See Part I for disclaimers.
Billie reached Jennifer moments after Jesse threw the mountain lion off her. He instantly dropped to the ground.
"We've got to stop the bleeding," Jesse was frantically trying to halt the flow of her lover's blood. The cat's claws had left deep gashes in Jennifer's leg.
Kensington walked up to Jesse and pointed the pistol he still carried at her. "Get away from her, you bitch."
Billie reached up and grabbed the gun, yanking it from the older man's grasp.
"I won't let her spoil my plans," Jennifer's father shouted at the sheriff.
"She won't," Billie's anger boiled over and without warning, slammed a fist into Kensington's face, knocking him to the ground. "But, I will," he said as pulled a rope from his saddle and tied the stunned man's hands. "Now, shut up while we try to save your daughter's life."
The others rode up and quickly evaluated the situation.
Mrs. Kensington gasped when she saw Jennifer covered in blood. She dismounted and began to approach her daughter.
Bette Mae stopped her, "don' let the little one see this." She reached under her dress and ripped off the bottom of her petticoat. Tearing it into strips, she knelt beside Jennifer.
Jesse's hands were covered in Jennifer's blood, she was trying desperately to hold the sides of the gash together.
"Here," Bette Mae wrapped one of the bandages around Jennifer's thigh. "Hold this as tight as you can. It'll slow the bleeding."
Unable to think, Jesse did as she was told.
Bette Mae went to work. She told Ed to gather all of their canteens so she could clean out the wound as best she could. Then, she wrapped the rest of the bandages around Jennifer's injury. She tightened the wrappings as much as she dared.
KC sensed something was wrong and that it involved her mothers. She tried to free herself of the carry sack, beating her little arms and legs against her grandmother's back.
Thaddeus, seeing the baby's distress, removed her from the sack. "Hey, now," he spoke calmly to KC as he lifted her free, "your momma is going to be okay."
Mrs. Kensington turned to retake charge of KC.
"Go on," Thaddeus told the distraught woman. "Jennifer needs you now."
Wasting no time, Mrs. Kensington rushed to her daughter's side.
Ed approached the body of young Barrish. He was laying face down and hadn't moved since they had arrived at the scene of the attack. As he rolled the young man over, Ed knew that he was dead. He rolled the body back face down, there was no reason for the women to see the boy's injuries, he reasoned. Pulling a blanket from his saddle, Ed covered the body.
"That should hold the leg until we get her to the doctor in Bozeman," Bette Mae was telling Jesse and Mrs. Kensington.
Jesse bent down and softly kissed Jennifer's lips. She started to lift her lover in arms that shook with fear.
Ed stopped Jesse, "get on your horse. I'll pass her up to you," he quietly told her.
Jesse looked up at the large man, she could see the concern in his eyes. She tried to speak but words would not come from her dry throat.
"Go on," Ed assured her. "She'll be fine once you get her to the doc's."
Jesse slowly nodded, then pushed herself upright. She quickly mounted Dusty who stood only a few feet away.
Ed gently lifted Jennifer from the ground and carried her to Jesse. He reached his long arms up and placed the injured woman into Jesse's waiting arms.
Once Jennifer was secure in her arms, Jesse looked around for KC.
Mrs. Kensington was impatiently waiting as Thaddeus placed the baby back into the carry sack still she wore. With the baby once again safely on her back, she mounted her horse and joined Jesse. "Let's go."
That was all Jesse needed to hear, she urged Dusty forward and the two women started for Bozeman. Bette Mae mounted Blaze and quickly rode after them.
After the women left, Thaddeus asked, "what about him?" He jerked his head toward Barrish.
"He's dead," Ed answered.
"Dead?" Kensington looked at the body of the young man who represented nothing more than a business deal to him.
"Yeah, dead," Billie said as he pulled Kensington to his feet. "Guess, you'll have some trouble explaining that to his poppa. Won't you?"
"He can't be dead," Kensington absently replied.
"He is," Billie motioned to Thaddeus. "You'll have to ride with Ed. Their horses are long gone."
"Alright," Thaddeus held his horse's reins while Kensington was helped into the saddle.
Billie wrapped the body of dead boy in the blanket before throwing it over the back of his saddle. He mounted and took control of the reins of the horse Kensington now rode. Once, Ed and Thaddeus were mounted, the men headed for Bozeman.
"I want that bitch arrested," Kensington told Billie as they left.
"Only one being arrested is you," Billie growled at the arrogant man.
"After what she's done to my daughter," Kensington started.
"What she's done," Billie laughed humorlessly at the man. "Do you care at all, Kensington, that Jennifer may not live after what that cat did to her? And, all because of you."
Before the man could answer, Billie set his horse into a gallop and pulled Kensington's mount behind him. The man could do nothing more than hang onto the saddle horn and hope he wasn't thrown from the horse before they reached Bozeman.
Jesse, Bette Mae, and Mrs. Kensington pulled their horses to a stop in front of the doctor's office. Jesse immediately slipped from the saddle with Jennifer carefully cradled in her arms. By the time she reached the office door, Mrs. Kensington and Bette Mae were pushing the door open. The women rushed inside.
