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Charley’s eyes fluttered open. He rubbed at his nose, the acrid smoke that had been troubling him for days still hanging heavy in the air, twisting his head around when he heard the voices of his mothers.
“We should get up, darlin’,” Jesse told Jennifer. The women had awakened some time earlier but had remained cuddled together in the bed roll.
“I know,” Jennifer said, rolling over in her wife’s arms so she could face her and slipping her leg between the rancher’s.
“Don’t go starting anything, Mrs. Branson,” Jesse smirked. “This ain’t the place and I’d probably end up coughing anyway.” Her chest had started to clear but with all the smoke in the air, she still had trouble breathing at times. “Wish that fire would burn itself out so the air would clear.”
“Do you think it’s gone all the way to Sweetwater?” Jennifer asked, snuggling closer to Jesse. She loved the feel of their warm naked bodies pressed together.
“The fire or smoke?”
“Smoke for sure. Hard to say with the fire since we can’t see which way it’s moving.”
“Your folks will be okay, won’t they?”
“Sure. They’ll know to clear out if it gets too close. Cattle are another thing. They’ll probably scatter around the valley; maybe seek shelter in the canyons.”
“Will they be okay?” Jennifer knew how hard Jesse and her father had worked the past year to build the small herd. The thought of having to start all over with the cattle was bad enough but it was the likelihood their home could again be destroyed that truly upset her.
Jesse didn’t want to think of the possibilities, “let’s just hope it doesn’t go that way.”
Charley rolled over onto his hands and knees. With a quick glance at his sleeping sister, he crawled out of the bedroll and across the tent’s floor to his mothers. Climbing up on Jesse’s hip, he tumbled over her body.
Jesse and Jennifer watched as the baby crawled on top of the bedroll towards them.
Charley had a little difficulty finding something to brace his hands and knees on but he determinedly crawled forward until he reached his mothers.
“Good morning, little man,” Jennifer pulled her arm free of the bedroll to greet her son. “You’re up early today.”
Charley grinned, happy to be the lone center of attention of the women.
“Funny, he’s awake and KC is still asleep,” Jesse said, glancing over her shoulder at her daughter. “Usually it’s the other way around.”
KC was stretched out on her back, one arm thrown out to the side and the other partially tucked under her head.
“I think she tuckered herself out yesterday with all the playing she did in the creek,” Jennifer said, peeking over Jesse at the toddler.
“Staying in camp was a good idea, darlin’,” Jesse rolled her head back to look at Jennifer. “Think it did us all some good,” she reached up to caress her wife’s cheek. The dark circles and worry lines gone from the face she loved.
Jennifer leaned into the caress, kissing Jesse’s thumb when it brushed along her lips.
“We staying put or heading out today?” Jesse asked softly, her voice thick with the emotion she felt for her wife.
“Guess we should get to Granite. Leevie’s probably worried sick about us.” Cuddled next to the woman she loved, Jennifer would have preferred to stay exactly where she was for ever.
Jesse frowned. She liked Leevie but the thought of having to see the woman’s lover again was not a pleasant one for her.
“What’s wrong?” Jennifer asked, seeing the change in Jesse’s mood.
“I don’t like Dannie,” the rancher said, bluntly.
“I know,” Jennifer had her own doubts about the rude wagon driver. “But it’s only for a few days.”
Jesse sighed. “Guess we need to be getting up then.”
Jennifer held her wife in place. “Dannie said Granite is only a couple hours away. Let’s wait until KC wakes up,” she smiled.
“That suits me fine,” Jesse grinned.
Jesse needed Jennifer’s help getting the heavy packs back on Boy. The big draft horse stood patiently as the women worked, taking time between bursts of effort for Jesse to rest and regain her breath. It was close to midday by the time the horses were saddled and the women were ready to continue their journey.
“You ready, darlin’?” Jesse asked, placing KC on Dusty’s saddle.
“I think so,” Jennifer adjusted the carry sack so Charley was comfortable. She was carrying the baby in front of her. “Ready, Charley?” she asked, patting the baby’s leg.
“Need help getting up?”
“I was just about to ask you the same thing,” Jennifer smiled at Jesse.
“I think I can manage,” Jesse walked over to help Jennifer mount Blaze. “Let’s get you and Charley up there first.”
“You’ll tell me if you start feeling bad?” Jennifer asked, concerned that they might be leaving the camp too soon. “We can stop anytime and rest.”
“I promise,” Jesse leaned in for a quick kiss. “Now get up there so we can get going. Once we get to Granite, we can all take it easy for a couple of days.”
With Jennifer mounted, Jesse pulled herself up onto Dusty’s back. “Doing okay, KC?” she ruffled the toddler’s hair.
“Yep,” KC tilted her head back to look up at her mother. “We goes?”
“We goes,” Jesse chuckled, urging the mare forward.
