See Part I for disclaimers.
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted May 2003
Jesse and Jennifer rode slowly toward Bannack. As the road turned to parallel Grasshopper Creek, they began to see miners working the gravel creek bed. Jesse explained the different methods the miners engaged to coax the gold from the gravel. Jennifer watched the dirty and back breaking work. She wondered why men who would not accept a regular job would work so hard for the chance of finding a nugget or two of the shiny metal.
The women rode across the creek and past the small community of Yankee Flats, where Union sympathizers separated themselves from the southern leaning population of Bannack. It was made up of several roughly thrown together shacks and lean-tos. In a few more years, gold dredges working the creek would destroy the community, leaving no trace of it behind.
Several studier built houses announced their arrival in Bannack. The residences at the beginning of town gave way to businesses of every description. Dusty and Blaze walked down the center of the main street, a wide boardwalk lined the front of the buildings bordering both sides. As they passed, the buildings became closer together until adjoining buildings walls touched. Stores selling a variety of goods were intermingled with saloons, laundries, doctor's offices, hotels, boarding houses, mining offices, and much more. At the far end of the road, Jesse recognized the unique rooftop of a church building.
Most of the buildings were made from rough-hewn logs or wood planks. As yet, Bannack had no brick or stone buildings attesting to the town's young age. In the hills surrounding the community, Jesse and Jennifer could see activity at several mines dug into the hillsides. Bannack was a hive of activity and the women were quickly overwhelmed by it all.
Jesse pulled Dusty to a stop in front of a two story, wooden structure. Jennifer looked the building over. It had an plain front with four pillars supporting a second floor balcony and the building's over-hanging roof. A rough wood sign nailed to the side of the building and jutting out over the boardwalk and street proclaimed it to be the 'Goodrich Hotel'.
"Let's get a room and find out where we can find the sheriff," Jesse said as she swung down from Dusty. The one building she had not seen along the main street was a jail. She reached up to take the baby from Jennifer so she could dismount.
"Sounds good," Jennifer joined Jesse and they stepped up onto the boardwalk.
As soon as they opened the door to the Goodrich Hotel, they were greeted by a older man standing behind a counter on the other side of the hotel's small lobby. He was a good foot shorter than the woman and was well on his way to losing what was left of his hair. He wore a black vest over a smartly pressed white shirt.
"Good afternoon, ladies," the man merrily greeted them. "How can I be of service to you, this fine day."
"Afternoon," Jesse nodded at the overly cheerful clerk. "My sister and I need a room for a few nights."
"Fine," the man smiled. As he turned the hotel register for Jesse to sign, he continued, "good thing you came in when you did. I have only one room available and the stage is due in an hour. It only has the one bed, though," he said, apologetically.
"That's okay," Jesse signed the register. "My sister and I are used to sleeping together."
Jennifer hid her smile behind a hand. She coughed, trying to cover the chuckle that had burst forth. Jesse looked at her lover and raised an eyebrow, daring her to behave. Jennifer shrugged.
"Good, good," the man turned the register back around, reading what Jesse had just written. "Sweetwater, uh. What brings you to Bannack? Business or meeting up with your husbands?" It wasn't uncommon for women to travel alone but it happened seldom enough that it was always noticed.
"Business," Jesse answered, leaving out the part that they had no husbands.
The clerk watched as the baby in Jesse's arms began to fidget. He noticed the remarkable resemblance the baby showed to the woman's sister and smiled at Jennifer, "beautiful baby, ma'am. You and your husband must be very happy."
Jennifer smiled at the man, "yes, she is beautiful but, regrettably, she's not mine. We found her parents on the trail, murdered."
"Bandits. So, they've struck again," the man stated as he shook his head. Both women were bewildered that he showed no surprise at the news.
"You don't seem surprised," Jesse settled the fussing baby on her shoulder and lovingly patted her back. KC settled against the rancher and calmed.
"I wish it wasn't so," the clerk reached for a key from the rows of hooks hanging on the wall behind him. "But, bandits have been attacking travelers on the roads between here and Virginia City for the last few months. Always seem to know who's carrying gold dust or other valuables."
"Hasn't the sheriff been able to do anything?" Jennifer asked.
"He goes out looking but always comes back empty handed," the man made a notation next to Jesse's name. "The room is six bits a night. Bath is two bits extra. Supper is served between 6 and 9 in the dining room in the back and breakfast from 5 to 9. Meals are extra, too."
"We'll need a cradle for the baby," Jesse told the man as she handed him a five dollar bill. Bannack was going to cost some, she thought. At the Slipper, meals and bath came with the room.
"Sorry," the man took the money and made another notation next to Jesse's name. "Don't have any."
"That's okay," Jennifer said. "We'll make do."
"Need a place to board our horses," Jesse said.
"Livery is on the north road, you can board them there. Tell Jasper you're a guest of the Goodrich. He'll take care of you. Your room is at the top of the stairs, front of the building. Let me know when you want your bath." The clerk handed Jesse the key.
Jesse took the room key. "You happen to remember a Conestoga wagon coming through town few days back."
"That what you found?"
"Let me think. Conestoga, don't see many of those in these parts. Most stay on the Oregon trail. Country around here is too rough for 'em."
"Did you see one?" Jesse asked impatiently. She wasn't looking for a lesson in transportation.
"Well, seems I do recall one coming through. Didn't stay long. Was parked across the street for a spell in front of Chrismans' store. Sheriff might know more."
"Where can we find the jail?"
"Across the street, in the alley behind the store. But, you won't find the sheriff there. He keeps a office in the back of the store."
"Thanks," Jesse started to re-cross the lobby but thought better of it when she felt a growing wetness on her arm holding the baby. She grinned at Jennifer, "I think someone needs fresh britches."
Jennifer took the baby and key from Jesse, "you get the saddle bags. I'll take KC up to the room. She's probably hungry, too."
As Jennifer finished cleaning up KC, Jesse looked out the room's window.
"Jennifer, I don't want you wandering around Bannack alone," the rancher said as she watched the activity on the street.
Jennifer lifted KC into her arms and joined Jesse at the window, "Jesse, you don't have to watch over me every minute of the day. I can take care of myself, you know."
