Fireweed by Mickey Minner

Fireweed
by Mickey Minner
#5 in the Sweetwater Saga

CHAPTER ONE

Jesse Branson stood halfway up the rungs of a ladder, tightening the last of the bolts she was using to hang a swing from a support beam of the porch roof. She tested the chains now attached to the beam, assuring herself that the swing was secure. Satisfied that the porch swing, a surprise for her wife, was secure, Jesse hopped off the ladder. Taking a step back to view the results of her labors, Jesse smiled while she imagined what Jennifer’s response to seeing the swing would be. She knew her wife was upset over missing the children during the day when she performed her duties as Sweetwater’s schoolteacher. Jesse hoped the swing would provide a place for her and Jennifer to sit at the end of the day, watching the sun going down and their children growing up. She bent down to place her wrench back into her toolbox, her daughter’s urgent calls breaking into her thoughts.

“Mommy,” KC stomped over to the porch, stopping at the bottom of the steps. She wasn’t allowed to climb stairs by herself and she knew all too well how unhappy her momma got when she tried. “Mommy,” she insisted.

“Yes, sunshine,” Jesse straightened back up, examining her mud-covered daughter.

“Cha-wie bein’ bad,” KC wrinkled her nose. A piece of drying mud was making it itch and she swiped at it with a mud-caked hand.

“Oh,” Jesse lifted her eyes from her daughter to look at her son sitting in the middle of a mud puddle at the edge of the garden. “What’s he doing?” she asked as Charley happily slapped at the mud surrounding him.

“He makin’ mud pies,” KC scowled.

“Umm,” Jesse gave her daughter’s statement due consideration. “Well, aren’t you making mud pies too?”

“Yep,” KC’s head bopped up and down.

“So why is Charley being bad if he’s making mud pies?”

“He’s oosing my mud,” KC said indignantly, stomping a bare foot into the sloppy ground.

Struggling to keep a smirk off her face as she watched the antics of her strong-willed daughter, Jesse scratched the back of her head. “Well,” she drawled, surveying the ranch yard. The melting winter snows and spring rains had turned most of the area into a sea of mud. “I’m pretty sure there’s enough mud in the yard for both of you. So, you go back and share it with your brother.”

KC frowned. She studied her mother for a moment before twisting her head to look back over her shoulder at Charley playing without her. “Otay,” she grunted, stomping back to her brother and the contested mud puddle.

“Oh, boy,” Jesse chuckled, “I better get those two cleaned up before Jennifer gets home.”

“You want me to heat water for a bath or shall we just dump them into the horse trough?”

Jesse turned to see her mother standing in the doorway of the house.

“Hi, mom,” Jesse greeted the older woman, leaning down to pick up the toolbox, “didn’t know you were inside.

“Needed some flour,” Marie Branson stepped out onto the porch. She and her husband lived on the ranch with their daughter’s family. They had enlarged a small hut and used it for their living quarters but were free to make use of the larger ranch house’s accommodations, including the well-stocked kitchen. “You sure got your hands full with that little one,” she laughed.

“Yep,” Jesse reached for the ladder.

“So about that bath?” Marie asked as she watched KC diligently pat mud into a flattened round shape and hand it to Charley who immediately threw it down causing mud to splatter both children.

“Better start the water heating,” Jesse chuckled as she shook her head at her giggling children. “Dusty and Boy will never speak to me again if I dump them in the trough. But I think I’ll wash them off out here first. No sense in takin’ half the yard into the house.”

“I’ll get a couple of buckets ready for you,” Marie smiled.

“Thanks, mom,” Jesse stepped off the porch carrying the ladder and toolbox, she headed for the barn. “Sure be glad when this starts to dry out.”

“Kids won’t,” Marie turned to go back inside.

“They’ll adjust,” Jesse muttered, her boots squishing across the soft ground.

***

Jennifer Branson watched as the children filed out of the schoolhouse, another day of lessons finished. She gathered up the papers spread over her desk, creating a neat pile she tucked it safely away in the desk drawer. Pushing herself up from the chair, she took a moment to stretch her tired back before reaching for the cane leaning against the wall behind her. It was more than two years since she’d been attacked by the mountain lion but her leg would heal no more and she required the cane to walk more than a few steps. She limped to the row of coat hooks near the door of the schoolhouse, retrieving her coat she started to pull in on. She was surprised to hear the sound of someone climbing the steps outside. She smiled, wondering if Jesse had come to pick her up.

“Jennifer?” a deep voice reverberated though the almost empty room.

“In her, Ed,” Jennifer called out to the storekeeper, a gentle giant of a man who had become her surrogate father.

“Good,” Ed entered the room, standing in the doorway for a moment while his eyes adjusted to the change in lighting from outside. “I was hoping I’d catch you before you left. A letter came for you on the stage today.” Ed rented a section of his store to the stage company and accepted any mail delivers. He would hold the letters and packages for the folks living in town to come pick them up. Any belonging to folks living out of town or in the mining camps scattered in the surrounding mountains, he would add to any delivers he made in that area. Since Sweetwater lacked a freight company, Ed was forced to also provide delivery service to his customers.

Jennifer accepted the letter.

“Aren’t you going to open it?” Ed asked when the schoolteacher shoved it into her coat pocket within even a casual glance.

“No, I’ll wait until I get home. Jesse and KC like to open the mail. They feel cheated if I’ve already opened the envelopes,” she grinned. “It’s probably just another letter from Mother asking me when we’re going to come east.”

“You thinking of going back for a visit, are you?”

“Haven’t given it much thought,” Jennifer’s smile had faded. “But I can’t say that the idea would make me happy.”

Ed nodded silently. The schoolteacher had told him of her childhood sharing a house with a father who thought nothing more of daughters than an arranged marriage to further his business interests and brothers too busy to spare a moment for her. And even though her father was now confined to a mental hospital and she had made peace with her brothers, he could understand her reluctance to return to the town she was born and raised in.

“Besides,” Jennifer continued as she led Ed through the doorway to the small porch at the front of the schoolhouse. “I doubt Jesse would be too happy cooped up on a train for the time it would take to get back there. And can you imagine her once we got there?” she said as she thought of her wife, used to wide open spaces, being in the cramped, noisy city for any length of time.

“That would be a sight,” Ed laughed, pulling the door shut behind them. “She hates to spend a full day in Sweetwater.”

“And let’s not forget about KC,” Jennifer laughed, locking the door. “I’m pretty sure that even with my three brothers keeping a tight hold on their reins, the two of them could get into more trouble than the city was willing to accept.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Ed chuckled. He assisted Jennifer down the steps then fell into step beside her as they made their way down the gravel path to where her horse, Blaze, was tethered in the shade of a cottonwood tree beside the creek that ran alongside Sweetwater’s main, and only, street.

“Yes,” Jennifer smirked, “I think it’s best I keep my two wild horses in the west where they can run free.”

“It is truly interesting how much little KC takes after Jesse,” Ed commented. “For someone who wasn’t sure she would be a good mother, she sure has a knack with your young ‘uns.”

“She does doesn’t she,” Jennifer said, the pride clearly evident in her voice. “She adores KC and Charley. And they adore her,” she untied the reins to Blaze.

“Seems to me,” Ed said as he helped Jennifer into the saddle. “Them young ‘uns adore the both of you.”

Jennifer smiled down at the big man. “I can’t imagine my life without Jesse or the children. I love him to death, Ed.”

“Then you better quit yakkin’ to me and get back out to your ranch and family. I bet they’re all sitting on the porch waiting for you to ride into view,” Ed knew that to be a good bet because as much as Jennifer loved her family, her family loved her back just as much and more. “Tell Jesse and the young ‘uns hello for me.”

“You can tell them yourself tomorrow, Ed,” Jennifer said as she tapped her heels against the flanks of her horse. “Jesse is bringing the wagon to town for supplies.”

“Thanks for the warning,” Ed called after the schoolteacher. “I’ll make sure everything in the store is nailed down.”

“That would be a good idea,” Jennifer laughed as she waved without turning around. It wasn’t unusual for her active daughter to create havoc in Ed’s store given half a chance. It was a good thing Charley was less adventurous than KC but given time, and KC’s guidance, her son would probably match his sister for creating trouble. As she rode, Jennifer wondered about her children and what activities might have kept them occupied while she was in town. Tears clouded her vision as she thought about another day spent away from her family.

***

Jesse was bent over the washtub that sat on one end of the back porch, something Jennifer had insisted on when they built the house after their log cabin was burned to the ground. Concerned about privacy when she and Jennifer were bathing, Jesse had hung a rod for a thick curtain to be pulled around the tub when necessary. But it wasn’t used when the children bathed.

Charley looked up at Jesse, his head covered in soap suds as his mother washed the mud off of him.

“How you get so dirty,” Jesse grumbled, “I’ll never know.”

“He jus’ like you, momma says,” KC giggled from a chair set beside the washtub but far enough away to keep her dry as she had already had her bath.

“Seems momma says the same thing about you, sunshine,” Jesse carefully poured warm water over Charley’s head.

“Yep,” KC grinned.

Charley sputtered water out of his mouth.

“You’re s’posed to keep that closed, Cha-wie,” KC advised helpfully. “Tha’ what momma says.”

“That’s right, Charley.” Jesse held another pitcher of water up, waiting for her son to close his mouth and eyes. When they were shut tight, she poured the clean, warm water over her son. “That should do it, Charley. Let’s get you dried off and dressed so you’ll be nice and clean for momma.” She lifted the boy out of the tub, setting him down on the porch floor to wipe him dry.

“Momma?” Charley looked in the direction Jennifer would come from town.

“Soon,” Jesse told the boy, wishing Jennifer didn’t have to be away so much. But she would never say anything to her wife because she knew how much her position as Sweetwater’s schoolteacher meant to her. She was just glad that lessons ended in the early afternoon and Jennifer was able to spend the rest of the day at the ranch.

“We wait for momma on porch?” KC asked hopefully.

“Sure,” Jesse agreed instantly. “Let’s get Charley dressed and we’ll sit on the porch and wait for momma. Does that sound like a good idea?” she asked her son.

Charley nodded happily.

“We sit dere?” KC pointed to the swing Jesse had spent most of the morning attaching to the porch roof at the opposite end of the back porch.

“We can’t see momma from back here,” Jesse explained to her daughter. “We’ll sit on the front porch. Grandma was backing some cookies earlier; maybe she’ll bring you and Charley some.”

“Cha-wie likes cookies,” KC dropped out of the chair, her bare feet thumping on the wood surface of the porch.

“And you don’t?” Jesse smirked.

“Nope, I like cookies too,” KC stood, her head cocked to one side as she watched Jesse dress her brother. “But Cha-wie really likes cookies,” she emphasized for her mother.

“That’s because he wants to grow big and strong like you,” Jesse poked KC in the belly, causing the girl to burst into giggles. “Don’t ya, Charley?” she asked, lifting her son up as she stood. She settled the boy into one arm before heading for the back door of the house.

“Yep,” KC answered for her brother, her arms stretched skyward.

Jesse reached down; grabbing KC’s hands and effortlessly pulling her up into the crook of her other arm.

***

Jennifer could hear the squeals coming from her children as soon as she passed under the arched log announcing she had entered the ranch property.

Charley spotted Blaze trotting down the hillock to the ranch yard and had begun to yell. “Momma,” Charley pointed excitingly towards the rider. “Momma.”

Jesse quickly made her way to stand at the foot of the porch steps, the children waited impatiently on the porch. Charley started crawling towards the edge of the porch but his sister stopped him.

“Ya got’s to let them kiss first,” KC whispered loudly into her brother’s ear.

Jesse chuckled at the comment, it hadn’t taken KC long to figure that out but her brother was having a harder go at the concept. As soon as Blaze stepped alongside her, Jesse reached up to lift Jennifer out of the saddle. Hugging her wife tightly, she pressed their lips together. It was several heartbeats before Jesse set the schoolteacher on the ground.

“See,” KC told Charley.

The women smiled knowingly at each other when they heard their daughter’s comment.

“Missed you, darlin’,” Jesse said, placing another tender kiss on her wife’s lips.

“I missed you too,” Jennifer sighed, resting her head against Jesse’s for a moment before she went to her waiting children.

Jesse pulled the cane out of the otherwise empty rifle scabbard and handed it to Jennifer. “Go on,” she smiled. “I’ll take care of Blaze. Mom’s in the kitchen,” she called out as she led the horse to the barn.

Rather than climbing the porch steps immediately, Jennifer pressed her body against the edge of the porch opening her arms wide for the children. KC rushed into her mother’s arms, kissing her several times before her brother could crawl beside her. Jennifer lifted the baby up so he could wrap his arms around her neck.

“Were you good today?” Jennifer asked between kisses and hugs.

“Yep,” KC answered, a little too forcefully her mother thought.

Charlie’s head bopped up and down in agreement with his sister.

“Ah uh,” Jennifer smiled, sure that they was more to learn about the children’s activities.

“Gramma make cookies,” KC reported. “Cha-wie eat two all by hims’lf.”

“Oh, and how many did you eat?” Jennifer asked.

KC smirked, “two.”

“KC?” Jennifer’s tone told the child she wanted the truth.

“Twee,” KC frowned. “They was goods,” she said as if the explanation would get her out of the trouble she had gotten herself into by not telling her mother the truth to begin with. Her lower lip quivered as it poked out, her pout beginning.

“Hmm,” Jennifer fought to keep the smile off her face. “Let me get up there with you and we’ll go see what gramma is up to.”

“Otay,” KC hopped back a few steps, hoping she would avoid any further punishment. “Come on, Cha-wie,” she tugged on the boy’s britches.

Jennifer made her way up the steps then crossed to the screen door, pulling it open for KC to scamper through. She waited for Charley to reach her then bent down, scooping the crawling baby up into her arms. “I miss you today, little man,” she buried her face into the boy’s neck, blowing raspberries against his soft skin. Smiling when Charley burst into loud giggles, she carried him inside and followed KC into the kitchen.

“Hi, mom,” Jennifer greeted her mother-in-law. “I hear you made some ‘goods’ cookies today.”

“Hi, honey,” Marie smiled at her daughter-in-law. “Did she tell you she snuck one off the table?”

“No,” Jennifer looked over at KC who was trying to look as innocent as possible. “That must explain the extra one she said she ate.”

“Would have had one or two more if Jesse hadn’t come in to sneak a couple for herself and caught her,” Marie laughed. The similarities between her daughter and granddaughter grew by the day.

“What am I going to do with those two?” Jennifer laughed. She pulled out a chair from the table and sat down, holding Charley in her lap. “Good thing my little man doesn’t take after them,” she nuzzled the boy’s head.

“Give him time,” Marie smiled, pulling out a chair for herself. “You look tired,” she studied Jennifer’s drawn features. “Want me to stay around and make supper tonight?” she asked as KC climbed into her lap.

“No, I’m fine,” Jennifer smiled but she didn’t seem convinced of the truth of her statement.

“You sure?”

“Yes,” Jennifer sighed. “I’m just a little tired. I didn’t sleep very well last night.”

“Anything wrong?” Marie asked, concerned that the young woman was trying to do too much with raising a family, teaching school, and helping to run the Silver Slipper and the dress shop she and Jesse had set up for their friend Ruthie.

“No, everything’s fine,” Jennifer tried to reassure her mother-in-law. “And thank you for the offer,” she smiled, “but Jesse and I should be able to handle supper for these two.”

“Alright,” Marie reluctantly agreed. “Then I best be getting back to start supper for Stanley.”

“Grump?” KC twisted her head around to look at her grandmother.

“Yes,” Marie laughed at the use of the nickname only KC could get by using. “He’s been out all day and will be hungry when he gets home.”

“Oh,” KC turned back around.

“What’s he been up do?” Jennifer asked.

“A few of the cows wandered off to the south end of the range again,” Marie explained. “With Jesse having to stay here with the children, he went off to find them.”

Jennifer sighed. Jesse would have done anything not to have her aging father have to spend the day in the saddle. Anything but leave her children, especially KC who continued to refuse to be out of sight of at least one of her mothers at all times. If only she had been home instead of in town, Jesse would have been able to ride after the cattle instead of her father.

“Ah, here you are,” Jesse said as she entered the kitchen.

KC scooted off her grandmother’s lap, running as quickly as she could for the rancher.

“Pop’s back,” Jesse told her mother as she swung KC up into the air.

“I’m better get moving then,” Marie stood then walked for the doorway out of the kitchen. “Let her do the cooking tonight,” she said, patting Jennifer on the shoulder. “It’ll do her some good.”

“Something I need to know about, darlin’?” Jesse asked as she leaned against the kitchen table in front of Jennifer.

“Your mother thinks you need to learn how to cook,” Jennifer lied, not wanting Jesse to worry about her.

“Mom hasn’t eaten enough of my cooking,” Jesse smirked. “Hey,” she turned to KC, “did you tell momma about her surprise.”

“Nope,” KC shook her head from side-to-side.

“What say we show it to her now?”

“Yep,” this time, KC’s head bopped up and down. With her mother’s help, she scrambled down to the floor and raced to the back porch.

“A surprise?” Jennifer asked as she watched her daughter waiting just outside the back door, bouncing from one foot to the other.

“Yep,” Jesse smiled as she offered a hand to Jennifer to pull her to her feet. “Got ya somethin’ to help you rest at the end of the day,” Jesse said as she took Charley out of Jennifer’s arms. She led the schoolteacher to the back porch.

“Oh, my goodness,” Jennifer gasped when she saw the muddy water still in the washtub and the dirty clothes and towels strewn about the porch.

“Oops,” Jesse shrugged sheepishly. “Guess I forgot to clean up after their baths. Leave it,” she told Jennifer who was bending over to pick up the mud encrusted shirt that Charley had been wearing earlier. “I’ll take care of those later. Come see your surprise.”

Jennifer looked up to see her wife, daughter and son standing beside the swing, all beaming widely.

“Oh, Jesse,” Jennifer cried as she walked towards the swing. “When did you do this?”

“Today,” Jesse held the swing still for her wife to sit down on it. “While the young ‘uns were seeing how much mud they could wear, I hung this up for you.” She sat beside Jennifer and waited for KC to climb aboard before she started to push with her long legs to gently move the swing.

Jennifer leaned again the rancher. After several quiet minutes, she said, “this is nice, sweetheart.”

“I’m glad you like it, darlin’,” Jesse wrapped an arm around the schoolteacher’s shoulders. “Thought you’d like a nice place to sit and watch the sunsets.”

“Only if you sit with me,” Jennifer could feel fill the tears building in her eyes. .

“Wouldn’t be anyplace else, darlin’.”

CHAPTER TWO

Jennifer and Jesse sat at the kitchen table. Jesse held Charley on her lap, feeding the baby tiny bites of egg and bacon from her own plate. KC was in the chair next to Jesse, kneeling on the seat in order to eat her breakfast. Jennifer carried a pot of coffee to the table before sitting down to the plate of eggs, bacon, and biscuits waiting for her. She pulled an envelope from her pocket, placing it on the table in front of Jesse.

“Ed brought this by the schoolhouse yesterday. I forgot all about it last night.”

“Op’n it, mommy,” KC cried excitedly. She enjoyed getting mail. If it was from her grandmother, it usually contained a small treat for herself and her brother.

“First you finish up your breakfast,” Jesse told her daughter.

“Pease,” KC pouted, her lower lip quivering.

“Nope,” Jesse held back a smirk, the pout was so adorable. “We don’t want momma to be late to school, do we?”

“Nope,” KC agreed softly.

“We’ll read it on the way to town. Okay?”

“Otay,” KC cheered right up and returned to eating the food on her plate.

“Slow down, sweetie,” Jennifer gently scolded KC who was shoving bites of egg and bacon into her mouth as fast as she could.

KC did as she was told, knowing if she didn’t she might not get to open the envelope laying so tantalizingly close to her.

“Who’s it from?” Jesse asked, keeping an eye on KC to make sure she didn’t start gulping food again.

“You know,” Jennifer laughed, “I didn’t even look. I was in such a hurry to get home that I just put it in my pocket.”

“Well,” Jesse flipped the envelope right side up. “It’s from Granite. Who do we know in Granite?”

“No one I can think of,” Jennifer replied thoughtfully as she poured coffee into two cups. “Maybe we should open it now.”

KC looked up excitedly, hoping she would be allowed to do just that.

“Go on, sunshine,” Jesse grinned. “But be careful, we want to be able to read the letter.”

KC grabbed the envelope off the table, pulling it into her lap as she sat on her chair. She carefully tore the end of the envelope open, removing only the barest fraction of paper. After several minutes, she pulled the letter out and triumphantly held it up for her mother’s to see she hadn’t ripped it too. As soon as Jesse took the letter from her, KC turned her attention back to the envelope peering inside of it to see what treats awaited.

“It em’ty,” KC muttered, tossing the useless envelope on the floor.

“KC Branson,” Jennifer scolded.

Knowing she was in trouble, KC slipped off her chair to retrieve the envelope. “Sorry, momma,” she said, climbing back into her chair. “Here,” she held the envelope out to Jennifer. “It em’ty,” she repeated as if that had given her amble reason to throw it away.

“It’s bad enough I have to clean up after your mommy,” Jennifer reached over, pulling her daughter into her lap. “I don’t think I should have to clean up after you too,” she tickled KC to let her know she wasn’t really mad at her.

“Hey,” Jesse protested. “I clean up after myself.”

“Uh, uh,” Jennifer grinned. “Where’d I find your shirt this morning? And your britches?”

“Well, darlin’,” Jesse drawled. “I was a little busy last night when I took them off,” she smiled, recalling carrying her wife up the stairs to their bedroom to make love to her.

“I guess you were at that,” Jennifer tried to rub away the blush coloring her cheeks. “What’s it say?” she pointed to the letter in Jesse’s hand, trying to change the subject.

Jesse smirked but turned her attention to the paper she held. “It’s from Leevie.”

“Leevie?” Jennifer had been wondering about their friend. Leevie Temple was the schoolteacher in Bannack and had befriended the women when they had visited the mining camp. “My goodness, why is she writing from Granite?”

“Only one way to find out,” Jesse said as she prepared to read the letter to her family.

~~~

My dear friends,

I’m so sorry it has taken me so long to answer your letters but your last two have just now found their way to me. I meant to write and tell you that I was leaving Bannack but there were so many things I had to get done before I left town that it simply slipped my mind. I am living in Granite now with someone who is very dear to my heart. There is so much to tell you that I’m not sure where to begin.

I should have been more honest with you when we first met. Forgive me, I just couldn’t bring myself to confine in you. For the last several years, I have loved a wonderful person, Dannie, and she has finally persuaded me to live with her. I have to say that it was seeing how happy you were that did most of the persuading.

It is hard to admit but things are not going as well as we had hoped. Dannie runs a freight wagon between Granite and Phillipsburg but even with all the activity in the two towns loads have been lacking. I had expected to continue my teaching here, however I was surprised to discover the town has an abundance of women qualified to teach school.

Yet, we are together and that is what truly matters.

I must close for now as Dannie will be home soon and I promised her a walk around town later. Thank you for your wonderful letters; it’s so much fun to hear how little KC and Charley are growing.

My love to all of you, Leevie.

P.S. Please come and visit sometime. Our home is small but there is always room for such good friends as you. And I would love for Dannie to meet you. She has heard so much about you, I’m sure she would like to see that you really do exist.

Kisses to all.

~~~

“Well, looks like you were right,” Jesse leaned over and kissed her wife when she finished reading.

“About what?”

“About Leevie being like us. Remember?”

Jennifer smiled, she did remember. They were saying their goodbyes to Leevie before leaving Bannack with the baby they had decided to keep and raise as their own.

~~~

Leevie smiled at the women, “I’d say that KC is one lucky little girl to grow up with two loving mothers.” The schoolteacher winked at the women, “you take care of each other. You have something special, don’t loose it.”

Jennifer was speechless. Could this woman know their true relationship? “Jesse, do you think she knows about us?”

“Seems so.”

“How?”

“Don’t know. Maybe she just sensed it.”

“You think maybe she’s like us?”

“Could be,” Jesse smiled at her lover. “We can’t be the only ones.”

~~~

“I wonder what she’s not telling us,” Jennifer said as she reread the letter.

“About what?” Jesse wiped egg off Charley’s chin then held a glass of milk for the boy to take a drink.

“Why they’re having such a rough time of it,” Jennifer frowned. “Seems like they’d be more than enough freight business to keep Dannie busy.”

“Probably has to do with her being a woman,” Jesse said as she stood with the baby. “Charley needs fresh britches before we leave.”

“Take KC with you and wash her face,” Jennifer set the girl on the floor.

“Okay. Come on, sunshine,” Jesse reached a hand down for KC to grab hold off. With an easy swing of her strong arm, she lifted KC up to her chest. “Ugh,” she teased the girl, “did you get any of that egg in your tummy?”

“Yep,” KC nodded. “Lots.”

Jennifer watched the rancher carry the children upstairs to get cleaned up. Slowly, she pushed herself up from the table and started to gather up the dirty dishes. As she did, she considered Jesse’s comment. It wasn’t easy for a woman to run a business in the frontier unless it was a rooming house, laundry, or eating house. Jesse had faced lots of opposition when she took over the Silver Slipper from many of the businessmen in town. Jennifer wondered why men had to think so little of women, couldn’t they understand that women were just as capable as men.

Jennifer carried the dirty dishes to the wash sink. She limped to the end of the counter where a bucket sat under the well spout. Pumping the handle, she filled the bucket and carried it to the sink. She would use the clean water to rinse the dishes after they had been scrubbed.

As Jennifer slipped her hands into the warm water Jesse had filled the sink with before breakfast, she looked out the window to the west. The sun was just beginning to peek over the mountains in the east and the morning sky was tinged in pink and red. Jennifer smiled. This was home and this was where she wanted to be. If only she didn’t have to go into town each day to teach the children of Sweetwater. A thought floated into her mind. “Maybe,” Jennifer whispered to herself, her smile spreading wider.

“All nice and clean,” Jesse said as she carried the children back into the kitchen. “Now you play with your toys,” she told them when she placed them on the floor beside their toy box. “And keep clean.”

“Otay,” KC walked over and peered into the box, her bare feet softly slapping the wood floor. “Here, Cha-wie,” she pulled a small wooden bird out of the box. “You play wit’ that,” she dropped the toy in front of her brother.

Charley frowned. He wanted to choose his own toy. Crawling up to the box, the baby pulled himself upright and pushed up onto his tiptoes to look at the jumble of toys inside. Pointing, he let loose a string of baby gibberish that KC seemed to understand.

“Otay,” KC said, annoyed. “Here,” she pulled a stuffed dog out of the box, a gift from Jennifer’s mother, dropping it on the floor for Charley.

Charley let go of the toy box, plopping down on the floor beside the dog. Happily, he pulled the dog to his chest.

KC went back to digging through the toys, her body bent in half over the edge of the box. “Dere you are,” she exclaimed when she spotted what she was looking for. Standing upright, she clutched a wooden horse in her hand. “Look, Cha-wie,” she showed the horse to her brother. “Baze.”

“With all of those toys to choose from, she always seems to pull that horse out of the box,” Jesse commented as her daughter’s favorite toy reappeared.

“I’m surprised that horse is still in one piece,” Jennifer chuckled. The wooden horse had been KC’s first toy and she seemed to never tire of playing with it.

“I hate to think of the day something happens to it,” Jesse said as she wiped the table with a damp cloth. She never would have believed that years later the tiny horse, still in one piece, would sit in a place of honor on her daughter’s bookshelves.

“We’re almost done in here,” Jennifer rinsed the last of the dishes then dried it off with a towel. “Why don’t you got get Boy hitched up.”

“Okay. I may be a few minutes,” Jesse rinsed out the cloth she had been using before stretching it over the windowsill to dry. “I want to talk to Pop if he’s around.”

“Take your time,” Jennifer leaned against the rancher. “We’ll wait on the porch.”

“Bit chilly this morning,” Jesse wrapped her arms around the schoolteacher. “I’ll come in when I’m ready.”

“I love you,” Jennifer placed her forehead against Jesse’s, breathing in the smell of her wife.

“I love you, darlin’,” Jesse adjusted to gently press her lips against Jennifer’s.

Charley chose that moment to point at the toy box and release some more gibberish in hopes his sister would provide another toy for him to play with.

“Hush, Cha-wie,” KC admonished her brother. “Mommy kissin’ momma.”

“Pffttpp,” Charley shook his head.

“Yep,” KC nodded.

***

Jesse didn’t have to do anything to get her big draft horse Boy to pull to a stop at the beginning of the gravel path to the schoolhouse; the large horse was so used to the trip from the ranch to town that he didn’t need much guidance.

“I’ll walk you up, darlin’,” Jesse said, wrapping the reins around the wagon’s brake handle.

Jennifer smiled, “all right.” She liked it when Jesse took the time to escort her to school. The rancher would always stay until the children started to arrive, giving the couple precious time to spend together.

Jesse climbed down from the wagon then reached back up for her wife. After helping Jennifer to the ground, she pulled the cane from under the wagon seat and handed it to the schoolteacher. “Ready, sunshine?” she asked, walking to the back of the wagon to retrieve the children.

“Yep,” KC was standing at the rear of the wagon bed, her arms outstretched as she waited impatiently for her mother to lift her out.

“There ya go,” Jesse ruffled KC’s fine ginger colored hair once the girl was standing at her feet.

“Momma, I com’n’,” KC called out to Jennifer who was waiting for Jesse and the children.

“Come on, little man,” Jesse lifted Charley into her arms. “Let’s go walk your momma to school.”

Charley smiled, his little arm pointed at Jennifer.

“That’s right, Charley,” Jesse kissed the boy’s cheek. “That’s your momma.” She carried the baby back to Jennifer, KC having already joined her momma. “Ready?”

“Yes,” Jennifer smiled. “KC hold my hand, sweetie. I don’t want you stumbling on the gravel,” she told the girl.

“Otay,” KC reached up, wrapping one hand around Jennifer’s fingers and the other around Jesse’s.

Ed Grainger watched the family walk across the footbridge spanning the creek then up the gravel path to the schoolhouse from the porch of the building that housed his store. Built by the eastern investment company that had expected to reap huge profits out of a gold mine near Sweetwater, the building had originally been designed as a hotel. When the mine turned out to be nothing more than an empty hole in the side of a hill, the mining company had sold the building to Ed before pulling out of Sweetwater. Most of the first floor was occupied by his mercantile with a corner being leased to the stage line for a depot. The second floor was split into living quarters for Ed and Billie and Ruthie.

“They make a fine lookin’ family, don’t they?” Billie Monroe had stepped out onto the porch after coming down from the apartment upstairs he shared with his wife, Ruth.

“That they do,” Ed agreed without taking his eyes off Jesse and Jennifer.

“I’m glad they’ve got the young ‘uns,” Billie nudged Ed in the arm.

Ed looked down to see Billie was holding two cups of steaming coffee. “Thanks,” he smiled, accepting one of the cups. “Speaking of young ‘uns,” Ed said after taking a sip of the hot liquid. “How’s Ruthie this morning?”

Billie grinned, his eyes twinkling with the pride her felt for his pregnant wife. “She’s taking it easy this morning. I told her I’d go back up in ‘bout an hour to help her get dressed to go to the shop.”

“Thought Jennifer told her not to worry about the shop until after the baby comes,” Ed took another sip.

“She did but you know Ruth,” Billie leaned against the railing that encircled the porch. “If she doesn’t have somethin’ to keep her hands busy, she goes crazy. Made her promise not to over do it,” he told the storekeeper. “And I’m sure Bette Mae will make sure she keeps that promise.”

“I’m sure she will,” Ed laughed.

Bette Mae managed the Silver Slipper, a brothel Jesse had won in a poker game and turned into a respectable boarding house and restaurant. It sat at the end of Sweetwater’s one and only street, the only two story building in town until the building Ed now owned had been built. Bette Mae was older than most of the women working at the Slipper and had naturally become a surrogate mother to them and Jesse and Jennifer, keeping a close eye on all of them.

“You going to the Slipper for breakfast?” Billie asked, even though the storekeeper ate there every morning.

“Yes, but I think I’ll wait for Jesse to come by,” Ed said as he saw the rancher come out of the schoolhouse, her arms full of her giggling children. “I’ll walk over with her.”

“Afraid KC will do something in the store again?” Billie teased. The girl’s adventures were becoming legendary in Sweetwater and had forced the storekeeper to construct what he referred to as a “holding pen” to keep KC confined anytime she visited the store.

“Now that she has Charley to help her,” Ed smirked, “I don’t think Jesse can afford to keep covering the costs of the trouble that young ‘un manages to git herself into.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” Billie chuckled.

“Morning, boys,” Jesse greeted her friends as she approached the mercantile. “How’s Ruthie?” she asked Billie.

“Still in bed.”

“Good,” Jesse climbed the steps to the porch. “Jennifer’s worried about her.”

“Mommy, down,” KC squirmed in Jesse’s arms.

“Nope,” Jesse kept a firm grip on the girl. “We’re not going to be here long enough for you to make any trouble,” she winked at Ed. “Bette Mae’s waiting for us at the Slipper but I wanted to give you Jennifer’s shopping list.” She tried to reach the paper in her shirt pocket but was prevented from doing so because of the babies she carried. “Sunshine, get the list out of my pocket,” she told KC.

“Otay.” KC’s pushed her hand into the pocket, her searching fingers pressing against her momma’s breast.

“Ah, KC,” Jesse was more than a little uncomfortable because of the girl’s actions. “Get the list. Quick.”

Ed and Billie smirked, enjoying the rancher’s distress.

