See Part I for disclaimers.
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted May 2003
Jesse and Jennifer woke early and, so as not to wake the baby, quietly prepared to leave Bannack. Saddlebags were packed neatly with their belongings and KC's. Jennifer softly hummed as she carefully folding the child's clothing and tucked them into a saddlebag. She hadn't expected to be taking the items with them and now, that they had decided to keep KC with them, she bubbled with delight. Even Jesse seemed to move about the room with a lighter step.
"What's the plan, sweetheart?" Jennifer asked as she removed her nightshirt and tucked it into the saddlebag.
Jesse stopped in the process of pulling on her boots and observed her naked lover. Oh, would she be happy to put Bannack behind them, she thought as she felt her body respond to Jennifer's nakedness. She said nothing as she watched Jennifer dress.
"Sweetheart," Jennifer said when she received no response. "Is something wrong?"
"Nope, darlin'. I was just enjoying the view."
Jennifer smiled. She loved it when Jesse looked at her in that way, she knew the rancher wanted her in the same way she wanted the rancher. Oh, would she be ever so glad to get out of Bannack.
"Figured we might as well eat here. Then, we'll go get Dusty and Blaze. We'll find the Reverend and let him know we're keeping KC with us. Then, pick up your dress on the way out of town."
"What about the sheriff?" Jennifer asked remembering the sheriff had come looking for them the previous evening.
"What about him?" Jesse finished with her boots and stood from the room's only chair so that Jennifer could use it. "If he wants to talk to us, he can come and find us. Otherwise, we leave town without talking to him. He's not going to tell us anything we want to hear, anyway."
"Okay," Jennifer picked up her boots and carried them to the chair. "Jesse, why do you think the town doesn't do something about him?"
"Don't know, darlin'," Jesse tied the flaps on the saddlebags and made sure they were secure. "Maybe, they don't think they can. Or, maybe, they just haven't got a gut full of him yet."
"Think they ever will?" Jennifer tugged her pant legs over the top of her boots.
"Eventually," Jesse said as she placed the saddlebags by the bed. She looked around the room to make sure they weren't forgetting anything.
"Sad to think how many more people will fall victim to the sheriff before they do," Jennifer walked to where Jesse stood and wrapped her arms around her. Jesse returned the hug.
As the women stood in each other's embrace, KC began to stir. The women watched as the tiny child that was now so much a part of their lives, opened her eyes and looked around until she found them. As the baby's eyes settled on the women, a smile immediately spread across the KC's face. Tiny arms reached out for the women.
"Morning, sunshine," Jesse greeted the baby. "Let me guess, you need dry britches and you're hungry."
Jennifer laughed as she sat on the bed and tickled the baby's tummy. KC rolled over onto her stomach and pushed herself up on her hands and knees. She rocked for a few moments in the position before falling face first back to the bed.
"I think you need a little more practice on that," Jennifer said as she lifted the annoyed baby from the bed and kissed her tenderly on the forehead. "Let's get you changed and cleaned up. I'm starving."
"After all you ate last night?" Jesse asked as she filled the water bowl from the pot she had warming on the room's stove. She soaked a cloth in the warm water.
"Yep," Jennifer removed the soiled diaper from the baby and accepted the damp cloth from Jesse. The baby shivered in the morning coolness.
Jennifer quickly washed KC and dressed her in clean clothes. Jesse sat on the bed next to her with a bottle of milk for the baby. "Here you go sunshine," she offered the bottle to the baby as Jennifer placed KC in her arms. It didn't take long for KC to start sucking on the bottle's contents.
"Looks like we've got another milk drinker in the family," Jennifer chuckled, knowing that Jesse's favorite beverage was a cold glass of milk.
"Family, uh," Jesse pondered the concept as she watched the baby drink.
Jennifer wrapped an arm around Jesse, "family," she repeated.
Jesse turned to look at her lover, "kinda has a nice ring to it, doesn't it."
Jennifer smiled, "it sure does." She rested her head against Jesse's and they watched the baby watching them.
Breakfast was a quiet affair as Jesse and Jennifer ate quickly, both wanting to leave Bannack as soon as possible. KC seemed to sense their mood and sat propped in Jesse's lap quietly playing with her toy horse.
"Ready?" Jesse asked as Jennifer finished the last of her coffee.
"You bet," Jennifer pushed away from the table and stood. "I want to check her britches before we go."
"Alright. Why don't you do that and I'll settle up with the clerk. Then meet you up in the room," Jesse said as she followed Jennifer from the hotel's dining room.
Jennifer carried KC upstairs to their room. She inserted the key into the door and swung it open, then placed the baby on the bed.
KC looked around for her tall playmate and frowned when she couldn't locate her. She started to whimper and reach out for the missing woman.
"It's alright, sweetie," Jennifer tickled the unhappy baby. "Your momma is downstairs." She stopped when she realized how she had referred to Jesse. It was true, wasn't it? They were going to be KC's mothers. The enormity hit Jennifer and she dropped on the bed like a ton of bricks were on her shoulders.
A baby. Their baby. Were they really ready for that responsibility? She took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. Then, she took another.
"Well," Jennifer said to KC, "a momma."
She smiled, it sounded good.
KC looked up at the woman and reached for her. When Jennifer picked her up, the baby wrapped her tiny arms around Jennifer's neck.
"Think I'll make you a good momma?"
"I think you'll make a wonderful mother," Jesse said from the door. She walked over and sat next to Jennifer. "Everything alright?" she asked uneasily.
"Everything is fine. I just realized the responsibility we're taking on with KC," Jennifer rubbed light circles around the baby's back. KC snuggled into her touch. "Guess you could say we were having our first mother-daughter conversation."
Jesse wrapped an arm around Jennifer's shoulder, "you know, it's not too late..."
Jennifer shook her head, "No," she said stopping Jesse's thought. "I want to keep her, sweetheart. It's just I never really considered what that meant until now. Guess it was when I said 'momma' that it really hit me. She's going to count on us to be her mommas. That's a lot to take on."
"Darlin'," Jesse took Jennifer's hand into her own. "I don't want you to do this unless you really want to."
Jennifer twisted to look into Jesse's eyes, she saw concern and more. Much more. Love. She saw the depth of Jesse's love for her and she knew that Jesse could see her love reflected back. "Sweetheart," Jennifer smiled at her lover, "let's take our daughter home."
Jesse nodded, "I'd like that." She looked to make sure the room's door was shut, then claimed Jennifer's lips in a tender kiss.
It didn't take long to pick up Dusty and Blaze from the livery. With the milk cow trailing behind they rode the horses to the main street and then to Reverend Tobias' church. The reverend was opening the large wooden doors to the building as the women rode up.
"Ah, morning, ladies," the reverend greeting them. "Looks like you're leaving town," he said as he walked down the building's steps to stand on the boardwalk. "Guess that means you'll be leaving the child with me. I talked to a nice couple just yesterday that are looking for a daughter."
"Sorry, Reverend," Jesse cut the man off. "We've decided to keep KC with us. If any of her family makes inquiries, you can have them contact us in Sweetwater."
