Rolling Thunder by Mickey Minner

Rolling Thunder
by Mickey Minner
#4 in the Sweetwater Saga

PART 1

 

Jennifer Branson reached back and lifted the hair off the back of her neck in a futile attempt to cool her clammy skin. It was summer and, even with all the schoolhouse windows open, sitting inside during the afternoon hours was next to unbearable. From outside, the sound of horse hoofs clomping against the hard packed street and of wagon springs creaking drifted in on the still air. Jennifer smiled and began to clear her desk, Jesse and KC were coming.

As she opened her desk drawer and neatly placed her work papers inside, Jennifer’s thoughts strayed to the events of the last few months. Had it really only been such a short time since she’d come to Sweetwater to teach the town’s children? She had arrived barely more than a child herself and now she was married with a daughter of her own. So much of her life had changed in the past few months.

It had been late spring when Jennifer prepared to secretly leave her birthplace in the east and travel west. Determined not to be forced into an arranged marriage and anxious to experience life in the west, Jennifer had slipped away from her parent’s home during the night and boarded a train bound for Denver. There she had contracted for the position of schoolteacher for the town of Sweetwater, Montana Territory.

A few days after arriving in town, Jennifer had boldly risen to Jesse’s defense against charges of cattle rustling. When the rancher had been threatened by a lynch mob, Jennifer had broken the woman she scarcely knew out of jail and the two had set out to find evidence to prove her innocence. They soon discovered that an old enemy of the rancher had returned to the valley and framed Jesse. Before the man could be arrested, Jesse had been shot in the head and Jennifer had been terrified that she would die. Luckily, the bullet had only grazed Jesse and, after a few days, she was well on her way to recovery. A recovery that was hastened along by the women’s declaration of love for each other.

After Jesse’s recovery, the women had headed for the mining camp of Bannack to check on a friend. Unfortunately, their planned quiet trip to Bannack was spoiled when they found a young couple murdered by bandits and later discovered that Bannack’s sheriff was their leader. Sensing that Jesse and Jennifer were a threat to his outlaw organization, Sheriff Plummer had ordered their deaths. Ambushed as they tried to return to Sweetwater, Jesse had been forced to kill the bandits in order to save their own lives. But, the disastrous trip to Bannack had also brought joy as they had decided to keep and raise the infant daughter of the murdered travelers. And, Jesse had proposed to Jennifer.

Upon returning to Sweetwater, the women had announced their engagement and their friends had immediately started planning a wedding. Theirs was to be the first held in Sweetwater and the whole town came to the festivities. Their happiness was soon shattered as, soon after vows were exchanged, a message arrived from Jennifer’s father. He was traveling to Sweetwater to take her back and he was bringing her fiancé.

Jennifer had hoped her father would never discover where she had run off to but a chance meeting in Bannack had given away her secret. Determined to remain in Sweetwater with Jesse and their daughter, Jennifer had refused to accompany her father back east. Undeterred, her father had assaulted Jesse and kidnapped Jennifer. Unwilling to lose her new wife, Jesse had tracked Jennifer and her kidnappers. She had been within minutes of rescuing Jennifer when a mountain lion had attacked and killed the young man who was to be her husband. In an attempt to save the boy from the cougar, Jennifer had been clawed and her leg ripped open.

‘It had, indeed,’ Jennifer thought, ‘been an exciting few months since her arrival in Sweetwater.’

Jennifer was brought back to the present by the sound of boots crunching on the gravel path leading to the schoolhouse and a steady stream of baby gibberish. She grabbed the cane leaning against the wall behind her desk and made her way to the building’s front door, slightly limping on her damaged leg. Some days were better than others for Jennifer but, usually, a nice long soak in a hot bath and a rubdown by Jesse helped eased her discomfort.

Jennifer left the stuffiness of the schoolhouse and stepped out onto the small porch. She waited in the shade of the building’s porch, smiling at her wife and daughter completing their walk up the path.

“Afternoon, darlin’,” Jesse Branson smiled broadly as she greeted the schoolteacher.

“Momma,” KC’s outstretched arms reached for the ginger hair woman waiting on the porch.

“Hi, sweetie,” Jennifer gladly took the baby from Jesse.

KC wrapped her tiny arms around Jennifer’s neck and kissed her on the cheek. Jennifer returned the kiss, “I’ve missed you.”

“What about me?” Jesse asked as she wrapped her long arms around Jennifer and pulled her close. Their mouths meeting for a tender, lingering kiss.

“Oh,” Jennifer sighed when their lips parted. “I’ve missed you, too, sweetheart.”

“How’s your work going? Finish it up, yet?” Jesse asked as she kept her hold on Jennifer.

“Almost,” Jennifer leaned into Jesse. She had come to the schoolhouse that morning to work on study plans for the coming school session. “Come on,” Jennifer said as she gently pushed out of Jesse’s embrace, “help me get the windows shut so we can go home.”

“Alright,” Jesse followed the schoolteacher into the schoolhouse. “Looks like we could get thunder bumpers tonight,” she commented on the clouds building over the mountains to the west.

“Thunder bumpers?” Jennifer asked as she placed KC down on the floor so she could help Jesse.

“Storms we get this time of year,” Jesse pulled down a window. “Usually begin to roll in just before nightfall. Lots of thunder and lightening.”

“And, rain?” Jennifer asked hopefully.

“If we’re lucky.” With all of the windows closed, Jesse looked around for KC. “Mostly, just lots of booming.”

“Oom?” KC peeked out from under Jennifer’s desk.

“Yep, sunshine,” Jesse playfully approached the baby like a tiger on the prowl. “Boom, Boom, BOOM,” she teased.

KC giggled at her mother. “oom, oom, OOM,” she repeated.

“It sure would be nice to get some rain to break up this heat,” Jennifer wiped sweat from her forehead.

“This summer sure has been a hot one.” Jesse grinned as she lifted KC from the floor, “come on, you rascal. Looks like we better start tying a rope to you, you squirt around so much. Only way we’ll be able to keep track of her,” she explained when she saw Jennifer’s disapproving look.

Jennifer tried not to smile as an image of Jesse walking around Sweetwater linked to KC by a long rope popped into her head. She could just imagine what trouble the two of them could cause. “We’ll find another way,” she assured the rancher. Changing the subject before Jesse could offer any other suggestions, she asked, “should we stop by the depot?”

The town of Sweetwater did not have a telegraph or post office. Messages and mail traveled to and from town on the stage and were held at the stage office until picked up.

“Stopped by there before we came here,” Jesse carried the giggling KC to the front door and held it open for Jennifer. “Nothing, yet.”

Jesse thought back on the events of the previous month when she had reunited with her parents after years of no contact. She had asked them to move to Sweetwater and live with her and her new family. Her father, a proud man who didn’t want to be seen as accepting charity, had agreed to think about the offer. But, as yet, had made no decision. At least, not one he had decided to share with her.

Jennifer pulled the door shut, making sure it was secure before turning to face Jesse. She had heard the disappointment in her partner’s voice and knew there really wasn’t anything she could say to lessen it. Jennifer held out her hand and Jesse instantly accepted it. They began the walk down the gravel path to the footbridge spanning the creek at the bottom of the knoll the schoolhouse occupied. On the other side of the footbridge, sat a buckboard. Standing patiently in front of the wagon was a large draft horse Jesse had inherited when she purchased an abandoned ranch. Jennifer had been speechless, probably for the only time in her life, when Jesse explained the horse’s name was ‘Boy’ because it was a boy.

Jesse helped Jennifer up into the buckboard, careful not to jar Jennifer’s damaged leg. She then handed KC up to her momma. KC promptly crawled off her mother’s lap and plopped herself down in the center of the bench seat. She liked to sit between her mothers where she could hold on to both of them while the buckboard bounced along the road. Naturally, her mothers preferred to sit side-by-side and, much to KC’s dismay, Jennifer pulled her back onto her lap.

“They’ll come, sweetheart,” Jennifer placed a hand on the rancher’s thigh when Jesse joined her on the seat, “Just give them some time.”

Jesse took Jennifer’s hand in her own. She brought it to her lips and tenderly kissed the gold band that adorned Jennifer’s ring finger, she wore a matching band on her own hand. Jesse smiled when she remembered how her father had given them the rings.

“Married folk should wear rings. You don’t wear one.”

“Not too many places to buy one in Sweetwater,” Jesse looked at her unadorned hand.

Without another word, her father stood and disappeared into the house, reappearing moments later.

“Here,” he handed Jesse a small box. “Belonged to your momma’s parents. Always figured we’d give ’em to our son when he married. Guess it don’t make much sense letting ’em go to waste.”

Jesse slowly opened the box. Inside two gold wedding bands glittered in the sunlight.

“I hope you’re right, darlin’,” Jesse gently squeezed Jennifer’s hand. “I’d hate to lose them again.”

“You won’t,” Jennifer returned the squeeze. “Bozeman isn’t that far away. We can visit them as often as you like.”

Jesse nodded as she unwrapped the reins from the brake handle and slapped them lightly on Boy’s hind quarters. The large draft horse started walking in the direction of the Silver Slipper, a saloon that Jesse won in a poker game and had turned into a respectable boarding house and restaurant. The women sat quietly as Boy plodded towards the Slipper.

Sweetwater was located at the northern end of a river valley, nestled up against a ponderosa pine forest at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. The town took it’s name from the valley which was named for the sweet tasting waters of the rivers running through it. Being centrally located amid the mining camps tucked away in the surrounding mountains, Sweetwater served as a stop for the stagecoach and freight wagons from Bozeman.

The town consisted of a dozen or so buildings of various sizes and shapes lining the stage road which doubled as the town’s only street. An old adobe structure, badly in need of repair, was the oldest permanent building in town. And, although telegraph wires had yet to reach Sweetwater, the adobe had always been referred to as the depot and telegraph office. Directly across the street was the town’s only store. A building next to the store housed the town hall, sheriff’s office and jail, and the office of the Gazette, the town’s newspaper. The only other businesses in town were the Oxbow Saloon on the same side of the street as the depot and the stables and blacksmith which occupied the land behind the Oxbow. Besides the schoolhouse, the remaining structures in town were private residences located between the business district and the Silver Slipper located at the far end of town.

Used to stopping at the Slipper, Boy walked to the front of the two story building and stopped in the shade of it’s wrap-around porch. Jesse hopped down from the wagon then hurried around to help Jennifer.

“Afternoon,” a woman stepped out of the boarding house. “Why I was jus’ tellin’ ya momma that it was ’bout time for you’s to be stoppin’ by on ya way home.”

“Afternoon, Bette Mae,” Jennifer greeted the woman who served as manager for the Silver Slipper and was a good friend to both women. “Sit still until mommy can get you,” she instructed KC who was excitingly bouncing in her lap.

KC liked the older woman and was always happy for the opportunity to spend time with her, especially if Bette Mae was baking.

“Best take care of her first,” Jesse told Jennifer who nodded and helped KC crawl into Jesse’s waiting arms.

Jesse handed the baby to Bette Mae.

“Lordy, but ya is growin’ like a weed. I do declare you is bigger than ya was this mornin’,” Bette Mae tickled the child’s belly.

Jesse laughed, “don’t suppose it has anything to do with the treats you keep baking for her.” She turned her attention to Jennifer and carefully lifted her from the wagon. Jesse carried her up the steep steps before gently setting Jennifer down on the porch next to Bette Mae.

“You don’t have to carry me,” Jennifer complained.

“Hush,” Jesse smiled at her wife. “I don’t mind.”

“Yes, sweetheart, I know,” Jennifer leaned on her cane. “I just don’t like feeling helpless,” she said unhappily.

“Oh, you’re far from helpless, darlin’. Besides, you’ll be running up those steps in no time and I won’t have any excuse then to do it.” She grinned at Jennifer, “I really like to, you know.” Jesse wrapped Jennifer in a loving hug. She had been devastated when the doctor had handed Jennifer a pair of crutches, explaining that she would probably always need them to walk. He had added that her leg would never heal completely due to the extensive muscle and nerve damage inflicted by the cougar’s claws.

Jennifer never complained. Instead, she insisted an using the leg as much as possible and it had slowly begun to regain it’s strength. Enough that she had thrown away the crutches and replaced them with the cane she now used. She had even started riding Blaze, the mare Jesse had surprised her with before their trip to Bannack. Mostly, she took short rides around the ranch house but each one was a little longer than the last. She hoped to be able to ride to town before long.

“I love you,” Jesse placed a loving kiss on her frustrated wife’s lips.

“Com’ on,” Bette Mae turned to take KC inside. “That’s not fittin’ for a child to see,” she smirked at the two women.

“Ah, Bette Mae,” Jesse laughed as she broke off the kiss. “She’s seen worse.”

Jennifer blushed, “Jesse Marie Branson!!”

“Ya best com’ wit’ me, angel,” Bette Mae said to KC. “Looks like ya mamas are fixin’ to have a fight. Course now,” she whispered mischievously to the child, “they only fight so’s they can make up.”

“Come on, darlin’,” Jesse scooped Jennifer up into her arms. “Let’s see what goodies Bette Mae has waiting for our daughter. We can make up when we get back to the ranch.”

“Jesse,” Jennifer exclaimed as her blush deepened.

Being bored with the conversation up to this point, KC perked up upon hearing ‘goodies’ and asked, “cookie?”

The women laughed as they went inside the Slipper.

“I thought I heard your voices,” a small woman with delicate features rose from an over-stuffed chair where she had been enjoying a book from the Silver Slipper’s extensive library.

“Hello, mother,” Jennifer embraced the woman once Jesse released her.

Mary Stancey Kinsington had accompanied her husband to Sweetwater to reclaim their daughter. She had been surprised to find her daughter happier than she could ever remember and, unlike her husband, it hadn’t taken long for her to appreciate the love Jesse and Jennifer shared. When Martin Kinsington had been forced to leave Montana Territory or face criminal charges, Mary had decided to stay behind to build a relationship with Jennifer and her family. Jesse had offered to make room for Mary at the ranch but she decided to stay in town. She moved into a room at the Silver Slipper, the same room Jennifer had used when she first arrived in the small town.

“Sit, daughter,” Mary Kinsington pointed to a chair at the closest table. “You should be resting that leg.”

“I’m fine, mother,” Jennifer assured her mother as she sat. “Besides, with the mothering Jesse gives me, I really don’t need any more.”

“You can never have enough mothering,” Mary smiled as she sat in the chair next to her daughter.

“Grmm,” KC told Bette Mae as she pointed at her grandmother.

“Yep, angel,” Bette Mae laughed. “That’s ya grandma. Still havin’ trouble gettin’ ya littl’ mouth around tha’ big word, I see.”

“You wouldn’t think that was such a littl’ mouth if you had to listen to her wail when she wakes up hungry,” Jesse chuckled as she pulled a chair close to Jennifer.

Bette Mae placed KC in her grandmother’s lap before sitting at the table.

“Grmm,” KC smiled at the older woman. “Cookie?” KC asked.

“Oh,” Mary nervously said to the child that reminded her so much of Jennifer at the same age. “I think there may be some in the kitchen.”

Though she was determined to make amends to Jennifer and accept her and Jesse as they were, Mary was still having trouble adjusting to her granddaughter. It wasn’t so much that the baby wasn’t Jennifer’s by birth but more that KC was her first grandchild and she wasn’t sure she was ready to be a grandmother.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Jesse shook her head at KC. “You’ve had more than your share of cookies today.”

KC sadly looked at her mother and poked out a quivering lower lip. Her pout was so pitiful that all four women had a hard time keeping straight faces.

“You’re mommy is right,” Jennifer told her daughter. “You can wait until we get home and have supper.”

Jesse reached over and gently pushed KC’s lip back into its normal position. “Don’t want you tripping on that when we leave,” she teased the baby.

KC playfully tried to nip at Jesse’s finger but it was withdrawn too fast.

“Ha, you missed,” Jesse triumphed.

“Som’ day my littl’ angel is going to catch tha’ there finger and than we’ll be seein’ wha’ ya have to say,” Bette Mae chuckled.

“Never,” Jesse boasted.

“Right,” Jennifer smirked as she used her cane to steady herself as she pushed up from the chair. “Come on, speedy,” she placed a hand on Jesse’s shoulder, “let’s get her home before she asks for something else these two would be happy to spoil her with.”

Bette Mae protested, “I do not spoil tha’ littl’ angel. I’m jus’ tryin’ to help her grow big and strong like her mommas. Ya got ta admit, she is a might on the tiny size.”

“Give her time, Bette Mae,” Jesse said as she stood. “She’s not yet a year old. She’s got plenty of time to grow.”

“I didn’t think you knew how old she was,” Mary said as Jesse took the baby from her.

“We don’t know for sure,” Jennifer told her mother. “But, we figured she was around eight or nine months when we found her.”

“Well, tha’ would mean tha’ she’s goin’ be a year right soon,” Bette Mae said. “Looks like maybe we should start plannin’ a birthday party.”

Jennifer looked at Jesse who shrugged, “don’t see that it would hurt anything. She should have a day she can celebrate.”

“But, which day?” Jennifer asked.

“Guess you could pick any day you want,” Mary told the women. She was surprised to feel excitement over the prospect of a birthday party for her granddaughter. Maybe she was finally getting used to being a grandmother.

“Guess we could,” Jesse agreed. “Tell you what, let us give it some thought and we’ll let you know what we decide. You can plan the party then.”

“Don’ you worry,” Bette Mae gave KC a goodbye kiss, “we’ll hav’ the biggest party this town has ever seen.”

“Oh, boy,” Jennifer and Jesse groaned at the same time.

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

“Jesse,” Jennifer was placing a sleeping KC into her crib, “what do you think we should do about KC’s birthday?” With thunder booming and lightening crashing overhead, it had taken extra time to get the baby to sleep. But, she had finally given in and closed her tired eyes.

“Don’t rightly know,” Jesse added another pail of heated water to the tub she was preparing for Jennifer.

“When is your birthday?” Jennifer asked as she began to undress.

“March 21st,” Jesse tested the tub’s water to be sure it wasn’t too hot. “Your’s?”

“June 5th.”

Jesse lifted the last pail of heated water from the fireplace and slowly poured the water into the tub as she thought about Jennifer’s response. Jennifer had arrived in Sweetwater around the first of June.

Jennifer turned at Jesse’s silence, “sweetheart?”

“You never said anything,” Jesse solemnly stirred the water in the tub.

Jennifer, naked from the waist up, walked to Jesse. She wrapped her arms around her lover, “we were kind of busy at the time.” Her birthday had been the day after she broke Jesse out of jail to save her from a lynch mob.

“Still,” Jesse sighed at Jennifer’s touch. “I could have got ya a present or something.”

“Oh, silly,” Jennifer turned Jesse in her arms and planted a kiss on the pouting lips. “You gave me the best birthday present I could have ever hoped for.”

“I did?” Jesse circled her arms around Jennifer and pulled their bodies closer.

“Yes, sweetheart,” Jennifer nodded. “You gave me you.”

Thinking back on the events of that day, Jesse had to agree. That was the day she had first expressed having feelings for Jennifer. “Guess I did at that,” she smiled.

“Yes, love,” Jennifer smiled back. “You certainly did.”

“Still,” Jesse kissed the end of Jennifer’s nose, “you could have said something.”

Jennifer considered how strange it was that she felt as if she had known Jesse forever and, yet, there was still much they didn’t know about each other.

“Darlin’, are you okay?” Jesse asked when she saw the look on Jennifer’s face. It was if she was a thousand miles away.

“Yes, I was just thinking,” she sat on one of the chairs at the table they used for their meals and bent to remove her boots.

“Let me,” Jesse quickly knelt at her wife’s feet. “What were you thinking?” she carefully pulled the boot free from Jennifer’s injured leg.

“How much we still don’t know about each other.”

“Like what?” Jesse pulled off the other boot then stood and held out her arms offering to help Jennifer off the chair.

“Our birthdays, for one,” Jennifer accepted her wife’s help. She leaned on Jesse as her pants and undergarments were pulled down. One by one, she lifted her legs so Jesse could finish removing the clothing.

“Well, you know that now. As for the rest, guess we’ll just find out as they come up,” Jesse leaned back on her heels to enjoy the view before her.

“Water’s getting cold, sweetheart,” Jennifer blushed as Jesse’s eyes moved, unhurried, up her naked body.

“I can always heat more,” Jesse wiggled her eyebrows.

Jennifer reached down and pulled Jesse upright, “no, that would mean you’d have to go outside and fill those buckets at the well. I prefer to keep you right here.”

“Oh, you do,” Jesse laughed as she helped Jennifer step into the tub. After making sure Jennifer was comfortable, Jesse picked up the wash rag and soap. “Now, about those things you’d be wanted to know about me. I suppose you could make up a list,” the rancher teased as she worked the soap into a lather on the wash rag.

“No,” Jennifer laughed, “I wouldn’t know where to start. And, once I got going, I probably wouldn’t know when to stop.”

“Now, ain’t that the truth,” Jesse chuckled, knowing her wife’s penchant for long shopping lists..

Jennifer leaned back and closed her eyes, savoring the feel of Jesse’s gentle hands washing her body.

“Ready for your hair?”

Jennifer opened her eyes and slowly sat upright. “Yes,” she said as she ran a hand through her tresses. “I can’t seem to keep it clean, what with it being as hot as it has been.”

Jesse soaped up her hands then began to gently cleanse the schoolteacher’s hair. It took a couple of soapings to get the day’s sweat out of it. But, that was alright with Jesse, she loved the feel of Jennifer’s locks as they slid through her fingers.

After Jesse rinsed all the soap from her hair, Jennifer again leaned back against the tub’s smooth surface.

“Join me.”

Jesse was reaching for a towel when she heard Jennifer’s request. Her hand stopped in mid-air and she turned back to look at her lover, “you sure?”

“Yes, sweetheart,” Jennifer smiled, “I’ve missed it.” She and Jesse had begun to bathe together soon after the schoolteacher had moved to the ranch. But, since her accident, Jesse had refused in fear of hurting Jennifer. “Please, my leg is much better.”

Jesse hesitated. She had missed their shared baths. And, Jennifer’s leg did seem to be as healed as it was probably going to get. “Okay,” she grinned and began to strip off her clothes. Moments later she joined her wife in the tub.

“Ahhhhhhh,” Jesse sighed as she leaned back to rest against Jennifer, “I’ve missed this, darlin’.”

“Me, too,” Jennifer picked up the soapy rag and started to wash the parts of Jesse she could reach. When her hands came into contact with the rancher’s breasts, she felt the nipples harden at her touch. Dropping the wash rag, Jennifer took the firm globes in her hands and gently squeezed. Her head bent to leave slow, loving kisses across the rancher’s strong shoulders.

Jesse moaned as her body responded to Jennifer’s loving touches, “don’t think we should….”

“Hush,” Jennifer whispered. The women had not made love since before Jennifer’s kidnapping and both longed for the other.

Jesse shivered as one of Jennifer’s hands began to trace irregular circles from her breasts down her stomach and continued lower. Jesse’s head fell back against Jennifer’s shoulder, she turned to face Jennifer and moaned when her lover’s lips claimed hers. Jennifer’s tongue pressed between parting lips and hungrily explored Jesse’s waiting mouth. As they kissed, Jennifer slipped her hand between Jesse’s legs, her fingers sliding smoothly in the slickness they encountered. Jesse spread her legs invitingly and was instantly rewarded when Jennifer’s fingers gently pinched her clit sending electrically surges throughout her body. While, Jennifer’s tongue continued it’s assault on Jesse’s mouth, she slid her fingers down Jesse’s inner lips and slipped them inside her lover. Their entry aided by Jesse’s growing wetness.

Desperate for her lover’s touch, that was all Jesse needed to climax. Her hands clutched onto the tub’s sides as her thighs clinched tight around Jennifer’s hand, holding it in place. Her hips arched up and her chest heaved as the weeks of pent up longing exploded within her. She screamed into Jennifer’s kiss. Her body trembling with aftershocks even as she collapsed back down into the tub, causing water to slosh over it’s sides.

Jennifer wrapped her arms protectively around Jesse and held her as she recovered. In the throes of their passion, her leg had been wedged between the tub’s side and Jesse’s hip, but she didn’t care. All that mattered was the love she had been able to show her wife, something she had been wanting to do for weeks.

“God,” Jesse’s sighed, her body feeling boneless in Jennifer’s embrace.

“I love you,” Jennifer left a trail of delicate kisses down the side of the rancher’s face and neck.

“Whoa, darlin’,” Jesse reached a shaky hand up and gently pushed Jennifer’s mouth away. “Seems that’s how I ended up like this in the first place. Give me some time.”

“That good, huh?” Jennifer grinned. She loved making love to Jesse.

“Uh, uh,” Jesse agreed.

As Jesse’s strength returned she realized she had Jennifer’s bad leg pinned against the side of the tub. “Oh, darlin'” she jerked away, “I’m so sorry. Did I hurt you?” Jesse sat up and ran her hands over Jennifer’s leg searching for any apparent injuries.

“Stop,” Jennifer pulled Jesse back against her. “It’s fine.”

“Are you sure?” Jesse couldn’t believe she had let that happen. “I’m so sorry.”

Jennifer cupped a hand against Jesse’s face, her thumb tracing Jesse’s lips to quiet them. “It’s okay.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

Jesse’s tongue stretched out and pulled Jennifer’s thumb inside her warm mouth. As she sucked, her eyes locked on Jennifer’s.

“Oh, no,” Jennifer read Jesse’s thoughts.

“It’s only fair,” Jesse smirked as she released her wife’s digit. “You’ve had your fun. Now, I should have mine.” A long arm reached up and cupped the back of Jennifer’s neck. Jesse pulled Jennifer to her and pressed their lips together. It was several moments before they parted.

“Well,” Jennifer breathed. “You better finish your bath and take me to bed if that’s what you want.”

“Yes, darlin’,” Jesse quickly searched around the bottom of the tub for the wash rag. She wasn’t one to keep her wife waiting.

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

“August 1st,” Jennifer said.

“What about it?” Jesse asked not raising her head from where it rested between her wife’s breasts.

After finishing her bath, Jesse had carried Jennifer to their bed and made love to her. They now lay in the tangled sheets, the scent of their recent activity hanging in the air around them. Jennifer was laying on her back with one arm bent up and tucked behind her head, her other hand played with Jesse’s hair. Her injured leg was propped up on a pillow, safely out of harm’s way. Jesse was laying half on and half off of Jennifer, with one arm draped across her wife’s waist. A soft breeze blew through the open window next to their bed, it felt good as it washed over their heated bodies.

“For KC’s birthday,” Jennifer answered.

Jesse thought for a moment, “why the 1st?”

“It’s her first birthday. Seems right.”

“Oh,” Jesse lifted her arm and lightly ran fingers up and down Jennifer’s leg leaving behind goosebumps.

“That tickles,” Jennifer giggled. “So, what about it?” she asked.

“Sounds fine by me,” Jesse’s stilled fingers were replaced by lips softly kissing Jennifer’s stomach.

“Jesse,” Jennifer purred, “you start that and we’ll never get to sleep tonight.”

Jesse pushed herself up on her elbow and gazed into Jennifer’s beautiful sapphire eyes. An eyebrow slowly raised. “Who said anything about sleeping?” Jesse asked, seductively, as her lips claimed Jennifer’s.

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

Jennifer was still sound asleep when Jesse woke to the sound of KC moving about in her crib. Knowing KC had been experimenting with trying to climb over the crib’s sides, Jesse reluctantly left the comfort of the bed and warmth of Jennifer’s body to see just what their daughter was up to. KC, wet, hungry, and ready to start a new day, was very happy to see her mommy look into her crib.

“Up,” KC raised her tiny arms in the air.

“Okay,” Jesse lifted the child free of the crib, “but, you have to be real quiet. Momma is still asleep,” Jesse whispered.

“Otay,” KC whispered back. “Ugh,” the baby said as she patted her wet bottom.

“Yeah, ugh,” Jesse agreed as she carried KC to the dresser where they kept clean clothes.

As Jesse dug in the dresser for a fresh diaper, KC peeked over her shoulder at her sleeping mother.

Jesse pulled a small shirt and pair of britches out of the drawer and added them to the diaper. She carried the clothes and baby to the table in the kitchen end of the ranch house. “This will have to do since we can’t change you on the bed,” she told KC as she laid her down on the wooden surface.

“Momma seep,” KC whispered.

“That’s right, sunshine,” Jesse removed the soiled diaper and nightshirt. “And, we want her to stay that way.”

“Otay,” The baby sat up as soon as Jesse finished dressing her. “Mommy, dow,” she commanded.

“Nope, you keep your little behind stuck to that table until I get rid of this,” Jesse deposited the dirty garments in a wash basket. She returned and washed her hands in a pail of water kept warming by the fire for that purpose.

Bright eyes, the same shade as Jennifer’s, watched Jesse’s every move. “Mommy, cookie.”

“No, not this morning. Here,” Jesse grabbed a handful of soft biscuits left over from the previous evening’s supper and handed one to the hungry child. “These will have to hold you until Momma cooks breakfast.”

“Otay,” KC said as she took a bite.

“Guess you’re coming with me to do chores,” Jesse lifted KC from the table.

“Baze cookie?,” KC reached for another biscuit.

“Yep,” Jesse sat the baby on the floor so she could get dressed. “Blaze, Dusty and Boy will all be hungry.”

Jesse dressed quickly not being sure how long she could count on KC’s good behavior. Scooping the child up, she grabbed her boots and stetson and left the now quiet room to her exhausted wife.

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

“Morning, darlin’,” Jesse greeted Jennifer as she entered the cabin. She had to duck when she walked through the doorway so as not to knock KC off her shoulders.

“Momma, ook,” KC beamed at her mother from under the stetson she wore.

“What have you two been up to?” Jennifer asked as she kissed Jesse.

“Was supposed to be the morning chores,” Jesse handed a basket of eggs to Jennifer. “‘Till the squirt here decided to help collect eggs,” Jesse reached up and carefully lifted the baby over her head. “Sure got those hens riled up when she crawled through the henhouse. Probably won’t see another egg for days,”

“So, that’s what woke me up,” Jennifer laughed as she placed the basket on the table. She took KC from Jesse and kissed her. “So, you were chasing chickens,” Jennifer plucked a chicken feather from KC’s fine hair.

“Owie,” KC pointed to a red mark on her arm.

“Hens got a peck or two in before I could round her up,” Jesse retrieved her stetson and hung it on a peg next to Jennifer’s. “Sorry, we woke you, darlin’.”

“It’s okay,” Jennifer said as she examined KC’s arms, kissing each peck mark. “Looks like you’ll live,” she placed KC on the cabin floor and playfully swatted her on the butt. “Next time leave the chickens be.”

“Otay,” KC crawled to her toy box and toys started flying through the air.

Jesse shook her head as she surveyed the growing disarray on the cabin’s floor. “Sure glad we only have one of her,” she chuckled. “Mmm, something sure smells good,” she changed the subject.

“Thanks,” Jennifer pulled a pot from the fireplace they used for cooking. “Get washed up, breakfast is just about ready.”

“Come here, sunshine,” Jesse called to KC. “Time to wash up for breakfast.”

“Yum,” KC dropped her toys and crawled to Jesse. “Up,” she asked as she pulled herself upright on Jesse’s pant leg.

Jesse reached down and lifted the baby up. She stood KC on the hearth next to the wash bucket, the baby dropped her arms over the bucket’s side and started splashing in the warm water.

“No, KC,” Jennifer scolded. “Wash, don’t play.”

“Otay, momma,” KC’s lower lip pushed out as she did as she was told.

“Best get that lip back in place, sunshine,” Jesse whispered into the baby’s ear. “Otherwise, you might not get to eat whatever yummy breakfast momma has made for us.”

The pout instantly disappeared, replaced by a smile. “Keen, mommy,” KC held her dripping arms out for Jesse to see.

“Good girl,” Jesse winked at her daughter. Using the towel Jennifer handed her, Jesse dried the water from KC’s arms and hands before placing her in the highchair she had made for the child soon after they brought KC home.

Jennifer filled two plates with eggs, bacon, biscuits, and potatoes and placed them on the table. Both mothers fed KC small bites of food as they ate and talked.

“I’d like to go into town again, today,” Jennifer said as she wiped egg off KC’s chin.

“I figured you’d want to stay here today. Especially since it’ll be hot again. Storm last night didn’t bring more than a few drops of rain.” Jesse filled a glass with milk.

“Moo,” KC liked the white beverage as much as Jesse did.

“Here you go,” Jesse held the glass for KC to drink. “Small sips,” she reminded the baby.

“I’d like to finish up at the schoolhouse. I want to send my class plans to Bannack and have Miss Temple review them,” Jennifer told Jesse.

Mary Temple was the schoolteacher in Bannack. While in town, Jennifer had spent an enlightening afternoon talking with her. Miss Temple had been teaching in a one-room school for a few years and provided Jennifer with many helpful ideas for instructing different grade levels at the same time.

“And, I didn’t get a chance to stop by Ed’s. I like to see how he’s doing,” Jennifer added.

For the last several years, Ed Granger had operated the general store for his brother-in-law, Stuart Cassidy, who had bounced from one gold strike to another spending all his time at the poker tables. Until one night in Bannack when his wife, Ed’s sister, came to take him home. As usual, Cassidy was drunk and losing. Irritated at his wife for interrupting his game, Cassidy had shot her.

“Alright,” Jesse nodded. “I’ll hitch Boy up as soon as we finish here.”

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

“Where’s Jennifer?” Mary Kinsington asked when Jesse and KC entered the Silver Slipper.

“At the schoolhouse. She wanted to finish up before it got too hot,” Jesse told her mother-in-law.

“Grmm, owie,” KC held her arm out for her grandmother to see.

“Lordy, I done known tha’ was my littl’ angel’s voice,” Bette Mae came through the kitchen door.

“Used to be me you listened for,” Jesse joked with the older woman.

“That was befor’ ya brought this littl’ one home,” Bette Mae kissed KC then pulled Jesse down and gave her a quick peck on the forehead. “Happy?”

“Owie,” KC repeated, only louder. Obviously, she thought her chicken pecks deserved more attention than they were getting.

“Well, now. What have we here,” Bette Mae examined the arm but saw nothing more than a couple of small, red marks about the size of a pin head. She looked at Jesse for an explanation.

Jesse told the women of KC’s morning adventure in the chicken coop.

“My, that must have been a sight,” Mary laughed.

“Think them chickens will survive,” Bette Mae wiped tears of laughter from her eyes.

“Don’t know. Most probably will, but a couple are doubtful,” Jesse chuckled.

“OWIE!!” KC was not at all amused that the women had ignored her injuries.

“Oh, my,” Mary took the child from Jesse and placed her in her lap as she sat on a settee on the library side of the Slipper’s dining room. She made a big show of checking out each and every spot, nick, and blemish on the baby’s arms, placing a kiss on top of each one. “Better?” she asked KC.

“Otay,” KC smiled at her grandmother. “Cookie?”

Jesse groaned at her daughter’s instant change of mood and plopped down next to Mary. “How did you ever raise so many, Mary? This one is more than I can keep up with.”

“You’re doing just fine,” Mary assured Jesse. “In fact, I think you and Jennifer are doing an excellent job of raising KC. You both seem to be natural mothers.”

“Lordy, Jesse,” Bette Mae winked at Mary, “you’s doin’ such a good job, I’m thinkin’ ya should have two or three more.” The pillow thrown at her bounced harmlessly off the door Bette Mae disappeared behind to the safety of the kitchen, her squeals of laughter echoing back into the dining room.

“Don’t even suggest that to Jennifer,” Jesse warned Mary. “She’d have a dozen or two, if it was possible.”

Turning serious, Mary asked, “you didn’t want children, Jesse.”

“Never gave it much thought,” Jesse said as KC crawled into her lap and curled up to take a nap. “Then, we found KC and, well, she just kinda grew on me.” Jesse absently caressed the sleepy baby in her arms.

“She loves you very much,” Mary said softly. “Would you consider having more?” Mary continued.

Jesse thoughtfully watched the baby a few moments. “I don’t know,” Jesse answered, honestly. “But,” she smiled, “if Jennifer wanted to, I couldn’t say no.”

“Jennifer is lucky to have you, Jesse.”

“Nah,” Jesse looked up from her sleeping daughter. “I’m the lucky one. Now, if you’ll excuse us, I’ll go put KC down in the office.”

“Of course,” Mary wondered what it would feel like to be loved as much as Jesse and Jennifer loved each other. ‘Heaven knows,’ she thought, ‘such love is precious and so rare.’ She definitely didn’t have it with her husband. In fact, she wondered, exactly what she did feel for him. To be honest, not much at the moment.

As Jesse rose, careful not to wake KC, Mary asked, “will you be stopping by here before you return to the ranch this evening. It seems like I’ve had so little time with Jennifer.”

Jesse considered the question. She and Jennifer had fully expected Mary to live at the ranch with them but, instead, she had chosen to stay in town. By doing so, she had limited the time Jennifer could spend with her. Knowing that Jennifer was just as anxious to find time to spend with Mary, Jesse said, “why don’t we plan to eat here tonight.”

“That would be nice,” Mary smiled. “Thank you.”

Jesse nodded then walked to her office, KC sleeping contently in her arms..

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

Jesse finished reading the newspaper about the same time KC started stirring from her nap. Spending less time in town, she had little time to read the Gazette, so Bette Mae stacked the weekly paper on the desk until Jesse could spare a few moments.

“Good timing, sunshine,” Jesse said as she folded the paper she had been reading. “It’s time to go get your momma.”

KC was laying on the couch in Jesse’s office. As sleep drifted away, she stretched her legs and rubbed her eyes. Then she looked around for her mother, “mommy.”

“Right here,” Jesse said as she stood from the chair she had occupied for the last two hours. “Let’s get your britches changed and go get momma.”

“Otay,” KC sat up, not quite fully awake. “Moo?”

“I suspect Bette Mae will have some nice fresh milk in the kitchen,” Jesse laid the baby back down so she could change her.

A knock on the office door was quickly followed by Bette Mae entering the room. She carried a tray holding a pitcher of milk, two glasses, and a plate of cookies.

“Thought she’d be wakin’ ’bout now,” Bette Mae set the tray on Jesse’s desk then stood nervously as if waiting for something.

“Expect me to throw another pillow at you?” Jesse smirked at the woman.

“Wouldn’ put it past you,” she relaxed upon hearing her earlier words hadn’t upset Jesse. “Ya know you’ve done a right proper job with KC,” she said as she filled a glass with milk.

“Thanks, Bette Mae. That means a lot to me,” Jesse sincerely told the woman who had become more than just a friend to her.

“Moo,” KC asked again.

“Want some milk, young ‘un?”

“I’d like a glass, too,” Jesse said as she reached for a cookie.

“I was talkin’ to ya,” Bette Mae squealed as Jesse shook her head in bemusement.

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

Jesse easily balanced KC in one arm as she helped Jennifer cross Sweetwater’s only street. Earlier that morning, Jennifer had asked Jesse to leave the buckboard at the Slipper when she and KC came to the schoolhouse. She wanted to walk to the general store and then back to the Slipper. Since the town was so small, Jesse saw no harm in letting Jennifer test her leg.

Jennifer climbed onto the boardwalk in front of the general store, Jesse keeping close watch in case Jennifer’s leg gave her problems. Jennifer smiled as Ed came out of the store’s open front door.

“Afternoon, Ed,” Jennifer warmly greeted the man who, since her arrival in Sweetwater, had become the father she had always wanted.

“Jennifer, how are you?” Ed quickly covered the few steps separating them and wrapped Jennifer up in a bear hug.

“I’m good,” Jennifer said when Ed relaxed his hold.

“Jesse, good to see you,” Ed greeted the rancher. “And, little KC. My, don’t you look like just your momma.”

“That she does, Ed,” Jesse agreed. It was remarkable the similarities between Jennifer and her adopted daughter. Both had ginger brown hair and bright sapphire blue eyes. Jesse even swore that KC had Jennifer’s smile.

“Come on, inside. It’s a bit cooler. Not much, but a bit,” Ed guided the women inside the store. “Here you go, Jennifer,” he pulled a chair out from behind the counter.

“Thanks, Ed,” Jennifer gratefully sat. The walk hadn’t been long but it still felt good to get off her leg.

Jesse placed KC on the floor at Jennifer’s feet. “You stay put, sunshine,” she handed KC her toy horse. Then, the rancher pulled a barrel of dried beans over next to Jennifer’s chair and promptly sat on it.

“You know, Jesse,” Ed tilted an empty wood crate onto it’s side and joined the women. “It’ll be hell to pay to move that barrel back.”

“I know,” Jesse smirked. Ed was a big man, his solid muscular body toned from years of hard work. Yet, Jesse had always found pleasure in matching her strength against his. “I’ll help you put it back,” Jesse teased.

“Good thing I like Jennifer so much,” Ed told the rancher. “Otherwise, I just might have to do something about your sense of humor.”

“Ha,” Jesse laughed. “You use to threaten me with that before Jennifer came to Sweetwater.”

“That I did,” Ed laughed with Jesse.

“Be good,” Jennifer slapped Jesse on the leg.

“Nothin’ but, darlin’,” Jesse bent over and kissed the top of Jennifer’s head.

“So,” Jennifer said as she good-naturedly pushed Jesse away, “how are you doing, Ed?”

“I’m fine, Jennifer,” Ed answered, knowing that Jennifer was asking about his sister. “I just wish she had picked better for a husband. Shame she didn’t get more out of life.”

Sensing that the merchant needed to get some thoughts out, the women remained silent.

“You would have like her, always full of life she was,” Ed continued. “When we was kids, I don’t think I ever saw her sad. But, after she married that Cassidy fella, that was her whole life.” He seemed to remember something, “except for those few weeks we spent in Fort Benton. Funny, now that I think about it. She seemed happy there. Don’t rightly know why considerin’ that good for nothing spent all of his time at the gambling tables. Lost most of their money there. Barely had enough to pay to get them to Sweetwater.”

Jennifer looked at Jesse and a silent acknowledgement passed between them. It was in Fort Benton that Bette Mae had met and fallen in love with Ed’s sister. A love that Bette Mae had never confessed to anyone except Jesse. It appeared that Bette Mae may not have been the only one to have feelings for the other.

“But, she’s happy now,” Ed reached over and patted Jennifer’s good leg. “I just know it.”

Jennifer took the big hand in her own and held it, “I know it, too,”

“You okay here,” Jesse asked. “I mean, Cassidy didn’t leave any debt on this place, did he?”

“Nah,” Ed shyly withdrew his hand. Jennifer had become the daughter he never had but he was still self-conscious about their bond. “Store’s done pretty well in the last couple of years. Well enough to clear his debts with the freight companies and put some money away in a Bozeman bank.” Ed laughed as he sadly shook his head, “always felt bad about keeping that a secret from sis but I was afraid he’d just gamble it away if he’d known about it.”

“You did the right thing, Ed,” Jennifer assured him. “She would have agreed with you keeping it secret.”

“Guess, now that she’s not needin’ it, maybe I can use it now to expand the store like I’ve been thinking to,” Ed looked around at the crowded shelves and aisles surrounding them. Now, with his sister dead and her husband hanged, Ed owned the store outright and could make changes to it..

“That’s a great idea,” Jennifer exclaimed. “What do you have planned?”

“Oh,” Ed scratched his head, “thought I’d build on out back. Make a place for the freight wagons to unload without pilin’ it out front and blocking the boardwalk. I could put a small room upstairs for sleepin’ and enlarge the back room for keeping the freight that’s waitin’ for the ranchers to pick up. Would give me a place to move some of this stuff,” his arm swept around the room at the piles of crates and boxes stacked everywhere.

“Sounds like a good idea, Ed,” Jesse nodded. “Let me know if I can help. It’s sure been a long time since anything new was built in town.”

“Schoolhouse was the last,” Ed supplied.

“I think it would be nice for Sweetwater to start growing,” Jennifer suggested.

“Don’t know, darlin’,” Jesse drawled. “I kinda like Sweetwater just the way it is.”

“Can’t say that I’d be unhappy to see a few more people around,” Ed said. “And, it would mean more business for the Slipper, Jesse,”

“Well, I don’t know,” Jesse shook her head.

“Jesse,” Jennifer interrupted, “if the Slipper was making more money, we could afford to do more out at the ranch. Like buy that breeding bull you want.” The money Jesse had been saving for the bull had been used to pay the doctor in Bozeman who had treated Jennifer after the cougar attack.

“I guess,” Jesse was determined not to give in too easily. “Bad things happen when stuff starts to grow.”

“KC,” Jennifer looked to make sure the baby was okay. “KC, where are you?”

“Uh, oh,” Jesse muttered as she began to search the store for her daughter.

Ed helped Jennifer up and then the two joined in the search.

“KC,” Jesse called. “Where are you, sunshine?”

“Mommy,” a small voice came from the rear of the store.

All three adults converged in the direction of the voice.

“Damn,” Ed stood, hands on his hips.

“Momma, ook,” KC smiled innocently.

“Yes, I see, sweetie,” Jennifer said, her mouth beginning to twitch.

“Like I said, bad things happen when stuff starts to grow,” Jesse stared at KC.

The baby was covered from head to toe in flour and was sitting atop a pile of the feathery light powder. Next to her, a gallon keg of pickles lay on it’s side, it’s contents strewn about and juice leaking down into cracks in the floor. KC was mixing pickle juice with the flour, then patting the mixture into small, flattened cookie shaped mounds she stacked around her.

KC picked up one of the gooey concoctions of flour and pickle juice and offered it to Jesse, “cookie.”

“Guess you’ll be putting more than that bean barrel back,” Ed slapped Jesse on the back before doubling over in laughter. Jennifer could no longer hold back and joined Ed, the two guffawing loudly.

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

“No more cooking lessons with Bette Mae,” a very perturbed Jesse sputtered as she poured water over her head to rinse the soap from her hair.

“Yes, dear,” Jennifer tried not to laugh but was having a hard time of it.

After cleaning up KC’s impromptu bakery and by the time they got the baby back to the Slipper, Jesse was covered in the same white goop that her daughter was. Bette Mae had taken one look at the pair and started laughing so hard she had been unable to do anything but point to the bathing room. Both Jesse and KC were stripped and placed in the tub to scrub themselves clean. KC thought the whole affair was a funny game, after all everyone was laughing. Everyone, that is, except her mommy who stewing at being the butt of the laughter.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Jennifer tried again to pacify Jesse. “She was only playing.”

Jesse glared at her.

“Mommy,” KC was sitting in Jesse’s lap playing with a wash rag.

When Jesse looked at her daughter, she was greeted by a loving smile and twinkling eyes. But, Jesse was determined to stay upset.

Getting no response from her mother, KC pulled herself upright using handholds that generally were reserved for the exclusive use of Jennifer.

“Mommy,” KC tried again as she was now eyeball to eyeball with Jesse. “Wuv you.”

Jesse’s heart melted. She wrapped her arms around the baby and hugged her close, “I love you, too, sunshine.”

Jennifer smiled and wiped a tear from her cheek as she watched the two people who were her life.

“Here,” Jesse handed the baby to Jennifer. “Let mommy get you dressed.”

As Jennifer accepted the baby, she took hold of Jesse’s hand and held it. “I love you, too.”

Jesse smiled. “Wonder if Bette Mae found me any clothes.” Jesse used to keep clothes in her office during the days when it wasn’t unusual for her to spend a night or two in town. But, since Jennifer had moved to the ranch, Jesse hadn’t had the need and had removed all her personal belongings from the Slipper.

A knock on the bathing room door was her answer.

“Well, looky there,” Bette Mae cried out cheerfully as she entered. A little too cheerfully Jesse thought. “I do believe ya look a sight better. Ya almost scared me to death walkin’ in white as a ghost before. I done thought it was time ta meet my maker, I did,” Bette Mae chuckled. “Why, when I told Billie and Ruthie wha’ you done walked in lookin’ like, I thought poor Ruthie would…..”

Jesse didn’t hear the rest, as she slipped under the surface of the bath water.

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

“Evening, Mary,” Jesse joined Jennifer and her mother at a table in the Slipper’s dining room. She wore the clothes that Bette Mae had managed to find, a pair of denim jeans a size too big and a well-worn denim shirt a size too small. At least, she had been able to put her own boots back on.

“Evening, Jesse,” Mary smiled at the rancher. “Heard you had quite the afternoon,” Mary commented as Ruthie, a young woman who worked for the Slipper, set plates of food in front of the women.

“Bet the whole town has heard by now,” Jesse grumbled as she filled a fork with the whipped potatoes on her plate.

“Oh, I doubt everyone knows,” Jennifer handed a bite of cooked carrot to KC who hungrily shoved it into her mouth. “I’m sure only the people in town have heard. It’ll take a few days to reach the ranches.”

“Not to mention the mining camps,” Bette Mae added as she placed a pitcher of cold milk on their table before hurrying back to the kitchen.

“Funny,” Jesse jammed her elbow on the table and plopped her chin into her hand. “It’ll probably be weeks before anything happens to give folks something else to talk about,” she said then reconsidered. She looked at KC, happily munching on a biscuit covered with a small amount of butter and honey. It wasn’t long before the baby had butter and honey smeared all over her face with biscuit crumbs sticking to the mess.

Jesse brightened, “then again, with you and KC around, you just never knew what might happen.”

“Bad, Jesse,” Jennifer admonished.

“Now, darlin’,” Jesse sat up straight, “you have to admit. since you hit town, it has been plenty excitin’ around here.”

“Ain’t that ta truth,” Bette Mae chirped in as she walked by carrying a pot of coffee.

“That’s not fair,” Jennifer cried.

“It’s okay, darlin’,” Jesse smiled. “I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

“Good thing,” Jennifer smiled back.

Mary had watched the playful argument with interest. “A lot has happened to you, Jennifer.”

“Yes, mother, it has,” Jennifer said, somewhat suspiciously.

“And, yet, you are happy, aren’t you?” Mary asked, even though she was sure she already knew the answer..

“Yes, mother. I am very happy,” she smiled at Jesse who was listening to the conversation with interest.

“I’m happy for you,” Mary reached over and took Jennifer’s hand into her own. “I truly am.”

“Thank you, mother.”

“I just wish it would be a little less exciting in the future,” Mary added.

“Here, here,” Jesse raised a glass of milk and nodded.

“Mooooooooooo,” KC loudly let her feelings be known.

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

The women had finished their meal and moved from the dining room to Jesse’s office where they could enjoy a quiet conversation. Jesse and Jennifer were sitting on the couch, Jesse’s arm draped over Jennifer’s shoulders. Mary sat in the armchair with KC sleeping in her lap.

“Mother, why won’t you come live at the ranch? We’d have more time together,” it had hurt Jennifer when Mary had decided to stay in town.

“It wouldn’t be right, all of us living in that small house.” The one-room log cabin that served as the ranch house was not much bigger that the dining area of the Silver Slipper.

“I don’t understand,” Jennifer said.

“You and Jesse would have no privacy, dear. To do, well,” her mother’s face reddened.

Jennifer looked at her mother quizzically.

“I think she means that she’d be uncomfortable with us….,” Jesse tried to explain. “Well, you know,” she tried again.

Jennifer looked from Jesse to her mother and back. Slowly, she began to understand what her mother was worried about.

“Oh,” she blushed. “I guess that would be a problem.”

The women fell silent, thankful that no one had had to actually speak the words.

“You know,” Jesse started slowly. “We’ve got that old cabin that isn’t used for anything. Fact is, I think the man owned the ranch used it for livin’ in before he built the ranch house. We could clean it up and make it livable. It would give you your own place. That is, if you’d like.”

“That’s a wonderful idea, Jesse,” Jennifer said, excited at the prospect of having her mother closer. “It wouldn’t take much to fix it up. A good sweeping out, some curtains, and such.”

“Needs a new roof,” Jesse added.

“I don’t know,” Mary wavered. “Seems like a lot of work.”

“Nah,” Jesse told her. “Couple days and it’ll be all shiny and new.”

“Please, mother,” Jennifer pleaded. “I really would like to have you at the ranch. So, would KC.”

“What about you, Jesse,” Mary asked.

Jesse thought for a moment, she enjoyed having the ranch as a place for just her family. It would be different having someone else living there. She looked at Jennifer who was watching her expectantly. ‘Well, Mary is family now, isn’t she’, she thought.

“Well, the ranch is for my family,” Jesse said. “And,” she beamed, “you’re family. Of course, I’d like you to come and stay there. For as long as you’d like,” she added as Jennifer breathed a sigh of relief.

“Thank you, Jesse,” Mary said, sincerely. “But, only if you let me help fix it up.”

“Agreed,” Jennifer said before anyone could change their mind.

Jennifer suggested, “sweetheart, why don’t we stay upstairs tonight.” It was late and by the time they rode back to the ranch, it would be well after midnight. “Then, mother can ride with us out to the ranch tomorrow. We can fix up a bed for her at the house until the cabin is ready.”

“Okay,” Jesse nodded. “I’ll ask Bette Mae which room we can use tonight. Be right back,” she rose from the couch.

“Better bring some milk for KC, she’ll be hungry before too long,” Jennifer reminded Jesse.

“I don’t have to stay at the ranch, dear,” Mary said after Jesse had left the room. “I can stay here until the cabin is ready.”

“No, mother,” Jennifer protested. “It will only take a few days to get your place ready and I’m tired of not seeing you except for a few minutes at a time.”

“Alright, if you’re sure,” Mary agreed.

“I am. We’ll go by Ed’s before we leave town tomorrow and get everything we need to fix the place up proper for you.

“Momma,” KC whimpered as she started to wake.

“I better go find, Jesse,” Jennifer stood. “This one will be crying for her mommy and her moo before long,” she took the half-asleep baby from her mother. “We’ll see you in the morning.”

“Goodnight, dear,” Mary kissed Jennifer on the cheek. “Say goodnight to Jesse for me.”

“I will. Goodnight, mother.”

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

Jesse loaded Mary’s few belongings into the back of the buckboard while she was still inside saying her goodbyes to Bette Mae and the other women who worked at the Silver Slipper. Jennifer, holding KC, stood on the Slipper’s porch, enjoying what coolness they was in the morning’s shadows. There had been another rainless thunder bumper the night before and the day was well on it’s way to being another scorcher.

A horse and rider passed on the road, Jennifer watched as the rider stopped in front of the general store and dismounted. The rider wore buckskin pants and vest without any shirt, his dark skin exposed to the sun’s harsh rays. Long black hair, decorated with eagle feathers and beads, hung in two braids down his back. Instead of boots, his feet were wrapped in a covering that looked more like a pair of slippers than shoes.

“Sweetheart,” Jennifer called softly to Jesse, “isn’t that an Indian?” She had read many stories about the native people but this was the first time she had actually seen one.

Jesse turned to look down the street, the man was pulling a bundle of furs off the back of his horse.

“Yep,” Jesse acknowledged.

Ed came out of the store. Seeing the Indian, he walked to the edge of the boardwalk and and began making hand gestures at the man. The Indian returned the gestures with some of his own. After a few minutes, Ed accepted the bundle of furs, taking them inside his store. He reappeared with what appeared to be a sack of flour and some smaller sacks that he handed to the man. The Indian tied the sacks together then threw them over the neck of his horse before remounting. He rode back toward the Slipper.

As he passed, the Indian glanced in Jesse’s direction. Jennifer was surprised to see her nod in recognition at the man before he disappeared around the side of the Slipper and out of town.

But, how would Jesse know a……..

“Oh, my, is it safe?” Mary gasped, having caught a glimpse of the passing native.

“Yep,” Jesse climbed the Slipper’s steps to help Jennifer down them. “He’s a friend.”

Jennifer looked at Jesse quizzically, “but….”

“We’ll talk later,” Jesse told her. “Come on, let’s get to Ed’s and get that taken care of. I want to get back to the ranch before noon. The horses need tending to,” she took Jennifer’s arm and guided her to the stairway.

Jennifer knew there wasn’t going to be any more said about the stranger until later. So, she let the matter drop, confident that Jesse would tell her about the man at a future time.

“Come on, mother,” Jennifer called back to Mary who was now discussing the rider with Bette Mae.

“Ya go on, now,” Bette Mae assured the woman. “Jesse knows what she’s doin’. She’ll take right good care of ya. There’s nothin’ ta be concerned over.”

Unconvinced, Mary reluctantly join Jesse and Jennifer at the buckboard.

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

Upon arriving at the store, Ed had directed the women to the front end of the store’s long counter. There a space approximately five feet square had been fenced off with a length of chicken wire. Every few inches the wire was tacked to the wood floor. Inside the enclosure a blanket had been spread out and a few toys were scattered about the blanket.

“And, just what is that supposed to be?” Jesse asked.

“That,” Ed said proudly, “is a holding pen for that there young ‘un of yours.”

“Ummmm,” Jesse considered the prospects of the flimsy wire holding KC for long, “well, let’s give it a try.” Jesse dropped KC over the wire fence and set her down on the blanket.

KC looked suspiciously at her surroundings. “Up,” she demanded.

“No, sweetie,” Jennifer told the baby. “You stay there, and be good, while momma shops.”

KC pouted, her lip jutting out.

Jesse reached down and ruffled KC’s silky hair, “we won’t be long, sunshine. Then, we’ll go home and feed Dusty and Blaze.”

“Otay,” KC picked up one of the conveniently placed toys and began to chew on it.

With the baby settled and, hopefully, contained, Jennifer looked around the store, deciding on the best approach for finding the items on the list she had written out during breakfast. Finally, with a plan of action decided on, she set off.

Ed returned to a stool behind the counter and watched Jennifer go through the store’s inventory with the precision of a military quartermaster. Every time her arms filled with items, she would take them to the amused storekeeper so he could make a record of them in his ledger. Once they were recorded, Jesse was ordered to pack them in boxes and carry them out to the wagon. Mary chose to sit quietly next to KC’s ‘holding pen’ and watch her daughter’s foraging.

“Anything else, darlin’,” Jesse asked as she returned after placing the last box into the back of the buckboard and making sure it was secure.

“Let’s see,” Jennifer reviewed her list. “Nope,” she said crumbling the paper up and tossing it into a small basket Ed kept behind the counter for rubbish. “That’s all of it. Guess you can go ahead and pay Ed.”

“Thanks,” Jesse smirked. “Glad I’m good for something.”

“Me, too,” Jennifer gave Jesse a pat on the rear end, her hand lingering for a moment.

“Ooo,” Jesse purred. “Someone woke up in a happy mood this morning.”

“Sweetheart, I always wake up happy when I wake up next to you.”

“If you two love birds are done,” Ed chuckled, “I do have other customers waiting.”

“Where? In Bozeman,” Jesse asked as she looked around the store, empty except for her family.

“Don’t be smart,” Ed told the rancher. “Okay, with what you got today. Plus,” he paused to clear his voice and loudly announce, “one bag of flour and one gallon of pickles.”

“Just tell me the total, Ed,” Jesse growled.

“Twenty Seven Dollars and thirteen cents.” He winked at Mary, “sure you’re ready to be around this grouchy one all day?”

Jesse slapped three ten dollar bills on the counter, “put the rest on the Slipper’s account. And,” she glared at Ed but there was a twinkle in her eyes, “keep your opinions to yourself.”

Ed took the money and made a notation in his ledger. Then, he leaned across the counter and whispered loud enough for everyone to hear, “let’s just see how long it is before you’re making excuses to come to town to get away from all the women folk you have out at the ranch, now.”

Jesse leaned on the counter and whispered just as loud, “I’m one of those women folk.”

“Yeah,” Ed whispered back. “But, you don’t count.”

“Well, you’re probably right on that one,” Jesse started to laugh and slapped Ed on the shoulder. “Come on, ladies,” she bowed to Jennifer and Mary. “Your chariot awaits.”

“Oh, my,” Mary swooned, “how gallant.”

“My knight in shining armor,” Jennifer said as she passed Jesse on her way out the door. “Don’t forget the baby.”

“I don’t know, Ed,” Jesse said as she collected KC from the ‘holding pen’. “I think I may be in way over my head.”

“Well, you’re outnumbered. That’s for sure,” Ed laughed. “But, I think you’ll do just fine, Jesse. Besides, you know where to find me if you need a break.”

“Thanks. I think.”

“Mommy?” KC asked as Jesse walked to the door.

“Yes, sunshine.”

“Toy.”

“Don’t you think you have enough of those at home?” Jesse asked the baby.

“No.”

“Yep, Jesse,” Ed walked over and handed KC a small but brightly painted bird, “you are definitely outnumbered.”

“Don’t suppose this is on the house?” Jesse asked.

“Cheep, cheep,” KC said as she grabbed the toy.

Ed started to snigger and, without another word, Jesse left to join Jennifer and Mary outside.

“Ready, darlin’?” Jesse asked, after settling on the seat next to Jennifer.

“Yes, sweetheart,” Jennifer slipped her arm around Jesse’s. “Let’s go home.”

Jesse released the buckboard’s brake and, with a slap of the reins, Boy started down the street in the direction of the Silver Slipper and the ranch beyond.

“Momma,” KC held her new toy up for Jennifer to see. “Cheep, cheep.”

Jennifer examined the bird, “it’s very pretty, sweetie,” Jennifer told the baby as she laid her head on Jesse’s shoulder.

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

PART 2

Mayor Miles Perkins strode into the general store like he owned the place. “Ed, I need to place an order,” he informed the storekeeper who was currently engaged with another customer.

“Be with you in a minute, Miles,” Ed didn’t like the arrogant mayor but he was a good customer and paid his bills on time. “That should take care of your order, Ruthie. Tell Bette Mae, I’ll have it sent over as soon as I’m done unpacking this morning’s freight delivery.”

“Thank you, Mr. Granger.”

“Are you done yet,” Mayor Perkins barked, frustrated with having to wait. Mayor Miles Perkins was a middle-age, balding man who seemed to be wider than he was tall. He wore a bushy mustache that fluttered when he spoke and seemed to perpetually be in need of a good trimming. And, he always thought that his business should take priority over anything and anyone else. An attitude that seemed to have gotten more forceful in the last few weeks.

“I’ll thank you not to use that tone with Ruth,” Billie Monroe stepped in from the boardwalk. He had seen Ruthie walk past the jail on her way to the general store and had planned to wait for her outside. But, hearing the way Mayor Perkins was talking, he decided to enter the store. He was the town’s sheriff and, more significantly at the moment, he was courting the shy girl that worked at the Silver Slipper.

“I have important business,” Mayor Perkins explained.

“You can wait your turn like everyone else,” Ed told the mayor. “Besides, what can be so important, your boys eat through the pantry again?” It was well known that the mayor’s sons could put away more food than half the ranch hands in the valley. It was a wonder the man could afford the cost of feeding them.

“No,” Perkins responded, indignantly. “I have received a charter from the territorial governor for a bank in Sweetwater,” he announced. “I need to place an order for building materials.”

“A bank?” Billie asked, walking to stand next to Ruthie by the store’s counter. “How’d you get that?” It wasn’t easy to be granted a bank charter, especially for a small town like Sweetwater.

“Doesn’t matter,” the mayor slapped a piece of paper down on the counter. “This is a list of the materials that I will need. My architect drew it up, so follow it exactly when you send in the order.”

“Arc-e-tech, uh,” Ed repeated as he picked up the sheet and began to read. “Let’s see. Lumber shouldn’t be a problem, but you’ll probably have to wait a few weeks since I sent in an order a few days ago. Bricks and sandstone blocks,” he commented on the next items, “goin’ be a mighty fancy building, Miles. You sure Sweetwater needs somethin’ like that?”

“We need a bank,” Perkins stated, matter-of-factly.

“Never said we didn’,” Ed was just as aware as the mayor that it was more than a nuisance to have to travel to Bozeman for the closest bank. Especially during the winter months. “Jus’ wonder if we need such a fancy one.”

Ignoring the storekeepers comments, he asked, “can you get those supplies?”

“Yes,” Ed pulled a form from under the counter. “Will take several weeks for the bricks. Might be several months on the sandstone.”

“I need it sooner than that,” Perkins demanded.

“I can put a rush on it,” Ed offered, “but, probably won’t make much difference. Don’ even know if my suppliers in Bozeman can handle an order this big. And, they’re goin’ want a deposit.”

“Send the order, Ed. Let me know if they can handle it. If they can’t, I’ll send to Denver. Already, had to order the safe through there. It’s coming from a company in New York City, best safe makers in the country,” the mayor boasted. “If they need a deposit, I’ll take care of it.” The mayor turned and marched out of the store.

“Damn,” Billie blew out a breath. “Wonder how he got the governor to give him a charter?”

“I wonder where he’s getting the money,” Ed started transferring the information on the mayor’s paper to the order form. “This stuff ain’t cheap.”

“Good question, Ed,” the sheriff took a glance at the list of materials. “Maybe, I should do a little checking into our mayor’s activities. Seems to me, I heard he took a trip to Denver not too long ago.”

“Yep, when we was in Bozeman with Jesse and Jennifer.”

“Maybe I’ll stop and see if Thaddeus knows anything,” turning to the young woman who was standing patiently beside him, “can I walk you back to the Slipper, Ruth?”

“I’d like that,” Ruth smiled shyly.

“Shall we?” Billie held out his arm and Ruth timidly took it.

As the couple left the store, Ed smiled to himself. “Almost as cute as Jesse and Jennifer,” he mumbled.

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

“I can’t help you, Billie,” Thaddeus Newby owned and operated the Gazette, the valley’s only newspaper. “I heard Miles had gone to Denver but, if he told anyone why, no one’s talking. Why are you asking?”

“He was in Ed’s earlier ordering building materials for a bank,” the sheriff had stopped at the newspaper office after walking Ruth back to the Slipper. “Seems he got a charter from the territorial governor.”

“For here, in Sweetwater?” Thaddeus questioned.

“Yep,” Billie nodded, “Wondering how he was able to do that, is all.”

“You think his trip to Denver has something to do with it?”

“Could be,” Billie took off his hat and scratched his head. “Don’t see that he would have that kind of influence on his own. Not to mention the money.”

“Well,” Thaddeus thought for a moment. “Been rumors of some eastern financiers taking an interest in the valley, seems one or two of the mines are starting to show some good color. Miles would be just the man they’d talk to if they were thinking of doing anything around here.” Thaddeus added.

“Guess the mayor would be the one they’d go to first,” Billie agreed.

“I’ve been planning to take a ride out to some of the larger mining camps in a day or so,” Thaddeus told the sheriff. “See if there’s any happenings that would interest the Gazette. Let me do some checking, Billie, I’ll see if I can come up with anything.”

“Alright,” Billie said before walking next door to the jail and his office.

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

Jesse was standing on top of a ladder leaned up against the back wall of the small cabin that was soon to become the home of her mother-in-law. She was nailing down the last row of shingles that would complete the roof repair. Jennifer came around the corner of the small building and stood at the bottom of the ladder.

“Sweetheart,” Jennifer held her hand up in front of her face to shield her eyes against the bright sun as she looked up to see Jesse. “Mother just made some lemonade. Why don’t you come down and rest for a while.”

Jesse figured she had less than a dozen shingles left to nail down. Having been working on the roof since breakfast, she was anxious to get the job done and get out of the oppressive afternoon heat. “Give me a few more minutes and I’ll be finished,” she told Jennifer without stopping her work.

“Alright,” Jennifer patted Jesse’s leg before walking back around the small building.

“Is she coming?” Mary asked when Jennifer re-entered the cabin.

“She’ll be here in a minute. She wants to finish,” Jennifer sat on the edge of the room’s bed.

KC, who had been playing on the floor with her toy horse, quickly crawled to Jennifer and began to pull herself upright on her momma’s leg, “up.” Jennifer lifted the baby into her lap.

“Can’t say I’ll miss the noise,” Mary handed Jennifer a glass of the cold beverage she had recently mixed.

“Mommy,” KC pointed to the roof and held her hands over her ears.

“Yes, sweetie,” Jennifer smiled, “mommy is making a lot of noise. But, she’s almost done.” As she listened to the sound of Jesse’s hammering, Jennifer glanced around the cabin, which was no more than ten by twenty feet.

There was only one entry into the cabin, a door placed slightly off center in the front wall. Each of the walls held a window making the building’s interior surprising bright, especially after the window glass had received a good scrubbing. Standing against the back wall was a wood stove that would be used for both heating and cooking. The rough plank floor had been covered by rugs to help control dust.

The day before, Jennifer and Mary had worked on fixing up the inside while Jesse worked on the outside of the cabin. The women had spent the day emptying the cabin of it’s meager furnishings and cleaning it of years of cobwebs and dirt. Jesse had re-hung the door and replaced missing chinking between the logs to keep out the nastier weather. She repaired a broken window and constructed a new frame for it, the old one having rotted through. And, the small porch had needed some attention.

Since this morning, while Jesse worked to replace the section of leaky roof, Jennifer and her mother had decorated the cabin’s single room. New curtains had been hung in the windows and a table and chair moved in. The bedsprings had been thoroughly cleaned and now held a new mattress and bed coverings. A few dishes and some food staples had been neatly stacked on a shelf near the stove. Although, Mary would take her meals with them, Jennifer had wanted her to have the items for any times she might want to eat in the cabin.

Jennifer surveyed their work. The bed occupied one end of the cabin and the table and chair had been placed in the front corner at the other end, the arrangement offered anyone sitting there a view out two windows. The furnishings were sparse and Jennifer wondered if her mother, who had been surrounded by much more luxurious possessions back east, would be happy in the small cabin.

“Mother,” Jennifer hesitated.

“Yes, dear,” Mary was sitting at the table, enjoying the view of the ranch yard and forest beyond.

“Are you going to be happy here,” Jennifer asked. “I mean, this isn’t exactly how you’re used to living.”

Mary turned and looked at her daughter. KC had crawled off Jennifer’s lap and was happily rolling around on the soft bed, giggling as she entertained herself. Mary rose from the chair and crossed the floor to sit next to her apprehensive daughter.

“I’ll be very happy, dear,” she took Jennifer’s hands into her own and lovingly rubbed them.

“Are you sure?” Jennifer would hate to have her mother return to living at the Silver Slipper. But, if she would be more comfortable….

“Yes, I’m very sure. Here, I can sit and listen to birds singing in the trees instead of freight wagons rumbling under my window,” she referred to the daily activity on the stage road through Sweetwater. “And, I’ll be able to spend time with you and Jesse and your beautiful baby,” she told Jennifer. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

“But,” Jennifer started.

“I’m happy, Jennifer,” Mary didn’t give the schoolteacher a chance to finish. “I really am. This is the first time, in a long time, that I’m doing exactly what I want to do.”

“I’m glad,” Jennifer leaned over and kissed her mother’s cheek. “I’m really glad you’re here.”

“Now, where’s that lemonade you mentioned,” Jesse entered the cabin, she pulled a kerchief from her back pocket and, lifting her hat, wiped the sweat from her brow. The women had been so concentrated on their conversation they hadn’t noticed when the hammering stopped.

“Mommy,” KC cried out excitingly at the sight of Jesse. She started crawling towards the edge of the bed.

“Whoa there, sunshine,” Jesse plucked the baby off the bed before she fell over the side. “That’s a might far for you to bounce.”

“Finished?” Mary asked she walked to the table to retrieve the pitcher of lemonade and a glass for Jesse.

“Yep,” Jesse gladly accepted the cold drink and took a long swallow. “Better than new if I do say so myself.”

“Mommy, owie,” KC grimaced at her mother and held her ears.

“Sorry, sunshine,” Jesse kissed the tip of the baby’s nose. “But, we couldn’t let your grandma be rained on, now could we?”

KC wasn’t quite sure what her mother had said but the banging had stopped and that’s all she really cared about. “Dink,” she asked for the glass Jesse held.

Jesse looked at Jennifer, not sure if the baby should have the lemonade.

“A little bit shouldn’t hurt,” Jennifer told the rancher. “But, we probably should stick with milk for a while longer.”

Jesse allowed KC a small sip of the tangy liquid.

“Mo’,” KC asked, even as her nose crinkled up at the strange taste.

“Nope,” Jesse emptied the glass before placing it back on the table. “Sure looks nice in here,” she told Jennifer and Mary. “You wouldn’t know it was the same room we had to kick our way into yesterday.”

The ranch’s previous owner had obviously been using the cabin as a storage shed. Jennifer, Jesse and Mary had carried out box after box of bits and pieces before they could start cleaning the small room. Most of the stuff was piled in the yard waiting to be burned since they discovered what hadn’t been eaten by bugs and mice was too rotten or rusty to be of any use.

“It sure was a lot of work,” Jennifer nodded. “But, it does look nice, doesn’t it.”

“Yep,” Jesse shifted KC in her arms, they were sore after all the heavy work she had done. She was glad the roof repair was finally finished and was looking forward to a nice, long soak in the tub after dinner. But, there were still a few chores before she could call it a day. “Say, I think I’ll leave you ladies and go check on the horses.”

“Me, go?” KC asked.

“Sure, sunshine,” Jesse nodded, “I can use your help milking that cow you like so much.”

“Will you be long, sweetheart,” Jennifer was concerned about Jesse working anymore in the hot conditions of the late afternoon.

“Nope, there’s another storm brewing over the mountains. Looks like this one could have some rain in it. I’ll just make sure the horses are bedded down and everything is put away so it won’t get wet if we do get rain.”

“Mommy, hat,” KC reached for Jesse’s stetson as they disappeared out the door.

Jennifer looked out of the cabin’s window that faced west. “Does look like a nasty one,” she said as she saw the dark clouds building over the mountains. “I better get back to the house and start supper.”

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

After finishing the evening meal, the three women continued to sit around the table listening and watching the storm outside. KC sat in Jesse’s lap, she alternated between covering her ears whenever thunder boomed to playing peek-a-boo with her grandmother. Outside, a bolt of lightening flashed, followed a few moments later by thunder rumbling across the dark sky. A gust of wind hit the side of the ranch house, shaking the window shutters.

“It looks pretty bad out there,” Jennifer watched as another lightening strike illuminated the yard.

“Goin’ to get worse before it gets better,” Jesse muttered. She wasn’t very happy that she had to postpone her bath, but she knew she might have to go out during the storm if something happened.

“Mommy, Stee?” KC frowned at Jesse. She was still learning to say Dusty, the name of Jesse’s horse.

“Dusty and Blaze are okay, sunshine,” Jesse told the worried baby. “Good thing we left them in the barn tonight.” It had become her practice to let the horses stay out in the open corral on hot nights.

“Think we’ll get much rain tonight?”

Before Jennifer could finish the sentence, the heavens opened and rain poured out. The drops were so big that they sounded like stones were being hurled at the windows.

“Guess that answers my question,” Jennifer laughed.

KC stopped her game and looked at the window, she had never seen rain before. Using Jesse’s shirt, the baby pulled herself up to get closer to the window and pressed her nose against the glass. Just then, another bolt of lightening flashed. Startled by the bright flash, KC fell back into Jesse’s lap and began to whimper.

“Hey, I think you better stay away from that window, sunshine,” Jesse comforted the startled baby. “Don’t want your pretty hair to get frizzled.”

“Sweetie, are you okay?” Jennifer reached over and gently rubbed KC’s back.

“Owie,” KC pouted.

“I know,” Jennifer looked at Jesse. “Think we can get her to go to sleep.”

Jesse looked outside as another bolt of lightening lit up the sky. The strikes seemed to be getting closer.

“Maybe I should go back to my cabin before it gets any worse,” Mary offered.

“No,” Jesse handed the baby to Jennifer. “I’ll get her some milk. Why don’t you try rockin’ her,” she suggested before turning her attention back to Mary. “This will be over in another hour. It’s best you stay put until then.”

“Alright,” Mary breathed a sigh of relief, she really had not wanted to go out into the storm.

Jennifer carried the upset baby to the rocking chair Jesse had made for them. As she rocked, she hummed softly to calm the baby. KC quieted but her eyes remained on the window and the storm.

“You really think this will be over so soon?” Mary looked out the window, a burst of lightening lit up the yard and she could see the nearest trees were nearly doubled over by the wind.

“Yep,” Jesse seemed unconcerned with the storm as she filled one of the baby’s bottles with milk. “It’ll blow like crazy, rain like there ain’t goin’ be a tomorrow. Then, it’ll just stop. Clouds will move on east and the stars will come out. Tomorrow, you’ll wonder if you didn’t dream the whole thing.”

“I doubt that,” Mary instinctively pulled away from the window as drops from another cloudburst began to beat against the glass.

“At least, it should be cooler tomorrow,” Jennifer said.

“Don’t count on it, darlin’,” Jesse her the bottle. “Soon as that sun peeks over those mountains, it’ll be just as hot as today. Maybe, hotter.”

“Really,” Mary looked surprised. “All this rain won’t have any effect on the heat.”

“Nope,” Jesse shook her head. “Not only won’t it have any effect but you’ll be raising dust clouds when you walk across the yard.”

“Come on, Jesse,” Jennifer protested. “All that water must have some effect.”

“Wait and see,” Jesse told the doubting women as she again sat at the table with Mary. “You’d think this valley was at the bottom of a lake the way water runs off it. All I can say, is it’s a good thing we have as many rivers in the valley as we do. Otherwise, the land wouldn’t be much good for growing anything but rocks.”

“Guess we’ll see,” Jennifer murmured as she took another look at the storm raging outside.

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

A little over an hour later, Jennifer was putting a sleeping KC to bed as Jesse walked Mary to her cabin. Before leaving the woman alone, Jesse made sure her repairs on the roof had held. Seeing that the cabin appeared to be in good order, she bid Mary goodnight.

“Don’t forget, Mary,” Jesse said, “you have any trouble, you pull on that string. Any trouble, at all. Even if you just want someone to talk to.” The day before, Jesse, knowing Jennifer was concerned about her mother being alone in the cabin, had strung a cord from Mary’s cabin to the ranch house. A cow bell was tied to it’s end and would serve as an distress signal. Jesse grinned at the memory of the reward she’d received from her appreciative wife.

“Jesse?” Jennifer sat on the bed waiting for the rancher to finish drying off after their bath.

“Um.”

“I think I owe you something for stringing the alarm bell to my mother’s cabin.”

“Oh,” Jesse tossed the towel she had been using over the back of a chair. “And, just what were you thinking, darlin’?”

“A reward, maybe,” Jennifer teased as she scooted back on the bed and laid down. She held a hand out and, when Jesse took it, she pulled her lover onto the bed. Jesse stretched out on top of Jennifer pressing their naked bodies together. Jennifer’s hands roamed over Jesse’s back before pulling her even closer. Slowly, she lifted her good leg, forcing it between Jesse’s. When Jesse opened for her, Jennifer thrust her thigh upwards. She felt Jesse’s warm wetness smear over her cool skin.

Jesse moaned, slowly rubbing against Jennifer’s thigh. She locked her arms on either side of Jennifer, giving the necessary support to rub harder against her thigh. Jennifer brought her hands around to Jesse’s chest, cupping her breasts and squeezing the firm mounds together. She lifted her head to suck hardened nipples into her mouth, teeth raking over sensitive skin. Jesse responded to the overwhelming sensations, throwing her head back and forcing her breasts against Jennifer’s caressing hands.

Jennifer continued kneading Jesse’s breasts with one hand as she slowly slid the other down Jesse’s stomach and between their bodies. Her fingers slipped into Jesse’s wetness, quickly finding the hard clit and firmly pressing against it. Jesse’s body jerked, her nipples unwillingly pulled from Jennifer’s sucking mouth. Jennifer reached up and pulled Jesse down to her, capturing Jesse’s lips and crushing their mouths together.

As her need to release built, Jesse pressed harder and faster against Jennifer’s thigh, spasms intensifying at her center and expanding outward. Jennifer slipped her hand inside Jesse, moving her fingers rapidly in the circular motion Jesse liked.

Jesse’s back arched, her body going rigid as vaginal walls clinched around Jennifer’s fingers. “Oh, god, yessssssss,” she cried when wave after wave crashed through her. Moments later, as the pent up tension discharged, Jesse collapsed onto the bed beside her lover.

Jennifer rolled onto her side, gently rubbing Jesse’s back as she regained her breath.

“I liked my reward,” Jesse gasped.

“I thought you would,” Jennifer playfully traced irregular patterns on Jesse’s heated and sensitive skin.

Jesse adjusted her position so she was facing Jennifer. “I love you, Jennifer Branson.”

“I love you, Jesse Branson,” Jennifer bent forward, kissing her wife.

Jesse smiled, “And, now, darlin’,” she tenderly pushed Jennifer onto her back, “I’m going to show you just how much.”

Jesse kissed Jennifer, starting with her mouth then leaving a wet trail of kisses down her neck, around her breasts and trailing to the patch of curly hair at the apex of her legs. She inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent of her lover.

Jennifer’s hands clutched at the bed sheets as Jesse set her skin on fire, her breathing becoming unsteady pants.

Jesse slid between Jennifer’s legs, lifting them onto her shoulders. Tenderly, she kissed up and down the inside of first one thigh and then the other, teasingly moving closer to the center of Jennifer’s passion with each pass.

“Please,” Jennifer whimpered. Jesse was driving her mad.

Jesse placed her hands on the inside of Jennifer’s thighs and gently spread her legs wider, opening her lover up to her. For a moment, she simply gazed at the beauty spread before her. Then, slowly, she began to examine Jennifer with her tongue. The tip of the strong muscle barely gazing the sensitive clit that pulsed beneath it.

Jennifer moaned for more contact.

Jesse adjusted to press her tongue firmly against the nether lips it explored, enjoying the sweet, tangy juices flowing from her lover.

“Inside,” Jennifer begged.

Jesse did as she was asked, driving her tongue inside her wife. She pulled out and thrust in again, at the same time, pinching Jennifer’s clit between her fingers. Jennifer ground her heels into the mattress as her body bucked upward, the motion forcing Jesse’s tongue deeper inside her.

“Jesseeeeeeeeeeeee,” she screamed.

“Thank you, Jesse. I’m sure I’ll be fine.” Mary watched a faraway look spread across her daughter-in-law’s face, she wondered what could be causing it. “I promise, I’ll pull on the string if I need anything. Now, please, go back. I’m sure Jennifer is starting to worry by now.”

Captivated by her own thoughts, Jesse wasn’t quite sure what Mary had said. “Uh, well, yes. See you in the morning, then,” she stumbled.

Before returning to the ranch house, Jesse went to the barn and checked on the horses. Satisfied, they were okay and the barn had survived the storm undamaged, she walked back across the yard. Overhead, the moon was shining behind one of the few remaining clouds and thousands of stars twinkled in the black sky. Jesse stopped for a moment to enjoy the sight. As she stood looking upward, she heard familiar footfalls coming towards her.

“Beautiful, isn’t it,” Jennifer said as she wrapped her arms around Jesse and pressed her body against the woman she loved.

“You certainly are,” Jesse claimed Jennifer’s lips.

“I was talking about the stars,” Jennifer sighed as their mouths parted.

“I know,” Jesse leaned forward until their foreheads touched. “But, I do believe you are the most beautiful sight my eyes have ever been blessed with.”

“Ah, Jesse,” Jennifer felt her eyes fill with tears. “You are so romantic.”

“I love you,” Jesse whispered. “More than anything else on this earth.”

A tear dropped from Jennifer’s eye and began a journey down her cheek. Jesse tenderly reached up, cupping her face. She wiped the tear away with her thumb.

“Don’t ever leave me, Jesse,” Jennifer sighed. “I don’t think I could live without you.”

“Ain’t goin’ nowhere, darlin’,” Jesse pulled Jennifer close.

Jennifer twisted in Jesse’s arms and laid her head on Jesse’s shoulder. The world around them faded until there was nothing but the two of them, happily enveloped in each other’s arms.

“How about that bath?” Jennifer asked after some time.

“Oooo, I thought you’d never ask.” Jesse grabbed Jennifer’s hand and started running for the house.

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

“Mommy,” KC tucked her head against Jennifer’s shoulder and watched sadly as Jesse mounted her golden mare, Dusty, and prepared to ride to Sweetwater alone.

“I won’t be long, sunshine. Just want to check on Bette Mae and make sure the Slipper survived intact,” Jesse told Jennifer.

Hearing the name of her baking buddy, KC brightened, “cookie?”

Jesse smiled at the baby, “we’ll see what she’s got in the oven.” The rancher leaned in the saddle to give Jennifer a kiss. “I’ll be back before nightfall. Stick close to the house, okay.”

“Is something wrong, Jesse?” Jennifer asked again. Since they woke that morning, Jesse had seemed preoccupied but she refused to share her concerns with Jennifer.

“Stick close. Promise,” Jesse looked into Jennifer’s eyes.

“Yes, I promise. I just wish you’d tell me what was bothering you,” Jennifer tried again.

“Not sure,” Jesse straightened in the saddle. “Just a feeling, I’ve got.” She urged Dusty forward.

“Be safe, sweetheart,” Jennifer called after Jesse. With a wave of her hand, the rancher rode toward the ranch gate. Two large logs standing on either side of the road from town, arching from the top of one log to the other was a third log with the side facing incoming visitors cut flat. Carved into the flat surface was JJ’s Dream. Jesse had surprised Jennifer by carving the second “J” into it’s face after they returned from Bozeman.

“Come on, sweetie,” Jennifer said to the unhappy child watching her mommy disappear over the hillock topped by the ranch gate. “Let’s go see if your grandma is up, yet.”

“Otay,” KC reluctantly agreed.

Mary’s cabin was approximately fifty feet south of the ranch house and separated from the barn and outbuildings by the garden. As Jennifer walked, she smiled at it’s neat rows of vegetables and flowers surrounded by a new picket fence. After moving to the ranch, she and Jesse had spent several days pulling weeds and tilling the ground so it would be useful again. It was a good feeling knowing that their hard work had turned the neglected, weed-infested patch of ground into something so beautiful.

“Come in, dear,” Mary called out through the open door of her cabin.

“Grmm,” KC perked up when she heard her grandmother’s voice.

“Everything okay, mother,” Jennifer entered the cabin. Mary was sitting at the table, sipping a cup of tea.

“Yes. I’m fine. Water’s hot if you’d like some tea,” Mary pushed her cup towards the center of the table as KC was placed in her waiting arms. “How are you this morning?” she asked, as she kissed the baby’s cheek.

“Mommy, go,” KC pouted.

“Jesse went to town. KC wanted to go, too,” Jennifer explained. “We were expecting you for breakfast,” Jennifer sat on the bed, the cabin being too small for a second chair.

“Oh, I just woke up a short time ago,” Mary informed her.

“Did you sleep alright?” concerned that her mother might have spent a restless night.

Mary chuckled, “I can’t remember ever sleeping as well as I did last night. That is, once I got used to the quiet.”

“It is quiet out here, isn’t it?” Jennifer thought back to the town she had grown up in. Carts and buggies seemed to always be traveling the cobblestone streets. And, the business district around the train depot was never tranquil, the noise from the saloons and freight wagon yards carrying far on the still air. Many a night, she had laid awake unable to block out the noise.

“Do you ever miss it, dear,” Mary wondered if her daughter was ever homesick.

“You mean back east?”

“Yes. Do you ever miss home?”

Jennifer was silent for a moment, “this is home for me, mother. Wherever Jesse is, will always be my home.” She watched as KC slipped from her grandmother’s lap dropping to the floor to crawl towards her. “But, do I miss where I grew up? No, mother, I don’t.”

“Was it really that bad?” Mary asked as she pulled her tea cup close and took a sip.

“It was never right for me,” Jennifer reached down and helped KC up. The baby curled up in her lap and yawned. “I felt trapped there, mother. All I ever wanted was to travel and make my own way in life. But, father…,”

Mary smiled, sadly, “he believes in his ways.”

