Sweetwater by Mickey Minner

Sweetwater
by Mickey Minner
#1 in the Sweetwater Saga

CHAPTER ONE

The moon slipped behind the drifting clouds just as Jennifer crawled over the window sill and out onto a narrow section of roof. Though she was glad for the extra cover to help conceal her movements, the deepening darkness did make her immediate journey that much more difficult. Tentatively, she stepped to the roof’s edge and, without giving herself any time to reconsider, she made the short jump onto a sturdy branch of the massive oak tree that had stood outside her bedroom window for as long as she could remember. Carefully, using the tree’s many branches as hand and footholds, she climbed down the thick trunk to the grassy yard below. Pausing only long enough to untie the small canvas travel bag strapped to her back, she quickly crossed the yard and passed through the waist high cast-iron gate before disappearing into the night’s shadows.

As she walked swiftly towards the business district, Jennifer gave little thought to the fact that she was leaving behind the quiet neighborhood where she had been born and raised. Instead, her attention was focused on the distant whistle of the midnight train chugging its way to the town’s station. She quickened her steps because the last thing she wanted was to miss being a passenger on that train as it left town a short 30 minutes after arriving.

Even at this late hour, the business district was alive with activity. Delivery wagons stood in front of the station, prepared to take on cargo the train delivered. Representatives from the town’s hotels and boarding houses rushed to greet late arriving guests on the wood-planked platform circling the brick depot building. Music from pianos, most badly in need of tuning, filled the night’s air around the numerous drinking and gambling houses that shared the district with more respectable businesses. Knowing this was not a good place for a single woman to be, especially at night, Jennifer kept her eyes focused straight ahead and made her way rapidly to the relative safety of the station’s platform.

Jennifer reached the station just moments after the train rolled to a stop and the loud hiss of it’s releasing steam drowned out the other noises of the busy depot. She climbed the depot’s steps, looking back along the route she had just traveled to see if anyone had taken undue notice of her. Relieved that no one was paying her any attention, Jennifer turned to find a place to wait while the disembarking passengers gathered their luggage and moved off the platform and into the night. Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, she leaned against the cool brick of the depot’s wall. She forced her body to remain still, afraid that any movement would give her away. Jennifer was determined not to relax until she could feel the wheels of the train moving beneath her.

The night’s shadows and the floppy lace hat Jennifer wore did a good job of hiding her features. She wore a dark blue dress which easily blended into the shadows where she stood and she hugged her travel bag close to her chest, concealing her frame that much more. Her long hair was braided and tucked up and into her hat. If anyone had taken the time to pay the young woman any attention, they would have noticed that her eyes continually scanned the activity on the platform, looking for any recognition in the faces passing by her. But, the people moving about that night were much too concerned with their own business to notice the young woman and they passed her right by without thought.

“All aboard,” the conductor’s call broke Jennifer from her surveillance.

“Finally,” she whispered to herself as she pushed away from the depot’s wall and nervously took another glance around the corner of the building. Relieved to see no one she knew, she hurried across the platform. By the time the conductor had finished calling out the names of the train’s next few stops, Jennifer was standing impatiently next to him waiting for her ticket to be checked.

“Going all the way to Denver,” the conductor commented as he took her ticket. “You’ll be wanting the sleeper car then. Just continue right through this car and into the next. Take any bunk you like.”

“Thank you,” she smiled at the man as she retrieved her punched ticket and tucked it securely back into her bag.

Jennifer mounted the high steps and without a look back at the only home she had ever known, she entered the passenger car and made her way to the sleeper. When, a few moments later, the engineer blew the steam whistle warning of the train’s imminent departure, she was situated in the top bunk at the far end of the sleeper car. Jennifer was almost thrown from the bunk as the steam locomotive lurched to life, jerking the passenger and cargo cars behind. But, she quickly resettled herself on the lumpy mattress, her thoughts gradually returning to the events that had led to her present situation.

Five Days Earlier

“No,” his deep voice boomed. “I will not have a daughter of mine working.”

“But, Father,” Jennifer tried again to make her father understand her feelings.

“Absolutely, not,” his deep voice boomed as he paced about the room. Jennifer’s father was a large man, well over six feet tall and solidly built. Watching him stomping about the elegant furnishings in their home’s small sitting room would have been amusing under different circumstances. But, Jennifer was anything but amused. She had had this ‘discussion’ many times with her father and his response was always the same.

“Respectable women do not work. Your mother never worked. She married, as was her duty, and you will do the same.”

Jennifer’s father, Martin Kinsington was a successful business man, having inherited a prosperous shipping company from his father who had, in turn, inherited it from his father. Her three brothers worked in the company and she had thought that she could too. Not on the ships or down at the docks where cargos were loaded and unloaded, but in the shipping office where her skills with numbers and writing could be of use. She had listened to her father constantly complain of inadequate help in that area and she wanted to make a contribution to the family business. Not to mention, the money she could earn would help fund her dream of traveling. She longed to explore the country’s western territories. The last thing she wanted was to be the wife of one of the numerous suitors that her father constantly arranged to call on her.

Jennifer watched her father cross and re-cross the room, while her mother sat quietly in a chair saying nothing. Jennifer took a deep breath and tried again, “just a few hours a week, Father. Just enough to make me feel useful and allow me some spending money.”

“NO,” her father’s shout rattled the room’s windows. “You do not need money. A silly thing like you would not know how to handle money. Look at your mother,” he came to a stop directly in front of Jennifer and pointed to the small woman sitting without expression in the corner of the room. “She has never had two coins to rub together and she has never needed them. I see to all of her needs, just as your husband will see to yours.”

She said nothing as her mind raced for just the right reason that would convince her father. Her shoulders slumped as she realized that she could never make her father understand, Jennifer sighed deeply, her head dropping to her chest in defeat. Seeing this, her father moved quickly to reinforce her apparent capitulation.

“I never want this subject brought up again. Do you understand?” he leaned down until he was mere inches from her face and waited for her reply.

“Yes,” Jennifer whispered.

“Good,” he straightened back up, towering over Jennifer. “I have a shipment to see to,” he said with a nod to his wife. And, after one final look at Jennifer as if to say ‘this matter is settled’ he turned and left the house.

Jennifer sat in the now deafening silence and for several minutes studied her mother.

In contrast to her husband, Mary Stancey Kinsington, was a woman of slight statue and delicate features. Born into the well respected Stancey ship-building family, Mary was only seventeen when Jennifer’s grandfather had arranged for her marriage. Mary Kinsington spent most of her days seeing to the running of the Kinsington home and supervising the family’s small staff of domestic help. She attended few social functions unless her presence was required for her husband’s benefit. Instead, spending her free time participating in sewing and reading circles which were in actuality nothing more than gossip sessions.

Jennifer studied the woman who had raised herself and her brothers with as much love as any mother had ever given her children. And yet, in her own sixteen years of life, Jennifer could not recall her mother ever voicing an opinion that had not been first uttered by her father. In fact, it was hard to remember a time when her mother had voiced any opinion. Her mother lived her life in her husband’s shadow and was. seemingly. content to do so.

Jennifer knew that her mother had not loved her father at the time of their marriage but, over the years since, had come to adore him. Jennifer was never quite sure what her mother meant when she spoke of her father in that way.

‘No,’ Jennifer vowed to herself, ‘I will not end up like her.’ She rose from the chair and crossed the room to where her mother still quietly sat. Leaning down, she kissed her mother gently on the forehead.

“I’m going to the library,” she told her. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back in time for dinner.” Her father required the entire family’s attendance at evening meals unless demands of their shipping business interfered. She took the few steps to the front door, turning back she told her mother “I’ll make my dreams come true no matter what Father says.”

And, with that she left never seeing the single tear slowly making it’s way down her mother’s cheek.

“I pray that you do, daughter,” a soft voice was barely heard in the silence of the room. “I pray that you do.”

~~~~~~~~~~

Jennifer pushed open the heavy oak door that greeted visitors to the Kinsington Library. Her father’s ‘gift’ to the town was a massive sandstone building with oak framed windows, oak bookshelves and oak reading tables. ‘Genteel understatement’ Jennifer had satirically described the building at its elaborate opening ceremony. Its design was for one purpose only and that being to impress the town with her father’s generosity. Of course, Jennifer knew the real reason behind the gift. Her father had wanted to increase his dock space and in order to sway the town council to his way of thinking, he had ‘donated’ the library and had provided a yearly stipend to employ a librarian and to purchase books. And in return he had, not surprisingly, received permission to expand his docks.

Jennifer really didn’t care why her father had donated the library, she was just glad that he had, as she spent as much time as she could at the building. In fact, the library was the best thing her father had ever done for her. She had read almost every book it’s shelves held and she had become good friends with the young man hired for the librarian position. Her dreams had taken root in the library and it’s many books continually nourished them. But, Jennifer kept her dreams to herself because she knew her father would seal the massive oak doors shut if he knew the part his library played in them.

Jennifer trudged across the oak floor and dropped down into one of the large overstuffed chairs provided for reading.

“What did he do now?” Matthew, the young man who served as librarian, asked looking up from his work cataloging the latest delivery of books. He had graduated from a nearby college a few years previously and had been offered the position of librarian immediately thereafter. He was a few years older than Jennifer but being new in town and naturally shy, he had found her friendship a welcome bonus to his duties.

“He turned me down again,” she answered.

“You know that he’ll never change his mind, don’t you?”

“Yes,” she sighed.

It was not uncommon for Jennifer to come to the library after arguing with her father and Matthew rarely had to guess the cause of his friend’s dark mood, having had this conversation with Jennifer several times before. Knowing Jennifer would need some quiet time, Matthew went back to his work leaving Jennifer to her own thoughts, .

Almost an hour passed before Jennifer pulled her legs up under her to got more comfortable in the large overstuffed chair

“So, Matt,” Jennifer, her mood much improved, playfully asked the librarian. “You planning on letting me see today’s delivery?”

“Maybe,” Matthew smiled, knowing Jennifer was fully aware of what the latest delivery contained since she had helped him make out the order weeks earlier. It was a favorite game of theirs to argue over the orders. Jennifer was fascinated with the western frontier and would argue for more books covering the west while Matthew would insist the library provide a wider range of subjects for readers. Then, after the order was finalized, Matthew would always add one or two additional books as surprises for his young friend.

“Got something here that might just bring a smile back to your face,” Matthew reached down into a box at his feet and pulled out a rolled up newspaper.

“What is it?” Jennifer asked as she rose out of the chair and made her way to Matthew’s desk.

“All the way from Denver,” Matthew handed her the paper which she took and immediately began to devour.

“Matt, this is great,” Jennifer cried excitingly without lifting her eyes from the paper she held. “But, how did you manage it,” she asked knowing that it was hard enough getting copies of newspapers from cities on the east coast let alone one from the western territories.

“Chap I know at the publishing house mentioned they sometimes send books out west. Asked him for a favor and that’s what he sent. Only a month old. Not bad, eh?” Matthew was pleased that he was able to surprise Jennifer with the newspaper.

“Not bad. I’d say it was fantastic,” Jennifer smiled at her friend. “I can’t wait to read the whole thing.”

“Go on,” Matthew motioned her to one of the large oak reading tables. “Spread it out and enjoy. I’ve got to finish cataloging the rest of these books.”

A comfortable silence fell over the library as Jennifer read the Denver paper and Matthew finished the job of cataloging the recent arrivals. Jennifer finished the news part of the paper and began reading through the advertisements at the end.

“Oh, my,” she gasped as her eyes fell on the small ad at the bottom of the back page.

“Are you okay?” Matthew looked up from his work.

“Yes, I’m fine,” Jennifer reread the ad. Turning to look at the librarian, she asked hesitantly, “Matt, do you think I’d make a good schoolteacher?”

“You’d make a great teacher,” Matthew replied. “Why do you ask?”

“There’s an ad here. It says they need single women to teach school in towns out west.”

“Jennifer,” Matthew rose from his desk, “you’re not thinking…?”

“Matt,” Jennifer was getting more excited the more she read and re-read the ad. “It’s perfect. I will be able to live in the west like I’ve always wanted AND I will make enough money to be on my own. You said yourself that I would make a good teacher,” Jennifer’s confidence grew as she rolled the idea around in her mind.

“Great,” Matthew leaned over Jennifer’s shoulder to read the ad that had captured her attention. “I said that you would make a great teacher. But, there is no way your father will allow you to travel west to be a schoolteacher.”

“I don’t plan to tell him.”

“Jennifer, you can’t….”

Jennifer thought for a moment before deciding. A sense of purpose grew inside her and she twisted her head in order to face to her friend. “I’ll be 17 in two months, Matt. Father is already complaining that I am taking to long to choose a suitor that will benefit the family and has decided that I shall be married by my 18th birthday. Whether I agree or not.” She looked pleadingly into his eyes, “please, Matt. Please promise me you won’t say anything.”

“I don’t know,” Matthew started to pace reminding Jennifer of her father’s actions only a couple of hours earlier.

“Promise me.”

“But, he is… I mean, technically, he is my employer and,,,”

“Matt,” Jennifer grabbed her friend’s arm, preventing him from ending his thought. “Please, this is a chance I have to take. I may never get another.”

Matt sat on the arm of the chair Jennifer occupied. He studied the girl looking so hopefully at him.

Jennifer was willowy and taller than most women the librarian knew but not quite as tall as Matthew’s own 5 feet 10 inches. Her ginger hair set off her sapphire blue eyes and he believed young Miss Kinsington to be one of the prettiest young women in the town. Indeed, she could have her pick of the town’s many eligible bachelors but, for reasons he had never understood, she continually turned down all requests to be courted.

Matthew had come to regard Jennifer as the sister he never as he watched her grow from a naive girl into a young woman with a fierce independent spirit who was not afraid to have hopes and dreams. Matt was convinced that Jennifer’s inner strength could wear down the strongest of men but did she have the fortitude required to survive the life she was now talking of challenging. Not to mention, doing it in a part of the country so different from the way of life she has only known.

As he continued to study her, Matt knew that Jennifer was right. Her dreams were too precious to destroy by forcing her into a future that would only bring her unhappiness and misery. Being forced into marriage by a father who was only seeing it from the standpoint of a good business deal, was definitely not the right life for the young woman watching him so intensely.

“Alright,” he gave in. “But, how do you plan to get to Denver? You have no money,” he reminded her.

“You’re due to get your next stipend soon,” she thought out loud.

“Oh, no,” he shook his head halfheartedly. “Your father would hog tie me and throw me on the next ship to the Orient if he found out that I not only kept your plans a secret from him but also gave you money.”

“He’ll never know,” Jennifer quickly assured the librarian. “I’ll save the money I make and, as soon as I can, I’ll send you enough to make up what you give me. Please Matt,” she pleaded again, her dreams were within her grasp and she was not going to let them fall through her fingers.

“Gosh, I know this is wrong,” Matthew ran his hands through his hair fretfully. He looked into her eyes and knew that he could not, would not, refuse her.

“Your father is due to come by the day after tomorrow with my stipend. That should be enough for you to buy a ticket to Denver and have some left to see you through until you get to whatever town your teaching position is in.”

“Thank you,” Jennifer threw her arms around Matthew’s neck and kissed him on the cheek. “Your the best friend anyone could ever have.”

“Just promise me one thing,” Matthew, concerned what it would look like if someone happened to enter the library just then, quickly unwrapped her arms from his neck.

“Anything,” Jennifer blushed shyly realizing what she had just done.

“Promise me you’ll make your dreams come true,” the librarian smiled at his friend.

“I promise you, Matt.”

Taking a quick look at the library’s door, Matthew wrapped his arms around Jennifer and briefly hugged her close. “If anyone can, Jennifer, I know it will be you. You better be getting home. It’s almost dinner time and you don’t want to be late.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Jennifer nodded, her eyes brimming with tears. She did not want to leave the refuge of the library but she also did not want to give her father any new excuse to again rage at her. She turned to leave, then stopped. Hesitantly, she said, “Matt, one more thing.”

“You want me to buy the ticket,” he smiled knowing that Jennifer could not go to the train station and purchase a ticket to Denver without raising suspicions.

“If you don’t mind,” Jennifer smirked.

“Just remember me when you’re out west enjoying yourself,” he laughed.

“Don’t worry,” Jennifer answered sincerely. “If this works, I’ll never forget you.”

~~~~~~~~~

“Did you get it,” Jennifer slid to a stop at the librarian’s desk, breathless after running all the way from her house.

“Just got back,” Matthew handed her an envelope holding a single ticket for the next scheduled train through town.

“Did anyone question you?” Jennifer asked as she clutched the envelope to her chest.

“No,” Matthew laughed, “I can honestly say that I’ve never seen any of the station workers within these walls. And, since I don’t get to that end of town very often, it’s not too likely that anyone knew who I was. They probably assumed I was just another business man traveling west.”

“Good,” Jennifer was staring at the ticket in her hands.

“Are you sure about this?” Matthew asked. “I mean, it’s not too late to change your mind.”

“No, Matt,” Jennifer sat in the chair next to his desk. “This may be my only chance. I can’t let it pass.”

With a sigh, Matthew dropped into his chair behind his desk. He knew Jennifer spoke the truth. In a way, he was jealous of his friend. Not because she was doing something to make her dreams come true but because she had dreams. He was content with his life and really had no desire to change it. He would miss Jennifer after she left, but he would find other friends and he would happily take whatever life provided. But, he knew Jennifer would never just settle for what life handed her. No, she wanted to go out and reach for her dreams, forcing life to bend to her wishes. And, he had no doubt she would do just that.

“Okay, I purchased a round trip ticket. That way you can cash in the return trip when you get to Denver and you won’t need to carry so much money on the train. Next train leaves in two days, just after midnight. Are you sure you’ll be able to get out of the house to make it?”

“I’ll make sure.”

****************
CHAPTER TWO

Jesse reached down and grabbed the corners of the fifty pound bag of flour, then effortlessly lifted it from the scarred wooden floor of the general store and settled it across her broad shoulders. She carried the bag out of the store to place it in the back of the buckboard waiting in the hot, dusty street. Returning back into the store, she asked “is that all of it?”

“Yep, Jesse,” the storekeeper replied. “Everything on your list.”

“What’s the damage?”

“Give me a minute to finish this,” the storekeeper returned his attention to the column of numbers before him.

Ed Granger was a big, bear of a man but was one of the gentlest souls Jesse had ever met. A beard covered his handsome features that would easily break into a broad smile and hearty laugh when given the slightest reason. His head was topped with graying hair that matched his eyes, sparkling with an ever present good humor. His leather work apron stretched over a growing paunch, ‘too many good meals at the Silver Slipper’ Ed chiding himself ever morning as he wrapped the apron around his growing middle. He had assumed the operation of the general store from his brother-in-law who was traveling from one gold strike to another hoping to strike it rich. Always willing to help out someone down on their luck, Ed was well-liked and respected as a honest businessman in a occupation not always known for honest dealings.

“Take your time,” Jesse rested her tall, sinewy body against the well-worn wooden counter in front of Ed. She crossed one booted ankle over the other and waited patiently for Ed to finish adding up her charges.

Ed finally scratched a number on the paper, “looks like $16.83 this trip, Jesse.”

Reaching into the pocket of the faded flannel shirt she wore, Jesse pulled out the folded bills she had placed there earlier that morning. She tossed the bills on the counter. “Here. You can put the rest on my account.”

“Thanks, Jesse,” Ed made a notation in the store’s ledger before closing the large book and putting it back in it’s place beneath the counter. “Want me to send the boy over to help you unload?” He knew what the answer would be but it didn’t hurt to offer.

“No, thanks. I can manage.” Jesse left the store and stepped back out onto the shaded boardwalk that lined the front of the building. Heat waves were rising from the dirt packed surface of the street and it wasn’t yet mid-day. Jesse knew the town was in for another scorcher, the sky was completely cloudless and there was no indication that rain would be forthcoming anytime soon. Not wanting to leave the relative coolness of the shaded boardwalk just yet, Jesse leaned against the nearest support post and observed the town she now called home.

Located at the northern end of a river valley and nestled up against the forest that separated the valley from the bordering Rocky Mountains, Sweetwater wasn’t much by anyone’s standards. The town had been built around the stage station, it’s main purpose to serve as a supply point for the ranches and mining camps in the surrounding valleys and mountains. A dozen buildings of various sizes and shapes lined the stage road that doubled as the town’s only street. The original adobe stage station still served that purpose and was located directly across the street from the general store. The town had received its name from the sweet tasting waters of several creeks that flowed out of the nearby mountains to form the river running down the center of the valley. The constant supply of fresh water made the valley an ideal place for ranching and kept the town alive during long summer month’s of drought.

Jesse had lived in Sweetwater just shy of a year. She had arrived with nothing but the clothes on her back and the horse she rode. In her shirt pocket, she had carried the deed to a gambling house she had won in a Denver poker game. Never having heard of Sweetwater before the night of the game, Jesse had come to the small town intent on making a fast sale on the Silver Slipper and leaving town with some gold in her empty pockets. But, as the fates would have it, Jesse had fallen in love with the town and the surrounding valley. So, instead of selling the establishment of questionably repute, she had decided to stay and make it into a respectable business.

After assuming ownership of the Silver Slipper, Jesse had immediately thrown out the dishonest card dealers. She had shut down the second floor rooms to use by the ‘working women’ and had turned them into boarding rooms. The main floor had been split into two sections, one providing a quiet place for diners to enjoy a well-cooked meal. The other allowed the continuation of the gaming tables for anyone interested. The women who had once plied their trade in the upstairs rooms had become the Slipper’s card dealers, maids, and cooks. It hadn’t taken much persuasion on Jesse’s part to win the women over to the new way of doing business. Those who weren’t happy with the changes had been given ten dollars and a one-way stage ticket out of Sweetwater. Those who had decided to stay soon found liking serving meals, cleaning rooms, or dealing cards much more then they had their previous horizontal profession.

Cattle and horse buyers coming to Sweetwater to do business with the valley’s ranchers quickly discovered they could get a clean room and good meal at the Slipper and made it their primary place of business when in town. Folks riding the stage to and from points further west, enjoyed the atmosphere they found at the Silver Slipper much better than staying at the old stage station and were more than glad to spend the extra dollars to rent a room for the night. And, once word got out that the tables at the Silver Slipper provided honest games of chance, there was no shortage of customers. Jesse soon had a thriving business.

The Silver Slipper also provided Jesse with enough money to purchase a small ranch just outside of town where she was beginning to slowly build a cattle herd. It had always been a dream of Jesse’s to own her own ranch. Growing up, she had thought that she would take over the running of her family’s ranch from her father. After all, she had no brothers and it seemed like the natural thing would be for her father to let her assume the ownership of the ranch. But, that was not to be. When her father had reached the point that he was no longer able to work the ranch, he had sold it without ever discussing his decision with Jesse. She had come home after riding fence for several days to find her father and mother packing their belongings in the back of a heavy freight wagon. She was informed that the ranch had been sold and her parents were moving into Bozeman. She ‘being of legal age, and showing no inclination to marry’, her father had told her, could now find her own way in life.

After months of drifting around the western territories, Jesse had found herself in Denver and, being low on cash, had decided to sit in on one of the poker games taking place in the saloon where she sat nursing a glass of whiskey. Lady Luck was with Jesse that night and, by late in the evening, she had won most of the money on the table. One player, having consumed more than his share of whiskey during the game, had insisted on one more hand.

“Only fair to give me a chance to win back my money,” he told the rest of the players, his words slurred from the liquor.

“Ah, call it a night, Johnson,” another player said. “You ain’t got nothin’ left to bet with.”

Reaching into his coat pocket, Johnson pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and placed it on the table smoothing the sheet with his rough hands. “I can bet with this.”

“What is it?” the third man at the table asked.

“Deed to the Silver Slipper. Best whorehouse in Sweetwater,” Johnson bragged.

The other men at the table and those at nearby tables hearing the loud boast burst into laughter. “You mean, the only whorehouse in Sweetwater,” the third player guffawed. “Broken down wreck. Even your whores ain’t much from what I’ve heard.”

“It’s worth enough,” Johnson shouted, his face beet red in anger at the jeers directed his way. “Come on,” Johnson said to the other players. “What have ya got to lose?”

“I’ll play,” Jesse said quietly. She had remained silent up to this point being content to leave the game with her winnings. But, she didn’t take kindly to the way the men talked about the ‘working women’. Seemed like men were always mighty glad to have the ladies share their beds but were loathed to have the same women share their table.

“I’ll put two hundred in the pot,” that amount was half of the money in Jesse’s neat stack of bills. But, she figured she could chance losing it and would still have a great deal more than she’d had when she entered the saloon.

“Now we’re talking,” Johnson placed the deed in the center of the table next to Jesse’s bet. “Anyone else want in,” Johnson looked expectedly at the other two men sitting round their table.

“Nope, I’m out,” said the first man remaining in his chair but pushing back from the table..

“Me, too. If I don’t get home soon, my woman will meet me at the door with her frying pan again,” the second man rose to a chorus of sniggers and catcalls from the saloon’s patrons now crowding around the table. It wasn’t often that this kind of money was bet on one hand and everyone wanted a good view knowing that the game would be talked about for months to come.

“Okay,” Johnson glared across the table at Jesse. “We’ll cut the cards to see who deals,” he said matter of factly and reached for the deck.

“I have a better idea,” Jesse said in a manner that demanded no argument. “Barkeep, a fresh deck of cards.” If she was going to play for these stakes, she wanted to do so with a deck that hadn’t been marked. Then, looking around the crowd of faces circling the table, she pointed to a boy who didn’t look old enough to be out this late at night let alone in this type of establishment.

“You deal,” Jesse told the boy.

The boy found himself being slapped on the back and pushed toward the empty chair at the table. Several in the crowd laughed and scoffed at his instant celebrity. He sat heavily down on the chair and gulped loudly as the barkeep handed him the fresh deck.

“Why him?” Johnson demanded. If he couldn’t deal, he wanted to pick his own dealer, one that could slip him a card or two from the bottom of the deck.

“Looks honest,” Jesse stated. She stared at Johnson daring him to voice an objection to the neutral dealer.

Johnson studied the woman that sat across the table from him. She was taller than himself and a lot of the men in the crowd. Though her body showed all the curves he would expect to see on a woman, it also showed a strength built over time from long days of hard work. Johnson saw a woman that could be more than a match for his own fighting skills and decided that this night was not the time to put his theory to the test. “Fine,” he mumbled. Turning to the nervous dealer, he barked “Deal, damn you.”

