See Part I for disclaimers.
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted May 2003
The long hot days of summer were rapidly passing and the women had fallen into a comfortable routine. During the week, Dusty would carry the rancher and schoolteacher from the ranch to the Silver Slipper. They would share breakfast with Bette Mae, that way they could spend a few more minutes in bed cuddled together. After breakfast, Jesse would walk Jennifer to the schoolhouse, leaving her with a kiss. Jesse would spend the rest of the morning taking care of the Slipper's business matters or talking with her friends around town.
Afternoons and weekends were spent at the ranch, the schoolteacher working alongside the rancher to make their home more livable. The neglected garden had been cleared of weeds and the carefully tended rows were starting to show signs of new growth. The decaying porch roof had been removed and replaced with one that would shield the porch and, hopefully, one day support a porch swing. Inside the cabin, a new table and chairs sat under the window, the old rickety table and chairs having been used for firewood. The unsteady shelves in the cooking area had been taken down and, in their place, solid cabinets were secured with new dishes proudly displayed.
To Jesse's surprise, Jennifer had eagerly pitched in on every project. The schoolteacher seemed to revel in learning new skills and attacked each new opportunity with great enthusiasm. At the end of the day, it was hard to tell which of the women had worked harder. But, it really didn't matter.
The dress material had finally arrived from Bozeman and Ruthie, a young girl that worked at the Slipper and had a natural talent for sewing, made Jennifer some new dresses. She had done a wonderful job with the material that the general store had received but, regrettably, it was not the most flattering. Jennifer refused to complain and wore the dresses proudly. Jesse wished she could provide better for her love.
The school year would soon be over and the women were looking forward to spending more time together at the ranch.
"Morning, Ed," Jesse greeted the storekeeper as she entered the general store.
"Morning, Jesse," Ed was pulling a large jar of buttons from a shelf. "Be with you in a minute."
Jesse leaned against the counter and waited for the big man to finish with his other customer. "Morning, Mrs. Perkins."
"Morning, Jesse," the mayor's wife nodded. "I'll take those, Ed," the woman pointed to several buttons now spread out on the counter. "I do declare the way Miles, Jr. is growing, I'll never keep him in clothes."
"He does seem to be part bean spout," Ed laughed as he placed the buttons in a small bag. "I'll put these on your bill."
"Thank you, Ed," Mrs. Perkins, unlike her husband, was always cordial to others. "Jesse, I do want you to tell Miss Jennifer how happy I am with her teaching. My boys actually like going to school. And, Miles, Jr. is reading more every day."
"I've seen him in the Slipper a time or two," Jesse had a collection of books available to any that asked. "I'll be sure and pass on what you said."
"You make sure you do," Mrs. Perkins smiled at the rancher and gently patted her arm. "You do make such a nice couple," she walked out leaving the rancher blushing.
After a few moments, Jesse felt the blush finally receding from her cheeks and turned her attention to the storekeeper. "Damn, I wish people would quit telling us that," she muttered. But, she had to admit, the comment made her proud.
Ed was reading a letter and didn't hear Jesse. As he read, a scowl replaced his normal smile.
"Problem, Ed?" Jesse asked.
"No," Ed crumbled the paper into a ball, tossing it into a basket of trash under the counter. He thought for a moment before bending down and retrieving the paper. "My no good brother-in-law got himself in some trouble in Bannack. Wants me to come help him out."
"Gosh, Jesse. You know I can't leave the store for that long. It's what, four, maybe five, days ride to Bannack. For all I care, he can rot in it's jail. But, I do care about my sister. And, the bastard didn't put one word about her in this," he shook the letter at Jesse. "Not one word."
Jesse considered Ed's dilemma for a minute, a smile slowly crossing her face.
"What say I take a ride to Bannack for you?"
"Ah, Jesse, that's mighty nice of you to offer. But, I can't ask you to do that. You've got the ranch to look after and I doubt Miss Jennifer would want to see you gone for that long."
"Actually, I was thinking of taking her with me. And, Billie can keep an eye on the ranch."
"No, Jesse, I can't ask," Ed shook his head.
"Hear me out, Ed," Jesse interrupted. "Jennifer told me one of the reasons she came west was because she heard how beautiful the country was. This would give me the chance to show her some of it. Besides," she grinned, "I hear there's a dress shop in Bannack."
"What about her teaching?"
"School term ends this week."
"Are you sure, Jesse?" the big man asked. "I mean who knows what my brother-in-law has gotten himself into this time. I don't expect you to get in the middle of whatever it is."
"We won't, Ed," Jesse assured her friend. "We'll see your sister and make sure she's okay. Whatever trouble it is, we'll just find out and let you know when we get back. That way, you can decide if you want to help him or not."
"Sounds fair," the storekeeper really didn't want to travel all the way to Bannack just to find out his sister's husband had been caught cheating again at cards or trying to jump some miner's claim. How, the man had lived this long without being shot was a mystery to the storekeeper. "All I really want to know is if my sister is okay. So, if you're sure," he held out his hand. "I'll thank you for your offer. That is, if Miss Jennifer has no objection," he told the rancher.
Jesse took the large hand and gave it a firm shake, "Don't worry, I'll talk to her soon as she's done teaching today." After the storekeeper released her hand, Jesse added, "now, Jennifer's wrote out another list." Jesse pulled a paper from her shirt pocket and handed it to the storekeeper.
"Way, she keeps making out lists, I should just move my store next to your ranch," Ed chuckled. It was a rare week that Jesse didn't come in at least once with a list of items Jennifer discovered lacking at the ranch.
"Actually, I think she's planning on having the freight wagon stop there before coming into Sweetwater. That way, she gets first pick and it saves us having to bring the buckboard to town," Jesse joined the big man in his teasing.
"Bannack," Bette Mae had settled on the couch in Jesse's office. "Lordy, that's a long ride jus' ta show your sweetie some pretty country."
"Maybe so," Jesse said from her desk. "But, it's got what Sweetwater doesn't, a dress shop."
"Ah," Bette Mae smiled. "So, that's what's got you so excited."
Jesse ignored the woman's comment, "Besides, I told Ed we'd check in on his sister."
"What's she got to do with this?" Bette Mae's mood instantly changed from playful to troubled at the mention of the storekeeper's sister..
"Ed got a letter saying his brother-in-law was in trouble in Bannack, didn't make any mention of his sister. He didn't want to leave the store for two weeks. So, I said we'd go."
"What kind of trouble?"
"Don't know. Letter didn't say."