“Jesse, don’t you be encouraging her like that,” Jennifer scolded as Blaze fell into step beside Dusty.
Less than an hour later, the women were riding down the main street of Phillipsburg.
Tucked against the base of a larger hill, the town was spread over the sides of several small hills. Two-story wooden and brick commercial buildings lined the wide dirt street, many in various stages of construction. The street itself was pitted with large holes that the horses had to pick their way around.
“You’d think they’d do something about this,” Jennifer commented as she watched a team of horses dip into one of the depressions, the wagon they were pulling dipping dangerously to one side.
“They will,” Jesse guided Dusty around another depression. “Once they figure out there ain’t no ore buried under it.”
“You mean they’ve been digging up the street looking for gold?”
The women’s progress was watched by several men working along the street and Jesse was beginning to itch under the scrutiny. She pulled Dusty to a stop beside a man chewing on a cigar as he watched them.
“You ladies lost?” the man asked, looking Jesse over carefully.
KC shrunk back against her mother, not liking the man’s eyes on her.
Rubbing the toddler’s tummy to reassure her, Jesse answered the man, “no, we’re headed for Granite. Be obliged if you would point us in the right direction.”
“Down there,” the man thrust a thumb over his shoulder. “Take the road up ta the top of the hill, you’ll see a sign.”
“Road ain’t safe for ladies on horseback,” the man added as Dusty started walking again.
“And why is that?” Jennifer asked, holding Blaze in place.
“Freight wagons and stage won’t stop for ya. You ain’t careful, they’ll run over ya.”
“Thank you for the warning,” Jennifer smiled at the man. “We’ll be careful.”
“What’s your business in Granite?” the man called after the women who ignored the question.
“Glad we aren’t staying in Phillipsburg,” Jennifer shuddered when Blaze caught up with Dusty. She could feel the eyes of the town’s occupants on her back.
“Don’t expect much better in Granite,” Jesse said, turning Dusty onto the side road the man had indicated. “Mining camps are all pretty much alike, rough men and spoiled women.”
As Blaze turned to follow Dusty, Jennifer’s eyes drifted town to the end of the town’s main street. One two-story wooden structure with a second floor porch protruding over the boardwalk drew her attention. A handful of women, all dressed in rather provocative clothing, were chatting and laughing with the men moving about on the street below them. Catching bits and pieces of the conversations being traded between the women and the men left no doubt as to what the women were offering. Witnessing the interactions, Jennifer wondered if that was how the Silver Slipper attracted customers before Jesse took over its ownership.
The road climbed to the top of a steep hill, dipped slightly then climbed up a gentler grade before coming to a crossroads. A wooden post tilted haphazardly in the ground near the junction, painted in white on a plank of wood was the name of the town the women were seeking.
Seeing a couple of heavily laden ore wagons coming down the Granite road, Jesse guided Dusty to the side of the road.
Jennifer followed Jesse, covering Charley’s face with her stetson when the wagons rumbled by raising a large cloud of dust.
“Darlin,” Jesse said after the wagons had traveled far enough past them she didn’t have to shout to be heard. “That man was right about one thing, the drivers of those wagons don’t stop for anything once they get their teams moving. We’ll need to stick to the inside of the curves; they need lots of room to turn the teams and wagons around them. We hear a wagon coming we’ll need to get off the road if possible.”
“Will it be possible?” Jennifer asked. She was more than a little frightened by the thought of coming face-to-face with one of the big ore wagons as they made their way up to Granite.
“Don’t know,” Jesse urged Dusty forward.
The road ran straight for about a half mile, the grade gentle but climbing steadily. Then it curved sharply to the right and the incline became much steeper.
Jesse led the horses upward, keeping them as far to the side of the road as possible as they twisted up the mountain, winding around the slopes and switching directions so often it was hard to keep track of anything except that they were going uphill.
As they rode around another hairpin turn, Jennifer couldn’t imagine trying to maneuver a team of horses and ore wagon around the sharp curves. She was developing a new respect for the drivers and muleskinners that managed to do so.
Jesse looked around when she heard the shouts of a wagon driver and the sound of horses straining. Spotting a wide spot between the trees that bordered the road on both sides, she urged Dusty into it. “Hurry, Jennifer,” she called back to her wife.
Blaze just managed to bolt off the road when a team of eight horses charged around the bend.
Whip snapping over the horses’ heads, the driver of the empty ore wagon yelled at the animals as struggled up the road.
Jesse and Jennifer settled their own jittery mounts as the team and wagon passed.
“That was close,” Jennifer sighed.
“Yep,” Jesse frowned. “Should have asked that guy in Phillipsburg if there was another way up this mountain.”
“Don’t you think he would have told us?”