The boy broke the seal on the pack of cards, he removed the jokers from the deck before proceeding to shuffle the cards. After several shaky shuffles, cards were dealt out to the two players. Jesse picked up her cards and gave them a long look as she cradled them in her hands so no one else could see what she held. Leaving the cards in the order they had been dealt, she placed her hand face down on the table. Her gaze turning to her opponent.

Johnson was staring at his cards, beads of sweat had formed on his upper lip and he wiped at them with the back of his hand. He looked at Jesse, trying to find any hint in her expression as to what she held in her hand. Seeing nothing, he grunted and studied his hand again. Johnson took two cards from his hand and threw them face down on the table. “Two,” he told the dealer, asking for new cards.

The boy dealt two cards to Johnson before turning to Jesse.

“One,” Jesse calmly informed the dealer and placed a card in the center of the table. A wave of mumblings swept through the watching crowd as Jesse added the new card to her hand, she nodded to Johnson to play his cards.

“Three sevens,” Johnson smiled as he placed his hand face up on the table. “Looks like Lady Luck decided to change sides,” Johnson gloated and reached for the pot in the middle of the table. He wasn’t going to lose the Silver Slipper after all.

“Let the lady show her cards,” someone in the crowd called out forcing Johnson to withdraw his hands.

“Go on,” Johnson growled at Jesse. “Show ’em you ain’t got enough to beat me.”

Jesse gave Johnson a half smile, half smirk as she started to turn her hand over, one card at a time. A hush fell over the room as a king of hearts was followed by a king of spades. Next, a two of diamonds was turned over and then a two of clubs.

“Told ya,” Johnson crowed. “She ain’t got nothin’ but two pair.”

Before Johnson could get the words out of his mouth, Jesse turned over her last card to reveal the two of hearts.

A loud shout broke the silence and members of the watching crowd began to whoop and holler at Jesse’s victory. She gathered the money and deed from the table. Carefully folding the deed before placing it into her shirt pocket, Jesse then took twenty dollars from her stack and pushed it across the table to Johnson.

“No one should leave the table broke,” she offered to Johnson.

Johnson picked up the bills and flung them back at Jesse, “Don’t want your money, bitch.” He stood so fast that the people standing behind him did not have a chance to move and several were knocked back into others crowding behind. The table was jostled and would have tipped over had the young dealer not grabbed on with both hands to steady it. Jesse watched Johnson leave the table, handed a five dollar bill to the boy who had dealt the cards then rose from her seat. She smiled at the several patrons shouting offers to buy her drinks, “Sorry, boys. It’s been a long night and I think a nice, warm bed is a better idea.” Some of the men immediately changed their offers from whiskey to sharing her bed. She politely declined and, working her way through the crowd, made for the same door that Johnson had exited moments before.

Once outside, Jesse stood for several minutes enjoying the cool night air after the stuffy heat of the saloon. Her horse, Dusty, stood patiently at the hitch in front of the saloon. Jesse walked over to Dusty and patted her gently on the neck. “Looks like we own a house of ill repute in Sweetwater,” Jesse reported to Dusty. “Didn’t think I’d ever be returning to Montana,” Jesse said as she unwrapped the reins from the hitching post. She pulled herself up into the saddle, “by the look of Johnson, seems best to hightail it out of Denver. So, guess we’ll be heading north tonight.”

Dusty vigorously raised and lowered her head several times in agreement before turning to the street and breaking into a trot without Jesse’s urging.

Jesse laughed, asking her horse, “you know something I don’t?”

