Bozeman by Mickey Minner

Bozeman
by Mickey Minner

#3 in the Sweetwater Saga

CHAPTER ONE

The telegram’s arrival had put a damper on their wedding’s festive activities. As word of it’s content spread through the celebrating citizens of Sweetwater, many, not knowing what to say to the upset women, had simply made a quiet exit.

Jesse had taken Jennifer and KC home and, after tucking the sleeping baby in her own bed, she had held her lover while she cried. It was almost dawn before sleep claimed the exhausted women.

Jennifer awakened after noon to find Jesse and KC playing on the cabin’s floor.

“Come on, sunshine,” Jesse encouraged the baby crawling tentatively towards her open arms. “Come get your pony.”

KC reached out once more with a small arm and pulled herself forward. She found herself pressed against the inside of Jesse’s thigh and wobbled on shaky arms and legs. Jesse gathered the child into her arms.

“You did it,” Jesse kissed the grinning baby before swinging her up to Jennifer, who was now standing behind her.

“I love you, sweetie,” Jennifer wrapped her arms around the baby and kissed her. Placing KC back on the floor, Jennifer watched as the baby picked up her favorite toy and began playing with it. Tears filled Jennifer’s eyes.

Looking up, Jesse saw her wife’s unhappiness. She stood and wrapped her arms around Jennifer.

“It’s going to be okay, darlin’,” Jesse soothingly told Jennifer. “I promise,” Jesse tightened her hold. “You belong here, now. With your family. No one is going to change that.”

“I’m so afraid, Jesse,” Jennifer whispered. Since receiving the telegram from her father, Jennifer had been terrified of what the man would do when he arrived in Sweetwater. She knew that her father had been expecting to arrange a marriage for her that would serve to further the interests of his shipping business. By coming west, she had ruined those plans and he would be out to right that wrong.

“You don’t know what he’s like. Especially, if he thinks someone has crossed him. He might try to hurt you,” Jennifer explained.

“He’s not going to do anything, darlin’,” Jesse used her fingers to gently wipe the tears off Jennifer’s cheeks. “Once he sees that you have a family here, he’ll go home and leave you be.”

Jesse said the words even though she didn’t believe them. From what she’d heard of Martin Kinsington, she knew she would have a fight on her hands to keep Jennifer with her. But, it was a fight she was determined to win.

KC looked up at her mothers. She frowned when she saw their sad faces. Dropping back onto her hands from her sitting position, she crawled to where the women stood. Plopping down on Jesse’s booted foot, KC pulled herself upright using the rancher’s pant leg.

“Hey, sunshine,” Jesse reached down to steady the baby. “Did you come to cheer up your momma?” Jesse smiled at Jennifer, “she doesn’t like to see you sad, darlin’.”

“I know,” Jennifer dried her eyes with her sleeve. “Come on, sweetie,” she bent down to pick up KC. “Help me get dressed. Then, I bet, we can get mommy to take us for a ride to see the cows you like so much.”

Jesse nodded happily.

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

Jesse and Jennifer sat in the shade of a large cottonwood tree as KC played around and climbed on their legs. Several feet away, Dusty grazed on grass at the edge of the small herd of heifers.

Jesse was leaning back against the rough bark of the tree, Jennifer sat between her legs watching the baby. “How do you feel?” Jesse was still concerned about Jennifer’s reaction to her father’s telegram.

Jennifer leaned back against Jesse and pulled the rancher’s arms around her. “As long as I have you, I’m fine.”

“You’ll always have me, darlin’,” Jesse kissed the top of Jennifer’s head.

“Promise?”

“Yep,” Jesse strong arms wrapped around Jennifer and held her tight. “I promise,” she whispered.

KC’s tiny legs straddled Jennifer’s thigh, she looked at the women and made smacking sounds with her mouth. It was the baby’s new way of letting her mothers know she was hungry.

“Again?” Jesse reached out and tickled the baby, causing KC to giggle and loose her faltering grip on Jennifer’s leg.

Jennifer caught the baby before she could fall. “Hold on there, sweetie,” she sat the baby safely in her lap.

“I’ll get her bottle,” Jesse pushed herself up to retrieve the item from Dusty’s saddlebag. Returning moments later, she handed the bottle of milk to Jennifer before resuming her position behind her lover.

Seeing the bottle, KC reached for it. “Come here,” Jennifer pulled the child into her arms and held her as she drank.

“It’s amazing how much she looks like you,” Jesse said as she gently caressed the baby’s soft cheek. “She has your hair color and I think her eyes are close to the color of yours. And,” she laughed as the baby quickly emptied the bottle, “she definitely has your appetite.”

Jennifer reached back and elbowed Jesse in the stomach, “seems to me that you’re the big eater in this family.”

“Oof,” Jesse grunted. “Okay, I’ll give you that one. But, she definitely has your hair and eyes.”

Jennifer examined at the baby, “do you really think so?”

“Yep,” Jesse said proudly. “Just like her momma’s.”

“Oh, Jesse,” the schoolteacher turned her head to look into Jesse’s eyes. “that’s so sweet.” Jesse blushed as Jennifer knew she would. She grinned at the rancher, “I love you.”

“Dang good thing you do. Making me turn all red like that,” Jesse kissed Jennifer’s nose. “Kinda ruins my tough act, don’t ya think?”

“Sweetheart,” Jennifer returned the kiss. “I’d never do anything to ruin your tough act,” she paused. “Besides, I think it’s cute, too.”

Jennifer laughed as Jesse’s blush deepened.

“Come on, my big tough rancher,” Jennifer patted Jesse’s leg. “It’s time we get our little cowgirl home to her nap.”

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

“All done,” Jesse said as she set her finished project on the table. Riding home, Jesse had noticed how hard it was for Jennifer to hold on to the growing baby when they all rode. She decided that they needed a way to carry KC that was safer for the baby.

After arriving back at the ranch, Jesse had taken a piece of deer hide and set to work making it into a carry sack for KC. Openings were cut for the baby’s legs to drop through and shoulder straps were fashioned that would provide a way to carry the sack on their backs. Jesse sewed the bag’s pieces together with strong rawhide cords.

With KC now awake from her nap, the carry sack was ready for testing.

“Think she’ll sit in it?” Jennifer asked, as she carried KC from the bed where she had changed her wet britches.

“Only one way to find out,” Jesse smiled. “Let’s try it.”

Jennifer handed KC to Jesse who sat her on the edge of the table. She carefully placed KC’s legs through the openings than pulled the sack up around the baby. It stopped at her shoulders allowing the baby some freedom of movement. Jesse lifted the baby and sack and held it for Jennifer to slip into the holding straps. Once the sack settled on her back, Jennifer turned to look at KC who was peering over her shoulder.

“How’s that, sweetheart?” Jennifer asked the smiling baby. “Think you’d like to sit back there when we go for rides?”

KC started to bounce in the sack, giggling happily.

“Hold on there, sunshine,” Jesse reached out to steady the baby. “You have to sit still. Don’t want you falling out.”

The baby stilled and looked at her mommy.

Jesse laughed at the pitiful look on KC’s face, “if you promise not to bounce around, we’ll go for a ride later”. She bent down and kissed the baby.

“It’s almost dinner time,” Jennifer said. “Why don’t I fix a basket and we can go down by the river. It should be a nice evening.”

Jesse removed KC and the sack on Jennifer’s back, “sounds good to me. I’ll go get Dusty saddled.”

“We need more milk,” Jennifer told her.

“Okay,” Jesse placed KC on the blanket they’d place on the floor for her to play on. “Need me to help?”

“No. I’m just going to throw together some sandwiches and such.”

“Alright. I’ll be right back,” Jesse pulled Jennifer into her arms and kissed her. The casual peck quickly turned into something much more as the women pressed their mouths and bodies together. After several moments, Jesse pulled back but kept her arms tight around Jennifer. “I love you,” she rested her forehead against Jennifer’s.

“I love you, too,” Jennifer breathed. She wanted to take Jesse to their bed and show her how much. But, the sounds of the baby playing reminded her that there was now another in her life. “You better go or KC might have to wait until tomorrow for her ride.”

“Drat,” Jesse playfully protested. She stole one more kiss before releasing Jennifer. “Be good, sunshine,” she reached down and ruffled KC’s soft hair as she walked by on her way to the cabin’s door.

Jennifer hummed as she began to prepare the food for their picnic. She smiled to herself as she began to plan what she and Jesse would do that night after KC went to sleep.

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

The next morning, both Jesse and Jennifer were still asleep when KC woke. She rolled onto her stomach and pushed herself up on to all fours before plopping into a sitting position. Looking around the room, she was surprised not to see her mothers up and moving about the cabin. She was starting to panic when she spotted the women cuddled together in the larger bed. KC sat and watched her mothers sleep. It wasn’t long before she saw her mommy open one eye and look back at her. KC smiled and reached out with her arms.

Jesse felt someone watching her. She knew it was later than they normally awoke but Jennifer had kept them busy until the early hours of the morning. She wanted to ignore the feeling of being watched but she couldn’t. Slowly lifting one exhausted eyelid, she saw KC smiling at her. As soon as KC saw she was awake, the baby reached out for her.

Jesse wiggled her fingers at the baby and was rewarded by a return wiggle of baby fingers. Chuckling, Jesse tried to slip out of the bed but stopped when she realized Jennifer had her wrapped up in a tangle of arms and legs.

“Darlin’,” Jesse whispered, “you’ve got to let me go.”

“Don’t want to,” a sleepy voice answered. Jennifer tightened her hold and started to kiss Jesse’s bare shoulder. Her lips soon started on a path that would eventually lead to Jesse’s breast.

“KC is awake.”

Jennifer continued on her path.

“She’s watching us.”

Jennifer’s lips halted. “She’s what?” she mumbled against Jesse skin.

“Watching us.”

“Think she’d go back to sleep if we asked her to?”

“Nope,” Jesse rolled Jennifer onto her back and stretched her body out on top of her lover’s. After kissing Jennifer soundly, she smirked, “besides, after what you did to me last night, I’m too exhausted to continue this morning.”

“Poo,” Jennifer looked up at Jesse, she was so beautiful. “Then, how about we just lay in bed all day?”

“Jennifer Kinsington, is that any way for a proper young woman to behave?” Jesse teased.

“Branson,” Jennifer said seriously. “I’m no longer a Kinsington.”

Slipping off Jennifer to lay at her side, Jesse asked, “darlin’, I know you said that the other night. But, is it really what you want?”

“Don’t you want me to have your name?” Jennifer asked confused, and hurt.

“It would make me the proudest woman in the west,” Jesse assured her new wife. “But, giving up your father’s name…”

“I’m not giving up much, Jesse. I would rather be known as a Branson than a Kinsington. It’s who I am, now.”

Hearing the resolve in her lover’s voice, Jesse leaned down and softly kissed Jennifer. “Then, Mrs. Branson, what say we get up and spend the day with our daughter.

“I’d like that, Mrs. Branson.”

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

“How much further?” Martin Kinsington demanded of the man driving the carriage.

“‘Nother day,” Charlie Bassette answered.

“You’re not suggesting that my wife spend another night sleeping on the ground in this god-forsaken country,” Kinsington was incensed. “Push the horses. I want to be in Sweetwater by nightfall.”

Martin Kinsington had hired Charlie and his carriage in Denver thinking it would be a faster way to travel than by stage. However, he hadn’t taken into account that the stage exchanged horses at regular intervals, thereby allowing the stage drivers to push their teams harder. Charlie’s pride and joy team of four matching chestnuts needed to travel slower and rest more frequently and the trip from Denver had stretched into another day.

“Ain’t gonna happen. Horses are goin’ fast as they can,” Charlie would love to see Sweetwater by nightfall and be rid of his passengers. But, he knew the horses were tired and he wasn’t going to push them any harder.

“Mr. Kinsington said to push them,” a young man riding with Kinsington shouted at the driver.

Charlie turned to look at the obnoxious men riding in the carriage. One was an older man who looked to have done some hard work in his younger days. The other man was much younger and looked to have enjoyed a much easier lifestyle.

“That may be how you git folks to do somethin’ in the east but out here that won’t git ya nothin’. Can’t make the distance to Sweetwater any shorter by drivin’ the horses harder. So, I suggests you sit back and enjoy the ride. We’ll get to Sweetwater sometime t’morrow.”

Bassette spit tobacco juice over the side of the carriage. “‘scuse me, ma’am,” he nodded to the woman sitting next to Kinsington before turning back around.

Charlie Bassette had been surprised when the autocratic Kinsington strode into his small barn demanding his best team of horses and a driver to provide transportation to Sweetwater. Kinsington did not blink when Charlie gave him the price. Instead, he pulled out a wallet and handed Charlie payment in full, then demanded they leave immediately.

Kinsington’s party consisted of himself, a small, demure woman that Charlie would later learn to be Mrs. Kinsington, and Andrew Barrish, a young man barely into his twenties that carried himself with more authority than Charlie figured he had earned. The trip from Denver had been filled with complaints and demands from Kinsington and the young Barrish. Charlie quickly figured out that he would never make them happy so he had given up trying.

On the other hand, Charlie did what he could to make the woman as comfortable as possible. In contrast to her husband, Mrs. Kinsington was quiet, seldom speaking but always thanked Charlie for his efforts. He felt sorry for the woman who was generally ignored by her husband and the young man.

Charlie wondered who in Sweetwater was unlucky enough to soon be suffering Kinsington’s tirades.

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

CHAPTER TWO

Bette Mae was surprised to see Jesse and Jennifer enter the Silver Slipper’s dining room so soon after their wedding.

“Goodness me,” the older woman rushed to give Jennifer a big hug. “How are you doin’, littl’ one?”

“I’m fine, Bette Mae,” Jennifer smiled but her eyes told another story.

“Come on,” Bette Mae pulled a chair out from one of the tables. “Sit down and let me git ya some breakfast. Bet you could use a cup of my coffee.”

Jennifer sat as instructed, “that sounds wonderful. I’m afraid poor Jesse had to do some of the cooking the past few days.”

“Well, then,” Bette Mae grinned at the schoolteacher, “you must be starving.”

When Jesse started to protest, her friend cut her off. “Hush, I’ve eaten some of your cookin’ and I must say it is lackin’.”

“That’s not far,” Jesse plopped down in a chair and sat KC on the edge of the table. “You like my cooking, don’t you, sunshine?” she asked the baby.

KC giggled, wrinkled up her nose and stuck her tongue out at the rancher.

Bette Mae laughed. “Looks like she’s got your smarts,” she winked at Jennifer before entering the kitchen.

Jennifer laughed as Jesse pouted. “Oh, honey,” she reached over to take Jesse’s hand, “she doesn’t know what she’s doing. And, if you hadn’t taught her to do that…”

Jesse yanked her hand out of Jennifer’s reach.

Jennifer chuckled at the rancher. “KC, tell mommy you love her,” she instructed the baby.

KC stretched her tiny arms up and when Jesse bent down to her, she wrapped them tight around Jesse’s neck. A sloppy kiss was planted on the pouting woman’s cheek.

Jesse spoke into the baby’s ear, “I love you, too, sunshine.”

KC giggled as she always did when Jesse’s breath tickled her ear.

“All better,” Jennifer smiled at her new wife.

“Yep,” Jesse smiled back and reached out a hand which Jennifer instantly took.

“Here ya go,” Bette Mae placed a plate full of eggs, bacon, biscuits, gravy, and toast in front of each woman. She filled them each a cup of hot coffee and placed the pot on the table.

“Now, while’s ya eat, let me visit with my littl’ angel,” she lifted the baby from Jesse and sat with KC at the table.

Sitting in Bette Mae’s lap, KC started waving her arms and talking her baby gibberish.

“She gets that from you,” Jesse smirked.

“Guess that means you’ll be outnumbered then. Won’t it?” Jennifer smirked right back at Jesse.

All three women laughed and KC joined them.

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

After breakfast, Jesse and Jennifer walked to the sheriff’s office.

“Morning, Billie,” Jesse greeted their friend as she carried KC into the small building.

“Morning, Jesse. Jennifer,” the sheriff rose from his desk. “Morning, Miss KC,” he smiled at the baby. He placed the chair he had just vacated in front of his desk and indicated Jennifer should sit. Jesse sat in the only other chair in the room while the sheriff perched on the edge of his desk.

“What’s up, Billie?” Jesse asked. “Bette Mae said you wanted to talk to us.”

“Thought you might like to know that I heard back from Virginia City,” the sheriff informed them. He had written to the territorial authorities concerning the information Jesse and Jennifer had uncovered regarding the Bannack sheriff and his illegal activities.

Jennifer asked, “are they going to do something about Sheriff Plummer?”