“Here ‘tis,” KC pulled the paper free. “Momma wan’s t’is stuff, pease,” she passed the list to the storekeeper.

“Well then,” Ed made a show of taking the list from the girl, “I will make sure that she gets everything on here. I’ll bet there’s even some goodies on her for you and Charley,” he told KC.

“Yep,” KC grinned. “Momma puts lots a’ goodies on dere.”

Ed laughed out loud at the reply, Billie and Jesse joining in.

“Come on, you little rascal,” Jesse stretched her fingers to tingle KC’s side. “Let’s go see Bette Mae. You coming?” she asked the men.

“Sure am,” Ed nodded.

“You go on ahead,” Billie told them. “I’m going to go check in on Ruth.”

“You be sure to tell her Jennifer will coming by after school,” Jesse passed on the message her wife had given her before she left the schoolhouse.

“I will.” Billie said, plucking the empty coffee cup from Ed’s beefy hand and turning to go back into the building.

“Let’s go,” Ed told Jesse after Billie left. “I’m hungry.”

“Me too,” KC chimed in.

“You’re always hungry, sunshine,” Jesse grumbled. “I swear, Ed,” she told the chuckling storekeeper, “if I didn’t know better, I’d think she was hollow inside.”

“You better hope Charley doesn’t turn out the same way,” Ed laughed, lifting KC out of Jesse’s arms and swinging her up to sit on his shoulders.

“Ugh,” Jesse grunted, swinging Charley up onto her shoulders.

The children giggled all the way to the Silver Slipper.

***

“I was beginnin’ ta think I’d never be seein’ my babies today,” Bette Mae complained as soon as Jesse walked into the Slipper’s dining room.

“We walked Jennifer to school,” Jesse explained as the older woman rushed to greet the children.

“Oh, my babies,” Bette Mae exclaimed as the children were passed to her. Hugging them to her buxom, she planted kisses on the faces until both KC and Charley were squealing with laughter.

Ed and Jesse took seats at one of the unoccupied tables, knowing it would be several minutes before Bette Mae relented.

When he thought he had been ignored long enough, Ed picked up a coffee cup and started banging it on the table top. “I must say, Jesse,” he spoke loudly to be heard over the children’s shrieks and the laughter of the other diners enjoying the impromptu floor show. “The service in this here restaurant of yours surely seems to be lacking. What’s a poor workin’ man supposed to do to get a meal around here? Not to mention a hot cup of coffee.”

“Lordy, Ed,” Bette Mae plopped into a chair beside Jesse. “Ya can’ be begrudgin’ me a little time to say howdy to my babies,” she groused playfully.

Charley, a little overwhelmed by his sister’s and Bette Mae’s enthusiastic display, reached for Jesse who pulled the baby into her lap.

“Oh, is that what you was doing,” Ed teased back. “The way they was crying and carryin’ on, I done thought ya was afflicting them young ‘uns somethin’ awful.”

“Puh,” Bette Mae pursed her lips together to glare at the snickering man.

“Food, pease,” KC, now sitting in Bette Mae’s lap, looked up hopefully at the woman.

“Don’ ya tell me yo’r mommy didn’ feed ya this mornin’,” Bette Mae sympathized with the girl.

“We ate ‘fore we left the ranch,” Jesse grumbled, “so don’t you be feeding her again. Jennifer will have my head if you do.”

“Well then,” Bette Mae smiled, giving KC a gentle squeeze. “How ‘bout a nice big glass of fresh milk?”

“Yep,” KC nodded. “Cha-wie get one too?”

“You bet,” Bette Mae agreed. “Sally bring two big glasses of milk for my babies.”

Sally normally worked as the Slipper’s bartender but when business was slow in the bar off the dining, she helped out where needed.

“Make that three, Sally,” Jesse added. “Oh, and you better bring Ed his breakfast before he starts to eat the table.”

“You got it, boss,” Sally answered. “Be right back,” she said before disappearing through the door that led into the kitchen.

***

“Got a load to take to Garnet,” Ed was telling Jesse as he finished off his breakfast.

Jesse was holding a sleeping Charley and KC was playing on the floor at her feet. “I don’t know, Ed,” Jesse was watching KC. “That’s a three day trip and a long time to be away from Jennifer and the young ‘uns. It’d be a lot easier if Jennifer wasn’t teaching,” she added. “Then they could come with me.”

“I understand, Jesse. It’s just with Billie not wanting to leave Ruthie until the baby comes, I don’t have many options.” Billie, once Sweetwater’s sheriff, had given up the badge when he asked Ruthie to marry him and now worked for Ed in the store. And with Sweetwater being too small to have its own freight service, the storekeeper had to find drivers to make any deliveries he had for the mining camps in the surrounding mountains.

“Let me talk to Jennifer,” Jesse wanted to help out her friend and they could always use the extra cash but being away from her family for more than a day wasn’t something she liked to do.

“Fair enough,” Ed popped the last bite of toast into his mouth. “I’ll check with some of the cowboys in town. Maybe one of them would be interested.” With the numerous cattle ranches in the valley, the town had no shortage of ranch hands in town looking for trouble.

KC yawned, rubbing her eyes.

“Looks like I best get these two put down for their naps,” Jesse said as KC climbed into her lap.

“Tired, mommy,” KC mumbled, leaning against Jesse.

“Okay,” Jesse made sure she had a good hold on the babies before standing. “Let’s get you and Charley upstairs.” Since the dress shop Ruthie operated now occupied what had been Jesse’s office, a room was kept free upstairs for her and Jennifer to use whenever they were in town.

“Need a hand?” Ed asked, seeing the woman adjusting her hold on her children as she stood up.

“Thanks, but I think I’ve got them. I’ll let you know when we pick up the supplies later.”

***

“Three days?” Jennifer asked, not at all happy with the prospect of her wife being away that long. Jesse and the children had come to pick her up after school and the rancher had just finished telling her of Ed’s offer. “What are you going to do?”

“Well I don’t want to do it,” Jesse frowned, “but with Billie staying close for Ruthie, Ed’s kinda in a bind. The supplies have to be delivered.” She was standing by one of the windows that lined one side of the schoolhouse; from there she could see Ed working among the stacks of boxes and crates on the loading dock at the rear of the mercantile.

Jennifer walked over to stand beside Jesse. Leaning against her, she sighed, “I don’t want you to go, sweetheart. I feel so alone when you’re gone.” Over the past year the rancher had made several trips for Ed, many of them as long or longer as the one they were discussing.

Jesse wrapped her arm around Jennifer’s shoulders. Through the window, she noticed a cowboy come out of the back of store and say something to Ed. After the men exchanged words for a few minutes, they shook hands and the cowboy disappeared back into the store. “Maybe Ed will find someone else to make the trip,” Jesse said, hoping she hadn’t misread the transaction she had just witnessed. “Either way, darlin’,” she turned to look into Jennifer’s eyes. “I promise this will be the last time.”

“Thank you,” Jennifer whispered. When Jesse pressed their lips together, she leaned into the kiss.

CHAPTER THREE

Several weeks had passed since Jesse promised Jennifer she would agree to make no more deliveries for Ed that required her to be away from home for more than a day. The days were growing longer and warmer and the ground had dried out making it easier to attend to the chores around the ranch.

Jesse was mucking out the horse stalls in the barn. KC working beside her, using a miniature shovel her mother had made to drop horse biscuits into a bucket that Jesse would periodically empty into the wheelbarrow. Charley sat on a blanket spread out over a bed of fresh hay, playing with some toys. Outside, Jesse’s father, Stanley, was repairing a section of corral fence that had been damaged over the winter when a tree branch blew into it.

“Rider coming,” Stanley looked up from his work. Pulling a kerchief from his back pocket he wiped his brow as he watched the rider.

Jesse walked to the barn door. Looking across the ranch yard, she saw a horse galloping down the hillock. The flaming red hair flying behind the rider gave away her identity. “Come on, Sunshine,” she called to KC. Hurrying back into the barn she plucked KC off the floor then did the same to Charley. “Pop, can you saddle Dusty,” Jesse yelled, taking off for the back of the house.

“What’s wrong?” Marie asked, startled from her work in the garden when her daughter charged past.

“Sally’s coming.” Without breaking stride, Jessed leaped up onto the porch on her way to the kitchen and water pump inside. Setting Charley on the floor first, she put KC down on the counter next to the basin. Pumping the handle to get water flowing, she grabbed the soap bar and began lathering her hands. “Here,” she handed the soap bar to KC, “scrub as much of that stuff off your hands and face. We need to go to town.”

“See momma?” KC asked as she followed her mother’s directions.

Jesse smiled at her daughter, “yep, to see your momma. And your Aunt Ruthie, she’s having her baby.”

“Like Cha-wie?” KC mumbled through soap bubbles as she scrubbed her face.

“Yep,” Jesse pumped the handle a few more times, rinsing her hands and face in the cold water that flowed into the basin. Picking up a towel, she dried her daughter’s face and hands. “You’re about to have a cousin.” Her nose wrinkled as it detected a smell not coming from her or KC, “but we need to change Charley’s britches ‘fore we go.”

“I’ll take care of him,” Marie entered the kitchen.

“Thanks, Mom,” Jesse was using the hand towel to brush dirt off KC’s clothes. “We’re back here,” Jesse called out when she heard the screen door at the front of the house bang shut.

“Miss Jennifer said to tell you to hurry,” Sally told Jesse, the words gasped out as she tried to catch her breath.

“How soon?” Marie asked.

“Bette Mae said she could deliver at any moment.”

Jesse carried KC to the table. “Sit and don’t move,” she ruffled KC’s hair before walking over to the row of wood pegs near the back door where their coats were hung. She pulled the carry sack she had made when KC was a baby off one of the pegs. Slipping her arms through the straps, she turned around to walk back to KC and her mother. Sally was still standing in the doorway, breathing hard. “Get yourself a drink of water and sit for a spell,” she told the redhead.

“We’ll be there just as soon as Stanley gets Boy hitched to the buckboard,” Marie told Jesse as she lifted Charley up to place him into the carry sack.

“You take your time, Mom,” Jesse adjusted the sack more comfortably on her back. “There’s no reason for you to take any more of a beating on that rutted road than necessary.”

“Don’t you worry about us,” Marie leaned over to kiss KC. “You just be careful with the babies.”

“I will,” Jesse held out her arms for KC now standing on the table. The girl jumped without fear, confident her mother would catch her. “Don’t let your momma see you do that,” she whispered into KC’s ear. “She’ll spank both of us,” Jesse thought that wouldn’t necessary be a bad thing as she listened to her daughter giggle. “There’s Pop,” she said, seeing Stanley walk her palomino, Dusty, up to the back porch. “You can ride back with the folks, Sally,” she said as she walked for the door with her children.

“If it’s all the same to you,” Sally said, rubbing her sore backside. “I think I’ll just stretch out in the back of the wagon.” Riding a horse was something she rarely did and never at a full gallop like today.

Jesse smirked and nodded. Walking to the edge of the porch, she swung her leg over Dusty’s broad back. With KC sitting in front of her and Charley on her back, Jesse took the reins from her father, “thanks. We’ll see you in town.”

“We’ll be there,” Stanley nodded. “Now git.”

A slight tap of Jesse’s boots to Dusty’s sides and moments later the golden horse was charging up the hillock, KC’s happy squeals drifting behind.

***

Jesse sat on the porch of the mercantile watching Billie nervously pace back and forth. Ed and Stanley were sitting opposite each other, a crackle barrel between them and a checker board balanced on top of it.

“You know,” Jesse smirked at the nervous men. “Wearing a rut in these planks ain’t gonna make that baby come any sooner. Besides,” her eyes drifted down to KC and Charley asleep on a blanket in the shade at the back of the porch. “All your stomping is making it hard for the young ‘uns to sleep.”

“Damn it, Jesse,” Billie dropped in the chair next to her. “This ain’t easy. First Bette Mae says the baby could come any time,” he ran his fingers through his hair, scratching his scalp. “Then she says it could be a while.”

Jesse took pity on the expectant father who was more of a brother to her than a friend. “Babies come when they’re good and ready,” she reached over, squeezing Billie’s arm. “You can’t hurry them up or slow them down.”

“You had it easy,” Billie sighed. “Yours came already hatched.”

Ed snorted at the comment.

“Well, I wouldn’t have put it exactly like that,” Jesse chuckled. “And I don’t think I’d let Jennifer hear you say it but you’re right, I didn’t have to go through this. That’s not to say I agree with the having ‘it easy’ part. ‘Fore they come out is the easy part, after that they keep you mighty busy.”

“You ever regret having ‘em?” Billie asked, looking at the sleeping babies. He adored Jesse’s children but he doubted he could be the parent the rancher was proving to be.

“Not once,” Jesse said truthfully. “Can’t imagine not having the little rascals around.”

“You’re happy, ain’t ya, Jesse?” Billie gazed at the woman he remembered riding into Sweetwater lonely and without a future. Now she was married with a growing family and a successful business woman. And her eyes had been free of sadness ever since a certain ginger haired schoolteacher had arrived in Sweetwater. That is, until recently.

“I’m very happy, Billie,” Jesse smiled, but her eyes reflected the melancholy Billie had been noticing.

“But?”

Jesse leaned back in the chair before answering. “I miss Jennifer,” she sighed.

“What do you mean?” Billie was puzzled, Jennifer hadn’t gone anywhere.

“With her teaching duties keeping her in town and the ranch keeping me out there,” Jesse frowned. “Seems like we’re just riders passing on the road sometimes. I wish she could be home more.”

“You could ask her to quit,” Billie suggested.

“No,” Jesse shook her head. “It’s what she wants to do. It’s why she came to Sweetwater. I can’t ask her to give it up anymore than she’d ask me to give up the ranch.”

“But you would, wouldn’t you?”

“Would what?”

“Give up the ranch.”

“Yes. If she asked, I would.”

“Don’t ya think she feels the same about her teaching?”

Jesse stared at the schoolhouse sitting on a knoll not far from the mercantile. Was Billie right? Would Jennifer be willing to give up teaching and stay home? A baby’s cry interrupted her thoughts.

“You best be gettin’ up there,” Jesse jumped up and pulled Billie to his feet. She wrapped her arms around her friend, hugging him tight. “Sounds like you’re a poppa.”

Ed slapped Billie on his back as the new father stood frozen in place. “She’s right, boy,” he laughed at the mixed look of fear and excitement on the young man’s face. “Go on, now,” he shoved Billie towards the doorway. “Ruthie will be waiting for you.”

Billie stumbled across the porch and through the doorway. By the time he reached the stairs leading up to the rooms he shared with his wife, his brain had finally caught up to the situation. Taking the steps three at a time, he raced up to meet his first child.

Jennifer was coming down the stairs and had to flatten herself against the wall to avoid being bowled over by Billie.

“I’m a father,” Billie stopped when he reached the schoolteacher. Grinning, he pulled Jennifer into a hug, kissing her on the cheek. “I’m a father,” he repeated as he released her and continued upstairs.

Jennifer giggled, watching the animated man disappear down the hallway.

“You okay, darlin’?” Jesse was walking up the stairs to Jennifer, afraid the exuberant Billie might have hurt the schoolteacher’s bad leg in his rush to get upstairs.

“I’m fine,” Jennifer looked lovingly down at her wife. “It’s a boy, a fine healthy boy,” she told Jesse when the rancher wrapped her arms around her.

“He’ll like that,” Jesse murmured, kissing Jennifer’s forehead. “How’s Ruthie?”

“Fine. Tired but fine. Bette Mae said the baby didn’t tear her much.”

“Good.”

“Speaking of babies,” Jennifer leaned into Jesse. “Where are ours?”

“Sleeping,” Jesse said as she helped Jennifer down the stairs. “Ed and Pop are keeping an eye on them.”

“Hi, Pop, Ed,” Jennifer greeted her father-in-law and storekeeper as soon as she stepped out on the porch. “Thanks for watching them.”

“They don’t make much trouble when they’re sleeping. Too bad you can’t keep them that way,” Ed grumbled but his eyes were twinkling as he teased the mothers. KC’s curiosity had caused him more than a few messes to clean up in his store.

“Well, what was it?” Stanley asked, his elbow resting on the checker board dislodging most of the play pieces.

“A baby boy,” Jesse said proudly, even though she’d had nothing to do with the end result.

“Well, I’ll be,” Ed beamed. “Bet Billie is bustin’ off his buttons at that news. And Ruthie?”

“She’s fine,” Jennifer answered, sitting in the chair Jesse had guided her to. “Bette Mae and Mom are cleaning her up. I couldn’t stand any longer,” she turned to Jesse, an apologetic look on her face.

“Hush.” Jesse gently cupped her hands around Jennifer’s cheeks, smoothing out the worry lines in her forehead. “You did what you could, darlin’. Ruthie wouldn’t ask for any more.”

Jennifer leaned into the caress, closing her eyes as she let her wife’s love soak into her.

“You look tired, daughter,” Stanley told Jennifer from where he sat. “You should take her over to the Slipper so she can get some rest, Jesse.”

“No, I’m alright,” Jennifer protested, fighting to hold back a yawn.

“Pops right, darlin’,” Jesse grinned when Jennifer lost the battle. “Let me gather up the young ‘uns and we’ll walk over. Or do you want me to get the buckboard?” The wagon was in front of the mercantile where Stanley had left it when he and Marie arrived in town.

“No, I can walk,” Jennifer said. “It might help to stretch out the leg after standing for so long.”

Jesse knelt down, carefully lifting the sleeping babies into her arms. With the children secured, she stood and walked back over to Jennifer who was leaning heavily on her cane. “Ready, darlin’?”

“Yes. Will you tell Billie and Ruthie will come back later?” she asked Ed and Stanley. “KC will want to meet her cousin.”

“You go on now,” Stanley smiled at his daughter-in-law. “It’ll be a while ‘fore she’s ready for company. Marie slept for a week after givin’ birth to that there wife of yours.”

“Come on, darlin’,” Jesse waited until Jennifer wrapped her free hand around her arm. “Let’s go before he thinks of any other lies to tell about me,” she smiled at her father.

“Humpft,” Stanley grunted.

***

When Jennifer woke she was alone in bed but the whispered voices of her wife and daughter told her they were somewhere in the room. She rolled onto her side in the direction of the voices.

“Mommy,” KC whispered, “we see baby?”

“Yep, Sunshine,” Jesse whispered back, “just as soon as your momma wakes up.” She was bent over Charley changing his britches.

“Mommy,” KC whispered again. “Does baby ‘tink like Cha-wie?”

Jesse chuckled, poking KC in the ribs causing the girl to burst into giggles. “Yep. Just like Charley and just like you do when you need a bath.”

“I don’ need bath,” KC scooted away from Jesse’s propping finger.

“Oh, yes you do. And so do I,” Jesse sniffed loudly. “Remember what we were doing before we came to town this morning.”

“And what were you two filthy things doing?” Jennifer asked.

“Momma,” KC and Charley cried at the same time.

KC hopped up and ran for the bed, scrambling up onto the chest at the end of the bed to reach her mother. “Momma, I hav’ cossin,” she said, wrapping her arms around Jennifer’s neck. “We go see it now.”

Jennifer rolled onto her back, her arms wrapped around KC. “’IT’ is a boy,” she tweaked the girl’s nose. “And I refuse to go anyplace with you until you have a bath. Just what were you doing this morning, Jesse?”

“Mucking out the barn,” Jesse said, sitting on the bed with Charley. The baby pushed out of her lap to crawl to Jennifer. “Sorry,” she bent down to kiss Jennifer. “We didn’t have much time to wash up after Sally rode in with the news. I’ll see if the wash room is available since it looks like we’ll be spending the night in town.”

Jennifer turned her head to look out the room’s window. “How long did I sleep?” she asked, seeing that night had fallen outside.

“Few hours,” Jesse smiled. “Guess Pop was right when he said you looked tired. Having babies must be hard work.”

“It sure looked to be,” Jennifer remembered how much pain Ruthie had looked to be in when she was giving birth. She wondered if anything could be worth that much suffering.

“Momma,” Charley snuggled against his mother, providing the answer to her question.

“You want to eat first?” Jesse asked. She walked across the room to a dresser that held extra clothing for the family.

“No, you need a bath and so does KC,” Jennifer laughed when Jesse made a face at her. “We might as well throw Charley in with you.”

“What about you?” Jesse wiggled her eyebrows. “You want to join us, too?”

“As much as that offer intrigues me,” Jennifer smirked, “bathing with you as you wash horse biscuits and who knows what else off really isn’t that appealing.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” Jesse returned to the bed with her arms full of clean clothes. “Does she, Sunshine?”

“Nope,” KC grinned, wiggling about to give her momma a good whiff of her.

“Arrr,” Jennifer cried. “Jesse, get her off of the bed before we have to wash it too.”

“Come on, you rascal,” Jesse lifted KC up by her britches. “Leave your momma alone before she makes me sleep on the floor tonight.”

“I seep with you, mommy,” KC said, hanging in mid-air.

“Ain’t the same, Sunshine,” Jesse carried the baby out the door. “It just ain’t the same.”

“Hmmm,” Jennifer told Charley, rubbing circles on his back. “Seems she forgot something.”

“Sorry,” Jesse reappeared. She picked the baby up by his britches then holding both children out at arm’s length, she bent down to kiss Jennifer. “I’ll send Sally up for the clothes,” she said as she spun around and carried the squealing babies out the door.

“I love you, Jesse Branson,” Jennifer smiled.

***

“What you plan on calling him?” Jesse asked of the baby sleeping in her arms. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor in Billie and Ruthie’s sitting room, KC draped over her shoulder watching the infant.

The small room was overflowing with people as Bette Mae, Ed, Stanley, Marie, Jesse, Jennifer, KC, Charley, and the new baby were squeezed into the tiny room.

“Michael.” Billie answered.

“Michael Monroe,” Jesse said out loud. “Has a nice sound to it.”

“We thought so,” Billie said, mockingly.

“Lordy,” Bette couldn’t help but bend over and pinch the infant’s toes, “he is jus’ adorable. Ya’d never know Billie was capable of havin’ such a thing.”

“No, I’d say young Michael must get his looks from his momma,” Jesse teased.

“Momma,” Charley repeated. He was sitting in Jennifer’s lap and turned his head up to see his mother.

Jennifer bent down to kiss the baby’s out stretched hand. “I’m your momma,” she explained. “But Ruthie is Michael’s momma.”

“Momma,” Charley twisted around in Jennifer’s lap, snuggled against her breast.

“Don’ think he quite knows wha’ ya is tryin’ to tell him,” Bette Mae chuckled.

“No, I don’t think he does,” Jennifer cradled her baby boy.

“It’s been a long day,” Marie said, she being the only other woman in the room who had given birth to a child, she knew how tired Ruthie must be feeling. “I think it’s time we left these folks alone for awhile.”

“She’s right, Jesse. And it’s time the babies go to bed.”

“Alright,” Jesse handed Michael up to Billie who came to gather up his son. She stood, stretching out the kinks in her long legs. “Don’t you be worrying about the dress shop,” she said to Ruthie. “We’ll do what we can and what we can’t can wait until you feel up to coming back.”

“Tha’s a mouthful, even for me,” Bette Mae laughed.

“What’s she’s trying to say,” Jennifer smirked, “is you take all the time you need.”

“Thank you,” Ruthie smiled when Billie laid the baby in her arms. “It won’t be long, I promise.”

“He’s a beautiful baby,” Jennifer smiled at the young seamstress. “You spend some time with him; you don’t want to miss anything.”

Jesse could hear the regret in her wife’s voice. Maybe it was time to talk to Jennifer about giving up teaching and staying at the ranch with the children. “Come on, KC,” Jesse pulled the girl into her arms, “let’s take your momma and grandparents back to the Slipper.”

“Otay.” KC swiped her arm in a wide arc, “come on, grump. Let’s go.”

“Oh, boy,” Jesse groaned as Stanley began to growl as the others snickered. She helped Jennifer stand, “we really need to get her to stop calling him that,” she whispered.

“I’ve tried,” Jennifer whispered back.

Marie said her goodbyes to Billie and Ruthie then stopped by Jesse and Jennifer. “Don’t worry,” she whispered loud enough for everyone to hear. “He likes it even if he does growl at her.”

“Woman,” Stanley huffed. “Are you ready to leave or not?”

“Yes, dear,” Marie winked at her daughter’s. “I’m ready. Now go get your granddaughter so Jesse can help Jennifer down the stairs.”

Stanley grumbled but he didn’t complain when KC was passed to him from Jesse.

“Grump,” KC settled in her grandfather’s arms. “We go Slipper and get treats. Otay?”

Jesse just stood and shook her head as her father carried KC out of the room to the laughter her comment caused.

“Yep,” Ed chuckled, slapping Jesse on the back. “You have got your work cut out with that young ‘un. You surely do.”

“We better go, sweetheart,” Jennifer slipped her arm around Jesse’s, “before she talks him in to something else.”

“Oh, boy,” Jesse groaned, taking the sleepy baby from Jennifer. “Oh, boy.”

CHAPTER FOUR

The next morning after sleeping in, Jesse walked Jennifer to the schoolhouse. It was later than Jennifer normally liked to arrive at school and the children were already arriving.

“Darlin’,” Jesse started to say what had been on her mind since her conversation with Billie the day before.

“Morning, Mrs. Branson,” a trio of girls ran past the couple on their way to the schoolhouse.

“Yes, sweetheart,” Jennifer said after the children ran by.

“Morning, Mrs. Branson,” a boy ran by.

“I was thinking,” Jesse continued.

“Morning, Mrs. Branson. Did you get to see the baby?” another girl asked. It didn’t take long for news to spread in the small town and everyone knew Ruthie had given birth the day before.

“Yes, I did, Kathleen,” Jennifer told the girl. “What were you thinking?” she asked Jesse.

“Morning, Mrs. Branson,” a group of boys shouted as they splashed through the creek instead of using the footbridge.

Jesse gave up. “We’ll talk later,” she shrugged.

“Sweetheart?” Jennifer knew Jesse had slept little the night before and she was worried about what could be causing her wife such distress. “Let me get them settled and busy with their lessons then we can talk.”

“No,” Jesse smiled, shaking her head. “You go on. It’ll keep.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” Jesse leaned forward, pressing her lips to Jennifer’s she ignored the snickers coming from the children waiting in front of the schoolhouse. “I love you, darlin’.”

“We’ll talk tonight?”

“I promise. Go on, the children are waiting.”

“I love you, Jesse.”

“Love you, too.”

Jesse waited until Jennifer led the children into the schoolhouse before she turned to go back to the Slipper where her children still slept under Bette Mae’s watchful eyes. She and Jennifer had seen no reason to wake them since Jesse was staying in town to take care of some repairs at the boarding house that Bette Mae had been hounding her to get fixed.

***

“What next?” Jesse asked, pounding the final nail into a plank of wood she used to patch a hole in the wall of the Slipper. The winter’s winds had taken a toll on the buildings side that faced east.

“Thos’ back steps from the kitch’n upstairs seemed ta be a might wobbly,” Bette Mae told the building’s owner. “I’m afraid someone’s gonna trip one of these days.”

“Okay, let’s take a look,” Jesse tossed her hammer into the toolbox. “Let me get Charley.” Jesse had been moving the children as she went from one job to the next. It wasn’t too convenient when she was trying to work to have the children to look after but the few times they had tried having KC stay at the school with Jennifer had turned into disasters. The inquisitive girl’s endless questions made it impossible for Jennifer to concentrate on her students. And leaving the children at the ranch with their grandparents was not an option considering KC’s fear of having her mothers out of her sight. “Come on, KC,” Jesse told the toddler. “We need to go inside now.”

“Otay,” KC gathered up the toys she and Charley had been playing with then padded around the wrap-around porch to the front door. “Mommy, door too heavy,” she groaned, pushing against the wooden door with all her might.

“Hold on, littl’ angel,” Bette Mae chuckled at the struggling child. “Let me help ya,” she reached over KC’s head, turning the knob. “There ya go,” Bette Mae pushed the door open.

“T’anks,” KC said, marching into the Slipper’s dining area.

“Into the kitchen, KC,” Jesse told her daughter when she carried Charley inside. “You and Charley can play in there while I look at the steps.

“Otay. Come on, Cha-wie,” KC called to her brother even though he was being held by Jesse.

“Um,” Jesse said, looking around the crowded kitchen for a safe place to put the children. “Where do you want them?”

“Can’t put ‘em on the floor,” Bette Mae said, scanning the room. “Too much trouble for my littl’ angel ta git into. Here, I’ll stretch out the blanket here,” she spread the blanket for the children out on the floor of the doorway between the kitchen and the saloon. “It’s a might early for anyone to be in here and we’ll jus’ prop the door open so’s she can see ya. I can keep an eye on them whilst I start the stew fer tonight.”

“Is that okay, KC?” Jesse asked. “I’m going to be right there,” she pointed at the steps that led upstairs from the kitchen.

“Otay,” KC said, plopping down on the blanket. She leaned forward on her hands, stretching her neck to make sure she could see up the narrow stairway.

“Good,” Jesse smiled. “You keep an eye on your brother. Don’t let him wander away.”

“Otay. Cha-wie, KC turned her attention to her brother. “You stay right here.”

“Alright, show me which steps you’re complaining about,” Jesse pulled her hammer and a fistful of nails out of the toolbox.

“Lordy,” Bette Mae fussed. “Seems ya cou’d tell that yo’rself if’n ya jus’ took the time ta walk up them.”

“True,” Jesse laughed. “But I’d rather you show me the ones bothering you so I don’t get blamed for missing any.”

“Don’ know how’s ya ‘xpect a woman ta git any work done around here if’ns I have ta be showin’ ya every thing.”

KC watched Jesse start up the steps, satisfied she could still see her mother’s boots even after the rest of her disappeared up the staircase she decided to play with Charley. But when she looked around the baby was no longer on the blanket. “Cha-wie,” she called.

No answer.

“Cha-wie Br’nson, where are you?” she called again, trying to sound as much like her momma as possible. She heard a string of Charley’s gibberish coming from inside the saloon. Pushing herself onto her feet she started after her brother. “Cha-wie, come here. Mommy be mad.”

***

The lodger had had way too much to drink the night before. It was long after midday and his mind was still too groggy to make much sense of where he was or what he was doing. Having awakened with a desperate need to relieve his bladder, his arm hung over the bed, his hand fumbling for the chamber pot underneath.

“Damn,” he muttered as he searched. “I know there has to be one here. Guess I’m just gonna have to go out back to the outhouse,” he grumbled at the necessary but un-welcomed prospect.

Heavy curtains covered the window leaving in the room in complete darkness. He didn’t remember pulling the drapes shut the night before and deciding it must still be nighttime, he reached for the candle and matches on the table beside the bed. His numb fingers fumbling with the match, it took him several tries to finally get it to light so he could hold it to the candle wick until a small flame flickered to life.

“Don’t need this anymore.” Struggling to his feet, he flicked the spent match aside. With candle in hand, he made his way to the room’s door.

Bright daylight flooded the room as soon as he pulled the door open. Startled, he threw his hands up in front of his eye to block out the blinding light. The candle flew out of his hands, bouncing on the floor and rolling under the bed where a wisp of black smoke curled off the wick, its flame now extinguished.

Stumbling out into the hallway, his eyes closed tight against the harsh light, the lodger felt his way down the corridor to the back steps. Half falling, half walking, he journeyed downward, brushing past Jesse and Bette Mae then charged out the back door of the kitchen to the outhouse.

“Rough night?” Jesse asked Bette Mae.

“Drank more than he should have,” Bette Mae said as the back door swung wildly on its hinges. “Had to get Ed to help get him up to his room.”

“Oh,” Jesse went back to work on the steps.

Upstairs in the room the man had vacated, a match smoldered on the bed quilt as a gust of wind rushed into the room from the hallway. Moments later, the bed was engulfed in flame.

***

Jennifer stepped out onto the schoolhouse porch to call the children back inside after the midday break.

“Mrs. Branson,” one of the children was pointing down to the end of town. “Look, the Slipper is on fire.”

Jennifer’s heart stopped. Without wasting a moment, she stepped off the porch and, using her cane to support her bad leg, ran down the gravel path. The children ran behind her, over the foot bridge and down the dirt street towards the Silver Slipper. Thick black smoke was pouring out of a window at the end of the second floor. Bright red flames could be seen licking their way up the side of the wooden building to the roof.

“Jesse,” Jennifer screamed as she ran. “Jesse, the babies. Where are the babies?”

Ed, helping a customer inside his store, heard the screams and ran outside. Seeing the smoke and flames, he charged off the down the street. “Ring the bell,” he yelled to Billie who was a few feet behind him.

Billie ran for the schoolhouse. The school bell also served as the emergency bell for the small town. By the time he reached the pole and started yanking on the rope to sound the alarm, the street was full of people rushing for the Slipper.

Fire in a town where almost all buildings were constructed of wood was a serious affair. If the flames weren’t stopped, the entire town could be consumed destroying people’s homes and livelihoods. No effort was spared to stop any fire that might get started.

Ed quickly overtook Jennifer. He scooped her up with one of his strong arms and kept running.

“Jesse,” Jennifer cried as Ed carried her to the Slipper. “Where’s Jesse? Where are the babies?”

“We’ll find them,” Ed assured the distraught schoolteacher. “Don’t you worry, we’ll find.” And he was determined to do just that.

“Buckets,” someone yelled. “We need more buckets.”

Men, women and even the school children were using anything they could to fill with water from the horse troughs and creek. Since the fire was burning on the second floor it was hard to throw the water high enough to have any effect on the flames.