"You're not tellin' me that you're takin' Miss Jennifer all the way to Bannack ta get into the middle of some trouble you don' even know what it is?"
Jesse looked at the woman and wondered how she got all that into one sentence. Shaking her head, she answered the perturbed woman, "no. I'm taking Jennifer to Bannack so she can see the country between here and there. Check on Ed's sister and ask what trouble her husband has managed to get himself into. Spend a little time at the dressmaker's. Show my girl the town. Maybe, take her out to eat at one of their fancy restaurants," Jesse smirked at the best cook in the territory. "Then, we'll come home."
Bette Mae glared back at the rancher, "that all?"
"That's all," Jesse pulled a ledger from her desk drawer and opened it.
"Fancy restaurant, my foot," Bette Mae grumbled. As she watched Jesse make notations in the large book, Bette Mae settled back on the couch.
"You know," Jesse said not looking up from her work. "I don't think I've ever heard Ed call his sister by name. Her husband, either. Usually, just says 'my no good brother-in-law' or 'that bastard'. Sometimes wonder if they even have names."
Jesse wasn't really expecting an answer, she was only putting voice to her thoughts. Bette Mae sat silently for some time before deciding to speak.
"Mary Elizabeth," the older woman quietly murmured.
"What was that?" Jesse looked up.
"Mary Elizabeth. That's her name," her voice was soft as she remembered a summer many years ago.
Jesse put her pencil down, "didn't know you and her were acquainted."
"It was a long time ago."
Jesse thought the older woman had never looked sadder. "You were friends?" she asked.
"'Spose you could say that," Bette Mae squirmed uncomfortably on the couch but continued. "We met in Fort Benton. I was working in one of the saloons on the river and they'd just arrived on one of them steamboats. Was headed to the gold camps so's he could start a store. He caught the gamblin' fever and she came in one night lookin' for him.
"I saw her come in and knew right off, she was goin' ta be needin' someone ta keep the boys away. Saloon's no place for a lady, 'specially not at night when the boys are liquored up. So's, I grabbed her by the arm and took her right back outside. When I found out who she was lookin' for, I didn't have the heart ta say that he was upstairs in one of the rooms.
"She was just a spit of girl back then. I wasn't much older but I'd been around some. She was fresh out of her mama's house and been drug west by that worthless excuse of a man with nothin' but gold in his eyes."
Bette Mae paused to gather her thoughts. Jesse remained silent, allowing Bette Mae to continue the telling of what was obviously a painful time in her life.
Bette Mae had never told anyone about those days but as the story unfolded, she found that it helped to ease an old scar she had been carrying for many years.
"Anyways, over the next several days, we spent many a hour jus' talkin'. Seemed to have a natural feel 'bout bein' together. I found that I like her. Liked her a lot," Bette Mae smiled sadly up at Jesse. "Kinda like you and Miss Jennifer."
Jesse remembered the discussion she'd had with Bette Mae concerning her feelings for Jennifer and how Bette Mae had seemed to understand.
"Did you follow your heart?" Jesse quietly asked.
A deep sigh preceded the answer, "I didn' think it would be proper. Considerin', she was married and all."
"You never told her?"
Tears tracked down the older woman's cheeks as she slowly shook her head.
Jesse left her desk chair and crossed to the couch. She sat next to the sad woman and wrapped her long arms around her. Pulling Bette Mae into a hug, she asked, "what about when you met up again here in Sweetwater?"
"It was too late," Bette Mae sniffled. "By the time I got here, she'd been drugged off ta another gold camp. Only found out by accident that Ed was her kin." She pulled a hankie from her sleeve and blew her nose. "Always wanted ta ask 'bout her well-bein' but could never build up the nerve."
"Maybe it's not too late," Jesse needed to offer some hope even if the chance was slim. "Maybe, she'll come back to Sweetwater."
"Sun's done set on that day, Jesse," fresh tears flooded from the older woman's eyes as Jesse held her.
"Really," Jennifer was literally jumping up and down in front of Jesse's desk. "Oh, Jesse, I'd love to go."
When Jennifer returned to the Slipper after the school day ended, Jesse told her about her conversation with Ed. She barely had the words out before Jennifer agreed.
The stage, that carried Jennifer from Denver to Sweetwater, had stopped for one night in Bannack. But, it had arrived after dark and had left just after dawn the next day. Unable to explore the bustling mining camp, Jennifer had told herself that if she ever had the chance she would return to Bannack. Now, it looked like she was getting her chance.
"Ed says he'll agree to us going but only if you're okay with it," Jesse smiled at her happy lover.
Over the last several weeks, the jovial storekeeper had taken a interest in the schoolteacher and had become a surrogate father to Jennifer. He encouraged Jennifer to enjoy activities her true father would have said to be unfit for a lady. And, he felt it his duty to look after the young woman even though he knew Jesse would never let anything happen to her. Jesse was glad to see the adoration and approval the storekeeper showed her lover. Jennifer's numerous trips to the general store always ended with the woman being engulfed in the large man's arms.
"Oh, sweetheart," Jennifer flung herself into Jesse's lap. "I'm very much okay with it. When can we leave?"
"School finishes this week, right?"
"Yes," Jennifer was planting sweet kisses all over Jesse's face.
"Then, I'd say first of next week."
"How will we get there? Will we go by stage?"
"No," Jesse hugged Jennifer close. "We'll ride Dusty. Go south out of the valley and pick up an Indian trail that will take us over the pass into the Big Hole. It'll cut two days off the ride. But, we won't be eating dust the whole way."
"That's what the fur trappers called the valley on the other side of the pass. It's big, a lot bigger than our valley."
"Great," Jennifer leapt up and began to pull Jesse from her chair. "Let's go tell Ed we're going."
Chuckling, Jesse allowed the schoolteacher to pull her from the office.
Jesse's breath came in ragged gasps. It wouldn't take much more for Jennifer to bring her to climax and her lover didn't keep her waiting. Jesse's body arched as the explosion built and with a cry of her lover's name, she released. She sank back onto the bed, spent but very happy. Jennifer crawled up to lay beside Jesse and kissed her exhausted lover.
"You sure we aren't hurting something by doing it so often," Jennifer traced lazy patterns around Jesse's sweat covered breasts and down to her stomach. "I mean, we can't go blind or anything, can we?"
"Nah," Jesse twitched as Jennifer tracings covered a ticklish spot. "I asked Bette Mae. She said that was an old wife's tail."
"Good 'cause I'm not sure I could stop even if it was true," Jennifer lay her head on Jesse's shoulder and draped a leg over her body. "It sure is a lot more fun than what I expected after listening to some of my mother's friends discussing it."