Looking up from his desk, the doctor immediately realized the severity of Jennifer's injuries.
"Bring her back here," the doctor told the women as he rose from his chair and led them into a back room.
Jesse followed the doctor and gently laid Jennifer on the examination table while the doctor poured clean water into a bowl.
"What happened?" the doctor asked.
"Mountain lion," Jesse said as she brushed Jennifer's sweat soaked hair off her face.
Jennifer moaned in pain.
"It's goin' be okay," Jesse whispered to Jennifer and looked at the doctor for verification to the truth of her words.
"Let's have a look," the doctor began to unwrap the bandages from Jennifer's leg. He grimaced as the wound was revealed. "She'll loose the leg," he said as he began to examine the damage done by the cat's claws.
"No," Jesse reached across Jennifer's body and grabbed the man's arm. "Sew it up."
The doctor looked into determined auburn eyes, then at the injured woman. "It might kill her."
"She'll make it," Jesse gritted her teeth. "She has to," she whispered.
Mrs. Kensington placed a hand on Jesse's shoulder, with her other hand she released Jesse's grip on the doctor. "Jesse's right, save the leg. My daughter's a survivor, it's what she'd want."
Nodding, the doctor set to work repairing the damage done to Jennifer's leg.
"Best you wait in the other room whilst the Doc and I fix up Jennifer," Bette Mae motioned for Mrs. Kensington to take Jesse out of the examination room.
When Jesse started to protest, Mrs. Kensington gently pulled her from Jennifer's side, "come on. We'd only be in the way here. Besides, I don't think you want KC watching this."
Jesse had forgotten about her daughter watching quietly from the carry sack on the other woman's back.
"Alright," she gave in. She leaned down and placed a kiss on Jennifer's forehead. "Please don't leave us, darlin'. We love you. " she whispered.
Mrs. Kensington guided her from the room.
"Alrighty, Doc," Bette Mae rolled up her sleeves. "Let's get her fixed up. I don' want to be tellin' Jesse any bad news. I don' think she could handle it."
"They friends?" the doctor asked as he worked on Jennifer's leg.
"Married," Bette Mae informed the man.
"I need you to hold him until we sort all this out," Billie told the Bozeman sheriff. When Billie, Thaddeus, and Ed reached Bozeman, they rode directly to the sheriff's office with their prisoner. They had informed the lawman of the circumstances that brought them to Bozeman.
"What you planning to charge him with?" the lawman asked as he directed Kensington into a small cell.
"Kidnapping and assault, to start."
"Alright," the lawman replaced the ring of keys on a hook near his desk. "You going to the doc's?"
"Yeah," Billie answered. "We'll be there with Jennifer. I'll come back and sign the papers soon as we know she's okay."
"Wait," Kensington shouted from his cell. "You can't keep me here. I have business to attend to. I need to send some telegrams."
Shaking his head at the easterner, Billie followed Ed and Thaddeus from the office. They walked to the doctor's office located a short distance from the jail. Entering, the men saw Mrs. Kensington comforting KC. Jesse was slumped in a chair, white as a ghost and trembling.
Mrs. Kensington looked up as the men entered, she shook her head to their unspoken questions. "Bette Mae and the doctor are with her." She carried the baby to Jesse. Placing KC in Jesse's arms, she softly said, "she's hungry, Jesse. I'll go see if I can find some milk."
"I'll go," Ed volunteered. "I know some of the shopkeepers. Won't take long to round up some fresh milk for the little one."
"Thank you," Mrs. Kensington smiled at the big man. She had not wanted to leave the office until she knew how Jennifer was.
Jesse looked at the baby in her arms. She looked so much like Jennifer.
KC knew something was wrong, her momma was asleep in the other room. And, her mommy was looking sad and worried. KC looked up at Jesse and knew what her mommy needed. KC pulled herself upright using Jesse's shirt. Standing in Jesse's lap, the baby reached her tiny arms around Jesse's neck and placed a wet kiss on her mother's cheek.
Jesse tearfully smiled at the baby, "I love you, too, sunshine." She returned the baby's hug and held her tight to her chest. Jennifer would be alright. She had to be. KC needed her momma. Tears began to flood from her eyes. "I need her, too," she quietly cried.
Seeing the emotional state Jesse was in, Billie whispered to Mrs. Kensington, "we'll wait outside. Let us know as soon as you hear anything."
Mrs. Kensington nodded before pulling a chair close to Jesse and wrapping the distressed rancher in her own arms. "She'll be fine. She loves you too much to give that up."
Jesse allowed herself to seek comfort in the older woman's embrace. After some time, her tears slowed and she wiped her eyes with her sleeves.
"Thank you," Jesse told Jennifer's mother. "I guess it all caught up with me."
KC, still clinging to Jesse's neck, sniffled along with her mother.
"Hey, sunshine," Jesse kissed the baby. "Just 'cause your silly mommy is crying doesn't mean you have to." Jesse tickled the baby and was rewarded with a giggle, "that's better. Don't want your momma waking up and finding us all teary eyed, do we?" she tickled the baby again.