“Get the rest of the building wet,” Ed yelled when he saw men heaving water up as high as they could only to have it fall short of the fire. “You stay put,” he ordered Jennifer, setting her on her feet near the front of the building. “Billie, get that buckboard over by the side there. We can stand in it to get the water higher. Set up a bucket line,” he told an older boy running past with an empty bucket. “It’ll save time.”

Jennifer wanted to run inside the Slipper to find her family but she knew that would be foolish, she had no idea where in the large building they might be. All she could do was stand and wait for Jesse to come out with the children. And hope. And pray. “Jesse, please sweetheart, bring our babies to me,” she cried.

***

“Is that smoke?” Jesse sniffed the air. “You burnin’ something?” she teased Bette Mae.

“Ya know better ‘en that,” Bette Mae huffed, swatting Jesse on the leg.

“Do you smell that?” Jesse asked when she detected a stronger whiff of smoke.

“Now, tha’ ya mention it,” Bette Mae sniffed the air. “I do smells something.”

Jesse took a few steps upward until she could see down the hall. Smoke was billowing out of the room at the far end. “Fire,” she called down to Bette Mae. “Get everybody outside. Hurry.” She was already halfway down the staircase when she finished yelling her instructions, Betty Mae rushing down in front of her.

“I’ll get the girls,” Bette Mae called out, hurrying out into the dining room where Sally and a couple of the other women that worked at the Slipper were clearing off the tables after the midday diners finished their meal.

“KC,” Jesse called out, running across the kitchen to where she had left the babies. Her heart stopped when she found the blanket empty. “KC, where are you?” she screamed.

***

The room on fire was located above the saloon. It didn’t take long for the flames to start burning through the ceiling of the saloon sending its acrid smoke downward into the room.

KC sniffed, rubbing her nose when the foul smelling smoke invaded it. “Cha-wie,” she called for her brother. Not seeing the baby in the main room, she walked around the end of the bar and peeked down the space between it and the wall lined with shelves of bottles and glasses. It was an area that had always intrigued her, the shiny glasses drawing her attention whenever she was in the room. But her mothers had forbid her from playing around the bar, afraid she could get hurt if any of the bottles fell from their shelves. She knew she wasn’t supposed to be there but she had to find Charley.

“Cha-wie,” KC called out again, coughing a bit as the smoke around her thickened. She heard a soft whimper from the other end of the bar and headed for it. “Cha-wie, is that you?”

Charley had crawled behind the bar. Hearing his sister’s calls, he crawled under a low hanging shelve thinking it was a game to hide from KC. He giggled, listening as she looked around the room searching for him. His nose started twitching, something smelled really bad. He rubbed it, trying to rid his nose of the burning sensation. His wiped his eyes, blinking to ease the irritation caused by the smoke. This time, when he heard his sister call out for him, he whimpered hoping she’d come and take him back into the kitchen. His game wasn’t fun anymore.

“Cha-wie?” KC stood next to her brother’s hiding place. She bent over looking under the shelf, “why you hidin’? Come on, mommy be mad,” she reached for her brother. A fit of coughing caused her to sit abruptly, her arms waving around her head in hopes of chasing the smoke away.

Charley crawled out of hiding and into his sister’s lap, sniffling and wiping at his burning eyes.

“Its okay, Cha-wie,” KC hugged her brother. “Don’t cry. Mommy come git us.”

“Mommy,” the baby whimpered.

“Yep,” KC nodded in the thickening smoke. “Mommy come. You see.”

***

“KC,” Jesse yelled into the saloon, the room filled with blinding smoke. “Sunshine, where are you?”

KC sucked in a lungful of air to answer her mother but the smoke burned her throat and all she could do was cough weakly, “here, mommy. We here.”

Jesse heard the faint cry but couldn’t tell where it had come from. “KC, where are you?”

As soon as he heard Jesse’s voice, Charley began to cry, his sobs intermixed with coughing.

“See,” KC rocked her brother, “Mommy comin’.”

“KC?” Jesse yelled. She pushed her way into the smoke in search of her children, banging her knee hard as she walked into a table used by the saloon’s patron for their card games.

“Here, mommy,” KC cried out, her voice weak but unwavering.

Jesse’s outstretched hands found the edge of the bar and she followed. “KC,” she continued to call as she inched around to the end of the bar, the thick smoke preventing her from seeing more that a few inches.

“Here, mommy,” KC reached out and tugged on Jesse’s pant leg as soon as she saw it appear out of the smoke.

“KC,” Jesse knelt down. “Is Charley with you?”

“Yep.” KC’s vigorous nodding unseen by her mother. “He right here. He cryin’ ‘cause he scared.”

More by feel than sight, Jesse gathered her children into her arms. “You hurt?”

“No,” KC snuggled against her mother, glad to be safe in her arms.

“Okay, let’s get you out of here,” Jesse stood. She squinted, her eyes straining to see through the smoke. Going back to the kitchen was out of the question, the wall at that end of the room was on fire. She thought about trying to make it across the room to the door that would take them into the dining room but without knowing how far the fire had spread that might put them in a worst situation. “Guess the only way out is through the window,” she told the children clinging to her. “I need to sit you down for a minute,” she said as she leaned forward to place the babies on top of the bar.

“Mommy,” Charley cried out as soon as Jesse set him down.

“I’m right here, little man,” Jesse kissed the top of the boy’s head. “Just let me get my coat fixed,” she said, unbuttoning the jacket she’d worn that day because a chilly wind had been blowing in from the east. She tucked the bottom of the coat in her pants forming a pocket to carry the babies in. “Okay, come on,” she gathered the children back into her arms, wrapping the coat around them and fastening a couple buttons to keep it in place.

The smoke was getting thicker and a second wall in the room was starting to show flames.

Jesse made her way to the front of the room and the row of windows along that wall. She hadn’t gone more than a few feet when part of the ceiling gave way, crashing down on the other end of the bar. “Hang on, we’re getting out of here,” Jesse yelled to the babies bundled in her coat.

Jesse calculated that if she timed her jump just right she could break through a window and land on the porch on the other side. From there it would be a simple jump over the railing to the safety of the ground. As Jesse started to run, she tried to visualize where the tables at that end had been set the last time she had been in the room.

Charging forward, Jesse managed to miss all the tables and chairs she sped past. A soft glow of sunlight outlined the windows and she headed for the closest one. Leaping into the air, she crashed through the glass using her shoulder as a battering ram. Her boots hit the surface of the porch, wet from the efforts of the townsfolk trying to save the stop the flames. Unable to control herself on the slick wood, she skidded for the railing her hip slamming into it. Her momentum was too much and her body flipped head over tea kettle.

Jesse landed on her back with a THUD, the force of the landing knocking all the air out of her lungs.

***

Jennifer saw glass explode from the window, followed by her wife. She watched in relief as Jesse landed on the porch then in horror as the rancher’s body continued across the porch and cart-wheeled over the railing. “Jesse,” she screamed, running for the prone woman.

Dropping to her knees, Jennifer stared at her unmoving wife. Afraid to touch her in case she was injured but needing to know if she was alive, Jennifer reached out and tentatively caressed the rancher’s cheek. “Jesse, sweetheart,” she whispered. “Are you okay? Sweetheart, say something. Please,” she pleaded.

“Ugh,” was all Jesse could force out.

“The babies, Jesse,” Jennifer cried, at least Jesse was alive. “Where are the babies?” she asked, not noticing the unusual bulge under her wife’s clothing.

KC wiggled up her mother’s body just enough for her head to pop out of the coat that protected her. “Here, momma,” KC grinned. “Cha-wie, here too.”

“KC,” Jennifer was shocked to see the girl’s head suddenly appear. “Are you okay?”

“Yep,” KC continued wiggling free of the coat.

Jennifer scrabbled to get the buttons opened. Once she did, she fell on top of Jesse and the exposed babies, hugging and kissing them as tears rolled down her cheeks. “You’re okay,” she murmured between sobs. “Thank goodness, you’re okay.”

“Get off me,” Jesse managed to gasp, her wife’s loving hugs making it impossible for her lungs to fill with much needed air.

Charley wrapped his arms around Jennifer’s neck, refusing to let go as she sat up. “Sweetheart, are you alright?”

“Can’t breath,” Jesse wheezed.

“Mommy,” KC was bouncing on Jesse’s stomach, straddling the prone body. “That fun. We go ag’in?”

Jesse struggled for air, something not helped by her daughter’s activity. She slowly raised an arm, placing a shaky hand on top of KC’s head. “Don’t…bounce…,” she gasped.

“Otay,” KC stopped bouncing. “We go ag’in?” she grinned happily.

“Ugh.”

***

The sun was setting in the west, the brilliant colors of the sunset muted by the smoke that still hung in the air over Sweetwater. One end of the Silver Slipper continued to smolder but the flames had finally been distinguished. Most folks had gone back to their own homes and business, thankful the fire had been contained to a single building. Bette Mae and Sally were inside the Slipper, taking inventory of what remained. Ed and Billie, with the help of some of the older schoolboys, were passing burned furniture out of broken window and tossing it over the porch railing into the street to prevent it from starting any new fires.

Jesse sat on the steps of the Slipper, her arms wrapped around Jennifer and the children.

“What is it with us and fires?” Jennifer asked referring to the log home she had first shared with Jesse that had also been destroyed by flames.

“Don’t think we have anything to do with it, darlin’,” Jesse tightened her arms around her wife. “We build everything out of wood. Somethin’ gets started, it’s hard ta stop. Only thing in town safe from fire is the bank,” she said, looking down the street at the brick and stone building. “Just a fact of life out here. We’re lucky folks saved as much of the Slipper as they did.”

“Do you know what started it?”

“Nope,” Jesse shrugged. “Probably never will.”

“Well, I’m just glad you and the babies are safe.”

“Me too.”

“Jesse?”

“Hmm.”

“We’re going to go see Leevie,” Jennifer announced, the fire cementing a decision she had come to several days earlier. It had been terrifying to see the Slipper on fire and realize her family was inside. But it was the knowledge they wouldn’t have been there if she hadn’t needed to be at the schoolhouse that really frightened her. It was definitely time to make some changes in her life. But before she could, she had to talk to her friend.

“Right now?” Jesse asked, not surprised by her wife’s comment but confused as to its timing.

“Not right now, silly,” Jennifer giggled. “But as soon as the school term ends at the end of the month, we’re going to Granite.”

“Okay.”

“You’re not going to argue?”

“Nope.”

“You don’t want to know why?”

“Nope.” Jesse didn’t really care why Jennifer was so adamant about traveling to the mining camp. Right here, right now, all she cared about was their children were safe and she had everything important to her wrapped in her arms.

“What now?” Jennifer asked, glancing over her shoulder at the ruined building.

“Let’s go home.”

“What about the Slipper?”

“It’s not going anywhere. I’ll worry about it later. Right now, I want to take go home, put the babies to bed and make love to my wife.”

“Sounds wonderful,” Jennifer sighed, melting into Jesse’s embrace.

CHAPTER FIVE

The pounding of hammers floated into the schoolroom. Without looking, Jennifer knew the sounds were coming from the Slipper at the end of town. That was where Jesse was and where her children were. She sighed, that was where she wanted to be too.

It was approaching the end of the school term and Jennifer was looking forward to the end like she hadn’t any before. She missed being with her family during the day. She missed the moments Jesse would surprise her with a handful of freshly picked wildflowers or when her wife would ride into the ranch yard to give her a kiss before galloping back out to whatever chore she had left undone. She missed watching KC and Charley play and hearing their giggles of delight when Jesse joined them.

When she had first arrived in Sweetwater, Jennifer had thought being a schoolteacher would be wonderful. And it was. Seeing the smile on a child’s face after reading aloud for the first time or adding a column of numbers and coming up with the right answer was wonderful. Knowing that with her encouragement, students who had first arrived at the schoolhouse not able to read were now devouring books and sharing their new knowledge with their parents.

Children enjoyed coming to school and they liked Jennifer being their teacher. And she liked them. But they weren’t KC and Charley. And those were the children she wanted to spend her days with.

Jennifer looked up when she heard boots crunching on the gravel walk outside. She smiled, hearing KC calling for her before the toddler appeared in the schoolhouse doorway.

“Ah, here you are, darlin’,” Jesse smiled as soon as she entered the room. KC was tugging at her hand to be set free and Jesse obliged when she saw Jennifer appeared to be alone in the room. “Thought you’d be coming to the Slipper when school ended,” she carried Charley, following KC who was running for her momma.

“Momma,” KC cried excitingly. She ran for Jennifer who was still seated behind her desk. “Momma, I bang nails. It hard,” she told her mother as she pulled herself up into her Jennifer’s lap. “Cha-wie too small. He can’t bang nails, he gets hurt.”

Jennifer looked up in alarm, thinking her daughter was describing an actual event.

“He’s fine, darlin’,” Jesse bent over to kiss her wife before leaning against the edge of the desk. “I told her not to let him because I didn’t want him to get hurt.”

“Oh,” Jennifer smiled in relief. “Come here, little man,” she held her arms open for the baby who was reaching for her.

Jesse handed the baby to Jennifer. “So what’s keepin’ ya so long, darlin’? Young ‘uns were starting to get worried.” The school bell had rung almost two hours earlier marking the end of the school day.

“I had some papers to finish grading and Miles Jr. wanted to get some more books,” Jennifer explained.

“Sorry, Mrs. Branson,” a boy stood up from where he had been sitting on the floor next to the bookshelves that lined one wall of the room. “Guess I got lost in this story and didn’t know so much time had passed.”

“It’s alright, Miles,” Jennifer assured the boy. “I just now finished up with these papers. Did you find some you haven’t read already?”

“No ma’am but I found a couple I haven’t read in awhile.” Miles Jr., the son of Sweetwater’s mayor, had been the first student Jennifer had made a difference with. A shy, withdrawn boy, he had discovered a love of reading in Jennifer’s classroom and had read every book Sweetwater had to offer.

“Well then, maybe you’ll want to stop by the Slipper on your way home, Miles,” Jesse told the boy. “New delivery arrived today. Don’t know why they didn’t just bring them here,” she said to Jennifer. “Billie brought them over with a load of wood and supplies and dropped them on the Slipper’s porch. Think he plump forgot about them,” she thought out loud. “Bet ya could find ones in the box you haven’t read,” she told Miles Jr.

“Thanks, Mrs. Branson,” Miles Jr. replaced the books in his hands back on the shelves where he had found them. “I’ll do that. Thanks a lot,” he hurried for the door, a huge smile on his face. “See you tomorrow, Mrs. Branson,” he called back to Jennifer and then disappeared out the door.

“You know you make his day every time a new box of books arrives,” Jennifer grinned at Jesse.

“Just happy to see someone ‘sides us read the dang things,” Jesse shrugged, always embarrassed when her gift to the town was recognized. She was responsible for the large library of books Sweetwater had and it had happened quite unintentionally. A one night stay by a traveling salesman had led to monthly delivers that she had first kept at the Silver Slipper for overnight guests. With the help of Billie, Ed and the schoolchildren the past summer, book shelves had been added to the schoolhouse and the books had been moved. “Guess it’s a good thing we moved them,” she twisted around, her eyes scanning down the wall of books.

“Yes,” Jennifer, though her arms were full of her babies, managed to reach out and place a hand on her wife’s leg. “Loosing them in the fire would have been disastrous,” Jennifer said, her lessons depending heavily on the wide range of books in the school’s library.

“Well,” Jesse turned back around, placing a hand atop her wife’s. “Fire didn’t reach that part of the dining room but I’m still glad we moved ‘em. They get more use here than they ever did at the Slipper.” Most travelers not being much interested in reading during their stay in town.

“How’s the work going?”

“Pretty good, ‘though it’s gonna take some getting’ used to seeing it shorter than it used to be.”

After the fire, Jesse and Jennifer decided to make some changes at the Slipper. The fire had destroyed the end of the building that had housed a saloon and the boarding rooms above it and they decided not to replace them. They rented the old general store building from Ed and moved the dress shop there, luckily, other than getting a little smoky, the dresses and material had not been damaged in the fire. To the joy of Bette Mae, the wall separating the dress shop and the dining room was taken out and the dining room expanded. With more travelers coming through town on their way to mining camps that kept springing up in the surrounding mountains, the Slipper’s dining room had been doing standing room only business. The kitchen was also expanding giving Bette Mae the additional room she had been asking for. Neither Jesse nor Jennifer felt bad about losing the saloon business which generally caused more trouble than it was worth. There was always the Oxbow in town that could take care of any cowboy or drifter needing a drink.

“We got the rest of the walls raised today and we’ll be ready to start puttin’ on the new roof in the morning. With as dry as it’s been, we won’t have to worry about the weather givin’ us fits.” After a relatively wet winter, the spring had offered little in moisture.

“I would like to see some rain,” Jennifer said.

“Yeah,” Jesse agreed. “If it stays this dry, we’ll be having a rough time finding graze for the cattle. Good thing we’ve got good access to the river,” she added. “’Least we don’t have ta worry about them dying of thirst.”

“Momma,” KC looked up at Jennifer, “we go’s?”

“Do you want to go home, sweetie?” Jennifer smiled at her daughter.

“Yep,” KC’s head bopped up and down. “Cha-wie wants go toos.”

“He does, does he?” Jennifer laughed at KC’s habit of speaking for her brother. “You plan to ever let Charley speak for himself?”

“Nope,” KC hung her brother. “He needs me do it.”

“Not for long, sunshine,” Jesse laughed, plucking the toddler out of Jennifer’s lap. “You too, little man,” she said, lifting the baby. “Let your momma get up so we can go home.” Charley giggled when Jesse placed a sloppy kiss on his cheek, “you gonna have as much trouble gettin’ in a word or two with your sister as I have with your momma.”

“Jesse Marie Branson,” Jennifer scolded, playfully. “That’s a terrible thing to tell him.” She pushed the chair back away from the desk then stood reaching for the peg on the side of her desk where her cane hung. She’d asked Jesse to put the peg there after having to pick her cane off the floor one too many times after it had fallen from where she leaned it against a wall or her desk.

“But it’s true, ain’t it, sunshine?” Jesse smirked.

“Yep,” KC agreed.

“You’re impossible,” Jennifer laughed, tucking her arm around the rancher’s. “Oh, and Jesse…”

“Yes.”

“Don’t say…”

“AIN’T,” KC shouted, finishing her mother’s comment. She burst into giggles when long fingers tickled her side.

“Think you’re pretty smart, don’ ya,” Jesse growled at her daughter.

“Yep,” KC agreed. “Cha-wie smart too,” she told her mommy.

“Come on,” Jesse started for the door with her family. “Let’s git ya home and let your grandparents see what little rascals you are.”

“Me go see Grumps,” KC told her mothers. “Tell ‘im ‘bout bangin’ nails.”

“Yeah, that’ll make him real happy,” Jesse nodded, her father having taken a real liking to his grandchildren. She sometimes wondered why he hadn’t shown the same interest in her as a child but realized she’d probably never know and was just glad he had with her children.

***

“Been thinking we might want to move the cattle up to some of the higher pastures,” Stanley Branson said to Jesse as they walked out of the barn after seeing to the horses for the evening.

“Might early in the year to be doing that,” Jesse swung the big barn door closed. “We might be needing those grasses if we don’t get rain soon.”

“Grass down here is getting’ mighty thin.”

Jesse looked to the sky. What few clouds she saw weren’t the kind to carry much moisture. “Strange spring this has been,” she said more to herself than her father. “Don’t recall ever seeing one this dry.”

“Been a few I can remember,” Stanley commented. “Usually didn’t bode well for the rest of the year.”

“Jesse,” Jennifer was standing on the back porch calling into the darkness. “You coming? Supper’s on the table.”

“We’re coming, darlin’,” Jesse called back. “Come on, Pop. Don’t want them waiting on us, the young ‘uns will be hungry. Let’s give it a few more days before we decide anything.”

“When you leaving for Granite?” Stanley knew of Jesse’s plans to take Jennifer to the mining camp to visit their friend. If they didn’t move the herd before then, he’d not be able to move it on his own.

“Day after school lets out,” Jesse removed her stetson to run fingers through the tangled hair. “Guess maybe we should just let the herd be ‘till we get back. There’s plenty of grass left if we spread them out some more.”

“It’s your call,” Stanley didn’t agree with Jesse but it was her ranch.

“You think they should be moved, don’t you?” Jesse asked as she knocked the dirt and dust off her boots before climbing the porch steps.

“If it were me, I’d move ‘em,” Stanley followed her example.

“Let’s give it a few days,” Jesse muttered.

“Mommy,” KC was standing inside the kitchen looking out the screen door. “Hurrys.”

“We’re coming, sunshine,” Jesse smiled at her daughter.

“Grumps hurrys too?”

“Yes, I’m hurrying too,” Stanley grumbled. “Seems to me that there young ‘un has more to say about what goes on around here than you do.”

“Yep,” Jesse smirked. “Does seem like that.” She knew her father adored KC and was just trying to sound annoyed.

“You plan on doing anything about it?”

“Nope,” Jesse laughed.

***

Jesse had just slipped under the blankets and wrapped her arms around Jennifer when she heard the sound of small feet padding along the hall outside the bedroom door. She waited knowing what would happen next, it had become a nightly ritual since the fire at the Slipper. The knob on the bedroom door turned and the door was pushed inward. Jesse watched in the moonlight as KC toddled across the room to stand beside the bed.

“What ya doin’ out of bed, sunshine?” Jesse asked her daughter, KC had long ago become adept at climbing out of her crib.

KC didn’t answer. Instead, she used the arm her mommy had dropped off the side of the bed to pull herself up. She spent a few minutes finding a comfortable spot to sit which usually ending up being on top of Jesse like this night.

Jesse waited patiently, Jennifer lying quietly at her side watching and listening.

“Mommy?” KC finally said.

“Yes, sunshine,” Jesse place her arm around the baby.

“Me scared.”

“What ya afraid of?” Jesse asked, her voice soft.

KC sat, cocking her head off to the side like she did whenever she was thinking hard about something.

“Me scared Cha-wie get hurt,” KC finally answered.

“Ya mean in the fire?”

KC nodded, a sad look on her face. “Me ‘sposed watch him.”

“Sunshine,” Jesse pulled her daughter into a hug. “You were watching out for him.”

“He git scared, mommy,” KC whimpered. “He scared of smoke.”

“Were you scared of the smoke?” Jesse asked, her hand soothingly rubbing the toddler’s back. She could feel KC’s head slowly move up and down in answer to her question. “But you found Charley and kept him safe, didn’t you?”

“Cha-wie cryin’,” KC sniffled.

“I know. But you stayed right there and you let me know where you were so I could find both of you, didn’ ya?”

“I told Cha-wie you come,” KC wiped at the tears on her face. “I told him.”

“That was good, sunshine,” Jesse kissed the top of the toddler’s head. “And I’ll always come find you, I promise.” Jesse felt the tears building in her own eyes and didn’t try to stop them when they overflowed down her cheeks. She could hear the quiet sniffling of her wife next to her. “I promise, KC,” she told her daughter, holding her tight. “I’ll always find you.”

“I know, mommy,” KC used her mother’s chest to push herself up on her arms. She leaned down, kissing Jesse, “I wuv you.”

“I love you, too, sunshine,” Jesse smiled as her neck was wrapped in her daughter’s arms. After a few minutes, she asked KC, “you ready to go to bed now?”

“Yep,” KC yawned, her fears assuaged for one more night.

“Kiss momma goodnight.”

KC shifted so she could kiss and hug Jennifer.

“Okay,” Jesse said as she slipped out from under the blankets. “Let’s go.”

KC stood, ran to the edge of the bed and stopped abruptly remembering she wasn’t supposed to leap into the air when Jennifer was watching. “Sa-wie,” she whispered loudly to Jesse.

Jesse lifted her daughter off the bed, catching the movement of Jennifer’s body under the blankets that gave away her silent laughter. “Come on, rascal. Let’s get you to bed so I can come back and show your momma how much I love her.”

“Ugh, mommy,” KC grumbled, her face scrounged up in annoyance. “You ‘n momma kiss too much.”

“Ah, sunshine,” Jesse told her daughter as she carried her out of the room. “There’s no such thing as kissing your momma too much.”

***

When Jesse walked back into the bedroom after making sure the children were settled, she found Jennifer waiting for her.

“Hurry up and get into bed,” Jennifer ordered. “I can see from here you’re cold.”

Jesse smirked, the women having foregone wearing any nightshirts from almost the first night they’d made love. “You can, can you?” she snickered as she slipped under the blankets.

“Yes,” Jennifer said, turning onto her side and cupping a warm hand around a chilled breast. “And now I have the proof of it,” she flicked her thumb over the hard nipple.

“Well now, darlin’,” Jesse drawled. “You keep that up and I won’t be cold for long.”

“Com’ere,” Jennifer’s hand moved to the rancher’s back as she pulled her close. She kissed Jesse, her lips tenderly pressing against her wife’s. After several heartbeats, she broke the kiss, pulling back just enough so she could see into Jesse’s eyes. “Do you know why I love you?”

“I lov…”

“Let me finish,” Jennifer kissed Jesse again to quiet her. “When I see you talk to KC like you just did, my heart melts,” she said, her voice thick with the emotions she was feeling. “I don’t know what I ever did to have you come into my life but every day I’m more thankful than the day before that you’re here. I don’t know what I’d ever do if I lost you, Jesse. I think I’d just curl up and die.”

“I love you, too, darlin’,” Jesse smiled through her tears. She felt the same way about Jennifer. “And to prove it,” she rolled Jennifer onto her back, flipping the blankets off their naked bodies as she did. She lowered her lips to her wife’s. Her hands kneading and squeezing Jennifer’s breasts until the erect nipples pressed against her palms. Starting slowly, she kissed around her wife’s mouth, her tongue flicking out to taste where she kissed. After exploring and tasting every curve, ridge and dip of the lips, she slipped her tongue inside, beginning her exploration all over again.

Jennifer’s breathing was coming in gasps as her body reacted to her wife’s loving attention. Her hands buried themselves in the rancher’s hair, pulling her even closer and mashing their mouths together. She sucked on Jesse’s warm tongue before forcing it back in its own mouth and joining it.

Jesse slid a hand down Jennifer’s body to her patch of silky hair, sliding her fingers through the slickness it found there.

Jennifer spread her legs, her hips rolling up encouraging Jesse to enter her. “Please, Jesse,” she moaned when a hard nipple was pinched between thumb and finger.

Jesse continued to slide her fingers over her wife’s nether lips, pausing only to circle the aroused clit on each pass. She adjusted her position so she could suck a breast into her mouth, the soft flesh tasting salty on her tongue. She began to tease Jennifer, pressing her fingers into her then withdrawing.

Her hands still entwined with Jesse’s hair, Jennifer pulled her wife’s mouth against her breast. Digging her heels into the mattress, she forced her hips off the bed trying to draw fingers deeper inside her.

Jesse felt the increased flow of warm juices over her fingers as Jennifer cries of need urged her on. She pulled her fingers free then held them for a moment before plunging them deep inside Jennifer.

Jennifer felt the fingers fill her at the same instant a thumb was pressed hard against her clit and teeth gently bit her nipple. Her head flew back and her back arched as the first wave of orgasm crashed through her body. Her hips rocked, matching the rhythm of Jesse’s fingers. She clung to Jesse’s head, craving the feel of her lips and tongue on her breast and nipple. A second wave engulfed her.

Jesse’s fingers plunged in, pulled out and plunged in again. With each repetition, the movement became more frantic as she felt Jennifer respond to her. She could feel her own body responding in kind and she pressed her sex down on Jennifer’s thigh, rubbing herself up and down the firm leg.

Jennifer felt a third wave building. Feeling Jesse’s riding her leg, she knew it would not be long until her body could hold out no longer. “Now, Jesse,” she screamed.

Jesse plunged inside one last time; driving her fingers as deep as possible before curling them up to press against the spot that always gave her wife the greatest pleasure. As she felt Jennifer’s release begin, she reached for the schoolteacher’s leg pulling it up hard against her own clit at the same time she pressed herself against the leg.

Jennifer had no choice, her body jerking violently as the bent up pleasure exploded within her.

Jesse felt her wife’s release, the body convulsing beneath her, and her own release followed immediately after. She pressed her legs together trapping the thigh between them to keep it pressed against her clit. Her fingers were similarly trapped inside Jennifer.

It was several minutes before either woman could find the breath to speak. Jesse had collapsed on top of Jennifer who had wrapped her in a death grip as their orgasms consumed them. Slowly, Jennifer released her hold on her wife and Jesse slid off of her to lie at her side.

Jesse gently turned Jennifer onto her side, spooning in tight behind her. Reaching back, she grabbed hold of the blankets pulling them back over their sweaty bodies. “I’ll never leave you, darlin’,” she whispered into her wife’s ear. “I love you too much.”

Jennifer entwined her finders with Jesse’s, pulling the hand to her heart that continued to beat rapidly. “I love you, Jesse Branson.”

“I love you, Jennifer Branson,” the rancher whispered as sleep claimed them.

CHAPTER SIX

“Ya sure ‘bout taking them babies over the mountains again, Jesse?” Bette Mae asked, watching Jesse fill the buckboard with supplies needed for the ranch and the impending trip to Granite. She was sitting in the shade of the awning that covered the loading dock at the back of the mercantile.

“Somethin’ wrong with me taking my family to visit friends?” Jesse questioned, lifting a bag of flour off the wooden deck.

“No. It’s just…”

“Just what?” Jesse stopped her work to look at her friend. She pushed the stetson back off her brow and used her sleeve to wipe the sweat away. “Dang it’s hot,” she sighed.

“Well now, that there’s another reason ya should’t be takin’ them babies.”

“Jennifer wants to visit Leevie,” Jesse cocked her head to study the older woman. “You want us to leave KC and Charley with you?” she asked innocently, taking a quick glance at the children sleeping on a blanket next to Bette Mae’s chair.

“Heavens no,” Bette Mae shook her head. “Why KC would have the Slipper turned inside out ‘fore ya was halfway out the valley.”

“Thought she was your little angel,” Jesse smirked, returning to the work of getting the pile of supplies into the wagon. School would be out soon and she wanted to be there to pick up her wife.

“She is,” Bette Mae looked down at the children. “She’s jus’ got more piss in her than a wolverine in a bad mood. And ya know tha’ its neigh impossible ta say no to tha’ young ‘un. She’s jus’ so…”

“Cute?” Jesse snickered. She was well aware of how easy it was for her daughter to get her way with a simply cocking of her head and smiling. It had worked on her enough times.

“Jesse, ya ain’t helpin’,” Bette Mae grumbled.

“Okay,” Jesse hopped up to sit on the edge of the wide porch. “What’s wrong, Bette Mae? Why don’t you want us to take the young ‘uns?”

“It’s jus’ tha’ every time you go ‘way from the valley, somethin’ always seems to happen,” Bette Mae explained.

Jesse could see the concern in the older woman’s eyes. “Nothing is going to happen, Bette Mae. We don’t have rustlers setting us up for a lynching and there’s no outlaws lying in wait to ambush us. Jennifer’s father is locked away back east and Harrington hasn’t been heard from since he left town. So there’s nothing to worry about.”

“There’s always somethin’ when ya’s involved, Jesse. I don’ wan’ any of ya to get hurt.”

“We won’t,” Jesse stood and walked to where Bette Mae sat. “I promise. I won’t let anything happen to any of us,” she leaned over to place a quick kiss on her temple. “Besides,” she said as she straightened back up. “Jennifer has you beat in the worrying department and she won’t let me take any chances this time. She’s made me promise that if we run into trouble, any trouble,” she emphasized. “We high-tail it back home.”

“Lordy,” Bette Mae smiled, “at least one of ya’s has som’ sense. So what about the ranch? Yo’r poppa can’t handle it alone.”

“And why not?” Stanley walked out the back of the store. “I’m not dead yet,” he glowered at Bette Mae.

“Get what you needed, pop?” Jesse asked her father.

“Yep. Ed had some real nice ones,” Stanley held up a pair of new axes. “These should make short work of cutting firewood. Told him to put it on the Slipper’s account, I did,” he winked at Jesse.

“The Slipper’s account,” Bette Mae jumped at the bait. Once the bank had opened in Sweetwater, Jesse set up an account for Bette Mae to use to cover expenses at the Slipper. “Now why would ya go and do a fool thing like tha’? Ya know full well I ain’t gonna buy ya no new axe. Why the cost of tha’ would probably pay for a week’s worth a flour. And the Slipper needs flour a hell a lot more than it needs ta pay for yo’r toys.”

“Ain’t a toy, Bette Mae,” Jesse defended her father’s purchase. “Axe I’ve been using out at the ranch is getting tpo worn to keep sharp, hard to cut firewood with a dull axe. And we’ve got to cut back some willows down by the river. With the river getting’ so low, cattle are having a rough time getting’ through them to it. Had to free up two that got tangled in them this week alone.”

“Why ain’t ya movin’ ‘em up high then?” Bette Mae asked.

“That there is a mighty good question,” Stanley added his purchases to the back of the buckboard. “Been askin’ her that myself for the past few weeks.”

The ranch’s boundaries encompassed acres of forested land and hidden in the trees were several large mountain meadows some distance above the valley floor. The difference in elevation meant the meadows stayed cooler and the grass stayed greener long after the valley’s grasslands had dried out from lack of moisture.

Jesse knew it would be better on the cattle to move them but something deep in her gut was telling her not to. “Not sure why but I just know it isn’t the best idea,” she told the others. “It may be a little hard on the herd to stay put but that’s what they’re gonna do. Weather has to break sooner or later,” she scratched the back of her head, hoping that by saying the words they would come true. The sound of KC waking up drew her attention. “Pop can you get the rest of this in the wagon? I need to see to the young ‘uns.”

