. Jennifer returned the kiss and the women reassured each other of their love.

“Let’s go home,” Jesse whispered when their lips broke apart.

Jesse whistled for Dusty and Blaze. Moments later, the mares rode up with the milk cow. Jesse placed the saddlebags back onto the horses while Jennifer prepared the baby for travel.

When Jennifer prepared to mount Blaze, she found her saddle full of Jesse’s saddlebags. She looked quizzically at the rancher.

“I thought maybe you’d like to ride with me for a while,” Jesse said as she took the baby from Jennifer’s arms.

Smiling, Jennifer lifted herself up onto Dusty. She took the baby when Jesse held her up. Jesse swung up in the saddle and wrapped an arm around Jennifer and KC. Jennifer leaned back against Jesse’s chest. A flick of the reins and Dusty started to carry her family home.

***************

Sheriff Plummer stood next to the bar in Skinner’s saloon.

“They’re not coming back,” the bartender and owner told the troubled sheriff. “I told you killin’ women and children would be trouble.”

“Shut up,” the sheriff slammed a fist down on the bar. “Give me some whiskey.”

Skinner poured a glass and set it on the bar before the sheriff. He placed the opened bottle next to it.

Emptying the glass in one gulp, Plummer refilled it. He looked to the saloon’s door when the sound of boots striking the boardwalk outside could be heard. Plummer watched as several cowboys walked past the saloon. Turning back to the bar, he retrieved his glass and downed the whiskey.

“Where ya goin’?” Skinner asked as the sheriff walked to the door.

“Think I’ll go out and have a look around.”

“Hell, it’s dark outside. You ain’t goin’ see nothin’.”

Plummer turned to glare at Skinner, “you got a better idea?”

Figuring he’d pushed the sheriff as far as he could without getting shot, Skinner shrugged, “nope.”

***************

After wandering aimlessly in the darkness, Plummer welcomed the morning sun’s rays. He scanned the valley for any sign of his men. Circling buzzards alerting him to their location.

As Plummer approached the stand of cottonwoods, he could see a body. He pulled his horse to a stop next to it and looked down at it..

“Damn fool,” Plummer spat at the corpse, “to let a woman shoot ya.”

Looking around, he spotted the second body and spurred his horse forward.

“Damn,” he shook his head. “Thought you was better than that,” he told the dead man.

Expecting to find a third body, Plummer searched the area. He discovered the tracks of the horses leading away from the trees and Bannack. Sitting on his horse, his eyes followed the tracks until they could no longer be seen.

“Ran out on me, did ya,” Plummer said to the long gone third man. “Well, you better hope we don’t cross paths again.” He turned his horse and returned to Bannack.

*****************

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Jesse was carrying KC when Dusty and Blaze walked into the shade of the Slipper. Bette Mae was sitting in one of the porch’s rockers and stood to greet the women.

“Well, lordy be,” Bette Mae smiled broadly at the return of her friends. “Looky what the cat done drug in.”

Jennifer slid from Blaze’s saddle and reached up to take the baby from Jesse.

“My goodness,” Bette Mae was surprised to see the tiny child emerge from the sling around Jesse’s shoulders. “What in the world is that?”

“That,” Jesse emphasized the word as she dropped to the ground. “Is a baby.”

“Lordy,” Bette Mae chuckled. “Didn’ know ya could buy those in Bannack.”

The women mounted the stairs and joined the older woman on the porch.

“You can’t,” Jesse told her friend. “It’s a long story and we’ll tell you all about it just as soon as we talk to Billie.”

“Well, ya might as well come inside then. He’s in there courtin’ Ruthie,” Bette Mae looked at the child clinging to Jennifer. Since the ambush, KC had refused to be out of her mothers’ arms.

“Told you so,” Jennifer whispered to Jesse as they followed Bette Mae inside. She had told Jesse weeks before that Sweetwater’s sheriff was sweet on the shy girl who worked at the Slipper.

“Think you’re so smart, don’t ya,” Jesse stuck her tongue out at the schoolteacher.

“Yep,” Jennifer wrapped her free arm around Jesse’s waist. “I found you, didn’t I.”