“Yep,” Billie picked up a piece of paper from his desk. “Says that the law-abiding citizens formed a vigilante group to take care of the bandits. Bannack is the first stop on their list. They figure to deal with Plummer and Skinner in the next few days. Already dealt with a couple members of his gang they found in Virginia City.”

“What will they do with him?” Jennifer asked.

“Probably same thing they did with the two in Virginia City,” Billie replaced the paper.

“What was that?”

“Hanged ’em.”

“Without a trial?” Jennifer was surprised.

“That’s vigilante law, darlin’,” Jesse told her wife. “Ain’t time to wait for a judge.”

“Besides,” Billie added. “Best to hang ’em and be done with it.”

“But, what if they hang an innocent man?”

“Ones they hang are guilty of more than just one crime. So, even if they might not be involved with Plummer, they sure as heck have been involved with somethin’ on the wrong side of the law. Ain’t what you’d call ‘honest citizens’ that the vigilantes go lookin’ for,” Billie explained. “Don’t worry, Jennifer. If the vigilantes decide to hang ’em, they deserve it.”

“Doesn’t seem right,” Jennifer argued. “Every man is entitled to a fair hearing.”

“Sometimes, you have to take the law into your own hands,” Jesse quietly said. “May not seem right but it has to be done. Once they clean up the territory, it’ll be safer for everyone.”

Jennifer sat quietly and considered what she had been told. The west was sure different than she had expected. You never heard of people taking the law into their own hands back east. But, then you didn’t have bandits being led by the sheriff either. Maybe vigilante law was necessary to make the territory safe for everyone.

“So, what brings you into town today,” Billie was asking Jesse.

“Thought we should let Bette Mae know we were alright. Things got a little confused the other night.”

“Shame to ruin your party like that,” the sheriff shook his head. “But, it was a right nice wedding,” he smiled at the women.

“Thanks, Billie,” Jennifer smiled back.

“Guess yours will be next, from what I hear,” Jesse grinned at her friend. “You and Ruthie set a date yet?”

“Oh, hell,” Billie stopped himself when he saw Jesse’s frown. “Sorry, Jennifer,” he apologized to the schoolteacher before continuing. “Heck, Jesse, I haven’t even asked her yet.”

“What you waiting for?” Jesse laughed.

“I get so nervous, I’m afraid I’ll make a fool out of myself,” the sheriff shyly told them.

“You love her?” Jesse asked.

“Yes.”

“Then, you should ask her. Believe me, you’ll be glad you did,” Jesse beamed at Jennifer. “I know I am.”

Jennifer looked at the woman who had become her life. Would it be possible to live without her? No. Never.

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

“Sweetheart, why don’t you let me do that?” Jennifer watched as a frustrated Jesse toiled over the Slipper’s bookkeeping.

After talking with Billie, the women had returned to the Slipper so KC could take a nap. As the baby slept on a blanket draped over the couch in Jesse’s office, the rancher decided to catch up on the Slipper’s paperwork. Jesse grumbled as she tried to get the numbers to balance.

“You have plenty to do with your teaching and taking care of me and KC,” Jesse scratched out a number and tried again.

Walking to the desk and placing her hand atop Jesse’s, the schoolteacher said, “honey, I want to help. You know you’d rather be working at the ranch than doing this. So, why don’t you let me.”

Jesse pulled Jennifer into her lap, she rubbed her cheek against Jennifer’s. “Darlin’, whether you do the books or I do, we still need to spend time in town. Unless, you’re suggested you come to town without me,” Jesse stuck out her lower lip in a pout.

“No, silly,” Jennifer kissed the offending lip. “Why can’t we take this stuff to the ranch and do it there?”

Jesse looked at the papers and ledgers spread over her desk. She thought for a moment, “guess there really isn’t a reason we can’t. But,” she looked at Jennifer, “are you sure you want to do this? I mean, with all your teaching work, won’t you be too busy?”

“Sweetheart, I’m not teaching right now. And, when school starts again, I’ll have plenty of time in the afternoons while your out playing with your cows.”

“Mooooo,” Jesse did her best impression. “Okay, if you’re sure.” Jesse kissed Jennifer.

“Yes, I’m sure,” Jennifer sighed as their lips separated. “Think you can do that again,” leaning back towards Jesse’s lips.

“Yep,” Jesse nodded, then smirked as she added, “moooooooooo.”

A soft moooooo was heard in response.

“What was that?” Jennifer asked.

“Wasn’t me,” Jesse looked around the room.

“Mooooo,” came the sound again.

“You thinking what I’m thinking?” Jesse smiled at Jennifer.

The women peeked over the edge of the desk at the couch. Wide awake, KC was sitting up and smiling at her mothers.

“Mooooo?” Jesse repeated the call.

“Mooooo,” KC answered right back.

“Wouldn’t be my choice for her first word, but guess it’ll do,” Jesse laughed. “Mooooo.”

“Mooooo.”

Jennifer shook her head as Jesse and KC continued to exchange cow calls.

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

Charlie pulled the carriage to a stop in front of Sweetwater’s stage depot. He was more than happy to be rid of his passengers.

“Here you are, Mr. Kinsington,” Charlie tied the reins around the carriage’s brake handle. “Sweetwater.”

“This is Sweetwater?” young Barrish snorted as he stood in the carriage and surveyed the few buildings that made up the town. “Why would your daughter have picked this place to live?”

Martin Kinsington remained seated. “I’ve told you before,” Kinsington snarled, “she didn’t come out here of her own free will. Why are you dropping us here?” he asked Charlie. “There must be a hotel in town for us to stay.”

Frustrated that he wasn’t quite done with his charges, Charlie told the man, “let me see if you can board at the depot.” He quickly disappeared inside the old adobe building.

“Damn, Kinsington,” Barrish couldn’t believe he had traveled the width of the country to end up in such a miserable looking town. “If this has been a wild goose hunt, my father will hear of your…”

“My daughter is here,” Kinsington narrowed his eyes at the fuming young man. “Don’t worry.”

Before Barrish could say more, Charlie reappeared. “Says you can get rooms at the Silver Slipper. Sweetwater ain’t got no hotel.”

“Fine,” Kinsington barked. “Take us there.”

Charlie climbed back up into his seat and set the horses in motion before Barrish had reclaimed his seat. The young man was thrown towards the back of the carriage and almost landed in Kinsington’s lap before regaining his footing.

“Damn fool,” Barrish swore at Charlie.

“Tenderfoot,” Charlie muttered as he spit over the side of the buggy.

A few moments later, Charlie stopped the carriage in front of the Slipper’s porch.

Kinsington and Barrish climbed down from the carriage and immediately started up the steps to the Slipper’s porch. Charlie assisted Mrs. Kinsington to the ground while her husband and the young man entered the building.

Charlie removed the luggage and placed it on the Slipper’s porch. His team of horses needed a good rub down and feed, and he wasn’t going to waste any more time with the boorish men he had brought from Denver. As soon as the luggage was unloaded, Charlie climbed back onto the carriage and urged the horses towards the town’s stables. His job complete.

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

“Ready?” Jesse asked as she finished cleaning up KC after her nap.

“Yes,” Jennifer said as Jesse lifted the baby up. “Let’s take our little ‘moo’ girl home.”

“Moooo,” KC giggled.

“I’ve think we’ve created a monster,” Jesse tickled the baby.

“Let’s hope she learns another word soon,” Jennifer laughed as she walked out of the office.

When Jennifer entered the Slipper’s dining area, she saw two men talking to Bette Mae. A woman stood off to the side and was looking around the room.

“Mother?” Jennifer asked, hesitantly.

“Jennifer?” the older woman looked at the young woman standing before her. She bore the features of her daughter but was dressed in men’s pants, boots, and flannel shirt. Her beautiful ginger colored hair was covered by a stetson and her skin was darkened by the sun. If this was her daughter, she had changed greatly.

“What are you doing here?” Jennifer’s throat was so thick she could barely get the words out.

“Jennifer Kinsington, is that any way to talk to your mother?” the larger of the two men turned at the sound of his daughter’s voice. “Jennifer, why are you dressed like that?” her father demanded. “That is no way for you to dress to meet your fiancé. Go put on some proper clothes. Then, you can tell me who forced you to come to this god-forsaken country. I’ll deal with them before we leave for home.”

Jennifer cringed at the sound and sight of her father. But, she was determined to tell him right away that she would not leave with him. “Father, I came here because I wanted to. And, I plan to stay here, Sweetwater is my home now. I have a family…”

“Family,” Barrish spoke for the first time. “You mean to say that you are married?”

“Yes,” Jennifer wondered if this young man was the ‘fiancé’ the telegram mentioned.. “Jesse and I were married a few days ago.”

“Rubbish. What husband would allow his wife to dress in such a manner?”

“I would,” Jesse joined Jennifer..

“Father, this is Jesse,” Jennifer explained. Taking the baby from Jesse, she added proudly, “and this is our daughter, KC.”

“A woman,” the older Kinsington sputtered. “You’re married to a woman. Impossible.”

“Actually,” Bette Mae told the angry man. “They were married right here in this very room with the whole town watchin’. Right pretty ceremony it was, too.”

“What is this, Kinsington?” the young Barrish snarled. “You don’t expect me to marry her now, do you?”

“Shut up, Barrish,” Kinsington stormed across the room towards Jennifer.

Jesse quickly stepped between her wife and father-in-law.

“Get out of my way,” Kinsington raised a hand at Jesse. Looking past Jesse to Jennifer, he commanded, “you’ll come with me, now.”

“Jennifer is not going anywhere,” Jesse voice was cold as steel as she faced down the larger Kinsington.

“Then, I’ll just have to…,” Kinsington hand formed into a fist and started forward towards Jesse’s face.

“I wouldn’t, if I were you,” Billie rushed through the Slipper’s front door accompanied by Ruthie. Bette Mae had sent the girl to fetch the sheriff when she realized Jennifer’s parents had arrived at the Slipper.

“Stay out of this, whoever the hell you are,” Kinsington told Billie.

“I’m the Sheriff here,” Billie positioned himself in front of Kinsington. “And, I’m telling you to back off.”

Kinsington looked at the sheriff, his badge in clear sight. “My daughter has obviously been forced to stay here against her will by this……. this…..,” he sneered at Jesse. “I’m here to take her home.”

“Since the day Jennifer arrived in Sweetwater, I haven’t seen her do anything she didn’t want to do,” Billie answered the angry man.

“She claims to be married to this woman,” Kinsington bellowed. “You can’t tell me you think my daughter would willingly do that.”

“She looked pretty willing to me,” Billie smiled.

“Father, if you would just listen,” Jennifer tried to calm matters.

“NOOOOO,” Kinsington shouted.

KC had had enough of the shouting, her frightened wail filled the room and everyone froze.

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

CHAPTER THREE

Bette Mae had immediately taken control after KC’s cry interrupted the impending melee. She quickly ushered Jesse and Jennifer back into Jesse’s office. And, with Billie’s help, she sent Kinsington and Barrish to rooms upstairs.

A light tapping on the office door drew Jesse’s attention. She cautiously approached the door and pulled it open. Mrs. Kinsington stood outside the office.

Jesse looked at the woman. She was shorter than Jennifer and her hair was showing signs of graying at the temples. Yet, it was easy to see the resemblance between this woman and her lover. As Jesse studied her, the woman stood quietly waited for Jesse to make the first move.

“Mrs. Kinsington,” Jesse acknowledged the woman.

The woman timidly smiled at Jesse, “I would like to talk to my daughter.”

Jesse looked into the room where Jennifer was pacing, trying to calm KC and herself. Jesse waited for Jennifer to make the decision.

Tentatively, Jennifer nodded.

Jesse stepped aside and allowed Jennifer’s mother to enter the room. “I can wait outside,” she said more to Jennifer than Mrs. Kinsington.

“No,” Jennifer shook her head. “I want you to stay.”

Jesse nodded and closed the door.

Mrs. Kinsington walked slowly across the room, stopping several steps from where Jennifer paced, KC still whimpering in her arms.

“I’m sorry, Jennifer,” Mrs. Kinsington started.

“Why did you come with him, Mother?” Jennifer relinquished the baby when KC reached for Jesse who had joined them. KC snuggled into Jesse’s shoulder and guardedly watched the unfamiliar woman in the room.

“I wanted to see you. It was such a shock to find you had left, without even leaving a note to explain. I was so afraid. I,” she paused, “I wanted to make sure you were alright.”

“And, Father? He obviously isn’t concerned about that. He didn’t even ask me,” Jennifer said bitterly.

“No, you’re wrong,” her mother sighed. “Your father is very concerned, Jennifer. He has spent every day trying to find where you had gone.”

“I’m not going back,” Jennifer told her mother.

“But, your family,” her mother began to protest.

“Jesse is my family. And, KC.”

“I don’t understand,” the older woman looked at her daughter and the woman standing beside her.

“You don’t have to understand. It’s the way it is. This is my home now.”

“What about Mr. Barrish? You’re father has gone to great trouble…”

“Is that my ‘fiancé’s’ name?” Jennifer sighed. “Oh, mother. Why do you accept everything father says and does? Is that really the life you want for me? Married off to some man I know nothing about and have no feelings for? I love Jesse. I’m happy here. Why can’t you see that?”

“Your father is a good man, Jennifer. He has always done what he thinks is best for you. I don’t know why you can’t see that.”

Jennifer realized that no matter how much she tried to explain, her mother would never understand. Would never even try to understand. She felt Jesse’s arm wrap around her shoulders and she leaned against her.

“This is your granddaughter, Mother. Aren’t you even going to acknowledge her?” Jennifer smiled at KC who was playing with her toy horse that she had discovered in Jesse’s pocket.

“My granddaughter? But, how can that be? How could you…?” the older woman looked at the baby in Jesse’s arms. As a thought occurred to her, a hand flew up to her mouth in shock. “Jennifer, you aren’t telling me that you had a child out of wedlock.”

“No, Mother. KC’s parents were killed. Jesse and I decided to raise her as our own. She is our daughter now.”

“But, you can’t possibly expect your father to support this child.”

“No. I don’t expect Father to support KC,” Jennifer’s sadness at her mother’s words was quickly turning to anger. “Jesse and I don’t need anything from Father except to be left alone.” Jennifer felt Jesse’s hold strengthen and she wanted to be away from this room and her mother. “I think you should go, Mother. We need to get KC home.”

“Home? You don’t live here?”

“Jesse has a ranch outside of town. We live there.”

“Is that safe? Jennifer, your father might not approve of such living arrangements.”

“I don’t care, Father doesn’t care about me except for what he can gain by marrying me off in some business arrangement. He has never cared about me. Jesse does.”

Turning to look into her lover’s eyes, Jennifer whispered, “take us home, Sweetheart.”

Mrs. Kinsington told her daughter. “I love you, Jennifer. So does your father.” Then, she left the room.

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

“Well?” Martin Kinsington asked as soon as his wife entered the room Bette Mae had provided them during their stay in Sweetwater.

“I’m sorry, dear,” Mrs. Kinsington nervously told her husband. “She says her family is here and she is staying.”

“Like hell she is,” Kinsington strode to the window. He fumed as he looked out over the small town of Sweetwater. He saw two horses slowly walking away from the Slipper and recognized his daughter as one of the riders. “What power does that woman hold over her?” he asked as he watched them ride out of town.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, I’m going to find out. I won’t leave this town without my daughter.”

“Are you sure about this?”

Turning to stare at his wife, “are you questioning me?”

“No, dear,” she quickly assured him. “It’s just that she seems so determined that this is the right place for her.”

“She’s a silly girl. How could she possibly know what’s right for her? She’ll return with us and marry Barrish as arranged.”

“Yes, dear.”

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

The next morning, Jesse heard a horse approach the cabin. Grabbing her rifle, she went out on the porch.

In the yard, Billie Monroe sat astride his horse.

“Mornin’, Billie”

“Mornin’. Really think you need that?” the sheriff asked referred to the rifle laying across Jesse’s arms. Knowing what Jesse and Jennifer had already gone through to protect each other, Billie was sure that Jesse would not hesitate to use the rifle if the need arose.

“Yep,” Jesse frowned. “What brings you out this morning, Billie?”

“Your father-in-law. He’s been raising a ruckus in town.”

“Might as well get down and come in. KC’s having a bath,” Jesse turned to enter the cabin and tell Jennifer of their guest.

KC was happily splashing in the tub, her giggles filling the cabin.

“Might early in the day for a bath, ain’t it?” Billie asked as he entered the cabin.

“Not, when you find the only mud hole in the territory to play in,” Jennifer laughed. She had been out tending the garden when KC crawled to the water bucket and knocked it over. The ensuing mud puddle had immediately become her playground. By the time, Jennifer saw what the baby was up to, KC was covered from head to toe in thick Montana mud.

“Coffee, Billie?” Jesse asked as she refilled her cup.

“Thanks, Jesse.”