“Yep,” Stanley was already lifting the last box of food stuffs over the side of the wagon.

“Mommy,” KC sat up, rubbing her eyes. “I ‘ungry,” she mumbled.

Bette Mae laughed a hearty joyful laugh that floated on the dry air. “When ain’t ya child? When ain’t ya?”

Hearing the familiar voice, KC twisted her head around to look for its owner. “Hi, ‘Ette,” she smiled brightly.

“That,” Bette Mae pointed at the girl, “is wha’ I was talkin’ ‘bout. How do ya say no ta that?”

“Ya don’t,” Stanley grumbled.

“Hi, Grumps,” KC turned at her grandfather’s voice. “You ‘ungry too?”

“Oh, no you don’t,” Jesse knelt down beside the blanket. “We don’t have time for you to work your magic to get some treats. We need to get Charley up and changed and get over to the school to pick up your momma. Today’s the last day of school and she’s gonna be in a big hurry to get home.”

KC’s face fell at her mother’s words. “No treats,” she pouted, her lower lip quivering.

“Did I hear someone say treats?” Thaddeus Newby, the town’s newspaper owner and editor, walked out from the back of the store carrying a handful of freshly baked cookies. “I was over having lunch at the Slipper and I just couldn’t leave without some of these. Fresh from the oven too,” he bent down handing one of the cookies to KC. “This one’s for Charley when he wakes up,” he said, placing a second cookie on the blanket near Jesse.

“T’anks,” KC grinned, grabbing the warm cookie and breaking off a piece. She held the bite out for Jesse while she bit off a piece for herself. “Good,” she grinned as she chewed. “You eat.”

Jesse opened her mouth wide to gather in the offered bite and her daughter’s fingers. “You’re right,” she smiled at the girl, “you do taste good. The cookie isn’t too bad either.”

“You silly,” KC giggled, shoving the rest of the treat into her mouth. “Mor’, pease,” she held her hand up to Thaddeus.

“Nope, sunshine,” Jesse grabbed the hand and placed it back in KC’s lap. “That’s all you get.”

Charley’s eyes popped open and the baby smiled at his mother.

“Hi there, little man,” Jesse reached over and tickled the boy’s tummy. “Did you smell that cookie?” she laughed as Charley giggled.

Charley rolled over onto his stomach before pushing himself up on all fours. He crawled to Jesse, plopping down to sit next to her and waited.

“How come your sister isn’t that behaved?” Jesse chuckled, bending over to kiss the baby’s head. She picked up the cookie, breaking it in half. “Here ya go,” she said as she handed a half to Charley. “What say we keep this piece for momma?”

Charley smiled around a mouthful of cookie.

“Charley says otay, mommy,” KC stood and toddled over to Jesse.

“Lordy, tha’ poor child ain’t never gonna learn ta talk,” Bette Mae snickered.

“Mommy,” KC patted Jesse’s shoulder.

“What is it, sunshine?”

KC leaned in close and whispered, “Ette say ain’t.”

“That she did,” Jesse nodded. “But I think that’s okay. Your momma just doesn’t want you or me to say it.”

“Oh,” KC peeked around Jesse to look at Bette Mae. “Its otay,” she informed the woman.

“Come here, child,” Bette Mae laughed, opening her arms wide.

Giggling, KC ran for Bette Mae and was immediately wrapped up by the woman’s arms. “Ya take real good care of yo’r momma and mommy, ya hear,” Bette Mae hugged the girl tight. “I don’ wan’ nothin’ happenin’ ta them.”

“Otay,” KC agreed even though she wasn’t real sure what was being asked of her.

“Leaving in the morning, Jesse?” Thaddeus asked.

“No,” Jesse laid Charley on the blanket so she could change his britches. “Have a few things to take care of out at the ranch first. Probably first of the week.”

“Too bad you’re not taking a wagon,” Ed said walking out of the store. “Have some things for a young couple in Phillipsburg. You could make some money out of the trip.” He insisted on paying Jesse whenever she made a delivery for his mercantile.

“What kind of things?”

“Some dresses.”

“Why’d they order that from you?” Thaddeus asked. “Can’t they get those in Phillipsburg?” Granite was located a few miles up the mountain from the larger mining camp.

“They was passing through town a few weeks back and stopped in Ruthie’s shop. Ordered a couple of dresses and I agreed to get them delivered when they were ready.”

“Well, a couple of dresses can’t take up much room,” Jesse said. “Guess we could add them to one of the packs.”

“Don’t want to put you out none,” Ed said, hoping Jesse wouldn’t change her mind.

“Wrap ‘em up and we’ll take them with us.”

“Thanks, Jesse. I’ll be right back,” the storekeeper disappeared back into the building.

“Here ya go, Charley,” Jesse pulled the baby into her arms. “All fresh and clean for momma.” She stood up and carried the boy to the wagon. She handed him up to his grandfather already sitting on the wagon bench. “Come on, KC.”

KC gave Bette Mae a peck on the cheek then dropped out of her lap and ran towards her mother. Not hesitating when she reached the edge of the platform, she flew into the air.

Jesse turned just in time to catch her daughter. “Whoa there, sunshine,” Jesse snatched the girl out of the air. “You need to make sure I’m ready for ya.”

“You ready, momma,” KC wrapped her arms around Jesse’s neck. “You always ready.”

“With you around, smart britches,” Stanley grumbled, taking the toddler from Jesse and setting her in his lap with Charley. “She ain’t got much of a choice.”

“Ain’t tha’ the truth,” Bette Mae chuckled.

“Here you go, Jesse,” Ed came back out of the store. “It’s not too big a package is it?”

“Nope,” Jesse took the bundle wrapped in brown paper and tied tightly with a piece of string from the storekeeper. “Won’t be a problem at all.”

“I wrote their name on the paper and where they said they could be found,” Ed smiled glad to have his problem solved. He didn’t have many delivers to Phillipsburg and his only other choice would have been to send the package by stage, something that would have cost more money than he cared to spend.

“Have a good trip, Jesse,” Thaddeus said.

“We will,” Jesse replied, tucking the package into the back of the wagon. “You folks make sure to keep an eye on Ruthie and the baby. Jennifer doesn’t want her working too much right now.”

“I’ll make sure Billie spends as much time with her as he can,” Ed agreed. Billie and Ruthie lived above the store and Billie helped Ed out at the store when he needed it.

“Be careful,” Bette Mae had walked to the edge of the platform and was standing between Ed and Thaddeus.

“We will,” Jesse said, climbing up into the wagon seat. Unwrapping Boy’s reins from the brake handle, she used her booted foot to release the brake. With a flick of the wrist, the reins slapped on the broad back of the work horse and he took a few steps forward, straining against the wagon’s weight until the wheels began to turn.

“Bye, ‘Ette,” KC had squirmed out of Stanley’s grasp and was kneeling between her mother and grandfather facing backwards on the wagon seat. With one hand holding tight on the back of the seat, she waved to her friends with the other. “Bye. T’anks for the cookie.”

“Bye, littl’ angel,” Bette Mae waved back, wiping a tear from her cheek.

***

Jesse pulled the barn doors closed, preparing to return to the house after checking on the horses and making sure they were settled for the night. As she walked across the ranch yard, she looked up at the night sky, unsurprised to see it free of any clouds. Stars twinkled brightly and she smiled. On evenings like this, she always thought of the first few nights she and Jennifer had spent together camping out under the stars and falling in love. Thinking of her wife made her want to get back to the house where she would find the woman that had become everything to her and she quickened her steps.

“Hi,” Jennifer said when Jesse climbed up onto the back porch.

“Whatcha doin’ out here, darlin’?” Jesse asked seeing that Jennifer sat alone in the porch swing.

“Waiting for the woman I love,” Jennifer smiled.

“Oh,” Jesse smirked, walking over to the swing. “You expectin’ her soon or can I snuggle up with you until she gets here.”

“That depends,” Jennifer demurely looked up at her wife, patting the swing’s seat beside her.

“On what?” Jesse asked as she took the offered seat.

“On how good you snuggle,” Jennifer leaned against Jesse, sighing happily when she felt strong arms wrap around her.

“Well,” Jesse drawled, pulling the schoolteacher close. “I’ve had lots of lessons from the best cuddler ever so I’m thinking I can do a right fair job of it.”

“Oh,” Jennifer snuggled into Jesse’s embrace. “And who would that be?”

“Why, a little ginger haired spitfire if there ever was one,” Jesse teased. “I think you might even know her.”

“Really?”

“Yep.”

“Does she have a name?”

“Yep, might pretty one too.”

“Care to share?”

“Sure.”

“Well?”

Jesse rolled her head, placing a tender kiss on the tip of Jennifer’s nose. “Why I’m surprised you don’t know, darlin’,” she grinned, pressing her forehead against Jennifer’s. “Her name is KC.”

“Bad,” Jennifer playfully slapped Jesse on the belly.

“I love you,” Jesse leaned in just enough to press her lips against her wife’s. She took her time exploring the soft skin with her lips and tongue.

“Hmmm,” Jennifer moaned, her eyes sliding close as she let her wife’s love spread throughout her body. “That was nice,” she sighed when Jesse took a moment to breathe.

“Yes, it certainly was,” Jesse was so close to Jennifer that she could taste the air her lover exhaled.

Jennifer’s eyes slowly opened to look into Jesse’s. “I love you.”

Jesse leaned back on the swing, pulling Jennifer with her and bracing her foot on the porch. “What about that woman you said you was waiting for?” she asked, pumping her legs slightly to start a gentle motion of the seat beneath them.

“What woman?” Jennifer laid her head against Jesse’s shoulder, content in the closeness of her wife and the soothing motion of the swing.

“Forgot her already, did ya?” Jesse chuckled.

“Nope,” Jennifer started unbuttoning Jesse’s shirt. “Just found somebody I like a whole lot better,” she said, slipping her hand inside to rest it on the warm skin hidden under the flannel material.

The women sat like that for several minutes. No words were necessary as they savored the peaceful night, the starlit sky and each other.

“So, you planning on telling me why you were sitting out here all alone?” Jesse murmured in Jennifer’s ear. The swing had been well used since she’d hung it months earlier as a surprise for her wife. But almost always, Jennifer had the children with her or the two of them would sit in it after the children had been put to bed.

“I was just thinking,” Jennifer’s hand began to creep up towards the firm breasts she loved to hold.

“’Bout what?” Jesse gasped, feeling her heart beat speed up.

Jennifer stilled her hand. She wanted to tease Jesse but she also wanted a little time to think about her answer. Should she tell Jesse why she wanted to see Leevie? She didn’t want Jesse to try and talk her out of the decision she had made some time earlier but was it fair to wait and spring it on her once they arrived in Granite? Then again, would Jesse even care?

The sound of feet padding across the kitchen floor and someone leaning against the screen door interrupted the women’s thoughts.

“Didn’t you put them to bed?” Jesse whispered.

“Yes,” Jennifer whispered back. “Didn’t you tell her she wasn’t s’posed to climb down the stairs alone?”

“Yep.”

“You sure it’s her?”

“It sure ain’t Charley,” Jesse grumbled. Without moving, she addressed her daughter, “sunshine, are you out of bed?”

“Yep,” KC said through the screen door.

“Didn’t momma tell you to go to sleep?”

“Yep.”

“Then why are you up?”

Jesse and Jennifer heard the screen door squeak slightly as it was slowly pushed open. They listened as small feet padded across the wood planks on the porch and tried not to laugh when their daughter walked in front of them, cocking her head to the side to study them.

“Me tired,” KC told her mothers, one hand balled into a fist to rub her eyes.

“That’s why your momma put you to bed,” Jesse smirked, trying hard not to laugh. With her hair sticking out in every which direction, the toddler looked just like Jennifer when she woke in the morning.

Jennifer sat up, pulling her hand out of Jesse’s shirt. She laughed when the rancher groaned in protest over the action. “Sweetie,” she bent down to talk to KC, “why did you get out of bed if you’re tired?” She reached out for the baby, lifting her into her lap when KC moved into her arms.

“Miss mommy,” KC looked up at Jennifer, her face sad.

“What do you mean, you miss me?” Jesse asked, confused by the toddler’s statement. “I’m right here.”

“I think,” Jennifer told Jesse, “that she means she missed you saying goodnight to her. Isn’t that right, sweetie?” she asked KC. “Did you and Charley miss mommy’s kisses tonight?”

“Yep,” KC nodding, her lower lip poking out as she looked up at Jesse.

“Oh,” Jesse smiled at her daughter. “Then I guess I better fix that, huh?”

KC waited, expectantly.

“Come on, sunshine,” Jesse held her arms open, “let’s go put you to bed properly.”

KC scrambled into her mother’s arms, giggling happily when Jesse smothered her with kisses.

Jesse stood, holding a hand out to Jennifer. “Shall we put this young ‘un to bed, darlin’?”

“I think that would be best,” Jennifer let Jesse pull her out of the swing.

“Is your brother awake, too?” Jesse asked as she and Jennifer walked hand-in-hand for the door.

“No, Cha-wie seeping,” KC told her mothers.

“Oh, so he doesn’t need me to kiss him goodnight,” Jesse pouted.

“He jus’ baby, mommy,” KC patted her mommy’s cheek.

“And you’re not?” Jesse held the screen door open for Jennifer.

“No,” KC beamed, “I big girl.”

“Not that big,” Jesse snickered, tickling the toddler. “You still need your mommy to kiss you goodnight.”

“Jesse, stop it,” Jennifer warned when KC let loose a flood of giggles. “You’ll wake up Charley.”

“Sorry, darlin’,” Jesse stopped agitating KC. “Settle down, sunshine,” she told the girl, “so’s I can help your momma upstairs.”

“Otay,” KC settled immediately. She knew how hard it was for her mother to climb stairs and she didn’t want to make it any harder.

Jennifer slipped her arm around Jesse’s, taking advantage of her wife’s strength to help pull her damaged leg up each step.

It took several minutes to reach the top landing but, as usual, Jesse took every step with her never voicing any complaint.

The women carried KC down the hall to the children’s bedroom and slipped inside to find Charley sitting up in his crib.

“Hey, little man,” Jennifer leaned over to kiss her son. “Are you waiting for mommy to kiss you goodnight, too?”

Charley smiled at his momma as he started to chatter in gibberish.

“Cha-wie say yep,” KC told Jesse as she placed her in her own crib.

“That’s an awful lot for him to be saying if all he said is ‘yep’,” Jesse snickered, tucking the blanket around KC. She bent over and kissed the girl on the cheek. “Good night, sunshine. You go to sleep now, okay?”

“Otay,” KC yawned.

Jesse switched places with Jennifer. She bent over the side of the crib to kiss Charley. “Good night, little man,” she said, checking the blanket Jennifer had tucked around the baby.

Charley reached up, pressing his tiny hand against his mother’s cheek.

Jesse felt the tears building in her eyes and brushed at them before they had a chance to fall. “I love you, too,” she whispered.

***

CHAPTER SEVEN

“That should do it, darlin’,” Jesse pulled the strap tight that helped bound the packs to Boy.

“Good,” Jennifer stood on the back porch of the house where for the past couple of days they had piled the items they would take with them to Granite. She looked around to make sure they hadn’t forgotten anything when she and Jesse had carefully tucked the gear and supplies into the packs that now rested on the draft horse’s broad back.

“We goes?” KC asked. She and Charley were sitting in the porch swing watching their mothers work.

The women had quite accidentally discovered the little girl couldn’t get out of the moving swing on her own which made it perfect for keeping track of their easily distracted daughter.

“Pretty soon, sunshine,” Jesse smiled at the toddler. “First, we need to check Charley’s britches and say goodbye to your grandma and grandpa.

“Otay,” KC said, slapping her hands against her thighs in frustration. She was anxious to get going since she liked to ride Dusty with her mommy.

“Where are Mom and Pop anyway?” Jennifer asked surprised Jesse’s parents hadn’t appeared out of their cabin by now. The sun had been up for a couple of hours and they knew the women were planning on leaving. “I’d expected them to eat breakfast with us this morning.”

“Don’t know,” Jesse made a final check of the straps and bindings. “I’ll walk over and check soon as we get Charley changed.”

“Why don’t you and KC do that while I take care of Charley,” Jennifer offered, as anxious to get moving as her antsy daughter.

“You sure?”

“Yes, go ahead.”

“Alright,” Jesse stepped up onto the porch, wrapped her arms around Jennifer and hugged her tight. “We won’t be long, darlin’.”

“Just bring them back with you, I want to know they’re okay,” Jennifer said, leaning into her wife’s embrace.

“Hey, we thought you might be on your way by now,” Stanley Branson rounded the corner of the house, his wife right behind him.

“We were just coming to look for you,” Jesse smiled at her parents. “Where have ya been?”

“Marie is feeling poorly this morning,” Stanley stepped up onto the porch. “Took me this long ta talk her into coming over and saying goodbye, she didn’t want ya worrying none. I told her the young ‘uns would be expectin’ us.”

“Grumps,” KC called out to her grandfather, her hands held high in anticipation of being set free of the swing.

“You’re not feeling well, Mom?” Jennifer asked Marie as she picked Charley up from the swing, she didn’t want the baby sitting in it alone.

“Maybe we should hold off goin’ for a few days,” Jesse crossed the porch to where her mother was standing.

“Nonsense,” Marie patted Jesse on the face. “It’s just a womanly thing,” she whispered. “Your poppa has never understood those things.”

“You sure, Mom?”

“Course I’m sure. You go on with your plans,” Marie smiled to reassure her daughter. “I’ll be just fine in a day or two.”

Jesse was torn. She knew Jennifer was anxious to get to Granite but she was concerned about her mother. Marie had never been a strong person and she worried anytime the older woman got sick.

“We can wait a few days, Jesse,” Jennifer said, carrying Charley to stand with the others.

“No,” Marie insisted. “I’ll be fine. Just need to take it easy for a day or two.”

“I don’t know, Mom,” Jesse was convinced. “If it’s alright with Jennifer, I think we should stay put. At least until you’re feeling better.”

“Jesse Marie Branson, you will do no such thing,” Marie bristled. “I said I’ll be fine and I will. Now you take your wife and your young ‘uns to Granite like they’re ‘specting you to do.”

“And they say I’m the stubborn one,” Stanley whispered to KC who giggled.

“Alright, if you’re sure,” Jesse rubbed her cheeks, trying to hide the red tint that was starting to color them. Shrugging she looked at Jennifer, “guess we’re going, darlin’.”

“Let me take care of Charley,” Jennifer began.

“I’ll do that,” Jesse snatched the baby from her wife and hurried into the house.

“Um,” Jennifer watched the screen door bounce against the door frame after Jesse rushed inside. “I think I should go check on her,” she told her in-laws. “You be good, KC. Mommy and me will be right back. Okay?”

KC nodded, her face sad. She didn’t like to see her mothers upset.

After Jennifer had gone inside, Stanley turned to his wife. “What the blazes was that all about?”

“I don’t know,” Marie sighed. “But I think I hurt her feelings.”

“Mommy sad,” KC told her grandparents.

“What for?” Stanley grumbled.

KC laid her head on her grandfather’s shoulder, her eyes glued to the screen door. “Don’t like yell,” she murmured.

Marie looked at the baby, a flood of memories flashing through her thoughts. Memories of a small girl who could do no right it seemed. She wondered how much hurt that must have caused her daughter to have her still carrying it with her. “I think I should go see to Jesse,” she told Stanley.

“Wait,” Stanley sat in the swing. He had his own memories of his daughter’s childhood and not many of them made him proud. But he was proud of the woman she had grown into and the daughter she was to him now. He knew Jennifer was a big part of that and if anyone could ease Jesse’s pain it would be her wife. “Leave ‘em be for a minute.”

***

“Jesse?” Jennifer tapped on the door frame to the children’s room, not wanting to startle her wife.

“You didn’t need to come up here, darlin’,” Jesse grabbed a chair, placing it near Jennifer for her to sit. “That’s a lot of strain on your leg just ‘fore we leave.”

“That’s okay,” Jennifer limped past the chair to stand beside Jesse. “You alright?” she asked, wrapping her arms around her wife.

“Yep,” Jesse twisted her head to smile at her wife. “Guess I made a fool of myself down there, huh?”

“No.” Jennifer continued to hold Jesse as she finished dressing Charley. “What to talk about it?”

“Not much ta talk ‘bout. Haven’t heard Mom use that tone in some time,” Jesse lifted the baby into her arms and turned to face her wife. “Guess it just caught me off guard. I kinda felt like I was that little girl again,” she wrapped her free arm around Jennifer. “The one that always tried so hard to please them but never could.”

“That’s not who you are now, sweetheart,” Jennifer leaned into Jesse. “It’s not who they are either.”

“I know,” Jesse kissed Jennifer’s forehead. “It just caught me off guard, that’s all.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

Jennifer leaned back just enough to look into the rancher’s eyes. “Ready to go get our daughter and say goodbye.”

“Yep.”

“I love you, Jesse Marie Branson.”

“I love you too, darlin’,” Jesse bent forward to capture her wife’s lips in a tender kiss.

“Bleck,” Charley snorted.

Both women looked at their son.

“Is that a word?” Jesse asked, smirking.

“I don’t know,” Jennifer stared at her son. “I hope not, I’d hate to think that was the first one he said.”

“Well, I don’t know, darlin’,” Jesse chuckled. “Seems if I remember right, KC’s first word was ‘moo’.”

“That doesn’t mean I want Charley’s to be ‘bleck’.”

“Come on, let’s get downstairs before KC talks all of them into coming up here,” Jesse bent forward to finish what she had started a few moments before.

As soon as their lips touched, Charley voiced his opinion again. “Bleck,” he said, scrunching up his nose and shaking his head.

“Oh, boy,” Jesse stared at the baby. “We are really going to have to keep you away from your sister.”

***

“You have a good trip,” Stanley was standing beside Dusty, Jesse sat in the saddle with KC sitting in front of her. “And don’ ya be frettin’ about the ranch. It’ll be here when ya git back, I promise.” His pledge wasn’t an idle one, he knew the last time Jesse and Jennifer had left the ranch for a period of time they had come back to a burned out shell of rumble instead of the home they loved. He was determined that would not happen again, not on his watch.

“Thanks, Pop,” Jesse reached her hand down to her father. “I know you’ll take care of the place.”

Stanley grasped the offered hand, “I promise, daughter.”

“Bye, grumps,” KC grinned, her little hand waving enthusiastically. “Bye, gramma.”

“Goodbye, smart britches,” Stanley reached up to tickle the toddler. “You be good, you hear.”

“I good, grumps,” KC giggled.

“You’ll watch out for her, won’t you?” Marie asked Jennifer of Jesse. When the women had reappeared from inside the house, she had apologized to her daughter but she could see the hurt still reflected in Jesse’s eyes.

“I will, Marie,” Jennifer said, repositioning the carry sack on her back where Charley sat. “She’ll be fine,” she smiled down at her mother-in-law. “Really.”

Marie smiled back. If there was one person to entrust her daughter to it was Jennifer and she knew it. “Be safe,” she whispered.

“We will.” Jennifer nudged Blaze up beside Dusty. “Ready, sweetheart?”

“Just waitin’ for you, darling,” Jesse grinned.

“Well, then let’s get going.”

“Okay, sunshine,” Jesse ruffled her daughter’s hair. “Momma says it’s time to go.”

“Gid-diup, Dusty,” KC yelled, tapping her heels on the horse’s sides.

Dusty raised her head, shaking it then twisted her neck to look back at the miniature rider giving the commands.

“Better get used to it, girl,” Jesse laughed. “Won’t be long ‘fore she’s running the whole show.” She tightened her grip on Boy’s reins then flicked her other wrist to set Dusty in motion. The golden horse stepped forward a few steps.

Not happy with the palomino’s speed, KC again yelled, “gid-diup.” Her legs slapping against the mare’s sides as she tried to encourage it to go faster.

“Best let her set the pace, sunshine,” Jesse stilled the girl’s legs. “We don’t want her to git mad and make us walk all the way to Granite.”

KC frowned but said nothing.

Dusty quickened her pace to a slow trot as soon as KC quit trying to make her do it.

“Don’ know which one of you is worse,” Jesse smirked at her daughter then turned to her parents. “You be sure and send for Bette Mae if you don’t feel better tomorrow,” she called to her mother.

“You just worry ‘bout yourselves, I’ll be fine.”

“Goodbye,” Jennifer waved as they rode around the corral fence and headed south.

Jesse looked to the sky, the sun was almost straight up. “Bit later than we was expectin’ to leave,” she told Jennifer.

Jennifer laughed. “It seems we have a bit more to get ready now.”

“That it does,” Jesse chuckled. “Well gid-diup, Dusty. We’ve got some ground to make up.”

The mare snorted before picking up the pace.

KC clapped her hands, happy to finally be moving fast enough for the wind to rustle her hair. “Cha-wie,” she called to her brother. “Dis fun.”

“Bleck.”

***

“I’ve missed this,” Jennifer said, stirring a pot of soup. She was sitting on a stool Jesse had fashioned out of a piece of canvas and some legs from an old chair. It provided her a comfortable way to sit in front of the fire without having to kneel on her bad leg and collapsed when not in use into an easy bundle for packing.

“Missed what?” Jesse asked, pausing in her task of setting up the camp to look at her wife. “Cooking? You do that every night, darlin’.” She sorted through their packs pulling out their bedrolls and blankets.

“No silly,” Jennifer grinned. “I missed being out like this. Just us.”

“Ain’t just us anymore, darlin’,” Jesse carried bed rolls into the tent and spread them out.

“It’s just us, sweetheart,” Jennifer turned her head to check on KC and Charley who were playing on a blanket near the fire. “It’s just more of us.”

“Yeah,” Jesse smiled as she stepped outside of the tent. “Funny. Last time we used this tent, they both slept in empty pack boxes. Don’t think we’d get them to that now.”

“No,” Jennifer giggled. “I doubt we would. Do you need help, sweetheart?”

“Nope, almost done. You just stay put and rest that leg. After we feed them and get them to bed, I’ll give you a nice rub down. Just like before.”

“I don’t think we’ll have much trouble getting them to sleep tonight,” Jennifer watched KC rubbing her eyes.

“Nothing like riding on the back of a horse all day to tucker out young ‘uns,” Jesse grinned. “You want to give ‘em a bath tonight?” Jesse asked, kneeling beside Jennifer. She placed a hand on her wife’s thigh, gently squeezing it.

“No. I don’t think they’ll stay awake long enough for that. Soup is ready. You want to get Charley?”

“Sure,” Jesse said but she stayed where she was.

Jennifer looked into Jesse’s eyes. She smiled, seeing the love reflecting in them.

“Have I ever told you how pretty you are?” Jesse asked, her voice low and husky.

“A time or two.”

“Not enough. I should tell you every day,” Jesse leaned forward until her forehead was resting against her wife’s. “Jennifer Branson, you are the prettiest girl I have ever seen. And I love you so much I think sometimes my heart is gonna jus’ up and burst.”

Jennifer smiled. “Jesse, you are the most romantic person I think I’ve ever met. Now, go get them young ‘uns so we can feed them and put them to bed. I want to show you just how much I love you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Jesse leapt to her feet. “Come on, young ‘uns,” she growled playfully at the children. “You got’s to be eating your supper and quick. Your momma wants ta show me somethin’.”

“Me see, mommy?” KC asked as Jesse scooped her and Charley into her arms.

“Nope, sunshine,” Jesse buried her face into KC’s belly causing the babies to giggle uncontrollably.

“Jesse, where do you always have to stir them up just before bed?” Jennifer shook her head, resigned to her wife’s behavior.

“Cause it’s so much fun,” Jesse sat down on the ground next to Jennifer. She propped KC up her lap and handed Charley up to his momma. “And ‘cause I love them.”

“You’re impossible,” Jennifer laughed, handing a bowl of warmed soup to the rancher.

“And you still love me,” Jesse accepted the bowl then held it for KC to take a sip. She kept close watch on the girl as they shared the soup in the bowl.

“Yes, improbable as it seems, I certainly do love you.” Jennifer held a spoonful of soup to Charley’s mouth, letting the baby swallow it in his own time. “Jesse, will we take the same pass over the mountain as before?”

“Nope,” Jesse answered while she refilled the bowl from the pot simmering over the fire. “We won’t go as far south as before. We’ll cut across a pass just this side of the badlands.”

“What’s it like?”

“First part of the trail follows a creek to a nice little waterfall. Then it leaves the creek for a few miles as it climbs up to the pass. Once we get up there, we’ll go by a couple of small lakes and pick up another creek flowing the other way. We’ll be in trees most of the way so that should keep these two from getting too hot. And there’s lots of places to stop and rest so we don’t have to worry about traveling too far each day. Once we drop down out of the trees, we’ll be a pretty little valley. From there, we follow the creek almost to Phillipsburg. Then we have to climb out of that valley, over a range of hills and drop into the Flint Valley. Phillipsburg is on the other side of it and we’ll take the wagon road from there up to Granite, at the top of the mountain.”

“How long do you think it’ll take?”

“Quickest we can make it is two days. But we can take as long as you want.”

“Hmm,” Jennifer considered what she did want. She wanted to get to Granite and be able to talk to Leevie. But being alone with her family was also something she wanted. She decided to just take it day by day. Either way, she couldn’t really lose.

“Darlin’,” Jesse said quietly. “I think your soup has done put this one to sleep.”

Jennifer looked down to see KC sound asleep, her head rolled back and resting on Jesse’s arm.

“I’ll put her to bed,” Jesse gently cradled the toddler in her arms as she stood. “Then I’ll come back and get him,” she nodded to the baby half asleep in Jennifer’s lap.

***

“How’s that feel?” Jesse asked.

“Wonderful,” Jennifer sighed. Wearing only her shirt, she was lying on her stomach on a blanket next to the fire. Jesse was straddling her legs, massaging the soreness out of her damaged one.

As she worked her fingers into tight thigh muscles, Jesse’s hands roamed a little further up Jennifer’s legs. Her wife’s quiet moans encouraging her to continue.

Jennifer felt Jesse’s hands move closer to the top of her legs and she felt a surge of heat burst from around her clit and spread up her belly. “Jesse, you keep that up and…”

“And what, darlin’?” Jesse purred.

“And,” Jennifer rolled over, surprising her wife with the sudden movement. “And I’m just going to have to do this,” she grabbed hold of Jesse’s shirt, pulling her down on top of her. Her other hand slipped up her wife’s back until it found her neck and she pulled Jesse to her. Jennifer’s mouth was open when their lips met and she didn’t have to wait long for Jesse’s tongue to enter it. Wrapping her tongue around her wife’s, she pressed their lips together in a searing kiss that caused her toes to curl.

“Wow,” Jesse breathed out when their lips parted moments later.

“There’s more where that came from,” Jennifer grinned, pulling Jesse’s shirt free of her pants.

“Darlin’?” Jesse lifted herself up, aiding her wife in undressing her. “Don’t you want to go into the tent?”

“No,” Jennifer began unbuttoning Jesse’s shirt as the rancher held herself over her. “I don’t want to move. I want to make love to you right here.”

“Okay,” Jesse smirked as Jennifer leaned up to latch onto a recently uncovered nipple. As soon as she felt warm lips sucking on her tender flesh, she felt a jolt of heat explode in her groin. She couldn’t have stopped now even if Jennifer wanted. She pressed her hand down on Jennifer’s patch of silky hair, the heat she felt there matching her own.

“No,” Jennifer said in a soft voice, reaching down to still Jesse’s hand. “I want to make love to you. Change places with me.”

Jesse did as she was asked.

Jennifer straddled Jesse’s waist and finished undoing the buttons on her shirt. She pushed the fabric over Jesse’s shoulders exposing the rancher’s chest. Cupping her hands around each breast, she gently kneaded the firm tissue. Seeing the nipples begin to hardened, she rolled them between her thumb and finger, applying a little more pressure with each pass.

“Ahhhhhh,” Jesse groaned. She tried to reach for her wife but the shirt pushed only part way down her arms prevented her for doing so.

Jennifer smiled. “Tonight, you’re mine,” she whispered, leaning down to press her lips against her wife’s. As she deepened the kiss, her tongue slid into Jesse’s mouth, she reached between their bodies to the buttons on Jesse’s pants. With the pants loose, she slipped a hand inside, her fingers exploring the pulsing clit and surrounding wetness.

“Uhhhh,” Jesse moaned, her hips rose to meet Jennifer’s hand.

“Not yet, sweetheart,” Jennifer whispered, pulling her hand away from Jesse’s heated center. Placing both hands on the rancher’s hips, she slowly pushed herself up until she was again straddling her wife’s thighs. She rose up on her knees, pushing the pants down Jesse’s long legs until they could go no further because of her boots. Gently easing Jesse’s knees apart, she pushed them up until they were parallel to her hips.

What Jennifer had in mind would be awkward because Jesse still had her boots on and her pants were bunched around her ankles, but she didn’t care. Tonight she would show the rancher just how much she loved her.

“Jennifer?” Jesse voice shook with desire as she watched her wife position herself between her legs.

“Shhh,” Jennifer smiled at Jesse. “I love you,” she murmured, lowering her mouth onto the rancher’s clit.

Jesse thought her head was exploding. It flew back against the blanket at the same time a scream flew past her lips.

Jesse’s hips were bucking making it hard for Jennifer to maintain her hold on the hard bundle of nerves she was lovingly sucking on. She waited until Jesse stilled.