Jesse reached out and wrapped her arm around the schoolteacher pulling her close. "It's not you I'm worried about, darlin'. It's them," she nodded down at the street.
Jennifer looked where Jesse had indicated and saw cowboys and miners hustling along the boardwalks. It was early afternoon and many of them were already showing signs of having had too much to drink. There were women on the boardwalk but all were accompanied by a male companion.
"Alright, sweetheart," Jennifer saw the wisdom in Jesse's concern.
"Thank you," Jesse leaned down and captured Jennifer's lips. "Now, let's go get Dusty and Blaze boarded, and that cow. Then, we'll go find the sheriff."
After taking the horses and cow to the livery and arranging for their feed and care for the next few days, the women strolled the length of the main street and started back. Jesse didn't seem to be in much of a hurry to find the sheriff and Jennifer wasn't about to question her reasons. They discovered the east end of the street mirrored the west, being populated mostly with private residences. As they made their way back, they passed a log cabin serving as the town's school. Jennifer looked in but found the building empty. Jesse told her they could come back the next day so she could talk with the Bannack schoolteacher.
The women continued their stroll along the boardwalk and eventually found themselves in front of Chrismans' store that housed the sheriff's office. Jesse held the door to the store open for Jennifer to enter. The interior of the store wasn't much different from the general store in Sweetwater. They walked up to the counter where the storekeeper stood watching them.
"Afternoon ladies," the man greeted them guardedly. He stood of medium height and was so skinny his apron strings were wrapped twice around his body before being tied in a crooked bow.
"Afternoon," Jesse nodded at the man. "We're looking for the sheriff. We were told he has an office here."
"You ladies have some trouble?" the man asked.
"You might say that," Jesse said. "Rather discuss it with the sheriff, if you don't mind." Jesse was getting impatient, nothing seemed to be simple in Bannack. And, she was getting an uneasy feeling about it.
"Office is around back," the man jerked a thumb towards the back of the building.
While Jesse talked to the storekeeper, Jennifer searched the shelves for the supplies they needed for KC. Jesse smiled at Jennifer as she placed two baby bottles and some cloth she could cut up for diapers on the counter.
"How much for these?" Jennifer asked the man.
"Four bits," he reached under the counter and produced a bag to put the items in. Taking the money from Jesse, he handed her the bag in return.
"Thank you," Jesse picked up the bag and handed KC to Jennifer.
Jesse led Jennifer outside and along a small alley at the side of the building to an unmarked door in the back. She pulled the door open and cautiously looked inside.
A large man with a handlebar mustache sat behind a small table. He eyed Jesse and then Jennifer as they entered his small office. Standing slowly, he asked, "something I can do for you ladies." He looked both women over carefully before his eyes came to rest on Jennifer.
"You can if you're the sheriff," Jesse stood slightly in front of Jennifer, in a protective stance.
"Sheriff Plummer," the lawman informed them. "Now, what's your business?"
Jesse pulled a chair from the front of the table and offered it to Jennifer. "We just rode in from Sweetwater. Found some trouble on the trail."
"What kind of trouble?" the sheriff slumped back into his chair leaving Jesse standing.
"Found a wagon overturned. Man and woman it belonged to had been shot."
"They dead?" the sheriff asked tensely.
"Yes, we buried them." Jesse watched the sheriff closely. Somehow, his reaction to her story didn't seem right and he seemed to relax when she told him the couple hadn't survived. The knot in her stomach began to grow . "Found this not too far from the wagon," Jesse tossed the wallet she had found onto the table.
The sheriff opened the wallet and pulled out a piece of paper. "Hmm, Williams. Seem to remember a couple by the name of Williams came through here a few days back. They were driving an old Conestoga they'd bought south somewhere. Trailing a cow, if I remember."
"That would be them. Wagon was burned. Bandits took the horses but the cow is over at the livery."
"Never could figure out why they were dragging that old milk cow," the sheriff put the paper back into the wallet.
"For her," Jesse motioned to KC sitting happily in Jennifer's lap. "Found her under the wagon."
"Well, I'll be damned. Didn't know they had a young 'un with 'em," the sheriff pushed back his hat and scratched his head. He seemed confused to be confronted with the baby.
"We were hoping you could tell us if the Williams had any kin in the area," Jennifer said.
"Don't know much about 'em. Like I say, they came through here like a lot of folks do. Most only stop long enough to buy supplies and check on which roads are safe to travel. Don't usually say much about where they're going or where they've been."
"Did the Williams?" Jesse asked.
"Did they what?" the sheriff looked suspiciously at the tall woman still standing.
"Did they check on how safe the roads were?"
"Yep, he came in and we talked. I told them bandits were in the area, they always are around mining camps. But, most of their activity has taken place between here and Virginia City. Asked if they were carrying anything of value. They denied it. Guess they figured if they kept it a secret, they'd be alright. Guess, they was wrong."
"Looks that way," the knot in Jesse's stomach tightened.
"Well, I'll ride out tomorrow and take a look. Where exactly did you find the wagon?"
"'Bout a day and half ride into the Big Hole, northwest of the cutoff."
The sheriff shrugged, "I should be able to find it. Though, ain't much I can do this long after it happened. Bandits have probably split up by now."
"You will try?" Jennifer asked not caring for the sheriff's obvious lack of enthusiasm.
"Like I said, I'll ride out there tomorrow," the sheriff sat up in his chair anxious for the women to leave. "Anything else I can help you with?"
"Yes," Jesse told the sheriff. "Stuart Cassidy, got word he was in your jail."
"That's right," the sheriff wondered what the women had do to with the murderer awaiting trial. "You related to him."
"No," Jesse shook her head. "We're checking for a friend. Mine telling us what he's done."
"Shot his wife."
Jennifer gasped at the sheriff's words and Jesse rested a comforting hand on her shoulder.
"Cassidy had a problem with gambling. Problem was he couldn't win no matter how much he played," the sheriff laughed at his own joke. "And, he played a lot. Wife came into to town one night looking for him. He was losing and drunk, as usual. Didn't take too kindly to her ordering him home. Pulled his revolver and shot her. She died two days later. Trial starts next week, if you're interested."
"We're not," Jesse said.