Jesse carried a cup to Billie and another to Jennifer. After handing Jennifer her cup, Jesse lifted KC from the tub and dried the squirming baby. KC tried to wiggle her way out of Jesse’s grasp and ending up hanging upside down, held by one of Jesse’s strong hands.

“Come on, sunshine,” Jesse playfully patted the hanging child on her bare bottom. “Let’s get you dressed so we can hear what Uncle Billie has to say.”

Moments later, Jesse joined Jennifer and Billie. KC was placed on the floor to play with her toy horse.

“She sure likes that pony,” Billie watched the baby play. “Say, KC, does that pony have a name?”

Looking up when she heard her name, KC smiled at the sheriff. She held up her toy and said, “Baze.”

Jennifer and Jesse both stared at the baby, huge smiles spreading across their faces.

“Blaze,” Jennifer corrected the baby.

“Baze,” KC hugged the toy horse to her chest. “Baze.”

“Well, guess she’s got the important stuff down,” Jesse stated.

Jennifer looked at her confused.

“Cows and horses. What else?” Jesse explained.

“You goof,” Jennifer laughed. Billie looked at the two women, baffled.

Jennifer asked the sheriff, “I don’t suppose this is a social call, Billie?”

“No, I thought you might want to know what your pop has been doing in town.”

“I can just imagine.”

“He came to me first thing this morning wanting me to declare your marriage illegal. I told him there weren’t no law against it in the territory. Then, he went to see Mayor Perkins. Offered him a reward to do it. I think the Mayor might have accepted his offer if Mrs. Perkins hadn’t chased him out of the house with a broom. Then, she gave your father a lecture on what a wonderful schoolteacher you were and how much you’ve done for her children.”

“Doesn’t matter if he does have the marriage annulled. I’m not going back with him,” Jennifer told the sheriff.

“I know,” Billie said. “But, he’s telling everyone that he’s not leaving Sweetwater without you. And, that Barrish fellow, has been talkin’ up that your relationship is unnatural. That, you need to be taken back and re-taught to be a proper lady. Anyway, I just wanted to come out and tell you that it might be a good idea to stay out of town for a few days.”

“It won’t make any difference, Billie. If we don’t go to town, he’ll just come out here. At least in town, we have friends around to help us.”

“Well, that’s true. Bette Mae has got the girls keeping an eye on your pop and Barrish.

“Is there any way to force him to leave Sweetwater, Billie?” Jesse asked.

“Wish there was, Jesse. But, until he does something illegal, ain’t much I can do but keep a watch on him.”

“Guess we’ll just have to go in and try to talk to him,” Jesse told Jennifer. “Maybe he’ll listen.”

“No, sweetheart,” Jennifer shook his head. “He won’t.”

“What do you want to do?” Jesse asked.

“Take KC and go south, back over the pass and get lost in the mountains where he’ll never be able to find us,” she sighed at the thought. “But, we can’t.”

“Yes, we can,” Jesse solemnly told her.

Jennifer looked at the rancher. She knew if she asked, Jesse would take her to hide in the mountains. But, that wasn’t the life she wanted for herself or her family.

“No, sweetheart. This is our home and this is where I want us to be.”

Jesse smiled at Jennifer’s words.

“Let’s go into town and try to talk to him.”

“Are you sure?” Jesse reached out and took Jennifer’s hands into her own.

“Yes,” Jennifer squeezed Jesse’s hands.

“Alright,” Jesse turned to the sheriff. “Guess we’ll ride back into town with you, Billie.”

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

Bette Mae and Mrs. Kinsington were sitting at a table in the Silver Slipper when Jesse and Jennifer entered.

As soon as KC saw Bette Mae, she started to jabber. But, she instantly quieted and wrapped her tiny arms around Jesse’s neck when she spied Jennifer’s mother.

“It’s okay, sunshine. I won’t let anyone hurt you or your momma,” Jesse rubbed the baby’s back to reassure her.

“Hello, Bette Mae,” Jennifer solemnly greeted her friend. “Is my father here?”

“He and that young fella hired some horses at the livery. Said they was goin’ for a ride,” Bette Mae answered.

“Where on earth would they be riding to around here?” Jennifer asked.

“Don’ know. Didn’ say,” Bette Mae said looking at Mrs. Kinsington to provide the answers.

When she remained silent, Jennifer asked, “Mother? Do you know?”

“Your father did not mention his plans to me.”

“No, I guess he wouldn’t. We’ll be in Jesse’s office. Would you ask him to join us when they return?” Jennifer didn’t wait for a response. She walked into Jesse’s office and plopped down on the couch.

Bette Mae stood and walked to Jesse. Whispering, she asked, “is she alright?”

“Yes. But, she’ll be better when all of this is settled.”

KC reached out to play with Bette Mae’s hair and giggled when the woman tickled her tummy.

“I’ll bring some hot coffee in for ya. And, some fresh milk for you, littl’ angel,” she told the baby.

“Don’t think you would have said that earlier today,” Jesse said. “Made herself a mud puddle to play in.”

“Well, ain’t you the clever one,” Bette Mae tickled the baby then winked at Jesse.

“Uh, uh,” Jesse smirked.

“Go on. Git in there with your bride. She needs ya, now.”

“Thanks, Bette Mae,” Jesse said as she followed her instructions.

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

It was dusk when Kinsington and Barrish returned to the Silver Slipper. They tied the horses to the hitch and climbed the steps to the wide porch.

“This is a waste of my time,” Barrish grumbled. “We’ve been all over this valley and there’s not one man willing to help us.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Kinsington growled at the younger man. “We’ll do it ourselves if we have to.”

“Sheriff says their marriage is legal. If that’s so, how can she marry me?”

“No one back east will know. You marry her and keep your mouth shut.”

“I’m not sure I want to anymore,” Barrish said. “After all, she’s been living with that woman as if they were married. If they’ve been sharing a bed, she’s spoiled. Not exactly the wife you promised.”

“She’s not spoiled. She hasn’t slept with a man. I said you’d be her first and you will. Just do what I say and you’ll be attending your own wedding soon enough. What you do after that isn’t my concern.”

Mrs. Kinsington was sitting in one of the large overstuffed chairs provided in the Slipper for guests to read or visit. She’d been surprised to find the large library of books available, not thinking that anyone in the west would take the time for such diversions. She looked up when her husband and Barrish entered the building.

Bette Mae appeared from the kitchen and approached the two men.

“Miss Jennifer asked ya to join her in the office,” she pointed to the door.

Without a word, Kinsington, followed by Barrish, walked to the door. They entered without knocking.

Jesse was sitting on the floor playing with KC. Jennifer was working on the Slipper’s books trying to keep her mind busy.

Jennifer raised her head when the office door opened. As her father strode into the room, Jennifer said, “it’s customary to knock, Father.”

“I was told you wanted us to join you,” her father looked at the papers spread out on the desk. “You work for her, too?”

“No,” Jennifer closed the ledgers. “I’m helping her as any good wife would do. Jesse owns the Silver Slipper.”

“Ha,” Barrish laughed. “Married to the owner of a saloon filled with ex-whores. It just keeps getting better.”

“I would like to talk to my father, alone,” Jennifer said to the man, ignoring his insult.

“I think that would be a good idea,” Kinsington agreed. He looked at Jesse, “leave us. And, take that brat with you.”

“Jesse stays, Father. And, that brat, as you call her, is your grandchild.”

KC crawled to Jesse and climbed into her arms. She didn’t like the big man in the room.

“I understand you did not give birth to her. Therefore, she is not my grandchild. And, if that woman stays, so does Barrish. After all, he is your fiancé and has a right to be here.”

Jesse stood with KC and moved to sit on the edge of her desk next to Jennifer.

“Father, I cannot have a fiancé when I’m already married. I don’t even know this man.”

“You will. Young Barrish comes from a fine family. Bankers. He’ll be a fine addition to our family.”

“Mr. Kinsington,” Jesse tried a different approach. “You may not approve of our marriage or of Jennifer living in Sweetwater. But, the fact is that whether you approve or not, there isn’t anything you can do about either matter.”

Ignoring Jesse, Kinsington addressed Jennifer, “had I known what trouble this town would be, I would have brought your brothers with me. Be that as it may, you will return to the east with your mother and myself. We will leave in the morning. That should give you enough time to say your goodbyes.” Kinsington turned to leave, he stopped at the office door. “That child will not be coming.”

Barrish followed the older man from the room.

“Damn,” Jennifer said as she laid her head on the desk’s surface. “I knew he wouldn’t listen.”

Jesse rubbed Jennifer’s neck. “Maybe by tomorrow, he’ll feel different.”

“No, he won’t. Once his mind is made up, he never changes.”

“Let’s go home, darlin’.”

“Jesse, I think we should stay in town tonight,” Jennifer sat up and let the baby climb into her lap. “I don’t trust him and out at the ranch we’d be alone.”

“Alright. We can stay upstairs.”

“Can we stay here?”

“In the office?”

“Yes.”

“Darlin’, there’s no bed in here.”

“I know. But, we can lay blankets on the floor and sleep there. Please.”

“Alright, I’ll ask Bette Mae for some blankets and pillows,” Jesse bent to kiss Jennifer. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

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

That night, as Jennifer slept in Jesse’s arms with KC laying beside them, Kinsington pulled his boots on in an upstairs room.

“Where are you going?” Mrs. Kinsington asked from the bed where she had been awakened by her husband’s activities.

“Go back to sleep.”

“What are you going to do?” she asked afraid that her husband might mean to harm their daughter.

“Go back to sleep. Barrish and I have business to attend to,” he stood and walked to the room’s door.

“It’s after midnight. What business could you possibly have in this town?”

“Don’t question me,” he hissed. “Go back to sleep.”

Kinsington exited the room and pulled the door shut behind him. Barrish was waiting in the hall.

“Let’s go,” Kinsington moved past the younger man and down the hallway to the stairs.

The men descended the stairs and quietly approached Jesse’s office. Opening the door, they found the room dark except for a single lamp burning low on Jesse’s desk. Looking around the room, they spotted Jennifer and KC sleeping in the makeshift bed on the floor.

“Where’s the other one?” Barrish whispered.

“Right here,” Jesse said from behind the door. She had heard the men as they moved about upstairs and was waiting for them when they entered the office.

Kinsington and Barrish whirled to see Jesse standing behind them, pistols in her hands.

“It’s a little late for a visit,” Jesse told the men.

“What’s going on?” Jennifer woke to the commotion.

“Seems your father believes in late night visits,” Jesse’s eyes never left the two men. “I’ll ask you ‘gentlemen’ to return to your rooms. Tomorrow, you’ll leave Sweetwater and never bother Jennifer again.”

“I’ll not let you ruin my plans,” Kinsington snarled. In a lightening quick move, he swung a fist at Jesse and struck her on the side of the head.

Barrish joined in the attack and struck Jesse with another fist.

Surprised by the attack and not wanting to fire her guns and accidentally hit Jennifer or KC, Jesse absorbed the first blows. Then, she fought back. Using the pistols as clubs, she swung at the men.

Jennifer leaped from the floor and rushed to Jesse’s defense. Barrish intercepted her, wrapping her in a bear hug. He began to pull the struggling woman from the room.

Kinsington was too big. He struck Jesse with fist after fist and the rancher began to weaken. He pulled a gun from Jesse’s hands and swung the barrel of the weapon down hard at Jesse’s skull. She crumbled to the floor.

Jennifer screamed Jesse’s name as she watched her lover collapse.

Awakened by her mother’s scream, KC added her own.

In her room at the back of the kitchen, Bette Mae bolted from her bed. As she entered the dining room, she saw Jennifer being dragged outside. Chasing after her, Bette Mae ran onto the porch just in time to see Kinsington force Jennifer onto a horse with Barrish.

“Stop,” Bette Mae shouted.

Kinsington mounted and the men kicked the horses into a gallop, charging away from the Slipper and Sweetwater.

Bette Mae heard Jennifer yell, “Help Jesse.” Then, the horses and their riders disappeared into the dark night.

Ruthie and Sally ran out of the Slipper and skidded to a halt beside Bette Mae.

“Go get Billie,” Bette Mae told Ruthie, who ran into the night for the sheriff’s office. “Come on,” she said to Sally.

Moments later they found Jesse unconscious on the floor of her office. KC had crawled to the injured woman and was huddled against her mother’s still body. KC’s small body shook as she cried for her mothers.

“Lord have mercy on those men when Jesse finds them,” Bette Mae muttered as she knelt to attend to Jesse.

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

CHAPTER FOUR

Jesse eyelids fluttered, she could sense people moving around her but she wasn’t sure where she was. Then, her brain registered KC’s miserable cries. She was instantly awake and tried to sit up.

“Ow,” she groaned and reached for her throbbing head.

“Hold on there,” Bette Mae grabbed Jesse’s hand and placed it back at her side. “Let me git the bandage on that cut before ya start pokin’ around.”

KC’s sobs had subsided but she refused to move from Jesse’s side. Bette Mae positioned her on Jesse’s chest and placed Jesse’s hands on the baby’s back to help calm her.

“Your mommy is goin’ be just fine,” Bette Mae patted the baby’s wet cheek. “You lay there and don’ let her try to sit up again.”

Jesse carefully opened her eyes and looked up at Bette Mae, “Jennifer?”

“They took her,” Bette Mae knew there was no point in lying to her friend.

“I’ve got to…,” Jesse started.

Placing a hand on Jesse’s shoulder, the older woman held her down. “I know ya do. But, ya can’t do nothin’ ’til mornin’. She was fine when they left, kickin’ and screamin’ the whole way. Don’ worry, she’ll be waitin’ for ya.”

“Damn, Bette Mae,” Jesse hoped Bette Mae was right. “Why couldn’t he just have let her be?”

“Men like that, don’ take no for an answer,” Bette Mae finished binding the gash Kinsington had left on Jesse’s temple. “Ya rest and comfort your baby. She needs ya,” Bette Mae rose from the floor. “I’ll get some coffee started.”

Jesse pulled KC up to her face and kissed the child, “don’t worry, sunshine. We’ll find your momma and bring her home.” Laying the baby back down, Jesse continued to gently rub her back. Slowly the baby’s whimpers stopped.

Jesse heard a shuffling of feet and looked towards the noise. Billie and Ruthie were sitting on the couch.

Billie smiled when he saw Jesse had discovered them. “How ya feeling?”

“Why’s it always got to be my head that gets hit?” Jesse gave a half smile to her friend.

“Probably ’cause that’s your hardest part,” Bette Mae said as she re-entered the room, coffee pot and cups in hand. “Good, my littl’ angel stopped cryin’. I was afraid she’d burst somethin’, she was going on so.”

Jesse kissed the top of KC’s head. “She’s seen a awful lot of hurt in her short life, Bette Mae.”

“That she has. But, she got a lotta love in it now,” Bette Mae smiled. “And, that’ll go a long way to erasin’ the hurt.”

“I sure hope so,” Jesse continued to rub the baby’s back.

“Want me to take her?” Bette Mae asked.

“Better let her be, for now,” Jesse could still feel the baby’s tiny body trembling. “Billie, I’m leaving at first light.”

“I know. I’m going with you,” the sheriff accepted a cup of steaming coffee. “Figure they’ll head back to Denver. Already sent a rider with a telegram for the Denver sheriff. He should get it in plenty of time to stop them.”

“No,” Jesse considered the sheriff’s words. “I don’t think Kinsington will chance going to Denver.”

“But, that’s the closest place to catch a train.”

“I know. But, he’s smart. He’ll head east, hoping we go to Denver.”

“I don’t know, Jesse.”

“Doesn’t matter. Soon as I pick up their trail, I’ll know for sure.”

Laying on the hard floor with a baby on her chest was beginning to be extremely uncomfortable. “Think you can help me up to something a little softer?”

It was awkward because KC refused to release her hold on Jesse, but Bette Mae and Billie managed to get Jesse up and helped her to the couch. Ruthie placed a couple of pillows at one end and Jesse was propped up against them.

“That feels better,” Jesse sighed as she settled back against the pillows. KC snuggled against Jesse and made smacking noises with her lips. “Hungry, sunshine? I bet Bette Mae has something for you.”

“I sure do, littl’ angel,” Bette Mae handed Jesse a bottle of warmed milk. “This should feel real good in your tummy.”

Jesse shifted KC so she could drink and offered her the bottle. KC wasted no time in pulling it to her mouth.

A tapping on the office door drew the attention of the adults in the room. Turning to look, they saw Mrs. Kinsington standing in the doorway. Jennifer’s mother looked unsure and hesitated before speaking.

“What has he done?” she asked, referring to her husband.

“He took Jennifer,” Jesse answered as she glared at the woman.

“No,” Mrs. Kinsington gasped and slumped against the door frame. “I didn’t think he would go this far.”