****************

“Boy,” Billie Monroe, Sweetwater’s sheriff, whistled as he leaned back. “Sounds like you had yourselves quite the adventure.”

Jesse and Jennifer had spent the past two hours relating the events of their trip to the sheriff and Bette Mae. They left out the news about the storekeeper’s sister and brother-in-law, preferring to tell Ed and Bette Mae in private. Neither was looking forward to the task.

“Guess, you could put it that way,” Jesse said as she played with the baby in her lap. “Billie, can you do anything about Plummer?”

“Yeah. I’ll send word to Virginia City. Seems I heard something about citizens there forming a vigilante group to track down the outlaws. Might just be the information they’re needing.”

“How can a lawman do that?” Jennifer asked.

“Oh, hell,” Billie started then stopped when he saw the look on Jesse’s face. “Sorry, Jennifer. But, half the lawmen in the west have spent time on the other side of the badge. Some, even spent time in jail. If what I’ve heard about Plummer is true, he got himself run out of the California gold camps for being on the wrong side of the law.”

“Hard ta get men ta wear the badge,” Bette Mae added. “Most that do, don’ live too long.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Billie added with a grin. He had no complaints being sheriff in such a small town like Sweetwater. At least, his life expectancy was longer than most lawmen.

“So,” Bette Mae looked at Jesse. “Ya plannin’ on raisin’ the little one yourselves, eh?”

“Yes,” Jesse tickled KC and was rewarded with a hearty baby laugh.

“We couldn’t leave her in Bannack. Who knows what kind of life she would have been forced into,” Jennifer said as the baby reached for her. Pulling KC into her own lap, Jennifer continued, “at least, this way, she’ll be raised with love.”

“Well,” Billie pushed his chair away from the table. “If I get this all written down quick, I can get it out on the afternoon stage.”

“Well, there is one more thing,” Jennifer said shyly. She looked at Jesse, who nodded her approval. Smiling broadly, Jennifer announced, “Jesse asked me to marry her.”

“Well, lordy be,” Bette Mae exclaimed. “A weddin’. I don’t think we’ve ever had one in Sweetwater.”

“That’s wonderful news,” Billie slapped Jesse on the back. “But, Bette Mae has a point. Most folks go to Bozeman with there being no church here. You planning on that?”

“No,” Jesse shook her head. She definitely wasn’t going to the town where her parents lived to marry her love. “We were hoping that Mayor Perkins would do the honors.”

“That is, if two women can marry,” Jennifer said hesitantly.

“Ain’t no law against it that I know of,” the sheriff assured the schoolteacher.

“And, don’ ya worry about the mayor. I’ll have a little talk with his missus,” Bette Mae patted Jennifer’s hand. “Now, we got some plannin’ ta do. You’ll be needin’ a dress…”

Jesse chuckled and cut off the older woman, “already taken care of. Bought her the prettiest wedding dress in Bannack.”

“I’ll leave you ladies to your planning,” the sheriff said as he stood.

“One more thing, Billie,” Jesse stopped the man from leaving. “I was hopin’ that you’d agree to be my best man.”

“Well,” Billie puffed out his chest at the unexpected request. “I’d be right honored to, Jesse. Right honored.”

“Thanks,” Jesse smiled at the sheriff.

Billie nodded and left.

“Okay,” Bette Mae took possession of the women’s attention. “Just when do ya plan ta hold this here weddin’?”

“Oh,” Jennifer said as she tested KC’s britches and wasn’t surprised to find them wet. “I guess we haven’t given that much thought.” Turning to Jesse, “sweetheart, KC needs changing.”

“Alright,” Jesse stood to retrieve a fresh diaper from the saddlebags outside on the horses. “Just as soon as possible,” she answered Bette Mae’s question.

“Well, I’m thinkin’ that it’ll take at least two weeks ta get everything ready and ta notify folks in the valley. How’s that sound?” Bette Mae asked Jennifer after Jesse left.

“It sounds just fine,” Jennifer said more to KC than to Bette Mae.

Jesse came back in with the diaper and offered to take care of the baby but Jennifer shook her head. She carried the baby into Jesse’s office.

“Gettin’ hitched, uh?” Bette Mae smiled at the rancher. “I’m mighty proud of you,” the older woman tried to fight the tears welling in her eyes.