Jesse shrugged. “Way it is,” she muttered. “Ya don’t answer what ain’t asked. Come on, let’s get going ‘fore another wagon comes by.”
Jesse and Jennifer both breathed sighs of relief when they rounded a bend in the road and could see the mining activity on the mountain slope above them. It wasn’t very pretty but it meant they had made it to Granite.
The road continued its steep ascent as they rode past the beginning of mining company buildings that surrounded the operation. Cresting a ridge, Granite spread out in front of the women built around the sides of a rounded gully, stripped bare of the forest that had once covered it. The road split off into three directions at the head of the gully. The business district stretched along both sides of the road in front of them while the branch to the right continued to climb up the mountain to the mine itself. Between these two options, a third branch dropped into the gully traveling through the mostly residential area of town.
“You know which way ta go?” Jesse asked Jennifer.
“Leevie said they had a place near the schoolhouse,” Jennifer searched her memory for any details her friend had put in the letters she had received. “Said there was a long rock wall in front of it.”
“Well,” Jesse said, looking around. “Doubt it’s up there,” she indicated the road that followed the mountain upward. “And I doubt the school is that way,” she said looking at the beehive of activity around the commercial buildings. “Let’s try this way,” she nudged Dusty towards the middle branch.
They hadn’t gone far when the road split again, a narrower branch dipping further down into the gully. Thinking the new branch wasn’t big enough for Dannie to drive her teams of horses, Jesse continued to lead her family along the main road. They rode past cabins and shacks crowded together with little care for appearance or privacy. Of the few people they saw, most were women and children, the men working their shift at the mine or conducting business in town.
Jesse saw the beginnings of a shoulder high stone wall on her right. The road widened in front of the wall providing amble room to park a team of horses and freight wagon and allow other road traffic passage. A small cabin and larger barn occupied the ground above and behind the wall.
“This look like what she described?” Jesse asked, twisting in the saddle to ask Jennifer riding behind her.
The door to the cabin opened. “It’s about time,” Leevie waved to her friends, rushing outside. “I’ve been so worried about you two, if Dannie hadn’t already agreed to take a load to Tower today I would have sent her back after you.”
“Hi, Leevie,” Jennifer smiled seeing her friend.
“Ride on up here,” Leevie told Jesse. “You can get up either end of the wall. Is that little KC?” she asked seeing the toddler riding in front of the rancher. “My goodness, she has grown. Oh, that can’t be Charley. Look how big he’s gotten to be.”
“She funny, mommy,” KC giggled as the words continued to flow out of Leevie.
“Hush,” Jesse smiled at her daughter. “She’s just excited to see your momma.”
“Goodness, you get down from there and give me a hug,” Leevie ordered when the horses stood beside her. “I could not believe it when Dannie said she’d found you on the road to Phillipsburg and then just left you there.”
“Don’t blame her,” Jennifer told her. “I didn’t give her much choice.”
“So I heard,” Leevie chuckled. “I told her you were the one to watch out for. This big bad rancher of yours is all huff and no puff,” she wrapped her arms around Jesse as she slid out of the saddle. “How are you?” she asked seriously, looking intently at Jesse.
“Better every day. Air’s a bit cleaner up here.” Jesse freed herself from the hug, moving to help Jennifer off Blaze.
“Don’t depend on it staying that way. Soon as the wind shifts, we’ll be covered in smoke too.” Leevie winced seeing Jennifer pull her cane out of the rifle scabbard she carried it in. When the schoolteacher limped toward her, she mumbled, “goodness, Jennifer, I know you wrote me all about it but I never imagined…”
“Stop,” Jennifer wrapped an arm around her distressed friend’s waist, unable to hug her like she wanted because of Charley. “Don’t you mind about my leg, I don’t.”
“No,” Jennifer said softly. “Talking about it doesn’t change anything. I do everything I can and what I can’t, Jesse is always there to help out. So don’t be pitying me. Please.”
Leevie smiled, sadly. Glad to see her friend had not allowed her injury to ruin the life she enjoyed with her wife and children. But angry that Jennifer’s own father had caused her to suffer so horribly. “Let’s go inside. I just made a fresh batch of lemonade and some ginger cookies.”
“Me want cookie,” KC told Jesse lifting her down from Dusty.
“When don’t you?” Jesse tickled the toddler. “Why don’t you go inside, darlin’,” Jesse said dropping KC to the ground. I’ll walk back to town and see about finding a place to board the horses and check into the hotel.”
“Don’t be silly,” Leevie said. “There’s plenty of room in the barn. And I wouldn’t expect any decent lady to spend a night in town. If you thought Bannack was rough after dark, wait until the sun sets on Granite. You’ll stay here with Dannie and me.”
“Are you sure, Leevie?” Jennifer asked. “After all, we’ve grown a bit since we stayed with you in Bannack.”