“His ways are wrong,” Jennifer’s old frustrations began to pout out. “How often did you hear him complain about needing someone in the shipping office he could trust? Or, someone to handle the correspondence from suppliers and customers so he could be free to see to the ships and their cargos? I could have done that, mother. I could have contributed to the company. But, he only saw me as a way to make a business deal.”

Mary understood the resentment Jennifer had over being left out of the family business. After all, it had been her own arranged marriage to Jennifer’s father that had provided the funding to keep the business afloat.

“What about your brothers, dear. They do love you.”

Jennifer laughed, a touch of bitterness in her voice, “my brothers barely acknowledged me, mother. I have no memory of any of them playing a game with me or reading to me. Or, even talking to me, except to order me about.” Jennifer shook her head, “no, mother. There is nothing in the east that I miss. Or, wish to return for,” she said before her mother could suggest a visit.

“I’m sorry, Jennifer,” Mary placed her empty tea cup back on the table. “I knew what your father expected of a daughter, my father had expected the same of me. I did try to talk to him after you were born. I didn’t want my daughter forced into a love-less marriage like I had been. But, your father is a very stubborn man.”

“You talked to him,” Jennifer was surprised to hear that her mother had contested her father’s actions. She could not remember a time her mother had even questioned her father during her years growing up. Jennifer was getting to see a completely new side of her mother.

“Yes. But, it was no use,” Mary looked into her empty cup. “I was scared when you left, Jennifer. But, I was also glad. I prayed you would find happiness,” she smiled, knowing Jennifer had found that and more. “I just wish you had sent word telling me that you were alright.”

“I’m sorry, mother.” Jennifer had sent no communications to the east, afraid that somehow they would find their way to her father. “I was afraid that father would find out and come after me.”

“I understand,” Mary rose to prepare herself another cup of tea. “Tea, dear?” she asked.

“No, thanks,” Jennifer shook her head. “Never developed a taste for the stuff. How did father find me, mother?” the question had troubled Jennifer since receiving notice of his pending arrival.

“I’m not sure,” Mary returned to her chair with a fresh cup of tea. “He received a telegram one day and announced he would be leaving immediately. He wouldn’t tell me who had sent the telegram but I did see it for a brief moment. I think the name at the bottom was Thomas,” she considered the sound and decided it wasn’t quite right. “Or, something like that.”

Jennifer thought, why did the name sound familiar? “I knew it,” she cried, KC fussed in her arms at the abrupt sound. “Sorry, sweetie,” Jesse rubbed the baby’s back until she re-settled. “The dress shop in Bannack… Thompson’s Dress Shop. I knew that man gave me the creeps, now I know why.”

“Of course,” Mary nodded. “Marcus Thompson. He did some work for your father before he and his wife left for the west.”

“I’ll have to remember to pay him a visit next time I’m in Bannack,” Jennifer vowed. “I’m real sure Jesse would like stop by and say howdy.”

Both women laughed at a vision of Jesse throttling the man who had caused the young couple so much pain.

“Bet he won’t send any more telegrams after Jesse is finished with him,” Mary chuckled.

“No, I’m sure he won’t,” Jennifer agreed. “Now, about that dressmaker,” Jennifer began, “I haven’t had a chance to try on the dresses she made me. And, considering the poor job she did fitting my wedding dress, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea. Want to help?”

“Sure.”

“Good,” Jennifer stood, careful not to wake KC. “Let’s go put her to bed.” Then, forgetting Jesse’s warning, she suggested, “maybe, when she wakes up, we can walk down to the river.”

“That would be nice.”

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

“Anything else, Bette Mae,” Jesse was on the porch of the Slipper sweeping up broken glass. She had been happy to learn that the building had survived the storm with only a broken window, a branch having been blown into it. Jesse had measured the empty frame and was getting ready to walk over to the general store to buy a replacement pane.

“Nope,” the innkeeper answered as she righted another chair, the wind had blown the porch chairs about. “Broken glass from that winda was all we found this mornin’. Ruthie and Nancy checked all the rooms upstairs. I gave ya office a quick peek, couldn’ find anythin’ amiss.”

“Alright, I’ll go see if Ed has the glass for a new window or if we have to order it from Bozeman. Either way, I’ll come back and cover that hole.”

“Ya can pick me up som’ salt whilst you’re there,” Bette Mae said as Jesse walked down the stairs.

“Okay,” Jesse stepped from the shade of the porch into the harsh sunlight. It was hard to believe the storm had been raging less than ten hours before.

As Jesse walked, she spotted Miles Perkins standing in front of the empty space on the far side of the general store. His arms swinging wildly about as he talked to another man she didn’t know. Jesse wondered what the town’s mayor was up to now. It didn’t take her long to find out.

Ed was standing on the boardwalk in front of his store watching the mayor, “have you heard what Miles is planning?”

“Nope,” Jesse gratefully stepped into the shade alongside Ed.

“He’s opening a bank.”

“Really?”

“Yep, he was in here yesterday ordering the material for the building. Goin’ ta use sandstone blocks, make it real impressive, he said. Even has a safe coming all the way from New York City.”

“Well, I guess that is one thing Sweetwater can use.” Jesse took off her stetson and wiped her sweaty brow. “Can’t believe how hot it is after all that rain last night.”

“Funny, isn’t it,” Ed agreed. “What brings you to town, Jesse? Tired of being surrounded by women all ready?” Ed chuckled.

“No,” Jesse glared at her friend as she returned the stetson to her head. “Came in to check on the Slipper. Need some glass cut. You have any in stock?”

“Think so,” Ed turned to enter the store. “Let’s go see.”

Jesse followed Ed into the store and through to a back room Ed used for sleeping. A small cot, looking too small to hold the big man was shoved out of the way of the many boxes and crates stacked in the room. Ed moved a couple of the boxes and looked behind them.

“Thought I had one piece left,” he said as he gingerly lifted the glass free. “Hope this is big enough for you.”

“Looks to be,” Jesse said. “I’ll be sure as soon as we can set it down and measure it.”

It didn’t take long for Ed to find a safe spot to lay the glass down so it could be measured and cut to size. He offered to wrap it in paper for Jesse but she declined.

“I’m taking it right back and sticking it in place. No use to waste the paper.”

“Anything else for you today, Jesse?” Ed asked as he carefully disposed of the left over slivers of glass.

“Bag of salt,” Jesse told him.

“Alright,” Ed walked a few paces down the counter and pull the requested item off a shelve. “How’s the work comin’ out at the ranch?”

“Finished,” Jesse accepted the bag from the storekeeper. “Looks real nice, too.”

“Jennifer’s momma sure seems like a real, nice lady,” Ed opened his ledger and made a notation it

“She is,” Jesse was sure the Slipper still had a positive balance on account but she waited for Ed to verify it.

“Too bad her husband is such a bad character,” Ed did a quick calculation. “You still have money coming, Jesse. I’ll just put this against it.”

“Thanks, Ed,” Jesse readjusted the piece of glass. She wanted a firm grip on it before she left the store. “You order the lumber for your add-on, yet.”

“Yep, sent the order to Bozeman a couple days ago. Miles wasn’t too happy to hear he’d have to wait ’til mine was filled. Seems he was hoping that there fella could start building right away.”

“Who is he, anyway?” Jesse asked.

“Miles called him a, what was it now. Some fancy name, oh yeah, an arc-e-tech. Came all the way from Denver.”

“Um,” Jesse rolled the word around on her tongue, “arc-e-tech. Wonder what that fancy word means.”

“Somebody who makes buildings, I reckon,” Ed muttered as he replaced the ledger.

“I reckon.”

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

“Glad I caught you, Jesse.”

“Something wrong, Billie?” Jesse was putting away her tools after installing the new window pane when the sheriff came looking for her.

“Wanted to tell ya that I talked to a couple of the Rocking B boys this morning.” Conrad Billingsley’s Rocking B ranch was one of the oldest and the biggest ranch in the valley.

“They said that lot’s more rain fell in the mountains last night. ‘Xpect the rivers to start rising sometime today. Thought you’d want to keep a lookout for high water seeing how the river is so near your place.”

Jesse heart dropped into her boots and she gasped as if someone had slammed a fist into her stomach.

“Hey, you okay?” Billie was troubled by the look of pure panic spreading across Jesse’s face.

“I’ve got to get back to the ranch,” Jesse told him as she ran off the porch. Moments later she and Dusty were galloping out of town.

“What bit her in the butt?” Bette Mae asked the sheriff at Jesse’s sudden departure.

“Don’t know,” Billie looked after his friend. “Think maybe I’ll ride out to the ranch, just to be sure.”

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

“Well, that’s the last of them,” Jennifer pulled a pale yellow dress with a flowery pattern from a box. She stepped into the dress and pulled it up her slender body.

“I don’t know, dear,” Mary scrutinized the fit of the dress. “I’m not sure that this one is any better than the others.”

“My measurements couldn’t have change that much.,” Jennifer looked in the full length mirror that stood in the corner of the house. The dress bagged around her waist and was a good half foot too short. “And, I certainly didn’t grow since we were in Bannack.”

“My,” Mary said as she tested the length of the dress sleeves, “her talent as a dressmaker is somewhat lacking. This work would never have been accepted back home.”

“Maybe that’s why she moved west,” disgusted, Jennifer removed the dress and placed it with the others on the bed. She retrieved her denim pants and pulled them on. She was buttoning up her shirt when the door burst open.

“Jennifer,” Jesse shouted.

KC, playing on the floor, jumped as Jesse charged into the room. The commotion scared the baby and she began to howl.

“Jesse, what’s wrong?” Jennifer was so surprised at Jesse’s sudden entrance, she nearly fell before she managed to steady herself with her cane.

“You’re here,” Jesse bent to pick up KC, the baby sobbing loudly.

“Where else would we be?” Jennifer asked.

“You didn’t go down to the river today, did you?” Jesse was rubbing the baby’s back attempting to calm her.

“Well, we were going to,” Jennifer admitted. “But, then, I remembered my promise to you that we would stay near the house.”

Jesse let out the breath she had been holding since leaving town as she dropped into the rocking chair, her arms encircling KC. “It’s okay, sunshine,” she soothed the baby. “Mommy didn’t mean to scare you.”

“She’s not the only one you scared,” Jennifer scolded. “Mind telling us just what that was about.”

Jesse shrugged, sheepishly. “I just had a feeling something bad was going to happen today. Then, when Billie told me what he did. Well, I know how much you like to walk down to the river in the afternoon. And, I just… I guess I just figured that if somethin’ was bound to happen, that would be it.”

“Sweetheart, what in blazes are you talking about?” Jennifer walked over and caressed Jesse’s cheek, “take a deep breath and tell me what happened.”

Jesse did as she was told, and started again. “Billie said that there had been a lot more rain in the hills last night than what we got here in the valley. And, he said, that the rivers were probably going to be rising, causing some flooding. Well, I thought that if you went down to the river like you like to do,” the words rushed out in a torrent of their own.

“You thought we might get trapped by high water?” Jennifer asked, softly.

Jesse nodded.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Jennifer lifted the baby from Jesse’s lap and took her place. “I promised to stay here and I would never break a promise I made to you.”

“I….,” tears started to pour out of Jesse’s eyes. “I was so scared, darlin’. I thought that was what the bad feeling was about. I had to know.”

Jennifer kissed Jesse’s wet cheeks, “I understand. I would have done the same thing under the circumstances,” she pulled Jesse’s arms around herself and KC.

“Mommy,” KC reached for Jesse, a sad look on her miniature face.

“It’s alright, sweetie,” Jennifer kissed the top of KC’s head. “Mommy is okay. She was just worried about us, like any good mommy would be.”

Jesse remained silent as the adrenaline drained from her body leaving her feeling exhausted. “Guess I kinda over-reacted,” she smiled weakly.

“Nah,” Jennifer kissed her on the forehead. “You just love us.”

“I must say,” Mary finally got over the shock of the rancher’s sudden appearance. “It is extremely exciting around you two.”

Jennifer looked at her mother then at Jesse. Both women broke into giggles. KC, happy to see her mommies smiling again, joined them.

After several minutes, Jesse realized that there were dresses and undergarments strewn about the room. “What have you two been up to?”

Jennifer started to remove herself from Jesse’s lap but Jesse held her tight, “I decided I should try on the dresses we bought in Bannack. Good thing I did.”

“Don’t you like them?” Jesse asked hearing Jennifer’s tone. She had spent a lot of money to have the dresses made and shipped to Sweetwater. If there was a problem, she wanted to know.

“Not a single one fits,” Jennifer proclaimed. “They’re worse than the wedding dress.” Jennifer had discovered the wedding dress they brought back from Bannack needed major alterations and if it hadn’t been for Ruthie, a talented seamstress that worked at the Slipper, she would not have been able to wear the dress for their ceremony.

“Guess I’ll be sending a letter to Mrs. Thompson,” Jesse growled.

“There’s something else you need to know about the Thompsons,” Jennifer said cautiously, knowing Jesse was not going to take the news kindly. “Mr. Thompson is the one who told my father where to find me.”

Jesse said nothing but her jaw muscles tensed and the veins in her neck began to pop out. That was the man behind all the pain Jennifer has suffered. Mr. Thompson would be receiving more than a letter from Jesse. Oh yes, much more.

“Sweetheart, would you please breathe before you pass out,” Jennifer watched her lover’s face change various shades of color as the anger built inside her. She guessed correctly that if she and KC weren’t occupying Jesse’s lap, the rancher would have been on her way to Bannack already. “He’s not worth it, Jesse. Let it go,” she said, quietly.

“He hurt you,” Jesse hissed.

“I know, sweetheart,” Jennifer gently kissed her agitated wife. “But, I’m alright now. If you go after him, I’ll just be hurt all over again.”

Jesse stared into Jennifer’s eyes. She loved this woman so much. She never wanted to do anything to hurt her. “Alright,” she nodded. “I’ll let it be.”

Jennifer smiled, “good girl”.

“For now,” Jesse got in the last word.

Meanwhile, down by the river, the pine tree that Jesse, Jennifer and KC liked to sit under when they took their afternoon walks, was undercut by a current swollen with the recent rain. Slowly, tilting until it could no longer hold itself upright, the tree crashed into the rushing water and was rapidly carried downstream. The river bank vanishing under the churning flow until nothing was left of their favorite picnic spot.

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

When Billie rode up, he found Dusty standing in front of the ranch house, her reins hanging loose in the dirt and the door to the house standing wide open. Billie cautiously dismounted, pulling his pistol from it’s holster as he stepped onto the porch. “Everything alright,” Billie called guardedly into the house, the gun ready for use.

“Everything’s okay,” Jesse called back as she continued to change KC’s britches. “Come on inside.” The women had heard Billie’s horse when it entered the yard. Looking out a window, they had seen Billie and gave little thought to his unexpected arrival.

“Billie,” Jennifer peeked out the door. “Goodness, put away that gun before you hurt somebody.”

Billie poked his head through the door opening,

Jesse patted KC on her padded rear end, “there you are, sunshine. All nice and dry again.”

“Dow,” KC asked for help getting off the bed.

Jesse took hold of the baby’s arms and dropped her safely onto the floor. KC crawled immediately for her toy box.

“Well, come on in,” Jesse repeated as she placed the soiled diaper in the wash basket. Billie still stood outside the door, mouth agape. “What’s wrong, you never seen a diaper changed before?”

“Damn, Jesse,” Billie said as he holstered the pistol and stepped inside. “The way you lit out of town, I thought maybe Jennifer or KC were in trouble.”

“What?” Jesse looked confused until she remembered the manner in which she had left Sweetwater. “Oh, sorry, ’bout that.”

Mary started to chuckle as she cut vegetables for the stew Jennifer was preparing for supper. “Never a dull moment with you two, is there.”

“Hush, mother,” Jennifer playfully swatted at her with a towel. “Staying for supper, Billie?” Jennifer asked, casually.

“Well,” Billie continued to look confused at the happy family scene before him. “I guess,” he shook his head. “But, only if you bother tellin’ me what happened.”

“Go on and sit down, Billie,” Jesse laughed as she filled two cups with fresh brewed coffee from the pot. She joined the sheriff at the table and began to tell him why she had ridden out of town like someone had lit her on fire.

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

“So, none of the dresses fit,” Billie asked as he finished off his second piece of apple pie.

“Not a single one. I’ll have to ask Ruthie if she’ll mind fixing them,” Jennifer poured coffee into Jesse’s empty cup. “I probably should of had her sew them in the first place.”

“Thanks, darlin’,” Jesse rolled an idea around in her head as she sipped the hot liquid. “You know,” she drawled, “that may not be such a bad idea.”

“What?” Jennifer asked, feeding a small bite of pie to KC.

“Yum. Mo’,” KC held onto the fork as if more pie would magically appear on it.

“Having Ruthie sew your dresses.”

“You lost me, sweetheart,” Jennifer pulled the fork from KC’s grasp.

“Much as I hate to admit it,” Jesse started to explain. “Sweetwater is beginning to grow. Ed’s going to add on to the store and Mayor Perkins is opening a bank.”

“He is,” Jennifer interrupted. Jesse hadn’t had time to tell her wife about her earlier conversation with Ed.

“There’ll be more folks in town. Women aren’t going to be willing to travel to Bozeman or wait for the freight wagons every time they need a new dress or their young ‘uns need clothes.”

“What are you suggesting?” Billie asked as he took a gulp of coffee.

“Opening a dress shop.”

Billie choked on his coffee, “you plannin’ to take up sewing, Jesse.”

“No,” she scowled at the sheriff. “I was thinkin’ that Ruthie might be interested.”

“That’s a wonderful idea, sweetheart,” Jennifer enthusiastically agreed.

“That’s a nice thought, Jesse. But, Ruthie can’t afford anythin’ like that.”

“Wasn’t expectin’ her to pay for it, Billie,” Jesse told the man who was sweet on the shy girl who worked for her. “We’d set up the shop,” Jesse told her friend. “All she’d have to do, is the sewing.”

“I don’t know,” Billie knew how shy Ruthie was. But, it would be nice to see her doing something she enjoyed instead of working at the Slipper. Not that Jesse hadn’t been more than generous with her. “Guess it wouldn’ hurt none to ask her.”

“We could use your office at the Slipper,” Jennifer said. “You barely use it anymore.”

After convincing Jesse to let her help with the Slipper’s bookwork, Jennifer had moved most of the ledgers and other records to the ranch house so she could do the books at home. The office was only used now for Jesse to catch up on reading the Sweetwater Gazette or to go through any mail that might come.

“It’s kinda dark in there for sewing, don’t you think?” Mary asked.

“Guess we could put in some more windows,” Jesse hadn’t really thought about converting her office into a dress shop but it did make sense to use the idle space. “Be obliged if you didn’t mention this to Ruthie, Billie. I want to give it some more thought. We’ll talk to Ruthie and Bette Mae next time we’re in town.”

“Sure, Jesse.”

“Mommy,” KC looked sleepily at Jesse, “seep.”

“Guess it is past your bedtime, sunshine,” Jesse lifted the baby from the highchair.

“Time for me to be gettin’ back to town,” Billie stood. “Thanks for supper, Jennifer.”

“You’re welcome any time Billie,” Jennifer handed the sheriff his hat. “Come by more often.”

“Goodnight, Miss Mary,” Billie nodded to Jennifer’s mother. “‘Night, Jesse.”

“I’ll walk you out, Billie,” Jesse kissed the top of KC’s head before passing the tired baby to Jennifer. “I need to check on the horses.”

“I’ll come, too,” Mary gave Jennifer and KC goodnight kisses. “If you’ll be so kind as to walk me to the cabin, Jesse.”

“Glad to, Mary,” Jesse held the door open. “Be right back, darlin’.”

By the time Jesse returned to the house, KC was fast asleep in her crib and Jennifer was soaking in the tub.

“Better hurry before the water gets cold, sweetheart,” Jennifer purred as clothes began to fly around the room.

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

Bette Mae had just placed Ed’s breakfast in front of him when the door to the Slipper opened and a nattily dressed man entered the dining room.

“I’m looking for the proprietor,” the man announced pretentiously.

“Jesse ain’t here,” Bette Mae filled Ed’s cup with hot coffee. “Somethin’ I can’s help ya with?”

“I sincerely doubt it,” the man sneered. “When can I expect him to arrive?”

Bette Mae examined the man standing before her. He wasn’t very tall, barely coming up to her chin, and she wasn’t a tall woman. He had dark hair with a handlebar mustache to match. His eyes narrowed to slits as he observed the woman analyzing him.

“He is a she,” Bette Mae said slowly. “And, when Jesse comes to town is her business. Now, you interestin’ in havin’ breakfast or ya just goin’ stand there wastin’ my time.”

“Eat. HERE. I think not,” the man shuddered at the thought, ignoring what Bette Mae had said about Jesse.

“Then, I s’gest ya turn around and walk your uppity butt back outside. You’s scarin’ my customers.”

The man looked around the dining room where several of the tables were occupied with folks eating their morning meal, many of them sniggering at him. He took a deep breath, holding it for a moment before releasing it. Then, he turned and left the Slipper.

“Looks like Mayor Perkins done got him some competition for town’s most pompous ass,” Bette Mae observed as she made her way back to the kitchen. Hearty laughter erupting among the diners.

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

“So, who was he?” Jesse asked.

After spending the past several days at the ranch, Jesse and Jennifer decided a trip to town was in order. Mary had asked to accompany them. Their first stop had been to the Slipper to check in with Bette Mae, who now was telling of the strange visitor she’d had.

“Didn’ say,” Bette Mae told the women. “Jus’ said he wanted ta talk to the proprietor. Said it like he was real important, he did.” It wasn’t hard for Jesse and Jennifer to figure Bette Mae disliked the man.

“Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait until he comes back when I’m here. Or, Jennifer.”

“Plan ta do som’ work in the office?” Bette Mae asked, she didn’t care if the dandy ever returned.

“Nope,” Jesse said.

“Got shoppin’ to do?”

“Nope.”

“Jennifer workin’ at the schoolhouse?”

“Nope.”

“Then what did ya com’ all the way inta town for?”

“Well,” Jesse drew out her response just to frustrate her friend. “We were kinda hopin’ to talk with you.”

“And, Ruthie,” Jennifer added.

“Oh, lordy,” Bette Mae exclaimed. “What trouble ya got yourselves into now?”

Jesse laughed, “no trouble, Bette Mae. Just find Ruthie and come into the office.”

“Alrighty,” Bette Mae said, “but I do not trust you Jesse Marie.”

“Ooh,” Jennifer teased Jesse, wiggling a finger in her face. “You’re in trouble now.”

“Ha, ha,” Jesse brushed the finger aside. “Mary, you’re welcome to come into the office, too.”

“Thank you, Jesse,” Mary smiled. “But, I think I’ll sit out here.”

“It shouldn’t take long, mother,” Jennifer said.

“You take all the time you want,” Mary assured the women. “I’ll be fine. Would you like me to watch KC for you?”

“Well,” Jesse hesitated. Since Jennifer’s kidnapping, KC had refused to be out of sight of her mothers. “Sunshine, do you want to stay with grandma while mamma and I go in there?” Jesse pointed to her office door.

“No,” KC vigorously shook her head. “Mommy, no.”

“Sorry, Mary,” Jesse apologized.

“It’s okay, Jesse,” Mary patted the rancher’s arm. “She needs to feel she’s safe, with her mothers.”

“Ah, Jesse, there you are,” Mayor Perkins entered the Slipper, followed close behind by another man. “I thought that was your wagon outside.”

“Miles,” Jesse acknowledged the mayor.

“Jesse, I’d like to introduce Mr. Tobias Harrington,” the mayor motioned the other man forward.

“That’s him, Jesse,” Bette Mae came out of the kitchen door with Ruthie in tow.

“You are the proprietor of this establishment?” Harrington looked at Jesse, perplexed. When Mayor Perkins had told him the Silver Slipper’s owner was a Jesse Branson, he had assumed the owner to be a man.

“If you mean, do we own the Slipper, the answer is yes, we own her,” Jesse included Jennifer.

“I wasn’t expecting a woman.”

“Do you have a problem with that?” Jesse dared the man to answer in the affirmative.

Thinking for moment, Harrington decided not to answer the intimidating, and quite tall, woman’s question. “I have a proposition for you,” Harrington stated. “I expect you have somewhere private we can talk.”

“We have an office,” Jesse told the man. “if’n we were wanting to talk to you, privately.”

“Very good,” Harrington gestured for the mayor to lead the way, “shall we.”

“Yes, yes, very good,” Mayor Perkins pointed to the office door, “this way.”

“Bring us some coffee,” Harrington ordered Bette Mae. Before she could respond, Jesse had stepped in front of the men, blocking their path.

Sensing Jesse was ready to throw the men out of the Slipper by the seats of their pants, or worse, Jennifer spoke before her wife had a chance. “Mr. Harrington, we are not accustomed to treating our staff, who are also our friends, so rudely. Perhaps, if you wish to have some coffee, it would be better for you to ask for a cup.”

“I don’t have all day, Perkins,” Harrington tried to brush Jesse aside but she refused to move and there was no way the small man was going to make her.

“Jesse, please,” the mayor pleaded. “Just a few minutes of your time.”

By now, Jesse had no inclination to listen to what the arrogant man and mayor had to say but Jennifer was curious. “Perhaps, we could give them five minutes,” she said to Jesse.

“We have other business to attend to today, so this better not be a waste of our time,” Jesse glared at the men. “Forget about the coffee, Bette Mae,” Jesse said. “They won’t be here long enough to drink it.”

“That suits me jus’ fine,” Bette Mae nodded.

“Alright, Perkins, you have five minutes.” Jesse turned and walked to the office door, she held it open for Jennifer to enter.

“Business is with you,” Harrington stated.

Jesse had had all she was going to take off this self-important man. “Look, mister,” she growled, “I don’t know who you are or what you want. But, you want to talk business about the Slipper, then you talk to me and Jennifer, or leave, now.”

“And, don’ let the door hit ya in the arse on the way out,” Bette Mae muttered on her way back into the kitchen.

“Come on, Tobias,” Mayor Perkins pulled Harrington towards the Slipper’s office. “I told you they were partners.”

Harrington reluctantly followed the mayor. If he hadn’t been under orders from his bosses to quickly complete the offer on the Slipper, he would have turned on his heel and left rather than continue dealing with these women..

Once the office door was shut and Jennifer, now holding KC, was seated comfortably in the chair behind the desk, Jesse demanded, “what the hell do you want?”

“Miss Branson,” Harrington began.

“Mrs.,” Jesse corrected.

“If you are married,” Harrington stammered, “I should be talking with your husband.”

Mayor Perkins looked like he had swallowed something bad for breakfast and was seeking the quickest way to be rid of it. “I explained all of this to you, Tobias. Jesse and Jennifer are married.”

Harrington looked at the women, then at the mayor, “how is that possible?”

“Doesn’t matter,” Jesse said. “It is. We are. So, deal with it.”

“Mr. Harrington,” Jennifer smiled pleasantly at the annoying man and asked, “did you wish to discuss something with us, or not?”

“Go on,” Mayor Perkins urged.

Realizing he had no options if he was to carry out his employers’ orders, Harrington started, “I represent a group of investors in the east. They have plans for the town of Sweetwater and they wish to purchase your establishment.”

“No,” Jesse and Jennifer said at the same time.

“Excuse me,” Harrington demanded.

“The Silver Slipper is not for sale,” Jennifer explained.

“I am authorized to make you a rather generous offer,” Harrington began.

“As my wife said,” Jesse walked to the office door and opened it. “The Slipper is not for sale. Not for any price. Not at any time. And, especially, not to you. Good day, gentlemen,” she waited for the mayor and Harrington to leave.

“You are making a big mistake,” Harrington protested, this was not going at all as he expected.

“GET OUT!” Jesse demanded.

After Harrington and the mayor left, Jennifer patiently watched Jesse storm about the office until the steam she had built up over Harrington’s attitude finally abated.

“Mommy owie?,” KC asked Jennifer.

“No, sweetie,” Jennifer told the baby. “She’s just upset over the way that man talked.”

“Man, ugh,” KC replied.

“Yes, sweetie,” Jennifer chuckled at her daughter’s insightfulness. “He definitely was ugh.”

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

“This is going to cost my employers money they weren’t expecting to spend,” Tobias Harrington was pacing around Mayor Perkins office.

“I told you she was a stubborn woman,” Perkins protested. “They can build another boarding house.”

“Of course, they’ll build another one,” Harrington stormed. “They just didn’t want to go to that expense at this time. The Silver Slipper is already operating, it would have saved time and money if that woman would have accepted their offer. Her refusal will not make them happy. I’ll just have to go back and talk to her. Make her understand that there are changes coming to this town. Important changes.”

“You won’t change her mind,” the mayor shook his head. “She runs that place like those women were her family.”

“All whores from what I hear,” Harrington stopped pacing and looked out the office window to the building at the edge of town. “Decent people shouldn’t have to do business with whores. And, what about the relationship between those Branson women?” he turned to face the mayor. “Indecent, if you ask me. How could you allow something like that to take place?”

The mayor stayed silent rather than tell his new business partner that he had not only allowed it but had performed the wedding ceremony.

“Down right indecent,” Harrington repeated. “It appears I have no choice but to return to the east and inform my employers of this unfortunate development. What time does the next stage leave?”

In the adjoining office, Thaddeus Newby thanked the stars for the thin wall between his office and the mayor’s. From his desk, he pulled a clean piece of paper and began to quickly jot down a message to a newspaper friend in Denver. Thaddeus sealed the note in an envelope and addressed it, then stood and picked up his hat from the corner of the desk. He hurried from his office, the stage was due soon and he wanted to be sure his letter was on the coach when it left town.

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

Once Jesse had calmed down, Jennifer asked Bette Mae and Ruthie to come into the office. Jesse was slumped in the armchair, still simmering over Harrington. KC was busily crawling around Jesse’s chair and climbing under and over her mother’s long legs. Jennifer sat at the desk while she explained their idea of a dress shop to the women seated on the couch.

“Well, lordy,” Bette exclaimed. “That is a right fine idea.”

“I don’t know, Miss Jennifer,” Ruthie said shyly, looking down at the floor. “I don’t think I could… Well, I…”

Ruthie wasn’t much older than Jennifer but had seen a much different side of life growing up. Shortly after her fifteenth birthday, she had been forced into a life of prostitution when her mother died and her father abandoned her. Her face bore the scars of being sliced by a customer that had wanted more than Ruthie was willing to give.

Jennifer knelt in front of Ruthie, she tenderly placed a hand on the girl’s knee. “I know you’re self-conscious about your scars,” Jennifer stopped Ruthie’s hand from instinctively covering her face. “But, you are a very pretty girl and a very talented seamstress. And, I know that you’d rather make dresses than work in the kitchen. You’ve told me that, yourself. Jesse and I don’t want you to do this unless you want to.”

Ruthie thought about what Jennifer said. It was true, she did like sewing a lot better than working in the Slipper’s kitchen and serving folks their meals. But, she felt uncomfortable whenever people stared at the scars the bastard had left on her.

“Can’t hardly see them scars anymore, Ruthie,” Bette Mae said, softly. She had been so frightened when she’d heard Ruthie crying for help that night. She had hurried to the girl’s room to find the man straddling Ruthie on the bed, his arm raised in preparation of driving the bloodied knife down into the girl’s chest. Without hesitation, Bette Mae had pointed and fired the gun she’d grabbed when she’d heard the screams.

Ruthie had refused to be with any other men after that night and was sure she’d be told to leave by the Slipper’s owner. But a few days later, Jesse arrived having won the Slipper in a poker game. She not only kept Ruthie on but had paid for her to go to Bozeman and see a doctor.

“If you decide you can’t do it,” Jesse assured the girl, “you just say so.”

“Alright, Miss Jesse,” Ruthie agreed. “I’d like to try,” Ruthie smiled, valiantly, at Jennifer.

“Good,” Jennifer pushed herself upright off the floor.

“So’s, where you plannin’ to build this dress shop?” Bette asked.

“Well, actually,” Jennifer returned to the chair behind the desk, “we thought we’d do it here.”

“Here?”

“In this room.”

Bette Mae looked around the office. The room’s few furnishings consisted of the couch she and Ruthie now occupied, a small table beside it, the desk placed in the center of the room, the small armchair Jesse was slouched in, a liquor cabinet that was unused, and a set of shelves behind the desk. It wouldn’t take much to convert the room into a sewing room for Ruthie. Only one problem she could see, the room was windowless.

“Might dark in here, don’ ya think,” Bette Mae voiced the obvious.

“Figured I’d use Harrington’s head and knock a hole or two in the walls,” Jesse grunted, her lips twitching as she tried not to smile.

“Bet ya’d like that,” Bette Mae returned the playful jab. At least, she hoped Jesse was only kidding.

KC climbed as far up Jesse’s leg as should could, “mommy, up.”

Jesse pulled the baby the rest of the way to her lap, “getting tired, sunshine?”

“Moo,” KC yawned.

“Well, unless there’s anything more to discuss,” Jesse placed a protective hand on KC’s back as the sleepy baby snuggled against her chest. “Jennifer and I will make arrangements with Ed to order the windows.”

“We’ll see if he has any catalogs, Ruthie” Jennifer said. “So, you can start ordering dress material and other supplies.”

Ruthie blanched at the thought of accepting such responsibility.

“Don’t worry, Ruthie,” Jennifer quickly added as she saw the girl’s reaction. “Jesse and I will help you.”

“Come on, Ruthie,” Bette Mae stood. “Let’s go git my littl’ angel some milk so’s she can take a nap. Ya can worry ’bout bein’ a high and mighty seamstress after you git them ‘taters peeled.”

After Bette Mae and Ruthie left, Jennifer dropped onto the couch. Jesse carried KC over and joined her.

“Some morning, huh?” Jennifer asked as KC switched laps. She leaned against Jesse and felt the warmth of the rancher’s arm draped over her shoulders.

“I’ll say,” Jesse sighed.

“Sweetheart, why do you think Harrington’s investors are interested in Sweetwater?”

“Pompous ass,” Jesse growled, before she answered. “Probably has something to do with the mines.”

“How’s that?”

“Takes a lot of money to get the ore out of the ground,” Jesse explained. “Investors back east have that kind of money.”

“But, what would they be doing in Sweetwater? The mines are all in the mountains.”

“Well,” Jesse leaned back and got comfortable. “When a mine hits pay dirt, eastern investors send their errand boys to sniff around like buzzards on a carcass.”

“You mean, like Harrington?”

“Yep. They offer the claim owner a fraction of the mines anticipated value.”

“Why would they accept so little?”

“Like I said, it takes lots of money to turn a pile of rocks into a gold brick. Men who stake the original claims and do the work to find the ore, don’t have it. So, when a vein is struck, they sell out. They get a lot more than they ever dreamed of and the investors get the future profits.

“But, that doesn’t explain why they’d be interested in the Slipper.”

“To make the mine pay, they have to bring in machinery, stamp mills, processors, stuff like that. To get that equipment to the mines, they have to build roads. They’ll bring in mining engineers, assayers, men to build the roads and take care of the ore wagons and mining equipment. Those men will need somewhere to stay until lodging can be built closer to the mines. The investors will want to come and see what their money is being spent on and they’ll need a place to stay.”

“They can stay at the Slipper even if we own it, can’t they?”

“Yes, but the investors like to own what they use. That way, they keep more of the money. Probably why Perkins got the bank charter. My guess is that Harrington’s investors will also own the bank. All those men will need to get paid and it wouldn’t be too safe bringing the payroll in from Bozeman every month.”

“Can’t they just build their own rooming house?”

“Probably will since we turned down their offer. Just would have been cheaper for them to buy the Slipper.”

Jennifer considered all that Jesse had just told her. “Town is really going to grow, isn’t it?”

“‘Fraid so,” Jesse sighed.

Bette Mae came into the office carrying a tray. Along with a pitcher of milk and glasses, the tray held a plate of sandwiches and another of cookies, straight out of the oven.

“Thought, ya’d might be hungry,” Bette Mae said as she set the tray down on the desk. She filled a baby bottle with milk and brought it to KC, “there ya go, angel.”

KC hungrily grabbed the bottle and laid back in Jennifer’s arms, sucking happily.

“That’s a right nice thing ya is doin’ for Ruthie,” Bette Mae told the women.

“Thanks, Bette Mae,” Jennifer watched KC, making sure she didn’t try to drink too fast. “Would you ask mother to join us?”

“She said ta tell ya she’d be back in a bit,” Bette Mae informed her.

“Oh,” Jennifer was surprised. “I wonder where she went.”

“Headed down to Ed’s,” Bette Mae said as she left the room.

“Uh, I wonder what she’s up to,” Jennifer wondered out loud.

“Maybe she just wanted to stretch her legs,” Jesse offered.

“Maybe.”

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

Mary took the envelope out of her bag and turned it over in her hands. She again debated whether or not she should she send it or leave well enough alone. She had been saddened by Jennifer’s memories of a childhood devoid of any affection from her brothers. Maybe it wasn’t too late to right the wrong she had allowed her husband to commit by passing his views of women onto their sons. ‘Yes,’ she thought, ‘she had to try.’

With her decision made, Mary told Bette Mae she was going to go for a short walk and left the Silver Slipper. Not wanting to ask Bette Mae where to post the letter and give away her intentions, Mary headed for the general store. Certainly, the storekeeper could help her.

“Why, sure,” Ed replied when Mary asked for his help. “Mail goes out on the stage. You can drop your letter over at the depot.”

“When is the next stage?”

“Well, let’s see,” Ed pulled a pocket watch from his shirt pocket and took a look at the time. “Should be coming in ’bout two hours. That is, if it’s on time. Most days it runs late. Would you like me to take it over for you?” Ed offered. “I was fixin’ to walk over in another few minutes myself.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to be a bother,” Mary said, but the idea of Ed posting the letter instead of her made some sense. If Jennifer saw her going into the small adobe building, she would most definitely have questions.

“No bother at all,” Ed replied. “I have a few letters to post myself, got some orders to send to my suppliers in Bozeman. So, I can toss yours on the pile.”

“Thank you,” Mary told the helpful storekeeper.

Mary returned to the Slipper just as Jennifer came out of the office.

“Mother,” Jennifer was relieved to see the older woman. “I was just going to go search for you. Why did you need to go off by yourself? You’re not used to being out west.”

“Why, child,” Mary laughed, “I’m quite capable of walking around this quaint, little town all by myself.”

“I know, mother,” Jennifer stammered, slightly embarrassed, “I was just worried.”

“Ah, good, you’re back,” Jesse came out of the office with KC.

“Grmm,” KC grinned, cookie crumbs smeared across her face.

“Time we started back to the ranch,” Jesse informed Jennifer and Mary.

“I’ll just get my coat,” Mary hurried off before Jennifer could ask any more about the purpose of her walk.

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

“You’re own shop,” Billie was sitting with Ruthie in the Slipper’s dining room. Ruthie had just told him of the offer from Jesse and Jennifer. Keeping his word to Jesse he didn’t mention he already knew of the plan. “Jesse is supplying everything?”

“And, Miss Jennifer,” Ruthie reminded him.

“I can’t believe it,” Billie whistled. “That’s a mighty fine thing for them to do.”

“I don’t know if I can do it, Billie,” Ruthie said, uneasily. Even though she had earlier agreed to the plan, she was having second thoughts.

“Why not, honey?” the sheriff asked. He smiled nervously, the use of the endearment still sounding strange to the couple. “It’s what we’ve talked about, if we ever had the money.”

“I know, Billie,” she reached up and touched the scars on her otherwise pretty face. “You know I don’t like people looking at them.”

Billie smiled at the woman he was falling in love with and pulled her hand away from her face. “Bette Mae is right, Ruth. They’ve faded to where you barely notice them. Besides, I think you’re the most beautiful woman in the entire valley,” he crowed.

“Miss Jesse and Miss Jennifer are the most beautiful,” Ruthie countered.

“Not to me, honey,” the sheriff took Ruthie’s hand and held it. “I think you should give it a try, Ruth. Jesse said you could say no at any time, right? What do you have to lose?”

Ruthie thought for a moment, “I guess it can’t hurt to try.”

“That’s my girl,” Billie said proudly. “Now, would you give me the honor of buying you dinner?”

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

After arriving back at the ranch, the women spent a few hours working in the garden. While her mothers and grandmother weeded and tended the rows of vegetables, KC plucked flowers and played in the dirt. It wasn’t long before the baby was covered from head to toe in grime. Mary returned to her cabin to rest before supper while Jesse and Jennifer gave the baby a bath.

“More coffee, Jesse?” Jennifer filled her own cup as she watched KC splashing happily in the tub.

“Nope, darlin’,” Jesse smiled. “Think I’ll go check on the horses. Might as well take the buckets with me, I can refill them on the way,” she picked up the water buckets they would heat for their own bath later in the evening.

“Me, go?” KC asked when she saw Jesse reach for her stetson.

“Sorry, sunshine,” Jesse knelt down beside the tub. “Can’t carry you and the buckets. You stay here and keep an eye on your momma for me. Besides, we just got you clean.”

“Otay,” KC frowned, water dripping off her nose.

Jesse stood and pulled Jennifer to her, their lips met. “I’ll be back before you get the squirt dressed,” Jesse breathed into Jennifer’s mouth.

Jennifer felt her body react to Jesse, “maybe she’ll go to sleep early tonight.”

“Let’s hope so,” Jesse continued to hold Jennifer.

A knock on the cabin door interrupted the women.

“Who could that be?” Jennifer asked, knowing her mother would have said something after knocking.

“Don’t know,” Jesse was concerned that she hadn’t heard anyone approach the cabin. Whoever was at the door could be trouble. “Stay here with KC,” she told Jennifer before quickly crossing to the cabinet that held her weapons. She pulled a rifle from the rack and checked to make sure it was loaded. Then, she walked to the door.

“Who is it?” Jesse cautiously asked before opening the door.

“A friend,” came the reply.

“Damn, Walk,” Jesse quickly pulled the door open when she recognized the voice. “You gave me a scare.”

Jennifer, now with KC secure in her arms, watched Jesse open the door to reveal the Indian she had seen in town several days before. Jesse had told her the man was called Walks on the Wind in his language and that he was an old friend, having met during the years she had wandered the west before winning the Slipper in a Denver card game.

The man smiled and stretched out an arm which Jesse immediately clasped, “you must be getting old, Buffalo Heart. Even a young boy would have heard me from the time I put my horse in your corral.”

“Come in, old friend,” Jesse pulled the man into the cabin before releasing her grip. As she returned the rifle to the gun cabinet, she continued, “I figured you would be stopping by, after we saw you in town.”

“Momma, cold,” KC told Jennifer.

“Sorry, sweetie,” distracted by the man’s arrival, Jennifer forgot the baby in her arms was naked. “Come on, let’s get you dressed,” she started for the bed but Jesse stopped her.

“You have a family, Buffalo Heart,” Walks on the Wind commented.

“Yes,” Jesse smiled proudly. “This is my wife ,Jennifer, and this,” she took the baby from Jennifer, “this is our daughter, KC. Darlin’, this is my friend, Walks on the Wind.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Jennifer smiled. Though, nervous about the stranger, she trusted Jesse.

Walks on the Wind looked at Jennifer, then the baby. The resemblance was startling. “I knew you were of two spirits, Buffalo Heart, but I didn’t know you could make a baby.”

Jesse laughed as she handed KC back to Jennifer to dress, “I can’t. Here, sit,” she beckoned Walks on the Wind to a chair, “we found her after her folks were killed. When we couldn’t find any other family, we decided to raise her ourselves.”

Once dressed, KC asked to be put down on the floor, Jennifer complied. Without hesitation, KC crawled to Walks on the Wind and pulled herself upright on his leg. “Up,” she demanded.

The warrior cheerfully did as he was told and lifted KC into his lap. Jennifer’s fears for the baby’s safety quickly evaporated while she watched KC engage the man in a conversation of gibberish.

“Looks like KC has taken a likin’ to ya,” Jesse laughed as her daughter pointed and gestured. After a few minutes, she retrieved her daughter, “she’ll talk your ears off if you let her. Go on and play with your toys for a while,” she told KC as she placed her near the toy box. Returning her attention, to her friend, she said, “we were just gettin’ ready to prepare supper. You’ll join us?”

“I’d like that.”

“Good.”

“Hello,” Mary tapped on the cabin door.

“Come in, mother,” Jennifer called.

“Oh, my,” Mary gasped as she entered the cabin and spied the Indian.

“It’s alright, mother,” Jennifer took hold of her mother to reassure her. “This is Walks on the Wind, a friend of Jesse’s. He’s having supper with us.”

Walks on the Wind stood and held out a hand to Mary.

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

The women and their guest were finishing up their evening meal. KC was sitting in Mary’s lap fighting sleep.

“I must say, Walk,” Mary addressed the Indian as he had earlier asked. “Your English is, well…”

“Pretty good for an injun,” he finished for her.

“Well, yes…. I mean, no,” she was embarrassed to continue.

“It’s all right, Mrs. Kinsington,” he smiled to ease her embarrassment. “My mother married a English fur trapper, he taught me the language. And, I spent a couple of years at a missionary school.”

“I see,” Mary found that she liked the man. “So, you are part white?”

“No, the trapper was my mother’s second husband. My father was killed when I was a child. Fighting soldiers.”

“Oh. I am sorry.”

Feeling an uneasiness invade the room, Jennifer decided to change the subject, “why do you call Jesse, Buffalo Heart?”

“She’s never told you of her first buffalo hunt?”

“No.”

“And, I don’t think now is the time to start,” Jesse warned Walks on the Wind. “Come on, darlin’, help me clear the table.”

“No, I want to hear this,” Jennifer refused to budge from her chair. “Please,” she encouraged the man to continue.

Ignoring the looks he was receiving from Jesse, Walks on the Wind began the story.

“Buffalo Heart joined my people on a buffalo hunt. She was not much older than some of the young boys we had allowed to take part in their first hunt. And, like the boys, she wanted to prove she was as good or better than the seasoned hunters. So, she was determined to kill the largest bull in the herd. She tracked that bull for three days before she got close enough to shoot it and brought it down with one shot to the heart. Some of the young warriors were jealous and told her she had to rip the heart from the animal and eat it to prove her worth as a hunter. Buffalo Heart met their challenge.”

“Ugh,” KC yawned.

“You got that right, sunshine,” Jesse took the baby from Mary in order to rock her to sleep.

KC curled up in Jesse’s arms and promptly went to sleep. Seeing that the baby didn’t need rocking, she carried KC directly to her crib.

“The medicine woman gave her the name that night in a ceremony thanking our gods for a good hunt,” Walks on the Wind concluded the story.

“Most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten,” Jesse shivered at the memory.

“Okay,” Jennifer held up her hands, “I don’t want to hear any more details.”

“I agree,” Mary looked as if her supper was trying to make a reappearance.

Jesse and Walks on the Wind began to laugh.

“So, what brings you to Sweetwater,” Jesse asked her friend. “It’s a bit out of you way, isn’t it.”

“I came to ask you to join us on our hunt this season.”

Every summer, Walks on the Wind’s tribe left their homeland in the west and traveled over the mountains to the buffalo herds east of the Rocky Mountains. Hunting the buffalo provided the meat the tribe needed to survive the winter.

“Sorry, Walk,” Jesse returned to the table. “I have my family now. Can’t take the chance on something happening to me.”

Jennifer was disappointed that Jesse declined the offer. She would have loved to have the opportunity to see the large animals she had read about. But, she appreciated that Jesse put her family well being first.

“We are traveling on the southern trail,” Walks on the Wind told Jesse. He hoped Buffalo Heart would change her mind and join the hunt.

Later that night, blankets were spread on the cabin floor in front of the kitchen fireplace to provide Walks on the Wind a comfortable place to sleep. When Jesse awoke the next morning, her friend was gone.

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

PART 3

The stagecoach left Denver at sunrise with three passengers. Just before nightfall, the horse team was pulled to a stop at the overnight stop. The men inside were relieved that the first day of their journey was over.

At the best of times, traveling by stagecoach was never pleasant. If the road was wet, mud would be thrown everywhere, caking into globs of sticky goo. If it was dry, dust would coat the horses, coach, baggage and passengers without prejudice. Either way, the coach’s canvas window covers were almost always tied down to protect the passengers as much as possible. The curtains did help keep the mud and dust out but they also kept the heat and stall air in, making for steam bath conditions inside the coach.

Stage roads were seldom more than ruts littered with potholes and rocks, causing the stage to lurch violently as it raced over the obstacles. On the rare occasion that the stage traveled along a relatively smooth stretch of road, the coach would still swayed robustly. No matter the road conditions, the passengers inside were continually thrown against one another and the sides of the racing coach. Any attempts at carrying on a conversation while the stagecoach was in motion were quickly abandoned when passengers found all their energy was required just to maintain their seats.

Thus, it was that the three passengers had spent an entire day together with no more than a nod of the head between them.

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

“We’re leaving tomorrow.” Martin Kinsington stood in the small parlor of his house, his three sons standing in various positions around him. He had just informed them of his plans to return to Montana and, with the help of his sons, force Jennifer back home. His wife would also be brought back to his house and would return to her proper duties. Once he had the women where they belonged, he would make new arrangements for a marriage of Jennifer that would benefit his company.

“Father, I don’t think that is wise,” Thomas, his eldest son said.

“And, why not?” Kinsington bellowed. “Am I to leave my wife and daughter in the hands of that bitch? That outlaw?”

His son continued as calmly as possible, “that is not what I’m suggesting. I just think that there are better ways to handle this.”

“Such as?”

“I don’t know,” when he saw the look of contempt flash across his father’s face, Thomas quickly continued, “give me time to make inquiries into the matter.”

“No,” Kinsington barked, “they belong here. I will not allow them to defy me one more day.”

“But, father,” William, his youngest son injected, “did you not say that you were allowed to leave Montana Territory only because you swore you would never return.”

“Do you expect me to be held to such an oath?”

“It is legally binding,” Thomas asserted.

“There is nothing about that god forsaken land that is legal,” Kinsington stormed. “If there had been any law, that bitch would have been sent to prison for causing Barrish’s death and your sister and mother would be here, as they should be.”

“I don’t think that is necessarily the case,” Thomas countered.

“Besides,” Howard, the middle son added, “sounds to me like Jennifer is pretty happy where she is. Why should we interfere?”

Martin’s head whipped around to look at his son. Thomas and William exchanged fearful glances, knowing that their brother had just let their secret out.

“How…do…you…know…that?” Kinsington asked, his words deliberate and his anger barely contained.

“Damn,” Howard muttered.

“Answer…me.”

“We received a letter from mother,” Thomas revealed.

“You what?” Kinsington boiled at the information. “And, you chose to keep this from me.”

“She asked us to.”

“Since when do you let a woman tell you what to do?” Kinsington stormed.

“Calm down, father,” Howard spoke, an action he would quickly regret when his father’s large hand struck him across the face, knocking him backwards.

“Father, stop,” Thomas grabbed his father’s arm while William knelt to check on Howard.

Thomas Kinsington had not inherited his father’s temper, but he had inherited his size and, after years of loading and unloading cargo from the family’s ships, he was more than a match for the large man. He easily resisted Martin’s attempts at breaking his hold.

“Let me go,” Kinsington screamed.

“I will as soon as you calm down,” Thomas tightened his grip. “How is he?” he asked his younger brother.

“Dazed, but he should be alright,” William told him. “He’s got a pretty nasty gash on the back of his head. Must of hit something when he fell.”

“Think you can get him to the doctor’s office by yourself?”

“Yes,” William helped his brother stand on wobbly legs. “You going to be alright?” he asked, concerned about leaving his eldest brother alone at this time.

“Yes, get him out of here.”

“We’ll be back as soon as we can,” William half-carried his brother to the door.

Martin watched dispassionately as his two youngest sons left the house. “I want to see the letter,” he demanded of the son who still held him.

“No,” Thomas said, releasing his grip.

“Give me the letter.”

“I burned it.”

“Something else she asked you to do, I suppose,” Kinsington snarled

“Yes,” Thomas lied as he carefully sat on one of the delicate chairs that his mother had furnished the room with. “Sit down and we’ll talk.”

“With or without your help, I’m going back to Montana,” Martin proclaimed as he dropped into a matching chair, uncaring how his large stature strained the fragile frame.

Thomas remained silent. He studied the look of determination on his father’s face and knew that nothing he could say would change his mind. He thought of the letter he had received several weeks earlier from his mother, describing Jennifer’s life in Montana. He was still trying to understand the concept of his sister marrying another woman but from what his mother had written, Jennifer was happy and that was all that really mattered.

His mother had gone on to explain the events of his father’s trip to Montana. How he had attacked Jesse. How he had forced Andrew Barrish into helping him kidnap Jennifer. How Jennifer had been seriously injured during her unsuccessful attempt to protect the young man from the mountain lion. How his father had been arrested and was saved from being sent to prison only because Jennifer asked that he, instead, be forced to leave Montana Territory and told never to return.

Thomas compared the details in the letter to the version his father had told upon returning from Montana. It appeared his father had left out quite a few facts, especially his role in the tragic consequences that cost Andrew Barrish his life. He wondered what the cost might be if his father fulfilled his threat to go back to Montana.

Thomas was several years older than his sister and had had almost nothing to do with the girl as she grew. It wasn’t really intentional, at the age of twelve he was already working in the family business by the time of Jennifer’s birth and had little time to spare for the new arrival. He smiled as he thought of the little girl who always seemed to have a thousand questions. She had been so full of spirit. He now realized, that over the years, that spirit had gradually disappeared under their father’s discipline.

Thomas had been upset by his mother’s letter, as had his brothers. It had been disturbing to read of their sister’s memory of them and, looking back, they knew that they had allowed their father’s opinion of women to color the attitudes they had shown their mother and sister. The brothers had discussed if there was any way to make up to Jennifer for such a lonely and unhappy childhood. They hoped their mother was right and that, now, Jennifer was, indeed, happy.

As he sat watching his father seethe, Thomas determined not to allow his father to destroy the happiness Jennifer appeared to have found in Montana. “I will accompany you to Montana. But, only I will accompany you and only under the following conditions.”

“If I refuse,” Kinsington sneered at his eldest son.

“I will send word to the territory authorities, alerting them to your intentions.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” Kinsington growled.

Thomas smiled at the man who had always controlled his family through the use of intimidation, no wonder his sister had chosen to run away. He considered why he had never taken the same option. “I will,” he promised.

When his father didn’t reply, Thomas continued, “Condition one, you will not seek Jennifer’s return. Condition two, you will allow mother to make her own decision as to whether she returns to live with us or she stays with Jennifer.”

“Then, what’s the point in my going?” Kinsington asked, bemused.

‘Exactly,’ Thomas thought to himself. “For me to talk to them and ascertain if they are well and what their wishes are in this matter. And, for me to ask mother to return,” Thomas said. He missed his mother and wanted her to be a part of his life again, especially now that he was preparing to ask a wonderful young lady to be his wife.

“Not your sister?”

“Jennifer has a new life, father. She is married and has a child. There is nothing for her here.”

“A bitch and a bastard,” Kinsington snorted. “Some life.”

Thomas’ jaw clinched at his father’s words, “do you agree to my conditions?”

“I’m going,” Kinsington declared. “And, when I get your mother and sister back here where they belong, I will make sure they understand the consequences of defying me. Train leaves tomorrow,” Kinsington said as he rose from the chair, “whether you go or not, is your choice.” He stormed from the room.

“For Jennifer’s sake, I hope the love she shares with her Jesse is as strong as mother says,” Thomas muttered to the empty room. He made a silent vow that he would not let his father hurt Jennifer ever again. And, if his mother chose to return, things would be different for her, also.

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

“What do you mean married to one another,” a heavyset bald man asked as he puffed on a cigar.

“Just what I said,” Tobias Harrington repeated, “two women married to each other. All nice and legal according to Mayor Perkins.”

“Scandalous,” a tall, thin man shook his head.

“They refused our offer?” a third man asked.

“Never heard the offer,” Harrington explained. He was standing at the head of a large circular table around which sat a dozen men who formed the investment group that employed him. He had returned to their office to report on the developments in Sweetwater. “Turned Perkins and me down before we could give the details.”

“This mayor,” a man with curly red hair and bushy sideburns spoke, “did he not promise he could make things happen for us in this town, what’s the name of it…. ” he reviewed several pages of notes spread out before him on the table, “Sweetwater?”

“Yes, but,’ Harrington began.

“Yet,” the red haired man continued, “the first thing we ask of him fails to take place?”

“Well,” Harrington tries again.

“I don’t understand,” the bald man with the cigar interrupted. “how can such a marriage be legal?”

“Will you shut up,” the red haired man shouted. “I don’t give a tinker’s damn if the women are married to each other. I do care that we are now required to spend thousands of dollars building a hotel that we hadn’t budgeted for. And,” he directed his barb at Harrington, “I wonder if the men we entrusted this project to are worth the money we’re paying them.”

Harrington felt the ground slipping out from under him and he struggled to regain solid footing, “Mayor Perkins is very influential in Sweetwater.”

“Doesn’t appear to be,” Harrington searched the faces around the table, unsure which of the men had spoken.

“Can we trust him?” a man sweating heavily asked. “And, do we even need him?”

“We do need Perkins for the bank charter,” Harrington interjected. “Has to be a resident of the territory.”

“Hell, we can get any idiot to front for us on the charter,” the red haired man argued. “Perkins is supposed to be able to get things done and do it without costing us money.”

“Perkins, non-withstanding,” everyone else at the table quieted as the elderly man sitting opposite of Harrington spoke, “is there any chance of getting these women to change their minds.”

“I don’t believe so, sir,” Harrington told him, omitting that he had no intention of returning to Sweetwater to remake the offer to those rude and improper women.

“Then, there is no sense in us continuing this discussion,” the group listened to the elderly gentleman who happened to be the president of their investment company. “Harrington, I want you to return to Sweetwater and oversee our operations there. You are to make arrangements for the building of a hotel and at as little expense as possible. Do you understand?”

“With all due respect, sir,” Harrington objected, he couldn’t believe he was being ordered back to that nothing of a town. “It was my assignment to secure an ally in Sweetwater. That I have done. I do not see any reason for me to have to return there.” The very last place on earth he wanted to go was back to Sweetwater.

“You are correct, Mr. Harrington,” the company’s president replied. “However, it was also your assignment to provide us with a good starting point. Which, it is very evident, you have not done. Why was the offer for the boarding house handled so inefficiently? You said that the owners never actually heard our offer. Yet, they turned it down. What happened?”

Harrington couldn’t believe he was being held accountable for those unnatural women refusing to sell. But, he wasn’t about to tell these men why his attempt at making the offer had been so abruptly rebuked. Anyway, he didn’t believe his behavior in the Slipper that morning played any part in the rejection. “Mayor Perkins believed that……”

“Mayor Perkins is a fool,” the president slammed a fist on the table, “and you should have made a better choice for our advocate. Now, we are stuck with this man who seems to be incapable of following instructions. I have just today received the list of building materials he ordered for the bank building.”

‘Oh, no,’ Harrington thought. ‘I knew I shouldn’t have left that up to him.’

“Did you know he has engaged the services of a well known Denver architect to design the building?”

“No, sir.” Harrington did vaguely remember Perkins mentioning something about this but the man rambled on so that he tended to tone him out. Maybe, he should have paid closer attention.

“Did you know he is planning to use brick and sandstone blocks in it’s construction?”

“No, sir.” He definitely should have paid closer attention to the mayor’s ramblings.

“Did you know he has ordered the most expensive safe available from New York City?”

“No, sir.” He would straggle that overly talkative little man when he got back to Sweetwater.

“It is apparent to me, Mr. Harrington, that you have not performed your duties in a satisfactory manner. Therefore, I want you on the next train back to Sweetwater. And, you will not return until you have successfully completed this undertaking. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And, keep an eye on Mayor Perkins. I do not want him causing us any more problems. Or, more importantly, costing us any more money.”

“But, sir…”

“You are dismissed.”

Harrington nodded, thinking to himself, ‘those Branson women are the cause of this. If only they had accepted the offer for their boarding house. One way or another, I will most definitely make them pay.’ He quickly exited the room.

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

“I don’t know, Miss Jennifer,” Ruthie was flipping through the pages of a catalog. Each page was filled with descriptions of different kinds of cloth and their advantages for different types of clothing. “It’s hard to know what to order when you can’t see it,” the catalog lacked pictures.

“I agree,” Jennifer was looking through a second book. “And, all the descriptions are so general. Like this one,” she pointed to a spot on one page, “yellow flowers on pale background. How are you supposed to know what that is?”

“This one jus’ says ‘gingham’,” Bette Mae pointed at another part of the page. “Doesn’t even say what color.”

“And, the notions are even worse,” Mary added.

“Notions?” Jesse looked up from the paper she had been sketching on.

“Thread, ribbons, buttons, etc,.” Jennifer explained. “Here it says the thread comes in red, blue, green, black. That’s it, no shades of red, just red.”

“So,” Jesse asked, absently as she continued to draw.

“What if you’re sewing a rose dress,” Jennifer said, “what color thread will you use so it blends in and doesn’t show.”

Jesse lifted her arm and examined the sleeve of her cotton shirt, she scratched her head. The thread didn’t blend in. In fact, it was quite easy to see. “Does it matter?”

Jennifer chuckled, “yes, you old cowhand. For a lady’s dress, it most certainly matters.”

“Oh,” Jesse went back to her diagram.

The women were in the Slipper’s office. Jennifer and Ruthie were sitting on the couch, the catalogs Ed had for the Bozeman suppliers were spread out on their laps. Mary was sitting in a chair brought in from the dining room and Bette Mae had pulled the arm chair next to the couch. Mary and Bette Mae were leaning forward to see the books Ruthie and Jennifer held. Jesse sat at her desk with KC perched next to her, the baby watching Jesse intently.

“T’ere,” KC offered, pointing at Jesse’s paper. She was enjoying this game, she would point at the paper and her mommy would draw something.

“Um,” Jesse considered KC’s suggestion. “Well, now, we could put the window there but then Ruthie might have some trouble working around it.” Jesse had drawn the interior of the office on a sheet of paper and was trying to figure out the best way to remodel the office into a dress shop. “How ’bout we put that window in this wall,” she pointed to a slightly different spot than KC had.

“Otay,” KC agreed.

“Okay,” Jesse drew in a window. “Now, where should we put the next one?” she asked the baby.

“T’ere,” KC pointed at the paper, her finger landing on the location of the office door.

“Jesse?,” Jennifer asked.

“Um,” Jesse drew another window on the outside wall.

“I think we should make a trip to Bozeman.”

“Oh,” Jesse muttered absently as she reviewed her drawing. She wasn’t sure how many windows it would take to brighten the dark room or the best place to locate them. The office had two outside walls but she had the covered porch on the other side of those walls to consider.

“We can’t possible know what to order by looking at these catalogs. I think we should take Ruthie and go visit the suppliers ourselves. That way we can see what the material actually looks like.”

“Oh, Miss Jennifer, I couldn’t,” Ruthie protested.

“Hush, child,” Bette Mae shushed the seamstress. “Ain’t nothin’ ta go to Bozeman. “B’sides, ya gonna have ta learn ta do some of this by yoself. Jennifer ain’t gonna always have time, ‘specially when school starts again.”

“Bette Mae is right, Ruthie,” Jennifer smiled at the nervous woman. “Once school starts, I won’t have time to do much. And, well,” she laughed, “we know Jesse isn’t going to be of much help.”

“Hey,” the rancher glared at her wife. “I can help. I know what I like to see on my wife and,” she grinned, mischievously, “what I like to see off.”

“Jesse,” Jennifer’s cheeks colored as the other women giggled. “You are so bad.”

“Mommy bad?” KC asked.

“Yep, sunshine,” Jesse winked at Jennifer, “guess momma is goin’ have ta spank me when we get home.”

“Jesse Marie Branson!!” Jennifer cried.

“Oh, oh,” Bette Mae whispered to Mary. “Seems these two are fixin’ ta have a spat. Care ta join me for a cool drink in the other room?”

“I think that would be a wise decision,” Mary stood to follow Bette Mae out of the office. “Come on, Ruthie,” she waited for the younger woman to join them.

“T’ere,” KC pointed. She didn’t want the game to stop just because the others had left.

“Just a minute, sunshine,” Jesse said as she saw the look on Jennifer’s face. “I’m thinking I might have just stuck my boots in a cow pie.” Picking up KC, she walked to the couch and sat beside her steaming wife.

“My mother was in the room, Jesse,” Jennifer said, quietly,

“I know,” Jesse draped an arm around her wife’s shoulders and pulled her close. She was relieved when Jennifer didn’t resist. “I’m sorry, darlin’. Guess I jus’ wasn’t thinkin’.”

Jennifer remained silent but leaned into Jesse’s embrace. “So,” she purred after several long and awkward minutes, “just what sort of clothes do you like to see off of me.”

Jesse smiled, glad Jennifer wasn’t going to stay mad at her, “well, darlin’. She hooked a finger under Jennifer’s chin and tenderly tilted her face upward, “just about anything you have on, I like to see come off. I love you,” she sighed as she softly pressed her lips against Jennifer’s.

“Mommy.” When Jesse had plucked KC off the desk, KC had done the same to the drawing. “T’ere,” she poked her tiny finger at the paper.

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

The one story stage station was separated into three sections. A dining area in the front with a cooking area behind a partial wall to the side. The sleeping area for the stage driver and passengers took up the rear half of the building.

In the middle of the dining room sat a roughly made table which was nothing more than a wide plank resting on two blocks of wood. Benches on either side of the table were similar in design, only not as wide and not as high. As the three passengers carried their luggage into the building, the station master’s wife was placing bowls of food on the table.

“Put your bags back there,” the woman pointed to the doorway leading into the back room. “Best come eat while it’s hot.

All three men groaned when they entered the sleeping quarters. Spaced unevenly about the room were a dozen cots, some looking as if their days of usefulness had passed years before. Covering the cots were linens, pillows and blankets, all of which were dirty, stained, full of holes and, most unquestionably, bed bugs. Quickly claiming the cots that seemed to pose the least danger, the men set down their luggage and returned to the other room.

“Privy is out back,” the woman told them as they took seats at the table. “Best be careful where you step, rattlers get pretty active this time of day.” She placed a pot of coffee in the center of the table. “If’n you be wantin’ a bath, you’ll have to use the trough by the barn. Just don’t get it too muddy. Horses don’t take kindly to that.” With her duty done, she disappeared into the cooking area.

The men looked at the meal provided for them. It was hard to deduce what many of the bowls held but they were hungry after the long day and started to fill their plates.

As he reached for the coffee pot, Harrington glanced at the men sitting on the opposite side of the table. One was obviously older than the other and, judging by their resemblance, he presumed them to be father and son. “Coffee?” Harrington offered the men and filled their cups when they nodded. “I’m Tobias Harrington,” he told them.

“Kinsington,” the older of the two responded. “Martin Kinsington and this is my son, Thomas.”

“Kinsington,” Harrington took a bite of the stew, frowning when he couldn’t readily identify the animal the meat had come from. “Seems I’ve heard that name before. On the coast, perhaps.”

“Kinsington Shipping Line,” Martin said proudly.

“Ah, yes,” Harrington nodded. “Mighty fine company you have, sir. It is well known in the east as one of the best,” maybe this trip wouldn’t be so bad after all. If he could get into the good graces of this Kinsington, a position in his company was possible and, then, he wouldn’t have to deal with the town of Sweetwater, ever again.

“Thank you,” Martin reached for more biscuits, thinking that they were safer to eat then the meat Harrington was having so much trouble chewing. “However, I prefer to think of it being the best.”

“Yes, of course,” Harrington gave up on the meat and quickly swallowed to get rid of it. “You built it on your own?”

“Took it over from my father and his father before him. As my sons will one day take it from me.”

‘Probably sooner than you think,’ Thomas said to himself.

“A business to pass on to your sons is a wonderful legacy,” Harrington decided to give the bowl of roasted potatoes a try.

“Yes,” Martin agreed.

“What brings you west, Mr. Kinsington?” Harrington used a knife to cut through the undercooked vegetable. “There aren’t any sea ports in the territory, that I know of,” he added lightly so his dinner companions wouldn’t think he was prying.

“No,” Kinsington struggled with a potato of his own. “Personal business. I’ve come to escort my wife and daughter back home.”

“Visiting relatives, are they?” Harrington asked.

“Excuse me, Mr. Harrington,” Thomas interrupted. “But, I do believe our family business need not be discussed with strangers.” He did not want to listen to anymore of his father’s ravings about Jennifer and her wife, which is all he had heard on the long train journey to Denver.

“Thomas,” the elder Kinsington barked. “Mr. Harrington meant no harm.”

“It is a private matter, father,” Thomas refused to back down.

Martin fumed at his son’s impertinence but, rather than create a scene in front of the other man, he chose to drop the matter. For now.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Harrington,” Martin smiled, uneasily. “It has been a long trip and my son is tired.”

“No offense taken,” Harrington smiled back. There was no reason to alienate the man when he saw potential for a future business relationship with Kinsington’s company. “I think I’ll stretch my legs before turning in,” he rose from the table.

The station master and coach driver entered, their work rubbing down and feeding the horses complete.

“Best git ya some sleep,” the driver told Harrington as he headed for the front door. “We’ll be leaving at dawn. You’ll git called f’r breakfast a hour b’fore.”

“Just a short walk to stretch my legs,” Harrington told the man.

“Keep a watch out f’r snakes,” the station master called after Harrington.

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

“Do you really think we need to go to Bozeman?” Jesse asked again as she and Jennifer lay in bed, their naked bodies pressed together.

“Sweetheart,” Jennifer lifted her head off Jesse’s shoulder so she could look into the eyes she so loved. She leaned down and kissed sweet lips. “I know why you don’t want to go,” Jennifer whispered, “but, I think you’ll feel better if you talk to him.”

Jesse knew Jennifer was talking about her father. She still had heard nothing from her parents after they initially agreed to move to Sweetwater and join her family at the ranch.

“Maybe, you’re right,” Jesse hesitated. “But, what will I say to him.”

“Don’t worry,” Jennifer started a trail of soft kisses down Jesse’s neck. “You’ll figure something out,” she murmured as her hand found it’s way between her wife’s legs.

It didn’t take Jesse long to figure out a course of action, though she was sure it wasn’t exactly what Jennifer had been talking about. She rolled over, taking her lover with her.

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

“Are you sure about this?” Billie Monroe, Sweetwater’s sheriff, asked Thaddeus Newby, the Gazette’s editor.

“Yes,” Thaddeus nodded. “Got it from a newspaperman in Denver. He has a friend back east, they checked the details twice before sending that to me.” Thaddeus had just returned to town after visiting the surrounding mining camps and had found a letter waiting for him. After reading it, he had immediately taken the letter next door to the sheriff’s office.

Billie reread the letter. “Damn,” Billie shook his head. “I can’t believe he’d do this without telling anyone,” he said about the town’s mayor. “Folks should have had some say in this.”

“I agree,” Thaddeus took the paper from Billie. “I’m sure they’ll have plenty to say when the next edition of the Gazette comes out.”

“You printing all of it?”

“Yes. I’ll give Miles a chance to tell his side of it but, like you said, folks have a right to know.”

“How many mines we talking about?”

“One, for sure. Possibly, a couple more.”

“I wonder which one,” Billie knew that the mountains around Sweetwater were dotted with hundreds of claims. Anywhere from small placer mines worked by one or two men, to larger operations requiring several men and heavy equipment to extract the ore from the ground.

“Word in the camps is that the Songbird hit a vein,” Thaddeus replied.

“Hell, that’s at the top of a mountain,” Billie was aware of the general location of the Songbird claim but didn’t know much about the miner that worked it. He was a loner and talked very little whenever in town.

“Besides, the hotel and bank, the road they’ll need to build to get the equipment up there will cost thousands.”

“That’s a lot of money,” Billie whistled. “Must have got a pretty good assay.” The higher percentage of ore in the rock, the greater the mine’s earnings.

“Yep, and Miles stands to share in the profit.”

“Think I’ll ride out and talk to Jesse.” Billie thought of the rancher like a sister and he was concerned that the mining company’s looming investment in Sweetwater could hurt the Silver Slipper’s business.

“Say,” Thaddeus opened his desk drawer, “if you’re going that way, will you give this to Jennifer,” he handed the sheriff an envelope. “Got mixed up with mine.”

“Sure thing.”

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

Jesse was cleaning out the horse stalls in the barn. Knowing better than to leave her inquisitive daughter free to wander, especially after the chicken coop incident, KC sat in the carry sack on her mother’s back.

Shortly after she and Jennifer brought KC home, Jesse noticed how hard it was for them to carry the baby while riding horseback. Using a piece of deer hide, she had set to work making the carry sack for her daughter. She cut openings in the hide for the baby’s legs to drop through and fashioned shoulder straps that would provide a way to carry the sack on their backs. Then, she had sewn the pieces together with strong rawhide cords.

“Mommy, ook,” KC pointed over Jesse’s shoulder to a pile of manure that had somehow been missed in Boy’s stall.

“Thanks, sunshine,” Jesse muttered as she re-entered the stall she thought she had just finished cleaning.

“Jesse, I think you should take this more seriously,” Billie said from his cozy perch on a hay bale. Jesse’s offer to let him help with her work had fallen on suddenly deaf ears.

“Billie,” Jesse emptied the pitchfork into the wheelbarrow, “I can’t stop them from building a hotel. Besides, if they’re planning to do all the stuff you say, they’ll be plenty of new folks coming to town and plenty of business for both their hotel and the Slipper.”

“Billie,” Jennifer walked into the barn, she had seen the sheriff ride up, “what brings you out here?”

“Came to warn us that a hotel is being built in Sweetwater,” Jesse started on Dusty’s stall.

“Sweetheart, give KC to me,” Jennifer instructed the rancher when she saw how difficult it was for Jesse to work with the active baby on her back. “Harrington’s investors?” she asked.

“Yes,” Jesse came out of the stall and turned to let Jennifer remove the sack and baby from her back. “They’re buying one of the mines and expanding the mining operations.” Now free of KC’s weight, she stretched the muscles in her back. “Seems, Miles is working for them. That’s how he got the charter for the bank.”

“Well, we figured when we refused to sell the Slipper that they’d build their own.” Jennifer pulled a few stalks of hay from KC’s hair and looked at her dirt stained face and arms, “how you manage to get so dirty, I’ll never know.”

“Mommy,” KC pointed at Jesse, busy in Dusty’s stall.

Jennifer looked and, sure enough, Jesse was just as dirty as KC, “guess you do take after her in that way.”

“Well, a new hotel is goin’ ta take business away from the Slipper,” Billie began his argument again.

“Seems like more people coming to town will only help the Slipper’s business,” Jennifer echoed Jesse’s earlier comments as she placed a handkerchief in a bucket of water. Wringing the cloth of excess water, she used it to try and clean some of the dirt from KC’s face.

“Phttttt,” KC stuck out her tongue, shaking her head from side-to-side to avoid the wet cloth. She was not at all happy to have her face washed.

“Alright,” Jennifer gave up, “you’ll just have to wait and take a bath with mommy.”

“Otay,” KC grinned. “Dow.”

“Nope, you can leave some of the dirt on the barn floor, today,” Jennifer kept a firm grip on the baby. “You and mommy are wearing more than enough already.”

KC’s lower lip slowly pushed out as she pouted.

“What about the Slipper?” Billie asked.

Jesse stopped her work and leaned on the pitchfork, “Billie, ain’t nothin’ we can do, one way or the other. We’ll just have to see what happens when their hotel opens. Hopefully, it won’t hurt the Slipper but if it does, we still have the ranch.”

Jennifer said nothing but she knew Jesse was aware if it wasn’t for the Slipper’s income, they never could afford the ranch. If they ever set aside enough money again to get the breeding bull Jesse wanted then, maybe, the ranch would begin to pay. She still felt guilty that Jesse had to use the money she had saved for the bull’s purchase to pay the doctor in Bozeman. She’d already decided to give Jesse her stipend for the coming school year to help replace the spent funds.

“Alright, Jesse,” Billie stood up and brushed hay off the back of his pants, “guess you’re right. We just have to wait and see. Mayor Perkins will have a lot of explaining to do as soon as Thaddeus gets the Gazette out this week. Maybe, then, we’ll know more about just what those ‘investors’ have up their sleeves.”

“Staying for supper, Billie?” Jennifer asked.

“Thanks, Jennifer, but I’m meeting Ruth for supper.”

“When you goin’ to ask her to marry you?” Jesse asked as she came out of Dusty’s stall with the last pitchfork load of manure.

“Damn, Jesse,” Billie reddened. “Ain’t talked to her about that yet.”

“Sheesh,” Jesse leaned the pitchfork against the stall wall and bent to lift the handles of the wheelbarrow, “how long ya need? You know ya love her.” She pushed the wheelbarrow out of the barn to dump it’s contents.

“Hush, Jesse,” Jennifer patted Billie on the arm. “You take your time, Billie.”

“Thanks, Jennifer.”

“Just don’t take too long,” Jennifer teased.

“I’ll see you two later,” Billie shook his head at the good intentions of his friends. “Oh, wait a minute. Here, I almost forgot, Thaddeus asked me to give this you,” he pulled the envelope from his pocket.

“What is it?” Jennifer asked as she accepted the envelope from Billie.

“Letter came for you.”

“Oh,” quizzically, Jennifer read the return address.

“Well, I best be getting back.” Billie turned to leave the barn. Jennifer followed him outside, tucking the letter into her pocket.

“See ya, Billie,” Jesse said as the sheriff walked past her. “What is it, darlin’?” she asked when she saw the worried look on Jennifer’s face.

“A letter from Andrew’s father,” Jennifer told her.

“Aren’t you goin’ to read it?” Jesse asked.

“Later,” Jennifer didn’t want to open the letter, apprehensive of what it might contain. Andrew had been the ‘fiancé’ her father had arranged for her. After his death, the young man had been sent back to his family for burial. Though, she had truly played no part in the young man’s death, Jennifer continued to feel responsible for it. While still recovering from her own nearly fatal wounds, she had written a long letter to his family.

Could Mr. Barrish be writing to place blame on her?, she wondered. “I’ll read it while you and KC have your bath. Speaking of which, I better go start heating the water.”

“Darlin’,” Jesse walked to Jennifer’s side. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” Jennifer sadly smiled at her wife, “just afraid of what he might say. I’d rather read it later.”

“Okay,” Jesse wanted to wrap Jennifer in her arms but considering her just completed chore, she opted to kiss her on the forehead. “Why don’t you take KC inside. I’ll just finish up here, won’t take long.”

Jennifer nodded and turned to walk to the ranch house.

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

Dear Miss Kinsington,

I write this letter for two reasons. First, and foremost, I wish to thank you for the kind words you wrote regarding our son, Andrew. It was with strong reluctance that I agreed he should accompany your father west. As you may know, Andrew was my wife’s and mine only son and we wished no harm to come to him in such a wild and dangerous country. However, circumstances clouded our judgment and, for that, I will always blame myself.

I was outraged to hear of your father’s demands that Andrew assist him in his efforts to forcible remove you from your home and to participate in the unspeakable treatment of you during that terrible ordeal. I have taken up these issues with an attorney and assure you that your father’s actions will not go unpunished.

It is, therefore, that I come to the second reason for this letter. It has come to my attention that your father has recently booked rail passage to Denver. I can conclude no other purpose for doing such, then he intends to return to Sweetwater and, again, attempt to force your return to the east. I sincerely hope that this warning reaches you in time to prepare for his arrival.

I wish for you to know, your description of our son’s honorable conduct from his arrival in Sweetwater to the event that eventually led to his death has done much to ease our lose. I shall be forever grateful to you for giving that to us.

Yours,

Mr. Benjamin Barrish

Jennifer read the letter to Jesse as the rancher washed the day’s grime from her body. KC splashed noisily between her mother’s legs.

“Bastard!” Jesse exclaimed. “Sorry, Mary.”

“I completely agree with you,” Mary had been listening while she cut up vegetables for the evening meal. “I cannot believe he would dare return.”

Jennifer silently refolded the letter and returned it to it’s envelope. “What are we going to do?” anxiously, she asked Jesse.

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

The sun had dropped from the sky and the moon was rising in it’s place. Upon finishing their meal in the Slipper’s dining room, Billie had escorted Ruthie to the porch, where they now sat in the shadows.

“Ruth have you ever thought about…” the sheriff stopped, he wasn’t quite sure how to broach the subject of marriage.

“About what, Billie?”

Billie took Ruthie’s hand and squeezed gently, he thought back to the night he had first noticed the shy girl. It was the night he had been shot while attempting to control a lynch mob that wanted to take Jesse from her jail cell.

His vision was finally clearing and the ringing in his head was dropping to a loud roar His arm was wrapped in a clean bandage and a piece of ice, wrapped in a towel, was being pressed against his jaw by one of the young women that cooked and served meals for the Slipper. He looked up into the prettiest auburn eyes and tried to think of the girl’s name. After several attempts, he, regretfully, decided that he had never known it and wondered why he hadn’t taken notice of the pretty girl before.

Figuring that he had recovered enough to go back to the jail and check on his prisoner, the sheriff made a mental note that when this matter with Jesse was settled he would come back to the Slipper and see if he could get the girl’s attention.

He didn’t have long to wait, a few days later when he and the posse returned to Sweetwater, the pretty girl was keeping watch on the porch of the Silver Slipper. They had ridden over a rise still some distance from town when she’d spotted them. He smiled when he saw her, even though he was sure he was too far away for her to notice.

Later, when he and the others were enjoying their first hot meal in days, she had come out of the kitchen carrying a tray. He smiled at her again when she placed a plate in front of him and his heart jumped when she had smiled shyly back.

It had taken him a couple of days to build up the nerve, but one evening when the girl had brought him his supper, he had asked if she would accompany him on a ride to a local lake. Hesitating for only a moment, she bashfully nodded yes.

“Do you remember that buggy ride?” Billie asked as he remembered how proud he was that night when Ruth had agreed to go with him.

Confused a little by the change in subject, Ruthie hesitated. Then, she smiled, remembering the nervous man she had served that night. She still wasn’t sure why she had said yes but she was mighty glad she had.

“Yes, Billie,” Ruthie started to giggle. “I remember it quite well.”

Billie had arrived at the Silver Slipper in a buggy hired at the livery, it had been polished until it sparkled in the late morning sun. The matching team of black horses had also received special attention that morning, their coats glowing under the recently polished and oiled harness. Billie was wearing his Sunday suit complete with tie, his hat had been brushed free of all dust and dirt, and his boots matched the shine on the buggy. Ruthie thought he looked adorable.

“Miss, Ruth,” he anxiously crossed to where Ruthie was sitting on the Slipper’s porch. “Are you ready?” he stood in front of her, twitching under his pressed pant legs.

“Yes. I took the liberty of preparing a picnic basket,” Ruthie bent to lift the large basket next to the chair. She knew the sheriff had a healthy appetite so she had packed a lot of food.

“I’ll get that,” Billie quickly reached down, picking up the basket before Ruthie could. He was thankful she had thought of bringing food because, so focused was he on making sure the buggy was prepared properly, he had completely forgotten they probably would get hungry sometime during the day. He nervously offered Ruthie his arm, “shall we?”

Ruthie timidly laid her arm across his, she allowed the sheriff to lead her across the porch and down the stairs. She felt his strong hands gently grasp her waist as he helped her step up into the buggy, her skin tingling under his touch.

It had taken a little less than an hour to reach the small lake that was their destination. They talked as they rode, their conversation uneasy at first but becoming more relaxed as the miles passed. At the lake, Billie pulled the team of horses to a stop. He helped Ruthie from the buggy and lifted the food basket out, setting it down on a sandy spot near the water’s edge. Normally, this part of the shore was underwater but, because of the dry summer, the water level was down considerable.

“I’ll just tie the team to that tree,” Billie told Ruthie.

Surrounded by water a few feet from the shore, lay a tree that had fallen during some storm and had somehow made its way into the lake. The tree lay with what would have been its canopy end resting in deeper water and the twisted and gnarled root system in shallow water. Billie thought he would tie the team to the closest end, giving the horses access to the lake’s water. Between dry land and the tree were several large stones that Billie figured he could step on to reach the stump without getting his boots wet. What he hadn’t figured on was a thin, slimy layer of moss covering the stones that were usually underwater.

Ruthie watched as Billie gingerly stepped onto the closest stone. When the stone didn’t rock or move, Billie warily placed his other foot on a second stone. He stood on both stones, testing their steadiness. When neither stone moved under his weight, he became confident to move closer to the tree, a bit too confident.

Not paying close attention to the placement of his feet, Billie missed seeing the small rock half buried under the large stone he was about to step on. As his foot came in contact with the stone, it shifted and threw Billie off balance. Tightening his grip on the reins he held in his hand caused the horses to rear and made his tenuous footing more unstable. He quickly tried to shift his weight back onto his other leg but the action caused his boots to completely lose their grip on the slippery stones. Billie’s feet flew out from under him as his arms flayed uselessly in the air. Before, Ruthie knew what was happening, Billie fell backwards and splashed into the cold lake. Luckily for him, he landing in a patch of muddy lake bottom and not the hard stones he had been trying to navigate.

Billie was wet. Very wet. There wasn’t a dry spot on him. His boots were full of water, his Sunday suit was waterlogged and he had a very nasty feeling that the muck on the lake bottom was starting to seep though the suit’s material. His hat, knocked from his head when he landed, was floating off towards the deep end of the lake. Water, from his drenched hair, ran down his face and dripped off his nose.

Not quite sure what to do, Billie remained where he had landed. He was certain that his unintentional performance would ruin any chance he had with the pretty girl. Humiliated, he looked to the shore.

Ruthie was mortified. Billie looked like a drowned rat. A very cute drowned rat. But, a drowned rat, nonetheless. She met his eyes.

What Billie saw on Ruthie’s face surprised him, she looked concerned not amused. Well, maybe a little amused but mostly concerned. His lips began to twitch, when he speculated that he probably looked pretty silly.

Ruthie was relieved to see that Billie appeared uninjured. Her lips began to twitch with his.

Soon, both Billie and Ruthie were laughing so hard that Billie ending up staying in the water for some time before he sloshed his way back to shore.

“Made quite a fool of myself that day,” Billie chuckled.

“No, you didn’t,” Ruthie objected. “I thought you looked cute.”

“I looked like a drowned rat.”

“A very cute drowned rat.”

Billie stood from his chair and stepped in front of Ruthie, kneeling down onto one knee. Ruthie’s heart began to race.

“Ruth,” Billie took both of her hands into his. “That day at the lake, I fell in love with you. And, each day since my love for you has grown. I’ve tried to come up with a romantic way to say this but I think I just have to get it out,” he took a deep breath, slowly releasing it. “Ruth, I love you. And, I would be the proudest man in the territory if you would do me the honor of becoming my wife.”

Tears rolled down Ruthie’s cheeks as she listened to the most romantic words she had ever heard. “Yes,” she whispered. “I would be honored to marry you, Billie.”

Billie reached up and cupped his hands around Ruthie’s face. He gently brought their lips together and tenderly kissed his beloved for the first time.

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

Jennifer and Jesse were talking over their options with Mary. Jesse was standing by the fireplace while Jennifer and her mother sat at the table. KC had been put to bed many hours before.

“I’m not running from him, Jesse.” Jennifer was adamant that her father would not invade her life again.