"Now, ladies," the reverend began to protest. "You can't be thinking of raising her yourselves. A child needs to be raised in a decent home with both a loving father and mother."
"Don't worry, Reverend," Jennifer readjusted the restless baby in her arms. "KC will be raised with all the love she'll need. And, as for a loving father, mine didn't hold much in that. So, I doubt, KC will miss it."
"Miss Branson," the reverend sputtered. "You can't be suggesting that you can raise a child without the firm hand of a father."
Jennifer began to answer the indignant man but Jesse spoke first, "we thank you for your offer, Reverend. But, KC is going home with us. Come on, Jennifer," she said as she turned Dusty back to the street.
"I must protest," the reverend called after them.
Jennifer sadly shook her head at the angry man, "you can protest all you want. But, KC is not going to grow up in a home where she is no better thought of than the family mule." With that she turned Blaze to follow Dusty, leaving a still sputtering reverend on the boardwalk.
The women had not ridden fifty feet when they heard someone calling to them. Looking to the opposite side of the street, they spotted the schoolteacher, Miss Temple, standing on the small porch of her cabin. As the women rode over, she walked to meet them.
"You're leaving?" the schoolteacher asked.
"Yes," Jennifer smiled at her.
"From the look of the reverend over there, I'd say you decided to keep KC with you."
"Yes. If you hear from any of her kin, please let them know where we are."
"I'll do that but I doubt if we will. Too many children without family in the mining camps for anyone to take notice of one more. It's a real shame but what can you do?" The schoolteacher had seen her share of orphans and abandoned children to know that most were never sought even if they did have family living.
"Besides," the schoolteacher smiled at the women, "I'd say that KC is one lucky little girl to grow up with two loving mothers." The schoolteacher winked at the women, "you take care of each other. You have something special, don't loose it."
Jennifer was speechless. Could this woman know about them?
Jesse reached down and offered her hand to the schoolteacher, who took it. "Thank you. I promise, I'll take care of them both." As she sat back up in the saddle, she added, "you come visit us in Sweetwater anytime you like. We'd be glad to have you."
"I'll keep that in mind. Be careful, those bandits are still out there," the schoolteacher waved as Jesse nudged Dusty down the street, Blaze following.
"We will. Goodbye," Jennifer waved back. "Thank you."
As Blaze pulled up alongside Dusty, Jennifer asked, "Jesse, do you think she knew about us?"
"Don't know. Maybe, she just sensed it."
"You think maybe she's like us?"
"Could be," Jesse smiled at her lover. "We can't be the only ones."
"No, I guess we can't."
The women stopped in front of the dress shop.
"Stay here, I won't be long," Jesse said as she swung down from the saddle.
When she entered the shop, Jesse was surprised to see a man standing inside the shop and staring intently at Jennifer outside. The man's interest in her lover made Jesse more than a little nervous.
"Good morning," the dressmaker said as she reached for a neatly tied package on a shelf. "I have your sister's dress right here. I must say that she'll make a beautiful bride. Who's the lucky man?"
Jesse turned to the woman and took the package. "Yes, she'll make a very beautiful bride. Thank you. You'll send the rest as agreed?"
"Oh, yes. Two weeks, as you requested."
Jesse turned to leave. The man watching Jennifer had moved to the back of the shop. He no longer was paying any attention to Jennifer and Jesse shrugged off her uneasy feeling. "Thanks, again," she said as she left the shop.
The man walked back to the front of the shop and watched as Jesse placed the package into one of the saddlebags.
"That's definitely Kensington's daughter."
"What do you think he'll do when he receives your telegram?" the dressmaker asked her husband.
"Who knows? Probably, come out here and drag her home," he turned away from the window as the women rode off.
The dressmaker watched as the women rode away, "I think he'll have a fight on his hands if he tries."
"From her friend?" the husband asked.
"No, from her."
"What makes you say that?"
"She's got something worth fighting for," the woman informed her husband, who looked at her quizzically before wandering to the back of the shop.
Outside on the street, Dusty and Blaze were walking past Chrismans' store.
Sheriff Plummer stepped off the boardwalk and into the street. He reached out for Dusty's reins but the horse snorted and pulled her head away.
"Something we can do for you sheriff?" Jesse asked as she settled Dusty down.
"Leaving town?" the sheriff leaned against the horse hitch in front of the store.
"Looks that way," Jesse pushed her stetson back on her head.
"I was looking for you last night. Did Jackson tell you?" the sheriff said referring to the hotel clerk.
"Yes, he told us."
"Aren't you interested in why?"
"Not particularly. But, I have the feeling you're going to insist on telling us," Jesse leaned nonchalantly back in her saddle. She casually dropped a hand until it was within easy reach of her rifle. She definitely did not trust this sheriff.
Plummer laughed but there was no humor in it, "thought you'd be interested in what I found yesterday."
Plummer looked hard at Jesse before answering. "Well, no point in telling if you're not interested," he decided to try a different tack with the women. "Thought you was goin' stop by before you left town."
"Had no reason to," Jesse said. "We're not carrying anything of value, unless you count my sister's wedding dress."
The sheriff looked at Jennifer who was sitting quietly, allowing Jesse to do the talking for the pair.
"Word is you've been spending pretty freely since you hit town. You sure, you aren't taking any back with you?"
"No secrets in your town, are there, sheriff?" Jesse asked not expecting an answer. "If you know we've been spending freely, as you put it. Then, you know we're tapped out. That's why we're going home."
"Takin' the young 'un with you, I see. Reverend Tobias okay with that?"
Jesse smiled at the man but her eyes held no amusement as they bored into the sheriff. She was tired of this conversation and his questions. "Wasn't up to the Reverend. Now, if you're done, we'd like to get moving."
"Best you keep a sharp lookout, the bandits may still be in the Big Hole," the sheriff warned, his voice edged with more menace than necessary.
"Maybe, you'd do better out looking for them than bothering two women and a baby," Jesse told the sheriff as she flicked Dusty's reins. The big mare snorted before moving away from the sheriff.
"Don't say I didn't warn you," Plummer told the women as they moved off.
"Don't worry, sheriff. We'll be looking out for you," Jesse said in a voice too low for the sheriff to hear. She nudged Dusty into a trot, Blaze immediately picked up the pace. They couldn't be out of Bannack soon enough.
As the women rode past Skinner's saloon, they didn't notice the three pairs of eyes that followed their progress. After they had rode from sight, Plummer walked across the street and entered the saloon.
"We going after them?" a man asked the sheriff as he walked to the bar.
"Yes. Give 'em a couple hours lead," Plummer threw a coin on the bar's surface and received a glass of whiskey in return.
"What are they carrying?" the second man asked.
"Nothing. Did why bother?" the first man questioned.
"I don't trust 'em. If they go back and say something to Monroe in Sweetwater, we might as well pack up and move on. You know there's already talk in Virginia City of vigilantes forming to put an end to the bandits."
"So, what do you want us to do?" the third man looked at the sheriff.