Standing in the alley by the saloon and hidden in the night’s shadows, Johnson watched as Jesse mounted her horse. Johnson reached for the pistol in his holster but before he could get a shot off a group of men, still talking about Jesse’s winning hand exited the saloon, blocking his view. When the men finally walked past Johnson, Jesse was no longer in sight.

~~~~~~~~~~

“‘Bout time for the stage to arrive,” Ed broke into Jesse’s thoughts as he stepped out onto the boardwalk and stood next to her. Looking across the street, Jesse noticed that people were beginning to gather at the stage station.

“New schoolteacher is supposed to be on the stage,” Ed said excitingly.

“Yep,” Jesse answered thinking ‘that explains the crowd of single men waiting for the stage today.’ There seemed to be have been little else discussed in town for the past several weeks since Mayor Perkins had announced that a schoolteacher would be arriving from Denver to take on the duties at the schoolhouse. The town had built the school last summer but it had stood empty because the town lacked a qualified teacher.

Jesse’s ears picked up the sounds of beating hoofs and slapping leather. The cries of the stage driver yelling commands to his team of straining horses announced the stage’s impending arrival. Moments later, the coach could be seen where the road broke from the forest. The stage thundered into Sweetwater and skidded to a stop in front of the stage station, a choking cloud of dust filled the air and covered everything and everyone it came into contact with.

Jesse looked across the street as the passengers began to step from the stage. A young woman was helped from the coach and the small gathering of single men surged towards her. ‘That must be the new schoolteacher’, Jesse thought as she reached up and removed her stetson, releasing a shower of shoulder length reddish, brown hair. Using the sleeve of her shirt, Jesse wiped the sweat from her brow and waved the stetson in front of her face to clear the dust kicked up by the stage.

At the same moment, the young woman stepped away from the stage. Getting her first look at the town of Sweetwater, she turned to observe the side of the street where Jesse stood. The motion of Jesse’s hat attracted her and her eyes fell upon the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. A pair of sapphire eyes locked onto a pair of auburn eyes and the world seemed to stand still for both women.

“Hey, are you alright?” Ed asked Jesse as she drew in a startled breath and slumped against the boardwalk’s post. The sound of Ed’s voice allowed Jesse to break her gaze, she jammed the stetson back on her head and stepped down into the street.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said to Ed as she walked around her buckboard. Climbing up onto the seat, she immediately urged the team forward. Ed shrugged his shoulders at Jesse’s rapid departure and then stepped off the boardwalk, crossing the street to join the crowd by the stage.

Jesse concentrated on the dusty road in front of her trying not to think of what had just happened. But, as she looked down at the reins her hands held, she saw that they were shaking. “What the heck?” Jesse muttered to herself as she left the new schoolteacher and her crowd of instant admirers behind.

Jennifer stood in the dusty street surrounded by several young men all speaking at the same time, but she heard nothing but the beating of her own heart. She watched as the buckboard carried the auburn haired woman away from her and wondered why she had an almost uncontrollable urge to run after it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

CHAPTER THREE

“Let me through,” a man was elbowing his way through the young men surrounding the new arrival. He finally came to a stop directly in front Jennifer and grabbed her smaller hands in his beefy ones, shaking them heartily.

“Miss Kinsington, it is so nice to finally make your acquaintance,” the man said enthusiastically. His actions taking Jennifer’s attention away from the retreating buckboard. She turned to find a middle-age, balding man barely as tall as herself but much wider and with a bushy mustache that hung down hiding his mouth, it’s hairs blowing out from his face with every word he spoke.

“Please allow me to introduce myself,” he continued pumping Jennifer’s hands up and down. “My name is Perkins, Miles Perkins. I am Sweetwater’s Mayor and it is I who arranged for your position,” the mayor continued, always ready to take credit for any project he had any part of, no matter how small his contribution might have been. And, in this case, it had actually been the mayor’s wife that had insisted he make arrangements for a schoolteacher so that she could be free of their children for some part of the day. Mayor Perkins had known that if he didn’t quickly follow his wife’s instructions, he would be spending cold nights in the old shed behind his house. But, regardless of how it had come about, a schoolteacher was now in town and Mayor Perkins was taking the credit.

Jennifer smiled sweetly at the man as she extricating her hands from his, her arms feeling like the bones had come loose after the vigorous shaking. “I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Perkins.”

“You can call me Mayor. Everyone does,” the mustache billowed as several not too well hidden groans could be heard from the crowd pressed around them.

“Do you have any luggage?” the mayor asked.

“Just the one,” Jennifer indicated the small, canvas travel bag she had removed from under the seat inside the stage. Many of the young men surrounding them offered to carry the bag for Jennifer but she insisted on taking it herself. It wasn’t very large and she could easily carry it. Besides, the last thing she wanted was a brawl to break out amongst the young men begging for her attention.

“Go on, now,” Mayor Perkins instructed the un-welcomed men. “I’m sure your employers expect you to be earning your pay and not lolli-gagging about. Now scoot, the lot of you.” Mayor Perkins took Jennifer’s arm and started to walk down the street in the same direction that the buckboard had taken. As they walked, he pointed out the purpose of the scattered buildings they passed.

“That is, as you know, the stage station,” the mayor pointed to the small, adobe building that looked to be ready to fall in on itself “and telegraph office. The telegraph hasn’t reached Sweetwater yet but you can have a message sent by stage to the nearest telegraph office. You will probably want to send your folks a message letting them know that you have arrived safely in Sweetwater.” Jennifer nodded in agreement to the mayor even though she had no intention of sending a message to her family and providing her whereabouts to them.

“That, there, as you can see, is the general store,” he pointed across the street where Ed was back standing again in the shade of the boardwalk. Ed waved to the mayor and his charge, “that’s Ed Granger, he runs the store for his no good brother-in-law.” Jennifer smiled and waved back at Ed.

“Now, that’s the town hall and jail,” Mayor Perkins indicated the buildings adjoining Ed’s store. “And, next to the jail is the town’s newspaper, The Gazette. Over here,” the mayor was now pointing to the near side of the street again, “that’s the Oxbow Saloon and not a decent place for a young lady like yourself” the mayor informed her. “Behind the Oxbow, are the stables and blacksmith. Most of the town folk live up at this end of town, you’ll have a chance to meet everyone at the social in your honor tomorrow evening.”

Jennifer thought his description of “this end of town” rather an overstatement for a town no bigger than a couple of city blocks back home. But, she kept her thoughts to herself instead asking, “and, where is the schoolhouse?”.

“Right over there,” the mayor stopped and pointed to a building sitting atop a small knoll on the other side of a creek that ran out of the forest behind the stables and flowed past the Oxbow before paralleling the road out of town. A foot bridge allowed access across the creek and a gravel path lead to the schoolhouse. “We’ll be having the social there, so you can get acquainted with it then. It’s all ready for you to start your lessons. Books and supplies already purchased and waiting for you.”

Jennifer had wanted to see the schoolhouse first but decided that tomorrow would be soon enough. Besides, the sun was reaching its peak in the cloudless sky and she was more than ready to get out of its blazing heat. So, without comment she continued to follow the mayor down the dusty street. Other than what were obviously private homes, there was only one other building in the direction they were walking. A two story structure that looked to be newly painted with new curtains hanging in its many windows. A large painted silver slipper graced the side of the building facing the stage road. And, standing in the shade in front of the building stood the buckboard.

“This is the Silver Slipper,” the mayor was telling Jennifer. “The town has arranged for you to have a room here, it’s the closest thing Sweetwater has to a rooming house. Jennifer’s heart nearly jumped from her chest. Mistaking, Jennifer’s reaction for uneasiness, the mayor hastened to add, “no reason to fear, Miss. Kinsington. The Slipper is a very respectable place now that Jesse is running it. Clean rooms and the best food in town. Jesse will take good care of you, you have my personal guarantee on that.”

Jennifer followed the mayor up the steps to the Silver Slipper’s wide porch. It wrapped entirely around the building provided places to enjoy the coolness of its shade regardless of the time of day or the season. The edge of the porch was protected by crossed rails between the support posts and the rails were topped with a wide flat board providing a sturdy place to sit if one so desired. The shade of the porch felt wonderful after the heat of the street and Jennifer had to stop herself from flopping down in one of the many chairs scattered about the porch.

“Mayor Perkins, it is good to see you again,” a stout woman opened the door to the building. “This must be our new schoolteacher.” smiling broadly, she held out a hand to Jennifer.

“Yes, this is Miss Kinsington. I believe you are to have a room ready for her,” Jennifer noticed that Mayor Perkins addressed the woman arrogantly but she seemed not to take any offense to his manner.

“Of course,” the woman gently squeezed the hand Jennifer offered before releasing it. “Welcome to the Silver Slipper, Miss Kinsington. Do come in. I’ve just finished makin’ a fresh batch of lemonade. Perhaps you would like to join me,” the woman opened the door wide to allow Jennifer and the mayor to enter.

Jennifer was disappointed that this was not the woman she had seen earlier. This woman appeared to be of the same age as Jennifer’s mother but had obviously seen a great deal more of life. She stood of average height and though she looked to be somewhat frail, Jennifer was sure that the woman leading her into the building could easily outwork most men. She seemed genuinely friendly towards Jennifer, unlike Mayor Perkins who accompanied the two women inside, and Jennifer instantly liked the older woman.

“Thank you, Miss Jesse,”

“Oh, dear,” the woman chuckled. “I’m not Jesse.”

“I’m sorry,” said Jennifer confused. “I thought Mayor Perkins said…”

“I said that Jesse owns the Slipper. This is Bette Mae, she helps run the place for Jesse,” the mayor quickly filled Jennifer in.

“Oh,” said Jennifer, “I apologize.”

“There’s no need,” the woman stopped her. “Now, please sit and have some of this here lemonade. Jesse is workin’ in her office but you’ll have plenty of time to meet her later.” Bette Mae had expected Jesse to meet the schoolteacher and was surprised that she hadn’t appeared from her office.

Jennifer dropped down into the closest chair. “I’d love a glass,” she said as she placed her bag on the floor next to the chair.

“Good,” Bette Mae poured a large glass and handed it to Jennifer. “How about you, Mayor?”

“No, thank you. I must be getting back to my other duties. A moment of your time, please, Bette Mae,” the mayor motioned that he wished to speak to the woman privately.

“I’ll be right back. You jus’ help yourself to refills,” Bette Mae told Jennifer before following the mayor back out onto the porch.

Jennifer studied the room in which she sat. Several tables similar to the one she occupied were spaced about the room. Each table was covered with a linen tablecloth and a small arrangement of fresh flowers were placed in the center of each table. Silverware was set out on the tables ready to be used by any diner that might request a meal. This was obviously the dining room of the establishment but it was also so much more. Jennifer was surprised to see against the far wall, bookcases overflowing with books. In front of these, a varied arrangement of overstuffed chairs and settees made an inviting place to spend a few moments or hours enjoying the written word. Curiosity got the better of her and Jennifer rose from the table crossing the room to see what kind of books would be found on the shelves. She was amazed at the wide range of titles and authors.

“You like to read?” Bette Mae’s question surprised Jennifer in her search. “Now, that was a silly question to be askin’ a schoolteacher, wasn’t it?”

Jennifer smiled at the woman, “what is that saying, no question is a silly question as long as you are really interested in the answer.” Jennifer returned to the table and her glass of lemonade. “This is wonderful, thank you. And, to answer your question, I love to read. I’ve spent many an hour in the library back home. Some of the best afternoons of my life.”

“Oh,” Bette Mae was surprised that a girl as pretty as Jennifer would be forced to spend afternoons within the stuffy walls of a library. “And, where would home be, Miss Kinsington?”

“Please call me Jennifer.” Not wanting to discuss the home she had so recently left, Jennifer quickly changed the subject to the mayor’s private discussion with Bette Mae, “is everything alright with the arrangements?”

Bette Mae picked up on the subject change but being from the west where you didn’t ask too many questions, she let it pass. “Everything is fine. He was just making sure that Jesse understood the importance of looking after you while you’re staying here at the Slipper. As if Jesse would take such a thing any way but seriously. Mayor Perkins can surely be a pompous ass given half a chance,” Bette Mae laughed. “Oh, excuse my language, child.”

Jennifer smiled at the woman, she had heard much worse than that when her father was on one of his numerous rampages. “I imagine he takes some getting used to. He about shook my arms right out of their sockets before I could get my hands out of his,” she laughed remembering the mayor’s energetic greeting.

“That he most definitely does,” Bette Mae joined in her laughter. “Well, I suspect you’d like to see your room and freshen up. Maybe even take a nap. Ridin’ that stage can shake the fillin’s loose in your teeth. Not to mention the dust them horses kick up.”

“It certainly wasn’t quite what I had imagined,” Jennifer agreed as she rose from the chair.

“Well, let’s get you settled then,” Bette Mae picked up Jennifer’s bag refusing to listen to her protests. She led Jennifer to a staircase midway between the bookcases.

As she climbed the stairs, Jennifer noticed for the first time an alcove tucked behind the staircase with closed door marked ‘private’. She wondered if it led to the office of the mysterious Jesse.

Upon reaching the top of the stairs, Jennifer followed Bette Mae down a long hallway to the room at the far end. Bette Mae unlocked the room’s door and handed Jennifer the key before pushing the door open for Jennifer to enter. It was smaller than her room back home but had everything Jennifer would need. In one corner, sat a four-poster bed with a thick mattress and covered by a warm quilt. Pushed against the wall next to the bed, stood a small chest of drawers. In the opposite corner of the room, there was a well traveled trunk that doubled as a sitting bench. A small desk sat against the other wall, neatly stacked writing paper and sharpened pencils lay on its surface ready for use. An oil lamp sat atop the desk and another sat on top of the dresser.

The room was located in the corner of the building and had windows on both outside walls, Jennifer especially liked this and she quickly crossed the room to enjoy the views. When she looked out the window facing the front of the building, she saw the auburn haired woman retrieving items from the back of the buckboard below. “Who is that beautiful woman?” the words were out of her mouth before she even knew she had been thinking them.

“Why, that’s Jesse,” Bette Mae said without pausing in her work emptying Jennifer’s travel bag and putting the few items into the top drawer of the chest next to the bed.

Jennifer watched until Jesse disappeared under the porch’s roof on her way back into the building before turning away from the window.

“I’m sorry, I did not intend for you to do all of the work.”

“Hush, child, you didn’ have enough in that bag to require two people to unpack. Looks like you’re goin’ need a few things before you start teachin’ school. How many dresses do you own?” Bette Mae asked although it was obvious that the only dress Jennifer had was the one she was wearing.

“Just this one,” Jennifer said. “I was hoping to buy a couple more once I arrived.”

“Heavens, that won’t do for the town’s new schoolteacher. Now, take it off so I can have it washed while you take a nap. No argument, hand it over,” Bette Mae held out her hand, she was not moving until she had the dress. Jennifer pulled the dress over her head and handed it to Bette Mae. “Now, git yourself into that bed. A nice long nap will do you good.”

Jennifer removed her dust covered shoes and stockings before crawling between the cool sheets on the bed. She hadn’t realized how tired she was after being tossed about on the long stage ride from Denver and she snuggled down in the softness of the feather mattress and pillows. Before Bette Mae reached the bottom of the stairs, Jennifer was fast asleep dreaming of a woman with the most beautiful brown eyes.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Behind the door marked ‘private’, Jesse sat at her desk. The sound of the schoolteacher’s laughter floated into her office from the dining area and she knew she should go out and greet the schoolteacher. But, before she could get up the nerve to do that, the sound of steps on the stairway told her that Bette Mae was taking the young woman upstairs to her room. Unable to concentrate on the ledgers spread out before her, Jesse decided to get the items remaining in the buckboard. She had just settled back in behind her desk when she heard a knock at the door.

“Come in, Bette Mae,” Jesse knew she would be coming to fill her in on the Slipper’s newest guest.

“Brought you some lemonade, thought you might could use a cold drink,” Bette Mae entered the room with a tray holding a half full pitcher and two empty glasses. She set the tray down on a table and filled both glasses, handing one to her employer and friend.

“Thanks,” Jesse smiled.

“You should do more of that,” Bette Mae said as she settled into one of the chairs opposite Jesse’s desk.

“More of what?” Jesse questioned the woman.

“Smile. Makes you look years younger,” Bette Mae grinned at Jesse’s discomfort.

Changing the subject, Jesse asked “is she settled?”

“Yes, she’s taking a nap,”

“Room okay with her?” Jesse had been unsure as to what requirements the schoolteacher would need in a room and had decided to give her the best room in the Slipper. After all, the schoolteacher would be spending a lot of time in the room and Jesse figured she might as well be as comfortable as possible.

“Her name is Jennifer,” Bette Mae informed Jesse. “Jennifer Kinsington. And, she’ll be needin’ some clothes ‘fore she starts with her teachin’ duties.”

“What?” Jesse asked, confused as to why Bette Mae would find that to be of interest to her.

“This is the only dress she has,” Bette Mae held up the dress she had carried into the room with the tray. Jesse had assumed it to be a rag Bette Mae would use to clean up after they finished with their drinks.

“That’s it?

“Yup.” Bette Mae continued, “It probably was brand new when she left home. But, now, it ain’t decent to wear.”

“There’s no seamstress in town,” Jesse drained the last of the lemonade in her glass.

“Ruthie can sew,” Bette Mae refilled both glasses. “I’m guessin’ we can find a dress or two at the general store and Ruthie can alter them to fit the lass. That’ll do until Ed can order some material from Bozeman.”

Jesse cringed at the mention of the town where her parents now lived. “Okay, get what you think she needs. Tell Ed to put it on the Slipper’s tab.”

“Best find Ruthie and get over to Ed’s then,” Bette Mae gathered up the tray and dirty glasses.

Jesse watched the woman leave her office. She leaned back in her chair and wondered why she had just agreed to finance a new wardrobe for the schoolteacher. She had no obligation to the recent arrival except provide her room and board. But, somehow she felt a need to take care of the young woman. But, why? As she pondered her dilemma, the image of the woman with the most beautiful blue eyes filled her thoughts.

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

Jennifer stood at the front door of the schoolhouse. She had decided to spend her free time before the evening meal visiting the schoolhouse. For the umpteenth time, her hands brushed smooth the new gingham dress she wore. A smile crossed her face as she remembered how she had been presented with it after waking from her nap.

“I can’t take it, Bette Mae,” Jennifer declared to the two women standing in her room with the dress draped over the younger woman’s arms.

“Nonsense, you need somethin’ to wear,” the older woman thrust the dress at Jennifer.

“I have this dress,” Jennifer indicated the only dress she owned that was now washed and carefully folded atop the chest of drawers along with her stockings.

“That dress is nothin’ but a rag. Why it barely survived the washin’ to get the dirt and dust out of it. Now, don’t be upsettin’ Ruthie here after she spent the last couple of hours alterin’ this one so it would fit you.”

Jennifer was embarrassed and uncomfortable with the two women knowing she had so little and could afford even less. But, she had left home with the barest of possessions not thinking through how she would get by the first few weeks until she received payment for her teaching duties.

“I know it’s not as nice as what you must be used to but it’s the only dress Ed had in the store,” the younger woman Ruth explained. She was not much older than the students Jennifer would be teaching but already bore the marks of a rough life. Fading scars marred her face which would have been considered very pretty otherwise. Jennifer wondered why this girl would spend her time sewing a dress for a complete stranger.

“It’s a beautiful dress, Ruth,” Jennifer smiled at the girl as she held the dress up and admired the handiwork of the seamstress. “I don’t know how I’ll pay you. Maybe I can ask Mayor Perkins for an advance on my salary,” she offered.

“No need. Jesse has already taken care of it. And, as soon as Ed gets some dress material from Bozeman, Ruthie will sew you some more to go along with this one.”

“Miss Jesse did this. But, why would she?” Jennifer asked.

“Don’t know,” Bette Mae answered, omitting her part in seeing that the new schoolteacher had decent clothes to wear. “But, you can ask her at supper. We’ll eat in an hour,” and with that Bette Mae and Ruth left Jennifer to change into her new dress.

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

At supper, Jennifer found herself eating alone, Bette Mae and Ruth were seeing to the paying customers and Jesse had not appeared from her office. Jennifer finished the excellent meal and decided that she might as well return to her room since it was obvious that her benefactor had no intention of joining her. With a heavy sigh, she rose from her chair and crossed the room to the stairs. As Jennifer passed in front of the alcove leading to Jesse’s private office, the door opened and the mysterious woman stepped out.

“Oh, Miss Jesse,” Jennifer was startled at the sudden appearance.

“Evening,” Jesse nodded to the young woman.

“I’m sorry I missed you at supper,” Jennifer said shyly. She was close enough to reach out and touch Jesse, and it took all the self control she possessed not to do just that.

“Sorry, I lost track of time,” Jesse mumbled.

“Oh, I understand,” Jennifer cut in. “I’m sure running a business like the Silver Slipper must take up most of your time. Maybe, you can make it some other night.”

“Maybe,” Jesse wondered what Jennifer would say if she knew that Jesse had purposely remained in her office through supper. Jesse had been unable to bring herself to face the schoolteacher who seemed to have such a strong effect on her. So, she had stayed until she was sure that Jennifer would have finished her meal and returned to her room upstairs. Jesse had no way of knowing that Jennifer had stretched out her evening meal in the hopes that she would make an appearance. And, so Jesse was just as surprised to see Jennifer still in the dining room as Jennifer was to see Jesse open the office door.

Sensing Jesse’s unease, Jennifer said, “well, it’s been a long day and I’ll bid you a good night Miss Jesse.” Then remembering the dress she wore, Jennifer rushed to add “thank you for the dress. You really didn’t have to go to such trouble. I’ll talk to Mayor Perkins tomorrow about an advance on my salary so that I can pay you back.”

“No need,” Jesse replied.

“Oh, no. I insist you let me pay you back, Miss Jesse,” Jennifer reached out and lightly placed a hand on Jesse arm. Both women were startled at the sensations that resulted from the touch.

“I’m sorry, Miss Jennifer, but I really should be getting back to the ranch,” Jesse pulled her arm from Jennifer’s touch, her long strides carried her to the Slipper’s front door. As she reached the door, Jesse turned and looked back at Jennifer. She stood where Jesse had left her, her light brown hair backlit by the oil lamps that provided the room’s illumination. Jesse rubbed her hand over her still tingling arm, then she turned and was out the door.

Jennifer slowly followed Jesse out the door. She stood on the porch until long after Jesse and the buckboard had been swallowed by the night’s darkness.

***********

Jennifer released the children after her first day of class. The previously quiet schoolhouse was instantly filled with the sounds of laughing and talking children. Jennifer smiled. Was it really only two days since she had stepped from the stage that had carried her into Sweetwater? It seemed like she had been in this small western town all of her life.

Jennifer found that her schoolteacher responsibilities would require her to teach twelve children ranging in age from six to sixteen. Their skills and knowledge coming in every combination imaginable and it would take her a few days to uncover each student’s strong points and weaknesses and to develop study plans that would work with such a diversified group. But, she looked forward to the challenge and the students seemed just as determined to work hard at their lessons.

Jennifer was surprised to discover that class would be held from mid-morning to early afternoon only, as the students were needed to help out with chores at home. This would leave her with most of the afternoon free and she planned to make use of the free time by getting a second job to earn enough money to pay Jesse back for her new dresses.

Jennifer closed the schoolhouse door and quickly made her way back to the Slipper, She was anxious to ask Bette Mae about the employment opportunities in town.

“There must be something that I can do, Bette Mae. Are you sure that Miss Jesse couldn’t use some help in the office? Or, I could help you in the kitchen. I’m a pretty good cook if I say so myself.”

“Oh, no. Miss Jesse would have my hide if’n I put you to work around here. Not fittin’ work for a schoolteacher,” Bette Mae shook her head vigorously from side to side.

“Well, I must find something,” frustrated, Jennifer slumped back in the chair she occupied. “I must pay Jesse back for the dresses.” ‘Not to mention the extra income would help pay Matt back for advancing the money for my trip west’, she thought.

“If you’ll excuse me ladies,” a man sitting at a nearby table spoke to the two women. “I might just have a solution.”

Jennifer sat up straight in her chair and looked at the man. He was of middle age with salt and pepper graying hair and deep brown eyes. It appeared that he had forgotten to shave that morning and a light beard covered his cheeks and chin. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to just below his elbows and both the shirt and his hands were blotted with ink stains.

“You’re Mr. Newby,” she offered. She had met the man at her welcoming social the evening before. “If I remember, you own the Gazette.”

The newspaper editor wiped his hands on the napkin then stood and crossed to stand next to the table Jennifer and Bette Mae occupied. “Thaddeus Newby,” he offered an ink stained hand to Jennifer. “Yes, I own the Gazette and serve as its editor, reporter, typesetter, and anything else that might be necessary,” he laughed as he shook her hand.

“Please join us, Mr. Newby. You said you might have a solution,” Jennifer encouraged the editor to continue.

“Thaddeus, please,” he said as he took a seat in the chair between the women. “Yes, I could use someone at the Gazette to help me.”

Jennifer was intrigued, “But, I have no newspaper training, Mr. Newby.”

“You’re a schoolteacher and I assume that you can read and write. That’s all the training you need,” the editor told her.

Wondering what she had done to be so lucky, Jennifer stuck her hand out to the editor, “You have a deal Mr. Newby. When do I start?”

“Just as soon as you learn to call me Thaddeus,” he laughed and shook her hand.

“Looks like Sweetwater has itself a new reporter,” Bette Mae joined in the laughter. “I’d say that calls for a drink,” she filled three glasses with lemonade and they toasted Jennifer’s new position.

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

CHAPTER FOUR

“What do you think, Dusty?” Jesse patted the mare’s neck as she drank from the creek. “Looks like three, maybe four riders,” Jesse stated as her eyes followed the hoof prints until they disappeared into the creek several yards from where she stood. Dusty raised her head, water dripping from her muzzle, and twisted her head to look at her mistress. The mare cocked her head as if to ask what her mistress was waiting for.

“Yeah, ” Jesse mumbled as she swung herself back up into the saddle. “Let’s see if we can figure out who made them.”

Jesse had been out checking on her small herd when she first spotted the tracks. Since, she worked her ranch alone, it was unusual to find the tracks of other riders on her land. It was possible that it was just some cowboys cutting across her land to one of the neighboring ranches but it didn’t hurt to check them out.

Jesse urged her golden mare, Dusty, forward at a slow walk. She hung her head down low next to Dusty’s shoulder as she tried to locate the tracks further upstream. After riding up the small creek bed for almost a mile, Jesse spotted the tracks as they left the creek and climbed back up the muddy bank. She followed the tracks away from the creek and back into the ponderosa pine forest that bordered this part of her land. She wondered what riders would be doing this far on her land. ‘Strange,’ she thought ‘there are no other ranches this side of the valley.’

Jesse continued to follow the tracks until she lost them where the riders had crossed a rocky stretch of ground between the forest and the valley. The riders could have traveled in several different directions from that point and with nightfall not too far away, Jesse turned back to her ranch house.

“I’ll have to ask around town. Maybe, someone saw three riders heading this way,” Jesse said to Dusty as they turned back. Dusty raised her head and neighed in agreement.

After spending most of the day walking, Dusty was ready to stretch her legs and Jesse encouraged her to do so. If anyone had come across them that evening, they would have seen the mare running like the wind, her golden tail and Jesse’s hair flying behind as they raced the growing darkness home

**********

“Rustlers.” Conrad Billingsley slammed his fist down on the bar rattling several glasses and knocking some over.

“Can’t be,” Sheriff Monroe answered. “The valley is too small for rustlers to go unnoticed.”

“I’m telling you I lost a dozen head this past week and some of the other ranchers said that they’re missing cattle, too. So,” Billingsley jabbed a finger into the Sheriff’s chest. “You better get off your lazy butt and go find out what’s happening,”

Conrad Billingsley stood half a foot shorter than the sheriff but was not afraid to stand his ground. He had seen more action than he cared to remember during the conflict between the north and south and had headed west as soon as his discharge papers were signed. He had staked his claim in the valley soon after the stage line was pushed through. Being the first rancher in the valley, he felt gave him more influence than the others who had followed him. And, he was not shy in trying to force his way whenever he believed it necessary.

“Now, hold on,” the Sheriff protested.

William ‘Billie’ Monroe had served as Sweetwater’s sheriff for the past three years. After Mayor Perkins had appointed him to the position, he had dealt with countless bar fights, numerous cowhands needing a place to sleep off a night’s drunk, and the occasional busted gambler looking for trouble. But, not much in the way of serious crimes. Sweetwater was just too small to attract much attention from the seedier side of life. Especially, since Jesse had cleaned up the Silver Slipper. The Oxbow was now the only place for card sharks and that usually didn’t provide enough action to make it worth their time.

But, no matter what the threat, Sheriff Monroe had done his duty and he wasn’t about to let Conrad Billingsley talk to him like he was the town’s lackey. And, he didn’t care if Billingsley owned the biggest ranch in the valley.

“I’ll do my job, Conrad. But, rustlers in this valley don’t make sense. Hell, you know there’s only a couple of passes in or out of this valley. How could they get the cattle out without being caught?”

“That’s your problem,” Billingsley again slammed his fist down on the bar, rattling more glasses.