Ed re-entered the office with several bottles of fresh cow's milk. "This should keep her happy for a while," he said as he placed the bottles on the doctor's desk.
"Moooo," KC reached for the bottle Ed was handing to Jesse.
"Here you go," Jesse kept hold of the bottle as KC pulled it to her mouth. She hungrily began to drink as she dropped to sit in Jesse's lap.
"Thanks, Ed," Jesse told the big man.
"You let us know if you need anything else. We're right outside," he told the women as he started to leave.
"Ed," Jesse stopped the storekeeper. "Tell Billie and Thaddeus to come in. We might as well wait together."
"You sure, Jesse?"
"Yes," she smiled at the big man. "I'd kinda like to have you guys around."
"Alright," Ed smiled back. "We'd kinda like that, too."
Moments later Billie and Thaddeus joined them and their vigil continued.
"Well, that's all we can do," the doctor was washing Jennifer's blood from his hands. "The rest is up to her."
It had taken almost four hours for the doctor, with Bette Mae's help, to stitch Jennifer's leg back together. The cat's claws had left one long, deep gash from her hip to just below her knee and several shorter gashes along the length of her leg.
Once he had finished cleaning up, the doctor moved into the outer office. Jesse stood as soon as the doctor entered, KC asleep in her arms.
"Doctor?" she asked breathlessly.
Jesse released the breath she was holding, "thank you."
"Don't thank me yet. She's lost a lot of blood. And, there's always the chance of infection with these kind of wounds."
"What can I do?" Jesse asked.
"Wait. It's up to her, now."
"Can we see her?" Mrs. Kensington asked.
"Yes, for a few minutes. She needs rest now. And, lots of it."
Jesse was at Jennifer's side before the doctor finished speaking.
Jennifer lay under blankets on the examination table. Jesse was shocked to see how pale her lover looked. Shifting KC to one arm, Jesse placed a hand against her wife's face and gently caressed it.
"I'm here, darlin'," she bent down and kissed Jennifer. "So is KC. We'll be right here when you wake up."
Mrs. Kensington heard Jesse's words as she entered the room. She paused allowing Jesse to have a few moments with Jennifer before joining her at the bed.
"She looks so pale," Jesse said.
"She'll be alright, Jesse," Mrs. Kensington ran a hand through Jennifer's matted hair.
Jesse reached under the blankets and took Jennifer's hand into her own.
Knowing that Jesse would not leave Jennifer's side until the injured woman awoke, Bette Mae carried a chair into the room.
"Here ya go," Bette Mae said as she placed the chair next to the bed. "Why don' ya let me take my littl' angel while you wait with Jennifer."
"Thanks," Jesse sat in the chair. She was exhausted, having had very little sleep over the past few days. And, with the added stress of Jennifer's injuries, she was ready to collapse. "I think it's best KC stay with me. Jennifer will want to see her as soon as she wakes up."
The doctor came back into the room. He walked around the table and checked Jennifer's pulse. Lifting the blankets, he checked the stitches for any sign of new bleeding.
"She's going to need plenty of rest. This isn't the best table to spend several days on," he told the women. "You know anyone in town that can provide her a bed?"
Jesse thought of her parents then rejected the idea. After, refusing any contact with her, she couldn't expect them to provide a place for Jennifer.
"No," Jesse replied. "Guess we could get a room at the hotel."
"You could," the doctor replaced the blankets making sure Jennifer was completely covered. "But, I was thinking of someplace a little quieter than a hotel. Guess you'll be staying here, then."
Bette Mae listened to the doctor's words, then slipped from the room.
"Guess we will," Jesse muttered, her eyes never leaving her sleeping lover.
"Are you going to let me out of here?" Kensington bellowed at the lawman.
"Nope," the sheriff was leaned back in his chair, his feet resting on his desk. For the last several hours, he had been listening to Kensington order him to unlock the cell's door and release him. It amazed him that the man had never once asked about his daughter even though he knew she was at the doc's office fighting for her life.
"Look, I need to send a telegram to young Barrish's father. He needs to know how that bitch caused his death," Kensington repeated.
"Seems to me," the sheriff took a swallow of coffee from the cup he held, "you had a lot more to do with that."
"Me?" Kensington looked at the sheriff. "I had nothing to do with Barrish's death. If that bitch hadn't been chasing us..."
"Enough," the sheriff had heard Kensington curse Jesse's name many times over the past hours. He finished his coffee and placed the cup on his desk before standing. He walked to the cell where Kensington paced. "I'd say you're gonna have a lot of explaining to do, especially to that boy's family. But, for now, I've heard all I care to from you. The hotel will send over your supper around six. Until then, sit down and shut up."
Kensington watched the sheriff slam shut the heavy door between the office and the prisoner cells. He stood in his cell and looked around the room. His cell was one of four and he was the only prisoner currently being held. The small windows in each cell let in just enough light so that the room wasn't totally dark with the solid door to the office closed. The cell contained a cot covered with a rough and lumpy mattress and a bucket in the corner of the room served an obvious purpose.