Jesse caressed the leg placed so conveniently in her reach. "Bette Mae says that how much you enjoy it depends a lot on the person you're doing it with," Jesse stopped Jennifer's busy hand and brought it to her mouth.
"Hmm," Jennifer pushed up onto an elbow to look at her lover. "Well, if that's the case, I must be doing it with the right person because I'm really enjoying it."
"Oh, are you?" Jesse smirked.
"Oh, yes," Jennifer smiled back. "Very much so," she repositioned herself to lay atop Jesse, resting her chin between Jesse's breasts and wrapping her arms around her lover's warm body.
"Well, darlin'," Jesse drawled as she ran her hands up and down Jennifer's back. "Want to do it some more?"
"I thought you'd never ask."
Jennifer giggled as Jesse flipped them both over and began a new attack on Jennifer's body.
"Okay, you ready?" Jesse stood beside a caramel colored mare waiting for Jennifer as she considered mounting the horse. Two days after agreeing to travel to Bannack, Jesse had surprised Jennifer with her own horse.
Jennifer had dismissed the students for the day and walked back to the Slipper where she would find Jesse. As she neared, the large two-story building she saw Jesse standing in the shade by the porch steps, holding the reins of a beautiful, horse.
"What's this?" Jennifer asked as she neared the grinning rancher.
"Thought you might want to learn to ride on our trip to Bannack." As Jesse said the words, she felt disappointment at knowing she wouldn't be able to wrap her arms around her lover as they rode. But, Dusty would tire easily if she had to carry both women and their supplies on the long ride. Besides, she reminded herself, we can still snuggle at night.
"She's beautiful," Jennifer reached up to rub the horse's soft nose. "Where did you get her?"
"Butler," Jennifer bristled. Jennifer had a mammoth dislike for the man that almost cost Jesse her life. Butler owned one of the valley's larger ranches and had been one of the lynch mob's instigators. He had a dislike for woman who owned businesses, particularly ranches. Didn't think it was proper. And, he had been more than willing to accept the flimsy evidence that Jesse had stolen cattle.
"I'm surprised you'd buy a horse from him, of all the ranchers in the valley."
"Well, he might not have much good to say about me but he is the best horse breeder in the territory. Besides, he gave me a real good deal, threw the saddle and tack in for no charge. Seems he's been feeling right shameful over accusing me of rustlin'."
"I should think so," Jennifer ducked under the horse's neck and wrapped her arms around Jesse's waist. "What's her name?"
"Hasn't got one. Thought, you might want to christen her. After all, you don't seem to care much for my taste in names."
Jennifer chuckled when she thought of their draft horse named 'Boy'.
"Good idea, sweetheart." She stood back and gave the horse a good look over. She stood as tall as Dusty, but not as broad across the back. And, except for the horse's nose, the mare was a solid, light brown color. On her nose, a white mark began at the eyes and traveled down the nose in the shape of a thunderbolt, ending just above the animal's nostrils.
Jennifer studied the unusual marking before declaring, "Blaze. I'm going to call you, Blaze," she told the horse now nuzzling her head.
"I'm ready, I think," Jennifer wavered. "Jesse, are you sure this is a good idea. I mean, I haven't had that much practice."
"You'll do just fine, darlin'," Jesse assured her lover. "We'll take it nice and slow until you get more comfortable. Besides, you've had no trouble the last couple of days." Jesse had given Jennifer a lesson each afternoon after they returned to the ranch. Jesse thought that Jennifer showed a natural talent that would take over once her nervousness faded.
"Okay," Jennifer positioned a booted foot in the stirrup and lifted herself into the saddle. She watched as Jesse mounted Dusty, "I'm ready when you are, partner."
"Well, then," Jesse nudged Dusty forward knowing Blaze would follow. "Let's go."
Jesse and Jennifer left the ranch and headed to the southern end of the Sweetwater valley. Bannack was to the southeast and there wasn't much between it and Sweetwater except some scattered mining camps. Jesse would guide them clear of the camps because a traveler never knew what trouble they were likely to run into in the camps. And, Jesse wanted this trip to be fun for Jennifer. Yep, this trip would have no unnecessary adventures. Just the two of them and the beautiful Montana country that Jennifer wanted to see.
As the day stretched toward late afternoon, Jennifer had, indeed, become comfortable on Blaze. The mare was a good match for the schoolteacher and provided a easy ride.
Riding two horses, they made good time reaching the end of the valley. They had already passed the dry canyon country at the south end of the valley and the site of Jesse's almost murder. The rancher led them in a wide berth around the meadow, not wanting Jennifer to begin their trip reliving the events that had taken place there just weeks earlier.
"How you doing?" Jesse asked as the trail began to climb. They were leaving the valley behind and making their way up the Indian trail into the mountains.
"Alright," Jennifer smiled at the rancher. She missed having Jesse's arms wrapped around her but she enjoyed the freedom of her own horse. Never, not even when she would sit for hours and wonder what life might be like in the west, had she dreamed she would be accompanied by a very beautiful woman, who just happened to be her lover. as they rode together free to do as they pleased. She sometimes wondered if she would wake up one morning and be back in her father's house. The idea of not having Jesse in her life brought her such sorrow that her heart could not bear the thought.
"Darlin'," Jesse saw the dark cloud cross Jennifer's features. "Is something wrong?"
"No," Jennifer shook her head. "It's just sometimes I can't believe how lucky I was to end up in Sweetwater. I mean, of all the towns the office in Denver could have sent me, they sent me here. Sometimes, it just seems so fantastic. Almost like it's unreal."
"Nah, darlin'," Jesse stepped Dusty alongside Blaze and leaned over to kiss Jennifer. "It's very real."
"So, it is," Jennifer returned the kiss.
Dusty, not liking being that close to Blaze, stepped away inconveniently breaking apart the lovers.
"Dusty, be sociable," Jesse chastised the mare but Dusty refused to close the distance between herself and the other horse. Jesse shrugged at Jennifer, "guess we'll just have to do our kissing on the ground."
Jennifer giggled at the palomino's actions. "Speaking of the ground," she had begun to notice some unusual pain and soreness in her thighs. "How much longer are we riding today?"
Jesse looked at the position of the sun in the sky, it was still a couple of hours before dusk. "I'd like to get a few more miles up the trail. The last few miles before the pass are pretty rough. Don't want the girls to have to travel too much before we reach that section."
"Oh," Jennifer was hoping that they would be stopping sooner.