"Kill 'em. And, make sure you get the brat this time. I don't want it showing up again and people askin' questions," Sheriff Plummer slammed his empty glass on the table and stormed out of the saloon.
"I don't know boys," the second man said. "Killin' babies ain't what I signed on for."
"You can't stomach this, I can take care of that right now," the third man said as he pulled a pistol from his holster and pointed it at the second man.
"Didn't say I won't do it," the second man scrambled to save his life. "Just said I didn't like it."
"You can stay here ifn' you ain't willing to hold up your end. We'll tell Plummer you chickened out," the first man offered.
"Hell, he'd shoot me 'fore I could leave town."
"You're choice. Make it," the third man growled.
"Shit," the second man muttered as he scratched his week old beard. "I'll go get the horses."
Dusty and Blaze trotted comfortably along the stage road leading from Bannack. Jesse and Jennifer rode in silence, the baby asleep in the sling resting on Jennifer's shoulders. At the fork, Jesse lead the horses northwest into the Big Hole valley away from the mining camps. They would ride a more direct route to the mountain pass and cut a full day's ride off their return journey. The sooner they were back in Sweetwater, the happier the women would be.
Around mid-day, KC began to stir. She woke hungry and out of sorts due to being confined in the sling used to carry her. Jennifer tried to calm the unhappy baby but she would have none of it.
"I think we need to stop," Jennifer told Jesse.
"Alright, let's head for those trees. It'll be cooler there," Jesse turned Dusty toward a small stand of cottonwoods several hundred feet off their route.
Jennifer turned Blaze to follow.
The horses had covered half the distance to the trees when a shot shattered the stillness. Jesse turned just in time to see Jennifer knocked from her saddle, she hit the ground hard and lay still.
"No," Jesse screamed as she pulled her rifle from the scabbard and turned to fire in the direction the shot had come. As soon as the last bullet was fired, Jesse hit the ground running. She covered the short distance to Jennifer's prone body and dived to the ground next to it.
Jennifer was laying on her back, the baby still tucked securely in the sling. As soon as KC saw Jesse, she let out a wail.
"It's okay, sweetheart. It's okay," she tried to calm the baby and hoped that her words were true. Jesse tried to find Jennifer's injury but with the struggling baby it was impossible. Jesse gently pulled the baby free. "Please, sunshine, I need you to be quiet," Jesse told KC.
Panicked by the fall and Jesse's obvious concern, the baby continued to wail. Holding the child in one arm, Jesse examined Jennifer for wounds. She found none.
"It's okay," Jesse told herself as well as the baby. "She just had the breath knocked out of her when she hit the ground."
Relieved, Jesse laid the still crying baby next to Jennifer. "You stay right here and keep an eye on your momma," she placed a kiss on the baby's forehead. "I'm going to take care of whoever is shooting at us."
Jennifer had fallen into the a small depression. It wasn't much but it did provide some protection from the gunmen's bullets. Jesse carefully crawled to the side of the depression and raised her head just enough to peer over the top of the shallow side. Dusty and Blaze stood between her and the area the shot had come from.
Being careful to keep the horses between her and the unseen gunmen, Jesse quickly pulled the saddle bags from the horses and dropped them into the depression.
"Go on, find somewhere safe but don't go too far," Jesse told Dusty. Dusty raised her head and whinnied before taking off at a gallop, Blaze on her heels. The milk cow, still tied to Dusty's saddle horn, struggled to keep up with the racing horses. As soon as Dusty took off, Jesse leaped back into the protection of the small depression.
Hidden in the stand of cottonwoods, the three gunmen waited. They had watched the women leave Bannack and had received their orders from Sheriff Plummer to kill them. Riding from Bannack, the gunmen had kept to the back side of hills and ridden in gulleys and ravines to keep themselves out of sight from the women. The men had managed to get in front of the women and made their way to a small stand of cottonwoods next to a small creek. They waited in the shade of the large trees.
"Damn," one of the bandits said as they watched the women turned their horses toward the trees where they waited. "They're headed straight this way."
"Good," another said. "Let them get good and close, then shoot. Make your shots count, remember what Plummer said. He wants them dead. All of them."
"I ain't shootin' no kid," the third outlaw muttered to himself and moved slightly away from the other two.
As the women neared the stand of trees, the first gunmen got antsy and fired. His shot went wide but one of the horses reared, throwing it's rider to the ground. The other rider pulled a rifle and fired several shots at the trees, causing the men to seek cover behind the thick trunks.
"You fool," the second gunmen hissed. "Now, they know we're here."
"So what? What can a couple of women and a kid do to us?" the man who had fired shouted back.
"I guess, we're about to find out," the second gunmen looked for a better position to hide.
"Look, one of them is standing behind the horses," the first gunman took aim on the closer of the horses. But, before he could fire, the rifle was knocked from his hands.
"Don't shoot the animals," the second outlaw spat the words out. "They ain't got nothin' on 'em. At least, we can sell the horses and make some money out of this."
As the gunman bent to pick up his rifle, the horses took off at a gallop. He straightened and watched the horses disappeared over a rise. "How you gonna sell them now?" he asked the other man, disgustedly.
The third gunman fired at the woman but it was too late as she had already dove to safety.
Jesse hit the ground and rolled. A bullet screamed overhead and buried itself in the dirt about five beyond the depression she landed in. Her roll came to a stop next to Jennifer and KC.
Scared by all the events happening around her and by the lack of response from the woman she lay beside, KC was crying loudly. Careful, to keep her head below the level of the depressions' sides, Jesse placed a large hand on the baby's tear soaked face, "it's okay, sunshine. It's okay."
With her other hand, Jesse pulled the saddle bags close. She untied the flap of one and reached in for the box of rifle cartridges it carried. Pulling the box out, she quickly reloaded her rifle.
"Ugh," Jennifer groaned as she began to regain consciousness.
Jesse turned to the sound. "Jennifer," her voice was thick with concern. "Darlin', can you hear me."
"Yeah," a shaky reply. "What happened?"
"You got thrown off Blaze and landed hard. Knocked the breath out of you," Jesse filled her pockets with the rest of the bullets.
Hearing the baby's wails, Jennifer immediately became concerned, "KC?"
"She's fine, just scared."
Jennifer started to sit up.
"Whoa," Jesse gently held her down. "Keep down."
Jennifer looked around and saw that they were in the bottom of a shallow depression. She rolled onto her side and pulled the wailing baby into her protective arms.
"Try to get her to quiet down," Jesse said as she crawled to the top of the depression's side.
Jennifer spoke soothingly to the baby and rocked her as best she could in the prone position she was forced to remain in. "What's going on, Jesse?" she asked unsure as to why Jesse was suddenly armed.
"We were ambushed. They're hiding in the stand of trees we were heading for," Jesse carefully lifted her head only high enough out of the depression to steady her rifle on the ground and take aim on the trees.
"Probably," Jesse could see movement in the trees but couldn't get a clear shot at any of the gunmen. Patiently, she waited.
"If they're in those trees, why didn't they wait until we rode closer?"
"Don't know. But, I'm sure glad they didn't."