Kensington walked to the cot and sat. He had to think. With Barrish dead, his strategy for financing the company's expansion had fallen apart. He needed a new idea. How could his carefully thought out plan have ended so badly?
"Damn you, Jesse Branson," he muttered as the answer came to him. "Damn you,"
Stanley and Marie Branson had been surprised when the woman knocked on the door to their small house. After hearing Bette Mae's story, Stanley accompanied her back to the doctor's office. They entered the office and Bette Mae directed the man to the back room where Jesse waited.
Jesse was used to people coming into the room and didn't take notice when someone entered. She was too concerned about Jennifer.
Stanley Branson stood at the door and took in the scene. His daughter sat in a chair holding a sleeping child, her hand clutched onto the hand of the woman laying on the examination table. He slowly stepped close to his daughter.
Hearing the familiar voice, Jesse turned, "poppa?"
Stanley placed a large, calloused hand on his daughter's shoulder and squeezed gently. "Come on," he told Jesse, "your momma's fixing up a bed for her."
Tears sprung to Jesse's eyes, "how'd you know?"
"Your friend came to visit," her father told her. "Looks like you could use a bed yourself."
"I can't sleep, pop. Not until I know she's okay," tears streamed down Jesse's cheeks.
"Come on, then," Stanley carefully lifted Jennifer from the table, making sure the blanket wrapped securely around the woman. "Your momma's waiting for us," he looked at Jesse and the sleeping baby in her arms. "That your young 'un?"
"Well, best not keep your momma waiting. She'd be wantin' to meet the tyke."
Jesse rose from the chair. She was exhausted and her shaky legs proved it.
"Hold on, there," Bette Mae had followed Stanley into the room and rushed to Jesse's side. She wrapped an arm around Jesse's waist. Once Jesse steadied, she said, "now, let me take my littl' angel. Come on, you can barely hold yourself up," Bette insisted and carefully lifted the sleeping KC from Jesse's arms. Holding the baby in one arm, she kept her other around Jesse as they followed Stanley from the room.
Jennifer was placed in the bed belonging to Jesse's parents.
Seeing the lack of dress of the injured woman, Marie Branson pulled a nightshirt from a chest of drawers. "Help me get this over her head," Mrs. Branson told Jesse. "She'll be more comfortable."
Jesse bent to slip a arm around Jennifer's shoulders. In her exhausted state, she barely managed to hold her lover off the bed as her mother carefully pulled Jennifer's arms through the shirt's sleeves. Jennifer groaned as the nightshirt was eased down her body.
"I'm sorry, darlin'," Jesse caressed Jennifer's cheek. "I'm so sorry."
"Now," her mother said as she tucked the blankets around Jennifer. "You get out of them clothes and put this on," she tossed another nightshirt on the end of the bed. "You need some sleep."
"I can't leave her," Jesse protested.
"Don't expect you to. Get out of them clothes and crawl in with her. Probably the best thing for both of ya."
Jesse stared at her mother, had she just heard right?
"Go on. Quit gawking and do what you're told," Mrs. Branson told Jesse. She crossed the room to a cradle in the corner. KC slept in the same bed her mother had once occupied. "She's a tiny one, ain't she," Mrs. Branson commented.
Jesse was pulling off her dirty boots, "she'll grow."
"Reckon she will if she eats like you," Mrs. Branson chuckled as she watched her grandchild sleep. "KC is a funny name for a baby."
"Jennifer named her after her real folks, Kenneth and Catherine," Jesse told her.
Mrs. Branson lifted the cradle and carried it across the room. "Baby should be near her mommas," she said as she set it alongside the bed.
Jesse pulled the nightshirt on, the clean material felt strange against her dirty skin. She could use a bath but was too tired to even suggest taking one.
"Go on, now. Get into bed," Mrs. Branson told Jesse.
"Mom," Jesse said as she moved to the bed. "I want to thank you."
"We're family. Couldn't do no less,"
"But," Jesse started.
"Go on," her mother admonished. "We can talk later."
"Thank you," Jesse said, her voice cracking.
Her mother paused as she turned to leave the room but said nothing. Moments later Jesse and her family were alone in the room.
Jesse checked on KC before carefully rolling over next to Jennifer. She lay on the opposite side of Jennifer's body from the injured leg that was propped up on pillows. Cautiously, she scooted as close as she dared to her her lover's body. Jennifer seemed to sense her closeness and reached out for her. Jesse captured Jennifer's hand, pulling it to her chest.
"I'm here, darlin'," Jesse whispered. "I'll always be here." She placed her forehead against Jennifer's shoulder and was soon sound asleep.
Bette Mae had taken over cooking duties and refused help from the two mothers. She had sent Ed and Thaddeus out to buy food knowing that Jesse would want it that way. She also ordered them to get rooms at the hotel for the next several days. The Branson's house was too small for all of them to stay there. Billie had gone to the sheriff's office to check on his prisoner.
"It's very kind of you to take us in," Mrs. Kensington was sitting with the Bransons at the kitchen table.
"Jesse's our daughter. Can't turn our back to her when she's in need," Mr. Branson said.
"I'm sorry I didn't do the same for Jennifer."