“What did you think he was going to do?” Jesse asked in a voice that was calm but full of contempt. “Did you really think he would travel across the country to just shake my hand and wish us a happy marriage? After all the years that he treated Jennifer like nothing more than a business proposition, how could you have expected anything less?”

“I… I don’t…” Mrs. Kinsington stopped. What had she expected? Certainly not for her husband to assault this woman and kidnap his own daughter. Why had she insisted on accompanying her husband? He had not wanted her to come. Had she been afraid that what had happened would? She didn’t have the answers.

“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Kinsington said dejectedly and turned to leave.

Watching the woman struggle with her thoughts, Jesse realized that she was as much a victim of her husband as Jennifer was.

“Might as well come in and have a cup of Bette Mae’s coffee,” Jesse called after the woman.

“Come on,” Bette Mae waved the woman into the room. “Sit,” she said as she pulled the chair out from the back of the desk.

KC had finished the milk and the exhausted baby was sound asleep in the security of Jesse’s arms.

“Let me get her fixed up with some fresh britches and wash her face,” Bette Mae carefully lifted the baby from Jesse. “Littl’ angel, done tuckered herself out with all that cryin’.”

Jesse watched as Bette Mae carried the sleeping baby across the room. “How long until dawn, Billie?” she asked, having lost track of time while she was knocked out.

“Less than two hours.”

“Dusty and Blaze are at the stables,” Jesse told her friend.

“I know. They’ll be ready.”

Jesse looked at the sheriff quizzically.

“Whole town knows, Jesse. You won’t be riding alone.”

“I’d like to come,” Mrs. Kinsington said from her chair.

Jesse looked at Jennifer’s mother and saw the concern in her eyes. She saw something else, too. Determination? Resolve? Strength?

“Alright. But, we’ll be riding fast and I’m not stopping until I find Jennifer.”

“Thank you,” was all the woman said before rising and leaving the room.

“Think she can ride?” Billie asked.

“Don’t know,” Jesse looked up as Bette Mae returned KC to her. “Don’t care,” she said as the sleeping baby snuggled against her chest.

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

“You stupid fool,” Jennifer shouted at her father riding several feet away. “Jesse will come after me.”

Kinsington ignored his daughter’s protests and pushed his horse faster. They would have to stop soon to rest the horses but he wanted to cover as much ground as possible before that.

Barrish had his arms wrapped tightly around Jennifer, preventing her from leaping off the galloping horse. She had attempted just that more than once and he didn’t want her trying again. Jennifer beat her fists against his arms and elbowed him in the chest and stomach trying to break his grasp.

“Stop it or I’ll tie you to the saddle,” Barrish growled at Jennifer.

“Ha, I’d like to see you try,” Jennifer continued her beatings. “When Jesse catches up with us, you better hope she’s in a good mood,” Jennifer taunted the young man.

“Like that bitch could do anything to me,” Barrish laughed.

“Oh, you’d be surprised what Jesse can do.”

Decided to try a different escape, Jennifer went limp in Barrish’s arms. As soon as his grip relaxed at the lack of pressure, she pushed with all her might against the saddle and away from him. It worked.

Jennifer fell to the ground and rolled away from the horse. She scrambled to her feet and took off running back in the direction of Sweetwater. She was celebrating her escape when the sound of hoof beats rapidly neared. An instant later she felt something strike her in the back and she was knocked to the ground. Before she could regain her footing, her father pulled her upright.

“If I have to, I’ll hog tie you and drag you all the way back home,” Kinsington told her. “I don’t want you to mention that bitch again. Do you understand?”

Jennifer smiled at the man who meant less and less to her as each minute passed. “Oh, I understand. I understand that Jesse,” she emphasized the name, “will come for me. And, when she does, I understand that you’ll regret you ever came to Montana.”

Kinsington raised his hand to slap Jennifer but she stood her ground.

“Go ahead. You’ve wanted to for years. But, proper gentlemen don’t slap women. Do they, Father?” she asked, bitterly.

Kinsington glared at his daughter for several moments, hand frozen in the air ready to strike.

“Put this on,” Kinsington removed his coat and threw it at Jennifer dressed only in the night shirt she had worn to bed that evening. “Tie her up,” he ordered Barrish then stomped off.

“You should show your father more respect,” Barrish said as he approached Jennifer with a piece of rope.

“I have no father,” Jennifer said defiantly. Then, realizing the truth in the words, she saddened, “I never have.”

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

The morning sun had barely begun to lighten the night sky when Jesse mounted Dusty. KC had refused to be left behind and sat in the carry sack on Jesse’s back. Bette Mae, also refusing to stay behind, was mounted on Blaze. The sheriff Billie Monroe, storekeeper Ed Granger and newspaper editor Thaddeus Newby, sat on their own horses ready to ride. Mrs. Kinsington was riding a horse borrowed from the stables.

The remaining citizens of Sweetwater stood around the horses and on the porch of the Silver Slipper. Mayor Perkins spoke for the rest, “you bring Miss Jennifer home, Jesse. And, don’t worry about the Slipper or your ranch. We’ll see to them.”

Jesse looked around at the many faces. Jennifer’s friends. Her friends. She was humbled knowing that all these people had come to show their support.

“I will and thank you. Thanks to all of you,” she smiled at the crowd. “Now, Jennifer is expecting me,” she said as she flicked Dusty’s reins and the golden horse began to move. “And, I don’t mean to keep her waiting.”

Shouts of encouragement and good luck followed them as the riders quickly rode away. When the dust began to settle, the citizens of Sweetwater went back to their regular morning business. But, their thoughts remained firmly with the rancher and missing schoolteacher.

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

“When we marry,” Barrish began to tell Jennifer. It was mid-day and they had stopped to rest the horses by a small lake.

“We’ll never marry,” Jennifer looked at the fiancé her father had arranged for her. “I’m already married to Jesse.”

“It’s not right,” Barrish looked disgusted.

“Neither is kidnapping,” Jennifer stood from the small boulder where she had been sitting.

“Where are you going?” Barrish asked as she walked towards the water.

“No where,” Jennifer said. She had promised not to attempt another escape if they left her hands untied. Deciding instead to delay them in other ways in order to give Jesse time to catch up.

Though, Jennifer knew Jesse would come after her, she was worried about her lover who she last saw taking a hard blow to the head. She hoped Jesse was alright. And, little KC, the baby had sounded so scared. Jennifer stood at the lake shore and wrapped herself in her arms. She missed her family dearly. And, she determined that, one way or another, she would return to them.

Turning to face Barrish, Jennifer surveyed her would be fiancé. He wasn’t bad looking, she would have admitted if she had been interested. He stood about the same height as herself but with a thin, almost scrawny, build. Though Jennifer guessed him to be in his mid-twenties, it appeared that he had little need to shave regularly. His eyes were deep green and she could see a depth of feeling in them. Maybe she could make him see the senselessness of her father’s actions.

Jennifer said, “you know. Even if you get me back east, I’ll just run away again.”

“Why? Why would you prefer that bitch over a man?”

“Because, I love her,” Jennifer shook her head, maybe her instincts were wrong when it came to young Barrish. “Tell me, Barrish” she stopped. “What is your name, anyway?”

“Andrew,” the young man answered.

“Tell me, Andrew, what does my father get by our marrying?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m not stupid. My father doesn’t do anything unless it’s going to gain him something. So, what does he gain if we were to marry?

“Your father needs financial backing for his plans to expand his shipping business. My father owns a bank.”

Jennifer laughed, “He isn’t making enough money now? He can already buy and sell half the town if he had a mind to. Why does he need to expand?

“So, your brothers will be taken care of when I pass the company on to them,” Kinsington returned from the small hill he had climbed to see if he could spot any followers.

“And, what about me, Father,” Jennifer asked. “Was I to benefit by any of this?”

“Of course, you were,” her father said as if he couldn’t understand why she would ask the question. “You would be married to a man who would see to your needs.”

“But, I don’t love him,” Jennifer screamed in frustration. “Hell, I don’t even know him.”

“Don’t use that tone with me,” Kinsington glared at Jennifer. “Get the horses,” he commanded Barrish before continuing with Jennifer. “The only thing you need to know about him is that I want him as your husband. As for love, your mother and I don’t share that. Why should you?”

Barrish brought the horses.

“Let’s go,” Kinsington mounted.

Jennifer climbed aboard Barrish’s horse and waited for him to mount behind her. ‘Hurry, my love,” she sent a silent message to Jesse.

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

It was noon and they had been pushing the horses since leaving Sweetwater at dawn. Jesse called a halt at a small river and they allowed the horses to rest.

“What do you think?” Billie asked Jesse as she studied the tracks of two horses.

“They passed here last night,” Jesse scanned the opposite river bank. “Crossed here and came out over there. They’re pushing those horses hard.”

“We’ll catch ’em,” Billie placed a hand on Jesse’s shoulder.

Jesse nodded absently. She stood watching the passing waters and thought of Jennifer. She could sense her love. “I’m coming, darlin’,” she whispered.

Hearing KC waking in the carry sack on her back, Jesse carefully slipped the sack off her shoulders. KC sleepily looked at her mother and smiled. She looked around for her other mother and started to sniffle when she couldn’t locate Jennifer.

“Hey, sunshine,” Jesse held KC close to her face and lovingly kissed the baby. “I miss her, too. But, we’ll find her. Okay?”

“Otay,” KC said in a tiny voice.

Jesse smiled as her daughter used a new word. “Good girl, your momma will be proud. Let’s get your britches changed and get you something to eat.”

KC leaned into Jesse and placed a wet kiss on her nose.

“I love you, too,” Jesse laughed as she wiped the baby slobber off her nose. She sat KC on the ground while she retrieved her saddle bag. Turning back just in time to see KC start to crawl away.

“No, you don’t,” Jesse grabbed a small foot and pulled KC back. “No exploring ’til you get fresh pants.” Jesse tickled the scowling baby and got the laugh she expected. “That’s better. Now, hold still.”

“Otay,” KC giggled.

Mrs. Kinsington came over and stood next to Jesse and KC. Watching curiously as Jesse took care of the child, she noticed similarities between KC and her own daughter at the same age.

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say that she was Jennifer’s child,” Mrs. Kinsington told Jesse.

“She is,” Jesse replied.

KC looked up at the sound of the older woman’s voice and frowned.

“It’s alright, sunshine,” Jesse said as she finished with the fresh diaper. “She’s not going to hurt you.” Jesse lifted KC into her arms and stood.

Mrs. Kinsington said nothing as Jesse carried the baby and her saddlebags to a log and sat down.

Jesse pulled a cloth napkin from the bag and placed it on the log. KC immediately reached for the soft biscuits that had been wrapped in the napkin. Jesse tore a small piece from one and gave it to KC, who instantly put it in her mouth.

“Small bites, sunshine. Just like momma taught you,” Jesse reminded the baby. KC pulled the piece from her mouth and studied it before placing the piece back.

“Good girl,” Jesse winked at the baby who smiled back. Jesse took a bite from the biscuit.

“I would never hurt that child,” Mrs. Kinsington said from where she still stood.

Without looking up, Jesse said, “you already have. You’ve hurt her momma.” She tore off another piece of biscuit and handed it to KC as she addressed Mrs. Kinsington, “you’d better get something to eat. We’ll be leaving soon.”

Bette Mae had listened quietly to the exchange between the two women. And, she saw the anguish in the older woman’s eyes at Jesse’s words. ‘Maybe,’ she thought, ‘this one still has a heart.’

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

The afternoon shadows lengthened as the evening approached. Kinsington and Barrish continued to push the horses. Jennifer needed to do something to slow them down but every idea she came up with proved to be less than successful. Then, an idea struck here.

“Get your hands off me,” Jennifer swung an elbow back and connected with Barrish’s jaw.

“What?” Barrish asked confused as he rubbed his injured face.

“I said keep your hands to yourself,” Jennifer shouted to be sure her father, riding several feet ahead of them, heard. She saw her father slow his horse, “we’re not married yet and you can’t take those liberties with me.”

“What’s going on?” Kinsington asked as Barrish’s horse came even with his own.

“I don’t know,” Barrish fended off another elbow from Jennifer.

“He touched me,” Jennifer said indignantly.

“Of course, I’m touching you,” Barrish tried to pin Jennifer’s arms to her sides. “I’ve got to hold you on the horse, don’t I?”

“Jennifer, quit playing these games,” Kinsington threatened.

But, Jennifer continued. “Father, he touched my…. my….. my breast,” she cried as she clutched her arms across her chest as if to protect herself.

Kinsington pulled his horse to a stop and glared at Barrish, who saw the anger in the big man’s eyes.

Jennifer knew her father believed that a man did not touch a woman until they were married. She thought it ironic that he didn’t seem to believe kidnapping and assault against women to be as taboo.

“I did no such thing, Mr. Kinsington,” Barrish defended himself. “My hands have never left her waist.”

“What about the time you rubbed my thigh?” Jennifer added fuel to the fire.

“Get down,” Kinsington barked as he swung down from his horse.

Jennifer quickly swung a leg over her mount’s neck and slid from the saddle. Barrish followed more slowly.

Kinsington faced the younger man, “have you touched my daughter?”

“No, sir,” he violently shook his head from side to side. “As a man of honor, I tell you I have not.”

“Ha,” Jennifer cried. “You have.”

Kinsington looked from his defiant daughter to the nervous young man quaking before him. Which one should he believe?

Seeing her father’s hesitation, Jennifer pleaded, “Father, I’m your daughter. You must protect me against the inappropriate actions of this man. He should not dishonor me this way. He should not,” Jennifer said the one thing that would ensure her father would act, “dishonor YOU this way.”

Kinsington pushed Jennifer away and approached Barrish. Before the young man could react, a fist struck out and exploded against his chin. Barrish dropped to ground like a sack of rocks.

Jennifer screamed and rushed to Barrish’s side.

“How could you, Father?” Jennifer patted Barrish on the cheeks, trying to revive him. “He is my intended. How am I to marry him now?”

Confused by his daughter’s reaction, Kinsington stood unmoving. He watched mystified as Jennifer tried to help the very same man she had spent most of the past few days saying she had no interest in.

“Come on,” Kinsington reached down and grabbed Jennifer’s arm. “Leave him. We need to keep going.”

“Leave him?” Jennifer pulled her arm from her father’s grasp. “Leave him? I will not. Are we not to be married? How can you possible suggest that he be left here?”

“Damn it, girl,” Kinsington was bewildered and annoyed. He looked up at the sky. It was more dark than light. “Alright. We’ll stay here until he wakes up. Then, we’ll go.”

Jennifer simply nodded but inside she was doing somersaults. It had worked. As her father lead the horses to a nearby grove of trees, Jennifer pushed herself up from the ground. Barrish’s head, that had been resting in her lap, dropped to the ground and hit with a clunk.

“Marry you,” Jennifer said to the unconscious man. “When pigs fly.” She dusted off her hands before joining her father.

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

“It’s late, Jesse,” Billie said as the sun disappeared from the sky.

Jesse looked at the sheriff and then at the sky. She had been concentrating on following Jennifer’s tracks and hadn’t noticed the late hour.

“You’re right. Let’s set camp.”

It didn’t take long for a fire to be started and bedrolls to be laid out. Bette Mae busied herself with making supper and Mrs. Kinsington volunteered to help her. Thaddeus collected firewood while Ed and Billie took care of the horses.

Jesse saw to KC’s needs. The baby was tired but had not complained all day. Jesse sat KC on her bedroll.

“Baze,” KC asked for the toy horse.

Jesse pulled it from her pocket. “You stay here and be good. I’m going to take care of Blaze and Dusty.”

“Otay,” KC began to play with the toy.

“I’ll keep my eye on the littl’ angel,” Bette Mae said as she stirred a pot over the fire.

After Jesse walked away, Mrs. Kinsington said, “she loves that baby very much.”

“That she does,” Bette Mae added ingredients to the boiling water.

“Even though it’s not hers.”

“That baby is hers jus’ as if she’d gave birth to her herself,” Bette Mae told the woman. “Why, I’ve never seen two people love a child as much as Jesse and Jennifer love my littl’ angel.”

“But, how can Jennifer love a child that doesn’t belong to her?”

Bette Mae slammed a lid on top of the pot and turned to look at the other woman, “doesn’t belong to her? That baby may not have their blood, but she shares something much more important.”

When Mrs. Kinsington looked at Bette Mae for an explanation, Bette Mae continued, “their heart. The littl’ angel there is part of their hearts. A big part. A very, big part.”

As Mrs. Kinsington considered Bette Mae’s words, she watched the child playing happily with her toy.

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

After dinner, Jesse sat on her bedroll holding KC. She softly hummed a lullaby as the baby drifted to sleep. Mrs. Kinsington sat on her own bedroll watching quietly.

Jesse continued to hold the baby even after she had nodded off. KC was her connection to Jennifer and she didn’t want to let go. “We’re coming, darlin’,” Jesse whispered.