KC had stopped crying and was clinging to Jennifer. "It's alright, sweetie. Mommy will take care of us," Jennifer gently rubbed the infant's back.
Jesse heard the words and her heart swelled. Jennifer's faith in her under the circumstances was all she needed. Tears began to fill her eyes as she thought how much Jennifer and, now, KC meant to her. She'd find a way to get her family home safe. She blinked the tears away. Now, was not the time. The safety of her family required clear vision. As her eyes dried, Jesse saw a man step out from behind a tree. She took aim and squeezed the trigger.
The bandits had been watching the ground where the women were holed up. After several minutes and no movement, the first gunman decided to get a closer look. He started to inch his way from behind the cottonwood tree where he had been hiding.
"Stay where you are," the second gunman commanded.
"Why? They're obviously hurt or dead, or they'd be doing something," he ignored the warning.
"Listen," the third gunman said from his hiding place. "The kid quit crying."
The second gunman stepped clear of the tree. Before he could take another step, a shot rang out. He stood a moment longer before slowly collapsing backwards. He came to rest on his back, blood oozing out of a hole in his forehead.
"Damn," the third bandit looked at the dead man. "Plummer didn't say they could shoot like that."
"Plummer didn't say a lot of things," the second bandit began firing at the women's hiding spot.
After seeing the man fall, Jesse ducked back down and covered Jennifer and KC with her body. Seconds later the ground around the depression became alive with bullets striking the earth. When the firing stopped, Jesse rolled off and crawled back to where she could watch the trees hiding the bandits.
KC started to whimper again. Her tiny arms and legs flaying and kicking. Jennifer tightened her hold on the frightened child. She reached into one of the saddlebags and pulled out a bottle they had filled before leaving Bannack. Luckily, the bottle had not broken when Jesse dropped the bags into the depression. Rolling on her side, so the baby could lay flat beside her, Jennifer offered the bottle to KC, who accepted it and began to suck hungrily.
"That's my girl," Jennifer smiled down at the baby before turning her attention to the rancher. "Jesse, are many are there?"
Jesse eyes constantly scanned the trees for movement, "one less than there was before."
"You mean one left?" Jennifer hated not being able to see what was happening.
"Not quite," Jesse answered. "How's KC?"
"Scared. But, she took a bottle, so that's a good sign," Jennifer gently stroked the baby's cheek as she drank.
"How about you?"
"I'm scared, too."
"Yeah, guess that makes three of us," Jesse wiped her sweating hands on her shirt. "Don't worry, darlin', we'll get out of this."
"Jesse, is there anything I can do? Just laying here is starting to drive me crazy."
"You are doing something. You're taking care of our daughter," Jesse took a moment to smile at her lover.
Jennifer smiled back.
"What do we do now?" the third gunman asked his only remaining companion.
"We wait them out," the other man snarled. "Come dark, we'll move in closer and take care of them."
Not happy with the answer but not having any real choice, the third gunman looked around for a more comfortable place to wait. He was just about to move to a small stump near the creek when the other man stepped away from his hiding spot to claim the stump. Just as the man reached the stump, a shot took his leg out from under him. Before he hit the ground, a second shot blew through his shoulder.
Unable to move, the third bandit watched as the gunman fell and listened to his screams. "Shit," was all he could manage.
Jesse saw the man stepped from his hiding place and move deeper into the shadows of the trees. Probably thinking he was out of her range, he didn't count on the determination of a woman protecting her family. She took careful aim and squeezed off two shots, one right after the other. She watched the man fall and was satisfied with her aim when the man did not get back up.
Jennifer jumped at the sound of the rifle blasts, "Jesse?"
"It's okay. Now, they're two short," she reached into her pocket and reloaded the rifle.
"You killed him?" Jennifer asked uneasily.
"Sure hope so," Jesse resumed her vigil.
The sound of horses running could be heard before Jesse saw the solitary rider leaving the stand of trees. He rode away from the women at full gallop, trailing behind were two rider-less horses. Jesse watched until the man disappeared from sight.
"Stay here," she told Jennifer. "The pistols are in the saddlebags. Get them out and use them if you have to."
Jennifer reached out and grabbed Jesse's boot before she could leave the depression, "Jesse, where are you going?" The fear in Jennifer's voice stopped the rancher.
"I think they've gone. I'm going to check it out,"
"Jesse, please don't go," tears filled Jennifer's eyes and flowed down her cheek.
Jesse reached down and took Jennifer's hand in her own. "I'll be careful."
"Come back to me," Jennifer refused to release her lover's hand.
"I promise," Jesse smiled at her lover. "I love you." With that she disappeared from the depression.
Jennifer clutched the baby to her. "You're mommy better come back," she told KC. Pulling a pistol from the saddlebag, "because, if she doesn't, I don't think I can go on without her." Her throat was so choked with emotion that Jennifer barely managed to force the words out. Slowly, she edged her way to the rim of the depression so that she could keep an eye on Jesse.
"Help me," the bandit called. He had fallen half in the creek and the cold waters were quickly freezing his already numb body. The bullets had done major damage to his leg and shoulder and the water flowed red with his blood.
The other bandit stood rooted in place watching his comrade's life slowly ebbing away. He could only think of how much he did not want to suffer the same fate. Ignoring, the fallen man's calls for assistance, he eased his way to where their horses were tied.
"You can't leave me," the injured man begged as he watched the other man mount his horse.
"Like you said at Skinner's, it's my choice," the man said as he grabbed the reins of the other horses. "And, I'm making it."
Spurring his horse, the bandit left the protection of the trees and rode as fast as he could away from the women and the comrade he was leaving behind. He would not return to Bannack to face the sheriff but would ride to the mining camps in the mountains to the northeast where he could sell the horses. They should get him enough money to get out of the territory. He figured his days in Montana were numbered. He just didn't know how true that was.
"Come back here, you bastard," the gunmen called weakly. Loss of blood and the cold water were draining his strength. He tried to pull himself out of the water but the pain in his shoulder preventing him from succeeding. As he struggled, he became aware of someone standing near him. Turning his head, he saw a woman cradling a rifle in her arms.
"Why should I?" Jesse asked. "Seems you got what was coming to you." Her voice was hard and her expression held no sympathy for the man who had attempted to kill her and her family.
Assuring herself that there were no others hiding in the trees, Jesse turned to return to Jennifer and KC.
"You can't leave me," the man's voice was so weak it could barely be heard.
Jesse turned back to the man, "seems your friends left you. So, why shouldn't I?"
"Please. At least, finish it," the man requested.
Jesse studied the man for a moment before responding. "You're already finished." She turned away and walked back to her family.
"Damn you, Plummer," the man swore with his last breath. Before, Jesse left the shadows of the trees, the bandit was dead.
"Are they gone?" Jennifer asked as Jesse returned to the depression.
"Yes," she wasn't about to tell the schoolteacher of the two men left in the trees. "You okay?" she asked Jennifer as she opened her arms to the woman. Jennifer rushed into the embrace and the women held on to each other.