Jesse didn’t know what to say. It was the first time she had heard those words. For years, she had hoped to hear them from her parents but had eventually given up. Now, to hear them from someone who had become more to her than just a friend meant so much to the rancher.

Struggling to get words out of her choked throat, Jesse said, “I was kinda hopin’ that you’d stand up for me at the wedding. Bein’s that I don’t have any kin to do it. I mean, you’re the closest I’ve got to a mom and all. Well, it would mean a great deal to me, if,” Jesse knew she was babbling but she couldn’t get the words to come out right.

Letting the tears fall, Bette Mae stood and wrapped Jesse in her arms. “I can’t think of anythin’ that would make me happier.”

Jennifer came out of Jesse’s office to see her lover encircled in Bette Mae’s arms. Both women were crying but it was obvious to the schoolteacher that something good had just happened. She stood quietly and allowed the women their moment.

***************

Jesse, carrying KC, and Jennifer slowly walked toward the general store. They had just left the Silver Slipper where they had broken the news about Mary Elizabeth Cassidy to Bette Mae. Now, they faced repeating the story to the dead woman’s brother.

“Boy, I’ll be glad to get this over with,” Jennifer said as she replayed the events of moments before.

Bette Mae had sat emotionless on the couch in Jesse’s office after being told of the death of her long lost love. It was only after the women had left her alone to deal with her grief that they heard the mournful cries coming from the room. It was heart wrenching and they weren’t looking forward to going through it again.

“Yeah,” Jesse reached down and took Jennifer’s hand. “Let’s hope he takes the news better than Bette Mae. I’m not sure I can handle any more.”

Jennifer leaned against Jesse’s shoulder as they walked, “it must be so painful to hear such terrible news. I really feel for Bette Mae.”

“Me, too,” Jesse whispered as they neared the store.

Ed was just walking outside when the women climbed up onto the boardwalk in front of the store.

“Well,” he smiled. “Just who do we have here?” he looked at KC.

“This is KC, our daughter,” Jennifer said proudly.

“Daughter?” Ed looked puzzled. “Just what kind of stores does Bannack have?”

Laughing, Jesse said, “not those kind. Let’s go inside and we’ll tell you all about it.”

***************

“Damn,” Ed slumped down on the stool he was sitting. “I knew he was a no good excuse for a husband, but I never thought he’d do that.”

Jesse and Jennifer had told the storekeeper about the events of their trip, finishing with the news of his sister’s death.

“I’m so sorry, Ed,” Jennifer hugged the man who had become a second father to her. And, if she was honest with herself, she knew that he had become the father she had always dreamed of.

Smiling sadly, Ed wiped away his tears with the back of his large hand. “She’s at peace now. I guess I should be happy with that.”

“Yes,” Jennifer stayed close to the grieving man. “She has a beautiful spot. You can see for miles, it really is lovely.”

“And, you gave her a stone?” Ed asked Jesse.

“Yes,” she said quietly. “I real nice one. I think she’d like it.”

“I’ll pay you back, Jesse.”

“No,” Jesse reached out and gave the man’s arm a gentle squeeze. “It was the least we could do.”

“But, it weren’t your responsibility,” Ed began to protest.

“We were glad we could do it for her,” Jennifer told him.

“Alright. Then, I’ll thank you,” Ed nodded.

“We’ll keep an eye on the store if you want to go see her,” Jesse offered.

“Nah, maybe some day. But, not right now. Need time to think about it.”

“Offer’s open,” Jesse put her arm around Jennifer’s shoulder. “Now, we’ve got some good news for you.”

“Well, I’m ready to hear some of that,” Ed perked up at the opportunity to chase away the mood that had settled in the store.

“Jesse and I are getting married,” Jennifer blurted out. Jesse’s proposal made her so happy she wanted everyone to know.

“Well, I’ll be,” Ed looked from one woman to the other. “That is good news. Going to Bozeman?”

“Nope, going to do it right here in Sweetwater. Bette Mae is making all the plans. She’ll probably come in here with a list a mile long.”

“I’ll make sure she gets everything she needs,” the storekeeper laughed. “I think your credit is good.”