“Who were you talking to?” Mrs. Kinsington asked softly.

Looking up to meet the eyes of Jennifer’s mother, eyes that were so much like her wife’s, Jesse answered, “Jennifer.”

“You care very much for my daughter,” it was said as a statement not a question.

“Yes.”

“Yet, you try to stop her from returning to her home?”

“Her home is in Sweetwater. With me. And, with KC.”

“But, you can’t give her what marriage to Mr. Barrish will.”

Jesse thought for a moment. What could she say to make this woman understand?

“I’m surprised that you ride as well as you do,” Jesse told the woman. She had indeed been surprised when Mrs. Kinsington not only knew how to ride but had proven to be a very good rider. “I didn’t think your husband thought such activity to be proper for a woman.”

Mrs. Kinsington laughed sadly, “There are quite a few activities I enjoyed before my marriage that my husband found to be improper. I learned to ride as a child and continued to ride right up to the day I married my husband.”

“Why did you marry him?”

“I had no choice. My father made an agreement with his father.”

“Did you want to marry him?”

“As I said, I had no choice.”

“Did you want to?”

In a voice so quiet it was almost unheard, “no.”

“Yet you want Jennifer to suffer the same fate?” Jesse asked just as quietly.

Mrs. Kinsington stretched out on her bedroll and pulled the blanket around her. Just when Jesse figured she wouldn’t get an answer to her question, she heard, “I don’t.”

Jesse laid back on her bedroll. She carefully placed KC on her chest and pulled the blanket over them. Looking up into the sky, Jesse looked for the star that she and Jennifer always wished upon when they were out at night. Finding the star, Jesse smiled.

“I love you, my darlin’. Be safe.”

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

Jennifer pulled the coat tight around her. The nightshirt she had been wearing when she was dragged out of the Slipper did little to protect her against the cold. And, the coat her father had given her wasn’t long enough to cover her legs. She lay on her back and tried not to think of how miserable she actually felt. Looking up into the star filled sky, Jennifer spied the star that had so much meaning for Jesse and herself. She smiled.

“I love you, sweetheart. Take care of our baby.”

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

CHAPTER FIVE

A full moon lit the travelers’ way. The route across the Rocky Mountains wasn’t much more than two ruts and without the moon’s light would have been almost impossible to follow. They had crested the divide less than an hour before and we riding down the east side of the range.

Kinsington had awakened Jennifer as soon as Barrish regained consciousness. Jennifer was put on her father’s horse to avoid any more improprieties from the young man. Looking up into the sky, Jennifer watched as a shooting star flew overhead. She smiled, Jesse was coming.

“Where are we going?” Jennifer asked her father, hoping that if she could get him to talk he would slow their pace.

“Bozeman.”

“Why there? That puts you further away from Denver and the train.”

“More than one place to catch a train,” Kinsington grumbled.

“How did you know?”

“Know what?”

“Where to find me.”

“Telegram from Bannack. Someone saw you there.”

‘The dressmaker,’ Jennifer told herself. Of course, no wonder she’d felt uncomfortable in the stop.

“Did you think I wouldn’t find you?” her father asked.

“I was hoping.”

“You have an obligation to your family, Jennifer. I raised you, fed you, clothed you. You owed me.”

Shaking her head, Jennifer laughed sadly, “I owed myself, Father. I deserved a better future than what you planned for me.”

“You’ve been trouble every since you learned to talk. Always asking questions. Always wanting to do the same as your brothers. Even trying to get your mother to question my authority. Nothing but trouble.”

“I was a person, Father, with my own needs. My own feelings. I just wanted to express them. I wanted to see what I could accomplish. Why won’t you understand?”

“Nonsense.”

Jennifer stayed quiet for a while. Thinking back on a childhood filled with lonely days as she tried to follow her dreams within the confines of her father’s strict rules. She’d finally broken free and she wasn’t about to return to that life.

“I ran away because I knew that I would never be allowed to be myself. You made me feel unworthy, Father. You almost made me too afraid to even try to change that. But, I did. I found a way to feel important in Sweetwater.”

Kinsington grunted his displeasure but Jennifer was undeterred.

“Did you know that I’m a schoolteacher, Father? I have fifteen students in my class and I’ve made a difference for them. They’re learning because I teach them.

“And, Jesse has taught me so much at the ranch. She taught me to ride and how to use the different equipment. We built furniture for our home and fixed the cabin’s roof. And, planted a garden. We did it together, Father. She never tells me I can’t do something. Instead, she encourages me and lets me try.”

“Not proper for a woman to do men’s work,” Kinsington told Jennifer. “Once you’re back east and married, you’ll see that.”

“You won’t get me back, Father. Jesse will make sure of that.”

“You can’t win this one, Jennifer. Don’t try,” Kinsington commanded.

“You’ll lose, Father,” Jennifer sadly told her father. “And, this time you’ll lose more than me.”

“Rubbish. Nothing but more of your silly nonsense,” Kinsington grunted.

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

“It’s okay, sunshine,” Jesse was rocking KC who had awakened screaming. “It was just a bad dream.”

“Here’s some milk,” Bette Mae handed a bottle to Jesse. “It’s the last ’til we find us a milk cow.”

“Thanks,” Jesse offered the bottle to the upset baby. KC quickly gulped a few mouthfuls and hiccupped. “Slow down. It’s not going anywhere,” Jesse told the baby.

Looking around the camp, Jesse could see that KC’s cries had awakened everyone.

“Might as well get breakfast going, Bette Mae.”

“Alrighty,” Bette Mae ambled to the fire ring and stirred the embers back into flame. “Won’ take but a minute or two to fix some coffee.”

“I’ll get the horses ready,” Billie said as he stopped to tickle KC on the foot. Getting a giggle from the baby, Billie smiled. “Don’t much care for bad dreams myself,” he smiled at KC.

“Come on, Billie,” Ed rose from his bedroll. “I’ll give you a hand. I gotta say, Jesse,” Ed grinned at the rancher, “that little bitty thing can sure make some racket.”

“Must take after her other mom in that,” Thaddeus was rolling up his bedroll.

“Better not let Jennifer hear you say that,” Billie laughed and the others joined him.

KC looked up at her laughing mother and smiled, the bad dream quickly fading from her memory.

“You think that’s funny, do you,” Jesse tickled the giggling baby. The mood in the camp lightened for a few minutes.

“Come on boys,” Bette Mae beat a spoon against the coffee pot. “Get it while it’s hot.”

Breakfast wasn’t much more than cold biscuits and hot coffee but no one seemed to mind. Jesse took care of KC before eating the food Bette Mae had set aside for her. As soon as their plates were empty, they broke camp. If they made good time, they would cross the pass before noon and be well on the way to Bozeman by nightfall.

Jesse carefully placed KC in the carry sack and made sure she was comfortable before slipping it onto her shoulders.

“Won’t be long now, sunshine. Your momma isn’t that far ahead of us. I bet we find her by tonight,” Jesse said as she mounted Dusty.

“Otay,” KC said although she wasn’t real sure what her mommy had said. But, it seemed to make her happy to say it.

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

The ride down the eastern side of the divide was steep and the road made several turns to accommodate the wagons that traveled the route. Kinsington left the road and guided his horse in a more direct route down the slope. Barrish followed but not without complaint.

“Damn it, Kinsington,” the young man shouted after the older man. “Is it really necessary to ride the horses into the ground?”

“Would you prefer that bitch catches us?” Kinsington shouted back.

“What will it matter if the horses give out? We won’t be able to outrun her without them.”

“Jesse will catch you either way,” Jennifer taunted the men.

“You better hope she doesn’t,” Kinsington threatened.

“Or what, Father,” Jennifer had had enough of his threats. “Will you add murder to your list of crimes? How do you think your business associates will feel about that?”

“What happens out here will never be known back east,” Kinsington held onto Jennifer as his horse jumped a small creek.

“How will you keep it a secret? If you force me to go back with you, I’ll make sure everyone knows what you’ve done.”

“My father will not appreciate you involving him in murder, Kinsington. Kidnapping is bad enough,” Barrish pulled his horse to a stop at the creek.

“No one will know,” Kinsington bellowed.

“You heard her,” Barrish dismounted. He was tired and sore and hungry. If Kinsington wanted to ride on without him, so be it. “She’ll know.”

Kinsington looked back and saw Barrish standing next to the creek, his horse drinking it’s cold water. Yanking his horse around, Kinsington rode back to Barrish.

“Get on your horse. We don’t have time to stop.”

“I’m stopping. I’m tired. My horse is tired. If you want to go on, go,” Barrish sat on a log bridging the small creek. “This makes no sense. We can’t force her to go back, marry me, and live happily ever after. I say we leave her here. Let that bitch have her.”

“She’s going back,” Kinsington growled. “Now, get on your horse.”

Shaking his head at the angry man, Barrish said, “it’s over.”

“It’s over when I say it’s over,” Kinsington’s horse dropped it’s head wanting to drink from the convenient creek. The motion caused her father to relax his hold on Jennifer.

Jennifer quickly slipped off the horse. “He’s right, Father. Leave me here. Go on to Bozeman and then home. I’ll make sure no one follows you.”

“I’ll not have either of you ruining my plans. You’ll be married. I’ll get my money,” Kinsington barely contained his anger. “I won’t tell you again, Barrish. Get on your horse.”

Barrish looked at Jennifer. She was without shoes and dressed only in a coat and night shirt. Her legs were dirty and covered in cuts and scratches. She must be as hungry as he was. She had been kidnapped and taken from the place she now called home. From people who loved her and whom she loved. She had every right to be furious. He saw the determination in her eyes. No matter what he and Kinsington did, Jennifer would find a way to reunite with her family.

“Or, what? You can’t kill everyone, Kinsington,” the young man sighed. A decision finally made, “I’m sorry, Jennifer. I never should have agreed to this. And, when I get back home, I’ll tell my father what happened out here. He won’t hold me to his arrangement with your father.”

“Thank you,” Jennifer could have kissed the young man but decided that probably wasn’t a good idea.

“I don’t care what you say,” Kinsington reached down to pull Jennifer back onto his horse. “Your father and I have an agreement. And, I will see it carried out.”

“No, Father,” Jennifer deftly avoided her father’s grasp. “Andrew, is right. It’s over.”

Twisting in the saddle, Kinsington opened the saddlebag. He reached inside and pulled out the pistol he had taken from Jesse. “Get on your horse,” he leveled the gun at Barrish.

Jennifer stepped in front of the young man.

“Don’t, Father.” she screamed.

“Then, get on the horse. NOW!”

Barrish stood. He took the few steps to where his horse grazed on a grassy patch of ground and mounted. Reaching down, he offered a hand to Jennifer. Without hesitating, Jennifer took the extended hand and was pulled up into the saddle. She knew that Barrish had become less of a threat than her father. Maybe, between the two of them, they could escape from the man determined to take her away from her family.

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

Jesse’s party had stopped to rest.

KC was sitting on the ground and playing with her toy horse. She looked around for her mother and couldn’t find her. Panicked, KC began to cry.

Mrs. Kinsington heard the baby’s whimpers and turned to see KC with tears streaming down her face. She walked to the baby and sat down next to her.

“It’s alright, KC.”

KC looked uncertainly at the woman who seemed to always upset her mothers. But, right now she seemed to be nice. Her voice was gentle and soothing.

Mrs. Kinsington tentatively reached out to reassure the baby. When KC didn’t protest, she gently rubbed KC’s back. “Don’t cry, honey. I promise, your mommy will be right back.”

KC liked the woman’s voice. It reminded her of her missing mother. She dropped to all fours and crawled closer to the woman. When she reached her, KC looked up, seeming to appraise the woman. After a few moments, she crawled into her lap and allowed the woman to rock her. It felt good. Almost like when her mothers rocked her, but not quite.

Jesse returned from the bushes to see KC crawling into Mrs. Kinsington’s lap. She started for the baby but was stopped by Bette Mae.

“Give ’em a minute, Jesse,” Bette Mae said quietly. “I think they both need it.”

Jesse watched as Mrs. Kinsington carefully cradled KC and began to rock the upset baby. KC calmed in the woman’s arms. After several minutes, KC remembered her neglected toy and pointed to the ground where she had left it.

Mrs. Kinsington reached for the horse and handed it to KC.

Holding it up for her grandmother to see, KC proudly announced, “Baze.”

Smiling, Jesse joined Mrs. Kinsington and KC.

“See, I told you your mommy would be right back,” Mrs. Kinsington told KC as she started to hand the baby to Jesse.

Shaking her head, Jesse said, “she’s happy. Let her be.”

Mrs. Kinsington held the baby, tears filling her eyes, “thank you.”

“It’s what Jennifer would want,” Jesse told her. “Her one regret about leaving your home was that she might never see you again. She loves you. She would want you to know and love her family as much as she does.”

“I don’t know if I can,” Mrs. Kinsington spoke softly, not wanting to upset the baby playing in her lap.

“I think you can,” Jesse smiled at the woman, “if you want to.”

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

CHAPTER SIX

Kinsington’s insistence that they continue to push the animals had finally caused the horses’ energy to drain. They had slowed to a walk and were having trouble maintaining that pace. At mid-afternoon, with Bozeman in sight in the distance, Kinsington was forced to call a halt so the exhausted horses could rest. He stopped at the edge of a boulder field where a small pond bubbled up from a natural spring. As the horses drank, Jennifer and Barrish sat in the shade of a large boulder under the watchful eye of Kinsington.

Jennifer looked at the father she no longer knew and questioned whether she ever really had. Even after all that had happened since his arrival in Sweetwater, he still believed he could take Jennifer back without any consequences. All she could hope for now was that Jesse would catch up before they reached Bozeman and her father could arrange faster transportation east.

“What do you plan to tell people in Bozeman?” Jennifer asked her father.

“Nothing,” Kinsington scanned the route they had just traveled. He was sure that Jesse wasn’t too far behind them and being forced to stop could give her the time she needed to catch them.

“You can’t ride in there holding a gun on us without questions being asked,” Barrish continued the questioning.

“Then, I’ll tell them the truth,” Kinsington snarled at the pair. “She’s my daughter who ran away from home. She’s been promised in marriage. I have a right to take her back.”

“What about me?” Barrish asked.

“You’re her fiancé. You’re helping me return her home.”

“With a gun in my back?”

Kinsington glared at the young man. He had thought Barrish would make a good husband for his daughter. Now, he wasn’t so sure. The boy was beginning to ask as many questions as Jennifer.

“Father,” Jennifer sighed. She was tired. Tired from the ride and tired from her father’s inability to see her as anything more than a bargaining chip. “The people in Bozeman won’t believe you. Not after we tell them the truth.”

“We won’t be there any longer than it takes to catch the next stage out of town. You won’t have time to tell them anything.”

Laughing, Jennifer asked, “do you plan on me traveling all the way back east dressed like this?” She opened the coat and showed her father the dirty and torn night shirt she wore. “I think my chose of clothing might raise a few questions by itself.”

Turning back to watch for any sign of Jesse, Kinsington chose to ignore the questions directed at him. Jennifer was right, though. She needed some proper clothing and he would have to think of something to tell the people they encountered in Bozeman. But, there would be time for that when they reached town. Right now, he was only concerned with avoiding the woman following him.

“Let’s go,” Kinsington grabbed the reins of his horse.

After mounting, Barrish guided the horse carrying himself and Jennifer into the boulder field. It was the last major obstacle before they entered the valley where Bozeman sat nestled in it’s center. The horses would have to slowly pick their way through the rocks and Jennifer made a silent wish that the delay would be all Jesse needed.

Kinsington looked back over his shoulder as the horses entered the boulder field. He saw riders rapidly approaching.

“Get moving,” he rode up next to Barrish and Jennifer. “They’re coming.”

Jennifer’s heart leaped into her throat at her father’s words. She tried to look for Jesse but, with Barrish riding behind her, she was unable to see anything.

“Move,” Kinsington slapped the rump of their horse and the animal jumped forward.

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

Mrs. Kinsington was riding close to Dusty. Since their last stop, she had been thinking about the woman that her daughter had declared she loved. And, about the obvious love Jesse held for Jennifer. Looking up, she saw KC watching her. She smiled at the baby safely tucked into the carry pack on Jesse’s back.

KC smiled back, she lifted a small hand and held it up. Tiny fingers opened and closed in an awkward baby wave. KC giggled when Mrs. Kinsington mimicked the action.

Looking over her shoulder, Jesse saw the interaction between KC and Jennifer’s mother. She slowed Dusty’s pace just enough for the other horse to catch up.

“How far ahead are they?” Mrs. Kinsington asked as they rode side by side.

“Couple of hours. Maybe, less,” Jesse nudged Dusty back to her original speed.

Mrs. Kinsington kept pace. “Will we catch them today?”