“Before you destroy all of my glassware,” Jesse had entered the saloon side of the Silver Slipper having been attracted by the loud voices she heard all the way across the dining area and into her office. “Maybe I can shed some light on this. What say we sit down and give the bar a rest?” Jesse sat at a table and indicated for the men to join her.

“What have you got, Jesse?” Billingsley asked as he lowered his stocky body into a chair.

“Found some tracks on my land yesterday,” Jesse motioned to Sally, a tall redhead that tended bar in the Slipper, to bring a bottle and glasses to the table. “They were three, maybe four riders by the looks of ’em. Picked ’em up at the far end of the meadows and trailed them southeast until I lost them in the granite field. It was gettin’ too dark to track ’em any further.”

Sally approached and placed three glasses and a bottle of whiskey on the table before returning to the bar and cleaning up the broken glasses.

“That’s pretty deep onto your land, Jesse,” Billingsley pulled the cork from the bottle and poured the brown liquid into the glasses.

“Any idea who it was?” Sheriff Monroe asked as he lifted a glass to his lips, emptying its contents in one swallow.

“Nope,” Jesse left her glass on the table, she had never really acquired a taste for liquor preferring a glass of milk to whiskey any day. Sally read her boss’s thoughts and disappeared into the kitchen coming out moments later with a tall glass of cold milk that she placed on the table in front of Jesse.

“Thanks,” Jesse told Sally before she retreated back behind the bar. “No one’s been near my place for some time. Can’t say why anyone would be passing that way.” Jesse took a long gulp of milk and wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve.

“Don’t know how you drink that stuff, Jesse,” Sheriff Monroe grimaced as Jesse emptied the glass with a second long swallow.

“It’s good for ya, Billie. You aught to give it a try sometime,” Jesse grinned as the Sheriff shuddered at her suggestion.

“So, what do we do?” Billingsley attempted to draw the conversation back on track, he wasn’t amused at the playful bantering when he had cattle missing.

“I’ll go out and see if I can pick up those tracks,” Sheriff Monroe said.

“You’ll be wasting your time,” Billingsley poured himself another shot of whiskey. “You can’t track worth beans.”

“I’m not going to sit here and listen to you insult me, Conrad,” the Sheriff shouted as he pushed back his chair and starting to rise.

“Sit down, Billie,” Billingsley voice was also getting louder. “You gettin’ your feathers in a twist won’t solve this problem.”

“Both of you back down,” Jesse quietly said. She glared at the Sheriff until he resumed his seat. “Conrad is right, Billie. It would be a waste of time to try to pick up those tracks,”

“Now, just a minute Jesse,” the Sheriff started to rise again, “I can track just as good as most can.”

Jesse held up a hand to calm the Sheriff, “that’s not what I’m saying Billie. I know you can track. But, those tracks were already old. If those riders were just passing through, they’re long gone. If they were up to no good, they could be holed up in any number of places. You know the south end of the valley hasn’t been explored much. Hell, if one had a mind to, they could hide out in those canyons for months before anyone took notice.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” the Sheriff agreed. “So, what do we do?”

“How many ranches have reported cattle missing?” Jesse asked.

“Well, there’s mine,” Conrad started to tick off his fingers. “Kelly, McPhillips, and Butler, that I know of.”

“Guess talking to them would be a good starting point,” Billie concluded and the others nodded. “I’ll head out now. It’ll probably take a day or two to cover all the ranches.”

“In the meantime, I’ll have my riders keep a lookout for any strangers in the valley.”

“Might be a good idea to have Ed keep an eye out as well.”

“Good idea, Jesse,” the Sheriff said. “I’ll have a talk with him before I leave.”

“Guess that about does it,” Conrad put the cork back into the whiskey bottle. “How much I owe for the broken glass, Jesse?”

“How many, Sally?” Jesse called to the barkeep.

“Only two broke, boss.”

“Looks like you got lucky this time,” Jesse slapped Conrad on the arm. “Not enough to worry about. Just take it easy on the Slipper next time.”

“You’ve got yourself a deal,” Conrad laughed. “Watch yourself out at your place, Jesse. You’ve got no one watching your back.”

“I’ll be careful.” Jesse carried the bottle and dirty glasses over to the bar as the sheriff and rancher left. After talking to Sally a few moments, she turned to return to her office. It was only then that she realized another person was in the saloon. Jennifer sat quietly at a table near the door.

Jennifer had heard the loud voices when she came into the Slipper after completing her teaching duties for the day. Although, she couldn’t make out all that was being said, she had heard the word “rustlers” and knowing what that meant in cattle country she had grabbed a pencil and pad from the bag she used to carry lessons to and from the schoolhouse. She left her bag on the floor next to the door that separated the dining area from the saloon and quietly pushed the door open. Slipping inside, Jennifer had taken a seat at the closest table and listened to the conversation between Jesse and the two men, taking notes as they talked. Now she found herself under the scrutiny of Jesse as she made her way across the now empty room.

“Miss Jennifer,” Jesse acknowledged the schoolteacher. “Something I can do for you?”

Jennifer was now unsure of the justification for her eavesdropping. When she had entered the room, she told herself that as a ‘reporter’ for the Gazette, it was her duty to find out if there was a story that needed reporting. Now, she wasn’t so sure.

“I.. well, I..” Jennifer stuttered. Jennifer normally had no difficulty coming up with something to say but with those gorgeous eyes staring at her, she found herself tongue-tied.

“Yes, Miss Jennifer,” Jesse stood towering over Jennifer and waiting for a coherent response.

“Well, I’m working afternoons at the Gazette and I heard the talk of rustlers, so I thought…,”

“That, there might be a story here,” Jesse finished for her.

“Yes. I know I shouldn’t have been eavesdropping but,” Jennifer began.

“It’s a public place. Guess if we had wanted a private conversation, we could have gone into my office. I don’t think you would have followed us in there,” Jesse raised an eyebrow as she glared down at the young woman.

Jennifer was sure that she had angered the tall woman until she looked up and saw the barest of grins on Jesse’s face.

“No,” Jennifer smiled. “I would not have followed into your private office.”

“Good. I would have hated to boot your pretty little butt out of there,” Jesse chuckled, then blushed as she realized what she had just said.

Jennifer wondered why Jesse referred to that part of her anatomy. And, why in that manner. But, whatever the reason, Jennifer liked it.

“May I ask you a question?” Jennifer asked.

“Go ahead,” Jesse was looking at her boots, hoping she wouldn’t say anything else to embarrass herself in front of the schoolteacher. ‘Why do I react to her this way’, Jesse was thinking and missed hearing Jennifer’s question.

“Miss Jesse, are you okay?” Jennifer asked when Jesse didn’t answer.

“I’m sorry,” Jesse mumbled, “what did you ask?” ‘Get some control, girl’ Jesse chastised herself as she concentrated on listening to Jennifer.

“I asked if you thought there was a rustler problem in the valley,” Jennifer repeated her question.

“Can’t say,” Jesse answered. “Some of the ranchers say that they’re missing cattle. The sheriff is looking into it. Guess maybe you should ask him.”

“Have you lost any cattle, Miss Jesse,” Jennifer asked.

“Nope.”

“Thank you,” Jennifer made a few notes on her pad. “Guess I should let you get back to your business and I should get over to the Gazette before Thaddeus thinks I’m not working today.”

“School teaching doesn’t keep you busy enough, Miss Jennifer?”

“My afternoons were left open. Thaddeus needed help at the Gazette and was kind enough to offer me a position,” Jennifer informed Jesse, not wanting to tell her the real reason she had needed a second job.

“I see,” Jesse said.

“Well, I best be going,” Jennifer gathered her things and headed back into the dining area.

Jesse watched her go thinking that Thaddeus was one lucky man to be able to spend every afternoon with the pretty schoolteacher.

**********

“Are you sure about this?” a tall, lanky boy, barely old enough to shave, asked as he leaned closer to the fire. He could hear the cattle settling for the night in the small forest clearing that he and his companions had chosen for their camp. The sun had given way to a full moon and, as was common in the Rockies, the heated air of the day had turned cold in the night. He rapidly rubbed his hands up and down his arms in an attempt to warm them but gave it up after a few moments when it didn’t seem to help. He turned his attention to the older man across the fire from him.

Johnson glared at the boy and pulled his coat tighter around his body. He had planned his revenge for months and now that it was within his grasp, this kid was getting cold feet. Johnson reached into the pile of firewood they had gathered earlier and threw a couple of the larger pieces onto the already blazing fire. “You havin’ second thoughts, Jimmie?”

“No,” the boy answered. “Just askin’ if you’re sure. Seems like we’re puttin’ ourselves in a tight spot ifin’ we have to get out of this valley in a hurry.” Rustling cattle didn’t bother Jimmie but escaping without a rope necktie did. And, being camped in the valley with a couple dozen stolen cattle just didn’t seem like the best of ideas.

“I know what I’m doing, Johnson assured the boy. “So, quit worryin’. Besides, by the time anyone figures out what’s goin’ on, we’ll be in the Slipper celebrating. Now, get some sleep. Your watch starts in a couple of hours and I don’t want you falling asleep again.”

“Alright,” Jimmie lay down on his bedroll that was unrolled close to the fire. For several minutes, he quietly watched Johnson and wondered about his present predicament. A month earlier, Johnson had approached Jimmie and his older brother, offering them a generous payoff if they would help with his plan to get the Silver Slipper back. Jimmie hadn’t liked Johnson from the start and wasn’t at all sure that Johnson could deliver on his promises. But, his brother had gotten into some trouble in Denver and it had been decided that helping Johnson was better than spending time in jail. Now, Jimmie wasn’t so sure they had made the right decision. Deciding that he couldn’t do anything about it until later when he could talk to his brother, Jimmie pulled his bedroll tight around him and promptly went to sleep.

Johnson tossed another piece of firewood onto the fire. “How can it be so damn hot during the day and so damn cold at night,” he grumbled to no one in particular. As he stared into the flames, he again recalled the poker game that had cost him the Slipper. Each time he replayed the events, he became more convinced that somehow the tall woman had cheated. ‘Ain’t no way that bitch won fair,’ he told himself. Standing to stretch out his cramped legs, Johnson walked to where their horses were picketed. After making sure the rope was secure, he grabbed his own bedroll. He pulled the blanket tight around his shoulders as he settled on a large boulder that provided him a good view of the clearing and the cattle, Thoughts of revenge would keep him occupied for the hours of his watch.

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

CHAPTER FIVE

Jesse sat in front of the fire that warmed her ranch house. She had purchased the abandoned spread from the bank after the Silver Slipper started to make more money than she needed to run it. The ranch’s original owner had had a gambling habit and disappeared from the valley one night never to be heard from again. Since Jesse was a girl, it had been her dream to own her own place. She had always assumed that would be the family ranch until her father had sold it. After that, she didn’t think she would ever be able to realize her dream. But, the Slipper had changed that.

Allowing Bette Mae to help manage the operations of the Slipper left Jesse with the time to concentrate on rebuilding the ranch. Jesse had repaired the ranch house to livable condition and put a new roof on the barn that would keep hay dry for winter. The corral fence had been replaced and the well was now topped with a functioning pump. She had a dozen head of cattle grazing in her fields and hoped to purchase a breeding bull soon. There was still a lot of work to be done but it was livable and, most important, it was hers.

After her conversations with Billingsley and Sheriff Monroe, and then with Jennifer, Jesse had returned to her office to finish the reports she had been struggling over. It wasn’t that Jesse couldn’t do the Slipper’s bookkeeping, she just preferred to be working at the ranch than figuring columns of numbers. Finally, giving up on the ledgers, Jesse had bid Bette Mae goodnight and ridden out to the ranch. She had decided to stay at the ranch while Billie checked on the other ranches and had spent the long, hot days replacing the leaky roof on the ranch house.

Jesse could not shake the uneasy feeling that had nagged her ever since she discovered the mysterious tracks. If there were rustlers in the valley, why were they on her property. ‘Why my land?’ Jesse kept turning that question over and over in her mind but no answers were forthcoming. ‘Somethin’ just ain’t right,’ Jesse told herself as she watched the fire.

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

The morning sunlight made its way through the east facing windows and found Jesse asleep in the chair where exhaustion had claimed her the night before. The beams spread across the ranch house’s floor and slowly crawled up her body. Jesse woke with a groan when the bright sunlight reached her face. She stretched her long limbs to loosen the kinks developed during the night. Twisting her neck from side to side, she eased the tight muscles. Slowly, she pushed herself up and out of the chair and stretched some more. After satisfying her aching muscles, she picked up the fire poker and stoked the embers. Adding a couple of split logs, she watched as the fire burst back into life. She filled a large cooking pot with fresh water and placed it on the spit to heat. Then taking her coat off the back of the door, she pulled it on as she left the house to do her morning chores.

Jesse loved this time of day. The sun was just beginning its long journey across the big, Montana sky. The animals were beginning to wake and the songs and calls of several different birds filled the morning air. Jesse could hear the chatter of squirrels in the trees around the ranch buildings. Far in the distance, a coyote greeted the morning with a long, mournful howl. A smile crossed Jesse’s face as she began the new day.

Jesse pushed open the heavy door to her barn. She made her way to Dusty’s stall and was greeted with a warm muzzle being pressed against her chest. “Morning, girl,” Jesse greeted the golden mare and handed Dusty the apple she had grabbed from a barrel by the barn’s door. As Dusty munched happily on the treat, Jesse led her out of the barn and into the adjoining corral.

Dusty began to sidestep nervously and raised her head to test the scents on the morning breeze. “You feel it, too,” Jesse scratched Dusty’s head to comfort the horse. Jesse’s eyes scanned the far end of the valley, “someone is out there. Maybe, we should take another ride out that way and see if there’s any fresh track. Or,” sapphire eyes filled Jesse’s thoughts. “Maybe, we should ride into town and see if there’s any news.”

Dusty nudged the daydreaming Jesse in the arm.

“Okay, let me get you fed, the rest of the chores done, and me cleaned up. Then, we’ll head to town.” With that decision made, Jesse headed back into the barn to finish her chores and to wonder why the thought of seeing Jennifer was so appealing this morning.

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

Jennifer sat on the wide porch of the Silver Slipper sipping coffee from a large mug. The sun had been up long enough to begin chasing away the night’s chill. It was going to be another hot, dry day and Jennifer was intent on enjoying the morning coolness while she could. From the Slipper’s porch, Jennifer could look down the entire length of Sweetwater’s dusty main street. Not much activity broke the morning’s stillness. Ed was getting the general store ready for business by sweeping the boardwalk and Jennifer could see smoke start to pour out of the livery’s smokestack, indicating the forge had been fired up. A horse was hitched in front of the jailhouse, the rider had already disappeared inside. Lights were on in several of the houses at this end of town but she had yet to see any of their occupants.

Jennifer loved this time of day. It was peaceful and quiet, except for the chirping of morning birds in the surrounding trees. She could think of no better way to spend the morning than welcoming the waking day. Well, maybe one thing would make it better, if Jesse was sharing it with her. ‘Whoa, where did that thought come from?’ Jennifer was so startled by the sudden appearance of Jesse in her thoughts that she spilled the contents of her cup. As she rose from the chair to go back to the kitchen and get more coffee, she wondered why the beautiful rancher seemed to be sneaking into her thoughts more and more.

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

“I’m telling you, sheriff, the tracks led to Jesse’s land,” Pete, a wrangler for Conrad Billingsley spread was standing opposite the sheriff’s desk.

“Why would Jesse be stealing cattle?,” Sheriff Monroe was more than a little perturbed at his morning beginning with the cowboy’s banging on the jail’s door. He was sitting at his desk trying to rub the sleep from his eyes.

“All I know, is that Mr. Billingsley told me to ride in and get you. He said I should drag you back out there tied over the back of your horse if I have to,” the cowboy was getting angry at the sheriff’s obvious lack of interest in his news.

“You can go back and tell that…,” Sheriff Monroe starting before deciding that taking his anger at the rancher out on the cowboy was probably not the best way to handle his frustration. “Look, Pete,” the Sheriff leaned back in his chair and ran his fingers through his uncombed hair. “Go back and tell your boss that I’ll be out after I get breakfast. Maybe by then Jesse will be over at the Slipper and I can ask her about those tracks.”

The cowboy wasn’t about to return to the Rocking B without the sheriff. Not with the mood his boss was in after losing more cattle to the rustlers working in the valley. “Nope, I ain’t leaving here without you. The boss would shoot me on the spot,” the cowboy stood his ground.

“Have it your way,” the sheriff stood. “I’m going to wash up and go over to the Slipper. You can wait for me here or join me. Your choice,” he said as he poured water into the bowl resting on a shelve hung haphazardly on the wall. Several minutes later, the sheriff left the jail and headed down the dusty street for the Silver Slipper. The cowboy trailed angrily behind him.

***********

Jesse threw Dusty’s reins over the hitching rail at the side of the Silver Slipper’s porch. She climbed the steps and crossed the wide porch to the Slipper’s front door, hesitating for a moment to consider the cause of a wet spot in front of one of the chairs. Jesse reached for the knob to open the door and just as her hand touched the metal, it was pulled away from her grasp.

“Oh,” Jennifer gasped as she realized Jesse was standing before her.

“Good morning, Miss Jennifer,” Jesse greeted the schoolteacher while thinking that seeing her was a wonderful way to start the morning.

“Good morning, Miss Jesse,” Jennifer smiled. “I was just coming out to clean up the coffee I spilled,” Jennifer pointed to the drying stain.

“Don’t bother,” Jesse said. “The sun will dry it before long.” Jesse began to step though the Slipper’s door. “Have you had breakfast yet? Perhaps, you would like to join me if you haven’t.” Jesse heard herself ask, surprised that she had spoken her thoughts out loud.

Before Jennifer could answer, they were interrupted by the Sheriff.

“Jesse, glad to see you,” Sheriff Monroe called out from the bottom of the stairs. “We need to talk. Join me for breakfast.”

“Well, I,” Jesse stammered. “I was just asking…,”

“It’s okay,” Jennifer reached out and gently squeezed Jesse’s forearm. “You have business with the sheriff. We can talk later.” Jennifer nodded to the sheriff and cowboy before turning and retreating up the stairs leading to her room.

Jesse was surprised at Jennifer’s touch and even more surprised at how her skin tingled where Jennifer’s hand had rested. She wanted to protest Jennifer’s departure but her mouth refused to form words. Jesse watched mutely as Jennifer disappeared up the stairs. Disappointed that Jennifer would not be her breakfast partner, Jesse joined the sheriff.

Jennifer hurried up the stairs and down the hallway. As soon as she entered her small room, she collapsed against the closed door. Her heart was beating so fast that she was sure it would burst from her chest. When she had touched Jesse’s arm, a jolt of electricity had surged through her body. Jennifer had never felt anything like it before and she was sure that by the look on Jesse’s face that she had felt it too. She had had to get away from Jesse before she embarrassed herself even more. Yet, as Jennifer leaned against the rough wood of the room’s door, she had to admit that as unexpected as her reaction had been, it had most assuredly been a wonderful feeling. And one she would like to experience again. And, soon.

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

By the time Jennifer had regained her composure and returned downstairs, Jesse and the sheriff were just finishing their morning meal. She took a seat at a table across the room where she could watch Jesse without being too obvious. Bette Mae came out of the kitchen with a pot of coffee. After refreshing the cups at Jesse’s table, she crossed the room to where Jennifer sat.

“Thought you had changed your mind on havin’ breakfast,” Bette Mae said as she filled a cup with coffee for Jennifer.

“No,” Jennifer smiled at the older woman. “Just wanted to freshen up a bit. But, I’m ready for it now.”

“Good. I’ll be right back,” Bette Mae returned to the kitchen.

Jennifer returned her attention to the table where Jesse sat. Not intentionally meaning too, she began to listen in on the conversation between Jesse and the sheriff.

“Can’t be,” Jesse was saying. “I don’t have any cattle on that part of the ranch. It’s too far from the house to keep track of them.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell this cowpoke,” the sheriff told her.

“The tracks are there,” the cowboy insisted. “I saw them myself. Must have been twenty head moved up there.”

“Well, they aren’t mine,” Jesse finished her last bite of egg before washing it down with coffee.

“Never said they was,” Pete mumbled, he was more than annoyed that he was still sitting in Sweetwater when he should be riding back to the Rocking B with the sheriff.

“Guess it won’t hurt to go out and take a look,” the sheriff finally agreed. “You can come with us, Jesse. If you want.”

Jesse emptied her cup before responding to the sheriff’s offer.

“No, Billie,” she told him. “I think I’ll give the meadows another look. See if those riders have been back through.” In the back of her mind, she wondered if she should tell the sheriff about the feelings she’s had earlier that morning but decided against it. Probably, wasn’t anything.

Bette Mae returned with Jennifer’s breakfast just as the sheriff and cowboy stood to leave. As she thanked Bette Mae for serving her, Jennifer heard the sheriff’s parting words, “I’ll let you know what I find Jesse. Come on, Pete. We’ve kept your boss waiting long enough.”

Jesse watched the sheriff walk out the front door, the cowboy trailing behind mumbling under his breath about how he could explain the delay to his boss. As she stood and turned away from the table to go to her office, her eyes fell on the schoolteacher. She smiled as she remembered the earlier touch.

Jennifer saw Jesse look her way and watched as a smile covered the tall woman’s face. Brown eyes met blue and the world narrowed to just the two women caught in each other’s gazes. Bette Mae stood watching both women and smiled when she realized that they were unaware of anything except each other.

“My usual, Bette Mae,” Mayor Perkins said as he sat at one of the empty tables. Mayor Perkins burst through the front door breaking their enchantment and both women self-consciously looked away from the other.

Jesse made her way to her office door and disappeared inside. Jennifer waited several minutes before the butterflies in her stomach settled down enough for her to eat the breakfast cooling on the plate in front of her.

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

CHAPTER SIX

“Hurry up and finish the rest of ’em,” Johnson growled at his companions. He kept a constant vigil on the scrub covered walls that formed the small box canyon he stood in. Sagebrush was the only vegetation in the canyon and it provided little cover if anyone would come upon the men before they finished their work. Even though they had yet to be disturbed, he was nervous and wanted to get away from the canyon as quickly as possible.

Jimmie and his older brother, Clinton, were heating a running iron in the fire. The hook tipped piece of iron was the tool rustlers used to change brands on stolen cattle. If done properly, the change would not be noticed until after the animals were butchered and the inside of the hide could be seen. But, the brothers had never used a running iron before and their attempt at changing brands was anything but unnoticeable. It was a shoddy job but that was Johnson’s plan, he didn’t want any doubts that the brands had been altered.

A few feet from the fire, recently re-branded cattle were bunched behind a make shift rope barrier. There was barely enough room for the dozen or so cattle and they were constantly juggling for position. The canyon had no water and the thirsty cattle loudly bawled their unhappiness at their predicament. Another half dozen animals were waiting their turn with the branding iron.

“Come on,” Johnson yanked on a rope pulling a cow closer to the fire. “Let’s get this done and get out of here before anyone shows up.”

Jimmie walked to the cow and roped its feet. As the cow struggled to free itself, it lost its balance and tumbled to the ground. The red-hot iron was removed from the fire and pressed against the cow’s hide, as he burned a new brand over the top of the animal’s original marking. As soon as he finished, the cow was released and another was pulled near the fire and the process repeated. In short order, the remaining cows joined the rest of the rustled and re-branded herd behind the barrier.

“Make sure them ropes will hold ’em,” Johnson ordered the brothers who were busy throwing dirt on the fire to put it out. “No, leave the iron in the fire,” he told them when Clinton started to remove it.

Jimmie rechecked the ropes that made up the barrier holding the cattle. It wouldn’t hold the thirsty and hungry cattle long but that was also part of Johnson’s plan. The sooner a few of them escaped, the sooner the rustled herd would be discovered. After securing the rope fence, the men mounted their horses.

Jimmie said, “fire’s still smokin’.”

“That’s okay,” Johnson informed him. “Makes it easier to find. And, we want to make this as easy as we can.” Johnson kicked his horse into a trot and headed out of the box canyon and into the open floor of the valley. Without looking back, he knew that the other two would follow.

“He’s crazier than a rabid dog, brother,” Jimmie told his older brother as he watched Johnson ride away.

“Yeah,” Clinton muttered. “Let’s just hope we can get out of this without a rope around our necks,” shaking his head, he urged his horse to follow Johnson. He wondered if a couple of month’s in the Denver jail might not have been such a bad idea after all.

“Yeah,” Jimmie hesitated just long enough to consider his chances at reaching the dense forest a couple of miles away before Johnson put a rifle shot into his back. Deciding the odds weren’t all that good, he hoped his brother was right and they would escape the hangman’s noose.

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

“What did I tell you, Billie,” Billingsley was pointing to the tracks of several cattle being moved up a trail that eventually led to the box canyons at the south end of the valley. “There’s another trail about a half mile that way,” Billingsley pointed to the west. “It leads in the same direction. I don’t run cattle up at that end of the valley, no one does. Ain’t enough grass in those canyons to keep ’em fed.”

“I know, been up there a time or two myself. It’s rough country for cattle,” the sheriff spoke from where he was kneeling next to the tracks. “Looks to be no more than a day or two old,” he stood and shook out the cramped muscles in his legs. “You send any riders up that way?” the sheriff asked as he remounted his horse.

“A couple. Came back just before you got here. Said they saw smoke coming from the canyons down towards the end of Jesse’s land,” Billingsley mounted his own horse and signaled his men to do the same.

“Jesse ain’t no rustler,” the sheriff glared at the rancher.

“Never said she was. But, the tracks lead that way and the smoke was coming from her land,” the rancher returned the sheriff’s stare. “She’s been building her herd up a lot the last few months. Kinda makes you wonder where she’s getting the money, Slipper can’t be doing that well. What with all those women she’s keeping employed.” Billingsley pulled his rifle from the saddle scabbard and checked to make sure it was loaded and ready for use. His cowboys followed his example.

“Let’s hope we don’t need to use those,” Billie said as he watched the men prepare their weapons. He knew Jesse would never steal and the Slipper seemed to be a thriving enterprise ever since Jesse cleaned it up. But, he was smart enough to know that one man, even if he was the law, couldn’t do much against a dozen armed and angry cowboys.

“Law says we can hang rustlers,” Billingsley stated as he shoved the rifle back into its holder.

“Let’s get this straight now,” Billie raised his voice so all of the men would have no trouble hearing him. “If there are rustlers out there, we are bringing them back alive. The circuit judge will decide their fate, not you,” he stared directly at Billingsley as he spoke the final word.

Billingsley returned the sheriff’s stare for several moments, his ranch hands waiting quietly. Not too many people spoke to Conrad Billingsley in that manner and got away with it. He glared at the sheriff and considered his options. Sure they fought and exchanged words on many an occasion but the truth was that Billie Monroe was a good sheriff and the rancher had to admit that he liked the man. Finally, he decided that having the sheriff on his side would be a lot easier than having to fight rustlers and the sheriff. Billingsley gave in, “we’ll do it your way, Billie.”

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

Jesse walked out of the Silver Slipper not long after the sheriff and cowboy left. As she mounted Dusty, Jennifer came out of the Slipper and crossed the wide porch.

“Where are you going?” Jennifer asked softly.

Jesse took a deep breath and studied the woman leaning against the porch railing, her delicate hands spread before her on the flat board. Jesse wondered what it would be like to have those hands exploring her body. A light blush started to crawl up Jesse’s neck as she realized where her thoughts were leading.

Jennifer saw the blush and wondered what Jesse was thinking to cause it but did not comment. She waiting patiently for Jesse to answer her question. Both women studied the other, their thoughts on feelings they were experiencing for the first time in their young lives. Both wanted to express their feelings but neither had the nerve to do so.

“Thought I’d take a look around.”

“Why?”

“Just a feeling.”

“Shouldn’t you have told the sheriff?”

“I will if I find anything.”

“Be careful,” Jennifer looked up at Jesse.

Jesse was puzzled by the concern in Jennifer’s eyes. She smiled at the woman who owned her dreams.

“I’m not going out looking for trouble,” she assured Jennifer.

“I know,” Jennifer said. “But, if someone is out there, you’ll be all alone.”

“Don’t worry,” Jesse laughed. “Dusty is the fastest horse in the valley. She’ll get me out of any trouble I might find myself in,” Jesse tried to relieve Jennifer’s worries.

“Still,” Jennifer smiled up at Jesse, “be careful.”

“I will.” As Jesse rode away from the Slipper, she thought how nice it felt to have someone worry about her.

Jennifer watched Jesse until she disappeared from sight. “Come back to me,” she sighed, before returning back inside the Silver Slipper.

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

Jesse saw the thin, wisp of smoke as she made her way to the canyon country at the south end of her land. But, while she watched the smoke rising up into the clear sky, she missed the figures of three riders crossing the valley and disappearing into the forest. Her vision blocked by the gently rolling hills of the valley’s open fields. Had she seen the riders, the next couple of days might have played out much differently. But, years later, Jesse would say that she was glad events took place as they did.

“Looks like we were right, Dusty,” she spoke to her mount. “Someone is up in those canyons.” Dusty nodded her head in agreement and increased her pace. “Good idea, girl,” Jesse told the now galloping mare. “Best get up there and check it out as quick as we can.”

Jesse stopped at a small creek that provided the last water source before entering the dry canyons. As Dusty enjoyed a long drink of the cool water, Jesse scanned the terrain in the direction they were headed. The smoke has long since faded as the fire fueling it must have burned out. Jesse’s attention was drawn to the sounds of cattle bawling in the distance. Dusty raised her head from the creek and twisted her ears in the direction of the cries.