“I’m not saying to run, darlin’,” Jesse picked up the coffee pot to refill her cup, then set it back down. She’d had so many cups in the last few hours she’d lost count and the thought of drinking anymore of the dark liquid was suddenly very unappealing. “Just get out of Sweetwater long enough for Billie to handle things.”

“I think Jesse is right,” Mary was just as upset as the other women over her husband’s plans to return to Sweetwater. “Who knows what he is capable of, Jennifer. You can’t give him the opportunity to cause you or Jesse any more pain.”

“This is our home,” Jennifer whispered. She knew Jesse and her mother were right but… “Why do we have to leave? He’s the one in the wrong.”

Jesse sat next to Jennifer and spoke quietly, “we let Billie take care of your father. When he tells us it’s okay, we’ll come home.” Taking Jennifer’s hands into her own, she pleaded, “please, darlin’. I would die if anything happened to you. Or, KC.”

Jennifer looked at the crib where their daughter was peacefully sleeping. Jesse was right. If anything happened to any of them…….. “Alright, sweetheart,” Jennifer leaned into Jesse, “where will we go?”

Jesse thought for a moment, “you wanted to see the buffalo.”

“Walks on the Wind?”

Jesse nodded, “there’s no way your father can find us there. It would mean you’d have to ride Blaze, we can’t take the wagon on the trail.”

“Okay,” Jennifer wasn’t sure whether her leg would be able to handle the stress of a long ride but she was determined to do whatever she had to, to save her family from her father.

“I think you two should get some sleep,” Mary stood, yawning. “I know I can sure use some.”

“I’ll walk you,” Jesse offered.

“No,” Mary bent to kiss both women on their cheeks. “When I get to the cabin, I’ll pull the cord to let you know I got there. You stay here with Jennifer.”

“We’ll go to town in the morning and talk to Billie,” Jesse said. “And, get supplies. We don’t know when your father left so it’s best we leave as soon as possible. Mary, it’ll be safer for you to stay at the Slipper while we’re gone.”

“I have no interest in waiting for him to arrive,” the older woman announced, “I’m coming with you.”

“Mother, are you sure?” Jennifer asked, surprised at her mother’s stated intentions.

“Yes. I’ll see about a horse at the livery tomorrow,” she said. “Besides, I think I’d like to see those buffalo Walks on the Wind talked about.”

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

“Are you sure he’s coming here?” Billie asked,

Jesse and Jennifer had walked into the sheriff office just before noon with the news of Kinsington’s plans.

“Yes,” Jennifer watched as KC unwillingly played on the floor at her feet. “Can you have him arrested?”

“Considering that was part of the deal for him to leave,” Billie dug around in his desk drawer for his copy of Kinsington’s plea arrangement. “I’ll wire all the sheriffs between here and Denver to arrest him on sight and take him to the territorial prison in Deer Lodge.

“Good,” Jesse blew out a breath. “Send word to us when he’s locked up.”

“That’s a good idea for you to stay at the ranch until this is taken care of,” Billie nodded. “Ah, got it,” Billie found the paper and pulled it out.

“We’re not staying at the ranch,” Jesse told him. She was standing behind Jennifer, her hands resting on her wife’s shoulders, she could feel the tense muscles under Jennifer’s shirt.

“You’re not?”

“No, we’re going where he won’t be able to find us. I don’t want to take the chance of him trying anything with Jennifer, again.”

“You sure you need to leave?” Billie was concerned about the women running into trouble and there being no one to help them.

“I think it’s best,”

“Where ya goin’ ta go, Jesse?”

“East of the mountains. Jennifer wants to see the buffalo herds. Walks on the Wind is there with his tribe.”

“You plan on meeting up with him?” Billie had met the Indian a few times at Jesse’s ranch and liked the quiet man.

“Yes, you can send word there. It’ll be safer.”

“You’re probably right,” Billie made a notation on the paper. “Okay, I’ll start writing the telegrams. You going to the Slipper?”

“No, Ed’s,” Jesse told him, “we need supplies for the trip.”

“Mary staying in town?”

“Momma, up,” bored with her position on the floor, KC tugged on Jennifer’s pant leg.

“She’s going with us,” Jennifer lifted the baby into her lap. “I don’t want him to find us, Billie,” she hugged KC, her voice charged with emotion.

“He won’t, Jennifer,” the sheriff promised. “Just be careful. The less folks you tell about your plans, the better.”

“No one will know except you, Ed, and Bette Mae,” Jesse assured the sheriff.

“When you plan on leavin’?”

“First thing in the morning,” Jesse said as she helped Jennifer up from the chair. KC reached for Jesse and she took her from Jennifer’s arms.

“Alright,” Billie rose to walk the women to the door. “You stay put with Walks on the Wind and his folk until you hear from me.”

“Thanks, Billie,” Jesse clasped Billie on the shoulder.

“Be safe, both of you,” Billie told his friends.

“Bye, bye,” KC held up her hand, fingers bending up and down.

“Goodbye, KC,” Billie playfully rubbed KC’s head. “You take care of your mothers for me, okay?”

“Otay.”

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

“I can’t believe it,” the storekeeper said after Jennifer told him about the letter she’d received.

“You can’t tell anyone, Ed,” Jennifer said.

“I won’t,” Ed pulled Jennifer into a hug, he could tell she needed one. “You don’t worry ’bout anything, you hear. Billie and I will take care of ya daddy.”

Jennifer started to cry, “I thought this was over.”

“It will be, soon,” Ed assured her.

“Darlin’?” Jesse was worried about Jennifer. It was a good thing they were leaving Sweetwater because if they’d stayed and she saw Kinsington, she’d take care of him herself. And, she’d make sure he never hurt Jennifer again.

“I’m alright,” Jennifer released herself from Ed’s embrace and dried her tears on her sleeve. “Let’s get what we need. I want to get out of here as soon as possible.”

As KC watched from her ‘holding pen’, her mothers and Ed quickly filled the back of the buckboard. with the necessary supplies. It wasn’t long before Boy was pulling the wagon toward the Silver Slipper.

Mary was waiting on the Slipper’s porch. A dark brown horse was tied to the hitching post next to the stairs, evidence that her trip to the livery was successful.

The women hurried inside to find Bette Mae.

“Lordy, but tha’ man must be thicker than a tree stump,” Bette Mae said when she heard about the letter. “Don’ ya be worryin’ ’bout me. Ya go on and git goin’,” she told the women. “The Slipper ‘ill be jus’ fine. And, I’ll have someone keep an eye on the ranch for ya.”

“No one can know that we’re not there, Bette Mae,” Jesse told her friend.

“And, no one will,” Bette Mae wrapped her arms around the rancher and hugged her tight. After a few moments, she released Jesse and hugged Jennifer. “Now, git,” she told the rancher and schoolteacher.

Jesse and Jennifer stayed just long enough for KC to give Bette Mae a hug and kiss, then they returned to the buckboard.

“We can tie him on back,” Jesse told Mary, referring to the horse.

“That’s okay,” Mary said as she pulled herself into the saddle. “I think I better ride. It’ll give me a chance to get use to doing it again.” Mary had proved herself an excellent rider when she’d accompanied Jesse on the ride to rescue Jennifer a few months before. But, she had done little riding since they returned to Sweetwater.

“Okay,” Jesse said as she helped Jennifer climb into the wagon, careful of her damaged leg. She hoped the leg would survive the ride ahead of them. Of course, she knew, if it started to give Jennifer trouble, they’d just hole up somewhere in the mountains. At least, that way, Kinsington would have no hope of finding them.

Jesse settled beside Jennifer and snapped the reins over Boy’s hindquarters. The women were quickly on their way out of town, completely unaware of the controversy taking place in the newspaper office.

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

“Damn it, Miles,” Thaddeus Newby sat back in his chair as the Sweetwater’s mayor paced around his office, the late morning sun streaking through the building’s windows. “Those weren’t decisions you had the right to make.”

“As mayor, I had every right,” Miles Perkins was not amused at having been summoned to the newspaper editor’s office to answer his questions.

“The position of mayor is a honorary one, Miles. You have no real power. Heck, we don’t even have a town council. You know it’s always been the custom for the town folks to vote on this kind of stuff.”

“What’s to vote on, Thaddeus? They’re giving us a bank, building a hotel, improving the road, hiring more workers. All good things for Sweetwater.”

“But, at what price? You guaranteed them water rights, Miles, on stretches of the river that belong to the ranchers. You promised to let them cut timber on land that doesn’t belong to you. You told them Jesse and Jennifer would sell the Slipper.”

“The owners will be compensated. And, Jesse would have been paid substantially more than that old building is worth, if she’d only listened to the offer instead of throwing us out of her office.”

“That’s not the point. They should have been asked before you promised.”

“There wasn’t time,” Perkins protested.

“Especially since you would lose your percentage if you asked,” Thaddeus told the mayor the one piece of information he least wanted to hear.

“You know about that?” Perkins turned white.

“Yes, and soon everyone else in the valley will too. Here’s the next edition of the Gazette,” he tossed a newspaper at the mayor. In bold print, the headline screamed, ‘MAYOR PERKINS SIGNS CONTRACT WITH MINING COMPANY. GIVES AWAY VALLEY’S WATER AND TIMBER RIGHTS.’

“Care to make a comment, Mayor Perkins?”

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

It was dark in the mine shaft. Dark, damp, dirty, and smelly. But, he wouldn’t have to put up with the conditions much longer. The Songbird mine would soon be someone else’s problem and he’d be heading back to St. Louis, his wife and children with a bag full of money. He whistled tunelessly as he worked to clean up the mine shaft as best he could in the dim light his lantern provided. No reason to leave anything laying about. The assayer had come and gone and all that was left was to sign the papers and get his money, which he would do the next day. Yes, soon he would be living on easy street and those big shots from back east could deal with this mountain of rock.

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

KC had been placed on the floor to play but, instead, she was keeping a close watch on her mothers and grandmother. She knew something must be wrong because after they arrived back at the ranch, Jesse, Jennifer and Mary had been busy rushing around the ranch house.

“Sweetheart, should I pack our heavy coats?” Jennifer asked as she laid out the clothing they would take.

“No,” Jesse was filling a pack with food stuffs. “It’s too hot for those. Our jackets should be fine.”

“Won’t it be cold in the mountains at night?”

“As hot as it’s been it’ll only get cold for a few hours. Our blankets should be enough,” Jesse carried the pack to the ranch house’s door and set it on the floor with the other items they were taking. “Coats will be too bulky and we don’t want to overload Boy.” Since Mary was accompanying them, she had decided to take Boy along as a pack horse.

“Alright,” Mary lifted a saddle bag for the table to test its weight. “That’s it for me. One benefit about having so few things,” she said as she set the bag back down satisfied she could handle it.

“I think we need to start supper,” Jesse went to check on Jennifer’s progress. “If we want to leave at dawn, we better get to bed soon.”

“Okay,” Jennifer nodded. “Why don’t you finish here and I’ll make us something quick.”

“Okay,”

“I can help,” Mary said as she started to clear the table.

KC crawled to where Jesse was packing their folded clothes into a pack that would be strapped on Boy in the morning. The baby pulled herself up on Jesse’s leg, “mommy.”

Jesse stopped her work and lifted the baby into her arms, “what’s up, sunshine?”

“Me go?” KC pointed to the clothing spread on the bed. She didn’t like it when one of her mothers went somewhere without her

“Yep,” Jesse kissed the baby’s cheek. “You, momma, grandma and me. We’re all going on a trip to see buffalo.”

KC smiled, happy to hear she wasn’t being left behind.

“Why don’t you sit right here while I finish packing,” Jesse set the baby down in a clear spot on the bed where the clothes were spread.

By the time Jesse finished packing their clothes and adding them to the pile by the door, Jennifer and Mary had put together a hot supper.

“Smells good, darlin’,” Jesse said as she washed her hands before joining her family at the table.

“Thanks,” Jennifer blew on a spoonful of stew to cool it before feeding KC.

“Jesse,” Mary filled a glass with milk and placed it by Jesse’s plate, “how does one find the buffalo herds?”

“That’s pretty easy, Mary,” Jesse took her place at the table. “The herds are so big that once you get within fifty miles of them, you’ll see the dust cloud they kick up when they’re on the move. The closer you get, you’ll start to hear them grunting and the bulls buttin’ heads. If the herd happens to be running, you’ll feel the ground shake. It really is a remarkable sight.”

“Hard to imagine that,” Mary said as she tried to visualize a herd of animals so large they could make the ground shake from so far away.

“In a few days, you won’t have to,” Jesse told her.

“Walks on the Wind said they were taking the ‘southern trail’, is that how we’ll go?” Jennifer asked.

“No,” Jesse took over feeding KC so Jennifer could eat. “That trail is further south than the one we took over the mountains to Bannack. “We’ll head due east from here and take an old trail that’s seldom used anymore. It’s a bit rougher but it’ll get us there quicker. And, chances of us meeting anyone on it is next to nothin’.”

“How long of a ride do you think it is, sweetheart?” Jennifer was still apprehensive about her ability to ride any distance with her injured leg.

“Four, five days if the trail over the pass is in good shape. Another day or two, if not.” Sensing Jennifer’s worry, she added, “we can stop anytime, darlin’. We don’t have to get to the buffalo. Any place along the trail we can hole up and wait for Billie to find us. You just say you can’t go any farther and we’ll stop.”

“Okay,” Jennifer smiled at Jesse. “That makes me feel better.”

“Any time, darlin’,” Jesse repeated, “and we’ll stop.” Jesse sniffed the air a few times, “darlin’, are you trying to burn somethin’?”

“Damn,” Jennifer jumped to her feet and grabbed a towel. She pulled a pan away from the fire in the fireplace. Carefully, she removed the pan’s contents and placed a piece of the slightly overcooked cake on four plates. In the center of one piece, she pushed a small candle. Then, she carried the plates to the table.

“What’s this?” Jesse asked.

“It’s KC’s birthday,” Jennifer announced.

“It is?” Mary remembered them talking about the baby’s first birthday but couldn’t remember any date being decided on.

“Yes,” Jennifer placed the piece with the candle in front of KC. “No, not yet, sweetie,” she told KC when she reached for the plate. “We need to light the candle.”

“Guess I kinda forgot all about it,” Jesse admitted.

“Actually, I did, too,” Jennifer retook her seat. “But, today, when we were in the general store, I happened to see a calendar Ed has on the wall. Sorry, mother, I meant to tell you but somehow, with everything going on, I forgot.”

“That’s okay,” Mary reached over and patted Jennifer’s hand. “I’m just glad I’m here to celebrate with you.”

“Me, too,” Jennifer told her mother.

“Bette Mae is sure goin’ be mad when she finds out,” Jesse said.

“Oh,” Jennifer laughed uneasily, she knew the older woman would be hurt that she’d missed the occasion. “I guess we’ll be drawing straws to see who has to tell her.”

“Nah,” Jesse winked at Jennifer, “we’ll just let Mary do it.”

“Momma, yum,” KC demanded before Mary could protest.

“Oops, seems the birthday girl wants her cake,” Jennifer reached back and snatched the box of matches off the fireplace. “Do you want to blow out your candle, KC?”

KC tilted her head and looked at Jennifer like she had just grown a horn in the middle of her head.

“Guess she doesn’t know what that means,” Mary laughed at the baby’s expression.

“Here, KC,” Jesse leaned close to the baby. “Do this,” she took a deep breath, puffing out her cheeks out and blew. The released breath tickling the baby’s face.

KC laughed at her mommy.

“Come on,” Jesse tried again. “Do this,” she repeated her attempt at teaching the baby.

KC looked intently at Jesse, puckered her lips, took a deep breath, puffed out her cheeks, and…………..

The women waited. And, waited. And, waited.

Jesse reached out and gently poked a finger in a bloated cheek, releasing the confined air before the baby turned blue from holding her breath.

“Yum,” KC pointed to the cake, figuring she had done what her mommy asked.

Mary chuckled.

“Guess that’s going to take a little practice,” Jesse scratched her nose.

“Here, sweetie,” Jennifer pushed the plate close enough for KC to feed herself and pulled the candle out. “Looks like we’ll be keeping this for next year.”

With the cake within her grasp, KC dug in with both hands.

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

The men had endured several rough days of stage travel. Harrington had made no further attempts to question Kinsington about his reasons for traveling west, deciding to wait until he could have a private conversation with the businessman. So far, Kinsington’s son had kept close by his father’s side but Harrington was patient. His patience finally paid off one night when he took his after supper walk.

Martin Kinsington stood next to the cascading waters of a small creek.

“Mr. Kinsington,” Harrington said as he approached.

“Mr. Harrington.”

“Seems our trip is almost complete,” Harrington sat on log partially stretched over the creek.

Kinsington nodded, “and, none to soon for me.”

“Yes,” Harrington adjusted his position to move off a sharp piece of bark poking him in the backside. “I, too, will be glad for this trip to end. Although, I’m not anxious to face what awaits me.”

“What does bring you, obviously a man of some refinement, to this god forsaken country?” Kinsington sat on the log a few feet from Harrington.

“My employers have sent me back to oversee their investments. They have been forced to unnecessarily expend funds because the proprietor of a rundown, worthless boarding house in the town of Sweetwater….”

“Jesse Branson,” Kinsington spat out the name.

“You know her,” Harrington looked surprised.

“She is the very reason I have come west.” Kinsington proceeded to tell Harrington of his earlier trip to Sweetwater, it’s cause and it’s unfortunate outcome. Of course, he conveniently left out his part in the sordid affair. “That bitch should be in prison.”

“But, the law, Mr. Kinsington,” Harrington questioned. “Did they do nothing?”

“Law, ha,” Kinsington rose from the log and began to pace, his agitation growing. “Sheriff in Sweetwater is her best friend. There is no law. Not for decent people like you and me.”

“I can’t believe this,” Harrington was worried. “Why, I had been guaranteed that Sweetwater was a law abiding town.”

“By whom?” Kinsington didn’t think anyone in Sweetwater was worth much, especially since none would agreed to help him during his earlier visit.

“Mayor Perkins.”

“That son-of-a-bitch,” he sneered. “Why, he’s the bastard that married my daughter to that bitch.”

“He WHAT!!” Harrington rose off the log in anger.

“Guess he left that little fact out of his resume,” Kinsington laughed, humorlessly.

Harrington kicked at the log with his booted foot. “I must wire my employers about this immediately. They will not be pleased to hear that the law in Sweetwater cannot be trusted,” Harrington was sure that this bit of news would probably cost him his job but he felt obligated to report it anyway. “They will take the appropriate action.”

“What can they do?” Kinsington became very interested in what Harrington was saying.

“They will have the territorial governor assign a U.S. Marshall to look into these matters.”

Kinsington looked at the man he had, until now, taken little notice of, “your employers seem to have friends in high places, Mr. Harrington.”

“It is in their best interest to ensure their money is not wasted.”

Kinsington nodded. “Maybe, Mr. Harrington, we can help each other.”

“How so?”

“You want the Silver Slipper?”

“Agreed.”

“I want that bitch out of my daughter’s life.”

Harrington listened, saying nothing.

Kinsington continued, “if you were able to have her arrested and put in prison, the Slipper would revert to my daughter. Once that happened, I would have Jennifer sign over all rights in the Slipper to you.”

Harrington consider the proposition. If he could deliver the Slipper to his employers, he would regain their trust and, quite possibly, be able to return back east. On the other hand, if he could put Jesse Branson behind bars, Kinsington might just be grateful enough to offer him a position with his company. Either way, he couldn’t lose. “And, what would you have her arrested for?” he asked.

“I have it on good authority that the child being referred to as my granddaughter was orphaned when it’s parents were murdered.”

“That seems to be common knowledge in Sweetwater.”

“Do you know the entire story?” Kinsington asked. When Harrington shook his head in the negative, he continued. “The story told is that the child was discovered by my daughter and that bitch when they traveled to Bannack. When they arrived with the child in Bannack, they reported to the sheriff that outlaws had killed the parents during a robbery attempt.”

“And?”

“I have a friend in Bannack who informed me that when Sheriff Plummer went to investigate their story, instead of outlaws, he found evidence that the Branson bitch had actually been the killer.”

“Why wasn’t she arrested?”

“She managed to get Plummer hanged before he could do anything about it.”

“How’d she do that?”

“Talked her friend, Sheriff Monroe, into sending a telegram to the territorial governor reporting Plummer to be the leader of a gang of outlaws. Vigilantes got wind of it and took the law into their own hands.”

“If what you say is true…”

“It’s true enough,” Kinsington figured if it would get Jesse hanged, it didn’t hurt to stretch the facts a little. “I suggest you have that U.S. Marshall check into it.”

Harrington thought for a moment. “Mr. Kinsington, if what you have just told me turns out to be true and you do, in fact, deliver the Silver Slipper to me. I will make sure that you are rewarded with a percentage of the Montana mining investments of my employers.”

“You take care of that bitch,” Kinsington held out his hand, “I’ll take care of Jennifer.”

“You have yourself a deal,” Harrington put out his own hand and the men smiled as their deal was sealed.

“Father,” Thomas, who had been looking for his father, saw the two men shaking hands. “What’s going on here?”

“Nothing that concerns you, son,” Kinsington nodded to Harrington before turning to walk back to the stage depot.

“Good evening,” Harrington said to Thomas as he followed Kinsington.

“What the hell are they up to?” Thomas wondered.

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

PART 4

The sun’s rays were just starting to peek over the mountains in the east, the sky unsurprising cloudless after another night of light rain. Jesse, with KC snug in the carry sack on her back, mounted Dusty, Moments before she had assisted Jennifer onto Blaze while Mary mounted her borrowed horse. Jesse made a last visual check of the ranch buildings. Satisfied nothing looked amiss, she knew it was time to leave.

“Ready, darlin’?” she asked Jennifer.

“Yes. Mother are you ready?”

“Yes, dear.”

“Okay, let’s go,” Jesse tapped her heals against Dusty’s sides and the large palomino started walking, Jennifer and Mary urged their horses forward. Boy had no choice but to follow since his lead was wrapped around Jesse’s saddle horn.

Jesse led the group due east from the ranch. Within an hour, they left the rolling hills of the valley floor behind them and entered the pine forest at the foot of the mountain range. At first, with no trail to follow, Jesse guided Dusty through the trees and underbrush picking the best path as they rode. As their horses kept pace with Dusty, Jennifer and Mary looked in awe at the splendor of the terrain they were traveling.

Ponderosa pines standing hundreds of feet high and with trunks several feet in diameter surrounded them. The reddish brown bark shone bright wherever the sun’s rays penetrated the dense canopy above. The recent rains had encouraged wildflowers to bloom and the forest floor was carpeted in a mixture of yellows, blues, and reds. Squirrels chattered at them and birds were heard singing and chirping in the tree’s branches. Occasionally, deer or elk bounded through the trees after being startled by the group of riders.

It was late morning when Jesse pulled Dusty to a halt next to a small creek. “Let’s take a break,” she said as she swung her leg over Dusty’s back.

“How ya doin’, darlin’?” Jesse asked Jennifer, helping her to the ground.

“So far, so good,” Jennifer gingerly put weight on her damaged leg, it was sore but seemed alright. She took her cane from the, otherwise, empty rifle scabbard on her saddle.

“This is beautiful,” Mary said, walking to the edge of the creek where the forest yielded to a small clearing covered in pine needles and moss. Small boulders were jumbled in the creek, it’s water washing over and around them. A few more boulders were scattered about the clearing, providing handy places to sit and rest. A large pine tree, probably blown down the previous winter, lay on it’s side stretching from the clearing across the creek and back into the forest on the opposite bank. The creek’s waters flowing under the fallen tree.

“Water’s a little dirty,” Jesse commented as she and Jennifer joined Mary. She noticed the creek was muddier than usual.

“Is that bad?” Jennifer asked as she sat on one of the larger boulders.

“May mean trouble up higher,” Jesse slipped her arms free of the carry sack and gently placed it next to Jennifer. She helped KC out of it, “let’s check your britches, sunshine.”

KC, released from the carry sack’s confinement, started scooting for the rock’s edge.

“Hold on there, squirt,” Jesse grabbed KC before she could get too far. “You stay right here with momma while I get you a fresh diaper.”

“Pftttt,” KC expressed her disappointment over not being allowed to play.

Jennifer lifted the pouting baby into her lap. “Sweetie,” she said to KC, “I know you want to play but you need to stay with mommy or me or your grandma, okay?”

KC continued to pout.

Jennifer kissed the baby’s forehead, “I don’t want you to get hurt. So, you be a good girl and, I promise, mommy and I will let you play when we stop for the night. Okay?”

“That’s right, sunshine,” Jesse returned with the pack Jennifer had filled with the baby’s diapers and clothes. “You be a good girl and I’ll take ya in the creek after supper.”

KC cheered somewhat with her mothers’ promises, but she was still disappointed she wasn’t going to get to play until later.

Mary had been exploring the clearing and spotted what looked like a path coming out of the trees on the opposite side of the creek, then turning to follow the creek eastward. “Is that the trail, Jesse?”

Jesse didn’t look up from changing KC’s soiled diaper, “Yep. It’s an old Indian trail, this end isn’t used much any more. It’ll take us all the way to the pass and down the other side.”

“Why don’t they use it anymore?” Jennifer could just make out the overgrown path from where she sat.

“It’s not safe for them, now. Not with so many white men in the valley. They still use it from the other side to reach the pass and the hunting grounds near the summit.”

“Will we run into Indians?” Mary asked, suddenly concerned for the group’s safety.

“Maybe,” Jesse finished with the baby and sat her up. “There ya go, sunshine. All ready until we stop again.” Returning her attention to Mary’s question, “might be a hunting party around. But, I don’t expect we’ll have any trouble with them, most are pretty friendly unless you give ’em a reason not to be.”

“Oh,” Mary said regretting her apprehension. She knew her fear was wrong, especially after the pleasant evening she had enjoyed with Walks on the Wind. Realizing how affable the man was, she had wondered why the Indians were generally referred to as savages or worse. Back home, she had read many gruesome newspaper accounts of violent Indian attacks against settlers but Walks on the Wind had said his father had been attacked and killed by white men. She’d talked to Jesse about that and had been surprised by her daughter-in-law’s response.

“Been bad things done by folks on both sides,” Jesse said sadly. “I’ve learned it’s best not judge a fella by what his kinfolk have or haven’t done. Way I figure it, there’s good and bad in every group of people so I try to take each person for who they are, not what they are.”

It was good advice and it showed Mary that she was going to have to work a lot harder to overcome her own preconceptions of the native people.

Jesse carried the pack back to Boy and tied it in place. She retraced her steps to place KC back into the carry sack and found the child anxiously waiting for her.

“Mommy, go,” KC said as Jesse approached. If she couldn’t play here, she wanted to get to where she could. And, the sooner the better.

“Alright, sunshine,” Jesse bent down and lifted the baby.

“Here, let me help,” Jennifer stood and took the baby allowing Jesse to slip her arms into the straps of the carry sack. She placed KC into the pocket of the sack and made sure the baby was comfortable, “all set.”

Jesse turned to face Jennifer, pulling her wife into a hug, “I love you.”

Jennifer melted into Jesse’s embrace. “Mmmm,” she sighed, she wasn’t sure what prompted Jesse declaration but she was glad to share it, “I love you, too.”

“Wuv,” KC, not wanting to be left out, added as she wrapped her little arms around Jesse’s neck and squeezed hard.

“Ack,” Jesse laughed, choking a little. “Not so tight, sunshine.”

Jennifer reached up and gently loosened the baby’s grip, “you’re getting strong, KC.” Then, she smiled as she thought about her words, “she is, isn’t she, Jesse?”

“Yep,” Jesse agreed, “she’s not the littl’ tyke we found, any more.”

“No, she’s not,” Jennifer looked at the baby on Jesse’s back. No longer the tiny infant they had discovered buried under the remains of a burned out wagon, KC was growing into a healthy, resilient child. “She’s getting so big,” Jennifer said sadly as she remembered the infant, “she’s not a baby anymore.”

Chuckling, Jesse tightened her hold on her tearful wife, “darlin’, she’s still a baby. Don’t go marryin’ her off just yet.”

Jennifer sighed deeply. “I’m being silly,” she sheepishly grinned at the rancher.

“Nah,” Jesse leaned to kiss sweet lips, “you’re just bein’ a momma.”

“I am, aren’t I?” Jennifer smile widened. It was amazing, right here in this little forest clearing, she had everything she had ever dreamed of. A spouse she loved and loved her in return, and a beautiful child. Happiness. Then she remembered the threat looming over that happiness and her thoughts darkened. “Let’s get going,” she pulled out of Jesse’s embrace. “We’ve rested enough.”

“Alright,” Jesse could guess the cause of Jennifer’s sudden mood change and she agreed it was time to get moving. “Ready, Mary?” she called to her mother-in-law.

“Yes, I’m coming.”

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

Jesse guided the horses through the shallow water of the creek and onto the trail. It showed evidence of once being a well used path, wide enough for two people to have walked side-by-side along it’s surface of hard packed dirt covered by leaves and pine needles. The trail paralleled the creek as it wound it’s way east through the forest to the mouth of a canyon. After a mile or two, the trail began a gradual ascent with the path narrowing and becoming rocky and irregular, making travel more difficult for the horses and riders. The trail started to distance itself from the creek and, though soon lost from sight, the riders continued to hear the water tumbling and cascading down the canyon to the valley now far behind them.

The further into the canyon Jesse led the group, the closer the canyon’s steep stone cliffs closed in on them. At one point, Mary was sure she could easily have lobbed a rock from one canyon wall to the other.

The trail eventually found it’s way back alongside the creek and the horses were making their way across a sandy stretch enclosed by a rocky ledge on the one side and the creek running along the other. It was a welcome break for the horses who had spent the better part of the last miles picking their way along the rough stone littered path.

Being so close to the creek’s waters did little to relieve the heat building in the canyon. As the sun beat down, it’s warmth was absorbed by the rock and radiated back out, baking everything between the canyon walls. Jesse, sweat rolling off her back where KC sat, started to look for a camping spot. They would stop as soon as she could find an adequate location.

Riding at the front of the group, Jesse could not see the strained features of Jennifer’s face. Her leg had begun to throb and ache and no matter how many times the schoolteacher adjusted her position in the saddle, she could not ease the pain. Jennifer looked up at the sky and saw that the sun was well past the midday point, she was sure Jesse would be calling an end to the day’s travels sometime soon. She knew she only had to tell Jesse to stop and the rancher would do so immediately but she refused to say anything. She would wait to rest her leg, first she wanted to get her family as far away from her father as she could. And, she was more than willing to endure any pain to do so.

The horses crested a rise and the rocky, uneven trail leveled and smoothed. A small clearing opened before the riders. Jesse looked around, the creek was close, the ground was relatively level, there were plenty of trees for shade and a good supply of firewood laying about.

“We’re camping here,” she announced and wasn’t surprised when she heard no objections.

Jesse swung herself down from Dusty and turned to help Jennifer who was struggling to dismount. The rancher grabbed the schoolteacher around the waist and carefully placed her on the ground. When Jennifer maintained her hold on the saddle and made no attempt to remove herself from Jesse’s steadying hands, the rancher knew something was wrong. She scooped Jennifer up into her arms and carried her to a nearby tree, setting her wife down softly on the bed of pine needles at it’s base.

“How bad is it?”

“It’s not too bad,” Jennifer lied. “I just need to rest it for a while.”

“You should have said something,” Jesse scolded as she slipped KC and her carry sack off her back.

“Here’s some water,” Mary walked up, handing Jennifer a canteen. “You don’t look well, daughter,” she knelt beside Jennifer, extremely concerned about the paleness of her skin. When she placed her hand against Jennifer’s cheek, the skin felt damp and clammy.

“I’m okay,” Jennifer tried to smile but the pain was too great. “I just need to rest.”

“Stay with her, Mary,” Jesse said, “I need to take care of the horses.”

“Momma,” KC crawled to where Jennifer sat and started to climb onto her good leg, “yum.”

“Are you hungry, sweetie?” Jennifer reached to lift the baby into her lap but stopped immediately when the action caused a stab of pain to shoot up her leg.

“You sit still,” Mary placed KC next to Jennifer. “I’ll help Jesse.”

Jesse had pulled the saddles and packs off the horses and was standing near the creek letting the animals enjoy a long drink. Mary knelt by the packs and began to open the ones holding the cooking utensils and food. Each woman, feeling guilty for not paying closer attention to Jennifer’s discomfort during the day’s ride, kept a remorseful eye on the schoolteacher.

Happy to be out of her carry sack and unaware of her momma’s suffering, KC pulled herself upright against Jennifer’s shoulder, she stood on wobbly legs pointing and telling her momma about the surrounding sights. Jennifer tried to pay attention to KC’s gibberish but she found it hard as she watched Jesse and her mother prepare the campsite. She was exasperated and annoyed at not being able to help.

Jesse let Dusty and Blaze loose, knowing they would not wander far, but Boy and Mary’s borrowed horse were picketed next to the creek with a good supply of grass within reach. Next, she set to work getting the campsite set up. Water for cooking and cleaning was brought from the creek, a fire was started and bedrolls were laid out. She made sure Mary had everything she needed to prepare their supper, even offering to help cook but Mary had insisted she could manage on her own. With nothing else to keep her from Jennifer, the embarrassed rancher walked to where Jennifer waited.

“I got your bed ready, darlin’,” Jesse knelt beside Jennifer. “It’ll be more comfortable than sitting here on the ground. I’m so sorry, Jennifer,” Jesse blurted, cupping her hand on the side of her wife’s face, “I should have been payin’ closer attention. I should have stopped hours ago.”

“Jesse,” Jennifer’s eyes filled with tears when she saw the mortified look on her lover’s face. “You have nothing to be sorry for, sweetheart. I should have said something but,” she leaned into Jesse’s touch, “I wanted to get as far away from Sweetwater as we could. I’m so sorry.”

Jesse moved so she could sit behind Jennifer and lovingly wrapped her arms around her wife, Jennifer gratefully leaned back into her embrace.

“Come on, KC,” Mary walked over and lifted the baby. “Let’s get you pants changed and then you can help me make supper,” she told the baby, knowing the women needed some time alone.

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

Jennifer awoke to the sound of water splashing and KC giggling.

“Hush, sunshine,” Jesse whispered, “we don’t want to wake momma.”

“Otay,” KC whispered back but, as babies will do, continued making noise.

Jennifer opened her eyes to discover the sun was well up in the sky. “Guess yesterday took more out of me than I thought,” she said, not thinking anyone would hear.

“It sure seemed to.” Mary was sitting close by, she had been watching Jesse and KC play as Jennifer slept.

Jennifer grimaced as she stretched to work out the kinks that sleeping on the ground can cause. The night before, Jesse, unable to provide a hot bath for her wife, had soaked towels in hot water and wrapped them around the leg. Just before they went to bed, the rancher had lovingly massaged her tired body, lavishing special attention on her leg. By the time sleep claimed Jennifer, the pain had lessened considerably. Unfortunately, stretching the muscles had reawakened the raw nerves.

“I’d ask how your leg was, but seeing the look on your face, I think I have a pretty good idea,” Mary frowned. She was still feeling guilty for not noticing Jennifer’s distress the day before. “Are you hungry?”

“A little,” Jennifer smiled to ease her mother’s concern, “and, the leg isn’t as bad as I expected. Isn’t much worse than a normal morning.”

Mary knew better than to question Jennifer any further. For her daughter, the leg was just a fact of her life now and didn’t need to be discussed. It had taken Mary some time to understand, that for Jennifer, it was easier not to have to talk about the leg because that kept away the awful memories of the cougar’s attack and Andrew Barrish’s death. She appreciated that Jennifer lived with a great deal of pain and soreness, and had come to respect how she never allowed herself to complain.

As more laughter floated across the campsite, Jennifer propped herself up on her elbows so she could see what KC was doing that sounded so fun. Jesse was sitting in a small, shallow pool with KC sitting on her legs and the two were splashing each other unmercifully. The pool was encircled by several large stones that separated it’s calm water from the creek rushing beside it. Jennifer didn’t recall seeing the pool the night before so she figured Jesse must have created it that morning. Jennifer chuckled as she watched her wife and daughter play.

“Jesse sure has a way with the child,” Mary observed as she followed Jennifer’s eyes toward the creek.

“Yes, she does,” Jennifer, now fully awake, realized how warm the day was and how hot she was under the blankets covering her lower body. She threw the blankets aside, “and, KC simply adores her,”

“Seems she adores both of you,” Mary told her.

“Momma,” the movement of the blankets attracted the attention of KC.

“Good morning, sweetie,” Jennifer called to the baby. “You’re not getting mommy too wet, are you?” she laughed when KC punched her little fists into the pool causing water to fly everywhere.

“Afternoon, darlin’,” Jesse held up her hands to protect herself against KC’s assault.

“Afternoon?” Jennifer questioned.

“Yes, dear,” Mary explained. “Jesse didn’t want to wake you, she said you needed to rest. She does look after you, doesn’t she?”

That was one of the things Jennifer loved most about Jesse, she was always there for her. Even when she didn’t think she needed it, her wife would surprise her with a thoughtful word or action and her heart would melt all over again. Like now, when she looked to the pool and saw the center of her life playing with their baby as if they didn’t have a care in the world.

“Yes, mother,” Jennifer sighed, contently, “she does.”

Jesse stood up, lifting KC from the water as she did. The baby was not happy to be removed from the pool but Jesse whispered something in her ear and KC smiled and nodded. Jesse sloshed to the edge of the pool, her long legs making short work of the distance to the campsite.

“Jesse!,” suddenly Jennifer became aware that Jesse was as naked as KC.

“How ya doin’?” Jesse settled on the bedroll next to Jennifer, the sun’s warmth making quick work of drying the water droplets remaining on her tanned skin. KC climbed from Jesse’s lap onto Jennifer’s.

“You’re naked,” Jennifer whispered.

Jesse scratched her head, bewildered at Jennifer’s comment, “usually am when I take a bath.”

“But, Jesse,” Jennifer wrapped her discarded blanket around the rancher, “someone could see you.”

“Darlin’,” Jesse laughed, “ain’t nobody around here for miles. How’s the leg?” she turned serious.

“It hurts,” remembering how hurt Jesse had been the day before when she’d kept her leg’s condition to herself, Jennifer decided to tell Jesse the truth. “I don’t think I can ride very far today.”

“No problem,” Jesse bent to kiss Jennifer, “we’re staying here. Aren’t we, sunshine?”

“Yep,” KC said proudly.

Jennifer laughed as the baby imitated Jesse, “how long have you been working on getting her to say that?”

“A while,” Jesse smirked. “Thought since she looks like you, she should sound like me.”

“Oh, you did,” Jennifer shook her head, amused, “I’m not sure I’m ready for that.”

“Too late,” Jesse told her. “Come on, KC,” Jesse placed a hand on the baby’s back to steady her, “get off your momma so she can get up.”

“Otay,” KC swung her feet off Jennifer’s side, she slipped off to sit next to Jesse on the bedroll.

Mary brought a cup of stew to Jennifer.

“Thank you, mother,” Jesse accepted the cup, thinking about what Jesse said. “Sweetheart, maybe we shouldn’t stay here today. Father could already be in Sweetwater.”

“Darlin’,” Jesse was too concerned about Jennifer’s leg to care where her father-in-law was, “we don’t know that he’s even arrived in the territory, yet. And even if he has, he can’t find us here. Very few people know about this trail and the one’s that do, won’t be tellin’ him anything. Besides,” she delicately ran her hand the length of Jennifer’s leg, “you need to rest.”

“But,” Jennifer wasn’t convinced her determined father wouldn’t be able to find them.

“No,” Jesse said softly. “We stay here today. Tomorrow, if we have to.”

“Alright,” Jennifer agreed. There really was no point to argue. Jesse was right, her leg needed the rest,

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

“Miles, what in the hell were you thinking?” Conrad Billingsley demanded.

The citizens of Sweetwater crowded into the dining room of the Silver Slipper, it being the largest room in the town for such a gathering. The day before, the Gazette had broken the story of the mayor’s association with the eastern investment group and of the guarantees he had provided them. It hadn’t taken long for a town meeting to be called.

“It’s good for Sweetwater,” Miles Perkins, the embroiled mayor, tried to worm his way out of the fact he had promised rights to valley resources he did not own or control.

“I’m not giving up my water rights so some group of dandies back east can dig up a mountain,” Billingsley continued. Conrad Billingsley had come west after serving in the conflict between the northern and southern states, and had been the first rancher to pound in a stake claiming part of the valley as his own. He built his Rocking B ranch into the largest in the valley and, with it, he owned more than half the valley’s water rights.

“They will compensate you, Conrad,” Perkins told the angry man. “Rather handsomely, I might add.”

“You fool,” Billingsley reached for the mayor’s neck, “I can’t water my herds on their greenbacks.”

“Back off,” Billie Monroe, Sweetwater’s sheriff, stepped between the two men before any harm came to the mayor. “Sit down, Conrad,” Billie commanded the rancher. “We need to talk about this but I’m not going to let anyone get hurt.”

“He promised them my water rights,” Billingsley stood his ground.

“And mine,” Marcus Butler, owner of another of the valley’s biggest ranches said. “I don’t care how much money this Harrington and his investment group plans to pay, I’m not selling those rights.”

“SIT,” Billie was tired of everyone trying to out shout the others, “so we can discuss what we can do.”

“Hang the bastard,” someone yelled, many others in the crowd quickly voicing their agreement.

Perkins blanched, he instinctively reached for his throat as if a noose was tightening around it.

“No one’s going to be hanged,” Billie told the angry people. “I know what Miles did was wrong and he’ll pay. As for selling your rights, you don’t have to accept their offers.”

“Billie’s right,” Thaddeus Newby walked from where he had been watching the proceedings to stand next to the sheriff. It was the front page article in his newspaper that had alerted Sweetwater’s residents to their mayor’s activities. “You can tell Harrington and his group you refuse, just like Jesse and Jennifer did.”

“What about Jesse?” Billingsley asked the newspaperman.

“Tha’ Harrington waltzed in here and said he was ta buy the Slipper,” Bette Mae told the room. “Miles done told him they’d be happy to sell.”

“I did not,” Perkins protested. “I simply said that Jesse and Jennifer were too busy to bother with this place,” his arm swept around the room. “And, that they’d probably be real glad to have someone offer to take it off their hands.”

“What ’bout me and the girls?” Bette Mae glared at the mayor. “What was we supposed ta do?”

“I’m sure you could find jobs in Bozeman or Bannack or one of the mining camps,” the mayor explained. “After all, your services aren’t exactly dependent on Sweetwater.”

“Why ya littl’…….” Bette Mae stormed towards the arrogant mayor.” Several of the women who worked for the Slipper followed close behind.

At one time, the Silver Slipper had provided gambling, drinking and prostitution to the miners and cowboys in the valley. But after being won by Jesse in a card game, the drunks and dishonest card dealers were tossed out and the use of the building’s second floor rooms by the ‘working women’ was stopped. Jesse kept part of the main floor as a saloon and turned the rest of the Slipper into a boarding house and restaurant. The women who had once plied their trade in the upstairs rooms had become the Slipper’s card dealers, maids, and cooks and took great pride in the new professions.

“Stop,” Billie moved in front of the angry women. “Killing him won’t solve anything, Bette Mae,” he told her even though, after hearing the mayor’s offensive remarks, he could have killed the man himself for insulting the Slipper’s employees which just happened to include his fiancé.

“Miles Perkins,” loud and clear, a voice from the middle of the room cut through the confusion of angry shouts. “I knew you were a horse’s ass when I married you, but I will not sit here and listen to you say such terrible things.”

“Why now, I think Mayor Perkins simply spoke the truth. The Silver Slipper is nothing but a whorehouse. And, it’s scandalous that decent folks are expected to allow such an establishment in their town.”

Everyone in the room looked to see Tobias Harrington standing just inside the Slipper’s front door. At his side stood Martin Kinsington and another man.

“Kinsington, what the hell are you doing back here?” Ed Grainger roared, seeing the easterner brought back the memory of fear on Jennifer’s face just days before when she and Jesse had come to town with the news of her father’s intentions to return to Sweetwater.

“Mr. Kinsington has a right to be here,” Harrington, confidently, told Ed.

“Like hell he does,” Bette Mae turned her anger away from the mayor and at the man who had caused Jesse and Jennifer so much pain.

“Who the hell is that?” Billingsley and Butler both demanded at the same time, having never seen Harrington before.

“Mr. Harrington, it’s so good to see you again,” Mayor Perkins, anxious to focus the room’s attention onto someone else, literally ran to greet his benefactor. An action his dismayed wife could not recall ever seeing before.

“That’s Harrington?” Billingsley started for the small man at the door.

All at once, everyone in the room was shouting, their rage directed at Harrington, Kinsington and Perkins, individually or together depending on their situation. Chairs were overturned and tables knocked aside as folks jumped to get closer to the men standing near the front door.

“Dammit,” Billie yelled over the growing bedlam. “Everyone calm down.”

Seeing the hostile crowd surging towards them, Thomas Kinsington pulled his father and Harrington back out the door. Mayor Perkins squeezed through the opening seconds before Thomas yanked the door shut for the slight protection it might provide. “Run,” he directed the men.

“Where?” Harrington asked.

“This way,” Perkins took off down the stairs like a stick of dynamite had been stuck up his…. well, um…. okay, under his shoes.

“My office.” Harrington and Kinsington followed immediately as Thomas continued to hold the door against the frantic efforts to open it from inside the Slipper. As he felt the door slowly begin to be pulled from his grasp, Thomas heard a shot inside the building. Releasing his grip, he took off at a run after the others.

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

Inside the Slipper, chaos had taken over. Shouting, pushing, arguing, everyone seemed to have a different idea as to what should be done with Kinsington and Harrington and Perkins. And, they were voicing their opinions quite loudly and freely.

Thaddeus looked at Billie, “another orderly meeting of Sweetwater’s finest.” His tone mocking as he remembered a night not too long ago that he and Billie had faced another out of control mob.

“Seems there’s only one way to get their attention,” Billie pulled the pistol from the holster he wore around his waist.

“Jesse won’t like another hole in her ceiling,” Thaddeus said as he saw the gun in the sheriff’s hand.

“Doubt if she’d like them tearing the place up,” Billie pointed the gun towards the ceiling and pulled the trigger.

BANG!!

Everyone froze.

“Please,” Billie told at the crowd, “sit down.” He was smiling but his tone was anything but happy. Folks continued to murmur between themselves as they followed the sheriff’s order.

Conrad Billingsley, still standing next to the Slipper’s door which he had just about managed to pull open when the gun was fired, asked Billie, “what you plan to do about Miles?”

“And, Kinsington?” Bette Mae added.

“You’re letting them get away,” someone in the room shouted.

“No one is getting away,” Billie calmly replied, his gun remained in his hand, ready if needed. “Miles won’t go any further than his office and I’m sure the others are with him.”

“So, what are you going to do?” Billingsley repeated.

“I’ll go over there and talk to them. Before you say anything, Bette Mae, I’m arresting Kinsington for violating his release agreement.”

“You can tell that Harrington, I’m not selling my water rights. No matter how much he plans to pay,” Billingsley said, many others echoed his sentiment.

“Alright,” Billie nodded, “I’ll tell him. Now, I want you all to go back to your own business.”

“This is our business,” Butler said angrily, from where he stood by Billingsley.

“I know that,” Billie, just as angry, shouted back. “Let me handle this. Anyone that wants to can come by my office and file a complaint against Mayor Perkins. The judge will have to sort all that out when he comes to town next month. Until then, I’ll tell Harrington the deals he made with the mayor are invalid. He’ll have to approach each of you individually and you can make your own deals with him, if you have a mind to. Okay?”

“Alright, Billie,” Billingsley nodded to the sheriff. “We’ll let you handle it for now. But, if that man sets one foot on my property, I’ll blow his head off.”

“You talkin’ Harrington or Perkins?” Butler asked.

“Both.”

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

After the townsfolk cleared out of the Slipper, Billie took a moment to talk to Ruthie.

“Billie,” the young woman was worried about the sheriff facing the mayor and other men alone, “why don’t you take Mr. Grainger and Mr. Newby with you?”

“I’ll be fine, honey,” Billie assured his fiancé, “and Thaddeus is coming with me. He’ll be wantin’ to write it up in the Gazette.”

“You be careful,” Ruthie wasn’t appeased at all. “I don’t trust Miss Jennifer’s father. And, he brought that other man with him who looks just as mean.”

“I’ll be careful.”

“Billie, ya ain’t plannin’ ta keep tha’ sorry excuse for a papa in your jail, are ya?” Bette Mae walked up to the couple. “‘Cause, I’m thinkin’, he ain’t goin’ be too safe there. ‘Specially since, I do all the cookin’ for your prisoners,” she grinned, wickedly.

“Hope that’s not a threat,” Billie glared at Bette Mae.

“Yes, sir,” she sneered, “tha’s ‘xactly what tha’ is.”

Billie thought for a moment. He knew Bette Mae disliked Jennifer’s father. Disliked probably wasn’t a strong enough word to describe her feelings, yet she wasn’t about to poison the man. At least, he didn’t think so. However, she just might be willing to make him a little sick. Okay, probably much more than a little sick.

“You promise not to poison him,” Billie smirked, “and I’ll take him to Deer Lodge in the morning.” The territory’s prison was located in the small town on the other side of the mountains.

“Make sure ya git the nastiest horse the livery has to drag his sorry butt there,” Bette Mae huffed as she started to straighten up the mess left behind by Sweetwater’s citizenry.

“I’ve got to go,” Billie told Ruthie as Bette Mae walked away. “I won’t be able to see you tonight, I’ll have to stay at the jail.”

“Alright,” Ruthie smiled, demurely, “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Billie, after a quick check to make sure Bette Mae wasn’t watching, pecked her on the cheek.

“Be careful,” Ruthie’s face was tinted by a blush.

“I will.” Billie walked to the door, “come on, Thaddeus.”

“Right behind you,” the newspaper editor smiled, he had watched the exchange between the couple and knew a story when he saw one. Billie would be answering some questions of his own before the day was done.

Billie and Thaddeus went straight to the sheriff’s office after leaving the Slipper. Billie took a shotgun out of the rack behind his desk and loaded it, putting extra shells in his pocket. The sheriff marched out of his office and walked the few steps to the office next door, the newspaper editor on his heels. Without warning, Billie kicked in the door of the mayor’s office. “Nobody move,” he leveled the shotgun at the room’s occupants.

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

Mayor Perkins sat at his desk while Harrington paced nervously about the room. Martin Kinsington and his son sat in chairs opposite the desk watching the irritated man.

“Perkins,” Harrington stopped momentarily to look out the window at the Slipper. Seeing no activity outside the building, he continued, “your mess just keeps getting bigger.”

“But, I,” Perkins tried.

“Shut up,” Harrington was pacing again. “I have to think. Martin, you dealt with these people. What do you think they’ll do next?”

“Father, what in the hell have you gotten us missed up in?” Thomas couldn’t believe the angry reactions his father’s appearance had provoked from some of the people in the Slipper. Not to mention, the open hostility shown towards Harrington.

“Be quiet,” Kinsington hissed. “You wanted to come along. Don’t start questioning it now.”

“I said we’d talk to Jennifer, nothing more.”

“Look,” Harrington slammed a fist down on the mayor’s desk, “right now, I don’t give a damn about your family problems. I have a job to do. A job that seems to have just gotten much more complicated thanks to you, Perkins,” he snarled at the mayor. “But, nonetheless, I have every intention of doing as my employers have ordered. Now,” he demanded, “I need to know what the townspeople are likely to do and how I can…..”

The door burst open and the men were shocked to find themselves looking down the barrel of a loaded shotgun held in the sheriff’s rock solid hands.

“Nobody move.” Billie stared at each of the four men, making sure they knew he was serious. “Martin Kinsington,” he focused on the large man, “you are in violation of your agreement to never return to Montana Territory. By order of the Bozeman court, I’m placing you under arrest.”

“Just a minute,” Kinsington started to stand.

“Don’t move,” Billie ordered.

“Father,” Thomas saw that the sheriff was in no mood for a confrontation. “Sit down, please.”

“I will not have this incompetent lawman arrest me again,” Kinsington shook off his son.

“Kinsington, you take one more step and I’ll blow a hole clean through you,” Billie calmly aimed the shotgun’s barrel at the man’s chest. “And,” he smiled viciously, “I’ll take great pleasure in pulling the trigger.”

Realizing, the sheriff meant what he said, Kinsington stopped.

“Just a minute, sheriff,” Harrington protested, “you have no authority to arrest Mr. Kinsington.”

“Shut up,” Billie hissed. “You have enough of your own trouble, Mr. Harrington, without taking on this. By the way, any agreements you’ve made with Mayor Perkins are being declared invalid until the judge gets here next month. Until then, you talk directly with the property owners. If they want to deal, okay. If not, you get nothing.” He looked at the younger version of Kinsington sitting beside the man, “you related?”

“His son.”

“Jennifer’s brother?” Billie was surprised at the man’s identity.

“Yes.”

“You here to make trouble?”

“No, I just want to talk to her and my mother.”

“Guess that’s up to them,” Billie told him.

“Will you ask them to see me?”

For some reason, Billie trusted the younger man even though it didn’t make much sense considering his father’s unreasonable behavior. “Right now, I need to get your father to the jail and locked in a cell for the night. I’ll be taking him to Deer Lodge first thing in the morning. Once I get back, I’ll talk to Jesse and Jennifer.”

“Fair enough,” Thomas agreed knowing he couldn’t do much else.

“Let’s go, Kinsington,” Billie motioned for the man to accompany him.

“Don’t worry, Martin,” Harrington told his secret partner. “The marshal should be here, any day.”

“Marshal?” Thaddeus Newby had been quietly taking notes as he stood off to the side of the room.

“Yes,” Harrington puffed up, “my employers have arranged for a U.S. Marshal to be assigned to bring law to Sweetwater.”

“We have already have law here,” Thaddeus pointed at Billie with the end of his pencil.

“Honest law,” Harrington sneered. “Not someone to turn a blind eye on the unlawful acts of certain individuals.” Billie’s comments about shooting Kinsington had convinced him that his partner was telling the truth about the sheriff’s willingness to turn aside the law in order to protect the Branson women.

“What are you talking about?” Thaddeus asked.

“I think the sheriff knows the answer to that,” Harrington challenged.

“I don’t have time for your games,” Billie had no idea what Harrington was talking about and really didn’t care at the moment. “Come on, Kinsington,” Billie led the man from the room, Thomas followed at a safe distance.

“Care to explain your comments?” Thaddeus asked again after Billie left with his prisoner.

“No,” Harrington smugly replied as he sat on the edge of the mayor’s desk. “I think it will become apparent when the marshal arrives.”

“And, when will that be?”

“Any day, now.”

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

Jennifer woke up giggling with Jesse nipping and nuzzling her ear. It was still dark out and Jennifer was glad for the warmth of both their bedroll and Jesse’s body wrapped protectively around her. “Stop that,” she playfully batted at Jesse.

Jesse continued to suck on the silky earlobe before whispering back, “if your mother wasn’t sleeping on the other side of the fire, I’d be doing much more than this.” Her hot breath softly puffing across Jennifer’s skin and awakening other areas of her body.

Jennifer turned her head and captured Jesse’s busy lips with her own, she moaned quietly when her wife’s tongue traced around her mouth before seeking entrance. After several long moments of shared exploration, the women pulled apart.

“We can’t,” Jennifer whispered as she twisted her entire body to face Jesse’s.

“I know,” Jesse confessed. “But, this is good, too,” she smiled as she pulled Jennifer close. “How do you feel this morning?” she asked, hoping the day of rest had helped the schoolteacher’s leg recover.

“Well,” Jennifer stretched her leg, testing it for soreness and pain. “Actually,” she happily reported, “it feels pretty good.”

“Think you can ride?” Jesse kept her voice low since Mary and KC were still asleep and there was no reason to wake them if they weren’t going to break camp.

Jennifer was unsure how to answer, “how far would we be riding?”

“Summit is ’bout half a day’s ride,” Jesse told her, thinking that if they could make the summit, it would be enough riding for the day. “But, it’s rough trail the last few miles and the canyon really narrows at the top. We’ll have a drop off to one side and a steep cliff on the other. there’ll be no where to stop once we start up.”

“I think I’m ready,” Jennifer told Jesse but the worried look on her face said otherwise.

“You need to be sure, darlin’. We can stay here, for as long as you want,” Jesse didn’t want Jennifer to feel forced into continuing their journey,

Jennifer considered their options. They could remain in the camp, it was a nice spot and was probably far enough away from Sweetwater to keep them safe. On the other hand, she wasn’t sure how far her father would go to find her. Even if Billie arrested him, she was sure that he would never have returned to Montana without a plan to circumvent the prior agreement with the territory authorities. And, if he somehow found the trail they had taken out of the valley, they were less than a day’s ride from the ranch. No, it would be better to keep going. The more distance they could put between themselves and her father, the better they would be.

“I can make it,” Jennifer said, her determined tone more to convince herself than Jesse.

“Okay, if you’re sure,” Jesse looked into Jennifer’s eyes in order to catch any doubt that might flash through them.

“I’m sure, sweetheart,” Jennifer nodded, her jaw firmly set to the day’s task. “When should we leave?”

“As soon as we can, we’ll want to get to the top before the afternoon heat sets in,” she wasn’t sure Jennifer was telling her everything but she was just as anxious to reach the summit and put the worst part of their journey behind them.

“Alright,” Jennifer tried to push herself upright but found she was still securely held by the rancher.

“I love you,” Jesse placed a tender kiss on her lover’s lips. “What say, I see about catching us some fish for breakfast while you get the sleepy heads up,” she pulled away just as Jennifer tried to deepen the embrace.

“That wasn’t nice,” Jennifer pouted as Jesse sprang to her feet, leaving the schoolteacher alone in their bedroll. Well, almost alone. KC was tucked safely in the blankets where Jesse had placed her the night before.

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

The citizens of Sweetwater watched as freight wagon after freight wagon rumbled along the stage road and pulled into the open field next to the general store. Several men climbed down from their perches atop the heavy loads to help unpack the wagons. Mayor Perkins and Tobias Harrington rushed out of the mayor’s office to greet the wagons. Hearing the commotion, Thaddeus Newby quickly followed.

“Mr. Harrington,” one of the workers broke from the others to meet the men.

“You’re late,” Harrington grumbled as he hurried past the man’s outstretched arm to inspect the materials being unloaded. “Be careful, there,” he shouted at a couple of men struggling to unload a large, bulky box. “Anything broken will be deducted from your wages.”

“Mr. Harrington,” the first man turned to join the overseer. “My name is Frank Wilson. I’m the foreman sent to….”

“I know who you are and why you’re here,” Harrington kept his eyes on the workers. “Why are you late?”

Frank Wilson had not been happy to hear he would be working with Tobias Harrington in Sweetwater. The diminutive man was known in the mining camps for doing whatever was necessary to complete his assignments. He also had a well earned reputation for being rude, arrogant and uncooperative. But when orders came to pick up the building supplies in Bozeman, hire a work crew, and proceed to Sweetwater to build a bank and hotel for the company, Wilson complied. He only hoped Harrington would make himself scarce once he saw that the foreman was more than capable to carry out his orders without his help. Until then, he would have to try to get along with the supercilious man.

“We came as quick as we could. The loads were heavier than we expected, it’s been tough on the horses.”

“Humpth,” Harrington grunted. “You have the invoices, I assume.”

“Yes,” Wilson handed Harrington an envelope. “This is what they gave me.”

“Well, let’s hope you didn’t leave anything behind,” Harrington ripped open the envelope and began to scan the papers inside. “How soon can you start building?”

“Soon as we get unpacked and I get the men rooms at the boarding house.”

“You’ll find tents and cots among the items in the wagons. You can set the tents up there,” he pointed behind the site where the hotel would be built. “You and the men will be staying in them. I’ve hired a cook to prepare your meals. One of the tents will need to be set up near the creek for him.”

“What?” Wilson had been told to house the men wherever he saw fit. And, sleeping outside in a tent was not what he had in mind. Especially since he’d heard many stories about the Slipper’s clean rooms and good meals.

“Boarding house is off limits to employees of the company,” Harrington shoved the papers back inside the envelope and turned to return to the mayor’s office, now also his office. “I suggest you get the hotel built quickly if you don’t like the arrangements,” he told Wilson as he walked past him.

“Hey, wait a minute,” Wilson called after Harrington.

“Perkins will answer any other questions you may have,” Harrington never broke stride.

Wilson looked at the mayor who smiled nervously,

“Mr. Wilson, I have the buildings’ plans for you,” Perkins handed the disgruntled man several rolled up drawings. “The hotel is to be built on that lot,” he pointed across the street to the empty space next to the stage station, “and the bank is to built here,” he pointed to where the men were unloading the wagons, next to the general store. “You might want to stack your materials elsewhere.” he suggested.

“Damn,” Wilson took the drawings as he mumbled, “this is starting off great. You men,” he called to the workers, “stop unloading that stuff. We need to move the wagons further back.” Ah yes, he thought as he listened to the men grumble, he could tell that the coming weeks were going to be a lot of laughs.

“If you have any questions or require anything, you can find my office there,” Mayor Perkins pointed to the building on the other side of the general store. “Nice to meet you,” he said before scurrying away before the man could think of anything.

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

Sheriff Billie Monroe looked up as the door to his office opened and a form stepped through blocking out the late morning sunlight. He had planned to leave for Deer Lodge at first light but trouble with a couple of drunks at the Oxbow saloon had delayed his departure.

“I’m looking for the sheriff,” a man wearing a badge over his left breast said.

“I’m Sheriff Monroe,” Billie figured that the mysterious marshal Kinsington had been bragging about all morning had finally arrived. “How can I help you?”

The man stepped further into the small office and shut the door behind him. He stood about the same height as Billie but was thinner and older. He wore a faded blue cotton shirt tucked into a pair of denim pants. His well worn leather coat and boots were covered in trail dust. A black stetson sat on his head and was pulled down tight over his eyes. A thick salt and pepper handlebar mustache was about all of his face the sheriff could make out.

“I’m United States Marshal Bret Morgan,” the man pulled a wrinkled paper from his pocket. “I have an arrest warrant for one Jesse Branson.”

Billie was taken aback by the man’s announcement. “What the hell are you talking about?” Billie leaped out of his chair.

“I told you things would be changing around here,” Kinsington laughed. He was listening to the conversation from his cell.

“Shut up, Kinsington,” Billie shouted.

“Would that be Martin Kinsington?” the marshal asked.

“What if it is?” Billie really didn’t like the way this was going.

“Yes, marshal,” Kinsington called from his cell. “I am Martin Kinsington.”

The marshal reached back into his pocket and pulled a second wrinkled paper free, “I have a release order for Mr. Kinsington.”

“From who?” the dismayed sheriff asked.

“Territorial governor,” Morgan tossed both papers onto Billie’s desk. “All charges have been suspended pending investigation into the charges against Branson.”

“I don’t believe this,” Billie collapsed back into his chair. He picked up the papers and read them, very carefully. “You can’t be serious,” he told Morgan as he read. “There’s no truth to these charges.”

“That’s for a judge to decide. Where can I find her?”

“What’s up, Billie?” Thaddeus entered the room, he had seen the marshal enter the sheriff’s office from where he was watching the freight wagons being unloaded.

“See for yourself,” Billie handed the papers to the newspaperman before opening his desk drawer to retrieve the cell door keys.

“Now, sheriff,” Kinsington said as Billie unlocked his cell, “you can take me and the marshal to where my daughter and that bitch are.”

At that moment, Billie was very glad Jesse had the forethought to leave town with Jennifer and KC. “Sure,” he agreed knowing that he was about to lead the men on a wild goose hunt, “we can ride out to their ranch.”

“Billie, are you crazy?” Thaddeus looked up in surprise. Since Jesse and Jennifer had not told him of their plans, he assumed they would be at the ranch.

“Marshal has a warrant,” Billie told him. “I have to cooperate.”

“Jesse didn’t do this,” Thaddeus shook his head. “You’ll be giving her over to the hangman.”

“Why don’t you ride with us, Thaddeus?” Billie hoped his friend would, he could use his help in making the marshal’s job as hard as possible. Something he knew Thaddeus would be glad to do once he realized Billie wasn’t riding out to arrest Jesse.

“That’s a good idea,” Harrington proclaimed. “Then, you can write how that bitch is going to pay for her crimes and how Jennifer is going back east with me, where she belongs.”

“Dammit, Kinsington,” Billie grabbed his hat from a peg on the office wall, “don’t you ever get tired of making a fool out of yourself?”

“Father,” Thomas entered the sheriff’s office, expecting to find his father behind bars, “what’s happening?”

“We’re riding out to find your sister and arrest the bitch who took her from us.”

“You can’t do that,” Thomas was concerned how such an action would affect Jennifer.

“Sheriff, I’d like to get this taken care of as quickly as possible,” the marshal said, tired of all the talk. Especially, since he couldn’t figure out how half of it was possibly related to his stated business.

“Alright,” Billie nodded, “let’s go.”

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

The trail narrowed becoming increasingly rocky and treacherous. Recent rains had loosened the ground further up the canyon’s walls and rock slides had covered many stretches of trail with jagged stones. A few of the slides had been big enough to wash out small sections of trail. The women let the horses pick their own way around the obstacles as they slowly made their way towards the summit. Jesse knew they were rapidly approaching the point where turning around would be impossible, she had to stop and ask Jennifer how she was doing.

Choosing a spot where the trail widened as it re-entered the cover of trees for a short stretch, Jesse pulled Dusty to a stop. “Jennifer,” she turned as her wife rode up beside her, “if we have to turn around, this is the place to do it.”

Jennifer knew what Jesse was asking. She took her booted foot out of the stirrup and tested the leg. It was sore and she had begun to feel a little pain about an hour before but it didn’t feel too bad.

“How far to the top?” she asked as she reached behind Jesse to give KC a drink from her canteen.

“Three miles,” Jesse drank from her own canteen, “four, at the most.”

“Mother, how are you doing?” Jennifer wanted to hear her mother’s answer before she made any decision.

“I’m fine,” Mary had dismounted to stretch her own legs. “I can make another few miles.”

“It’s going to be rough,” Jesse told both women. “Rougher than what we’ve already seen.”

Mary considered this information. The past few hours she had spent holding on to the saddle horn with a death grip hoping that her borrowed horse wouldn’t suffer a misstep that sent both of them plunging down the steep slope to the creek now several hundred feet below them. If the miles ahead were worse…….. Of course, once they reached the summit, the frightening trail would be behind them.

“I can go on,” Mary remounted.

Jennifer reached for Jesse’s hand and brought it to her mouth, placing a tender kiss on the soft skin. “I’m okay, sweetheart.”

“Alright,” Jesse wanted to get to the summit as much as the other women. “Let’s check KC’s britches and get moving. If we don’t run into trouble we should make the summit in a couple of hours.” They wasted no time in seeing to the baby’s needs and getting back on the trail.

Half the distance to the summit had been covered when Dusty rounded a granite outcropping and came to a stop. The trail ahead was gone, washed away by a mudslide.

“What’s wrong?” Jennifer asked, Blaze had yet to clear the outcropping and she could only see the back end of Dusty..

“Wash out,” Jesse told her. Carefully, she stood in the stirrups to get a better look at how much of the trail had been washed away. “Damn,” Jesse muttered, frustrated that she couldn’t see an end to the damaged section. There was no way to turn the horses around and go back and it was too dangerous to try to back them down the trail. She would have to find a way across.

“Stay there,” Jesse told Jennifer, “I’m coming back to you.” She looked to her left, the slope of the mountain was almost perpendicular and covered in debris from the slide. To her right, the drop was just as steep and she couldn’t see the bottom.

“Easy girl,” she settled Dusty before trying to dismount. With the baby on her back, she didn’t need Dusty getting nervous just now. Jesse turned her head to look into the baby’s eyes, “sunshine, I need you to sit very still. Okay.”

Sensing the danger, KC whispered, “otay.”

Jesse edged Dusty as close to the left as possible, then carefully swung her leg over the saddle. She made sure her foot was on solid ground before putting all her weight on her leg. Carefully, she worked her way down Dusty’s side, breathing a sigh of relief when she reached the trail behind the horse.

“Sweetheart?” Jennifer saw the trepidation on Jesse’s face.

Jesse was glad to see that the section of trail where Jennifer and Mary waited was actually wider than she thought. It would provide a place for them to wait without worrying about being right next to the edge. It wasn’t a lot but it would have to do.

“Mudslide took the trail out,” Jesse helped Jennifer and Mary carefully dismount.

“What are we going to do?” Jennifer asked.

“You’re staying here,” Jesse took a deep breath. “I’m going to lead Dusty across and set a trail.”

“Jesse, no,” Jennifer shook her head violently. “We can go back.”

“Darlin’,” Jesse placed her hands around Jennifer’s face, “we can’t. Not without leaving the horses.”

“Jesse, please,” the schoolteacher was scared that Jesse would fall down the mountain.

“Listen,” Jesse tried to assure her wife, “Dusty is the most sure-footed horse I know. We’ll go slow and find a way across. Then, I’ll come back for you.”

“No, Jesse,” Jennifer was on the verge of tears. “I can’t lose you,” she whispered, desperately.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Jesse wiped the tears away with her thumbs. “I promise, darlin’,” she smiled, “I’ll be back.”

“Jesse,” Mary wrapped her arms around her distraught daughter, “are you sure that’s the only way?”

“Mary,” Jesse answered quietly, “you know what lays behind us. This slide can’t be that long, we’re almost to the top. I’ll be back before you know it.”

“Be careful,” Jennifer pleaded.

Jesse pulled Jennifer close and kissed her. With her own voice full of emotion, she told the woman she loved more than anything, “I love you, Jennifer. You are my life, I won’t lose you now.” She swung the pack off her back and handed KC to Jennifer. “I love you,” she kissed the baby’s forehead. “You be a good girl.”

“Wuv,” KC threw her arms around Jesse and held tight.

“I love you, Jesse,” Jennifer gently pulled the baby off Jesse. “Come back.”

“I will, I promise,” Jesse said before turning to work her way back to Dusty.

“Okay, girl,” Jesse rubbed Dusty’s head. “Let’s get this done, we have people counted on us.” She turned to survey her options of a path through the debris field. It didn’t look good, rocks, tree branches, and dried mud covered the mountain side in front of her. “Guess there’s only one way to do this,” she said as she started to pick her way across the rubble. She held the reins loosely in her hand, not wanting to be pulled over the side if Dusty lost her footing.

Jesse was scared as she worked her way across the wash out. One wrong move and she’d be on a fast trip to the canyon bottom before she could stop herself. She thought of Jennifer and KC waiting for her and was determined to return to them. She came to a solid ledge under the debris and was grateful for it’s support on the otherwise shaky cliff. Just at the end of the ledge, a boulder blocked her progress. She thought she could climb over it but there was no way for Dusty to do so. Jesse studied the situation, she saw a small branch wedged under the rock and holding it in place. If she could move the branch, the boulder would fall down into canyon and out of their way. But, she wondered, how much more of the hillside would go with the rock.

Calculating that the ledge she and Dusty currently occupied was relatively secure, Jesse decided to try to move the branch and hope for the best. She really didn’t have any option. She could go back to where Jennifer and Mary waited but Dusty could not. Warily, she climbed upslope of Dusty so she could pull the rope coil from her saddle then she returned to the ledge. She opened a loop in the rope and tossed it over the end of the branch.

“Please let this work,” she prayed as she yanked the rope as hard as she could. At first the branch resisted her efforts, then ever so slowly it began to slip out of the mud under the boulder. It had pulled only partway free when the rock began to budge. Sensing, the rock’s movement, Jesse released her hold on the rope so she wouldn’t be pulled with it if the branch was carried down slope by the boulder. Moments later, the boulder rolled free, bouncing and crashing all the way to the bottom of the canyon.

Jesse froze. Breathlessly, she waited. The ground beneath her feet held.

“I hope we don’t have to do that again,” she let out a long sigh.

Looking beyond where the boulder had rested, she thankfully spied the end of the washout less than fifty feet ahead where the trail curved out of sight. It wasn’t long before she and Dusty were standing back on the trail and firm ground.

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

The sheriff had led the men into the ranch yard moments earlier and made a show of calling out for Jesse and Jennifer. When no response came, Kinsington had kicked in the door to the ranch house looking for his daughter. The marshal rode to the barn to check there and Thomas had walked off to investigate Mary’s cabin.

“Where are they?” Thaddeus whispered to Billie so the other men wouldn’t hear.

“Gone,” was the only reply.

“Where are they?” Kinsington stormed out of the empty ranch house.

“Sheriff, do you know where they are?” the marshal asked returning from the empty barn.

“Nope,” Billie told the man. “Figured they’d be here since they weren’t in town.”

“You know where they are,” Kinsington tried to pull Billie from his horse but was stopped by Thomas.

“Stop it, father,” the younger man threw Kinsington to the ground. “How would he know where they are? They could just be out for a ride or something.”

“They must have known I was coming,” Kinsington picked himself up and brushed the dirt from his clothes.

“How?” Thomas countered. “You didn’t send word telling them, did you?”

“No,” Kinsington considered the question. “But, you could have,” he accused his son.

“I wish I had,” Thomas mounted his horse, disgusted by his father’s behavior. He hoped Jennifer had had prior warning and was somewhere safe and very far away.

“Guess I’ll just have a look around,” the marshal looked at the sheriff, trying to gauge his reaction. He had a gut feeling the lawman knew more than he was saying and considering he had been sent to Sweetwater because the sheriff was accused of collaborating with Jesse, he was determined not to trust the man. “Maybe I can pick up some tracks.”

“Suit yourself,” Billie shrugged, confident in the fact that Jesse was one of the best trackers in the territory and was just as skilled at hiding tracks. He was sure she had left nothing behind to give away their movements. “Think I’ll swing by the river on the way back to town.”

“Where they like to picnic?” Thaddeus asked, picking up on Billie’s attempt to keep the marshal chasing his tail for a while.

“Yeah,” Billie nodded, “by that big pine tree.”

The marshal watched Billie and Thaddeus ride away, Thomas and his father close behind. He looked around at the empty ranch yard and scowled. There were a hundred different ways Jesse Branson could have ridden away from the ranch and most would take her to extremely remote parts of the territory. The kid was right, if they hadn’t had prior warning, they were probably just out for an afternoon’s ride or picnic. They were sure to show up sooner or later. Maybe, he’d do well to follow the sheriff. Morgan kicked his horse into a trot and rode after the others.

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

Jennifer waited, her heart in her throat, as Jesse made her way back across the washout alone. She had refused to wait with Mary but had stood at the edge of the slide watching every move Jesse made. She had almost screamed when Jesse loosened the boulder, sending it to the bottom of the canyon. But she hadn’t, afraid it would startle the rancher causing her to loose her footing and fall. Now, Jesse was returning to her and she could breath again.

“Whoo,” Jesse whistled when she reached Jennifer. She wrapped her arms around her wife and hugged her tight.

“You okay,” Jennifer asked from the safety of Jesse’s arms.

“Yep,” Jesse tightened her hold. “I am now.” Jesse released Jennifer then led her back around the outcropping to Mary and KC.

“You’re back,” Mary rushed to hug Jesse, KC in her arms.

“Mommy,” KC reached for the rancher.

“Hi, sunshine,” Jesse laughed as the baby literally leaped into her arms. “Have you been good?”

“Yep,” KC giggled.

“What now, Jesse?” Jennifer asked, she knew they still had to cross the stretch of washed out trail.

“Now, I take the horses across,” Jesse told her. “Then, I come back for you.”

“Can’t we go at the same time?” Jennifer offered.

“No,” Jesse picked up a canteen and took a long drink. The heat was building between the canyon’s walls and she was starting to feel it. “It’s not safe to try with the horses, too much could go wrong.” She pulled the canteens from the saddles to leave with Jennifer and Mary.

“But, sweetheart,” Jennifer noticed Jesse appeared drained from the treacherous first crossings of the washout, “that means you have to make two more crossings.”

“It’s okay,” Jesse smiled. “I know the way now. Won’t take nearly as long this time. Plus, the horses will beat down a path for us to follow and make it that much easier.”

“I don’t know, Jesse,” Jennifer would rather be able to get everyone across and be done with it.

“Trust me, darlin’,” Jesse grinned. “I’ll be back before you know it.”

Jesse tied Boy to Blaze’s saddle horn and Blaze to Mary’s horse, preferring to lead the horse most unknown to her. She was confident that Blaze and Boy would follow with little difficulty. With quick kisses planted on Jennifer’s cheek and KC’s forehead, Jesse started back across the debris field. Having Dusty’s hoof prints to follow was a big help and it wasn’t nearly as long before she reached the other side. Once she had secured the horses, Jesse began to ease her way back to her family.

It was getting hotter and it didn’t help that the debris field was in the open providing no protection from the sun. Jesse could feel the sweat rolling down her back, legs, and arms. When this was done she planned a nice long soak in the small lake at the top of the summit.

Jennifer met Jesse with a canteen, the rancher quickly drained it. “Glad this is the last trip,” she said as she picked up KC’s pack and prepared to put the baby into it.

“Why don’t you let me carry her?” Jennifer reached for the sack.

“No, darlin’,” Jesse kept the sack out of Jennifer’s grasp. “You will have enough to walk across, I’ll take KC.”

Jennifer knew Jesse was right, trying to make her way across the narrow, uneven path would be all she could handle. If she was honest with herself, she wasn’t really sure she could do it.

“Here ya go, sunshine,” Jesse placed the baby in the carry sack and swung it onto her bag. “You need to sit real still for mommy, okay?”

“Otay,”

“You’ve been a real good girl today, sunshine,” Jesse twisted to smile at KC. “There’s a nice lake not too far away and when we get there we’ll go swimming. Does that sound good?”

“Yep,” the baby smiled back then hunched down in the pack to do as her mommy asked.

“Good girl,” Jesse winked at the waiting baby.

“Mary?”

“I’m ready,” she wasn’t so sure, but she’d made it this far. What was another few hundred feet? She had the canteens tied around her waist, most were empty so they didn’t add much weight to her small frame.

“Darlin’?”

“Yes, I’m ready, sweetheart.”

“Okay,” Jesse adjusted the pack on her tired back. “I’ll go first, then Jennifer, then Mary. Follow the path the horses left. If you have any trouble, call out. It’s better to wait than try to force your way across,” she looked at the women to make sure they understood. Both nodded.

“Let’s get out of here,” Jesse lead the women out of their temporary sanctuary.

Leaning heavily on her cane, Jennifer made it partially across the washout when she realized her leg would go no further. Picking her way through the debris had taken it’s toll and to make matters worse, her bad leg was on the downhill side. “Jesse,” she called to the rancher several feet ahead of her.

“What?” Jesse froze in place, hearing the anguish in her wife’s voice.

“I can’t go any further,” Jennifer told her.

“Don’t move,” Jesse said as she continued to make her way to the other side. She couldn’t help Jennifer with KC on her back without endangering all three of them. “I’ll be right back.

Unable to move, Jennifer could do nothing but watch Jesse’s move steadily away from her.

Reaching the spot she had left the horses, Jesse placed the carry sack at the base of a small tree. KC still sat inside. “KC,” she told the baby, “I want you to sit right here. Don’t move. I have to go get momma,” Jesse wasn’t sure the baby understood but leaving her in the carry sack would limit her ability to go anywhere. “Sit right here.”

“Otay,” the baby looked up at her mommy. Somehow, she knew her mother was counting on her to do exactly what she was told.

“Good girl,”

Jesse bent to kiss the baby and had to put a hand on the tree to keep herself from keeling over. She was tired. More than tired, exhausted. Taking her time, she stood and waiting for the dizziness to pass. She looked for a canteen, then realized Mary was carrying all of them. Not that they would do her much good, most were empty. She had to get back to Jennifer and then get the family to the summit where they could all rest.

“Come on,” Jesse told herself. “You only have one more trip to make. You can do it,” she headed back for Jennifer and Mary.

Jennifer was getting concerned when Jesse didn’t reappear around the curve at the far end of the washout. She was about to call to her when the rancher walked out of the shadows and started back for her. The closer Jesse got, the more Jennifer could see how worn out she was.

“Tomorrow, we’re resting in camp for you,” Jennifer mumbled.

“What’s that?” Mary asked from where she waited a few feet behind Jennifer. Too concerned with where she was placing her own feet, Mary had not realized Jennifer was having problems until she’d called to Jesse. At first, she had been happy to wait and rest but, now, she was anxious to be off the slippery slope and on solid ground.

“Nothing, mother,” Jennifer’s eyes never left Jesse. “Jesse is on her way back.”

By the time, Jesse reached her stranded wife, she was breathing hard.

“Are you okay?” Jennifer was more than concerned over the rancher’s condition.

“Fine,” Jesse smiled but her tone said otherwise.

“You need to rest.”

“Let’s get you over there so we all can rest,” Jesse turned her back to Jennifer and bent down. “Climb on.”

“Jesse,” Jennifer thought Jesse had lost her mind. “You can’t carry me.”

Slowly, Jesse stood upright and turned back to face Jennifer. She took a deep breath before speaking, “darlin’, you can’t walk. Can you think of any other way to get you across?”

“You can’t carry me,” Jennifer couldn’t imagine Jesse carrying her in her present state of exhaustion.

“Then, what?” Jesse tiredness was making her frustrated. When she heard no answer, she added, “KC is all alone over there. No tellin’ how long before she decides to try and find us. Please, climb on my back so we can get this over with,” Jesse pleaded.

Mary said a silent prayer as she listened to their conversation and knew the exhausted rancher would get her daughter to safety even if it cost her own life. Mary hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

Jennifer sighed. Damn, it was times like this that she hated her father. If it hadn’t been for him, she would not be in this situation. She and Jesse would never have been forced to leave their home. She would not have been attacked by the mountain lion. She would not be dependent on an exhausted woman to carry her to the top of a mountain. ‘Damn you, Martin Kinsington,’ she thought, ‘if I ever see him again, I’ll make sure he never, ever, does this to us again.’

Jennifer nodded and Jesse turned to present her back to her wife. Jennifer climbed on Jesse’s back and waiting breathlessly while Jesse got her balance and straightened. Her steps were shaky but Jesse carried Jennifer to safety and set her down near KC before collapsing.

“Jesse,” the schoolteacher cried when she saw Jesse drop to her knees.

“Water,” Jesse asked, her throat so dry the words hardly made their way out.

“Here,” Mary handed Jesse the last canteen to carry any of the precious liquid.

Jesse gulped the water down, sucking in the last drop.

“We’re camping here,” Jennifer announced, even though they were only in a wide spot in the trail with the horses tied to trees standing within inches of the path.

“No,” Jesse said, her energy returning as she resolved to get her family to the safety of the summit. “The summit isn’t far from here.”

“Jesse, you need to rest,” Jennifer was just as determined her wife would go no further. They could get to the summit tomorrow, or the next day, for all she cared.

“Darlin’, we need water,” Jesse pushed herself upright. “If we don’t run into any more problems, we’ll be there in less than an hour. Then, we rest. For as long as you say,” she added when she saw Jennifer was about to protest.

Jennifer glowered, she’d been outmaneuvered. “Okay, but remembered you promised.”

“I’ll remember,” Jesse smirked.

“You get the horses, I’ll carry KC.”

“Deal.”

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

Jesse lay in the cool waters of the mountain lake with barely any part of her visible except her face. KC sat on her stomach splashing and laughing. Jesse had been underwater since they had finished supper.

Jennifer sat on a smooth rock, her bare legs tangling in the water. “You planning on staying in there all night?” Jennifer inquired of the submerged rancher.

“Yep,” KC answered.

Jennifer could see the ripples in the water created by Jesse’s silent laughter. “I give up,” she chuckled as she lay back on the rock to enjoy the setting sun.

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

PART 5

Jennifer sat on the same flat rock she had used the night before to watch Jesse and KC play in the lake. From her perch, she could see for hundreds of miles in every direction. It was a panorama she had never in her life envisioned and she was enjoying every second of it as she watched the sun rise in the east and paint the sky in pinks, reds and oranges. It was a glorious morning. Especially when she considered that less than twenty hours before she had been trapped on the side of a cliff trying to pick her way across a washed out section of trail, unsure if she or her family would survive.

Jennifer’s eyes surveyed their campsite situated in an alpine meadow that gently sloped down to a crystal clear mountain lake. The meadow was quite large forcing the trees of the surrounding forest some distance from the camp. The supply packs were stacked about fifty feet from the shoreline and a campfire had been built between them and the water. This morning, the fire glowed softly, surrounded by dark forms still tucked in their bedrolls. The horses were happily munching on an early breakfast of ankle deep, sweet, dew covered grass and tender wildflowers,

Jennifer heard a sound. Instantly alert, she scanned the area for the source. Across the meadow, a elk cow and her spotted calf cautiously emerged from the shelter of the forest. At the same time, far off in the distance, Jennifer heard the cries of a coyote greeting the dawn. The mother elk lifted her head and listened, taking a few sniffs of the air while her calf pranced nervously at her side. Deciding the coyote posed no immediate threat to her calf, the elk put her head down to graze. The gangly calf edged close to the cow and nosed underneath her belly for the tit and warm milk it knew would be there.

The elk reminded Jennifer of her own wife and child sleeping a few feet away. Jesse lay on her back with KC sprawled on top her. The baby’s head was nestled between the rancher’s breast, a long arm draped securely over KC’s back. Jennifer felt the sting of tears in her eyes as she observed the peaceful sight. This was the life she wanted and she resolved to protect it from any and all threats, including her father.

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

“Billie,” Ruthie looked in disbelief at the sheriff, “they can’t arrest her for that. It’s not true.”

Billie had come to the Slipper to have breakfast with Ruthie. They were seated at one of the dining room’s tables and he was telling Ruthie and Bette Mae about the marshal’s arrest warrant for Jesse.

“What ya plan ta do abou’ this, Billie?” Bette Mae asked when the lawman remained quiet.

“Nothin’ much I can do,” Billie sadly shook his head. “Warrant is legal. If the marshal finds Jesse, he will arrest her.”

“Must be somethin’ ya can do,” Bette Mae slumped in her chair, looking expectantly at the sheriff. She knew Jesse and Jennifer had left the valley and that keeping that information from the marshal could get Billie into trouble. She also knew that Billie was Jesse’s best friend and looked out for her like a brother.

“Been doin’ what I can,” Billie said in a low voice. Right now, it was more important to him to keep the marshal occupied chasing his tail while Jesse and Jennifer got far away from Sweetwater.

“It’s bad enough that Miss Jennifer’s father has come back,” Ruthie was close to tears thinking of the women who had been so kind to her, “but, to be accused of this. Poor, Miss Jesse. And, what will Miss Jennifer do?”

“I’d like to know who made up such a story and how they got the governor to believe it,” Billie, unthinking, reached out and gently took the hand of his upset fiancé into his own.

“I’ll bet tha’ sorry excuse for a papa has somethin’ ta do with all this,” Bette Mae said as she thoughtfully considered the intimate gesture. “Somethin’ the two of ya wants ta be tellin’ me?” she asked in a lighter mood, smiling at the pair.

“Oh,” Ruthie’s cheeks turned a deep rose color as Billie quickly withdrew his hands.

“Been kinda wondering that myself,” Thaddeus Newby had entered the Slipper in search of breakfast. He sat in the table’s vacant chair just as Bette Mae asked her question.