“Thanks,” Jesse reached out and took the man’s hand. “We need to be getting back to the ranch. I’m real sorry about your sister, Ed.”

Jennifer timidly looked up at the large man, “Ed, I was wondering if you’d like to give me away?”

“Why, Miss Jennifer,” Ed was startled at the request. “Ain’t that somethin’ your own papa should do?”

“Even if my father knew about our wedding, he wouldn’t come. Besides, you’re more a father to me than he ever was. But, if you don’t want to…”

“I be proud to,” Ed cut her off.

Beaming, Jennifer hugged the big man. “Thank you. And, considering that, don’t you think it’s time you dropped the ‘Miss’ and just called me Jennifer.”

Smiling down at the schoolteacher, Ed said, “alright, Jennifer. Now, get. Take that baby home. You all look exhausted.”

Ed shooed the women out of the store and watched them as they returned to the Slipper. As he leaned against door of the store, he said to himself, “a wedding in Sweetwater.”

**************

CHAPTER TWELVE

The last ten days had been a whirlwind of activity. Bette Mae had closed the Silver Slipper so that the dining room could be converted into a wedding chapel. The saloon had been cleared of all furniture and would serve as a dance floor for the after ceremony festivities. Word had been sent out to everyone in the valley and not much else was being talked about. Folks were breaking out their best duds and shining up the boots and belt buckles. The wedding was going to be the biggest happening to take place in the small community and would be talked about for years to come. Jesse and Jennifer had decided to spend the days at the ranch getting KC settled and left Bette Mae to handle the wedding plans.

“Jesse,” Jennifer placed KC on a blanket in the shade of the cabin’s porch then sat beside her. “Why won’t you tell me what you’re going to wear at the wedding?”

The topic of Jesse’s clothing had become a fixation for Jennifer. While Jesse knew what Jennifer was wearing, the rancher had been very secretive about her own outfit.

Jesse laughed as she continued to cut the lengths of wood that would become legs for KC’s high chair. After bringing KC to the ranch, the women realized they had no furniture suited for a baby. Jesse had started making her a bed the day after they returned and, with that accomplished, she was starting on the high chair. Jennifer thought it would be better for KC than to continue eating being held by one or the other woman.

“I told you not to worry about it. I’ve got the perfect thing,” Jesse answered Jennifer.

Jennifer kept one eye on KC who was rocking on all fours. It wouldn’t be long before the baby was crawling. “But, it’s not fair. You’ve seen my dress,” she protested.

“True,” Jesse finished cutting another length of wood. “But, I haven’t seen you in it, darlin’.”

“You’re not going to give in, are you?”

“Nope,” she smiled at her lover.

“Drat,” Jennifer frowned.

“Only have one more day to wait, darlin’,” Jesse put down her saw and walked over to where Jennifer sat on the porch. Claiming the spot next to her, Jesse wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her close. “I love you,” she whispered as she gently kissed Jennifer.

The women spent the next several moments enjoying each other’s lips and mouths. Jennifer’s hand found it’s way under Jesse’s shirt and she caressed the strong back, slick with sweat. Jesse pulled Jennifer closer and slipped a hand inside her shirt where it quickly found a breast. Just when Jesse was going to lay Jennifer down onto the porch so that they could explore each other further, as small hand smacked her leg and she heard KC talking to her in baby talk.

Jennifer laughed as Jesse pulled back in frustration to look at the child. A big grin on her face, KC reached up to Jesse, she wanted to join her favorite playmate.

Lifting the baby into her lap, Jesse groaned, “guess I’m goin’ have to teach you not to interrupt when I’m making out with your momma, sunshine.”

Leaning against Jesse’s shoulder, Jennifer tickled the baby.

Jesse let the baby climb up her body and wrapped tiny arms around her neck. The baby looked the rancher straight in the eye and starting a long tirade of baby gibberish.

“I do believe she has your argumentative streak in her,” Jesse teased.

“Wonder what she’s telling you,” Jennifer said as she playfully slapped Jesse in the side.

“Probably that I should wait until she takes her nap before I try to make out with her momma,” Jesse kissed the baby. “Ain’t that right, sunshine?”

“Sweetheart, don’t talk that way in front of her,” Jennifer scolded.