Jesse, unable to move her arms, balled her fists into the blanket she lay on. Her chest was rising and falling at a speed that matched her racing heart. She had never felt anything like the rush of ecstasy that Jennifer’s lips on her clit had produced.

Jennifer, feeling Jesse begin to settle back onto the blanket, moved her lips and tongue away from Jesse’s clit, slowly kissing and licking her way to the center of Jesse’s need.

“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” Jesse groaned, her breath coming in short bursts as her orgasm began to build.

Jennifer reached the orifice through which she could taste the source of Jesse’s nectar. Wasting no time, she plunged her tongue as far inside her wife as she could. She enjoyed the smooth, silky texture of the tissue she found inside and she let her tongue roam freely over it.

“Oh, godddddddd,” Jesse bucked as waves of hot molten lava crashed throughout her body. Her muscles instinctively clamping down on Jennifer’s tongue trying to draw it deeper inside her.

Her mouth mashed against her wife’s wet, throbbing sex, Jennifer was lost in the sensations she was tasting and feeling. She felt her own need building as she tried to force her tongue further inside. Her hand moved up to Jesse’s clit, thumb pressing hard against the bundle.

Jesse could take no more. Her orgasm exploded inside her. Hips bucking uncontrollably, she forced her sex against her wife’s mouth intensifying the sensations. So lost in her own pleasure was she that she didn’t feel when Jennifer’s body began to convulse or hear her wife’s screams of pleasure.

***

“Darlin’?” Jesse croaked, her throat was so dry she could barely force the word out.

“Hmmm?” Jennifer was sprawled between the rancher’s legs, too exhausted to move.

“Darlin?” Jesse tried again. She wanted to hold her wife in her arms but she couldn’t get them to move and couldn’t remember why. “I need you,” she managed to choke out.

Hearing the desperation in Jesse’s voice, Jennifer pushed up on her elbows to look at her wife. “Are you okay?” she asked, concerned she might have done something to hurt the rancher.

“No,” Jesse lifted her head just enough to look at Jennifer. “I need to hold you.”

Jennifer crawled up Jesse’s body.

“My arms,” Jesse told her. “Free my arms.”

“I’ll try.” Jennifer studied the situation. “You’re going to have to sit up,” she said when she saw she could not move the shirt without Jesse’s help. She grabbed hold of Jesse’s shoulders.

With both women struggling to overcome their weakness, they managed to get the shirt off one arm.

Free to move her arms, Jesse wrapped them around Jennifer as she collapsed back on the blanket.

“That was the… Well, I’ve got to tell you… Damn, Jennifer,” Jesse squeezed Jennifer with the little strength she had left. “That was really somethin’.”

“It was, wasn’t it?” Jennifer grinned.

“Yes, ma’am, it surely was.” Jesse rolled her head to kiss Jennifer.

“You taste good,” Jennifer whispered, ducking her head.

“I do, huh?” Jesse pulled her wife’s face back up to look at her. “I think you taste pretty good yourself.” She slipped a hand between Jennifer’s legs, pulling her hand back up, fingers coated with her wife’s cum. “Ready for bed?” she asked after sucking her fingers clean.

“Oh, yes. I don’t think KC and Charley will be the only ones not having trouble sleeping tonight,” Jennifer giggled.

“Probably not,” Jesse slipped out from under Jennifer. It took some effort but she managed to stand on her shaky legs. “Come on,” she reached down for Jennifer. Once Jennifer was standing, Jesse scooped her into her arms, carrying her to the tent.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Jesse slowly lifted her eyelids, astounded that the night had passed so quickly. She remembered nothing after carrying Jennifer into the tent and crawling into their bedroll. “’Course, after what you did to me last night, darlin’, that ain’t too surprisin’,” she chuckled softly to the sleeping woman draped over her. Rolling her head over to check on the children, she saw KC sitting up in her bedroll watching her.

“Hi,” KC whispered, a smile spread across her face.

“Mornin’, sunshine,” Jesse whispered back. “Is Charley still sleeping?”

“Yep. Jus’ like momma?”

“Don’ suppose I can get you to go back to sleep?” she asked the toddler, wanting to stay in bed and snuggle with her wife.

“Nope.”

Jesse smiled knowing KC, an early riser, was always full of energy for the coming day as soon as her eyes popped open. She wasn’t upset with KC’s response, many mornings she’d ask the girl to go back to sleep and she would so even if today wasn’t one of those that was okay.

Jesse eased out from under Jennifer, doing her best not to awaken her wife. Once free of Jennifer’s hold on her, she slipped out of the bedroll then tucked it in tight around the schoolteacher so she’d stay warm in the morning’s coolness. She knelt beside the bedrolls where the children had spent the night. Carefully, she lifted Charley out of from under his blanket and carried the sleeping baby over to tuck him in with Jennifer.

Even asleep Jennifer sensed the baby presence. She turned on her side stretching a protective hand over the baby’s belly.

“Okay, sunshine,” Jesse whispered to KC. “Let’s get you some clothes and we’ll go out and let them sleep.”

“Otay,” KC pushed up onto her bare feet and toddled over to the pack that held the family’s clothing. Opening the untied flap, she looked inside for something she could wear.

Jesse sat on the tent floor to pull her boots on. One advantage of going to bed in the condition Jennifer and she had the night before, was she was still dressed. She’d wait until her wife woke up before changing into fresh clothes. KC walked over to her, her arms full of a shirt and pair of britches. “Good girl,” Jesse said as she helped KC pull off her sleeping shirt.

Mother and daughter worked together to get KC’s clothes on.

“Where are your moccasins?” Jesse asked of the soft yet resilient doeskin foot coverings that KC had received from their friend Walks on the Wind.

“Over dere,” KC pointed across the tent. “I git dem.”

Jesse stood while her daughter retrieved the moccasins. She snatched a coat off the top of one of the packs where it had been tossed the night before and pulled it on. Then she grabbed KC’s coat off the end of her bedroll.

“Here, momma,” KC whispered, holding up the moccasins. She still had a little trouble pulling the shoes on by herself.

Jesse scooped toddler and moccasins up in her arms to carry them outside.

The sun had been up for a couple of hours but because they were at the base of the mountain range they would be crossing later in the day, the camp was still covered in shadows.

Jesse looked for someplace to sit KC down while she put on her moccasins. Seeing nothing promising as almost everything bore a covering of light morning dew, she settled for kneeling on one leg and placing the toddler on her other. It was awkward but she managed to pull on the moccasins.

“Here, let’s get your coat on,” Jesse stood KC on her feet. “How about we get the fire going?” she asked as she helped KC push her arms into the coat sleeves. “Then we’ll go see about catching some fish out of that creek for breakfast. Your momma likes fish for breakfast.”

“It too hot, mommy,” KC frowned, watching Jesse button up the front of her coat. The weather had been so dry and hot that most days she’d worn little more than a long shirt.

“It’ll be hot soon enough,” Jesse explained. “But you keep it on until the chill leaves the air. We don’t want you catching cold, do we?”

“Otay,” KC reluctantly agreed.

With her daughter dressed, Jesse set to work getting the fire restarted and gathering more firewood. KC worked alongside her mother. When Jesse returned to camp with an armful of large branches, KC carried an armful of smaller twigs. Both piles were dropped next to the ring of stones around the fire. Jesse pulled one of the larger branches from her pile, laying it across the center of the ring so it would burn while they went fishing. KC bent down, pulling a couple of long twigs from her pile and tossed them into the ring.

“Ready to find some fish?” Jesse asked.

“Yep,” KC reached her hand up, smiling when her mother’s much larger hand clasped it firmly. She half walked, half skipped beside Jesse down to the creek.

The creek was contained in a ditch carved over the years in the soft earth by the moving water. The ditch was a little too wide for Jesse to jump across if she was of mind to and was deep enough that most of her body would be swallowed up by it. But the water running along the bottom of the channel was crystal clear and perfect for spotting fish.

Jesse squatted on the edge of the creek bank, KC squatting beside her.

“Dere’s one,” KC whispered excitedly as a good size trout swam lazily against the current.

“That’s a nice one,” Jesse agreed.

“You catch,” KC told her momma, as if the outcome was already determined.

“I’ll give it a try,” Jesse smiled at her daughter’s faith in her. “You stay put.”

“Otay,” KC sat on the ground, wiggling around until her legs hung over the side.

Jesse dropped off the top of the bank, landing in a small patch of wet sand next to the water. Being careful to stand so her shadow wouldn’t fall over the creek’s surface, she slowly dropped a self-made fishing net into the cool waters.

The net was made from a sewing hoop she had spotted in the dress shop she and Jennifer owned in town. Floating behind the hoop was a couple of feet of a very fine lace-like material she’d also found in the dress shop and had carefully secured to the hoop. All that a fish had to do was swim through the hoop and into the net. Simple or so Jesse hoped. It was the first time she had tested the net.

Jesse stood, frozen in place holding the hoop under the water and letting the net sway in the current behind it. The trout she and KC had seen before came back into view, swimming right for the hoop. Jesse held her breath as the fish came nearer. As soon as it was within reach, she swiped the hoop over it. Pulling the net free of the water, Jesse struggled to keep control on the fish thrashing about inside. Not wanting to take any chances losing what she’d caught, she tossed the net, fish and all, up over her head in the direction of the bank.

KC saw the fish flying towards her. “Momma,” she screamed, falling over backwards to avoid being smacked in the face with the squiggly fish.

Jesse turned at her daughter’s scream to see KC tumbling back away from the bank. Afraid she’d hit the toddler with the fish, she scrambled up the steep slope, her fingers fighting to gain any hold possible. Her boots slipped more than once on the muddy bank but she managed to scale it and check on her daughter. She started to laugh when she saw the girl was obviously uninjured but quite occupied.

KC was sitting on the ground, laughing hysterically. Her little hands hanging on to the trout still trapped inside the net. As the fish flopped about, it took KC’s arms with it, causing them to flail around uncontrollable.

“I don’t suppose I want to ask what you two have been up to,” Jennifer stood a few feet away, trying to keep from laughing at what she was seeing.

“Momma catch fish,” KC squealed.

“Looks to me like the fish has caught you, sweetie,” Jennifer sniggered. “See, Charley,” she told the baby in her arms. “I told you we’ve find them up to no good.”

“Morning, darlin’, Jesse walked towards Jennifer, arms extending and fully intending to wrap them around her wife.

“Don’t you come any closer,” Jennifer held out a warning hand.

“Huh?” Jesse stopped dead in her tracks. “What I do?”

“It’s not what you’ve done,” Jennifer giggled. “It’s what you’re going to do.”

“And what would that be?” Jesse started forward again, now that she knew Jennifer wasn’t mad at her. Or, so she thought.

“Jesse Branson, I’m warning you. Do not even think about hugging me.”

“Huh?” Jesse stopped again.

“Mommy, you dirty,” KC giggled.

“Huh?”

“Bleck,” Charley pointed at Jesse, scrunching up his nose at her appearance.

“What do ya mean?” Jesse dropped her head to look down the front of her. “Oh,” she smirked seeing her mud smeared clothing. She held up her hands revealing two mud covered appendages. “You mean you won’t hug me like this?” Jesse asked, poking her lower lip out in a mock pout that mimicked her daughter’s.

“If you have any plans on hugging me, you get right back in that creek and get washed off,” Jennifer growled.

“But, darlin’,” Jesse protested.

“And take KC with you,” Jennifer bit her lower lip in a worthless attempt to maintain her stern demeanor.

Jesse looked down at the toddler who was now also covered in dirt from rolling around on the ground with their breakfast.

“Yes, dear.”

“Go on,” Jennifer pointed for the creek. “I’ll bring you some towels and clean clothes. We’ll have to wash those before we leave today.”

Jesse bent down, taking the fish away from KC. She carried it to a bucket of water, dropping it in with a loud plop then returned to her daughter. “Come on, sunshine. We need to take a bath.”

“Otay,” KC stood up. Before Jesse could grab her, the toddler raced to the edge of the bank.

Jesse and Jennifer watched in shock as KC leaped into the air. Seconds later they heard a loud splash followed by their daughter’s high pitched giggling.

Jesse shook her head in frustration and amusement as she walked for the creek. Standing on the edge of the bank, she looked down at the toddler who was standing in the middle of the channel splashing happily. “KC Branson,” Jesse scowled, hopping on one foot while she pulled the boot off the other. “You have got to stop,” she switched feet to pull her other boot off. “Doing that,” she laughed, leaping into the air to join her daughter.

Jennifer watched as Jesse disappeared beneath the creek bank and listened to the squeals of delight when she joined KC in the creek. She hugged Charley, “it’s a dang good thing that you don’t take after them two. Let’s go get our young ‘uns some clean clothes,” she laughed.

“Bleck.”

***

Jesse guided Dusty along the leaf and pine needle covered ground. There was no trail to follow as she was leading her family over the mountains using a rarely traveled pass. It was a route she had explored shortly after arriving in Sweetwater when she was still trying to decide if she wanted to stay in the small town or sell the Silver Slipper and go back to her life drifting around the frontier. As she swayed easily with the movements of the horse, she remembered back to that day so long before and how at peace she had felt riding through the thick forest accompanied only by the calls of the forest animals and the sound of water tumbling over rocks near by. That sense of peace was the reason she had remained in Sweetwater. It made her feel that something good was going to happen to her if she stayed. Twisting around in the saddle to look at the woman riding behind her, she knew exactly what that had been.

“How ya doin’, darlin’?” Jesse asked, smiling at the woman she loved.

“I’m fine but I wouldn’t say no to a break,” Jennifer smiled back.

“There’s a right pretty spot not too far up ahead,” Jesse told her wife. “I figured we stop there for the night.”

“Sounds good,” Jennifer nodded. “Charley is probably ready to get out of this carry sack for the day. How’s KC?”

“Asleep,” Jesse had her arm wrapped securely around the sleeping girl.

“I thought so,” Jennifer smiled. “It’s been way too quiet for the last hour.”

“Yep.” Jesse twisted back around in the saddle. Her eyes scanning the terrain in front of them as she looked for a clearing next to the creek they were roughly following.

Less than a half mile later, Jesse spotted the gap in the trees she had been seeking. She turned Dusty towards it, letting the big horse pick her own path over the rocky ground and around large boulders that had, hundreds of years before, tumbled down the steep slope on the opposite side of the creek.

The clearing was relatively flat compared to the stony, uneven ground they had been traveling. It was big enough for the tent to be sent up and to have so space around it before the trees closed back in. On the side facing the creek, a gentle slope dropped down a few feet to another level area much smaller than the clearing. Then a second drop off ended right beside the creek. Unlike the clearing, the creek bed was angled matching the tilt of the surrounding ground. Its clear water rushed downward, plummeting over and around the boulders and fallen trees that littered its course.

Jesse swung out of the saddle, cradling KC as she dropped to the ground then walked back to Blaze to help Jennifer to the ground with her free arm.

“It’s a beautiful spot, sweetheart,” Jennifer pulled her cane out of the scabbard she used to carry it. Leaning heavily on the cane, she walked around the clearing, both to look where they would be camping and to stretch out her tired muscles.

“We’ll have to keep the young ‘uns away from the creek,” Jesse said, “Water’s too swift here.”

“Yes,” Jennifer studied the rapidly flowing creek. “I do not want KC anywhere near that.”

“Here, darlin’,” Jesse handed Jennifer her camp stool. It was the last thing she tied to the packs on Boy’s back so that it would be the first to be removed whenever they stopped. “Sit for a bit.”

“Actually, it feels better to be up and stretching it,” Jennifer smiled at her wife’s thoughtfulness, always concerned about her damaged leg. “But maybe we can spread out a blanket for the babies.”

“Good idea,” Jesse grunted. “What have you been feeding this one? She weighs more than Dusty,” she laughed, hefting the sleeping toddler in her arms.

Dusty whinnied at the comment, shaking her neck a few times. She reached back, nibbling at the saddle blanket on her back.

“I get the hint,” Jesse growled at the horse. “Let me get the young ‘uns taken care of then I’ll get your saddle off. They’re a little more important than you are right now.”

Dusty swung her tail around, slapping Jesse in the back of the head.

Jennifer giggled. “Sweetheart, let me hold KC while you get the blanket. That way you can take care of Dusty before she waps you again.”

“Too many folk giving orders in this family,” Jesse grumbled, handing the sleeping toddler to her wife as Dusty snorted behind her.

***

“Momma?” KC was climbing up Jesse’s back.

“What, sunshine?” Jesse asked. She was kneeling over Charley, changing his diaper.

“Go swim?”

“Not tonight, sunshine. The water is too fast here.”

“Humpft,” KC grunted, pulling herself up using fistfuls of Jesse’s shirt until she could hang her head over her mother’s shoulder. “Hi, Cha-wie.”

Charley giggled when his sister popped into view.

“You catch fish?” KC asked, making faces at her brother.

“Don’t think we’d find many in that creek. Stop teasing your brother or I’ll never get his britches changed.”

“Otay,” KC let loose of Jesse’s shirt, sliding down her back to the ground. “Where momma?”

“Good question,” Jesse looked around the camp which showed no sign of her wife. “Darlin’?” she called out.

“I’m here, sweetheart.”

Jesse looked in the direction Jennifer’s reply had come but she didn’t see her wife.

“Where here?”

“Back in the trees about twenty paces.”

“What ya doing back there?”

“Jesse!” Jennifer laughed.

“Oh,” Jesse smirked when she quickly figured out what her wife must be doing. “Sorry, darlin’. You okay, you’ve been gone a while.”

“Yes, I’m fine. But can you come take a look at something?”

“Sure, just let me finish with Charley’s britches.”

“No hurry.”

Jesse quickly completed the task of changing the baby’s diaper. Walking to a pan of water, she set the dirty diaper aside to be washed out later then used the soap bar Jennifer had put out earlier and scrubbed her hands.

“Let’s go find momma,” Jesse told KC moments later as she lifted Charley off the blanket.

KC held her hands in the air.

Jesse grabbed the toddler’s hand, lifting her up into her free arm. “Give a holler, darling’, so I can find ya.”

“I’m here, Jesse. Back the way we rode in, at that big boulder we passed.”

“What ya doing all the way back there?” Jesse asked, making her way through the trees to find her wife.

“I saw something and I was hoping I could see it better from here.”

“Jennifer?” Jesse had found the boulder but not her wife.

“Up here.”

Jesse looked up. Standing several feet above her head was Jennifer. “How’d you get up there?”

“Walk around to the back, there’s a dirt mound.

Jesse followed the directions. She hadn’t made much notice to the boulder when they rode past it earlier. About ten paces long and half that wide and tall, the boulder’s size was impressive. The end of the mammoth rock was partially buried by a mountain of dirt worn smooth by rain and wind. It wasn’t a difficult walk up the side of the mound for Jesse but she wondered how Jennifer had managed it with her cane.

“What ya doing all the way up here, darlin’?” Jesse asked when she reached the top of the mound and stepped onto the boulder.

“What do you think that is?” Jennifer pointed over the top of the forest trees. “I glimpsed it through the trees from down there. It looks strange.”

Jesse looked to the north where far in the distance a portion of the sky appeared to be glowing red. She turned to look for the sun and saw it was still too high in the sky to be causing the odd glow. “Don’t rightly know, darlin’,” she said. “Could just be a trick of the eye. This time of day, with the sun starting to drop, things look different.”

“I know but there’s something about that,” Jennifer shuddered. “It makes me feel…”

“What?”

“I’m not sure. But it’s almost like it’s a warning or something.”

Jesse looked again at the strange glow. “Well, it’s a good distance away,” she said to assure her wife. “We’ll keep an eye on it as we ride. But I don’t see how whatever is causing it can do us any harm.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah,” Jesse said, even as her stomach began to twitch at a sense of foreboding. It was the same feeling she’d had when her father had tried to get her to move the cattle to higher ground. Jesse shook off the feeling. “Let’s get off this rock before it gets any darker,” she told Jennifer. “Don’t know how you got up here in the first place.”

“I’m not helpless, Jesse,” Jennifer bristled at the comment. Her leg limited her in many ways but she refused not to do some things just because someone thought she shouldn’t.

“Hey,” Jesse softened her tone. With her arms full of babies, she could not do much more than stand and look at her upset wife. “I know you’re not helpless. I’ve never said…”

Jennifer placed her fingers against Jesse’s lips. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, leaning against her stronger wife. “I know you’ve never said anything like that.”

“Or thought it,” Jesse kissed Jennifer’s brow.

“I know,” Jennifer looked up, smiling warily at her wife.

“You okay?”

“Yes. It’s just that every since I saw that,” Jennifer’s eyes turned towards the strange glow. “I’ve been a little edgy. Forgive me?”

“Nope,” Jesse grinned. “Nothing to forgive. Now, let’s get off this rock while we can still see.”

CHAPTER NINE

Shortly before dawn, Jesse woke to the sides of the tent being buffeted by a strong wind. As her eyes adjusted to the lack of light, she felt Jennifer start to stir beside her.

“What’s that?” Jennifer was jerked awake by the sound of a loud crack almost directly over their heads and then something heavy brushing against the side of the tent. “Jesse?”

“Stay here,” Jesse squeezed Jennifer before releasing her to crawl out of their bedroll. “Sounds like the wind comin’ up, probably jus’ a branch breaking.”

“There was hardly any breeze when we went to bed,” Jennifer clutched the bedroll to her naked body, straining to see Jesse as she moved away from her.

“Damn,” Jesse muttered when she untied the tent flap to have it almost ripped out of her hand. “It’s blowing now, darlin’,” she said, sticking her head outside. She ducked back into the relative safety of the tent when her face was assaulted by blowing twigs and leaves. She started to return to Jennifer and their bedroll then stopped. She sniffed the air, her nose detecting the hint of something unusual on the wind.

“What is it?” Jennifer whispered.

“Smoke.”

“From our fire?”

“Don’t think so,” Jesse said, bending to retrieve her clothes from the end of the bedroll. “I’m going go check on the horses.”

“Jesse, is that safe? It sounds like it’s blowing pretty hard out there.”

“It is,” Jesse sat beside Jennifer, pulling on her boots. “But I need to go make sure they’re alright. You best be getting dressed too.”

“Jesse what aren’t you telling me?” Jennifer placed a hand on her wife’s arm, demanding an answer.

“That glow in the sky last night,” Jesse turned to look at Jennifer.

“Yes.”

“If it’s what I think it was, and this wind is a good indication it is, then we’re may have to move. And fast.”

“What do you think it is?” Jennifer asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.

“Fire.” Jesse said calmly even though her insides were churning. If it was a forest fire, she was going to have to find a way to get her family to someplace safe and right now they were a long way in any direction from that.

“Are we in danger?”

Jesse took Jennifer’s hands into her own, holding them tight. “I don’t know, darlin’,” she answered honestly. “It that was the beginnin’s of a fire, I doubt it’s come this far. But fire makes it own wind that pulls it along. And as hard as it’s blowing out there, it could pull a fire a long way. You get dressed and get the young ‘uns dressed. We’ll decide what we’re gonna do when I get back. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Think you can see good enough in here as it is, I don’t want to leave the flap open if we don’t need to.”

“I’ll be fine.” Jennifer had a good idea where things were located in the tent so she didn’t think she’d have much trouble maneuvering about in the dark.

“Stay in the tent, please. I don’t want ta have to be worryin’ ‘bout you out there too.”

“I will.”

Jesse leaned forward, placing a quick yet tender kiss on her wife’s lips. “I won’t be long.”

“Be careful.”

“I promise,” Jesse smiled to assure her wife. Standing, she pulled on her coat. It wasn’t cold enough to need it but it would provide her some protection from the debris blowing about outside the tent.

Jennifer had already pulled on her denim pants by the time Jesse stepped outside. “I’ve got it,” she told the rancher when Jesse paused to re-tie the tent flap. “Go on, I’ll take care of this.”

“Thanks, darlin’,” Jesse said pulling her stetson down tight on her head. She could little in the pre-dawn light and had no idea which direction the horses might have gone. “Dusty,” she called out. “Come on back to camp, girl.”

Jennifer listened to Jesse calling and whistling for the horses as she finished dressing. She was tugging on her boots when she heard the horses trotting by the side of the tent.

“Good girl,” Jesse greeted Dusty as the palomino led Blaze and Boy back to camp. “Looks like we’re in for a tryin’ day, huh?” she rubbed the mare’s neck as she nuzzled the rancher’s head. “Do you smell it, girl?”

Dusty whinnied, shaking her head as if to force the scent from her nostrils.

“I agree with you there,” Jesse wiped at her own nose, the smoke more noticeable outside than it had been inside the tent. “You guys stick close to camp. It’s goin’ be rough enough getting stuff packed up, I don’t want to have to chase you down.”

Dusty whinnied again. She would keep the other horses near by.

***

“Jesse?” Jennifer called out. She could hear the horses moving about the campsite but she no longer heard her wife.

“Momma,” KC whimpered, rubbing her eyes. Her mother’s shout had awakened her.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” Jennifer knelt beside the girl.

“It dark,” KC told her mother, unaccustomed to being awakened so early.

“I know, sweetie. But mommy thinks we need to leave early today. So I need you to help me get you and Charley dressed. Can you do that?”

“Cha-wie seep,” KC sat up. “He no like dark.”

“He’ll be fine because he has his big sister here to help him.”

“Otay,” KC smiled. She liked helping Charley.

“Can you pull off your nightshirt?”

“Yep.”

With her daughter’s help, Jennifer got KC dressed then moved over beside the sleeping baby. Just as she lifted Charley into her arms, the tent flap opened and Jesse was swept inside by a gust of wind.

“Where’d you go?” Jennifer asked evenly, not wanting to scare the children.

“To see if I could see anything from atop that boulder of yours,” Jesse explained, shrugging off her jacket.

“And?”

“Not much more than last night. How you doin’ here?”

“KC is dressed. I was just getting Charley up,” Jennifer said, rocking the whimpering baby to calm him.

“Cha-wie no like dark,” KC explained again to her mothers.

“I’ll start packing thinks up,” Jesse said, reaching down to ruffle KC’s hair. “It’ll be light enough soon to get the packs on Boy.”

“What about breakfast?” Jennifer asked, more for the children than herself.

“Ain’t gonna be anyway to have a fire out there. Feed ‘em what you can. We’ll stop as soon as we can to feed ‘em right.”

“Are we going back?”

“No,” Jesse was rolling up the empty bedrolls. “It’s closer to go on into to Phillipsburg. If we push it, we can be there tonight.”

“What if it’s moving that way?” Jennifer asked, careful not to say ‘fire’ in front of her daughter who had finally stopped being afraid after her experience trapped inside the burning Slipper.

“Even if it is, safer to be there than in the trees. And we’d be in forest almost all the way back to the ranch. We keep going and we’ll leave the forest by midday. Rest of the way is through open valleys. We’ll stick close to the rivers and creeks, they’ll protect us if it gets too close.”

Jennifer wasn’t as convinced as Jesse that going back was a bad idea but she was still learning about living on the frontier and she put her trust in her wife to keep their family safe. “KC, come sit with your brother while I help mommy. Sweetheart, can you help me a moment?” Jennifer asked when she had Charley changed and dressed. Her leg was cramping from being bent for so long and she didn’t think she could stand on her on.

“Sure, darlin’,”

“Do you know where my cane is?” Jennifer asked once Jesse had pulled her to her feet.

“Right here,” Jesse handed the cane to her wife.

“Thanks. What do you want me to do?”

“Get what you need to feed the young ‘uns so I can get the packs tied up. Soon as its light, I’ll get them on Boy and the others saddled and we’ll leave.”

“Alright.”

***

The wind had steadily increased since the morning, blowing about more debris picked up from the forest floor and knocked loose from the trees themselves. The smoke had also increased, irritating noses and eyes but was not yet a serious threat.

Jesse looked back over her shoulder, making sure Jennifer was close behind as the horses cantered across a small meadow. She would have liked to push them faster but didn’t want to strain the burdened pack horse. They had been riding non stop for a couple of hours and she knew she needed to find a place to rest the horses and her family. But here in the middle of a grassy meadow surrounded by forest was not the place; she would have to keep looking. With trees surrounding them, they had only the wind and smoke to judge any danger they might be riding into. She needed to get where they could see what was happening.

“Mommy,” KC bent her head back to look up at her mother. “I tired,” she said, rubbing her eyes.

“I know, sunshine,” Jesse smiled down at her daughter. “We’ll stop jus’ as soon as we get out of the forest. Okay?”

“Otay,” KC sighed. She squirmed about until she could rest her head against the arm holding her tight.

Jesse took another quick glance over her shoulder, worried how her wife was holding up. Riding wasn’t easy for Jennifer under the best of conditions and having to hold on to a fast moving horse for hours was probably taking a heavy toll on her. Jesse was glad that they at least had the carry sack for Charlie so Jennifer didn’t have the added worry of having to hold the baby.

Facing forward again, Jesse saw that they had reached the end of the meadow. If her memory of the area was accurate, they should have only a few miles to go before they would leave the main forest behind them. They would still have some potential problem areas after that but they would at least have the benefit of open ground. She slowed Dusty to a trot; it would do no good for one of the horses to injure a leg on the rougher ground under the trees.

“Jesse,” Jennifer called out as soon as Blaze slowed and she could relax her grip on the saddle. “How far until we can rest?” Her leg was throbbing and she needed to get down and stretch out her cramping muscles.

“Not sure, darlin’,” Jesse called back. “May have to wait until we clear this last stretch of trees.”

“How long?”

“Hour, maybe more.”

“I can’t, Jesse,” Jennifer winced as another spasm sent explosions of pain through her leg. “I have to stop.”

Jesse slowed Dusty to a walk, hearing the anguish in her wife’s voice. She looked around, seeking any place that would provide a safe haven for a few minutes. She could hear water tumbling over rocks and nudged Dusty in the direction of the source. “Come on,” she told Jennifer. “We’ll find a place by the water.”

Jennifer followed without comment.

After walking several hundred feet, Dusty walked between a pair of trees, stopping when the ground dropped off sharply. “Back up, girl,” Jesse encouraged the horse to back track.

“What’s wrong?” Jennifer asked, unable to see past the larger horse and her wife.

“Need to find a better spot to get to the creek,” Jesse explained as she guided Dusty around a tangled thicket of underbrush. “This is better,” she called back to Jennifer, leading the horse down a gentler slope and out onto an exposed gravel bar in the creek bed. It wasn’t very big but it would allow the horses room to stand and drink while she saw to Jennifer and the young ‘uns. Grabbing hold of KC, she swung her leg over the saddle horn and slipped down to the surface of pebbles. “Stay put,” she told KC, setting the toddler on the ground, “while I help momma.”

“Otay,” KC stood where her mommy had placed her, twisting at the waist to see what was around her.

Jesse stepped back to Blaze, taking hold of Jennifer’s waist and pulling her free of the saddle. The grimace on her wife’s face told her all she needed to know about how she was feeling. With Jennifer leaning heavily against her, she pulled the cane free of the scabbard, “you want to stand or lay down, darlin’?”

“I need the muscles rubbed, Jesse.” Jennifer reached down, kneading her fingers into the aching tissue as she attempted to ease the piercing pain.

Deciding the gravel bar would not be comfortable for Jennifer to lie on; Jesse helped her walk the few steps back to the moss covered creek bank.

“Let me get Charley off you,” Jesse said, lifting the carry sack so Jennifer could pull her arms free. “Come over her, sunshine,” she called to KC who was occupying herself by picking up handfuls of the pea-size gravel and tossing it into the rushing waters, much to the annoyance of the horses.

KC bent down to fill her hands again before following her mommy’s instructions.

“Here ya go, Charley,” Jesse smiled at the baby, pulling him free of the carry sack. “You sit right here for a bit, KC will come sit with you.” With the children taken care of, Jesse turned her attention to Jennifer. “Lay back and I’ll rub that leg for you.”

“Let me roll over,” Jennifer eased herself onto her belly. Before she had the time to lay flat, Jesse was working on her cramped muscles.

KC managed to walk up the slope of the bank without dropping any of her treasures. Plopping down on the ground beside her brother, she opened her hands. “’Ook, Cha-wie. Baby rocks, jus’ wike you.”

Charley reached out, picking a single pebble out of his sister’s hands. He pulled his hand back, intending to put the tiny stone in his mouth.

“No, Cha-wie,” KC laughed. “Ya can’t eat it,” dropping the pebbles she held, KC retrieved the one from her brother. “Dey rocks, ya t’row dem,” she said, demonstrating for the baby. “See,” she giggled when the pebble bounced of a nearby tree.

Charley smiled, reaching for the pile of pebbles between him and his sister. He pulled his hand back before letting the pebble fly. It hit the ground just inches from where he sat.

KC frowned at her brother’s performance. “You too ‘ittle ta t’row rocks,” she grumbled. “You got’s ta grow.”

Jennifer snickered at the exchange between her children.

“Feelin’ better, darlin’,” Jesse asked, massaging her wife’s leg.

“Much,” Jennifer sighed. “You just keep doing whatever it is you’re doing and I’ll be ready to ride in no time.”

“Good,” Jesse smiled. She looked skyward, the smoke was getting thicker and she figured that couldn’t be a good sign.

“Ack,” KC coughed. “Mommy, hurts,” she rubbed her eyes as Charlie did the same.

“I know, sunshine,” Jesse told her daughter.

“Is there something we can do for them?”

“Keep their faces wet down is best I can think of,” Jesse said. “Ain’t much we can do ‘bout the smoke being in the air.”

Jennifer rolled over. “Help me up,” she held her hands out to Jesse.