"Sounds to me like your husband is a determined man," Mrs. Branson told the other woman.
"Ha. That's a mighty fine way for sayin' he's crazier than a five legged dog," Bette Mae injected as she placed a fresh pot of coffee on the table. The aroma of fresh biscuits baking beginning to fill the air.
"Shouldn't talk about the man like that," Mr. Branson said. "He was doing what he thought best."
"No," Mrs. Kensington shook her head. "Bette Mae is right. My husband was wrong. We should have never come for Jennifer. She followed her dreams. We should have encouraged her, not try to destroy the life she's made for herself. I just hope it's not too late."
"Sometimes, you don't know until it is too late," Mr. Branson rose from his chair and left the room.
Mrs. Branson followed her husband with her eyes, she hoped it wasn't too late for him and Jesse.
"He's a proud man," Bette Mae observed.
"Yes," Mrs. Branson agreed, "sometimes, he's too proud."
The women drank their coffee in silence.
"That should keep him here a while," Billie said as he finished signing papers charging Kensington with numerous crimes.
"Think we can charge him with being a blow hard?" the lawman laughed. Kensington continued to shout at the sheriffs through the closed door.
"Don't think the judge will question it after he has a chance to listen to him," Billie handed the signed papers to the other lawman.
"Probably not," the papers were placed safely in a desk drawer. "What do you plan to do about the boy?"
"Stopped at the telegraph office coming over here. My guess is that we'll be sending the body back east. Told them to send any response to your office."
"Body at the undertakers?"
"I'll take care of it,"
"You going back to the doc's?"
"No. Jesse's folks have a little house a couple of streets over. They took Jennifer there. I'll be there or at the hotel."
Remember that his prisoner had referred to Jesse by name, he asked, "say, is that Stanley and Marie Branson?"
"Damn," the sheriff sat back in his chair. "I haven't seen Jesse since her folks lost their ranch. She disappeared right about that time. Her folks don't ever mention her. I just figured they had some sort of falling out. You know, a family thing."
"Don't know. Jesse don't talk much about her life before she came to Sweetwater. I never asked."
"Sometimes, that's for the best."
"Yep," Billie stood. "Better be gettin' back."
"Alright. I'll let you know if I hear anything."
The shadows had lengthened as the women slept. KC awoke in the cradle and immediately looked for her mothers. Sitting up, she spied them on the bed. The cradle had been placed right next to the bed and the baby used the blankets to pull herself up to stand in the cradle. Using what foot and hand holds she could find, KC climbed onto the bed and crawled to her mothers.
Jesse was laying on her side, an arm draped across Jennifer's waist. KC pulled herself upright against the sleeping woman's back and peeked over her. She smiled when she saw Jennifer watching her. Thrilled at finding Jennifer awake, KC began to slap her hands on Jesse's side and tried to climb over her.
"Momma," the baby cried excitedly. "Momma."
Jennifer heard the baby's words and tears filled her eyes.
Jesse awoke to someone beating on her. She turned to see KC standing behind her and smacking her. "Hush, sunshine. You'll wake up momma," Jesse reached for the baby and tried to quiet her.
KC pointed at her other mother, "momma."
Jesse turned to look in the direction KC was pointing.
"Darlin'," Jesse gasped when she saw Jennifer was awake. "Oh, baby, you're awake.
Seeing the tears, Jesse was afraid that by being in the bed, she was causing Jennifer pain. "Oh, darlin', I'm so sorry," Jesse started to leave the bed.
"No," Jennifer reached out and grabbed Jesse's nightshirt. "Don't go."
"But, I must be hurting you."
"No," Jennifer smiled at her lover.
"Then, why are you crying, darlin'?"
"Honey, these are happy tears."
"Happy tears?" KC was struggling to climb over Jesse and she reached back to help the baby. Once free of the obstacle of her mother's body, KC planted herself on the bed next to Jennifer and laid her head on Jennifer's stomach.
"Yes," Jennifer stroked the baby's head. "Didn't you hear what she called me?"
Jesse tried to remember but her exhausted mind left everything in a fuzzy blur. "What did you say?" she asked the baby, not really expecting her to answer.
"Momma," KC pointed at Jennifer. "Momma."
Jesse smiled at KC, tears filling her own eyes. "That's right, sunshine. That's our momma."
Later, when Bette Mae looked in on the women, she wasn't surprised to see KC laying on Jesse's chest as Jesse held Jennifer in her arms. All three smiling in their sleep. Hearing movement behind her, Bette Mae stepped aside as Mrs. Kensington and Mrs. Branson quietly entered the room. The women took in the sight of their daughters happily sleeping in each other's arms. Without comment, they quietly left the room.
It was three days after Jesse had carried an injured Jennifer into Bozeman. Jennifer was recovering but it was slow going. The doctor was pleased with the way the leg seemed to be healing and amazed when no serious infection had developed. Jennifer tired quickly due to the large loss of blood she had suffered. And, the leg still caused her a great deal of pain. But, being alive and with Jesse and KC, Jennifer was not going to complain.
"Momma," KC was leaning against Jennifer. "Owie?"