“Sounds like they’re not happy, girl,” Jesse pulled her canteen from Dusty’s saddle. Taking a drink from the canteen, Jesse tried to focus in on the sound. Dusty’s ears continued to twitch as she also tried to locate the exact direction from which the sound came. Jesse knelt next to the creek and refilled her canteen. Wrapping its cord around the saddle horn, Jesse swung up into the saddle. Rider and horse started a mutual search for the cattle that cried out from somewhere before them.

An hour later, found Jesse and Dusty cautiously moving up the rocky floor of a box canyon. “Those cattle have to be somewhere, girl.”

Dusty nickered in response and continued to carefully move further back into the canyon. A bend near the back of the canyon prevented Jesse from seeing the cattle but, as Dusty moved closer, their cries got louder. And, there was no mistaking the increasing stench of cattle sweat and dung.

Dusty moved around the canyon’s bend and Jesse’s eyes fell upon a couple dozen miserably hot, thirsty, and hungry animals held in place by a ropes tied from one canyon wall to the other. A fire, long burned out, was a few feet from the cattle, and a now cold running iron lay inside the fire ring.

Dusty quickly covered the distance to the rope fence and Jesse leaped from her back. Pulling a knife from her boot, Jesse jumped up onto a boulder that secured one end of the ropes. She cut through the ropes, the freed cattle lost no time in escaping the hot canyon. Dusty sidestepped against the boulder to keep from being trampled.

Once the cattle had left the makeshift corral, Jesse dropped down off the boulder and examined the fire’s remains. She picked up the running iron, turning it over in her strong hands.

“Guess we better let Billie get a look at this,” Jesse told her mare as she jammed the dirty iron into her saddle bag.

“Ground is too hard in here to leave many tracks and the cattle probably took care of any that were around,” Jesse climbed back into the saddle. “Let’s see if we can pick up something out in the open.”

As they exited the canyon’s mouth, Jesse eyes were trained at the ground scanning for any sign of horses or men. After riding some distance from the canyons, Jesse spotted the track of a horse and directed Dusty to follow it.

Jesse and Dusty made their way across the valley and had reached the forest’s edge when Sheriff Monroe and the ranchers rode up over a small rise and spotted them.

As the group followed the stolen cattle tracks, they had been joined by other ranchers and their ranch hands. The group now numbered a couple dozen men and the sheriff was more than a little concerned at what might happen if the group located the rustlers.

“Look,” one of Billingsley men pointed at the rider and horse in the distance.

“Hey,” Billingsley cried excitedly, “ain’t that Jesse?”

“Looks like her horse,” Marcus Butler, another rancher missing cattle answered. “Only one golden palomino in the valley, that I know of.”

“Wonder what she’s doing out here?” Billingsley continued to question.

Before the sheriff could voice a reply, another shout went up. “Look,” one of the riders had spied the cattle grazing on the valley grasses between the forest Jesse had now disappeared into and the box canyons opposite.

“Well,” Billie said as he urged his mount forward. “Let’s go see what they’re doing up there.”

***********

“This one’s been changed, too,” Pete, the cowboy who had awakened the sheriff at dawn, said.

“Looks like they’ve all been changed. Not a very good job, must have been someone new to the game,” Lucas Kelly, a ranch owner in the group commented.

“Like Jesse,” Butler accused.

“Hold on,” Billie knew where this conversation was headed and he didn’t like it. “We don’t know that Jesse had anything to do with this. After all, this is her land. She could have been out checking on her own cattle.”

Before Billie could continue, two of Billingsley’s cowboys rode up at a gallop and pulled up their mounts as they reached their boss.

“It was done up there.” one of them told Billingsley, pointing back to the box canyons. “Found the remains of a fire and ropes where she held them in the canyon.

“Wait a minute,” the sheriff started before being cut off by the other cowboy.

“Only one set of tracks in the canyon. They lead in the direction we saw Jesse ridin’.”

“Well, sheriff,” Billingsley finally addressed the sheriff. “How much more evidence do you need? We found the cattle on Jesse’s land. The were re-branding in a canyon on her land, with only her tracks in the canyon. And, she was riding away when we spotted the cattle.”

“Seems pretty clear cut to me,” Kelly agreed.

“I say we go after her,” Butler said.

Things were getting out of hand and Billie knew he had to do something and fast before a lynch mob rode after Jesse. “Alright, you found your cattle. I suggest you take them back to your spreads.”

“What about Jesse,” Billingsley demanded.

“I’ll go after Jesse.” Before the ranchers could protest, Billie added, “I’ll bring her in. Circuit judge is due next week. She can tell her side of this to him.”

The ranchers and their men looked in uncertainty at the sheriff, unsure if they could trust Billie to arrest his friend. The sheriff seeing the looks, hurried to remove any doubts from their minds. “I said I’d bring her in and I will. Now take your cattle home.”

Billie mounted his horse and rode off in the direction Jesse had last been seen before anyone had a chance to object further.

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

Jesse followed the rustlers’ tracks for a couple of miles before coming to the spot where the three men had split up, each taking a different route deeper into the thick forest. Nightfall was rapidly approaching and Jesse decided to head for town rather than try and follow the rustlers after dark. She gave Dusty her head and the two made short time of the distance to town.

Once she arrived in Sweetwater, Jesse headed first to the Silver Slipper. Sheriff Monroe was just stepping out of the building when Jesse rode up. He had lost Jesse’s trail soon after entering the forest and had returned to Sweetwater expecting Jesse to check in at the Slipper sooner or later. He was glad to see that he had made the right decision.

“Evening, Jesse,” the man stood on the Slipper’s wide porch. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“Evening, Billie,” Jesse swung down from the saddle. “I just rode into town,” Jesse reached for her saddlebag.

“Hold it, Jesse,” the sheriff warned, his right hand moving quickly to rest on the pistol that he wore on his hip. Knowing that Jesse carried her pistols in her saddle bags, the sheriff said, “leave your guns be.”

Jesse froze when she saw the motion of the sheriff’s hand. “Is there a problem, Billie?”

As Sheriff Monroe made his way down the steps to where Jesse stood, warily watching him, Jennifer came out of the Slipper. When she spied the sheriff’s hand on his pistol and Jesse frozen in the street, Jennifer ran across the wide porch to the stairs.

“Stay on the porch, Jennifer,” Jesse cried out. Jesse had seen more than one person shot accidentally when someone with a gun over-reacted to an unexpected movement. There was no way she would let the schoolteacher fall victim to a similar accident.

The sheriff kept his eye on Jesse while he spoke to Jennifer, “Suggest you go back inside, Miss Jennifer. This is official business.”

“Are you arresting Jesse?” Jennifer was standing on the top step, every instinct told her to go to Jesse’s defense but better judgment kept her feet rooted in place. She needed to find out what was happening before she could help Jesse.

“Haven’t arrested her yet,” the sheriff answered Jennifer. “But, I need to ask her some questions and I don’t want any trouble while I do that.”

“You want to tell me what’s going on, Billie?” Jesse asked.

“We found the stolen cattle today,” the sheriff informed the tall woman standing apprehensively in the street. “They’d been held in a box canyon on your land.”

A smile came to Jesse’s face when she heard the sheriff’s words. “I know,” Jesse started to relax. “I came across them and cut them loose hoping they’d find their way home. Followed the rustlers’ tracks until I lost them when they split up in the trees. I was going to tell you about it after I checked in with Bette Mae.”

“Only found one set of tracks, Jesse. They were yours,” the sheriff informed her.

“Wait a minute,” Jennifer exploded off the porch. Planting herself right in front of the sheriff, she poked a finger into his chest “You’re not accusing Jesse of stealing cattle, are you?”

Surprised by the quickness of Jennifer’s movement and by having the woman jabbing him in the chest, the sheriff was momentarily confused as to how to react.

“Hold on, there,” Jesse placed her hands on Jennifer’s arms. At her touch, Jennifer forgot all about the sheriff and could only concentrate on the warmth generating from where Jesse was holding her. She allowed Jesse to pull her gently away from the sheriff. “Billie hasn’t accused me of anything,” Jesse spoke quietly to Jennifer. “Have you?” she asked the sheriff.

Seeing Jesse holding Jennifer, the sheriff feared that Jesse might try to use the schoolteacher as a shield. He pulled his pistol from its holster and pointed it at Jesse’s head. “Back away from her, Jesse.”

Jesse looked at the man pointing a six-shooter at her head, a man she had considered to be a friend, and her eyes went cold. She gently moved Jennifer off to the side and stepped further into the street putting even more room between herself and the schoolteacher. “Go back inside, Jennifer.”

“No,” Jennifer held her ground, blue eyes bore into the sheriff. “Please don’t shoot her,” Jennifer whispered.

By now, the commotion in the street started to attract the attention of the Sweetwater citizenry. Many people had stopped their evening’s routines and were watching from various locations along the town’s street. Bette Mae stood on the Slipper’s porch with the rest of the girls. Most of the evening’s diners had willingly interrupted their meal to see what was happening. Cowboys, after leaving their drinking and gambling activities in the Slipper’s saloon, poured out onto the porch. While Bette Mae, the girls, and diners stood mostly in silence watching the drama unfold before them, the cowboys, encouraged by their consumption of liquor, were calling out for the sheriff to arrest Jesse.

Jesse watched the crowd on the Slipper’s porch and could hear similar comments being shouted from the direction of the Oxbow and knew that the situation could quickly get out of the sheriff’s control. “You know I don’t carry a gun, Billie,” Jesse raised her arms to indicate she was unarmed. “Why don’t we go to your office and you can tell me what this is all about.”

“Alright,” Sheriff Monroe was glad for an excuse to take his questioning of Jesse to a private setting. He could tell that it wouldn’t take much for the intoxicated cowboys to stir up a big pot of trouble. He turned to the crowd on the Slipper’s porch, “you can all go back to your business inside. This matter doesn’t concern any of you.”

Seeing no one move at the sheriff’s words, Bette Mae took matters into her own hands and began to shoo people back inside the building. The diners went without complaint but the cowboys were a different matter. They insisted on accompanying the sheriff to make sure Jesse was ‘good and locked up’, as one of them shouted. It wasn’t until Bette Mae offered the first round on the house that most of the cowboys decided a free drink was better than a dusty walk to the town’s jailhouse.

Once the porch was cleared of onlookers, Bette Mae turned her attention to Jesse. She looked with concern at her friend and started to cross the porch, hoping to have a few words with Jesse before the sheriff escorted her to his office.

“It’s okay, Bette Mae,” Jesse said to stop the older woman from approaching her. “Take Jennifer inside. I’ll go talk with Billie and get this all straightened out.”

“Alright,” Bette Mae reached for Jennifer only to have her hand slapped away.

“I’m going with you,” Jennifer told Jesse.

“Stay here,” Jesse’s eyes locked onto Jennifer’s and pleaded with her to obey.

“No,” Jennifer was adamant. “As a reporter for the Gazette, I have a right to be there.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Jennifer,” the sheriff said to the determined woman standing again before him. “I can’t let you come.”

Tilting her head to meet the sheriff’s gaze, Jennifer said in a voice barely audible, “you’ll have to shoot me to stop me.”

Before the sheriff or Jesse could respond to Jennifer’s challenge, the ground began to shake as a dozen horses thundered into Stillwater and surrounded them. At the front of the group rode Conrad Billingsley. Ranchers Butler and Kelly and cowhands from all three ranches made up the rest of the group.

Billingsley jumped down from his horse before the animal had come to a full stop. “Why haven’t you arrested her yet, Billie?” he bellowed at the sheriff.

Billie stood his ground, “I told you I’d handle this and I will.”

“What’s to handle?” Butler questioned as he swung from his saddle to stand beside Billingsley. “We saw her leaving, her tracks were the only ones in the canyon, and her brand was on the cattle. Arrest the bitch and get it over with,” Butler spat dust from his mouth. He, unlike most others in the valley, had never liked Jesse. Didn’t think much of women being business owners except maybe to a boarding house or other domestic enterprise. But, no way was it proper for a woman to run a ranch. ‘Went against nature,’ he had been fond of saying when Jesse first purchased the run-down ranch.

“I was just takin’ her to the jail when you rode up,” Billie tried to pacify the group of riders. The uproar caused by the riders had brought most of the occupants of the Slipper and Oxbow back out onto the porch where they eagerly added their opinions to the confusion.

Wanting to avoid a full scale riot, Sheriff Monroe grabbed Dusty’s reins and started to lead the horse and Jesse down the street. “Come on, Jesse,” he said as he passed the ranchers and cowboys. “We’ll finish this in my office.”

Jennifer marched after the sheriff and the woman she seemed to need to defend. The ranchers and cowboys fell in behind Jennifer.

Sheriff Monroe stopped and faced the crowd. “Stop,” he ordered. “No one but Jesse is coming with me. The rest of you- GO HOME,” he shouted.

Stopped in their tracks by the sheriff’s words and tone, most of the crowd began to break up. Some going back into the Slipper and some heading for the Oxbow. The rest remounted their horses and started to do as the sheriff had ordered, go home.

“What the hell is this?” Butler’s voice shattered the rapidly growing silence as the crowd disbursed. As Jesse, Jennifer, the sheriff and others turned, they saw him pulling the running iron from Jesse’s saddlebag. Dusty began to sidestep uneasily as the crowd of men pushed in for a closer look at Butler’s discovery.

“Trying to hide the evidence, Jesse,” Butler said as he held the iron high above his head so all could see.

“Damn,” Jesse muttered as she realized that in freeing the cattle and carrying the running iron, she had provided all the evidence necessary to hang her for the crime.

Calls for Jesse’s arrest grew as the men saw the branding iron. Then cries to find a rope began to be heard.

Jennifer instinctively reached out for Jesse, the angry calls of the crowd frightening her to the core of her being. She couldn’t allow anything to happen to Jesse but the throng was growing by the minute and she knew she had no chance at stopping them if they decided to grab Jesse and drag her to the nearest tree. But… she had to do something.

Without realizing that her hands were no longer reaching for Jesse but had instead reached for the gun now back in the sheriff’s holster. Jennifer pulled the gun free. Holding it in her shaking hands, she pointed it into the darkened sky above.

BANG!

Everyone froze.

Dusty reared at the sound of the second shot and Jesse grabbed her reins to keep her from injuring anyone.

Jennifer had never held a gun before, let alone fired one. The noise was louder than she had expected and the recoil had almost ripped the weapon from her hands.

With a voice quivering with emotion, Jennifer turned on the crowd, “Billie told you to go home.” Her voice could barely be heard and the men strained their ears to listen to the schoolteacher holding a gun that looked extremely large in small her hands. “I suggest you do as he says. Jesse is not a rustler and I’m sure once she has a chance to tell her side to Billie, you’ll see your mistake. Now go home and let the Sheriff do his job.”

The men stood, unsure what to do. Standing in front of them was a woman who had stolen their cattle and re-branded them with her own brand. They had the evidence to prove that, or so they thought. But, between them and that woman was another woman. A sapphire-eyed bundle of raw courage who was not afraid to take them all on.

As the men stood considering their options, Bette Mae made her way through the crowd and wrapped Jennifer into her arms. Removing the gun from Jennifer’s grasp she handed it to Billie, then took Dusty’s reins from Jesse.

“Go,” Bette Mae commanded.

Wasting no time, Billie and Jesse made their way to the sheriff’s office. Once they were inside, Billie locked and bolted the door. He dropped into the chair behind his desk and placed his face in his hands. Nervous energy shook his body as he tried to catch his breath.

Jesse collapsed into the other chair in the room. She stared at the sheriff and wondered if he was capable of protecting her from the men still milling about in the street outside. Then, her thoughts turned to the schoolteacher who had defended her against the mob of cowboys. A smile slowly crossed Jesse’s face.

“Damn,” she sighed.

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

CHAPTER SEVEN

Bette Mae wrapped an arm around Jennifer’s shoulders and gently led her back to the Silver Slipper. Reaching the stairs, she threw Dusty’s reins over the nearest hitching rail. She didn’t take the time to secure the reins as she knew Dusty would remain until her mistress came to retrieve her. Jennifer began to tremble as the older woman led her up the steps and across the porch. Once inside the building, Bette Mae directed the schoolteacher into Jesse’s private office.

“Come on in here, child,” Bette Mae opened the office door and pushed Jennifer through it.

Ruth, the young girl who had befriended Jennifer her first day in Sweetwater by sewing her a much needed dress, followed Bette Mae and Jennifer into the Slipper. Seeing the two women head for Jesse’s office, she followed to offer her assistance but Bette Mae stopped her at the office door.

“See to our supper guests, Ruthie,” Bette Mae instructed the girl. “Miss Jennifer needs some time to herself right now.” Bette Mae softened her voice and continued, “keep an ear out and tell the other girls to do the same.”

Ruth nodded, then turned and headed for the kitchen to pass the request to the rest of the Slipper’s staff.

“Do you think they’ll try to hurt Jesse?” Jennifer had heard Bette Mae’s instructions and her body stiffened in fear.

“Probably not,” Bette Mae said as she crossed the office to a liquor cabinet standing against the far wall. Opening the cabinet’s door, she removed a bottle, left from the previous owner of the Slipper, and two glasses before crossing back over to the couch Jesse kept in her office for late nights. Sitting on the couch, Bette Mae set the glasses on the small table in front of it and poured a small amount from the bottle into each glass.

“Sit down, child,” Bette Mae commanded Jennifer. “Come on and sit before you fall down.”

Jennifer wanted so much to run from the room and out of the Slipper to the jailhouse. She wanted to see Jesse, wanted to touch her and assure herself that Jesse was alright. But, she did as she was told and sat beside the older woman. The thoughts scrambling around in her brain were making no sense as they bumped about and into each other. Why did she have such a need to see to Jesse’s well-being? What would she say to Jesse if she did go to the jailhouse? Can a woman even feel about another woman the way that she was feeling about Jesse? None of it made sense and Jennifer groaned as she propped her elbows on her knees and laid her head in her hands.

“There, there,” Bette Mae reached out and patted Jennifer on the leg. “Don’t you go frettin’ about Jesse, she can take care of herself.” Bette Mae picked up one of the glasses and held it out to Jennifer. “Here, drink this.”

Raising her head to see what Bette Mae was offering her, Jennifer looked suspiciously at the liquid. “What is it?” she asked as she took the glass from Bette Mae’s hand.

“Just a little something to settle your nerves,” Bette picked up the other glass. “Yer still shaking from firin’ that gun.”

“First time I’ve done that,” Jennifer said as she continued to warily look at the glass and it’s contents. “First time I’ve even held a gun,” she watched as Bette Mae emptied her glass in one large gulp and then shook her head, releasing a long hiss as the liquor slid down her throat.

Jennifer handed the glass back to Bette Mae. “Uh, thanks but I’ve never tasted spirits before and from what you just did to get this stuff down, I don’t believe I want to start now.”

Chuckling, Bette Mae took the glass from Jennifer and replaced it on the table. “Now, I told Jesse you was a smart one.”

Jennifer smiled at Bette Mae’s comment. Then thinking of Jesse’s current dilemma, the smile faded. “What are we going to do about Jesse, Bette Mae?” Jennifer asked as her head dropped back against the couch. “I know she didn’t steal those cattle. Why were the ranchers so angry? Jesse has never done anything to harm them, has she?”

“Rustlin’ is serious business in cattle country. But, Miss Jesse has never taken anythin’ that didn’t belong to her,” Bette Mae quickly added when Jennifer started to protest. “Only takes one or two hot heads to stir a crowd up and that Mr. Butler never has liked Jesse,” Bette Mae shook her head sadly at the memory of some of the things she and the other girls had heard the man say about her friend. “Doesn’t think a woman should own a business, especially not a ranch.”

“But, that doesn’t make sense,” Jennifer sat up to face Bette Mae. “Jesse is the kindest woman I know. And, look what she’s done for the women who work here. She’s given them a decent life. And, from what I can tell, the Slipper is making money. Isn’t that what a good business owner does?”

“Don’t have to convince me about Jesse’s goodness,” Bette Mae agreed. “But, some men don’t see any good in women except to have their babies and cook their meals.”

Jennifer fell back against the couch, memories of her father flooding her mind. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” she said sadly. “But, what about Jesse?” she asked again in a voice so quiet that Bette Mae wasn’t sure the young woman had actually spoken.

“She has an explanation, those men just haven’ given her a chance to say her piece,” Bette Mae assured the worried schoolteacher.

Several long minutes went by, their silence broken only by the ticking of a clock that occupied a prominent spot on the fireplace mantle.

Jennifer studied the room. She had never been inside of Jesse’s office and she found that the room had a warm, welcoming feeling to it. Most of the furnishings were made of soft pine wood and softer leather. Jesse’s large desk sat almost in the exact center of the room attesting to the fact that this room was used for work and not entertaining. Shelves filled with ledgers and other record keeping books stood against the wall behind the desk. At each end of the desk sat a lamp to provide light when Jesse worked late into the night.

The couch that the women occupied sat against the wall in front of the desk and to the side of the room’s door. A small chair sat on the other side of the door and provided a comfortable seat to anyone that might have business with the building’s owner. Jennifer noticed that there were no windows in the room and no door leading to the outside of the building. After considering this for several moments, she decided that it made sense for security purposes. Jennifer realized that, with the town having no bank, Jesse must have a safe somewhere in the room and having only one entrance probably lessened the chances of robbery. Anyone wanting to enter Jesse’s office would have to do so through the Slipper and would more than likely be observed doing so. The more she looked about the room, the more she thought of the woman that had made it her office. A deep breath from Jennifer finally cracked the silence.

Disturbed from her own thoughts, Bette Mae looked at the young woman and saw the small smile begin to make it’s way across her face. Bette Mae grinned at the Jennifer, “you like Jesse, don’t you?”

Confused by the question, her smile quickly disappeared as Jennifer turned to Bette Mae. “Of course I like her. She’s done so much for me…”

Bette Mae reached over and took Jennifer’s hands into her own, “No. I mean you really like her.”

A blush began to creep up Jennifer’s neck as she understood what Bette Mae was asking.

“I, uh,” she stuttered. “I…I don’t know what I’m feeling,” she said honestly. “When I’m near her I just want to touch her. And when I touch her my skin burns at the contact. I need to be near her but when I am, I don’t know what to say or how to act.” Jennifer looked up into Bette Mae’s eyes, “is it possible…?”

“… to love a woman,” Bette Mae finished for her.

Jennifer nodded shyly.

“Yes, child,” Bette Mae squeezed her hands. “It most definitely is.”

Before Jennifer could ask any of the questions that had inundated her brain at Bette Mae’s statement, the door to the office opened and Ruth stepped in before quickly closing the door behind her.

“What is it, Ruthie?” Bette Mae turned to the girl.

“Sally sent me to tell you that there’s trouble brewing.”

“What kind of trouble?” Jennifer rose from her seat.

“A cowboy is talking up to the others that they shouldn’t wait until the circuit judge comes next week. Says they should take Jesse out tonight and hang her.”

“Damn ta all blazes,” Bette Mae said then remembered the schoolteacher’s presence. “I’m sorry, Miss Jennifer.”

Jennifer waved off the apology and addressed Ruth, “what cowboy?” Jennifer couldn’t believe any of the locals would be calling for Jesse’s lynching.

“Sally says she’s never seen him before.”

“What do we do?” Jennifer asked Bette Mae.

“Some one needs to go alert Billie that there may be trouble, so he doesn’t get surprised.”

“I’ll go,” Jennifer said before she even had a chance to think it.

“Alright,” Bette Mae agreed knowing she would be unable to stop Jennifer if she attempted to prevent her from going to the jail. “I’ll go see if I can calm things down in the bar.” She placed a motherly arm on Jennifer’s, “be careful.”

Jennifer had the oddest sense that Bette Mae was talking about more than her going to the sheriff’s office. But, the thought came and went so fast she didn’t have time until much later to realize it had even occurred. Assuring Bette Mae that she would indeed take care, Jennifer was out the door before Bette Mae and Ruth could say any more.

As Jennifer made her way across the porch and down the steps, she took notice of Dusty still patiently standing at the hitching rail. She took the few steps to Dusty’s side and retrieved her reins.

“Come on, girl,” she started to lead the horse down the street to the sheriff’s office. “Let’s go get Jesse.” A whinny and soft nudge in her back encouraged her on.

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

After listening to Jesse’s side of the day’s happenings, Sheriff Billie Monroe was more than convinced of her innocence in any rustling activities. But, he knew that he would still have to hold Jesse in the jail’s one cell until the circuit judge arrived the following week. After all, it would be up to the judge to hear both sides and to make the final ruling.

“Hate to do this, Jesse,” he apologized. “But, I’m going to have to lock you up.”

“I know, Billie,” Jesse rose from the chair she had been occupying and crossed the small room to the even smaller jail cell behind. “Guess this means you won’t be getting any sleep the next few nights,” Jesse laughed, she knew Billie lived in his office and slept on the cot in the cell.

“Yeah,” Billie shared the laugh. Billie stopped Jesse before she could enter the cell, “have any weapons on ya, Jesse?”

Reaching down to her boot, “just this knife.” She pulled the knife from its scabbard and handed it to the sheriff.

“Thanks,” the sheriff took the knife and nodded for her to enter the cell. Once Jesse was inside, he closed the door and locked it. “Sorry about this, Jesse,” he apologized again.

“Just doing your job, Billie,” Jesse could see how much locking her up was hurting her friend. “That’s what the town council pays you for, isn’t it,” she joked, trying to lighten the sheriff’s mood.

“Yeah,” he grumbled. “Days like this, they don’t pay me nearly enough.”

“Once the judge gets here, this will all be over and I’ll buy you a drink,” Jesse said.

“Think I’ll be the one buying,” the sheriff moved to his desk and placed Jesse’s knife in the drawer for safe keeping. He was about to ask Jesse what she wanted for her evening meal, the town having an arrangement with the Slipper to provide meals for all prisoners. And, after all, Jesse was now an official prisoner of the town of Sweetwater. But, before the sheriff could ask someone knocked on the jail’s door.

“Miss Jennifer,” the sheriff was surprised to see the schoolteacher when he pulled the jail’s door open. “What are you doing here?”

“Bette Mae sent me,” Jennifer informed the sheriff. Her eyes sought out Jesse and once they had located the tall woman they never left her. Jennifer crossed to the cell and stood next to it’s door.

“Why did Bette Mae send you?” Jesse asked as she stood on the opposite side of the cell’s bars. The sheriff knew he shouldn’t let anyone that close to a prisoner but he wondered what harm the schoolteacher could possibly cause.

Talking only to Jesse, Jennifer quietly told her “there’s a stranger in the Slipper’s bar stirring up a lynch mob.” Her eyes conveyed the fear she felt for the woman who occupied the cell.

“Damn,” the sheriff muttered. “I’m going to have to go over there. I’ll need to find someone to stay here while I’m gone.”

“I’ll stay,” Jennifer told him.

“Thanks for the offer, Miss Jennifer. But, I don’t think it would be safe to expect you to face down that crowd if it decides to come this way.”

“I did it once before. And, I can do it again if…” Jennifer started.

“No, Jennifer,” Jesse’s quiet voice stopped Jennifer’s protest. “Billie’s right. It’s not safe. Go back to the Slipper and let Billie handle this.”

“I’m not leaving,” Jennifer looked into Jesse’s eyes. “I won’t leave you,” she firmly told Jesse.

Seeing the resolve on the schoolteacher’s face and not having any other options, the sheriff went to the cabinet that held his shotguns and pulled one out. Checking to make sure it was fully loaded, he placed a few extra shells in his pocket. “Jesse, I won’t be long. Miss Jennifer, lock the door behind me and don’t unlock it for anyone but me.”

As soon as the sheriff left the building, Jennifer locked the door and, for an extra measure of security, she shoved his desk against the door.

“What are you doing?” Jesse asked as she listened to the woman grunt and groan as the heavy desk moved begrudgingly across the wood-planked floor.

Jennifer didn’t answer. Once the desk was secure against the door, Jennifer rummaged through the desk drawers. “Ah, ha,” she declared as she pulled a ring of keys from it’s hiding place.

“Do you plan on telling me what’s going on?” Jesse was getting agitated at the lack of information.

Jennifer crossed to the cell and began to unlock the door, “I’m breaking you out.”

“Are you crazy?” Jesse stepped back from the door shaking her hand from side to side. “Oh, no you’re not. Do you know what they’ll do to you?”

“Don’t care. Now come on, we don’t have much time,” Jennifer swung the cell door open.

“No, Jennifer,” Jesse held her hands up with the palms facing Jennifer. “I’m in enough trouble as it is,” she backed as far back into the cell as she could.

“Jesse, did you steal those cattle?” Jennifer asked the retreating woman.

“No,” Jesse snapped, hurt that the schoolteacher would think her capable of such an act.

“I know you didn’t,” Jennifer softened her tone. “But, there are several drunk men over at the Slipper that don’t care if you did or didn’t. All they care about is lynching someone and guess whose neck they plan to put their noose around.” She started to plead knowing that the time to make their escape was rapidly disappearing, “please, Jesse. Come with me.”

Without thinking, Jesse reached up and rubbed her neck. She could almost feel the noose tightening around it. “We can’t go back to the Slipper. And, we can’t just walk out of town. They’ll catch us in no time,” Jesse made one final attempt at stopping the unstoppable.

Jennifer grinned, knowing she held all the aces and was ready to lay the last one on the table, “Dusty is waiting for us out back.”

Jesse knew the right thing to do was to stay put. But if she did, there was a good chance she would hang for something she didn’t do. If she ran, she knew she shouldn’t involve the schoolteacher but, then, Jennifer was already involved. And, for reasons that made no sense to her, Jesse wanted the schoolteacher with her.

“Well, then,” Jesse returned the grin. “What are we waiting for?” Jesse joined Jennifer outside of the cell and the two moved quickly to the back door of the jail.

“Wait,” Jesse stopped and crossed to the sheriff’s desk.

Jennifer watched as Jesse opened the top drawer and removed a knife, then bent to replace it in her boot. Standing up, she saw Jennifer watching her quizzically.

“Yours?” Jennifer asked.

“Mine,” Jesse nodded.

Jesse rejoined Jennifer and carefully opened the rear door. Seeing only Dusty standing patiently in the moonlight behind Sweetwater’s tiny business district, Jesse opened the door wide enough for Jennifer to pass though. Dusty raised her head in a silent greeting to her mistress and stood quietly as Jesse mounted her. Without a word, Jesse stretched a hand down to Jennifer who took it and was swung effortlessly up into the saddle behind Jesse.

“Hang on,” Jesse whispered. Jennifer wrapped her arms around Jesse’s waist and, gladly, did as she was told.

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