"What will happen to him?" Jennifer asked, her eyes brimming with tears. She had never realized the west could be so brutal for women. First the women working at the Slipper and the way they were forced to earn a living before Jesse took over, then Mrs. Williams being killed when her baby was only months old, and now Ed's sister. She wondered how such a beautiful country could hold such hardship for the people who made it their home.
"Not much doubt as to him being guilty. Once the judge arrives, he'll hang."
KC had sensed Jennifer's sadness and had began to whimper. Jesse bent down and lifted KC from Jennifer's trembling arms.
"What do you plan to do with the young 'un?" the sheriff asked.
"If we can't locate any kin, I guess we'll see if one of the church's will take her in," Jesse said as she helped Jennifer stand.
"Shouldn't be a problem. Folks are always looking for extra hands to help with chores. 'Course, most prefer boys than girls. They can do more work."
Jennifer looked at the man as if he had just sprouted a second head. Was he really saying that orphaned children were treated like nothing more than an extra plow horse. Why it was no different then the way her own father had treated her. There was no way she would allow KC to face such a future. No way.
As the women turned to leave his office, Sheriff Plummer asked, "you want to see the prisoner?"
"No," Jesse said. There was nothing she had to say to the man.
"Say, you never told me your names," the sheriff pushed back his chair and stood.
"Jesse Branson," Jesse turned back to the sheriff. "And, this is my sister, Jennifer."
"Going to be in town long?"
"Couple of days. We're staying at the Goodrich. Appreciate it if you'd let us know if you find out anything on the bandits."
"Alright," the sheriff said but he had no intention of telling the women what he knew about the bandits and their activities. "See me 'fore you leave town. Especially, if you'll be carrying anything of value."
Jesse looked at the man puzzled. Why would he need to know that, she wondered. "Thanks for the information, sheriff. By the way, where is Mrs. Cassidy buried?"
"Up on the hill. Cassidy didn't have enough for a tombstone. Gravedigger can point out her grave, if you ask."
Jesse could feel her anger rising. The sheriff spoke as if he was talking about the morning's weather instead of a someone's loved one. How could he be so indifferent to what was happening around him? Before she could grab the sheriff around the neck and throttle some sensitivity into him, Jennifer placed a warm hand on her back.
"Let's go back to the hotel, Jesse. The baby's tired."
Without saying a word, Jesse followed Jennifer outside.
Sheriff Plummer waited until the women disappeared around the corner of the building before he left his office and crossed the alley to the jail buildings. He had two jails at his disposal. One was used for men needing a place to sleep off a drunk. The other held the violent prisoners. Sheriff Plummer unlocked the door to the second.
The jail was built from logs and separated into three parts. Half of the building consisted of a room where a guard sat to keep watch on the prisoners. It could also be used to hold prisoners if the other jail cells were occupied. The other half of the building consisted of two jail cells approximately six feet square. These cells had solid log walls and were entered through a small door. A heavy ring was anchored into the logs that made up the buildings floor and prisoners were chained to the ring. This prevented escapes through the building's sod roof. The cell doors had a small opening covered by a panel that could only be opened from the outside. The cells had no windows and when the door was closed and the opening covered, a prisoner sat in total darkness.
Sheriff Plummer nodded at his deputy and opened the shutter on the occupied cell door. After looking inside, the sheriff unlocked the door. Inside sat his prisoner, Stuart Cassidy. The man looked dazed and slowly raised his head when he heard the door pulled open.
"Any word from Sweetwater?" Cassidy asked, hopefully..
Sheriff Plummer stood in the cell's doorway and wondered what he should tell the man about the women who were just in his office. "You know a Jesse and Jennifer Branson?"
"Too bad," the sheriff stepped back and started to close the cell door.
"Are you sure my letter was sent?" the prisoner was desperate
"Yep, it got sent. Maybe they just don't give a damn," the sheriff slammed the heavy door shut and locked it. "Probably, just as well," he said to his deputy as he left the building.
"Sweetheart, we're going to need more milk before morning," Jennifer said as she poured the last of the milk from the canteen into one of the bottles they'd purchased at the store.
"Okay, I'll take a walk to the livery. Want to check on Dusty and Blaze, anyway."
Jesse sat on the hotel room's bed, her long legs spread wide. KC lay between her legs playing with a piece of cloth that would soon serve as a diaper. The baby's giggles helped lighten the mood of the women.
Jennifer sat beside Jesse and leaned against her. "Are we going to the grave today?"
"Nah," Jesse draped her arm across Jennifer's shoulders and kissed the top of her head. "I think I've had enough for one day. What about you?"
"Yeah, more than enough."
The women sat silently for several minutes. KC's happy playing noises the only sound in the quiet room. Outside the sun was beginning it's long drop from the sky as the women considered all the things they had been told during the day.
"Jesse," Jennifer entwined her hand with her lover's.
"Hmm," Jesse looked down and regarded the hand in hers. It never failed to amaze her how Jennifer's touch made her tingle all over. It was a nice feeling and she smiled.
"I don't think I like that sheriff," Jennifer stated.
"My stomach's been in a knot every since we talked to the clerk. Knot got bigger when we talked to Plummer. I think it's best we stay to ourselves the rest of our time here." Jesse looked into Jennifer's eyes, "I'm sorry, darlin'."
"This isn't exactly the trip to Bannack I was expectin'. I wanted you to have a good time."
"Ah, Jesse," tears came to Jennifer's eyes. "Sweetheart, you couldn't have known we'd find the Williams. Besides, I wouldn't say it's all been bad," she smiled down at KC, who had managed to roll herself over and was pushing up on her tiny arms, looking at the two women sharing the bed. "We found her."
"That we did," Jesse reached down and lifted the baby up. She planted a kiss on the KC's soft cheek before handed her to Jennifer. "I'll go to the livery and get her some fresh milk. Then, what say I take my girls to supper in the dining room."
"KC and I would love to," Jennifer accepted the squirming baby.
"Good," Jesse climbed off the bed. "I won't be long. Lock the door and don't open it for anyone except me. There's a pistol in the saddlebag."
"Be careful," Jennifer said as she followed Jesse to the door.