“Well,” Billie, his skin also a slightly deeper shade than normal, looked at Ruthie, “guess we were plannin’ on breaking the news sometime, weren’t we, honey.”

Ruthie smiled bashfully, “go ahead, Billie.”

“Well, we did kinda want to want until Jesse and Jennifer were here but,” he reached out and re-took Ruthie’s hands, “Ruth has agreed to be my wife.”

“Well, lordy,” Bette Mae chuckled, “it’s abou’ time ya asked her. Littl’ Ruthie a married woman. Ain’t that grand,” she smiled broadly at the blushing soon-to-be-bride.

“Congratulations, Billie,” Thaddeus thumped the sheriff on the back. “And, to you, Ruthie. When do you plan on tying the knot?”

“Oh,” Ruthie immediately spoke up, “not until Miss Jesse and Miss Jennifer come back.”

“Maybe by then you’ll get use to not using the ‘Miss’ with their names like they keep askin’ ya,” Billie teased the shy girl he loved.

“Come back from where?” the voice came from the steps leading upstairs to the boarding rooms.

“Damn,” Billie muttered.

Marshal Morgan completed his descent of the stairway and crossed to the table.

“Come on, Ruthie,” Bette Mae stood, “we have work ta do in the kitchen. Jesse don’t pay us to sit around all mornin’.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ruthie sprang to her feet, she was petrified she had given away Jesse and Jennifer’s secret.

“I ask again, sheriff,” the marshal repeated, “come back from where?”

“From wherever they’ve gone off to,” Billie calmly poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot Bette Mae had placed on the table earlier. “Care for a cup, marshal?” he asked, casually.

The marshal studied Billie as he took a seat and accepted a cup of the hot coffee. He had been told the sheriff was a good friend of the Branson woman and wasn’t to be trusted. But, until he could prove the man was keeping information from him, he would have to accept what he was told.

“Here’s yor breakfast, Billie,” Bette Mae came out of the kitchen carrying two plates heaped high with eggs, ham, and potatoes. She placed one in front of the sheriff and the other in front of the newspaperman, “and, yor’s, Thaddeus.” Then, turning to the unwelcome third man sitting at the table, she asked scornfully, “ya be wantin’ anythin’, marshal?”

“Bring him a plate, Bette Mae,” Billie answered with a wry smile, “just ’cause he has a job to do, don’t mean we can’t be friendly.”

“If that’s wha’ ya be wantin’, Billie,” Bette Mae said without acknowledging the marshal. “Though, I don’ rightly know why we have to put ‘im up and feed ‘im when he wants ta arrest Jesse,” she mumbled as she disappeared behind the kitchen door. Moments later she returned with a plate, not half as full as the others, for the marshal.

Marshal Morgan ate in silence while Billie and Thaddeus, not wanting to inadvertently say anything of interest in front of the marshal, discussed a engagement announcement to be published in the Gazette.

When all three plates were empty, Billie asked, “want are your plans today, marshal?” He hoped he could spend another day leading the man on a fruitless search for the missing women.

“Think I’ll talk to folks around town,” the marshal pushed his chair away from the table and stood. “Maybe someone heard or saw something last time Branson was in town.”

“I’ll come along,” Billie downed the last of his coffee, “if you don’t mind.”

“Actually, sheriff,” Morgan said as he walked to the door, “I think it’s best I do this alone.”

“Suit yourself,” Billie reached for the coffee pot to refill his empty cup. “Let me know if you need my help.” He smirked as the marshal’s only response was a grunt while he walked out of the building.

“Aren’t you afraid he might talk to the wrong person?” Thaddeus asked.

“Nah,” Billie leaned back in the chair. “Nobody knows nothin’. Jesse and Jennifer kept their plans to themselves.”

Billie figured the white lie was better than telling any more to the newspaper editor and having him accidentally say something that got back to the marshal. It was bad enough that Ruthie had made the slip earlier. Luckily, that one was easy to cover but there was no guarantee the next would be. No, it was better to keep the information of the women’s whereabouts as secret as possible. He would make a point of telling that to the only others that knew, Bette Mae, Ruthie and Ed, when he could talk to them privately.

“Guess I’ll take a walk and see what Perkins and Harrington are up to this morning,” Thaddeus told Billie. “Heard that they might be riding up to the Songbird mine today to take a look around.”

“Say, Thaddeus,” Billie was curious about something that had been nagging at him ever since he’d heard the Songbird was the mine Harrington’s investment company had purchased. “You’ve been up to the mining camps, what’s the scuttlebutt on the Songbird?”

“What do you mean, Billie?”

“Well,” Billie scratched his jaw, “seems to me that the fella who was workin’ it never had much more than two coins to rub together when he came to town for supplies. Fact is, he always had a balance owing at Ed’s. Kinda surprisin’ that the Songbird is worth the effort Harrington and his investors are goin’ to.”

The sheriff knew when miners stuck a good vein or found a few nuggets, they would usually came to town and drink up any money they received for their find. And, when miners drank, they talked. It was rare for a miner to keep a rich strike a secret.

Thaddeus thought about the sheriff’s comment for a moment, “it might be worth looking into. I’ll ask around and see what I can find out.”

“Let me know.”

“Will do,” Thaddeus headed for the dining room’s door.

“Keep an eye out for the marshal, too.”

“Will do.”

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

Ed Grainger was sweeping off the boardwalk in front of the general store. As he swept, he heard the sound of quarrelling coming from what used to be an unoccupied field next to his store. The storekeeper walked to the end of the boardwalk to see what was causing the ruckus. Freight wagons were lined up at the back of the field with piles of lumber and other supplies stacked next to them. Several men were milling about, most looked unhappy and many were grumbling among themselves. Near the road, two men stood toe-to-toe, one towering over the other and both trying to out shout the other.

“I’m telling you, Perkins,” Frank Wilson shoved a finger into the mayor’s chest with some force, “I can’t ask these men to work without feeding them first.” If it wasn’t for the mayor’s solid girth, the foreman would have had no trouble pushing the shorter man backwards.

“The cook hasn’t arrived,” Mayor Perkins held his ground against the man who stood well over a foot taller than himself. “He should be here soon. As soon as he comes, the men will be fed.”

“Are you an idiot?!” Wilson shouted. It was only his second day in Sweetwater and already he was wishing he was somewhere else. “These men have to eat. And, I’m not going to eat any more of that slop they serve at the Oxbow,” he referred to the saloon next to the stage station where his boss, Tobias Harrington, had insisted they eat the night before.

The Oxbow’s clientele was made up of cowboys and miners who came to town for a night of drinking and they normally weren’t too particular about the food that might accompany their liquor.

“There’s nothing I can do,” the mayor shouted right back, though he wasn’t really sure why he and not Harrington was handling this situation. After all, Harrington was responsible for the work crews while he was only supposed to deal with the town folk. After all, Harrington had been the one to decide the Slipper was off limits to the workers.

“Well, there’s something I can do,” Wilson told the mayor. “I’m taking them to the Silver Slipper for breakfast.” The foreman’s words were greeted with cheers from the hungry men who immediately started walking in the direction of the building at the opposite end of town.

“That’s not allowed,” Perkins sputtered as the men charged past him.

“If Harrington doesn’t like it, he can get his ass out here and start cooking.” Wilson joined the workers, leaving the hapless mayor standing alone in the street.

“Morning, Miles,” Ed smirked from the boardwalk. “Trouble?”

“Ah, no,” Mayor Perkins looked at the departing men. “Just a misunderstanding. Nothing for you to concern yourself with.”

“If you say so,” Ed chuckled.

Muttering under his breath, the mayor stepped up onto the boardwalk to return to his office. He wasn’t sure how he would explain the recent events to his business partner but he was sure that no matter how he spun the story, Harrington would blame him..

“Bet Harrington will be real pleased to see the Slipper’s bill for feeding that group.” Ed called after the mayor as he scurried along the boardwalk to his office. “I know Jesse will be more than happy to collect it.”

Ed noticed a man come out of the stage station and look his way. He decided to wait in front of his store when the man strode directly across the street towards him. As the man neared, Ed saw the badge he wore.

“Morning,” Ed nodded as the marshal stepped from the dusty street onto the wooden boardwalk.

“I’m Marshal Morgan,” the man responded. “I’m looking for Jesse Branson. Understand you’re a good friend.”

“That I am,” Ed had heard of the marshal’s reason for being in Sweetwater and had no intention of helping him complete his task.

“Do you know where she is?”

“At their ranch, I s’pose,” Ed turned to go into his store.

“She’s not there.”

“Well,” Ed said over his shoulder, “she ain’t here, either.”

“Damn friendly town,” the marshal mumbled. Since leaving the Slipper, he had talked to a dozen people. All denied any knowledge of Jesse Branson’s whereabouts. He decided he might have better luck with the ranchers in the valley and stepped off the shaded boardwalk to retrieve his horse at the livery.

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

Martin and Thomas Kinsington were just finishing their breakfast when the door to the Slipper’s dining room opened and several, obviously hungry, men rushed in, grabbing every available chair. Two men sat in the empty chairs at the table the father and son occupied.

“What the hell is the meaning of this?” Kinsington bellowed as one of the men helped himself to the coffee remaining in the pot.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Frank Wilson apologized for the men’s behavior, “but my men haven’t had a decent meal since we left Bozeman.”

“I don’t give a damn,” Kinsington started.

“Father,” Thomas interrupted, “we were finished. Let’s just go.”

Martin pushed back from the table and stood, “is there no civility in this god forsaken country.”

“For a man tha’s mighty lackin’ in tha’ there area, I wouldn’ be so uppity,” Bette Mae said as she cleared the table of the dirty dishes in preparation of serving the new diners.

“When my daughter takes over ownership of this establishment,” Kinsington began a threat that had been heard several times since he and Thomas took rooms at the Slipper the day before.

Bette Mae had only agreed to let the two stay since they were Jennifer’s kin but she was regretting the decision more and more. “Jennifer already owns the Slipper and I’m still here,” Bette Mae countered. “So, if yo’s done with yo’r meal…..”

“We’re leaving, Bette Mae,” Thomas smiled apologetically, “thank you.”

“Yo’re welcome, Thomas,” Bette Mae was beginning to like Jennifer’s brother. “You,” she emphasized the word, “come back any time.”

“Let’s go, Thomas,” Kinsington growled, he would see that woman run out of town if it was the last thing he did in Sweetwater. “I’ve got things to do.”

“What things?” Thomas asked as he followed his father to the door.

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

The night before, Jesse hadn’t given any argument when Jennifer finally asked her to leave the cool waters of the lake and go to bed. And the fact the rancher was still sound asleep was testament to how exhausted she had been after the previous day’s harrowing experience.

“Ugh,” Jesse groaned as she forced her eyes open. She was laying on her side with one arm folded under her, tingling from lack of blood. She flopped over onto back to free the arm. Everything hurt and she decided she would just lay there until the others woke up. It took her brain, still muddled with sleep, a few minutes to realize she was alone on the bedroll and the sun was almost to the half way point in its day’s journey. She begrudgingly pushed her sore body upright.

Jesse looked around the empty camp. The fire, not needed during the hot day, had been allowed to burn down but was banked to keep a small flame burning under a cooking pot. Jesse’s stomach growled as her nose recognized the aroma of one of the spices Jennifer liked to use coming from the simmering pot.

Jesse wondered where her family had gone. Lifting a hand to shield her eyes from the harsh sunlight, she spotted the missing women at the far side of the lake, leisurely exploring the shoreline. Jesse smiled as she watched Jennifer, always the teacher, point out interesting things to KC.

Jennifer sensed she was being watched and smiled as she looked across the water to see Jesse sitting up. “Mommy’s awake,” she told KC as she waved to Jesse.

KC bounced in Jennifer’s arms, excitingly calling, “Mommy, mommy.”

Jennifer quickened her steps to return to camp.

Jesse stood with the intention of walking to meet Jennifer and KC but her body had other ideas. She took a few tentative steps before being forced to stop by legs stiff from the previous day’s struggles. Her back ached and it was difficult to find a position that didn’t add to it’s pain. Not to mention, she was a little lightheaded from having slept so deeply.

Jesse looked for a place to sit, and quick. A small section of a fallen tree had been rolled into camp the previous night to use as a bench and Jesse dropped down on it to wait for Jennifer and Mary to arrive.

“Sweetheart,” Jennifer hurried into the camp after watching Jesse’s aborted effort to walk, “are you alright?” She bent down so she could look directly into her eyes.

“Little sore, darlin’,” Jesse smiled in a futile attempt to allay Jennifer’s concern.

“Mommy,” KC reached for Jesse.

“Hi, sunshine,” Jesse opened her arms and Jennifer placed the baby inside them. When the rancher tightened her arms in a hug around the child she grimaced in pain, her back protesting the action.

“Jesse?” Jennifer had seen the expression. “Sweetheart, maybe you should lay back down,” she took the baby back. “Hush, sweetie,” Jennifer told KC when she grumbled at being removed from Jesse’s lap, “mommy can’t hold you right now. Come on, you can sit next to mommy over here,” she carried KC to the bedroll and sat her down. “Stay here while I help mommy.”

Jesse didn’t complain when Jennifer helped her up off the log, she was happy to have the assistance. She leaned on the schoolteacher as they slowly made their way to where KC was waiting and groaned as she lowered her tender body back to the ground.

“What can I do to help?” Jennifer asked as Jesse eased herself down.

“Not sure,” Jesse responded. KC crawled to her side and laid her small head on the rancher’s stomach, her eyes looking sadly up at her mother. Jesse smiled at the baby and ruffled her fine hair. “A rub down might be nice,” she told Jennifer.

“Okay,” Jennifer gently patted Jesse’s leg. “Let me get a pot of water heating so I can wrap you in hot towels afterward,” she had found the hot wraps Jesse used on her leg to be extremely effective in relieving the pain and soreness she experienced at the end of the day. “Then, we’ll get started,” she used her cane to push herself upright and started for the lake, picking up a bucket on her way.

“Is there anything I can do?” Mary asked, smiling uneasily at her daughter-in-law. She was aware that without Jesse’s extraordinary efforts the day before, they probably would not have made it safely off the cliff and she felt awkward that the woman was suffering today while she was unscathed..

“No,” Jesse guessed why the older woman was edgy and smiled at her, “I’ll be alright, Mary. Just need a little rest.”

“Which you’ll have plenty of,” Jennifer said as she added wood, stoking the flames before she placed a large pot of water on a rock in the center of the fire. “I don’t see any reason for us to leave here for a couple of days.”

“Darlin’, we can’t stay here,” Jesse started.

“Yes, we can,” Jennifer left the pot to heat and went to the stack of packs and gear. She rifled through a pack until she found the bottle of lotion she sought, “no one will follow us across that slide. Besides,” she said as she limped back to Jesse, “you said, we would stay here as long as I wanted. So, we’ll stay. Now, take off you clothes and turn over.”

Jesse started to unbutton her shirt, “guess I did, didn’t I.”

“Yes,” Jennifer smirked, enjoying the view of Jesse undressing.

Sensing her wife’s eyes on her, Jesse’s skin colored with a light blush.

“Roll over,” Jennifer instructed, her eyes twinkling as they playfully dropped down the length of Jesse’s athletic yet lithe body, pausing momentarily on her gorgeous breasts and again at the tantalizing apex of her legs.

“Now, that’s not nice, darlin’,” Jesse blushed deepened as she followed Jennifer’s eyes, embarrassed with her wife’s candid display of desire. “What will your mother think,” she whispered even though Jennifer’s mother was standing only a couple of feet away.

“She’ll think that my daughter has married a very beautiful woman,” Mary told the rancher.

Both, Jesse and Jennifer looked at Mary as if she had just spouted a second head. They never would have expected the demure woman to make such a comment.

“Now, I think I’ll check on that pot of stew,” Mary chuckled as she left the two slack jawed women alone.

“Wow,” Jesse murmured after a few moments.

“Yeah,” Jennifer looked after her mother, “wow.”

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

Ed Grainger came out to greet the driver of a heavily loaded freight wagon that had just pulled to a stop in front of the general store..

“Afternoon,” Ed said as the driver climbed down from the wagon’s bench seat.

“Afternoon, Ed. Sorry, I’m late but had some trouble on the road.”

“Nothin’ serious, I hope,” the storekeeper looked over the load.

“Nah, just some boys thinkin’ their loads was more important than mine. Found it best to pull over and let them go by ‘fore they caused some real problems.” The freight road over the mountains was narrow with few places for the big freight wagons to pass one another on the twisting path. It wasn’t unknown for a wagon to get too close to the edge and roll over the side, destroying the wagon, it’s contents and, many times, the driver.

“Let me guess,” Ed looked to the end of the boardwalk and the men working in the field there.

“Yep,” the driver followed his gaze. “Them boys was sure in a hurry ta git here.”

“Kinda wondered how they got their supplies ‘fore mine,” Ed shook his head, would this insanity with Harrington and his investment company ever end? “Considerin’ how I sent theirs in a couple days after mine.”

The driver stomped his boots on the boardwalk trying to loosen some of the dust clinging to them, “ya don’t know the half of it. Som’ fellow was bullying the stores in Bozeman to fill their orders first,” he told Ed, “got real nasty when they refused. What’s going on in Sweetwater that’s so important?”

“Harrington,” Ed muttered, not really answering the man’s question. “Come on inside,” Ed slapped the driver on the shoulder, regretting it when a cloud of dust rose off the man’s shirt, “I was just goin’ to pour me a glass of cold cider. Bet, you could use one yourself.”

“Sure could, Ed. Thanks,” he followed the storekeeper.

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

“Way things are going,” the livery hand was telling Thaddeus Newby, “we gonna need to buy some more horses.”

“Why’s that?” the newspaperman asked as he saddled his horse. Thaddeus had come to the livery to get the horse he boarded there. After listening to the sheriff’s questions about the Songbird, he figured it would be worth a ride out to the mining camps to ask some of the miners their thoughts on the recently purchased mine.

“Well, with so many folks askin’ to rent our horses, ain’t got ‘nough to go around.”

For the first time, Thaddeus noticed that most of the barn’s stalls were empty. “Who’s been renting them?” As the editor of the valley’s newspaper, he was also alert to possible story sources.

“Well, first Miss Jennifer’s ma came in a asked for one. Then, that Harrington fella got one ta use whilst he’s in town and Wilson, his foreman, came by yesterday and hired a couple more. Jus’ this morning, that Kinsington fellow came by an got two more. Don’t leave any but the old mare and she’s no good for ridin’ anymore.”

“Sounds to me like business is pretty good,” Thaddeus commented as he wondered where Kinsington would be going that he needed a horse. Only one place he could think of and he hoped he was wrong. He walked his horse out of the livery before mounting and rode straight for the sheriff’s office.

“Billie, you in there?” Thaddeus asked as reached the jail.

“Yep,” the sheriff came out of the building and crossed the wide boardwalk to stand at its edge. “What’s up, Thaddeus?”

“Thought you might want to take a ride out to Jesse’s.”

“What for?”

“I was just over at the livery,” he told the sheriff, “said Kinsington rented horses this morning. Can’t think of any place else he’d be riding to.”

“Damn,” Billie’s gut clinched as he listened to Thaddeus. “He better not be up to anything.”

“Chances are, he is,” Thaddeus didn’t like the idea of Kinsington being out at Jesse and Jennifer’s any better than the sheriff.

“I’ll leave now,” Billie said as he reached back inside the jail’s door for his hat. He pulled the door closed, “you headed that way?”

“No,” Thaddeus shook his head, “I’m going out to the camps to check on your doubts about the Songbird. Be back in a couple of days.”

“Be careful,” Billie said as he stepped off the boardwalk to retrieve his own horse from the livery.

“You, too,” Thaddeus urged his horse into a trot and was soon leaving a cloud of dust behind him as he rode out of town.

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

“Father, what are we doing here?” Thomas asked as they rode under the gate to his sister’s ranch.

“Don’t you want to see where your little sister has been living? And, how?” Kinsington sneered.

“We shouldn’t be here. Especially, since Jennifer isn’t here.”

“That’s exactly why we should be here,” Kinsington said as he rode up to the ranch house, it’s door hanging haphazardly open from being kicked in by him during their earlier visit. He dismounted and tossed the reins to his horse over the hitching rail Jesse had erected for that purpose, disappearing inside the house before Thomas could dismount.

Martin Kinsington stood in the center of the log building that his daughter called home. He had come to the ranch to see what he could find out about the property the women owned. He had tried to get into the office at the Slipper but found his access blocked by Bette Mae who kept a close watch on his every move. He had remembered that during his previous visit to Sweetwater, Jennifer saying she helped the rancher with the Slipper’s bookkeeping and he thought he might find the information at the currently unoccupied ranch.

Kinsington had been considering whether the boarding house might be worth keeping after Jesse was out of the picture. He already decided he could make money by selling the ranch to one of the other ranchers in the valley. If necessary, he could find a way around his agreement to have both the Slipper and ranch signed over to Harrington in exchange for an interest in his company’s mining operations, But, first he had to know the financial situation of the Silver Slipper, then he would decide which was his more profitable option.

Kinsington surveyed the room’s simple furnishings, looking for a desk or other likely space to keep the ledgers and other business records. His eyes abruptly stopped when they fell on the room’s sole bed. “Bitch,” he growled, at the perceived symbol of the aberrant power Jesse held over his daughter.

“Father,” Thomas entered the plain but cozy room. “What are you doing?” he cried when he saw Kinsington pulling the coverings off the bed and throwing them into the fireplace used for warming the sleeping area of the room.

“It’s unnatural,” Kinsington didn’t hesitate in his frenzied activity, “to be sleeping in the same bed.”

“Stop it,” Thomas ran to his father and tried to remove the items from his grasp.

Kinsington pushed his son aside, “I will not have my daughter doing such things.” He tossed the bulky blankets at the stone opening. Grabbing a lantern off the mantle, Kinsington threw it against the back of the fireplace. The lantern exploded spilling its contents.

“Father,” Thomas screamed. “You can’t do this.”

“Shut up,” Kinsington’s rampage continued as he crossed to the chest of drawers, yanking each drawer free. Clothes flew everywhere as he whipped the drawers around. He spotted Jesse’s bookcase and ripped it from the log wall, the books spilling out. Then, he stormed to the kitchen area, frantically demolished the neatly stacked cups and dishes. The shelves were pulled from the walls and the table and chairs tossed outside through the windows.

“Please, father,” Thomas begged, though he knew his pleas were falling on deaf ears. He couldn’t believe what he was witnessing, his father was destroying everything. Thomas made several attempts to stop his father but the older man’s rage seemed to give him strength and he easily eluded the efforts.

The smashed lantern’s fuel slowly dripped down the rock surface at the back of the fireplace, pooling in the coals remaining from the fire Jesse had tended during the last night she and Jennifer had spent in the cabin. Buried deep in the coals a small piece of wood still smoldered. When the flammable liquid reached this source of heat it burst into flame, igniting the linens that lay within the fire’s reach. Licking it’s way along the layers of blankets and sheets that stretched from the fireplace to the bed, the fire began to spread out on the wood floor of the cabin. The tongues of flame discovered the clothing scattered in it’s path and fed hungrily on this additional source of fuel. It didn’t take long for the inferno to spread to the furniture and then up the log walls.

Thomas, concentrating on his raging father, wasn’t aware of the fire until he smelled the smoke. When he turned to look, he found the entire bedroom end of the cabin in flames. He knew there was no way to save the house.

“Father,” Thomas moved to grab the older man still intent on destroying anything he could, “the house is on fire. We have to get out.”

At first Kinsington did not hear his son’s warning. The thickening smoke made breathing difficult and only when he started to cough on the caustic fumes did he notice the flames covering the other end of the building. He laughed, “a fitting end.”

“Father,” Thomas pulled at his father, “we have to get out.”

“Yes,” Kinsington cackled. “Yes, let’s go outside and watch it burn.”

Thomas followed his father outside to the safety of the open yard. Seeing a bucket next to the water pump, he ran to fill it. Pumping furiously, Thomas watched as flames broke through the roof and black smoke billowed out. With the bucket full, he ran back to the porch and threw the water uselessly on the hot flames.

“Don’t waste your time,” Kinsington crowed. “Let it burn.”

Not agreeing with his father but knowing it was futile to attempt to put out the fire by himself, Thomas dropped the bucket and watched his sister’s home consumed. Tearfully, he asked, “how could you?”

“How could I?” Kinsington barked. “How could I? Your sister defies me. She runs away to live here. To live a life with that woman? And, you ask how could I? If you were anything of the man I raised you to be, you would have done this and saved me the trouble. How dare you ask how could I.”

Thomas stared at the man before him. A man he realized he didn’t truly know. “You’re right, father,” he said, “I’m not the man you raised me to be. And, because of that, I could never have done this. Not to Jennifer. Not to anyone.”

Thomas went to his horse who had pulled free of the hitching rail as the fire grew and was standing nervously next to the corral fence. He walked the horse inside the corral and closed the gate. Then, he returned and picked up the discarded bucket. Filling it at the pump, Thomas began to wet down the other buildings to keep any stray spark from igniting them.

“What are you doing?” Kinsington asked as Thomas made another trip to the water pump.

“Making sure you don’t destroy anything else.”

“Let the damn buildings burn,” Kinsington tried to take the bucket from his son.

“No,” Thomas pushed the man away. “Go back to Sweetwater and your friend Harrington. Better yet, go home. You’ve done enough here,” he returned to his undertaking.

“Come back here,” Kinsington yelled after his son. When Thomas continued to douse water on the buildings, Kinsington shrugged. “Good riddance. You were never much good as a son, anyway,” he muttered as he turned back to the burning structure, the roof collapsing as he gleefully watched.

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

“Guess that’s it,” Ed had finished explaining the recent events in Sweetwater to the freight wagon driver. He had left out the part about the marshal and Jesse, figuring the man didn’t need to know.

“Sounds like Sweetwater done got itself a wagon load of trouble. Been my ‘xperience that folks make a big fuss whenever they think they’ve hit pay dirt. Build everything up, then leave it all ta rot when the ore runs out. Seems ta me, they’d do better to leave things alone. Be a lot less broken lives, if ya ask me,” the freight driver finished off his glass of cider. “I best be getting the wagon unloaded so I can head back. Thanks for the cider.”

“You’re not staying in town?”

“Can’t,” the man answered. “Lettin’ them other wagons go by put me behind schedule. Got ta git back to Bozeman, got me a load waitin’ ta go to Virginia City.”

“I’ll give you a hand, then,” Ed offered.

“Much obliged. Work goes a lot faster when ya help,” he grinned at the large man who could lift three times the weight he could.

The two men worked non-stop to unload the wagon. By the time they finished, Ed was glad he’d decided to make some changes to the general store. One thing for sure, the dock he was planning for the rear of the building would make the unloading of freight much easier.

With the wagon’s load now on the boardwalk, Ed noticed some of the load contained the items Jesse had ordered for the redesign of her office at the Slipper into a dress shop for Ruthie. He thought of the missing women and hoped they were safe.

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

“Feeling any better?” Jennifer asked as she slipped beside Jesse sitting on the flat rock by the lake.

Jesse laid her arm across Jennifer’s shoulders and pulled her close. “Much. KC asleep?”

“Yes,” Jennifer melted against Jesse. “Mother is napping with her.”

Jennifer had finished Jesse’s massage a short time earlier and, after a lunch of stew and biscuits, the baby had been put down for a nap. The women sat silently, content just to be with the other.

“It’s beautiful here,” Jennifer finally broke the silence.

“It is.”

“I saw an elk this morning in the meadow, sweetheart,” she smiled at the memory.

“Oh.”

“Yes. She was so beautiful and she had a baby with her.” Jennifer looked down at her hands, “it made me think of you and KC.”

Jesse hooked a finger under Jennifer’s chin. As she gently lifted her wife’s face upward, she leaned over and captured her sweet lips. At first, the kiss was tender as Jesse softly explored Jennifer’s welcoming lips but after a few moments the kiss deepened. Jesse sought entrance into Jennifer’s warm and waiting mouth and it was quickly granted. The women’s tongues danced and twisted around one another. Needing to breathe, the kiss ended with the women clinging together.

“I love you,” Jesse whispered as she lay Jennifer back on the rock’s smooth surface, her nimble fingers opening the buttons of the schoolteacher’s shirt.

Jennifer arched into Jesse’s touch as gentle hands cupped her breasts, squeezing lightly. Feeling aroused nipples press against her palms, Jesse playfully pinched them between her thumbs and index fingers while her lips covered the sinuous breasts with feathery light kisses. Jennifer moaned, burying her hands in Jesse’s long hair, urging her to continue. Jesse complied, planting soft kisses around the outside of the mounds of soft tissue. Slowly, her lips trailed down to Jennifer’s taut stomach, the skin twitching beneath her kisses. With her lips exploring her wife’s body, Jesse undid Jennifer’s pants and pushed them down below her knees. Loving hands glided back up the inside of damp thighs, teasingly stopping just below the spot that Jennifer needed her the most.

“Please,” Jennifer gasped as she spread her legs, opening herself to her lover.

Jesse’s nose detected the sweet, musky bouquet of Jennifer’s arousal as her lips neared the thatch of silky hair. Her lips retraced their path back to Jennifer’s firm breasts then broke new trail up a smooth neck, then along her jaw line and, finally, back to waiting lips. She slipped her hand between her lover’s legs and stroked the clit, her fingers sliding easily through a thick wetness. Fingers slid along drenched labium lips to ring the vaginal orifice. Jesse felt Jennifer’s hands move down her back, clinched fingers digging into the skin demonstrating her desire.

Wasting no time, Jesse drove three fingers into Jennifer and felt the muscular walls tightened around them as the schoolteacher climaxed. Jennifer screamed as her heels braced against the rock’s hard surface, her hips thrusting hard against the fingers inside her. Feeling her beautiful wife’s thighs clamp together, trapping her hand in place and hearing Jennifer cry her name was all Jesse needed to join her lover in a shared ecstasy. Her back arched and her body stiffened as orgasmic waves washed through her.

With their energy spent, the lovers collapsed, their bodies pressed together.

Jennifer recovered first. She lay under Jesse, kissing and caressing her face, “Jesse Marie Branson, I love you so much.”

“Mmmmmm,” was all Jesse could manage.

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

Billie saw the black smoke before he reached the gate to the ranch, his horse already at full gallop. As he rode over the rise just before the road dropped down to the ranch yard, the sheriff could see the burned out shell of the ranch house. He pulled his horse to a stop several feet from the smoldering remains, not bothering to dismount. The house had been completely consumed along with everything inside.

“Damn, Jesse,” the sheriff whispered, “I’m so sorry.” There was little doubt as to what had happened, Billie passed Kinsington riding away from the ranch as he raced for it.

Slowly, he rode to the barn knowing he would find the tools inside he would need to clear a perimeter around the destroyed building, making sure the fire didn’t spread to any of the other buildings. Noticing the horse inside the corral, he pulled his pistol. Looking around and not seeing the rider of the horse, he called out, “who’s here?”

“It’s me, sheriff,” Thomas came out from behind the small cabin his mother had been staying in. “Find a shovel and come help me,” he said before disappearing again.

Billie dismounted and hurried into the barn to find the requested implement, then he rushed to find Thomas. Rounding the corner the cabin, he saw Jennifer’s brother trying to contain a fire on the side wall of the building. Using the shovel, Billie threw dirt on the blaze while Thomas doused it with buckets of water. It didn’t take long for the men, working together, to put out the fire that had started when a burning shingle had drifted against across the yard.

“Glad you came along, sheriff,” Thomas wiped his brow with a sooty sleeve leaving a streak of black across his sweaty skin. “Wasn’t sure I could stop it by myself.”

“How’d this happen?” Billie indicated the burned ruins.

“It was an accident I’m not excusing what he did,” Thomas quickly added when he saw the look of disbelief on the sheriff’s face. He went on to explain the events after his father had entered the cabin. “My father is to blame but I don’t believe he came here with any intention to burn it down.”

“Doesn’t much matter whether he intended to or not,” Billie handed the other man his bandanna and pointed at his smeared forehead. “He’s the cause and I’m going to arrest him as soon as I get back to town.”

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

Tobias Harrington was sitting at the mayor’s desk going over the purchase papers for the Songbird mine. Needing a place to conduct business while in Sweetwater he had taken over the mayor’s office. Mayor Perkins sat in one of the chairs on the opposite side of the desk struggling to read the papers upside down. Both men looked up when the office door burst open.

Martin Kinsington strode in, he was covered in soot and ashes and reeked of smoke but didn’t seem to notice. “Afternoon, gentlemen,” he said cheerfully as he dropped into the chair beside the mayor.

“Kinsington,” Harrington looked suspiciously at the man. “What have you been up to?”

“Taking care of some business,” Kinsington leaned back in the chair. “Went out to the bitch’s ranch to have a look see. Unfortunately, there was a small accident while I was there.”

“Anybody hurt?” Harrington asked. Although, he really didn’t care..

“No,” Kinsington brushed some ash off his pant leg. “What they referred to as a house, caught on fire.”

“Don’t suppose you had anything to do with that?” Harrington was beginning to believe that Kinsington may not be the answer to his problems as he had hoped. In fact, the businessman was beginning to be more trouble for him than the mayor. Maybe he should have just left him in the sheriff’s custody.

“You burned down Jesse’s ranch?” Mayor Perkins gasped.

“I did not burn it down,” Kinsington smirked, “it just happened to catch on fire while I was there.”

“Oh, my god,” the mayor drooped in his chair. “We can’t have these things happening,” he said to Harrington.

“Why do I care if their house burns down,” Harrington told the mayor. “It’s not like they’ll be needed it.”

“What are you talking about?”

“When the marshal finds Jesse, she’ll be going to prison. If she’s lucky,” he smirked. “And, Jennifer will be going back east with me, where she should be,” Kinsington smugly informed the mayor. “Neither one of them will be coming back to Sweetwater and I’ll have Jennifer sign over her interest in both the ranch and the saloon to Harrington.” That is, he’d have them signed over, if he decided not to keep them for himself.

“Is there something you wanted, Kinsington?” Harrington interrupted, he wasn’t comfortable with their secret plans being so openly discussed in front of the gossipy mayor. “I have to ride up to the Songbird with Wilson this afternoon and I have a lot to go over with Perkins before I leave.”

Kinsington resented the other man’s tone, “just wanted to know if the marshal has come up with anything, yet.”

“Haven’t seen him,” Harrington said, his attention returning to the papers in front of him. “I suggest you find the marshal and ask him yourself.”

Kinsington rose, he really didn’t like the small man’s attitude. Harrington needed to be put in his place and he knew just how to do that. He would contact the man’s employers, detailing why they should put him in charge of their business in Sweetwater. After all, he had experience running a large company. And, with himself in charge, Harrington would become his employee and have to show him some respect. Yes, he would waste no time in sending a message to the investment company back east.

“Don’t let me keep you from your work,” Kinsington stomped out of the room.

“Fool,” Harrington muttered under his breath.

“What did he mean, he would have Jennifer sign over the Slipper to you?” Mayor Perkins was not happy with the way things were going in Sweetwater. What he had thought to be a opportunity for the small town was rapidly turning into anything but.

“Doesn’t concern you,” Harrington growled as he neatly stacked the papers and placed them in the top drawer of the desk. “Do you have a key to this?” he asked.

“Yes,” the mayor nervously answered.

“Give it to me.”

Mayor Perkins pulled a ring of keys from his pant’s pocket. Selecting one, he handed the ring to the other man.

Harrington separated the key from the ring and tossed the discarded keys on the desk. He locked the desk drawer before placing the key into his own pocket. “I have to meet Wilson,” he said as he pushed himself up from the desk. “Try not to let anything happen while I’m gone.”

“Now, just a minute,” Mayor Perkins didn’t mind sharing his office but the man couldn’t lock him out of his own desk. “I have important papers in this desk.”

“I doubt it,” Harrington walked to the office door. “But, I’m sure anything you have in there will wait until I get back,” he slammed the door behind him.

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

Marshal Morgan returned to Sweetwater after a long day of riding. He had visited many of the valley’s ranches only to be met with the same response, no one knew the whereabouts of Jesse Branson. As he rode up to the livery, he silently debated his options. It was apparent that the people of Sweetwater weren’t going to help him find the fugitive. Maybe, he should head back to the woman’s ranch in the morning and see if he could pick up any tracks.

“Surprised to see you back in town, marshal,” the livery hand said as the tired man walked his horse inside the barn.

“Why’s that?” the marshal didn’t recall seeing the boy before. There had always been an older man at the livery when he had been there.

“Thought ya was goin’ after Jesse,” the boy commented as he took the marshal’s horse from him.

“Haven’t found her yet,” the marshal followed the boy to the stall where he was pulling the saddle off his horse’s back. “No one in the valley seems to know where she is.”

“She ain’t in the valley.”

“You know where she is?” the marshal was surprised by the boy’s response.

“Yeah, they went over to the east side of the mountains.”

“East?”

“Yeah,” the boy picked up a pair of well used brushes and went to work on the tired horse’s coat, “gone to see the buffalo.”

“How do you know this?” the marshal angry, he had been looking for the woman all over the valley. Now, he hears that she left Sweetwater. And, quite possibly, people in town knew about it.

“Miss Jennifer’s ma came in a few days back and borrowed a horse. Said they was going to meet up with a friend to see the herd.”

“What friend?”

“Don’t know,” the boy continued his work, “some injun, I think.”

“Why didn’t you say anything before?”

“Nobody asked me. ‘Sides, this is the first time I seen ya. Been gone the last couple of days visiting my brother in Garnet.”

“Brush him down and feed him. Then, get his saddle back on. I’ll be leaving as soon as I talk to a few people,” the marshal turned and left the boy to his task. As he walked out of the livery, he saw the sheriff and Thomas ride up to the Slipper and quickly go inside. He had intended to talk to Tobias Harrington about what he had just learned but, seeing the sheriff, he changed directions. He would find out what the sheriff knew about the Branson woman’s plans.

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

“He burned their house down,” Bette Mae shouted as she listened to Billie and Thomas. They had just returned from Jesse and Jennifer’s ranch and figured they’d start their search for Kinsington at the Slipper.

“Well, not intentionally,” Thomas said, “but, yes.”

Tears flooded Bette Mae’s eyes and flowed down her cheeks, “tha’ house met everythin’ to them two. They worked on it together ta make it their home. Why’d ya let ‘im do it?”

“I didn’t let him, Bette Mae,” Thomas protested. “It happened too fast, I couldn’t stop it.” Thomas felt sick over the loss of his sister’s home. “What could I do?”

Bette Mae looked at the dejected man, he was nothing like his father and she was sure he had no hand in the burning of the house other than having the misfortune to be there as a witness to his father’s rampage. “I’d be obliged if ya was ta go upstairs and pack yor papa’s things up. He ain’t welcome in the Slipper any more,” Bette Mae softly asked the distraught man.

“Alright,” Thomas didn’t have the energy to argue, not that he saw any reason to. His father had gone too far in his attempt to destroy Jesse and Jennifer’s life together. He could face the consequences of his behavior, starting with finding himself somewhere else to stay if he chose to remain in Sweetwater.

“He ain’t gonna need his things, Bette Mae,” Billie injected.

At that moment, Kinsington, still steaming over Harrington’s treatment of him, entered the Slipper.

“Thomas,” Kinsington said as soon as he spotted his son among the people standing together, “I’m glad your here. I need to send a telegram, you can leave for Bozeman immediately.”

“Martin Kinsington,” Billie officially addressed the man still covered in ash and soot, “I’m placing you under arrest.”

“What the hell for?”

“Trespassing, for starters. Destruction of property,” Billie glared at the man, “and arson.”

“You can’t arrest me,” Kinsington laughed at the lawman. “Before long, you’ll be sitting in a cell right next to that bitch. Besides, are you forgetting about the governor’s order?”

“Order applies to crimes in the past,” Billie placed a hand on his gun, ready to use it if that was what it would take to put the man in a jail cell. “Not laws you broke today.”

“Father,” Thomas tried to pacify his father and avoid any more trouble, “I told the sheriff you had no intention to set fire to the house and that it was an accident. I’m sure the judge will understand that when you talk to him.”

“I don’t need you to defend me,” Kinsington snarled at his son.

“You’re gonna need somebody,” Billie said as he approached the angry man. “Now, don’t give me any trouble, Kinsington. You are under arrest.”

Marshal Morgan shoved the door open and entered the Slipper. “Hold on there, sheriff,” the marshal ordered after hearing Billie’s last words.

“This ain’t your business, marshal,” Billie said. “Kinsington set fire to Jesse’s ranch house.”

“Speaking of the elusive Miss Branson, did you know she made plans to leave the valley days ago?”

“She what?” Kinsington spun around to face the marshal. “Is Jennifer with her?”

“And, your wife,” the marshal nodded. “Well, sheriff?”

“Who told you that?” Billie asked. He knew he was in trouble and was trying not to get in any deeper. He wouldn’t be any good to Jesse and Jennifer in a jail cell.

“Livery hand.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” Kinsington moved to the door. “Let’s get going, marshal?”

The marshal was still staring at Billie waiting for a reply to his question, “you aren’t coming.”

“Like hell, I’m not,” Kinsington bellowed. “I haven’t come this far to have the likes of you telling me I can’t go retrieve my wife and daughter.”

“I need to know, sheriff,” the marshal ignored Kinsington.

“We’re wasting time, marshal,” Kinsington would not be ignored.

“No,” Billie lied. The marshal was wrong. The warrant was wrong. Harrington was wrong. He was sure Kinsington was behind all of it. He would protect Jesse, no matter the cost. The mayor could take his badge, he didn’t care. “I didn’t know. You have any more information ’bout where she might have gone?”

Marshal Morgan knew the sheriff was lying but he didn’t have the time to deal with it now. It would wait until he had Jesse Branson behind bars.

“Boy said Mrs. Kinsington mentioned meeting a friend some where near the buffalo. An Indian.”

“Walk.”

“Excuse me?”

“Walks on the Wind,” the sheriff explained. “He’s a friend of Jesse’s. His tribe hunts buffalo every year ’bout this time.”

“You know where to find them?”

“Yes,” Billie knew he had no choice but to guide the marshal to the buffalo hunting grounds. “I’ll be ready to ride in half an hour.”

“Alright,” the marshal didn’t like the idea of the sheriff going along to arrest Jesse. On the other hand, he figured she was less likely to give him trouble if her friend was there. “I’ll meet you at your office, I need to talk to Mr. Harrington before we leave.”

“I’ll be right behind you, marshal,” Kinsington left the Slipper. He had returned his horse to the livery and needed to reclaim it.

Billie shook his head in disgust, he knew they’d be no way to leave the man behind. “You coming?” he asked Thomas, hoping he’d agree to accompany them. He could use an ally on the trip.

“What about my father?”

“I’ll deal with him later. I can’t leave town with a prisoner in the jail and I can’t do Jesse and Jennifer any good sittin’ here.”

“I’ll get my things,” Thomas wasn’t about to let his father go after Jennifer alone.

“Where’s Ruth?” Billie asked Bette Mae when the two of them were left alone.

“In there,” Bette Mae pointed to the kitchen door. “You bring my girls home, Billie,” she said as the sheriff walked past her in search of his fiancé. “All of ’em.”

“I will,” Billie promised.

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

After three days of resting by the mountain lake, Jennifer agreed that Jesse was fit to continue their journey. They packed the horses, cleaned their campsite, and headed down the eastern slope of the pass. The women had also agreed that, due to Jennifer’s limitations and Jesse’s exhaustive experience, they would travel shorter days. So, by mid-afternoon, they began looking for a place to camp and called a halt to the day’s travels as soon as a suitable site was located. The trail wasn’t as rocky as it wound it’s way down through the pine forest. With the easier descent, they made good time even with traveling less hours.

It was the morning of the second day since leaving their camp at the mountain summit.

“Sweetheart,” Jennifer tilted her head to get a better listen to a strange roar coming through the trees that surrounded them. “What is that?”

“Waterfall,” Jesse said as she guided Dusty along the trail. She been listening to the distinctive sound for the past several miles.

“It must be big. Will we see it?” Jennifer loved seeing the plummeting water of the cascades that could be found on the creeks and rivers they passed. When they traveled alongside the waterways, hardly a mile went by that they didn’t get to enjoy water tumbling over some rocky ledge or obstacle.

As they continued riding through the trees, the roar grew louder. Looking down the trail, Jesse began to see a misty cloud that billowed around the trees and knew they were getting close to the falls. They rode into a small clearing to find themselves literally at the base of the falls, the forest concealing the watery splendor until the very last moment.

The women looked up in awe as water dropped down a half dozen stone precipices to plunge into a deep chasm carved out by the plummeting water. Pooling at the bottom of the falls, the water spilled out to form a creek and continue it’s exodus. The top of the falls was over one hundred feet above them and the spray caused by the tumbling water reached almost as far outward. The droplets falling on them, as drenching as a light rain.

The churning water made talking impossible and Jesse pointed to a spot across the creek that was somewhat protected from the spray but still afforded a view of the falls. When Jennifer nodded, the rancher led the horses into the creek to cross. Surprisingly for the torrent of water cascading over the falls, the creek wasn’t more than a few inches deep as the water spread out over a large area before eventually finding its way back into a narrow channel hundreds of feet down stream. Once they were protected from the watery spray, the women sat on their horses to enjoy the natural spectacle.

“Mommy, uck,” KC said as she wiped water droplets off her forehead.

“Yep, sunshine,” Jesse chuckled, “it’s a little on the wet side.”

“But, it’s so beautiful,” Mary expressed. She had never seen such displays of nature before coming to Montana. The falls she was used to seeing were mostly narrow chutes of water falling a few feet. Nothing like what she was looking at now.

“Yes, it is beautiful,” Jennifer agreed. “Can we stay here for the night?”

“Better not,” Jesse smiled regretfully at her wife. With the falling water drowning out all other sounds, the rancher was concerned she’d be unable to hear any danger that might threaten the group. And, KC was right, it was damp this close to the falls. “We don’t have much further to go before we reach the valley,” she explained. “We should be able to spot the buffalo herd before nightfall. I’ll feel safer when we find Walk and his people.”

“You’re right,” Jennifer reached out and patted Jesse’s arm. “Maybe we can come back when all this is over.”

Jesse lifted Jennifer’s hand to her lips, kissing it lovingly, “I promise.”

The women left the roar of the waterfall behind them and continued east. Shortly after a stop to change KC’s britches and grab a quick snack, the trail left the cover of the forest for the last time. It gradually became indistinguishable from the valley floor before disappearing all together.

“What happened to the trail?” Jennifer studied the ground around them.

“Don’t need it anymore,” Jesse stood in her stirrups, studying the horizon. “The trail is only used to get over the pass,” she continued, “in the valley, you just go wherever you need to.”

“And, where do we need to go?”

“There,” Jesse pointed southeast. “See that cloud of dust?”

Far in the distance, Jennifer could barely make out a hazy cloud at the bottom of a bluff, “I think so.”

“That’s where the buffalo are,” Jesse settled back in the saddle. “That’s where we go.”

“Is that where Walk will be?” Mary asked as she scanned the horizon for Jesse’s dust cloud.

“Somewhere close by,” Jesse answered.

“Will we find him by nightfall?” Jennifer pulled her canteen free and offered KC a drink.

“Only one way to find out,” Jesse waited for KC to finish drinking before she urged Dusty forward. She had a feeling something was wrong and she wanted to get to the safety of her friend’s camp as soon as possible.

Dusty started across the valley at an easy trot with Blaze and the other horses following. Around mid-day, the women stopped at a small grove of trees along a creek for a short rest. While Jesse saw to the baby, Jennifer carried their canteens to the creek to refill them. She kept looking up at the sky and shaking her head.

After the third time of seeing her wife look to the sky, Jesse asked, “what’s wrong, darlin’?”

“I’d swear I hear thunder but there isn’t a cloud in the sky,” Jennifer carried the canteens back. She had been hearing a deep rumble, like the sound thunder makes as it crashes across the sky.

“It’s the buffalo,” Jesse put KC back into the carry sack and swung in up on her back, “the herd must be moving.”

“What are you taking about, sweetheart? How can a herd of animals sound like that?”

“I’ll show you,” Jesse helped Jennifer remount Blaze then pulled herself aboard Dusty. “Come on.”

Jesse led the horses away from the grove of trees to the top of a small bluff not too far away. From there, the women could look down into the wide valley. A dark mass was moving in the direction of their bluff from the far end of the valley. As they watched the mass grow closer, the horses began to fidget. The women dismounted to calm them. They could feel the ground beneath their boots start to shake and small rocks dislodged from the bluff’s edge, falling several feet to the valley floor below.

Jennifer could not believe the number of buffalo in the valley below her, the herd had to number over a hundred thousand strong. She had read many descriptions of the shaggy haired, short legged animals but the authors of those descriptions had not done justice to their subject.

Gradually, the herd slowed and the women could pick individual animals out of the dark mass. Mixed in with the larger animals were several smaller ones, their coats a bright orange brown color.

“Jesse, why do some of them have lighter colored coats?” Jennifer asked.

“Those are the babies,” the rancher answered, she was watching several men on horseback following the herd at a safe distance. They were too far away to make out individual features but she hoped one of them was her friend, Walks on the Wind.

“Isn’t that an unusual color?” Mary asked. “It sure stands out.”

“You wouldn’t think so if you’re a wolf or coyote, they can’t distinguish the color from the grass and shrubs. Makes it safer for the babies,” the rancher informed her mother-in-law, her eyes still on the outriders as one broke off from the group and headed their way.

“Oh,” Mary had never had reason to consider that predatory animals might be color blind.

Jesse smiled as she recognized the rider approaching them. “It’s Walk,” she told the others.

Jesse turned away from the bluff’s edge and walked to greet her old friend. Jennifer and Mary followed.

Walks on the Wind raced his horse up the bluff’s sandy slope and leaped to the ground when he reached the women. “Jesse, Jennifer, I wasn’t expecting you.”

“Changed our minds,” Jesse grasped Walk’s outstretched arm. “Hope that’s okay.”

“You’re always welcome in my camp,” Walk smiled.

KC peeked over Jesse’s shoulder, she remembered the man who had played with her when he visited their home not so long ago. She smiled and let out a string of gibberish in greeting.

“You, too, KC,” Walk playfully tapped the baby on the nose. “Have a few little ones in camp about her age,” the Indian commented.

“Not sure I’ve got the stamina for more than one of her,” Jesse laughed.

“They’ll keep each other busy,” Walk chuckled, “leaves the elders free to rest during the day.”

“Funny,” Jesse growled.

“Serves you right,” Jennifer teasingly elbowed Jesse in the ribs. “You know you love chasing KC around all day. It’s hard to tell which of you enjoys it more.” She turned to Walk, “is your camp near?”

“Not too far,” he looked to the bottom of the bluff where one of the other riders was calling to him. He responded in his native tongue and the man rode away. “I told them you were friends and would be staying with me at the camp. He’s going back to let the others know.”

“Walk,” Jesse turned serious, “there’s a reason we’re here. And, I think you need to know it before you invite us into your camp. It could mean trouble.”

“You’re my friend, Buffalo Heart,” Walk said. “Your trouble is mine.”

“I appreciate that,” the rancher nodded. “But, I’d feel better if you knew what was going on.”

“Okay,” Walk had sensed a problem from the time he rode up to the group. It wouldn’t hurt to know what was causing it, “you can tell me as we ride.”

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

“It should be over there,” Billie pointed to a bluff a couple of hours ride across the valley. “Walks on the Wind usually camps there during the hunt.”

“How do you know?” Kinsington asked.

“Joined him and his people on a few hunts,” Billie frowned, remembering the good times he had had in the Indian camp. He knew, this wasn’t going to be another.

“Let’s go,” Marshal Morgan urged his horse forward, “I want to get there before nightfall.”

Billie had led the party from Sweetwater to the valley where the buffalo herds gathered in the late summer. At the marshal’s insistence, they had ridden through the night stopping every few hours just long enough to rest the horses. What the sheriff had hoped to be a ten day trip had been accomplished in half that time. There was nothing to do now but hope Jesse and Jennifer had decided to stay somewhere in the mountains, safely tucked away where their pursuers couldn’t find them..

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

“Where’s Billie?” Thaddeus Newby asked Bette Mae. He had arrived back in Sweetwater after spending the last few days in the mining camps. He wanted to talk with the sheriff and, finding his office vacant, he had come to the Slipper on the chance Billie would be there with his fiancé, Ruthie.

“On his way to arrest Jesse,” Bette Mae told the newspaperman.

“What?”

“Marshal found out tha’ they gone over the mountains to get away from Kinsington,” Bette Mae said, sadly. “Billie couldn’ do nothin’ but go with him. Took Kinsington and Thomas with ’em.”

“Damn,” Thaddeus sat at an empty table.

“That ain’t the half of it,” Bette Mae joined him. “Kinsington set fire to the ranch. Burned it to the ground.”

Thaddeus’ shoulders slumped at this news. He had alerted the sheriff that Kinsington might be up to trouble at the ranch. Obviously, his warning hadn’t been in time. “What can happen next?”

“They can hang Jesse.” The days of worrying about her friends finally became too much for Bette Mae to bear and the restrained emotions broke free. “Please, god, don’t let that happen,” she wailed.

“Jesse’s not going to hang,” Thaddeus tried to comfort the distressed woman. “No judge in the territory will believe the charges they’ve made against her.”

“But, Jennifer’s papa,” Bette Mae wiped at the tears streaming down her cheeks, “why won’ he leave ’em be? Ya know what it’ll do ta Jennifer if anything happens ta Jesse.”

“I know.”

“He’s twisted inside, Thaddeus. Bent and twisted like the vines in the forest. He don’ know what’s right anymore. Jus’ knows what he wants. And he wants Jesse dead.”

“That won’t happen,” the newspaperman hoped it was true. But, he wasn’t foolish enough to believe that Kinsington wouldn’t do everything in his power to make it come true.

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

A call went through the camp when the approaching riders were spotted.

Jennifer was just finishing feeding KC and she carried the baby to where Jesse was spreading out their bedrolls. “Sweetheart, isn’t that Billie’s horse?”

Jesse frowned, “it is.” It was Billie but he wasn’t alone. Jesse wondered if the sheriff was bringing good news why he had brought the other men with him.

“Oh, my god,” Jennifer gasped.

“What is it, darlin’?”

“It’s father.”

Mary rushed to her daughter’s side when she heard who was coming. “Are you sure?” she asked, the men still too far for her to see them clearly.

“Yes, and Thomas is with him.”

“Thomas?” Jesse asked. Jennifer closed the distance between them and Jesse wrapped her arms around her wife.

“My oldest brother.”

“I wonder who the fourth man is?” Jesse muttered.

“Is this your trouble,” Walks on the Wind walked up to the women.

“Seems to be,” Jesse told him.

Billie and the other men rode into the Indian camp.

“I can have them chased away,” Walk offered.

“No,” Jesse shook her head. “We best face this and get it done with.”

“Jesse,” Billie tried to reach the women first but the others were right behind him.

“Well, it’s about time we found you,” Martin Kinsington was off his horse and storming toward Jennifer. “Take you hands off my daughter,” he screamed.

“Back off, Kinsington,” Jesse pushed Jennifer behind her and faced the angry man.

“Father, stop,” Thomas ran after his father, grabbing him by the arms and pulling him away from his sister’s wife.

“Jesse Branson, you’re under arrest,” Marshal Morgan had reached into his saddle bags for the handcuffs he carried and walked towards the rancher to place them on her wrists.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Jesse asked.

“Martin, why are you doing this?” Mary cried.

“Jesse, what does he mean you’re under arrest?” Jennifer questioned.

KC heard the fear in her momma’s voice and felt the arms holding her trembling, and started to cry.

“Back off,” Billie yanked the marshal around to keep him from Jesse.

“Get out of our way,” Kinsington tried to break Thomas’ grip.

“Enough,” Walks on the Wind stepped in front of Jesse and Jennifer, he held his arms up, palms facing the lawmen and Kinsingtons. “You have entered our camp uninvited,” he told them. “If you wish to remain you must obey our customs.”

“Like hell,” Kinsington started to protest.

“Shut up,” Marshal Morgan hissed. “I have a job to do and I won’t have you making it any more difficult than it has already been.”

“Billie,” Jesse asked from behind Walk, “what’s going on.”

The sheriff looked at his friend, his sad eyes telling her that the news wasn’t good. “We need to talk, Jesse. This is Marshal Morgan, he has a warrant for your arrest.”

“For what?” Jennifer asked, she tightened her hold on Jesse.

“For the murder of Kenneth and Catherine Williams,” the marshal answered. “And, the kidnapping of their infant daughter.”

Jesse’s knees went weak and if it hadn’t been for her arms wrapped around Jennifer she would have fallen to the ground.

“Father, what have you done?” Jennifer felt like a fist had slammed into her stomach. This couldn’t be happening again.

“Just told the governor what I was told by the good people of Bannack,” Kinsington crowed. “Maybe now you’ll understand what this bitch is really like.”

“Have you gone mad?” Jennifer screamed. “I was with her when we found KC. She didn’t kill the Williams, Sheriff Plummer did.”

“Not the way I heard it,” Kinsington sneered.

“Martin, please don’t do this,” Mary pleaded. “I know Jesse, she’s a good woman. And, Jennifer loves her very much.”

“Ha,” Kinsington grunted, “she can’t love another woman. It’s not natural.”

“Please, Martin.”

“I see being around this bitch has corrupted you, too. Well, I’ll fix that as soon as we get back home.”

“Thomas, are you here to help him?” Mary asked of her eldest son.

“No, mother. I came to try to keep him from causing you and Jennifer any trouble. Unfortunately, I haven’t done a very good job.”

“Sweetheart?” Jennifer felt the rancher’s body begin to shake as she silently sobbed. “Oh, Jesse,” she cried.

“I can’t lose you,” Jesse whispered.

“I’m not going anywhere, sweetheart,” Jennifer readjusted her position so she could hold Jesse and the baby. “You didn’t kill anyone and we’ll prove that in every court in the territory if we have to.”

“Don’t leave me.”

“Never my love,” Jennifer kissed Jesse’s cheeks, tasting the salty tears that covered them. “Never.”

“Alright, enough of this,” Kinsington snarled. “Thomas, get your mother and sister on their horses. You can leave the brat here for the savages to take care of.”

“No,” Thomas quietly told his father.

“What did you say?”

“I said no. I will not help you force them to do something they don’t want to do. It’s bad enough what you’ve already done to them.”

“Get the horses.”

“No.”

“Marshal, I want my wife and daughter put under protective custody.”

“No.”

Kinsington glared at the man, “you were sent here by the governor…”

“Mr. Kinsington, I am well aware of the duties I was assigned by the governor. And, they do not include anything to do with your wife or daughter.”

“Alright, if I have to do this myself I will,” Kinsington set off to find two horses for Mary and Jennifer to ride. Walk signaled to a couple of the men standing nearby and they left to make sure he wasn’t successful in his search.

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

Jesse sat on Dusty, her hands bound together by handcuffs and her legs tied to her stirrups.

Jennifer walked up, leading Blaze. KC sat in the carry sack on her back, her features stained by tears. She reached for Jesse and couldn’t understand why her mommy didn’t lift her into her arms. The rancher could only smiled tearfully back at her beloved daughter.

“Marshal Morgan?” Jennifer asked.

“Yes, Miss Kinsington.”

“Mrs. Branson,” Jennifer corrected. “Where are you taking her?”

“Bannack, Mrs. Branson,” the marshal acknowledged the name correction. “She’ll stand trial there.”

“Thank you. Then, I will be accompanying you there.”

“As will I,” Mary joined Jennifer.

“I suggest you and your mother return to Sweetwater,” the marshal said.

“You don’t know these two,” Billie smiled at Jennifer, he stepped up to help her mount Blaze. “Where one goes, the other is right behind.”

“Sheriff, with what is likely to happen in Bannack,” the marshal spoke softly to Billie, “I think you should take them home.”

“Jesse didn’t kidnap that baby, marshal. And, she sure as hell didn’t kill anyone,” Billie shot back. “We’re going to Bannack.”

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

PART 6

After leaving the Indian camp, Marshal Morgan escorted his prisoner southward. Jesse, her hands bound by handcuffs, hung on to Dusty’s saddle horn as the horse’s reins were controlled by the marshal, who was taking no chances at having her ride off. Not that she would, considering Jennifer and KC were riding behind them. The marshal had insisted that Jennifer, Billie, Mary and Thomas trailed several feet to the rear and not attempt any contact with Jesse.

Sitting in the carry sack on Jennifer’s back, KC sniffled and laid her head against her momma’s back. She could not understand why her mommy was riding so far in front of them and why she wouldn’t respond to her cries. Jennifer shared the baby’s pain and hoped the marshal would let Jesse hold their daughter when they camped for the night.

If they camped for the night. So far, determined to reach Bannack as quickly as possible, the marshal had refused all requests to stop and was planning to travel straight through the night. Though she and KC were tired and her leg was throbbing, Jennifer was just as determined to shadow the lawman and her wife all night, if necessary.

The riders reached the end of the valley and started over a low pass that would take them into the adjoining valley. It was well past dark and Jesse’s bound wrists and legs were tingling from a lack of blood circulation.

“Marshal,” Jesse addressed the man who rode single mindedly beside her, “I need a break.”

“You’ll have plenty of time to rest in Bannack,” he told her.

“I’ve lost feeling in my legs,” Jesse explained. “Just let me walk around a bit. And, Jennifer needs to rest,” Jesse was concerned about her wife after the long day in the saddle.

“She can stop whenever she wants,” the sheriff kept riding.

“Mommy,” KC cried when she heard Jesse’s voice, the despair in the small voice tore at the hearts of the others, even the marshal’s. But, having a job to do, he tried to ignore the baby’s cries.

Jesse couldn’t take it any longer, if she was sore and tired then her wife must really be suffering. Not to mention their little daughter. “Dusty, stop,” Jesse instructed the golden mare who immediately halted.

“What the hell,” Marshal Morgan said as his arm was pulled backwards by his grip on Dusty’s reins. He yanked on the leather to get the mare to move, “come on, you dumb…..”

“She ain’t goin’ nowhere,” Billie rode up beside the marshal. “Seems like a good spot to camp for the night.”

“I’m taking my prisoner to Bannack. Tonight,” the marshal grunted as his efforts to get Dusty to move continued to fail. “Damn it,” he stared at Jesse, “make her move.”

“No,” Jesse spoke calmly as she stared down the marshal, “If you haven’t noticed, marshal, my wife suffered a severe injury not very long ago and she needs to rest. Now, you can yank on Dusty’s reins all night but she won’t move until I tell her to. So,” Jesse smiled at the man but her eyes held no humor, “I suggest you allow us to stop for a few hours.”

The marshal knew he had no real choice. He was outnumbered five to one. He wondered again why the elder Kinsington had not accompanied the group when they left the Indian camp. The man was more trouble than he was worth but, at least, he would have helped to even the odds.

“Alright,” the marshal reluctantly agreed. “But, we’re leaving at dawn. I want to be in Bannack tomorrow.”

Billie slipped off his horse and helped Jennifer dismount. Though the schoolteacher was grateful for his help, she wished it were Jesse’s arms around her instead of the sheriff’s. “Why don’t you take KC over there, “he indicated a grassy spot not too far from where they were standing, “and I’ll see about getting the marshal to let Jesse sit with you.”

“Thanks, Billie,” Jennifer smiled as she pulled her cane free of the saddle’s scabbard. Her leg ached and she couldn’t wait to stretch it out. But what it really needed she knew she wasn’t going to get, a rubdown from Jesse gentle hands. “But, I need to get some stuff out of the packs. KC needs fresh britches and she’s hungry.”

“Go sit down,” Thomas stepped up beside his younger sister. “I’ll take care of unpacking for you.”

Jennifer looked up at her brother. She had been shocked to see Thomas riding toward the Indian camp, thinking that he had come to assist their father in his quest. She had been even more surprised when he had done just the opposite. Unfortunately, the events of the past several hours had prevented her from speaking to her brother and finding out his reasons for being here.

“Thank you, Thomas,” Jennifer leaned heavily on her cane. I don’t think I could manage by myself,” she admitted.

“Go on,” Thomas nodded, sadly. He had known of his sister’s injury but had been unaware until just this moment how much she suffered from it. “Mother, why don’t you go with her,” Thomas said as Mary joined them.

Billie walked up to the marshal who had dismounted and was untying Jesse’s legs. “Have a favor to ask you, marshal,” Billie stayed a few feet away, not wanting the other lawman to think he was a threat. “The baby’s been crying for Jesse,” he needlessly told the marshal who had been listening to the child’s whimpers along with the others, “it would do her a world of good if Jesse could hold her, just ’til she fell asleep.”

“That child is not my problem, sheriff,” the marshal finished freeing Jesse’s legs and motioned her to dismount. “Prisoner will be tied up until we leave in the morning.”

“Suit yourself, marshal,” Billie winked at Jesse who was stomping her feet to get the blood moving again. “But, I know little KC and she’ll be wailing all night if you keep them separated. Jesse will promise not to cause any trouble if you let her spend the night with her family, won’t ya?”

“Yes,” Jesse nodded solemnly, she would do anything to be allowed a few moments with her family. “There won’t be any trouble.”

The marshal looked over to see KC reaching for Jesse even as Jennifer tried to feed her. Well, if it would get the kid to stop her relentless crying, he thought. “You’ll be tied up,” he told Jesse, she nodded in agreement. He pulled a set of leg shackles from his saddlebag, “alright.”

Jennifer watched, hopefully, as the marshal lead Jesse in her direction. KC, seeing her mother approach, began to crawl towards her. “Stay here, sweetie,” Jennifer stopped the baby.

Jesse was led to a small tree close to where Thomas had set out the bedrolls.

“Don’t move,” the marshal commanded before kneeling down to attach one of the shackles around his prisoners ankle. The other shackle he secured around the tree. He stood back up.

“What about these?” Jesse held up her wrists to display the handcuffs.

“They stay on,” the marshal said as he walked away.

“Thank you,” Jennifer told the marshal who did not respond. With KC, she rushed to Jesse and wrapped her arms around her wife.

“How ya doin’, darlin’?” Jesse choked back tears, it felt so good to feel Jennifer pressed against her.

“I’m fine,” Jennifer sighed, and she was now that Jesse was in her arms.

“You need to sit down,” Jesse said but she didn’t move.

“Mommy,” KC grabbed for Jesse. But, with her hands restrained and her arms wrapped in Jennifer’s, the rancher couldn’t hold the baby.

“Let’s sit down,” Jesse suggested.

“Wait a minute,” Jennifer released her wife and handed the baby to Jesse, who happily accepted the child into her freed arms. “Let me pull our blankets over here.”

KC, overjoyed to be in her mommy’s arms, didn’t care that the woman’s hold on her was awkward. “Mommy,” she kissed Jesse’s face, “wuv you.”

“I love you, too, sunshine,” Jesse cried with the child.

Quickly situating their bedrolls and blankets close to the tree that tethered Jesse, Jennifer helped her wife sit. KC clinging to the rancher.

“I want to hold you,” Jesse whispered as Jennifer snuggled next to her. She scooted back so she could lean against a stump and spread her legs. “Sit here a minute, sunshine,” she said, placing the baby on the blanket next to her. When Jesse lifted her arms up and out of the way, Jennifer slipped between her legs. KC crawled into Jennifer’s lap and Jesse dropped her arms over Jennifer’s head to wrap them around her family.

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

Jennifer relaxed against Jesse and closed her eyes, safe, once again, in her lover’s arms. “I love you,” she sighed.

Marshal Morgan watched the exchange as he pulled the saddle off his horse. The first seed of doubt creeping into his subconscious.

Billie and Thomas worked together to collect firewood and build a campfire. They unburden Boy of his packs and unsaddled the other horses before brushing and picketing them for the night. Then, they helped Mary put together a quick meal for the group.

After eating, the group settled into their bedrolls for the remainder of the night. Jesse lay on her back with KC sprawled on top of her. Jennifer lay on her side snuggled against the rancher, a arm and leg draped over her wife’s body.

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

Unable to sleep, Jesse watched the moon rise from behind the mountains to the east. The camp was quiet with everyone asleep. Even the marshal, having decided his prisoner wasn’t going to try to escape, had nodded off. Jesse clumsily adjusted her arms, not used to having her hands bound.

“You should be sleeping,” Jennifer whispered as Jesse fidgeted.

“So, should you,” Jesse gave up trying to find a comfortable position.

“Can’t,” Jennifer snuggled closer, she began to gently massage the rancher’s wrists.

“Feels good,” Jesse sighed. The handcuffs were tight and their rough surface was scrapping her skin raw. “How are you doing?” she asked, keeping her voice low not to wake the others.

“Wishing we were home in our own bed.”

“Me, too.”

“Jesse,” the schoolteacher looked into her wife’s eyes, the moon’s reflection shining brightly in them. “Why is this happening?”

Jesse didn’t answer right away. She knew as well as Jennifer did what, and who, was behind their present predicament. She also knew that wasn’t what her wife was really asking. Why did their relationship seem to be such a threat to others?

In Sweetwater, they were surrounded by friends who supported them. But even there, they faced intolerance. People who would whisper as they walked by or stop talking if they entered a room. Some disliked them because they were women owning and operating businesses. Some because they were strong and stood up for themselves. Some because of their love for one another. Why couldn’t people like Jennifer’s father just accept them for who they were and not what they were? Jesse wondered if there would ever come the day that they would not have to defend themselves against other folk’s unreasonable beliefs.

“I don’t know, darlin’,” Jesse finally said. “I don’t know why some folks are so against. Seems they won’t be happy ’til they destroy what we have.”

“They can take away everything, sweetheart. But, I’ll never stop loving you,” Jennifer vowed as she tightened her hold on her wife. “No matter what, I’ll love you forever. Even after we leave this life, you will always hold my heart.”

Tears filled Jesse’s eyes as she listened to her wife’s words, “you are my life, darlin’. Nothing will ever change that,” she leaned forward and tenderly kissed the lips she adored.

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

“Any news,” Ed asked Thaddeus when the newspaper man returned from meeting the stagecoach.

It had been several days since the the marshal had left town in search of Jesse and Jennifer. Thaddeus met the every stage in hopes that a message would come telling them what was going on.

“Nothing,” Thaddeus shook his head.

“Been thinkin’ I might close up the store for a few days and go lookin’ for them,” the store owner said. “Been putting it off hopin’ Billie would send word, but maybe I should just do it.”

“Don’t know,” Thaddeus stepped onto the boardwalk beside the large man, “might give it a few more days. By now, they could be anywhere and you’d just be riding around in circles. I’d ride out to look myself but there’s too much happening here,” he referred to the recent upsurge of activity in town that, as the newspaper editor, he was obligated to report on for the Gazette.

“Yeah,” Ed looked to the lot beside his store where men were hammering a new building into existence. Similar activity was taking place across the street next to the stage station. “I’ll wait two more days,” he decided, “then I’m leaving.”

“Can you afford to close the store?” Thaddeus asked. The mercantile was the only place in the valley for folks to buy the necessities of life.

“No,” Ed honestly answered. “Guess I’ll talk to Bette Mae ’bout a couple of the girls keeping an eye on it for me. Shouldn’t be a problem. But, if I have to, I’ll lock it up,” he looked at Thaddeus. “Right now, I’m more concerned about Jennifer and Jesse than I am about it.”

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

“Of course, Ed,” Bette Mae listened as the storekeeper told her of his plans to find Jesse and Jennifer. “Ruthie and Nancy can take care of the store for you.”

“Thanks, Bette Mae,” Ed was relieved that he wouldn’t have to lock the business doors. Not that he minded losing the income but he didn’t want to cause any hardship for his customers.

“But,” the innkeeper added, “I’m comin’ wit’ ya.”

“Alright,” Ed knew it would be useless to argue.

“Bette Mae,” Ruthie had been listening to the conversation and boldly approached the pair. “I’d like to go with you. I’m worried ’bout Billie.”

“It’ll be a long ride, Ruthie,” Bette Mae gently told the girl who she knew had spent very little time on the back of a horse.

“I don’t care,” Ruthie said, determined to be allowed to accompany Bette Mae and Ed when they left town. “I want to go.”

Bette Mae studied the woman who had recently become engaged to the sheriff. She seemed like a completely different person from the one Bette Mae knew. The old Ruthie would never have approached with her request, no matter how much she wanted to. Bette Mae considered how much Ruthie had changed over the past several months since Jesse had become the Slipper’s owner. She wondered how much of the girl’s maturity was due to the confidence given her by Jesse and Jennifer and how much was due to the sheriff’s love of the girl. She decided it really didn’t matter. Whatever it was, she ws now facing a young, self-assured yet still somewhat shy, woman who was willing to do whatever it took to check on the man she loved.

“Okay, Ruthie,” she smiled, “Nancy can take care of things here.”

Nancy tended bar in the Slipper’s saloon and the men in town had quickly learned not to cross the tall redhead who, since the night of the lynch mob, kept a double barrel shotgun under the bar loaded and ready to use at a moment’s notice.

“We’ll be ready, Ed,” Bette Mae returned her attention to the waiting storekeeper. “Ya jus’ say the word.”

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

Frank Wilson, the construction foreman for Tobias Harrington’s investment group, picked his way up the narrow, rocky trail that snaked it’s way to the top of a mountain approximately five miles from Sweetwater. As he climbed, Wilson realized it was going to take a great deal of work to turn the rough path, barely wide enough for a man to walk, into a road suitable for the cumbersome supply and ore wagons to travel.

Nearing it’s destination, the trail leveled and approached a slope devoid of most vegetation due to the numerous snow slides that raced down it’s incline every winter, carrying everything in their path down with them. At the edge of this gradient, cut into the hillside was an opening just large enough for a man to pass through. Stretching behind that breach Wilson knew there to be a tunnel carved into the mountain for approximately two hundred feet. He was looking at the Songbird mine.

When he had visited the site a few days earlier with Harrington, Wilson had been bothered by something but had been unable to pinpoint any reason for the uneasy feeling. He just knew that something didn’t seem right in the mine. The sensation had continued to nag at him and he had come back to the mine alone to see if he could identify what was causing his sleepless nights.

“Howdy, Mr. Wilson,” greeted the ex-cowboy had hired to guard the mine. “Wasn’t expecting anyone today.”

“Spur of the moment trip,” Wilson told the guard. “Just need to check out a couple of things.”

“Alright,” the guard smiled. “Need my help?”

“No,” Wilson didn’t want anything, or anyone, to disturb his thoughts while he was in the mine. “I can handle this myself.”

“Give a holler if you change your mind.” The guard was more than happy to stay outside, he didn’t like having to enter the dark cavern.

“Thanks.”

Lighting the lantern kept at the tunnel’s entrance, Wilson left the brightness of the day and walked into the darkness of the mine. Carefully, he stepped a few feet into the chasm and stopped to study his surroundings. Near the entrance, the tunnel’s walls were braced to keep the enormous mass of the mountain from collapsing them. But, as he raised the lantern shoulder high and scanned down the length of the tunnel, he noticed that the braces became further apart until they disappeared altogether.

“Not too smart to work in an un-reinforced tunnel,” Wilson declared, thinking the mine’s original owner had probably been unwilling to continue the arduous work of cutting and installing the fortifications. Preferring instead to use his energy and resources to dig out the valuable ore. He slowly walked deeper into the shaft, closely examining the walls as he passed. When he reached the end, he studied the rock face that had caught his eye days before.

He held the lantern as close to the stone wall as he could and ran his finger along what appeared to be a vein of ore running several feet along the wall. He scrapped at the vein with his fingernail and then pulled out his pocket knife and scrapped some more. He frowned when tiny bits of the shiny material flaked off and fell to the ground at his feet. Kneeling, he picked up some of the flakes and rubbed them between his fingers.

“Damn,” Wilson muttered when he stepped back out into the midday’s sunlight. “I wonder if that fool knows about this.”

“You say something, Mr. Wilson,” the guard was sitting in the shade of a tree near the mine’s mouth.

“Never mine,” Wilson told the guard. He blew out the flame of the lantern, returning it back to it’s resting place ready for the next person to use. “You have everything you need up here?” he asked the man who was staying on the mountain to protect the company’s most recent investment.

“Yep,” the guard tilted his head in the direction of a tent that served as his living quarters. “Got it fixed up nice and cozy,” he grinned.

“Good,” Wilson was glad the man seemed happy to be on the mountain. He didn’t think he’d so pleased to be so isolated, but to each his own he decided. “Be sure to send word if you think of anything.” Wilson had made arrangements for supplies to be brought to the guard weekly.

“Thanks, Mr. Wilson,” the guard smiled, his new job sure beat chasing cows for a living, “I’ll do that.”

Wilson nodded before turning to retrace his stops back down the mountain. He was grateful for the time the descent would take him, he had to figure out what to do about the discovery he had just made.

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

“You can’t keep me here,” Martin Kinsington yelled for the upteenth time to the occupants of the Indian camp.

“You’re free to leave at any time,” Walks on the Wind again told the irrational man.

A man sitting near Wind said something in their native language and Wind nodded. “Brave Bear asks that you quit yelling, it is making his head hurt,” Wind informed Kinsington.

“Give me my damn horse,” Kinsington screamed, ignoring the request.

“Mr. Kinsington,” Wind took a deep breath, this had been going on since Jesse was taken away from their camp the night before. “As I have told you, the horse is no longer here and we cannot give one of our horses as they are needed to get the buffalo meat back to our village.”

Kinsington was more than irritated at the Indian. Not only had the man remained calm in the face of his own anger but he also spoke English better than most white men in the frontier territory. And, he knew the Indian was speaking the truth about his horse. When he had ridden into the Indian camp the day before, he had failed to restrain the pony and it had wandered off during the confrontation between the marshal and Jesse. At least, that’s what he had been told when later he couldn’t locate the animal. But, there were several Indian ponies in the camp and there was no reason for them to refuse to give him one of them.

“Look,” Kinsington started.

“No,” Walks on the Wind had finally had enough. Besides, by now Jesse and Jennifer must be close to Bannack and he no longer needed to retain Kinsington to keep him from causing them any problems on the trip. “We will not give you a horse. Bannack is south, over that small range of hills,” he pointed in the proper direction in case the easterner didn’t know. “You can walk there in four or five days. You may even get lucky and find your horse on the way. Now, Mr. Kinsington, I am asking you to leave our camp.” The last words were spoken in a hard voice that warned the man not to argue.

Kinsington stared at the man who dared to talk to him in such a manner. His features turned hard as he took a step in Walk’s direction. Before he could take another, he was surrounded by the other warriors of the camp. Words were exchanged between the men and Walk, then Kinsington was roughly forced away from the camp.

“Mr. Kinsington,” Walk called to the man fighting his escorts. “I can no longer protect you,” he hinted at the angry warriors. If the man hadn’t been Jennifer’s father, he would not have protected him for this long. “Please do not attempt to return to our camp,” Walk spoke in his native language and Kinsington was shoved further away from the camp. “You will not receive a pleasant welcome.”

With no other options, Kinsington began to walk to the south end of the valley. He took a moment to cast a final glare over his shoulder at the Indian.

Walk smiled as he watched Kinsington walk away. He would give the belligerent man a head start then he would ride for Bannack himself, making sure to stay out of the man’s line of sight. And, he laughed to himself, he’d take the man’s horse with him.

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

Jennifer rode beside Jesse with KC on her back. The baby had wanted to ride on Jesse’s back but had agreed to settle on Jennifer’s as long as she could see her mommy.

“How’s your leg?” Jesse asked. They had been riding since dawn and except for a few short stops to see to KC’s needs, Jennifer had been in the saddle the whole time.

“I won’t lie to you,” Jennifer had learned that lesson the hard way and wasn’t about to forget it. “I will be more than glad to get off Blaze, for good. But, I would stay up here forever if it meant keeping you out of jail.”

“Don’t think that’s goin’ happen, darlin’,” Jesse said, sadly. “We should be in Bannack by nightfall,” she figured there’d be no excuse for her wife not to rest once she, herself, was locked in a jail cell.

“That’s enough talk,” Marshal Morgan told the women. That morning as he was attaching the shackles to both of Jesse’s legs, the chain hanging under Dusty’s belly, he had relented and allowed that the two could ride side-by-side but only if they didn’t talk. He did it for no other reason than to save his ears from another day of listening to the baby’s unhappy cries.

Jennifer mouthed the words ‘I love you’ to her wife as they obeyed the marshal’s warning. Neither wanted to do anything that would cause the lawman to change his mind.

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

“Perkins,” Tobias Harrington was standing by the window of the mayor’s office looking at the building that marked the end of the town of Sweetwater, “how in the hell could you allowed them to marry?”

“Who?” the mayor was sitting behind his desk reading over some papers. Without a preacher in town, the mayor presided at any marriages held, as he had done at the ceremony for Jesse and Jennifer.

“Those women,” Harrington sneered. “Who the hell do you think I’m talking about?”

“There’s no law against it,” Mayor Perkins replied, offhandedly.

“Law or not, it’s wrong,” Harrington turned to look at the mayor. “You should never have allowed it to happen.”

“Why?” Perkins looked up. Harrington was outlined in the bright sunlight flooding though the window and the mayor seemed to gage for the first time just how diminutive the domineering easterner was. “What harm is there in it?”

“You idiot,” Harrington crossed to a chair and sat down. “Don’t you see?” he asked then answered his own question when the mayor looked at him perplexed. “There will be more people coming to Sweetwater. Important people. And, some of them will be bringing their families and settling here. What are they to think when they find out the town’s schoolteacher is married,” he shuddered when he said the word, “to another woman? And, not just any woman but the owner of a whorehouse.”

“The Slipper’s not a whorehouse,” Mayor Perkins pointed out. “At least, not any more. But, I see your point,” he had to agree that the women working at the Slipper did have disreputable pasts. “So, what can we do about that?”

Harrington smiled, “it’s not what we can do about it but what you can do about it.”

“And, that would be?”

“Pass a law making it illegal for two women to marry each other and dissolve the marriage. And, find yourself another schoolteacher. A respectable one, this time.”

“But, I can’t do that.”

“Why not?”

“Sweetwater doesn’t have an official form of government, we can’t just make our own laws. We have to abide by the territorial laws, and there isn’t one saying Jesse and Jennifer can’t be married.”

“Well, that brings up another subject I’ve been meaning to talk to you about,” Harrington leaned back in the chair, his arms bent at the elbow with fingers spread and fingertips pressed together. “I think it’s time for Sweetwater to have a town council. Honest citizens that can be trusted to pass the laws that will make this a decent town. And, to give the position of mayor the authority it deserves.”

“Oh,” the mayor was instantly in agreement with Harrington’s suggestion. “I’ve been considering that myself.” He pulled a blank sheet of paper in front of him and began to make a list of the people who would serve their needs as council members.

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

Thomas was riding beside his mother. Not knowing what to say to the woman who raised him, he hadn’t spoken a word since they broke camp that morning.

“Thomas,” Mary decided it was time to break the forced silence. “Why are you here?”

Listening as they rode several feet ahead, Jesse and Jennifer were both interested in his answer.

Thomas took a deep breath before responding.

“Father insisted on returning here for Jennifer and you. We tried to talk him out of it but he wouldn’t listen. He said he was going to come back, no matter what. I agreed to accompany him only on the condition that he would let Jennifer make up her own mind about where and how she wanted to spend her life. And, because I wanted to ask you to come home.

“You mean to order me back home,” Mary suggested skeptically to the son that had always copied his father’s every attitude.

“No,” Thomas looked at his mother and vigorously shook his head. “Ask. I, well, I…,” he hesitated to gather his thoughts. “I’ve asked a wonderful young lady to marry me and she’s agreed,”.he smiled as he thought of his fiancé waiting for him to return. “I wanted you to come home for the wedding and,” he emphasized, “to be part of our family,”

Mary looked thoughtfully at her son. Before she had come to Montana, she had been unaware that Thomas had been courting and wondered why he had kept it secret.

“I never would have come here,” Thomas continued, “if I’d known what father was capable of. Never.” He looked at Jennifer and Jesse who were looking back at him, “I’m so sorry.”

Seeing how upset her eldest son was, Mary gently asked, “Thomas, what has your father done?”

“You don’t know?” Thomas looked at Billie. He was sure the sheriff would have found the time to tell Jesse and Jennifer about their home.

“Thought it best to wait until all this was over,” Billie shook his head to let the man know he hadn’t said anything to the women, he had wanted to save them from any more heartbreak.

“Know what?” Jesse brought Dusty to an abrupt stop and Jennifer pulled Blaze up next to her..

“What’s going on?” the marshal asked when he found himself moving forward alone.

“Know what?” Jesse asked again, her voice more demanding.

“I’m so sorry, Jennifer,” Thomas tearfully told his sister. “I should have stopped him but I didn’t…”

“What the hell did he do?” Jesse shouted.

Billie spoke up when it became apparent that Thomas was unable to answer, “he burned down the ranch.”

“What!!” Jennifer screamed.

“I’m sorry,” Billie said, “it’s gone.”

“All of it,” Jesse asked, stunned by the news.

“No, just the house. Thomas saved the rest of the buildings,” he hoped that news would speak well for the distraught man.

“How?” Jesse asked.

“Why?” Jennifer asked at the same time.

“It was an accident,” Thomas finally found his voice. “He didn’t go there to do it, it just happened.”

“Why was he there, Thomas?”

“I don’t know. He never told me.”

Jennifer didn’t care if her brother was upset, she wanted to know why her father had been allowed to go to the ranch. She couldn’t believe he had managed to destroy the one thing that meant so much to Jesse while the entire town was supposed to be watching out for him. “Why wasn’t he in jail, Billie?”

“He was,” Billie explained. “I arrested him as soon as he set foot in Sweetwater. The next day, the marshal here arrives with a warrant for Jesse and a writ from the governor releasing your father. I had to let him out.”

Jennifer glared at the hapless marshal who could only sit on his horse and listen to the conversation unfold around him. It was obvious that the group wasn’t going anywhere until some questions were answered.

“You let my father out of jail,” the schoolteacher accused. “After everything he did to us, you let him out of jail.”

KC began to whimper in the carry sack, she didn’t like it when her mothers raised their voices and right now both of them were angry.

“It’s okay, sunshine,” Jesse lowered her voice and smiled at the baby. “Kinsington was ordered out of Montana, never to return,” Jesse told the marshal. “Why in the hell would the governor rescind that order.”

“Tobias Harrington,” the marshal informed the group.

“What does he have to do with any of this?” Jennifer asked, dumbfounded that the condescending little man was involved..

“He provided the information to the governor about your crimes,” he told Jesse. “And, about your father,” he said to Jennifer, “being wrongly accused.”

“Oh, my god,” Jennifer would have laughed if the situation hadn’t been so serious. “And, the governor believed him?”

“Harrington is an old acquaintance of the governor’s, he had no reason to disbelieve him.”

Jennifer could not believe what she was hearing. “Did the governor think we made the whole thing up? How Andrew was killed because of my father? How my father beat Jesse senseless and kidnapped me? And, what about this,” she patted her damaged leg, “did I make this up, too? My father is responsible for all of that and much more,” she glared at the marshal. “Not to mention KC. Tell me, marshal, did anyone even bother asking the people in Bannack what happened? That we reported finding the Williams? That Jesse and I buried them? How we searched for any relatives of the baby’s? Well, marshal, did you?”

“You can ask them yourself during the trial,” the marshal was uncomfortable with the accusations addressed his way. Not to mention, that he was beginning to have some doubts as to the validity of the information he had been given. “It’s time to get moving.”