“I’m planning on it.”

“You could move faster if you weren’t carrying KC,” the woman told Jesse what she already knew.

Jesse didn’t answer.

“Why don’t you let me carry KC?”

“Thanks, but…” Jesse didn’t have a chance to finish.

“Please,” Mrs. Kinsington reached out and placed a hand on her arm. “I want you to help Jennifer.”

Jesse pulled Dusty to a stop. She studied the other woman. “I’m taking her home with us.”

Smiling, Mrs. Kinsington nodded. “I expect that’s what she’ll want. Please,” she held out her arms, “let me take the baby. You go ahead and find her momma.”

Jesse looked at the woman then into the distance where Jennifer would be found. She turned her head to see what KC was doing. The baby was sitting quietly smiling at her grandmother.

Slipping the pack’s straps from her shoulders, Jesse held it so she could kiss KC.

“Be a good girl,” she told the baby as she helped Mrs. Kinsington settle the pack on her back. “I’m going to go get your momma.” Jesse expected KC to protest the exchange and was surprised when the baby just smiled at her.

“I love you, KC,” Jesse placed her hand on the baby’s head and held it there for a moment. “I promise, I’ll bring momma back.”

“Otay,” KC waved at Jesse as she rode away.

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

Once free of the responsibility of carrying KC, Jesse urged Dusty into a gallop and was charging out of the foothills and into the valley beyond. Bozeman was less than a few hours ride in the distance and Jesse knew that Jennifer had to be somewhere in between. She was determined to find her lover as quickly as possible.

Billie urged his horse forward and raced to catch up with Jesse. It was a struggle since Dusty was one of the fastest horses around. But, Billie was not about to let his friend go up against Kinsington alone.

The two horses and their riders sped across the terrain of gently rolling hills, stopping for nothing. They hurdled the smaller creeks and splashed through the larger ones. Ravines and gullies did not deter them from the path as they rode the most direct route to Bozeman. The valley floor flattened the closer they approached Bozeman and the horses flew across the distance.

Mrs. Kinsington, Bette Mae, Ed, and Thaddeus followed as quickly as they could. From a ever widening distance, they watched as Jesse and Billie raced forward on their mission.

“That was a mighty nice thin’ ya done,” Bette Mae said as she rode alongside Jennifer’s mother.

“We should never have come here,” Mrs. Kinsington sadly answered. “Jennifer would have been much better off.”

“Now, ya is plain wrong there,” Bette Mae told Mrs. Kinsington. “Once this is all over, Jennifer is goin’ be real happy that you’re here. But, ya husband. Well, that’s gonna be a different story.”

“I never should have let him treat Jennifer the way he did,” Mrs. Kinsington reached up and took the tiny hand stretched over her shoulder. She gently rubbed the baby’s hand.

“Do you think she’ll ever forgive me?”

“Lordy,” Bette Mae chuckled. “She done forgave you years ago.”

Mrs. Kinsington gave Bette Mae a curious look, “I don’t understand.”

“Jennifer told me about her family back east. Said that excep’ for you, she was pretty much ignored by the group. She’s got almost no memories ’bout her brothers and only bad ones ’bout her poppa. But, she’s got plenty of real happy ones about you. She knows you couldn’ done nothin’ to help. Your husband jus’ don’ see much good in women, ‘cept to have his babies and cook his meals. Otherwise, he jus’ don’ need ’em. And, Jennifer don’ need him, neither.”

Bette Mae smiled at her companion, “but, you and Jennifer are different. She needs her momma. And, I think her momma needs her.”

Mrs. Kinsington gazed at Bette Mae. She wondered how a woman who seemed to be uneducated could be so smart. But, she decided, it really didn’t matter. What Bette Mae said was true. She did need Jennifer. And, she was sure going to do what she could to mend the fences between herself and her daughter.

“Let’s go find your mothers,” Mrs. Kinsington told KC as she looked over her shoulder at the baby.

Moments later four horses were galloping in pursuit of Jesse and Jennifer.

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

“Look,” Billie was pointing.

“I see them,” Jesse said.

They had ridden over the top of a small hill. Several miles in the distance, Jesse could make out the movement of two horses and their riders as they were entering a field of boulders and rocks.

Another movement caught Jesse’s sharp eyes.

“Damn,” Jesse swore as she urged Dusty to run even faster.

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

Crouched, hidden in the rocks, her body coiled tightly as she patiently waited. Her ears were laid flat against her head, an indication of her intentions. Her prey was almost in position.

Almost there.

Now!

She tensed her strong leg muscles and pounced from her rocky hiding place. Ignoring the screams of her victim, she sank hard, sharp claws into soft flesh. Her mouth opened wide and she forced her fangs down and into her victim’s neck.

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

The horse Jennifer rode, suddenly whinnied in fear and shied away from the nearby boulders. Jennifer was stunned when Andrew disappeared from behind her.

Barrish screamed as the cougar landed on his back, knocking him to the ground.

Kinsington’s horse bucked at the appearance of the cat and it took all of his strength to control the frightened animal.

Rolling in an attempt to loosen the cat’s hold, Barrish felt white-hot searing pain spread throughout his body. The cat’s claws and fangs sinking deeper into his skin.

“Do something,” Jennifer yelled at her father as she dropped to the ground. She picked up a broken branch and ran to Barrish’s aid.

The mountain lion held fast as the man fought to free himself. Concentrating on her victim, the cat did not notice the woman approaching until the branch struck her back. She turned, her victim’s head still held in her jaws, and growled at the attacker.

Kinsington’s horse continued to buck and twist in an attempt to get away from the mountain lion. When the other horse, now riderless, ran past making it’s escape, Kinsington’s horse followed carrying it’s rider with it.

Jennifer raised the branch for a second attack. The cat snarled but refused to let go of Barrish. Jennifer swung the branch down on the massive head this time. The cat released its mouth from Barrish’s neck and hissed at Jennifer. Displaying it’s bloodied fangs, the cat growled a warning at the woman.

Kinsington gained control of his horse and turned it back to the boulder field. As he approached, the mountain lion growled and, again, the horse reared. Kinsington was thrown to the ground and his horse took off running as fast as it could away from the danger.

Kinsington heard the cat growl again and looked up in time to see Jennifer swinging a branch toward the animal. The cat released Barrish and turned it’s attention to Jennifer.

Jennifer brought the branch down again on the snarling animal’s head. As she did, the cat swiped a large paw out in her direction. It connected with her and sharp claws raked down the length of her leg.

Jennifer screamed in pain.

Leaving the body of Barrish on the ground, the cat tightened it’s strong muscles and leaped through the air at the injured woman. Holding her leg in an futile attempt to stop the bleeding, Jennifer looked up to see the cat, claws and fangs bared, flying towards her.

Midway in her leap, a bullet pierced the cat’s neck. Her momentum carried her toward Jennifer as a second bullet penetrated her chest, ripping through her lungs and heart. She was dead before she slammed into Jennifer. Both cat and woman crashed to the ground where they lay motionless.

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

Jesse rode towards the boulder field and Jennifer, she saw the mountain lion leap from its hiding place and land on Barrish. She was relieved to see Jennifer still on the horse when Barrish and the cat fell to the ground. But, moments later, her heart stopped when she saw Jennifer slip off the horse and pick up a broken branch as she approached the large cat. She watched in fear as Jennifer struck the cat. Then saw the cat whirl at her lover as she brought the branch down for a second time.

Without breaking Dusty’s stride, Jesse pulled her rifle from the saddle’s scabbard and took aim on the animal. Just as she was about to pull the trigger, Kinsington and his horse rode between her and Jennifer. Jesse heard her lover’s scream as the cat’s sharp claws cut into her.

“Get out of the way,” Jesse yelled at the man. She watched as Kinsington’s horse reared and unseated its rider. As soon as she had a clear shot, Jesse took aim and fired as the cat leaped at Jennifer. She quickly fired a second shot.

Jesse screamed for her lover when she saw the cat hit Jennifer and take her to the ground. She couldn’t chance another shot without risking the woman she loved.

Jesse leaped from Dusty’s back as the horse neared the spot where Jennifer and the cat fell, Not caring if the animal was still alive, Jesse balled her fists in the large animal’s coat and flung it aside.

“Jesse,” Jennifer groaned in pain as the heavy weight of the cat was removed from her body.

“I’m here darlin’,” Jesse fell to the ground beside Jennifer and lovingly caressed her cheek. “I’m here.”

“I knew you’d come,” Jennifer managed a smile before she passed out.

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

CHAPTER SEVEN

Billie reached Jennifer moments after Jesse had thrown the mountain lion off her. He instantly dropped to the ground.

“We’ve got to stop the bleeding,” Jesse was frantically trying to halt the flow of her lover’s blood. The cat’s claws had left deep gashes in Jennifer’s leg.

Kinsington walked up to Jesse and pointed the pistol he still carried at her. “Get away from her, you bitch.”

Billie reached up and grabbed the gun, yanking it from the older man’s grasp.

“I won’t let her spoil my plans,” Jennifer’s father shouted at the sheriff.

“She won’t,” Billie’s anger boiled over and without warning, slammed a fist into Kinsington’s face, knocking him to the ground. “But, I will,” he said as he pulled a rope from his saddle and tied the stunned man’s hands. “Now, shut up while we try to save your daughter’s life.”

The others rode up and quickly evaluated the situation.

Mrs. Kinsington gasped when she saw Jennifer covered in blood. She dismounted and began to approach her daughter.

Bette Mae stopped her, “don’ let the little one see this.” She reached under her dress and ripped off the bottom of her petticoat. Tearing it into strips, she knelt beside Jennifer.

Jesse’s hands were covered in Jennifer’s blood, she was trying desperately to hold the sides of the wound together.

“Here,” Bette Mae wrapped one of the bandages around Jennifer’s thigh. “Hold this as tight as you can. It’ll slow the bleeding.”

Unable to think, Jesse did as she was told.

Bette Mae went to work. She told Ed to gather all of their canteens so she could clean out the wound as best she could. Then, she wrapped the rest of the bandages around Jennifer’s injury. She tightened the wrappings as much as she dared.

KC sensed something was wrong and that it involved her mothers. She tried to free herself of the carry sack, beating her little arms and legs against her grandmother’s back.

Thaddeus, seeing the baby’s distress, removed her from the sack. “Hey, now,” he spoke calmly to KC as he lifted her free, “your momma is going to be okay.”

Mrs. Kinsington turned to retake charge of KC.

“Go on,” Thaddeus told the distraught woman. “Jennifer needs you now.”

Wasting no time, Mrs. Kinsington rushed to her daughter’s side.

Ed approached the body of young Barrish. He was laying face down and hadn’t moved since they had arrived at the scene of the attack. As he rolled the young man over, Ed knew that he was dead. He rolled the body back face down, there was no reason for the women to see the boy’s injuries, he reasoned. Pulling a blanket from his saddle, Ed covered the body.

“That should hold the leg until we get her to the doctor in Bozeman,” Bette Mae was telling Jesse and Mrs. Kinsington.

Jesse bent down and softly kissed Jennifer’s lips. She started to lift her lover in arms that shook with fear.

Ed stopped Jesse, “get on your horse. I’ll pass her up to you,” he quietly told her.

Jesse looked up at the large man, she could see the concern in his eyes. She tried to speak but words would not come from her dry throat.

“Go on,” Ed assured her. “She’ll be fine once you get her to the doc’s.”

Jesse slowly nodded, then pushed herself upright. She quickly mounted Dusty who stood only a few feet away.

Ed gently lifted Jennifer from the ground and carried her to Jesse. He reached his long arms up and placed the injured woman into Jesse’s waiting arms.

Once Jennifer was secure in her arms, Jesse looked around for KC.

Mrs. Kinsington was impatiently waiting as Thaddeus placed the baby back into the carry sack she still wore. With the baby once again safely on her back, she mounted her horse and joined Jesse. “Let’s go.”

That was all Jesse needed to hear, she urged Dusty forward and the two women started for Bozeman. Bette Mae mounted Blaze and quickly rode after them.

After the women left, Thaddeus asked, “what about him?” He jerked his head toward Barrish.

“He’s dead,” Ed answered.

“Dead?” Kinsington looked at the body of the young man who represented nothing more than a business deal to him.

“Yeah, dead,” Billie said as he pulled Kinsington to his feet. “Guess, you’ll have some trouble explaining that to his poppa. Won’t you?”

“He can’t be dead,” Kinsington absently replied.

“He is,” Billie motioned to Thaddeus. “You’ll have to ride with Ed. Their horses are long gone.”

“Alright,” Thaddeus held his horse’s reins while Kinsington was helped into the saddle.

Billie wrapped the body of dead boy in the blanket before throwing it over the back of his saddle. He mounted and took control of the reins of the horse Kinsington now rode. Once, Ed and Thaddeus were mounted, the men headed for Bozeman.

“I want that bitch arrested,” Kinsington told Billie as they left.

“Only one being arrested is you,” Billie growled at the arrogant man.

“After what she’s done to my daughter,” Kinsington started.

“What she’s done,” Billie laughed humorlessly at the man. “Do you care at all, Kinsington, that Jennifer may not live after what that cat did to her? And, all because of you.”

Before the man could answer, Billie set his horse into a gallop and pulled Kinsington’s mount behind him. The man could do nothing more than hang onto the saddle horn and hope he wasn’t thrown from the horse before they reached Bozeman.

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

Jesse, Bette Mae, and Mrs. Kinsington pulled their horses to a stop in front of the doctor’s office. Jesse immediately slipped from the saddle with Jennifer carefully cradled in her arms. By the time she reached the office door, Mrs. Kinsington and Bette Mae were pushing the door open. The women rushed inside.

Looking up from his desk, the doctor immediately realized the severity of Jennifer’s injuries.

“Bring her back here,” the doctor told the women as he rose from his chair and led them into a back room.

Jesse followed the doctor and tenderly laid Jennifer on the examination table while the doctor poured clean water into a bowl.

“What happened?” the doctor asked.

“Mountain lion,” Jesse said as she brushed Jennifer’s sweat soaked hair off her face.

Jennifer moaned in pain.

“It’s goin’ be okay,” Jesse whispered to Jennifer and looked at the doctor for verification to the truth of her words.

“Let’s have a look,” the doctor began to unwrap the bandages from Jennifer’s leg. He grimaced as the wound was revealed. “She’ll loose the leg,” he said as he began to examine the damage done by the cat’s claws.

“No,” Jesse reached across Jennifer’s body and grabbed the man’s arm. “Sew it up.”

The doctor looked into determined auburn eyes, then at the injured woman. “It might kill her.”

“She’ll make it,” Jesse gritted her teeth. “She has to,” she whispered.

Mrs. Kinsington placed a hand on Jesse’s shoulder, with her other hand she released Jesse’s grip on the doctor. “Jesse’s right, save the leg. My daughter’s a survivor, it’s what she’d want.”

Nodding, the doctor set to work repairing the damage done to Jennifer’s leg.

“Best you wait in the other room whilst the Doc and I fix up Jennifer,” Bette Mae motioned for Mrs. Kinsington to take Jesse out of the examination room.

When Jesse started to protest, Mrs. Kinsington gently pulled her from Jennifer’s side, “come on. We’d only be in the way here. Besides, I don’t think you want KC watching this.”

Jesse had forgotten about her daughter watching quietly from the carry sack on the other woman’s back.

“Alright,” she gave in. She leaned down and placed a kiss on Jennifer’s forehead. “Please don’t leave us, darlin’. We love you. ” she whispered.

Mrs. Kinsington guided her from the room.

“Alrighty, Doc,” Bette Mae rolled up her sleeves. “Let’s get her fixed up. I don’ want to be tellin’ Jesse any bad news. I don’ think she could handle it.”

“They friends?” the doctor asked as he worked on Jennifer’s leg.

“Married,” Bette Mae informed the man.

“Ah.”

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

“I need you to hold him until we sort all this out,” Billie told the Bozeman sheriff. When Billie, Thaddeus, and Ed reached Bozeman, they rode directly to the sheriff’s office with their prisoner. They had informed the lawman of the circumstances that brought them to Bozeman.

“What you planning to charge him with?” the lawman asked as he directed Kinsington into a small cell.

“Kidnapping and assault, to start.”

“Alright,” the lawman replaced the ring of keys on a hook near his desk. “You going to the doc’s?”

“Yeah,” Billie answered. “We’ll be there with Jennifer. I’ll come back and sign the papers soon as we know she’s okay.”

“Wait,” Kinsington shouted from his cell. “You can’t keep me here. I have business to attend to. I need to send some telegrams.”

Shaking his head at the easterner, Billie followed Ed and Thaddeus from the office. They walked to the doctor’s office located a short distance from the jail. Entering, the men saw Mrs. Kinsington comforting KC. Jesse was slumped in a chair, white as a ghost and trembling.