When KC started to whimper, Jesse bent down and lifted the baby into her arms. KC's tiny arms encircled Jesse's neck while Jennifer's encircled her waist.
After several minutes, Jesse cupped a hand under Jennifer's chin and lifted her face. She leaned forward and kissed her. Jennifer returned the kiss and the women reassured each other of their love.
"Let's go home," Jesse whispered when their lips broke apart.
Jesse whistled for Dusty and Blaze. Moments later, the mares rode up with the milk cow. Jesse placed the saddlebags back onto the horses while Jennifer prepared the baby for travel.
When Jennifer prepared to mount Blaze, she found her saddle full of Jesse's saddlebags. She looked quizzically at the rancher.
"I thought maybe you'd like to ride with me for a while," Jesse said as she took the baby from Jennifer's arms.
Smiling, Jennifer lifted herself up onto Dusty. She took the baby when Jesse held her up. Jesse swung up in the saddle and wrapped an arm around Jennifer and KC. Jennifer leaned back against Jesse's chest. A flick of the reins and Dusty started to carry her family home.
Sheriff Plummer stood next to the bar in Skinner's saloon.
"They're not coming back," the bartender and owner told the troubled sheriff. "I told you killin' women and children would be trouble."
"Shut up," the sheriff slammed a fist down on the bar. "Give me some whiskey."
Skinner poured a glass and set it on the bar before the sheriff. He placed the opened bottle next to it.
Emptying the glass in one gulp, Plummer refilled it. He looked to the saloon's door when the sound of boots striking the boardwalk outside could be heard. Plummer watched as several cowboys walked past the saloon. Turning back to the bar, he retrieved his glass and downed the whiskey.
"Where ya goin'?" Skinner asked as the sheriff walked to the door.
"Think I'll go out and have a look around."
"Hell, it's dark outside. You ain't goin' see nothin'."
Plummer turned to glare at Skinner, "you got a better idea?"
Figuring he'd pushed the sheriff as far as he could without getting shot, Skinner shrugged, "nope."
After wandering aimlessly in the darkness, Plummer welcomed the morning sun's rays. He scanned the valley for any sign of his men. Circling buzzards alerting him to their location.
As Plummer approached the stand of cottonwoods, he could see a body. He pulled his horse to a stop next to it and looked down at it..
"Damn fool," Plummer spat at the corpse, "to let a woman shoot ya."
Looking around, he spotted the second body and spurred his horse forward.
"Damn," he shook his head. "Thought you was better than that," he told the dead man.
Expecting to find a third body, Plummer searched the area. He discovered the tracks of the horses leading away from the trees and Bannack. Sitting on his horse, his eyes followed the tracks until they could no longer be seen.
"Ran out on me, did ya," Plummer said to the long gone third man. "Well, you better hope we don't cross paths again." He turned his horse and returned to Bannack.
Jesse was carrying KC when Dusty and Blaze walked into the shade of the Slipper. Bette Mae was sitting in one of the porch's rockers and stood to meet the women.
"Well, lordy be," Bette Mae smiled broadly at the return of her friends. "Looky what the cat done drug in."
Jennifer slid from Blaze's saddle and reached up to take the baby from Jesse.
"My goodness," Bette Mae was surprised to see the tiny child emerge from the sling around Jesse's shoulders. "What in the world is that?"
"That," Jesse emphasized the word as she dropped to the ground. "Is a baby."
"Lordy," Bette Mae chuckled. "Didn' know ya could buy those in Bannack."
The women mounted the stairs and joined the older woman on the porch.
"You can't," Jesse told her friend. "It's a long story and we'll tell you all about it just as soon as we talk to Billie."
"Well, ya might as well come inside then. He's in there courtin' Ruthie," Bette Mae looked at the child clinging to Jennifer. Since the ambush, KC had refused to be out of her mothers' arms.
"Told ya so," Jennifer whispered to Jesse as they followed Bette Mae inside. She had told Jesse weeks before that Sweetwater's sheriff was sweet on the shy girl who worked at the Slipper.
"Think you're so smart, don't ya," Jesse stuck her tongue out at the schoolteacher.
"Yep," Jennifer wrapped her free arm around Jesse's waist. "I found you, didn't I."
"Boy," Billie Monroe, Sweetwater's sheriff, whistled as he leaned back. "Sounds like you had yourselves quite the adventure."
Jesse and Jennifer had spent the past two hours relating the events of their trip to the sheriff and Bette Mae. They left out the news about the storekeeper's sister and brother-in-law, preferring to tell Ed and Bette Mae in private. Neither was looking forward to the task.
"Guess, you could put it that way," Jesse said as she played with the baby in her lap. "Billie, can you do anything about Plummer?"
"Yeah. I'll send word to Virginia City. Seems I heard something about citizens there forming a vigilante group to track down the outlaws. Might just be the information they're needing."
"How can a lawman do that?" Jennifer asked.
"Oh, hell," Billie started then stopped when he saw the look on Jesse's face. "Sorry, Jennifer. But, half the lawmen in the west have spent time on the other side of the badge. Some, even spent time in jail. If what I've heard about Plummer is true, he got himself run out of the California gold camps for being on the wrong side of the law."
"Hard ta get men ta wear the badge," Bette Mae added. "Most that do, don't live too long."
"Ain't that the truth," Billie added with a grin. He had no complaints being sheriff in such a small town like Sweetwater. At least, his life expectancy was longer than most lawmen.
"So," Bette Mae looked at Jesse. "Ya plannin' on raisin' the little one yourselves, eh?"
"Yes," Jesse tickled KC and was rewarded with a hearty baby laugh.
"We couldn't leave her in Bannack. Who knows what kind of life she would have been forced into," Jennifer said as the baby reached for her. Pulling KC into her own lap, Jennifer continued, "at least, this way, she'll be raised with love."
"Well," Billie pushed his chair away from the table. "If I get this all written down quick, I can get it out on the afternoon stage."
"Well, there is one more thing," Jennifer said shyly. She looked at Jesse, who nodded her approval. Smiling broadly, Jennifer announced, "Jesse asked me to marry her."
"Well, lordy be," Bette Mae exclaimed. "A weddin'. I don't think we've ever had one in Sweetwater."
"That's wonderful news," Billie slapped Jesse on the back. "But, Bette Mae has a point. Most folks go to Bozeman with there being no church here. You planning on that?"
"No," Jesse shook her head. She definitely wasn't going to the town where her parents lived to marry her love. "We were hoping that Mayor Perkins would do the honors."
"That is, if two women can marry," Jennifer said hesitantly.
"Ain't no law against it that I know of," the sheriff assured the schoolteacher.
"And, don' ya worry about the mayor. I'll have a little talk with his missus," Bette Mae patted Jennifer's hand. "Now, we got some plannin' ta do. You'll be needin' a dress..."
Jesse chuckled and cut off the older woman, "already taken care of. Bought her the prettiest wedding dress in Bannack."
"I'll leave you ladies to your planning," the sheriff said as he stood.
"One more thing, Billie," Jesse stopped the man from leaving. "I was hopin' that you'd agree to be my best man."