“What? I shouldn’t say make out?” Jesse asked.

“No. Don’t say ain’t. It isn’t proper,” the schoolteacher advised.

“Uh, oh, sunshine,” Jesse told the baby. “Looks that you and me are in for trouble with your momma. She’s gonna want us to be nice and proper ladies.” Placing her mouth next to the KC’s ear, Jesse whispered loud enough for Jennifer to hear, “but, it ain’t gonna happen, is it?”

The baby giggled at the warm breath on the side of her face.

Jennifer looked at her smirking lover and rolled her eyes, “Oh, boy.”

*************

The morning of the wedding dawned bright and clear.

Jesse, Jennifer, and KC arrived at the Silver Slipper and enjoyed breakfast with Bette Mae and the other employees of the Slipper who had worked tirelessly the past several days to prepare for the wedding. After breakfast, Jennifer went upstairs with Bette Mae and Ruthie to dress.

Alone, Jesse disappeared into her study. She sat at her desk and leaned back in the chair. How different her life had become. Just months before, she was resigned to a life full of friends but without a partner to share it with. Today, she not only had that partner but, also, a child. And, today she would formalize her relationship with her lover and child into a family. Her family.

Jesse smiled as she thought what the impending ceremony meant to her. She was happy. Happier than she had ever been. But, happy wasn’t enough of a word to describe her feelings. She was ecstatic but more. She was at peace. Yes, that was it. She was at peace. With her life. Her lover. Her child. She was the happiest woman on earth. Well, except, maybe, for the ginger haired beauty she was about to marry.

“Best get this show on the road,” Jesse told herself. She leaned down and opened the bottom drawer in her desk. Carefully, she removed a box with a string tied around it. “Never did understand why I had to buy this. Guess it makes sense now,” she told the empty room.

Jesse stood. She carried the box upstairs to the room where she would find a hot bath waiting.

**************

Jennifer dried her body after she stepped from the tub. Bette Mae and Ruthie stood ready to help the schoolteacher into her wedding dress. After drying, Jennifer pulled on her undergarments.

“It’s a beautiful dress, Miss Jennifer,” Ruthie handed Jennifer a slip.

“Thank you, Ruthie. I appreciate you altering it to fit me better.”

“Seems to me, that dressmaker in Bannack shoulda done that for ya,” Bette Mae said as she lifted the wedding dress from the bed where it had been laid out.

“You’re probably right. But, by the time Jesse surprised me by buying it, we’d already been in that store for a couple of hours. I just didn’t want to spend any more time with that woman. She gave me a funny feeling,” Jennifer stood while Bette Mae and Ruthie lifted it over her head.

“What kinda feeling?” Bette Mae asked when Jennifer’s head reappeared.

“Oh, it’s probably nothing,” Jennifer straightened the dress on her hips. “I just think she knew me from before.”

“Um,” Bette Mae considered her words. “Thinkin’ she might bring ya trouble?”

“I hope not,” Jennifer smiled down at KC who was jabbering and pointing at her. “You like my dress, sweetie. Your mommy has good taste, doesn’t she?”

“Surprisin’, ain’t it?” Bette Mae teased the schoolteacher. She bent down and swooped KC up into her arms. “Your momma is awful pretty, ain’t she?”

Jennifer shook her head, laughing. Trying to teach the giggling child proper grammar was going to be a difficult task. But, it really didn’t bother her, seeing the love surrounding KC.

“Go on, child,” Bette Mae commanded. “Take a look at yourself.”

Jennifer stood in front of the full length mirror in the room as Ruthie finished buttoning the buttons on the back of the dress.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Jennifer said to no one in particular. Though, the dress was a simple design of linen and lace, she thought she had never seen one more beautiful Of course, the fact that Jesse had purchased it for her probably had a lot to do with that.

“It surely is. And, so is you,” Bette Mae smiled at the schoolteacher admiring her reflection. “Ruthie, ya stay here and help Miss Jennifer with her hair while I go see what our Jesse is up to.”

“Tell her I love her,” Jennifer asked the older woman.

“Oh, lordy, I’m sure she knows that. But,” Bette Mae quickly said when she saw Jennifer was getting ready to add more. “I’ll tell her. Now, give this young ‘un a kiss so we can go.”