Seeming to sense Jennifer's discomfort, Jesse rushed to continue, "but, we could stop sooner, if you want. We'll just take it easy in the morning and take a rest when we reach the bad stuff."
Jennifer considered Jesse's words and decided that it really wouldn't be fair to make the horses work harder than necessary just because she was sore. After all, she had the easy task of being the rider, Blaze and Dusty would have the hard part.
"No, that's okay. Let's keep going," she told Jesse. "Although, you may have to give me a rub down when you're done with Dusty tonight."
"Oooh," Jesse dropped her voice down to a seductive purr. "I'll look forward to doin' just that, darlin'."
Just before dusk, Jesse called a halt to the day's travels. They began setting up camp in a small clearing beside the trail. A creek gurgled nearby and Jesse picketed Blaze next to it. Dusty was set free but had not gone far due to the forest that surrounded them.
Jennifer was gathering firewood, an abundant amount available close to the camp. Dropping her armful of dried branches, Jennifer returned to gather more. She had quickly learned how the temperature dropped in the mountains and wanted to have a ample supply for the night. Jennifer dropped her second armful and looked around to see Jesse coming back from the creek with two freshly cleaned mountain trout.
"Don't you tell me you found those in that little, bitty creek," Jennifer confronted the rancher.
"Okay, I won't," Jesse snickered. "You want to cook them now or after your rub down?"
Shaking her head, Jennifer poked through the saddlebags and found their frying pan, "now. I'm not sure I'll be awake later."
"Ah, darlin'," Jesse sighed. "You just ruined my plans for the evening."
Jesse sat with her back against a tall pine tree close to the fire. Jennifer was nestled between her legs, her back resting on Jesse's chest. Jennifer reached down and pulled Jesse's arms tight around her waist.
"It's so beautiful," Jennifer watched the sky change colors with the setting sun. Their camp spot allowed them a wide, panoramic view of the forest that stretched for miles on the mountain ridges around them. It was an endless sea of deep green, broken only by the occasional bare rocky slope. High in the darkening sky above them, an eagle soared scanning the ground for a late meal. Off in the distance, the calls of coyotes floated on the still mountain air.
A low grunt accompanied by the sound of something moving rapidly through the trees not too far from their camp alarmed the schoolteacher.
"What's that?" Jennifer looked around expecting something to come bursting from the trees at them.
"Bull elk," Jesse said. "Getting close to mating season. He's probably just letting the other bulls know he's in the area."
Jennifer settled back against Jesse.
The rancher sighed deeply and tightened her hold on Jennifer. "This is nice," she murmured in Jennifer's ear.
Jennifer watched as the last of the sun's color disappeared from the sky, "I know something that would be nicer." She turned her head and kissed Jesse.
After several moments, Jennifer broke the kiss and pushed herself up from the ground. She offered to pull Jesse up beside her. The two lovers wasted no time in snuggling under their blankets.
It was midday on their second day of travel. Jesse and Jennifer had led their horses up the last mile of the climb to the mountain pass and stopped to rest when the crest was reached. Expecting to be looking down the other side of a mountain, Jennifer was astonished to see more forest covered ridges extending before them.
"Thanks," the schoolteacher took a welcomed drink from the canteen Jesse held out. "Jesse, how wide are these mountains?"
"Oh," Jesse looked around. "We'll be out of them by nightfall. But, you won't hardly know we're traveling downhill from here. It'll seem that we're riding along the top and then all of a sudden we'll be out of the mountains and in the valley."
"I've never seen mountains that go on like this. The ones back east don't come close to comparing to these."
"What about on your trip, darlin'?" Jesse remounted Dusty. "You traveled through the mountains between Denver and Sweetwater."
Jennifer squirmed on Blaze's saddle, her legs were sore and it took some doing to find a comfortable spot. "Guess I wasn't really paying much attention. I was too excited just to be making the trip. Besides, the dust those stagecoaches throw up can block out the sun at noon."
"Yep, that's for sure. I've found there's only two ways of traveling by stage, dusty or muddy. Best to to avoid either one, if you can."
The trail they followed proved to be a easy ride, just as Jesse had said. The forest would open and they would ride across beautiful mountain meadows before the trees reclaimed their path. Jennifer was in awe of the wildlife they encountered. Birds of every size and color flew in and out of the trees. Beaver and muskrat worked the creeks and streams in the meadows. Moose, foraging on tasty water plants, gave them little more than a casual look as they passed. The women were even startled to see a young black bear rumble out of a tangle of berry bushes they passed.
Jennifer could not get enough of the wide open sky and the beautiful land they pass through. Growing up in the east, she had never traveled for so long without encountering a town or settlement of some sort. But, they were two days out of Sweetwater and had not seen a single person or even a cabin. All of this openness was a bit overwhelming. She couldn't imagine making such a trip alone and she was very glad that Jesse was with her. For many reasons.
"Jesse, what's that?" Jennifer pointed to the side of a hill several hundred yards away. It was covered in loose rock and an animal was carefully making its way across the face of rock. A smaller version of the animal trailing close behind.
Jesse turned to look. "Big horn sheep and she's got a lamb with her."
"Big horn sheep," Jennifer repeated as she watched the animals' progress.
"Yep. The rams have huge horns that wrap around in a circle. When they fight over the ewes, you can hear the clash of their horns for miles." Jesse picked up the movement of a third animal on the rocky face and pulled her rifle from the saddle scabbard. "Hold tight to your reins," she warned Jennifer as she spotted on the third animal.
"What's wrong?" Jennifer asked alarmed at the sight of the rifle in Jesse's hands.
Jesse gently pulled the trigger and crack of the rifle startled both Jennifer and Blaze. Had Jesse not warned her, Jennifer would probably have been unseated by the horse's sudden movement. After regaining control of her mare, Jennifer looked at the hillside. The ewe and her lamb were running straight up the rocky slope. Jesse fired a second shot and Jennifer saw rock explode less than fifty feet from where she had originally spied the ewe. As Jesse fired a third shot, Jennifer saw a large cat-like animal rise out of the rocks it had been hiding and run down the rock slope away from the ewe and lamb.
Jesse lowered her rifle but kept watch on the large cat.
"That's the biggest cat I've ever seen," Jennifer exclaimed. From head to tail, the cat had to be longer than Jesse was tall.
"Mountain lion," Jesse said as she kept her eyes on the cat.
"Mountain lion," Jennifer had heard of the big cats but had not imagined them to be so big. "Shouldn't we be getting away from here?" she asked nervously.
"Nah, it's climbed up a tree. It'll wait a while then go after the ewe again," Jesse replaced the rifle.