"Well," Billie puffed out his chest at the unexpected request. "I'd be right honored to, Jesse. Right honored."
"Thanks," Jesse smiled at the sheriff.
Billie nodded and left.
"Okay," Bette Mae took possession of the women's attention. "Just when do ya plan ta hold this here weddin'?"
"Oh," Jennifer said as she tested KC's britches and wasn't surprised to find them wet. "I guess we haven't given that much thought." Turning to Jesse, "sweetheart, KC needs changing."
"Alright," Jesse stood to retrieve a fresh diaper from the saddlebags outside on the horses. "Just as soon as possible," she answered Bette Mae's question.
"Well, I'm thinkin' that it'll take at least two weeks ta get everything ready and ta notify folks in the valley. How's that sound?" Bette Mae asked Jennifer after Jesse left.
"It sounds just fine," Jennifer said more to KC than to Bette Mae.
Jesse came back in with the diaper and offered to take care of the baby but Jennifer shook her head. She carried the baby into Jesse's office.
"Gettin' hitched, uh?" Bette Mae smiled at the rancher. "I'm mighty proud of you," the older woman tried to fight the tears welling in her eyes.
Jesse didn't know what to say. It was the first time she had heard those words. For years, she had hoped to hear them from her parents but had eventually given up. Now, to hear them from someone who had become more to her than just a friend meant so much to the rancher.
Struggling to get words out of her choked throat, Jesse said, "I was kinda hopin' that you'd stand up for me at the wedding. Bein's that I don't have any kin to do it. I mean, you're the closest I've got to a mom and all. Well, it would mean a great deal to me, if," Jesse knew she was babbling but she couldn't get the words to come out right.
Letting the tears fall, Bette Mae stood and wrapped Jesse in her arms. "I can't think of anythin' that would make me happier."
Jennifer came out of Jesse's office to see her lover encircled in Bette Mae's arms. Both women were crying but it was obvious to the schoolteacher that something good had just happened. She stood quietly and allowed the women their moment.
Jesse, carrying KC, and Jennifer slowly walked toward the general store to tell the storekeeper, Ed Granger, about his sister. They had just left the Silver Slipper where they had broken the news to Bette Mae . Now, they faced telling the dead woman's brother.
"Boy, I'll be glad to get this over with," Jennifer said as she replayed the events of moments before.
Bette Mae had sat emotionless on the couch in Jesse's office after being told of the death of her long lost love, Mary Elizabeth. It was only after the women had left her alone to deal with her grief that they heard the mournful cries coming from the room. It was heart wrenching and they weren't looking forward to going through it again.
"Yeah," Jesse reached down and took Jennifer's hand. "Let's hope he takes the news better than Bette Mae. I'm not sure I can handle any more of that."
Jennifer leaned against Jesse's shoulder as they walked, "it must be so painful to hear such terrible news. I really feel for Bette Mae."
"Me, too," Jesse whispered as they neared the store.
Ed was just walking outside when the women climbed up onto the boardwalk in front of the store.
"Well," he smiled. "Just who do we have here?" he looked at KC.
"This is KC, our daughter," Jennifer said proudly.
"Daughter?" Ed looked puzzled. "Just what kind of stores does Bannack have?"
Laughing, Jesse said, "not those kind. Let's go inside and we'll tell you all about it."
"Damn," Ed slumped down on the stool he was sitting. "I knew he was a no good excuse for a husband, but I never thought he'd do that."
Jesse and Jennifer had told the storekeeper about the events of their trip, finishing with the news of his sister's death.
"I'm so sorry, Ed," Jennifer hugged the man who had become a second father to her. And, if she was honest with herself, she knew that he had become the father she had always dreamed of.
Smiling sadly, Ed wiped away his tears with the back of his large hand. "She's at peace now. I guess I should be happy with that."
"Yes," Jennifer stayed close to the grieving man. "She has a beautiful spot. You can see for miles, it really is lovely."
"And, you gave her a stone?" Ed asked Jesse.
"Yes," she said quietly. "I real nice one. I think she'd like it."
"I'll pay you back, Jesse."
"No," Jesse reached out and gave the man's arm a gentle squeeze. "It was the least we could do."
"But, it weren't your responsibility," Ed began to protest.
"We were glad we could do it for her," Jennifer told him.
"Alright. Then, I'll thank you," Ed nodded.
"We'll keep an eye on the store if you want to go see her," Jesse offered.
"Nah, maybe some day. But, not right now. Need time to think about it."
"Offer's open," Jesse put her arm around Jennifer's shoulder. "Now, we've got some good news for you."
"Well, I'm ready to hear some of that," Ed perked up at the opportunity to chase away the mood that had settled in the store.
"Jesse and I are getting married," Jennifer blurted out. Jesse's proposal made her so happy she wanted everyone to know.
"Well, I'll be," Ed looked from one woman to the other. "That is good news. Going to Bozeman?"
"Nope, going to do it right here in Sweetwater. Bette Mae is making all the plans. She'll probably come in here with a list a mile long."
"I'll make sure she gets everything she needs," the storekeeper laughed. "I think you're credit is good enough."
"Thanks," Jesse reached out and took the man's hand. "We need to be getting back to the ranch. I'm real sorry about your sister, Ed."
Jennifer timidly looked up at the large man, "Ed, I was wondering if you'd like to give me away?"
"Why, Miss Jennifer," Ed was startled at the request. "Ain't that somethin' your own papa should do?"
"Even if my father knew about our wedding, he wouldn't come. Besides, you're more a father to me than he ever was. But, if you don't want to..."
"I be proud to," Ed cut her off.
Beaming, Jennifer hugged the big man. "Thank you. And, considering that, don't you think it's time you dropped the 'Miss' and just called me Jennifer."
Smiling down at the schoolteacher, Ed said, "alright, Jennifer. Now, get. Take that baby home. You all look exhausted."
Ed shooed the women out of the store and watched them as they returned to the Slipper. As he leaned against door of the store, he said to himself, "a wedding in Sweetwater."
The last ten days had been a whirlwind of activity. Bette Mae had closed the Silver Slipper so that the dining room could be converted in a wedding chapel. The saloon had been cleared of all furniture and would serve as a dance floor for the after ceremony festivities. Word had been sent out to everyone in the valley and not much else was being talked about. Folks were breaking out their best duds and shining up the boots and belt buckles. The wedding was going to be the biggest happening to take place in the small community and would be talked about for years to come. Jesse and Jennifer had decided to spend the days at the ranch getting KC settled and left Bette Mae to handle the wedding plans.
"Jesse," Jennifer placed KC on a blanket in the shade of the cabin's porch then sat beside her. "Why won't you tell me what you're going to wear at the wedding?"
The topic of Jesse's clothing had become a fixation for Jennifer. While Jesse knew what Jennifer was wearing, the rancher had been very secretive about her own outfit.