Jennifer did just that, kissing KC on the cheek. “Be a good girl.”

“She’s an angel. Ain’t ya, honey,” Bette Mae clucked the baby under the chin as she left the room.

“We’ll see if she still thinks that once KC starts walking and talking,” Jennifer chuckled.

“Yes, ma’am,” Ruthie agreed.

*************

“Well, I’ll be,” Bette Mae walked into the room Jesse was using to dress. “Is that really your mommy?” she teasingly asked the baby she carried.

“Stop that,” Jesse playfully scolded her friend. “Come here, sunshine,” she lifted the baby from Bette Mae’s arms. “What do you think? Will Jennifer like it?” she asked the older woman,

“I’d say that she’ll be mighty surprised,” Bette Mae sat on the room’s bed.

“Is that a yes or a no?” Jesse asked as she tickled KC, making the baby laugh.

“Quit worrying, will ya,” Bette Mae shook her head. “She’ll think you is the handsomest dude in the territory.”

“Why do I put up with you?” Jesse smirked at her friend.

“That’s a good question. When ya figure it out, let me know,” Bette Mae reached out her arms. “Now, give me the young ‘un and let me get a good look at ya.”

Jesse did as requested and stood for Bette Mae’s inspection.

Jesse wore a suit of soft buckskin. Short fringe hung from the shoulders of the jacket and the lapels were beautifully beaded in geometric designs of Indian origin. The beaded design continued down the outside of the pant legs. Under the jacket, she wore a linen shirt matching the color of the buckskin. Her boots were polished to such a high shine that Bette Mae could see herself in them. Jesse’s auburn hair was pulled back into a simple ponytail.

“Lordy, that is a mighty pretty. Where ya been hiding it?”

“In my desk. Saw it in a store window one of my trips through Denver. Something made me buy it. Never could understand the need. Until today,” she smiled.

“Well, I’d say that was a might fine decision. Yep, it surely was,” Bette Mae smiled back. “Won’t be long now. You gettin’ cold feet?” she teased.

“Nope. Wish it was time now. I can’t wait to see Jennifer.”

“Oh, that reminds me. She wanted me to tell you she loves ya,” Bette Mae chuckled. “I’d say if she didn’, this day would sure be a waste of lots of folks time. Well, time to get my littl’ angel dressed so ya can get downstairs.”

Bette Mae had offered to take care of KC during the ceremony and for the women’s wedding night. But, after thinking about it, Jesse and Jennifer had decided that the wedding was more than just the joining of their lives. It would also join theirs with KC’s. So, Ruthie had made a small version of Jennifer’s wedding dress for KC to wear while Jesse held her during the ceremony. And, she would return home with her mothers afterward, so the three could start their lives as a family.

“Ready?” Bette Mae asked once the baby had been dressed.

“Yes,” Jesse lifted the KC to her face and kissed her forehead. “Let’s go marry your momma.”

“Go on, then,” Bette Mae started to walk from the room.

“Wait,” Jesse stopped her friend. She wrapped an arm around Bette Mae’s shoulders and hugged her tight. “Thank you.”

With tears in her eyes, Bette Mae asked, “what for?”

“For being my friend. For accepting Jennifer and me. For being you,” Jesse told the woman who was more a mother to her than the one who had raised her. “I can’t tell you how much it means to have you stand with us today.”

“Hush, child,” Bette Mae wiped at the tears with a hankie she pulled from her sleeve. “Where else would I be today?” Bette Mae returned the hug. “Ya know I love ya like ya was my own, don’cha?”

“I love you, too,” Jesse eyes were brimming with tears of her own.

“Now, stop that,” Bette Mae grinned at the rancher. “Can’t have ya gettin’ hitched all puffy eyed. Now, git downstairs and I’ll go check on that beautiful woman waitin’ to join ya.”

Jesse carried KC down the back stairs that led directly to the kitchen and found her friend and best man, Billie Monroe, waiting for her.

Billie whistled when he spotted her, “gosh, don’t you look pretty?” the man grinned.

“Knock it off, Billie. It ain’t like you’ve never seen me before.”

