See Part I for disclaimers.
Jesse eyelids fluttered, she could sense people moving around her but she wasn't sure where she was. Then, her brain registered KC's miserable cries. She was instantly awake and tried to sit up.
"Ow," she groaned and reached for her aching head.
"Hold on there," Bette Mae grabbed Jesse's hand and placed it back at her side. "Let me git the bandage on that cut before ya start pokin' around."
KC's sobs had subsided but she refused to move from Jesse's side. Bette Mae positioned her on Jesse's chest and placed Jesse's hands on the baby's back to help calm her.
"Your mommy is goin' be just fine," Bette Mae patted the baby's wet cheek. "You lay there and don' let her try to sit up again."
Jesse carefully opened her eyes and looked up at Bette Mae, "Jennifer?"
"They took her," Bette Mae knew there was no point in lying to her friend.
"I've got to...," Jesse started.
Placing a hand on Jesse's shoulder, the older woman held her down. "I know ya do. But, ya can't do nothin' 'til mornin'. She was fine when they left, kickin' and screamin' the whole way. Don' worry, she'll be waitin' for ya."
"Damn, Bette Mae," Jesse relaxed knowing Bette Mae to be right. "Why couldn't he just have let her be?"
"Men like that, don' take no for an answer," Bette Mae finished binding the gash Kensington had left on Jesse's temple. "Ya rest and comfort your baby. She needs ya," Bette Mae rose from the floor. "I'll get some coffee started."
Jesse pulled KC up to her face and kissed the child, "don't worry, sunshine. We'll find your momma and bring her home." Laying the baby back down, Jesse continued to gently rub her back. Slowly the baby's whimpers stopped.
Jesse heard a shuffling of feet and looked towards the noise. Billie and Ruthie were sitting on the couch.
Billie smiled when he saw Jesse had discovered them. "How ya feeling?"
"Why's it always got to be my head that gets hit?" Jesse gave a half smile to her friend.
"Probably 'cause that's your hardest part," Bette Mae said as she re-entered the room, coffee pot and cups in hand. "Good, my littl' angel stopped cryin'. I was afraid she'd burst somethin', she was going on so."
Jesse kissed the top of KC's head. "She's seen a awful lot of hurt in her short life, Bette Mae."
"That she has. But, she got a lotta love in it now," Bette Mae smiled. "And, that'll go a long way to erasin' the hurt."
"I sure hope so," Jesse continued to rub the baby's back.
"Want me to take her?" Bette Mae asked.
"Better let her be, for now," Jesse could still feel the baby's tiny body trembling. "Billie, I'm leaving at first light."
"I know. I'm going with you," the sheriff accepted a cup of steaming coffee. "Figure they'll head back to Denver. Already sent a rider with a telegram for the Denver sheriff. He should get it in plenty of time to stop them."
"No," Jesse considered the sheriff's words. "I don't think Kensington will chance going to Denver."
"But, that's the closest place to catch a train."
"I know. But, he's smart. He'll head east, hoping we go to Denver."
"I don't know, Jesse."
"Doesn't matter. Soon as I pick up their trail, I'll know for sure."
Laying on the hard floor with a baby on her chest was beginning to be extremely uncomfortable. "Think you can help me up to something a little softer?"
It was awkward because KC refused to release her hold on Jesse, but Bette Mae and Billie managed to get Jesse up and helped her to the couch. Ruthie placed a couple of pillows at one end and Jesse was propped up against them.
"That feels better," Jesse sighed as she settled back against the pillows. KC snuggled against Jesse and made smacking noises with her lips. "Hungry, sunshine? I bet Bette Mae has something for you."
"I sure do, littl' angel," Bette Mae handed Jesse a bottle of warmed milk. "This should feel real good in your tummy."
Jesse shifted KC so she could drink and offered her the bottle. KC wasted no time in pulling it to her mouth.
A tapping on the office door drew the attention of the adults in the room. Turning to look, they saw Mrs. Kensington standing in the doorway. Jennifer's mother looked unsure and hesitated before speaking.
"What has he done?" she asked, referring to her husband.
"He took Jennifer," Jesse answered as she glared at the woman.
"No," Mrs. Kensington gasped and slumped against the door frame. "I didn't think he would go this far."
"What did you think he was going to do?" Jesse asked in a voice that was calm but full of contempt. "Did you really think he would travel across the country to just shake my hand and wish us a happy marriage? After all the years that he treated Jennifer like nothing more than a business proposition, how could you have expected anything less?"
"I... I don't..." Mrs. Kensington stopped. What had she expected? Certainly not for her husband to assault this woman and kidnap his own daughter. Why had she insisted on accompanying her husband? He had not wanted her to come. Was she afraid that what had happened would? She didn't have the answers.
"I'm sorry," Mrs. Kensington said dejectedly and turned to leave.
Watching the woman struggle with her thoughts, Jesse realized that she was as much a victim of her husband as Jennifer was.
"Might as well come in and have a cup of Bette Mae's coffee," Jesse called after the woman.
"Come on," Bette Mae waved the woman into the room. "Sit," she said as she pulled the chair out from the back of the desk.
KC had finished the milk and the exhausted baby was sound asleep in the security of Jesse's arms.
"Let me get her fixed up with some fresh britches and wash her face," Bette Mae carefully lifted the baby from Jesse. "Littl' angel, done tuckered herself out with all that cryin'."
Jesse watched as Bette Mae carried the sleeping baby across the room. "How long until dawn, Billie?" she asked, having lost track of time while she was knocked out.
"Less than two hours."
"Dusty and Blaze are at the stables," Jesse told her friend.
"I know. They'll be ready."
Jesse looked at the sheriff quizzically.