Mrs. Kinsington looked up as the men entered, she shook her head to their unspoken questions. “Bette Mae and the doctor are with her.” She carried the baby to Jesse. Placing KC in Jesse’s arms, she softly said, “she’s hungry, Jesse. I’ll go see if I can find some milk.”

“I’ll go,” Ed volunteered. “I know some of the shopkeepers. Won’t take long to round up some fresh milk for the little one.”

“Thank you,” Mrs. Kinsington smiled at the big man. She had not wanted to leave the office until she knew how Jennifer was.

Jesse looked at the baby in her arms. She looked so much like Jennifer.

KC knew something was wrong, her momma was asleep in the other room. And, her mommy was looking sad and worried. KC looked up at Jesse and knew what her mommy needed. KC pulled herself upright using Jesse’s shirt. Standing in Jesse’s lap, the baby reached her tiny arms around Jesse’s neck and placed a wet kiss on her mother’s cheek.

Jesse tearfully smiled at the baby, “I love you, too, sunshine.” She returned the baby’s hug and held her tight to her chest. Jennifer would be alright. She had to be. KC needed her momma. Tears began to flood from her eyes. “I need her, too,” she quietly cried.

Seeing the emotional state Jesse was in, Billie whispered to Mrs. Kinsington, “we’ll wait outside. Let us know as soon as you hear anything.”

Mrs. Kinsington nodded before pulling a chair close to Jesse and wrapping the distressed rancher in her own arms. “She’ll be fine. She loves you too much to give that up.”

Jesse allowed herself to seek comfort in the older woman’s embrace. After some time, her tears slowed and she wiped her eyes with her sleeves.

“Thank you,” Jesse told Jennifer’s mother. “I guess it all caught up with me.”

KC, still clinging to Jesse’s neck, sniffled along with her mother.

“Hey, sunshine,” Jesse kissed the baby. “Just ’cause your silly mommy is crying doesn’t mean you have to.” Jesse tickled the baby and was rewarded with a giggle, “that’s better. Don’t want your momma waking up and finding us all teary eyed, do we?” she tickled the baby again.

Ed re-entered the office with several bottles of fresh cow’s milk. “This should keep her happy for a while,” he said as he placed the bottles on the doctor’s desk.

“Moooo,” KC reached for the bottle Ed was handing to Jesse.

“Here you go,” Jesse kept hold of the bottle as KC pulled it to her mouth. She hungrily began to drink as she dropped to sit in Jesse’s lap.

“Thanks, Ed,” Jesse told the big man.

“Any word?”

“Not yet.”

“You let us know if you need anything else. We’re right outside,” he told the women as he started to leave.

“Ed,” Jesse stopped the storekeeper. “Tell Billie and Thaddeus to come in. We might as well wait together.”

“You sure, Jesse?”

“Yes,” she smiled at the big man. “I’d kinda like to have you guys around.”

“Alright,” Ed smiled back. “We’d kinda like that, too.”

Moments later Billie and Thaddeus joined them and their vigil continued.

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

“Well, that’s all we can do,” the doctor was washing Jennifer’s blood from his hands. “The rest is up to her.”

It had taken almost four hours for the doctor, with Bette Mae’s help, to stitch Jennifer’s leg back together. The cat’s claws had left one long, deep gash from her hip to just below her knee and several shorter gashes along the length of her leg.

Once he had finished cleaning up, the doctor moved into the outer office. Jesse stood as soon as the doctor entered, KC asleep in her arms.

“Doctor?” she asked breathlessly.

“She’s alive.”

Jesse released the breath she was holding, “thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet. She’s lost a lot of blood. And, there’s always the chance of infection with these kind of wounds.”

“What can I do?” Jesse asked.

“Wait. It’s up to her, now.”

“Can we see her?” Mrs. Kinsington asked.

“Yes, for a few minutes. She needs rest now. And, lots of it.”

Jesse was at Jennifer’s side before the doctor finished speaking.

Jennifer lay under blankets on the examination table. Jesse was shocked to see how pale her lover looked. Shifting KC to one arm, Jesse placed a hand against her wife’s face and gently caressed it.

“I’m here, darlin’,” she bent down and kissed Jennifer. “So is KC. We’ll be right here when you wake up.”

Mrs. Kinsington heard Jesse’s words as she entered the room. She paused allowing Jesse to have a few moments with Jennifer before joining her at the bed.

“She looks so pale,” Jesse said.

“She’ll be alright, Jesse,” Mrs. Kinsington ran a hand through Jennifer’s matted hair.

Jesse reached under the blankets and took Jennifer’s hand into her own.

Knowing that Jesse would not leave Jennifer’s side until the injured woman awoke, Bette Mae carried a chair into the room.

“Here ya go,” Bette Mae said as she placed the chair next to the bed. “Why don’ ya let me take my littl’ angel while you wait with Jennifer.”

“Thanks,” Jesse sat in the chair. She was exhausted, having had very little sleep over the past few days. And, with the added stress of Jennifer’s injuries, she was ready to collapse. “I think it’s best KC stay with me. Jennifer will want to see her as soon as she wakes up.”

The doctor came back into the room. He walked around the table and checked Jennifer’s pulse. Lifting the blankets, he checked the stitches for any sign of new bleeding.

“She’s going to need plenty of rest. This isn’t the best table to spend several days on,” he told the women. “You know anyone in town that can provide her a bed?”

Jesse thought of her parents then rejected the idea. After, refusing any contact with her, she couldn’t expect them to provide a place for Jennifer.

“No,” Jesse replied. “Guess we could get a room at the hotel.”

“You could,” the doctor replaced the blankets making sure Jennifer was completely covered. “But, I was thinking of someplace a little quieter than a hotel. Guess you’ll be staying here, then.”

Bette Mae listened to the doctor’s words, then slipped from the room.

“Guess we will,” Jesse muttered, her eyes never leaving her sleeping lover.

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

“Are you going to let me out of here?” Kinsington bellowed at the lawman.

“Nope,” the sheriff was leaned back in his chair, his feet resting on his desk. For the last several hours, he had been listening to Kinsington order him to unlock the cell’s door and release him. It amazed him that the man had never once asked about his daughter even though he knew she was at the doc’s office fighting for her life.

“Look, I need to send a telegram to young Barrish’s father. He needs to know how that bitch caused his death,” Kinsington repeated.

“Seems to me,” the sheriff took a swallow of coffee from the cup he held, “you had a lot more to do with that.”

“Me?” Kinsington looked at the sheriff. “I had nothing to do with Barrish’s death. If that bitch hadn’t been chasing us…”

“Enough,” the sheriff had heard Kinsington curse Jesse’s name many times over the past hours. He finished his coffee and placed the cup on his desk before standing. He walked to the cell where Kinsington paced. “I’d say you’re gonna have a lot of explaining to do, especially to that boy’s family. But, for now, I’ve heard all I care to from you. The hotel will send over your supper around six. Until then, sit down and shut up.”

Kinsington watched the sheriff slam shut the heavy door between the office and the prisoner cells. He stood in his cell and looked around the room. His cell was one of four and he was the only prisoner currently being held. The small windows in each cell let in just enough light so that the room wasn’t totally dark with the solid door to the office closed. The cell contained a cot covered with a rough and lumpy mattress and a bucket in the corner of the room served an obvious purpose.

Kinsington walked to the cot and sat. He had to think. With Barrish dead, his strategy for financing the company’s expansion had fallen apart. He needed a new idea. How could his carefully thought out plan have ended so badly?

“Damn you, Jesse Branson,” he muttered as the answer came to him. “Damn you,”

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

Stanley and Marie Branson had been surprised when the woman knocked on the door to their small house. After hearing Bette Mae’s story, Stanley accompanied her back to the doctor’s office. They entered the office and Bette Mae directed the man to the back room where Jesse waited.

Jesse was used to people coming into the room and didn’t take notice when someone entered. She was too concerned about Jennifer.

Stanley Branson stood at the door and took in the scene. His daughter sat in a chair holding a sleeping child, her hand clutched onto the hand of the woman laying on the examination table. He slowly stepped close to his daughter.

“Jesse.”

Hearing the familiar voice, Jesse turned, “poppa?”

Stanley placed a large, calloused hand on his daughter’s shoulder and squeezed gently. “Come on,” he told Jesse, “your momma’s fixing up a bed for her.”

Tears sprung to Jesse’s eyes, “how’d you know?”

“Your friend came to visit,” her father told her. “Looks like you could use a bed yourself.”

“I can’t sleep, poppa. Not until I know she’s okay,” tears streamed down Jesse’s cheeks.

“Come on, then,” Stanley carefully lifted Jennifer from the table, making sure the blanket wrapped securely around the woman. “Your momma’s waiting for us,” he looked at Jesse and the sleeping baby in her arms. “That your young ‘un?”

Jesse nodded.

“Well, best not keep your momma waiting. She’d be wantin’ to meet the tyke.”

Jesse rose from the chair. She was exhausted and her shaky legs proved it.

“Hold on, there,” Bette Mae had followed Stanley into the room and rushed to Jesse’s side. She wrapped an arm around Jesse’s waist. Once Jesse steadied, she said, “now, let me take my littl’ angel. Come on, you can barely hold yourself up,” Bette Mae insisted and carefully lifted the sleeping KC from Jesse’s arms. Holding the baby in one arm, she kept her other around Jesse as they followed Stanley from the room.

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

CHAPTER EIGHT

Jennifer was placed in the bed belonging to Jesse’s parents.

Seeing the lack of dress of the injured woman, Marie Branson pulled a nightshirt from a chest of drawers. “Help me get this over her head,” Mrs. Branson told Jesse. “She’ll be more comfortable.”

Jesse bent to slip a arm around Jennifer’s shoulders. In her exhausted state, she barely managed to hold her lover off the bed as her mother carefully pulled Jennifer’s arms through the shirt’s sleeves. Jennifer groaned as the nightshirt was eased down her body.

“I’m sorry, darlin’,” Jesse caressed Jennifer’s cheek. “I’m so sorry.”

“Now,” her mother said as she tucked the blankets around Jennifer. “You get out of them clothes and put this on,” she tossed another nightshirt on the end of the bed. “You need some sleep.”

“I can’t leave her,” Jesse protested.

“Don’t expect you to. Get out of them clothes and crawl in with her. Probably the best thing for both of ya.”

Jesse stared at her mother, had she just heard right?

“Go on. Quit gawking and do what you’re told,” Mrs. Branson told Jesse. She crossed the room to a cradle in the corner. KC slept in the same bed her mother had once occupied. “She’s a tiny one, ain’t she,” Mrs. Branson commented.

Jesse was pulling off her dirty boots, “she’ll grow.”

“Reckon she will if she eats like you,” Mrs. Branson chuckled as she watched her grandchild sleep. “KC is a funny name for a baby.”

“Jennifer named her after her real folks, Kenneth and Catherine,” Jesse told her.

Mrs. Branson lifted the cradle and carried it across the room. “Baby should be near her mommas,” she said as she set it alongside the bed.

Jesse pulled the nightshirt on, the clean material felt strange against her dirty skin. She could use a bath but was too tired to even suggest taking one.

“Go on, now. Get into bed,” Mrs. Branson told Jesse.

“Mom,” Jesse said as she moved to the bed. “I want to thank you.”

“We’re family. Couldn’t do no less,”

“But,” Jesse started.

“Go on,” her mother admonished. “We can talk later.”

“Thank you,” Jesse said, her voice cracking.

Her mother paused as she turned to leave the room but said nothing. Moments later Jesse and her family were alone in the room.

Jesse checked on KC before carefully rolling over next to Jennifer. She lay on the opposite side of Jennifer’s body from the injured leg that was propped up on pillows. Cautiously, she scooted as close as she dared to her her lover’s body. Jennifer seemed to sense her closeness and reached out for her. Jesse captured Jennifer’s hand, pulling it to her chest.

“I’m here, darlin’,” Jesse whispered. “I’ll always be here.” She placed her forehead against Jennifer’s shoulder and was soon sound asleep.

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

Bette Mae had taken over cooking duties and refused help from the two mothers. She had sent Ed and Thaddeus out to buy food knowing that Jesse would want it that way. She also ordered them to get rooms at the hotel for the next several days. The Branson’s house was too small for all of them to stay there. Billie had gone to the sheriff’s office to check on his prisoner.

“It’s very kind of you to take us in,” Mrs. Kinsington was sitting with the Bransons at the kitchen table.

“Jesse’s our daughter. Can’t turn our back to her when she’s in need,” Mr. Branson said.

“I’m sorry I didn’t do the same for Jennifer.”

“Sounds to me like your husband is a determined man,” Mrs. Branson told the other woman.

“Ha. That’s a mighty fine way for sayin’ he’s crazier than a five legged dog,” Bette Mae injected as she placed a fresh pot of coffee on the table. The aroma of fresh biscuits baking beginning to fill the air.

“Shouldn’t talk about the man like that,” Mr. Branson said. “He was doing what he thought best.”

“No,” Mrs. Kinsington shook her head. “Bette Mae is right. My husband was wrong. She followed her dreams. We should have encouraged her, not try to destroy the life she’s made for herself. We should have never come for Jennifer. I just hope it’s not too late.”

“Sometimes, you don’t know until it is too late,” Mr. Branson rose from his chair and left the room.

Mrs. Branson followed her husband with her eyes, she hoped it wasn’t too late for him and Jesse.

“He’s a proud man,” Bette Mae observed.

“Yes,” Mrs. Branson agreed, “sometimes, he’s too proud.”

The women drank their coffee in silence.

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

“That should keep him here a while,” Billie said as he finished signing papers charging Kinsington with numerous crimes.

“Think we can charge him with being a blow hard?” Bozeman’s lawman laughed. Kinsington continued to shout at the sheriffs through the closed door.

“Don’t think the judge will question it after he has a chance to listen to him,” Billie handed the signed papers to the other lawman.

“Probably not,” the papers were placed safely in a desk drawer. “What do you plan to do about the boy?”

“Stopped at the telegraph office coming over here. My guess is that we’ll be sending the body back east. Told them to send any response to your office.”

“Body at the undertakers?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll take care of it,”

“Thanks.”

“You going back to the doc’s?”

“No. Jesse’s folks have a little house a couple of streets over. They took Jennifer there. I’ll be there or at the hotel.”

Remember that his prisoner had referred to Jesse by name, he asked, “say, is that Stanley and Marie Branson?”

“Yep.”

“Damn,” the sheriff sat back in his chair. “I haven’t seen Jesse since her folks lost their ranch. She disappeared right about that time. Her folks don’t ever mention her. I just figured they had some sort of falling out. You know, a family thing.”

“Don’t know. Jesse don’t talk much about her life before she came to Sweetwater. I never asked.”

“Sometimes, that’s for the best.”

“Yep,” Billie stood. “Better be gettin’ back.”

“Alright. I’ll let you know if I hear anything.”

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

The shadows had lengthened as the women slept. KC awoke in the cradle and immediately looked for her mothers. Sitting up, she spied them on the bed. The cradle had been placed right next to the bed and the baby used the blankets to pull herself up to stand in the cradle. Using what foot and hand holds she could find, KC climbed onto the bed and crawled to her mothers.

Jesse was laying on her side, an arm draped across Jennifer’s waist. KC pulled herself upright against the sleeping woman’s back and peeked over her. She smiled when she saw Jennifer watching her. Thrilled at finding Jennifer awake, KC began to slap her hands on Jesse’s side and tried to climb over her.

“Momma,” the baby cried excitedly. “Momma.”

Jennifer heard the baby’s words and tears filled her eyes.

Jesse awoke to someone beating on her. She turned to see KC standing behind her and smacking her. “Hush, sunshine. You’ll wake up momma,” Jesse reached for the baby and tried to quiet her.

KC pointed at her other mother, “momma.”

Jesse turned to look in the direction KC was pointing.

“Darlin’,” Jesse gasped when she saw Jennifer was awake. “Oh, baby, you’re awake.

Seeing the tears, Jesse was afraid that by being in the bed, she was causing Jennifer pain. “Oh, darlin’, I’m so sorry,” Jesse started to leave the bed.

“No,” Jennifer reached out and grabbed Jesse’s nightshirt. “Don’t go.”

“But, I must be hurting you.”

“No,” Jennifer smiled at her lover.

“Then, why are you crying, darlin’?”

“Honey, these are happy tears.”

“Happy tears?” KC was struggling to climb over Jesse and she reached back to help the baby. Once free of the obstacle of her mother’s body, KC planted herself on the bed next to Jennifer and laid her head on Jennifer’s stomach.

“Yes,” Jennifer stroked the baby’s head. “Didn’t you hear what she called me?”

Jesse tried to remember but her exhausted mind left everything in a fuzzy blur. “What did you say?” she asked the baby, not really expecting her to answer.