Jennifer sadly said, "it's too bad you missed it."
"Wasn't aiming to kill it," Jesse replied.
"Why not?" Jennifer asked, perplexed.
"Darlin'," Jesse turned to the schoolteacher. "We can't go about killing everything we don't like or fear. It serves a purpose. Without the mountain lions, the sheep and other wild animals would become overpopulated. That would weaken the herds and eventually, you'd have fewer and smaller animals."
"But, if that's the case, why did you chase it away?" Jennifer was puzzled.
Jesse had to consider the question. If she'd been riding alone, she would have let nature take it's course. So, why did she prevent it this time. She was looking at the answer. She hadn't wanted Jennifer to witness the death of the lamb.
Jesse shrugged, not wanting to tell Jennifer the truth. "Don't rightly know. Come on, let's get going." Jesse nudged Dusty and the mare moved away, Blaze following.
Jennifer smiled at Jesse's back. She had seen the look in Jesse's eyes as she considered Jennifer's question. It was the same look Jesse had when she tried to protect Jennifer from Johnson, the crazed ex-owner of the Slipper. 'She was protecting me,' Jennifer thought. 'That is so sweet.' As Blaze pulled alongside of Dusty, Jennifer reached over and took her lover's hand in her own. Jesse looked over at Jennifer and smiled.
Later, in the early evening, with the high summer sun beginning to drop, Jesse recommended making camp in a small meadow. As Jennifer gathered firewood, Jesse performed her magic and caught a pair of trout in the meadow's creek. After dinner, Jennifer received another rubdown before the women crawled into their blankets and snuggled together. Jennifer spent the better part of the night showing Jesse just how much she loved her..
Traveling on the third day, Jennifer was sorry to see the forest fade behind them. Without the cover of the trees, the sun's heat beat down on the riders and horses. Jesse called a halt at every creek to allow the horses to rest. Behind them, jagged peaks, some still dotted with snow, rose well above the forest they had ridden through and Jennifer could tell that the pass on the old Indian trail did not cross the mountains anywhere near the highest peaks.
Before them lay the biggest valley the schoolteacher had every seen. It was ringed by mountain ranges and Jennifer traced their ridges for as far as she could see. Inside, the ring, gently rolling mounds of grassland flowed unbroken except for the sporadic stand of willows and cottonwoods along meandering creeks. In the huge expanse of open land, Jennifer could see no sign of human occupation.
"Doesn't anyone live in this valley?"
"Wasn't anyone the last time I came through this way," Jesse led Dusty down the side of a gulley. "Trappers come through every so often to trap the beaver. And, the Indians come to hunt the antelope and elk."
"Antelope?" Jennifer had never heard the name before.
"Yeah, kinda like a small deer but lighter in color. And, faster than any other animal. Heck, they can outrun a bullet. Just as well, since they're not too good for eatin'."
"Think we'll see any?" the schoolteacher was scanning the horizon for any evidence of the fast moving animals.
"Probably," Jesse turned Dusty in a more southerly direction. "There's a lot of 'em in this valley."
"Jesse, is that smoke?" Jennifer asked as the climbed out of the gulley.
Far in the distance, a tendril of gray-black smoke rose from behind a small rise. "Seems so," Jesse pulled Dusty to a stop and searched for any sign of activity. "Strange, I don't recall a cabin being around there."
"Maybe it's just someone's campfire," Jennifer had also stopped Blaze who was standing easily alongside Dusty.
"That's a lot of smoke for a campfire."
Dusty raised her head and started to sniff the air. The golden mare sidestepped uneasily, Blaze picked up on this and began to twitch nervously.
Jennifer patted the mare's neck, "whoa, girl. What's got into you?"
Jesse patted Dusty's neck to calm the agitated animal, "settle down, Dusty. You're upsetting Blaze." A loud whinny and vigorous shake of the head was Dusty's answer but she calmed. Blaze seemed to understand the reason for Dusty's uneasiness and also raised her head to sniff the air.
"What's wrong?" Jennifer asked tensely.
"Don't know," Jesse reached for her rifle before she nudged Dusty forward. "Could be trouble." Jesse had spotted the buzzards circling high above the smoke but, not wanted to worry Jennifer, didn't say anything.
As they made their way to the source of the smoke, the horses became more skitterish. Taking on their mounts' moods, the women were not anticipating a welcome sight. But, nothing could have prepared them for the shock of what awaited them.
A Conestoga wagon lay partially on its side, it's contents scattered about on the ground. Both wagon and contents had been set on fire. The body of a man was laying face down next to the wagon, his body covering that of a woman's. The women could see that both had been shot in the head.
Jennifer gasped, her face buried in her hands to block out the horrific sight. Jesse was on the ground instantly and she gently pulled Jennifer from her saddle. She wrapped her arms around Jennifer, hugging the crying woman.
"Don't look," Jesse felt her own cheeks wet with tears. "Please, darlin'. Don't look."
"Why?" Jennifer moaned into Jesse's shoulder. "Why would someone do this?"
Jesse looked at the burning wagon and wondered that herself.
It took several minutes for the women to compose themselves enough to deal with the tragedy before them.
"Sit here," Jesse lowered Jennifer onto a convenient rock. "Let me get them buried."
"I'll help," the schoolteacher began to stand even as Jesse gently pushed her back down.
"No, darlin'," Jesse whispered. "I don't want you to see..."
Jennifer reached up and cupped Jesse's tear-streaked face in her hands. "Jesse, I want to help," she said quietly. "Please, sweetheart. I need to help them."
Understanding, Jesse nodded.
Jesse carefully lifted the lifeless man.
"He must have been trying to protect her," Jennifer commented as she helped carry the body to where she and Jesse had dug side-by-side graves. After laying the man out in one of the graves, they returned for the woman.
"Why don't you see if you can find anything with their names or their next of kin," Jesse suggested as she began to fill in the graves. A search of the victim's clothing had turned up nothing to identify them.
Jennifer nodded and began to search the items scattered about the smoldering wagon. It was obvious that whoever was responsible for the couple's death had ransacked the wagon and contents before setting them on fire. There wasn't much left worth trying to save.
Jennifer flipped upright a small travel trunk and found it to be empty. As she tossed it aside, Jennifer thought she heard a faint noise under the wagon. Stopping her activity to listen, she heard the noise again. She was astounded when it sounded like a child's whimper.
"Jesse," Jennifer called as she approached the wagon. "Jesse, come here. There's someone under the wagon."
Jesse dropped her shovel and rushed to Jennifer's side. "Watch out," Jesse grabbed Jennifer's arm and stopped her from crawling under the smoldering wood.