Jesse laughed as she continued to cut the lengths of wood that would become legs for KC's high chair. After bringing KC to the ranch, the women realized they had no furniture suited for a baby. Jesse had started making her a bed the day after they returned and, with that accomplished, she was starting on the high chair. Jennifer thought it would be better for KC than to continue eating being held by one or the other woman.
"I told you not to worry about it. I've got the perfect thing," Jesse answered Jennifer.
Jennifer kept one eye on KC who was rocking on all fours. It wouldn't be long before the baby was crawling. "But, it's not fair. You've seen my dress," she protested.
"True," Jesse finished cutting another length of wood. "But, I haven't seen you in it, darlin'."
"You're not going to give in, are you?"
"Nope," she smiled at her lover.
"Drat," Jennifer frowned.
"Only have one more day to wait, darlin'," Jesse put down her saw and walked over to where Jennifer sat on the porch. Claiming the spot next to her, Jesse wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her close. "I love you," she whispered as she gently kissed Jennifer.
The women spent the next several moments enjoying each other's lips and mouths. Jennifer's hand found it's way under Jesse's shirt and she caressed the strong back, slick with sweat. Jesse pulled Jennifer closer and slipped a hand inside her shirt where it quickly found a breast. Just when Jesse was going to lay Jennifer down onto the porch so that they could explore each other further, as small hand smacked her leg and she heard KC talking to her in baby talk.
Jennifer laughed as Jesse pulled back in frustration to look at the child. A big grin on her face, KC reached up to Jesse, she wanted to join her favorite playmate.
Lifting the baby into her lap, Jesse groaned, "guess I'm goin' have to teach you not to interrupt when I'm making out with your momma, sunshine."
Leaning against Jesse's shoulder, Jennifer tickled the baby.
Jesse let the baby climb up her body and wrapped tiny arms around her neck. The baby looked the rancher straight in the eye and starting a long tirade of baby gibberish. "I do believe she has your argumentative streak in her," Jesse teased.
"Wonder what she's telling you," Jennifer said as she playfully slapped Jesse in the side.
"Probably that I should wait until she takes her nap before I try to make out with her momma," Jesse kissed the baby. "Ain't that right, sunshine?"
"Sweetheart, don't talk that way in front of her," Jennifer scolded.
"What? I shouldn't say make out?" Jesse asked.
"No. Don't say ain't. It isn't proper," the schoolteacher advised.
"Uh, oh, sunshine," Jesse told the baby. "Looks that you and me are in for trouble with your momma. She's gonn' want us to be nice and proper ladies." Placing her mouth next to the KC's ear, Jesse whispered loud enough for Jennifer to hear, "but, it ain't gonna happen, is it?"
The baby giggled at the warm breath on the side of her face.
Jennifer looked at her smirking lover and rolled her eyes, "Oh, boy."
The morning of the wedding dawned bright and clear.
Jesse, Jennifer, and KC arrived at the Silver Slipper and enjoyed breakfast with Bette Mae and the other employees of the Slipper who had worked tirelessly the past several days to prepare for the wedding. After breakfast, Jennifer went upstairs with Bette Mae and Ruthie to dress.
Alone, Jesse disappeared into her study. She sat at her desk and leaned back in the chair. How different her life had become. Just months before, she was resigned to a life full of friends but without a partner to share it with. Today, she not only had that partner but, also, a child. And, today she would formalize her relationship with her lover and child into a family. Her family.
Jesse smiled as she thought what the impending ceremony meant to her. She was happy. Happier than she had ever been. But, happy wasn't enough of a word to describe her feelings. She was ecstatic but more. She was at peace. Yes, that was it. She was at peace. With her life. Her lover. Her child. And, she was the happiest woman on earth. Well, except, maybe, for the ginger haired beauty she was about to marry.
"Best get this show on the road," Jesse told herself. She leaned down and opened the bottom drawer in her desk. Carefully, she removed a box with a string tied around it. "Never did understand why I had to buy this. Guess it makes sense now," she told the empty room.
Jesse stood. She carried the box upstairs to the room where she would find a hot bath waiting.
Jennifer dried her body after she stepped from the tub. Bette Mae and Ruthie stood ready to help the schoolteacher into her wedding dress. After drying, Jennifer pulled on her undergarments.
"It's a beautiful dress, Miss Jennifer," Ruthie handed Jennifer a slip.
"Thank you, Ruthie. I appreciate you altering it to fit me better."
"Seems to me, that dressmaker in Bannack shoulda done that for ya," Bette Mae said as she lifted the wedding dress from the bed where it had been laid out.
"You're probably right. But, by the time Jesse surprised me by buying it, we'd already been in that store for a couple of hours. I just didn't want to spend any more time with that woman. She gave me a funny feeling," Jennifer stood while Bette Mae and Ruthie lifted it over her head.
"What kinda feeling?" Bette Mae asked when Jennifer's head reappeared.
"Oh, it's probably nothing," Jennifer straightened the dress on her hips. "I just think she knew me from before."
"Um," Bette Mae considered her words. "Thinkin' she might bring ya trouble?"
"I hope not," Jennifer smiled down at KC who was jabbering and pointing at her. "You like my dress, sweetie. Your mommy has good taste, doesn't she?"
"Surprisin', ain't it?" Bette Mae teased the schoolteacher. She bent down and swooped KC up into her arms. "Your momma is awful pretty, ain't she?"
Jennifer shook her head, laughing. Trying to teach the giggling child proper grammar was going to be a difficult task. But, it really didn't bother her, seeing the love surrounding KC.
"Go on, child," Bette Mae commanded. "Take a look at yourself."
Jennifer stood in front of the full length mirror in the room as Ruthie finished buttoning the buttons on the back of the dress.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" Jennifer said to no one in particular. Though, the dress was a simple design of linen and lace, she thought she had never seen one more beautiful Of course, the fact that Jesse had purchased it for her probably had a lot to do with that.
"It surely is. And, so is you," Bette Mae smiled at the schoolteacher admiring her reflection. "Ruthie, ya stay here and help Miss Jennifer with her hair while I go see what our Jesse is up to."
"Tell her I love her," Jennifer asked the older woman.
"Oh, lordy, I'm sure she knows that. But," Bette Mae quickly said when she saw Jennifer was getting ready to add more. "I'll tell her. Now, give this young 'un a kiss so we can go."
Jennifer did just that, kissing KC on the cheek. "Be a good girl."
"She's an angel. Ain't ya, honey," Bette Mae clucked the baby under the chin as she left the room.
"We'll see if she still thinks that once KC starts walking and talking," Jennifer chuckled.
"Yes, ma'am," Ruthie agreed.
"Well, I'll be," Bette Mae walked into the room Jesse was using to dress. "Is that really your mommy?" she teasingly asked the baby she carried.
"Stop that," Jesse playfully scolded her friend. "Come here, sunshine," she lifted the baby from Bette Mae's arms. "What do you think? Will Jennifer like it?" she asked the older woman,
"I'd say that she'll be mighty surprised," Bette Mae sat on the room's bed.
"Is that a yes or a no?" Jesse asked as she tickled KC, making the baby laugh.
"Quit worrying, will ya," Bette Mae shook her head. "She'll think you is the handsomest dude in the territory."