"Whole town knows, Jesse. You won't be riding alone."
"I'd like to come," Mrs. Kensington said from her chair.
Jesse looked at Jennifer's mother and saw the concern in her eyes. She saw something else, too. Determination? Resolve? Strength?
"Alright. But, we'll be riding fast and I'm not stopping until I find Jennifer."
"Thank you," was all the woman said before rising and leaving the room.
"Think she can ride?" Billie asked.
"Don't know," Jesse looked up as Bette Mae returned KC to her. "Don't care," she said as the sleeping baby snuggled against her chest.
"You stupid fool," Jennifer shouted at her father riding several feet away. "Jesse will come after me."
Kensington ignored his daughter's protests and pushed his horse faster. They would have to stop soon to rest the horses but he wanted to cover as much ground as possible before that.
Barrish had his arms wrapped tightly around Jennifer, preventing her from leaping off the galloping horse. She had attempted just that more than once and he didn't want her trying again. Jennifer beat her fists against his arms and elbowed him in the chest and stomach trying to break his grasp.
"Stop it or I'll tie you to the saddle," Barrish growled at Jennifer.
"Ha, I'd like to see you try," Jennifer continued her beatings. "When Jesse catches up with us, you better hope she's in a good mood," Jennifer taunted the young man.
"Like that bitch could do anything to me," Barrish laughed.
"Oh, you'd be surprised what Jesse can do."
Decided to try a different escape, Jennifer went limp in Barrish's arms. As soon as his grip relaxed at the lack of pressure, she pushed with all her might against the saddle and away from him. It worked.
Jennifer fell to the ground and rolled away from the horse. She scrambled to her feet and took off running back in the direction of Sweetwater. She was celebrating her escape when the sound of hoof beats rapidly neared. An instant later she felt something strike her in the back and she was knocked to the ground. Before she could regain her footing, her father pulled her upright.
"If I have to, I'll hog tie you and drag you all the way back home," Kensington told her. "I don't want you to mention that bitch again. Do you understand?"
Jennifer smiled at the man who meant less and less to her as each minute passed. "Oh, I understand. I understand that Jesse," she emphasized the name, "will come for me. And, when she does, I understand that you'll regret you ever came to Montana."
Kensington raised his hand to slap Jennifer but she stood her ground.
"Go ahead. You've wanted to for years. But, proper gentlemen don't slap women. Do they, Father?" she asked, bitterly.
Kensington glared at his daughter for several moments, hand frozen in the air ready to strike.
"Put this on," Kensington removed his coat and threw it at Jennifer dressed only in the night shirt she had worn to bed that evening. "Tie her up," he ordered Barrish then stomped off.
"You should show your father more respect," Barrish said as he approached Jennifer with a piece of rope.
"I have no father," Jennifer said defiantly. Then, realizing the truth in the words, she saddened, "I never have."
The morning sun had barely begun to lighten the night sky when Jesse mounted Dusty. KC had refused to be left behind and sat in the carry sack on Jesse's back. Bette Mae, also refusing to stay behind, was mounted on Blaze. The sheriff Billie Monroe, storekeeper Ed Granger and newspaper editor Thaddeus Newby, sat on their own horses ready to ride. Mrs. Kensington was riding a horse borrowed from the stables.
The remaining citizens of Sweetwater stood around the horses and on the porch of the Silver Slipper. Mayor Perkins spoke for the rest, "you bring Miss Jennifer home, Jesse. And, don't worry about the Slipper or your ranch. We'll see to them."
Jesse looked around at the many faces. Jennifer's friends. Her friends. She was humbled knowing that all these people had come to show their support.
"I will and thank you. Thanks to all of you," she smiled at the crowd. "Now, Jennifer is expecting me," she said as she flicked Dusty's reins and the golden horse began to move. "And, I don't mean to keep her waiting."
Shouts of encouragement and good luck followed them as the riders quickly rode away. When the dust began to settle, the citizens of Sweetwater went back to their regular morning business. But, their thoughts remained firmly with the rancher and missing schoolteacher.
"When we marry," Barrish began to tell Jennifer. It was mid-day and they had stopped to rest the horses by a small lake.
"We'll never marry," Jennifer looked at the fiancÈ her father had arranged for her. "I'm already married to Jesse."
"It's not right," Barrish looked disgusted.
"Neither is kidnapping," Jennifer stood from the small boulder where she had been sitting.
"Where are you going?" Barrish asked as she walked towards the water.
"No where," Jennifer said. She had promised not to attempt another escape if they left her hands untied. Deciding instead to delay them in other ways in order to give Jesse time to catch up.
Though, Jennifer knew Jesse would come after her, she was worried about her lover who she last saw taking a hard blow to the head. She hoped Jesse was alright. And, little KC, the baby had sounded so scared. Jennifer stood at the lake shore and wrapped herself in her arms. She missed her family dearly. And, she determined that, one way or another, she would return to them.
Turning to face Barrish, Jennifer surveyed her would be fiancÈ. He wasn't bad looking, she would have admitted if she had been interested. He stood about the same height as herself but with a thin, almost scrawny, build. Though Jennifer guessed him to be in his mid-twenties, it appeared that he had little need to shave regularly. His eyes were deep green and she could see a depth of feeling in them. Maybe she could make him see the senselessness of her father's actions.
Jennifer said, "you know. Even if you get me back east, I'll just run away again."
"Why? Why would you prefer that bitch over a man?"
"Because, I love her," Jennifer shook her head, maybe her instincts were wrong when it came to young Barrish. "Tell me," she stopped. "What is your name, anyway?"
"Andrew," the young man answered.
"Tell me, Andrew, what does my father get by our marrying?"
"What do you mean?"