Jesse carried KC as she and Jennifer entered the hotel's dining room. A table against the back wall sat empty and the women headed for it. They were greeted by a friendly girl who filled their coffee cups and told them of the choices for the evening meal. Both women ordered a steak with all the fixin's and apple pie. The girl rushed off to the kitchen to place their order. Jesse and Jennifer talked quietly as they waited for their meals to arrive. KC sat in the crook of Jesse's arm and looked around the room. Quickly becoming bored, the baby yawned and promptly fell asleep.
Their meals arrived and the women attacked the food after they realized it had been some time since they had last eaten. Jesse was finishing the last bite of her apple pie when a distinguished looking man wearing a long black coat walked into the dining room. He scanned the diners before making a beeline to the women's table.
"Excuse me," the man addressed the women as he approached them. "Are you the young women from Sweetwater with the baby." Spotting KC asleep in Jesse's lap, he continued, "ah, I see that you are. I am Reverend Tobias. I must say that we don't normally get children this young but let me assure you that we do find them all nice, decent homes. Why, just last week, we sent a young boy to a family near Dillon where he'll have a fine home."
Jennifer looked at Jesse, panic written all over her face.
"Whoa, there, Reverend. I think you've got the cart before the horse," Jesse held a hand up stopping the man as he leaned down to take KC from her.
"But, I thought,"
Jesse cut the man off, "you thought wrong. We're looking for her kin."
"Well, I'm sorry to say, Miss," he hesitated a moment. "Branson, isn't it?" When Jesse nodded, he continued, "Yes, Miss Branson. I'm sorry to say that you won't be finding any of her kin. I, myself, talked to the Williams when they passed through. They had no kin, that's why they were traveling west. Indians attacked their settlement in Wyoming and kilt most everyone. They lost their entire families. Poor things, and so young they were. Why, not much older than yourselves."
Jennifer asked, "the boy you sent to Dillon. What does the family do?"
"Why, they have a farm just outside of town. Nice family. They've taken two other boys so the young lad will have brothers to grow up with. Why do you ask?"
"Just wondering," Jennifer smiled sadly at the reverend but her heart was breaking as she imagined the life ahead for the boy.
"Now, about this child," the reverend asked.
"Thank you for your offer, Reverend," Jesse said as she lifted KC from her lap and placed the sleeping infant against her shoulder. "But, I think we'd still like to try to find any family. If we can't," Jesse paused. She looked at Jennifer and saw fear in her pale eyes.
Jesse was as attached to the small baby as she knew Jennifer was. But, could they take on the responsibility of raising the tiny girl as their own. They were so young themselves and just starting their own lives. Jesse wasn't sure that would be best for KC.
"If we can't find any kin, we'll let you know," Jesse stood. "If you'll excuse us, it's been a long day and KC isn't the only one needing sleep."
"Of course," the reverend backed away as Jennifer rose and joined Jesse. "My church is just down the street. You can come by anytime, the doors are always open."
"Thank you, Reverend."
Jennifer followed Jesse from the room. She said nothing. She couldn't. The thought of leaving KC in Bannack had cut her heart and she knew if she tried to speak, she would not be able to control the emotions flowing through her.
That night the two women clung to each other as the object of their distress shared their bed.
After breakfast, Jesse and Jennifer made the steep climb up to the cemetery. They had learned that the gravedigger lived at the foot of the trail and had stopped at his small cabin. Finding no one home, they decided to chance that he would be at the cemetery.
The cemetery occupied the top of a knoll just behind the buildings on the north side of town. The trail leading up to it was steep and rocky and Jesse took care not to loose her footing while carrying KC. A sturdy, wooden fence surrounded the well cared for cemetery and the trail led to its gate. As they approached, the women could see a man working at the far end of the graveyard. Jesse and Jennifer passed through the gate and walked to where the man was struggling to dig a fresh grave in the hard, rocky ground.
"Morning," Jesse said.
The man stopped his work to look at his visitors. "Morning," he leaned on his shovel and pulled a bandana from his pant's pocket to wipe his brow. "Don't recall seeing you before. Visiting a relative?" he asked regarding the numerous graves around them.
"Friend," Jesse replied. "Mary Elizabeth Cassidy."
The man shoved the dirty bandana back into his pocket, "Cassidy, that's the missus got herself shot."
"Yes," Jennifer nodded. "We were told you could point out her resting place."
"Sure, be glad to show you," the man dropped his shovel into the hole he had begun and walked to the western side of the graveyard. "She'd be right here," he stood beside a recently covered grave. "I thought she'd like a nice view of town."
"It's a lovely view," Jennifer told the man. "I'm sure she appreciates it."
From the site of the grave, the women had a panoramic view of the hills surrounding Bannack and Yankee Flats. And, they had an excellent view of the streets of Bannack and the buildings lining them.
"Well, least I could do. Not many folks showed up for her burying. Don't know why not, she was a pleasant sort, always had a kind word. Not at all like her husband. Surprised someone hadn't plugged him 'fore now. Guess the hangman will take care of him, from what I hear."
"Can we arrange for a headstone?" Jesse asked.
"Stonemason's shop is behind the livery. Take a couple of weeks. You goin' be in town for long?"
"Another day or two,"
"Well, you tell him what you want and I'll make sure it gets placed right. Nice lady like her deserves a stone."
"Thank you," Jesse pulled a bill from her pocket and handed it to the man. "I'd appreciate it if you'd keep care of her grave. It would mean a lot to a friend of ours."
The man took the bill and his eyes widened as he saw more money than he made in a month of digging graves. "Well, I'd be might proud to look after her. Yes, ma'am, might proud." The man tucked the bill into his pocket. "I best be gettin' back to my digging. Like to get it done 'fore the sun gets too high. 'Spose you'd like to be spending some time alone with her."
"Thank you," Jennifer said as the man walked away.
Jesse reached out and placed her arm around Jennifer's waist. She didn't care what the gravedigger thought, she needed the closeness of her lover. And, she knew Jennifer felt the same when she leaned against her.
"Poor woman," Jennifer sighed softly. "What are we going to tell Ed?"
"I'm more concerned in breaking the news to Bette Mae," Jesse had told Jennifer about Bette Mae and the woman in the grave.
Tears filled Jennifer's eyes and overflowed down her cheeks.
As they stood next to the grave, Jesse noticed three men come out of Skinner's saloon and mount their horses. The men rode down the main street to the intersection with the north road, where they turned. The horses charged up the road, past the livery and took the sweeping turn around the cemetery at full gallop. They disappeared over the rise behind the graveyard.