"Why do I put up with you?" Jesse smirked at her friend.
"That's a good question. When ya figure it out, let me know," Bette Mae reached out her arms. "Now, give me the young 'un and let me get a good look at ya."
Jesse did as requested and stood for Bette Mae's inspection.
Jesse wore a suit of soft buckskin. Short fringe hung from the shoulders of the jacket and the lapels were beautifully beaded in geometric designs of Indian original. The beaded design continued down the outside of the pant legs. Under the jacket, she wore a linen shirt matching the color of the buckskin. Her boots were polished to such a high shine that Bette Mae could see herself in them. Jesse's auburn hair was pulled back into a simple ponytail.
"Lordy, that is a mighty pretty. Where ya been hiding it?"
"In my desk. Saw it in a store window one of my trips through Denver. Something made me buy it. Never could understand the need. Until today," she smiled.
"Well, I'd say that was a might fine decision. Yep, it surely was," Bette Mae smiled back. "Won't be long now. You gettin' cold feet?" she teased.
"Nope. Wish it was time now. I can't wait to see Jennifer."
"Oh, that reminds me. She wanted me to tell you she loves ya," Bette Mae chuckled. "I'd say if she didn', this day would sure be a waste of lots of folks time. Well, time to get my littl' angel dressed so ya can get downstairs."
Bette Mae had offered to take care of KC during the ceremony and for the women's wedding night. But, after thinking about it, Jesse and Jennifer had decided that the wedding was more than just the joining of their lives. It would also join theirs with KC's. So, Ruthie had made a small version of Jennifer's wedding dress for KC to wear while Jesse held her during the ceremony. And, she would return home with her mothers afterward, so the three could start their lives as a family.
"Ready?" Bette Mae asked once the baby had been dressed.
"Yes," Jesse lifted the KC to her face and kissed her forehead. "Let's go marry your momma."
"Go on, then," Bette Mae started to walk from the room.
"Wait," Jesse stopped her friend. She wrapped an arm around Bette Mae's shoulders and hugged her tight. "Thank you."
With tears in her eyes, Bette Mae asked, "what for?"
"For being my friend. For accepting Jennifer and me. For being you," Jesse told the woman who was more a mother to her than the one who had raised her. "I can't tell you how much it means to have you stand with us today."
"Hush, child," Bette Mae wiped at the tears with a hankie she pulled from her sleeve. "Where else would I be today?" Bette Mae returned the hug. "Ya know I love ya like ya was my own, don'cha?"
"I love you, too," Jesse eyes were brimming with tears of her own.
"Now, stop that," Bette Mae grinned at the rancher. "Can't have ya gettin' hitched all puffy eyed. Now, git downstairs and I'll go check on that beautiful woman waitin' to join ya."
Jesse carried KC down the back stairs that led directly to the kitchen and found her friend and best man, Billie Monroe, waiting for her.
Billie whistled when he spotted her, "gosh, don't you look pretty?" the man grinned.
"Knock it off, Billie. It ain't like you've never seen me before."
"You? I was talking to little KC, here," Billie beamed at his friend. "You look mighty pretty yourself, Jesse."
"Thanks. I think," Jesse could hear people talking and laughing in the converted dining room. "Sounds like quite a few showed up," she said to the sheriff.
"Heck, Jesse," Billie told her. "The whole valley is out there. And, all in their Sunday best, too. Even Butler and his cowboys showed up."
"Whoa," Jesse was staggered by the news. She knew Bette Mae had invited everybody but she never expected them all to come.
"Ya got a lot of friends in the valley, Jesse," the sheriff assured her. "And, everyone loves Jennifer."
"Yeah," Jesse smiled when she thought of her soon to be spouse. "It's just kinda overwhelming."
A light tapping on the door signaled the arrival of Ed Granger to Jennifer's dressing room.
"Come on in, Ed," Jennifer called out.
The big man opened the door and stopped short. "My goodness, Jennifer. You look beautiful."
Ed crossed the floor to where Jennifer was waiting, "ready to get married?"
"I think so," Jennifer nervously told the big man who had agreed to give her away during the ceremony.
"Well, then," Ed shyly hugged Jennifer. "Let's not keep Jesse waiting. Don't want her thinking you changed your mind."
"Oh, no," Jennifer giggled. "We definitely don't want her thinking that."
Ed offered his arm ,which Jennifer cheerfully accepted and was escorted from the room.
Joined by Bette Mae, Billie led Jesse through the kitchen's door and into the newly created wedding chapel. Oohs and ahs rippled through the seated citizens of Sweetwater as they saw the beautiful woman enter. KC sat quietly in Jesse's arms, looking around curiously.
Mayor Perkins stood at the front of the crowd. He smiled when the threesome joined him. They turned to look at the stairway leading from the rooms upstairs. A hush fell over the room while everyone waited for Jennifer to appear.
Ed preceded Jennifer down the stairs then stood aside so she could be seen by the audience. Jesse gasped when her eyes fell on Jennifer. She was the most beautiful woman Jesse had ever seen and she would soon be hers. Jesse's heart almost stopped at the thought.
Jennifer turned to face Jesse and she couldn't believe her eyes. The most beautiful woman she had ever seen was staring at her. Their eyes met and the rest of the world stopped. Jennifer didn't think her heart would stand the strain of all the love she was feeling at that moment for Jesse.
Jennifer smiled at Jesse and mouthed the words, 'I love you'.
Jesse returned the smile and the gesture.
The wedding ceremony had ended to loud applause and good-natured shouts of congratulations. Jesse and Jennifer had thanked everyone for coming. The party was in full swing with Jesse, holding KC and leading Jennifer around the dance floor to the music of Ed's fiddle. The town of Sweetwater was celebrating. Everyone was happy.
The door to the Slipper burst open. Hank, the telegraph operator from a neighboring town looked surprised at the festivities.
"So, this is where everyone disappeared to," he said to the crowded room.
"What's up, Hank," Billie asked the perturbed man.
"Got a telegram to deliver. Woulda left it at your office but it says it needs to be hand delivered soon as I get to town."
"Well, everyone is here. So, who's it for?"
Jennifer's heart clinched. It couldn't be. No one knew she was in Sweetwater. 'Please,' she thought, 'please don't let it be'. Hesitantly, she stepped forward and held out her hand.
"You, Jennifer Kensington?" Hank asked.
"I was. I'm Jennifer Branson, now."
Jesse turned startled at Jennifer's words. They hadn't discussed what name they would use after the wedding. Jesse had just assumed that Jennifer would want to keep her own surname. She smiled when she realized that Jennifer thought different. Oh, how she loved the woman.
Hank handed Jennifer the telegram.
As Jennifer read the paper, Jesse saw her hands start to shake and tears began rolling down her checks.
"Darlin'," she asked softly. "What's wrong?"
Crying, Jennifer said, "my father's coming to take me back. And, he's bringing my fiancÈ with him."
Jesse heard the words and her heart stopped beating.
to be continued in Bozeman (story in process)
Return to the Academy