"I'm not stupid. My father doesn't do anything unless it's going to gain him something. So, what does he gain if we were to marry?
"Your father needs financial backing for his plans to expand his shipping business. My father owns a bank."
Jennifer laughed, "He isn't making enough money now. He can already buy and sell half the town if he had a mind to. Why does he need to expand?
"So, your brothers will be taken care of when I pass the company on to them," Kensington returned from the small hill he had climbed to see if he could spot any followers.
"And, what about me, Father," Jennifer asked. "Was I to benefit by any of this?"
"Of course, you were," her father said as if he couldn't understand why she would ask the question. "You would be married to a man who would see to your needs."
"But, I don't love him," Jennifer screamed in frustration. "Hell, I don't even know him."
"Don't use that tone with me," Kensington glared at Jennifer. "Get the horses," he commanded Barrish before continuing with Jennifer. "The only thing you need to know about him is that I want him as your husband. As for love, your mother and I don't share that. Why should you?"
Barrish brought the horses.
"Let's go," Kensington mounted.
Jennifer climbed aboard Barrish's horse and waited for him to mount behind her. 'Hurry, my love," she sent a silent message to Jesse.
It was noon and they had been pushing the horses since leaving Sweetwater at dawn. Jesse called a halt at a small river and they allowed the horses to rest.
"What do you think?" Billie asked Jesse as she studied the tracks of two horses.
"They passed here last night," Jesse scanned the opposite river bank. "Crossed here and came out over there. They're pushing those horses hard."
"We'll catch them," Billie placed a hand on Jesse's shoulder.
Jesse nodded absently. She stood watching the passing waters and thought of Jennifer. She could sense her love. "I'm coming, darlin'," she whispered.
Hearing KC waking in the carry sack on her back, Jesse carefully slipped the sack off her shoulders. KC sleepily looked at her mother and smiled. She looked around for her other mother and started to sniffle when she couldn't locate Jennifer.
"Hey, sunshine," Jesse held KC close to her face and lovingly kissed the baby. "I miss her, too. But, we'll find her. Okay?"
"Otay," KC said in a tiny voice.
Jesse smiled as her daughter used a new word. "Good girl, your momma will be proud. Let's get your britches changed and get you something to eat."
KC leaned into Jesse and placed a wet kiss on her nose.
"I love you, too," Jesse laughed as she wiped the baby slobber off her nose. She sat KC on the ground while she retrieved her saddle bag. Turning back just in time to see KC start to crawl away.
"No, you don't," Jesse grabbed a small foot and pulled KC back. "No exploring 'til you get fresh pants." Jesse tickled the scowling baby and got the laugh she expected. "That's better. Now, hold still."
"Otay," KC giggled.
Mrs. Kensington came over and stood next to Jesse and KC. Watching curiously as Jesse took care of the child, she noticed similarities between KC and her own daughter at the same age.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say that she was Jennifer's child," Mrs. Kensington told Jesse.
"She is," Jesse replied.
KC looked up at the sound of the older woman's voice and frowned.
"It's alright, sunshine," Jesse said as she finished with the fresh diaper. "She's not going to hurt you." Jesse lifted KC into her arms and stood.
Mrs. Kensington said nothing as Jesse carried the baby and her saddlebags to a log and sat down.
Jesse pulled a cloth napkin from the bag and placed it on the log. KC immediately reached for the soft biscuits that had been wrapped in the napkin. Jesse tore a small piece from one and gave it to KC, who instantly put it in her mouth.
"Small bites, sunshine. Just like momma taught you," Jesse reminded the baby. KC pulled the piece from her mouth and studied it before placing the piece back.
"Good girl," Jesse winked at the baby who smiled back. Jesse took a bite from the biscuit.
"I would never hurt that child," Mrs. Kensington said from where she still stood.
Jesse said, "you already have. You've hurt her momma." She tore off another piece of biscuit and handed it to KC as she addressed Mrs. Kensington, "you'd better get something to eat. We'll be leaving soon."
Bette Mae had listened quietly to the exchange between the two women. And, she saw the anguish in the older woman's eyes at Jesse's words. 'Maybe,' she thought, 'this one still has a heart.'
The afternoon shadows lengthened as the evening approached. Kensington and Barrish continued to push the horses. Jennifer needed to do something to slow them down but every idea she came up with proved to be less than successful. Then, an idea struck here.
"Get your hands off me," Jennifer swung an elbow back and connected with Barrish's jaw.
"What?" Barrish asked confused as he rubbed his injured face.
"I said keep your hands to yourself," Jennifer shouted to be sure her father, riding several feet ahead of them, heard. She saw her father slow his horse, "we're not married yet and you can't take those liberties with me."
"What's going on?" Kensington asked as Barrish's horse came even with his own.
"I don't know," Barrish fended off another elbow from Jennifer.
"He touched me," Jennifer said indignantly.
"Of course, I'm touching you," Barrish tried to pin Jennifer's arms to her sides. "I've got to hold you on the horse, don't I?"
"Jennifer, quit playing these games," Kensington threatened.
But, Jennifer continued. "Father, he touched my.... my..... my breast," she cried as she clutched her arms across her chest as if to protect herself.
Kensington pulled his horse to a stop and glared at Barrish, who saw the anger in the big man's eyes.
Jennifer knew her father believed that a man did not touch a woman until they were married. She thought it ironic that he didn't seem to believe kidnapping and assault against women to be as taboo.
"I did no such thing, Mr. Kensington," Barrish defended himself. "My hands have never left her waist."
"What about the time you rubbed my thigh?" Jennifer added fuel to the fire.
"Get down," Kensington barked as he swung down from his horse.