Jesse sat quietly, her mind rehashing everything she had just heard. Things were starting to make sense.

“Come on,” Jesse kneed Dusty back into action.

“Jesse,” Jennifer reached out to stop the rancher. “What are you saying?”

“The sooner we get to Bannack, the sooner we can prove I didn’t do anything and I can get rid of these,” she shook the handcuffs. “And, then I can find your father and finish this once and for all,” she shrugged off Jennifer’s hand. “Let’s get going.”

“I hope that wasn’t a threat,” the marshal said as his horse fell in step beside Dusty.

“Nope,” Jesse said. “That, marshal, was a statement of fact. Something you seem to be lacking much of.”

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

Frank Wilson rode directly to the stage station when he returned to town. He had made a decision and wanted to carry through with it before anyone could change his mind.

“Need to send a telegram,” the foreman told the station master when he entered the old adobe building.

“Write it up,” the station master pointed to a small desk with a supply of paper, a pen and ink bottle. “It’ll go out on t’morrow’s stage.”

“Any way to get something out sooner?”

“Messenger, but don’t know if anyone is ‘vailable to carry it.”

“I’ll pay extra,”

“Hmm,” the station master considered the offer. “Seems I saw Pete ridin’ up to the Oxbow a while back. Lit me see if he’s interested.” The man hurried out to find Pete, a trusted cowhand on one of the ranches who often carried messages between Sweetwater and the nearest telegraph office.

It wasn’t long before the station master returned with the cowboy.

Wilson handed Pete a sealed envelope and a five dollar bill, “I’ll give you another when you return with an answer.”

“Yes, sir,” that was more than the cowpuncher made in a couple of months.

“It’s important,” Wilson told the excited man. “Don’t lose it. And, don’t let anyone read it before you give it to the telegraph operator. Make sure you bring the answer directly to me. Understand?”

“Yes, sir.” Hearing no further instructions, Pete ran out of the station, mounted his horse, and galloped out of town.

From the mayor’s office, Tobias Harrington had watched the foreman enter the stage station and was watching when the cowboy charged out of town. He wondered what Wilson was up to and decided to ask him. He walked out of the office and crossed the street to meet the foreman as he came out of the stage station.

“Afternoon, Wilson,” Tobias smiled pleasantly, yet his eyes were guarded.

“Afternoon,” Frank Wilson wasn’t surprised to see Harrington and was glad his message was already on it’s way out of town.

“Heard you went up to the Songbird today.”

“Yes,” Wilson started walking to the new hotel’s construction site.

“Any particular reason?” Harrington walked beside him.

“Just wanted to double check something.”

“Pays to be cautious,” Harrington didn’t like the fact the man wasn’t being too forthcoming. “But, I do expect to be informed of these things,” he prodded.

“Look Harrington,” Wilson didn’t know if Harrington was aware of the mine’s status and was on a fishing expedition to find out what he knew. Or, if Harrington was unaware and just being his normal officious self. Either way, he didn’t trust the overseer and was not about to share his recent discovery with him. “I’ve got two buildings to put up and a road to construct. I don’t have time to play games with you. I went up to the mine to check out some stuff. That’s my job. If you don’t like it, have me replaced. Until then, leave me the hell alone.”

Wilson stomped off, the workman scurrying out of his way.

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

Ed was trying to find places in his storeroom for the latest shipment of supplies to arrive. Scratching his head, he surveyed the cramped space. There wasn’t a spare inch to cram another item into. “Ain’t gonna happen,” he told himself as he looked at the stack of items still to be put away. He definitely needed to get his expansion project started now that he had received the lumber necessary to complete it. But, in the meantime, “best figure out someplace else to put some of this,” he mumbled, sorting through the various boxes and crates.

An hour later, Ed entered the Silver Slipper in search of Bette Mae.

“Littl’ early for supper, ain’t it?” Bette Mae asked when the large man walked into the kitchen.

“Not here for that,” Ed smiled. He ate almost every meal at the Slipper and one could set their watch by his punctuality. “Some of the supplies came in for Ruthie’s dress shop and I’m running out of room for everything at the store. I was hoping I could bring them over here.”

“Don’ see why not,” Bette Mae agreed. “Office ain’t bein’ used for anythin’ right now.”

“Thanks,” Ed nodded. “Those smell good.”

Bette Mae had just pulled a batch of cookies out of the oven, they were cooling on a counter.

“Should,” the innkeeper laughed, “I baked ’em. Here,” she handed a handful of the warm treats to Ed, “take these wit’ ya. I’ll make some more for the supper guests. Now, git.”

“Thanks, again,” Ed mumbled around a mouthful of cookies as Bette Mae shooed him out the door.

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

It had been several hours since Martin Kinsington had been forced out of the Indian camp. His feet, not used to walking long distances. were sore and blistered. He was following the trail of hoof prints left by the group of riders that had left the camp that morning and still had some distance to go before reaching the small string of hills that split one valley from the next. It hadn’t been until he was some distance from the Indian camp that he realized he had no supplies with him. No weapon. No food. No sleeping gear. No water. Luckily, he had crossed a few small creeks and had drunk from these.

Now, as the end of the day neared, Kinsington was getting hungry, cold, and scared.

For all his arrogance, Martin Kinsington was only comfortable in the confines of a large, noisy city. He didn’t like this wide open, quiet country where one could travel all day and not encounter so much as another person. But, now, he found himself alone. Completely alone. He could have yelled as loud as he wanted and there was probably no one for miles to hear him.

Kinsington knew he needed to find a safe place to spend the night because it would be more than foolhardy for him to attempt to continue walking in the darkness. He looked around and saw nowhere that looked promising. He would have to sit in the open without a fire or weapon and hope nothing threatened him during the night. His thoughts swept back to the day his daughter had been attacked by the cougar. The cat’s claws ripping a gash the length of her leg, exposing the bone usually buried deep within protective tissue and muscle. He shook his head to clear the terrifying memory from his mind.

Kinsington definitely was not looking forward to the long, dark hours ahead.

Hidden by the tall grass atop a ridge a few hundred feet behind Kinsington, two dark eyes kept watch on the easterner’s movements.

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

Jesse heard Bannack long before the town came into sight, the sounds from the active mining camp floating on the still, early evening air. Crossing Grasshopper Creek, they rode past the shantytown of Yankee Flats, a community of Union sympathizers that separated itself from the more southern leaning population of Bannack. Even though it was almost dark, there were miners screening the gravel creek bed hoping to find an elusive gold nugget.

The riders entered Bannack, passing the residences at the beginning of town and continuing on to the commercial buildings that lined the main street. Most of the buildings were made from rough-hewn logs or wood planks with a few adobe and brick buildings scattered among them. The group attracted attention from all they passed.

Jesse was embarrassed to be led into town in handcuffs and leg shackles but she held her head high, refusing to show her true feelings. Jennifer inched Blaze up beside Dusty so she could proudly ride into Bannack beside her wife.

Marshal Morgan pulled his horse to a stop as a couple of miners staggered out of one of the numerous saloons that dotted Bannack’s main street. “Where can I find the sheriff?” he asked the slightly inebriated miners.

“Ain’t got one,” one of the unsteady men answered.

“Where’s the town’s law, then,” the marshal tried again.

“Ain’t got one,” another of the miners repeated. “Are ya deef?” he looked quizzically at the marshal.

“You got a jail?”

“Yep.” the men said together as they stumbled away down the wooden sidewalk.

Billie smirked when the drunks left without providing any more information. Not wanting to be too helpful, Jesse and Jennifer sat patiently waiting for the marshal to make his next move.

The marshal rubbed his chin. “Come on,” he said as he moved down the street to ask some other bystanders for the location of the jail.

“What’s she done, marshal?” a young boy ran up to the riders. “She kilt som’body?”

Jesse tensed at the boy’s words.

“You live in town?” the marshal asked the lad.

“Yeah,” the boy pointed down the street, “live down there with my pa. Why?”

“Is there a lawman in town?”

“Nope.”

“Who takes care of that kind of thing, then?”

“Judge at the courthouse,” the boy pointed to a two story brick building about half way down the street. The marshal began to ride to the courthouse.

Jesse and Jennifer didn’t remember seeing the large brick structure before and concluded it must have been recently constructed.

“Ain’t nobody there this late in the day,” the boy said as he skipped alongside the horses. “Judge’ll be at the Goodrich having supper. Want me ta sho’ ya?”

The marshal nodded and the boy ran ahead to a two story wooden structure a few doors past the courthouse. Jesse and Jennifer knew exactly where the Goodrich Hotel was located, having stayed there during their first visit to Bannack.

“Sheriff, can I trust you to hold the prisoner while I go in to talk with the judge?”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Jesse answered for Billie. “Just be quick about it. I don’t want Jennifer to have to stay on her horse any longer than necessary.”

The marshal looked at Jesse. With all the trouble she was in, her first thoughts were always for the woman she referred to as her wife and the child she was accused of kidnapping after killing her parents. Maybe, the governor had accepted bad information.

“I’ll be as quick as I can. Perhaps, Mrs. Branson,” the marshal said to Jennifer as he dismounted, “it would be best if you went inside and obtained a room for yourself and child.”

“I’ll stay with Jesse until she’s settled,” Jennifer told the marshal. She was still infuriated that the lawman was partially responsible for letting her father out of jail.

“Momma, yum,” KC whimpered from the carry sack.

“Darlin’,” Jesse’s arms ached to hold her baby, “why don’t you go on and get a room. You’ll be needing someplace to stay.”

“KC won’t sleep in those noisy rooms,” Jennifer said quietly. “And, neither will I.”

“Jennifer. Jesse. Is that you?” a familiar voice asked. Both women looked to see Marianne Temple hurrying down the boardwalk. “It’s so good to see you,” the woman happily greeted them. Then, she spied Jesse’s restraints, “what’s wrong?” she asked, now concerned for the women.

“Jesse’s been arrested, Marianne,” Jennifer sadly told the Bannack schoolteacher.

“What on earth for?”

“For kidnapping KC and killing her parents,” Jennifer choked out the awful words.

“You’re kidding, right?” the woman stared in disbelief at her friend.

“It’s true, Marianne,” Jesse said. “Darlin’, please go in and get a room,” she asked Jennifer.

“Nonsense,” Marianne shook her head. “You’ll stay with me.”

Happy at the prospect of staying with the other schoolteacher instead of at the hotel, Jennifer instantly agreed, “thank you.”

Marshal Morgan came out of the Goodrich Hotel accompanied by another man.

“These all your prisoners?” the other man asked, not expecting the large group of people waiting for the marshal.

“No, judge” the marshal retrieved his horse’s reins. “This one is the prisoner, Jesse Branson. The rest are her kinfolk,” he was too tired to take the time to explain Jesse and Jennifer’s relationship at the moment.

“Alright,” the judge told the sheriff. “Let’s get her locked up.”

The marshal followed the judge, leading his horse and Dusty. Jennifer and the others tagged along with Marianne bringing up the rear.

The judge led the group across the street and down the side of Chrismans’ general store to the jail buildings sitting twenty feet behind the store. The judge quickly covered the short distance between the back of Chrismans’ store and the jails. The marshal dismounted and stepped next to Dusty to remove the shackles around Jesse’s ankles so she could climb down from the horse. Billie slipped from his horse and helped Jennifer to the ground, keeping a steadying hold on her while she tested her leg. Already off his horse, Thomas helped his mother down.

Several town folk had stopped their evening activities to watch the procession pass then fell into step behind it, rapidly filling the space between the store and the jails. Someone asked Marianne what Jesse was charged with and she passed on the information she had been told just moments before. Word spread quickly through town and what had been a small crowd soon grew into a large throng. Some in the gathering assembly remembered Jesse and Jennifer from their previous stay in Bannack and their attempts to find KC’s family. Those jeered the marshal for arresting the woman on, what they believed to be, bogus charges.

Bannack had the use of two jails. One was mainly used for prisoners who were too drunk to leave on the streets while the other, more sturdily constructed building, was used to detain prisoners accused of more serious crimes. After lighting a lantern that was hanging on the side of the sturdier building, the judge unlocked the door and ushered the marshal and prisoner inside. Before he could shut the door, Jennifer forced her way into the small room.

Wide eyed, Jesse and Jennifer looked around the dismal room. The jail had been assembled by stacking large logs atop one another and separated into three parts. Half of the building consisted of a room where a guard could sit to keep watch on the prisoners. The other half consisted of two jail cells about six feet square. These cells were separated from the rest of the room and each other by solid log walls and were entered through a small door. A heavy ring was anchored into the logs that made up the cell’s floor and prisoners were normally chained to the ring to prevent escapes through the building’s sod roof. Guards could observe their prisoners through a small opening in the cell door and, when not in use, the opening would be covered by a panel that was only accessible from outside the cell. The cells had no windows and when the cell door was closed and the opening covered, a prisoner would be confined in the dank cell, engulfed in total darkness.

“I must say, marshal,” the judge hung the lantern on a peg, the noise of the crowd dimming behind the jail’s thick door. He struck a match and lit another lantern, adding more light to the dark room. “I’m a bit surprised at the charges against Miss Branson, myself.” He had heard the cries of disbelief coming from many in the crowd. “I certainly hope you have evidence to back up your warrant.”

“I have a list of witnesses who live in Bannack and are willing to testify against her,” the marshal supplied.

“Really,” the judge was astounded to hear that anyone in Bannack would be willing to swear in court someone besides Sheriff Plummer had been responsible for the murders of the young couple. Especially, since the encompassing reign of terror had ended with the sheriff’s death. “I’ll be interested in seeing that list, marshal. I take it you’ll be staying here with the prisoner?” he asked as he handed the man the keys to the cells’ doors. “We haven’t found anyone to take the job of jailer or sheriff since the vigilantes hanged Plummer.”

“Yes, I’ll be staying with her,” the marshal accepted the keys.

“And, the sheriff?” the judge wondered why the other lawman had been left outside.

“No, just me,” he said as he unlocked one of the cells. “Inside, Branson,” he commanded.

“May we have a few moments together?” Jennifer asked softly, the thought of Jesse being incarcerated in the tiny cell was tearing at her heart.

“You can see her in the morning,” the marshal said roughly.

“Don’t see the harm in giving them some time,” the judge told the marshal. He remembered seeing the women walking around Bannack only months earlier. They had introduced themselves as sisters but something about their behavior led him to believe there was much more to their relationship than sisterhood.

Reluctantly, the marshal allowed Jennifer and KC to join Jesse inside the cell. A knock at the jail’s door gained the attention of everyone inside the building. The judge opened the door to see Billie standing outside holding a sack.

“They’ll be needin’ this for KC,” the sheriff said as he handed the sack to the judge. “Tell Jennifer we’ll wait for her out here. Sent the town folk away so’s the marshal don’ have to worry ’bout them.”

“Thank you, sheriff,” the judge took the sack as he looked over Billie’s shoulder. Sure enough, except for Marianne and those that had ridden into town with the prisoner and marshal, the area was clear. He closed and secured the door before carrying the sack to the cell where the women stood. “This is for you,” he smiled as he handed it to Jennifer. “Marshal, remove these shackles,” he commanded.

“But,” the marshal began to protest.

“I don’t think Miss Branson has any plans to leave town without her family,” he said as Jesse nodded in agreement. “Remove these shackles and bring one of those lanterns in here. We don’t want the dark to scare the baby.”

“Thank you,” Jesse sighed.

“You’re taking a big chance,” the marshal mumbled as he knelt to unshackle Jesse’s legs.

“I don’t believe in treating prisoners like animals ’til they’ve been found guilty. Until then, we can treat them like people. Take off the handcuffs, too.”

When the marshal backed out of the small cell, he left the door open so he could watch the women.

“Pull the door shut, marshal,” the judge sat in the room’s only chair. “Give them some privacy.”

The marshal pulled the cell door shut and leaned against the wall beside it. “You’re mighty trusting of your prisoners,” he grumbled.

“Only the ones I question the reason for being brought before me. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take a look at that list of witnesses you claim to have.

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

The town’s citizens pressed closer to the jail, squeezing around Billie, Thomas, Mary, Marianne and the horses. Many couldn’t believe that Jesse had been arrested for a murder they were sure had been ordered by the town’s previous sheriff. Their vocal reactions triggered by the memory of the man’s crimes still fresh in their minds. Some in the crowd had been drinking when the news of Jesse’s arrest brought them out of the numerous drinking establishments and those individuals, becoming more unruly as the moments ticked by, shouted offers to spend the night in jail with the pretty prisoner.

Since the marshal had remained inside the jail, Billie decided to take control of the growing threat. “Okay, folks,” he shouted to be heard above the shouts and catcalls, “there’s nothing any of us can do tonight. So, why don’t you go back to your own business for now.”

“Who are you to be tellin’ us that?” a voice was heard above the others.

“I’m Sheriff Billie Monroe from Sweetwater. Now, please, go home. This will all be sorted out in court,” he added when the crowd slowly began to disburse even as many continued to protest Jesse’s arrest and jailing.

“Mother, I think we should go see about rooms at the hotel,” Thomas said after most of the town folk had returned to whatever they had been doing before joining the throng around the jail.

Mary was tired but she didn’t want to leave until Jennifer reappeared, “you go on and take care of it, Thomas. Come get me when you’re ready. I want to wait for Jennifer.”

“Alright. You need a room, sheriff?” Thomas asked, it would be just as easy to get three rooms as two.

“I will,” Billie was untying a sack from Boy’s back. He carried it to the jail’s door and knocked. “They’ll be needin’ this for KC,” he said handing the sack to the judge on the other side of the opened door. “Tell Jennifer we’ll wait for her out here. Sent the others away so’s the marshal don’ have to worry ’bout them,” he sarcastically told the judge. Billie felt the marshal had failed in his duty to protect a prisoner by allowing the large crowd to form.

With the sack delivered and the crowd dispersed, Billie had two more things to do and he didn’t want Mary waiting alone..

“Thomas, would you mind staying here for a bit longer?” Billie asked.

“Why? Where are you going?” the other man asked.

“I need to get the horses boarded and to send a telegram to Sweetwater. They’ll be wondering what’s happening.”

“Alright,” Thomas had forgotten that the horses would need to be stabled while they were in Bannack. “I’ll wait.”

“Thanks,” Billie started to gather the horses. He and Thomas removed the bags that would be needed for the night. “I’ll be back as soon as I can. If Jennifer comes out before I get back, I’ll meet you at the hotel.”

“Right.”

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

Not everyone had joined the gathering at the jailhouse. In Skinner’s Saloon that had once served as headquarters for Sheriff Plummer’s gang of thugs, the bartender had remained to serve his only customer of the evening.

At a table in the back corner of the rectangular building, a man sat nursing a bottle of whiskey. He had watched the women riding into town earlier and had instantly recognized them. His thoughts drifted back to a day not too long ago when he had been sharing a drink with a friend and another man at a table near the front of the bar. They had watched as the very same two women rode out of town. Moments later they had been joined by Sheriff Plummer.

“We going after them?” his friend asked the sheriff.

“Yes. Give ’em a couple hours lead,” Plummer threw a coin on the bar’s surface and received a glass of whiskey in return.

“What are they carrying?” he asked.

“Nothing.”

“Nothing. Did why bother?” his friend questioned the sheriff. Usually, they were sent out to rob travelers carry gold dust or other valuables.

“I don’t trust ’em.”

“So, what do you want us to do?” the other man looked at the sheriff.

“Kill ’em. And, make sure you get the brat this time. I don’t want it showing up again and people askin’ questions,” Sheriff Plummer slammed his empty glass on the table and stormed out of the saloon.

“I don’t know boys,” he said. “Killin’ babies ain’t what I signed on for.”

“You can’t stomach this, I can take care of that right now,” the other man said as he pulled a pistol from his holster and pointed it at him.

“Didn’t say I won’t do it,” he scrambled to save his life. “Just said I didn’t like it.”

“You can stay here ifn’ you ain’t willing to hold up your end. We’ll tell Plummer you chickened out,” his friend offered.

“Hell, he’d shoot me ‘fore I could leave town.”

“You’re choice. Make it,” the other man growled.

“Shit,” he muttered as he scratched his week old beard. “I’ll go get the horses.”

Now, the women were back in town and word was that one had been charged with a murder he had helped commit. He reconsidered the wisdom of remaining in Bannack after Plummer’s death, he knew it was only a matter of time before the vigilantes would connect him to Plummer’s gang. Maybe it was time to leave town for good.

The bartender took a dirty rag and started to wipe down the long bar that stretched along one entire side of the saloon. As he wiped, he kept watch on the other man out of the corner of his eye. The barkeep knew the vigilantes were convinced he had taken part in Plummer’s illegal activities and were seeking a reason to put a noose around his own neck. As he wiped, he tried to figure out the best way to pass on the information he had without ending up at a necktie party in his honor. Maybe the woman’s impending trial would give him the opportunity to slip out of that noose.

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

“Mommy, yum,” KC repeated her pitiful cry as the cell’s door closed. She was tired, hungry, and wet. And, she wanted her mommy to hold her.

“Okay, sunshine,” finally free of restraints, Jesse lifted the baby out of the carry sack. “Here, darlin’,” she told her exhausted wife, “sit down.” She wanted Jennifer to get off her impaired leg.

“Hold me,” Jennifer whispered as she pressed her body against the rancher. It was the first time the women had been alone all day and she ached for her wife’s touch.

Jesse quickly complied. It was tricky trying to hold the fussing baby and Jennifer. Releasing her arms from the schoolteacher, Jesse sat on the dirty blankets that covered the cell’s cot and pulled Jennifer down beside her. The women huddled together for several minutes until KC asked again to be fed. Jennifer lifted the sack onto the cot, opening it she pulled out some leftover biscuits and meat from a meal earlier in the day KC hungrily grabbed at the small pieces Jennifer broke off for her.

“She needs changing,” Jesse told Jennifer what she had known for some time.

“I know, but let her eat first,” Jennifer leaned against Jesse. “It’s been a rough day on her.”

“Been rough for all of us,” Jesse sighed as she placed her head against Jennifer’s. “What about you?” Jesse asked.

“I’m okay. But, when this is all over, you, dear wife, are giving me a rubdown that will last a month,” she smiled but her weary heart wasn’t behind the action.

“Oooh,” Jesse grinned, trying to cheer the schoolteacher, “sounds like a mighty fine idea.” She reached out to wipe a crumb off the baby’s cheek.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Jennifer cried when she saw the damage the handcuffs had done to Jesse’s wrists. “We need to take care of that.” She pulled a clean diaper from the sack and tore it into thin strips. Wetting one of the strips with water from the canteen Billie had thoughtfully placed in the sack, she cleaned Jesse’s wounds as best she could. “Maybe I should ask to have a doctor look at these,” she said as she tenderly wrapped the makeshift bandages around the abrasions.

“Owie,” recognizing the bandaging for what it was, KC bent forward and kissed Jesse’s wrists.

“Don’t think the marshal will go for that,” in appreciation of the gesture, Jesse gently rubbed the baby’s smooth cheek.

“Wasn’t planning on asking him,” Jennifer said. “I’m sure the judge will agree.”

“Guess it wouldn’t hurt to ask,” Jesse didn’t want to tell Jennifer how much her wrists hurt. Looking down, she noticed that KC was started to doze now that her stomach was full, “let me change her.” She pulled the dirty blankets back exposing the not much cleaner straw mattress below. “Hand me a clean towel,” she told Jennifer, “I need something to lay her on.”

Jennifer scooted to the end of the cot to give Jesse room to work on the baby. She pulled a clean diaper and nightshirt out of the sack and handed them to her wife after the requested towel. “I wish I could stay with you tonight,” Jennifer murmured as she watched Jesse change KC’s clothing.

“No you don’t,” Jesse countered. The thought of spending the night in the damp, dirty, and dark cell wasn’t very pleasing for the rancher. And, there was no way she would allow Jennifer to experience it, even if the marshal would agree. “I think you should take KC and go,” Jesse lifted the clean and sleepy baby off the cot and cradled her in her arms.

“I want to stay until they make me go,” Jennifer scooted back and snuggled against Jesse.

“I know, darlin’,” the rancher draped an arm around Jennifer and pulled her close. “But, Billie and your mother are waiting outside. And, I’d feel better if I knew you were off that leg for the night.”

“I love you, Jesse,” Jennifer tilted her head invitingly.

Jesse accepted the invitation and kissed the schoolteacher. Pulling Jennifer tighter against her, she deepened the kiss.

Pounding on the cell door broke the women apart, KC jerked awake in Jesse’s arms.

“Alright,” the marshal pulled the cell door open, “you’ve had your time for tonight.”

“I’ll be back first thing in the morning,” Jennifer assured Jesse as she was handed the baby, now cranky from being awakened. “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

The marshal pulled the door shut as soon as Jennifer cleared the wood frame.

“I want a doctor to take a look at Jesse’s wrists,” Jennifer told the marshal.

“I’ll see what I can do,” he said, but his tone indicated he really didn’t care.

Hearing the marshal’s less than wholehearted response, the judge told Jennifer, “I’ll have a doctor check her out in the morning.”

“Will I be allowed to visit her during the day?” Jennifer wanted to get the grounds rules settled while the friendly judge was there to overrule the uncooperative marshal.

“No reason you shouldn’t,” the judge told her. “Is there, marshal?”

“None you’d agree with,” the marshal grumbled, opening the jail door in an attempt to get the woman to leave.

“Thank you.” Jennifer smiled at the judge. “Good night, marshal,” she said as she walked past the man.

“Good night, Mrs. Branson,” the marshal saw the schoolteacher outside then slammed the door shut and slid the bolt into place.

“Mrs. Branson?” the judge asked.

“Seems the two of them are married,” the marshal informed the judge.

“Seems they are,” the judge smiled to himself, glad to know that his earlier feelings about the women had been correct. “Goodnight, marshal,” he stood to leave the marshal alone with his prisoner. “I’ll expect you to cooperate in allowing Mrs. Branson and the child to visit the prisoner,” he said as he unbolted the door and stepped outside.

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

Mary rushed to Jennifer’s side as she limped out of the jail. “How is she?” she asked about Jesse.

“As good as anyone would be who was locked up for for something they didn’t do,” Jennifer was too tired to keep the anger and frustration from her voice. She just wanted to be able to take Jesse and KC and go home where they belonged. A home, she suddenly realized, no longer existed.

“I’m sorry,” Mary softly said to her understandable upset daughter.

“No, mother,” Jennifer shook her head, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be taking this out on you.”

“We’re all tired,” Mary kissed Jennifer’s cheek. “I think it best we all try to get some sleep and then see what we can do in the morning.”

“You’re probably right,” Jennifer definitely needed to get off her leg and try to get a night’s sleep. She wasn’t at all sure that was possible under the circumstances. “Did you get rooms at the Goodrich Hotel?” Jennifer asked. Adding when she didn’t see the sheriff, “where’s Billie?”

“Thomas is on his way there now,” Mary explained, having sent her son to the hotel as soon as Jennifer came out of the jail. “The sheriff has taken the horses to be stabled and then was going to send a telegram to Sweetwater.”

“Thank goodness,” Jennifer sighed. “I completely forgot about Bette Mae. She must be worried sick by now.”

“I think we should get you and KC to bed,” Marianne stepped forward and offered to take the child.

Jennifer thankfully passed the sleeping baby to the other schoolteacher. “Mother,” she said to answer her mother’s questioning look, “this is my friend, Marianne Temple. She is the schoolteacher here and she was very kind to Jesse and me when we last visited Bannack.”

“It’s a pleasure, Miss Temple,” Mary said uncertainly. She wasn’t too sure she liked the idea of Jennifer staying somewhere besides the hotel where she could help take care of her daughter and KC.

“I’m pleased to meet you,” Marianne said more enthusiastically. “I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to get better acquainted in the coming days but, now, I really think Jennifer needs to get some sleep. Jesse is going to be needing you tomorrow,” she told her fellow schoolteacher.

“Mother,” Thomas reappeared around the corner of Chrismans’ store. “I have rooms for us and the sheriff. Are you alright?” he asked his sister.

“Yes,” Jennifer nodded. “Please take mother to the hotel.”

“Okay,” Thomas leaned down and picked up the travel bag that contained his clothes and his mother’s saddle bag. “What should we do tomorrow?”

“I can’t think about that now,” Jennifer yawned. “We’ll meet in the morning after I see Jesse and discuss things.”

The four walked alongside Chrismans’ store and said their goodbyes when they reached the sidewalk.

Thomas and Mary crossed the street to the Goodrich Hotel while Jennifer accompanied Marianne down the wooden sidewalk to the log cabin she called home at the other end of town.

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

“You sure that will reach Sweetwater tomorrow?” Billie asked the telegraph operator in the small office. He had left the horses at a livery on the road that passed the cemetery on it’s way out of town and walked to the telegraph office located in the front of the courthouse’s main floor.

“Yes,” the operator finished the transmission. “I marked it urgent so they’ll send it by messenger to Sweetwater.”

“Fair enough,” Billie wanted the telegram to reach town as quickly as possible, he didn’t want Ruth to be worrying about him. “How much do I owe you?”

“Let’s see,” the operator counted the words Billie had written. “That’ll be a dollar, sheriff.

Billie handed the man a few coins before heading outside. He was ready to fall into bed and hoped there would be a room waiting for him when he got to the hotel.

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

Sitting on top of a hill above the north side of town, Walks on the Wind had watched as the riders approached Bannack. He had tracked their progress as they rode into town, eventually, ending up in front of two small buildings behind the larger buildings lining the town’s main street. He observed Jesse as she was taken inside one of the buildings and he saw Jennifer when she came out of the building some time later. He watched Jennifer and the other woman as they walked along the length of town and entered a small cabin. He continued to watch the cabin until the lights inside went dark. Only then did the man who had ridden hard most of the day to reach Bannack lay down in the grass and close his eyes.

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

For a long time after Jennifer left, Jesse sat in the cell staring at the emptiness, the lantern slowly burning down as its limited supply of fuel was consumed. As she sat in the fading light, the room’s walls seem to close in on her. She wondered if she would survive the night in the depressing surroundings. A vision of Jennifer formed before her eyes and Jesse had her answer. There was too much of her life outside the room’s log walls to give up now. Closing her tired eyes, Jesse laid back on the cot, “sleep well my darlin’. I love you.”

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

PART 7

Jennifer heard KC whimpering again in her sleep.

The schoolteacher had been relieved not to have to stay in one of the town’s hotels, where noise from the many saloons would have kept her and KC awake. As it turned out, worrying about Jesse kept both of them awake most of the night anyway. The baby had slept fitfully, crying out periodically for her mommy. Jennifer had spent the night, tossing and turning as she worried about Jesse locked in the dismal jail cell.

Since she obviously wasn’t going to get any rest, Jennifer figured there was no point in remaining in the bed she was sharing with KC, She rolled away from the baby to slip off the bed without disturbing her but KC woke with the movement and cried out for her.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” Jennifer rolled back over and pulled the baby close to her.

“Mommy,” KC whimpered.

“I know,” Jennifer scooted back against the bed’s head board, pulling KC into her lap as she did. “I miss mommy, too. But, we’ll go see her after breakfast, okay?.”

“Otay,” KC leaned, despondently, against Jennifer’s chest. She didn’t understand why her mommy wasn’t staying with them.

Jennifer wrapped her arms around the baby and began to rock slowly. She stared, unseeing, out the window as the darkness began to brighten.

The sound of someone quietly moving about in the other half of the cabin drew Jennifer’s attention. She smiled to herself, Marianne must be up. By the time, Jennifer and KC arrived the night before at the home of Bannack’s schoolteacher, she had been too tired to do much more than fall into bed with her upset daughter. Now she would welcome the chance to talk with her friend and properly thank her for taking them in.

Having just one bed, Marianne had insisted Jennifer and KC sleep in it while she slept on the floor in the other part of the cabin. Jennifer guessed that it must have been uncomfortable for the woman and that probably contributed to her being awake so early this morning.

Keeping a firm hold on KC, Jennifer swung her legs over the side of the bed. Her cane was leaning against the wall next to the headboard and she grabbed it before attempting to stand. He leg was tired and sore and she knew she would have to take it easy as much as she could during the coming day. She hoped she’d be able rest the leg and do whatever needed to be done to get her wife out of jail. Straightening her nightshirt, she took the few steps to the curtain and pulled it back a few inches to peek around it’s edge.

“Ah, good morning,” Marianne caught the curtain’s movement in the corner of her eye. “I was hoping you were sleeping but I figured you probably weren’t.” During the night, she had heard the baby’s cries and Jennifer’s restlessness.

“No,” Jennifer said as she slipped past the curtain to join her friend. “I’m afraid neither of us slept much.”

“Sit,” Marianne pulled a chair away from a small table tucked into the corner of the cabin. “I’ve just put some water on to heat. We’ll have coffee soon and I can whip up some eggs.”

“Don’t go to any bother, Marianne,” Jennifer eased herself down onto the chair and stretched her leg out in front of her. “We’re supposed to meet the others at the hotel for breakfast.”

“I suspect that will be some time from now,” Marianne knew the sun had yet to rise over the surrounding hilltops. “And, I doubt if you ate much yesterday,” she said as she placed various food items on her woodstove in preparation of cooking. “So, indulge me and let me cook for you.”

“Momma, yum,” KC answered for her mother.

In the growing morning light, Jennifer looked around the compact log cabin Marianne called home. It measured twelve by twenty feet and had been built by notching the end of logs so they would sit on top of one another without the need of fasteners. Mud chinking was stuffed into the spaces between logs to keep out the wind. The cabin was dark inside and the small windows at each end did little to light the interior, which was why Marianne usually did her schoolwork on the front porch or at the schoolhouse.

A curtain had been hung down the middle of the cabin and separated the sleeping area from the cooking area. At one end of the cabin, a wood stove served both heating and cooking duties, a cupboard hung on the wall near the stove held dishes and food staples. A bed and dresser occupied the sleeping end of the cabin. The table and chairs where Jennifer sat completed the room’s furnishings.

“I’ve got some fresh milk, right here. Bought it yesterday,” Marianne lifted the lid off a wooden container and poured milk into a glass. “I’m sorry, I don’t have any bottles.”

“That’s okay,” Jennifer smiled as she accepted the glass and held it for KC to drink, “Jesse taught her how to use a glass.”

Hearing her missing mother’s name, KC stopped drinking and looked, hopefully, around the room, “mommy.”

“No, sweetie. Mommy’s not here.” Jennifer said, encouraging KC to finish the milk.

“Care to tell me what’s going on?” Marianne asked, thinking there was no reason to beat around the bush.

“Yeah,” Jennifer nodded. Everything had happened so fast over the last couple of days that she really hadn’t had much of a chance to get it all straightened out in her own mind. It would be good to talk about it. “I don’t really know where to start, so much has happened.”

“Well,” Marianne suggested as she cracked open several eggs and dropped them into a frying pan, “just start at the beginning. We’ll take it from there.”

“Alright,” Jennifer took a deep breath. “I wrote you about what happened when Jesse and I returned to Sweetwater after our trip here,” she began.

“About your father?”

“Yes.”

“I thought he was banished from the territory.”

“So did we,” Jennifer sighed. “He decided to return and finish what he had started with his first trip. On his way here, he met a man that works for a company back east that is buying a mine near Sweetwater. Somehow, and I’m still not sure how, he got Mr. Harrington to contact the territorial governor and rescind the ‘arrest on sight’ warrant issued should he ever return to Montana. At the same time, my father convinced Mr. Harrington, who in turn convinced the governor, that Jesse had murdered the Williams and that she had kidnapped KC.”

Marianne was standing by the stove looking at Jennifer, her mouth hanging open, “how in the hell?”

“My feelings exactly,” Jennifer sniggered at the other schoolteacher’s language. “Could we?” she asked, holding the empty glass up.

“Of course,” Marianne refilled the glass and handed it back.

Jennifer continued, “any way, I had received a letter from Andrew’s father,” seeing the questioning look on the other woman’s face, she explained, “the young man my father arranged to be my fiancé.”

“Oh, yes.”

“Mr. Barrish warned me that father was planning to return to Montana. Jesse and I decided not to wait around and give him a chance to cause us any problems. We left the ranch, planning to meet a friend near the buffalo herds and wait for word from Sweetwater when it was safe to return,” she wiped a few drops of milk off KC’s chin with her finger. “Feel better, sweetie?”

For an answer, KC snuggled against her.

“We no more than rode into Walk’s camp when my father, Thomas, Billie and the marshal ride up.”

“And, who?”

“I told you it was complicated. My father. Thomas, my oldest brother. Billie Monroe, our friend and the sheriff in Sweetwater. And, Marshal Morgan. He was sent by the governor to free my father and arrest Jesse.”

“Mommy,” KC again looked around hopefully.

“Guess, I’m going to have to stop using her name,” Jennifer said sadly as the baby, disappointed at, again, not finding Jesse, nestled back against her.

Marianne placed two plates of scrambled eggs, ham, and biscuits on the table. She returned to the stove to retrieve the coffee pot and two cups. Then, added silverware and napkins. And, finally a dish of jam before sitting down to join Jennifer.

KC perked up when she saw the plates of food place within her grasp.

“Hold on there, sweetie,” Jennifer laughed. “Let me feed you or we’ll spend the day washing.”

KC pouted but complied with her mother’s request.

“So, who is this Walk person?”

“Walks on the Wind, he is an Indian and an old friend of Je…,” Jennifer stopped herself. “An old friend,” she said as Marianne nodded to show she knew what was meant. “He travels to the buffalo herds every summer to hunt for his people.”

“And, your brother?”

“Yes,” Jennifer alternated between feeding herself and feeding KC bites of food. “I was shocked to see him accompanying my father. As it turns out, he came along to try to keep my father from doing anything. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been very successful.”

“You mean because of the governor?”

“That and,” she paused and took a deep breath, “he burned down our house.”

“What?!”

Jennifer could only nod, the pain of repeating the comment was too much.

“Oh, Jennifer,” Marianne reached out and squeezed her friend’s hand. “I’m so sorry.”

The women ate in silence for several minutes until Jennifer felt ready to continue her story.

“Does the marshal really believe she killed the Williams?” Marianne finally asked, careful to omit Jesse’s name from her question.

“I don’t know,” Jennifer wiped the baby’s face and hands with a napkin. “I can’t imagine why anyone would believe that. Especially, after how hard we tried to find any family she might have. But, he told the judge that he has a list of witnesses willing to testify against her.”

“Hog wash,” Marianne exclaimed, as she picked up the dirty dishes.

KC giggled at the funny phase.

“You think that’s funny, don’t you,” Jennifer tickled the baby, glad to see her smiling. “Marianne, I want to thank you for letting us stay here. I know it’s a hardship on you.”

“Nonsense,” the other schoolteacher replied. “Having friends is never a hardship. Now, why don’t we get dressed and get to the business of getting you-know-who out of jail.”

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

Martin Kinsington woke with a start, something had brought him out of a deep sleep. He quickly sat up when he heard the noise again. A deep, ugly growl rumbled from somewhere in the grass not far from where he had spent the night. As he listened, the growl changed to a series of high pitched yips, then stopped altogether. After several minutes of silence, he decided whatever it was must be gone and he was again safe. At least as safe as he could be in the middle of the frontier with nothing but the clothes on his back.

Kinsington rubbed his eyes and stretched his sore back and legs. He wasn’t use to sleeping directly on the cold, hard ground. Reaching for his shoes, he started to put them back on but stopped when he discovered his blistered feet had swelled overnight.

“Damn,” he swore. He could wait and let his feet heal enough to comfortably wear his shoes. But, that would delay him getting to Bannack and his daughter. Not to mention, he might miss the opportunity to see Jesse with a noose around her neck. Kinsington looked to the south and saw that he had another full day of walking just to reach the hills that needed to be crossed.

“When I get my hands on that bitch,” the fixated man mumbled as he crammed his bloated feet into the leather shoes, “she’ll wish she had never crossed me.” Tentatively, he started on the day’s forced march, his empty stomach grumbling.

Two dark eyes cautiously followed the man as he left the place he had rested during the night. When the man had walked far enough downwind, he moved out from the cover of the tall grass to check on his recent kill. The wolf had been stalking the man but he had stopped it before it could reach their common prey.

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

After waking, Walks on the Wind walked down from the hilltop. He dropped into a small gully north of town, following it until it crossed the road that curved around Cemetery Hill and entered town through Hangman’s Gulch, so named because it was where the vigilantes had served justice on the town’s previous sheriff. The streets were starting to fill with miners and businessmen on their way to work. A few looked curiously at the Indian as he strode past the stonemason’s shop and livery on his way. But, considering the town was named after the local Indian tribe, most folks gave him little mind as they were used to seeing Indians in town Walk hunkered down in the morning shadows at the corner of a building to wait.

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

“Any sign of her?” Mary asked Thomas again. They had left their rooms on the second floor of the hotel several minutes earlier and were waiting in the lobby for Jennifer to arrive. Thomas continually went outside to look for his sister before returning inside to report to his mother.

“No,” Thomas said as he moved to stand by the window by the front door. “But, Billie is coming back.”

The lawman had gone to the livery to check on their horses and to retrieve more of their baggage. As he rounded the corner from the road the livery was on to the main street, Billie saw a familiar figure across the street partially hidden in a narrow passageway between two buildings.

“Sheriff, did you see Jennifer?” Mary asked as soon as Billie entered the lobby.

“No,” Billie told Mary. “Why don’t you two go in and get breakfast. I’ll take this stuff up to our rooms and then go lookin’ for her. She’s probably stopped by the jail before coming here.”

“But, we were to have breakfast together,” Thomas protested, not wanting to eat without his sister.

“Wouldn’t surprise me to find out she’s already eaten,” the sheriff said as he started up the stairs to the rooms above. “Go on. No sense in you walkin’ a hole in that fancy rug,” he added as Thomas moved to the door again.

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

“You’re going to have to bring her out of that cell, marshal,” the doctor had been summoned to tend to the prisoner’s wounds. “I can’t treat what I can’t see.”

“I’ll have to handcuff her,” the marshal told the physician, he wasn’t at all happy to have the doctor in the jail.

“Come now, marshal,” the doctor laughed. “I was led to understand her wrists are where her injuries are located. I can’t do anything if you have her in handcuffs. Now, bring her out in the sun where I can get a good look.”

“Is there a problem?” the judge asked as he entered the jail. He had come to make sure the doctor was being allowed to treat the prisoner.

“Marshal expects me to look at her in the cell,” the doctor explained. “Either have her brought out in the sun or I’ll go back to my office. I don’t have time for this,” he said, meaning the marshal’s lack of cooperation.

“Marshal, bring the prisoner out,” the judge was also becoming frustrated with the lawman. “She’s not going to try and escape, I have her word on that.”

Jesse had been standing on the other side of the heavy wooden cell door since before dawn. She knew the door would have to be opened at some point and she couldn’t wait for that moment. She felt as if she were drowning in the close quarters of the cell. When she heard the key turn in the door’s lock, she thought she would faint with relief.

“Back off, Branson,” the marshal said as he spied Jesse standing so near the door.

Jesse quickly backed up until she bumped into the log wall.

“Doctor wants you outside to see to your wounds. Don’t do anything to make me shoot you,” he said as he pushed the door fully open and motioned her to come forward.

Jesse nodded. She followed the marshal’s directions and walked to the outside door. Stepping through the doorway, she was forced to lift her arm and shade her sensitive eyes against the harsh sunlight.

“Over here, please,” the doctor asked of the prisoner. In a patch of morning sunbeams, two chairs had been set facing one another. The doctor sat in one chair and indicated Jesse was to sit in the other. “Let’s see what we have,” he said as the rancher took a seat. He took Jesse’s hands into his own and slowly rotated her wrists so he could see what lay beneath the bandages Jennifer had applied the night before. “Nasty business, handcuffs are,” he said as he examined the torn and raw skin. “You should file the inside of those things down before you put them on another prisoner,” he told the marshal as he reached into his physician’s bag for some ointment and fresh bandages.

The salve felt cool on her ripped skin and Jesse sighed as the doctor wrapped clean bandages around her wrists to protect them.

“Mommy,” KC cried when she spied her mother sitting in the sunlight.

Jesse tensed as she caught the motion of the marshal pulling a pistol free of his holster. “Don’t shoot,” she screamed.

“Put that gun away, you fool,” the judge ordered. “Or, do you plan to shoot one of my witnesses?”

Marianne had led Jennifer up a back alley from her cabin to the jail buildings. KC had been the first to spot Jesse and, happy to see the woman, had called out. As soon as the schoolteacher heard Jesse’s scream, she yanked Jennifer and the baby behind one of the privies that lined the alley. It wasn’t much of a shield if the marshal fired, but it was all they had.

Jennifer and Marianne huddled behind the privy, protecting KC as much as they could.

“It’s alright, Mrs. Branson,” the judge called to the women. “The marshal has put his weapon away.”

Jennifer peeked around the corner of the privy, seeing Jesse looking expectantly at her, she rushed to her wife’s side.

“Sweetheart, are you okay?” Jennifer asked as she ran to Jesse’s side and was instantly engulfed by her arms.

“I’m fine, darlin’,” Jesse thought she was going to cry, holding Jennifer felt so good.

“Mommy,” KC called excitingly, reaching for the rancher..

“She’ll be fine,” the doctor told both women, seeing he was no longer needed. “I’ll come back later and change the bandages.”

“Thank you, doctor,” Jesse smiled, her arms still tightly wrapped around her family.

“My pleasure,” the doctor smiled back. “Now, marshal,” he turned to the lawman, “I don’t want to see those handcuffs anywhere near her wrists again.”

“She’s a prisoner,” the marshal told him.

“It’s my personal belief, marshal,” the doctor closed his bag and prepared to return to his office, “that she won’t be for long. Damn fool charges you’ve made against her,” he muttered as he walked away.

“Mrs. Branson,” the judge approached the two women but addressed Jennifer. “I’m happy to see you this morning.”

Jesse released her hold on Jennifer and gently pushed her into the chair she had recently occupied. KC demanded to be held by Jesse and her mother happily obliged. She stood behind Jennifer, a hand tenderly resting on her wife’s shoulder. Unthinking, Jennifer reached up and placed her own hand atop Jesse’s.

Though, he noticed the gesture, the judge made no mention of it as he sat in the other chair.

“Mrs. Branson,” the judge told Jesse, “I have decided to release you to the custody of your wife.”

“Now, just a minute,” the marshal protested. “You can’t do that.”

“Marshal, must I remind you that I am the judge in this town. I can do whatever I wish to do.”

“But, there have been charges brought against her.”

“I am well aware of the circumstances you have caused,” the judge glared at the marshal. “I said I was releasing her to the custody of Mrs. Branson. I did not say I had dropped the charges. Now,” he returned his attention to the two women. He grinned when he noticed that KC had climbed high up on Jesse’s chest and was wrapped tightly around the woman’s face and neck. Jesse was incapable of doing much about the situation since one hand was supporting the baby while the other was grasped by her unsuspecting wife.

“I’m sending out subpoenas this morning to everyone on the marshal’s list of witnesses,” the judge told the women. “I’ve informed them that they are to be in my courtroom at one o’clock this afternoon. I see no reason not to start your trial immediately, do you?” he asked Jesse.

“No, sir,” she mumbled around KC’s hand that was covering her mouth.

Hearing Jesse’s muffled voice, Jennifer looked up and saw that their daughter had a straggle hold on her wife.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Jennifer started to laugh. She was joined by the judge and Marianne who had been quietly watching the rancher’s dilemma.

Jennifer released Jesse’s hand allowing her to get control of KC and place her in a more comfortable position in the crook of her arm.

“Dang, she’s getting strong,” Jesse laughed with the others.

Only the marshal found no humor in the incident and maintained a stern look at his prisoner. Though, behind the unyielding mask, he wondered why a child that had supposedly been kidnapped and ill-treated by the tall woman would behave so affectionately towards her.

“As I was saying,” the judge chuckled, “I see no reason not to start the proceedings today. I am releasing you to your wife’s custody should you wish to obtain witnesses of your own. I expect to see all three of you in my courtroom at the appointed time,” he looked directly into Jesse’s eyes.

“We’ll be there,” Jesse nodded.

“Thank you,” with tears in her eyes, Jennifer leaned forward and clasped the man’s hands.

“This jail was never meant to hold ladies.”

“Will she have to stay there again tonight?” Jennifer asked, hopefully.

“Let me think on it,” the judge said as he stood. “I’ll let you know at the end of court.”

“Thank you, judge,” Jesse added. “Don’t know how to repay you for this.”

“Just promise to keep a hold of that young ‘un of yours while court is in session,” he laughed. “I get the feeling that she is trouble in the making.”

“That she can be,” Jesse laughed, she lifted her arms up, swinging KC over her head to sit the baby on her shoulders. KC reached around Jesse’s head and covered both eyes. “That she surely can be,” Jesse repeated as she tried to regain her vision.

As the judge walked towards the small path alongside Chrismans’ store, Billie appeared walking the opposite way.

“Morning, judge,” the lawman greeted the passing judge.

“Morning, sheriff,” the judge still wondered the reason for the sheriff to be in town if the marshal was holding the prisoner. He shook his head figuring that it would probably come out during the woman’s trial.

“Jesse, Jennifer,” Billie greeted his friends. “Your momma is worried sick about you,” he told Jennifer.

“Well, I had to stop and see Jesse,” Jennifer had stood and was again wrapped in Jesse’s arms.

“That’s what I told them,” he looked quizzically at the freed prisoner. “You ain’t makin’ a jail break, is ya?”

“Nope,” Jesse grinned.

“The judge released Jesse to my custody,” Jennifer proudly told their friend. “We have to be in court this afternoon but until then, she’s all mine.”

“Oh, boy,” the sheriff smirked. “That sounds like it could be trouble.”

“It surely does,” Jesse laughed, yet in her heart she was hoping Jennifer would command her to bed. After all she had been through the last few days, she didn’t have the energy to make love to her wife but, she would relish the opportunity to just hold her for the next several hours.

“I suppose we should go let mother and Thomas know what’s happening,” Jennifer told Jesse. “Then, maybe we could go back to Marianne’s for a while.”

“I’d like that,” Jesse sighed as she pulled Jennifer close, glad her wife had read her mind.

“Don’t leave Bannack,” the marshal told the women as they started towards the back of Chrismans’ store.

“We’ll see you this afternoon, marshal,” Jesse called back to the lawman. “I don’t plan to leave this town until my name is cleared and you have to go back and tell the governor that Kinsington played him for a jackass.”

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

“So, you’re free?” Mary asked, hoping the nightmare was over.

“Not yet, mother,” Jennifer explained. “She’s been released to my custody until the trial starts this afternoon.”

Jesse, Jennifer, KC, Billie and Marianne had walked to the Goodrich Hotel and found Mary and Thomas just finishing their breakfasts. Since, Jesse and Billie had yet to eat, they decided to stay and order their meals while Mary and Thomas were brought up to date with the morning’s news.

“What’s going to happen at the trial, Jennifer?” Thomas asked.

“I’m not sure,” Jennifer looked to Billie for help.

“Hard to say,” he said as he handed a piece of toast to KC, who had been trying to snag it off his plate. “You said the judge sent out subpoenas for the marshal’s supposed witnesses,” he waited until Jesse and Jennifer nodded in agreement. “Well, my guess would be that he plans to question them first and see if there’s any reason to continue with a trial.”

“You mean he might let Jesse go by the end of today?” Jennifer asked.

“He could,” Billie lifted his empty coffee cup and asked the waitress to bring more. “Or, if he hears something that makes him think Jesse is guilty, he could continue the trial longer. But,” he stopped when the waitress appeared with a fresh pot of coffee, “thank you,” Billie told the young girl. He was much more polite to waitresses since falling in love with one.

“But,” Thomas prodded.

“Since we don’t know who or how many are on that list of witnesses, we don’t know how long it’ll take to question them. Could be the trial could stretch a couple of days just because of that.”

“Hell, Billie,” Jesse sputtered, “sorry, darlin’,” she apologized. “There can’t be very many names on that list since no one could have possibly seen me do anything.”

“This whole thing is made up, Jesse.” Jennifer offered, “they could have made up the witnesses, too.”

“Hard to do that, Jennifer,” Billie shook his head. “They sent Jesse here for trial so there has to be people on that list that are known to live here. They can’t just make up some names and write them down. Someone would have to show up to testify.”

“Oh, I never thought of that,” Jennifer agreed. “But, still, it has to be a short list.”

“I would think so,” Billie concurred.

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

Walks on the Wind watched as a young boy ran out of the brick courthouse with a hand full of papers. The boy worked his way down the length of one side of the street before reversing his course down the other side. Occasionally, he would enter a store or office for a few moments before continuing on his task. Walk saw that the stack of papers grew smaller with each stop the lad made, until disappearing altogether before the boy returned to the courthouse.

One of the stops on the boy’s route was the dressmaker’s shop next to where Walk waited. A few moments after the boy left the shop, Walk heard angry voices raised inside the building. An window was located about a third of the way down the shop’s wall and Wind noticed that the window was open. Quietly, he moved away from the street, down the narrow passage between the shop and the assay office next door. He knelt beneath the opening to listen.

“I told you not to do this,” a woman’s voice cried.

“How did I know he would take it this far?” a man’s voice huffed back.

“Because, he’s crazy when it comes to his daughter and that woman. Did you really think when you made up that story, he wouldn’t use it against them?”

“We needed the money. You sure weren’t making enough sewing dresses.”

“If you weren’t out gambling every night, we could have done without it.”

“Well, it’s too late now,”

“I told you this would only lead to trouble but you just had to send that telegraph.”

“Be quiet and let me think, I have to figure a way out of this.”

“How? The subpoena says the marshal will arrest you and take you to court if you don’t show up. How are you going to get out of that?”

“I’ll think of something.”

Walk remained where he was until the man had stomped out of the shop and down the boardwalk. Then, he carefully made his way back to the street. Settling back in his original spot, he returned to watching the activity in town.

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

As Jesse, Jennifer and Marianne walked to the schoolteacher’s cabin, Jesse saw Walks on the Wind shadowing them on the other side of the street. When they reached their destination, she left the door unlatched and waited. A few moments after the women had entered the cabin, Walks on the Wind slipped through the door.

“Howdy, Walk,” Jesse smiled at her friend.

“Jesse,” Walk smiled back. “You sure got yourself in one pile of horse…….”

“Walk, don’t say it,” Jennifer warned as she came out of the sleeping area with KC after changing the baby.

“Sit, darlin’,” Jesse took the baby and waited for her wife to get off her leg. “This is our friend, Marianne Temple,” Jesse introduced the schoolteacher.

“And, this is Walks on the Wind,” Jennifer added, “the friend I was telling you about this morning.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Walk told the woman.

“Oh, my,” Marianne gasped. “You speak…”

“pretty good English for a injun,” Walk grinned. “Yes, I know.”

“Well, please sit down,” Marianne grinned back, embarrassed but glad the man didn’t seem to hold her tactlessness against her. “I can make coffee.”

“No, thank you,” Walk answered. “I just wanted to pass something on to Jesse and Jennifer.” Walks on the Wind repeated the conversation he had overheard earlier.

“I should have known that bastard would be part of this,” Jesse stewed. “I swear when this is over my fist is goin’ be sore from all the noses I plan to break.”

At the mention of the specific piece of anatomy, KC reached up and tweaked her mother’s nose, “onk.” Jesse looked surprised then burst out laughing.

When Walk and Marianne looked to Jennifer for an explanation, she told them, “Jesse’s been playing a game with her. She squeezes KC’s nose and honks like a goose. She’s been trying to get KC to do it, too. Today’s the first time she has.”

“Onk,” KC bopped the rancher’s nose again, “onk.”

“You pick the darnest times to say somethin’,” Jesse stilled the baby’s hands and kissed them.

“Well, I better get back and see if I hear anything else,” Walk told the laughing women.

“Thank you, Walk,” Jesse solemnly told her friend. “I’m glad you came.”

The Indian nodded and then was gone.

“Should we tell someone about this?” Jennifer asked.

“No,” Jesse looked thoughtfully at her wife. “Let’s wait and see if Thompson shows up in court. If he does we can use it against him. If he doesn’t, we’ll have Walk tell the judge what he heard. Either way, Thompson will have a lot of explaining to do.”

“Okay.”

“Now, if you don’t mind, Marianne,” Jesse asked the schoolteacher. “I’d like to lay down with my family. I didn’t get a wink of sleep last night and it doesn’t look like you did either, darlin’. I think we’ll probably need some before this afternoon.”

“You go right ahead,” Marianne told the women. “I have some schoolwork to look over. I’ll wake you in plenty of time to get something to eat and make it to court on time.”

“Thanks,” Jennifer said as Jesse helped her up.

Moments later, the Branson family was soundly, and happily, asleep in each other’s arms.

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

Thomas and Mary were sitting in chairs on the boardwalk in front of the Goodrich Hotel. They sat alone. Jesse and Jennifer had left a few minutes before to return with Marianne to her cabin. And, Billie had gone off to see if he could gain any insight on what names the marshal’s list of witnesses might contain.

“Mother,” Thomas looked down the street, his eyes following his sister’s family as they walked. “I’m sorry this has turned out like this. I thought I could control father but,” he paused. “I guess it would have been better just to do what I had originally planned to.”

“And, what was that, Thomas?” Mary asked. She had spoken little to her son since his appearance with her husband. Not sure of her son’s feelings concerning Jennifer and her life in Montana, she’d decided to let her son talk before she said much.

“Alert the authorities here and let them deal with him. As it turned out, that wouldn’t have done much good.”

“Your father is a determined man when he wants something,” Mary said quietly. She knew all too well how Martin Kinsington would do anything to accomplish an objective.

“Yes, I see that now,” Thomas sighed. “We received your letter, Mother.”

“Oh,” Mary looked at her son, it was the first she knew her letter, describing Jennifer’s new life and the feelings she had about her old one, had reached her sons. “And, how did it make you feel.”

“Sad. We talked about it, Howard and William and I,” Thomas named his brothers. “We hadn’t realized how Jennifer felt. It wasn’t intentional, leaving her out of things. We were just busy…”

“With the company,” Mary frowned, so much of their lives had been put aside for the success of her husband’s company.

“Yes,” Thomas agreed. “But, that’s going to change.”

Mary remained silent, giving her son the time to fill in the details.

“When I return east, I will speak with Howard and William about removing father from the company. I think it’s time for that. Many things are changing in the business world and father has refused to change with them. And, now, with his behavior here, I question if he is mentally stable enough to continue in the capacity of company president.”

“And, your brothers, how will they feel about that?” Mary was unaware of any of the company’s dealings, her husband had not seen fit to include her in the business. An incongruity Mary never accepted as it had been her dowry that had provided the funds for the company to grow into the dominant enterprise it had become.

“They’ll agree. William has been talking of leaving the business, working the ships is not how he wants to spend his life. And, Howard has said that he may leave if father doesn’t start making changes to keep us competitive with the other shipping companies. You’ve seen how things move about here, mother. You can’t get to Montana by ship.”

“No,” Mary smiled, “you cannot. And, you Thomas, will you stay with the company?”

“Yes,” Thomas nodded. “It’s in my blood. I’ll stay but I want to build for the future, railroads and freight lines.”

“And, your young woman?” Mary had been surprised when, days before, Thomas had told her he was engaged. She wanted to know more about her son’s fiancé.

“She’s beautiful, mother,” Thomas said proudly. “I met her just before you came to Montana, at one of the socials. We danced the first dance together and I didn’t let her out of my sight all night. We sat and talked. And laughed. And, by the end of the night, I was in love. I finally got the nerve to ask her to marry me and you could have blown me over when she agreed.”

“Have you set a date?” Mary was happy for her son.

“No,” Thomas took his mother’s hand into his own, “I said we had to wait until you could be there. I’m hoping you’ll come back with me, mother. Howard and William want you to come home, too.”

“I don’t know, Thomas,” Mary was hesitate to return to her home in the east. She knew she would never again tolerate her husband’s treatment of her. Or, of her children.

“Things will be different, mother,” Thomas promised. “I’m buying a house for when we are married and there is room in it for you.” He apprehensively looked at his mother, “if you’d like.”

Mary felt the tears build in her eyes. “Thank you, Thomas,” she barely got the words out of her tight throat. “Let me think about it.”

“Of course, mother,” Thomas pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to the tearful woman.

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

“No,” Marianne said again.

“Miss Temple, I want the child.” The preacher had knocked on the cabin’s door insisting that KC be turned over to him.

“Reverend,” the schoolteacher stood in front of the door to her cabin blocking all attempts the man made to enter the building, “you are not welcomed in my home. Now, please leave.”.

“That child needs to be protected,” he tried again to push his way past the schoolteacher.

“That child, as you call her, is being protected. She has two mothers that love her very much and would do anything to make sure she doesn’t face any harm. Including, from you.”

“Get out of my way, woman,” the preacher shouted. “Those women have no right to that child. Their union is an unholy one and the child must be taken from them.”

“You lay one hand on my daughter,” Jesse growled from behind Marianne, “and I’ll break it into a thousand pieces.”

“You have no right to the child,” the preacher began his argument all over again with Jesse. “You removed her from Bannack under false pretenses and you must return her.”

“Who the hell do you think you are?” Jesse asked. “You have no right coming here demanding KC. She is our daughter.”

“You are to stand trial for…”

“You, of all people, know those charges are false,” Jesse interrupted. “You know how we tried to locate any family of KC’s. You were the one to tell us she had none. You do remember that, don’t you?”

Jesse clearly remembered the conversation she and Jennifer had had with the reverend in the Goodrich Hotel’s dining room.

“Excuse me,” the reverend approached their table. “Are you the young women from Sweetwater with the baby.” Spotting KC asleep in Jesse’s lap, he continued, “ah, I see that you are.

We’re looking for her kin,” Jesse told the reverend.

“Well, I’m sorry to say, Miss,” he hesitated a moment. “Branson, isn’t it?” When Jesse nodded, he continued, “Yes, Miss Branson. I’m sorry to say that you won’t be finding any of her kin. I, myself, talked to the Williams when they passed through. They had no kin, that’s why they were traveling west. Indians attacked their settlement in Wyoming and kilt most everyone. They lost their entire families.”

“What’s wrong?” Jennifer stood beside Jesse, having been awakened by the loud voices. “Reverend Tobias,” she sneered when she recognized the man standing outside the door. “What do you want?” she asked, remembering her last meeting with the man.

Jesse and Jennifer were preparing to leave Bannack and had ridden to the reverend’s church to tell him they were going to raise KC themselves. The reverend was opening the large wooden doors to the building as the women rode up.

“Ah, morning, ladies,” the reverend greeted them. “Looks like you’re leaving town,” he said as he walked down the building’s steps to stand on the boardwalk. “Guess that means you’ll be leaving the child with me. I talked to a nice couple just yesterday that are looking for a daughter.”

“Sorry, Reverend,” Jesse cut the man off. “We’ve decided to keep KC with us. If any of her family makes inquiries, you can have them contact us in Sweetwater.”

“Now, ladies,” the reverend began to protest. “You can’t be thinking of raising her yourselves. A child needs to be raised in a decent home with both a loving father and mother.”

“Don’t worry, Reverend,” Jennifer readjusted the restless baby in her arms. “KC will be raised with all the love she’ll need.”

“Miss Branson,” the reverend sputtered. “You can’t be suggesting that you can raise a child without the firm hand of a father.”

Jennifer began to answer the indignant man but Jesse spoke first, “we thank you for your offer, Reverend. But, KC is going home with us. Come on, Jennifer,” she said as she turned Dusty back to the street.

“I must protest,” the reverend called after them.

Jennifer sadly shook her head at the angry man, “you can protest all you want. But, KC is not going to grow up in a home where she is no better thought of than the family mule.” With that she turned Blaze to follow Dusty, leaving a still sputtering reverend on the boardwalk.

“He’s come to take KC from us,” Jesse glared at the man as she informed her wife of the man’s intentions. “No doubt he has a family in need of another farm hand,” she said referring to the reverend’s practice of placing orphaned or abandoned children with families needing cheap labor to work their land.

“How dare you talk to me like that,” the reverend gasped. “You have been accused of the ghastly crime of killing that poor child’s parents.”

Before Jesse could grab the man by the neck as Jennifer was sure she wanted to do, the schoolteacher stepped in front of her wife. “Reverend, I have not been accused of any crime. And, I can assure you that no matter what the court decides as to Jesse’s innocence or guilt, KC will remain with me. Do I make myself clear?” her eyes bore through the infuriating man.

“We’ll just see about that,” the preacher threatened as he backed off the porch.

“We most certainly will,” Jennifer called after him. “Now git. Grrrrrrrrrrrr,” Jennifer growled, loudly when the man didn’t move away fast enough.

“Down tiger,” Jesse smirked, placing a comforting hand on Jennifer’s back. The women watched the preacher make a hasty retreat across the street to the safety of his church.

Marianne closed the door and latched it, “I’m sorry. I had no idea it would be him or I wouldn’t have opened the door.”

“It’s okay,” Jesse said, surprising calm after the upsetting encounter. “I kinda figured he would try something like this.”

“You did?” Jennifer asked.

“You have to admit, darlin’,” Jesse sat down and pulled Jennifer into her lap. “He wasn’t exactly happy when we kept KC in the first place. It wouldn’t really surprise me to find out he’s one of the marshal’s witnesses, either.”

“Darn,” Jennifer leaned against her wife, thinking. “Say, sweetheart?”

“Umm.”

“You think everyone named Tobias is a pain in the butt?”

Jesse laughed, not having made the connection before. “Well, now darlin’, that could explain Harrington, now couldn’t it?”

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

Ed Grainger was pulling lumber off one of the several piles of supplies stacked behind the store. He was starting his expansion project in the hopes that it would keep his mind off his missing friends. He picked up his hammer and a fistful of nails and started pounded boards together, his hammer blows blending in with the ones coming from next door where the town’s new bank was taking shape. As he returned to the pile for more cut wood, Ed heard the distinctive sounds of the approaching stagecoach. He dropped his hammer and rushed back through his store.

When Ed came out onto the boardwalk at the front of the store, he saw Thaddeus Newby was already hurrying across the street to the stage depot. The newspaperman squirted in front of the stage’s horses as they skidded to a stop at the station. Ed waited impatiently for Thaddeus to return.

Moments later, Thaddeus stepped back around the stage waving an envelope in the air. He motioned for Ed to follow him down the street to the Silver Slipper where Bette Mae and Ruthie were anxiously waiting in the shade of the building’s wide covered porch.

“What’s it say?” Bette Mae called out before the men even reached the Slipper.

Thaddeus tore open the envelope and began to read it as he climbed the steps to the porch.

“Marshal Morgan arrested Jesse at the Indian camp. He took her to Bannack where she’s to stand trial.”

“Damn,” Ed grunted.

“Darn fool,” Bette Mae shook her head in disgust. “Go git our things, Ruthie. Seems we’ll be goin’ ta Bannack.” Ruthie turned and ran back inside the Slipper.

“When was it sent, Thaddeus?” Ed asked.

“Yesterday. Billie had it sent special so it would get here today. He doesn’t say when the trial is supposed to begin.”

“Then, we best git there as soon as possible,” Bette Mae told the men.

“If we take the south route over the pass, like Jesse and Jennifer took last time,” Ed was thinking out loud. “And we ride all night, we could get there in three days.”

“Git yor horse, Ed,” Bette Mae told the big man. “We’ll meet ya at the store as soon as I round up Nancy.” Bette Mae had agreed to leave the red head in charge of Ed’s store while they were gone.

“Are you coming, Thaddeus?” Ed asked the newspaperman when Bette Mae disappeared inside.

“Wish I could but too much is happening in Sweetwater right now. I need to stay here.”

“I’ll send word when I know anything,” Ed told the other man. “I better go get my horse,” he walked down the porch steps and hurried to the livery. He knew Bette Mae was likely to leave without him if she thought he was taking too long to get ready.

Thaddeus watched the man go, disappointed he couldn’t travel to Bannack to support his friends. But, being owner of the newspaper, he had a job to do in Sweetwater. And, speaking of that, Frank Wilson was making his way to the mayor’s office and, by the look on the foreman’s face, he wasn’t happy.

“Time to get back to work,” Thaddeus grinned.

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

Shortly before one o’clock, Jesse, carrying KC, and Jennifer entered the brick building that housed the judge’s office and courtroom. They had left Marianne’s cabin in plenty of time to make a stop at the doctor’s office so he could redress Jesse’s wounds and still make it to court on time.

Immediately inside the impressive building’s door, Jesse and Jennifer turned right and faced the massive, hand carved, staircase that corkscrewed up to the second floor.

“Um, Jesse,” Jennifer knew they was no way she could walk up the tall steps.

Jesse frowned at the obstacle. “Guess there’s only one way to do this, darlin’.”

“Jesse Branson, I will not have you carrying me up those stairs,” Jennifer protested as Jesse smiled at her.

“You don’t want to be late to court?” Jesse asked.

“No, but those steps are too steep for you…”

Jesse bent forward and kissed Jennifer to stop her objections. “You hold KC,” she handed the baby to her wife, “and, I’ll take you,” she scooped Jennifer up in her arms, “and, we’ll get to court on time.”

Jesse’s long legs made short work of the staircase and before Jennifer could say any more, she was being placed gently down on the second floor landing.

“Shall we?” Jesse took back the baby and offered her arm to Jennifer who laughed as she slipped her own arm around Jesse’s. The women walked, arm-in-arm, down the corridor to the courtroom.

Marshal Morgan was leaning against the enclosed judge’s bench at the front of the courtroom when Jesse and Jennifer entered. He immediately walked towards them, his hand on the butt of his pistol.

“Is that really necessary, Marshal?” Jesse asked, nodding towards his weapon. “I thought I made it clear that I wasn’t going to anything.”

“No matter what the judge says, Branson,” the marshal glared at the woman he thought should have spent the day locked safely away in the jail. “You’re still my prisoner and I’ll do whatever I feel necessary to make sure you stay that way.”

A man came out of a door to the side of the judge’s bench and scanned the courtroom. Spotting Jesse and Jennifer, he scurried over to them.

“Mrs. Branson,” he nodded to Jesse. “Um, Mrs. Branson?” he looked at Jennifer, “I’m Judge Henry’s clerk.”

Jennifer smiled at the befuddled man, “why don’t you call me Jennifer and her, Jesse?” she offered. “It might be a little less confusing.” She realized that this was the first time she had heard the judge addressed by name.

“Oh,” the clerk brightened, “thank you. Jennifer,” he acknowledged the change, “if you would sit here, with the defendant.” He took the women to a large table set slightly off center of the judge’s bench and to it’s left. Two oversized chairs had been placed behind the table requiring their occupants to face the judge.

“Thank you,” Jennifer told the clerk as she sat in one of the chairs, finding it to be quite comfortable. She wondered if the judge had arranged that for them.

Jesse sat in the other chair and whispered something in the baby’s ear. KC settled in the rancher’s lap and cuddled against her, her eyes looking around the strange room. Jesse reached over and took hold of Jennifer’s hand while Marshal Morgan took up his sentry at the side of the room, next to the defendant’s table.

Billie came into the courtroom with Mary and Thomas. They took seats in the first row of chairs directly behind the table where Jesse and Jennifer sat. Marianne entered the courtroom and took a seat in the row of chairs next to Billie and the others. The remaining chairs were occupied by residents of Bannack.

Jesse and Jennifer looked around to see who the other people in the courtroom were, most they didn’t recognize but a few they remembered from their first trip to town. The young woman who had served them their meal at the Chinese restaurant, The gravedigger and the boy from the stonemason’s shop. The desk clerk at the Goodrich Hotel and the waitress from the dining room. The clerk from Chrismans’ store. The men from the livery where they boarded their horses. As they made eye contact with the folks sitting behind them, many spoke words of encouragement or expressed outrage over the charges against Jesse.

The women were surprised by the outpouring of support and nodded their thanks in return.

Jesse’s eyes hardened when the dressmaker entered the room and took a seat. But before she could say anything the door to the judge’s chamber opened and the clerk came out. He looked around the courtroom then went back through the door marked “Judge Chambers” only to reappear a few moments later carrying some papers which he place on the judge’s bench.

“Must be the marshal’s list of witnesses,” Billie guessed.

“All rise,” the clerk ordered.

Judge Henry entered the room and took a seat behind the elevated desk. “Good afternoon,” he addressed the courtroom, “please be seated.” The judge reviewed the papers before him, “Marshal, it appears that Mr. Marcus Thompson has failed to appear as ordered. Would you kindly go find him and bring him to court.”

“But, sir,” the marshal was startled to be ordered away from his prisoner.

“Oh, yes,” the judge smiled, humorlessly, “you prisoner must be guarded.”

The marshal relaxed back against the wall.

“Sheriff Monroe,” the judge looked at Billie.

“Yes, sir.”

“Would you be willing to stand in the marshal’s place and guard the prisoner in his absence?”

“It would be my pleasure,” Billie grinned.

“Very well. Marshal Morgan, please go find Mr. Thompson. Since, he seems to be one of the most important witnesses you have listed, his absence could weigh heavily on the findings of this court.”

The marshal stormed out of the courtroom as Billie took his place against the wall.

“Very well,” the Judge Henry looked at the clerk. Shall we get started?”

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

Martin Kinsington was limping badly on feet that felt like they were being torn apart inside his shoes. He had walked nonstop since waking that morning and, except for drinking from any water source he crossed, he’d had no nourishment to replenish the energy he was expending. He was beginning to wonder if he would make it to Bannack. Or, if he would fall prey to the Montana prairie, never to be seen or heard from again. He couldn’t understand why Thomas hadn’t come back for him or sent someone else to rescue him.

As he hobbled towards the range of hills that were his target for the day, Kinsington began to list all the things he disliked about Montana. There was the frontier, itself. It’s cloudless skies that seem to stretch forever between the horizons. And, the hot sun that beat down on anything and everything beneath it. The never ending open plains that he now found himself trying to walk across. The lack of a sense of order by the frontier’s occupants, who didn’t seem to know their place in a traditional hierarchy.

But, the thing Martin Kinsington disliked the most was that he had lost control of the very events he had put into motion. Who knew what would happen if he wasn’t in Bannack to monitor how the bitch’s trial went. Not to mention, that Harrington couldn’t be trusted to uphold his part of their bargain if he wasn’t there to assure it. He rolled the various outcomes around in his mind, each a little more disastrous than the one before. How had his well laid plans come to this?

No matter how he thought about it, Kinsington found he could only lay the blame at the feet of one person. The woman who had tried to take everything from him. Jesse Branson.

Driven with a renewed, single-minded purpose to pursue and achieve retribution from his adversary, Kinsington, now more determined than ever to reach Bannack, quickened his stride southward.

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

“You can’t change the plans, now,” Frank Wilson slumped down in the chair in front of the mayor’s desk.

“Mr. Wilson,” Tobias Harrington leaned back in the chair on the other side of the desk, “you are paid to build what you are told to build. Those changes came directly from the president of the company.”

“But this means, tearing out the entire west wall and starting over,” the foreman knew the overseer didn’t care about the problems his new orders would cause. “It’s going to put us behind schedule. Not to mention the extra cost.”

“Mr. Wilson, are you telling me that you cannot complete this project on time? And, on budget?” Harrington would love to have an excuse to be rid of the foreman.

The foreman contemplated if it wouldn’t be better to tell Harrington that he couldn’t meet the schedule and let Harrington fire him. It would be better than putting up with the arrogant little man. Then, he thought of the telegram he had sent the day before. If what he thought was true, Harrington wouldn’t be a problem for much longer. He figured it wouldn’t hurt to stick around so he could be there when Tobias Harrington was brought down.

“I’ll finish it,” Wilson said without really answering the question. “By the way, Harrington,” Wilson changed the subject, “I plan to start the construction of the road to the Songbird first thing next week. You have any problem with that?”

“No,” Harrington studied the man across from him, Wilson was up to something. First, the foreman goes up to the Songbird without telling him. Then, Wilson sends a message out of town by special deliver, a message that he is unable to attain the contents of even though he tried. Now, Wilson hints that he might have a reason to slow the preparations for the mine’s expanded operation. “Any reason I should?”

“Just asking,” the foreman shrugged. “Well, if I’m going to have to tear down a wall, I better get to it.”

Harrington watched the foreman leave. He didn’t know what the man was up to but, sooner or later, he’d find out. And, then, Mr. Frank Wilson would be at his mercy.

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

“Jesse Branson, please stand,” the Judge Henry commanded. “The clerk will read the indictment.”

Jennifer squeezed the hand she held before releasing it so Jesse could follow the judge’s instructions. Jesse started to hand KC to Jennifer.

“That won’t be necessary,” the judge told her.

“Jesse Marie Branson, a resident of, and business owner in, the town of Sweetwater, Montana Territory,” the clerk started to read, his voice clear and strong, “is charged with having knowingly, and willingly, caused the following actions:

The murder of Kenneth Williams;
the murder of Katherine Williams;
the kidnapping of one infant child, female;
the endangerment of said child’s welfare;
taking possession of a horse without the knowledge or permission of said owner (2 counts);
taking possession of a cow, dairy, without the knowledge or permission of said owner;
setting a fire with the intention to destroy;
removing personal property without the knowledge or permission of said owner (2 counts);
disturbing the peace;
reckless disregard of the use of a firearm (2 counts);
theft (6 counts);
filing a false report with an officer of the law (3 counts);
knowingly and willingly providing false information to an officer of the law (12 counts);
failure to cooperate with an officer of the law in the investigation of a crime (23 counts).”

Expecting a short list of crimes, Jesse shook her head in disbelief as the clerk read. Several in the court started to chuckle and soon the room was full of raucous laughter at the ridiculous charges.

“Ya forgot to charge her wit’ stealin’ the ground she buried them poor folks in,” someone called out.

“Sure ya got the right piece of paper?” another person asked.

“Order,” the judge rapped his gavel against the desk, “order. Now, I’ll be the first to admit,” he said as the courtroom quieted, “that is a long list of wrongdoing for this defendant. But, the charges have been brought and we need to treat them seriously. Mrs. Branson, would you kindly tell this court how you plead?”

Jesse could not believe the absurdity of the situation but answered the question, “not guilty.”

“Very well,” the Judge Henry made a notation on the papers in front of him. “Do you wish for a jury trial or will you allow me to stand in judgment?” he asked.

Jesse wanted to get the trial over as quickly as possible and, given that, the judge had shown both her and Jennifer such kindness since arriving in Bannack, she responded, “you’ll do fine, judge.”

“You may be seated,” the judge made another notation. “Call the first witness,” he instructed the clerk.

Jesse settled back down into her chair, KC snuggled against her chest. She could hear her mommy’s heart beating hard inside her chest and she placed a small hand on top of the spot to try and help it calm.

Jennifer scooted her chair closer to Jesse’s and re-took hold of her wife’s hand. She leaned over and whispered, “I love you, Jesse Marie Branson. And, when this is all over, I’ll break my father’s nose,” she declared.

Jesse chuckled as the first witness was sworn in.

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

“Mr. Tevey, did you see the defendant when she came to Bannack several months ago?,” Judge Henry was asking the witness.

“Yes, she and the other young lady came into the Goodrich,” the hotel clerk answered. He was an older man, well on his way to losing what was left of his hair. He wore the same black vest over a smartly pressed white shirt that Jesse remembered from their first visit.

“Did she have a child with them?”

“Yes.”

“Did she say how she came about having the child?”

“Said they had found the baby’s parents on their way into town. They had been murdered.”

“What, if anything, else did she say?”

“They ask to rent a room, I only had one left, with one bed, and they said they could share, they being sisters and all.”

Jesse looked at Jennifer who shrugged as several in the courtroom tried unsuccessfully to restrain giggles.

“Then,” the desk clerk continued not understanding the laughter his previous comment had caused, “she asked where they could board their horses. I told them to go see Jasper, he’d take care of them.”

“Anything else?”

“They asked where they could find the sheriff. I told them to check at Chrismans’ store.”

“Is that all?”

“Well,” the man thought for a moment. “Sheriff Plummer did come looking for them one evening.”

“What for?”

“He wouldn’t say. Just asked if they were in their room, when I said no, he asked for the key and went upstairs.”

“I knew someone had been in our room,” Jesse said under her breath as she heard mumblings behind her.

“Did you inform Mrs. Branson that the sheriff had taken the key to their room?”

“No, sir. He told me not to.”

“Step down. Call the next witness.”

“Jasper Peabody, please step forward.”

A grizzled man with one leg slightly shorter than the other stood and moved forward to the witness chair. Judge Henry wrote notes while the clerk swore the witness in.

“Mr. Peabody,” the judge began, “did you see the defendant when she came to Bannack several months ago?”

“Yep, boarded two horses and a cow, dairy,” he added, chuckling as he repeated the language used in Jesse’s indictment.

“Did you notice the brands on the horses?”

“Sure did, I always pay ‘tention to those. Never know when som’ horsethief will try to pass one over on ya.”

“What was the brand?”

“Had a J with the cross bar looping round ta form a D. JD.”

“Mrs. Branson,” the judge looked at Jesse, “what is the name of your ranch?”

“At the time, sir,” Jesse said knowing she had renamed the ranch after marrying Jennifer. “Jesse’s Dream. My brand is a JD.”

“Thank you.”

“Mr. Peabody, did the defendant tell you how she came to be in possession of the cow?”

“If ya meanin’ how she found it?” he looked at the judge for clarification.

“Yes,” the Judge Henry grinned, “that’s what I mean.”

“Said she found it when she found them folks dead. Said, she figured they had it to feed the young ‘un.”

“Did she say anything else?”

“‘Bout what?”

“Anything that would be relevant to this case?”

“Nope. Paid to board the horses and cow, and left.”

“Thank you, Jasper. Step down. The next witness, please.”

“George Chrismans, please step forward.”

“Mr. Chrismans,” the judge began as the man sat after being sworn. “Did you see the defendant when she came to Bannack several months ago?”

“Yes, she and the other one came into my store.”

“And?”

“They asked where they could find Sheriff Plummer.”

“Did she say why?”

“Said they had some trouble on the trail. Wouldn’t say anymore. Just got uppity and said she’d rather discuss it with the sheriff. So, I told ’em his office was out back.”

It was rumored that Chrismans store was more than just a building that the sheriff kept an office in. Many in town believed Chrismans was not only aware of the sheriff’s activities but also a part of them. So, it came as no surprise to those in the courtroom that he would be a less than friendly witness for Jesse.

“Is that all?”

“Well, they bought som’ baby bottles and linen while they was in the store.”

“Linen?” Judge Henry looked to the women for an explanation.

“Diapers for KC,” Jennifer supplied.

“I see,” the judge again wrote in his notes.

“Step down, Mr. Chrismans.”

“Wait, I saw them talking to Sheriff Plummer the day they left town,” the storekeeper remained seated.

“And?”

“Sheriff had told them to check in with him before they left town. He caught them trying to leave without doing that.”

“Mr. Chrismans, I am unaware of any law that requires people to check in with the sheriff before leaving Bannack. Why would the sheriff tell anyone to do that?” the judge asked, although he knew the answer. He wondered if the witness was willing to give an honest response.

“He wanted to let folks know what roads were safe to travel,” the storekeeper realized he had talked himself into a corner as several in the courtroom scoffed at his answer. “Plummer also wanted to tell them what he had found when he went out to the place them folks was killed.”

“And, what did he find?” everyone in the room was interested in the answer to that.

“Didn’t say,” Chrismans groaned, he needed to keep his mouth shut. He couldn’t tell the judge that the sheriff had never gone out to where the Williams had been shot because he knew what he would find, having ordered their deaths. “But, he asked them why they wasn’t leavin’ the brat with Reverend Tobias.”

“Grrrrrrrrr,” Jennifer growled at the preacher’s mention.

“Why would the sheriff be interested in that?” the judge wanted to know.

So did Jesse, now that she thought about it. The reverend had approached them almost immediately after they had talked to Plummer. And, Plummer had questioned if the preacher was agreeable to them keeping KC. Jesse wondered what the connection, if any, there was between the two men.

“Mr. Chrismans?” Judge Henry asked when he received no answer from the witness.

“Don’t rightly know,” he said, truthfully.

“Alright,” the judge reviewed his notes, “besides Sheriff Plummer sticking his nose…,”

Jesse reached down and grabbed KC’s hands before the baby could repeat her performance of earlier in the day but she wasn’t fast enough to stop her from shouting “ook, ook.”

“Do I even want to know?” the judge chuckled.

“No,” Jennifer said as Jesse whispered in the baby’s ear.

Now that she had mastered it, KC thought the goose game was fun and wasn’t happy when Jesse told her she couldn’t play it right now. Her lower lip pushed out in a pout and she, dejectedly, thumped down in Jesse’s lap.

“I’ll try again, if Miss KC will allow,” the judge smirked, thinking the look on the baby’s face was adorable. “Anyway, except for Sheriff Plummer sticking his,”

Before he could say the word, Jesse shook her head warning against it.

“Except for Sheriff Plummer,” the judge tried again, “looking into business that he had no reason to, is there anything else you can offer on the case before this court?”

“No.”

“Step down.”

Jesse was starting to fidget more than KC. For the past two hours, they had sat and listened as one after another witness was sworn in to testify that, several months before, they had seen Jesse come to Bannack. Some said they had seen her with a baby. Others that they had seen her leading the dairy cow. All had testified that she had sought out Sheriff Plummer to report what she and Jennifer had found on their way to Bannack.

After excusing Mr. Chrismans, the judge pulled out his pocket watch and opened it. “It appears the marshal is having trouble locating his star witness,” the judge observed as he deliberately wound the watch.. “It also appears that, so far, most of the witnesses the marshal has provided have nothing to offer this court concerning the charges brought against Mrs. Branson. I could call one more witness before calling it a day.” He looked at the baby squirming in Jesse’s lap. “Think she’ll sit for one more?” the judge asked.

“Probably, better than I will,” Jesse candidly answered.

“So, I’ve noticed,” the judge grinned at the restless woman. He banged his gavel a couple of times to quiet the snickers in the room.

The door to the courtroom opened and Marshal Morgan entered pushing another man before him.

“Ah, I see our elusive Mr. Thompson has been found,” the judge announced. “Might I ask where?”

“Skinner’s saloon,” the marshal said as he pushed the missing witness to the front of the court. “He isn’t in any shape to testify at the moment.”

Marcus Thompson swayed on unsteady legs. He had gone to Skinner’s to talk with the bartender and come up with a way out of his dilemma. Unfortunately, the only thing he had accomplished was downing half a bottle of whiskey.

Seeing the condition of the witness, the judge told the courtroom, “due to the late hour, I will recess until tomorrow morning. Perhaps, Mr. Thompson will be able to throw some light on the charges against Mrs. Branson, at that time. Marshal, you will see that Mr. Thompson is kept in custody overnight. Court will continue at ten o’clock,” the judge rapped his gavel once and stood up. “Oh, and since you will have a male occupant in the jail, I will allow the defendant to remain in her wife’s custody until court tomorrow. Good night, everyone.”

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

“Did he say what he was looking for?” Tobias Harrington asked the guard stationed at the Songbird mine. After his earlier conversation with Frank Wilson, Harrington had decided to visit the mine and try to find out what his foreman had been doing there.

“No,” the guard scratched his head. “Just said he wanted to check on some things.”

“He didn’t say anything else? Or, act funny? Or, anything?”

“Well, now that you mention it,” the guard rubbed his chin, “he didn’t want me going inside with him. Not that I minded, can’t stand close places like that. But, usually, anyone comes here, wants me to hold the lantern or carry the equipment for them. Not Mr. Wilson, he just wanted to be left alone.”