“Are you sure?” Jesse was surprised that Jennifer would be ready to get up so soon.

“Jesse, let’s wash their faces and get them something to eat. I want to get moving and get them out of this smoke if possible.”

“You sure?” Jesse asked again, not wanting Jennifer to feel they had to move right away but glad she seemed ready to.

“Yes, now help me up, sweetheart.”

“Alright,” Jesse stood, pulling Jennifer to her feet. “What do we have for ‘em?”

“We still have a couple of biscuits left from last night and some cheese. That’ll have to do for now. If you get that out, I’ll get a cloth and wash them down.”

“Stay put,” KC told Charley as she pushed herself to her feet to follow Jesse down to the horses.

Jennifer smirked, her daughter being so much like her wife. “Come on, little man,” she said, bending down to pick up the baby. Her leg protested the movement but she forced the pain back, refusing to let her leg put her family in any more danger. “Uh, oh,” she wiggled her nose, “somebody needs some fresh britches.”

“I’ll take care of him,” Jesse said, pulling a clean towel out of a pack. “Take this to momma,” she handed the cloth to KC standing beside her.

“Otay.”

“Sweetheart, can you help her soak it in the creek first?”

“Yep,” Jesse leaned down, wrapping an arm around KC’s waist she carried her to the edge of the creek. Holding her over the water, she lowered the giggling toddler until she was able to dunk the towel under the surface of the water. “Okay, take that to momma. And try not to get wet,” she set the toddler down, sending her on her way with a playful swat on the bottom.

***

‘Finally,’ Jennifer thought when Blaze carried her out of the forest. Stretched before her was a long narrow valley with a meandering creek flowing down the center. She pulled Blaze to a stop when they reached Jesse and Dusty.

Jesse was looking to the north and not liking at all what she was seeing. Thick, black smoke billowed high into the sky over a series of hills several miles away.

“Jesse?” Jennifer whispered, alarmed by the frightening sight.

“I know,” Jesse reached out, placing her hand around her wife’s. “Looks like the wind is blowing it west, that’s good.”

“Towards the ranch?”

“Can’t worry about that now,” Jesse said, hoping the fire wouldn’t get that far but understanding that it might.

“What do you think started it?” Jennifer asked, unable to take her eyes off the churning and bulging clouds of smoke.

“Lightening, most likely. Gets dry like it has and we get plenty of dry lightening storms over the mountains. Come on, let’s get movin’.”

Jennifer turned away from the smoke clouds when Blaze moved to follow Dusty. She was glad they were no longer riding amongst the trees but she wondered how safe they were riding through the valley of dried out grasses and bushes. “How far away do you think it is?” she called to Jesse.

“Forty, fifty miles,” Jesse called back.

“How far to Phillipsburg?”

“’Bout ten.”

“How fast can the fire move?”

“Fast as it wants,” Jesse shouted, nudging Dusty to increase her gait.

***

CHAPTER TEN

At the end of the narrow valley, the creek the women had been following merged into a larger one and changed directions to flow north along the side of a wider but shorter valley. A wagon road, which was not much more than two parallel ruts worn into the hard ground, appeared over a rise in front of them and veered to follow the creek northward.

Jesse turned Dusty to follow the wagon road.

Jennifer was concerned with the new direction they would be traveling as it was directly toward the angry-looking smoke clouds. “Are you sure we should be riding for the fire?”

“Ain’t got much choice, darlin’,” Jesse explained. “We need to get around this stretch of hills to get to the valley that will take us to Phillipsburg.”

“Can’t we ride over the top?”

“Too hard on the horses. We’ve got a long uphill coming and I don’t want to wear them out before we get to it.” Jesse pulled Dusty to a stop where the bank down to the creek sloped gently enough for them to reach it easily. “Good spot to rest for a bit.”

Jennifer looked into the distance ahead of them. The sky was black with thick clouds of smoke and she was sure she could see bursts of flame every now and then but the fire still looked to be several miles away. She guided Blaze down the slope to the creek.

Jesse was already out of the saddle when Jennifer rode up. Setting KC down a short distance from where the horses were drinking, she walked back to help Jennifer to the ground.

Jennifer smiled as Jesse handed her cane to her, glancing down to check on Charley, the carry sack having been switched to the front so she could calm the agitated baby.

“How’s he doing?” Jesse asked.

“Better since he can see me now. He needs changing.”

“I’ll get a diaper. What do we have to feed them?”

“Not much but the last of the biscuits.” Jennifer and Jesse had gone without food all day so that they could use what they had prepared for the children. Without stopping long enough to build a fire and cook, they were limited in what was readily edible of their supplies. “What about going up on the road in the other direction, Jesse? Is there a town that way?”

“Not that I know of, probably just goes back to some ranch,” Jesse handed the last of the biscuits to Jennifer to dole out to KC and Charley.

“But wouldn’t that be safer? At least, we’d be riding away from the fire.”

“Maybe, if it was the only fire,” Jesse sat on the ground. She took the carry sack from Jennifer, laying Charley on top of it so she could change him. “I don’t know that area so if we got into trouble…”

“What do you mean only fire?” Jennifer asked, breaking off a bite of biscuit and giving it to KC.

“If it was lightening that caused that big one, there’s a good chance there’s other ones out there. That’s why we need to get to Phillipsburg.”

“You could have told me this before now,” Jennifer said, looking around at the ridges of hills and bluffs flanking them.

***

Jesse sighed in relief when they reached the spot where the valley they had been riding through intersected with two other valleys. They could finally start riding east again.

Almost as soon it turned eastward skirting the base of a knoll, the grade steepened and began the long climb Jesse had warned of.

Looking ahead, Jennifer could see that they would be riding up a ravine between to ridges. “Where’s Phillipsburg?”

“Other side of the crest,” Jesse pointed far above them. “We’ll be able to see it as soon as we get up there.”

“Momma?” KC squirmed in the saddle.

“What, sunshine?”

“Me tired.”

“I know,” Jesse rubbed the toddler’s tummy. It had been a long day and they still had a good distance to travel before it would end. “But we can’t stop until we get over the top.”

KC started to whimper. She was tired, hungry, her eyes stung from the smoke in the air and her bottom was sore from riding all day.

Jesse took pity on the toddler, lifting her up to stand on the saddle. It wasn’t much of a change but it might help for a short time. “How’s this?” she asked KC.

“Dis better,” KC grinned, turning around to face Jesse. “You hold me?”

“Sure,” Jesse agreed, letting KC pick the position. She ended up with the toddler stretched across the saddle, her head resting on one thigh while her feet hung over the other. “But if I need to sit you back up, you go,” she said not knowing what might happen or when.

“Otay,” KC giggled, glad to be able to move a little.

“Wind’s picking up again,” Jennifer commented when a draft of warm air blew past them.

“Yeah,” Jesse said looking around and not at all liking that they were enclosed by the sides of the ravine unable to see more than a few hundred feet in any direction.

***

The women had ridden almost to the top of the ridge, the higher they climbed the more soot and ash fell out of the sky, coating them and the horses.

Jennifer glanced up the side of the ravine, as she had been doing all along trying to convince herself that her family would be safe just as soon as they reached the top. What she saw might prove otherwise. “Jesse, look,” she pulled Blaze to a stop, pointing to where wisps of smoke was coiling around the trees at the crest.

“Damn,” Jesse stood in the stirrups looking for someplace, any place, her family could seek shelter. The smoke from the main fire was blocking out the sun, leaving everything in shadows and she almost didn’t spot the opening in the side of the hill. When she looked back to the top of the ridge, the smoke had grown substantially and she knew whatever was causing it was moving fast. “Jennifer,” Jesse nudged Dusty as close to Blaze as she could. “See that mine shaft about a third of the way up the hill?” she pointed to the opening.

“Yes.”

“Take KC and get up there as fast as you can,” Jesse passed the toddler to her wife. “Cut Blaze loose and go as far back inside as you can.”

“What about you?” Jennifer cried.

The wind was strengthening as gusts of hot air boiled over the top of the ridge and down onto the riders.

“I’ll be there in a minute. I have to do something first. Go, we don’t have time to waste.” As Jennifer rode for the mine, Jesse yanked on Boy’s lead, bringing the pack horse up beside Dusty. Reaching for the bedrolls tied to the top of the packs, she pulled them loose then dropped the lead reins as she sent Dusty galloping back down the ravine to the creek.

Jesse leaped out of the saddle as soon as Dusty got near the water. Running into the creek, she pushed the blankets under the water to soak up as much of the liquid as they could. Carrying the dripping blankets back to Dusty, she swung back up into the saddle. Dusty was galloping for the mine tunnel before she had both boots in the stirrups.

With her arms protecting KC and Charley from the burning debris falling around them, Jennifer slipped off of Blaze as soon as the horse stood beside the mine entrance. Pulling her cane free, she hurried inside the dark tunnel moving several strides down its length before changing her mind and returning to the entrance to wait for Jesse.

Dusty raced back up the ravine, her strong legs plowing up the incline with little trouble.

Jesse swung off the mare’s back, taking a final look up to the top of the ridge that was now fully engulfed in flame. “Get out of here, girl,” she told Dusty. “Take the others and get someplace safe.”

Dusty whinnied then galloped down the ravine followed by Blaze and Boy, the three horses disappearing into the hills.

“You need to get back some,” Jesse told Jennifer, grabbing her around the waist and leading her further into the tunnel. “Here, sit down,” she said, taking KC out of her wife’s arms so she could do as she asked.

Jennifer quickly sat on the ground, thinking Jesse was about to sit beside her.

“Sit with momma,” Jesse placed KC beside Jennifer. “And stay here, all of you.” With no time to lose, Jesse spread out one of the wet bedrolls. “Stay under this, it’ll help keep the smoke away from you. Keep the young ‘uns safe,” she told Jennifer as she dropped the blanket over the top of her wife and children.

“Jesse,” Jennifer screamed, realizing Jesse wasn’t going to join them. “Where are you going?”

“Ta try and keep the smoke out of the tunnel,” Jesse yelled as she ran for the entrance where smoke was already curling around the tunnel’s opening. Spreading the other bedroll out, she held it up to cover the tunnel entrance. As the fire approached, the wind grew stronger and Jesse had to stand on the bottom of the blanket to keep it in place.

Outside of the tunnel, the side of the ravine was ablaze with fire consuming everything in its path. Fed by the dried out grass and brush, it raced downhill in front of the wind it was creating.

Jesse was having trouble breathing as smoke billowed into the mine shaft around the edges of the blanket. She stretched her arms and legs trying to cover more of the opening, the heat of the fire rapidly evaporating any moisture the blanket had once held. Jesse knew that any minute the blanket itself could burst into flames but she wasn’t about to let go of it and give the smoke and fire free access to her family huddling behind her.

Jesse struggled to draw air into her lungs, coughing violently when smoke filled them instead. She struggled to remain conscious but was fighting a losing battle against the thick smoke. As her legs buckled beneath her, her last thoughts were of Jennifer and the babies.

***

The freight wagon rumbled up over the top of the rise, the driver working hard to control the team of horses. With so much smoke and burning debris in the air, the horses were spooked and on the verge of becoming runaways at every step. As the wagon approached the junction of the three valleys, the driver saw the dark swath left behind by the flames. The horses slowed their steps, not anxious to cross the still smoking ground.

“Whoa, ya nags,” the driver pulled back on the reins. “No sense goin’ any further ‘til I can see what’s goin’ on.” Standing, gave the driver a bit more of a view of the aftermath of the fire. It was apparent the flames had come over the top of the ridge, swept down the ravine and burned themselves out when the met up with the creek waters. “Lucky for us it must hav’ been movin’ too fast ta spread much,” the driver told the team of horses. “Come on,” the driver sat back down, flicking the reins to start the team moving. “We’ve been lollygagging long enough. Let’s get moving. I said I’d be home by dark and I don’ aim ta keep her waitin’.”

The team moved out slowly, pulling the heavy wagon behind it. As they started the climb up the ravine, the driver was surprised to see three horses coming out of a gully and walk to the creek.

“Wonder who those belong to? Whoa,” the driver stopped the team. “Best have me a look, ‘case someone’s hurt.” Setting the wagon brake, the driver climbed down from the high seat. Walking across the blackened earth, the driver’s boots kicked up small clouds of dust and soot. Approaching Blaze, the driver held out a hand ready to grab the reins when they were with reach.

Seeing what was about to happen, Dusty whinnied and Blaze moved back a few feet.

The driver tried again and Dusty again warned Blaze away.

“If’n tha’s the way you plans to be, ta heck wit’ ya. I can’ stick around here all day,” the driver grumbled, returning to the wagon and waiting team. “Jus’ hope whos’ever ya belongs to ain’t needin’ no help.”

***

Jennifer could stay under the blanket no longer. She’d heard Jesse coughing then, for the past several minutes, no sounds had come from the end of the tunnel where her wife was supposed to be. Tentatively, she lifted the edge of the blanket, peeking underneath it. She could see the mine opening starkly outlined by the dark tunnel walls. There was no sign of Jesse.

Jennifer threw the blanket off her.

“Momma?” KC, glad to be free of the stifling blanket, searched for her mother in the darkness.

“I’m right here, sweetie,” Jennifer reached out to reassure her daughter. “Are you okay?”

“Where mommy?”

“I don’t know but we’ll go look for her as soon as I can get up.” Jennifer’s leg was stiff from sitting on the cold ground for so long. She reached out with her hands, searching for her cane and grateful when her fingers wrapped around it. She struggled to her feet, standing for several moments to allow her body to become orientated to the new position.

KC moved closer to her mother, hugging her leg.

“Give me your hand, sweetie,” Jennifer reached down to take hold of the toddler’s outstretched hand. “Let’s go find mommy.”

Jennifer wasn’t sure what she would find when she reached the end of the tunnel but it couldn’t be any worse than not knowing. She could tell the fire had moved past because there were no flames visible outside the opening and the smoke was not nearly as bad as it had been when she and the children were hunched under the blanket. She had almost reached the tunnel entrance when she spotted her wife’s crumpled form. “Jesse,” she cried.

KC saw her mommy at the same time. Pulling free of Jennifer, she ran to Jesse’s side. “Mommy,” KC cried, patting Jesse arm. “Mommy.”

Jennifer slipped the carry sack off, setting it on the ground just outside the tunnel entrance. “KC come sit with Charley while I get mommy out of there.” Standing at Jesse’s head, she bent over grabbing hold under her wife’s arms. It took a couple of tries but she finally managed to pull Jesse outside into the fresher air. Once she had her wife out of the tunnel, Jennifer examined her for injuries. Except for a few minor burns on her wife’s hands, Jennifer could find nothing to explain why Jesse wasn’t awake. But she was breathing and she could hear a heartbeat when she placed her ear to the rancher’s chest and that was all that mattered.

“Momma, ook,” KC called to Jennifer.

Jennifer glanced up to see a team of horses slowly pulling a freight wagon up the road below them. She stood, waving and calling to the driver. Without their horses, she and Jesse were going to need help to get to Phillipsburg.

The driver heard the calls and looked up to see a woman standing just outside a mine entrance. There appeared to be someone lying on the ground beside her and a child sitting nearby. Not wanting to leave the team standing on the grade with the full weight of the wagon dragging on them, the driver guided the horses to a relatively flat piece of ground just off the road before climbing down from the seat.

“Do you have water?” Jennifer called down to the driver.

Climbing back up to retrieve a canteen from under the seat, the driver dropped to the ground then began to scramble up the ravine’s side to the woman.

“Thank you,” Jennifer took the canteen, holding it so both KC and Charley could take a drink. Then she carried it to Jesse.

“What happened?” the driver asked.

“The fire came over the ridge. Jesse got us inside,” Jennifer said, pouring small sips of water into the unconscious rancher’s mouth.

The driver looked around. No wagon. No horses. “How’d ya git here?”

“We set our horses free.”

“Must be the three I seen down at the creek. You’ve a long walk ta try and catch them.”

“We won’t have to, they’ll come back.”

Remembering how the horses had shied away earlier, the driver said, “doubt it.”

“They’ll come,” Jennifer smiled.

“What’s wrong with him?” the driver asked.

“I’m not sure. I can’t find any place she’s hurt…”

“She?”

“Yes, Jesse is my…” Jennifer almost said wife but stopped herself. She and Jesse were careful not to reveal their true relationship when they traveled outside of Sweetwater. “Sister,” she finished.

“Probably sucked in too much of the smoke.”

“Is there something we can do for her?” Jennifer asked, concerned that Jesse was showing no signs of waking up.

“Nothin’ I know of. Whare ya from?”

“Sweetwater.”

“Ya a long way from home. What ya doin’ out here?”

“We’re going to Granite. We have a friend there.”

“Granite, huh?”

“Yes.”

“Mind me askin’ the name of ya friend?”

“Leevie Temple. Do you know her?”

“Dang,” the driver took off her hat to scratch her head.

“You’re a woman,” Jennifer said, startled to see the woman’s long hair tumble free. She looked at the freight wagon then back at the woman. “You’re Dannie.”

“Dang. Leevie didn’ say nothin’ ‘bout havin’ visitors.”

“Oh, she doesn’t know we’re coming. I, uh. I wanted to surprise her.”

“You that schoolteacher she’s always talkin’ ‘bout?”

Jennifer smiled. “I guess I probably am.”

“Then that ain’t yo’r sister is it?” Dannie nodded at Jesse.

“No, Jesse is definitely not my sister.”

“Thought she was smarter ‘en that by the way Leevie talks ‘bout her.”

“Smarter than what?” Jennifer’s eyes narrowed as she waited for an explanation of the woman’s comment.

“Smarter than to bring her wife and young ‘uns out like this. Damn fool thing ta do.”

Jennifer was about to give the patronizing woman a piece of her mind, when Jesse started coughing.

***

“Mommy, you dirty,” KC sat at Jesse’s shoulder, the soot covered rancher was still having trouble breathing and couldn’t yet sit up.

“You look a might dirty yourself,” Jesse rasped, her throat irritated by the smoke she’d inhaled.

Jennifer poured a few drops of water into her wife’s mouth, the rancher’s head resting in her lap. “You shouldn’t try talking, sweetheart.”

Charley crawled to Jesse and started to climb up on top of her.

“Best you keep him off her,” Dannie said.

“Come here, little man,” Jennifer started to remove the baby.

“No,” Jesse coughed. “Leave ‘im be.”

“Are you sure, sweetheart?” You’re having trouble breathing as it is.”

“Leave ‘im.”

Dannie shook her head, “fool thing ta do.”

Jennifer glared at the woman, “I wish you’d stop referring to Jesse that way. She’s not a fool.”

“Momma,” KC pointed down the ravine. “’Ook, Dusty comin’. And Baze.”

“Thank goodness,” Jennifer sighed, glad to see the horses appear. “I wonder if Boy is with them?”

“Boy?” Dannie asked.

“Our pack horse,” Jennifer explained watching the horses’ slow progress up the ravine.

“Dere Boy,” KC shouted, excitedly when the big draft horse walked into view.

Jennifer sighed, her family was back together. “And he still has the packs,” she smiled. After seeing the horses galloping away from the fire, she’d been sure the packs would get shook loose and fall off.

“Need ta make sure they’re alright,” Jesse rasped, trying to sit up.

“Stay put,” KC scolded her mother. “Momma says so.”

“She’s right, sweetheart,” Jennifer smirked, patting Jesse’s shoulder. “You need to rest. I’ll check them over when they get here but from here they look to be okay.”

Dusty walked up to stand beside her prone mistress. She dropped her head, nuzzling Jesse’s face.

“You okay, girl,” Jesse coughed, rubbing the mare’s nose.

For an answer, Dusty blew out a short blast of air.

KC broke into giggles, her arms waving uselessly at the cloud of soot resettling on Jesse.

Charley sneezed. “Bleck,” he scratched his nose.

“We best get moving,” Jesse looked up at Jennifer. “Help me up so’s I can get mounted.”

“Tha’ ain’t too good an idea,” Dannie said as she checked the horses for injuries.

“What do you mean?” Jennifer asked.

“She tries ta ride, she’ll be fallin’ off in no time. Lungs are still full of smoke, she needs ta let them clean out.”

“How long will that take?”

“Depends.”

“On what?”

“How much smoke she breathed in.”

Jennifer studied Jesse. She could see her wife was struggling to draw in air with each breath she took. “I guess we’ll have to camp here for a few days, sweetheart. At least, we won’t have to worry about a fire coming this way.”

Dannie scratched her head, unsure what to do. She could go about her business, leaving the women and their children to fend for themselves but Leevie would skin her alive when she found out. “Best we load her into the back of the wagon,” she told Jennifer. “It’ll be a rough ride, but she won’ be fallin’ off no horse that way.”

Jennifer smiled, “thank you.”

With Dannie’s help, the women managed to get Jesse down to the empty wagon and stretched out in the back of it. KC and Charley were put in to sit with their mommy.

“Let me get the horses tied up,” Dannie said, securing the removable gate at back of the wagon.

“You don’t need to tie them,” Jennifer said, wrapping Blaze’s reins around the saddle horn, leaving plenty of slack in the rawhide for the horse to have free movement. She stepped beside Dusty to do the same.

“Ain’t ya afraid they’ll run away?”

“No,” Jennifer rubbed Dusty’s neck. “Dusty won’t leave Jesse and Blaze and Boy follow Dusty.”

Dannie thought about arguing but after seeing the mare’s behavior at the creek, she figured Jennifer must know what she was talking about. “Alright,” she looped Boy’s lead around the packs to keep it from dragging on the ground. “Let’s get you up in the seat and we’ll go.”

Jennifer let Dannie help her climb up into the wagon seat. The freight wagon was much bigger then the ranch’s buckboard and she was grateful for the assistance. Her only regret was it wasn’t Jesse’s hands on her waist as she used the spokes of the large wagon wheel to clamber up.

“Do you?” Jennifer hesitated when Dannie climbed up to sit beside her. She didn’t want to ask too much of the woman helping them but she knew her babies were hungry. “Would you happen to have any food the young ‘uns could eat? They’ve had so little all day.”

“Don’t have much but,” Dannie reached under the wagon seat, pulling out a basket and handing it to Jennifer. “You’re welcome to what’s here. Leevie always sends me off with a nice basket.” Wrapped in a cloth were the remains of a loaf of bread, some cheese, a couple of slices of ham, and pieces of an apple. “Sorry, I ate most of it.”

“Thank you. It’s more than enough.” Jennifer leaned over the back of the wagon seat. “KC take this,” she held the basket for her daughter. “Give Charley little bites.”

“Otay,” KC carried the basket back to where she’d been sitting beside Jesse. Plopping down with the basket in her lap, she smiled, “’ook, Cha-wie. Lots a treats. You eats dis,” she pulled a hunk of bread free, handing it to her brother. “Mommy, you eats,” she held a piece of apple out for Jesse.

“Thank you,” Jesse rasped, taking the fruit.

“No talks,” KC frowned at her mother. “Momma says no talks.”

Jesse smiled, ruffling her daughter’s hair.

Dannie slapped the reins on her team’s rumps and the horses strained against their harnesses to start the wagon in motion. As she guided the team back onto the road, she looked over her shoulder to see the three horses were indeed following behind.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The heavy freight wagon crested the top of the ridge. The team of horses, just moments before straining to pull its weight uphill, now struggled to keep the wagon from overtaking them as the grade shifted downward.

“Is that Phillipsburg?” Jennifer asked, spotting a cluster of buildings on the opposite side of the valley.

“Yes,” Dannie grunted while pulling on the wagon’s brake handle to help control their descent.

“Where’s Granite?”

“Top of the mountain behind it,” Dannie answered.

“Oh,” Jennifer sighed. She had hoped their journal would soon be ending but by the looks of the distance they still had to cover, it would be long after nightfall before they reached the mining camp. Her eyes surveyed the hillside the road sliced across on its way to the valley floor, the blackened path of the fire that had threatened them clearly stood out on the otherwise untouched terrain. The flames had begun in a coppice of trees far to the south, burning along the ridgeline until finally flowing over the crest to endanger her family.

Jennifer twisted around in the seat at the sound of Jesse suffering with another bout of coughing. “We need to stop,” she told Dannie, seeing the drawn look on her wife’s face and the tired children that were draped over her body.

“We’ll be there in ‘nother couple of hours,” Dannie said, not anxious to delay her homecoming any longer. She had left Granite before dawn the day before to make the delivery of supplies to a ranch several miles south and had promised Leevie she’d be home tonight. She’d already lost precious time when she’d stopped to help the woman sitting beside her. She turned to look into the back of the wagon, Jesse’s coughing had lessened. “She’ll be fine.”

Jennifer frowned. Facing forward again, she searched for someplace they could stop and rest, maybe even camp for the night. A thicket of trees beside the road at the base of the hill caught her eye. “Is there water there?” she asked, pointed at the copse.

“Looks ta be.”

“Then please stop when we get there.”

“I don’t…”

“You need only drop us there,” Jennifer told the freight driver. “Then you can go on. We’ll continue to Granite after Jesse’s has time to recover.”

“Ain’t sure that’s safe,” Dannie glanced to the north where the boiling smoke clouds continued to darken the sky. “Don’t know what direction that thing could take.”

“We’ll be fine,” Jennifer said, her mind already made up. “Jesse needs to rest and bouncing around in the back of this wagon is not allowing her that. And the young ‘uns are tired. We’ll camp there.”

“It’s right next ta the road,” Dannie frowned. “Ain’t safe for ya.”

Jennifer chuckled. “After what Jesse and I have been through, I’m sure we can manage spending a night or two by the side of this road. Besides,” she looked along the length of the rough dirt path, empty from where they were all the way into Phillipsburg. “It doesn’t look to be too well traveled,” she said seeing no other wagons or even a rider on horseback on the road.

“Ain’t safe. Best you stick with me to Granite.” Dannie made no effort to slow the wagon as it approached the thicket.

“Dannie, stop the damn wagon,” Jennifer ordered.

“Best do as she says,” Jesse growled from directly behind the wagon driver’s head. Hearing Dannie’s reluctance to do as Jennifer was asking, the rancher had struggled to her feet and climbed up the inside of the wagon bed to reach the back of the wagon seat.

“Jesse,” Jennifer cried out, concerned that her wife would be exerting herself in her weakened condition. “Get down from there before you fall.”

“I’m fine, darlin’,” Jesse wheezed before turning her attention back to the wagon driver. “Pull this thing over or I’ll climb up there and do it for ya.”

Dannie didn’t much care to be ordered about by the rancher, especially since she thought Jesse had already proven her poor judgment by taking a crippled wife and two babies into the wilderness. She thought about driving her elbow into the side of the rancher’s head, sure that it would knock Jesse senseless, but didn’t. Having to explain her reasons for doing so to Leevie would be difficult. Dannie pulled on the reins, letting the horses slow to a stop at their own pace.

“Fine, you want to stay out here, stay,” Dannie set the brake when the wagon stilled then climbed down to help the other women out.

Jesse was lifting the rear gate free by the time Dannie walked to the back of the wagon. Leaning the piece of wood against the side of the wagon bed, she dropped to the ground then turned to pull KC and Charley out. Carrying the babies around to the side of the wagon, she set them on the ground to help Jennifer who was climbing down from the wagon seat.

Jennifer smiled, feeling the familiar hands encircling her waist. “Thank you, sweetheart,” she turned in Jesse’s arms as soon as her feet touched the ground. “How do you feel?” she asked, her hand tenderly brushing matted hair away from the rancher’s forehead.

“Tired and dirty,” Jesse smiled, “but breathin’ is a little easier.”

“Good.”

“You sure you want to stay here?” Jesse asked as a piece of ash floated out of the sky, settling on Jennifer’s nose. “She’s right about the fire.”

“I know. But you’re tired, the babies are tired and I’m tired. And we don’t know that being in Phillipsburg or Granite is actually any safer than us being here. I want to be someplace I can just sit without moving,” she looked at Jesse, hoping the rancher understood.

“Me too,” Jesse gently leaned her forehead against her wife’s. “And someplace I can hold you.”

“You sure ‘bout this?” Dannie walked up, interrupting the women.

“Yes,” Jennifer said, now wrapped in Jesse’s arms. “Thank you for your help, Dannie,” she smiled at the other woman. “Please tell Leevie not to worry about us. We’ll be in Granite in a day or two but first we’re going to take some time to rest.” She sighed, had it really only been that morning when she and Jesse had awakened to the danger of the approaching fire? It seemed so much longer. “We need some time to regroup.”

“Momma,” KC was tugging on Jennifer’s pant leg.

“What, sweetie?” Jennifer looked down at her daughter.

“Cha-wie hungry.”

“I know,” Jennifer smiled at the baby looking up at her. “We’ll get something made up just as soon as we get a fire started. Okay?”

“Otay,” KC nodded, toddling away from her mothers in search of firewood.

“Hold on there,” Jennifer called to KC. “Wait for me to help, sweetie.”

“If’n you’re sure ‘bout staying put,” Dannie told Jesse, “I’ll be heading home.”

“We’re sure,” Jesse nodded.

“Seems like a fool thing ta do,” Dannie muttered, watching the schoolteacher limb after her daughter.

“I appreciate you stopping to help Jennifer,” Jesse bristled at the wagon driver’s tone. “But my wife is right about us being able to handle whatever might come up. We’ve done pretty well so far.”

“Yeah,” Dannie grunted, climbing back up into the wagon seat. “I can see how well you’ve done.” She released the brake, slapping the reins over the flanks of the horses.

Jesse’s blood boiled as she watched the wagon move away. “Why you arrogant…”

“Sweetheart?” Jennifer returned with KC and an armload of firewood.

“Who the hell does she think she is talkin’ to us like that?”

Jennifer dropped the kindling in order to wrap her arms around her angry wife. “It’s been a long day, Jesse. Let it go, please.”

Jesse looked at Jennifer, the dark circles under her eyes and the deeply etched worry lines across her brow reminded the rancher she had more important things to be concerned about. “I’ll get the fire started,” she kissed the tip of her wife’s nose.

“I’ll do that if you can get the packs off Boy so I can start cooking.”

“Okay.”

“Can you do it alone, Jesse?” Jennifer asked, still troubled with the raspy sound of her wife’s voice.

“I’ll give a holler if I can use some help.”

“Good.”

“Let’s set camp a little further off the road,” Jesse looked around. They were standing right at the edge of the path where it curved sharply as it left the side of the hill and turned to cross the valley for Phillipsburg. “Maybe over there in that low spot,” she nodded toward a depression closer to the thicket of trees where a shallow creek flowed.

***

It took much longer than normal since she had to stop and rest several times, but Jesse finally managed to pull the packs and saddles off the horses. “Sorry, girl,” she patted Dusty’s neck. “Looks like you’re gonna have ta wait ‘till tomorrow to get brushed down.”

Dusty whinnied, her head bopping up and down as if she understood her mistress was struggling just to breathe at the moment.

Jennifer set a bucket of water on top of the stone in the middle of the fire ring, placing more pieces of firewood around it she left it to heat. “KC, watch your brother while I help mommy,” she said walking over to Jesse. “Sweetheart, go sit down.”

“Got to get the tent up,” Jesse rasped. It was warm enough to sleep on the ground but with the air still full of ash and soot she wanted her family protected as much as possible.

“Go sit down before you fall down,” Jennifer hardened her tone. “I’ll take care of the tent.

Jesse looked into her wife’s determined eyes. “I can help,” she offered, weakly.

“Please, go,” Jennifer cupped her hand against the rancher’s cheek. “You can barely stand up,” she said softly.

Jesse nodded. Jennifer was right; it was taking all the energy she had just to remain upright. She walked over to where KC and Charley were waiting for their mothers to finish setting up camp. She eased her exhausted body onto the ground, gasping for breath.

Jennifer pulled the tent off the pack, dragging it to the lowest area of the depression where the ground was flattest. Unrolling the heavy canvas, she stretched out the sides. Picking up the longest support pole, she slipped it underneath the tent top and forced it upright raising the center of the tent into position. She carried the rest of the support poles inside, working as quickly as she could to position them before stepping back outside. She found KC waiting for her.

“Mommy, seeping,” KC whispered.

Jennifer looked over to the fire to see Jesse collapsed on the ground. Charley had crawled over to his mother and was asleep in the crook of her arm. She looked down at her daughter who was yawning widely and rubbing her eyes. “Seems we all need sleep a lot more than we need food right now,” she murmured. She walked back to the packs, pulling their bedrolls free. She carried them to the tent, spreading them out on the canvas floor. One more trip to the packs to retrieve clean sleeping shirts and diapers and some towels and she was ready to get her family ready for bed.

“Sweetie,” Jennifer told KC, “go inside and get those dirty clothes off while I get Charley.

“Otay,” KC said tiredly, stepping into the tent. She began to pull off clothes as soon as she was inside.

Jennifer carefully lifted Charley out of her sleeping wife’s arms. Picking the bucket up as she passed the fire, she carried the baby into the tent. “Wash your face and hands, sweetie, while I get Charley’s britches changed,” she set the bucket of heated water down.

Naked, KC toddled over to the bucket. She dipped her hands into the warm water, splashing it on her face. When that didn’t seem to get much of the sooty grime off her skin, she bent over dipping her face into the water. Something she’d watch Jesse do many times. With her face under water, she scrubbed vigorously with her little hands. Her head popped up moments later, water dripping off it back into the bucket. “Keen?” she asked.

Jennifer looked at the soot smeared face. “Good enough for tonight,” she smiled. “We’ll all have to take baths tomorrow. Can you get your night shirt on?” Jennifer asked, dipping a towel into the bucket to clean some of the grime of Charley.

“Yep,” KC pulled the clean piece of clothing over her head.