Jennifer quickly swung a leg over her mount's neck and slid from the saddle. Barrish followed more slowly.
Kensington faced the younger man, "have you touched my daughter?"
"No, sir," he violently shook his head from side to side. "As a man of honor, I tell you I have not."
"Ha," Jennifer cried. "You have."
Kensington looked from his defiant daughter to the nervous young man quaking before him. Which one should he believe?
Seeing her father's hesitation, Jennifer pleaded, "Father, I'm your daughter. You must protect me against the inappropriate actions of this man. He should not dishonor me this way. He should not," Jennifer said the one thing that would ensure her father would act, "dishonor YOU this way."
Kensington pushed Jennifer away and approached Barrish. Before the young man could react, a fist struck out and exploded against his chin. Barrish dropped to ground like a sack of rocks.
Jennifer screamed and rushed to Barrish's side.
"How could you, Father?" Jennifer patted Barrish on the cheeks, trying to revive him. "He is my intended. How am I to marry him now?"
Confused by his daughter's reaction, Kensington stood unmoving. He watched mystified as Jennifer tried to help the very same man she had spent most of the past few days saying she had no interest in.
"Come on," Kensington reached down and grabbed Jennifer's arm. "Leave him. We need to keep going."
"Leave him?" Jennifer pulled her arm from her father's grasp. "Leave him? I will not. Are we not to be married? How can you possible suggest that he be left here?"
"Damn it, girl," Kensington was bewildered and annoyed. He looked up at the sky. It was more dark than light. "Alright. We'll stay here until he wakes up. Then, we'll go."
Jennifer simply nodded but inside she was doing somersaults. It had worked. As her father lead the horses to a nearby grove of trees, Jennifer pushed herself up from the ground. Barrish's head, that had been resting in her lap, dropped to the ground and hit with a clunk.
"Marry you," Jennifer said to the unconscious man. "When pigs fly." She dusted off her hands before joining her father.
"It's late, Jesse," Billie said as the sun disappeared from the sky.
Jesse looked at the sheriff and then at the sky. She had been concentrating on following Jennifer's tracks and hadn't noticed the late hour.
"You're right. Let's set camp."
It didn't take long for a fire to be started and bedrolls to be laid out. Bette Mae busied herself with making supper and Mrs. Kensington volunteered to help her. Thaddeus collected firewood while Ed and Billie took care of the horses.
Jesse saw to KC's needs. The baby was tired but had not complained all day. Jesse sat KC on her bedroll.
"Baze," KC asked for the toy horse.
Jesse pulled it from her pocket. "You stay here and be good. I'm going to take care of Blaze and Dusty."
"Otay," KC began to play with the toy.
"I'll keep my eye on the littl' angel," Bette Mae said as she stirred a pot over the fire.
After Jesse walked away, Mrs. Kensington said, "she loves that baby very much."
"That she does," Bette Mae added ingredients to the boiling water.
"Even though it's not hers."
"That baby is hers jus' as if she'd gave birth to her herself," Bette Mae told the woman. "Why, I've never seen two people love a child as much as Jesse and Jennifer love my littl' angel."
"But, how can Jennifer love a child that doesn't belong to her?"
Bette Mae slammed a lid on top of the pot and turned to look at the other woman, "doesn't belong to her? That baby may not have their blood, but she shares something much more important."
When Mrs. Kensington looked at Bette Mae for an explanation, Bette Mae continued, "their heart. The littl' angel there is part of their hearts. A big part. A very, big part."
As Mrs. Kensington considered Bette Mae's words, she watched the child playing happily with her toy.
After dinner, Jesse sat on her bedroll holding KC. She softly hummed a lullaby as the baby drifted to sleep. Mrs. Kensington sat on her own bedroll watching quietly.
Jesse continued to hold the baby even after she had nodded off. KC was her connection to Jennifer and she didn't want to let go. "We're coming, darlin'," Jesse whispered.
"Who were you talking to?" Mrs. Kensington asked softly.
Looking up to meet the eyes of Jennifer's mother, eyes that were so much like her lover's, Jesse answered, "Jennifer."
"You care very much for my daughter," it was said as a statement not a question.
"Yet, you try to stop her from returning to her home?"
"Her home is in Sweetwater. With me. And, with KC."
"But, you can't give her what marriage to Mr. Barrish will."
Jesse thought for a moment. What could she say to make this woman understand?
"I'm surprised that you ride as well as you do," Jesse told the woman. She had indeed been surprised when Mrs. Kensington not only knew how to ride but had proven to be a very good rider. "I didn't think your husband thought such activity to be proper for a woman."
Mrs. Kensington laughed sadly, "There are quite a few activities I enjoyed before my marriage that my husband found to be improper. I learned to ride as a child and continued to ride right up to the day I married my husband."
"Why did you marry him?"
"I had no choice. My father made an agreement with his father."
"Did you want to marry him?"
"As I said, I had no choice."
"Did you want to?"
In a voice so quiet it was almost unheard, "no."
"Why do you want Jennifer to suffer the same fate?" Jesse asked just as quietly.
Mrs. Kensington stretched out on her bedroll and pulled the blanket around her. Just when Jesse figured she wouldn't get an answer to her question, she heard, "I don't."
Jesse laid back on her bedroll. She carefully placed KC on her chest and pulled the blanket over them. Looking up into the sky, Jesse looked for the star that she and Jennifer always wished upon when they were out at night. Finding the star, Jesse smiled.
"I love you, my darlin'. Be safe."
Jennifer pulled the coat tight around her. The nightshirt she had been wearing when she was dragged out of the Slipper did little to protect her against the cold. And, the coat her father had given her wasn't long enough to cover her legs. She lay on her back and tried not to think of how miserably she actually felt. Looking up into the star filled sky, Jennifer spied the star that had so much meaning for Jesse and herself. She smiled.