"Wonder where they're going in such a hurry," Jennifer said as she placed her stetson over KC's face to protect her from the dust cloud the riders left behind.
"I wonder," Jesse said absently as she watched another figure come out of the saloon and walked across the main street and down the alley alongside Chrismans' store.
"Isn't that the sheriff?" Jennifer asked as she had caught a glimpse of the man before he entered the back of the building and was lost from sight.
"Do you think he had anything to do with those riders?"
"Jesse, what have we gotten into?"
"Not sure, darlin'," Jesse shifted the restless baby in her arms. "But, let's try to stay as far away from it as we can."
"How are we going to do that?"
"By going down to that dress shop and buying you some pretty dresses," Jesse smiled at her lover. "Then we'll go see if we can find the schoolteacher and you two can talk the rest of the afternoon."
"Like you'd sit still for that," Jennifer laughed as they made their way amongst the graves and back to the gate.
"Yep, I surely will, darlin'. Me and KC here will sit nice and quiet," Jesse tickled the baby and received a baby chuckle in response. "'Course, we'll be sound asleep. But, we'll be nice and quiet."
"Brat," Jennifer swatted Jesse.
As the women carefully picked their way down the stony path, they observed the sheriff walk from his office to the livery. After a few minutes, he casually rode out of town on the west road.
"Think he's going out to look for the Williams?" Jennifer asked as they reached the bottom of the path.
Surprised, Jennifer turned to Jesse, "why not?"
"No saddle bags. Go out there and back is a three day ride. Isn't going to do that without taking some supplies. Probably just making a show of going. Then, he'll come back and tell us the trail was too cold."
"What are we going to do?"
"Believe what he says."
"Jesse, are you sure about this?"
Jesse stopped and looked around to see if anyone was paying them any attention. Being early morning, the streets were almost empty as the miners and cowboys had other places to be. And, the few people on the boardwalks were hurrying about their business, paying them no mind.
"Darlin', we are in a town we don't know. We don't know the good folks from the bad. Let's just do what we came to do and get back to Sweetwater. We can tell Billie about the bandits and the sheriff and let him decide what to do. I don't want you or KC to get hurt because I guessed wrong. Alright?"
Jennifer looked into Jesse's eyes and saw fear. She was shocked, she couldn't conceive of Jesse being afraid of anything or anyone. But, Jesse was afraid. She was afraid for her and she was afraid for the baby.
"I love you," Jennifer smiled at Jesse.
"Love you, too, darlin'," Jesse smiled back. "Now, let's go buy you some pretty duds."
Jesse and Jennifer decided to visit the stonemason before going to the dressmaker. They walked past the livery to a small shack behind. Stones of various shapes and sizes littered the ground in front of the shack, many had engravings already started in their hard surface.
"Mornin'," a boy appearing to be no older than some of Jennifer's students came out of the shack.
"Good morning," Jennifer greeted the boy. "We're looking for the stonemason."
"That would be my pa," the boy told the women. "But, he ain't here right now."
"When's the best time to talk to him?" Jesse asked. "We want to arrange for a stone."
"I can do it," the boy said. "What kinda stone you lookin' for?"
Jesse started to say they'd wait until they could talk to the boy's father, then decided it probably wouldn't make much difference.
"A headstone for a friend."
"Okay," the boy scrounged around for a paper and pencil. "Write down the name you want on it," he instructed.
Jennifer took the items from the boy. "Mary Elizabeth..."
"Granger," Jesse supplied.
Jennifer nodded and wrote Granger on the paper. Then she added, 'beloved sister and friend'. Holding the paper up for Jesse to read, she smiled when Jesse nodded her agreement. She handed the paper back to the boy.
"And, an angel," Jesse said. "Put a nice angel above her name."
The boy read the paper. "Don't recall any Granger being buried lately. Don't know if'n I can locate a grave."
"She was buried last week," Jesse told the boy. "Name of Cassidy."
The boy looked at Jesse, "you ain't puttin' her man's name on the stone?"
"No," Jesse shook her head. "No need for her to carry it where she's going."
The boy thought for a moment, "alright. Guess it don't much matter."
"How much?" Jesse asked.
"Let's see," the boy began to count the letters on the paper. "Two bits a letter and the angel will cost ya a dollar. Ten dollars, total."
Jesse handed the boy the money, "let the gravedigger know when its ready. He'll take care of it."
"Alright," the boy stuck the money into his pocket. "Thanks," he said to the departing women.
Jennifer stopped in front of the dress shop and looked at the dress displayed in the glass window, a simple but beautiful wedding gown.
Jesse opened the shop's door and paused when she realized Jennifer wasn't following. She looked to see what was holding the schoolteacher's attention. The look on her lover's face almost broke her heart as Jennifer looked pensively at the dress. Jesse thought for a minute, an idea began to take shape and a smile flickered across her face as she made a decision.
"Jennifer," Jesse softly asked. "Coming?"
"Yes," Jennifer pulled her eyes away from the dress and joined Jesse.
Entering the shop, the women were greeted by a petite woman sewing precise stitches into a child's dress. "Good morning, ladies. What can I do for you?"
"My sister needs some dresses. She's a schoolteacher and needs something fit to wear," Jesse proudly told the woman as Jennifer looked around at the dresses and other garments in the shop.
"Well," the dressmaker put down her work to observe Jennifer. "You look familiar. Have we met before?" the seamstress asked Jennifer.
"No, I don't believe we have," Jennifer told the woman. "I've only been in Bannack once before and that was only overnight for the stage."
"Oh," the woman brought a tape measure to where Jennifer stood. "Perhaps, back east. My husband and I left there a short time ago."
"I'm sorry," Jennifer said calmly but inside she was tied in knots. What if this woman knew her father? She frantically searched her memory for any hint that she had met the woman. She could come up with nothing.
"Jennifer," Jesse picked up on her distress. "Is something wrong?"
Turning to see the worry on the rancher's face, Jennifer hurried to assure her. "No, I'm fine," she smiled but her eyes reflected her concern.
"Do you want to go back to the hotel?" Jesse asked.
Shaking her head, Jennifer said, "no. I'm fine. Really." Turning her attention back to the dressmaker, Jennifer asked, "why don't you show me what you have?"