“Good girl,” Jennifer grinned. “Now get into bed.”

KC ran to Jennifer, wrapping her arms around her neck and kissing her. “Wuv you, momma,” she said before scampering back to the bedroll she shared with her brother and crawling inside.

“I love you, too, sweetie,” Jennifer said, slipping Charley in beside KC. She leaned over, kissing both children. “Sweet dreams, my darlings.”

“Mommy seep out dere?” KC asked as Jennifer pushed herself up onto her feet.

“No. I’m going to go get her now.”

“Good.”

Jennifer stepped out of the tent. The sun was setting in the west painting the sky blood red as its last rays of light shone through the thick layer of smoke hanging above her. She knelt beside Jesse, wincing at the sound of her wife’s labored breathing. “Jesse,” she gently rocked the sleeping woman’s shoulder. “Sweetheart, wake up.”

“Huh?” Jesse’s eyelids slowly lifted. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Jennifer smiled in the fading light. “But you need to get up so we can get you into the tent.”

“Oh.” Jesse rolled onto her side, then bracing one hand against the ground pushed herself up onto her hands and knees. She stayed in that position several minutes before she could force herself upright. Leaning heavily on Jennifer, she let her wife guide her into the tent.

Jennifer thought about undressing Jesse who had fallen back asleep as soon as she was laid out on the bedroll but decided that removing the rancher’s boots would be enough for the night. With Jesse and the children settled in bed and fast asleep, she made one last trip outside before she joined her wife.

Dusty walked up, nuzzling Jennifer’s head as she pulled the rifle free of Jesse’s saddle scabbard.

Jennifer reached up, patting the mare’s neck. “She’ll be fine, girl. She just needs lots of rest for a while. Keep an eye on things out here tonight, okay? I don’t think I’d wake up if an entire herd of buffalo ran through the camp.”

Dusty whinnied softly, letting her mistress know she do as she asked.

“Night, girl,” Jennifer yawned, carrying the rifle into the tent. After placing the weapon on the tent floor an arm length above Jesse’s head, she pulled off her dirty clothes. Dipping a towel into the bucket’s cooled water she washed what she could off her face and arms, leaving the rest for the morning bath. Setting the bucket outside of the tent, she pulled the flap down and tied it securely. One last check on the babies then she padded over to the bedroll, slipping inside with Jesse.

Jesse rolled over, curling her body around Jennifer’s. “Love you,” she mumbled in her sleep.

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

***

Jesse woke to find her self alone in the tent. The bright sunlight flooding through the opened tent flap and the hint of freshly cooked biscuits and bacon still lingering in the air told her she had slept long past breakfast. She stretched out her long body, surprised at how tired she still felt. Her throat was dry and scratchy and her chest ached. She figured that was caused by a combination of the smoke she had inhaled and all the coughing she had done since. Rising up on her elbows to look outside, she smiled at the sight that greeted her.

KC and Charley sat just outside the open flap, watching their mother sleep. As soon as Jesse’s eyes opened, broad smiles spread across their worried faces.

“Momma,” KC called to Jennifer who was standing barefoot in the creek washing the clothes she had worn the day before. “Mommy wake.”

“Thank goodness,” Jennifer sighed, carefully stepping up onto the creek bank. By the time she reached the tent, her children had already crawled atop their mother. “Good afternoon,” Jennifer smiled, sitting beside Jesse. “How you feeling?”

“Tired, but okay,” Jesse reached out, slipping a hand behind Jennifer and pulling her down to her.

Jennifer melted into Jesse’s embrace. “I was worried about you,” she sniffled. “You coughed so much last night, I was so worried.”

“Sorry, darlin’,” Jesse turned her head to nuzzle her wife’s hair. “You’ve been busy this morning,” she grinned when she smelled soap. Looking at KC and Charley, she saw they had also had baths, their skin no longer bearing the dark coloring of the day before. “And where are your boots?”

“I was washing clothes in the creek. Seemed easier just to take them off.”

“Mommy,” KC crawled up Jesse’s body. Knees on her mother’s chest and hands braced against her shoulders, she looked down into Jesse’s face. “We make biscuits. Cha-wie want eats all bacon but momma said no. Momma said it for you.”

Jesse squirmed as her daughter’s sharp knees dug into her soft skin. “That was nice of momma,” Jesse chuckled at the serious expression on her daughter’s face.

“You gets up. You eats. Otay?”

“Sure, sunshine,” Jesse tweaked the toddler’s nose, sending her into a fit of giggles and causing her to collapse onto her chest. “Ugh,” she grunted.

“Sweetie,” Jennifer gently pulled KC closer to her, “get off mommy until she feels better.”

Charley crawled up to take KC’s place. Draping his arms and legs over Jesse’s sides, he laid his head between her breasts.

Jesse placed her hand on the baby’s back. “Guess if it ain’t one, it’ll be the other,” she told Jennifer.

“They were worried about you,” Jennifer whispered.

Jesse was quiet for a few minutes. “Seems like just once we’d be able to take a trip without something happening,” she murmured, rubbing the baby’s back. “Seems we’ve earned it.”

“We’re safe,” Jennifer whispered. “That’s good enough for me.”

Jesse turned her head to look into her wife’s eyes, smiling at the love reflected in them. “Me too.”

“We eats?” KC bolted upright, looking hopefully from one mother to the next.

“I could use a little something,” Jesse agreed. “Not ta mention, a bath and change of clothes. I must smell right awful ‘bout now.”

“I like you just the way you are.”

“Come on, Cha-wie,” KC pushed herself to her feet and balancing for an instant on her mommy’s legs, she jumped to the tent floor. “Come on, Cha-wie,” she called, running for the opening.

“Bleck,” Charley watched his sister go but remained where he lay.

“Uh, oh,” Jesse chuckled. “Looks like Charley is starting to think for himself.”

“KC will be devastated,” Jennifer laughed.

“Cha-wie,” KC’s head popped back inside the tent. “Come on.”

“Bleck.”

CHAPTER TWELVE

Charley’s eyes fluttered open. He rubbed at his nose, the acrid smoke that had been troubling him for days still hanging heavy in the air, twisting his head around when he heard the voices of his mothers.

“We should get up, darlin’,” Jesse told Jennifer. The women had awakened some time earlier but had remained cuddled together in the bed roll.

“I know,” Jennifer said, rolling over in her wife’s arms so she could face her and slipping her leg between the rancher’s.

“Don’t go starting anything, Mrs. Branson,” Jesse smirked. “This ain’t the place and I’d probably end up coughing anyway.” Her chest had started to clear but with all the smoke in the air, she still had trouble breathing at times. “Wish that fire would burn itself out so the air would clear.”

“Do you think it’s gone all the way to Sweetwater?” Jennifer asked, snuggling closer to Jesse. She loved the feel of their warm naked bodies pressed together.

“The fire or smoke?”

“Both.”

“Smoke for sure. Hard to say with the fire since we can’t see which way it’s moving.”

“Your folks will be okay, won’t they?”

“Sure. They’ll know to clear out if it gets too close. Cattle are another thing. They’ll probably scatter around the valley; maybe seek shelter in the canyons.”

“Will they be okay?” Jennifer knew how hard Jesse and her father had worked the past year to build the small herd. The thought of having to start all over with the cattle was bad enough but it was the likelihood their home could again be destroyed that truly upset her.

Jesse didn’t want to think of the possibilities, “let’s just hope it doesn’t go that way.”

Charley rolled over onto his hands and knees. With a quick glance at his sleeping sister, he crawled out of the bedroll and across the tent’s floor to his mothers. Climbing up on Jesse’s hip, he tumbled over her body.

Jesse and Jennifer watched as the baby crawled on top of the bedroll towards them.

Charley had a little difficulty finding something to brace his hands and knees on but he determinedly crawled forward until he reached his mothers.

“Good morning, little man,” Jennifer pulled her arm free of the bedroll to greet her son. “You’re up early today.”

Charley grinned, happy to be the lone center of attention of the women.

“Funny, he’s awake and KC is still asleep,” Jesse said, glancing over her shoulder at her daughter. “Usually it’s the other way around.”

KC was stretched out on her back, one arm thrown out to the side and the other partially tucked under her head.

“I think she tuckered herself out yesterday with all the playing she did in the creek,” Jennifer said, peeking over Jesse at the toddler.

“Staying in camp was a good idea, darlin’,” Jesse rolled her head back to look at Jennifer. “Think it did us all some good,” she reached up to caress her wife’s cheek. The dark circles and worry lines gone from the face she loved.

Jennifer leaned into the caress, kissing Jesse’s thumb when it brushed along her lips.

“We staying put or heading out today?” Jesse asked softly, her voice thick with the emotion she felt for her wife.

“Guess we should get to Granite. Leevie’s probably worried sick about us.” Cuddled next to the woman she loved, Jennifer would have preferred to stay exactly where she was for ever.

Jesse frowned. She liked Leevie but the thought of having to see the woman’s lover again was not a pleasant one for her.

“What’s wrong?” Jennifer asked, seeing the change in Jesse’s mood.

“I don’t like Dannie,” the rancher said, bluntly.

“I know,” Jennifer had her own doubts about the rude wagon driver. “But it’s only for a few days.”

Jesse sighed. “Guess we need to be getting up then.”

Jennifer held her wife in place. “Dannie said Granite is only a couple hours away. Let’s wait until KC wakes up,” she smiled.

“That suits me fine,” Jesse grinned.

***

Jesse needed Jennifer’s help getting the heavy packs back on Boy. The big draft horse stood patiently as the women worked, taking time between bursts of effort for Jesse to rest and regain her breath. It was close to midday by the time the horses were saddled and the women were ready to continue their journey.

“You ready, darlin’?” Jesse asked, placing KC on Dusty’s saddle.

“I think so,” Jennifer adjusted the carry sack so Charley was comfortable. She was carrying the baby in front of her. “Ready, Charley?” she asked, patting the baby’s leg.

“Need help getting up?”

“I was just about to ask you the same thing,” Jennifer smiled at Jesse.

“I think I can manage,” Jesse walked over to help Jennifer mount Blaze. “Let’s get you and Charley up there first.”

“You’ll tell me if you start feeling bad?” Jennifer asked, concerned that they might be leaving the camp too soon. “We can stop anytime and rest.”

“I promise,” Jesse leaned in for a quick kiss. “Now get up there so we can get going. Once we get to Granite, we can all take it easy for a couple of days.”

With Jennifer mounted, Jesse pulled herself up onto Dusty’s back. “Doing okay, KC?” she ruffled the toddler’s hair.

“Yep,” KC tilted her head back to look up at her mother. “We goes?”

“We goes,” Jesse chuckled, urging the mare forward.

“Jesse, don’t you be encouraging her like that,” Jennifer scolded as Blaze fell into step beside Dusty.

“Yes, darlin’.”

***

Less than an hour later, the women were riding down the main street of Phillipsburg.

Tucked against the base of a larger hill, the town was spread over the sides of several small hills. Two-story wooden and brick commercial buildings lined the wide dirt street, many in various stages of construction. The street itself was pitted with large holes that the horses had to pick their way around.

“You’d think they’d do something about this,” Jennifer commented as she watched a team of horses dip into one of the depressions, the wagon they were pulling dipping dangerously to one side.

“They will,” Jesse guided Dusty around another depression. “Once they figure out there ain’t no ore buried under it.”

“You mean they’ve been digging up the street looking for gold?”

“Silver.”

The women’s progress was watched by several men working along the street and Jesse was beginning to itch under the scrutiny. She pulled Dusty to a stop beside a man chewing on a cigar as he watched them.

“You ladies lost?” the man asked, looking Jesse over carefully.

KC shrunk back against her mother, not liking the man’s eyes on her.

Rubbing the toddler’s tummy to reassure her, Jesse answered the man, “no, we’re headed for Granite. Be obliged if you would point us in the right direction.”

“Down there,” the man thrust a thumb over his shoulder. “Take the road up ta the top of the hill, you’ll see a sign.”

“Thank you.”

“Road ain’t safe for ladies on horseback,” the man added as Dusty started walking again.

“And why is that?” Jennifer asked, holding Blaze in place.

“Freight wagons and stage won’t stop for ya. You ain’t careful, they’ll run over ya.”

“Thank you for the warning,” Jennifer smiled at the man. “We’ll be careful.”

“What’s your business in Granite?” the man called after the women who ignored the question.

“Glad we aren’t staying in Phillipsburg,” Jennifer shuddered when Blaze caught up with Dusty. She could feel the eyes of the town’s occupants on her back.

“Don’t expect much better in Granite,” Jesse said, turning Dusty onto the side road the man had indicated. “Mining camps are all pretty much alike, rough men and spoiled women.”

As Blaze turned to follow Dusty, Jennifer’s eyes drifted town to the end of the town’s main street. One two-story wooden structure with a second floor porch protruding over the boardwalk drew her attention. A handful of women, all dressed in rather provocative clothing, were chatting and laughing with the men moving about on the street below them. Catching bits and pieces of the conversations being traded between the women and the men left no doubt as to what the women were offering. Witnessing the interactions, Jennifer wondered if that was how the Silver Slipper attracted customers before Jesse took over its ownership.

The road climbed to the top of a steep hill, dipped slightly then climbed up a gentler grade before coming to a crossroads. A wooden post tilted haphazardly in the ground near the junction, painted in white on a plank of wood was the name of the town the women were seeking.

Seeing a couple of heavily laden ore wagons coming down the Granite road, Jesse guided Dusty to the side of the road.

Jennifer followed Jesse, covering Charley’s face with her stetson when the wagons rumbled by raising a large cloud of dust.

“Darlin,” Jesse said after the wagons had traveled far enough past them she didn’t have to shout to be heard. “That man was right about one thing, the drivers of those wagons don’t stop for anything once they get their teams moving. We’ll need to stick to the inside of the curves; they need lots of room to turn the teams and wagons around them. We hear a wagon coming we’ll need to get off the road if possible.”

“Will it be possible?” Jennifer asked. She was more than a little frightened by the thought of coming face-to-face with one of the big ore wagons as they made their way up to Granite.

“Don’t know,” Jesse urged Dusty forward.

The road ran straight for about a half mile, the grade gentle but climbing steadily. Then it curved sharply to the right and the incline became much steeper.

Jesse led the horses upward, keeping them as far to the side of the road as possible as they twisted up the mountain, winding around the slopes and switching directions so often it was hard to keep track of anything except that they were going uphill.

As they rode around another hairpin turn, Jennifer couldn’t imagine trying to maneuver a team of horses and ore wagon around the sharp curves. She was developing a new respect for the drivers and muleskinners that managed to do so.

Jesse looked around when she heard the shouts of a wagon driver and the sound of horses straining. Spotting a wide spot between the trees that bordered the road on both sides, she urged Dusty into it. “Hurry, Jennifer,” she called back to her wife.

Blaze just managed to bolt off the road when a team of eight horses charged around the bend.

Whip snapping over the horses’ heads, the driver of the empty ore wagon yelled at the animals as struggled up the road.

Jesse and Jennifer settled their own jittery mounts as the team and wagon passed.

“That was close,” Jennifer sighed.

“Yep,” Jesse frowned. “Should have asked that guy in Phillipsburg if there was another way up this mountain.”

“Don’t you think he would have told us?”

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

Jesse shrugged. “Way it is,” she muttered. “Ya don’t answer what ain’t asked. Come on, let’s get going ‘fore another wagon comes by.”

***

Jesse and Jennifer both breathed sighs of relief when they rounded a bend in the road and could see the mining activity on the mountain slope above them. It wasn’t very pretty but it meant they had made it to Granite.

The road continued its steep ascent as they rode past the beginning of mining company buildings that surrounded the operation. Cresting a ridge, Granite spread out in front of the women built around the sides of a rounded gully, stripped bare of the forest that had once covered it. The road split off into three directions at the head of the gully. The business district stretched along both sides of the road in front of them while the branch to the right continued to climb up the mountain to the mine itself. Between these two options, a third branch dropped into the gully traveling through the mostly residential area of town.

“You know which way ta go?” Jesse asked Jennifer.

“Leevie said they had a place near the schoolhouse,” Jennifer searched her memory for any details her friend had put in the letters she had received. “Said there was a long rock wall in front of it.”

“Well,” Jesse said, looking around. “Doubt it’s up there,” she indicated the road that followed the mountain upward. “And I doubt the school is that way,” she said looking at the beehive of activity around the commercial buildings. “Let’s try this way,” she nudged Dusty towards the middle branch.

They hadn’t gone far when the road split again, a narrower branch dipping further down into the gully. Thinking the new branch wasn’t big enough for Dannie to drive her teams of horses, Jesse continued to lead her family along the main road. They rode past cabins and shacks crowded together with little care for appearance or privacy. Of the few people they saw, most were women and children, the men working their shift at the mine or conducting business in town.

Jesse saw the beginnings of a shoulder high stone wall on her right. The road widened in front of the wall providing amble room to park a team of horses and freight wagon and allow other road traffic passage. A small cabin and larger barn occupied the ground above and behind the wall.

“This look like what she described?” Jesse asked, twisting in the saddle to ask Jennifer riding behind her.

“Yes.”

The door to the cabin opened. “It’s about time,” Leevie waved to her friends, rushing outside. “I’ve been so worried about you two, if Dannie hadn’t already agreed to take a load to Tower today I would have sent her back after you.”

“Hi, Leevie,” Jennifer smiled seeing her friend.

“Ride on up here,” Leevie told Jesse. “You can get up either end of the wall. Is that little KC?” she asked seeing the toddler riding in front of the rancher. “My goodness, she has grown. Oh, that can’t be Charley. Look how big he’s gotten to be.”

“She funny, mommy,” KC giggled as the words continued to flow out of Leevie.

“Hush,” Jesse smiled at her daughter. “She’s just excited to see your momma.”

“Goodness, you get down from there and give me a hug,” Leevie ordered when the horses stood beside her. “I could not believe it when Dannie said she’d found you on the road to Phillipsburg and then just left you there.”

“Don’t blame her,” Jennifer told her. “I didn’t give her much choice.”

“So I heard,” Leevie chuckled. “I told her you were the one to watch out for. This big bad rancher of yours is all huff and no puff,” she wrapped her arms around Jesse as she slid out of the saddle. “How are you?” she asked seriously, looking intently at Jesse.

“Better every day. Air’s a bit cleaner up here.” Jesse freed herself from the hug, moving to help Jennifer off Blaze.

“Don’t depend on it staying that way. Soon as the wind shifts, we’ll be covered in smoke too.” Leevie winced seeing Jennifer pull her cane out of the rifle scabbard she carried it in. When the schoolteacher limped toward her, she mumbled, “goodness, Jennifer, I know you wrote me all about it but I never imagined…”

“Stop,” Jennifer wrapped an arm around her distressed friend’s waist, unable to hug her like she wanted because of Charley. “Don’t you mind about my leg, I don’t.”

“But…”

“No,” Jennifer said softly. “Talking about it doesn’t change anything. I do everything I can and what I can’t, Jesse is always there to help out. So don’t be pitying me. Please.”

Leevie smiled, sadly. Glad to see her friend had not allowed her injury to ruin the life she enjoyed with her wife and children. But angry that Jennifer’s own father had caused her to suffer so horribly. “Let’s go inside. I just made a fresh batch of lemonade and some ginger cookies.”

“Me want cookie,” KC told Jesse lifting her down from Dusty.

“When don’t you?” Jesse tickled the toddler. “Why don’t you go inside, darlin’,” Jesse said dropping KC to the ground. I’ll walk back to town and see about finding a place to board the horses and check into the hotel.”

“Don’t be silly,” Leevie said. “There’s plenty of room in the barn. And I wouldn’t expect any decent lady to spend a night in town. If you thought Bannack was rough after dark, wait until the sun sets on Granite. You’ll stay here with Dannie and me.”

“Are you sure, Leevie?” Jennifer asked. “After all, we’ve grown a bit since we stayed with you in Bannack.”

“I want you to stay here,” Leevie smiled at the women. “It’ll give us a chance to catch up and you a chance to get to know Dannie.”

“Don’t want ta impose,” Jesse muttered. “I’m sure Dannie needs the space for her team.”

“Nonsense. Even with all her horses in there, stalls are only half full. You go ahead and put yours inside.”

“Alright,” Jesse begrudgingly agreed. She was thankful not to have to find a place in town. She was never comfortable staying in town’s with all the noise and activity. And having the horses close where she could check on them would be nice but the thought of accepting a favor from the freight driver didn’t sit well with her. “Go on, darlin’,” she smiled at Jennifer. “I’ll be in soon as I get them settled and rubbed down.”

“I’ll help,” Jennifer offered immediately.

“I can do it.”

“No, Jesse. You’re wheezing again. I’ll help.”

“Mes help too, mommy,” KC said, grabbing the reins to Blaze and leading the horse away.

“It’ll go faster, sweetheart,” Jennifer said.

“Alright.”

“Well, let get the work done then,” Leevie followed KC. “Don’t want to keep those cookies and lemonade waiting too long.”

“Nope,” KC called back.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Jesse was sitting on the top of the rock wall holding Charley, the heels of her boots lightly tapping against the stones. KC sat next to her, her moccasin covered feet matching the rhythmic movements of her mother’s. The sun, finally making an appearance over the mountain behind them even though it was late morning, was rapidly warming the air. They were waiting for Jennifer who had accepted an invitation from Leevie to walk to the town’s schoolhouse which was located a short distance further down the dirt street.

Jesse was leisurely studying the layout of the town of Granite and the multiple rows of buildings occupying the rounded sides of the gulley. She was fascinated by the stores and other commercial buildings resting on stilts on the near side of the town’s main street that had been fancifully named Broadway. With the street of Broadway taking up most of the ground along the rim of the gulley, it was the only way for structures to find footing in order to border the busy street. For the buildings on the opposite side of the street, parts of the hillside behind them had been carved out to make room for the rear of the structures. Shacks dotted the hillside she’d heard Leevie refer to as Whiskey Hill, most constructed without the benefit of solid foundations and appearing ready to slide down the slope at any moment to join the businesses below.

The gulley itself was crisscrossed with narrow streets lined with houses, shacks and tents where the Granite’s citizens lived. She smiled noticing that several feet down slope of each row of homes was a corresponding row of outhouses, some tilting dangerously in one direction or another.

A large two-story wooden structure was located a couple of streets below her, well used dirt paths led to it from the business district. Seeing the men entering and leaving by the front door and the women who greeted and bid goodbye to them, she instantly identified the activity that was taking place inside the building. She wasn’t surprised to see the house of ill repute in Granite since every mining camp had its share of saloons and prostitutes, but she was surprised by it being located so close to the residential area.

“Momma, wha’ dat?” KC pointed down the gulley.

“What, sunshine?” Jesse swung her head around to look where her daughter was pointing.

“Dat.”

“Looks like a great big rock,” Jesse said of the granite boulder rising out of the ground about two hundred feet down the gulley.

“We go dere?”

“Why do you want to go down there?” Jesse chuckled.

“Want’s ta pray.”

“Seems a might far ta go just so’s you can play,” Jesse smiled. “Can’t you play up here?”

KC twisted at the waist, turning to look around behind her. “’Spose,” she shrugged, her head cocked to one side as she imagined the possibilities.

“Good,” Jesse ruffled the toddler’s hair. “Cause I’m not sure I could make it back up once we got down there. Maybe after a day or two, when my breathin’ is a bit easier.”

“Otay,” KC twisted back around. Using her hands to boost her body along, she scooted closer to Jesse and leaned against her. “I wait.”

Jesse shifted Charley to sit on her right thigh so she could wrap her left arm around her daughter. “Thanks.”

***

Dannie walked over the crest that separated the town of Granite from the mining operation and the numerous mining company buildings. Desperate to make more money so she and Leevie could stay in Granite and be together, she was determined to talk the mining company foreman into signing her on as a driver. She turned to follow the street that led to the long row of brick and wooden structures the town folk called Silk Stocking Row because they housed the fancy homes of the mining company’s highest paid employees. The first building was a two-story brick structure that served double duty as the office and residence of the foreman and his family.

Dannie could already see the building and the flight of stairs in back of it that provided the only means of access to the living quarters on the top floor. She knew she would find the foreman working in his office on the ground floor. His desk occupying a corner of the large open room to take advantage of light coming through both a window on the front of the building and one on the side.

Reaching the foreman’s office, Dannie took a deep breath before she pushed the door inward.

The foreman looked up. “Don’t got any business fer ya,” he said before Dannie managed to step inside.

“Sign out front says ya need wagons and teams,” Dannie persisted. “I’ve got both.”

“Ya a woman,” the man said as if Dannie was unaware of the fact.

“What’s that got ta do with anything?” Dannie asked, exasperatedly. “Every week I hear you’ve been in town complaining ya don’ have enough wagons and teams to haul your freight and every week ya tell me ya don’ have business fer me.”

“And I don’t. Everyone knows a woman can’t drive a team of horses,” the man grumbled.

“I drive a team, you fool,” Dannie shouted.

“Well driving a team in the valley ain’t the same as on the mountain.”

“I live on this mountain and I’ve driven my team up and down almost every one of its dammed roads.”

The man thought for a moment. He knew Dannie owned a wagon and team and he knew she was a good driver and honest one. But he also knew if he hired her, he’d have to explain his decision to the mine company’s owners and stock holders in St. Louis. And the prospect of trying to get them to understand why he needed a woman to drive freight was not very agreeable to him. “Sorry,” he shook his head. “I can’t take ya on.”

“I need the money,” Dannie explained.

“Sorry.” The foreman returned to his work, effectively stopping any further conversation.

Dannie turned to leave. Pulling the door closed, she took a moment to stand in front of the building and take in her surroundings. Silk Stocking Row stretched off to her left leading to a maze of streets where the mine’s other offices, workshops, warehouses and storage sheds were located. From where she stood, she could look across to the road to Phillipsburg where ore and freight wagons were lined up waiting their turn to load or unload their cargos, whichever the case might be. Between her and the road, she saw the hospital the company had built to take care of its workers and the much smaller home of the resident doctor beside it. A barn, stables and blacksmith’s shop occupied the ground below the road. Without looking, Dannie knew that several hundred feet up the side of the mountain behind her was the mine itself and the enormous wooden roof that covered the immense structure.

Everywhere she looked screamed money and Dannie wondered why she wasn’t allowed to share in just a little portion of it.

‘No sense putting off the inevitable,’ Dannie thought as she started the walk back to the house she shared with Leevie. The trip she’d made to Tower the day before barely paid enough to buy feed for her horses for a week. With the foreman still refusing to hire her and most of the business owners in both Granite and Phillipsburg just as reluctant as he was, Dannie realized her stay in Granite and her dream of living with her lover were at an end. ‘Best go home and break the news to Leevie.’

***

“Are you sure that’s what you want to do, Jennifer?” Leevie asked. She and Jennifer were sitting on a bench in the school yard, the students having been called inside by their teacher.

“I’m tired of spending my days with other folks young ‘uns. I want to be with my own,” Jennifer said.

“What about Jesse? Have you told her?”

“Not yet but I don’t think she’ll mind much. What with the Silver Slipper, the dress shop, and the ranch, there just isn’t enough time to take care of everything any more. I’m sure she’ll be just as happy to have me home as I’ll be.”

“It’s tempting, Jennifer,” Leevie smiled. “It really is. As you heard from Sarah,” she named the Granite schoolteacher who they had spent the past hour talking with before the students returned for their afternoon classes. “The chance of me being offered a teaching position here is not very likely. And I know Dannie is having a hard time finding jobs even though she keeps assuring me everything is alright. Thing is,” Leevie frowned. “Just like you want to be with Jesse, I want to be with Dannie. I don’t think I could live away from her any more.”

Jennifer smiled. “And you won’t have to. That’s what makes this so perfect,” she said excitingly. She knew she had Leevie almost convinced to move to Sweetwater and take over her duties at the schoolhouse. What she was about to say should definitely convince her friend. “Jesse’s been helping Ed out with his deliveries for the mercantile but she really hates it when she has to be gone overnight. So if Dannie was there…”

“She could make the deliveries,” Leevie grinned.

“Yes,” Jennifer nodded. “And she should have no shortage of jobs because Sweetwater doesn’t have anyone to delivery freight once it comes in from Bozeman.”

“It’s perfect.”

“Think she’d be willing to move to Sweetwater? It’ll be different than what you’re used to after being here and in Bannack.” Jennifer asked. She knew so little about Leevie’s lover and what she knew wasn’t all that favorable.

“I think she’d be happy any place she could find work and we could be together,” Leevie said, crossing her fingers. “Let’s get back so I can ask her.”

“And I can break the news to Jesse,” Jennifer had her own fingers crossed, hoping her wife wouldn’t be too upset with her desire to give up teaching.

***

Jesse had gotten bored just sitting and waiting for Jennifer to return so after feeding the babies and putting them down for their nap, she decided to muck out the stalls in the barn. She figured it was the least she could do to help repay Leevie and Dannie for their hospitality. She paused to wipe the sweat off the back of her neck. Once the sun had cleared the mountain, the temperature had risen significantly and working in the barn was like being inside a cook stove. Glancing to the doorway where KC and Charley were napping on a blanket to take advantage of a light breeze blowing up the gulley from the valley, she was glad to see that neither was showing signs of waking. She still had a bit of work to do and she hoped to finish it before she had her young ‘uns to keep entertained.

“What are you doing?” Dannie asked, carefully stepping around the sleeping children to enter her barn. She wasn’t happy to see the rancher cleaning out the stalls, something she had been meaning to find the time to do for days.

“Jus’ thought I’d help out,” Jesse said adding another shovel full of horse biscuits to the wheelbarrow. “Not used ta sittin’ around all day doin’ nothin’.”

“I can take care of my own barn,” Dannie approached the rancher.

“Never said ya couldn’t,” Jesse turned to face the angry wagon driver. “Jus’ helpin’ out, looked like ya could use some.”

Dannie was in a foul mood after her talk with the mine foreman and coming home to find someone else doing her work was more than she could bear at the moment. “I can take care of my own affairs,” she spat out. “I don’t need the likes of you showing up here and trying to say I can’t.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Jesse tossed the shovel aside. “I said I was jus’ helpin’ out. Don’t know why you’re so upset over it. Someone offer to muck out my barn, I sure as hell wouldn’t turn them down.”

“This ain’t your barn.”

“I know that.”

“You think ‘cause you’ve got things your way in Sweetwater you can jus’ walk in and take over here, don’t ya? Well, ya can’t.”

“Dannie,” Jesse reached for the canteen she had hung on the side of the stall. “I don’t know what kind of burr ya got stuck under your saddle but I wish you’d pull it out. You’ve been actin’ like Jennifer and I have done somethin’ wrong ever since we first met ya.”

“Everythin’ always goes right fer ya, don’ it?” Dannie growled. “Ya win a poker game and ya end up in business. Ya buy a ranch. Ya find children. Everythin’ comes easy fer ya. ‘Cept ya wife’s a cripple…”

Jesse had her hands around Dannie’s throat before she could say anymore. “Jennifer ain’t no cripple,” she snarled in the other woman’s face. “And if ya call her that again, I’ll…”

“Jesse,” Jennifer screamed. She and Leevie had just walked up to the barn and she was about to check on the babies when she heard the ugly confrontation between her wife and Dannie. She hurried into the barn, Leevie on her heels. “Let her go,” she said as soon as she reached the rancher’s side. She had never seen her wife so angry and she was afraid Jesse would seriously injure the woman she was choking.

Dannie’s eyes bulged, both from a lack of air to breath and from seeing the fury in the rancher’s eyes. She felt Jesse’s hands trembling as she tightened her grip.

“Please, Jesse,” Jennifer whispered. “Please, let her go.”

“Mommy?”

Jesse looked down. KC’s arms were wrapped around her leg and the toddler was looking wide-eyed up at her. She instantly relaxed her hands.

“Are you alright?” Leevie ran up to Dannie as soon as she was freed.

Dannie nodded. Gasping for breath, she rubbed her neck trying to ease the burning sensation that lingered after the rancher’s hands were removed.

“What did you say to her?” Leevie asked, her tone more accusatory than she had intended.

Dannie looked at her lover. Slowly she shook her head as she mumbled, “even you think she’s better ‘n me.”

“No, Dannie,” Leevie cried, realizing how what she said must have sounded like to the woman she loved. “No. That’s not what I meant,” she tried to wrap her arms around the Dannie.

Dannie swiped at Leevie’s arms, knocking them aside. “No point in me stickin’ around if tha’s the case,” she snarled, striding for the barn door. “Do what ya want with the horses and wagon,” she yelled as she walked out into the sunlight. “I don’ have the money ta keep them anyway.”

“Dannie,” Leevie screamed. “Where are you going?” She started to run after her lover but Jesse reached out to stop her.

“Let her be.”

“Let me go,” Leevie cried.

“Let her be,” Jesse said again. “She needs some time.”

“Jesse, what happened here?” Jennifer asked.

Jesse bent down, lifting the whimpering KC up to console her. “It’s okay, sunshine. Mommy’s not mad.”

“You yellin’,” KC sniffled. Snuggling against her mother, she could hear her heart’s rapid beating inside her chest.

“I know,” Jesse nuzzled the toddler’s head. “I’m sorry.”

“Jesse?” Jennifer asked again. “What happened?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You were choking her,” Jennifer whispered.

“She said something she shouldn’t have,” Jesse muttered, unhappy she had reacted to the wagon driver’s words the way she had. “We both said some things we shouldn’t have.”

“Is she gone?” Leevie stood, staring at the empty opening at the end of the barn. “Is she really gone?” she cried, tears flowing down her cheeks.