"Yes, sweetie," Jennifer rubbed the baby's back. "Momma has a owie."
"You be real careful, sunshine," Jesse said as she placed a tray on the small table that had been brought into the room and set near the bed. "Don't touch momma's owie."
"Otay," KC sat up when she saw the food on the tray. "Pease," she stretched out a small hand.
"Honey," Jennifer laughed. "You can't be hungry already. Not after that large breakfast Bette Mae fed you."
KC withdrew her hand and thrust out her lower lip.
Jesse chuckled at the baby, "here you go, sunshine. Bette Mae made this special for you," she handed the baby a cookie.
"Jesse, you'll spoil her," Jennifer shook her head but let the baby enjoy the cookie.
"Nah," Jesse said. "She only gets one. And, this one is for you," she handed a second cookie to Jennifer.
"Oooh," Jennifer sighed. "It's still warm."
"Yep," Jesse filled a cup with hot coffee and placed it on the table within Jennifer's reach. "Best way to eat cookies."
"You're not having any?" Jennifer looked suspiciously at Jesse.
"Nope," Jesse shrugged her shoulders.
"How many did you eat in the kitchen?"
"One or two," Jesse watched Jennifer's eyebrow slowly raise. "Or, three. Maybe, four." Seeing the doubt in her wife's eyes, she quickly added, "but, no more than five."
"Ha," Jennifer giggled. "Now, we know where you get your appetite, sweetie," she told KC who had cookie smeared all over her face.
"Come here," Jesse carefully lifted the baby from the bed so as to not cause Jennifer any undue pain. "Did you get any of that cookie inside of you?" she asked as she began to clean the baby's face.
KC giggled as Jesse rubbed a wet cloth around her dirty face.
A knock at the door interrupted them.
"Want some company?" Billie poked his head inside.
"Sure," Jennifer smiled at the sheriff.
"How you feeling?" Billie asked as he entered the room.
"Like a mountain lion used me for a scratching post," Jennifer said as she finished her cookie.
"Guess there's a good reason for that," Billie grinned. "Sounds like you're doing okay."
"Long as I've got Jesse, KC, and you guys to keep me company, I'm doing fine. Hurts but I'm okay."
"Good to hear," Billie smiled. "I hate to bring this up, Jennifer, but it's about your poppa."
Jennifer's mood darkened at the mention of her father. "What about him?"
"Judge will be in town in two days. We need to know if you're still wantin' to let him go."
After learning that Billie had arrested her father, Jennifer had asked the sheriff to release him if he promised to leave Montana and never return. Jesse had joined Billie in arguing against Jennifer's decision. But, Jennifer had insisted that she didn't want her father anywhere in Montana, even if he was in prison. Jesse had reluctantly agreed.
"Has he promised?" Jennifer asked.
"Yes, for what good it's worth," Billie told her.
"Darlin'," Jesse took Jennifer's hand into her own. "I don't think you should."
Jennifer smiled sadly at Jesse, "sweetheart, I wouldn't be able to rest if I knew he was here. He'll have more than enough trouble when he goes back home. I'll write to Andrew's father, I'm sure that he'll expect my father to do more than apologize for his son's death. Please, I don't want him here."
"Alright," Jesse conceded.
"Let him go," Jennifer told Billie. "Just be sure you put him on the stage."
"Don't worry," Billie nodded. "I'll buy his ticket myself."
"Alright," the Bozeman sheriff unlocked the cell door. "You can go."
"The judge set me free?" Kensington crowed. "I told you, no reasonable man would keep me in jail once he heard my side of things."
"Judge had nothing to do with it," the lawman tossed the ring of keys onto his desk. "Your daughter insisted that you be let go. Why, I don't know."
"'Bout time she came to her senses," Kensington stopped at the sheriff's desk. "Where can I find her?"
"It would be in your best interest to keep away from her. You're to catch the next stage out of town, head east, and don't come back."
"Where is she?" Kensington stared at the lawman.
"Stage station is at the east end of town. I suggest you go straight there and don't start any trouble."
Kensington turned on his heels and stomped from the building.
"Something tells me, I ain't seen the last of that jackass," the sheriff reached for his hat. "Better warn the Bransons to be on the lookout for him."
Kensington marched to the small house that he had been directed to by one of the town's storekeepers. He didn't bother to knock before entering the Branson home.
Stanley Branson was sitting in the small parlor of the house reading a paper. He looked up, startled, when Kensington barged into the room.
"Where is she?" Kensington snarled.
"I'm not sure I know who you're referring to," Branson carefully folded the paper before setting it on a side table. He stood to face the intruder, "might I ask who you are?"
"Martin Kensington," he glared at the man. "I won't ask again. Where is that bitch?" he spat the words out.
"When in my home, sir, I will ask that you keep a civil tongue in your mouth. I do not take kindly to that sort of language used around my wife."
"I'll find the bitch myself," Kensington cut him off as he crossed the room to begin his search.
"Mr. Kensington," Branson reached out to stop the fuming man.
"It's alright, pop," Jesse descended from the stairs leading to the bedroom. "He's looking for me."