After measuring Jennifer and showing her several different designs and bolts of material, the schoolteacher settled on six dresses. Each a different color and style. She would have settled for half as many but Jesse insisted she have enough so she would not have to the wear the same dress in a week. Jesse sat with KC, offering her opinion when asked. The baby had intently watched the action before tiring and falling asleep in the rancher's arms.
"Well, if there is nothing else you'll be needing," the dressmaker finished making notes on Jennifer's selections and looked up at the women now standing next to her desk.
"No," Jennifer began to answer.
"Yes," Jesse quickly said. "We'll take the dress in the window."
Jennifer looked confused, "but, Jesse, that's a wedding dress."
"I know," Jesse smiled at the schoolteacher.
"But," Jennifer stopped, could Jesse be saying... "Are you sure?" Jennifer asked quietly.
"Very sure. That is," Jesse hesitated, maybe Jennifer didn't feel the same. "I mean, if it's alright with you," she shyly said.
"Nothing would make me happier," Jennifer reached out and lovingly touched Jesse's face.
"Um, excuse me," the dressmaker was uncomfortable. She thought that for sisters, the women showed an unnatural closeness. "That dress will have to be lengthened."
Reminded of their present surroundings, Jennifer stepped away from the rancher. Jesse answered the dressmaker, "that's alright."
"It'll cost more," the woman said as she retrieved the dress from the window, a sharp edge in her tone. She wasn't sure she liked what she was sensing between the two women.
Jesse picked up on the woman's edginess. "If you would rather we take our business somewhere else...," she left the rest of the comment hanging.
"No," the woman quickly assured the angry rancher. "Let me recheck your sister's measurements, it won't take much to let out the hem. She's a bit taller than most," the woman scrambled to regain her customers' good will.
Jesse stood and asked, "how long before the dresses are ready?"
"Three weeks. Maybe more."
"Make it two," Jesse told the dressmaker. "We'll be taking the wedding dress with us, you'll have to ship the rest to Sweetwater. We'll be in town another day. If you need anything, we're staying at the Goodrich." Jesse carefully passed the sleeping baby to Jennifer and pulled her wallet out. "How much do we owe you?"
After paying for the dresses and the cost of having them shipped to Sweetwater, Jesse led Jennifer from the shop. As they left, the dressmaker's husband entered the shop from the back of the building. He watched the two women walk pass the shop's window.
"Isn't that Martin Kensington's daughter?"
"I knew she looked familiar. Called herself Branson and said they were sisters. But, they were awfully close for sisters."
"What do you mean?" the man asked as he continued to watch from the window.
"Oh, it's nothing," the dressmaker said. It was really no concern of hers. After all, they had paid up front for the dresses, unlike most of her customers.
"Where'd they say they were from?" her husband asked.
"Think I'll send Kensington a telegram."
"Where did the hotel clerk say the schoolteacher lived?" Jesse asked as they walked along the boardwalk.
"East end of town in a small cabin. But, he said we might find her at the school."
Jesse walked beside Jennifer who was carrying KC. The baby was snuggled into Jennifer's shoulder and looked curiously at the passing sights.
"I'll sure be glad to get back to Sweetwater," Jesse said as they approached the old cabin that served as the school.
"Well, for one thing, town ain't so big. We could have walked the length of Sweetwater and back, half a dozen times by now. For another, Bannack is just too noisy," Jesse had to raise her voice so Jennifer could hear over the noise of a passing ore wagon. The wagons clamored through town day and night. Jesse, Jennifer, and KC had all had trouble sleeping the night before.
"There's one more reason I'll be glad to get home," Jennifer added.
Leaning close so only Jesse could hear, Jennifer whispered, "because we can't touch one another. And, I need your touch, sweetheart," Jennifer purred.
Jesse looked at the smirking schoolteacher. "Darlin'," Jesse purred right back, "touch isn't all that I'm needing."
Jennifer blushed. They had refrained from any physical activity because they had decided to keep their true relationship hidden while in Bannack and because of the thin walls between the hotel's rooms.
Jesse waited at the walk leading to the school building as Jennifer composed herself. When her lover brushed by, Jesse heard her growl, "I'll get you for that."
"Ah," Jesse chuckled, "I'm definitely counting on that."
Pulling the door open, Jennifer entered the log building. Although, it looked large on the outside, it was smaller than her own schoolhouse on the inside. Jennifer guessed that the size of the logs used to build the cabin was the reason for the deception. Three rows of benches stretched the length of the building. A blackboard was nailed to the logs at the front of the room. On the back wall, a heater occupied one corner and in the other, a small desk sat. But the room was unoccupied.
"Guess, we try to find her cabin," Jesse said as they exited the school.
Continuing, their walk on the boardwalk, the women passed a small restaurant. As they walked by the windows of the restaurant, a pretty Chinese woman working inside the building smiled at them.
"Jesse," Jennifer smiled back at the woman. "Have you ever eaten Chinese food?"
"Once or twice," the rancher replied. It was common for western towns to have a significant population of Chinese. Especially, the mining camps.
"Did you like it?"
"Yep, it's pretty good."
"Oh," Jennifer walked beside Jesse and wanted desperately to hold her hand but refrained from doing so. "Can we try it tonight?" The smells coming from inside the restaurant intrigued Jennifer.
After reaching the end of the commercial buildings, they walked pass private residences. A small, log cabin sat back off the boardwalk, a dirt path led to a covered porch. Sitting on the porch was a young woman not much older than Jennifer.
"Good morning," the woman said. "Is there something I can help you with?"
"Yes," Jennifer approached the woman. Taking a chance that this was the woman they sought, Jennifer continued, "I'm the schoolteacher in Sweetwater and I was hoping to talk with you. That is, if you not busy," she hastened to add.
"Another teacher. That's wonderful," the woman rose, smiling broadly. "Oh, what a beautiful baby."
"Thank you," Jennifer smiled at KC. "Her parents were killed by bandits. We're hoping to find someone who might know if she has any other family."
"Terrible," the woman shook her head. "It's a shame that Sheriff Plummer can't find those men."
"We heard there's been several attacks," Jesse said.