“No,” Jesse said, handing KC to Jennifer. “Where would she go?”

Leevie looked at the rancher, not understanding her question.

“Ta blow off the steam she’s got built up,” Jesse explained. “Where would she go?”

“I’m not sure.”

“She’s walking so I doubt she’ll go far. Is there someplace in town?” Jennifer asked, hopefully.

“Maybe Donegal’s. It’s a saloon next to the hotel.”

“What are you going to do?” Jennifer asked when Jesse started to walk away.

“Go find her,” Jesse told her wife. “See if I can work this out between us. And bring her home.”

“Sweetheart, are you sure you should?”

“No,” Jesse shrugged. “But somehow I think she’s got some things she needs to talk out. She’s been keeping them bottled up inside and that ain’t good. Maybe she’ll…”

“Talk to you?”

“Yeah.”

“And you know this because you do the same thing,” Jennifer smiled.

“Used to,” Jesse grinned. “’Fore I met you.” She leaned close, kissing Jennifer. “Stay put ‘til we get back.”

“Okay.”

“Bring her home,” Leevie told the rancher.

“Don’t worry,” Jesse hugged her friend. “She’s got a hard head like me, but she’s not goin’ ta walk away from the woman she loves.”

Jennifer watched Jesse leave. “Damn,” she sighed.

“Think she’ll find Dannie?”

“She won’t stop until she does,” Jennifer smiled. “She’s right about them both having hard heads.”

“What do you think Dannie said to her?”

“Don’t know,” Jennifer answered, unwilling to say that whatever it was she was sure it had something to do with her or the babies because there was nothing else that would cause her wife to get so protective. “It’s not important,” she turned to Leevie. “Let’s get the young ‘uns inside. I bet KC would like a glass of your lemonade.”

“Alright,” Leevie smiled when KC nodded enthusiastically.

***

Jesse located Donegal’s saloon on Broadway and walked through the open doorway leaving the bright sunlight for the dark interior of the log building squeezed between the hotel and a mercantile.

The furnishings inside were sparse. Half a dozen tables and twice as many chairs littered the room and a bartender watched her from behind a plank of wood resting on two empty flour barrels. Oil lamps hanging from the log walls and set on a couple of the tables provided the only illumination in the windowless room.

Jesse looked around, finding most of the patrons to be men who looked back at her suspiciously. Spotting a figure hunched over at a table in the shadows of the far back corner, she knew she’d found Dannie.

“Go away,” Dannie grumbled when Jesse pulled out a chair to sit at the table.

“Can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Jennifer would beat me to within an inch of my life if I didn’t bring you back.”

Dannie looked up to glare at Jesse.

“Thought ya wore the pants?”

Jesse laughed. “If you haven’t noticed, Jennifer is quite fond of wearing britches.”

“You drinking or talking?” the bartender called over to the women.

“Give me ‘nother beer,” Dannie yelled back.

“You have any milk?” Jesse asked, smiling at the guffaws of the other patrons.

“No.”

“Then make it two beers.”

The women waited until their drinks were served to continue their conversation.

“I’m sorry,” Jesse said as soon as the bartender retreated back behind the plank of wood. “I shouldn’t have done what I did.”

“Why did ya?” Dannie asked, still a little afraid of the temper the rancher had displayed.

“I don’t like people making Jennifer out to be less than what she is.” Jesse took a swallow of the warm beer as she waited for a response.

“Guess I was wrong calling her what I did,” Dannie shrugged.

“You were. Mine telling me what the rest of what ya said was about?”

“Forget it,” Dannie gulped down half her beer then raised the almost empty glass mug for the bartender to see.

“I’d rather not.”

“Why?”

“Seems to me, we’re gonna be seein’ a lot more of each other if’n our wives have anything to do with it. We might as well get all this out now.”

“We ain’t married,” Dannie spoke the obvious.

“Ya should be,” Jesse grinned.

“You got money to pay for these, Dannie?” the bartender asked, setting two fresh mugs of beer on the table.

“I should be picking up a load tomorrow,” the wagon driver muttered.

“Sorry,” the bartender started to pick up the mugs.

“Leave them,” Jesse said, reaching into her pocket to retrieve some coins. “This should take care of us for a while.”

Dannie’s eyes narrowed when she saw Jesse nonchalantly hand the coins to the bartender, her anger from before returning. “You got it made, don’ ya,” she sneered.

Jesse looked at the woman, trying to figure out what had caused her sudden change in mood. “You really think that, don’t you?” she asked, confused as to why Dannie, a woman she hardly knew, would bear such resentment towards her. But it wasn’t the first time she had seen the same look and heard the same words. “Dannie, I know from where you’re sitting it probably looks like I’ve got it easy. But my life ain’t always been so rosy. And what it is today is mostly due to hard work and Jennifer.”

Dannie nursed her beer as she listened. “I work hard,” she muttered. “But men don’t wan’ ta use me ‘cause I’m a woman. You don’ have tha’ problem.”

Jesse laughed. “Damn, is that what this is all about? You think I’ve got it easier than you in that department? Hell, Dannie, half the ranchers in the Sweetwater Valley refuse to talk to me. ‘Ain’t fittin’ for a woman to own a ranch,’ they like ta tell me. ‘Ain’t fittin’ for a woman to own a saloon.’ ‘Ain’t fittin’ for a woman to drive a wagon’, bet you’ve heard that one a time or two.”

Dannie nodded.

“Jus’ ‘cause they say it, don’ make it true,” Jesse frowned. “After I took over the Slipper and tried to turn it into a respectable boarding house, folks would cross the street rather than have to acknowledge me. If it wasn’ for Ed who could have cared less if I was a woman or a man jus’ so’s long as I paid my tab at his store, I never could have stayed in business. The boarding rooms spent more time collectin’ dust than customers and ‘bout the only folks Bette Mae was feeding in the dinin’ room were the girls and me. But word slowly got around tha’ the Slipper had clean beds and good food and folks started comin’ jus’ to check thing’s out. Lucky for me, they decided to stick around.

“Business finally got good ‘nough for me to buy a run-down cabin and some grass covered land that I could call a ranch. Only problem was none of the other ranchers would sell me any cattle. Had ta talk ‘til I was plum tired of talkin’ to convince one of ‘em to sell me a dozen cows fer twice what they was worth.”

Jesse twisted around in her chair, signaling to the bartender they needed their mugs refilled.

“Hell, Dannie, only thing ever ta come easy ta me was my love fer Jennifer. She had that from the minute she stepped off the stage, though I was too stupid to figure it out for a while. And I probably never would have if she hadn’t helped me,” Jesse smiled at the memory of those first few weeks she’d shared with the newly arrived schoolteacher.

“I’m broke,” Dannie sighed. “And much as I love Leevie, I don’t know how ta tell her. Granite is first time we’ve managed to live together. It’ll break her heart if I have to go someplace else to find work.”

“What if she could come with you?” Jesse asked as two more mugs of beer were left on the table.

“I’m listening.”

“Sweetwater needs someone ta haul freight. Ed’s got more supplies arriving every day for the mining camps and ranches. It’s too much for me and Billie to keep up with; especially since I have the ranch and Slipper ta worry about. You have a wagon and team and Ed would put you ta work soon as you made it ta town.”

“What about Leevie?”

“I’ve been wantin’ to ask Jennifer to stop teaching. Young ‘uns and I need her at home. She’d be more willing ta do it if she had someone to replace her.”

“Where’d we live?”

“Room at the Slipper ta start with. After that, guess you can figure that out on your own.”

“Sure town wants more of us around?” Dannie asked seriously. It was one thing to have one pair of women living together but two might be asking too much of Sweetwater’s citizens.

“I’m not sayin’ it’ll be easy. You’ll get the stares and looks from some, same as Jennifer and me. But if’n ya pay them no mind, ya can go about your business.”

“What about the ranchers? They goin’ be wantin’ me driving a wagon up to their places.”

“You’ll be workin’ for Ed so most won’t question it. Most ain’t gonna like, but they won’ question it.”

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“You gonna want me livin’ ‘round ya?”

“Look, Dannie,” Jesse drank down the last of her beer. “I’ve got nothin’ against ya. And I like Leevie, she’s good for Jennifer. But no one,” she glared at the wagon driver to make sure her point was being made. “No one talks about Jennifer or KC or Charley like you did and ‘xpects me to let it go.”

Dannie nodded. She couldn’t argue with the rancher’s assertion, she felt the same about Leevie. “Guess we should be gettin’ on back home.”

“Probably a good idea,” Jesse smiled. “They’re probably worried what ditch we’ve fallen in after beatin’ the stuffin’ out each other.”

“Be good to have some good news ta tell Leevie for once.”

“You’ll come to Sweetwater?”

“Don’t see any reason not to,” Dannie smiled, stretching her arm across the table to Jesse. “Ya mind if we start this meetin’ thing all over?”

“Nah,” Jesse laughed, taking the offered hand and squeezing it with her own. “Glad ta meet ya. I’m Jesse Marie Branson.”

“Dorothy Annabelle Northly.”

Jesse snorted. “That’s where DANnie comes from?”

“And if you ever tell anyone, I’ll rip your tongue out. Not even Leevie knows my given name.”

“She won’t hear it from me,” Jesse snickered, standing up. She dropped her hands to the table, hanging on while the room spun around her. “Fact is, after what I just had to drink, I doubt I remember it by morning.” She hadn’t consumed a single beer in months and was pretty sure the last time she’d had more than one at the same sitting was long before she met Jennifer.

***

“What’s that?” Jennifer asked, hearing the sound of loud laughing coming from outside the house.

“Just a couple of drunks on their way home,” Leevie frowned, more than used to the nightly activity on the street in front of the house.

Jennifer turned her head to hear better, something was oddly familiar about one of the slurred voices. “You don’t think…?”

“It couldn’t be,” Leevie said as she too recognized one of the voices.

Both women hurried to the door, opening it just as Jesse and Dannie stumbled up to the porch.

“Uh, oh,” Dannie whispered loudly when she saw the look on her lover’s face.

“Jesse, you’re drunk,” Jennifer said as indignantly as possible through the grin she wore.

“Sorry, darlin’,” Jesse whispered.

“Well I certainly hoped you two got your differences worked out.”

“We did,” Jesse smiled. “We’re moving ta Sweetwater,” she slurred while slowly collapsing to the ground, her rubbery legs no longer able to support her.

Jennifer stood over Jesse, looking down on the disheveled pile of limp limbs that was her wife. “Guess we know where you’re sleeping tonight,” she giggled.

“Yes, darlin’,” Jesse curled into a ball. “Love you.”

“Wimp,” Dannie snickered. “Let’s go ta bed,” she reached for Leevie.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Leevie stepped out of her lover’s grasp. “You can sleep out here with her.”

“But, Leevie…” Dannie whined.

“Come on, Jennifer,” Leevie turned her back to Dannie. “Let’s get inside where it’s warm and we eat some of those ginger cookies waiting for us.”

Dannie swallowed hard at the mention of the food. Feeling her stomach start to tumble, she swallowed again.

Returning inside the house, Leevie said to the waiting children in a voice louder than necessary, “I bet you two would like a nice big glass of milk and a nice warm ginger cookie. Wouldn’t you?” she asked, slamming the door shut.

Dannie’s fist flew up to her mouth as she looked around for someplace to empty her rumbling stomach. Staggering to the edge of the stone wall, she bent over retching.

“Who’s the wimp now?” Jesse smirked and fell asleep.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

“Where mommy?” KC asked, lifting her arms above her head so her momma could drop a clean shirt over it. She was sitting on the bedroll spread out on the floor where she had spent the night with her mother and brother.

“Outside,” Jennifer giggled. She had checked on Jesse earlier in the morning and found the rancher still curled up in a ball near the front porch.

“She seeping?”

“Yes, sweetie.”

KC looked over her mother’s shoulder. The sun was shining brightly through the windows at the front of the house. “It late.”

“Yes, it is,” Jennifer smiled, sucking on her lower lip. “Maybe you and Charley would like to go see if she’s awake.”

KC nodded, “we goes.”

“Let me get your moccasins on first.”

“Otay,” KC leaned back on her hands, holding both feet up in the air to make the job easier for her momma.

“You seem to be taking this awfully well,” Leevie said from across the room where she was frying bacon in a pan.

“Well,” Jennifer pushed herself up off the floor. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen Jesse in this condition. And to be honest, I’d much rather she came home drunk then shot or beat up. Besides, after they get through with her, I doubt she does it again any time soon,” she said, watching KC holding the door open for Charley to crawl outside.

“Think they can take care of Dannie, too?” Leevie asked, looking out the window. Her lover was sound asleep on the top of the wall, precariously close to the edge.

“Don’t you think you should go wake her up before she rolls off that wall?”

“No,” Leevie used a fork to remove the bacon from the pan then poured several scrambled up eggs into the pan to cook. “This isn’t the first time she’s come home drunk. Maybe if she falls off, she’ll stop doing it.”

“Is it a problem for her?” Jennifer asked rolling up the bedroll.

“Just when she gets frustrated over not being able to find work. What do you think Jesse meant last night when she said we’re moving to Sweetwater?”

“I have no idea,” Jennifer placed the roll of blankets next to the wall where they would be out of the way during the day. “I wish she wake up, so we could ask.”

“Don’t think she’s going to have much choice about that,” Leevie laughed as KC and Charley approached their sleeping mother.

***

KC tip-toed up to Jesse. “Mommy seeping, Cha-wie,” she whispered to the baby crawling beside her. “We needs be quiet,” she held her finger up to her mouth to emphasize her instructions.

Charley looked up at his sister and frowned. He looked at his mother who had rolled over onto her back, her arm slung over her eyes to block out the morning sun. He liked to sit on his mommy’s stomach and bounce and right now she was in the perfect position to do just that. Ignoring his sister, he started crawling again.

“Cha-wie,” KC whispered at her brother. “Cha-wie, you gots ta stay put.”

“Bleck,” Charley shook his head, his hands and legs still moving forward. He missed playing with his mommy the night before and he wasn’t going to lose out again now.

KC started to run after her brother, more concerned with stopping him than her sleeping mother.

The baby reached Jesse, swinging an hand up to her shirt he grabbed a fistful of material to pull himself up.

“Cha-wie, no,” KC cried, the toe of her moccasin catching a root poking out of the ground. Unable to stop herself, the toddler stumbled a few steps forward her arms flailing as she tried to regain her balance.

Charley ducked when his sister flew past him, landing squarely on top of their mother.

“Oof,” Jesse jerked awake, unsure of where she was or what was squirming about on her chest.

While KC struggled to untangle her arms and legs, Charley pulled himself up to sit on Jesse, his legs hanging over her sides.

“Wha?” Jesse muttered, her tongue sticking to the roof of her cotton-dry mouth. “Whath goin’ on?” she tried again.

Hearing his mother was awake, Charley giggled and started bouncing.

KC finally got herself turned right side up. She bent down, nose-to-nose with her mother. “Hi, mommy. We makin’ bacon and eggs. You hungry’s?”

Jesse clamped her jaws shut, feeling the bile rising up her throat. “Charley,” she hissed out through her clinched teeth. “Please stop that.”

Encouraged when his mother spoke to him, Charley increased his bouncing.

KC pushed herself up on her knees, the sharp bones poking into Jesse’s ribs. She twisted around to tell her brother, “mommy says stop, Cha-wie.”

“Bleck,” Charley wrinkled up his nose, refusing to obey his sister.

A shadow fell over Jesse and she looked up to see Jennifer standing over her. “Help me,” she moaned pitifully, “please.”

“KC,” Jennifer laughed. “Go wake up your Auntie Dannie.”

“Otay,” KC pushed herself up, her feet replacing her knees on Jesse’s chest. “Me be back, mommy,” she shouted, jumping to the ground.

“Charley, stop bouncing,” Jennifer softly told the baby who immediately still his movements.

“Thank you,” Jesse groaned.

“Did KC tell you Leevie is cooking up a batch of bacon and eggs for breakfast?” Jennifer asked cheerfully.

Jesse forced the bile back down as she glared up at her wife. “Ya’re enjoying this, ain’t ya?” she hissed.

“Yep,” Jennifer chuckled. She bent down to pick up Charley but found herself in Jesse’s grip instead.

“Jennifer Stancey Branson,” Jesse growled, wrapping her arms around her wife’s waist and pulling her down beside her. “I never knew you could be so wicked.”

“Make me sleep alone while you’re lying out in the dirt like some common drunk,” Jennifer giggled. “And you haven’t seen the end of my wickedness.”

“What the hell………?”

Jesse and Jennifer looked in the direction of Dannie’s yell to see KC standing on the top of the stone wall looking over the edge, Dannie no where in sight.

“Oops,” KC said, her hands coming up to her mouth in surprise. “Auntie Dannie, you’s otay?”

“Can this day get any worse?” Jesse dropped her head back, groaning when it connected with the hard ground.

“Bleck,” Charley giggled, renewing his bouncing.

Jennifer buried her face into Jesse’s shoulder, her body shaking with laughter

***

“Why didn’t you just tell me you wanted me to stop teaching?” Jennifer asked washing Jesse’s back.

The rancher sat in the tub on the back porch of Dannie’s and Leevie’s house. A curtain was hung around the tub providing some privacy from the surrounding homes. KC and Charley were playing on the porch next to the chair Jennifer sat on.

“Didn’t think it was my place to ask you to give up somethin’ ya loved,” Jesse admitted.

“Sweetheart, I love you and the young ‘uns much more than I do teaching,” Jennifer rinsed soap off her wife’s smooth skin. “You should have just asked.”

“Yeah?” Jesse smiled.

Jennifer tapped her finger against the tip of the rancher’s nose, “yeah. Now let me get your hair washed. I don’t even want to think about what might be crawling around in it.”

KC stood up. Resting her hands on the edge of the tub, she cocked her head to one side looking at the mother. “Mommy?”

“Yes, sunshine?”

“You gots bugs?”

“No, I don’t hav…,” Jesse started to protest but it was cut short when Jennifer poured a bucket of water over her head.

***

“You sure you want to do this?” Leevie asked Dannie. The women were sitting atop the stone wall waiting Dannie’s turn with the tub.

“Ain’t got much choice,” Dannie muttered. “Can’t git ‘nough work here to keep the horses fed.”

“That’s not much of an answer, Dannie.”

Dannie looked at her lover. “Yes, I want ta do it. If what Jesse said is true, it’ll be what we always hoped fer. You can teach and I can drive my wagon. And,” she smiled shyly, “we can be together.”

“It does sound perfect, doesn’t it?” Leevie leaned her head against Dannie’s shoulder.

“Yes,” Dannie started to slip her arm around her lover but stop abruptly, wincing at the pain that shot through the bruised limb. “Damn,” she rubbed her forearm.

“At least it isn’t broken,” Leevie took the arm into her own, gently rubbing the tender tissue.

“No thanks ta tha’…”

“Dannie,” Leevie warned.

“Hmpft. Who told her she could call me auntie?” Dannie grumbled. “Makes me sound like an ol’ bitty jus’ waitin’ ta die.”

“She likes you,” Dannie snickered. Once KC was let loose on her lover, the toddler seemed to enjoy pestering the cantankerous woman.

“Well I ain’t so sure I like her.”

“Sure you do,” Leevie chuckled. “You know why?”

“Why?”

“Because I bet you were a lot like her when you were a young ‘un.”

“You do, uh?”

“Yes.”

“What if I say I wasn’t?”

“I wouldn’t believe you.”

“Auntie Dannie,” KC ran around the corner of the house. “Mommy says yous needs take baff.”

“She does, does she?” Dannie cringed as the toddler ran up to her.

“Yep,” KC nodded, seriously. “You comes now.”

“What if I’m not ready for my bath jus’ yet?” Dannie questioned KC.

“You comes,” KC glared at Dannie, stomping her foot on the ground. “Mommy says.”

“Maybe I need ta rethink this move,” Dannie grumbled.

“Go on, you need a bath,” Leevie shoved her lover, trying to encourage her to stand.

“I’ll just bet that smartie rancher is back there laughin’ her fool head off ‘bout sendin’ this here pip squeak out here tellin’ me wha’ ta do.”

“Only way you’re going to find out is to go back there,” Leevie laughed.

“Comes on, Auntie Dannie,” KC tugged on the woman’s shirt. “Water goin’ git cold.”

Dannie begrudgingly stood up then offered her good arm to Leevie, helping her to her feet. “Don’ know ‘bout this,” she grumbled as she let KC tug her in the direction of the back porch. “Next she’s gonna wanna wash my back.”

“Me helps,” KC grinned. “Me like take baff. Cha-wie likes baff too. Bu’ he splashes too much. Gits waters everywhere.”

***

“What are you looking at?” Jennifer asked, walking up to Jesse who was standing in front of the house looking towards the sunset.

Jesse wrapped her arm around her wife’s waist, pulling her close. “Those clouds look different,” she pointed to the smoke clouds to the west. “They’re not as dark as before.”

“You think the fire’s burning out?”

“I’m thinking there’s rain coming,” Jesse smiled. “Air is damp. I can smell it.”

“Thank goodness,” Jennifer smiled. She had long tired of the stench that hung in the air and the soot and ash that fell out of the sky.

“Time we thought about going home, darlin’,” Jesse said softly.

“I know,” Jennifer leaned against her wife. “Dannie’s going into town tomorrow to see if she can find someone to buy the house and barn. Leevie figures they’ll be ready to leave day after. Says they don’t have much to pack since they’re not planning on bringing much of the furniture.”

“We don’t have ta wait on them,” Jesse offered.

“Do you mind if we do?” Jennifer turned her head to look into her wife’s eyes. “You’re still having trouble breathing and I’d feel better having…”

Jesse kissed Jennifer. “It’s okay,” she smiled when they lips parted.

“It is?”

“Sure. ‘Nother day or two won’ make much difference. But I ain’t riding in the back of that damn wagon.”

“Wouldn’t ask you to.”

“Good.”

“Think we should go inside and save them from the young ‘uns?” Jennifer smiled.

“Nah,” Jesse leaned in to kiss the woman she loved. “KC will come get us if they start to be a problem.”

***

A week later, Dusty and Blaze walked through the ranch gate and started down the slope to the ranch house. It was about an hour before sunset and there was still plenty of light for the horses’ riders to see the damage the forest fire had left behind. To the east and south, slashes of black cut across the otherwise green forest and grasslands stopping only when they reached the Sweetwater River. The fire had come close to the ranch buildings but skirted past without doing any damage.

“Least it didn’t reach the house,” Jesse let out the breath she’d been holding ever since they left Dannie and Leevie in the care of Bette Mae in town.

“I’m so glad,” Jennifer sighed. “I don’t think I could have stood to see another one burned.” Even with all the time that had past since they returned to find their first home in ruins, she still shivered whenever she thought about it.

“Looks like Pop brought the cattle in,” Jesse said, seeing the herd packed into the corral. “Good thing we don’ have any more than we do,” she grinned, wondering how long the fence would hold the crowded animals.

“So much of the grassland burned, Jesse,” Jennifer was looking beyond the ranch yard to the scorched hills where the cattle normally grazed, “how will we feed them?”

Jesse looked up into the sky where storm clouds had been building all day. “Soon as that lets loose,” she smiled. “New grass will start sprouted soon after. In the meantime, I’m guessing Pop already has the barn full of hay.”

“Speaking of them, where are your folks?” Jennifer turned her gaze towards the ranch buildings. “I don’t see them.”

“Dere, Grumps,” KC pointed as her grandfather walked out from behind the house. “Grumps,” she shouted. “Grumps, we’s home.”

Stanley Branson turned when he heard his granddaughter calling to him. “Marie,” he shouted back to the garden where his wife was working. “Marie, they’re back.”

Jesse nudged Dusty into a trot and Blaze immediately fell into step.

By the time the horses reached the house, KC was already trying to scoot out of the saddle to greet her grandparents.

“Whoa there, sunshine,” Jesse tightened her hold on the squirming toddler.

“Hi, Grumps,” KC waved, smiling happily. “Hi, Gramma.”

“Oh, I was just saying to Stanley that I thought you’d be home tonight and here you are,” Marie reached up for KC. “You come give me a big hug,” she smiled, wrapping the toddler in her arms. “I’ve missed you so much.”

KC giggled at her grandmother’s attention.

Jesse slid out of the saddle, walking over to Blaze.

“You okay?” Stanley asked.

“We’re fine, Pop,” Jesse said, helping Jennifer to the ground then removing the baby from the carry sack she wore. “Here,” she handed Charley to his grandfather. “Tell Grumps all about your trip.” Jesse smirked when her father glared at her. “You have any problems with the herd?”

“Nope,” Stanley smiled at the baby. “Billie came out and helped me round them up. Good thing we didn’t move them into the high meadows,” he told his daughter. “They all burned.”

“Jesse looked to the east. “Guess that explains the knot in my gut I had there for awhile.”

“You must be tired,” Marie told Jennifer. “I bet you’re hungry too, I was just pulling up some carrots to put in the stew I have simmering.”

“Yep,” KC nodded. “Me eats. And Cha-wie.”

“Go on, darling,” Jesse smiled at Jennifer. “I’ll be in soon as I take care of the horses.”

“Don’t worry about bringing any of that stuff in tonight, Jesse,” Jennifer told her wife. “We can make due with what we’ve got inside.”

“Alright,” Jesse agreed, happy that she didn’t have to unload the heavy packs until the morning. “Go on inside,” she gave her wife a quick kiss on the forehead, “I won’t be long.”

Jennifer waited until Jesse and Stanley walked away, taking the horses to the barn.

“Good trip?” Marie asked.

“Oh, yes,” Jennifer smiled at her mother-in-law.

“You have any trouble with that fire?”

“A little. Let’s go inside and I’ll tell you all about it.”

EPILOGUE

Jesse sat on the front porch watching KC pick wildflowers for Jennifer who was inside changing Charley’s britches.

“Look, mommy,” KC ran up with a fist full of bright red flowers. “What dis called?”

“Those, sunshine,” Jesse lifted the toddler into her lap, “are called Fireweed. Ya know why?”

“Nope.”

“’Cause after there’s a fire and the rains come, they’re the flowers that come up first. When you see them bloomin’, ya knows the land is on the mend.”

“Dey pretty.”

“They sure are.”

“Mommy like?”

“She sure will.” Jesse said, catching the movement of a rider coming over the top of the hillock and through the ranch gate. She recognized the horse as one the livery in town offered for hire and knew whoever was riding it must be a stranger.

“Who dat?” KC asked when she looked to see what her mommy was watching.

“Don’t know. Guess we’ll just have to wait until they get here.”

KC started snuggling into a more comfortable position in her mother’s lap.

“You sit here,” Jesse stood up, placing the toddler back in the chair she had just vacated. “Stay put, okay.”

“Otay.”

Jesse stepped to the edge of the porch to greet the stranger. “Afternoon,” she nodded when the man rode up.

“Afternoon,” the man said nervously. “I’m looking for a Jesse Branson. I was told I could find her here.”

“Any particular reason?”

“My name is Todd Evans. My sister was Catherine Williams.”

Jesse’s heart fell when she heard the name of the man’s sister, her chest tightened and it was all she could do not to show the jumble of emotions she was feeling.

“What’s your business?” Jesse asked through clinched teeth.

“I was told in Bannack that my sister’s child was with you.”

“You ain’t takin’ her,” Jesse snarled. “We’ve got a paper signed by Judge Henry saying she’s ours.”

“Mommy,” KC had climbed down from the chair and was hugging Jesse’s leg.

Jesse reached down, placing her hand protectively on her daughter’s head.

The man on the horse smiled, looking affectionately at KC. “She favors my sis,” he said, smiling at some long forgotten memories. “And you don’t need to be worrying about me taking her,” he raised his eyes to look at Jesse. “I’m on my way to the Oregon territory and I don’t think she’d much care to be going there.”

“How’d you end up here?” Jesse relaxed a little at the man’s words.

“I was looking to meet up with my sister and her family but folks in Bannack told me what happened, and how you took the baby in as your own. I’m much obliged. I know my sis would be grateful that she has lovin’ folks looking out for her.”

“Mommy, up,” KC raised her hands above her head.

Jesse pulled the toddler into her arms. “You want to get down, Mr. Evans?” Jesse asked.

“Wish I had the time,” Evans smiled. “But I’ve got a ticket on the next stage west and I need to be getting’ back to Sweetwater.”

“Mommy, who dat?” KC whispered in Jesse’s ear.

“That’s Mr. Evans. He’s your uncle.”

KC tilted her head to the side, studying the man. She scrunched her nose up and whispered, “he no look like momma.”

Jesse chuckled when Evans looked at her quizzically. “Sorry, the only uncle she knows is my wife’s brother. You don’t look much like him.”

“Oh,” Evans laughed. “I bet I don’t. Must say I’m surprised to find her looking as healthy as she does,” he pushed his hat back on his head.

“Why’s that?”

“Seems I remember my sis writing that she was a sickly baby, didn’t think she’d make it through the first year.”

“You must know how old she is then,” Jennifer said hopefully, pushing open the screen door to step out on the porch. Carrying Charley downstairs, she had overheard the conversation between Jesse and Evans. Hearing who the man was, she decided to wait just inside the door to listen. “And her given name?”

“This is my wife, Jennifer,” Jesse said proudly when Jennifer joined her. “And our son, Charley.”

“Pleasure, ma’am,” Evans reached up, tapping the rim of his hat with his hand. “But don’t you know?” he asked in response to Jennifer’s questions.

“No. When we found her, there was nothin’ that said and no one in Bannack knew much about your sister or husband, and less about KC.”

“KC?”

“We found a wallet with the names Kenneth and Catherine Williams,” Jesse explained. “We figured them to be her folks. Jennifer thought it was fittin’ to name her after ‘em.”

“That’s a nice gesture,” Evans smiled. “Well let me think,” he leaned back in the saddle, swinging a leg over the horse’s neck to rest it across the saddle. “Seems I got a letter saying sis had given birth just before the end of spring. Though I don’t recall her saying what they named the baby.”

“Are you sure?”

“Best as I can recollect. Can’t remember her saying the exact day either, if that’s what you’re wanting to know.”

“It would be nice but what you remembered helps,” Jennifer leaned against Jesse. She was disappointed KC’s uncle couldn’t tell them anymore. But they now knew the toddler was a few months older than they had guessed and she was at least happy to know that.

“I best be getting back,” Evans swung his leg back over the horse’s neck, slipping his boot into the stirrup.

Jesse stepped off the porch, lifting KC up to sit on her shoulders. “Thank you,” she stretched her arm up to Evans. “You’re welcome any time. I’m sure KC would like to know about your sister when she’s a bit older.”

Evans shook Jesse’s hand. “Doubt I’ll be back through these parts, it’s taking all I have just to get to Oregon. If things don’t work out there, I’ll be trying my luck in California. Besides, you’re her family now.” He nodded goodbye to Jennifer. “You’re a lucky woman, Jesse Branson. There’s lots of folks would feel blessed to be standing in your place. Best you never forget it,” he said, tapping the sides of the horse and pulling on the reins to turn him around.

“I won’t,” Jesse said as she watched the man ride away. Then she turned, stepping back up on the porch and striding into the house.

“Jesse?” Jennifer asked when her wife marched past her.

“Somethin’ I’ve been meaning to do,” Jesse stopped to hold the screen door open for Jennifer. Lifting KC off her shoulders, she set the toddler down on the floor before walking up the stairs, taking the steps three at a time.

“Jesse?”

“Be right back,” Jesse called down the stairs.

Jennifer didn’t have to wait long before Jesse came back down the stairs carrying a framed piece of glass and a nail sticking out from between her lips. She watched as Jesse stopped at the foot of the stairs, studying the wall in front of her.

Jesse held the frame up to the wall, her arms stretched out in front of her as far as they could go and her back arched back away from the wall to add to the distance her eyes had to look. She moved the frame a little to the left. Then back to the right. Then up a bit. Then she smiled and nodded. Setting the frame on the floor and leaning it against the wall, she pulled a hammer from her back pocket. Removing the nail from her lips, she pounded it into the wall then lifted the frame hanging it on the nail.

Jennifer walked over to stand beside her grinning wife. “Mind letting me know what you’re doing?”

“Had Ed make that up for me that last time I was in town, wanted to find the perfect place to hang it and now I have. Every time I come downstairs, I’ll see it. Every time I walk from the kitchen into here or from her into the kitchen, I’ll see it. It’ll remind me what’s most important to me.” Jesse wrapped her arms around Jennifer, holding her wife in front of her and turning her in the direction of the wall. “So, like Evans said, I never forget,” she whispered, placing her head against her wife’s.

“Jesse,” Jennifer sighed as tears filled her eyes. Neatly framed under the glass, were three pieces of paper each having meaning to the women that no words could express. “It’s beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it, darlin’,” Jesse smiled.

“Mommy, wha’ dat?” KC tugged on Jesse’s pant leg.

Jesse reached down, lifting the toddler into her arms. “Well, sunshine,” she held KC so she could see the contents of the frame. “That says that I belong to your momma,” she pointed to the marriage certificate Mayor Perkins had presented the night of their wedding. “And this says you belong to momma and me,” Jesse pointed to KC’s adoption papers. “And this says that Charley belongs to momma and me,” she pointed to the third piece of paper protected by the glass.

“And all of them together say that we’re a family,” Jennifer stepped up beside Jesse, slipping her arm around the rancher’s waist. “And that’s the most valuable thing we’ll ever have.”

“That it is,” Jesse leaned in for a kiss. “That it is.”

 

THE END
The final installment Broken Arrow

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s