“You? I was talking to little KC, here,” Billie beamed at his friend. “You look mighty pretty yourself, Jesse.”

“Thanks. I think,” Jesse could hear people talking and laughing in the converted dining room. “Sounds like quite a few showed up,” she said to the sheriff.

“Heck, Jesse,” Billie told her. “The whole valley is out there. And, all in their Sunday best, too. Even Butler and his cowboys showed up.”

“Whoa,” Jesse was staggered by the news. She knew Bette Mae had invited everybody but she never expected them all to come.

“Ya got a lot of friends in the valley, Jesse,” the sheriff assured her. “And, everyone loves Jennifer.”

“Yeah,” Jesse smiled when she thought of her soon to be spouse. “It’s just kinda overwhelming.”

*************

A light tapping on the door signaled the arrival of Ed Granger to Jennifer’s dressing room.

“Come on in, Ed,” Jennifer called out.

The big man opened the door and stopped short. “My goodness, Jennifer. You look beautiful.”

Ed crossed the floor to where Jennifer was waiting, “ready to get married?”

“I think so,” Jennifer nervously told the big man who had agreed to give her away during the ceremony.

“Well, then,” Ed shyly hugged Jennifer. “Let’s not keep Jesse waiting. Don’t want her thinking you changed your mind.”

“Oh, no,” Jennifer giggled. “We definitely don’t want her thinking that.”

Ed offered his arm ,which Jennifer cheerfully accepted and was escorted from the room.

**************

Joined by Bette Mae, Billie led Jesse through the kitchen’s door and into the newly created wedding chapel. Oohs and ahs rippled through the seated citizens of Sweetwater as they saw the beautiful woman enter. KC sat quietly in Jesse’s arms, looking around curiously.

Mayor Perkins stood at the front of the crowd. He smiled when the threesome joined him. They turned to look at the stairway leading from the rooms upstairs. A hush fell over the room while everyone waited for Jennifer to appear.

Ed preceded Jennifer down the stairs then stood aside so she could be seen by the audience. Jesse gasped when her eyes fell on Jennifer. She was the most beautiful woman Jesse had ever seen and she would soon be hers. Jesse’s heart almost stopped at the thought.

Jennifer turned to face Jesse and she couldn’t believe her eyes. The most beautiful woman she had ever seen was staring at her. Their eyes met and the rest of the world stopped. Jennifer didn’t think her heart would stand the strain of all the love she was feeling at that moment for Jesse.

Jennifer smiled at Jesse and mouthed the words, ‘I love you’.

Jesse returned the smile and the gesture.

***************

The wedding ceremony had ended to loud applause and good-natured shouts of congratulations. Jesse and Jennifer had thanked everyone for coming. The party was in full swing with Jesse, holding KC and leading Jennifer around the dance floor to the music of Ed’s fiddle. The town of Sweetwater was celebrating. Everyone was happy.

The door to the Slipper burst open. Hank, the telegraph operator from a neighboring town looked surprised at the festivities.

“So, this is where everyone disappeared to,” he said to the crowded room.

“What’s up, Hank,” Billie asked the perturbed man.

“Got a telegram to deliver. Woulda left it at your office but it says it needs to be hand delivered soon as I get to town.”

“Well, everyone is here. So, who’s it for?”

“Jennifer Kinsington.”

Jennifer’s heart clinched. It couldn’t be. No one knew she was in Sweetwater. ‘Please,’ she thought, ‘please don’t let it be’. Hesitantly, she stepped forward and held out her hand.

“You, Jennifer Kinsington?” Hank asked.

“I was. I’m Jennifer Branson, now.”

Jesse turned startled at Jennifer’s words. They hadn’t discussed what name they would use after the wedding. Jesse had just assumed that Jennifer would want to keep her own surname. She smiled when she realized that Jennifer thought different. Oh, how she loved the woman.

Hank handed Jennifer the telegram.

As Jennifer read the paper, Jesse saw her hands start to shake and tears began rolling down her checks.

“Darlin’,” she asked softly. “What’s wrong?”

Crying, Jennifer said, “my father’s coming to take me back. And, he’s bringing my fiancé with him.”

Jesse heard the words and her heart stopped beating.

~~~~~~~

The End

Story continued in Bozeman

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