"Jesse, I heard a child," Jennifer cried out as she struggled to get loose of Jesse's hold.
"Hold on," Jesse pulled Jennifer back. "Let me get it back upright," Jesse whistled for Dusty. After swinging up into the saddle, Jesse looped one end of her rope around one of the wagon's ribs and tied the other around her saddle horn. With rope stretched taut, she backed Dusty slowly from the wagon. "Wait until I have it up before you crawl under."
Jennifer nodded and waited anxiously for the wagon to sit again on it's large wooden wheels. She could no longer hear the sound that had caught her attention and she wondered if she'd been mistaken.
Dusty strained against the weight of the large wagon but it slowly began to right itself. Both women held their breath as the wagon rocked over onto its wheels. They waited to see if the burnt wood would hold. It groaned but stayed in one piece.
"Now," Jesse grunted.
Jennifer quickly dropped to the ground and eased her way beneath the wagon bed. At first, she saw nothing but what appeared to be a pile of clothing. She heard the tiny whimper again. As she pulled aside the clothing, her hand hit something solid. She quickly removed the rest of the pile to reveal a small wooden crate laying upside down. Lifting it carefully, Jennifer was amazed to see a baby staring back at her.
"Oh, goodness," Jennifer carefully lifted the infant and scooted out from under the wagon. "It's a baby," she said as she held the child out for Jesse to see.
Jesse's eyes widened at the small bundle in her lover's arms.
Dusty took one look at the little person, shook her head and sneezed.
The noise startled the baby and a earsplitting wail erupted.
"Hush, little one," Jennifer rocked the crying infant. "You're okay."
Jesse carefully poured water from a canteen, drenching a clean cloth she'd removed from her saddlebags. She handed the dripping material to Jennifer. "It's not milk but it will have to do for now." She watched as Jennifer placed the wet cloth in the infant's mouth. The baby sucked on the cloth for a few moments before spitting it out, crying again.
"Here," Jesse sat next to Jennifer. "Let me try something."
She began to sing an old lullaby that she remember her mother had sung when, as a child, she'd had trouble sleeping. Jennifer smiled as the baby soon quieted.
"Let's see if she'll stay that way while I finish up," Jesse left Jennifer to rock the child as she returned to the task of filling in the graves. When she had finished, she walked back to where Jennifer sat with the now sleeping child.
"Did you find anything saying who they were?" Jesse asked, softly.
Jennifer shook her head.
"I'm going to take a short ride," Jesse informed the schoolteacher. "The bandits took their horses but, by the looks of the tracks, they had a cow tied to the wagon. Now, we know why," .Jesse indicated the baby. I'll take a look around and see if I can spot it. If you have any trouble, fire this," she placed a revolver next to Jennifer. "I'll come back."
"Jesse," Jennifer looked worried.
"I won't be long, darlin'," Jesse bent to place a tender kiss on Jennifer's forehead. "I promise."
Jennifer softly hummed to the baby as Jesse rode away. Less than an hour later, Jesse returned. Trailing behind Dusty, at the end of a long rope was the cow.
Jennifer walked up to Jesse as she dropped from the saddle, "thank goodness you found that. This little one is starting to fuss again."
"Found this, too," Jesse held up a wallet. "Money, if they had any, is gone. But, say's their names were Kenneth and Catherine Williams. No name for the baby, though." Jesse put the wallet into her saddlebag and pulled a small pot out. "Let's see what we can get."
Jesse knelt beside the cow and massaged it's teats coaxing out the milk. It didn't take long for the pot to be filled.
"Now, how do we get this into that little thing," Jesse asked as she pointed to the baby's small mouth. She was startled when the baby wrapped it's tiny hand around her finger and held tight.
"Well, since she's already got a hold of you, you hold her while I see if I can find something to use to feed her," Jennifer traded the baby for the pot of milk.
"How do you know it's a her?"
"She needed her diaper changed while you were gone. I checked her over, didn't find any injuries. The box she was in must have protected her," Jennifer told Jesse as she searched the wagon's contents.
"So, how old do you think she is?" Jesse run a finger down the baby's soft cheek. She took a good look at the infant. She was small, barely stretching the length of her arm from elbow to hand. Soft, downy hair, almost the same ginger color of Jennifer's, covered the small head. Bright blue eyes curiously looked up at Jesse.
"Can't be very old. I'm guessing eight, maybe nine, months."
"Damn, that's young."
Not finding any unbroken bottles for feeding the baby, Jennifer decided to improvise and emptied one of their canteens.
"Give me your knife," she held out her hand. Jesse pulled the knife from her boot and handed it to the schoolteacher.
"What are you planning to do?" she asked as the baby continued to play with her fingers.
"I'm hoping to put a small hole in the cap so we can pour small amounts of milk into her mouth. It's not the best way to feed a baby but it'll have to do until we get to Bannack." Jennifer finished with the knife and handed it back to Jesse. Then, she carefully poured the milk into the canteen and tightened the cap down. "Shall we give it a try?"
Jesse sat on the ground and provided a nest for Jennifer to sit in while she carefully fed the infant the milk. Both women sat mesmerized by the tiny person in their arms.
Jennifer turned to look into Jesse's eyes, "what are we going to do with her?"
"Take her into Bannack, that's probably where her folks were coming from. We'll see if anyone there knows who they were. The sheriff might be able to help. Need to report the bandits to him anyway."
"Think he'll find them?" Jennifer asked, referring to the bandits.
"Hard to tell."
"Jesse, are we in danger?" Jennifer was scared, she had heard of bandits attacking travelers but had never imagined the consequences could be so terrible.
"It'll be okay, darlin'," Jesse assured the schoolteacher.
"Promise," Jennifer leaned her head against Jesse's shoulder as she continued to pour tiny swallows of milk into the baby's mouth.
"Promise," Jesse hoped she could fulfill the promise to her lover. "Country is pretty open between here and Bannack. We'll keep a sharp eye out. Besides, by the look of it, whoever did this was looking for something. May have been personal."
After the baby fell asleep, Jesse patted Jennifer's leg, "let's get out of here. It'll be safer."
Jennifer looked down at the baby sleeping peacefully in her arms, "alright."
Jennifer tucked what clothes for the baby they could salvage from the burned wagon into the saddlebags. She had also found some cloth that could serve as diapers until they reached Bannack.
"Here, put this over your head," Jesse stepped next to Jennifer. She had torn a dress skirt into a makeshift sling that she placed over Jennifer's head. Next, the baby was placed into the pocket of the sling. "It'll make carrying her easier. We can take turns."