After a nerve-wracking ride from Sweetwater, Dusty finally reached the hillock that overlooked Jesse’s ranch. Expecting to be discovered at any moment, neither woman had spoken a word on the ride from town. Jennifer had never loosened her tight hold on Jesse’s waist, not even after she had become accustomed to Dusty’s gait and could have held on with a looser grip. She found that she liked the feel of her arms wrapped around Jesse. It felt, well, it just felt right, she decided. And, Jesse didn’t seem to mind.

Jesse had ridden from Sweetwater with both ears attuned to any sound that would indicate the jail break had been discovered and they were being chased. She was more than relieved to hear only the regular night sounds of an occasional owl hooting or coyote howling in the distance. Nothing else disturbed Jesse’s concentration. Well, almost nothing.

As much as Jesse tried to free her mind of thoughts of the arms wrapped tightly around her waist and of the breathing at her back, she could not. She found herself liking the feel of Jennifer riding behind her. Sometime between Sweetwater and their present location, Jesse had placed one of her own arms atop Jennifer’s and, Jesse had decided, it felt right.

As Dusty crested the top of the rise, Jesse turned the mare so that she could have an unobstructed view of their route from Sweetwater. Even though the night was dark, there was enough of a moon to allow Jesse’s sharp eyes to scan the trail for any sign of a dust cloud that would reveal a posse was in pursuit. As Jesse scanned what was behind them, Jennifer took the time to check out what lay before them.

Nestled in a small basin at the bottom of the hillock sat Jesse’s ranch. A one-story cabin, which served as the ranch house, stood in the middle of the basin and faced west with a clear view of the mountains in the distance. It looked to be not much bigger than the dining area of the Silver Slipper, with a similar wrap-a-round porch. The house was flanked by chimneys at its north and south ends and a long, neglected garden took up the area behind it. About one hundred feet beyond the garden, stood a barn almost three times the size of the ranch house. The moonlight reflected off the new portions of roof and the newly rebuilt corral fence encircling three sides of the building. There were a couple of other outbuildings but, not being familiar with ranches, Jennifer could only guess to their purpose.

Jesse turned Dusty back towards the ranch and encouraged the horse to continue down the road. Just where the road flattened out at the bottom of the hillock, two large logs stood on either side of the path. 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 the name Jesse had given the ranch, J’s Dream.

Dusty carried her two passengers under the arch and to the ranch house. Jesse slipped out of the saddle as soon as Dusty stopped and turned to help Jennifer down.

“We don’t have much time,” Jesse said as she lead Jennifer onto the porch. Opening the cabin’s door, she urged Jennifer inside. “They have no doubt discovered us missing by now,” she told Jennifer as she crossed the room to the sleeping area. Jesse opened a trunk that sat at the foot of the bed and began pulling items out of it. She discarded most of what she took out until she held an old pair of jeans and a worn flannel shirt.

“Put these on,” she tossed the clothes to Jennifer. Digging further into the trunk, she pulled out a pair of boots. “These, too,” she placed the boots on the floor. Jesse slammed the trunk closed.

“These don’t look like they belong to you,” Jennifer said as she held the clothes up in front of her.

“They don’t. Found the chest when I bought the place. Figured they were left by the previous owner.” Seeing that Jennifer had not moved, Jesse snapped “hurry up. Get those on if you’re coming with me.”

Hearing Jesse’s comment and deciding that she did not want to give her any excuse to leave her behind, Jennifer jumped into action. As she began to remove the dress she wore, she asked “what’s wrong with my own clothes?”

Jesse had crossed the room to the kitchen area and was filling an old flour sack with supplies. “You won’t be very comfortable where we’re going in that dress and those shoes,” she answered without stopping from her task.

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

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

“Did you say something?” Jennifer turned her head to look in Jesse’s direction. Her eyes locked onto Jesse’s. For several long moments, both women absorbed the varying and changing emotions flashing in the eyes of the other. They might have remained locked in that moment forever if Dusty hadn’t whinnied outside.

Jesse finally pulled her eyes from Jennifer, “um, I, um.” Jesse couldn’t make her mouth form the words she wanted. She finally gave up and went back to filling the sack.

Jennifer smiled to herself as she returned to her task of dressing. her question forgotten by both women.

After dropping the full sack at the cabin’s door, Jesse walked to a chest standing against the rear wall of the cabin. Opening it’s doors, she reached inside and filled her free hands with ammunition for her rifle and pistols.

“You about ready,” she asked Jennifer as she walked back to the cabin’s door and pulled it open.

“Yes,” Jennifer was stuffing the bottom of the too big shirt into the top of the too big pants. Surprisingly, the boots seemed to be the right size for her. She felt like a little girl wearing her big brother’s clothes. At least, she thought that was what she felt like since she had never in her life worn pants before. One more firm tuck to secure the shirt and she crossed to the door. Since Jesse was busy placing the bullets into Dusty’s saddlebags, Jennifer bent and picked up the sack Jesse had filled.

“I’ll get that,” a tender voice spoke into her ear and sent a warm shudder through her body. Jesse was standing behind her and carefully took the sack from her hands. After securing the sack to Dusty’s saddle, Jesse swung herself up into it.

“Make sure the door is secure,” she instructed Jennifer who stood watching on the porch.

After doing so, Jennifer quickly crossed the porch and took Jesse’s offered hand to be again lifted into the saddle. Not needing to be told, Jennifer wrapped her arms around Jesse and hung on as Dusty took off at a fast trot. As they rode away from the ranch, Jesse laid a arm over Jennifer’s and heard a soft sigh at her back.

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

CHAPTER EIGHT

To the east, the sun was beginning to replace the night’s darkness with its light. In the town of Sweetwater a small group of recently sobered men sat on their horses in the street outside of the jail house. Sheriff Billie Monroe, a bandage wrapped around his upper arm and sporting a nasty bruise on his jaw stood on the boardwalk in front of the building.

The night before, Sheriff Monroe had listened to Jesse’s side of the events and knew the woman had nothing to do with stealing cattle. As he left the jail after Jennifer brought word of a growing lynch mob in the Slipper’s saloon, he wondered how he would convince the stirred up cowboys and ranchers of this. He could see several men milling about the porch and in the street in front of the Slipper. He didn’t have to be too close to know that they had consumed more than enough liquor to make them dangerous.

As Billie made his way from the jail to the Slipper, he was joined by Thaddeus Newby, the newspaper editor, who had just ridden into town. He left his horse tied up outside the newspaper office and met the sheriff in the middle of the street.

“What’s going on, Billie?” he asked. “Heard lots of talk about a hanging when I rode past the Slipper.”

“Billingsley and Butler are accusin’ Jesse of being a cattle rustler,” Billie explained without breaking stride.

“That’s a pile of horse poop and you know it,” Thaddeus fell into step with the sheriff. “Where is she?”

“In jail.”

“You left her alone?” Thaddeus was incredulous at the sheriff’s seeming lack of protection provided to his prisoner.

“Didn’t have much choice. Couldn’t stay there to protect her and try to break up the lynch mob. Besides, she ain’t alone. Miss Jennifer is with her.”

“Miss Jennifer?”

“Yep, wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s a lot of spirit in that woman.”

“Are they safe? Want me to go back there?”

Billie thought for a minute before shaking his head, “might could use your help here more. I’d ask Ed to go, but don’t have the time.” Having reached the Slipper, he climbed the steps to the porch and was immediately confronted by the drunk men.

“What do ya say,” one man slurred, “we just take her off ya hands, sheriff?”

“Yeah, what ‘ta ya say?” added another man who was holding himself upright by wrapping his arms around a post.

“Not tonight, boys,” Billie eased past the men. “Can’t have the circuit judge come to town and have nothin’ to do.”

“It’ll save the town some money,” the first man said.

“Maybe,” Billie had reached the door and pulled it open. “But, I can’t let ya do it.”

Once inside, the sheriff saw Bette Mae and the other girls huddled near the saloon door. One look at them and Billie knew the situation was bad. He couldn’t remember ever seeing Bette Mae scared and right now she looked down right petrified. Billie flashed a brief smile in the women’s direction before entering the saloon where he knew he would have to confront the real trouble makers on this night that he was already wishing he could forget.

“‘Bout time ya showed up, Billie,” Conrad Billingsley yelled from his spot against the room’s long bar. “We was just goin’ to come get ya.”

Billie knew that the rancher was drunk. Hell, he knew that everyone in the room was drunk with the exception of himself, Thaddeus, and Sally, tending bar. One glance around the room and he knew he was in trouble. Two sober man standing against a lynch mob did not bode well for Jesse’s chances.

“Well, here goes,” he muttered to Thaddeus as they made their way through the crowd to the bar. Billie thought ‘wish us luck, Jesse’.

Upon reaching the bar, Sheriff Monroe leapt up onto the well cared for surface. Looking down at the men in the room, he announced “bar’s closed.” Shouting over the protests that followed he continued, “you’ve all had more than enough. I’m asking you to go home and sleep it off. We can talk about Jesse when you are sober and thinking right.”

“Like hell,” the rancher Butler slammed his fist down on the bar at the sheriff’s feet. “We’ll hang the bitch tonight.” Several other men in the room voiced their agreement to the declaration.

Hoping to stop what was happening, the newspaperman appealed to the richest rancher in the valley. “Billingsley, put a end to this before you all make a serious mistake.”

“Why, Thaddeus?” the rancher responded. “She stole the cattle. Let her pay the price.”

“Conrad, you know she didn’t steal any cattle,” the sheriff took up the appeal for reason. “I’ve heard Jesse’s side and I can assure you that she had nothin’ to do with this.”

The shouts for hanging were getting louder and more forceful. Many of the men who had been outside had now come in to hear what was being said and were adding their voices to the chaos. The sheriff’s voice was lost in the increasing noise and he stood on the bar watching any influence he might have had slipping away.

Trying one more time to save his prisoner, the sheriff shouted, “I’m ordering you all to GO HOME NOW.”

As the sheriff looked over the crowd to see if any would do as he had ordered, a shot rang out. The sheriff was thrown sideways by the shock of the bullet ripping through his arm. Unable to protect himself, he could not avoid cracking his jaw on the edge of the bar as he fell. Before his body reached the floor, the darkness of unconsciousness had claimed him.

A moment of silence filled the room as the men watched the sheriff disappear behind the bar. Then a voice from one of the men sounded in the stillness, “now’s our chance, boys. Ain’t got to worry about the sheriff tryin’ to stop us now.”

As if all of the bodies were in someway linked together, the men surged towards the saloon’s door. The first man had barely reached the opening when another shot exploded in the room.

The men turned to see Sally standing behind the bar, a shotgun in her hands and pointed into the crowd. A dead silence took over the room as the men checked to see if anyone had been wounded. Before they could regain their mob momentum, Sally calmly aimed the shotgun at Conrad Billingsley chest.

“Next man who talks of lynching Miss Jesse, I’ll blow your head off,” she informed the rancher.

“Come on, boys,” the voice in the crowd spoke again. “She won’t shoot anyone.”

“She might not,” Bette Mae stood in the kitchen’s doorway, a shotgun leveled at the tall rancher. “But, I sure as hell will.”

“Come on,” the voice again cried out. “Two women ain’t goin’ ‘ta stop us.”

“Two women and one man,” Thaddeus said from his place behind the bar. After the sheriff had been shot, the newspaperman had ducked behind the bar to check on his condition. Seeing that the bullet had gone clean through his arm, he took a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wrapped it around the wound. Then, he pulled a pistol from the unconscious man’s holster and took his place behind the bar. “And, it look’s like there’s a few more women out there just hoping you’ll try to leave,” he nodded to the open door leading into the dining room where some of the girls had gathered, some holding weapons.

Seeing that he was facing the barrel of, at least, two shotguns and a pistol, Conrad Billingsley was rapidly sobering up. He knew that Thaddeus, Sally, and the other girls might be overrun before they could shoot but Bette Mae would drop him before anyone could take a step. Weighing his options and finding that he had none, Billingsley gave up.

“Alright,” he shouted to the men stirring about him. “This has gone far enough.”

“Like hell, it has,” the voice called out.

Cutting off further conversation, Billingsley commanded, “I said ENOUGH. Everyone sit down, NOW.”

Slowly, the men began to obey. One by one, they sat in the nearest chair and when all the chairs were taken, they sat on the floor until no one was left standing except the rancher and the newspaper man and women with their weapons pointed at him.

“That’s better,” Bette Mae said from her post at the kitchen’s door. “How’s Billie?”

“Bullet went clean through,” Thaddeus informed her.

Sally placed the shotgun on the bar in front of Thaddeus, then knelt down to the sheriff slumped on the floor. “He’s coming around,” she stood back up. “He’s goin’ have a headache for a few days.”

Bette Mae signaled to one of the women standing behind her. The woman ducked under Bette Mae’s arms still holding the shotgun and made her way among the men to the bar. She and Sally helped the sheriff up and half-carried him into the kitchen area so that they could attend to his injuries.

“Now,” Bette Mae addressed the men, “you are goin’ to stay here ’til mornin’. You won’t move, you won’t say anythin’. I suggest that you get some sleep ’cause ya goin’ wish you had come sunrise.” Not hearing any argument from her captive audience, Bette Mae continued. “My girls and I ain’t goin’ nowheres, so don’t get any ideas.”

After a long look at the men sitting about the room, Bette Mae added “Sweetwater’s population of jackasses sure done grown tonight. And, you can put that in your paper, Thaddeus.” A rippling of laughter was heard from the women.

“I’ll make it my headline,” Thaddeus said as he took a more comfortable position sitting atop the bar. Exchanging the pistol for the shotgun, he place it across his legs.

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

It took a couple of hours but Sheriff Monroe’s vision was finally clearing and the ringing in his head was down to a loud roar. His arm was wrapped in a clean bandage and a piece of ice wrapped in a towel was pressed against his jaw. He was sitting in the kitchen and being attended to by one of the woman that worked at the Slipper. The sheriff tried to think of her name but eventually decided that he had never known it. He remembered that the girl was very shy and said very little. She worked in the kitchen and laundry areas of the Slipper and rarely came into contact with the guests. As his mind cleared, the sheriff wondered why he hadn’t taken notice of the pretty girl before. Maybe after this mess was over, he would come by the Slipper’s kitchen and see if he could get the girl’s attention.

“How’s the head?” Bette Mae sat beside the sheriff and, effectively, brought his thoughts back to the events at hand.

“Feels like my horse kicked me,” the sheriff said cautiously so as not to jar his injured face too much.

“Probably will for a while,” Bette Mae handed him a fresh piece of ice and took the wet towel from him. “What now, Billie?” she asked.

“You keep them here and I’ll go check on Jesse,” he nodded a thank you for the ice before pressing it against his jaw. “She probably thinks something happened to me by now.”

“Somethin’ did happen to you,” Bette Mae wrung out the drenched towel and handed it back.

“Yeah,” he said as he wrapped the towel around the chunk of ice. “Good thing it happened at the Slipper and you stood up to them,” the sheriff rose from the chair, swaying a bit as he stood.

“Hang on, Billie,” Bette Mae reached out and placed a steadying arm on the sheriff’s. “Maybe one of us should walk with you.”

“Nah,” he tried to smile but it quickly turned into a grimace when his jaw protested. “I’ll be okay once I get going. Besides, I’d rather you stay and help Thaddeus keep an eye on them,” he tilted his head in the direction of the saloon.

“Okay,” Bette Mae agreed. “I’ll have Ruthie keep an eye on you from the porch. She can make sure you make it back to your office.”

“Sounds good,” Billie reached for his hat that rested on a shelf near the door. Without care, he placed it on his head, mashing his disheveled hair under it. “Thanks, again, Bette Mae.”

“You give our love to Jesse,” the older woman squeezed the arm that she still gripped. “And, send Miss Jennifer back here so I can see that she is alright.”

“I will,” the sheriff said as he left.

Sheriff Monroe gained strength as he walked from the Slipper towards his office. It was still dark out and this surprised the sheriff. It felt like the night’s events had lasted several days instead of just a few hours. Billie stepped into the moonlit street and stopped in the middle of it. Careful not to move his jaw any more than necessary, he took several deep breaths. The cold, night air felt good as it filled his lungs and the lingering dizziness from his fall seemed to dissipate as he continued to draw in the fresh air. After several minutes, he continued his journey.

He reached his office to find the front door locked as he had instructed Jennifer to do upon his departure just hours earlier. He knocked lightly, sorry to have to wake the women he was sure to be asleep inside. As his knocking received no answer, he knocked louder and called to Jennifer. Still only silence answered him. Moving to the window beside the door, he peered into his office. He could see nothing as no lamp was lit inside the building. He rapped his knuckles strongly against the window pane in hopes that the sharper sound would wake the women. No answer.

“Strange,” Billie mumbled. He had always heard that Jesse was a light sleeper and would awake at the smallest of sounds. “Must really have been worn out after tonight’s excitement,” he said to no one in particular.

The sheriff was about to try the other window when something caught his eye. It wasn’t much. Just the flash of moonlight reflecting off the cell’s bars. The sheriff stood frozen in place while he tried to reason out why that had caught his attention. It was just the moonlight and that wasn’t unusual on a clear night for the moon to penetrate into his office.

“Damn,” Billie jerked away from the window. The moonlight, that was the answer. There was no way for the moonlight to reach that part of the jail unless it came through the back door. And, the only way for it to come through the back door was if the door was open.

Billie raced down the boardwalk until he reached the entry to a walkway that ran between the jail and the town hall. He ran along the walkway and slid to a stop at the back of the jail. The door stood wide open. He entered the building already knowing what he would find. It was empty. The cell that he had left Jesse securely locked in was open and vacant. His desk was pushed up against the front door to keep out any unwanted visitors.

“Damn,” the sheriff repeated. “Why, Jesse?” he said to the empty room. “They’ll hang you for sure when they catch you.”

“Then you’ll have to make sure they don’t catch her,” the sheriff swung around to see Ed standing in the open doorway.

“Did you know?” he shot the accusing question at the big man.

“No,” Ed shook his head. “Didn’t think she’d break her way out.”

“She didn’t,” the sheriff informed him. “She had help from Miss Jennifer,” he pointed at the key ring still hanging from the cell door’s lock.

A smile slowly made it’s way across Ed’s face and his belly laugh filled the air. “Damn,” he chuckled. “That schoolteacher has sure got some spunk.”

“Yeah,” Billie was pulling his desk away from the front door. “That spunk may get them both killed.”

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

Ed accompanied the sheriff back to the Silver Slipper. The short walk was made in silence as both thought on the opinion the sheriff had voiced in his office. They knew that a posse would have to be formed and Jesse and Jennifer would be hunted down and brought back to face judgment for the jail break. Any hope of the judge letting Jesse off after hearing her testimony regarding the rustled cattle was gone. The sheriff pondered how he could keep control of a posse of men who would now be angry that they had been forced to sit in the Slipper’s saloon while Jesse made her escape. Ed wondered if Jesse could keep herself and the schoolteacher safe until they could uncover the truth behind the rustlers and clear both their names.

As the sheriff entered the Slipper to inform the now sobering men of the jail break, Ed stopped him with a large hand on his arm.

“Give Jesse the time she needs,” the storekeeper asked knowing that he didn’t need to explain his request.

“I’ll do what I can,” Billie agreed and then entered the saloon. Ed following close behind.

A few men were talking quietly but most of the men were sleeping or just sitting, consumed by their own thoughts. They stepped over the men on the floor and made their way back to the bar where Thaddeus still sat. The sheriff pulled a chair behind the bar and stood on it. Still a little unsure on his feet after his injury, he did not want to chance climbing on top of the bar.

Thaddeus slipped off the bar and handed Ed the shotgun, “you’d probably be more comfortable with this than I am.”

“Thanks,” the large man accepted the gun and stood beside Billie. Thaddeus took up a position at the end of the bar where he could watch the proceedings and make notes. After all, he did have a newspaper to run and this was the biggest story to hit Sweetwater since he started the paper.

Once everyone was situated to his satisfaction, the sheriff picked his pistol up from the bar and rapped it hard on the wood surface.

The men who were already awake and watching the sheriff’s actions, were ready for the sharp noise of his gun hitting the bar. The sleeping men were not and woke in various stages of alarm. After a few moments, the sheriff rapped the bar again.

“I hope I have everyone’s attention now,” he told the room.

“Hey, what’s with all the noise?” one man asked. “Thought you wanted us to sleep?”

“Listen to me,” the sheriff cut the man off. “Something has happened and I need to form a posse.”

This news brought the room back to life and several men shouted questions at the same time. The sheriff held up his hands to quiet the men. “Hold your questions and listen to me. I’ll tell you want happened, but first I’m setting some ground rules.”

A few grumbles could be heard but, since the men wanted to find out what was going on, most remained silent to encourage the sheriff to continue.

“Alright,” the sheriff took a deep breath and began. “I’m naming the posse members. The rest of you are to return to your homes and ranches and go back to your own business. If any of you try to interfere with the posse, I’ll arrest you. And, you can answer to the circuit judge when he gets here.”

More grumbles were heard, but were shushed by those around them.

“Billingsley and Butler, name three of your best trackers.”

“That’s it?” someone in the crowd asked.

“No, I’m asking Thaddeus and Ed to join us,” the sheriff said. “And, that’s it.” Sheriff Monroe wasn’t sure that putting the two ranchers on the posse was the best of ideas but he knew he would never leave town without Billingsley. And, it was better to have Butler, who had a major dislike for Jesse, where he could keep an eye on him. Plus, both men employed the best trackers in the valley. The best besides Jesse. That little piece of information gave the sheriff some peace of mind as he knew Jesse would not make it easy for the posse to follow her.

The sheriff’s decision to add the newspaper editor and the storekeeper to the posse was two-fold. First, it would give him two extra sets of eyes and ears that were not out to harm Jesse and Jennifer. And the two men would provide neutral testimony when the women went on trial. The sheriff knew he had to bring the women back but he wasn’t going to bring them back to hang.

“Alright, Billie,” Conrad Billingsley rose from the chair he had been occupying. His legs were stiff and his back ached and he was in no mood for any games from the sheriff. “You’ve named your posse. Now, do you mind telling us what the hell is going on.”

“Jesse escaped from jail last night.”

Shouts arose from every man in the room but the sheriff cut them off by firing his pistol in the air.

“Miss Jesse ain’t goin’ like all them bullet holes in her new ceiling,” Ruthie said to Bette Mae as they watched the proceedings from the kitchen.

“Hush, child,” Bette Mae scolded. “Them’s the least of our worries right now.”

“Alright,” the sheriff was trying to out shout the men. Calls for the sheriff’s arrest, and worse, for letting a prisoner escape started to make their way about the room.

Realizing that he couldn’t hold back the men alone, the sheriff turned to the rancher standing on the other side of the bar. “Billingsley, you know this has gone too far. We have to work together or Sweetwater will pay the price for years to come.”

Studying the sheriff and listening to the growing anger of the crowd, the rancher gave in for the second time in the last few hours. He nodded and walked behind the bar to stand beside the sheriff and storekeeper.

“QUIET,” Billingsley’s bellow rolled around the room and the men paused. The smart ones saw the intensity in the eyes of the men behind the bar and quieted. The not-so-smart ones and the ones still too intoxicated, foolishly continued to protest. “I SAID QUIET,” a second, more forceful bellow rattled the glasses behind the bar and got everyone’s attention.

“Last night was a mistake,” Billingsley lowered his voice. “We’re ranchers, not a lynch mob. Jesse has been a good friend since she came to Sweetwater.”

“Speak for yourself,” the rancher Butler mumbled.

“Shut up, Butler,” Ed glared at the man. “You don’t like Jesse ’cause she’s a woman and she runs a ranch. That doesn’t mean she should hang for something she didn’t do.”

“Is that how you treat cattle rustlers in Sweetwater?” a voice asked from the back of the room.

The sheriff looked in the direction of the voice, “who said that?” The sheriff continued, “someone’s been trying to stir you men up all night. Always pushing you towards a lynching. Look around, who do you see? You see your friends and neighbors. People you have known for several years. Not people who would want to hang a friend.”

Billingsley nodded at the sheriff’s words as he realized that he was speaking the truth. Someone had been stirring the pot most of the night, but why? Maybe Jesse was innocent.

As the men searched the faces of those standing or sitting near them, no one took notice of the lanky cowboy who sat at a table in the back of the room. To all who looked in his direction, he appeared to be just another of the young cowboys employed by one of the valley’s ranches. His outward calmness hid the fact that his heart was in his throat and the hands he hid under the table were shaking so bad he was afraid they would give him away. The boy’s thoughts were concentrated on whether or not he would manage to escape from the room alive. He was in way over his head and he decided that no amount of money Johnson was going to pay him would compensate for what he was going through.

As the men continued to search for the owner of the voice, the sheriff drew their attention back to the front of the room. “Okay, any more questions, or problems, before we break this up?”

Some of the men shook their heads but most just stood quietly.

“Good,” Sheriff Monroe said. “Billingsley, you and Butler pick your men and meet me at the jail in half an hour. Bette Mae, the Slipper is closed until the posse gets back,” the sheriff told the women watching from the kitchen. Without waiting for a response, he continued, “I expect no harm to come to the Slipper or to Jesse’s ranch and livestock. There’s no proof she had anything to do with the rustling. And after hearing her story, I’m convinced she had nothing to do with it. But, we will bring her back and let the judge decide.”

The sheriff bent to step down from the chair, then changed his mind and straightened back up. “Now, for the last time, GO HOME,” he said to the men.

An half hour later, a small group of recently sobered men sat on their horses in the street outside of the jail house. Sheriff Monroe, a bandage wrapped around his upper arm and sporting a nasty bruise on his jaw stood on the boardwalk in front of the building. The newspaperman and storekeeper were astride their own horses standing slightly apart from the ranchers.

With one final look at his posse, the sheriff mounted his horse and turned it in the direction that would take them to Jesse’s ranch. “Let’s go.”

***********

CHAPTER NINE

“Where are we going?” Jennifer asked from her place behind Jesse.

After leaving Jesse’s ranch, Dusty had maintained a steady pace. They rode east from the ranch and into the thick forest on that side of the valley. Jesse led them deep into the trees before changing directions to travel south in the direction where she had lost the rustlers’ tracks the previous day. ‘Was it really only one day’, she thought. So much had happened.

“Jesse,” Jennifer twisted in an effort to see Jesse’s face. “Are you okay?” she softly asked.

“Yes,” Jesse patted the arms wrapped tightly around her waist. “Just thinking.” She turned in the saddle to smile back at her passenger and was surprised to see the concern in Jennifer’s eyes.

“Guess I got myself in a pretty good mess, uh?”

“We’ll get you out of it,” Jennifer said. She didn’t know how and she didn’t know why but she did know it was important to her future, both their futures, to see Jesse cleared of the charges against her.

“Wish I was as sure as you are,” Jesse turned back around to guide Dusty through yet another rocky stretch of ground.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to avoid the rocky areas?”

“Yes, but it would also make it easier for the posse to track us.”

“Oh,” Jennifer turned to look behind them. All she saw were trees, “are they following?”

“Probably,” Jesse said. After taking note of the location and length of the sun’s shadows, she added, “should have reached the ranch by this time.” She wondered if Billie would be able to stop the ranchers from tearing it apart looking for more evidence that she had stolen their cattle. With a sigh, she realized that there wasn’t much she could do about it now.

“So, where are we going?” Jennifer repeated.

“South, to the spot where I tracked the rustlers yesterday. Hopefully, I can pick up their tracks again.”

“Then what?”

“Then, I try to find out who they are and why they want me to hang.”

Jennifer stiffened, “don’t say that.”

“Hey,” Jesse gently stroked Jennifer’s arm. “I have no intention of being the guest of honor at a necktie party. But, you have to admit, someone is trying real hard to make me look guilty.”

“I know,” Jennifer’s voice was soft as she laid her head against Jesse’s back.

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

It was late morning when Dusty left the cover of the forest. They quickly made their way across the south end of Jesse’s property, Dusty carrying them on a path that would cross the rustlers’ trail.

“That’s the canyon I found the cattle in yesterday,” Jesse pointed.

Jennifer lifted her head, “shouldn’t we check it out?”

“Nah, I doubt they would go back there.” Jesse shook her head at her stupidity. If only she had left the cattle where she had found them and had gone to find Billie. But, the animals had been hungry and thirsty and she knew she had done the right thing for them. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the right thing for her.

Dusty stopped at a small creek their path crossed. Jesse realized her horse was right and a break was in order. Unlocking Jennifer’s arms from her waist, Jesse swung her leg over the saddle horn and slipped to the ground. She reached up to help Jennifer from Dusty’s back. Free of her riders, Dusty enjoyed a drink of cold water.

As soon as her feet touched the ground, Jennifer groaned at her sore muscles. She arched her back into a stretch, “goodness, I never knew riding a horse was so hard on one’s body.”

Jesse laughed as she stretched out her own tired muscles, “takes some getting used to. I take it you didn’t do much riding back home?”

“Only if you count horse drawn buggies,” Jennifer took a few tentative steps hoping to get the blood flowing again in her legs.

“Here,” Jesse offered the canteen. “Drink. Won’t be long ’til the sun is really beating down on us.”

Jennifer accepted the offer and took a long drink before handing it back. As, Jesse knelt to refill the canteen from the creek, Jennifer joined her. After rolling her sleeves above her elbows, Jennifer cupped her hands and filled them with the cool water which she splashed on her arms and face.

Watching, Jesse pulled the bandana from her neck, soaked it in the creek and partially wrung it out. “Put this around your neck,” Jesse held the still dripping cloth out. “It will help keep you cool.”

Jennifer smiled gratefully as she took the bandana from Jesse. “What about you?”

“I’m used to the heat,” Jesse lied. She knew that in a short time the sun would make their ride miserably but it was a small sacrifice to give Jennifer some relief from the heat. “Keep that wet,” Jesse added. “Let me know if the canteen gets low.”