"Yes. It's amazing but the bandits always seem to know who is carrying valuables and who isn't. Travelers with nothing to steal are left alone. But, have a gold nugget in your pocket when you leave Bannack or Virginia City, and, most likely, you won't get far."
Jennifer looked at Jesse, she could tell by the look on her lover's face that Jesse was not happy with what they had just heard.
"My, look at my manners," the young woman chastised herself. "I haven't even asked your names. I'm Mary Temple and you are?"
"Jennifer," she told the woman. "Jennifer Branson. And, this is my sister, Jesse."
"Please to meet you, both," the schoolteacher acknowledged Jesse. "I was just about to enjoy some cold lemonade. Would you join me?"
"Yes, we'd like that."
The woman reached up to tickle the baby. KC buried her head against Jennifer's shoulder, refusing to look at the stranger.
"My, she seems to have taken a liking to you, hasn't she?" the woman asked. "Who did you say her parents were?"
"Kenneth and Catherine Williams. Came through Bannack three or four days ago."
"Driving a Conestoga and trailing a milk cow," Jesse added.
"Oh, yes. I remember them," Miss Temple said excitingly. "Don't see too many of those this far off the Oregon Trail. Young couple from Wyoming, I believe."
"Did you talk with them?" Jennifer asked.
"Spoke with her a little. Saw the wagon in front of Chrismans' store one morning. She was sitting in it and I said 'good morning'. He must have been inside the store, never did see him. But, I do know that Reverend Tobias spoke with them. Have you talked to him?"
"Yes," Jennifer sighed. "Unfortunately, he did not have good news."
KC started to fuss and whimper. She was hungry.
"I'm sorry," Jennifer said as she pulled a bottle of milk from the small bag Jesse was carrying.
"Don't you be apologizing. Just go ahead and feed her." She offered the women chairs in the shade of the front porch. Jesse settled with KC and fed the baby while Jennifer engaged the women in conversation.
As the schoolteacher talked, both Jesse and Jennifer were surprised to learn that, although she wasn't much older than Jennifer, she had been teaching for almost five years. Jennifer was thrilled to be able to ask all the questions she had been storing up since taking on the teaching duties in Sweetwater. And, Jesse smiled as her lover gleaned all the information she could from the more experienced woman. It was late afternoon by the time both schoolteachers had exhausted their subject and sat back in their chairs.
"Well, I guess I can tell which of you is the talker," Miss Temple teased Jesse who had barely said more than ten words all afternoon.
Jesse smiled and shrugged.
"Yes. But, my sister," Jennifer emphasized the word, "has other talents that make up for it."
Jesse choked on the sip of lemonade she had just taken from her glass. KC looked up at the choking woman puzzled as to why her afternoon playmate was suddenly jerking about and turning red.
Once Jesse had regained her breath, she rose from the chair. Jennifer quickly followed.
"I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed this," Miss Temple said to the women. "It isn't often I get to talk with someone who understands the difficulty of teaching so many different levels of students in one class."
"I'm happy to say my students in Sweetwater don't seem to cause me quite the challenges yours do. And, they should cause me even less with the ideas you've given me. If you ever get to Sweetwater, you must come see my school."
"I'd love the opportunity but I don't see me doing any traveling for a while. At least, not until the bandits are dealt with. And, speaking of that, you be careful on your ride back."
"We will," Jennifer assured her.
"What will you do with KC?"
"We'll," Jennifer stopped. "If we can't find any family, Reverend Tobias has offered to find her a home."
Jesse heard the heartbreak in Jennifer's words and she felt it herself. "Thank you," she told Miss Temple as she guided Jennifer away from the cabin.
"Seems to me, that baby has already found a home," the woman said to herself as she watched the women walk away.
Jesse and Jennifer returned to their hotel room. KC was tired, wet, and hungry and the women saw to her needs.
"There you go, KC," Jennifer laid her in Jesse's arms. "You've got nice and dry britches and a full belly. And, I bet Jesse will sing you a lullaby if you promise to go to sleep."
Jesse smiled at KC as the baby snuggled against her chest. She started to sing in low, soothing tones and it wasn't long before KC was sound asleep. Jesse placed the baby in the middle of the bed and carefully tucked a blanket around the small body.
"Well, she should be out for a while," Jesse said as she joined Jennifer next to the room's window. Wrapping her arms around her lover, Jesse nuzzled Jennifer's hair. "What's going on in this pretty head?"
"What makes you think anything is going on?" Jennifer asked as she leaned back into Jesse's caress.
"You always get real quiet when you're bothered by something," Jesse tightened her hold. "Want to talk about it?"
Jennifer stood quietly, just enjoying the feel of Jesse's body pressed against her own. She could feel her body tingling wherever it touched Jesse's and she wanted nothing more than to take the rancher to the bed and show her how much she loved her. "Jesse, about the wedding dress," she started.
"What about it?" Jesse tensed. Had Jennifer changed her mind?
"I know things are different out here in the west but will a church really marry us?"
Jesse turned Jennifer around and looked into the blue eyes she adored, "well, don't rightly know about that. But, then Sweetwater doesn't have any churches. Mayor Perkins presides over marriages and funerals. So, we'll just have to ask him to marry us." Jesse was afraid that Jennifer was upset over the crude proposal in the dress shop. "I know it wasn't too romantic the way I sort of sprung it on ya. But, I love you so much, darlin'. And, I would be honored if you would like to, ya know. I mean, that is, if you want to," the words tumbled out of Jesse.
Jennifer smiled at the nervous rancher, "sweetheart, I would be very proud to be your wife."
Jesse beamed at the words and placed a tender kiss on Jennifer's lips.
When their lips parted, Jennifer asked, "but, how do you know Mayor Perkins will do it?"
"Oh, he'll do it alright. Mrs. Perkins will make sure of that."
Jennifer looked puzzled.
"She thinks we make a nice couple," Jesse explained.
"How do you know that?"
"She told me that day in Ed's store. And, Bette Mae would tan his hide good if he refused."
Jennifer laughed. "Alright, sweetheart. Then, I think when we get back to Sweetwater we should announce that we're getting... How do you say it out west, getting hitched."
Jesse pulled Jennifer tight and reclaimed the sweet lips of her soon to be wife.