"You bitch," Kensington growled. "Where is she?"
"Where you'll never touch her again," Jesse growled back.
"I should have killed you when I had the chance," Kensington started for Jesse but found himself held in a vice-like grip. "Let me go."
"Get out of my home," Branson told his captive.
"You're protecting that bitch?" Kensington looked at Branson incredulously.
"She's my daughter," Branson shoved Kensington towards the door. "And, don't you forget it."
Kensington shrugged off Branson's hold and again started for Jesse. A powerful hand on his shoulder spun him around and a fist exploded in his face. He fell back against a table, knocking it over. Branson reached down and pulled the intruder to his feet. With his strong arms toned from many years of hard work, Branson tossed Kensington towards the door just as Billie rushed into the house. Kensington fell at the sheriff's feet.
"I need to go down there," Jennifer was struggling to get out of bed.
"No, you don't," Ed had been visiting when they had heard the commotion downstairs.
"Please, Ed," Jennifer pleaded with the big man who was more of a father to her than the man downstairs threatening Jesse.
Ed shook his head, "Jesse would shoot me if I do."
"I'll shoot you if you don't," Jennifer threw back the blankets. She was thankful that KC was out for a walk with her grandmothers and did not have to hear the events downstairs. "Please."
"Alright," Ed reluctantly agreed when it became apparent that Jennifer would make her way downstairs one way or another. He picked up the school teacher and gingerly carried her from the room.
"Arrest that man," Kensington commanded Billie from his prone position on the floor of the house.
"Get up, you fool," Billie reached down and yanked Kensington to his feet. "Sorry, 'bout this," he told the others. "The sheriff let him go before I got there. Everyone okay?"
"Yes, but I'll thank you to remove that man from my house," Branson stood beside Jesse.
"No problem," Billie nodded. "Come on, Kensington. You have a stage to catch."
"I'm not leaving without my daughter."
"Yes, Father," Jennifer said as Ed carried her down the stairs. "You are leaving without me."
"Jennifer," Jesse turned and rushed to her wife's side. "Darlin', you shouldn't be down here." Jesse took Jennifer from Ed's arms.
"I had to come, sweetheart," Jennifer leaned her head against Jesse's. Turning to the angry man she had once called Father, "go home. Go home and leave me alone. I'm no longer your daughter."
"You'll come with me," Kensington insisted.
"No," Mrs. Kensington said. She and Mrs. Branson were returning from their walk with KC when they'd heard a crash inside the house. The women rushed inside.
"Jennifer is her own woman now. She has a life here." She crossed the room to face her husband.
"What are you saying?"
"That you're wrong. You were wrong to come here and young Andrew died because of it. I'll not have you do any more to our daughter or to anyone else. It's time you left her alone."
"How dare you," Kensington started.
A loud slap stunned Kensington and the others in the room. Mrs. Kensington withdrew her hand from her husband's face.
"How dare I?" she whispered. "How dare I? I dare because I love her. Now, go home. Back to your sons and your precious company."
"You'll come with me," Kensington stated.
"No, I think I'll stay here. I'd like to get to know my daughter." Mrs. Kensington turned to look at Jennifer, "and... her family."
Jennifer smiled with tears streaming down her face, "I'd like that, Mother."
"You can't be serious. You must return with me."
"No," Mrs. Kensington turned back to her husband. "I don't."
"But, what will I tell our friends? What will I tell our sons?"
"To be honest," she paused. "I don't give a damn."
Jennifer stared at her mother, she had never heard her use profanity ever before. Never. Not once.
"Come on," Billie shoved the man outside. "The stage is leaving soon."
"But," Kensington looked back. His wife stood beside Jesse who held his daughter, his shoulders slumped. "What will I tell them?"
"You could start with what an out and out jerk you are," Billie said as he pushed the man down the street.
"I want to thank you, pop. For yesterday," Jesse was sitting on the front porch, KC playing at her feet. Jennifer was inside sleeping in the room upstairs.
"You're my daughter," her father replied from his chair next to her. "Couldn't let that fella talk about you that way."
They sat in silence for several minutes.
Jesse decided that there was something she wanted to know and it was now or never.
"Pop, about the ranch?" she asked quietly. "Why, didn't you let me have it?"
Her father sat quietly, watching his granddaughter play. Sighing deeply, he answered, "I couldn't."
"I could have run it," Jesse stated.
"I know," he swallowed hard. "It wasn't that Jesse. It was," he stopped and thought about what he should tell his daughter. Not telling her before had cost him more than he was really to pay. He now had a chance to correct his earlier mistake. "I lost the ranch, Jesse. Bank took it back after I couldn't make the payments."
Jesse reached out and took his larger, calloused hand into her own. "You should have told me, pop. I could have helped."
"I didn't want you to know that your old man couldn't make a go of it."
"That day I came home."
"I'm sorry, Jesse. I just didn't know what else to do. I knew how much you wanted the ranch, but there was nothing left. We don't even own this place. Banker felt sorry for us and is letting us live here until he can find a buyer for the place."
Jesse looked at her father, he had always been a proud man. But, now she could see how much unhappiness his pride had caused him to suffer.