Dusty was ready to continue and Jesse mounted up. She reached down for Jennifer and as soon as the schoolteacher was settled, she urged Dusty into a trot.

Jesse soon picked up the rustlers’ tracks and began following them back into the forest where the tracks had split up. Guessing that the three riders would eventually rejoin each other, Jesse decided to stay with the one that had continued south. It was a direction that would keep them in the trees and out of the sun. And, would make a easier ride on Dusty and them.

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

Dusty was picking her way up a dry creek bed. Jesse and Jennifer were walking alongside to give the tired horse a break. It was hot but the large ponderosa pines around them served to block the sun’s intensity. Jennifer had long ago given up on keeping Jesse’s bandana wet. The afternoon’s oven like conditions dried it almost as fast as she could pour water over it.

They had been following the same set of tracks for so long that Jennifer was able to pick them out almost as easily as Jesse.

Wanting to break the heavy silence that had grown between them, Jesse asked, “so, what brought you to Sweetwater? Other, than the schoolteacher position, I mean.”

Jennifer was quiet for several moments while she decided how much she wanted to tell her companion. But after considering that she had just broken Jesse out of jail after knowing her for only a few days, she decided there wasn’t much reason to not tell the truth.

“I come from a family where girls are raised to marry, have children and not question their father’s or husband’s decisions. I wanted more than that. A friend gave me a newspaper from Denver, I saw the ad for schoolteachers and I answered it.”

“Your father, or,” Jesse hesitated. “Or, husband must have had something to say about you leaving.” She held her breath not really sure she wanted to know the answer to her unspoken question.

Jennifer laughed softly, “oh, I’m not married. Not that my father didn’t do everything in his power to make sure that I was. I didn’t tell anyone I was leaving. Oh, except for Matt. He’s the friend,” she smiled as she thought of the librarian. “He helped me. Bought the train ticket and gave me some money to live on until I received my schoolteacher’s pay. He kept my secret even though he works for my father.

“I knew if my father found out what I was planning, he would have had my brothers watch my every move. To him, I wasn’t worth anything more than being the incentive part of a business deal,” she said bitterly. “Just a way to make his shipping business more profitable by marrying me off to the son of one of his associates.”

Jesse was saddened by Jennifer’s words and wanted nothing more than to pull the schoolteacher to her and hug her tight. Instead, she asked, “what about your mother?”

“Like I said, the women in my family are taught to obey. I don’t think I ever heard my mother question my father. Whatever he decided was fine with her. And, my brothers will go along with father as long as he controls the family business.” Jennifer sighed deeply, “it may have been good enough for mother, but I was not going to live like that. So, here I am.”

Jesse smiled, “I’m glad you’re here.”

Jennifer smiled back shyly, “Me, too. So, what about you?”

“I’m sure Bette Mae or one of the girls has told you the story. I won the Slipper in a poker game. Not much else to tell.”

“Sure there is,” Jennifer protested. “I mean, it’s not usual for a woman to be riding around the west by herself. What about your family?”

“I was born on my folk’s ranch outside of Bozeman. Just the three of us. My mom had a boy a year after me, but he died the same day. She couldn’t have any more children after that. I don’t think my dad ever forgave her. He’d always wanted a son.”

“But, he had you.”

“Yeah, he worked me liked he would have a son, that’s for sure. I worked that ranch since the day I learned to ride, and I was riding before I could walk. Guess I just figured one day the place would be mine. He figured it differently.”

“What happened?”

“Came home one day after riding fence to find them packing up and moving into town. Told me he sold the ranch and I was on my own.”

Jennifer gasped, “he threw you out.”

“Guess you could say that. Seems I had taken too long to find myself a husband and the son that he could finally pass the ranch to. So, he took the money when it was offered.”

“What did you do?”

“Got on Dusty and never looked back. Found myself in Denver one night and decided to try my luck in a poker game. You know the rest.”

“Some pair we are, uh?” Jennifer began to chuckle. “Neither of us any good to our families because we wouldn’t get married.”

“Yeah,” Jesse joined in the laughter. “Looks like we’ll be a pair of old spinsters, puttering around Sweetwater in our old age.”

“As long as we do it together, you won’t hear me complain,” Jennifer said before she could stop herself.

Jesse grinned and this time she didn’t hesitate, she wrapped her arms around Jennifer and hugged her tight. “Me, too,” she whispered. “Me, too.”

Jennifer melted into Jesse’s arms. She looked up into Jesse’s eyes and saw the same affection reflected back at her. Now, she knew why she had turned away every suitor her father had arranged for her. None had looked at her like Jesse was and none had made her feel important like Jesse did by just holding her. She had left the place of her birth, traveled half way across the country and had found her home. And, she couldn’t think of a better place to be at this very moment.

Jesse felt Jennifer return her embrace without hesitation. It felt so good to hold her. If she could stay in this moment forever, she would be a very happy woman. No one’s touch had ever affected Jesse the way the schoolteacher’s did. And, Jesse was going to do everything in her power not to lose the feeling. After several minutes, Jesse gently broke their embrace.

“We need to keep moving,” Jesse told the disappointed schoolteacher.

Jennifer sighed but knew Jesse was right, “when this is all over, I want to pick up where we left off.”

Jesse smiled, “that’s a promise.”

They resumed their journey picking their way around the larger rocks in the dry creek bed.

“You would think that he would try to hide his tracks,” Jennifer referred to the rustler they were tracking.

“Um,” Jesse had had the exact same thought more than once. It was almost as if the rider wanted to be followed. “Maybe.”

“Maybe? It’s almost as if he wants us to follow,” Jennifer gave voice to Jesse’s thoughts.

“Well, if that’s the case, I guess we’re obliging him,” Jesse told her.

“Jesse,” Jennifer reached out a hand and gently rested it on Jesse’s forearm. “What do you plan to do when we catch up with the rustlers?”

Jesse stopped and looked down at the hand on her arm before raising her eyes to meet Jennifer’s. “I plan to find out why they are doing this to me and then I plan to figure out a way to get them back to Sweetwater and let Billie deal with them.”

“But, what if,” Jennifer started to ask when Jesse reached up and placed two fingers on her lips to quiet her.

Jennifer’s lip were soft and Jesse wondered what it would be like to kiss them. After several moments of considering doing just that, Jesse dropped her hand.

“It’ll be okay,” Jesse said with a confidence she didn’t really feel. “Come on,” Jesse said as she lifted herself back into the saddle, “let’s ride.”

Jennifer reached up to take Jesse’s outstretched hand and soon found herself seated behind Jesse in a position she was quickly becoming accustomed to. She reached up and touched her lips, where only moments before, Jesse’s fingers had rested. She smiled.

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

CHAPTER TEN

The tracks left the dry creek bed and led them along a forest path to a large meadow. As Dusty walked out from the trees into the clearing, she came to an abrupt stop.

“What’s wrong,” Jennifer cried out at the sudden lack of motion.

“Shh,” Jesse said. “Look, but don’t make any noise.”

Jennifer peeked over Jesse’s broad shoulders and saw several dozen large deer-like animals grazing on the meadow’s grasses.

“What are they?” she whispered.

“Elk.”

“They’re beautiful,” Jennifer was immediately taken with the magnificent animals.

Some stood as tall as Dusty and carried the beginnings of large racks of antlers on the heads. Their brown coats blended in with the growing shadows and if it hadn’t been for their light colored rears, Jennifer would have had trouble picking some of them out. A few lifted their heads from the grass to look at the intruders. But, sensing that they meant them no harm, they quickly went back to grazing. Several of the younger ones skirted around to put their mothers between themselves and the women.

“It’ll be dark soon,” Jesse looked to the western sky. The sun stayed in the sky late this time of year but when it started to drop, it fell fast and night was a short time coming. “Guess this is as good a spot as any to set up camp.”

“We’re going to camp here with them,” Jennifer was a little nervous thinking of trying to sleep with the big animals wandering around.

“No,” Jesse nudged Dusty around the elk herd to the edge of a small creek running through the clearing. “They’ll be gone by nightfall. They don’t stay in one spot for very long.”

“Oh,” Jennifer continued to watch the elk. Impressed at the way they moved with their heads held high. “They’re so majestic when they move.”

“Yeah,” Jesse said as she swung her leg over Dusty’s neck and slipped from the saddle. “I could sit and watch them all day.”

Jennifer slid down from the saddle and landed next to Jesse. “I can see why,” she agreed as she stretched her back and legs.

Jesse pulled the saddle bags and gear off Dusty and placed it on the ground. Then, she pulled the saddle and saddle blanket off. Rummaging around in one of the saddle bags, she found the grooming tools and immediately began to give Dusty and good rub down. “Been a long day for you, girl. Hasn’t it?”

Dusty raised her head in agreement.

“Let me get you cleaned up and then you can run free for the night.”

“Aren’t you afraid she’ll run off,” Jennifer questioned.

“Nah,” Jesse continued her chore. “Raised her from a foal. She and I are good pals, we look out for each other. I’d never leave her and she’d never leave me. Right, girl?” Jesse patted the mare’s neck before removing the bridle.

Dusty whinnied her response then took off at a run right through the center of the herd, the elk scurrying out of her way. Both women laughed at the mare’s antics.

“Best get camp set up while we still have light.”

“What can I do,” Jennifer asked at a loss. She had never, in her entire life, slept outside. She had no idea how it was done. Where did Jesse have the bed? It couldn’t possible fit in one of the saddlebags.

“Well, you could gather up firewood,” Jesse suggested.

Looking around, Jennifer wasn’t sure where she would find a stack of chopped firewood. “Um,” she scanned the meadow. “Ah, Jesse?”

“Yes,” Jesse was gathering rocks for a fire ring.

“Where is the firewood?”

Looking up, Jesse was puzzled at Jennifer’s question.

“Well, you could start with that branch you’re almost standing on,” she answered.

Reaching down, Jennifer lifted the branch in her hand. “You mean this?”

“Yes, what did you think I meant by firewood?”

“Well, I guessed you meant like the chopped wood Ed brings to the school house every day.”

“Oh,” realization slowly dawned on Jesse. “Sorry, I should have known you probably never did anything like this before,” she smiled apologetically.

“I can truthfully say that I’ve never set up a camp before,” Jennifer grinned back.

“Ok,” Jesse said. “Let’s start again. You can go around and pick up all the pieces of wood, like that branch, you can find. Just stay in the meadow and don’t get near the elk.”

“Right,” Jennifer set off on her task.

After setting up the fire ring and clearing the loose debris around it so that a spark wouldn’t set the meadow on fire, Jesse rolled out her bed roll and placed her blankets next to it. “Guess I’ll be sleeping on the grass tonight,” she said as she looked down at her only bedroll.

“Did you say something?” Jennifer returned with an armload of wood. She dropped it next to the fire ring.

“Just thinking I should have picked up another bedroll when we stopped at the ranch,” Jesse reached for a few of the smaller branches and placed them inside the ring.

“Oh,” Jennifer looked at the lone bedroll and pondered it’s possible advantages.

“We’ll need more wood,” Jesse broke into her thoughts. “It’ll get cold tonight.”

Jennifer set off on another foray of firewood gathering, “I bet I know one way to keep warm tonight.

“Did you say something?” Jesse asked as she took out a match from the small box in the saddlebag.

“No, nothing at all,” Jennifer smirked.

When she brought her second armful of branches back to the camp, Jennifer was surprised to see a fire was started, a small pot of water was warming on a rock placed amidst the burning wood, and Jesse was gutting two large fish.

After dropping her load with the other, she asked, “where did those come from?”

“The creek,” Jesse gave her a very self-satisfied grin.

Jennifer walked over and looked into the small body of water flowing between the creek’s banks. “In there?”

“Yep.”

“Jesse, there’s not enough water in that for me to take a bath.”

“Wanna bet?”

Jennifer considered meeting the challenge, then shook her head and walked back to the fire. “They’re big.”

“Rainbows. Every taste one?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Then, you are in for a treat. Rainbows are the best when they’re fresh from the water and cooked over an open fire.”

Jesse finished cleaning the fish and placed them in a frying pan. Soon, the smell of grilling fish filled the air.

“Smells wonderful,” Jennifer said from the short section of log she sat on. Jesse had found it not far from their camp and had rolled it next to fire.

Darkness had overtaken the meadow and camp by the time the fish were ready to eat.

**********

Jennifer was laying on her back on the bedroll. She stared up into the night sky, “I have never seen so many stars.”

“You don’t have stars back home?” Jesse asked as she washed up in the creek.

“Not as many as these,” the more Jennifer stared, the more the stars began to take on shapes and forms. She had once read a book that talked about the stars and she remembered the book had called various groupings constellations. But, she had never been able to compare the book’s descriptions to the actual stars in the sky because her father had told her it was nonsense for a woman to do such things and had forbade her to stay out at night to try.

“This is so different from back home,” Jennifer sighed.

“How so?” Jesse sat on the log and placed a few more branches on the glowing fire.

“I don’t know if I can describe it,” Jennifer sat up to face Jesse. “I felt so restricted back there. So controlled. Here,” she swept her arm around the meadow. “I feel so free. Like I can do anything.”

Jesse smiled, “you can do anything, Jennifer.”

Jennifer cocked her head and looked at Jesse, “that sounds nice.”

“What, that you can do anything.”

“No, the way you say my name. You put so much feeling into it when you say it. No one has ever done that before.”

Neither woman knew what to say after that. They just sat quietly watching the fire light reflect off the other.

Dusty trotted back to the camp.

“Tired of irritating the elk?” Jesse asked the mare who had spent much of the evening chasing the large animals.

After a long drink in the creek, Dusty walked over and pushed her still dripping muzzle into Jesse’s face and blew out a long breath through her nostrils. She then turned and trotted away from Jesse with a spring to her gait. Jennifer did everything she could to not laugh.

“Smart ass,” Jesse grumbled as she wiped her face dry on her shirtsleeve.

Dusty whinnied her response.

Jesse looked over at the schoolteacher holding in her laughter. “Oh, go ahead and let it out before you bust a gut.”

Howls of laughter rang out scaring away any elk that remained in the meadow. Slowly, the laughter ran down until Jennifer began to hiccup and couldn’t stop.

Now, it was Jesse’s turn to laugh. “Serves you right,” she told the suffering woman.

Finally, taking pity on the schoolteacher, Jesse handed her the canteen. “Take a large gulp but don’t swallow until you feel a hiccup coming. Swallow at the same time.”

Jennifer did as she was instructed and the hiccups stopped. Taking a large lungful of air, Jennifer handed back the canteen. “Where’d you learned that?” she wheezed out.

“Don’t know. Just always worked for me.” Jesse walked over to her saddle and picked up the saddle blanket tossed over it. She lay down on the ground next to the log and pulled the blanket over her, “we best get some sleep.”

Her breathing back to normal, Jennifer watched Jesse as she settled into the saddle blanket.

“What are you doing?”

“Going to sleep. What does it look like?”

“It looks like you plan to sleep wrapped in that smelly blanket.”

“I am.”

Jennifer paused, then said what she had been thinking all evening. “Jesse, come share the bedroll with me.”

Jesse took a deep breath, she wanted so much to do as Jennifer asked. Her feelings for Jennifer made the idea of sleeping close to her both terrifying and spine-tingling.

“I don’t know.”

“Please,” Jennifer asked. She opened the blankets and crawled inside. Then holding them open, she added “we’ll both be warmer.”

“Alright,” Jesse got up and slowly walked around the fire to where Jennifer lay waiting. She slipped between the blankets. Nervously, she lay on her back and waited to see what Jennifer would do. The bedroll wasn’t really wide enough for two people but Jesse wasn’t going to move now that she was here.

Jennifer smiled at Jesse before moving to lay on her side next to Jesse. She placed her head on Jesse’s shoulder and wrapped an arm around her waist. Timidly, she asked, “is this okay?”

“Yes,” Jesse smiled as she felt the weight of Jennifer’s body pressed against her own. “Are you comfortable?”

“Very,” Jennifer snuggled closer and was surprised, but very pleased, when she felt Jesse’s arms pull her close.

“Jennifer,” Jesse said then paused. She continued awkwardly, “what would you think if I said that I was having feelings for you?”

Jennifer’s heart leaped into her throat. Was it possible that Jesse felt for her the same way she felt for the rancher. She was afraid to ask but she had to know, “what kind of feelings?”

“The kind of feelings a woman must have for a man when she wants to spend the rest of her life with him,” Jesse said in one long burst. She wanted to get the words said before she chickened out.

Not hearing a response from Jennifer, Jesse knew she had made a mistake in saying anything to Jennifer. She began to get up.

Jennifer felt Jesse move beneath her and she placed a hand on Jesse’s chest to stop her. She raised her head up to look into Jesse’s eyes.

“I’m so sorry,” Jesse said when she saw the tears rolling down Jennifer’s cheeks.

“No, Jesse,” Jennifer smiled through the tears. “I’m glad you said it because I feel the same way.”

“Then, why are you crying,” Jesse reached up and softly wiped the tears away.

“Because, you’ve just made me very happy,” Jennifer captured Jesse’s hand in her own and pulled it to her chest as she laid her head back on Jesse’s shoulder. She could hear Jesse’s heart racing and knew that her own was beating just as rapidly.

“Good night, Jesse,” Jennifer whispered.

Jesse wrapped the blankets around their joined bodies. “Good night, Jennifer.”

**********

CHAPTER ELEVEN

It was early afternoon and they had been back on the rustlers’ trail since dawn. For the past hour, the trail had led them in a southwesterly direction and was sloping more downhill. Jesse knew that they would soon leave the relative safety of the forest and be back in the open canyon country at the south end of the valley.

Jesse pulled Dusty to a stop.

“Listen,” Jesse twisted in the saddle so she could see Jennifer. “I don’t know what we’re going to find when we leave the trees. Maybe, it would be best if you stayed here and…”

“No,” Jennifer instantly cut her off. “Leaving me here is not an option. You’re right, you don’t know what we’ll find but, whatever it is, we’ll have a better chance if we stay together.”

Jesse hesitated, she didn’t want to put Jennifer in danger but it did make better sense to stay together. She looked in Jennifer’s eyes and saw the schoolteacher’s determination. Her decision was made. “Okay, but if we run into trouble, you do as I say. Deal?”

Jennifer nodded, “deal.” To herself, she added ‘maybe’.

Twisting back around in the saddle, Jesse nudged Dusty forward at a walk. This end of the valley was mostly box canyons and scrub brush ravines. Whoever they had been following could now be waiting in ambush in any number of places. Other than turning around and traveling back through the forest to meet the posse following them, there really wasn’t much choice than to ride out and face whatever awaited them head on. Jesse only hoped that Billie had some good trackers in the posse and that they would catch up with the women soon.

As the forest began to thin, Jesse was able to see the opening country beyond. The trail was leading to a small meadow before leaving the forest completely. Dusty walked into the clearing and stopped. She nervously pawed the ground.

Jesse saw the source of her mare’s apprehension. Across the meadow, a camp was set up and a fire was burning. Three horses stood tied to a picket line but their owners were nowhere in sight.

“Damn,” Jesse muttered.

“What?” Jennifer had a death grip on Jesse’s waist.

“Trouble.”

“Maybe,” Jennifer whispered fearfully as she peeked over Jesse’s shoulder, “we should go back.”

Jesse continued to search the meadow and surrounding trees for any movement. “Too late for that,” she said as a man stepped out from the trees, his rifle leveled at Jesse and Jennifer. He waved two younger men out from their hiding places, both also armed with rifles.

“Been a long time, bitch,” the first man said.

“Johnson?” Jesse was puzzled that the previous owner of the Silver Slipper would be here.

“So, you remember me,” Johnson sneered.

Jesse didn’t answer but took the time to study the three men facing them. Johnson’s younger companions looked uneasy, almost like they didn’t want to be there. Johnson, on the other hand, looked jubilant, like he had fully expected Jesse to ride into his camp.

“What do you want, Johnson?”

“The Slipper back.”

“It’s not for sale,” Jesse stalled as she tried to devise a plan to get herself and Jennifer safely out of the trap Johnson had sprung.

“Don’ plan to pay for what I already own, bitch.”

“Game was fair. You lost.”

Tired of the conversation, Johnson commanded, “come over here. Nice and slow.”

“If I refuse?”

“I’ll shoot that pretty schoolteacher.”

With a gentle flip of the reins, Dusty began to walk forward.

“Hold it,” Johnson shouted. “Throw down any weapons you have with you, first. And, you get off and walk. Don’ want you tryin’ anything.”

“Alright,” Jesse said. She slowly swung her leg over the saddle horn and slid easily to the ground. They were a good 50 feet from the men and Jesse knew she had to use the opportunity this presented. Turning to pull her rifle from the saddle’s scabbard, she whispered to Jennifer, “keep looking at Johnson. I need you to listen to me and do as I say.”

Jesse sensed Jennifer’s body stiffen and Jesse patted her leg to reassure her. “Please, Jennifer. We don’t have time to argue.”

“What’s taking you so long?” Johnson began to walk towards the women.

“Rifle’s caught in the scabbard, give me a minute,” Jesse turned to face the man. Seeing him stop, she turned back so he couldn’t see her face. “I want you to ride Dusty back through the forest and find Billie.”

“I can’t,” Jennifer began to protest.

“Yes, you can. I’m going to distract Johnson and his pals, then I’ll signal Dusty. Hold on tight to the saddle horn so you won’t be thrown off when Dusty starts to run. Find Billie, tell him to bring the posse as fast as he can.”

“How will I find him?” Jennifer asked as Jesse pulled the rifle free and tossed it on the ground.

Jesse wrapped the reins loosely around the saddle horn, “just hang on. Dusty will take you to him.” She looked up and smiled confidently at Jennifer, “you can do it.”

Jesse reached into the saddle bag and pulled her pistols from it. She slipped one pistol into the back waistband of her pants while she made a show of tossing the other one down next to her rifle. Then she walked up and patted the mare’s neck, “take care of Jennifer for me, girl.”

Jesse stepped away from Dusty and spread her arms wide away from her sides. “Get ready,” she said to Jennifer.

“Wait,” Jennifer cried. “Jesse you can’t too this.” Jennifer kneed Dusty’s sides in an attempt to move her closer to Jesse but the horse wouldn’t budge. “Please, Jesse,” she pleaded as Jesse moved further away from her.

“Bring her with you,” Johnson commanded.

“No,” Jesse barked back.

Johnson raised his rifle and pointed it at Jennifer. Jesse pulled the pistol from it’s hiding spot and dropped to the ground rolling. She fired a couple of shots at Johnson, the bullets digging into the trees behind him.. Johnson dove to the ground and Jesse used this moment to whistle to Dusty.

Jennifer felt Dusty’s muscles tense and just had time to grab the saddle horn with all her might before the golden horse sprung into action. In a few strong steps, Dusty had turned and reached full speed as she sped for the safety of the forest. Jennifer tried to rein the horse in but her attempts were ignored by the mare. She heard more gunshots behind her and a cry of pain that she was sure came from Jesse but before she could turn around to look, Dusty had entered the forest and the trees blocked her view of the meadow.

Holding on as tight as she could, Jennifer let Dusty carry her away from Jesse. Tears streamed down her face as she imagined the worse had happened. “Please,” she whimpered, “let her be alright.”

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

It seemed like an eternity had passed when Dusty ran out of the forest and into the meadow where they had spent the previous night. Jennifer saw the sheriff and posse examining what remained of their campfire. Dusty was already making her way towards the men, when Jennifer started shouting, “Sheriff. Sheriff.”

Dusty galloped right up to the posse before skidding to a stop literally at their feet.

“Thank god, we found you,” Jennifer cried in relief.

“Miss Jennifer?” the sheriff asked. “Is that you?” It was hard to tell that the sweat and dirt covered rider dressed in jeans and flannel shirt was indeed the pretty schoolteacher from Sweetwater.

“Yes, it’s me,” Jennifer breath was coming in ragged gasps as she tried to control her emotions.

“Arrest her, sheriff,” Butler grabbed for Dusty’s reins. The horse snorted and reared pulling the reins from the rancher’s hands.

“Stop that,” Jennifer screamed as she almost fell from the saddle. Dusty settled back on all fours but shied away from the man still attempting to grab at her.

Ed stepped out of the group of men and eased his way up to the horse, “take it easy, there now, Dusty. No one is going to hurt you or Miss Jennifer.” His gentle voice and smooth movements calmed the mare and she did not resist when the storekeeper took hold of her reins.

Thaddeus also stepped forward and the two men attempted to help Jennifer off the horse. But, Jennifer shook her head at the offer.

“You have to save Jesse,” the woman pleaded to the two men. “Please, we don’t have time to wait.”

“Hang on there, Miss Jennifer,” Ed told her. “We can’t help if we don’t know what the problem is. Now, why don’t you get down off that horse and get yourself calmed down enough to tell us what’s wrong.”

“No,” Jennifer cried. “There isn’t time.”

“Jennifer,” Thaddeus looked up into Jennifer’s tear streaked face and softly continued, “Ed’s right. We can’t do Jesse any good until you tell us what’s going on. Come on and get down.” He reached up to help Jennifer but was nudged out of the way by the taller storekeeper. Ed put his large hands around Jennifer’s waist and lifted her out of the saddle.

“Just get her to tell us where Jesse is so we can get this over with and go home,” Butler shoved the sheriff toward the woman. “And, arrest this one, too.”

“Hold on,” Billie said.

“He’s right, Billie,” Billingsley agreed. “She’s wanted for breaking Jesse out of jail. Arrest her.” Murmurs of agreement rippled through the other members of the posse standing around.

“Look, she’s not going anywhere,” Billie told the ranchers. “Let’s hear what she has to say.”

“Shut up,” Jennifer screamed at the men standing around her. When Butler started to speak, she looked him straight in the eye, “I said to SHUT UP!”

Ed handed Jennifer a canteen. She smiled weakly at the big man as she accepted his offering and took a drink. It tasted so good and as she drank she wondered if Jesse had been given something to drink or if she was even still alive. Tears filled her eyes at the thought and she wiped them away with the dirty sleeve of her shirt.

“They shot Jesse,” Jennifer said, her voice so full of emotion that she could barely get the words out.

“Is she dead?” Butler smirked.

“I don’t know.”

Seeing the tears, Ed softly said, “why don’t you tell us what happened.” He reached out and covered Jennifer’s hands with his much larger ones and gently squeezed.

“We were following the rustlers’ tracks when we came to a meadow. A man named Johnson and two others,” Jennifer began.

“Johnson?” Billingsley cut her off. “What the hell does Johnson have to do with anything?”

“He said he wanted the Slipper back,” Jennifer informed the group.

“Where are they?” Billie asked.

“At the south end of the valley where the forest meets the canyons,” Jennifer pointed to the south.

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

Jesse felt a searing pain as the bullet ripped through her left upper arm. The force twisted her around and out of line of the other bullets fired at her. As she hit the ground, she looked to see if Jennifer had escaped unharmed. Dusty was well on her way to the tree line and in a few more strides would disappear into the forest.

Jesse heard Johnson yell at his cohorts to shoot Dusty and stop Jennifer. Jesse fired her remaining bullets at Johnson and the other men, it wasn’t much but it kept them from injuring her mare or the schoolteacher. When her pistol clicked on an empty chamber, she threw it away in disgust. Realizing that she was too far away to reach her rifle and other pistol, she called out to Johnson and his companions, “hold your fire.”

“Save your bullets, boys,” Johnson said to the others. “Show yourself,” he directed at Jesse.

Jesse sat up. She ripped a sleeve off her shirt and wrapped it tightly around her bleeding arm. The wound stung but Jesse was grateful to see that the bullet had only grazed her. Tending to her wound gave her time to think about her predicament and what she thought wasn’t good. She was just glad that Jennifer had gotten away and hoped the woman could hang on as Dusty took her for the ride of her life.

“Bring her here,” Johnson ordered his companions.

Jesse watched as the two younger men cautiously approached her.

“Can you stand?” Clinton, the older of the pair asked her.

“Yeah,” Jesse struggled to her feet.

“You got any more guns hidden on ya?” Jimmie, the younger brother asked behind the gun shaking in his own hand.

Jesse looked at the shaking boy and it became obvious why she hadn’t been hit by more of the bullets fired at her. “No, if I did, I would have used them. Why don’t you point that somewhere else before it goes off,” she told the boy.

He looked at his quivering hand and dropped his arm. “Not used to pointin’ one of these at anyone,” he mumbled.

“What’s takin’ you two so long?” Johnson shouted. “Bring her here.”

“Come on,” the older boy said as he grabbed Jesse’s wounded arm.

“Hey,” she winced at the jolt of pain that resulted. “If you need to grab something, try the other arm.”

“Sorry,” the boy released her arm. “Come on, he ain’t goin’ wait forever,” he told her.

The boys escorted Jesse to a impatiently waiting Johnson. “Well,” Johnson gloated. “Looks like the cards are all in my hand now.”

“Look,” Jesse started. “I’m not sure what exactly you want but you might want to know that there’s a posse just a couple of hours behind me.”

“They’d be lookin’ for a cattle thief and,” Johnson jabbed a finger in Jesse’s chest, “that, would be you.” Johnson glared at Jesse and before she knew what was happening, a huge fist slammed into her face. Jesse dropped to the ground like a stone.

“Why’d ya do that,” Jimmie cried.

“Tie her to that tree,” Johnson pointed at the broken trunk of a ponderosa pine near their camp. “Then, go find the other one and bring her back.”

“What about the posse?” Clinton asked.

“What about them?” Johnson sneered. “They ain’t lookin’ for you. Now, git.”

The boys dragged an unconscious Jesse against the tree and propped her up before tying her to it. After securing Jesse, they claimed their horses and rode toward the forest. Once they were safely deep enough into the trees to be hidden from the meadow, Clinton pulled his horse to a stop.

Jimmie followed suit and looked at his brother quizzically, “you thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?”

“Yeah,” Clinton said as he looked back in the direction of Johnson’s camp. “Let’s get the hell out of Montana while we still have a chance.” He kicked his horse into action and led his brother away from the crazy Johnson as fast as their horses could run.

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

It was almost dusk when Jesse’s brain began to clear. The throbbing of her arm was nothing compared to the pounding going on in her head. She shook her head trying to clear it and groaned in pain. She could hear laughter but was unable to focus on its source. Slowly, she lifted her head from where it rested on her chest and tried to focus her blurry eyes. She blinked several times but her vision still didn’t clear. With a grunt, Jesse laid her head back against the trunk she was tied to.

Johnson rose from his spot next to the fire. “Bout time you woke up.” He glared down at her but it was lost on the woman who could only see a blur standing over her. “How’s the head?” he laughed.

“Fine,” Jesse lied. No use in him knowing the truth.

“Right,” Johnson laughed again as he returned to the warmth of the fire. He couldn’t get accustomed to the cold nights in the mountains.