Jennifer adjusted the baby in the sling and was pleased to see the infant didn't seem to mind the awkward position.
Before mounting their horses, Jesse and Jennifer stood at the foot of the newly dug graves. The mounds of earth had been covered with rocks to keep animals from digging up the bodies. Two crosses made from pieces of wood pulled from the wagon's side were placed at the head of the graves. Using a piece of charred wood, Jesse had scratched the couple's names onto the crosses.
"We'll take care of your baby," Jennifer told the graves' occupants. "I promise."
"Let's go," Jesse helped Jennifer onto Blaze before handing up the baby. Once, Jennifer was settled with the infant, she pulled herself up onto Dusty. The cow's lead rope was wrapped around the saddle horn. "Ready," she asked Jennifer who was making sure the infant was comfortable.
The women left the scene of the grisly attack behind them.
Jesse and Jennifer rode until dark, stopping only to rest the horses or feed and change the baby. They had kept a lookout for any other riders but had seen none. As the sun dropped from the sky, they set up camp alongside a small creek. Jesse tended the horses and cow while Jennifer took care of the baby and set out their bedroll and blankets.
"Best we do without a fire tonight," Jesse said as she joined Jennifer, a fresh pot of milk in hand.
"Won't it be cold?" Jennifer had laid the baby on their blankets and she was happily playing with her toes.
"Yes, but an open fire can be seen for miles at night. I think we better do without," Jesse sat beside the blanket and began to tickle the child's tummy. The baby smiled at the rancher.
"She likes you," Jennifer said as she poured the milk into the canteen they used for feeding the baby.
"Nah," Jesse picked up the baby and bounced her on her leg. "She just likes the fact I bring the milk."
"Come on, little one," Jennifer took the baby to feed her.
"You know, we should come up with something to call her besides 'baby' and 'little one'," Jesse rummaged through their saddle bags looking for the jerky and hard biscuits they had brought with them.
"Hmm," Jennifer was trying not to put too much milk in the baby's mouth but it was difficult in the growing darkness. "Any suggestions?"
"Nope," Jesse found the food and placed it near the blankets. "She done eating? We better get under cover before we start to get cold," Jesse crawled into the blankets and held them open for Jennifer.
Jennifer handed the baby to Jesse before joining her under the blankets. "I think she was too worn out to eat much. She'll probably wake up during the night to finish."
Jesse rolled onto her back and placed the baby on her chest, she thought it would be warmer for the infant than laying on the ground. She gently rubbed the tiny back as the baby sleepily played with the buttons on her shirt. With her other hand she reached for the jerky and biscuits. "Here, this will have to do for dinner."
"Thanks," Jennifer turned onto her side and snuggled up to Jesse. "What about KC?"
"Uh?," Jesse chewed on the meat.
"For the baby? KC after her parents, Kenneth and Catherine."
"Oh. Well, KC it is," Jesse wrapped an arm around Jennifer and pulled her close.
"Jesse, what's going to happen to her?" Jennifer tucked the blankets in tight around their bodies.
"Don't know. If she has relatives, she'll probably go to them. If not, there's probably a orphans home in Bannack. Or, maybe a church that will take her in."
"Oh," Jennifer rested a hand on top of Jesse's that held the baby. After several long moments watching the tiny child slowly fall asleep, "Jesse, did you ever think about having children?"
Jesse thought before answering, it surprised her to admit that she never had. "No, can't say I ever gave it much thought," Jesse wove her fingers in with her lover's. "What about you?"
"I always thought that I'd have a big family, lots of children. But, I guess that isn't going to happen now."
Jesse could hear the melancholy in Jennifer's voice. She knew that the schoolteacher loved children and it wasn't unexpected that she would have wanted to have her own. But, Jennifer was right, there wasn't much chance of her having children with Jesse.
"Guess that's one thing I can't give you, darlin'," Jesse sadly turned her head to face Jennifer.
Seeing the anguish in her lover's eyes, Jennifer gently caressed Jesse's face. "I love you, Jesse. And, I wouldn't trade a day with you for all the children in the west." Jennifer lay her head back on Jesse's shoulder. Draping an arm and leg across Jesse, she settled into her favorite sleeping position half on the rancher's familiar body.
"I love you, too, darlin'," Jesse kissed the top of Jennifer's head.
In the distance, the moon was rising over one of the mountain peaks, it's pale glow not enough to brighten the dark night. Jesse felt Jennifer begin to relax as sleep claimed her. It wasn't long before the only sound in their camp was the peaceful breathing of her lover and the baby on her chest. Jesse smiled. She felt content. It was a good feeling,
"I love you, too," she whispered.
Jesse woke just after dawn. The baby was still asleep on her chest and Jennifer was snoring softly in her ear. She scanned the horizon and saw nothing to cause concern. She was additionally comforted that Dusty and Blaze were calmly grazing not too far from where they lay. Jesse knew the mares would alert them to any danger.
Carefully, slipping out from under Jennifer, Jesse lay the baby in the warm blankets she had just vacated. In her sleep, Jennifer reached out a protective arm and covered the child.
It didn't take long for Jesse to get a fire going and to put a pot of coffee in the flames to heat. She milked the cow so the baby would have warm milk for breakfast and then went to the nearby creek to look for fish. Pickings were slim but she managed to catch a couple of trout for their morning meal.
Jesse had just placed the fish in the frying pan when Jennifer woke.
"Morning," Jennifer greeted the rancher as she stretched under the blanket. "And, good morning to you, KC," she said as she felt the baby grab unto her shirt. "Uh, oh. Someone needs some dry britches," Jennifer made a face as she picked up the baby.
"Not me," Jesse said from where she knelt beside the fire. She patted her backside, "my britches are nice and dry."
"Funny," Jennifer pushed the blanket out of the way. "Sweetheart, can you get me a diaper?"
"Right there," Jesse pointed to a cloth resting on top of the canteen they used to feed the baby. A rag sat in a bowl of water beside it. "Figured, she'd be needing a change when she woke up."
Jennifer removed the soiled diaper and grabbed the wet cloth. "Hey, this is warm water," she noted as she picked it up.
"Yep. Pretty sure she wouldn't want us to use water straight from that creek. It's a mite on the chilly side."
"You're pretty smart for an old rancher," Jennifer washed the baby before putting on the fresh diaper.
"Who you callin' old?" Jesse scowled as she handed Jennifer a clean baby gown. "Here you go. And, there's warm milk in the canteen."