“Momma,” KC pointed at Jennifer. “Momma.”

Jesse smiled at KC, tears filling her own eyes. “That’s right, sunshine. That’s our momma.”

Later, when Bette Mae looked in on the women, she wasn’t surprised to see KC laying on Jesse’s chest as Jesse held Jennifer in her arms. All three smiling in their sleep. Hearing movement behind her, Bette Mae stepped aside as Mrs. Kinsington and Mrs. Branson quietly entered the room. The women took in the sight of their daughters happily sleeping in each other’s arms. Without comment, they left the room.

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

CHAPTER EIGHT

It was two weeks since Jesse had carried an injured Jennifer into Bozeman. Jennifer was recovering but it was slow going. The doctor was pleased with the way the leg seemed to be healing and amazed when no serious infection had developed. Jennifer tired quickly due to the large loss of blood she had suffered. And, the leg still caused her a great deal of pain. But, being alive and with Jesse and KC, Jennifer was not going to complain.

“Momma,” KC was leaning against Jennifer. “Owie?”

“Yes, sweetie,” Jennifer rubbed the baby’s back. “Momma has a owie.”

“You be real careful, sunshine,” Jesse said as she placed a tray on the small table that had been brought into the room and set near the bed. “Don’t touch momma’s owie.”

“Otay,” KC sat up when she saw the food on the tray. “Pease,” she stretched out a small hand.

“Honey,” Jennifer laughed. “You can’t be hungry already. Not after that large breakfast Bette Mae fed you.”

KC withdrew her hand and thrust out her lower lip.

Jesse chuckled at the baby, “here you go, sunshine. Bette Mae made this special for you,” she handed the baby a cookie.

“Jesse, you’ll spoil her,” Jennifer shook her head but let the baby enjoy the cookie.

“Nah,” Jesse said. “She only gets one. And, this one is for you,” she handed a second cookie to Jennifer.

“Oooh,” Jennifer sighed. “It’s still warm.”

“Yep,” Jesse filled a cup with hot coffee and placed it on the table within Jennifer’s reach. “Best way to eat cookies.”

“You’re not having any?” Jennifer looked suspiciously at Jesse.

“Nope,” Jesse shrugged her shoulders.

“How many did you eat in the kitchen?”

“One or two,” Jesse watched Jennifer’s eyebrow slowly raise. “Or, three. Maybe, four.” Seeing the doubt in her wife’s eyes, she quickly added, “but, no more than five.”

“Ha,” Jennifer giggled. “Now, we know where you get your appetite, sweetie,” she told KC who had cookie smeared all over her face.

“Come here,” Jesse carefully lifted the baby from the bed so as to not cause Jennifer any undue pain. “Did you get any of that cookie inside of you?” she asked as she began to clean the baby’s face.

KC giggled as Jesse rubbed a wet cloth around her dirty face.

A knock at the door interrupted them.

“Want some company?” Billie poked his head inside.

“Sure,” Jennifer smiled at the sheriff.

“How you feeling?” Billie asked as he entered the room.

“Like a mountain lion used me for a scratching post,” Jennifer said as she finished her cookie.

“Guess there’s a good reason for that,” Billie grinned. “Sounds like you’re doing okay.”

“Long as I’ve got Jesse, KC, and you guys to keep me company, I’m doing fine. Hurts but I’m okay.”

“Good to hear,” Billie smiled. “I hate to bring this up, Jennifer, but it’s about your poppa.”

Jennifer’s mood darkened at the mention of her father. “What about him?”

“Judge will be in town in two days. We need to know if you’re still wantin’ to let him go.”

After learning that Billie had arrested her father, Jennifer had asked the sheriff to release him if he promised to leave Montana and never return. Jesse had joined Billie in arguing against Jennifer’s decision. But, Jennifer had insisted that she didn’t want her father anywhere in Montana, even if he was in prison. Jesse had reluctantly agreed.

“Has he promised?” Jennifer asked.

“Yes, for what good it’s worth,” Billie told her.

“Darlin’,” Jesse took Jennifer’s hand into her own. “I don’t think you should.”

Jennifer smiled sadly at Jesse, “sweetheart, I wouldn’t be able to rest if I knew he was here. He’ll have more than enough trouble when he goes back home. I’ll write to Andrew’s father, I’m sure that he’ll expect my father to do more than apologize for his son’s death. Please, I don’t want him here.”

“Alright,” Jesse conceded.

“Let him go,” Jennifer told Billie. “Just be sure you put him on the stage.”

“Don’t worry,” Billie nodded. “I’ll buy his ticket myself.”

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

“Alright,” the Bozeman sheriff unlocked the cell door. “You can go.”

“The judge set me free?” Kinsington crowed. “I told you, no reasonable man would keep me in jail once he heard my side of things.”

“Judge had nothing to do with it,” the lawman tossed the ring of keys onto his desk. “Your daughter insisted that you be let go. Why, I don’t know.”

“‘Bout time she came to her senses,” Kinsington stopped at the sheriff’s desk. “Where can I find her?”

“It would be in your best interest to keep away from her. You’re to catch the next stage out of town, head east, and don’t come back.”

“Where is she?” Kinsington stared at the lawman.

“Stage station is at the east end of town. I suggest you go straight there and don’t start any trouble.”

Kinsington turned on his heels and stomped from the building.

“Something tells me, I ain’t seen the last of that jackass,” the sheriff reached for his hat. “Better warn the Bransons to be on the lookout for him.”

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

Kinsington marched to the small house that he had been directed to by one of the town’s storekeepers. He didn’t bother to knock before entering the Branson home.

Stanley Branson was sitting in the small parlor of the house reading a paper. He looked up, startled, when Kinsington barged into the room.

“Where is she?” Kinsington snarled.

“I’m not sure I know who you’re referring to,” Branson carefully folded the paper before setting it on a side table. He stood to face the intruder, “might I ask who you are?”

“Martin Kinsington,” he glared at the man. “I won’t ask again. Where is that bitch?” he spat the words out.

“When in my home, sir, I will ask that you keep a civil tongue in your mouth. I do not take kindly to that sort of language used around my wife.”

“I’ll find the bitch myself,” Kinsington cut him off as he crossed the room to begin his search.

“Mr. Kinsington,” Branson reached out to stop the fuming man.

“It’s alright, poppa,” Jesse descended from the stairs leading to the bedroom. “He’s looking for me.”

“You bitch,” Kinsington growled. “Where is she?”

“Where you’ll never touch her again,” Jesse growled back.

“I should have killed you when I had the chance,” Kinsington started for Jesse but found himself held in a vice-like grip. “Let me go.”

“Get out of my home,” Branson calmly told his captive.

“You’re protecting that bitch?” Kinsington looked at Branson incredulously.

“She’s my daughter,” Branson shoved Kinsington towards the door. “And, don’t you forget it.”

Kinsington shrugged off Branson’s hold and again started for Jesse. A powerful hand on his shoulder spun him around and a fist exploded in his face. He fell back against a table, knocking it over. Branson reached down and pulled the intruder to his feet. With his strong arms toned from many years of hard work, Branson tossed Kinsington towards the door just as Billie rushed into the house. Kinsington fell at the sheriff’s feet.

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

“I need to go down there,” Jennifer was struggling to get out of bed.

“No, you don’t,” Ed had been visiting when they had heard the commotion downstairs.

“Please, Ed,” Jennifer pleaded with the big man who was more of a father to her than the man downstairs threatening Jesse.

Ed shook his head, “Jesse would shoot me if I do.”

“I’ll shoot you if you don’t,” Jennifer threw back the blankets. She was thankful that KC was out for a walk with her grandmothers and did not have to hear the events downstairs. “Please.”

“Alright,” Ed reluctantly agreed when it became apparent that Jennifer would make her way downstairs one way or another. He picked up the school teacher and gingerly carried her from the room.

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

“Arrest that man,” Kinsington commanded Billie from his prone position on the floor of the house.

“Get up, you fool,” Billie reached down and yanked Kinsington to his feet. “Sorry, ’bout this,” he told the others. “The sheriff let him go before I got there. Everyone okay?”

“Yes, but I’ll thank you to remove that man from my house,” Branson stood beside Jesse.

“No problem,” Billie nodded. “Come on, Kinsington. You have a stage to catch.”

“I’m not leaving without my daughter.”

“Yes, Father,” Jennifer said as Ed carried her down the stairs. “You are leaving without me.”

“Jennifer,” Jesse turned and rushed to her wife’s side. “Darlin’, you shouldn’t be down here.” Jesse took Jennifer from Ed’s arms.

“I had to come, sweetheart,” Jennifer leaned her head against Jesse’s. Turning to the angry man she had once called Father, “go home. Go home and leave me alone. I’m no longer your daughter.”

“You’ll come with me,” Kinsington insisted.

“No,” Mrs. Kinsington said. She and Mrs. Branson were returning from their walk with KC when they’d heard a crash inside the house. The women rushed inside.

“Jennifer is her own woman now. She has a life here.” She crossed the room to face her husband.

“What are you saying?”

“That you’re wrong. You were wrong to come here and young Andrew died because of it. I’ll not have you do any more to our daughter or to anyone else. It’s time you left her alone.”

“How dare you,” Kinsington started.

A loud slap stunned Kinsington and the others in the room. Mrs. Kinsington withdrew her hand from her husband’s face.

“How dare I?” she whispered. “How dare I? I dare because I love her. Now, go home. Back to your sons and your precious company.”

“You’ll come with me,” Kinsington stated.

“No, I think I’ll stay here. I’d like to get to know my daughter and….” Mrs. Kinsington turned to look at Jennifer, “her family.”

Jennifer smiled with tears streaming down her face, “I’d like that, Mother.”

“You can’t be serious. You must return with me.”

“No,” Mrs. Kinsington turned back to her husband. “I don’t.”

“But, what will I tell our friends? What will I tell our sons?”

“To be honest,” she paused. “I don’t give a damn.”

Jennifer stared at her mother, she had never heard her use profanity ever before. Never. Not once.

“Come on,” Billie shoved the man outside. “The stage is leaving soon.”

“But,” Kinsington looked back. His wife stood beside Jesse who held his daughter, his shoulders slumped. “What will I tell them?”

“You could start with what an out and out jerk you are,” Billie said as he pushed the man down the street.

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

CHAPTER NINE

“I want to thank you, poppa. For yesterday,” Jesse was sitting on the front porch, KC playing at her feet. Jennifer was upstairs sleeping.

“You’re my daughter,” her father replied from his chair next to her. “Couldn’t let that fella talk about you that way.”

They sat in silence for several minutes.

Jesse decided that there was something she wanted to know and it was now or never.

“Poppa, about the ranch?” she asked quietly. “Why, didn’t you let me have it?”

Her father sat quietly, watching his granddaughter play. Sighing deeply, he answered, “I couldn’t.”

“I could have run it,” Jesse stated.

“I know,” he swallowed hard. “It wasn’t that Jesse. It was,” he stopped and thought about what he should tell his daughter. Not telling her before had cost him more than he was really to pay. He now had a chance to correct his earlier mistake. “I lost the ranch, Jesse. Bank took it back after I couldn’t make the payments.”

Jesse reached out and took his larger, calloused hand into her own. “You should have told me, poppa. I could have helped.”

“I didn’t want you to know that your old man couldn’t make a go of it.”

“That day I came home…”

“I’m sorry, Jesse. I just didn’t know what else to do. I knew how much you wanted the ranch, but there was nothing left. We don’t even own this place. Banker felt sorry for us and is letting us live here for the few dollars I earn doing odd jobs for folks.”

Jesse looked at her father, he had always been a proud man. But, now she could see how much his pride had cost him.

“Poppa,” she said quietly. “I can buy you a house. Heck, you could come to Sweetwater and live on our ranch. There’s more than enough room for you and mom.”

“Wouldn’t be right,” he pulled back his hand. “Can’t live on your charity.”

“Is that why you never returned my mail? You thought I was offering you charity?”

“It’s not right for a man to live off his child. Man needs to pay his own way.”

“Ah, poppa,” Jesse sighed. She bent down to lift KC into her lap when the baby tugged on her pants. “There’s more than enough work at the ranch and the Slipper to keep us both busy for years. And, besides, it would be nice to have a grandfather around for KC.”

“You’d want us there?” he asked.

Smiling, Jesse told her father, “yes, I’d want you there.”

“What about Jennifer?”

“She loved to have you and mom there,” Jesse chuckled. “The more the merrier for her.”

“You really love her?”

“With all my heart.”

“You got married?”

“Yes. I wanted to invite you but I didn’t think,” Jesse left the thought unfinished.

“Married folk should wear rings. You don’t wear one.”

“Not too many places to buy one in Sweetwater,” Jesse looked at her unadorned hand.

Without another word, her father stood and disappeared into the house.

“Well, I guess that’s that,” Jesse told the baby who looked at her questioningly.

Moments later, her father reappeared.

“Here,” he handed Jesse a small box. “Belonged to your momma’s parents. Always figured we’d give ’em to our son when he married. Guess it don’t make much sense letting ’em go to waste.”

Realizing that was as close to an apology she would ever hear from her father, Jesse slowly opened the box. Inside two gold wedding bands glittered in the sunlight. KC looked into the box and reached for the shiny objects.

“No, sunshine,” Jesse stopped the baby’s hands. “Those are for your momma and me. Maybe, someday, they’ll be yours.” She looked up at her father, tears flowing from her eyes.

“Maybe,” he said before disappearing back inside the house.

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

Jesse placed the sleeping baby into the cradle and covered her with a blanket. Then slipped onto the bed and snuggled up to Jennifer.

“How you doing, darlin’?” she asked.

“I wish I was home in our own bed,” Jennifer turned, she reached out an hand and pulled Jesse’s face close and kissed her. “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Jesse breathed. “I have something for you,” Jesse reached into her pocket and pulled out the small box her father had given her earlier that day. She carefully opened the box keeping the contents concealed from Jennifer.

Jesse smiled as she took Jennifer’s left hand into her own and slipped a gold wedding band onto the ring finger. Then, she handed Jennifer the second band and held her left hand out.

Jennifer took the ring and placed it on Jesse’s finger, “they’re beautiful, Jesse. But, aren’t they too expensive?”

“Nope,” Jesse brought Jennifer’s banded finger to her lips and kissed it. “They were my grandparents. Poppa says that ‘married folk’ need a ring,”

Jennifer looked at their hands. The gold rings shining in the candle light, “your poppa is a pretty smart man.”

“Glad you think so. I ask him and mom to come live with us.”

Jennifer stared at Jesse, “really?”

“Yep,” she nodded. “Figured KC needed a few more grandparents to spoil her.”

“Jesse,” Jennifer snuggled into Jesse’s arms. Thinking of all the pain Jesse suffered when she thought her parents had abandoned her, Jennifer asked, “you do know what you’re doing, right?”

“I think so.”

“I love you, Jesse Branson,” Jennifer said as she clasped their banded hands together.

“I love you, Jennifer Branson.”

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

EPILOGUE

“Well, what do you think, KC?” Jesse asked the baby as she climbed down from the ladder. “Think your momma will like it?”

KC looked up where Jesse stood, she wasn’t sure what her mommy was talking about but it seemed like a good idea to clap her hands. So, she did.

Jesse placed the ladder out of the way alongside of the road. She looked up at her handiwork. “Yep, I think she will, too.” Jesse picked KC up, “you’ve been a real good girl today. I think maybe you should get a cookie, what do you think?”

Before Jesse could make good on her statement, Boy came into view pulling the buckboard behind him. Jennifer sat on the bench seat of the wagon, her still healing leg stretched out to the side. She pulled the large draft horse to a stop when the wagon pulled alongside Jesse and KC.

“Hi, darlin’. Think you could give two tired girls a ride home?” Jesse asked as she handed the baby up to Jennifer.

“Hi, sweetie,” Jennifer kissed the baby.

“Momma,” KC pointed up where moments before Jesse had been working. “Ook.”

“Look at what, sweetie?” Jennifer asked as Jesse climbed into the buckboard beside her and settled on the seat covered in a soft cushion made from a mountain lion hide.

“Thought the ranch needed a name change,” Jesse took the reins from Jennifer.

Jennifer looked up at the sign that marked the beginning of the ranch. What once had announced J’s Dream had had a letter added. It now proclaimed JJ’s Dream.

Jennifer looked at Jesse and smiled, “I love it. And, I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Jesse leaned in to kiss her wife.

“Mommy,” KC slapped Jesse’s arm.

“What is it, sunshine?” Jesse asked, slightly annoyed at the interruption.

“Get cookie?”

“Oh, yes,” Jennifer laughed. She hugged the baby tight as Jesse started Boy towards home. “Right after you go to bed tonight, mommy is definitely going to get cookies.”

~~~~~~~
Story continued in Rolling Thunder

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