"I love you, sweetheart. Take care of our baby."
A full moon lit the travelers' way. The route across the Rocky Mountains wasn't much more than two ruts and without the moon's light would have been almost impossible to follow. They had crested the divide less than an hour before and we riding down the east side of the range.
Kensington had awakened Jennifer as soon as Barrish regained consciousness. Jennifer was put on her father's horse to avoid any more improprieties from the young man. Looking up into the sky, Jennifer watched as a shooting star flew overhead. She smiled, Jesse was coming.
"Where are we going?" Jennifer asked her father, hoping that if she could get him to talk he would slow their pace.
"Why there? That puts you further away from Denver and the train."
"More than one place to catch a train," Kensington grumbled.
"How did you know?"
"Where to find me."
"Telegram from Bannack. Someone saw you there."
'The dressmaker,' Jennifer told herself. Of course, no wonder she'd felt uncomfortable in the stop.
"Did you think I wouldn't find you?" her father asked.
"I was hoping."
"You have an obligation to your family, Jennifer. I raised you, fed you, clothed you. You owed me."
Shaking her head, Jennifer laughed sadly, "I owed myself, Father. I deserved a better future than what you planned for me."
"You've been trouble every since you learned to talk. Always asking questions. Always wanting to do the same as your brothers. Even trying to get your mother to question my authority. Nothing but trouble."
"I was a person, Father, with my own needs. My own feelings. I just wanted to express them. I wanted to see what I could accomplish. Why won't you understand?"
Jennifer stayed quiet for a while. Thinking back on a childhood filled with lonely days as she tried to follow her dreams within the confines of her father's strict rules. She'd finally broken free and she wasn't about to return to that life.
"I ran away because I knew that I would never be allowed to be myself. You made me feel unworthy, Father. You almost made me too afraid to even try to change that. But, I did. I found a way to feel important in Sweetwater."
Kensington grunted his displeasure but Jennifer was undeterred.
"Did you know that I'm a schoolteacher, Father? I have fifteen students in my class and I've made a difference for them. They're learning because I teach them.
"And, Jesse has taught me so much at the ranch. She taught me to ride and how to use the different equipment. We built furniture for our home and fixed the cabin's roof. And, planted a garden. We did it together, Father. She never tells me I can't do something. Instead, she encourages me and lets me try."
"Not proper for a woman to do men's work," Kensington told Jennifer. "Once you're back east and married, you'll see that."
"You won't get me back, Father. Jesse will make sure of that."
"You can't win this one, Jennifer. Don't try," Kensington commanded.
"You'll lose, Father," Jennifer sadly told her father. "And, this time you'll lose more than me."
"Rubbish. Nothing but more of your silly nonsense," Kensington grunted.
"It's okay, sunshine," Jesse was rocking KC who had awakened screaming. "It was just a bad dream."
"Here's some milk," Bette Mae handed a bottle to Jesse. "It's the last 'til we find us a milk cow."
"Thanks," Jesse offered the bottle to the upset baby. KC quickly gulped a few mouthfuls and hiccupped. "Slow down. It's not going anywhere," Jesse told the baby.
Looking around the camp, Jesse could see that KC's cries had awakened everyone.
"Might as well get breakfast going, Bette Mae."
"Alrighty," Bette Mae ambled to the fire ring and stirred the embers back into flame. "Won' take but a minute or two to fix some coffee."
"I'll get the horses ready," Billie said as he stopped to tickle KC on the foot. Getting a giggle from the baby, Billie smiled. "Don't much care for bad dreams myself," he smiled at KC.
"Come on, Billie," Ed rose from his bedroll. "I'll give you a hand. I gotta say, Jesse," Ed grinned at the rancher, "that little bitty thing can sure make some racket."
"Must take after her other mom in that," Thaddeus was rolling up his bedroll.
"Better not let Jennifer hear you say that," Billie laughed and the others joined him.
KC looked up at her laughing mother and smiled, the bad dream quickly fading from her memory.
"You think that's funny, do you," Jesse tickled the giggling baby. The mood in the camp lightened for a few minutes.
"Come on boys," Bette Mae beat a spoon against the coffee pot. "Get it while it's hot."
Breakfast wasn't much more than cold biscuits and hot coffee but no one seemed to mind. Jesse took care of KC before eating the food Bette Mae had set aside for her. As soon as their plates were empty, they broke camp. If they made good time, they would cross the pass before noon and be well on the way to Bozeman by nightfall.
Jesse carefully placed KC in the carry sack and made sure she was comfortable before slipping it onto her shoulders.
"Won't be long now, sunshine. Your momma isn't that far ahead of us. I bet we find her by tonight," Jesse said as she mounted Dusty.
"Otay," KC said although she wasn't real sure what her mommy had said. But, it seemed to make her happy to say it.
The ride down the eastern side of the divide was steep and the road made several turns to accommodate the wagons that traveled the route. Kensington left the road and guided his horse in a more direct route down the slope. Barrish followed but not without complaint.
"Damn it, Kensington," the young man shouted after the older man. "Is it really necessary to ride the horses into the ground?"
"Would you prefer that bitch catches us?" Kensington shouted back.
"What will it matter if the horses give out? We won't be able to outrun her without them."
"Jesse will catch you either way," Jennifer taunted the men.
"You better hope she doesn't," Kensington threatened.
"Or what, Father," Jennifer had had enough of his threats. "Will you add murder to your list of crimes? How do you think your business associates will feel about that?"
"What happens out here will never be known back east," Kensington held onto Jennifer as his horse jumped a small creek.