"Pop," she said quietly. "I can buy you a house. Heck, you could come to Sweetwater and live on our ranch. There's more than enough room for you and mom."
"Wouldn't be right," he pulled back his hand. "Can't live on your charity."
"Is that why you never returned my mail? You thought I was offering you charity?"
"It's not right for a man to live off his child. Man needs to pay his own way."
"Ah, pop," Jesse sighed. She bent down to lift KC into her lap when the baby tugged on her pants. "There's more than enough work at the ranch and the Slipper to keep us both busy for years. And, besides, it would be nice to have a grandfather around for KC."
"You'd want us there?" he asked.
Smiling, Jesse told her father, "yes, I'd want you there."
"What about Jennifer?"
"She loved to have you and mom there," Jesse chuckled. "The more the merrier for her."
"You really love her?"
"With all my heart."
"You got married?"
"Yes. I wanted to invite you but I didn't think," Jesse left the thought unfinished.
"Married folk should wear rings. You don't wear one."
"Not too many places to buy one in Sweetwater," Jesse looked at her unadorned hand.
Without another word, her father stood and disappeared into the house.
"Well, I guess that's that," Jesse told the baby who looked at her questioningly.
Moments later, her father reappeared.
"Here," he handed Jesse a small box. "Belonged to your momma's parents. Always figured we'd give 'em to our son when he married. Guess it don't make much sense letting 'em go to waste."
Realizing that was as close to an apology she would ever hear from her father, Jesse slowly opened the box. Inside two gold wedding bands glittered in the sunlight. KC looked into the box and reached for the shiny objects.
"No, sunshine," Jesse stopped the baby's hands. "Those are for your momma and me. Maybe, someday, they'll be yours." She looked up at her father.
"Maybe," he said before disappearing back inside the house.
Jesse placed the sleeping baby into the cradle and covered her with a blanket. Then slipped onto the bed and snuggled up to Jennifer.
"How you doing, darlin'?" she asked.
"I wish I was home in our own bed," Jennifer turned, she reached out an hand and pulled Jesse's face close and kissed her. "I love you."
"I love you, too," Jesse breathed. "I have something for you," Jesse reached into her pocket and pulled out the small box her father had given her earlier that day. She carefully opened the box keeping the contents concealed from Jennifer.
Jesse smiled as she took Jennifer's left hand into her own and slipped a gold wedding band onto the ring finger. Then, she handed Jennifer the second band and held her left hand out.
Jennifer took the ring and placed it on Jesse's finger, "they're beautiful, Jesse. But, aren't they too expensive?"
"Nope," Jesse brought Jennifer's banded finger to her lips and kissed it. "They were my grandparents. Pop says that 'married folk' need a ring,"
Jennifer looked at their hands. The gold rings shining in the candle light, "your pop is a pretty smart man."
"Glad you think so. They're coming to Sweetwater with us."
Jennifer stared at Jesse, "really?"
"Yep," she nodded. "Figured KC needed a few more grandparents to spoil her."
"Jesse," Jennifer snuggled into Jesse's arms. Thinking of all the pain Jesse suffered when she thought her parents had abandoned her, Jennifer asked, "you do know what you're doing, right?"
"I think so."
"I love you, Jesse Branson," Jennifer said as she clasped their banded hands together.
"I love you, Jennifer Branson."
"Well, what do you think, KC?" Jesse asked the baby as she climbed down from the ladder. "Think your momma will like it?"
KC looked up where Jesse stood, she wasn't sure what her mommy was talking about but it seemed like a good idea to clap her hands. So, she did.
Jesse placed the ladder out of the way alongside of the road. She looked up at her handiwork. "Yep, I think she will, too." Jesse picked KC up, "you've been a real good girl today. I think maybe you should get a cookie, what do you think?"
Before Jesse could make good on her statement, Boy came into view pulling the buckboard behind him. Jennifer sat on the bench seat of the wagon, her still healing leg stretched out to the side. She pulled the large draft horse to a stop when the wagon reached Jesse and KC.
"Hi, darlin'. Think you could give two tired girls a ride home?" Jesse asked as she handed the baby up to Jennifer.
"Hi, sweetie," Jennifer kissed the baby.
"Momma," KC pointed up where moments before Jesse had been working. "Ook."
"Look at what, sweetie?" Jennifer asked as Jesse climbed into the buckboard beside her and settled on the seat covered in a soft cushion made from a mountain lion hide.
"Thought the ranch needed a name change," Jesse took the reins from Jennifer.
Jennifer looked up at the sign that marked the beginning of the ranch. What once had announced J's Dream had had a letter added. It now proclaimed JJ's Dream.
Jennifer looked at Jesse and smiled, "I love it. And, I love you."
"I love you, too," Jesse leaned in to kiss her wife.
"Mommy," KC slapped Jesse's arm.
"What is it, sunshine?" Jesse asked, slightly annoyed at the interruption.
"Oh, yes," Jennifer laughed. She hugged the baby tight as Jesse started Boy towards home. "Right after you go to bed tonight, mommy is definitely going to get some cookies for this."
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