Jesse finally gave up on trying to focus her eyes when she realized the left one was swollen shut. Gradually, the vision in the right eye began to clear. Jesse saw Johnson huddled next to the fire, his companions nowhere in sight. The sound of movement caught her attention and she turned her head to see a horse grazing a dozen feet away. “Ugh,” she moaned as the action caused her head to throb even more.

Johnson looked up from the fire. “Thought you was fine,” he chuckled. He reached for the coffee pot warming by the fire and refilled his cup.

“Could I have some water?” Jesse asked, her throat so dry she could barely get the words to come out.

Johnson looked at the woman, considering her request. He didn’t want to get too close to the troublesome woman but he had checked the ropes holding her several times while she was unconscious and was sure she wouldn’t be able to get loose. He put down his coffee cup and stood. Walking to his horse, he removed a canteen from his saddle and ambled back over to Jesse. Holding the canteen above her head, he emptied the contents in the general direction of her open mouth. More water missed than hit the mark, but she was able to capture enough to give her some relief.

“Thanks,” she sneered after swallowing.

“You’re welcome,” Johnson dropped the empty canteen onto the ground next to her before returning to the fire.

Jesse watched the man as her thoughts went over the day’s events. Something Johnson had said earlier continued to run around in her mind. It didn’t make sense, unless…

“You knew the posse was looking for a rustler,” Jesse voiced the thought. “How?”

“Because, I set you up,” Johnson shrugged.

“Why?”

“The Slipper. By the way, I hear you’ve turned it into a respectable business,” he mocked. “Won’t take too much to change it back. I will even give you odds that the whores will be happy to return to their previous duties.”

“You’re a pig,” Jesse spat. Thinking of Johnson regaining ownership of the Slipper and forcing her employees and friends back into their previous livelihoods filled Jesse with rage. After a few moments to calm her racing heart and throbbing head, Jesse asked, “if you wanted the Slipper back, why not just make me an offer?”

Johnson stared at Jesse, “you think I’m that stupid? I knew you’d never sell the Slipper to me. Besides, you cleaned me out that night in Denver.”

Jesse considered replying to his question, then thought better of it. As the darkness grew, she wondered about Jennifer. Was she safe? Did she find the posse? Did they believe her story? If they did, where were they? Calculating, the time she had been unconscious, Jesse wondered why they hadn’t found Johnson’s camp yet. They couldn’t have been that far behind, not with the trail she had left for Billie to follow. Well, until they showed up, Jesse thought it was best to keep Johnson talking.

“So, how would setting me up for rustling get you the Slipper back?” she asked.

“Easy,” Johnson grinned as he began to describe his ‘perfect’ plan. “Once the good folk of Sweetwater discovered you was nothin’ but a cattle thief, it would be easy to convince them that you was probably a card cheat too. I would get the Slipper back because you had cheated me out of it in the first place.”

“You don’t really think they’d believe that, do you?”

“Why not? Clinton had them ready to hang you the other night. If that damn schoolteacher hadn’t butted in, you’d be crow bait by now.”

Jesse shuddered when she realized just how close to the truth Johnson was. “So, Clinton was the mysterious cowboy stirring up the others?”

“Yep,” Johnson added a few branches to the fire. “Had them going good. Even got a shot off at the sheriff. Only winged him but it would have been enough to get him out of the way if it hadn’t been for Bette Mae. Known I should have killed that bitch years ago, but she kept the other whores in line,” Johnson began to ramble.

“What did Bette Mae do?” Jesse asked to pull Johnson back on track. She hoped that her friend was alright.

“Clinton said she and the other girls held the entire group at gunpoint until they sobered up. Wouldn’t let anyone leave, even made Billingsley stay put. Bet he liked being told what to do by the ol’ whore.”

“God, must you be so crude,” Jesse sighed. She smiled as she imagined Bette Mae standing up to Billingsley and the other ranchers. So, that’s how she and Jennifer were able to leave town unnoticed. ‘Gotta remember to thank her if I ever get out of this,’ Jesse thought.

“So, now what?” Jesse asked. “Your plan didn’t exactly play out the way you were expecting.”

“Now what?” Johnson repeated. “Now, I’ll just have to shoot you myself. Then, I’ll take your carcass back to Sweetwater. I’ll tell them I caught you with stolen cattle, you tried to shoot me but I got you first.”

“If you’re just going to shoot me, why haven’t you already done so?”

“Waiting for the boys to get back with your schoolteacher,” Johnson casually informed her.

Jesse’s heart clinched. That’s where the other two men had gone, to get Jennifer. She began to struggle against the ropes, she had to make sure Jennifer was safe.

“Hey,” Johnson looked at the struggling Jesse. “What got your bloomers twisted all of a sudden?”

“Why can’t you leave her out of this?” Jesse cried. “She hasn’t done anything to you.” Jesse was frantic but the ropes were too tight and the more she fought them, the more her head throbbed. She finally collapsed back against the tree, her heart racing so fast she thought she might pass out again. “Just leave her alone,” Jesse begged. Jesse closed her good eye and let visions of Jennifer fill her thoughts. “I’m sorry, Jennifer,” she whispered too quietly for Johnson to hear. “I love you.”

***********

CHAPTER TWELVE

The posse was surprised on the forest path by two riders barreling into them.

“Hold up, there,” Billie commanded. “I’m Sheriff Monroe from Sweetwater, what are you two running from in such a hurry?”

Clinton and Jimmie instantly threw their hands into the air, figuring taking their chances with the posse were much better odds than Johnson would ever provide them.

“We got nothin’ to do with murder, sheriff,” Jimmie blurted out. “We helped rustle cattle, but we didn’t sign on to kill anyone.”

Jennifer went pale at the boy’s words. “Is Jesse dead?” she asked through fresh tears running down her face.

Ed reached over to comfort the woman then barked at the boys, “answer her question.”

“No,” Clinton shouted as he looked at the angry man. “No, she was alive when we left but he plans to kill her. At least, that’s what he told us.”

“Take their guns,” Billie instructed the cowboys surrounding the brothers. “Tie ’em to their saddle horns and let’s get moving.”

The posse continued as quickly as possible, still it was almost dusk when they finally reached the meadow. The riders dismounted after moving the horses further into the trees so as to not alert Johnson of the posse’s presence. The brothers were questioned and Clinton pointed out where they had left Johnson and Jesse. Billie sent a cowboy ahead to verify they were still in the meadow. The cowboy returned after several long, anxious minutes.

“He’s there, just where he said he was. Jesse’s there too.”

“Is she alright?” Jennifer quietly asked.

“Can’t tell. She’s still tied to the stump. Didn’t move the whole time I was watching.”

“Okay, you stay here with them,” Billie told a couple of the cowboys, referring to the brothers. “Miss Jennifer, I want you to stay here, too.”

“No,” Jennifer shook her head violently. “I need to see Jesse.”

“He’s right,” Thaddeus said as he placed a hand on Jennifer’s shoulder. “It might be better for you to stay here until we know more.”

“NO,” Jennifer shook off his hand. “I’m coming,” she started out of the forest.

Thaddeus put out an arm and stopped Jennifer. “If you’re going, you’ll stay with us.” he motioned for Ed to join them. “Jesse won’t be too happy if we let anything happen to you.”

Jennifer started to protest but the resolve on the faces of the two men, made her think better of it. “Alright,” she consented. “But, let’s quit wasting time.”

“Okay,” the sheriff took charge. “Stay to the trees and get positions as close to the camp as you can. Get to them quickly but don’t alert Johnson. Then wait for my signal. Let’s go,” Billie led the men into the shadows and they quickly disappeared into the forest.

Ed and Thaddeus guided Jennifer into a small pile of boulders at the edge of the meadow and they hid behind one of the larger rocks. Their hiding spot provided a good view of the meadow and camp. Jennifer studied Jesse’s still form. In the firelight, she could see the bloody bandage wrapped around Jesse’s arm but she was unable to see Jesse’s face because her head was hanging down onto her chest. Somehow, Jennifer knew Jesse was alive and her body ached to hold the injured woman.

“We’re here, Jesse. Hang on, we’re here,” Jennifer whispered. Her two companions said nothing but both echoed her sentiments.

The sheriff had reached his vantage point. He was hidden in the trees approximately 20 feet from Johnson, who sat next to the fire drinking coffee. Jesse was between Johnson and the sheriff and he thought briefly of trying to reach her without Johnson noticing. But, he rejected that idea when Jesse groaned.

Johnson rose from his spot next to the fire. “Bout time you woke up. How’s the head?” he laughed.

At Johnson’s words, Billie took a closer look at Jesse. Her face was bruised and one eye appeared to be swollen shut. “Damn,” he muttered under his breath. Johnson had returned to the fire and Billie was about to signal the posse members into action when Jesse asked for water. Johnson again stood and Billie waited. He didn’t want Johnson too close to Jesse when the posse made it’s move.

Jennifer watched as Johnson carried a canteen to Jesse and poured the water over her head. It took all the strength Ed and Thaddeus possessed to keep the schoolteacher from rushing out of their hiding spot and taking Johnson on single handed.

Billie also watched as Johnson drenched Jesse with water. ‘Come on,’ Billie said to himself. ‘Go back to your nice fire.’ Again, Billie was just about ready to signal the posse, when Jesse asked Johnson.

“You knew the posse was looking for a rustler. How?”

Knowing that Butler and some of the others had not believed the story told by the brothers, Billie decided that it might be a good idea to hear Johnson’s answer. Besides, it didn’t look like Jesse was in any immediate danger. And, Billie could, at any time, signal the posse to move in to stop Johnson from further hurting Jesse.

Billie and the others listened as Johnson told of his plot to have Jesse hang as a cattle thief and to retake ownership of the Silver Slipper. Billie had decided that they had heard more than enough to convince even Butler of Jesse’s innocence when Johnson threatened Jennifer. Billie was surprised at Jesse’s violent reaction to Johnson’s words until he heard her whispered pledge of love for the schoolteacher.

A movement across the small meadow caught Billie’s attention. “Damn,” he muttered when he recognized Jennifer moving rapidly down from the boulders, Ed and Thaddeus hot on her heels. He saw Johnson pick up Jennifer’s movements and reach for his gun. Billie stepped from his hiding place and leveled his rifle at Johnson.

“Don’t,” Billie commanded. “It’s over, Johnson. Put your hands up.” At his words, the rest of the posse members stepped from their hiding places and Johnson saw that he was surrounded by armed men.

Jesse lifted her head when she heard Billie’s familiar voice. Johnson seeing his plans of revenge collapsing, swung around and aimed at Jesse’s head. For Jesse, time seemed to stand still as she stared into the barrel of Johnson’s six-shooter. Somewhere, she heard someone screaming but her eyes refused to leave the sight of the gun pointing at her. Explosions went off all around her and Jesse thoughts turned to the schoolteacher and what they could have had. Then everything went black, again.

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

“Give her some room before you smother her,” Ed was saying.

Jesse felt hands tending to her wounds, including a new one where Johnson’s bullet had skimmed along the side of her head. But, the only touch she was thinking about were the hands caressing her face. Without opening her eyes, she knew the hands belonged to Jennifer and she spent several moments enjoying the feeling.

“Wake up, sweetheart. Please, wake up,” Jennifer was crying.

Jennifer didn’t care that she was surrounded by the ranchers and cowboys who were giving each other strange looks over her use of the endearment. She had sprung from her hiding place and raced across the meadow when she saw Jesse start to fight against the ropes that held her. Her heart had stopped when she saw Johnson point his gun at Jesse’s head and she had screamed at him not to shoot. An burst of gunfire exploded in the meadow but Jennifer had not missed a step in her dash to reach Jesse.

Fresh blood covered Jesse’s face and her head hung down against her chest. Jennifer had tried to untie the ropes but her shaking hands couldn’t grab hold of the knots. Billie knelt beside Jennifer and pulled the knife hidden in Jesse’s boot, he sliced through the ropes freeing the injured woman. By then, Ed and Thaddeus had arrived and they helped Billie lay Jesse on the ground where her wounds could be tended. Jennifer sat beside Jesse and tried to pull her bleeding head into her lap.

“Give her some room before you smother her,” Ed gently pulled Jesse from Jennifer’s grasp and poured water on a rag before carefully cleaning the cut left by the bullet. Jennifer leaned over Jesse and begged her to wake up.

“Ugh,” Jesse said as she opened her good eye. She looked up into the bluest eyes she had ever seen or ever wanted to see. “Hi,” she tried to smile but it quickly turned into a grimace of pain.

“You’re awake,” Jennifer cried. “Thank god, you’re awake.” Tears began to stream from her eyes. Seeing the agony on Jesse’s face, she quickly told her, “don’t move, sweetheart. You’re hurt.”

“Kinda figured that one out myself,” Jesse said.

“That’s the best I can do until we get you back to Sweetwater,” Ed said as he finished bandaging Jesse’s head. “You’re going feel this for a good while.”

“Thanks, I think,” Jesse looked at her friend.

“Ain’t nothin’,” Ed patted her shoulder, then stood and motioned the men away to give the two women some privacy.

“How are you?” Jesse asked. She wanted to reach up and pull Jennifer into her arms. But, even blinking hurt, so she decided it probably wouldn’t be a good idea.

“I’m fine,” Jennifer gently stroked Jesse’s bandaged head. “This must really hurt.”

“I’ve won’t say it doesn’t but,” Jesse reached up and took Jennifer’s hand into her own, “seeing you makes the pain go away.”

“Then, I’ll just have to stay right by you at all times,” Jennifer smiled.

“I think I’d like that,” Jesse smiled back. It hurt, but damn it, she couldn’t stop herself. Looking at Jennifer just made her want to smile.

Ed returned with the sheriff and some blankets.

“Here,” Billie said. “It’ll get cold tonight.”

Thaddeus arrived with an armful of wood for the fire he had built next to where Jesse lay. “This should help, too.”

“How you feeling?” Thaddeus asked Jesse.

She looked into Jennifer’s eyes, “just fine. I’m feeling just fine.”

The man laughed as he and Ed walked back to the other fire. The sheriff stayed behind.

“You look like you’ve had a couple of rough days,” Jesse said to her friend.

Nodding, Billie said, “’bout the same as you. How’s the head? Didn’t think Johnson had that in him.”

“You trying to make me feel good by saying it was a lucky punch,” Jesse said.

“Is it working?”

“No,” Jesse winced. “Hurts like a son of a…”

Jennifer placed her fingers over Jesse’s mouth. “Sweetheart, is that any way to talk in front of a respectable woman?” she teased.

“Sorry,” Jesse looked chastised. “Guess I just don’t think about you in that way.”

Billie laughed as Jennifer snorted and slugged Jesse in her good arm.

“Hey,” Jesse protested. “I’m wounded here.”

“You’re lucky I didn’t hit the other arm. Now, behave yourself.”

“I see that you’re in good hands, Jesse,” Billie told the pouting woman “We’ll be heading home at first light, so get some sleep.”

Jennifer picked up the extra blankets and began to arrange them on the ground so that she could lay close to Jesse but not with her..

“Hey,” Jesse interrupted her actions.

“What?”

“Put those blankets over here,” Jesse patted the ground beside her.

Jennifer looked questioningly at her.

“I want to hold you,” Jesse said quietly.

Jennifer nodded happily. When the blankets were re-arranged to Jesse’s satisfaction, Jennifer lay down beside her. She carefully placed her head on Jesse’s shoulder and wrapped her arm around Jesse’s waist. “How’s this?”

“Wonderful,” Jesse sighed. Moments later, both women were fast asleep.

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

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

The trip back to Sweetwater was pure agony for Jesse. She rode Dusty with Jennifer riding behind her, helping to hold her in the saddle. Every step Dusty took sent jolts of pain through her body and exploded in her head. Only Jennifer’s non-stop encouragement and support kept her from screaming out her distress. The group rested several times during the day to give Jesse a break from the constant pounding. This was both a blessing and a curse, the breaks allowing Jesse much needed rest but they also extended the length of the trip. Jesse was sure that she would be unable to take any more when Sweetwater finally came into the riders’ view.

Ruthie was keeping watch on the porch of the Silver Slipper when she saw the posse appear over a rise some distance from town. She ran to the building’s main door and shouted, “they’re back.”

Bette Mae came rushing out of the kitchen, followed closely by the other girls.

“Where?” Bette Mae asked as she ran out onto the porch.

“There,” Ruthie pointed to the riders still about a quarter mile from town.

“Is Jesse with them?” one of the girls asked.

“That’s Dusty in the middle of the group,” Bette Mae answered.

“What about Miss Jennifer?” another asked.

“She’s ridin’ with Jesse,” Bette Mae hoped that the women were alright.

Just about that time, a couple of the riders broke from the group and hurried toward the Slipper. As they neared the edge of town, Bette Mae recognized them as the storekeeper and the newspaper editor. The two men rode directly for the Slipper.

“Is Jesse?” Bette Mae began as the men rode up.

“She’s hurt but alive,” Ed answered before Bette Mae could finish her question. “She’ll need some lookin’ after for several days.”

“Ruthie,” Bette Mae called to the girl. “Go in and fix up the room first off the stairs.”

“No,” Thaddeus grinned. “Best you fix up Miss Jennifer’s room for Jesse.”

A grin broke across Bette Mae’s face, “well, I’ll be. Go on, girl,” Bette Mae said to Ruthie who was standing with a look of puzzlement on her face. “You heard him. Fix up Miss Jennifer’s room. Go on, git.”

Ruthie scurried into the building to do as she had been told but not understanding Bette Mae’s obvious pleasure at the newspaper editor’s words.

“How is Miss Jennifer?” Bette Mae asked.

“She’s fine. Just worried about Jesse. Won’t leave her side, not for a minute,” Ed said as he climbed down from his horse. “Damn, I’m too old to spend that much time in the saddle,” he rubbed his sore backside and stretched out his long legs.

“Me, too,” Thaddeus agreed as he joined Ed on solid ground. “It’ll be good to get back into my desk chair.”

The rest of the posse rode up with the sheriff leading the way. Ed and Thaddeus moved immediately to Dusty’s side and gently eased Jesse out of the saddle. Instantly, Jennifer was on the ground next to her and held Jesse around the waist.

“Come on,” she told the injured woman. “We’ll get you into a nice, soft bed and you can rest.”

Unable to speak because of the pain, Jesse barely managed a nod as she allowed Jennifer to lead her to the stairs leading up to the Slipper’s porch. It was clear to everyone that Jesse would never be able to climb the few steps on her wobbly legs.

Without asking, Ed lifted Jesse into his powerful arms and carried her up the steps. Jennifer shadowed the big man all the way into the building and up the stairs to her room where Ruthie stood with the door open. As soon as Ed placed Jesse on the bed, Jennifer took back Jesse’s hand.

Bette Mae shooed everyone but Jennifer out of the room. “Well, let’s see what we got here,” the older woman said as she began to unwrap Jesse’s bandages.

“She needs a doctor,” Jennifer said.

“Bette Mae’s the best doctor this town has got,” Jesse assured the schoolteacher. “Aren’t you?”

“Can’t argue with that statement. Got any other wounds I need to know ’bout?” she asked Jesse as she carefully washed the blood and dirt from Jesse’s face.

“No.”

“How ’bout you?” Bette Mae asked Jennifer.

“No, I’m okay.” Jennifer sat on the edge of the bed. “Is she going to be alright?” she asked hesitantly.

“She’ll be fine. Lucky, she got hit in the head. It’s her hardest part,” Bette Mae chuckled.

“When I’m feeling better, I’ll make you pay for that,” Jesse tried to swat at her friend, realizing too late that she was using her injured arm. She hissed at the pain.

“Lay still,” Bette Mae grabbed her arm and gently laid it back on the bed. She wrapped a fresh bandage around Jesse’s head and then started on her arm. “Damn, you are one lucky woman, Jesse. Two bullets and both only grazed ya.”

“They hurt like they more than just grazed me.”

“I bet they do. Few days rest will fix them right up. ‘Course, that eye’s goin’ take a tad longer to heal. But, the blow to your head is what’s goin’ ta cause you the most bother. What’d you get hit with?”

“Johnson’s fist.”

“Johnson. What does that bastard have to do with all this?”

“He set Jesse up for the cattle rustling. Thought if she’d hanged, he’d get the Slipper back,” Jennifer supplied the answer.

“Always thought he was a card or two short of a full deck,” Bette Mae finished wrapping a fresh bandage around Jesse’s arm. She took the dirty bowl of water and tossed it out one of the rooms windows.

“Might be someone standing under there,” Jesse remarked.

“Hope it’s Butler,” Jennifer muttered, surprised to hear Bette Mae laugh at her comment.

“Yep, she’s a feisty one,” Bette Mae winked at Jesse as she started to remove her boots. “You best get some sleep and give your body time to heal. I have a bath prepared for you, Miss Jennifer. Your bath will have to wait another day,” she told Jesse who made no argument.

“I can wait, too,” Jennifer said. “I don’t wait to leave Jesse.”

“Go on,” Jesse said softly. “You’ll feel better. Besides, I’m not going anywhere.”

“You sure,” Jennifer thought that a hot bath did sound pretty good.

“I’m sure. Just,” Jesse whispered, “hurry back.”

Jennifer bent down and softly kissed Jesse’s cheek. “I won’t be but a minute.”

The pain in Jesse’s head disappeared as she felt the warmth of Jennifer’s lips. Her eye closed as she savored the touch, “I’ll be waiting.”

When Jennifer pulled her head back, Jesse was already asleep.

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

Ruthie came out of the kitchen carrying a tray with three plates heaped with food. She placed the dishes in front of Billie, Ed, and Thaddeus. Bette Mae had offered hot meals to all the posse members but the ranchers had declined stating that they wanted to return to their ranches. Bette Mae thought they decision to leave immediately was based more on their embarrassment at accusing Jesse of a crime than any desire to get right home.

The sheriff, storekeeper and newspaper editor had accepted the offer and were enthusiastically digging into their plates after eating trail food for the past couple of days.

“How’s Jesse and Miss Jennifer?” the sheriff asked between bites.

“Sound asleep.” Bette Mae took a long drink from her glass of lemonade. She had helped the schoolteacher with her bath then had had to practically carry the young woman back to her room when exhaustion overcame her. She tucked Jennifer under the blankets and smiled as the two sleeping women snuggled close to each other.

“Seems like the two of them got to be real good friends out on the trail,” Billie said as he shoved a forkful of ham into his mouth.

“I do believe you are right,” Thaddeus chuckled.

“Now, you stop that,” Bette Mae playfully scolded the men. “It was only a matter of time ‘fore they figured out they liked each other. Being out there just gave ’em the little push they needed.”

“They do make a cute couple, if I say so myself,” Ed smiled. “Any chance of getting more of this ham, Bette Mae?” the big man asked holding up a empty plate.

“After bringin’ back my girls, you can have the whole damn pig,” Bette announced as she rose from the table and disappeared into the kitchen.

Reappearing a few moments later with a large platter of ham and potatoes, Bette Mae rejoined the men. “I take it Johnson is in the blanket?” Bette Mae referred to the body wrapped in a blanket and thrown over the back of a horse Billie had led into town.

“Yep,” the sheriff stabbed a large potato off the platter. “Tried to shoot Jesse after we caught up to him.”

“Tried?” Bette Mae snorted. “Seems he managed to put two holes in her.”

“Yeah, well he was aimin’ between her eyes on the last one.” Billie cut the potato into chewable pieces. “Didn’t give us much choice but to shoot him first.”

“Just as well,” Ed added.

“What’s next, Billie?” Thaddeus asked. “Will Jesse have to stand trial?”

“Nope,” the sheriff answered around a mouthful of potato. “Johnson confessed, everyone heard him. Hell, even Butler couldn’t argue it. When the circuit judge gets here, I’ll tell him what happened and Jesse will be in the clear. Miss Jennifer, too.”

“Why, what did Miss Jennifer do?” Bette Mae asked.

“She broke Jesse out. If Jesse had been guilty, she would have had some big trouble over it.”

“But, Jesse wasn’t guilty,” Bette Mae stated.

“Yep. So, Miss Jennifer won’t get more than a talkin’ to by the judge.”

“What do you bet, it’s the judge that will be getting the talking to?” Thaddeus laughed and the others quickly joined him.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The following morning, Jesse was still sleeping as Jennifer dressed to reluctantly return to her teaching duties.

The mid-morning sun was beating through the room’s windows when Bette Mae quietly entered to check on her friend. She was surprised to see Jesse awake and standing by the window that faced town.

“Mornin’,” Bette Mae greeted her. “Didn’ think you’d be up.”

Jesse took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She had been watching the schoolhouse hoping for a glimpse of Jennifer. When she awoke a short time before, the first thing she noticed was how empty the room seemed. She missed Jennifer.

“How ’bout a nice, hot bath to wash all that dirt off?” Bette Mae asked.

“Hmm,” Jesse’s eyes never left the schoolhouse.

Bette Mae peered out the window, she smiled when she realized what held Jesse’s attention. “Come on,” the older woman gently steered Jesse to the door. “A good scrub, a change of clothes, a hot meal, and you might just be presentable by the time Miss Jennifer is done teachin’ for the day.”

Jesse allowed herself to be led from the room without complaint. The bath did feel wonderful and it was indeed good to get the dirt and grime scrubbed off her skin and out of her hair. When they returned to the room, she discovered that the bed linens had been changed and a tray of hot food had been set out on the desk. She didn’t have much of an appetite but she did her best to eat.

“Now, you get some rest,” Bette Mae told Jesse as she cleaned up the dirty dishes. “It’ll be a while ‘fore Miss Jennifer gets back and your head can use it.”

Jesse snuggled between the clean sheets. The quilt had been removed as the day’s heat was already too much to need it’s extra warmth. Jesse looked up at the woman who had become her first friend after arriving in Sweetwater. There was much she didn’t know about Bette Mae but the one thing she did know was that she trusted the older woman’s advice.

“Bette Mae,” Jesse said before she could leave the room. Jesse had heard the comments and snickers the cowboys had whispered about Jennifer and her on the ride back into town. Love between two women was not unheard of on the frontier but it wasn’t exactly accepted either. Jesse was confused, she had feelings for Jennifer that she had never had for anyone else. And, she knew Jennifer felt the same. But, was it right? Could they… No, should they respect those feelings? She needed to ask.

“Bette Mae, what would you do?”

Knowing what Jesse was asking, Bette Mae recalled a moment many years before when she had asked herself that very same question. A far away look crossed her face as she remembered her choice that day. Smiling sadly at Jesse, Bette Mae quietly answered.

“Follow your heart, Jesse. Follow your heart.”

As the door closed behind the departing woman, Jesse rolled her head and gazed out the room’s window. She couldn’t see the schoolhouse from where she lay but she could visualize where it stood out on the small knoll. And, she knew that at this very moment that schoolhouse held her heart. Smiling, Jesse let the sleep she had been fighting reclaim her.

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

Jennifer rushed from the schoolhouse as soon as the day’s lessons were over. She missed Jesse terribly and she couldn’t wait to see her. Bette Mae was clearing a table in the dining room when Jennifer burst through the Slipper’s door.

“Afternoon, Miss Jennifer,” Bette Mae brushed the crumbs off the table. “How was school today?”

Although, Jennifer wanted to run up the stairs to her room, she paused long enough to answer the woman, “just fine. How’s Jesse?” Jennifer asked when she saw the grim expression on Bette Mae’s face.

Bette Mae straightened from her task, “well, now, let’s see. She’s had a bath, put on clean bedclothes, ate some breakfast, took a nap, just had lunch. And,”

Jennifer’s heart clinched, “is something wrong?”

“Yep,” Bette Mae was having trouble maintaining a straight face.

“She’s been missin’ you, somethin’ awful.”

“She has?” Jennifer blushed.

“Yep,” Bette Mae laughed unable to hold back any longer. “Suggest you don’ spend too much time down here talkin’ to this old woman when you can be up there with her.”

Jennifer was halfway up the stairs before Bette Mae finished.

Jesse was standing by the window. She had seen Jennifer leave the schoolhouse and hurry towards the Slipper. She couldn’t wait for Jennifer to walk into the room but she was unsure what to do when that happened. She turned to face the door when she heard Jennifer’s footsteps moving rapidly moving down the hallway. Without hesitation, Jesse threw open her arms as soon as Jennifer appeared in the doorway. Jennifer ran into the welcoming embrace.

“I’ve missed you,” Jesse held the schoolteacher tight.

“So, I’ve heard.”

After several long minutes, the women separated. Jennifer examined Jesse, “how do you feel?”

“Head’s still a little on the dizzy side. But, overall, I feel pretty good. Considering…”

“Considering that the last couple of days, you’ve been punched in the face, shot twice, tied to a tree stump, bounced on horseback, and you’re about to go on trial for cattle rustling. I certainly hope that that doesn’t describe a normal week for you,” Jennifer observed.

“Nope,” Jesse shook her head then instantly wished she hadn’t. “I can honestly say that nothing even close to that has ever happened to me before you showed up.” Jesse thought for minute before adding, “say, you don’t think…”

“Don’t even go there,” Jennifer scolded.

Jesse looked at the schoolteacher and Bette Mae’s words came back to her, ‘follow your heart’.

Jennifer held her breath as Jesse reached out gently cupping her hands around Jennifer’s face. Jesse pulled her close until their faces were almost touching. Looking into the schoolteacher’s eyes, Jesse whispered, “I love you.”

Jennifer leaned forward to close the gap and timidly placed her lips on Jesse’s. At the touch, a warmth spread through her body and Jennifer pressed harder. Jesse returned the kiss. It was a new experience for both woman. Tentatively, they began to explore each other’s soft lips and warm mouths until a need for air caused them to part.

Jesse released a long breath, “wow.”

“Yeah,” Jennifer said before she recaptured Jesse’s lips.

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

Jesse stood in the street next to the steps leading up onto the Silver Slipper’s porch. Johnson was dead, the brothers he had talked into helping in his plot were behind bars, the stolen cattle had been returned to their rightful owners, and she had been cleared of all charges. So, why was she so fearful?

Jesse nervously shuffled from one foot to the other. After recuperating at the Slipper for the last several days, Jesse was eager to return to the ranch. She wanted to ask Jennifer to join her but didn’t know if it was too soon. After all, their growing relationship was only days old. It was obvious that they were deeply in love but neither of them had been confident enough to take their relationship to the next level.

Jennifer stood at the bottom step, quietly watching Jesse. She smiled when Jesse quit studying her dirty boots and looked up to face her. Jesse opened her mouth but nothing came out. Jennifer had hoped Jesse would ask her to accompany her to the ranch but had been too afraid to make the first move. Now, seeing her own feelings reflected back at her, her fears melted.

Jennifer stepped forward to meet Jesse. She reached out and wrapped her arms around Jesse. Leaning forward, she pressed her lips against Jesse’s in a tender kiss. Surprised but very pleased, Jesse slipped her arms around Jennifer and pulled her close. The kiss deepened as the women spent the next several moments enjoying the intimate touch of the other.

After much too short a time, Jennifer pulled away and laid her head on Jesse’s shoulder, “let’s go home, love.”

A smile spread across Jesse’s face. Taking Jennifer’s hand, Jesse led her to a patiently waiting Dusty. She helped Jennifer up into the saddle then swung up behind her, wrapping an arm around Jennifer waist. With her free hand, she unwrapped the reins from the saddle horn.

“I love you,” Jesse whispered into Jennifer’s ear.

Jennifer leaned back into Jesse’s warm body and entwined her hand with Jesse’s, “I love you, too.”

Dusty raised her head and whinnied her approval before moving off at a walk. She would carry her two mistresses home and neither one would ever remember the trip.

~~~~~~~

Story continued in Bannack

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