"How will you keep it a secret? If you force me to go back with you, I'll make sure everyone knows what you've done."
"My father will not appreciate you involving him in murder, Kensington. Kidnapping is bad enough," Barrish pulled his horse to a stop at the creek.
"No one will know," Kensington bellowed.
"You heard her," Barrish dismounted. He was tired and sore and hungry. If Kensington wanted to ride on without him, so be it. "She'll know."
Kensington looked back and saw Barrish standing next to the creek, his horse drinking it's cold water. Yanking his horse around, Kensington rode back to Barrish.
"Get on your horse. We don't have time to stop."
"I'm stopping. I'm tired. My horse is tired. If you want to go on, go," Barrish sat on a log bridging the small creek. "This makes no sense. We can't force her to go back, marry me, and live happily ever after. I say we leave her here. Let that bitch have her."
"She's going back," Kensington growled. "Now, get on your horse."
Shaking his head at the angry man, Barrish said, "it's over."
"It's over when I say it's over," Kensington's horse dropped it's head wanting to drink from the convenient creek. The motion caused her father to relax his hold on Jennifer.
Jennifer quickly slipped off the horse. "He's right, Father. Leave me here. Go on to Bozeman and then home. I'll make sure no one follows you."
"I'll not have either of you ruining my plans. You'll be married. I'll get my money," Kensington barely contained his anger. "I won't tell you again, Barrish. Get on your horse."
Barrish looked at Jennifer. She was without shoes and dressed only in a coat and night shirt. Her legs were dirty and covered in cuts and scratches. She must be as hungry as he was. She had been kidnapped and taken from the place she now called home. From people who loved her and whom she loved. She had every right to be furious. He saw the determination in her eyes. No matter what he and Kensington did, Jennifer would find a way to reunite with her family.
"Or, what? You can't kill everyone, Kensington," the young man sighed. A decision finally made, "I'm sorry, Jennifer. I never should have agreed to this. And, when I get back home, I'll tell my father what happened out here. He won't hold me to his arrangement with your father."
"Thank you," Jennifer could have kissed the young man but decided that probably wasn't a good idea.
"I don't care what you say," Kensington reached down to pull Jennifer back onto his horse. "Your father and I have an agreement. And, I will see it carried out."
"No, Father," Jennifer deftly avoided her father's grasp. "Andrew, is right. It's over."
Twisting in the saddle, Kensington opened the saddlebag. He reached inside and pulled out the pistol he had taken from Jesse. "Get on your horse," he leveled the gun at Barrish.
Jennifer stepped in front of the young man.
"Don't, Father." she screamed.
"Then, get on the horse. NOW!"
Barrish stood. He took the few steps to where his horse grazed on a grassy patch of ground and mounted. Reaching down, he offered a hand to Jennifer. Without hesitating, Jennifer took the extended hand and was pulled up into the saddle. She knew that Barrish had become less of a threat than her father. Maybe, between the two of them, they could escape from the man determined to take her away from her family.
Jesse's party had stopped to rest.
KC was sitting on the ground and playing with her toy horse. She looked around for her mother and couldn't find her. Panicked, KC began to cry.
Mrs. Kensington heard the baby's whimpers and turned to see KC with tears streaming down her face. She walked to the baby and sat down next to her.
"It's alright, KC."
KC looked uncertainly at the woman who seemed to always upset her mothers. But, right now she seemed to be nice. Her voice was gentle and soothing.
Mrs. Kensington tentatively reached out to reassure the baby. When KC didn't protest, she gently rubbed KC's back. "Don't cry, honey. I promise, your mommy will be right back."
KC liked the woman's voice. It reminded her of her missing mother. She dropped to all fours and crawled closer to the woman. When she reached her, KC looked up, seeming to appraise the woman. After a few moments, she crawled into her lap and allowed the woman to rock her. It felt good. Almost like when her mothers rocked her, but not quite.
Jesse returned from the bushes to see KC crawling into Mrs. Kensington's lap. She started for the baby but was stopped by Bette Mae.
"Give 'em a minute, Jesse," Bette Mae said quietly. "I think they both need it."
Jesse watched as Mrs. Kensington carefully cradled KC and began to rock the upset baby. KC calmed in the woman's arms. After several minutes, KC remembered her neglected toy and pointed to the ground where she had left it.
Mrs. Kensington reached for the horse and handed it to KC.
Holding it up for her grandmother to see, KC proudly announced, "Baze."
Smiling, Jesse joined Mrs. Kensington and KC.
"See, I told you your mommy would be right back," Mrs. Kensington told KC as she started to hand the baby to Jesse.
Shaking her head, Jesse said, "she's happy. Let her be."
Mrs. Kensington held the baby, tears filling her eyes, "thank you."
"It's what Jennifer would want," Jesse told her. "Her one regret about leaving your home was that she might never see you again. She loves you. She would want you to know and love her family as much as she does."
"I don't know if I can," Mrs. Kensington spoke softly, not wanting to upset the baby playing in her lap.
"I think you can," Jesse smiled at the woman, "if you want to."
Kensington's insistence that they continue to push the animals had finally caused the horses' energy to drain. They had slowed to a walk and were having trouble maintaining that pace. At mid-afternoon, with Bozeman in sight in the distance, Kensington was forced to call a halt so the exhausted horses could rest. He stopped at the edge of a boulder field where a small pond bubbled up from a natural spring. As the horses drank, Jennifer and Barrish sat in the shade of a large boulder under the watchful eye of Kensington.
Jennifer looked at the father she no longer knew and questioned whether she ever really had. Even after all that had happened since his arrival in Sweetwater, he still believed he could take Jennifer back without any consequences. All she could hope for now was that Jesse would catch up before they reached Bozeman and her father could arrange faster transportation east.