Jesse carried KC as she and Jennifer walked to the Chinese restaurant where the schoolteacher wanted to dine. It was early evening and the boardwalk was becoming crowded with miners and cowboys in town to sample the entertainment at the town's many saloons. Jennifer stayed close to Jesse as they walked. Luckily, the section of street where the restaurant was located was far enough away from the saloons that the women didn't have much trouble from the growing throng of men.
The restaurant was located on the ground floor of a two story wood plank building. A sign on the front of the building advertised rooms for rent on the top floor. As soon as Jesse pulled open the restaurant's door, the women were greeted by the pretty woman they had seen earlier that day.
"Good evening, ladies," she motioned the women inside. "Come in, please."
Jesse and Jennifer were led to a table near the front window and a hot pot of tea was quickly placed on the table with two small cups for drinking. Having sampled Chinese cooking before, Jesse ordered for both women and they were left alone to enjoy the tea.
KC tried to reach for Jesse's cup but her hand was gently captured in a much larger one.
"Uh, uh," Jesse cautioned the baby. "That's too hot for you. What say you play with this, instead," she pulled a small toy horse from her shirt pocket and handed it to the baby. KC took hold of the toy and looked at it before lifting it to her mouth and chewing on it.
"Where'd you get that?" Jennifer asked of the toy.
"When I went to check on Dusty and Blaze this afternoon, saw it in the window of the candy store. Thought she might like something to play with besides her toes," Jesse watched as the baby waved the slobber covered horse around.
"Seems she likes it," Jennifer smiled at Jesse.
Their meals were brought to them. Jesse grinned as the schoolteacher entertained her with much ooh-ing and ah-ing over the food. When her plate was empty, Jennifer pushed it away and patted her stomach.
"That was delicious," she told the woman who came to clear their table.
"I'm pleased you like it," the woman said. "Would you like more?"
"Oh, no thank you," Jennifer shook her head. "I couldn't eat another bite. But, I would like more tea."
The woman nodded and left to refill the empty pot. Coming quickly back, she refilled Jennifer's cup before placing the pot on the table. The woman glanced around the small dining room, pleased to see that all the diners were Chinese except Jesse and Jennifer.
The woman hesitantly whispered to the women, "you be very careful, the sheriff is very bad."
Jennifer looked at Jesse and saw that she had also heard the woman's words. "Why do you say that?" she asked the nervous woman.
"He sends bandits to hurt people. You not trust."
Everything was starting to make sense. Why the sheriff had not been surprised when told of the bandits activities. Why he was so interested in what valuables travelers might be carrying. Why he had come out of Skinner's saloon right after the men who had left town so quickly.
"If you know this, why doesn't the town do something about him?" Jesse asked the woman.
"They don't want to believe. But, many die. Baby's parents died. They talked to sheriff before leave town and, now, they dead. If you trust sheriff, you die."
A man standing in the door of the kitchen called to the woman. He said something in a language Jesse and Jennifer couldn't understand. The woman nodded rapidly at the man before turning back to the women.
"I'm glad you enjoy. Four bits, please."
Jesse handed the woman the money, "thank you."
Before the woman returned to the kitchen, she again whispered, "be careful. No trust sheriff."
Jesse and Jennifer made their way back to the hotel. Neither spoke, their thoughts full of the warning they had just been given and the events of the last couple of days. Both women wanted nothing more than to leave Bannack behind them.
As they entered the Goodrich Hotel's lobby, the clerk greeted them.
"Evening, ladies. Sheriff Plummer was in earlier looking for you," the man informed them.
Jennifer instinctively reached out and grabbed Jesse's hand. Jesse gently squeezed it while she asked the clerk, "did he say what he wanted?"
"No. Word is there was another attack today." the man said.
"Where?" Jesse asked.
"North road. Mining company wagon coming from Virginia City. Some say it was carrying mine's payroll."
"Thanks," Jesse led Jennifer upstairs.
Once the room's door was securely closed behind them, Jennifer said, "Jesse, let's go home. There's no reason for us to say here any longer. Who knows what that sheriff wants with us. Let's just go home."
Jesse placed the baby on the bed so she could hug and reassure her upset lover. "We'll go home, darlin'. But, tomorrow we have to finish our business here. We'll go the next day. I promise. And, I'm sure, Plummer wants nothin' more than to tell us he tried but couldn't find anything. Even though he probably just went for a ride and came back."
Jennifer leaned in to Jesse's embrace, "alright. One more day."
"Tell you what, tomorrow, we'll ask around town to see if anyone else might have talked to KC's folks and learned anything more. We'll stop by the dress shop and get your wedding dress. Then, we'll go to bed early so we can leave at daybreak. How's that sound?"
"Sounds good," Jennifer said but she didn't sound convinced. "Jesse, what if we don't find out any more about KC's folks? We're not going to leave her with the Reverend, are we?"
"Darlin'," Jesse sighed. "I don't want to anymore than you do. But, can we handle a baby? I mean we're barely old enough to have one of our own. And, we've got the Slipper to run and the ranch. And, you've got your teaching. I don't think it would be very good for her, do you?"
"She'd be loved, Jesse. Isn't that all that's important?" Jennifer asked, tears streaming down her face. "Please, Jesse. My heart would break if we left her behind."
Jesse felt the same. The tiny baby had taken a firm hold on Jesse's heart and she could no more bear the thought of leaving her than Jennifer could. A baby. A little girl. Their little girl. Jesse would have her family. Well, it really wasn't that bad of an idea, was it?
"Alright, darlin'," Jesse hugged Jennifer tight. "We'll keep her. Besides, it sure doesn't appear likely she has any kin." As she spoke the words, a huge weight lifted from Jesse's heart.
Jennifer cried in Jesse's arms, "thank you."
Later, that night as they lay in bed with KC sleeping on Jesse's chest, Jennifer asked, "if we're not going to leave her here, do we have to stay another day? I'd really like to get home, Jesse."
"Far enough," Jesse agreed, she was also ready to leave Bannack behind them. "We'll leave right after we pick up your dress."
"Jesse," the schoolteacher snuggled close to the rancher. "I love you."
"I love you, too, darlin'. And, I love you, KC," Jesse spoke the words that both women had been carefully avoiding the past few days.
"I love you, KC," Jennifer happily repeated.
continued in Part IV
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