“Hmmm,” Harrington had been in the mine and had seen nothing unusual. The vein of rich ore still marked the rear wall of the tunnel, though it looked like something had scrapped it recently. But, he could see nothing amiss. Maybe, he had read Wilson wrong. “Okay,” Harrington walked away from the guard.

“Good night, Mr. Harrington.”

“Right.”

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

It had been a long afternoon and having to sit for so long had not helped. But, right now, Jennifer was in heaven. “Ahhhhhhh,” the schoolteacher moaned as Jesse’s strong hands soothingly manipulated the kinks out of her tired muscles.

Jennifer was naked and laying face down on the bed in Marianne’s cabin. After returning to the cabin after court, Jesse had insisted her wife take a hot bath and receive a massage. Jennifer had not objected to either demand. Her only regret was that, due to propriety, Jesse could not share the bath with her.

Jesse knelt at the end of the bed, her legs spread to straddle Jennifer as she carefully worked her hands up and down her wife’s legs. KC was sitting in the small of her momma’s back kneading Jennifer’s back with her little hands.

“Ohhhhhhhhhhh,” Jennifer moaned, again. “That feels soooooooooo gooooooooooddddddddd.”

Jesse gritted her teeth. Sitting over her lover’s naked body and listening to her moans was causing the rancher’s libido to do flip-flops. It was all she could do to keep herself from tearing off her own clothes and making love to her beautiful wife. It didn’t help that they hadn’t been intimate for several days.

“Darlin’,” Jesse leaned down and whispered so Marianne wouldn’t hear on the other side of the curtain. “You better stop that moaning or Marianne is going to be hearing a lot more than that.”

Unsure what Jesse meant, Jennifer took a moment to think about it. “Oh,” she finally grasped the meaning. “I’m sorry, sweetheart.”

“Yeah,” Jesse groaned, “so am I.”

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

PART 8

Jesse woke to the most wonderful feeling. KC was sprawled asleep on her chest and Jennifer was pressed against her side, one leg draped possessively over her body. The rancher lay still, content just to enjoy the loving contact with her family. She carefully turned her head just enough to place a tender kiss on her wife’s brow and was rewarded with a soft sigh from the sleeping woman. After several minutes, Jesse’s eyes drifted shut and she allowed sleep to reclaim her.

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

Walks on the Wind sat on the knoll overlooking Bannack as the sun began to paint the night sky with bright colors. Completing his morning meal, he watched lamps begin to glow in many of the buildings in the town. The people of Bannack were rising for the coming day. The cabin where Jesse and Jennifer slept was still dark and he decided to leave without disturbing them. He would make sure to return by nightfall to continue his vigil.

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

“What is the meaning of this?” the man with curly red hair asked, slamming his fist against the table before him.

Moments before, a secretary had brought Frank Wilson’s telegram into the company’s board room. Asked to read the paper, the secretary did so and then quickly retreated as the men in the room reacted to the telegram’s contents.

“How the hell could this happen?” a bald man sucking deeply on a smelly cigar demanded.

“This is an outrage,” another man stood to emphasize his words and was joined by several other men around the table. “Did Harrington know about this?”

“Gentlemen,” an elderly man at the head of the table spoke quietly, “please sit down.”

Those that heard the company president’s request retook their seats and waited impatiently for the others to do the same.

“I can’t believe he let this happen,” one man was storming about the room. “Does he have any idea how much money this will cost us? If it’s true.”

“Not to mention, we’ll be the laughing stock of……..”

“Gentlemen, please,” the president tried again.

“…..why, I can just hear it now……..”

“Sit DOWN,” the red hair man bellowed.

“Please,” the president’s soft voice added and the other men quickly complied. “Thank you.” He picked up the telegram that had been dropped on the table in front of him by the secretary and re-read it.

“It appears,” the president calmly began, his voice low causing the others to strain to hear, “that Mr. Wilson has uncovered what could potentially be a major problem with our investment in Sweetwater.”

Murmurs of agreement were heard around the board room.

“It is also suggested that Mr. Harrington may, or may not, be aware of this problem. If he is aware, then it is surely a matter of fraud on his part. And, if he is not aware, then….”

“Then, he’s a bigger fool than we gave him credit for,” the red haired man finished.

“Yes, that is possible,” the president agreed. “However, before we make any decisions, one way or the other, I believe that it would behoove us to have the situation checked out by someone with more knowledge in the area than we possess.”

“What assayer provided the original report?” the cigar chewing man asked.

The president opened a thick file he had earlier placed on the table and precisely searched through the papers it held until he came to the one he sought. “It seems Mr. Harrington contracted the services of an assayer in one of the mining camps near Sweetwater.”

“Why didn’t he use our man in Denver?” the red-haired man asked. “That’s what we have him on retainer for, isn’t it?.”

“Yes,” the president carefully closed the folder to insure no papers flew out of the over-stuffed binder. “That will be a question you will ask Mr. Harrington when you arrive in Sweetwater.”

“What?” the red-haired man looked surprised as he realized he was being instructed to travel west.

“I would like you, Mr. Glade, and you, Mr. Weese,” the president addressed the man with the cigar, “to proceed immediately to Sweetwater and find out the truth behind Mr. Wilson’s suspicions.”

“But, sir,” Weese protested, “isn’t it obvious that Harrington…..?”

“I expect you to be positive of your facts before any charges are made against any employee of this company,” the president spoke harshly. “I will not have false accusations made. If it happens,” he looked directly at the two men he was sending to investigate the problem, knowing neither man cared much for Tobias Harrington, “I will remove the responsible party, not only from this board but, from any connection with this company. Do I make myself clear?”

Glade and Weese nodded. The president of the board may be in his later years, but he still controlled the company he had built from nothing with a firm and unforgiving hand. The two men, who more than enjoyed the financial benefits received from being part of the company, knew better than to cross the man who occupied the president’s office.

“Yes, sir,” both men responded, simultaneously.

“Very well. Please make sure you are on the next train to Denver. You will telegram me immediately once you have finished your investigation.”

The men nodded.

The president studied the two men, hoping he hadn’t made a mistake in his selection, “don’t make me wait too long.”

“No, sir.”

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

Upon waking, Martin Kinsington rolled onto his belly and gingerly pushed himself up by the arms, slowly pulling his legs under his body until he was balanced on his hands and knees. He remained in this position for several minutes before he was able to force his exhausted body upright. He had slept with his shoes on, not wanting a repeat of the previous morning when he was almost unable to cram his swollen feet back inside the leather bindings. As he placed his full weight on his blistered feet and painful legs, he wondered if he would be able to walk at all. Then, a vision of Jesse Branson floated in front of his eyes and he had his answer. No way was that woman going to best him.

Kinsington looked to the south. The hills he needed to cross were close enough that he could almost reach out and touch them. He took a step and bit back the cry of pain attempting to escape his throat. He took another agonizing step. Then, another. He would cross into the next valley by the end of the day if it was the last thing he did.

The dark eyes watched, surprised that the man was continuing his trek. They followed Kinsington as he began the climb up the first hillock, every step seemingly a struggle for the determined man. If Kinsington could continue, he should make it through the band of hills and into the valley beyond by nightfall.

Dark eyes trailed their quarry for several more minutes before he moved away from his hiding spot.

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

“Good morning, sweetheart,” Jennifer said as Jesse’s eyes fluttered open. The schoolteacher had awakened moments before and lay snuggled against her wife’s side.

“Mornin’, darlin’,” Jesse smiled, awake for the second time this morning. “How’d ya sleep?”

“Wonderfully,” Jennifer sighed as she snuggled even closer.

Jesse slipped an arm around Jennifer and held her tight. She turned her head and leaned into Jennifer, running her tongue lightly around her wife’s lips before kissing her.

“Mmmmmm,” Jennifer breathed.

“I love you,” Jesse whispered as she began to pull away.

Jennifer reached up and cupped a hand behind Jesse’s neck, pulling her back. She pressed her lips to Jesse’s and deepened the morning kiss. “I love you,” Jennifer sighed, their mouths so close their were sharing the same air.

“Jesse, when this is over,” the schoolteacher looked into the eyes she adored, “I want to go back to Sweetwater and never leave.”

Jesse smiled, “me, too, darlin’.”

KC’s eyes opened when she heard her mothers’ voices. Forgetting she had fallen asleep on top of Jesse, the baby rolled over. She slipped off Jesse’s chest and came to rest, lodged between the women. She pumped her arms and kicked her legs, struggling to get out from her self-created predicament. When it became apparent to the baby that she was firmly wedged between her mothers, she gave up her struggles.

“Up,” KC demanded.

“Good morning, sunshine,” Jesse laughed as she gently pulled the baby free. “I do believe that someone,” she tickled KC’s tummy, “needs themselves a fresh set of britches.”

KC giggled and slapped at Jesse’s hands. She quickly worked herself onto her stomach and crawled up the rancher’s body to wrap her arms around her mother’s neck. “Wuv,” KC said.

“Hey,” Jesse, tears forming in her eyes, rubbed the baby’s back, “I love you, too, sunshine.”

“Guess, I’m not the only one that hates sleeping without you,” Jennifer laid her head on Jesse’s shoulder.

“Yeah,” Jesse smiled. “What about momma, sunshine?” Jesse asked the baby, “do you love momma?”

KC sat up on Jesse’s chest, her head bopping up and down, vigorously. “Wuv, momma,” she said as she threw her arms wide and launched herself towards Jennifer.

“Whoa,” Jennifer barely got her arm up to catch the baby so she wouldn’t fly over her and off the bed. “I love you, too, sweetie,” she safely held onto KC.

The women remained in bed, cuddling with KC until the smell emanating from her diaper finally forced them to get up and face the day.

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

Frank Wilson walked out of the tent being used as a dining hall for his work crew. The cook Tobias Harrington hired had finally arrived and had prepared his first meal for the hungry workers.

“Well, it ain’t as good as the food at the Slipper,” Wilson grumbled to no one in particular, “but, at least, I won’t have to listen to that windbag Perkins complain about the men eating there, anymore.” Against, Harrington’s orders, Wilson had taken his men to the Silver Slipper for their meals until the cook arrived. Harrington, being the kind of over-seer he was, had, at every meal, sent Sweetwater’s mayor, Miles Perkins to tell Wilson to stop the practice. To say that he was tired of the man who was wider than he was tall telling him how to feed his crew, would be a major understatement.

Wilson walked from the cook tent, which had been set up on the other side of the new hotel’s building site, across the street to where the partially completed bank building stood.

“Good morning, Mr. Wilson.”

The foreman groaned when he heard the voice of the man hurrying towards him. “Morning, mayor,” he kept walking.

“I see you have enjoyed your breakfast,” Mayor Perkins commented.

“Enjoyed isn’t exactly the word I would have used,” Wilson mumbled.

“Oh,” the mayor looked towards the tent as more men exited after the morning meal. “Is the cook not to your liking?”

“He’s alright,” Wilson said. “He just ain’t as good as the Slipper.”

“No, I suppose he’s not,” the mayor had enjoyed many a meal at the Slipper and felt that the cooking there was even better than his wife’s. Not that he would ever admit that to another living soul for fear of his wife’s reaction.

“Was there something you needed?” Wilson wanted to be rid of the irritating man as quickly as possible. He had a lot of work to accomplish this day. Especially, since Harrington had sprung a complete redesign of one section of the hotel on him just the day before.

“Mr. Harrington asked me to have you provide the plans for the road to the Songbird. He would like to review them before you begin the work.”

Wilson shook his head, was there anything the little man didn’t have to stick his nose into. “You can tell Wilson that that ain’t something you can write down and review. It’s something that has to be done as you go, studying the terrain you have to work with. So, if he wants to know where I plan to put the road, he can join us Monday morning when we start work. I’ll even save a shovel for him to help.”

“But, Mr. Wilson…” the mayor was frustrated. The lack of cooperation between Harrington and Wilson was more than a nuisance and he was tired of being in the middle of their animosity. “I’ll tell Mr. Harrington that you’ll be in later today with the information he has requested,” the mayor said before turning on his heels and hurrying back to his office before the foreman could respond.

“You do that,” Wilson said to the mayor’s back. “Come on, boys,” he called to the men milling about in front of the cook’s tent. “We got more than enough to keep us busy today,” he told them as they made their way to where he waited.

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

Jesse carried KC as she and Jennifer made their way along the boardwalk to the doctor’s office. Jennifer had insisted they stop there to have the dressings on Jesse’s wrists changed before they went to the courthouse. The rancher had protested but finally gave in when she realized Jennifer wasn’t going to back down.

As they walked, they passed a familiar Chinese restaurant. Jennifer smiled, remembering the meal they had shared their first trip to Bannack. It had been her first experience with the foreign fare and she had discovered she liked the exotic tastes.

“Sweetheart?”

“Yes, darlin’,” Jesse smiled at her wife.

“Do you think we could eat here again,” Jennifer tilted her head at the building beside them.

“Don’t see why not,” Jesse told her. “Maybe, Marianne would like to come with us. Be a way to pay her back for all the cooking she’s done for us.”

“That’s a wonderful idea,” Jennifer instantly agreed. Her attempts to help with the cooking chores had been firmly rebuffed by the other schoolteacher.

“Let’s see how long court goes today,”

Jesse had noticed Jennifer was limping more than usual and didn’t want her on her damaged leg any more than necessary. She decided Jennifer would receive another massage at the end of the day, even though it would mean having to control her own desires. Just thinking about having the schoolteacher lying naked beneath her as her hands worked the tired leg muscles was making Jesse hot and she began to feel a wetness between her legs. The rancher had to stop for a moment to regain command of her ardor, which was currently running wild.

“Hey,” Jennifer said, concerned when she saw the flush on Jesse’s cheeks, “are you okay?”

“Yes,” Jesse nodded as she stood, pressing her legs together trying to relieve the pressure building at her groin. “I’m fine,” she said but the words were strained.

“You don’t look fine,” Jennifer was really getting worried. “Maybe we need to have the doctor check you over.”

“No,” Jesse shook her head emphatically. “I’m okay. Just give me a minute.”

Jennifer waited as Jesse look several deep breaths. Her color returning to normal and she turned, unsteadily, to continue their walk.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Jennifer grabbed Jesse’s arm and pulled her back. “You tell me what that was all about.”

“I was just thinkin’,” the rancher looked at the schoolteacher and smirked.

“Thinking? About what, sweetheart? You looked like you were going to pass out,” Jennifer reached up and placed the back of her hand against her lover’s forehead.

Jesse grabbed the hand, gently kissing it. “I was thinking about last night, darlin’,” she told Jennifer.

“Last night?” Jennifer asked, confused. Then, she noticed the leering look Jesse was giving her and recalled how the rancher had to refrain from making love to her in Marianne’s cabin. “That made you almost pass out?”

“Darlin,” Jesse leaned forward and kissed Jennifer on the lips, not caring if anyone saw them, “I want to make love to you so bad, I ache. And, if this trial doesn’t get over pretty soon so I can get you somewhere all to myself, I may just melt into a big, old puddle of mush from just thinkin’ about it.”

Jennifer sighed at Jesse, “you say the nicest things.”

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

“Good morning, Jesse, Jennifer,” the court clerk greeted the women when they entered the court room.

“Good morning,” Jennifer smiled at the man as she lead Jesse to the defendant’s table.

“Mornin’,” Jesse nodded to the clerk. She pulled out Jennifer’s chair and waited for her wife to settle into it before claiming her own seat, holding KC in her lap.

“Morning, ladies,” sheriff Billie Monroe was standing off to the side of the room, prepared to again serve as a preventive to any escape attempt Jesse might try, not that she had any intention of doing so.

“Morning, Billie. Still making sure I don’t escape, I see,” Jesse shared a laugh with her friend.

There were a few others seated in the court room and more entered and took seats during the following minutes.

Jennifer smiled when her mother and brother entered. “Good morning,” she said cheerfully.

“You’re in a good mood this morning,” Thomas said as he helped Mary into a chair.

“I’m always in a good mood when I wake up with Jesse,” Jennifer reached over and squeezed the rancher’s arm. Both women had enjoyed their morning of snuggling together before they were forced from their bed.

“Oh,” Thomas looked away, somewhat embarrassed by his sister’s words.

Jennifer noticed her brother’s reaction and was about to apologize for making him uncomfortable but stopped herself. This was her life. And, the reality was that she slept with and woke up with Jesse. If Thomas had a problem with that, then so be it. But, it was his problem and she would not apologize for loving her wife. She turned back around in her chair to face the judge’s bench.

“You alright?” Jesse asked when she saw the frown on the schoolteacher’s face.

“Yes,” Jennifer said curtly, she was real tired of having to justify her love of Jesse.

“Darlin?” Jesse placed a hand on Jennifer’s arm and ran her thumb lightly over the silky skin beneath it.

Jennifer took a deep breath before turning to face her worried wife. She smiled to relieve the look of concern on the rancher’s face, “I’m fine, sweetheart. I’ll explain later. Okay?”

“Yes,” Jesse agreed, “as long as you’re okay,”

“I am.”

Marianne entered the court room and moved quickly to the defendant’s table. “I found these,” she placed a carved wooden horse and a couple of other objects on the table in front of KC, who happily grabbed at the toys. “I hope they’re the right ones,” she added, hopefully.

“Yes,” Jennifer assured her friend, “these are just fine. Thank you.”

After arriving at the doctor’s office, Jennifer and Jesse had realized they had left Marianne’s cabin without any of the baby’s toys. Not wanting KC to have to spend another day squirming restlessly in Jesse’s lap, the women decided to chance her playing with some of her favorite toys during court. Marianne had happened by to make sure everything was alright with Jesse’s wounds and volunteered to return to her cabin for the toys.

“Good,” Marianne ruffled KC’s hair. “I wouldn’t want to have brought you the wrong ones, KC.”

“Long as she’s got her horse,” Jesse told the woman, “she’s happy with anything else.”

“All rise,” the clerk announced in a loud voice.

Jesse stood and assisted Jennifer to her feet as Judge Henry entered the room and took his place behind the enclosed desk at the front of the room.

“Good morning, ladies,” he nodded to Jesse and Jennifer, “and Miss KC. Please be seated. Mrs. Branson,” he spoke directly to Jennifer after watching Jesse help her back into her chair, “you are not required to stand if it creates a hardship.”

“Thank you, Judge Henry,” Jennifer smiled at the man who had done so much to lessen the ordeal of Jesse’s arrest and trial for the two women. “I’ll take you up on that if it gets too bad.”

“Very well,” the judge smiled back. He had accepted soon after meeting the young woman that she asked for, and expected, no special considerations because of her leg. He respected her for that and would let her decide what adaptations she would need during court.

“I see Miss KC has brought herself some entertainment today,” the judge commented as KC bounced her toy horse, noisily, across the table.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Jesse corralled the baby’s hands. “We thought it would help keep her quiet. But, we can put them away.”

“No,” the judge smiled, “it’s okay. These days get long for all of us. Just keep it down to a low roar so I can hear the witnesses.”

“Will do, judge,” Jesse nodded. She leaned down and whispered something into KC’s ear.

KC pulled the toy horse to the very edge of the table and softly bounced it in one spot. She looked up, questioning, at Jesse who smiled and nodded. KC smiled and went back to playing.

“May I ask where Marshal Morgan and Mr. Thompson might be,” Judge Henry returned to the business that had brought them to court. He had expected to see the marshal and his star witness in the room.

“The marshal sent word that Mr. Thompson is not yet sober enough to testify,” the clerk handed a folded piece of paper to the judge. “He is staying at the jail with his prisoner.”

“I see,” Judge Henry did not appear happy at the news. “Please call the next witness on the list,” he instructed his clerk.

“Marianne Temple,” the clerk read the name.

“Miss Temple,” Judge Henry addressed the schoolteacher as she took the witness chair, “did you have reason to speak with the defendant when she came to Bannack several months ago?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Would you tell the court about that?”

“Jennifer and Jesse came to my cabin,” Marianne grinned as she remembered the pair walking up to her cabin with a tiny baby in Jesse’s arms. “Jennifer is the schoolteacher in Sweetwater and she asked if I’d be willing to talk to her. Which I happily agreed to do.”

“I see,” the judge looked at the papers spread out on the desk before him. “Did they have a child with them?”

“Yes. Jesse was carrying KC.”

“Did she say how she came about having the child?”

“They told me they had found her parents on their way to town. They had been shot. They heard the baby crying from under what was left of a burned wagon.”

“Did they say what they planned to do with the child?”

“They asked if I might know of any family in Bannack so they could return her to them.”

“What did you tell them?”

“I said that I had only seen that poor young couple just the one time. That day they came through town with that Conestoga wagon. That was really the only reason I paid any attention to them at all. We don’t see many of those big wagons this far north of the Oregon trail. And, since I hadn’t talked to them, I wasn’t aware of any family they might have in Bannack. But, I suggested they might want to talk to Reverend Tobias because I had seen him talking to the Williams and he might know of any kin they would have.”

“How did the child seem with Mrs. Branson?”

“Jesse or Jennifer?” the schoolteacher asked, unsure which of the women the judge was asking about.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “with Jesse Branson.”

“KC adored Jesse. She sat in her lap almost the whole time Jennifer and I were talking, which was most of the afternoon. In fact, I can remember saying that KC had already taken a liking to Jesse.”

“Did the baby seem well cared for?”

“Oh, yes,” Marianne nodded. “They had brought diapers and milk with them to see to her needs. And, Jesse rocked KC to sleep when it was time for her nap. Then, she held the baby while she slept.”

“Thank you, Miss Temple,” the judge made several notes. “Is there anything else, relevant to this case, that you would like to say?”

“Yes,” Marianne looked at the judge. “The morning that the Williams left Bannack, I saw their wagon in front of Chrismans’ store. Mrs. Williams was sitting in the wagon and I assumed that Mr. Williams was inside the store.”

“Do you know what Mr. Williams was doing in Chrismans?”

“Well, at the time, I just thought he was buying supplies. But, after what happened, I believe that he was inside telling Sheriff Plummer what road they planned to travel out of Bannack.”

“But, you don’t know for sure?”

“No, sir,” Marianne’s shoulders slumped when she had to agree with the judge.

“Thank you,” Judge Henry made a final notation. “You may step down. Mr. Chrismans, please retake the stand.”

The store owner grumbled as he stood and made his way to the front of the courtroom.

“You heard what Miss Temple said,” the judge addressed the witness.

“Yes.”

“Well, what was Mr. Williams doing in your store that morning?”

“Buyin’ supplies, I reckon,” Chrismans responded.

“Sir, do not try my patience,” Judge Henry warned the stubborn witness.

“He was talkin’ to Plummer,” Chrismans begrudgingly told the judge.

“Had Sheriff Plummer instructed Mr. Williams to check with him before leaving town?”

“Guess so.”

“Do you think Mr. Williams was following the sheriff’s instructions?”

“Could have been.”

“Was Mr. Williams telling Sheriff Plummer the route he planned to follow after leaving Bannack?”

“Might have been.”

“Mr. Chrismans, do you know what transpired between Mr. Williams and Sheriff Plummer that morning in your store,” the judge glared at the witness. “I want the truth.”

“I was waitin’ on another customer so I couldn’t hear what was said,” Chrismans glared back. “And, that’s the truth.”

“Alright,” the judge knew he wasn’t going to get any more out of the man. And, who could blame him. If he admitted to knowing about Plummer’s activities, the vigilantes would surely come looking for him with a noose. “Call the next witness.”

“Christopher Gaffney,” the clerk called out.

A young boy of twelve or thirteen years of age hurried to the stand. He nervously looked at the judge as he waited to be questioned.

“Folks call you Gaff, don’t they?” the judge smiled to relax the young witness.

“Yes, sir.”

“Would it be okay if I called you Gaff?”

“Yes, sir,” the boy nodded, his lips turning up slightly in a timid smile.

“Good. Gaff can you tell me if the defendant, the lady sitting right there,” the judge explained when the boy looked at him quizzically. “Have you ever talked to her?”

“Sure did,” the boy remembered the friendly women who had visited his father’s shop several months before.

“Can you tell me what she said to you, Gaff?”

“She and that other nice lady,” the boy pointed at Jennifer. “They come in and askt ta have a stone made. She,” he pointed at Jennifer again, “wrote down the name. Might pretty handwrittin’ it was, ” he grinned at the schoolteacher. “And, she,” this time he pointed at Jesse, “askt that pa put an angel on the stone.”

“Who’s headstone was it?” the judge was perplexed by this information.

“Mrs. Cassidy’s,” the boy told him. “But, they weren’ puttin’ that name on it. Said she didn’ need ta be takin’ it with her where she was goin’, they said.”

“Did they say anything else?”

“Said ta let Riley know when it was ready,” he named the town’s gravedigger.

“Thank you, Gaff,” the judge reached out his arm, offering to shake the boy’s hand. “You’ve done yourself proud today.”

The boy’s chest puffed out as his hand was engulfed by the judge’s much larger one. Then he jumped out of the chair and scampered back to his seat, a beaming smile spread across his face.

“Ladies?” Judge Henry looked to Jesse and Jennifer to explain the boy’s testimony.

“We came to town to check on the sister of a friend. Didn’t know until we talked with Plummer that her husband had shot her. Figured the least we could do was give her a nice stone,” Jesse explained.

“What name did you use?”

“Grainger. It was her family name.”

“Okay,” the judge wrote the information down. Then, he took out his watch and opened it. “I think we can all use a break. Court will adjourn until two o’clock. Please see if the marshal and his witness will be able to join us at that time,” he said to the clerk.

“All rise,” the clerk said as the judge stood to leave.

“I have a table waiting in the dining room at the Goodrich,” Thomas stepped up behind Jesse and Jennifer. “If you’d like to join us for lunch, that is,” he added, tentatively. “Everyone is welcome,” he said to include Billie and Marianne.

Jesse looked to Jennifer for the answer.

“Thank you, Thomas. We’ll be there as soon as we get KC changed,” Jennifer told her brother.

“You can do that in my room, if you’d like,” Thomas offered. “Save you from walking all the way back to Miss Temple’s.”

“Thanks,” Jennifer smiled at her brother. “But, we didn’t bring any diapers with us.”

“Come on, darlin’,” Jesse took Jennifer’s hand. “Let’s get you downstairs, then I’ll take KC for some fresh pants while you go with Thomas and your mother. I want you off that leg as much as possible today.”

“Alright, sweetheart,” Jennifer agreed as she accompanied Jesse from the room.

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

In the dining room of the Goodrich Hotel, two tables had been pushed together to accommodate the group of diners. Jesse sat on one side of the combined tables with Jennifer just to her right, KC sat in Jennifer’s lap. Thomas sat at his sister’s side, while Mary, Billie and Marianne occupied the chairs on the opposite side of the long table. The diners had finished their meal and were preparing to leave.

Thomas leaned over to speak quietly to his sister. “Jennifer, since we have some time before we have to get back to court, I was wondering if we might speak for a few moments.”

Jesse overheard Thomas and listened for the schoolteacher’s reply, Jennifer had had little to say to her brother since he re-entered her life. Jesse knew that her wife harbored painful memories and hurt feelings where her brothers were concerned but she also felt there remained a spark of love buried deep within Jennifer for her brothers.

Jennifer didn’t take long to consider her brother’s request, she turned to Jesse, “would you mind, sweetheart?”

“No, darlin’,” Jesse lifted the baby from Jennifer’s lap and stood ready to help as the schoolteacher stood. “Just go somewhere you can sit, please,” she watched as Jennifer leaned heavily on her cane, a silent indication of how much her leg was bothering her.

Jennifer leaned close to Jesse and kissed her. “We’ll sit in the lobby.”

“Okay,” Jesse smiled. “KC and I will wait for you outside on the boardwalk,” she said, knowing there were a couple of chairs placed there for the use of hotel guests.

“I won’t be long,” Jennifer squeezed Jesse’s arm as she kissed KC on top of the head. “You take care of mommy for me,” she told the baby.

“Otay.”

Thomas offered his arm to Jennifer and she accepted it. They walked out of the dining room and down the short hall to the lobby at the front of the building. Jesse followed behind but continued out of the building when Jennifer and Thomas crossed the small lobby to a couple of chairs near a window.

“Momma,” KC cried when she saw her mother walking away.

“It’s okay, sunshine,” Jesse patted the baby’s back, “your momma is just going to talk to your uncle for a bit. Then, she’ll come find us.”

KC stretched herself upward in Jesse’s arms to be able to see over the tall rancher’s shoulder. Her eyes followed Jennifer and she smiled when Jennifer waved and blew her a kiss. “Wuv, momma.”

“Yep, sunshine,” Jesse agreed, as she walked outside. “That we surely do.”

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

“Well, Thomas?” Jennifer asked after they had sat in silence for several minutes.

“I’m not sure how to say what I want,” Thomas nervously informed her.

“Alright,” Jennifer sat back in the chair, willing to wait for her brother to gather his thoughts. She watched as their mother eased into a chair on the opposite side of the lobby and pretended to read a newspaper left on a side table. She wondered if her mother knew what was causing her brother’s uneasiness.

Thomas looked at his sister as he began, “I want to apologize, Jennifer. For myself, Howard and William,” he named their brothers. “I guess we never gave it much thought when you were younger how our behavior must have seemed to you. But,” he words rushed out as he tried to express his feelings, “we didn’t do it to hurt you. Please believe that.”

Unsure exactly what her brother was referring to and, somewhat, fearful of the answer, Jennifer asked, “what did you do, Thomas?”

“The way we treated you, sis,” Thomas spoke the words softly. “You were so much younger and we really didn’t know what to do with you, considering you were a girl,” he grinned, sheepishly.

Jennifer began to understand, “oh. So, if I’d been a boy you wouldn’t have ignored me.” Even though she smiled to lessen the sting of her words, she meant them the truth behind them.

“Yeah,” Thomas nodded then changed his mind, “no. Well, I mean,” he hesitated, “hell, Jennifer, to be honest, I don’t know. By the time, you were old enough to spend time with, father had me working on the docks from morning to dark. I was just too tired at the end of the day to care much about anything except going to bed. Howard and William were working half days and going to school the other half, so they didn’t have much time either. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened.”

“It hurt,” Jennifer whispered, remembering the many times she had tried to engage her brothers in a game or other activity just to be rebuffed with a gruff word or, even worse, utterly ignored. “I was so lonely.”

“I know that now, sis,” Thomas started to reach for Jennifer’s hand but unsure how she would respond he pulled his own hand back into his lap. “We all know that now. We really are sorry.”

“How do you know, Thomas?” Jennifer was mystified as to how her brother could know of feelings she had never expressed to him..

“Mother wrote us.”

Jennifer looked at Mary who instantly became very interested in the paper she held. “I should have known,” she smirked, talking more to herself than her brother.

“She told us how you didn’t have much good to remember about us or your growing years. I can tell you, we didn’t care much to read what she had written but we did. And, afterwards, we talked about it. And, the more we talked about those years, the more we came to see that you had good reason not to like us. But, I can tell you, we missed you after you left. Missed you a lot. And, we’d very much like you to give us a second chance to show you that we do care,” this time when he reached for his sister’s hand, he didn’t stop. “We do love you, sis. Please let us prove that to you.”

Jennifer looked down and studied her brother’s larger hands wrapped tenderly around hers. Physically, Thomas looked like a younger version of their father and Jennifer had to admit this was the reason she had been avoiding her brother. But, his behavior the past few days had shown him to be a much different man than Martin Kinsington. She knew that she loved her brothers, as any sibling born into a family would. But, she could honestly say she didn’t like them. Of course, they had never given her much reason to. Maybe, she should give her brother the second chance he was requesting. But, it would come only under her terms.

“I’m not going back east,” she pulled her hand free of her brother’s grasp, “and, I’m not leaving my family,” she glared at her brother, unsure if he was trying to accomplish what her father had been unable to.

“I would never ask that of you,” Thomas quickly said. Before him sat a determined, confident woman willing to fight for the life she had chosen to live. “Nor, would I ever expect it. But, I do hope you’ll come home for a visit. And,” he smiled, “bring your family.”

Jennifer considered her brother’s words, she had never thought of taking Jesse back east and she wasn’t surprised that the thought of showing her wife where she had grown up didn’t carry much significance for her. That part of her life was buried too far in the past and, in truth, Jennifer Kinsington was no longer who she was. No, she was Jennifer Branson, now, and Montana was her home. There simply was no reason for her to ever leave it.

“I’m sorry, Thomas,” Jennifer looked at her brother. “I appreciate what you’ve told me. Although, I’m not sure it will erase all the pain and loneliness I carry from those years but it does help to know that you care. As for giving you another chance, I wish I could but I will never go back. My life is here. My home is, and always will be, with Jesse.”

Thomas let Jennifer’s words sink in before answering. “Well, maybe, you’ll let us come visit you then. I’ve kinda taken a liking to what I’ve seen of Montana and would like to come back when things aren’t quite so,” he faltered, seeking the right word.

“Out of control. Ridiculous. Bizarre. Outrageous. Disruptive. Crazy,” Jennifer offered helpfully.

“Yeah,” Thomas laughed. “And, when father isn’t around,” he nervously added. “I’m really sorry about all this, Jennifer. I wish I had stopped him from coming.”

“Me, too,” Jennifer looked out the window to see Jesse waiting patiently for her. KC was standing in Jesse’s lap, one hand resting on her mother’s shoulder and the other pointing at something across the street that Jennifer couldn’t see. The baby was talking non stop and Jesse was nodding animatedly to the child’s gibberish. “But,” Jennifer used her cane to push herself up from the chair, “it’s Jesse you should be apologizing to for that. She’s the one paying the price for father’s behavior. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d like to spend some time with her and KC before court starts.”

“Of course,” Thomas stood with his sister. “Jennifer,” he placed a hand on her arm, “I do love you. We all do.”

Jennifer studied her brother for a few moments. “I love you, too, Thomas,” she told him. “But, I don’t know where we go from here. Right now, my only concern is for Jesse and getting through this trial. Then, I will do everything I can to make sure father never has the opportunity to cause us any more trouble. I can’t think past that.”

“I understand,” Thomas nodded. “Perhaps, when all this is over, we can talk some more.”

“Perhaps.”

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

Thaddeus Newby walked up to the guard stationed at the mouth of the Songbird mine, another man walked a few steps behind him.

“Afternoon,” Thaddeus took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. It was a long, hot walk up to the Songbird in the heat of early afternoon.

“Afternoon,” the guard eyed his visitors warily. “What can I do for you gents?”

“We’d like to take a look inside the Songbird,” Thaddeus told the guard.

“Sorry, I’m not ‘spose to let anybody inside ‘cept Mr. Wilson or Mr. Harrington,” the guard told the men. He had recognized Thaddeus Newby, the Sweetwater newspaper editor but the other man was a stranger to him.

“I understand your caution,” Thaddeus replaced his hat, “but we will only be a moment. And, I assure you, we will not do anything but look. You’re welcome to come with us to make sure.”

“I don’t know,” the guard didn’t like going into the dark, confining mine. “Mr. Harrington don’ like folks nosin’ around. Didn’ even like it when Mr. Wilson come up here and he’s ‘spose to check on things.”

“Oh,” the newspaperman’s interest perked at the guard’s comment. “When was Mr. Wilson here?”

“Couple days ago,” the guard began to relax as he talked. He didn’t think the men posed much of a threat if they were just going to ask questions. “Said he wanted to check on things. Well, like I said, that bein’ his job and all, I didn’ think much about it. Then, Mr. Harrington come up the next day and wanted to know what he was checkin’ on. Told him, I didn’ know since I didn’ go inside wit’ him.” He shivered as he spoke, “don’ like goin’ inside. Don’ like bein’ closed in like that.”

“Can’t say I blame you there,” Thaddeus wasn’t too fond of being inside mine shafts himself. “But, Mr. Cannan has come a long way at my request and I’d really hate to have to tell him we wasted out trip,” he hoped the guard would disregard Harrington’s instructions and let them enter the mine.

The guard looked over both men, “what ya planning ta do in there?”

“Just look, like I said,” Thaddeus told him. “For a newspaper article I’m writing on all the changes the development of the Songbird is going to bring to Sweetwater and the valley.”

“It sure will change things, won’t it,” the guard agreed.

“Yes. A new bank, hotel, even better roads. Not to mention the jobs being provided to folks like yourself.” Thaddeus felt he had the guard leaning towards letting them inside and decided to nudge him a little more. “Maybe I could even put a mention in about what a fine job you’re doing up here.”

“Me, in the Gazette?” the guard stood a little taller.

“Yep,” Thaddeus was sure he had the young guard. “I bet you’ve got someone you could see a copy home to.”

“Sure do,” the guard agreed.

“So,” Thaddeus knew now was the time to strike, “do you think we could go inside for a few minutes.”

“Well,” the guard rubbed the stubble on his chin,” don’t see how it can hurt anythin’. Just don’t cause any problems,” he told the men, “I don’t want to have to explain to Mr. Harrington that I let you inside.”

“You have my word,” Thaddeus shook the guard’s hand. “We won’t be but a few minutes, I promise.”

Thaddeus started for the mine’s entrance and gestured for Cannan, who had remained silent during the exchange, to follow him. The men stopped long enough to light a couple of lanterns before entering the mine. Thaddeus quickly led his companion to the end of the shaft and held his lantern over his head to help illuminate the stone wall.

“This is it, Cannan,” Thaddeus said as the other man also raised the lantern he carried.

Leaning forward, Cannan carefully studied the gold vein running across the rock face. “Can you hold this for me,” he handed his lantern to Thaddeus.

“What do you think?” the newspaperman anxiously asked.

“I’ll know in a minute,” Cannan pulled a pocketknife from his pocket and scrapped across the ore vein. Then, he removed a small hammer from where he had tucked it behind the waistband of his pants and rapped it against the stone. A sizeable chip fell from the vein of ore. He bent down to pick it up and, holding in up in the lantern light, turned it over in his hands. “I’d say your suspicions are right, Newby. This ain’t nothing but a vein of quartz with some fool’s gold peppered into it.”

“What’s it worth?”

“Nothing.”

“Damn,” Thaddeus Newby wasn’t surprised to hear the assayer confirm the rumors he had heard in the mining camps that the Songbird had been salted by it’s previous owner. His question now was whether or not Tobias Harrington was aware of the deception. And, that could not be answered in the mine. “Let’s get out of here before that guard decides to come see what we’re up to.”

“You boys doin’ okay,” as if he had read the man’s thoughts, the guard’s voice echoed down the mine shaft.

“Yes,” Thaddeus called back. “We’re coming out.”

“What you planning on doing with this information?” the assayer asked.

“Well, as soon as you give me a written report, I plan to break the news in the Gazette. I don’t know what Harrington is up to but, if it’s all been a scam, it’s best to put a stop to it before he goes any further.”

“You could be making yourself some mighty big enemies, Thaddeus.”

“I’m more concerned about my friends in Sweetwater that are being effected by all of this,” the newspapermen blew out his lantern as they reached the shaft’s mouth and stepped into the bright sunlight.

“Did you find what you needed?” the guard asked as the men emerged.

“Yes,” Thaddeus stretched out his hand to the guard. “Thank you. I’ll make sure you receive a copy of the Gazette. My compliments, of course.”

“Thanks. You take it easy on the way down,” the guard smiled.

“We will,” Thaddeus said as the men headed away from the Songbird.

Walking down the rocky trail wasn’t much easier than walking up it, but the men managed to quickly cover the distance back to where they had left their horses.

“I’ll write you a report as soon as we get back to your office. No sense in me waiting until I get back to Garnet and having to send it to you.” The assayer made his living traveling from one mining camp to the next. He would stay as long as there was a demand for his services and then move on to the next promising strike. Currently, he had a small office in the new camp northwest of Sweetwater. It was there that Thaddeus had approached him about verifying the Songbird’s, supposedly, rich ore-bearing rock.

“I’d appreciate that,” Thaddeus mounted his horse and the men rode back to Sweetwater.

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

Walks on the Wind dismounted in a small grove of trees next to a creek of fast moving water. He let the horses drink before dipping his cupped hands into the water and bringing them up to his lips. The cold liquid felt good on his dry throat. He stood when he heard the call of a meadowlark. Holding one hand to the side of his mouth, he whistled, mimicking the high pitched cry of an eagle. He tilted his head to listen. The meadowlark’s call was repeated. Walk knelt to finish his drink. Moments later a man entered the copse, he moved silently to where Walk waited for him.

Walk greeted the man in his native language. The man responded in kind and the two men exchanged information for several minutes before the man took the reins to the second horse and left in the same direction he had appeared.

Walk mounted his horse and rode back to Sweetwater. His friend would find a place to leave the horse and, with any luck, Kinsington should find it before nightfall. Of course, Walk knew that Kinsington wouldn’t be needing any luck because his friend would make sure the man found the horse just as he had been making sure that he survived his trek across the open plains. Though, Jennifer’s father would never know it, the only threats he had faced since leaving the Indian encampment was of hunger and sore feet. Walk had made sure of that.

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

“Reverend Tobias,” Judge Henry opened the afternoon session of Jesse’s trial, “since it seems that Mr. Thompson is still unable to appear before this court, would you please come forward.”

The reverend smiled smugly as he walked past the table where Jesse and Jennifer sat. The smile left his face when KC took notice of his passing and decided to voice her opinion.

KC’s nose wrinkled as she stuck out her tongue and presented the reverend with a loud raspberry, “pfttttt.”

“That wasn’t nice, sunshine,” Jesse admonished the baby as she tried to maintain a straight face.

“Uck,” KC told her mother as she wiped her hand across her mouth to dry the droplets of saliva left by her actions.

Several snickers were heard in the courtroom until the judge tapped his gavel for quiet.

“Reverend Tobias, please take the stand,” the judge told the man who had stopped to stare, disapprovingly, at the baby.

“That child has no place in this room,” Reverend Tobias announced as he followed the judge’s directions.

“Miss KC is here at my request,” Judge Henry told the man. “So, please refrain from telling me how to run my courtroom.” He could already tell he would not enjoy the reverend’s testimony. “Please tell the court if you had any contact with the defendant during her earlier visit to Bannack,” the judge told the witness, his voice was hard. He was not in the mood for one of the reverend’s well known rantings about Jesse. Unfortunately, Reverend Tobias choice to ignore the unspoken warning.

“That woman,” the reverend sneered as he said the word, “refused to give that child to me. I could have had a nice couple take her. Good folks who would have given the baby a decent home and been good parents. Would have taught her manners,” the reverend referred to KC’s recent outburst, “not let her run wild like them two.”

“Mr. Tobias,” the judge pressed his fingers against the bridge of his nose, “please answer the question. Did you have contact with the defendant? Yes or no?”

“Yes. I told them I would take the child……”

“Mr. Tobias, you are to only answer the questions I ask. Do you understand?”

“But, …..”

“If you wish to testify before this court, you will do as you are told,” Judge Henry glared at the witness. “Do you understand?”

“Yes,” Reverend Tobias answered but he was already trying to figure out how to get around the judge’s orders in order to let everyone in the room know what disgusting people Jesse and Jennifer were and how the baby should be taken away from them.

“Good. Let’s start again,” the judge said. “Did you have contact with the defendant during her earlier trip to Bannack?”

“Yes,” the reverend simmered as KC contently curled up in Jesse’s arms, her eyes watching him.

“What was the nature of your contact?”

“Sheriff Plummer told me they had brought an orphan to town. I went to get the child.”

“Did Mrs. Branson say how she came to have the child?”

“Sheriff told me they’d found the parents dead on the trail,” the reverend answered.

“Did you ask them?”

“Didn’t need to,” the reverend shrugged. “Already knew.”

Judge Henry added to his notes before asking the next question. “Did Mrs. Branson say what she planned to do with the child?”

“Said she and her sister,” the reverend mocked the women who, at the time, had thought it best to hide their true relationship, “were looking for any kin. I told them there wasn’t any and they should give the baby to me. I could find it a decent home, with a mother and father. But, they refused. Said they was keeping it to raise as their own. Said they could give it everything it needed.” The reverend shook his head sadly, “can you imagine? A poor innocent child being raised in such wickedness. How much shame it must endure? How awful….”

“Reverend Tobias,” the judge stopped the witness. “Kindly stop referring to Miss KC as ‘it’, I can’t tell if you’re talking about a baby or a stray dog.”

“Being raised by them ain’t much difference,” the reverend glared at Jesse, the veins in her neck standing out against tightly clamped muscles. “Look at her,” he pointed at the defendant’s table, “she’s not much more than an animal herself.”

Jennifer had heard enough and was out of her chair charging towards the witness stand. Only Billie’s quick action saved the reverend from being attacked by the outraged mother and wife.

“He ain’t worth it, Jennifer,” Billie told the schoolteacher as he struggled to maintain his grasp on the angry woman.

Jesse remained seated not wanting to upset KC any more than she already was after seeing Jennifer storm from her chair and knowing that Jennifer would eventually listen to Billie.

“Come on,” Billie fought Jennifer’s attempts to break his hold, “you ain’t gonna do her much good if you get tossed in jail.”

Jennifer let the sheriff pull her back to the defendant’s table. She was still boiling mad at the scornful reverend but Billie was right, she couldn’t help Jesse from a jail cell.

“Momma,” KC cried when Jennifer reclaimed her chair and crawled into the schoolteacher’s lap. Jennifer wrapped her arms protectively around the baby, a clear signal to the witness that he would never separate her from her child.

KC could feel her mother trembling and snuggled into her hug, looking up at her mother’s angry face. “Wuv, momma.” she said in a tiny voice.

Jennifer’s anger melted away. “I love you, too, sweetie,” she said in a voice full of emotion.

Jennifer was not the only one upset with the reverend’s comments, Mary had a firm grip on Thomas’ arm to keep him in his seat. Marianne’s voice joined others in the courtroom in expressing their displeasure at the witness’ remarks.

Judge Henry rapped his gavel several times demanding quiet. It was several minutes before he was able to resume the proceedings.

“Reverend Tobias,” Judge Henry turned to the witness when order had been re-established in the room, “you will find yourself in jail if you make one more comment like that. Do I make myself clear?” the judge furiously asked.

The reverend refused to answer.

Determined, if necessary, to follow through on his threat, the Judge Henry referred to the notes he had made during the reverend’s testimony. Not seeing anything that required additional questioning of the hostile witness, the judge said, “this witness is excused. Call the next witness.”

“Just a minute,” Reverend Tobias objected. “What’s to be done with the child? You can’t possibly be thinking of leaving it with those….”

“Don’t say another word,” Judge Henry growled. “I will determine the welfare of the child after I have heard all the testimony in this case. Until that time, Miss KC will remain with her mothers. You will not attempt to interfere with them again.”

Somehow, the judge’s words broke through Reverend Tobias single-minded purpose to have KC taken from Jennifer and Jesse. He realized he had strained the judge’s breaking point and, not wanting, to force the issue, he remained silent. There would be plenty of time to settle the matter of the child. Certainly after the woman was found guilty it would be impossible for the child to be left in the custody of the other woman. He stood and marched out of the courtroom.

“Well,” Judge Henry reshuffled his notes. “I think we could all use a few moments to calm ourselves after that.”

Jesse reached over and tenderly rubbed the back of her hand against Jennifer’s cheek, “you okay, darlin’?”

“Yes,” Jennifer smiled, shyly. “Guess I got a little carried away.”

Jesse leaned close so she could whisper and not be overheard, “I thought it was cute, you takin’ after the preacher like that. Remind me never to get on your bad side,” she winked at her wife.

Jennifer pressed her forehead against Jesse’s, “I love you.”

“I love you, darlin’.” Jesse sighed. “Don’t you fret, that man will never get his hands on our KC.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

The courtroom’s doors opened and a man uneasily approached the judge. Words were quietly exchanged between the two men before the judge announced, “Cyrus Skinner has asked to testify about the matters before this court. Take the stand,” the judge made a notation on his growing pages of notes. “Clerk, swear in the witness,” he said offhandedly as he wrote.

Jesse and Jennifer had never seen the rough looking man before and wondered how he could be involved with the charges against Jesse. It wouldn’t take them long to find out.

“Well, Mr. Skinner,” the judge looked at the man squirming in the witness chair, “what do you wish to say?”

“Them two ain’t killed nobody,” he announced.

Judge Henry rapped his gavel several times to quiet the whoops and hollers that had broken out in the courtroom. When quiet resumed, he asked, “and, you know this how?”

“That fool Williams talked to Plummer ‘fore they left town. I heard ‘im tell the boys to go after them. Said they’d be takin’ the road through the Big Hole.”

“Do you know why Sheriff Plummer sent the men after the Williams?” the judge asked.

“Williams told Plummer their families had been killed by injuns and they was carryin’ the only thing left of value to either one of ’em. Funny, considering…”

“Considering what?”

“‘Cept for their horses, the boys didn’t find nothin’ of value when they went through the wagon. Just clothes and some old furniture. Don’t rightly know what Williams was talkin’ ’bout.”

Jesse and Jennifer looked at each other then down at KC, now asleep in Jennifer’s arms. They knew.

“Mr. Skinner, how is that you know this?”

“‘Cause, Plummer talked to the boys in my place,” the man reached up and loosened his shirt’s collar. He could almost feel the noose around his neck and hoped his testimony would save him from the hangman.

“Was it customary for Sheriff Plummer to conduct his business in your saloon?”

“Yeah,” the witness swiped at the beads of sweat gathering on his forehead. “The boys would be there drinkin’ most times. So, if’n Plummer had somethin’ he wanted them to do, he’d come in.”

“Was it usual for Sheriff Plummer to order the death of a child?” the judge asked knowing that by sending his henchmen after the Williams, the sheriff had, in effect, sentenced their baby to also die.

“Nah, don’t think he knew about the kid,” the saloon owner and outlaw conspirator shook his head. “Plummer never would sent the boys after anyone with kids. He was funny ’bout that.” Skinner wiped at his brow again, “fact is, only time I heard him tell the boys to kill a kid was when he sent ’em after them two.”

Pandemonium exploded in the courtroom. This was the first time that folks in Bannack had heard that Jesse and Jennifer, and KC, had been specifically targeted by their former sheriff.

“Told ya ya had the wrong person on trial,” a voice shouted at the judge.

“How the hell can you be trying her for a killing Plummer ordered?” someone else loudly asked.

“Dammit, don’ know why ya is wastin’ our time with all this,” another voice was heard, “ain’t it obvious that no good Plummer is the one who killed them two?”

Banging his gavel on the desk, Judge Henry tried to quiet the room enough so he could question the witness about this new development. Both, Billie and the court clerk worked their way through the gallery trying their best to calm and settle the irate group. Only Jesse and Jennifer had failed to react to Skinner’s declaration, they having already been very much aware of the events that Sheriff Plummer had set in motion many months prior.

Finally, order was restored.

“Mr. Skinner,” Judge Henry asked when the room quieted, “are you telling this court that Sheriff Plummer ordered the death of the defendant?”

“Yeah, both of ’em. He said he didn’t trust ’em. He was afraid they’d go back to Sweetwater and talk to the law.”

“Which is exactly what they did,” Billie, Sweetwater’s sheriff, told the judge. “They came to me with what they had seen in Bannack. And, what had happened after they left. I wrote it up and sent it on, to Virginia City.”

“I see. And,” the judge turned back to the witness, “what happened to the men Sheriff Plummer sent after the defendant? Since it is apparent they failed to follow his instructions.”

“Don’t rightly know,” Skinner replied, truthfully. “Never saw two of ’em again. Plummer went out lookin’ for ’em but came back without ’em. The third, Vince Packer came in a few times after the vigilantes hanged Plummer. But, he always refused to talk about it.”

“Mrs. Branson?” Judge Henry asked Jesse for an explanation.

“They ambushed us near a stand of cottonwoods,” Jesse was unsure if she should say more. Even though it had been self defense, she had killed two of the men and could be held accountably for their deaths. But, she looked at Jennifer and the baby sleeping in her arms and decided it would be better to have everything out in the open. “I killed two of them. The other rode away.”

Jennifer placed a comforting hand on Jesse’s thigh, she knew that Jesse was still haunted by nightmares over the men’s death. Yet, if the rancher hadn’t defended her family that day, they would have been left dying in the hot sun instead of the bandits.

“Were you wounded?”

“Jennifer was thrown from her horse, had the wind knocked out of her. Took her some time to recover,” Jesse answered. “Otherwise, we were okay.”

“Except that we were all pretty scared, I didn’t think KC would ever stop crying,” Jennifer added, furiously. “And, Jesse still has nightmares about trying to save us from those monsters. Sorry, sweetheart,” she gently told her wife, “but they should know that it did hurt us.”

“Darlin’, it’s okay,” Jesse smiled sadly at her wife. She wasn’t the only one to suffer from nightmares. She scooted her chair closer to Jennifer’s and wrapped a long arm around her wife, pulling their bodies together tightly. The judge could do what he wanted with the information. Right now, all she cared about was in her arms.

“I don’t know about anyone else,” Judge Henry looked at Jesse and Jennifer who were oblivious to what was going on around them, “but I need some time to consider what I have just heard. Court is recessed until ten o’clock tomorrow morning,” he rapped his gavel on his desk and, promptly, left the room.

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

Martin Kinsington saw movement about five hundred feet in front of him. Stopping, he stared intently. Were his eyes deceiving him or was that really a horse standing in the shadows? Cautiously, he hurried his steps forward.

The man following Kinsington watched as he discovered the horse left for him. It was almost dark but he knew the man would not let that stop him now that he would soon have a quicker way to travel. Even if Kinsington rode all night, it would still take him until after mid-day to reach Bannack. The man hoped that Walks on the Wind knew what he was doing when he tied the horse to the tree. With his job now complete, he turned to return to the camp near the buffalo herd.

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

Jesse was sitting on the porch of Marianne’s cabin, KC playing at her feet.

“What are you doing, sweetheart?” Jennifer asked as she came out of the cabin, carrying two cups of hot coffee.

“Thanks,” Jesse accepted one of the cups and took a sip. “Seems we’ll be needin’ a new house when we get back home. So, I was tryin’ to come up with one,” she handed Jennifer the piece of paper she had been sketching on.

Jennifer studied the paper. Jesse had drawn a two story ranch house with lots of windows and a wide, wrap-a-round porch. Tears came to her eyes as she thought of the cabin they had shared since falling in love.

“I’m so sorry,” Jennifer sniffled.

“Hey,” Jesse put down her cup of coffee and pulled Jennifer into her lap. “You didn’t burn the house down and I won’t be having you apologize for what happened. Besides,” Jesse tenderly wiped away her wife’s tears, “it was getting a bit cramped. What with KC growing so fast, we would have needed to add on a room soon anywhere. This way,” she took the paper back from Jennifer and held it up for both of them to look at, “we get to start fresh. It’ll be ours, darlin’. A home we can raise KC in and live until we’re old and gray and she has to take care of us.”

“Ours,” Jennifer liked the sound of that. “We’ll build it together?”

“Wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“Mommy,” KC had pulled herself upright and was leaning against Jesse’s leg. “Me go?”

“You, sunshine,” Jesse managed to lift the baby even with Jennifer in her lap, “will go right here,” she pointed to a window in the corner of the upstairs level of the house. “That will be your room.”

KC looked at the paper and tilted her head as she studied the picture her mother had drawn, “otay.”

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

PART 9

Martin Kinsington had not believed his luck when he found the pony. He was even more surprised, upon scanning the area, to find no sign of anyone around. Never having been one to, unnecessarily. question a fortunate windfall, Kinsington pulled himself up into the saddle and immediately kicked the horse into a gallop. He had ridden hard through the night and just before dawn, Kinsington spotted tiny lights twinkling in the distance…. Bannack.

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

“I don’t understand why they didn’t just let Jesse go after what that man said yesterday. Now, there’s evidence she didn’t kill those people,” Thomas said as he, Mary, and Billie entered the Goodrich Hotel’s dining room for breakfast.

“More charges against her than just the Williams’ deaths,” Billie explained as they moved to an empty table. “You’re right, it’s pretty much proven that Jesse didn’t kill them folks. Or steal their horses and burn their wagon. But, I think Judge Henry is lookin’ for more than that.”

“What else is there?” Mary asked as she sat in the chair Thomas was holding for her.

“Who’s behind the charges against Jesse,” Billie sat in another chair at the table, “and why. Not to mention, what to do about KC.”

“Oh, my god,” Mary gasped. “You don’t think he’ll take her away from Jennifer and Jesse,” Mary knew the extreme heartbreak that action would cause.

“Mother, the judge has seemed very friendly where KC is concerned,” Thomas said, reaching over to squeeze his mother’s hand, “I can’t believe he’d take her from the only parents she remembers. Do you, Billie?”

“Depends,” Billie sipped coffee from the cup filled moments earlier. “Don’t know how much influence the reverend has in this town.”

“That deplorable man,” Mary shuddered.

“Ya may not like his methods but he does what few others will,” Billie reviewed the limited menu that he already knew by heart. “I’ll have the steak and eggs,” he smiled at the waitress patiently waiting to take their orders. Billie waited for Mary and Thomas to order before he continued, “mining camps are full of young ‘uns that have no family. Reverend is doing his best ta find them places to grow up.”

“Maybe,” Thomas stirred sugar into his coffee cup, “but at what price? From what Jennifer says, they end up as cheap labor on some farm or ranch. What kind of way is that for a child to grow up?”

“Not saying I agree with it but it does give them a chance. If they have ta fend for themselves, they could end up doing a lot worse,” Billie thought sadly of the childhood his fiancé had suffered through. “At least, the reverend puts a roof over their heads and food in their belly.”

“And, not much else,” Mary sighed.

“The frontier can be rough on young ‘uns, growing up in a mining camp is even worse. Many don’ live long enough to see their fifth birthday, sickness and hunger see to that. Then, there’s accidents like running in front of a horse or wagon or falling down an old mine shaft. Even if they survive, there ain’t always a doctor around to see to their injuries. Then, ya take into account somethin’ happenin’ to their parents and, well, it just ain’t easy for ’em. And there ain’t many willing to foot the bill for group homes or orphanages. So, much as I hate to say it, the reverend, at least, is tryin’ ta help. ”

Mary thought about the sheriff’s words, “I guess we’ve forgotten what it’s like to raise children in a wilderness since we don’t face those challenges back east any more.”

“Looks like KC was very lucky to have Jennifer and Jesse find her when they did, for a lot of reasons,” Thomas observed as the waitress returned with their breakfasts.

“‘Course, I’m not saying that the reverend shouldn’t get the burr out from under his saddle when it comes to Jesse and Jennifer.” Billie took a forkful of eggs from the plate the waitress placed in front of him, “love is love, even if he don’ want to say so.”

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

“Guess we should get going,” though she spoke the words, Jennifer made no effort to leave the chair she occupied.

Jesse and Jennifer had awakened early, thankful for the solace provided from sleeping in each other’s arms during a long, restless night full of strange and troubling dreams. KC, seeming to sense her mothers’ trepidation, had also slept fitfully and awakened in a very cranky mood.

When Jesse and Jennifer emerged from behind the curtain that separated the sleeping area from the rest of Marianne’s cabin, they found their hostess already busy preparing breakfast. It had taken Jesse, playfully teasing the baby, almost the entire morning meal to get KC to smile. Once she had, the baby seemed to forget her reasons for being upset.

“Yeah,” Jesse tilted a glass of milk for KC and let her finish the little bit remaining. “Don’t want to be late to court,” she said, distractedly. After the testimony from the saloon owner, Cyrus Skinner, the day before she wondered what else could possibly be needed to prove her innocence. But, she had to admit, she was also a little concerned over what the judge planned to do about her admission to killing the bandits that had been sent to kill her and Jennifer.

“It’s almost over, sweetheart,” Jennifer placed a comforting hand on the rancher’s arm.

“I hope so,” Jesse smiled at her wife, wiping a few drops of milk from the baby’s chin, “because all I want is to take you and KC and go home.”

“I’d like that,” Jennifer sighed as she leaned over and laid her head on Jesse’s shoulder. “I love you.”

Jesse softly rubbed the back of her knuckles on Jennifer’s cheek, “I love you, too, darlin’.”

“Me, wuv?” KC looked up at her mothers, hopefully.

Jennifer pulled the baby up to her chest, “yes, sweetie. We love you, too.”

Marianne quietly watched the exchange. She had never seen so much adoration shared by a couple, even after all they had been through to protect their family. She could only hope that one day she would find someone to love her as much as Jesse and Jennifer loved each other.

“We should get dressed, darlin’,” Jesse kissed her schoolteacher’s forehead.

Jennifer tilted her head, urging Jesse to kiss her lips. The rancher didn’t hesitate to accommodate her wife.

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

By the appointed time of the morning for the trial to reconvene, the courtroom was packed with citizens of Bannack and the surrounding smaller camps. Word of the previous day’s testimony by the saloon owner had spread through Bannack like wildfire. Some had come because, though convinced of their ex-sheriff’s involvement with the outlaw gang, they were more than a little curious if any more would be revealed about Plummer’s illegal activities. Some had come just to see the women Plummer had been so troubled over that he would order their deaths for that reason alone. Others had come simply because they wanted to show support to the two women who had had the courage to stand up and do what none of them had been willing to do, report their suspicions about the lawman. No matter their reasons, there wasn’t an empty chair in the courtroom and people were standing two to three deep around the back of the room, with more standing in the hallway outside.

“Mr. Thompson, don’t bother,” Judge Henry instructed the prisoner as he was escorted into the courtroom and Marshal Morgan looked for an empty chair in the gallery to seat him, “Since, you’ve finally decided to make an appearance, I don’t want to waste this opportunity. You can take the stand and be sworn in.”

Jesse and Jennifer sat at the defendant’s table, somewhat apprehensive over the large number of people in the room. KC stood in the rancher’s lap, leaning on her hands braced against Jesse’s chest. The wide-eyed baby peeked curiously over Jesse’s shoulder, she had never seen so many people in one place before.

Jennifer glanced back and, seeing the many friendly smiles and nods of support directed at her from the large gathering, relaxed a little bit. Turning back around in her chair, Jennifer patted Jesse on the thigh, “it’s going to be okay, sweetheart. I can feel it.”

Jesse looked at her wife and nodded, nervously, “I hope so, darlin’.” Jesse couldn’t help feeling that some in the room must be friends of the men she had been forced to kill and worried that they might be there to settle the score.

“I see we have a few more folks interested in these proceedings, today,” Judge Henry looked around the crowded room. “Let me make it clear to everyone that I will not tolerate any outbursts of any kind,” the judge told the spectators, his grim expression emphasizing his words. “Marshal Morgan, Sheriff Monroe, you will remove anyone that speaks out or causes any disturbance.”

Both lawman nodded as they took up their posts at opposite sides of the room.

“Very well,” the judge picked some papers off his desk and, after scanning them, placed all but one back. “Mr. Thompson, you are the owner of a dress shop in Bannack?” the questioning of the witness began.

“Yes,” Marcus Thompson looked like a man who wished to be any where but where he found himself. He had spent the past two days trying to figure out a way to extricate himself from the predicament his greed had brought him. His introspective had revealed no solution and he was now scared that the law would punish him in ways far outweighing the reward received from Martin Kinsington. But, one thing he knew for sure, if there was a price to be paid, he would not pay it alone.

“Did you have occasion to meet the defendant during her trip to Bannack some months ago?”

“No, sir,” Thompson said fretfully.

“You did not meet the defendant?” Judge Henry was puzzled, this was supposed to be the key witness to Jesse’s guilt.

“Not face to face,” Thompson swallowed nervously.

“Care to explain?” the judge glared at the witness.

“She came into my store with Jennifer Kinsington.”

“You knew Mrs. Branson?” the judge asked, ignoring the man’s use of Jennifer’s maiden name.

“Yes. No. Well, not exactly,” Thompson wiped sweaty hands on his pants. Thompson took a deep breath and tried to settle his nerves. It didn’t work.

“Mr. Thompson, will you please give me some straight answers. What exactly happened in your dress shop to make you accuse the defendant of murder?”

“I never accused her of murder,” Thompson shook his head rapidly from side to side. “I didn’t. I just told her father where he could find her, that’s all, I swear.”

“You told Jesse Branson’s father…..?” Jesse and Jennifer listened to the perplexed judge’s question already knowing the answer.

“No, the other one.”

“Mr. Thompson, will you please tell me what happened?”

“They came into the shop and talked to my wife about having some dresses made. I was in the back room and thought I recognized her,” Thompson said referring to Jennifer. “I got to thinking about it and realized she looked like the daughter of an acquaintance of mine back east. And, I remembered that just before we left to come west, I’d heard she had run away and her father was paying a reward for any information as to her whereabouts. So, we needing the money and all, I sent him a telegram and said she was living in Sweetwater.”

“Is that all?”

“Yes.”

“Mr. Thompson, do you expect me to believe that Jesse Branson has been brought before this court and charged with these contemptible crimes just because you reported a runaway?”

“Well,” Thompson swallowed, the motion so exaggerated it was seen by those standing at the back of the room, “I ain’t sure but I may have led Kinsington to believe……”

“Oh, tell him the truth, for god’s sake,” a woman’s voice called out from the gallery. “You told him much more than that.”

Marshal Morgan was nearest to the woman and quickly covered the few steps to where she stood.

“Hush, woman,” Thompson shouted at his wife.

“Mrs. Thompson, come forward,” the judge demanded of the lady now being held by the marshal.

Jesse and Jennifer watched as the petite dressmaker was brought forward to face the judge and her husband. Jennifer had always suspected that the Thompsons had alerted her father to her new life. A suspicion that was confirmed when her mother had remembered her father receiving a telegram.

“How did father find me, mother?” the question had continued to trouble Jennifer.

“I’m not sure,” Mary returned to her chair with a fresh cup of tea. “He received a telegram one day and announced he would be leaving immediately. He wouldn’t tell me who had sent the telegram but I did see it for a brief moment. I think the name at the bottom was Thomas,” she considered the sound and decided it wasn’t quite right. “Or, something like that.”

Jennifer thought, why did the name sound familiar? “I knew it, The dress shop in Bannack… Thompson’s Dress Shop. I knew that man gave me the creeps, now I know why.”

“Of course,” Mary nodded. “Marcus Thompson. He did some work for your father before he and his wife left for the west.”

“Mrs. Thompson, what do you know of this matter?” the judge asked the dressmaker.

“Shut up, woman,” Thompson hissed when his wife began to answer.

“Marshal, silence the witness or have him gagged.”

“Some time after my husband sent the first telegram to Mr. Kinsington, he received a letter back. Mr. Kinsington offered to pay him a substantial amount of money if he knew of anything that could put Jesse Branson in prison or,” she paused to glance at Jesse and Jennifer. By the slump of her shoulders and the shame in her eyes, they knew she didn’t want to say what she was about to, “…..or, to get her hanged.”

Judge Henry rapped his gavel on the bench as murmurs rumbled through the spectators. His look of warning was enough to quiet the whispers.

“What did your husband do?” the judge asked, the courtroom becoming deathly silent as everyone held their breath waiting for the answer.

“Don’t, say anything, woman,” Marcus Thompson scornfully shouted from the witness stand. The marshal stood next to him, threatening to gag him with a kerchief he held.

“He wrote Mr. Kinsington and told him that she had bragged about killing the Williams so she could steal their baby and raise her as her own.”

“NOOOOOOOOOO,” Jennifer screamed, slamming her hands against the table and pushing herself up from the chair. It was happening all over again, her father trying to tear her family apart.

“It’s okay, darlin’,” Jesse stood, she tried to wrap her free arm around Jennifer but was pushed angrily away.

“Why?,” Jennifer glared at Thompson, her eyes boring holes through the man. “Why would you try to destroy us like that?” her voice softening as a deep, bone wrenching sorrow replaced her anger.

Thompson hung his head, unable to bear the look of anguish on the schoolteacher’s face.

“Don’t you understand,” Jennifer whispered, tears streaming down her face. “Don’t you understand how much he’s hurt us? Why would you help him to it again?”

Once more, Jesse reached for Jennifer, this time her attempt wasn’t rebuffed as she pulled her distraught wife to her. Jesse kissed Jennifer’s temple, hugging her tightly. KC whimpered, huddling between her wounded mothers.

“Why, Jesse?,” Jennifer sobbed. “Why can’t he just leave us alone?”

No one in the room was immune to the agony of Jennifer’s cries. Many feeling as if their own hearts were being ripped from their chests as they listened to her sobs.

“I think we can all use a few minutes to compose ourselves,” Judge Henry said. “Everyone is to remain in their seats, court is recessed for fifteen minutes,” the judge rapped his gavel before motioning for Jesse to take Jennifer into his chambers.

“Darlin’,” Jesse softly asked Jennifer, “come with me.”

Jennifer nodded and allowed Jesse to guide her away from the table and into the sanctuary.

Mary and Thomas sat in their chairs, stunned by the revelation they had just heard about their husband and father.

“I had no idea,” Thomas whispered, shaking his head. “I had no idea.”

“Your father…,” Mary started then stopped. What was she going to say? What could she say? She had no understanding of who her husband had become or why he was trying so hard to ruin Jennifer’s life? Could his only reason truly be that she had refused to accept the life he had planned for her and had discovered the fortitude deep within herself to seek out her own destiny. Could he really hold so much hatred for his own child over that one, alleged, act of defiance? Or, was it simply because that by doing so, Jennifer had found a life that made her so happy. A life that did not require her father’s presence or guidance.

“Thomas,” Mary said to her son, “I’m not sure why your father has done this. But, I do know that it is time to put an end to it. When this trial is over, I want you to go find your father. Then, we’ll make sure he never does anything to Jennifer again.”

“Alright, mother,” Thomas didn’t know what his mother had in mind but the look on her face left no doubt that whatever it was, his father would never again trouble his sister.

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

“Here, sit,” Jesse gently pushed Jennifer down onto a leather settee before sitting beside her.

“I’m sorry,” Jennifer said in a voice so mournful Jesse had trouble holding back her own tears.

“It’s okay, darlin’,” Jesse pulled a bandanna from her pocket and used it to dry her wife’s cheeks. “You had good cause.”

“Momma,” KC reached for Jennifer and was helped into her lap by Jesse.

“I love you, sweetie,” Jennifer hugged the baby as if her life depended on it.

“Don’t squash her, darlin’,” Jesse smiled, “she’s the only one we’ve got.”

Jennifer laughed, weakly. She knew Jesse was trying to lighten the mood but she was still disturbed at learning her father was, again, behind their current troubles.

“Darlin,” Jesse leaned back and pulled Jennifer with her, “this will soon be all over and we’ll be back in Sweetwater. You’ll be teaching school and I’ll be workin’ the ranch….”

“What about father?” Jennifer sniffled.

“I have a feeling that the judge will have something to say about that,” Jesse wiped away the few tears still dripping from her wife’s eyes.

“I hate him, Jesse,” Jennifer quietly declared.

“I know, darlin,” Jesse tightened her hold on Jennifer, pulling their bodies together.

The women sat, locked in each other’s embrace, for several minutes until a soft knock at the door interrupted their respite.

“We’ll be out in a minute,” Jesse called to the unseen knocker, knowing it was probably the judge’s clerk.

“Come on, darlin’,” Jesse stood and offered her hand to Jennifer. “Let’s get this over with so we can go home.”

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

Ed Grainger pulled his horse to a stop beside a small stream. Bette Mae and Ruthie followed his example and let their horses drink. They had ridden hard, stopping only to allow their horses to rest, and were now just a few hours ride from Bannack.

“Do you think we’re too late?” Ruthie asked as the horses enjoyed the cool, mountain water.

“Too late fer what?” Bette Mae asked.

“To help Miss Jesse?”

“There’s no way a judge is goin’ find my Jesse done anythin’ wrong,” Bette Mae avowed. “And, if’n one does, I’ll make damn sure he’s aware of his mistake,” she emphasized her statement by throwing a rock into the swiftly moving water.

“There’s someone else in a mighty big hurry to get to Bannack,” Ed pointed to a rider cresting a far hill. The rider disappeared over the crown almost before Bette Mae and Ruthie turned to see him. “We best get movin’,” the storekeeper told the women.

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

“Mr. Thompson,” Judge Henry addressed the witness once Jesse and Jennifer had retaken their seats at the defendant’s table. “Do you admit to conspiring with Martin Kinsington to file false charges against the defendant?”

“No,” Thompson said emphatically. “I didn’t know what he planned to do with the information. I figured he was just going to use it to scare her, make her give up on Jennifer. That’s all, I swear. I never thought he would do this.”

“So,” the judge looked at the witness, “you do admit that you provided Mr. Kinsington with the false information against the defendant.”

“But, I never…..”

“Did you, or didn’t you, provide him the information?” the judge bellowed.

“Yes,” the witness finally agreed.

“Mr. Thompson, I’m charging you with conspiracy and making false accusations. Due to your admission before this court, you are found guilty of said charges and are sentenced to serve ten years in prison for your despicable actions.”

Thompson gasped when he heard the judge’s declaration.

“Furthermore, Mr. Thompson, you will be escorted to Deer Lodge as soon as this trial is over to serve your sentence.”

Marcus Thompson sat dejectedly in the witness chair, resigned to his fate.

“Jesse Branson, please stand,” Judge Henry addressed the defendant.

Jesse stood and no one in the room was surprised when Jennifer stood defiantly alongside of her to hear the judge pronounce his verdict.

“I would suggest, most strongly,” Judge Henry looked to the people sitting in the gallery, “that you withhold any reactions until this court’s business is concluded.”

Jesse smiled when she felt Jennifer grasp her hand and entwine their fingers.

“Jesse Branson, as to the charges brought against you, I hereby find the following:

For the charge of murder of Kenneth Williams, I find you innocent.
For the charge of murder of Katherine Williams, I find you innocent.
For the charges of taking possession of a horse without the knowledge or permission of said owner, I find you innocent.
For the charge of taking possession of a cow, dairy, without the knowledge or permission of said owner, I find you innocent.
For the charge of setting a fire with the intention to destroy, I find you innocent.
For the charges of removing personal property without the knowledge or permission of said owner, I find you innocent.
For the charge of disturbing the peace, I find you innocent.
For the charges of reckless disregard of the use of a firearm, I find you innocent.
For the charges of theft, I find you innocent.
For the charges of filing a false report with an officer of the law, I find you innocent.
For the charges of knowingly and willingly providing false information to an officer of the law, I find you innocent.
For the charges of failure to cooperate with an officer of the law in the investigation of a crime, I find you innocent.”

No one said a word as the judge spent the next several minutes writing out his findings. Everyone, especially Jesse and Jennifer, were aware that he had not addressed two charges made against Jesse.

“Mrs. Branson,” Judge Henry looked up from his papers, “I wish to express my sincerest apologies for the grave injustices these charges have brought upon you. I do not know why the governor chose to believe the men responsible for this but I can assure you that I will personally present my findings to him. And, I will have some rather strong words to go along with them.”

“Thank you,” Jesse said apprehensively, her insides were tightening into a knot that she knew would never come undone if the judge took KC away from them. She felt Jennifer’s body press against her and could feel her trembling. KC, held in Jesse’s strong but shaky arms, looked worriedly up at her mothers.

Judge Henry smiled as if to reassure the women, “in the matter of the two men killed by you, I find that you acted in self-defense and you shall not face any charges for your actions. Just in case someone gets it in their head to try and use that against you,” he winked at Jesse.

“Now, as for the remaining charges,” Judge Henry turned serious. “I purposely asked that Miss KC be brought to court for a reason. I wished to observe how she interacted with the defendant. I also wished to monitor how the defendant and Mrs. Branson interacted with the child. I am very pleased to say that I have never seen a child cared for by any more loving or devoted parents. Nor, have I ever seen a child that so obviously reveres her parents. Therefore, as to the charges of kidnapping and of endangering this child, I find the defendant, Jesse Branson, innocent.”

Jesse’s knees started to shake and she was sure she would have fallen if Jennifer hadn’t had an arm around her. Several sighs of relief were heard from the crowd behind them.

“Now, as for this child’s future,” the judge continued, “I find it impossible to imagine anyone providing a better home….”

“You can’t be thinking of leaving that child with them,” Reverend Tobias howled from the rear of the room. “I most strongly object to that possibility.”

“Reverend Tobias,” Judge Henry sadly shook his head as he addressed the contemptuous preacher, “I have listened to your assertions against these women and find that the only reason you object to their caring for this child is the fact that they are, indeed, two women. Therefore, since you have provided this court with no reasonable, or acceptable, argument to what I am about to do,” the judge took a deep breath before continuing. “I am granting the Bransons full adoptive rights for the child. And, to make sure that they have no further problems in this matter,” he said directly the sneering preacher, “I have put my decision in writing. Would you hand this to the Bransons,” he passed a sheet of parchment to his clerk.

Jesse and Jennifer could barely read the paper through the tears flowing from their eyes..

It is hereby ordered that the infant daughter of Kenneth and Catherine Williams (deceased), having no known blood relatives to provide for a home, is to be placed in the care of Jesse and Jennifer Branson. The child shall be known from this day forward as KC Branson. It is further hereby ordered that this relationship is legally binding and shall not be questioned or challenged by any other party.
By order of Judge Henry, Bannack, Montana Territory.

“Reverend Tobias,” the judge softened his voice as he again spoke to the displeased preacher, “it is hard enough to find good homes for children that are in need. That is a situation I’m sure you will have no trouble agreeing to. Might I suggest that you look into your heart and be glad for little KC. She will grow up having what many children can only hope for. This is something to be cherished, not attacked. Perhaps, when you go back to your church and think about it, you’ll see this with different eyes.”

The preacher turned and left the courtroom, still wearing his expression of outrage.

“How can we thank you?” Jennifer asked, tears streaming down her face.

“Just make sure you prove me right,” Judge Henry smiled as he lifted his gavel, glad to finally have the travesty over. Or, so he thought.

The door to the courtroom burst open and Martin Kinsington marched in. Thomas immediately stood to block his father’s entrance but was greeted by a fist to the face.

“That’s for leaving me out there, you sorry excuse for a son,” Kinsington said as he stepped over his son’s prone body.

“Martin,” Mary screamed as she watched Thomas fall.

“Good, you’re here,” Martin sneered at his wife. “Alright, Jennifer,” he stepped towards his daughter, “it’s time you did as you are told.”

Jesse tried to hand KC to Jennifer as she moved to place her body between her wife’s and Kinsington but Jennifer moved quicker and pushed Jesse out of the way.

“You sorry excuse for a father,” Jennifer roared as she pulling her arm back, coiling into it all the strength that months of frustration, pain, anger, disappointment and anguish can create and unleashed a wicked, roundhouse, uppercut punch. Her fist catching her surprised father on the chin with blow powerful enough to stop Martin Kinsington in his tracks. He stared absently at Jennifer for a few seconds before falling over backwards.

Cheers erupted in the courtroom as Thomas scrambled to get out of the way of his father’s falling body.

“Damn,” Billie stared, dumbfounded. He, and many others in the room, had expected it would be Jesse who would flatten the large man when he made an appearance.

“You okay,” Jesse casually draped her arm around Jennifer as they looked down at Kinsington stretched out on the courtroom floor, too stunned to fully comprehend exactly what had hit him.

“I think I broke my hand,” Jennifer leaned into Jesse.

“Should have let me do it,” Jesse gently lifted the hand to examine it. A large black and purple bruise was already spreading across the fleshy part and the knuckles were scrapped and starting to swell, but she didn’t think it was broken. Though it was going to hurt for some time. She tenderly cradled the hand against her body.

“Felt good,” Jennifer stated, matter-of-factly.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

Martin Kinsington tried to sit up. He raised a hand to the side of his face and winced when he touched his bruised jaw.

“Arrest that man,” Judge Henry ordered.

Marshal Morgan moved towards Kinsington with sheriff Billie Monroe right behind him. Even stunned, it would take both lawmen to restrain the larger man.

“What the hell?” Kinsington tried to remove himself from the clutches of the lawmen.

“You’re under arrest,” Billie happily informed Kinsington.

“You can’t arrest me,” Kinsington continued to struggle as the lawmen half pushed, half dragged him to the front of the courtroom.

“Martin Kinsington,” the judge spoke to the struggling man. “I am reinstating your prior order of arrest, having found that you have violated it’s conditions by returning to Montana Territory.”

Billie had thoughtfully provided his copy of the order to the judge before the start of the trial on the chance that things would turn out the way they did. He had also informed the judge of Kinsington setting fire to Jesse and Jennifer’s ranch house, and of the other crimes he had committed in the territory.

“I am also charging you with conspiracy, arson, and assault. And, I’m sure they’ll be more before we’re done. Needless to say, Mr. Kinsington, you will be spending the next several years behind the walls of the territorial prison. I hope you enjoy your stay. Remove him, marshal.”

“Now just a minute,” Kinsington shouted as he was forced to turn away from the judge. “That bitch is the one going to prison. Harrington assured me…..”

“Tobias Harrington?” Jennifer pulled away from Jesse and advanced on her father.

“Yes,” Kinsington fought to loosened the lawmen’s grip. “He promised she would be sent to prison if I promised to sign over the Silver Slipper and the ranch. It was all arranged, the bitch would be out of your life and you would be forced to return east with me. Not to mention, I’d make a nice profit out of the deal,” he added.

“You did all this just to get me back east even after I told you I would NEVER, EVER go back there?”

“You belong there,” Kinsington defiantly told his daughter.

“And, you thought you could just sell the Slipper and the ranch and keep the money?” Jennifer’s anger was rising all over again. “Why, you,” she pulled back her fist ready to strike a second blow against her father, determined to wipe the triumphant expression off his face.

As soon as Jennifer had left her side, Jesse passed an disgruntled KC to Mary. Now, free of the baby, she stepped between Jennifer and her father, “don’t, darlin’.”

“Get out of my way, Jesse.”

“He’s not worth it.”

“Get out of my way!”

“Please, darlin’,” Jesse tried another tact, “if you hit him again, you will break your hand.”

“I don’t care,” Jennifer’s eyes narrowed as she took aim on the man standing behind Jesse.

Desperate to stop Jennifer from doing something she would later regret, Jesse looked directly into Jennifer’s eyes and started to smirk, “I have plans for that hand when this is all over,” her eyebrows danced, suggestively.

Jennifer gasped as the meaning of Jesse’s words sunk in, a blush steadily creeping up her neck and coloring her cheeks. “Jesse Marie Branson,” she lowered her fist and, opening her hand, swatted at the rancher. When her injured fingers came in contact with Jesse’s muscular arm, Jennifer was instantly sorry and pulled her hand back, hissing in pain.

Jesse pulled Jennifer to her, cradling the injured hand.

“I can’t believe you said that,” Jennifer groaned as she buried her face into Jesse’s shoulder.

“Sorry, darlin’,” Jesse kissed the top of her wife’s head, “but, I needed to get your attention.”

Jennifer looked up to see Jesse’s eyes sparkling back at her, “I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

“Momma,” KC cried. “Mommy.”

Jesse and Jennifer looked to see their daughter struggling to free herself from her grandmother’s arms.

“Okay, sunshine,” Jesse walked over and caught the baby as she launched herself towards her mothers, “I think we should get your momma to the doctor’s. What do ya say?”

KC, happy to be reunited with her mommy, reached up and squeezed Jesse’s nose, “onk, onk.”

Laughter exploded in the courtroom, releasing the tension that had built up over the past several minutes.

“This trial is over,” Judge Henry joined in the laughter, rapping his gavel against his desk for the last time.

Mary held Thomas back as a crowd of well-wishers converged on Jesse and Jennifer. “See if the judge has a moment to speak to me about your father,” Mary directed her son.

Thomas looked at his mother and then at his father who was being led out of the courtroom with Marcus Thompson. “Alright,” he nodded as he turned back to his mother. “I’ll be right back.”

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

“Mr. Wilson,” Thaddeus Newby approached the construction foreman at the site of Sweetwater’s new bank, “I was wondering if you could spare a few moments of time.”

“What for?” Frank Wilson wiped the sweat off his face. He looked up into the cloudless sky and wondered if they would get any thunder storms later in the day, he would sure welcome some rain.

“I have a few questions I’d like to ask you about the Songbird mine,” the newspaperman said.

“Shouldn’t you be asking Harrington those?” Wilson walked to a bucket of water sitting in the shade of one of the building’s partially completed walls.

“I think I have a better chance of getting some honest answers from you,” Thaddeus followed the man into the shade.

“Not my job to answer questions,” Wilson sunk a dipper into the liquid, then lifted it to his mouth.

“Mr. Wilson,” Thaddeus leaned against the wall, “I’m about to run an article in the Gazette exposing the Songbird as a fraud. And, I have good reason to believe that you are aware of the mine being salted,” he referred to the practice of someone making a worthless claim seem valuable by placing about small amounts of gold bearing ore. Of course, if someone also had the cooperation of a dishonest assayer, the job of convincing a prospective buyer of a mine’s potential payout was much easier. “What I would like to know is what are you going to do about it before Sweetwater pays the price for the deception?”

Wilson dropped the dipper into the bucket, it rattled against the wooden side before disappearing beneath the water. He looked at Thaddeus, considering his response to the man’s question.

“I think you best be addressing your questions to Harrington.” Wilson said added, “perhaps, it would serve your readers more to hear what he knows and what he is doing about it.”

“Do you think he knows?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Newby,” Wilson retrieved the dipper and hooked it back onto the bucket’s side, “but I don’t think I should answer that question.”

The foreman’s responses confirmed for Thaddeus that he did know about the mine’s lack of gold ore. But, Wilson was right. The real question was whether, or not, Tobias Harrington knew.

“Very well, Mr. Wilson,” Thaddeus smiled, “I shall address my questions to Mr. Harrington.”

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

“You can’t do this to me,” Martin Kinsington struggled to prevent shackles from being tightened around his ankles. “Do you have any idea who I am?”

The sheriff and marshal had brought their prisoners back to the jailhouse and shoved them inside. As soon as they were through the jail door, Billie slammed it shut and jammed the locking bolt in place to prevent Kinsington from escaping. He and the marshal had then set to the task of placing manacles on the belligerent prisoner.

“Yeah, I know who ya are,” Billie grunted as he fought to hold onto the man while the marshal completed the task of securing the leg irons. “You’re a arrogant, pig-headed, fool of a man who’s got more money than brains,” the lawman panted. “But, now you’re the property of the territory of Montana and ya money ain’t goin’ do ya much good where ya goin’.”

While the lawmen grappled with Kinsington, Marcus Thompson passively entered one of the two cells and stood patiently waiting. He saw no reason to fight the inevitable.

“Damn, man,” Marshal Morgan snapped when he was smacked in the head by one of Kinsington’s flailing knees. “Would you stop kicking me,” he barked.

“Hold still, Kinsington,” Billie tried to control the thrashing man, “ya ain’t goin’ change anything.”

“There,” Marshal Morgan finally got the cuffs around Kinsington’s legs. “Let’s get him in the cell and chain him down,” he told Billie as he stood, rubbing the side of his head.

Kinsington was dragged into the same cell Jesse had been locked into only days before. But, unlike Jesse’s confinement, a heavy chain was run through the iron ring in the middle of the cell’s floor and it’s ends were padlocked to each of the leg irons clasped around the prisoner’s ankles. With his movement severely restricted, the lawmen had a somewhat easier time of placing similar restraints on Kinsington wrists.

“You can’t do this to me,” Kinsington screamed, pulling against the chains. “Harrington promised this couldn’t happen.”

“That was another mistake ya made,” Billie muttered as he followed the marshal out of the cell. “Harrington ain’t much better than a snake in the grass.”