"What do you plan to tell people in Bozeman?" Jennifer asked her father.
"Nothing," Kensington scanned the route they had just traveled. He was sure that Jesse wasn't too far behind them and being forced to stop could give her the time she needed to catch them.
"You can't ride in there holding a gun on us without questions being asked," Barrish continued the questioning.
"Then, I'll tell them the truth," Kensington snarled at the pair. "She's my daughter who ran away from home. She's been promised in marriage. I have a right to take her back."
"What about me?" Barrish asked.
"You're her fiancÈ. You're helping me return her home."
"With a gun in my back?"
Kensington glared at the young man. He had thought Barrish would make a good husband for his daughter. Now, he wasn't so sure. The boy was beginning to ask as many questions as Jennifer.
"Father," Jennifer sighed. She was tired. Tired from the ride and tired from her father's inability to see her as anything more than a bargaining chip. "The people in Bozeman won't believe you. Not after we tell them the truth."
"We won't be there any longer than it takes to catch the next stage out of town. You won't have time to tell them anything."
Laughing, Jennifer asked, "do you plan on me traveling all the way back east dressed like this?" She opened the coat and showed her father the dirty and torn night shirt she wore. "I think my chose of clothing might raise a few questions by itself."
Turning back to watch for any sign of Jesse, Kensington chose to ignore the questions directed at him. Jennifer was right, though. She needed some proper clothing and he would have to think of something to tell the people they encountered in Bozeman. But, there would be time for that when they reached town. Right now, he was only concerned with avoiding the woman following him.
"Let's go," Kensington grabbed the reins of his horse.
After mounting, Barrish guided the horse carrying himself and Jennifer into the boulder field. It was the last major obstacle before they entered the valley where Bozeman sat nestled in it's center. The horses would have to slowly pick their way through the rocks and Jennifer made a silent wish that the delay would be all Jesse needed.
Kensington looked back over his shoulder as the horses entered the boulder field. He saw riders rapidly approaching.
"Get moving," he rode up next to Barrish and Jennifer. "They're coming."
Jennifer's heart leaped into her throat at her father's words. She tried to look for Jesse but, with Barrish riding behind her, she was unable to see anything.
"Move," Kensington slapped the rump of their horse and the animal jumped forward.
Mrs. Kensington was riding close to Dusty. Since their last stop, she had been thinking about the woman that her daughter had declared she loved. And, about the obvious love Jesse held for Jennifer. Looking up, she saw KC watching her. She smiled at the baby safely tucked into the carry pack on Jesse's back.
KC smiled back, she lifted a small hand and held it up. Tiny fingers opened and closed in an awkward baby wave. KC giggled when Mrs. Kensington mimicked the action.
Looking over her shoulder, Jesse saw the interaction between KC and Jennifer's mother. She slowed Dusty's pace just enough for the other horse to catch up.
"How far ahead are they?" Mrs. Kensington asked as they rode side by side.
"Couple of hours. Maybe, less," Jesse nudged Dusty back to her original speed.
Mrs. Kensington kept pace. "Will we catch them today?"
"I'm planning on it."
"You could move faster if you weren't carrying KC," the woman told Jesse what she already knew.
Jesse didn't answer.
"Why don't you let me carry KC?"
"Thanks, but..." Jesse didn't have a chance to finish.
"Please," Mrs. Kensington reached out and placed a hand on her arm. "I want you to help Jennifer."
Jesse pulled Dusty to a stop. She studied the other woman. "I'm taking her home with us."
Smiling, Mrs. Kensington nodded. "I expect that's what she'll want. Please," she held out her arms, "let me take the baby. You go ahead and find her momma."
Jesse looked at the woman then into the distance where Jennifer would be found. She turned her head to see what KC was doing. The baby was sitting quietly smiling at her grandmother.
Slipping the pack's straps from her shoulders, Jesse held it so she could kiss KC.
"Be a good girl," she told the baby as she helped Mrs. Kensington settle the pack on her back. "I'm going to go get your momma." Jesse expected KC to protest the exchange and was surprised when the baby smiled at her.
"I love you, KC," Jesse placed her hand on the baby's head and held it there for a moment. "I promise, I'll bring momma back."
"Otay," KC waved at Jesse as she rode away.
Once free of the responsibility of carrying KC, Jesse urged Dusty into a gallop and was charging out of the foothills and into the valley beyond. Bozeman was less than a few hours ride in the distance and Jesse knew that Jennifer had to be somewhere in between. She was determined to find her lover as quickly as possible.
Billie urged his horse forward and raced to catch up with Jesse. It was a struggle since Dusty was one of the fastest horses around. But, Billie was not about to let his friend go up against Kensington alone.
The two horses and their riders sped across the terrain of gently rolling hills, stopping for nothing. They hurdled the smaller creeks and splashed through the larger ones. Ravines and gullies did not deter them from the path as they rode the most direct route to Bozeman. The valley floor flattened the closer they approached Bozeman and the horses flew across the distance.
Mrs. Kensington, Bette Mae, Ed, and Thaddeus followed as quickly as they could. From a ever widening distance, they watched as Jesse and Billie raced forward on their mission.
"That was a mighty nice thin' ya done," Bette Mae said as she rode alongside Jennifer's mother.
"We should have never come here," Mrs. Kensington sadly answered. "Jennifer would have been much better off."
"Now, ya is plain wrong there," Bette Mae told Mrs. Kensington. "Once this is all over, Jennifer is goin' be real happy that you're here. But, ya husband. Well, that's gonna be a different story."
"I never should have let him treat Jennifer the way he did," Mrs. Kensington reached up and took the tiny hand stretched over her shoulder. She gently rubbed the baby's hand.