Jennifer finished dressing KC, then settled the baby in her arms for feeding. The baby swallowed the milk as quickly as Jennifer could pour the liquid into her mouth. "Looks like she's hungry this morning."
"Don't doubt that," Jesse returned to cooking the fish.
Jennifer looked at the fire quizzically, "thought you said it was safer not to have a fire?"
"Last night. Besides," Jesse turned the fish in the frying pan. "Whoever it was is long gone by now." She hoped.
KC finally drank her fill and pushed the canteen away. Jennifer wiped the baby's face clean then joined Jesse by the fire.
"Oh, that feels good," Jennifer said as she felt the fire's warmth against her skin.
Jesse handed a plate of fish to Jennifer. She poured a cup full of coffee and set it on the ground at Jennifer's side.
"Here, let me hold her while you eat," Jesse lifted the baby from Jennifer. KC smiled and wrapped her fingers around Jesse's much larger one. "She's got a good grip for such a tiny thing," Jesse began to play with the child.
Jennifer watched as her lover made faces and funny sounds to entertain KC. Jesse was a natural with the child and Jennifer wondered what it would be like to raise KC as their own. She sighed knowing that in another day, they would have to give the baby up.
"What's wrong, darlin'?" Jesse asked when she saw the sad look on Jennifer's face.
"I was just thinking."
"Must not have been anything good by your expression," Jesse lifted the baby's gown and tickled KC's belly, producing a small baby laugh.
"Don't know that I would say it was bad. I was just thinking about having to leave her in Bannack," Jennifer finished her breakfast and picked up the cup of coffee, sipping the hot drink.
"Yeah," Jesse sat KC in her lap. "Guess we shouldn't get too attached to her," as she spoke the words both women realized that they already were.
"Yeah," Jennifer said sadly. "You better eat before it gets cold, sweetheart. You want me to hold her?"
"Nah," Jesse picked up her plate. "She can help me eat this fish."
"Jesse, she's too young to eat fish," Jennifer laughed.
"Maybe," Jesse laughed as a tiny hand plopped squarely in the middle of her plate. "But, she's not too young to play with 'em."
Jennifer left Jesse to her game of grabbing pieces of fish away from KC's busy hands. By the time she had rolled up their blankets and bedrolls, and tied them in place on the saddles, both rancher and baby were in need of a good scrubbing. Jennifer warmed water to wash KC but Jesse was sent to clean up in the frosty water of the creek. It was mid-morning before the rancher quit grumbling about life's unfairness.
Jesse called a halt to the day's travels earlier than she had the previous day. They hadn't seen any sign of the bandits all day and she felt there was no need to ride until dark. The women were setting up camp and KC had been placed in the middle of the blankets while the women worked.
"Jesse, look," Jennifer called excitingly to the rancher.
"What?" Jesse was rubbing down the horses after the day's ride.
"KC. She just rolled over," Jennifer was pointing to the blanket. KC was now laying on her stomach, trying to push up on her tiny arms.
"Well, I'll be," Jesse said as she walked over to the blanket. She lay flat on the ground so she would be nose to nose with the baby. "Showing off, are ya?" she asked KC.
The baby answered by trying to reach out and grab Jesse's nose. Unfortunately, the movement left her with only one hand on the ground and her tiny body couldn't balance. She fell to the side and the motion rolled her back over to the position she had originally been placed on the blanket. Surprised by all the unexpected action, KC began to whimper.
"Hey, there," Jesse stretched her head over the blanket so she could look down at the baby. "Nothing to be upset over. You're just learning somethin' new."
Looking up into the smiling upside down face above her, KC's whimper turned into a giggle.
Jesse laughed with the girl, "that's better."
Jennifer sat on the blanket and tickled the baby, "won't be long and you'll be crawling. Bet, you'll be a handful then."
"Heck, darlin'," Jesse winked at her lover as she sat up. "She ain't much more than a handful now," she spread her fingers to denote the baby's small size.
Jennifer reached out and grabbed Jesse's hand pulling her onto the blanket. She quickly covered Jesse's body with her own and began to plant kisses all over Jesse's face. Jesse's hands found their way to Jennifer's back and began to work her shirt loose of her pants. Jennifer felt Jesse's warm hands on her bare skin and her body instantly reacted. She pressed her lips against her lover's.
Jesse broke the kiss and looked at the baby laying beside them. KC was happily carrying on a gibberish conversation with herself.
"Should we be doing this with her right there?" Jesse questioned.
Jennifer straddled Jesse's hips and began to unbutton her shirt, "doesn't look like she minds."
"Maybe not, but it feels kinda strange," Jesse stopped Jennifer's hands. "I mean, shouldn't we wait until she's asleep, at least."
Jennifer collapsed down onto Jesse, "tonight?"
"I promise," Jesse kissed the top of Jennifer's head before rolling the schoolteacher off her. She stood and walked back to the horses, buttoning up her shirt.
Jennifer remained on the blanket, somewhat frustrated and thinking of the promise she would definitely hold her lover to. Her thoughts were interrupted by a small arm smacking her side as KC again experimented with her newly discovered skill.
Later that evening, as KC slept, Jesse made good on her promise.
Dusty and Blaze carried their riders down a small hill then began to climb up the backside of another. At the crest, a road could be seen less than a mile in the distance. A wagon rumbled along it, a cloud of dust billowing behind. The few riders sharing the road pulled to the side and let the wagon pass.
"That's the stage road," Jesse answered Jennifer's unasked question. "We should be in Bannack by noon."
Jennifer adjusted KC who had fallen asleep. She looked at Jesse, both women felt a sadness at the thought that they would soon need to part with the infant.
"She'll be okay, won't she Jesse?"
Jesse could hear the distress in the schoolteacher's voice, "yes, darlin'. We'll make sure of it."
"Alright," Jennifer urged Blaze forward. "Best not to prolong this."
"Whoa, hold up there," Jesse called to Jennifer.
"What?" Jennifer asked as she pulled Blaze to a stop.
Jesse nudged Dusty alongside Blaze, "folks in Bannack might not be as accepting of us as our friends in Sweetwater. Might be best if we tell folks we're sisters."
At first, Jennifer wondered what Jesse was talking about then she realized and had to agree that her lover was regrettably right. She turned to Jesse and smiled, "hmmm. Jennifer Branson. Kinda has a nice ring to it, don't you think?"
Jennifer rode on leaving Jesse staring after her.
After several seconds, Jesse told Dusty, "it does sound right pretty."
Dusty nodded in agreement before trotting ahead to catch up with Blaze.
continued in Part III
Return to the Academy