“Let me ouuuuuuttttttt of hhhhheeeeeeerrrrrrreeeeeee,” was heard as the heavy, reinforced, wooden cell door was slammed shut.

“I hope you don’t plan to follow his example,” Marshal Morgan glared at his other prisoner.

“No,” Thompson said meekly.

“Good,” Morgan slammed the door on Thompson’s cell. He quickly slipped a chain through two rings bolted to the log walls that enclosed the cells and padlocked the end links together preventing the cell doors from being opened.

“Well, that takes care of that,” Billie said as he heard the lock click shut.

“Guess it does,” Morgan walked to the opposite end of the room and placed the ring of keys on a hook pounded into the wall. “Too bad these walls aren’t thicker,” he groaned as the men listened to Kinsington’s unending screams of protest. “Not much reason for both of us to stay here,” he dropped into a chair, worn out after his recent exertion. “Why don’t you go back and spend some time with your friends.”

Billie studied the other man. Although, he didn’t approve of his methods, Billie knew the marshal had only been doing his job when he arrested Jesse. And, that wasn’t something he planned to hold against the fellow lawman. “Alright,” Billie reached out his hand to the marshal, “I’ll come back and spell you later tonight.”

Marshal Morgan accepted Billie’s gesture and shook the sheriff’s hand. “No need, I can stay here tonight,” the marshal smiled. “Be obliged if you’d have something sent over for supper.”

“Consider it done,” Billie nodded, then unbolted the jail’s door and left. With the way, Kinsington was yelling, he figured he’d have some cotton sent over with the marshal’s meal so he could stuff his ears. “Otherwise, he won’t be gettin’ any sleep tonight,” Billie chuckled as he walked away.

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

After enduring a jubilant celebration for almost an hour, Jesse and Jennifer begged out of any further congratulatory wishes explaining that KC needed a nap and they wanted some time alone to absorb all that had happened in the courtroom that morning. They made their way through the crowd and, when confronted by the steep stairway to the ground floor, were flabbergasted to be lifted onto the shoulders of some of their well-wishers. The men carried them down the stairs, out the large double door of the brick building and down the outside steps before lowering them to the boardwalk. Jennifer laughed as Jesse indignantly protested the entire time they were being manhandled but was grateful when the jostling came to an end and her own boots landed on solid ground.

KC thought the entire trip a wonderful adventure and jumped up and down in Jesse’s arms trying to get her mother to do it all over again. Jesse refused to indulge the child, grumbling under her breath when Jennifer teasingly joined in with the baby’s pleas. Jesse thanked the men for their assistance and, gently pushing Jennifer before her, walked away from the courthouse where the celebration continued.

“Boy,” Jennifer grinned, “I can’t believe all those people reacting that way.” She eased closer to Jesse as they walked, laughing at the wild hooting, hollering, back slapping and revelry that had taken place after Judge Henry declared the trial over.

“Guess it doesn’t take much for folks to have a good time around here,” Jesse shrugged, wrapping an arm around her wife’s waist. But she, too, had been surprised at the overwhelming outpouring of support from the town’s citizens, most of whom were total strangers to the two women.

“Aw, come on, sweetheart,” Jennifer chided, “it has to be more than that.”

“Well,” Jesse drawled, “I suppose they were happy to have their doubts about Plummer finally laid to rest.”

“But, the vigilantes hanged Plummer,” Jennifer brow wrinkled in thought. “Wasn’t that good enough for them?”

“It’s one thing to have people accuse someone of wrong doing and secretly talk about it. It’s somethin’ else to have someone involved come right out and say it happened.”

“You mean like Skinner did?”

“Yeah. My guess is that hearing him tell what he knew about Plummer just gave folks the opportunity to let go of all the bottled up fear and doubt they’ve been carrying around for some time.”

“So, it really didn’t have that much to do with us. We just happened to be caught in the middle?”

“Yep.”

“Hmm,” Jennifer frowned.

“What’s wrong?”

“It kinda takes the fun out of it when you put it that way.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t go disclaiming all of it, darlin’,” Jesse smiled. “I’m pretty sure some of that was because they’d got a real kick out of seeing you wallop your pop.”

“Really?” Jennifer looked down at the swollen hand carefully cradled against her chest.

“Oh, yeah,” Jesse smiled, proudly. “Oh, yeah.”

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

“Thank you for seeing me, Judge Henry,” Mary smiled as she was met at the door to the judge’s chambers.

“Your request intrigued me, Mrs. Kinsington,” the judge motioned for her to sit on the settee Jesse and Jennifer had occupied hours earlier. “I must say, I was surprised that, under the circumstances, you would wish to speak to me about your husband,” he said as he pulled a chair across the floor and sat down.

“Yes, I’m sure it does seem a bit strange,” Mary settled back, the events of the last several days were catching up to her and she felt exhausted. “It is my understanding that you intend to send my husband to prison here in Montana,” she hesitated, ordering her thoughts before continuing.

Judge Henry nodded, allowing the woman to take the time she needed.

“I would like you to consider an alternative destination for him.”

“I see. And, why would I do that?”

“Judge Henry, it is no secret the trouble my husband has caused my daughter and her family.”

The judge nodded.

“I can’t bear to bring myself to think about the consequences of some of his actions,” she blinked back tears as she thought of Jennifer screaming in agony, her leg ripped open by the mountain lion’s claws. “I fear that should my husband remain in Montana, even though he would be confined to prison,” Mary looked at the judge, her eyes revealing the desperation she felt, “he will find a way to continue his persecution of Jennifer and Jesse.”

“You spoke of an alternative,” Judge Henry, sadly, believed the woman’s concerns about her husband to be well founded.

“Yes,” Mary took a deep breath and reconsidered what she was about to suggest. She didn’t take long to decide that it was, most certainly, the best option for everyone. Especially for Jennifer and Jesse. “I would like to have Martin transported to a facility back east.”

“A prison?”

“I believe my husband needs what a prison cannot provide,” Mary sighed. Taking a deep breath, she continued, “I am well acquainted with the director of one of the finest mental hospitals on the east coast. I can assure you that if Martin is placed under his care, never again will Jennifer, or Jesse, have to fear his actions. I can also assure you that he will never set foot outside the hospital walls. Ever,” she stressed, leaning forward and locking eyes with the judge.

Judge Henry recognized the look in Mary’s eyes for what it was, a declaration that she intended to have her husband committed for life. He stood and stepped to the window behind his desk. Looking outside, his eyes tracked the activity along the street below his window. He smiled when he noticed two familiar figures walking arm-in-arm, a child happily riding on the shoulders of one. He thought about the women who were still so young and, yet, had endured so much. And, somehow, had become all the stronger for it. He felt that the Branson family deserved a real chance at life, a chance not constantly interrupted by a man who’s aberrant behavior seemed to have no bounds.

“It will be expensive to transport him that far,” Judge Henry commented as he watched Jesse and Jennifer, “an expense the territory will not afford, I’m afraid.”

“I will pay all costs.”

“Guards will need to be hired.”

“Yes.”

“He must be shackled and handcuffed at all times.”

“I would expect no less.”

“I will need to receive confirmation from your acquaintance that he will abide with all terms I specify for your husband’s confinement.”

“I will telegraph him today.”

“Very well, Mrs. Kinsington,” Judge Henry turned away from the window. “As soon as I receive the confirmation, I will draft the order. Your husband will remain in jail here until then.”

“Thank you,” Mary stood and reached out her hand to the judge.

“I am glad that your daughter has one parent to share her life with,” Judge Henry clasped Mary’s hand and lightly squeezed it. “You should be very proud of her,” he smiled.

“I’m proud of all three of them,” Mary smiled back. “I don’t know many who could go through what they have and still be standing tall.”

“They are very remarkable.”

“Yes,” Mary released the man’s hand, “they are.”

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

After a stop at the doctor’s office to treat Jennifer’s bruised hand, she and Jesse walked back to Marianne’s cabin for some well deserved time alone. As they approached, they spotted Walks on the Wind waiting for them, leaning against the fence that surrounded the cabin.

“Figured you’d be coming back here,” Walk greeted his friends. “I’m glad it all worked out,” he said to Jesse.

“Thanks,” Jesse grasped the Indian’s outstretched arm. “Appreciate you helpin’ out.”

“Doesn’t appear you needed my help,” Walk chuckled as Jennifer threw her arms around him and hugged him tight, not caring that it caused her hand to ache.

“Having you here, helped,” Jennifer told Walk when she released him from her hug.

“Then, I’m glad I came.”

“Will you be stickin’ around?” Jesse asked. Jennifer listened eagerly for his answer, hoping he would be.

“No, I must get back to camp,” Walk told the women. “They need me at the hunt.”

“Oh,” Jennifer was disappointed that their friend would be leaving so soon. They had barely had any time to spend with him.

“Maybe you can stop by on your way back to Sweetwater,” Walk suggested as he mounted his horse.

“Can we, Jesse?” Jennifer still wanted to see the large buffalo herds.

“Don’t see why not, darlin’,” Jesse agreed. “We’ll see you in a few days, then,” she told Walk.

“I’ll look forward to it,” Walk waved as he rode away. “Take care of that hand, Jennifer. And, Jesse,” he called over his shoulder, “this time, leave the posse at home.”

“Smart ass,” Jesse muttered, as the Indian’s laughter drifted back to them.

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

“Billie,” Ruthie called out when she located Billie in the crowd in front of the courthouse. “Billie.”

Hearing his name being shouted, the sheriff turned to look down the street in the direction of the sound. A smile quickly spread across his face as he saw Ed Grainger, Bette Mae, and Ruthie riding towards him.

“Ruth,” Billie waved as he ran towards the riders. He pulled his fiancé off her horse and swung her around in a circle, hugging her. “What are you doing here?”

Ruthie gasped for breath, Billie’s hug was so tight. “Let me go, honey,” she laughed. “I can’t breathe.”

“Sorry,” Billie loosened his hold but kept the woman in his arms. “So, what are you doing here?”

“We came to help Miss Jesse,” Ruthie explained.

“What’s all the celebratin’ fer?” Bette Mae asked as she dropped from her horse.

“Trial’s over,” Billie told them. “Jesse was found innocent of all charges.”

“Of course, she was,” Bette Mae said, exasperated. “That don’ ‘xplain the celebratin’.”

“It’s so good to see you,” Billie grinned, unable to take his eyes off Ruthie.

“It’s good to see you, too,” Ed teased the love struck sheriff as he joined the others. “Damn, that’s a loud bunch,” he raised his voice to be heard over the revelers.

“It sure is,” Bette Mae agreed. “Where are Jesse and Jennifer?”

Billie looked back over his shoulder at the crowd that seemed to have grown in the last few minutes and was getting pretty wild after many of the celebrants had visited the numerous nearby saloons.

“Why don’t we find someplace quiet,” Billie suggested. He helped Ed gather up the horses and tie them to a convenient hitching rail. Then, grabbing Ruthie’s hand, led the group across the street and down a narrow passage between two buildings. A short walk brought them to the banks of the Grasshopper Creek and they settled down in the shade of a large cottonwood tree to talk.

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

Jennifer snugly tucked KC into bed, bending to place a kiss on the child’s forehead. For a few moments, she stood beside the bed and simply watched the baby sleep. The sound of soft crying drew her attention to the other side of the cabin. The curtain that normally hung down the center of the one room building was pulled back and she could see Jesse huddled on the floor at the base of the far wall, her face buried in her hands. The ragged movement of the rancher’s shoulders, gave away her quiet sobbing.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Jennifer quickly crossed the room and slid down beside Jesse, gathering the weeping woman into her arms.

Jesse fell into Jennifer’s embrace, her sobs deepening as she released her emotions, letting them drain out of her with her tears.

Jennifer held her grieving wife, tenderly stroking her hair and gently rocking their joined bodies. She wasn’t sure what had precipitated Jesse’s letdown but she was extremely grateful it had finally happened. It hadn’t escaped her notice the toll being taken by Jesse’s need to maintain a brave front through all that was happening. It was quite amazing to Jennifer that her wife had managed to go as long as she had before breaking down.

After several minutes, Jesse wiped at her eyes with her shirt sleeve. The soaked cloth did little to dry the moisture from her face.

“Here, sweetheart,” Jennifer pulled a napkin off the nearby table and handed it to Jesse.

“Thanks,” Jesse said, her voice shaky and raspy.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Jennifer asked softly, prepared to drop the subject if Jesse balked.

“Not much to talk about,” Jesse raised her head to look at Jennifer with eyes that were red and puffy. “I was reading that paper again, the one the judge gave us. And,” she had to stop as her voice caught in her throat, a deep sob trembling through her. “I can’t believe she’s really ours,” Jesse cried, fresh tears overflowing from her eyes and racing down her cheeks. “She’s really ours.”

Jennifer felt her own eyes fill with tears as the impact of Jesse’s words sunk in. KC was truly their daughter, the judge had seen to that. And, no one, not even the Reverend Tobias, could ever question that again.

“Yes, sweetheart,” Jennifer whispered as tears streamed down her face, “KC is our daughter.”

“Ours,” Jesse smiled as she repeated the word.

“Yep,” Jennifer returned the smile, “ours.”

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

“I can’t believe we missed that,” Bette Mae wiped tears of laughter from her eyes.

“I can’t say that it surprises me,” Ed laughed. “She’s got a lot more fire than most give her credit for.”

Billie had spent the better part of the past hour filling in the latecomers on the events of the trial. He had just finished telling them about Jennifer knocking out her father.

“Well,” Billie Monroe slapped his knee, “I sure didn’t see it coming. When I saw Kinsington throw that door open and strut into the courtroom, I expected Jesse would be the one to thump him. I can tell you, I wasn’t the only one shocked when Jennifer beat her to the punch.”

“In more ways than one, it seems,” Bette Mae started laughing all over again.

“Then, what happened, Billie,” Ruthie asked, she was sitting next to the sheriff being careful to keep a respectable distance between them.

“Well, the judge ordered Kinsington arrested and he refused to believe it was happening. Damn fool, said that he couldn’t be arrested because Harrington had promised Jesse would be the one to go to prison.”

“What ta hell does that snake have to do wit’ all this?” Bette Mae asked.

“That’s exactly what Jennifer asked her father,” Billie told them. “Seems the two of them made a deal that Harrington would have Jesse sent to prison. And, in return, Kinsington would sell him the ranch and Slipper.”

“Why that….,” Ed’s hands clinched into fists. “I ought to go over to that jail and…..”

“Won’t do ya any good, Ed,” Bette Mae tried to calm the big man, “his head is too damn thick. Even ya big fists wouldn’ have much effect on him. All you’d manage to do is break yo’r hands.”

“I’d still like a chance to smack him,” Ed grumbled but he smiled, knowing Bette Mae was probably right.

“I wouldn’t worry too much about Kinsington,” Billie chuckled. “I think Judge Henry plans to make sure he spends the next several years locked away at Deer Lodge.”

“I would hope so,” Ruthie exclaimed. “All the things that man has done,” she shook her head, “I can’t imagine how anyone could be so mean.”

“Some men just don’ know how ta take ‘no’ for an answer,” Bette Mae patted the younger woman on the leg. “Ya remember tha’ and make sure ya don’ let Billie get away with anythin’ after ya get hitched,” she snickered as the lawman glowered at her.

“Bette Mae is right, Billie. Ruthie should know these things before you put the ring on her finger,” Ed joined in the playful teasing.

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

“How are you feeling?” Jennifer asked after she and Jesse had sat in silence for many minutes. She squirmed trying to get her leg in a more comfortable position.

Jesse immediately picked up on her wife’s discomfort. “Damn, darlin’,” Jesse jumped to her feet and helped Jennifer off the floor. “You shouldn’t be sitting down there,” she pulled a chair over and eased Jennifer into it. “Is that better?”

“Yes, sweetheart, thank you.” Jennifer sighed, “but what would really be good is one of your massages.”

“Well,” Jesse grinned, “I’m pretty sure that can be arranged. Of course,” she pondered, “we are supposed to meet your mother and brother, and Marianne for dinner in a bit.”

“Not for another couple of hours,” Jennifer supplied, hopefully.

“Hmm,” Jesse tilted her head and pretended to contemplate something, “Well, KC is asleep in the bed,” she responded.

“The floor isn’t that uncomfortable,” Jennifer tried to keep a straight face but failed, “especially if I was to be laying on top of a nice soft blanket.”

As Jesse smirked at her wife, she suddenly was overcome by the deep love she had for the woman smiling back at her. Dropping to her knees in front of Jennifer, Jesse slowly reached up and captured Jennifer’s face between her hands. Thumbs traced seductively over smooth cheeks and around soft lips as she looked into the depths of Jennifer’s eyes, “I love you so much.”

Jennifer leaned forward, placing a hand behind Jesse’s neck and gently pulled the rancher towards her. She sighed as their lips met. The kiss began tenderly but quickly escalated into much more, only their need to breath eventually forced the women apart.

“You stay right there,” Jesse pushed herself up from the floor. “I’ll be right back with that soft blanket.”

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

“That was really somethin’,” Bette Mae stretched her arms behind her and leaned back, “the judge puttin’ it in writin’ about my littl’ angel.”

“I’ll say,” Billie scratched his head. “You sure could have knocked Jesse over with a feather when he told them what he had done.”

“Bet, it didn’t make that preacher too happy,” Ed tossed a pebble into the creek.

“Nope,” Billie answered, “he left the room like a nest of bees had swarmed into his britches. Don’t think they’ve seen the last of him, yet.”

“Well, let’s hope he takes some notice to what the judge told him,” Ed tossed another pebble and watched it disappeared into the murky water. “I doubt if Jesse will take much more off of him.”

“I think he’s got a lot more to worry about with Jennifer than Jesse,” Billie laughed. “She sure took out after him during his testimony.”

“Well, I hate ta be the one ta break this up,” Bette Mae sat up and dusted off her hands, “but, we need ta be gettin’ some rooms for the night. And, I want ta be seein’ Jesse and Jennifer, and KC.”

“Well, we should be able to get you rooms at the Goodrich. And, they’ve got a stable for your horses,” Billie stood and held out his hands to help Ruthie up. “As for Jesse and Jennifer, they wanted some time to put KC down for a nap. But, we made plans to meet up for dinner later. You can come along,” he pulled Ruthie into a hug after tugging her to her feet. “Bet they’ll be mighty glad to see ya.”

“Bet they’ll be mighty surprised, ya mean,” Bette Mae laughed. “Come on, Ed. I could use a little nap myself.”

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

Jesse carried KC as she and Jennifer walked into the Chinese restaurant where they were supposed to meet Mary, Thomas and Marianne. They were surprised to see Ed, Bette Mae, Billie and Ruthie waiting with the others.

“Oh, my gosh,” Jennifer smiled, “when did you guys get here?”

“They rode in ’bout an hour after you left the celebration,” Billie said as the pair approached the group.

“Figured you’d be at the jail tonight, Billie,” Jesse said. “Ruthie, you came too?”

“I was worried about Billie,” the young woman shyly explained.

“We’re glad you came,” Jennifer hugged Ruthie. “And, I know Billie is glad to see you,” she teased the sheriff.

“Marshal Morgan is stayin’ there tonight,” Billie explained. “And you’re right, Jennifer,” he smiled at his fiancé, “I was mighty glad to see Ruth ride into town.”

“Give me a hug ‘fore I burst,” Bette Mae cried. “You had me so worried,” she sniffled as Jesse and Jennifer embraced her.

“Mommy, uck,” KC protested being squished by the hugging women.

“Come here, my littl’ angel,” Bette Mae snatched the baby away from Jesse. KC was soon giggling under the barrage of kisses the older woman was placing all over her face.

“Guess we need to add a few folks to our reservation,” Jesse smirked.

“It’s all taken care of that, Jesse,” Ed happily gathered Jesse and Jennifer into one of his bear hugs as soon as Bette Mae released them. “We took over the entire restaurant for the night.”

“Ed,” Jesse stared at her friend in amazement, “are you kidding?”

“Nope,” Billie replied for the storekeeper. “It’s all ours. We figured you could use some time without half the town watching your every move.”

“Well, I’m not going to deny that,” Jennifer laughed. The last few days in the courtroom had been especially trying for the normally private family.

“Jennifer,” Mary timidly approached her daughter, unsure what kind of reception she would receive.

“Mother,” Jennifer just as timidly greeted her mother, unsure how her mother felt about her actions that morning in the courtroom. She hadn’t been raised to strike her parents.

“I’m sorry, Jennifer,” Mary began. “If I could have down something to stop him…..”

“Oh, mother,” Jennifer closed the distance between them and hugged her mother. “I don’t blame you.”

“I love you, Jennifer.”

“I love you, too.”

“Okay, now that ya got that out of yo’r gizzards,” Bette Mae sighed as Jennifer and her mother shared a tearful reunion. “What say we stop the cryin’ and get ta eatin’ this here fancy food Billie’s been braggin’ ’bout all afternoon. I ain’t had a decent thing ta eat since we left Sweetwater.”

Jesse moved close to Jennifer and stood ready to fulfill any need she might have during what appeared to be the start of an emotional night. “I agree. Let’s eat, I’m starved.”

“Yum,” KC loudly let her feelings be known. “Yum, yum, yum.”

“What’s the matter, littl’ angel,” Bette Mae clucked to the child, “ain’t yo’r mommas been feedin’ ya?”

KC grinned at the woman who held her, she reached out and grabbed Bette Mae’s nose, “oooonnnnkkkk.”

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

PART 10

“Good morning, darlin’,” Jesse whispered as Jennifer stretched in her arms.

“Morning, sweetheart,” Jennifer squinted her eyes to block the bright sunlight filtering through the cabin’s shaded window. “Seems we slept in this morning.”

“Guess we must have needed it,” Jesse rolled slightly onto her side so she could slip her arm under Jennifer without waking KC, still sound asleep on top of her.

“Guess we did,” Jennifer snuggled closer to Jesse’s warm body, groaning when she couldn’t get the skin to skin contact she craved. At home, they always slept in the nude but here, in Marianne’s bed, they wore nightshirts and she missed not being able to press against her wife’s warm skin.

“What’s wrong?” Jesse asked concerned when she noticed the schoolteacher’s frustration. “Does your hand hurt?”

“No,” Jennifer grinned, sheepishly, “I just miss not being able to feel you.”

“Me, too,” Jesse smirked back. “I can’t wait until we’re back home in our own bed.”

Both women flinched at the words.

“Sorry,” Jesse frowned. “I keep forgetting it’s all gone,” she sighed.

Jennifer slipped her uninjured hand out from under the blankets and placed it tenderly alongside Jesse’s face, “I’m so sorry he….”

“No,” Jesse placed her own hand on top of her wife’s, “I don’t ever again want to hear you apologize for what your father has done. Not ever.” She brought Jennifer’s hand to her lips and lovingly kissed each finger, “you’re not responsible for him, darlin’. Or, for anything he’s done.”

“I know you’re right,” Jennifer’s brow knitted in thought. “It’s just…”

“No, darlin’,” Jesse placed a finger against Jennifer’s sweet lips, “what’s done is done. We can’t change the past but,” she smiled, “we have the chance to go forward, now that he’s going where he can never hurt us again.”

“What if he escapes?” Jennifer asked quietly.

“From what I’ve heard of the Deer Lodge prison, no one has ever escaped it’s walls. I doubt if your father will be the first.”

“He could pay somebody off.”

“You heard Thomas last night,” Jesse reminded Jennifer, “he’s already taken steps to prevent your father’s access to the family and company’s assets. So, he won’t have anything to bribe anyone with.”

Jennifer was quiet for a moment. The night before, when they had gathered in the Chinese restaurant for dinner, her brother had promised that he would make sure their father never again was able to bother her and Jesse. But, she couldn’t help feeling that he would never stop trying. “I don’t like him being so close, Jesse. I just don’t trust him.”

“I know, darlin’,” Jesse sighed as she curled her arm around Jennifer, pulling her tight. “I don’t much care for him bein’ so close, either. But, I guess there’s not much we can do about it, except put our faith in the law to keep him inside the prison and away from us.”

“I’m not sure I have that much faith,” Jennifer grumbled, laying her head on Jesse’s shoulder.

“Well, one’s thing for sure,” Jesse said, “once Judge Henry gets done with the territorial governor, I doubt if your father will ever talk his way out of prison.”

“Let’s hope so,” Jennifer agreed.

KC woke to the sound of her mothers’ quiet voices. She lifted her head and looked, first at Jesse, then at Jennifer, to make sure her mothers were both in bed with her. Once assured, she smiled brightly and pushed herself upright to sit on Jesse’s stomach. A frown replaced her smile as she reached back, patting her soiled diaper.

“Uck,” KC proclaimed.

“Well,” Jennifer laughed, “and good morning to you, too.”

“Pftttt.”

“Well, on that note,” Jesse laughed, “I guess we better get up and dressed. I’m sure Bette Mae and your mother will be wantin’ to spend time with us today.”

Jennifer sighed deeply but didn’t answer.

“Darlin’?” Jesse hooked a finger under Jennifer’s chin, gently lifting her face so she could look into her wife’s beautiful eyes, “what’s going on in your pretty head?”

“The truth?”

“Of course.”

“Well, I know that Bette Mae and Ed only arrived yesterday and it probably isn’t the best of manners considering they came so far,” Jennifer hesitated.

“But…”

“Well, I’d really like to just pack up KC and head back to Sweetwater.”

Jesse was relieved to hear Jennifer express the same desire she had about leaving Bannack as quickly as possible. “What about your mother and Thomas?”

“Thomas is going back east from here. As for mother, maybe she could go back with the others,” Jennifer said quietly.

“Are you sure that’s what you want?”

“What I want, sweetheart,” Jennifer propped herself up on an elbow, her eyes never leaving Jesse’s, “is to have some time alone with you and KC. I want to be some place quiet where we can be a family again.”

“I know what you mean,” Jesse groaned, “I feel like I’ve been in the center of a whirlwind ever since we got here.”

“That’s because you have,” Jennifer reached out and caressed Jesse’s face. “Can we just go, Jesse?” Just us?” she pleaded.

“Of course, we can, darlin’,” Jesse leaned forward and placed a tender kiss on her wife’s wrinkled forehead. “After breakfast, I’ll talk to Bette Mae and explain what’s going on. She’ll be disappointed but she’ll understand. And, I’m sure Ed and Billie will be glad to have Mary travel back to Sweetwater with them. We’ll need to find a store to buy supplies, other than Chrismans,” she said of the store owned by one of the men to testify against her at her trial. “We’ll leave as soon as we say our goodbyes.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Jennifer smiled at Jesse, her voice slightly huskier than normal from the emotion she was feeling at the moment. “Take us home, sweetheart.”

“I love you,” Jesse pulled Jennifer back down to her and captured her lips for a long, lingering kiss.

After several moments of watching her mothers’ lip lock, KC started to bounce on Jesse, “uck, uck, uck.”

The baby giggled as Jesse’s long arm swept her off her perch and she quickly found herself buried under an avalanche of tickles and kisses.

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

“Morning, marshal,” Billie knocked on the jail door and waited patiently while Marshal Morgan unlocked the door from inside the small log building. “I’ve got your breakfast,” Billie told the other lawman when the door was pulled open, “and some for the prisoners.”

“Morning, sheriff,” Morgan pushed the door shut and relocked it as Billie set the heavy tray he carried down on the table in the corner of the room.

“Bit quieter in here this morning,” Billie commented. When he had left the jail the evening before, Martin Kinsington had been screaming at the lawmen to remove his shackles and set him free.

“Fool finally ran out of steam a few hours ago,” Morgan grumbled as he sat at the table lifting the cloth covering the items on the tray. “Thanks for bringing this over,” he poured himself a much needed cup of coffee.

“Want me to spell ya for a while?” Billie asked as he filled a second cup with coffee and sipped the hot liquid. “You could go over to the Goodrich and get some sleep,” he offered the obviously tired lawman.

“Thanks, I could sure use some. But I’m leaving for Deer Lodge with Thompson as soon as I eat,” Morgan lifted a forkful of eggs to his mouth.

“What about Kinsington?” Billie asked, confused as to why the marshal would only be escorting one prisoner to the territorial prison.

“Judge Henry said to leave him here,” Morgan explained around a mouthful of bacon. “Seems other arrangements been made for him.”

“What arrangements?”

“Guess you’ll have to ask the judge,” Morgan shrugged. “He didn’t give me any details. I will need you to stay here and guard Kinsington until I get back. Shouldn’t be more than three or four days. Sorry, to delay your return to Sweetwater but I’ve got no choice, I can’t leave him here without a guard and the judge wants Thompson taken to Deer Lodge today.”

Billie carried a plate of food to the cell occupied by Marcus Thompson and slid open the cover blocking the small slot beside the door. “Grab this if you want to eat,” he told the man sitting despondently inside. “Guess I don’t mind staying,” he slid the cover shut and returned for a second plate. “Just wish I knew what the judge had in mind,” he said as he approached the second cell.

Morgan stood and lifted the ring of keys from the hook in the jail’s wall, “maybe he’s sending him to another prison. One back east,” he offered as he crossed the room to unlock the door to Kinsington’s cell. Unlike the other cell, the one occupied by Jennifer’s father did not have a feeding slot. The plate of food would have to be placed inside the cell within the chained prisoner’s reach.

“Maybe,” Billie said as he stepped inside the dark, windowless cell to find Kinsington asleep on the log floor. “Wake up,” the sheriff nudged the sleeping man with the toe of his boot after setting the plate down next to him, “time for breakfast.” He backed away as soon as Kinsington began to stir.

The cell door was shut and secured by the lawmen before the prisoner could voice any protestations.

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

After finishing breakfast, the women reclaimed their horses from the livery, Dusty and Blaze were left tied to the hitching rail in front of the Goodrich Hotel where Jesse and Jennifer were to have supper with the others before leaving Bannack. KC rode atop Boy, her small hands clutched in the horse’s mane, while Jesse walked beside the big horse, keeping a close eye on the baby to make sure she didn’t loose her balance. Jennifer walked alongside Jesse as they made their way to Yankee Flats, a small community located across Grasshopper Creek at the west end of town. Marianne had told them they would find a store there after they expressed a desire not to have to buy their supplies from Chrismans.

“Mining camps aren’t very pretty, are they, Jesse?” Jennifer commented as she looked at their surroundings.

The hillsides were spotted with exploratory pits dug by miners hoping to find their pot of gold, piles of discarded dirt marking the mouth of each hole. Hastily thrown together shacks were packed together on any available piece of open ground, smelly outhouses interspersed among them. Very little vegetation could be seen along the town’s streets or on the hillsides, as every usable piece of wood had been used as fuel or building material. And, few gardens were planted, there being little time for such trivial pursuits. Even the creek, running under the wooden bridge they crossed had little to offer, it’s waters uninvitingly murky. The water’s surface a rainbow of strange colors caused by the mining activity along its banks. Jennifer was sure that this was one creek her talented wife would be unable to find any fish to catch, if she had wanted to try.

“Something else to be said about Sweetwater,” Jesse muttered as she, too, surveyed the scene.

“Is this what Sweetwater will become when Harrington’s mine begins operating?” Jennifer looked at Jesse, shocked at the thought of their small, picturesque valley being so mistreated. “Jesse we can’t let that happen,” she almost cried, the thought was so disheartening.

“If what Billie says is true,” Jesse didn’t want that future for Sweetwater any more than Jennifer, “hopefully, it won’t.”

“What did he say?”

“Told me last night that Thaddeus thinks the Songbird was salted.”

Jesse laughed at the perplexed look Jennifer was giving her.

“It means that the miner Harrington bought the claim from made it look as if it had gold, but it really doesn’t.”

“How could he do that?” Jennifer asked, hoping that it was true and Harrington wouldn’t be able to destroy their hometown.

“Many ways to do it, depending on the type of mine and what kind of ore it’s supposed to have. Helps, too, if you can bribe an assayer to write up a report supporting your assertions.”

“Do you think Harrington did that?”

“Billie didn’t know much more than that. Seems Thaddeus was going to do some pokin’ around and see if he could find out any more. Don’t think it matters much if Harrington was in on it or not,” Jesse smirked at the thought, “he’ll surely end up having to answer for it, one way or the other.”

“I bet his investors won’t be too happy, if it’s true,” Jennifer sniggered, the image of the arrogant man trying to explain how he had made such a bad investment held her attention. Then, another man entered her vision, “oh, my. What about Mayor Perkins?”

Jesse considered the question before answering, “I doubt if he knew. Somehow, I don’t think Harrington has told him very much about his dealings. Perkins is just a convenience for him. When the time comes, Harrington will throw him to the dogs to save his own neck.”

“Hmm,” Jennifer walked silently for several steps. “Doesn’t seem quite fair.”

“Don’t worry about Perkins, darlin’,” Jesse smiled. “Everyone in Sweetwater knows he’s a fool. Folks won’t be too hard on him.”

“Are you sure?” Jennifer didn’t really like the pompous mayor but she didn’t dislike him either. He was more like that odd uncle every family has, and simply tries to ignore at family functions, knowing that he will do something to embarrass himself and his relatives before the night is over.

“Yep,” Jesse assured her, “they’ll give him a hard time about for a while but it’ll be forgotten before long. That must be the store Marianne told us about,” she nodded towards a large canvas tent several feet in front of them.

“What was your first clue?” Jennifer teased.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Jesse drawled, “maybe that there big sign that says mercantile.”

The women laughed as they lead Boy to the tent and tied him to a hitching rail Jesse reached up to lift KC off Boy’s back, “Come on, sunshine,” she sat the baby in the crook of her arm, “let’s go get our supplies so we can go home.”

“Me, go?” KC bent her head upwards to question Jesse.

“Yep,” Jesse winked at the baby “where we go, you go.”.

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

“I’ve decided to return east with Thomas.” Mary and Jennifer were sitting in the lobby of the Goodrich Hotel.

When Jesse and Jennifer had returned with Boy, Mary had asked to speak to them. Sensing that Mary really wanted to talk to Jennifer alone, Jesse encouraged her wife to accompany her mother inside.

“Go on, darlin’,” Jesse told her reluctant wife.

“Are you sure?” It wasn’t that Jennifer didn’t want to go with her mother, she just didn’t want to leave Jesse.

“Yep,” Jesse smiled. “I have a couple of things to finish packing. Then, I want to say goodbye to Billie.”

“Alright,” Jennifer unenthusiastically agreed, “don’t be too long.”

“I won’t.” Jesse playfully swatted Jennifer on the backside, “now, git.”

“I see,” Jennifer wasn’t surprised by her mother’s comment but it did sadden her. She had enjoyed the time she had spent with her mother the past several months and was disappointed that it had come to an end.

“I’ve enjoyed my stay with you Jennifer,” Mary voiced her daughter’s own thoughts. “I think Jesse is a wonderful woman and I’m so very glad that you found her. And, KC is a delight, I’ll miss not seeing her take her first steps. But,” Mary shook her head sadly, “we both know that the frontier is not where I belong. This isn’t the kind of life I’m used to or comfortable with,” she admitted. “My home is back east. That’s where I’m needed.”

“I’ll miss you, mother, but I understand.” Jennifer had been surprised when Mary decided to stay after her husband had been forced from the territory. Jennifer knew she was used to finer things and life on the rough frontier had been a hard adjustment for her to make. But, Mary had made the most of it and now it was time for her to return to her home. Asking her mother to stay wouldn’t be right. “I’ll send your things to you,” Jennifer offered of the few items left at the ranch.

“No, keep them,” Mary smiled. “It’ll give me an excuse to come visit.”

“You don’t need an excuse,” Jennifer told her mother.

“I know,” Mary reached over and covered Jennifer’s hand with her own. “I would very much like to come back and see how my granddaughter is growing,” she said, sincerely.

“Jesse and I would love to see you, too.”

Mary turned serious, “Jennifer, I want to tell you something about your father.”

Jennifer felt her stomach tighten into a knot.

“With Judge Henry’s permission, I have made arrangements to have your father transported to the hospital of a friend of mine.”

“The hospital for the insane?” Jennifer asked. She was aware of her mother’s long time friend that was the chief of staff at a major mental hospital in the east.

“Yes,” Mary nodded. “I believe that your father needs treatment for this sickness that has taken over his mind. Treatment that he would not have access to in prison.”

“But, a hospital mother. That means he could be released,” Jennifer began to protest. Much as she didn’t want her father in Montana, she definitely didn’t want him someplace he could just walk away from and be free to threaten Jesse and her family again.

“No,” Mary interrupted to reassure Jennifer. “Judge Henry has sent instructions that should your father ever be declared sane, he is to be returned to Montana to complete his prison term. But, I am quite sure that day shall never come,” she wondered if Jennifer realized the true meaning of her words.

“Mother, are you sure you want to do this?” Jennifer asked softly. Her question addressed the price that committing her husband would take on her gentle, compassionate mother, not at the deed itself.

“Yes, daughter,” Mary sighed. “He is my husband but my concern is for your safety. And Jesse’s. I could not bear to have your father cause you any more pain. So, I accept what I am about to do.”

“Does Thomas know?”

“Yes.”

“Is he…?”

“It does not pleasure him any more than you or me, but he has agreed it is for the best. As will your brothers,” she said of her two sons awaiting her return.

“When will you leave?”

“We must wait until the official papers agreeing to the terms of his commitment are received and approved by Judge Henry. Then, Thomas and I will accompany him east.”

“You and Thomas can’t take him back alone,” Jennifer spoke harshly, shocked that her mother would attempt to take her father back east by themselves.

“No,” Mary patted her daughter’s thigh to calm her. “Judge Henry has offered Marshal Morgan’s services and deputies will be hired to assist him. Thomas and I will only along travel with them, your father will be Marshal Morgan’s responsibility.”

“I can’t say that this news makes me unhappy,” Jennifer said. “In fact, I’m relieved that father won’t be in Montana because I do fear he’ll never give up on me or Jesse.”

“He will never again bring you or your family harm, daughter. I promise you that.”

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

Billie had carried the chairs out of the jail and he and Ruthie were sitting in the shade behind Chrismans’ Store. From their position, he could keep an eye on the jail yet not have to listen to Kinsington’s incessant ravings. He wasn’t too concerned with leaving the shackled and chained prisoner alone because he knew there was no way for the man to escape. Especially, since there was only one way in or out of the small log building and that was the doorway directly in front of him.

“Ya’d think he’d get tired of yelling at the walls,” Billie muttered, rubbing his temples in a fruitless attempt to lessen the throbbing brought on by Kinsington’s howlings. He had been listening to the prisoner shouts since the marshal had left for the territorial prison a couple of hours before. When his fiancé had knocked on the jail door, he wasn’t about to have her sit inside the dark building and listen to the disturbed man.

“He must realize that you can’t let him out.” It was obvious to Ruthie why the sheriff had a headache.

“Don’t think he realizes much about all the trouble he’s in,” Billie said. “He still thinks Harrington is going to get him out of this.”

“Can he?”

“Nah,” Billie gave up trying to get rid of his headache and decided, instead, to enjoy Ruthie’s visit. He was going to be spending the next few days at the jail and he didn’t want to waste any time he had with the woman he loved. He smiled shyly as he scooted his chair closer to Ruthie’s, “Harrington is going to be in as much trouble as Kinsington if Thaddeus is right about the Songbird.”

“Do you think he is, Billie?”

“Good bet that he is,” Billie reached over and timidly lifted Ruthie’s hands, holding them gently in his own. “I never saw that old miner with anything but holes in his pockets. Hard to believe he was working such a rich vein and never had anything to show for it.”

“What will happen to Sweetwater if it’s true?”

“Reckon we’ll have to wait and see,” the sheriff frowned. “But, we’ll probably get a new hotel and bank out of it. Don’t know who’ll be staying in the hotel since the stage never brings more than a handful of folks to town each week and the Slipper has plenty of room for them. But, we can sure use the bank. Folks don’t like havin’ ta travel to Bozeman all the time.”

“What about all those men who came to work for Mr. Harrington?”

“They’ll find other places to go. Won’t be much use in staying in Sweetwater if there’s no work for them.”

“They could help Miss Jesse build a new home for her and Miss Jennifer,” Ruthie had been deeply saddened at the news of the fire destroying the home she knew meant so much to Jesse.

“Honey,” Billie gently caressed Ruthie’s hands, “I think Jesse will be wantin’ to build her family’s new home all by herself.”

“You’re probably right,” Ruthie smiled. “Maybe, someday, you can build us our own home,” she shyly made her wishes known.

“Ain’t nothin’ in the whole world I’d rather do, honey. And, that’s a fact.”

Jesse walked down the narrow passageway between Chrismans’ store and the building next to it. She smiled when she came out at the back of the buildings and saw the couple staring into each other’s eyes. How often had she and Jennifer done the same thing, she wondered. How often did they still do it, she laughed to herself.

“See, I told ya your Uncle Billie would be here, sunshine,” Jesse said in a voice loud enough to warn Billie and Ruthie of her approach.

Ruthie started to pull her hands free of the sheriff’s, but Billie held them in place.

“Figured you’d be stoppin’ by,” Billie addressed his friend. “Saw your horses in front of the Goodrich,” he explained. “You plannin’ on leavin’ today?”

“Yep,” Jesse smiled. “Can’t wait to put Bannack behind us,” she lowered KC to let the baby sit in Billie’s lap.

“Guess no one can blame you for that,” Billie acknowledged. “Sure you want to travel alone?”

“We need some time, Billie,” Jesse smiled sadly. The last few days had taken a huge toll on her and she wasn’t ashamed to admit it.

“Guess that’s ta be expected.”

“Will you be going straight back to Sweetwater, Miss Jesse,” Ruthie asked as she watched KC play in her fiancé’s lap. She smiled at the thought that one day he would be holding a child of their own.

“No,” Jesse told the young woman. “We’ll be spending a few days at the buffalo camp of Walks on the Wind. It’ll give us time to get over what happened here.”

“Up,” KC lifted her arms to her mother.

“Sorry you can’t join us for supper, Billie,” Jesse lifted the baby back into her arms.

“Wish I could, Jesse,” Billie stood. “Be nice to get away from Kinsington’s hollerin’,”

“Big man, big mouth,” Jesse muttered as she listened to the muffled screams coming from the jail. “Will you be joining us, Ruthie?”

“Well,” Ruthie turned a light shade of pink, “I was hopin’ to stay here with Billie.”

“Then, that’s what you should do,” Jesse grinned at the shy woman. “If you love him, don’t ever let him out of your sight.”

“Thank you, Miss Jesse.”

“Do me a favor on your ride back to Sweetwater, Billie.”

“Sure, Jesse.”

“Work on getting her to drop the ‘Miss’.”

“I’ll try, Jesse,” the sheriff smiled, “but, she’s a might hard headed when it comes to that.”

“She must be hard-headed to put up with you,” Jesse laughed and stretched out her hand to the sheriff.

“Have a safe trip home,” Billie grasped the offered hand, laughing with the good-natured teasing.

“I appreciate all you did for me, Billie,” Jesse kept hold of her friend’s hand.

“I just wish I could have done more,” Billie answered earnestly.

“You did more than could have been expected,” Jesse said of the sheriff’s efforts to prevent the marshal from finding her and Jennifer. “It could have cost you your job.”

“Losing a friend would’ve been worse, Jesse.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Now, you better be gettin’ back to the Goodrich. Isn’t Jennifer waiting for you?”

“She’s talking to Mary,” Jesse finally released her friend’s hand. “But, I did tell her I wouldn’t be long.”

“Then, we’ll see you in Sweetwater.”

“Count on it,” Jesse turned to walk away. “Seems like we’ll be needin’ to make some wedding plans when we all get back.”

“I wouldn’t do it without you, Jesse,” Billie called after the rancher. “And, you can tell Jennifer that we expect her to stand up for Ruthie when the day comes.”

“She’s already talking to Bette Mae about that,” Jesse said as she disappeared back into the passageway.

“Will they be alright?” Ruthie asked as Billie retook his seat.

“They’ll be fine,” Billie retook Ruthie’s hands. “After what they’ve been through, nothin’ and nobody will ever hurt them again. They’ve done paid their dues.”

“I hope you’re right, Billie.”

“Me, too.”

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

“Is something wrong,” Jesse asked as she carried KC into the hotel lobby and saw the gloomy looks on Mary’s and Jennifer’s faces

“No, everything is fine,” Jennifer held out her arms when KC reached for her. “Mother was just telling me about some new developments concerning father.”

“Anything I need to know,” Jesse was always concerned when it came to her wife’s father.

“Yes, but why don’t we talk while we get this cute little thing,” Jennifer tickled KC, “some fresh britches before the others arrive for supper.”

“I think I’ll freshen up, myself,” Mary rose from the chair she occupied. “I’ll meet you and the others in the dining room.”

Jesse had remained quiet while Jennifer repeated her conversation with her mother. They had taken KC into the hotel office located in an alcove behind the lobby desk. The desk clerk let them use it whenever they needed to change KC’s diaper so that Jennifer would not have to climb the stairs to her mother’s room or walk the length of the town back to Marianne’s cabin. With the baby changed, Jennifer sat in the desk’s chair and placed KC on the floor to play. She looked over at her wife leaning against the office wall, her arms folded across her chest and a scowl on her face.

“Sweetheart,” Jennifer sighed, “what are you thinking?”

Jesse looked down and watched KC crawl around the floor, looking for some trouble to get into. The baby seemed to sense her mother’s eyes and twisted around to grin at the woman before resuming her exploration of the room. Jesse was again amazed how much the ginger haired, blue eyed baby resembled Jennifer. It was hard most times to realize her wife hadn’t actually given birth to their daughter.

“I’m thinking,” Jesse lifted her eyes to gaze at her wife, “that having your father locked away back east where he can never hurt you again,” she smiled as she took the few steps to where Jennifer sat and kneeled down in front of her, “is the best news I’ve had since you agreed to become my wife.”

Jennifer raised her hands to tenderly hold Jesse’s face. She gently pulled the rancher close, “Jesse Marie Branson, becoming your wife is the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Their lips met.

With her mothers preoccupied, KC was free to investigate anything that looked interesting. The rows of shelves at the back of the room peaked the baby’s curiosity and she crawled towards them. The shelves were full of all kinds of different shaped and colored boxes and KC couldn’t wait to see what was inside each one. She found the boxes on the bottom shelf to be too heavy for her to move so she pulled herself upright using the heavy boxes for support. Wobbling on shaky legs, she placed one hand on the shelf to steady herself while she reached into the nearest box on the shelf next up from the bottom and pulled out a handful of shiny objects. Thinking these looked like something she’d like to play with, KC opened her hand, dropping the items back into the box. To get the box off the shelf so she would have access to it’s appealing contents, KC released the hand steadying her up and reached as far back on the box as she could then, with a grunt, she pulled the box towards her.

Much to KC’s delight, the box began to move. The only trouble was she was in the way of it coming completely off the shelf but she continued to tug on it. As she inched the container towards her, more of the weight of the box was off the shelf than on and the box started to fall. Unable to do anything but go where the box took her, KC was forced over backwards, falling to the floor. The box followed her down and crashed onto the floor, spilling its contents.

“What the….,” Jesse jerked away from Jennifer as the crash echoed about the room.

“KC,” Jennifer immediately began looking for who she was sure to be the source of the commotion.

“Ook,” KC sat in the midst of a jumble of door keys holding up two hands full of the shiny metal.

“Goodness, is everything alright?” the desk clerk hurried into the room after hearing the crash.

“Okay, sunshine,” Jesse bent down, plucking the baby off the floor, “what have you done now?”

“Ook, mommy,” KC proudly showed her new toys to her mother.

“Those aren’t yours,” Jennifer scolded the baby as Jesse set her in her momma’s lap so she could pick up the mess the baby had made.

KC pouted as the keys were taken away from her. She ducked her head, cuddling against Jennifer. Her lower lip poked out as she watched Jesse put the keys back into their box.

“Sorry ’bout this,” Jesse apologized to the hotel clerk. “She’s a bit curious when she’s in new places.”

“She can’t hurt those keys,” the desk clerk said. “I’m just glad she didn’t get hurt when they fell on her.”

“Well, she’s got to learn not to go sticking her nose where it don’t belong,” Jesse reached over and tapped KC on the nose.

“Your mommy’s right, KC,” Jennifer spoke softly to the baby. “You shouldn’t play with things that don’t belong to you. Now, look at the mess you made.”

The clerk was having a hard time keeping a straight face at the absolute look of misery on the disappointed baby’s face. After Jesse replaced the box onto the shelf where KC had found it, he reached inside and pulled out one brand new shiny room key. “Here ya go,” he handed the key to KC. “A souvenir of your stay in Bannack,”

KC snatched the key from his hand, a huge smile replacing her pout. “Ook,” she held up her prize so Jesse could see.

Jesse shook her head, smirking at the baby. “It’s a good thing you’re as cute as your momma,” she lifted the baby from Jennifer, “otherwise, I don’t know what I’d do with you.” She held out a hand to help Jennifer up.

“Thank you,” Jennifer told the desk clerk. “For letting us use this room and for being so nice to KC.”

“Aw,” the clerk grinned, “she’s a cutie. Saw that the first time you carried her in here.” He had been the first person Jesse and Jennifer had talked to when they came to Bannack after finding KC. “I’m just glad it’s you having to keep track of her and not me,” he teased.

“I’m just glad we only have one of her,” Jesse laughed as she shook the man’s hand. “Appreciate all you’ve done for us.”

“Never much cared for Plummer,” the man said. “Least I can do for the ladies who finally rid this town of him.”

“You could have done it yourself, you know,” Jesse would never forget that she had been forced to kill two men because the citizens of Bannack had refused to stand up to their own sheriff.

The clerk took a deep breath, “I not proud of my actions. Fact is, I’m downright ashamed that I wasn’t more forthcoming with you at the time,” he had the good graces to look humiliated as he spoke, “but, I’m man enough to admit my mistakes. I know there isn’t much I can say to make it up to you but,” he looked sincerely at Jesse and Jennifer, “I truly regret what you had to go through.”

“That means a lot,” Jesse graciously told the man.

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

Jesse carried KC as she and Jennifer entered the dining room at the back of the Goodrich Hotel. Mary, Thomas, Bette Mae, Ed and Marianne were already seating at table pushed together along one side of the room.

“”Bout time ya showed up,” Bette Mae greeted the women, “we was beginnin’ ta think ya took off without saying goodbye.”

“We wouldn’t do that, Bette Mae,” Jennifer protested.

“I know that, child,” Bette Mae grinned, “I was just joshin’ ya. Now, let me hold my littl’ angel. Seems like it’s been forever since I seen her,” she held her arms out for the baby.

“Show Bette Mae where her nose is,” Jesse whispered to KC before placing her in the older woman’s waiting arms.

Doing as her mommy instructed, KC grabbed a hold of Bette Mae’s nose, “ooonnnkkk.”

“Bless my soul,” Bette Mae exclaimed, startled by KC’s actions.

A huge grin on her face, KC looked to Jesse for assurance she had done as her mother wanted.

“That’s my girl,” Jesse laughed, winking at the baby.

Jennifer teasingly slapped Jesse on the arm. “You shouldn’t be teaching her to do that,” she admonished, trying not to smile at the flabbergasted look on Bette Mae’s face.

“First time I’ve known Bette Mae to be speechless,” Ed guffawed.

“Well,” Bette Mae tweaked the baby’s nose, “I’m mighty shameful ta say that with this littl’ one around, I bet it ain’t the last.” She joined the others in a good-natured laugh.

Two empty chairs had been placed between Mary and Bette Mae at the table and Jesse held one for Jennifer to sit. “Here ya go, darlin’,” she smiled at her wife.

“Thank you,” Jennifer sat, then waited for Jesse to sit beside her. “Well, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m starving. Shall we order?”

“Yum,” KC answered for everyone

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

After their meal was completed and the dirty dishes removed from their table, Jesse decided it was time to explain the plans she and Jennifer had made that morning.

“It’s been hard on us and we need some time,” the rancher was saying.

“Well, I won’t argue with ya,” Bette Mae frowned. “But, don’ ya think it would be better if’n we all go back ta Sweetwater together?”

“She’s right, Jesse,” Ed nodded. “Considering all that’s happen, it might be best.”

“Jennifer,” Mary turned to her daughter beside her, “I would feel better if you didn’t go back alone. After all, you’ll have plenty of time when you get back to the ranch.”

“We’ll be fine, mother,” Jennifer spoke to her mother but was responding to the others as well. “I want some time with Jesse, now.” Her voice softened as she continued, “we’re going to have much to do when we get back to Sweetwater.”

Though she didn’t say the words, everyone at the table knew she was referring to the loss of their home and the rebuilding of their lives.

“I understand, daughter,” Mary really didn’t want the women to travel alone, “but there’s so much that can happen and you’ll be alone.”

“I have faith in Jesse, mother,” Jennifer reached for her wife’s hand and squeezed it when she felt Jesse entwined their fingers, “she will get us home safely.”

“Besides,” Jesse tried to lighten the heavy mood that had descended over the group, “we plan to meet up with Walks on the Wind and spend a few days with him. Jennifer wants to see the buffalo herds and I promised we would.”

“They’re a sight to behold,” Ed picked up on Jesse’s intentions. “Hard to believe so many animals living together. You’d think they’d want more elbow room,” he chuckled.

“Must be like some of the cities in the east,” Thomas added. “Thousands of people crowded into such a small area.”

KC looked at her uncle who was sitting across the table from Bette Mae. The baby took notice of the similarities between the man and her momma and decided she wanted a closer look. Before Bette Mae knew what was happening, KC crawled onto the table and made her way to Thomas. She dropped into her uncle’s lap, then pulled herself upright using his shirt for handholds. Standing on unsteady legs, she leaned forward and looked keenly at her uncle’s face.

“Well, hello there, KC,” Thomas instinctively placed a hand on the baby’s back to steady her.

“Momma?” the baby recognized the man’s smile.

“Guess, she must see the family resemblance,” Jesse remarked. “You do look alike.”

“Much more than Howard or William,” Mary agreed. “They take after me.”

“Oh, please don’t say I look like father,” Jennifer groaned.

“No,” Mary patted her daughter’s hand, “you look like your brother, Thomas.” But, everyone at the table knew Thomas was the spitting image of his father.

“I’d take that as a compliment,” Thomas teased Jennifer.

“How about some dessert before you go?” Ed asked motioning the waitress over.

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

A man in his mid-30s nervously approached the Goodrich Hotel. In his arms, he awkwardly held a crying baby, no more than three or four days old. The man hadn’t shaved in several days and a scruffy beard covered his face. His clothes were dirty and showed the wear of someone who toiled in the dirty and dusty mines. His boots, caked with dried mud, clunked on the boardwalk as he stepped anxiously through the doorway and into the building. He walked down the hallway to the restaurant at the rear of the building and studied the room’s occupants. Seeing the person that had been described to him, he made for the table where Jesse and Jennifer sat.

“‘Xcuse me, ma’am,” the miner removed his hat. “But, would ya be the lady that was on trial?”

“Yes,” Jesse answered, warily. Not being sure what the man wanted.

“Well, they was talkin’ in camp and I heard what the judge said about you and yo’r missus,” the miner explained. “And, I’d be obliged if’n I could talk with ya. Won’t take much of yo’r time,” he quickly added.

“What a beautiful baby,” Jennifer craned her neck to see the tiny infant the man held. “Is he hungry?” she asked as the baby continued to wail.

“Probably so, ma’am,” the miner held the child as if he were afraid of it.

“May I?” Jennifer asked, holding out her arms.

“Yes, ma’am,” without hesitation, the miner passed her the child, sighing with relief to be rid of his screaming bundle.

“Oh, hungry and wet,” Jennifer told Jesse.

“Do you have anything for him?” Jesse asked.

“No, ma’am,” the miner shook his head. “That’s what I’d be fixin’ to talk with ya ’bout. Please ma’am, if’n you could just give me a few minutes, I’d be mighty obligin’ ta ya.”

“Alright,” Jesse could sense that whatever the man wanted to discuss didn’t come easy for him. “But, we can’t talk over his crying.” She signaled for the waitress, “do you think we could have some milk for the baby. In a bottle if you have one.” The waitress nodded and rushed into the kitchen, as anxious as everyone else in the room to stop the infant’s cries.

“Why don’t you join us?” Jesse asked the miner.

“Thank you, ma’am, but I won’t take but a minute of yo’r time,” the miner fretfully shifted from on foot to the other.

“Here you are, ma’am,” the waitress returned and handed a bottle of milk to Jennifer.

Jennifer shifted to hand the baby and bottle to the miner.

“Ma’am,” the miner jumped back as if a hot poker had been jabbed at him. “Please ma’am, I’d be obligin’ if’n you’d keep him.”

Thinking that the man meant only while they talked, Jennifer nodded and offered the bottle to the infant, who began to drink hungrily when the bottle’s nipple was placed in his mouth.

“Okay,” Jesse spoke to the miner while she watched Jennifer with the baby, “why don’t you tell us what you want.”

“Well, ma’am,” the miner began.

“Jesse,” the rancher corrected him.

“Yes, ma’am,” the miner continued taking no notice, “like I said. I heard ’bout what the judge told the reverend ’bout you and your missus being good parents to that young ‘un there you adopted,” he nodded towards KC sitting in her uncle’s lap, curiously watching the tiny baby being held by her momma. “Well, I’d be obligin’ if’n you’d take my boy and raise him, too.”

“What about his mother?” Jennifer sputtered at the unexpected request.

“His ma died givin’ birth to him,” the miner looked down at his dirty hands, a look of extreme sadness on his face. “I buried her yesterday, out by our claim. She was a good woman. Would’ve made a fine ma to the boy.”

“What about you?” Jesse asked sympathetically. “You’re his father.”

Before the miner answered Jesse, he drug a dirty sleeve across his face to dry the tears in his eyes.

“I work in the mines all day, ma’am, from dark to dark. Ain’t no place for a baby even if’n I was ta know what ta do with him. Ain’t never had no trainin’ for carin’ for young ‘uns and, now, with his ma gone, I got no one to look after him. Please ma’am, I want ya to take him and raise him as if’n he was yo’r own. I even had this here paper writ up,” the miner reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a crumbled sheet of paper. “Says that the boy is yours, free and clear. I ain’t askin’ for nothin’ in return, ma’am. Ain’t needin’ nothin’ but ta be able ta tell his ma that he’s in a good home. She’d be right proud to know you and yo’r missus will be lookin’ after him.”

“Mister?” Jesse asked.

“Finnigan, ma’am,” the miner said, fearfully waiting for Jesse’s answer.

“Mr. Finnigan, do you know what you’re asking?” Though Jesse was flabbergasted by the man’s request, she was also intrigued by the prospect of a second child being added to her family. And, by the way Jennifer was cooing at the infant, it was pretty clear how she felt about that possibility.

“So, if’n you’ll take the boy,” the miner handed Jesse the paper he held, “I’d be obligin’.”

Jesse accepted the crumbled paper and started to read it.

“Thank you, ma’am,” the miner said turning to leave the restaurant, secure in the knowledge that his son now had someone to care for him.

“Wait, if you change your mind,” Jesse said to the departing man.

“No ma’am,” the miner stopped and turned to take one last look at the baby. “Like I said, ain’t got no place for the boy now with his ma gone,” his voice was heavy with the pain of leaving his only child a day after burying his beloved wife. His pace quickened as he crossed the dining room back to the hallway.

“Wait,” Jennifer called after the man. “What’s his name?”

“His ma didn’ have a chance to name him,” the man called back over his shoulder. “Reckon you’ll be wantin’ to take care of that,” was the last they heard from the miner as he disappeared down the hall and left the building.

“Well, darlin’,” Jesse blew out a long breath, “now what?”.

“Don’ rightly know what ta make of you two and Bannack,” Bette Mae chuckled. “Seems like every time ya come ta this here town, ya come back with another young ‘un,” she quipped.

“If this paper is legal,” Jesse looked uncertainly at the paper they had been given by Charley’s father.

“It is,” Judge Henry stepped to their table. He had been eating his own mid-day meal on the other side of the room. He reached for the paper, “may I?”

Jesse nodded, handing the judge the document.

Judge Henry read the writing on the paper, then placed it on the table in front of Jesse and Jennifer and bent to add a few notations of his own. “This,” he smiled as he straightened, returning the paper to Jesse, “is a legally binding adoption. Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” Jesse grinned.

“He’s a lucky boy,” Judge Henry reached down and chucked the baby under his chin, “two fine mothers to raise him and a big sister to help out.” He winked at KC who was unsure what to make of the tiny baby that seemed to be garnering everyone’s attention..

“Thank you, Judge Henry,” Jennifer said, “for everything.”

“I’m glad I was here to help,” Judge Henry told the women. “I wish you the best of luck. You have earned that much,” he said as he returned to his table and sat to finish his meal.

Jesse looked at her wife and new son. “Well, darlin’, if we’re going to take him home, I think we best get back to that store and get us some baby bottles and some more diapers.”

“Sweetheart,” Jennifer smiled, “let him say hello to his sister first.”

Jesse stood so she could retrieve KC from Thomas, then she held her so she could get a close up look at the baby.

“Uck,” KC pulled back when she got a whiff of the soiled britches and smelly gown the baby wore.

“I think we’re also going to need some baby gowns,” Jennifer had to agree with KC’s assessment of the baby’s current condition. “And, he needs a bath.”

“Me, go?” KC asked when she heard a bath mentioned, she liked to play in the water.

“Okay, sunshine,” Jesse chuckled, “we’ll give both you stinkers a good washing before we leave town.” She held a hand out to Jennifer and gently pulled her to her feet.

“Looks like we’ve got ourselves the makin’s of a family, darlin’,” Jesse boasted.

“That it does, sweetheart.”

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

“I have no intention of answering any of your questions,” Tobias Harrington rudely addressed Thaddeus Newby. He had not been pleased when, moments before, the newspaper editor walked into the office he shared with Mayor Perkins and started asking questions about the Songbird mine.

“Don’t you believe the citizens of Sweetwater deserve to know what is going on?” Thaddeus asked, unsurprised by the other’s man reaction. “After all, it is the folks who call this valley home who will ultimately pay the price of any…..,” he paused wanting to be careful in his wording. “….of any, shall we say, dubious actions of you and your company.”

“Are you suggesting that we are, somehow, being deceitful in our business dealings?” Harrington narrowed his eyes as he challenged the editor.

“I am questioning the truthfulness of some of your statements,” Thaddeus smiled at the diminutive man. “And, if they are not to be trusted, then I would suggest that the measures you are taking based on them must also be subject.”

“I don’t know what you are suggesting,” Harrington paced to the room’s window and stared out at the dusty stretch of ground that made up Sweetwater’s only street. Except for the sounds of construction coming from the building sites at the end of town, the street was vacant of all activity. He couldn’t believe that he was standing here allowing the owner of a nothing newspaper in a nothing town question him. “Mr. Newby,” he turned to face the newspapermen, “I am a law abiding citizen, as is, the company that employs me. Something you can’t say for some of the citizens of this town….”

“If you’re talking about Jesse,” Thaddeus cut in. “I’m sure she’ll be acquitted of the charges against her. After all, there is no truth to them.”

“Truth, ha,” Harrington stomped back to the desk and dropped into the chair. “I don’t think you are much of a judge of truth, Mr. Newby. After all, you have defended that bitch in your paper more than once. In fact, it seems that most folks in your fine town,” he sneered, “don’t mind lying to the law to protect a murderer.”

“Just a minute, Tobias,” Mayor Perkins spoke for the first time. He had been reading when Thaddeus had entered the room and had felt it in his best interest to let Harrington respond to the man’s questions. But, now, that the good name of his town was being besmirched, he decided to speak up. “You know that no one knew where Jesse was when they told the marshal…..”

“Shut up, Perkins,” Harrington grunted. He leaned back in the chair and placed his elbows on it’s arms, his hands upraised with fingertips pressed together. “If that is all you wish to talk about, Mr. Newby, I’ll bid you a good day.”

Thaddeus took a few deep breaths in an effort to keep himself from grabbing Harrington around his scrawny neck and shoving his superior attitude down his throat. After composing himself, Thaddeus smiled shrewdly at the arrogant man, forcing down his desire to just come out and ask Harrington what he knew about the Songbird’s false assay report.

“Mr. Harrington,” Thaddeus asked, “how much do you know about mining and about judging a mining claim’s true value?”

Caught off guard by the change in subject, Harrington answered. “I may not be a mining engineer but I am qualified to hire competent men to make the proper determination.”

Thaddeus wondered what Harrington meant by “proper determination” but didn’t want to play his cards just yet. “So, you believe that you are a good judge of men and their qualifications?”

“An excellent judge,” Harrington bragged.

“And, you stand behind the decisions these men make?”

“Of course. However, no decision is made without my final approval. So, in essence, every decision is, effectively, my own,” Harrington declared smugly.

“And, the decision that the Songbird claim was one worth purchasing,” Thaddeus moved in for the kill. “Was that your decision?”

“Yes.”

Thaddeus smiled knowing that Harrington had just admitted responsibility for purchasing a worthless mine. Now, he needed to find out if the man knew of the Songbird’s true worth at the time he made the decision. “Then, you are aware that the Songbird is nothing more than a worthless hole in the side of a mountain?”

“I know no such thing,” Harrington angrily answered. “The Songbird’s ore-bearing rock assayed out at one of the highest levels ever seen in these mountains.”

“And, that didn’t make you suspicious?”

“Why would it?” Mayor Perkins asked. He was suddenly interested in what the newspaperman was saying.

“Because, no one else had ever showed the least bit of interest in the Songbird. Then, Harrington comes along and the Songbird is the richest strike in the mountains.”

“But, the assay?” Perkins asked.

“The assay report was false,” Thaddeus informed him.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Harrington exploded out of his chair, the veins in his neck standing out in anger.

“The previous owner of the Songbird paid your assayer to give you a false report,” Thaddeus thought Harrington looked like a man who had just seen his life flash before his eyes.

“He did not such thing,” Harrington pounded the desk. If what Newby was saying was true, he would be responsible for his company becoming the laughing stock of the east coast. Not to mention the thousands of dollars that had been spent to purchase the Songbird. And, the money already spent on the bank, hotel, wages, bribes…… He would be ruined. “It simply can’t be true,” Harrington looked pleadingly at the newspaper editor.

“I have a report here from an assayer I hired,” Thaddeus pulled a copy of the report from his jacket pocket. “As you can read, the Songbird is worthless. Unless, of course, your plan is to dig for quartz, because that is all that the Songbird’s ‘rich’ vein is composed of.”.

“How did you get this?” Harrington snatched the paper out of the newspaperman’s hand.

“I’d rather not say,” Thaddeus didn’t want to get the mine’s guard in trouble for allowing him access to the Songbird.

“Of course not, since it is as worthless as you claim the Songbird to be,” Harrington huffed as he read the report..

“Perhaps,” Thaddeus said calmly, “but would it be of interest to you to know that the assayer who prepared your report just happens to be a cousin of the original owner? And, that both men left the territory immediately after receiving payment from you for the Songbird claim.”

“You’re making this up just to get me out of your precious town,” Harrington dug through the papers on top of the desk looking for his original assay report.

“Oh,” Thaddeus grinned. “I’m quite sure you will be leaving. The only question is whether you’ll be walking away or if you’ll have the law chasing you. But, either way, Sweetwater will be rid of you.”

“Is this true?” Mayor Perkins gasped as he digested the information.

“Shut up, you fool,” Harrington groaned as he compared the two assay reports. “Can’t you see he’s trying to get us to say something showing we knew about this so he can print it in his newspaper and ruin us.”

“But, I had nothing to do with the purchase of the Songbird,” Perkins protested. “That was all your doing.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Harrington hissed at his business partner. “You’re the one who said you knew of the perfect mine for my plans.” The harried man didn’t realize how his words sounded.

“May I quote you on that Mr. Harrington?”

“No,” Harrington barked, his fight coming back. “And, if you write one word of what you have just told me, I will have you sued for libel.”

“It’s not libel, Harrington, if it’s true. I stand by my sources, which I might add, have slightly more credibility than yours.”

“I’ll have you brought up on charges if you print a word of this,” Harrington threatened.

“You seem to be very good at that. Perhaps it was you who precipitating the charges against Jesse?”

“Tobias, did you?” Perkins asked. The mayor was sure that any future he might have had as a business partner with Harrington, was now destroyed. He would be lucky if he came out of this without being run out of town.

“Shut up.”

“But, if you lied to have her arrested,” Perkins wanted to know how much trouble Harrington had caused for him.

“I said shut up. There’s more at play here than that bitch’s reputation.”

“Such as?” Thaddeus demanded.

“Get out,” Harrington ordered.

“What are you up to, Harrington?” Thaddeus asked, now more than ever he wanted to know what the easterner had planned to accomplish in Sweetwater.

“Get out!”

“I’ll find out eventually and when I do, I’ll splash it all over the Gazette. And, I’ll make sure my newspaper friends in Denver and St. Louis hear about it. Whatever you’re playing at, Harrington, Sweetwater will be the last town you try to do it to. And, Jesse will be the last person you try to destroy for your own gain. You can trust me on that.”

“GET OUT!!!”

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

Jesse and Jennifer lead Dusty, Blaze and Boy away from the Goodrich Hotel. Anxious to leave Bannack and the memories of the trial behind them, the women had changed their minds about bathing their new son in town. Instead, Jesse borrowed a pot of warm water from the kitchen and gave the infant a quick washing in the water bowl in Mary’s room. He would be given a thorough cleaning when they made camp at the end of the day’s travels.

The women turned to wave goodbye to their family and friends standing on the boardwalk waving back at them.

“Goodbye,” Jennifer called. “We’ll see you back in Sweetwater. Have a safe trip home, mother, Thomas”

“Bye,” Bette Mae waved. “Ya be takin’ good care of them young ‘uns.’

“We will,” Jesse assured her. “You take care of yourselves.”

“See you in Sweetwater,” Ed added.

“Write us,” Jennifer asked her mother and brother.

“We will,” Thomas called. “We’ll be coming to visit, too.”

“We’ll be expecting you,” Jesse told her brother-in-law. “Don’t wait too long,” she said before turning back around to continue out of town.

“Love you,” Jennifer waved one last time before joining Jesse.

With Jennifer at her side, Jesse carried the baby boy that had so recently joined their family while sat snugly in the carry sack on Jesse’s back. The women were returning to the store in Yankee Flats to buy the supplies needed for the infant.

“I’ll miss them,” Jennifer sighed as she took one final look over her shoulder. Her mother was still standing on the boardwalk waving at them. She waved back, blowing a kiss.

“We don’t have to leave,” Jesse offered but she hoped Jennifer wouldn’t change her mind.

“Yes, we do,” Jennifer slipped her arm around Jesse’s. She looked at the baby Jesse held, “he’s adorable.”

“But, tiny,” Jesse smiled at the boy watching her. “Smaller than KC was when we found her.”

“He’s a lot younger,” Jennifer told her.

They walked a few paces in silence.

“Jesse, why do you think that man brought him to us?”

“Guess it was like he said,” Jesse sighed. “He must have heard about the trial and what Judge Henry said.”

“I suppose,” Jennifer looked at KC, the little girl watching her parents intently. “But, whatever the reason,” she smiled at her daughter, “I’m glad he did. Now, we have two wonderful children. And, a real family.”

“You’re all the family I ever needed, darlin’,” Jesse smiled at her wife. “But, I’m real proud to have been given the chance to raise these children with you. I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

It didn’t take Jesse and Jennifer long to make their additional purchases. While Jesse added the items to their packs, Jennifer fashioned a sling from a piece of linen to carry the baby boy in while they traveled. Jesse would make another carry sack like they had for KC as soon as they could obtain the necessary deer skin. But, until then, they could use the sling, similar to the one they had used after finding KC.

With their packs secure on Boy’s back, Jesse helped Jennifer slip the sling over her head and waited for her to mount Blaze. She handed the tiny boy up to Jennifer who placed the baby inside the sling and made sure he was in a comfortable position. Jesse swung herself up into Dusty’s saddle.

“Ready?” Jesse asked Jennifer

“Yes.”

The women rode away from Yankee Flats, back across Grasshopper creek and, upon reaching the wagon road, turned the horses west. With a mutual sigh of relief, they quickly put Bannack behind them.

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

The women had been riding for a couple of hours when Jesse decided to call a halt for the day. KC was getting restless in her carry sack and the baby boy was beginning to fuss.

“I know we haven’t gone too far, darlin,” she said as she surveyed the terrain surrounding them. “But, what do you say we make camp and set up the tent over by that grove of cottonwoods?”

With the night’s getting colder and with the addition of their son, Jesse had decided it would be better for her family not to sleep in the open at night. So, she had added a canvas tent to their purchases at the store in Yankee Flats.

“Alright,” Jennifer jerked the reins she held to guide Blaze to the trees Jesse had indicated. Between her leg and injured hand, she would welcome a short day in the saddle.

As soon as they reached the trees, Jesse slipped off Dusty’s back. She stepped to Blaze’s side and reached up to accept the baby boy from Jennifer.

“He’s hungry,” Jennifer said as she swung her leg over the saddle and dropped down to join Jesse. “Bet you are too, sweetie,” she ruffled KC’s hair.

“Okay,” Jesse waited a moment while Jennifer settled down onto a grassy patch of ground near the banks of a small creek before handing the baby back, “you hold him while I get our stuff unpacked. “KC,” she spoke to the little girl as she helped her out of the carry sack, “you stay right here and don’t cause any trouble.”

“Otay,” KC sat on the ground a few feet from where Jennifer held the baby, her head tilted to one side curiously observing the baby.

Jesse made quick work of getting the packs off Boy’s back. She pulled open the bundle that contained clothes and diapers for KC and the baby. Pulling a canteen of milk from another bundle, she poured the liquid into a bottle and handed it to Jennifer.

“Come on, sunshine,” Jesse pulled a clean diaper from the pack, “let’s get your britches changed while momma feeds the baby.” She spread a blanket on the ground and waited for KC to crawl on top of it.

“Otay,” KC rolled unto her back so her mother could remove her soiled diaper.

“Jesse,” Jennifer watched the hungry baby drink.

“Hmm,” Jesse removed KC’s soiled diaper, preparing to replace it with a fresh one.

“I think we should give him a name.”

Jesse looked up to see Jennifer watching her expectedly, “what shall we call him?”

Jennifer lightly tickled the baby under his tiny chin before announcing, “Charley. Charley Branson.”

“Charley?” Jesse asked, liking the sound of the name.

“Yes. I’ve always wanted a son named Charley.”

“Alright,” Jesse finished redressing KC and sat beside Jennifer, with KC sitting in her lap. “Charley, it is,” she said as she leaned against Jennifer.

KC reached out and grabbed a tiny foot that hung down within her reach, she giggled when Charley pulled his foot out of her reach.

“What do you think, sunshine?” Jesse propped KC up so she could get a good look at her brother, “cute isn’t he?”

“Yep.”

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

PART 11

It was the third night after Jesse and Jennifer had left Bannack and the family was asleep inside their tent. The women slept cuddled together in their bedroll while KC and Charley slept within arm’s reach in make-shift cradles that Jesse had fashioned out of empty supply packs. The regular contents of the packs were stacked neatly in one corner of the tent with their saddles and other supplies.

Hidden behind clouds, the moon provided little light for the man and woman soundlessly approaching the campsite. They slipped through the tent’s door flap and, moving carefully around the sleeping women, crossing to stand silently next to the sleeping babies.

The woman knelt beside KC, her hand slowly reaching out to lovingly brush a lock of hair away from the little girl’s eyes. She smiled at the child sleeping so contently near the women who had become her mothers. Pulling back her hand, she placed a kiss on her fingertips before gently pressing the fingers against KC’s cheek. After several moments, the woman held her arm up to the man so he could assist her back up. He helped her stand then, wrapping his arm around her waist, pulled her tight against his side. He smiled at the woman, placing a tender kiss on her temple.

Jesse and Jennifer became restless in their sleep, sensing the presence inside the tent. As quietly as they had appeared, the man and woman moved to leave the tent, the woman turning back towards the sleeping women.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

Then, she and her husband, slipped out of the tent, disappearing into the night.

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

“Somebody better go get the sheriff,” a man said to the others standing around him.

“Who do you think did it?” asked one of the group as a boy broke away from the group, rushing out the building’s door to summon the lawman.

“Don’ take much ta figure that,” a grizzled miner walked behind the bar that stretched the length of one side of the room. Pulling a bottle of whiskey and several glasses off a shelve under the bar, he started filling the glasses for the men who quickly accepting the free liquor.

“Can’t say I’m too surprised,” a man in a business suit said as he placed his empty glass on the bar. He didn’t have to wait long before it was refilled by the impromptu bartender.

“Me, neither.”

“Should hav’ ‘xpected it after what he said in court.”

“Man was a fool to say that ’bout Plummer,” the business man again emptied his glass.

“You was a fool not ta stand up to ‘im,” the grizzled miner argued.

“Didn’t see you bustin’ down any doors in Virginia City.”

Sheriff Billie Monroe entered the building, the boy who had summoned him on his heels.

“Mornin’, sheriff,” the man behind the bar lifted the partially drained whiskey bottle. “Care for a drink. It’s on Skinner,” he laughed and the others enthusiastically joined him.

“No, thanks,” Billie replied. He scratched his cheek, the day old growth of beard was itchy. He had been preparing to shave it off when he heard someone shouting that he was needed at the saloon. “Who found him?” he asked the men helping themselves to the unguarded liquor supply.

“Came in like we does every mornin’,” one of the men answered. “Found him like that.”

“Alright, bar’s closed,” Billie told the men crowding into the saloon, word had spread quickly about the early morning discovery, “Everybody get out. Except you,” he told the boy who had interrupted his morning shave. “You go find Judge Henry. Wake him up if you have to.”

“Ain’t goin’ like that,” the boy grumbled.

“Just do it,” Billie grunted. He walked behind the bar, removing the bottle of whiskey from the miner still pouring free drinks. “Finish what you’ve got and get out,” he shoved the cork back in the bottle and set it aside. Stepping to the end of the bar, he waited for the grumbling men to leave then turned to survey the scene.

The room was approximately twenty feet by forty feet and open without any dividing walls. There was only one door and no windows in the small building, the only illumination coming from several oil lamps hanging along the log walls and from the ceiling beams. A few broken down tables were situated about the room with various non-matching chairs haphazardly scattered about and near them. In the back corner of the opposite side of the room, a couple of cots were pushed against the walls. Men, too drunk to find their way home after a night of whiskey and cards, could sleep on the cots for the price of a couple of drinks.

The only thing of any real value in the saloon was the bar Billie stood beside. The elaborately hand-carved bar ran the length of the room. A border of scallop shells set out by a rope of flowers adorned the lip of the bar which was supported by four ornate pillars carved in a circular motif. But, it was the top of the bar that truly made it special. Shaped from a single piece of hard wood the bar top was almost thirty feet long and three feet wide. Billie had heard stories of the bar being brought up the Missouri River to Fort Benton and then by wagon to Bannack. It had made Cyrus Skinner the envy of many saloon owners in the territory. As he ran his hand along the opulently carved wood, Billie doubted if they would envy the man now.

Billie loosened the rope tied around one of the bar’s pillars, the other end had been thrown over one of the crossbeams supporting the building’s roof. At the end of the rope hung the lifeless body of Cyrus Skinner.

“Figured the vigilantes would catch up to him,” Judge Henry said as he entered the room. “Just didn’t expect them to be so quick about it.”

“Sure it was them?” Billie asked as he slowly lowered the body to the floor of the saloon. “Seems there’d be plenty of folks who wouldn’t be too pleased with his testimony at Jesse’s trial. The third bandit, for one,” he said of the man sent by Sheriff Plummer to kill Jesse and Jennifer but who had escaped after Jesse killed his companions.

“Maybe,” Judge Henry walked to the saloon owner’s body and bent over it. He pulled a piece of paper free from where it had been pinned to the dead man’s shirt. “But, this should answer your question,” he said as he straightened back upright, handing the paper to the sheriff.

Billie read the writing, “3-7-77.”

It was the same message the vigilantes left on all their victims. No one had yet unraveled it’s hidden meaning but everyone knew it served as a warning for law breakers in the territory to leave Montana or suffer the consequences.

“Surprisin’ he didn’t leave after the trial,” Billie gave the note back to the judge.

“Guess he had no place to go,” Judge Henry placed the paper into his pocket. “You best get back to the jail, sheriff. There’s not much else for you to do here.”

Billie scratched his itchy cheek. “They caught me before I could shave this morning,” he explained to the judge.

“Well, you go on and get that taken care of. I’ll get the undertaker to take care of Skinner.”

“Sounds good,”

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

“Go back to sleep, darlin’,” Jesse told her half asleep wife. “I’ll take care of Charley.”

The whimpering infant had awakened the women. It wasn’t the first time and both women were exhausted after getting up several times during the night. KC had been many months older when they first found her and was already sleeping through the nights. But, Charley was just a week old, and neither woman was used to gettin up every few hours with a hungry baby.

Jesse rolled away from Jennifer and sat up, lifting Charley from his cradle and hugging the infant in her arms. “Shhhh,” Jesse rubbed the infant’s back to calm him, “don’t want to be waking up your sister.”

In a way, she had welcomed Charley’s cries. They had interrupted the disquieting dream she was having and she was thankful for the chance to clear her mind of it’s memory.

“Come on, Charley,” Jesse whispered to the tiny boy, “let’s get some milk in your tummy. Bet that will make you feel better.” She grabbed the canteen of milk and feeding bottle that had been left within easy reach. Placing the baby on top of her crossed legs, Jesse filled the bottle. “Here you go,” she lifted the baby up, cuddling him in her arms as she offered him the bottle.

Charley gratefully accepted the bottle, his eyes drooping sleepily as he suckled.

“Guess you’re not used to being up all night either,” Jesse chuckled softly.

Remembering her dream, Jesse looked to see if the flap of the tent had come undone while they slept or if any of their belongings had been disturbed. She was relieved to see the tent’s opening still tied shut and nothing inside looked amiss. KC was sleeping soundly in her cradle, her toy horse clutched in her hand. Jesse was further comforted by the sounds of their horses moving about not far from the tent, knowing they would have alerted the women to any danger.

Shaking off the last fuzzy remnants of the dream, Jesse began to hum softly as she gently rocked her new son.

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

“Where’s Bette Mae?” Ed Grainger asked Ruthie when she joined him in the dining room of the Goodrich Hotel.

“Said she had something to do this morning?”

“What business could she have in Bannack?” the storekeeper wondered.

Before Ruthie could respond, Mary and Thomas Kensington entered the room to join them.

“Good morning,” Mary greeted the pair already sitting at a table.

“Good morning, Mary,” Ed stood as Mary was assisted into a chair by her son. “Morning, Thomas.”

“Good morning, Ed,” Thomas acknowledged the other man. “Not too busy in here this morning,” he commented on seeing several empty tables in the room.

“Guess folks have gone back to their business,” Ed looked around the half empty room, “now that the trial has finished.”

“Isn’t Bette Mae joining us,” Mary enjoyed the other woman’s company and was disappointed not to see her at the table.

“Seems she’s got some business to attend to,” Ed explained. “Though, I don’t rightly know what that could be.”

“She didn’t tell me, Mr. Granger,” Ruth said when she saw the questioning looks on the faces around her.

“Well, since she’s not coming,” Ed nodded to a waitress, “no point in waiting any longer to order.”

As the waitress walked away from the table with their orders, two men entered the dining room talking loudly.

“Damn fool,” one of the men was saying. “Was almost like he was just waitin’ for it to happen. Ya think he’d had tried to get outa the territory.”

“Well, I’m sure as hell not going to shed any tears over it. Sides, I say he got exactly what he deserved. Surprised they didn’t get around to him before now.”

“Maybe so. But, ya think they coulda at least drug him out of town ta string him up.”

“Gallows are still up where they hanged Plummer. They could have used those, I ‘spose.”

“Or, any number of other places.”

“Excuse me,” Thomas interrupted the men as they walked past their table. “May we ask what you are talking about?”

The men stopped and looked at Thomas and his tablemates.

“Ain’t you related to that fool they’ve got locked up in jail? The one that got knocked out by that woman?”

“Pretty good punch,” the other man laughed, “ta put down a man as big as him. Did ya see the look on his face when she slugged him?”

“Better than a lot of punches I’ve seen between the boys when they get ta goin’ afta each other.”

“Sir, please,” Thomas tried to get the men to answer his questions. “You’re not saying that he’s been hanged?” he asked in horror.

“Nah, though he maybe should be for what he done to those women,” one of the men said.

“Vigilantes hanged Skinner during the night. Strung him up right inside his own saloon,” the other man told them.

“My, goodness,” Mary gasped. “Here in town?”

“Yeah, slick as a whistle. Just like they did with Plummer,” the men laughed as they walked to an empty table and sat down.

“Billie said that might happen,” Ruthie sipped from her glass of water to ease the lump that had formed in her throat at the news. She didn’t think much of the saloon owner, still hearing that he had been hanged was disconcerting.

“I’d say he was lucky to survive the vigilantes as long as he did,” Ed added sugar to his coffee cup.

“Well, if it’s all the same to you,” Mary asked the others, “I would very much like not to talk about this during breakfast.”

“That would be nice,” Ruthie agreed. “I don’t think I can eat much as it is.”

“You’re right, enough has been said,” Ed agreed. To lighten the mood, he turned to the shy, young woman at the table and asked, “So, Ruthie, why don’t you tell us what plans that sheriff of yours has made for getting the two of you hitched?”

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

“When did you find the time to catch these?” Jennifer asked about the fish frying in the pan over the fire.

“Couldn’t sleep,” Jesse patted KC on the rear after changing her diaper. “All nice and fresh, sunshine.”‘

“Otay,” KC smiled at her mother then crawled over to the blanket where Charley had been placed as the women went about their morning chores. She plopped down next to the baby, tilting her head as she scrutinized the little person.

“What do you think about your new brother?” Jennifer asked the curious little girl.

KC scratched her nose, then leaned over to get a closer look. Soon, she was almost nose-to-nose with the infant. KC poked out a small finger and placed it on the baby’s nose. “Onk,” she giggled.

“Be gentle,” Jesse said as she sat next to KC. “He’s not big enough to play with just yet.”

KC pulled back her finger and crawled into Jesse’s lap. “Mommy?” she looked at Jesse.

“Yes, sunshine,” Jesse smiled at her daughter.

“Go?” she pointed at Charley who was watching her with bright eyes.

“Yep, sunshine,” Jesse reached over and tenderly stroked the boy under his chin. Charley wrapped his tiny fingers around her much larger one. “We’re going to take him home. Is that okay?” she asked, concerned that KC might feel like she was being replaced.

KC again looked at the baby, her head tilted as she considered her mommy’s question. Finally, she answered, “yep.”

“Good girl,” Jesse hugged her daughter.

“Anybody hungry?” Jennifer asked. She had been watching and listening to the exchange between her wife and daughter and was pleased that KC didn’t seem to mind the new addition to their family.

“I’m starving,” Jesse smiled at Jennifer. “How about you?” she tickled KC.

“Yum, yum, yum,” KC giggled.

As Jesse helped Jennifer wash up after breakfast, she noticed her wife seemed preoccupied. “You okay, darlin’?”

Jennifer frowned as she looked aimlessly at the children on the blanket a few feet from them, KC playing with her toy horse while Charley lay beside her.

“Darlin’, is everything alright?” Jesse tried again.

“Uh,” Jennifer realized Jesse was talking to her. “What did you say?”

“I ask you if everything was okay,” Jesse repeated. “You seem to be someplace else this morning.”