"Do you think she'll ever forgive me?"
"Lordy," Bette Mae chuckled. "She done forgave you years ago."
Mrs. Kensington gave Bette Mae a curious look, "I don't understand."
"Jennifer told me about her family back east. Said that excep' for you, she was pretty much ignored by the group. She's got almost no memories 'bout her brothers and only bad ones 'bout her poppa. But, she's got plenty of real happy ones about you. She knows you couldn' done nothin' to help. Your husband jus' don' see much good in women, 'cept to have his babies and cook his meals. Otherwise, he jus' don' need 'em. And, Jennifer don' need him, neither."
Bette Mae smiled at her companion, "but, you and Jennifer are different. She needs her momma. And, I think her momma needs her."
Mrs. Kensington gazed at Bette Mae. She wondered how a woman who seemed to be uneducated could be so smart. But, she decided, it really didn't matter. What Bette Mae said was true. She did need Jennifer. And, she was sure going to do what she could to mend the fences between herself and her daughter.
"Let's go find your mothers," Mrs. Kensington told KC as she looked over her shoulder at the baby.
Moments later four horses were galloping in pursuit of Jesse and Jennifer.
"Look," Billie was pointing.
"I see them," Jesse said.
They had ridden over the top of a small hill. Several miles in the distance, Jesse could make out the movement of two horses and their riders as they were entering a field of boulders and rocks.
Another movement caught Jesse's sharp eyes.
"Damn," Jesse swore as she urged Dusty to run even faster.
Crouched, hidden in the rocks, her body coiled tightly as she patiently waited. Her ears were laid flat against her head, an indication of her intentions. Her prey was almost in position.
She tensed her strong leg muscles and pounced from her rocky hiding place. Ignoring the screams of her victim, she sank hard, sharp claws into soft flesh. Her mouth opened wide and she forced her fangs down and into her victim's neck.
The horse Jennifer rode, suddenly whinnied in fear and shied away from the nearby boulders. Jennifer was stunned when Andrew disappeared from behind her.
Barrish screamed as the cougar landed on his back, knocking him to the ground.
Kensington's horse bucked at the appearance of the cat and it took all of his strength to control the frightened animal.
Rolling in an attempt to loosen the cat's hold, Barrish felt white-hot searing pain spread throughout his body. The cat's claws and fangs sinking deeper into his skin.
"Do something," Jennifer yelled at her father as she dropped to the ground. She picked up a broken branch and ran to Barrish's aid.
The mountain lion held fast as the man fought to free himself. Concentrating on her victim, the cat did not notice the woman approaching until the branch struck her back. She turned, her victim's head still held in her jaws, and growled at the attacker.
Kensington's horse continued to buck and twist in an attempt to get away from the mountain lion. When the other horse, now riderless, ran past making it's escape, Kensington's horse followed carrying it's rider with it.
Jennifer raised the branch for a second attack. The cat snarled but refused to let go of Barrish. Jennifer swung the branch down on the massive head this time. The cat released its mouth from Barrish's neck and hissed at Jennifer. Displaying it's bloodied fangs, the cat growled a warning at the woman.
Kensington gained control of his horse and turned it back to the boulder field. As he approached, the mountain lion growled and, again, the horse reared. Kensington was thrown to the ground and his horse took off running as fast as it could away from the danger.
Kensington heard the cat growl again and looked up in time to see Jennifer swinging a branch toward the animal. The cat released Barrish and turned it's attention to Jennifer.
Jennifer brought the branch down again on the snarling animal's head. As she did, the cat swiped a large paw out in her direction. It connected with her and claws raked down the length of her leg.
Jennifer screamed in pain.
Leaving the body of Barrish on the ground, the cat tightened it's strong muscles and leaped through the air at the injured woman. Holding her leg in an futile attempt to stop the bleeding, Jennifer looked up to see the cat, claws and fangs bared, flying towards her.
Midway in her leap, a bullet pierced the cat's neck. Her momentum carried her toward Jennifer as a second bullet penetrated her chest, ripping through her lungs and heart. She was dead before she slammed into Jennifer. Both cat and woman crashed to the ground where they lay motionless.
Jesse rode towards the boulder field and Jennifer, she saw the mountain lion leap from its hiding place and land on Barrish. She was relieved to see Jennifer still on the horse when Barrish and the cat fell to the ground. But, moments later, her heart stopped when she saw Jennifer slip off the horse and pick up a broken branch as she approached the large cat. She watched in fear as Jennifer struck the cat. Then saw the cat whirl at her lover as she brought the branch down for a second time.
Without breaking Dusty's stride, Jesse pulled her rifle from the saddle's scabbard and took aim on the animal. Just as she was about to pull the trigger, Kensington and his horse rode between her and Jennifer. Jesse heard her lover's scream as the cat's sharp claws cut into her.
"Get out of the way," Jesse yelled at the man. She watched as Kensington's horse reared and unseated its rider. As soon as she had a clear shot, Jesse took aim and fired as the cat leaped at Jennifer. She quickly fired a second shot.
Jesse screamed for her lover when she saw the cat hit Jennifer and take her to the ground. She couldn't chance another shot without risking the woman she loved.
Jesse leaped from Dusty's back as the horse neared the spot where Jennifer and the cat fell, Not caring if the animal was still alive, Jesse balled her fists in the large animal's coat and flung it aside.
"Jesse," Jennifer groaned in pain as the heavy weight of the cat was removed from her body.
"I'm here darlin'," Jesse fell to the ground beside Jennifer and lovingly caressed her cheek. "I'm here."
"I knew you'd come," Jennifer managed a smile before she passed out.
continued in Part III
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