“Hmm,” Jennifer turned to face Jesse, she reached out her hand and smiled when the rancher instantly covered it with her own. “It’s just that I had a strange dream last night. I can’t seem to shake the feeling that…..”

“Someone was in the tent watching us,” Jesse finished her thought.

“Yes,” Jennifer looked quizzically at Jesse. “Was there?”

“Not that I can tell,” Jesse tugged on Jennifer’s arm, encouraging her to come closer. “But, I had the same feeling. I thought it was a dream but it seemed…..”

“So real,” Jennifer returned the favor and finished Jesse’s thought.

“Yes,” Jesse wrapped her arms around her wife, pleased at having her snuggling against her.

“Jesse,” Jennifer said after several minutes.

“Hmmm.”

“Do you think…..,” Jennifer began.

“It was the Williams?” Jesse finished. “Could have been. What do you think?”

“I think they wanted to be sure KC is alright,” Jennifer pushed back just enough to look into Jesse’s eyes. “But, why now? Why here?”

“Maybe because they’re buried not far from here.”

“Oh,” Jennifer looked around at the sparsely vegetated hillocks surrounding them. During the last few days, she had paid little attention to the landmarks they were traveling past.

“Yep, right on the other side of that rise,” Jesse pointed at a hill about a half mile behind them. “Maybe, they thought it would be the last time they’d have to check on her.”

“Do you think they know how much we love her?” Jennifer asked as she remembered the graves she and Jesse had dug not that long ago.

“I’m sure of it,” Jesse hug Jennifer tightly.

“How?”

“Because, just before she left the tent, she thanked us.”

Jennifer thought for a moment, “she did, didn’t she?”

“Yep.”

“I love you.”

“Love you, too, darlin’,” Jesse captured her wife’s lips for a long, amorous kiss.

KC stopped playing with her toy horse to watch her mothers kiss. She twisted to look at Charley, “uck, uck, uck.” She cackled when Charley, seemingly in response to her comment, blinked at her, his feet kicking wildly.

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

Bette Mae chose to walk along the road to the cemetery atop the hill overlooking Bannack. It would take longer but the grade was not as steep nor the path as rocky as the more direct trail to the fenced graveyard. She had been putting off her visit, unsure how she would react or what she would do when finally faced with the reality of her friend’s death. But, she knew she would be returning home in another day or two and she couldn’t wait any longer to do what was needed.

As she made her way around the wide, sweeping curve the road took as it worked it’s way to the top of the hill, Bette Mae thought back on a time many years before when as a young girl, not much older than Ruthie was now, she had met the person who was to mean so much to her. She had been living in Fort Benton at the time, working the gambling halls for the money that could be made seeing to the needs of the gamblers, gold seekers, adventurers and other travelers the steamboats brought to town.

It was a typical night in the saloon. The noisy, smoke filled room was full of men fresh off the steamboats and looking for a little action before they left town on the morning stage or as part of one of the freight wagon trains heading to Bozeman, Virginia City and other points west. She glanced towards the front door when she heard the whistles and catcalls coming from the men at that part of the saloon.

A girl stood just inside the doorway, looking petrified of her surroundings but also looking determined to accomplish whatever mission had brought her into the establishment. As she watched, the terrified girl scanned the men in the saloon. Her eyes resting on a face for an instant before she rejected it and looked to the next. The drunken men were becoming more vocal and she moved to intercept the girl before anything worse than rude remarks could darken her path.

“Come wit’ me,” she grabbed the girl’s arm and pulled her back out the saloon’s swinging doors.

“Let go of me,” the girl tried to yank her arm free but found it caught in a strong grasp.

“Saloon ain’t no place for a lady to be,” she continued to pull the girl away from the building. The banks of the Missouri River weren’t too far from the saloon and she headed for them. This time of night the river was usually deserted, any men about would be in the saloons and gambling halls.

“Stop it,” the girl cried, “you’re hurting me.”

She immediately released the girl, pulling back as if her hand had been burned.

“Damn, I’m sorry. Never meant ta cause ya no harm. Jus’ wanted to get ya out of tha’ place ‘fore them men decided ya was there for their pleasurin’ and tried ta take ya upstairs.”

“I was looking for my husband,” the girl declared, annoyed by the suggestion.

“Yo’r married?” she thought the girl looked too young.

“Yes,” the girl answered indignantly.

“Who’s ya husband?” she asked as she sat on a crate that had tumbled off the edge of one of the steamboat docks and lay upside down on the sandy shore.

“Mr. Stuart Cassidy.”

She felt a knot twist around her guts. The man the girl was looking for was well known in the saloons and gambling halls in Fort Benton. He had been coming into her place of business every night for the past couple of nights, throwing money around like it grew on trees. What he didn’t lose at the poker tables, he spent on the women that plied their trade in the upstairs rooms. Which is where he was at the current moment.

“Do you know him?” the girl asked anxiously. She had caught the brief look of recognition on the other woman’s face before she tried to mask it.

She didn’t answer. She couldn’t. How could she tell the girl that her husband was in the arms of another woman. A woman who expected to be paid for sharing the company of complete strangers.

“You don’t have to protect me,” the girl said in a voice so soft she had trouble hearing it over the lapping of the river against the shore. “I know he’s in there. And, I know he’s with one of them.”

“I’m sorry,” she couldn’t think of anything else to say to the distraught girl. At least, not anything that would remove the look of hurt on the girl’s face.

“I can smell them on his clothes when he finally comes back to our hotel room. He thinks the cigar smoke and smell of whiskey hides it, but I can smell them.”

“Why do ya stay?” she scooted over to make room for the girl to share the crate.

“I have no place else to go,” the girl sighed as she sat down.

“Can’t ya go back ta yo’r family?”

“They don’t want me back,” tears filled the girl’s eyes. “Momma thinks the world of him. She’d never believe it if I told her he turned out to be no good.”

“Then, go som’ place else,” she wasn’t sure why she cared what the girl did. But, something deep inside was telling her the girl needed her and she didn’t know how to ignore it.

“He’s spent most of our money. Even started to sell some of the supplies back to the merchants.”

“Supplies?”

“We’re going to the gold camps where he’s going to open a store. ‘Make his fortune,’ that’s what he kept telling momma. Made it sound so good he even got my brother to join him as a partner, he’s going to meet up with us after he finishes the planting back home. Anyway, everything seemed to be alright until we got here. That’s when we found out the wagon train we were supposed to travel with left a day before we arrived. The steamboat was slowed down by a wreck a few days out of St. Louis, the captain kept promising to make up the time but he never did. By the time we landed here, the wagons were gone and we were told we had to wait for the next one. It doesn’t leave for another few days. Anyway, my husband had made arrangements for the supplies for our store to be here when we arrived. Last couple of days, he’s been selling them back to the merchants to get money for gambling and….”

“Tha’s not right,” she spat, wanting to go back inside and tell Stuart Cassidy exactly what she thought of him and the way he was treating this beautiful young woman.

“He’s my husband,” the girl said sadly. “He has a right to do as he sees fit.”

“Horse pucky,” she grunted. “Man ain’t got no right ta treat his wife like that jus’ ’cause he’s a horse’s ass.”

The girl snickered. “I’ve never heard a woman talk like you,” she smiled shyly at her.

“Guess it jus’ comes naturally. Grown up ’round saloons all my life. My momma pleasured the men and I never known who my daddy was. Had me lots of aunts that helped raise me. Musta picked up som’ of their sayin’s along the way. Name’s Bette Mae,” she grinned, holding out her hand.

“Mary Elizabeth,” the girl grasped the proffered hand. “I’m glad I met you.”

“Pleasure is all mine,” Bette Mae felt a tingling moving up her arm from their clasped hands. It was a sensation that was new to her but one she was most undeniably enjoying. “Most definitely, the pleasure is all mine.”

The women saw a lot of each other during the following days. Every afternoon when her husband would leave their room for the gambling halls and saloons, Mary Elizabeth would hurry down to the river where Bette Mae would be waiting. They would spend the next several hours talking about whatever came into their thoughts, then Bette Mae would escort Mary Elizabeth back to her hotel room to await her husband’s reappearance.

Bette Mae wasn’t sure exactly when it happened but some time during one of their talks, she realized she had fallen in love with the girl. She found herself waiting breathlessly for the few hours a day they would spend together. Casual touches set her skin afire and she yearned for the courage to kiss the sweet lips that spoke so sweetly to her. Much too quickly, their time together came to an end. Her heart still feeling the pain from the day Mary Elizabeth had come to her with the news of her departure from Fort Benton.

“So soon?” tears flooded her eyes and she couldn’t stop them from falling. Thankfully, the dark night kept them from being seen by her companion.

“Yes. The wagons are packed and we will leave at dawn,” Mary Elizabeth excitingly told her, unaware of the misery her words were causing.

“Where will you go?” she asked heartbroken.

“Bozeman to start. If there are already too many stores there, Stuart says we will go to Sweetwater. He says that there are a lot of new mining camps around there. Miners will be needing someplace to get their supplies.”

“I’ll miss you,” she said as her heart broke, the shattered pieces never to be mended.

“I’ll miss you, too, Bette Mae. I have never known anyone that I could talk to so freely. I feel as if I’ve known you forever and I’m so glad that I met you. I just don’t know how else I would have made it through these last few days.”

The tears flowing down her cheeks and the lump in her throat made it almost impossible to speak. “Goodbye,” Bette Mae turned to walk away from the young woman who had come to mean so much to her..

“Wait,” Mary Elizabeth called after her friend. “Bette Mae, where are you going? We still have several hours before I have to be back at the hotel.”

“I have to get back to work,” she said without looking back.

Bette Mae walked away from the woman she loved and into the night, stopping only when she reached a small abandoned shack at the edge of town. Slipping inside the door barely hanging onto to its hinges, she curled up in the corner of the filthy room. No longer able to hold back the sobs, she cried until sleep finally claimed her just before dawn.

Weeks later, unable to get the woman out of her thoughts, Bette Mae left Fort Benton to try to find Mary Elizabeth. She arrived in Bozeman only to learn that Stuart Cassidy and his wife had continued on to Sweetwater. Her heart rose when she rode the stage into Sweetwater and saw the sign proclaiming “Cassidy’s Mercantile” on a building across from the stage station. But, her hopes were crushed when she questioned the boy operating the store. He informed her that Cassidy had left him in charge until his brother-in-law arrived from Bozeman. Cassidy had gone to the gold fields to seek his fortune and Mary Elizabeth had obediently accompanied her husband.

Out of money and with little hope of ever finding her lost love in the numerous gold camps that dotted the mountains around Sweetwater Valley, Bette Mae accepted an offer to work at the Silver Slipper. Though she lost track of Mary Elizabeth, her heart still clung to a glimmer of hope until the horrible day Jesse and Jennifer had come to her with the news of Mary Elizabeth’s death at the hands of her husband.

Now, she was making her way to the grave of the woman who would forever hold her heart.

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

“Seems I remember there being a hot springs ’bout where that line of trees start,” Jesse stretched her arms out, a giggling KC held high above her head.

“At the base of that hill?” Jennifer looked up from changing Charley’s diaper.

“Yep,” Jesse tossed KC into the air, catching the squealing child as she dropped back to the ground.

“Don’t you drop her,” Jennifer warned.

“Wouldn’t dream of it. Would I, sunshine?” she asked as she tightened her arms around her daughter and rubbed noses with her.

“Mo’, mommy,” KC giggled.

“Okay,” Jesse let the girl fly again, being careful not to throw her too high.

“Mo’, mommy,” KC begged when Jesse set her on the ground after catching her.

“Not now, sunshine,” Jesse ruffled the girl’s hair. “I need to help momma. You stay here and keep an eye on Charley.”

“Otay,” KC looked at the baby unsure what she was supposed to be keeping an eye on. The baby never moved except to wave his arms or kick his legs. He couldn’t crawl like she could.

Jennifer had finished with Charley and was putting items back into their packs, preparing to continue the day’s travels.

“What do you say,” Jesse joined her wife, pulling tightly on the ropes that secured the packs to their draft horse, Boy, “we head for that hot springs. Should be able to reach it in an hour or two.”

“I’d like that,” Jennifer sighed as she stretched her back.

“Back sore, darlin’?” Jesse asked when she saw Jennifer wince.

“A little. Guess I’m still not used to carrying a baby.”

“Why don’t you let me carry him for a while?”

“You’re already carrying KC,” Jennifer pointed out. “I’ll be okay.”

“I can carry both.”

“I know you can, sweetheart,” Jennifer leaned against Jesse. “Maybe when we get to that hot springs, you can give me one of your special massages.”

“You can count on that,” Jesse began to work her hands up and down Jennifer’s back. She could feel the tight muscles under her shirt.

“In the meantime…,” Jennifer began.

“In the meantime,” Jesse smiled at her wife, “I’ll carry Charley.” She gave Jennifer a look that said she would not accept any protest, “it’ll give your back a rest.”

Knowing that arguing would be useless, Jennifer agreed. “Alright. BUT,” she insisted, “if Charley gets restless, we switch back.”

“Agreed,” Jesse said as she turned around to return to their children.

Jennifer turned to follow Jesse, running smack into her wife’s back, “what?”

“Shh,” Jesse whispered. “Look.”

Jennifer peeked around Jesse to see KC laying on her stomach right next to Charley. Her little body was pushed up and supported by her arms bent at the elbows. She was talking spiritedly to the infant, but few words other than momma and mommy were recognizable. Every so often KC would giggle and drop her head down to tease the baby in a game of peek-a-boo. Charley’s eyes never left his sister.

As Jesse and Jennifer watched the baby’s lips curled up into his first smile.

A smile quickly spread across KC’s face when she saw the baby mimic her. She scooted around to sit up, carefully pulling the baby partially into her lap. Leaning over, she placed a kiss on Charley’s head,

Jesse sat beside the KC and rescued the baby from his precarious position of half in and half out of his sister’s lap. KC pulled herself upright using her mommy’s shirt for handholds.

“Wuv, Wie,” KC announced as she leaned against Jesse, her arms snaking around her mommy’s.

“Charley loves you, too, sunshine,” Jesse smiled at the little girl.

Jennifer stood behind Jesse, her hands resting on her wife’s shoulders. Tears flooding her eyes as she smiled down upon her family.

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

Bette Mae stood beside a gravestone. Etched on the polished face was the name ‘Mary Elizabeth Granger’ and under the name read, ‘beloved sister and friend’. At the top of the stone, an angel floated, symbolically protecting the person resting below.

“Might purtty headstone Jesse and Jennifer bought ya,” Bette Mae whispered as she ran her hand lightly over it’s surface. The grave was well cared for, unlike most of the others in the cemetery. Another gift from Jesse and Jennifer who had paid the gravedigger to take care of the woman’s resting place. It was outlined by stones laid out in straight lines and the ground inside the stones had been picked free of weeds. Fresh flowers had been placed at the base of the stone in a small hole lined with tin to keep it’s shape.

A small bench made of a thick board placed atop two relatively flat stones of equal size sat invitingly alongside the grave. Bette Mae took a seat on the bench.

“Don’ rightly know what I wan’ ta say,” tears filled the woman’s eyes as she thought of what might have been. “Wish I’d had the nerve to speak my mind back in Fort Benton,” she sniffled. “Don’ know if it would have made much difference,” crying she pulled a hankie from her sleeve. “I should have don’ better by ya, Mary Elizabeth. I shoulda insisted ya leave tha’ bastard. We coulda gon’ some place where ya could hav’ been happy.”

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

“Are you sure about this?” Mayor Perkins looked up at the newspaper editor after reading the lead story of his latest edition.

“Yes,” Thaddeus Newby had brought the first paper off the press to Sweetwater’s mayor. “I thought you might want to know what kind of company you’ve been keeping,” he told the man who was a partner to Tobias Harrington and his dealings in Sweetwater.

“But, to make up those lies about Jesse,” the mayor tossed the newspaper onto his desk. “Just so he could get her ranch.”

“There’s more to it than that, Miles, and you know it,” Thaddeus dropped wearily into the chair opposite the desk. “He’s a man who will do anything to accomplish what he wants. My question is how much of this did you know about?

“None,” the mayor emphatically said. “I swear, I knew nothing.”

Not surprised by the man’s response, Thaddeus asked, “then what do you plan to do about Harrington and his company, now that you do know?”

“Know what?” the man being discussed barged into the mayor’s office.

“That the Songbird is nothing but a hole in the side of a mountain,” Thaddeus angrily confronted the unwelcome man, ticking off his fingers as he laid out the facts. “That you and Kinsington conspired to have Jesse arrested and imprisoned for crimes she did not commit. That you made a secret deal with Kinsington for him to sign over ownership of the Silver Slipper and Jesse’s ranch for a percentage of the Songbird’s profits.”

“You can’t possible know that,” Harrington sputtered, caught off guard by the accuracy of the last accusation.

“I know that and much more,” Thaddeus was now pacing around the room, trying his best to restrain himself from kicking the arrogant man all the way back to the east coast from which he had come.

“Tobias, why would you do such things?” Miles Perkins asked, unsure why he ever got involved with the man and his activities.

“I have done nothing wrong,” Harrington tried to explain himself out of the mess unraveling around him. “I was taken in by the Songbird’s owner,” he looked to the mayor for help but received nothing but a blank stare in return. “I had no idea the mine was worthless. How am I going to make the investors understand?”

“What about Jesse and Jennifer?” Thaddeus exploded, caring little about the money the man had spent on the worthless mine. “Why would you do that to them? They did nothing to you, you sorry son of a bitch!” he bellowed at the man so concerned about himself.

“They laughed at me,” Harrington sneered remembering the day he had approached the women about selling the Silver Slipper.

“I represent a group of investors in the east. They have plans for the town of Sweetwater and they wish to purchase your establishment.”

“No,” Jesse and Jennifer said at the same time.

“Excuse me,” Harrington demanded.

“The Silver Slipper is not for sale,” Jennifer explained.

“I am authorized to make you a rather generous offer,” Harrington began.

“As my wife said,” Jesse walked to the office door and opened it. “The Slipper is not for sale. Not for any price. Not at any time. And, especially, not to you. Good day.”

“You are making a big mistake,” Harrington protested, this was not going at all as he expected.

“GET OUT!” Jesse demanded.

“Damn, Harrington,” Mayor Perkins shook his head, “you did all this because they wouldn’t sell the Slipper to you?”

“Yes,” Harrington began. “Well, no. I mean it didn’t start out like that. The investors were upset over having to spend money to build a hotel, I thought if I could get the Slipper. When I met Kinsington on the stage I thought it was too good to be true when he made me the offer for the Slipper.”

“It was,” Thaddeus sighed. He couldn’t believe all that Jesse and Jennifer had gone through because this man’s pride had been wounded by the women.

“But, it made sense. I would save my company money and Kinsington would get his daughter back. After all, he is an important man back east.”

“Well, I hate to break this to you,” the newspaperman growled, “but this ain’t the east and out here Kinsington ain’t nothing but a big man with a bigger mouth. And, speaking of Martin Kinsington, you might be interested to know that he is currently awaiting Marshal Morgan’s escort to a prison. Seems the judge in Bannack wasn’t too happy with your little conspiracy. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the territorial governor doesn’t issue a warrant for your arrest once he’s told the kind of a fool you played him for.”

“What?” Harrington gulped audibly. “That can’t happen.”

“Sounds like what Kinsington has been saying since he was arrested and tossed into jail,” Thaddeus smirked. “If I were you, Mr. Harrington, I’d be making plans to get as far away from Sweetwater as fast and as far as I could. I don’t think too many folks are going to be wanting you around once the Gazette hits the streets this afternoon.”

“But,” Harrington mouth opened then closed unable to think of anything further to say.

“Mayor,” Thaddeus again asked the other man in the room, “what do you plan to do about this?”

Mayor Perkins finally found the courage to confront the man who had almost destroyed his town and some of it’s citizens. “Thaddeus, in the absence of Sheriff Monroe, I’m deputizing you. Would you please take Mr. Harrington to jail, I don’t think he should be allowed to leave town until all of this is settled.”

“Perkins, don’t be a fool,” Harrington hissed at his former business partner.

“You’ve been the fool, Harrington,” Mayor Perkins stood, stomping to within inches of the smaller man. “Of all the things you’ve done, I can’t believe you would do such a horrible thing to Jennifer and Jesse. After all that man Kinsington has already done to them, you go and help him do even more just so you can make yourself look good to your investors. You,” he jabbed a finger into Harrington’s chest, “are a despicable human being and I will make sure you do not get away with this. Thaddeus,” he commanded, “lock this bastard up!!”

Thaddeus chuckled at seeing a side of the mayor he never knew existed. “Damn, Miles,” he said as he approached Harrington to comply with the mayor’s instructions, “I didn’t know you had that in you.”

“Neither did I,” Perkins honestly replied, collapsing back into his chair.

“Get you hands off me,” Harrington shouted, attempting to break free of the newspaper editor’s grip but years of operating a printing press had made the muscles in the newspaperman’s arms as strong as steel cables and he was unable to budge them.

“Come on, you worthless piece of horse pucky,” Thaddeus pulled the screaming man out of the mayor’s office.

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

After breakfast, Ed decided to walk up and visit his sister’s grave, something he had done every day since arriving in Bannack. His strong legs made little work of the steep, rocky trail that led straight up the hill to the cemetery. Cresting the top of the hill, he recognized the woman sitting on the small bench inside the fenced graveyard. Deep in concentration and with her back towards him, she hadn’t heard Ed’s approach. Not wanting to intrude and curious as to why Bette Mae would be at his sister’s graveside, Ed leaned against the fence to wait. In the still morning air, he could hear the words the woman spoke.

“I was too young, Mary Elizabeth,” Bette Mae wiped at her tears. “I was scared ya think less of me if I tol’ ya the truth. But, oh how my heart ached afta ya left. I come lookin’ for ya, did ya know that? Listen to me,” she laughed sadly. “‘Course ya didn’ know. But, I did. Followed ya to Bozeman but he had already taken ya away from there. And, by the time I made it ta Sweetwater, ya was gon’ again. Would hav’ kept lookin’ for ya, but I ran out of money. Took a job at the Slipper ’cause I figured ya’d come back there someday, with ya brother running the store, and all. But, ya never did. Guess I coulda asked Ed ’bout ya but,” she sighed deeply, “I never did.”

For several minutes, Bette Mae sat silently looking at the grave of the only person she had ever loved.

“I loved ya, Mary Elizabeth,” she spoke the words softly and Ed, standing only a few feet away, had to strain to hear them. “It’s the only thing in my life tha’ I’m proud of.”

Bette Mae stood to return to town, “Ya have a real pretty restin’ spot, Mary Elizabeth. And, someone is seeing ta ya, that’s nice.” She took a single step then stopped and looked back at the grave, “I won’ be comin’ back. I hope ya understand,” she felt fresh tears rolling down her cheeks, “it hurts too much, my love. Goodbye.”

Ed waited uncertainly, knowing that Bette Mae would see him as soon as she turned completely away from the grave. He had never known about the feelings the woman held for his sister and he now wondered how much different their lives might have turned out if the love had been mutual.

“Ed,” Bette Mae was startled to see the storekeeper standing so near.

“Sorry,” Ed walked the few steps to wrap the grieving woman in his arms, “didn’t mean to intrude but I never expected to see you here.”

“I…,” Bette Mae welcomed the concerned man’s embrace, “I just wanted…..”

“Let it go, Bette Mae,” Ed could feel the woman’s body shaking with bottled up emotion. “You’ve got a right to grieve.”

“But.. How?” Bette Mae asked between sobs.

“I heard enough to know you loved her.”

“I’m sorry,” Bette Mae was unsure how the big man would take the news.

“Don’t be,” Ed gently rubbed the sobbing woman’s back. “It makes it easier knowing she had someone who cared.”

“I did, Ed,” Bette Mae cried, protected in his strong arms. “I surely did.”

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

“Billie,” Ruthie sat between the sheriff’s legs in the shade of a cottonwood tree along the banks of Grasshopper Creek.

“Hmmm,” Billie was leaning back against the tree’s rough bark, his arms draped around his fiancé. The jail was within his line of sight, not that anyone would make an attempt to free his overly vocal prisoner.

“What kind of wedding do you want?” Ruthie had told Billie about the good-natured teasing she had endured during breakfast on the subject.

“Guess I just kinda figured you and Jennifer would make those plans,” the sheriff chewed on a stalk of grass.

“Don’t you have any ideas?” Ruthie expected to get plenty of help from Jennifer. And, Bette Mae. But, she still wanted to know what Billie thought.

“Well,” Billie threw away the grass stalk. “To be honest, I don’t want a big wedding like Jesse and Jennifer’s.”

“You don’t?” Ruthie didn’t want a large wedding either but had hesitated to say so knowing so many of the town’s folk would want to attend the ceremony.

“No. I was thinking more of a small, simple ceremony. With just a few close friends, like Jesse and Jennifer, Ed, Thaddeus, Bette Mae.”

“Really?”

“Yep. But, I know you want a big wedding, honey, so…”

“No, I don’t,” Ruthie twisted in Billie’s arms, looking into his eyes. “I want a small wedding, too,” she said shyly.

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Be a lot of disappointed folks.”

“I know,” Ruthie groaned as she turned back around and cuddled against Billie.

“Well,” Billie considered their predicament. Nothing said they had to have a large wedding. It’s just that with so few social events in Sweetwater, every one seemed to turn into a huge celebration that everyone anticipated. “We could have a small ceremony for us and dancing afterwards for the rest of the folks.”

“Like the receptions Miss Jennifer was talking about?” Ruthie asked, hopefully. Jennifer had told them about the large weddings receptions held back east when the bride and groom came from important families. Like the Kinsingtons.

“Yeah, like that.” Billie was proud that he had come up with a solution to their dilemma.

“I’d like that, Billie,” Ruthie sighed in pleasure.

“Then, that’s what we’ll do, honey.”

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

“Ohhhh,” Jennifer moaned dipping low into the steaming water of the hot spring. “This feels so good.”

Riding no faster than a walk, it had taken almost three hours for the women to reach the hot springs and it was quickly decided to set up camp for the night before enjoying the heated mineral waters. Jesse had chosen a small glade protected by trees to pitch the tent. Nearby, a creek of cold mountain water merged with the scalding water flowing out of the hot springs, creating a pool just the right size and temperature for the women to immerse themselves into the soothing water.

“You can say that again,” Jesse held Charley, using a cloth to wash the baby’s skin in the warm water. “This will sure make it easy to sleep tonight.”

“Be careful, sweetie,” Jennifer told KC who she held in her arms. KC was happily splashing water at Jesse. “Wait until mommy is finished giving Charley his bath,” she quieted the girl’s hands, “then you can play with her.”

“Otay,” KC looked for some other way to entertain herself. Her eyes followed the path of the creek as it traveled away from them into the valley. “Ook,” she pointed excitingly at a doe drinking from the creek some distance downstream.

“A deer,” Jennifer smiled. “Oh, sweetie, look,” she lifted KC up so she could see better, “she has two babies.” A pair of smaller animals stood beside the doe, they were no longer marked with the spotted coloring of fawns but it was obvious by their size that weren’t yet a year old.

“Ook, mommy.” Wanting to be sure everyone saw the deer family, KC poked Charley in the leg. “Ook,” she commanded her tiny brother.

“He’s a might small to see them, sunshine,” Jesse said as she leaned back, slipping most of her body under the warm water. Charley lay between her bare breasts, securely held in place by her strong hands. She continually swept warm water over the wash rag draped over the baby so he wouldn’t get chilled.

Seeing that Jesse was finished with Charley’s bath, KC forgot about the deer. She started bouncing in Jennifer’s lap, “mommy, mommy, mommy.”

“I think it’s time for you to play,” Jennifer teased her relaxed wife.

“Ugh,” Jesse playfully stretched out a long leg to tickle KC with a toe. “Don’t want to play.”

“Mommy, mommy, mommy.”

“I think it’s time for Charley and me to get some clothes on,” Jennifer stood.

Jesse leisurely watched as water ran off her wife’s naked skin in rivulets. “I can think of a reason not to do that,” she smiled, twitching her eyebrows.

“I’m sure you can,” Jennifer sloshed over to Jesse. “Maybe you should keep that thought until after the children are asleep,” she said as she offered to trade KC for Charley.

“Oooo,” Jesse held Charley up to her wife, “I will definitely keep it until then.”

As soon as Jennifer set KC down on top of her mommy, the little girl began to splash water at her, giggling when Jesse gave her a playful glare.

“Don’t be too long,” Jennifer said as she carried Charley out of the pool. “The stew should be ready soon.” She had left a pot with their evening meal simmering over the campfire Jesse had made earlier.

“I won’t be any longer than it takes to splash this little thing silly.” Jennifer smiled as shrieks of laughter escaped from her daughter once Jesse began drenching her with a barrage of splashes.

Jennifer stirred the pot of stew keeping a sharp eye on Charley laying on a blanket a few feet away. She was getting ready to call Jesse and KC to supper when Jesse strode into camp with a squirming, wet daughter tucked under her arm.

“Mommy, dow’,” KC giggled.

“Not ’til you get some britches on,” Jesse carried the laughing girl into the tent.

“Sweetheart,” Jennifer sat beside Charley, the baby’s eyes were beginning to droop and she knew it wouldn’t be long before the infant was fast asleep.

“What?” Jesse called from inside the tent.

“How long do you think it will be before we reach Walk’s camp?”

“Tomorrow or the next day. Why?”

“The way Charley’s going through the milk we brought, I’m afraid we may run out.”

“Damn,” Jesse re-emerged from the tent, both she and KC dressed.

“We should be okay,” Jennifer started to push herself up in order to dish up the stew.

“Stay put,” Jesse sat KC down on the ground next to Jennifer. “I’ll get supper. Looks like Charley will be asleep soon.”

“Uh, uh,” Jennifer pulled a corner of the blanket over to cover the boy. “Expect KC won’t be too far behind,” she watched as her daughter’s mouth opened wide in a yawn.

“Here you go,” Jesse handed Jennifer a bowl of stew before sitting next to her with her own bowl and a chunk of bread to share. “Come on, sunshine,” Jesse patted her thigh for KC to crawl into her lap, “let’s get you fed before you fall asleep on us.”

“Too bad we don’t have a hot springs at home,” Jennifer laughed as she remembered the many nights they had stayed up late with KC who refused to go to sleep.

“Maybe we could make one,” Jesse blew on a spoonful of stew before feeding it to KC. “But, I think it’s more likely riding the back of a horse all day than the hot water that’s got her tuckered out.”

“Probably,” Jennifer tore off a piece of bread, offering it to Jesse.

“How you doing?” Jesse asked, always concerned about Jennifer’s damaged leg and the pain it caused her wife.

“Okay,” Jennifer smiled at Jesse, “but, I wouldn’t say no to a rubdown tonight.”

“Good,” Jesse smiled back, “I was planning on giving you one as soon as we put these two to bed.”

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

“I hope Jennifer and Jesse are alright,” Mary fretted as she walked down the stairs in the Goodrich Hotel. She and Thomas were on their way to the dining room for supper.

“I’m sure they’re fine, mother,” Thomas followed Mary down the steps.

“I worry about them being alone with those babies.”

“Seems they’ve done pretty well on their own, so far,” Thomas said. “I wouldn’t worry about them now.”

“Good evening,” Marianne walked into the lobby just as Mary and Thomas reached the bottom of the stairway.

“Good evening, Marianne,” Mary smiled at the schoolteacher who had opened her home to her daughter’s family. “I wasn’t expecting to see you tonight.”

“Well,” Marianne explained sheepishly, “the cabin is kinda empty. I was hoping I could eat with you.”

“Of course, you can,” Mary understood how empty a house could seem. “Come on.”

The trio walked down the hallway leading to the dining room. Ed and Ruthie were already seated at a table and they waved them over to join them.

“Where’s Bette Mae?” Mary asked concerned over the other woman’s absence all day. “Is she not feeling well?”

“She’s fine,” Ed assured Mary. Not wanting to give away Bette Mae’s secret, he added, “she had some catchin’ up to do with an old friend and it tuckered her out. So, she’s making it an early night.”

“Oh,” Mary accepted a menu from the waitress. “I didn’t know she had any friends in Bannack.”

Anxious to change the subject, Ed asked, “what shall we have tonight?” The others laughed as they all knew the menu was limited, offering few choices.

“I guess Billie is still keeping stickin’ close to the jail,” Ed spoke directly to Ruthie.

“Yes,” Ruthie had spent most of the day with her fiancé and would have preferred to stay and share the evening meal with him. But, the sheriff had insisted she return to the hotel when the day began to fade. He didn’t want her walking back to the Goodrich in the dark, his duties at the jail preventing him from escorting her back. “I wish the marshal would get back,” she grumbled, then turned red when she realized the impact of her words. The marshal’s return would mean Martin Kinsington would be taken back east to be confined to a mental hospital.

“It’s alright,” Mary patted the embarrassed girl on the forearm. “I wish he would get back, too. I would like to put an end to this whole affair.”

“I expect he’ll get back tomorrow,” Ed knew how long the ride was to the territorial prison in Deer Lodge and that the marshal had had time to get there and back.

“I guess we can last that long, can’t we Ruthie?” Mary smiled.

“Yes,” Ruthie nodded, demurely. “We’ll be leaving for Sweetwater as soon as he arrives, won’t we, Ed?” she was as eager to leave Bannack as Jesse and Jennifer had been. After all, she had a wedding to prepare for and a dress shop to open.

“Far as I’m concerned,” Ed answered, “we can leave the minute the marshal gets back. I’ve got a store to get back to,” he knew it was being looked after by the girls at the Silver Slipper but it wasn’t the same as if he were there himself. “Not to mention, I’d like to see what that Harrington fella has to say about all this. I sent a letter to Thaddeus a couple of days ago, laying out the details of the trial. Hopefully, he’ll have some use for it.”

“I’m sure if what you suspect is true about Mr. Harrington’s dealings,” Thomas spoke, “he’ll have more than your newspaper editor to worry about. I’ve heard of the company he works for and I’m quite sure the owner will not be pleased to hear his money has been wasted on a worthless hole in the ground.”

“Maybe so,” Ed looked at the other man, “but my concern is more for Sweetwater than Harrington. He’s caused folks there a load of trouble and I’m just hoping it ain’t so bad the town can’t recover.”

“I’m sure Sweetwater will be fine, Ed,” Thomas smiled. “Besides, your fine town now has a new hotel and bank to show for his efforts. Those you will have, and the business they bring, long after Harrington is gone.”

“Bank we can use,” Ed considered the man’s comments. “Ain’t so sure we need the hotel. Especially, since it’ll take business away from the Slipper,” he said about the rooming house and restaurant Jesse and Jennifer operated.

“Ha,” Thomas laughed, “the Slipper has the best cook in the territory in Bette Mae. Folks will still get their meals there.”

“Besides,” Mary added, “with Ruthie’s new dress shop, there’ll be plenty of reasons for people to continue staying at the Slipper. I think Thomas is right, a new hotel is not going to take much business away. As more people come to Sweetwater, the more business the Slipper will have. As will your store, Ed.”

“I hope your right.”

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

“I demand you release me from these chains,” Martin Kinsington stood indignantly as Billie placed his plate of supper on the jail cell floor.

“Ain’t gonna happen, Kinsington,” the sheriff muttered, he had heard the same demand every day since the man had been arrested.

“This is no way to treat a gentleman,” Kinsington bellowed.

“Don’ see no gentlemen around here,” Billie backed out of the cell.

“At least give me a lamp,” Kinsington’s tone began to change, a mere hint of fear creeping into his words as he was about to be consumed by complete darkness again.

“No,” Billie pushed the solid wood door shut.

“A candle, then,” Kinsington begged.

Billie pulled the chain through the metal loops and locked the ends together with the padlock. He could feel sorry for the man shackled in the windowless cell. He could if he didn’t think about the pain the man had caused his friends, that is. He tossed the ring of keys back onto their hook and sat at the table preparing for another long night of listening to the prisoner’s protestations and empty threats.

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

“How do you feel?” Jesse asked the woman wrapped in her arms.

“Wonderful,” Jennifer sighed. Jesse had just finished her promised massage, leaving her feeling almost boneless. They were laying atop their bedroll laid out on the floor of the tent, a lantern hung overhead providing them a dim light. KC and Charley were sleeping an arm’s length away, snug in their make-shifts beds. “I’m glad you bought this tent,” Jennifer snuggled closer to Jesse.

“Does help keep out the cold,” the rancher pulled the blanket draped loosely over their naked bodies up over Jennifer’s shoulders to cover the goose bumps forming on her delicate skin. Summer was ending and the nights were getting longer and cooler. Many of the trees they rode past were already showing the bright reds and yellows of fall.

“Not to mention it’s not so embarrassing to be naked when I know no one can see us.”

“Ain’t nobody for miles, darlin’,” Jesse chuckled. “Unless you’re talkin’ ’bout the animals.”

“You know what I mean,” Jennifer said, lightly pinching Jesse’s arm. “Besides, you never know when someone might ride by.”

“Yeah,” Jesse stretched leisurely, exposing her torso as the blanket fell away, “having this tent does have a number of advantages.” She had purchased the canvas covering in Yankee Town after they had been blessed with Charley. Usually, she enjoyed sleeping under the stars but she decided it would be better to have the extra protection. Especially, now that they had KC and Charley to consider.

Charley gurgled in his sleep.

“He’ll be waking up hungry, soon,” Jennifer looked over at the baby as she placed a hand over one of Jesse’s bare breasts.

“And, I thought KC ate a lot for a baby,” Jesse put her own hand atop Jennifer’s, encouraging her caress. “Good thing we still have that milk cow at home.”

Charley gurgled again, his eyes fluttering open.

“Damn,” Jennifer groaned. Feeling Jesse’s firm nipple pressing into her palm had begun some equally pleasurable sensations between her own legs.

“I’ll get the milk,” Jesse said without moving.

Jennifer shifted slightly, replacing her hand with her mouth, to suck on the aroused nipple.

“Darlin’,” Jesse moaned, “I don’t think this is a good time to be startin’ that.”

Charley was now awake and very hungry, his cries becoming more insistent.

Jennifer raked her teeth over Jesse’s nipple before releasing it. “Damn,” she moaned again, flopping over onto her back.

“I’ll get the milk,” Jesse repeated, her voice shaky from the fire Jennifer had ignited within her. She pushed herself upright and reached for the milk and feeding bottle. “Darlin’,” she took a deep breath to calm her racing heart, “that wasn’t nice.”

Jennifer giggled as she lifted Charley from his temporary cradle. “I’m sorry, sweetheart,” she laid the baby on the bedroll she and Jesse occupied, “guess I have to work on my timing now that we have Charley.”

“Oh,” Jesse smirked, “I don’t think you’re timing is at fault.” She carefully poured milk into the feeding bottle while Jennifer removed Charley’s soiled diaper. “I think you just wanted to torture me,” she passed a clean diaper to Jennifer.

“Now, why would I do that?” Jennifer snickered.

“Because, you’re mean,” Jesse teased.

“Ha, guess I had a pretty good teacher,” Jennifer finished with the diaper. “Here, feed our son,” Charley was placed in Jesse’s arms.

“Hi, there, big boy,” Jesse settled the baby in her arms before offering him the bottle. “How long before you sleep through the night?” she asked the baby as he suckled.

“Sweetheart,” Jennifer scooted over to sit beside Jesse, leaning her head against Jesse’s shoulder. “He can’t help it if he gets hungry.”

“He ain’t the only one hungry,” Jesse pouted.

“Stop that,” Jennifer laughed. “They’ll be plenty of time when he goes back to sleep.”

“What makes you think I’ll still be in the mood?” Jesse teased.

“Oh, somehow I think you will,” Jennifer slipped her hand between Jesse’s crossed legs and into a thatch of moist hair. She smiled when her wife jumped at her touch.

“That’s not fair,” Jesse growled.

“Just making my point,” the hand was withdrawn.

“Funny.”

Wrapping her arm around Jesse’s waist, Jennifer placed her head back on her shoulder as she watched the baby. “He’s adorable,” she smiled.

“Yeah,” Jesse tilted her head against Jennifer’s, “he is. But, he’s so little. Guess I never figured they started out so small.”

“He’ll grow. Just like KC is.”

The women thought back to the day they had discovered the baby girl. She had been so small, barely stretching the distance between Jesse’s elbow and fingertips.

“She has grown a bit, hasn’t she?” Jesse looked over at their sleeping daughter.

“Yes, and so will Charley. We just have to give him time.”

Jesse nodded, time was one thing she had plenty of when it came to her family.

“He has your coloring,” Jennifer said after several quiet moments.

“What do you mean?” Jesse was taken off guard by the comment.

“Look,” Jennifer lovingly ran her fingers through the fine hair atop the infant’s head. “It’s going to be reddish brown like yours. And, he has brown eyes.”

Jesse looked at the baby in the muted light. “He must have got that from his mother,” she said, remembering that his father was sandy haired with light blue eyes.

“Kinda funny, isn’t it?” Jennifer asked.

“What is?”

“How much KC looks like me and, now, how much Charley looks like you.”

“I think it’s a little soon to be laying that on the boy,” Jesse grumbled, but she wasn’t really upset with the idea. She had taken great pleasure in the way KC favored Jennifer and she was proud that Jennifer thought the tiny boy favored her. “I’m just glad to have him. And, KC,” she turned to kiss her wife. “And, I’m really glad to have you,” she whispered as their lips met.

“Let’s put him back to bed,” Jennifer suggested when they broke apart several heartbeats later, Charley sound asleep in Jesse’s arms.

It didn’t take the women long to place the baby back into his pack and to check on KC sleeping in her own pack beside him. Within minutes, they were back on the bedroll wrapped in each other arms.

“Have I told you today how much I love you?” Jesse sighed as she planted light kisses along Jennifer’s chin line.

“Yes, but you can always tell me again,” Jennifer allowed Jesse to roll her onto her back, liking the feeling of her wife’s body pressed on top of her’s.

“I love you so much,” Jesse’s lips continued down her lover’s neck, stopping only when she found a breast to explore.

Jennifer moaned as Jesse ran her hand first down, then back up her leg, fingertips barely touching soft skin.

“You are so beautiful,” Jesse whispered as she placed a trail of kisses along the path her fingers had just laid. Slipping her body between Jennifer’s legs, Jesse gently spread them apart revealing her wife to her. She breathed deeply, inhaling the sweet, musky scent of her lover’s arousal. Dropping her head, she encircled Jennifer’s clit with her tongue, the muscle sliding easily in the wetness it found.

Enjoying the taste, Jesse ran her tongue along her lover’s nether lips, exploring every dip and fold along it’s path. She teasingly circled Jennifer’s opening, her tongue poking in for a few seconds before retreating.

“God, Jesse,” Jennifer cried, her body was on fire and only Jesse could put out the blaze.

Jesse’s tongue moved slowly back to the waiting clit, exploring the silky softness as it went. She placed her mouth over the clit and sucked it inside. At the same time, her hands moved up to claim Jennifer’s breasts, kneading the firm globes.

“Please,” Jennifer buried her hands in Jesse’s thick hair, encouraging her downward to where she needed her wife the most.

After a moment of resistance, Jesse complied. Her tongue traveled back to the source of Jennifer’s sweet nectar. Squeezing erect nipples between her thumbs and fingers, Jesse thrust her tongue inside her wife.

Jennifer’s hand flew back as her heels dug into the rough material of their bedrolls, thrusting herself against her lover’s tongue. Toes curling and back arching, she grabbed handfuls of blanket as Jesse bore into her. The building pressure finally exploding into powerful orgasmic waves that washed over her as she screamed Jesse’s name.

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

PART 12

“This is amazing,” Jennifer gawked. “All these animals in one place.”

“Yep,” Jesse adjusted her position to keep the infant she cradled in the shade cast by her broad shoulders. “Hard to believe the herds used to be a lot bigger.”

“How could they get bigger than this?” Jennifer swept her arms across the scene playing out in front of herself, Jesse and Walks on the Wind.

The three were sitting high up the slope of a grass covered hill. Before them, spread across the valley floor and dotting the surrounding hillsides, was a massive herd of bison numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The air was rich with the sounds of their grunts and bellows and the ground vibrated with each passing hoof as it stomped against the hard earth. Here and there, clouds of dust swirled up from wallows being carved into the ground by animals rolling in the dirt, attempting to protect their sensitive skin from annoying flies and ticks. Occasionally, the crack of skulls would ricochet around the valley as two males fought for dominance, their deceivingly short, stubby legs driving muscular bodies against each other. The skirmishes commonly covered great distances as the rivals battled.

The women had arrived at Walks on the Wind’s camp that morning to find Walk and the other hunters and their families preparing the bison killed during their hunt for transport back to their village. Knowing that Jennifer wanted to see the large animals up close, Walk had offered to accompany the women to a spot where they would be able to safely observe the bison. He had guided them to a knoll several miles from his camp where they sat watching the bison herd for the past few hours.

KC was draped across Jennifer’s legs, her attention switching between the large animals and the adults whose laps she crawled in and out of continuously.

“Ook, momma,” KC pulled on Jennifer’s pant leg, “ook t’ere.” She pointed as a bison bull pawed the ground, raising a large cloud of dust.

“I see, sweetie,” Jennifer reached out a hand to steady KC as she rolled off her momma’s legs to climb atop Walk’s folded legs. “I can’t believe the herds were bigger than this. What happened to them?”

“White man,” Walk said as he kept an eye on KC squirming in his lap. She was struggling to pull herself upright using his deerskin vest for handholds. “They kill the bison for sport, not caring that we depend on them for our way of life.”

“For sport?” Jennifer turned to look at her friend.

“Yes,” Walk smiled at KC when she accomplished her goal to stand on unsteady legs, an arm encircling his neck for support. “They see all these animals and think that shooting a few won’t have any effect. But, they kill the cows as well as the bulls.”

“Fewer cows mean fewer calves come spring,” Jesse added.

“But, they seem so docile,” Jennifer said of the animals that walked so near yet had showed them little notice, never making any move to threaten or charge.

“Ain’t much of a challenge to shoot them,” Jesse rocked Charley who was starting to fuss. “If you have one of the new rifles they’re making back east, you can drop a bull with one well placed shot.”

“Don’t the others run away?” Jennifer asked.

“No,” Walk tickled KC’s leg eliciting a burst of giggles. “Their kinda stupid when it comes to that. They’ll stick around a dead one to see if they can figure out what happened to it.”

“By the time they do,” Jesse reached for the milk bottle next to her, “someone shoots them.”

“What do they do with them?” Jennifer held out her arms for Charley and smiled when Jesse laid the boy in them.

“Most rot in the sun,” Walk said, disgusted with the wasteful practice. “Some take the hides, some the tongues. The rest is left where the animal dies.”

“Their tongues?”

“Yep,” Jesse passed the milk bottle to Jennifer once she had Charley settled, “seems it’s a delicacy in eastern restaurants.”

“Don’t they know that the Indians depend on the bison to live?”

“Don’t care,” Walk shook his head.

“Ook, ‘Alk,” KC pointed to a pair of bulls jousting. “Boom, boom,” she imitating the loud noise the animals thick skulls made when they collided.

“Think they’d give themselves a headache,” Jesse chuckled.

“Especially since,” Walk laughed, “their heads ain’t half as thick as yours.”

“Mommy,” KC scooted out of Walk’s lap, crawling over Jennifer’s legs to Jesse’s now empty lap. “Boom, boom.”

“Pretty loud, ain’t they, sunshine?” Jesse pulled the baby up and kissed her before twisting her around to look at the milling herd. “Almost as loud as Charley is when he wakes up hungry.”

“Yep,” the baby agreed.

“Guess as soon as Charley is done,” Walk looked over his shoulder to the western horizon, the sun was beginning it’s descent. “We probably should get back to camp.”

“Thank you for bringing us here,” Jennifer smiled. “It’s a sight I’ll never forget.”

“Glad you got to see it,” Walk said sadly, “probably won’t be around much longer.”

“What do you mean?”

“Some folks are starting to say that the bison should be eliminated,” Jesse’s voice was as sad as her friend’s. “Say that they can force the Indians onto reservations if they don’t have the bison for food anymore.”

“That’s horrible,” Jennifer was shocked by what Jesse was telling her.

“Yes, it is,” Walk pushed himself up from his resting spot, “but, unfortunately, it’s true. Without the bison to provide us meat, clothing and shelter, we’d have little choice but to go to the reservations.”

“I hope it never comes to that,” Jennifer shook her head, the thought of the proud Indian people being forced to live confined to small reservations because of the wanton annihilation of their primary food source was appalling. “Hopefully, the soldiers will stop that from happening.”

“Wouldn’t place too much hope with them,” Jesse said as she stood with KC, “they’re some of the ones doing most of the taking.”

Jennifer, tears forming in her eyes, scanned the valley and the dark shapes that filled it. Could these magnificent creatures really be destroyed so senselessly. She earnestly hoped not.

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

“Here’s where we have to make a decision,” Billie pulled his horse to a stop. He, Ruthie, Ed and Bette Mae had left Sweetwater the day before when Marshal Morgan left town with his prisoner, Martin Kinsington.

“Are you sure two deputies are enough?” Thomas questioned the marshal when he arrived at the stage depot with his father, shackled and handcuffed.

“Don’t worry,” Marshal Morgan helped Kinsington into the empty stage then climbed inside himself to lock the chain to the leg shackles around the seat support. “I have it under control.”

“Time to go,” the station master announced to the group of people waiting in front of the depot. One deputy climbed inside the stage while the other climbed up into the seat he would share with the driver atop the coach.

Ed, Bette Mae, Billie and Ruthie had come to say goodbye to Mary and Thomas Kinsington. They were the only people to see the stage off since it would carry only the Kinsingtons and the lawmen, an arrangement the marshal had ensured.

“Well, I guess this is goodbye, then,” Mary told the others.

“Ya come back and visit us, ya hear,” Bette Mae hugged Mary, then Thomas. “Always a place fer ya at the Slipper.”

“Thank you, Bette Mae,” Mary wiped a tear from her cheek, “we will. You look out for Jennifer and Jesse for me. And, my grandchildren.”

“I will,” Bette Mae assured her.

“You be sure and let us know you arrived safe,” Ed shook Thomas’ hand.

“We will,” Thomas grasped the storekeeper’s hand firmly. “And, thank you for looking after my sister. It means a lot knowing she has you.”

“She means a lot to me,” Ed smiled, “kinda like the daughter I never had.”

Martin Kinsington grunted, hearing the comment.

“Shut up,” Marshal Morgan warned the prisoner before he could say anything in response.

“Good luck on your marriage,” Thomas told Billie and Ruthie, and your dress shop.”

“Thank you.”

“Come on, folks,” the station master interrupted, “we’re behind schedule as it is.”

Mary, with her son’s assistance, climbed into the coach, Thomas followed immediately and the coach’s door was slammed shut by the station master.

“Hang on,” the stage driver yelled to the deputy as he released the brake and whipped the horses into a gallop.

“Goodbye,” was shouted by those inside the coach and those watching the stage leave Bannack, a cloud of dust marking its departure.

“Next stop, Sweetwater,” Billie said shaking dust off his hat.

“Can’t wait ta git home,” Bette Mae turned to walk to where their horses were tied waiting for them.

“I’m right behind you,” Ed followed the woman.

“We go north, follow the stage road and get home in five to six days,” Billie explained even though he knew the others were aware of their choices. “Or, we go west, over the mountain pass, and get home in three or four.”

“West,” Ruthie couldn’t wait to be out of the saddle. She had ridden very little before traveling from Sweetwater to Bannack and her sore muscles screamed for relief.

“West,” Bette Mae agreed.

“West,” Ed voted. He was anxious to get back to his store.

“West, it is,” Billie lead the group in the named direction.

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

“Good day,” a bald, overweight man with a cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth entered Mayor Perkins office, “I understand that we might find Mr. Tobias Harrington here.”

“Who are you?” the mayor asked, cautiously.

“My name is Weese and this,” he stepped aside to expose a much thinner, red-haired man, “is Mr. Glade. We have been sent to check on the progress of Mr. Harrington’s work here.”

The men had arrived on the afternoon stage and, after surveying the nearly completed structures of their company’s bank and hotel, were directed to the mayor’s office by a workman.

“Not more of you people,” Perkins groaned.

“Excuse me,” Glade moved further into the room, “but, I don’t think I caught your name.”

“Perkins,” the mayor said bluntly, he wasn’t in the mood to deal with any of his former business partner’s associates. “Mayor Perkins.”

“Ah,” Weese stepped forward and held out a beefy hand, “a pleasure to meet you Mayor Perkins. I understand you have served our company well.”

Perkins stared at the sweaty hand, deciding he had no intention of touching it. “Harrington is in jail,” he told the men in hopes they would leave his office.

“You mean at the jail?” Glade asked.

“No,” the mayor grimaced. Oh, how he wished this whole affair was over. More so, he wished he had never gotten involved in it to begin with. “I mean he is IN the jail. I ordered him to be held until the sheriff gets back from Bannack.”

“Excuse me,” Weese blew out a large cloud of cigar smoke, “but, why would you have him arrested.”

Perkins waved at the cloud floating towards him to disburse it, “would you put that blasted thing out before you set my office on fire.”

“You haven’t answered the question,” Glade said.

“Perhaps, you should go ask Tobias what he’s been up to,” Perkins smirked. “Unless, of course, your company is already aware of the many laws he has broken since arriving in Sweetwater.”

Both men looked bewildered by the mayor’s comment.

“He has committed,” Perkins continued, “fraud, conspiracy, and attempted murder. Just to name a few.”

“What are you talking about?” Glade demanded.

“Jail is two doors down. You can’t miss it, it’s the one with the bars on the windows,” Mayor Perkins told the men between coughs caused by the thick fog of cigar smoke over his desk. “Take that damn cigar and go ask him,” he ordered.

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

“Wilson, you have to get me out of here,” Tobias Harrington was telling his foreman.

“Hell,” Frank Wilson leaned against the wall opposite the cell bars, “your arrogance and stupidity got you in there. I say it’s where you belong.”

“Fool,” Harrington paced in the small cell, “can’t you see? I can’t fix this from in here.”

“How you goin’ fix it, Harrington?” Wilson chuckled. “Goin’ make some more secret plans with Kinsington?”

“How was I to know the man was crazy?”

“Should have been pretty obvious, if you ask me,” Wilson had only heard stories about Kinsington and that was enough to make sure he stayed away from the man when he was in town. “Besides, I don’t recall the company being interested in a cattle ranch. Just what were you planning to do with it? Maybe, a little side line of your own? Not to mention, promising company stock to a complete outsider is a little beyond your authority, isn’t it?”

“That’s none of your business,” Harrington growled.

“But, it is ours,” Glade sneered as he walked through the door that separated the cells from the jail office, Weese right behind him.

“Mr. Glade, what are you doing here?” Harrington stopped pacing, the color draining from his face when he saw the board members. “You too, Mr. Weese.”

“We were sent to check up on you,” Glade informed the man he had never liked or trusted. “Though, we were told you’re activities here seemed troubling, we weren’t expecting to find you in jail. JUST, WHAT THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN DOING!”

“Oh, god,” Harrington sunk down onto the cell’s cot. “This can’t be happening.”

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

“I don’t believe this,” Weese moaned.

“Believe it,” Frank Wilson said, “it’s all true.”

Wilson, Weese and Glade had left Harrington to his own thoughts, retreating to the sheriff’s office. The cigar smoking man sat in the chair behind the desk, his huge frame straining the furniture’s limited strength, while Glade occupied the chair Billie kept for the use of visitors. Wilson stood by the office window, keeping an eye on the workmen putting the finishing touches on the hotel across the street. Instead of trying to explain things to the other two men, Wilson had given them copies of the Gazette’s most recent editions to read.

“I don’t understand,” Weese tossed the paper on the desk. “If the Songbird is worthless, why would he continue the project.”

“He didn’t know,” Wilson said, “and, by the time it was brought to his attention, the bank and hotel were just about done anyway. No sense stopping ’em then.”

“Are you defending him?” Glade barked, crumbling his copy of the Gazette up and throwing it across the room to bounce off the wall before rolling to a stop near the closed door behind which the man causing his frustrations sat.

“No,” Wilson turned to face the other men, “Harrington deserves what you do to him. But, I have to be fair, he was taken in by the miner who sold it to him. So, as far as the mine goes, he was played for a sucker and the company paid the price. I think he planned to go ahead and operate the bank and hotel, or, maybe, sell them. Either way, he could have recouped some of the losses.”

“Maybe so,” Glade considered the foreman’s words. “But, what about the rest?”

“As for the rest of it,” the foreman sighed, “I haven’t got a clue why he did it. Pride, I guess.”

“Pride?”

“Seems, he didn’t take kindly to the Bransons saying no to him when he offered to buy the Silver Slipper.”

“Because of that, he conspired to send an innocent woman to prison?”

“Or, the gallows,” Wilson wanted to be sure the men understood the severity of Harrington’s plot.

“Oh, my god,” Weese stammered, “do you realize what that would have done to the company’s reputation?”

“Not to mention, Jesse Branson’s neck,” Frank Wilson said humorlessly.

“Now, what?” Weese asked his fellow board member.

“I guess we need the records Harrington was keeping. But, before that, we need to get ourselves settled for the night. It looks to be a long one.” Glade scowled.

“Records should be in the mayor’s office,” Wilson informed the men. “You can get rooms at the Silver Slipper.”

“But, isn’t that the establishment Harrington tried to purchase?” Weese stammered.

“Yes, but unless you want to sleep on a cot in the back of the stage depot, it’s the only place in town to rent a room and get a meal.”

“I thought you said the hotel was finished?”

“Mostly is. But, unless you plan to sleep on the floor, I suggest you get a room at the Slipper,” Wilson smirked at the robust man.

“Mr. Wilson,” Glade stood, walking the few paces to stand beside the foreman. “How much longer before your work is done on those buildings?”

“Structures are basically finished,” Wilson told the slender man. “Have a little more work on the roof of the hotel, should be done today or tomorrow. Bank has a couple of windows left to be put in. I was planning on paying off the men by the end of the day. ‘Course, the insides aren’t done, no furnishings or such. I put a hold on the orders,” he informed the man who was now his boss since Harrington was in jail, “figured you’d be wanting to save the money.”

“Thank you, Mr. Wilson,” Glade smiled at the foreman, “I assure you, your hard work will not be forgotten.”

“Yeah,” Wilson said skeptically, having heard similar empty promises many times before.

“Mr. Wilson,” Glade wasn’t sure what to make of the foreman’s attitude, deciding to ignore it for the moment. “We will need you to take us to the Songbird tomorrow.”

Frank Wilson removed his hat, wiping the sweat off his forehead, As he replaced the stetson, he looked over the two men. One was average height and thin as a rail, his otherwise non distinct form was topped by a head framed in curly, red hair and sideburns. The other man was of a similar height but much rounder and a cloud of cigar smoke seemed to follow the man everywhere. Wilson chuckled to himself, if he had a few drinks under his belt it would be easy to imagine Weese as one of his cigars and Glade as the matchstick used to light it.

“It’s a steep climb to the mine,” Wilson looked at the rotund Weese, “sure you can make it?”

“I thought you were constructing a road,” Weese blew out a puff of smoke.

“Hadn’t started it yet when I found out about the assay report,” Wilson waved his hand to clear the smoke that was beginning to fill the room. “Didn’t think the company would want me to waste the money building a road to a worthless mine.”

“Ah,” Weese, standing to join the other men, let another puff loose, “smart man, Wilson. Too bad Harrington didn’t think like you.”

“You want to go to the mine,” Wilson waved his hand again, “the cigars stay in town.”

“What do you mean?” Weese frowned.

“If you haven’t noticed, Mr. Weese,” Wilson glared at the thoughtless man, “we haven’t had much rain around here in a while. One spark and you could set the forest on fire.”

Weese looked around at the mountains surrounding the Sweetwater Valley, “looks plenty green to me.”

“That’s because pine trees stay green year round,” Wilson explained to the easterner who was used to trees loosing their leaves in the fall. “But, it ‘s dry and I won’t take a chance on a fire getting started.” Not to mention, he wasn’t about to spend a day breathing in the disgusting fumes that swirled about the man.

“What could it hurt?” Weese asked as he took a deep draw on his cigar, releasing a large puff of smoke.

“Lot’s of folks live up in those mountains, that’s what. You want to go to the Songbird, no cigars.” Wilson was done talking, “I’ve got work to do. You can hire horses at the livery behind the Oxbow,” he pointed to the saloon down the street. “Find me when you’re ready. And, make sure he leaves the cigars in town,” Wilson rushed through the jail door, seeking the fresh air outside.

“Come on,” Glade looked disgustingly at Weese and his cigar, “let’s go get us some rooms.”

“Afternoon, gentlemen,” Thaddeus Newby greeted the men as they exited the jail. Hearing that the two easterners were with Wilson, the newspaper editor had hurried to the jail. He was anxious to question the men about Harrington and the ramifications of his actions.

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

After returning from their day of watching the bison herd, Jesse took KC to explore a creek near the Indian camp. Jennifer remained at their tent with Charley, the baby needing feeding and a change of diapers. Walks on the Wind wandered over to the tent, sitting beside Jennifer.

“How’s your hand?” Walk asked his friend.

Jennifer paused to flex the fingers on her right hand. “Still a little stiff,” she returned to changing Charley’s diaper, “but it’s okay. Jennifer finished with Charley’s diaper, then lifted the baby into her arms, gently rocking the infant.

“Don’t you go to sleep before your mommy and sister get back,” Jennifer laughed at the sleepy eyed baby. “You know how much they like to say goodnight to you.”

“We’ve looked for fish in that creek for days,” Walk stretched his hands behind him, leaning back on his braced arms, “haven’t found a single one big enough to eat, yet.”

“Jesse will,” Jennifer grinned. She didn’t know how her wife did it, but Jesse never failed to catch fish when she set out to do so. “We’ll be having trout for supper.”

“Hmmm,” Walk would welcome the change of menu after days of eating nothing but bison meat. He was sure that if Jesse caught any fish, she would bring back enough for everyone.

Jennifer watched as her wife sat on the creek bank, removing her boots and rolling up her pant legs. After saying something to KC, the rancher stepped into the creek to capture her prey. Jennifer was struck by the naturalness of the scene and the freedom it represented. She realized that the Indians had enjoyed such freedom for thousands of years, only now to find themselves threatened with the loss of it. She knew how she felt when her way of life had been in jeopardy and wondered how her friend felt about the impending loss of his own.

“Walk, don’t you worry about what will happen?” she turned to look at the relaxed man.

“When?”

“If the bison are killed? If your village is forced onto a reservation?”

Walk sat back up, brushing the dirt from his hands, “worrying won’t change it from happening, Jennifer. My tribe has always tried to live in peace with the white man but that didn’t save my father.”

“How did he die?” Jennifer asked, not wanting to cause her friend pain but curious as to the circumstances that caused him to lose his father while just a boy.

“It was early spring and a small herd of elk had been spotted not too far from my village. Father was part of the hunting party sent to kill them. A troop of soldiers on their way to Fort Walla Walla heard the sounds of gunfire and panicked, thinking they were being attacked by a war party. They charged, firing as they rode.” Walk sighed deeply, “none of the hunting party survived.”

Jennifer placed a hand on Walk’s arm, “I’m so sorry.”

“The soldiers were young and new to our lands. If they had only stopped to see what my father and the others were doing, they would have known they were in no danger. If they had approached in friendship, they would have been welcomed as brothers.”

Jennifer frowned, “before I came here, I read many descriptions of Indian attacks in the eastern newspapers. They made it seem as if Indians tried to kill every white man and woman they saw. I’ll admit, I was afraid of what might happen if I saw an Indian.”

“Yet, you came here.”

“Yes, something seemed to draw me to Montana.”

“Or, someone,” Walk laughed.

Jennifer grinned, “I suppose so. Anyway, it wasn’t until I met Jesse that I saw the other side of the picture. She made me see Indians as people, with the same thoughts and worries and hopes as everyone else. I guess I never took the time to look at them that way.”

“You are wrong, Jennifer,” Walk said, sadly. “We are not the same. White men come into our lands, not to live as our brothers as we would ask, but to take away what has been ours for many generations. They fence our hunting grounds so their cattle can eat the tall grasses. They kill our young braves because they are scared when they see them ride in groups. They kill our elders and young children with the diseases they carry. We offer them peace but they give us death.”

“Yet, you are still friendly towards us,” Jennifer commented. “I don’t know if I would be the same.”

“You and Buffalo Heart have shown me only friendship, why would I show you anything less? I cannot judge a whole people by the acts of some.”

“It’s sad that more people don’t feel that way.”

“My mother’s second husband said it is the way of the white man to conquer and control. They will not be happy until they take all the land between here and the great water in the west. I only hope that enough of my people survive to tell our stories to our children’s children and their children,” Walk looked at the baby now sound asleep in Jennifer’s arms, “I still hope that one day our peoples will live together, in peace.”

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

Jennifer was surprised to see the horses still grazing near the creek when she limped back to camp from the small thicket of trees. Walks on the Wind and the other Indians had left just after sunrise to return to their village. She and Jennifer had waited for the babies to wake up and be fed before they broke down their own camp. She was expecting to find Jesse packing the tent and their other supplies onto Boy, but the tent was still standing and her wife and children were nowhere to be seen.

“Jesse,” Jennifer called out as she approached the campsite.

“In here, darlin’,” Jesse answered from inside the tent.

Jennifer stepped through the opening left by the tied back canvas flap. Jesse was laying on their bedroll, stretched out on her belly with her elbows tucked under her chest. KC was stretched out on Jesse’s back, one arm wrapped around Jesse’s neck, her head next to her mommy’s. Both mother and daughter seemed to be enchanted by the sight of the diaper clad infant laying on the bedroll before them.

“What are you doing?” Jennifer chuckled.

“Praaying,” KC said as Jesse blew on the baby’s tummy, her loose hair tickling his bare skin.

“Playing?” Jennifer eased herself down on the bedroll on the opposite side of Charley.

“Yep,” KC giggled when Charley kicked his tiny feet in response to Jesse’s tickling.

“I thought you were going to start breaking camp, sweetheart,” Jennifer placed her pinkie finger under Charley’s tiny hand, the baby’s fingers instantly wrapping themselves around it.

Jennifer smiled as Jesse continued to tease smiles from their son and giggles from their daughter.

It never ceased to amaze Jennifer how much Jesse was fascinated by the children, the rancher simply adored them. Jennifer had always loved children and always wanted children of her own. She had been less sure of Jesse’s feelings, as had Jesse herself. But, any doubts Jennifer may have had regarding her wife and children were cast aside when KC entered their lives. The rancher was captivated by the infant and seemed to know instinctively what the baby needed and how to meet those needs. Now, with Charley added to their family, Jesse seemed even more mesmerized by the babies.

“Sweetheart?” Jennifer asked, gently when Jesse made no effort to stop playing.

“Hmmm.”

“Do you plan to play all day or are we going home?”

Jesse cocked her head to one side, smirking at Jennifer. “oh, guess I kinda got carried away.”

“Guess you did,” Jennifer laughed as she lifted the baby into her arms.

KC slipped off Jesse’s back, crawling to Jennifer’s side and plopping down beside her.

“Now, I know where she gets that,” Jennifer was amused when KC’s head tilted to the side just as Jesse’s had done moments before.

“Gets what?” Jesse asked as she pushed up from the bedroll.

“That,” Jennifer pointed at their daughter, her head cocked to one side as she continued to watch her brother. “That’s what you do when you’re thinking.”

“I do.”

“Yes.”

“Hmmm,” Jesse scratched her head, “never noticed.”

“Trust me,” Jennifer ruffled KC’s hair. “You do.”

“Okay,” Jesse surveyed the array of items needing to be packed and loaded on the pack horse. “Well, guess I better get busy if we’re going to start for home today.”

“I’ll get Charley dressed and these two settled where it’s safe while you get the horses saddled,” Jennifer smiled as Jesse helped her to her feet. “If we both work at getting packed, it won’t take too long.”

“You’ve got yourself a deal,” Jesse walked out of the tent.

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

“Mr. Newby,” Glade was walking towards the Silver Slipper, carrying his travel bags. “We cannot possibly respond to your questions at this time.”

“Mr. Glade,” Thaddeus doggedly followed the man trying to avoid him, “a simple comment as to why you and Mr. Weese are in Sweetwater is not too much to ask.”

“As I have said,” Glade was thankful to reach the steps to the Slipper’s broad porch. “We are here to look into matters. That is all I am going to say at this time.”

“When can the people of Sweetwater expect more of an answer?” Thaddeus bounced up the steps behind him.

“As soon as possible,” Glade entered the Slipper, leaving his associate to answer any more of the newspaperman’s questions.

Thaddeus stood waiting on the porch as Weese lugged his travel bags up the dusty street. The obese man stopped upon reaching the bottom of the steps, wheezing loudly as his tobacco damaged lungs struggled to take in enough oxygen for the strenuous activity that awaited him.

Taking pity on the rotund man, Thaddeus walked back down the steps to pick up the man’s bags. “Come on, it’ll be cooler inside,” he said as he re-climbed the stairs. Crossing the porch, Thaddeus held the Slipper’s door open as Weese struggled to make it inside before collapsing from the exertion of walking the length of Sweetwater’s one and only street.

Once inside the building, Weese headed straight for the nearest chair, slumping down into it. “Thank you,” he panted when Thaddeus set his bags down at his feet.

Glade shook two room keys at Weese, taking pleasure telling the exhausted man, “our rooms are upstairs,” When the other man only stared at him in response, Glade tossed one of the keys onto the table beside his companion, “guess you can make it up after you’ve had some rest. Or, you can stay here until I’m ready to go back to the mayor’s office and look at Harrington’s ledgers,” he smirked at the plump man before turning to go up to his room. “Don’t answer any questions,” he called out as he climbed the steps to the upstairs boarding rooms.

“Well,” Thaddeus dropped into a chair next to Weese, “guess that referred to me.”

“I’m sorry,” Weese picked up a cloth napkin from the table, using it to wipe the sweat from his face and neck. “But, I can’t say anything to you,” he smiled apologetically to the man who had helped him.

“But, you will,” Thaddeus smiled back.

After a pause to make sure Glade had disappeared from sight, “we are here to look into Harrington’s misuse of company assets.”

“And?”

“I’m sorry, but I really can’t say any more,” Weese leaned down to pick up his bags.

“The citizens of Sweetwater will want more than that,” Thaddeus told the drained man.

“And, they shall have it. After,” Weese stood, “we have finished our review. Until then, I’m sorry.”

“Alright,” Thaddeus said, although he was not yet ready to give up. “But, you can at least tell me what you plan to do while in Sweetwater.”

“We will review Mr. Harrington’s records this evening and tomorrow we will examine the Songbird.”

“I want to accompany you,” Thaddeus wanted to see the men’s faces when they walked into the worthless tunnel Harrington had purchased for them.

“I’ll talk to Glade,” Weese said walking to the flight of steps he was dreading having to climb every time he went to his room. He hoped their stay in Sweetwater was a short one. “I can promise nothing.”

Thaddeus watched the stout man labor up the steps. If Glade refused his request to ride to the Songbird with them, he would just meet the men there. After all, he knew his way to the mine’s locations as well as anyone.

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

“Ook, mommy,” KC pointed, excitedly. “Ook.”

“I see it, sunshine,” Jesse pulled Dusty to a stop.

Jesse and Jennifer were following a trail that paralleled a small river. At a point where the distance between river banks narrowed, a family of beaver had built a dam blocking the water’s progress and causing the back up water to form a large pond. At the far side of the pond, a moose stood in hip deep water grazing on the nourishing plants he found growing under the water’s surface.

The moose raised his head, water dripping off his antlers and shaggy head. A large brown eye scrutinized the riders as he chewed his mouthful of plants.

“Ook,” KC bounced in the carry sack on Jesse’s back. “Ook, Wie,” she was disappointed that Charley was showing no interest in the large, gangly animal.

“Sweetie, he’s too small to see,” Jennifer stepped Blaze up alongside Dusty. “Funny looking, aren’t they?” Jennifer said of the moose. She had seen several before and always thought they looked like someone had taken several parts from different animals to put them together.

The moose had dark, thick hair covering its hide. Large ears stood out on either side of its head fronted by a bulbous nose. It’s round belly and lumpy hips were supported by long, skinny legs that seemed to all moved independently of one another when it ran. A long, clump of hair hung under it’s neck and served no purpose that Jennifer could guess.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Jesse reached for the canteen hanging from her saddle. “I think they’re kinda cute.”

“Really?” Jennifer chuckled, lifting her own canteen and holding it so KC could drink.

“Yep,” Jesse smiled. “Kinda soft and cuddly, like.”

Jennifer took a drink as she watched the moose dunk it’s head back under water in search of more food. “They look like all legs and nose to me.”

“But, they have those big, brown eyes,” Jesse urged Dusty forward. Even though they were next to the river, it was hot sitting in the sun. She wanted to reach a small meadow just inside the forest they were nearing before stopping for the day.

“That they do,” Jennifer took a firmer hold of her reins when Blaze moved to follow Dusty. She took one last look at the moose, it’s head again raised out of the water. “Jesse, why do you think it has that lump hanging under it’s neck?”

“My guess,” Jesse lead the horses off the main trail and onto a less used path that heading directly for the forest. “Is it’s for their protection.”

“Protection?” Jennifer laughed. “How could that protect a moose?”

“When wolves attack, they go for the neck.” As she explained, Jesse sadly recalled a similar conversation she’d once had with her father. She again wondered why her parents, after accepting an offer to move to the ranch, had not appeared in Sweetwater. “If they get a hold of that lump instead, the moose can escape with only a minor injury.”

“Oh,” Jennifer never thought about such a large animal being attacked but when she did, Jesse’s explanation made sense.

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

“Are you sure of your facts?” the territorial governor was skeptical of the information Judge Henry had brought to him.

“Very sure,” Judge Henry had traveled from Bannack to Virginia City to personally inform the governor of the consequences of his act ordering the release of Martin Kinsington on the word of Tobias Harrington. And, of the men’s subsequent plot against Jesse.

“But, I have known Mr. Harrington for some years and have had numerous business dealings with him.”

“Everything I have told you is true,” Henry assured the other man. “And, you cannot let Harrington leave the territory without standing trial.”

“That woman…”

“Jesse Branson,” Judge Henry offered.

“Yes. She is the same woman that brought Sheriff Plummer to our attention?”

“Yes, she and her wife reported his activities to Sheriff Monroe of Sweetwater. Who, in turn, sent the information to you.”

“Then, the territory owes them it’s gratitude,” the governor said, thinking aloud.

“I think they’d be more interested in having Harrington face up to his actions,” Judge Henry replied.

The governor leaned forward in his chair to pull a quill from the inkwell of his desk. “I shall have Tobias Harrington held in Montana Territory and order him to stand trial in Bannack for the charges you have made against him.”

“Might be best to hold the trial in Bozeman,” Judge Henry commented, “don’t think I should be on the bench at his trial.”

“Of course,” the governor wrote his order on a sheet of paper. Picking up a small, silver bell from the corner of his desk and flicking his wrist, the governor rang it.

Almost immediately, the door to the office opened and the governor’s assistant stepped inside.

“Yes, sir.”

“Have this order taken directly to Sweetwater. It is to be delivered into the hands of Sheriff Billie Monroe. Also, have copies delivered to every lawman between Sweetwater and Denver.” He turned to Judge Henry, “just in case Harrington tries to leave the territory before he can be arrested.”

“Yes, sir,” the assistant took the paper from the governor and quickly exited the room.

“I can’t say that I’m happy to hear this news,” the governor leaned back in his chair. “But, I am glad you saw through Harrington’s and Kinsington’s plot. I will take the necessary steps to inform Harrington’s employers of his deceit. I, most certainly, do not appreciate him using the power of this office to further his personal vendettas.”

“I didn’t think you would.”

“As for Kinsington?” the governor asked.

“He is on his way east where he is to be committed to a mental hospital.”

“Do you think that appropriate?”

“Yes,” Judge Henry said not wanting to go into the exact details of Kinsington’s imprisonment.

“Very well,” the governor stood, holding out his hand to the judge. “I shall trust your judgment on this matter.”

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

“Do you really think you can put me in prison and forget about me?” Martin Kinsington questioned his wife. “I have many friends that will see that I am freed.”

“Father, please,” Thomas pleaded after listening to his father’s rants for the last few hours. “We can do nothing about this. Judge Henry has made the order. Please stop taking it out on Mother.”

“You weakling,” Kinsington spat, “I’ll have you removed from the company. Your brothers will see to that.”

“Kinsington,” Marshal Morgan had heard enough. He wasn’t about to listen to the man scream all the way to Denver and beyond. “Either you shut up and keep quiet the remainder of the trip or I will gag you.”

“You will sit there and allow him to threaten me?” Kinsington bellowed at his wife.

Mary stared out the coach’s window, doing her best to block out her husband’s words. In a brief moment of weakness before they left Bannack, she had felt guilty over her plan to have her husband committed. But, after listening to his ravings as the miles passed, she knew in her heart she had made the right decision. Turning to face her husband sitting on the opposite side of the coach, she said, “yes, Martin. I will let him threaten you. And, if you continue in your ravings, I will sit by and let him gag you.”

“Bitch,” Kinsington’s face turned red with anger as his wife’s words sung in. The woman he had controlled since their wedding day had spoken back to him. “How dare you….”

“Father, SHUT UP,” Thomas lunged for his father. Only the marshal’s quick reflexes kept him from tightening his fingers around the man’s throat.

Morgan pulled a neckerchief from his pocket, “deputy, hold Kinsington while I gag him. Thomas sit down,” he ordered.

Kinsington’s struggles against the lawmen’s effort came to no avail as they soon had him gagged and his handcuffed hands tied securely to his leg shackles, preventing him from removing the gag.

“Damn, man.” Marshal Morgan sat back down, breathing heavily from fighting with the prisoner. “You’d think you’d learn you aren’t in charge anymore.”

Mary looked sadly at the shackled, handcuffed and, now, gagged man. Any semblance to the man she had married was long gone and a stranger sat in his place. She turned back to the window, feeling no emotion whatsoever for the marshal’s prisoner

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

“Is Bette Mae, alright?” Ruthie asked as the older woman again took her plate and moved away from the others to eat her meal alone.

Since leaving Bannack, Bette Mae had been unusually quiet. She had said little while they rode and when they stopped to camp, had prepared their meals in silence declining all offers of help. She answered inquiries about her well being with polite but short responses that presented no opportunity for further questioning.

Ed watched as Bette Mae walked away from their camp to sit beside the creek flowing a short distance away. “Sometimes,” he sadly answered Ruthie’s question, “the past comes back to you, bringing all the hurt you thought you’d left behind.”

Ruthie and Billie looked quizzically at the storekeeper but before they could ask for a clarification of his statement, Ed picked up his own plate and moved to sit next to Bette Mae.

“Do you know what’s goin’ on?” Billie asked his fiancé having been at the jail most of their last few days in Bannack, forced to guard Kinsington until Marshall Morgan returned from Deer Lodge.

“I don’t know,” Ruthie shook her head. “She’s been like this ever since the day she said she had business to attend to.”

“What business?”

“Don’t know. She left the hotel one morning and she’s been like this ever since.”

“Hmmm,” Billie pondered the information as he watched Ed sit beside Bette Mae. The two began speaking quietly and Billie sensed they wanted their conversation to be private. “What would you say to a short walk?” he turned to ask Ruthie. “Looks like we’re goin’ have a clear night and a full moon,” he smiled. “Perhaps, we could do some courtin’?” he asked, boldly.

“Billie,” Ruthie blushed at the sheriff’s suggestion, “I’ve already agreed to marry you.”

“Doesn’t mean we can’t do any courtin’,” Billie stood, offering his hand to Ruthie. When she placed her hand into his, he gently pulled her upright. “Besides, I could do with a good stretch of my legs after being in that saddle the past few days.”

Hearing movement behind him, Ed turned to see Billie and Ruthie walking alongside the creek in a direction that took them away from him and Bette Mae. Grateful for the added privacy, he turned back to Bette Mae.

“You can tell me it’s none of my business and I’ll leave ya be,” Ed gently broached the subject that had been on his mind for several days.

“She was yo’r sister,” Bette Mae sniffled. “Guessin’ that makes it yo’r business.”

“What went on between you ain’t my business if you don’t want it to be.”

Bette Mae sat silently watching the water rippling over the rocks in the shallow creek. “I didn’ do right by her,” she said in a quiet voice.

“I don’t believe that, Bette Mae,” Ed was happy that the woman seemed to be willing to talk to him. “She had a strong will, did just what she wanted. Always had.”

“I could hav’ spoke up. Could hav’ tol’ her how I felt.”

“Don’t think it would have made much difference,” Ed said softly, not wanting to hurt Bette Mae any more than she already was. “Don’t know what she told you, but she loved Cassidy. Would have stayed with him no matter what.”

“Said she thought ’bout leavin’ ‘im. But, she had no place to go.”

“I know, she told me that, too.”

Bette Mae looked up at Ed, her eyes questioning what he had just told her.

“I tried to get her away from Cassidy many times,” Ed tossed a pebble into the creek, watching it until it got lost among the other stones on the creek bed.

“She said yo’r momma thought the world of him. That you liked him, too,” she countered Ed’s comments.

“Oh, momma liked him alright. Believed all his get rich quick claims, thought he’d buy her a big house with lots of servants. And, I admit,” Ed added as Bette Mae continued to look at him, doubtfully, “for a while, I believed his boasts. But, soon as I met up with them in Bozeman, it didn’t take long to figure out he was all talk. He gambled away more money than their little store made. Wasn’t long before he had bill collectors knocking on their door day and night. Then, I woke up one day to find them gone. Bastard made promises to folks that I’d clear his debts so I had to get me some jobs and I stayed until I had.”

“Mary Elizabeth left you there to pay off their debts?”

“Oh,” Ed tossed another pebble, “she had a real blind spot when it came to Cassidy. No matter what that bastard did, she stuck up for him. When I finally made it to Sweetwater, he had taken off again. I followed them to try and get her to leave him. But, she wouldn’t. Just kept telling me that he was going to strike it rich in the gold camps. Over the years, I gave up. I kept track of her by the towns he left owing money. He always told folks to send any bills to the store and that I’d pay ’em. They spent time in just about every mining camp in the territory, Garnet, Coloma, Granite, Pony, Elkhorn, Boulder, Nevada City, Alder Gulch, Marysville, Last Chance. You name it and Cassidy owed money there.”

“But, she was so…”

“Smart. I thought so, too. Until she met him,” Ed took Bette Mae’s hands into his much larger ones. “I know you’re thinking that you could have made a difference. And, I truly wish that she would have had the same feelings for you that you had for her. But, the truth is, she loved him, Bette Mae. And, no matter how rough it got or how poorly he treated her, she was determined to stick by him.”

“She was mighty pretty, Ed. I do believe she took my heart tha’ first night we met. I woulda don’ anythin’ to save her from the pain he gave her.”

“I know you would, Bette Mae. Just sometimes we can’t be saved from ourselves.”

“She’s ta only one I’s ever loved,” Bette Mae leaned against Ed’s strong shoulder. “Ta only one I ever will.”

“I know,” Ed whispered, hoping it wasn’t true and that his friend would someday find someone who would love her back as much as she loved them. It was sad to think of his sister with a man who never really loved her when she could have had so much more. “I know.”

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

“Gentlemen,” Mayor Perkins whined, “it’s late and my wife is waiting supper on me.”

“Mayor Perkins,” Glade did not look up from the papers he was studying, “I have told you before that you may leave. Your assistance is no longer required.”

“I can’t leave you in my office,” Perkins argued.

“You afraid we’re going to steal something?” Weese taunted the mayor about his sparsely furnished office.

“No, it’s just that…”

“Either leave or be quiet,” Glade growled. “I can’t concentrate with all this babbling going on.”

“Fine,” Mayor Perkins grabbed his coat from the hook beside the door, “just lock the door when you leave.”

“Good night, mayor,” Weese blew out a puff of cigar smoke.

“Do you ever not smoke those?” Glade coughed as the sharp tasting smoke entered his nose and mouth.

“Only when I sleep,” Weese took a long drag on the offensive cigar.

“Then, why don’t you go back to the hotel and go to sleep. You’re not helping much here, anyway.”

“Isn’t much for me to do with you hovering over those papers like that,” Weese leaned back in his chair, content to let the other man do all the work if he so chose.

“Damn,” Glade pushed the papers aside and pulled a ledger book in front of him. “From what I can see, Harrington followed his instructions to the letter with the exception of his dealings with this Martin Kinsington.”

“Seems I’ve heard that name,” Weese puffed out a perfect ring of cigar smoke, watching it float to the ceiling before breaking apart.

“You should have,” Glade shook his head, wondering again why the ignorant man was on the company’s board of directors. “We’ve done business with his shipping company many times. Usually dealt with his son, though,” he added. more to himself.

“Ah, yes, now I remember,” Weese let loose another smoke ring. “What about his purchase of the Songbird?” Weese asked, addressing the true crux of the matter.

“The board approved the assay report before he signed the papers,” Glade pulled a specific sheet from the stacks on the desk.

“How is that possible?” Weese sat up, his movement so abrupt he almost spit his cigar at Glade. “I don’t recall the board ever voting on that issue.”

“The board didn’t,” Glade pushed the paper across the desk. “One board member approved the purchased outright.”

“That’s not possible,” Weese reached for the paper, rapidly reading it. “But, he had no authority.”

“No, but he signed that didn’t keep him from signing the order authorizing Harrington to buy the Songbird.”

“But, why?”

“That is a very good question?” Thaddeus Newby asked himself. He was sitting in the office of the Gazette, which just happened to share a wall, a very thin wall, with the mayor’s office. He wasn’t officially eavesdropping, he told himself, but rather working late given that the opportunity to gain some insight into the dealings of Tobias Harrington had, so conveniently, presented itself.

“I don’t know,” Glade scratched his cheek, it was time again to trim his sideburns. “Wait a minute,” he exclaimed. Something had been gnawing at the back of his mind, something that would explain what he had just told Weese.

“What?”

“That assayer’s report, where is it?”

“Which one?”

“The first one.”

“I think it’s in that pile,” Weese pointed to the desk. “We looked at it earlier.”

“You’re right,” Glade started through the mound of documents in questions. “Yes, here it is. Damn.”

“What?”

“The name of the miner that sold the Songbird to Harrington?”

“Jackson, no,” Weese scratched his bald head. “Jerkins, no.”

“Jensen,” Thaddeus whispered.

“Jensen,” Glade shouted. “Look at the signature on that order.”

“Jensen. It could be a coincidence.”

“Don’t be a fool.”

“Well, I’ll be,” Thaddeus chuckled. “Ol’ Jensen made fools out of all of ’em.”

“This doesn’t make sense,” Weese scrubbed out his cigar on the mayor’s desk. “Besides us, he protested this deal the most.”

“Clever of him,” Glade slumped back in his chair, “don’t you think. What better way to cover his tracks?”

“But, why wasn’t the purchase questioned.”

“The board sent Harrington here to buy a gold mine, one that showed promise of a rich vein. He receives a follow-up order, signed by Jensen, telling him the board has decided on the Songbird based on a assay report he ordered, not Harrington. Why would he question it?”

“But, he said nothing about this to the board?”

“We weren’t asking him about the mine. Only about the cost overruns caused by his failure to purchase the Silver Slipper.”

“That’s right. He had no reason to mention it.”