“I want you to stay here,” Leevie smiled at the women. “It’ll give us a chance to catch up and you a chance to get to know Dannie.”
“Don’t want ta impose,” Jesse muttered. “I’m sure Dannie needs the space for her team.”
“Nonsense. Even with all her horses in there, stalls are only half full. You go ahead and put yours inside.”
“Alright,” Jesse begrudgingly agreed. She was thankful not to have to find a place in town. She was never comfortable staying in town’s with all the noise and activity. And having the horses close where she could check on them would be nice but the thought of accepting a favor from the freight driver didn’t sit well with her. “Go on, darlin’,” she smiled at Jennifer. “I’ll be in soon as I get them settled and rubbed down.”
“I’ll help,” Jennifer offered immediately.
“I can do it.”
“No, Jesse. You’re wheezing again. I’ll help.”
“Mes help too, mommy,” KC said, grabbing the reins to Blaze and leading the horse away.
“It’ll go faster, sweetheart,” Jennifer said.
“Well, let get the work done then,” Leevie followed KC. “Don’t want to keep those cookies and lemonade waiting too long.”
“Nope,” KC called back.
Jesse was sitting on the top of the rock wall holding Charley, the heels of her boots lightly tapping against the stones. KC sat next to her, her moccasin covered feet matching the rhythmic movements of her mother’s. The sun, finally making an appearance over the mountain behind them even though it was late morning, was rapidly warming the air. They were waiting for Jennifer who had accepted an invitation from Leevie to walk to the town’s schoolhouse which was located a short distance further down the dirt street.
Jesse was leisurely studying the layout of the town of Granite and the multiple rows of buildings occupying the rounded sides of the gulley. She was fascinated by the stores and other commercial buildings resting on stilts on the near side of the town’s main street that had been fancifully named Broadway. With the street of Broadway taking up most of the ground along the rim of the gulley, it was the only way for structures to find footing in order to border the busy street. For the buildings on the opposite side of the street, parts of the hillside behind them had been carved out to make room for the rear of the structures. Shacks dotted the hillside she’d heard Leevie refer to as Whiskey Hill, most constructed without the benefit of solid foundations and appearing ready to slide down the slope at any moment to join the businesses below.
The gulley itself was crisscrossed with narrow streets lined with houses, shacks and tents where the Granite’s citizens lived. She smiled noticing that several feet down slope of each row of homes was a corresponding row of outhouses, some tilting dangerously in one direction or another.
A large two-story wooden structure was located a couple of streets below her, well used dirt paths led to it from the business district. Seeing the men entering and leaving by the front door and the women who greeted and bid goodbye to them, she instantly identified the activity that was taking place inside the building. She wasn’t surprised to see the house of ill repute in Granite since every mining camp had its share of saloons and prostitutes, but she was surprised by it being located so close to the residential area.
“Momma, wha’ dat?” KC pointed down the gulley.
“What, sunshine?” Jesse swung her head around to look where her daughter was pointing.
“Looks like a great big rock,” Jesse said of the granite boulder rising out of the ground about two hundred feet down the gulley.
“We go dere?”
“Why do you want to go down there?” Jesse chuckled.
“Want’s ta pray.”
“Seems a might far ta go just so’s you can play,” Jesse smiled. “Can’t you play up here?”
KC twisted at the waist, turning to look around behind her. “’Spose,” she shrugged, her head cocked to one side as she imagined the possibilities.
“Good,” Jesse ruffled the toddler’s hair. “Cause I’m not sure I could make it back up once we got down there. Maybe after a day or two, when my breathin’ is a bit easier.”
“Otay,” KC twisted back around. Using her hands to boost her body along, she scooted closer to Jesse and leaned against her. “I wait.”
Jesse shifted Charley to sit on her right thigh so she could wrap her left arm around her daughter. “Thanks.”
Dannie walked over the crest that separated the town of Granite from the mining operation and the numerous mining company buildings. Desperate to make more money so she and Leevie could stay in Granite and be together, she was determined to talk the mining company foreman into signing her on as a driver. She turned to follow the street that led to the long row of brick and wooden structures the town folk called Silk Stocking Row because they housed the fancy homes of the mining company’s highest paid employees. The first building was a two-story brick structure that served double duty as the office and residence of the foreman and his family.
Dannie could already see the building and the flight of stairs in back of it that provided the only means of access to the living quarters on the top floor. She knew she would find the foreman working in his office on the ground floor. His desk occupying a corner of the large open room to take advantage of light coming through both a window on the front of the building and one on the side.
Reaching the foreman’s office, Dannie took a deep breath before she pushed the door inward.
The foreman looked up. “Don’t got any business fer ya,” he said before Dannie managed to step inside.
“Sign out front says ya need wagons and teams,” Dannie persisted. “I’ve got both.”
“Ya a woman,” the man said as if Dannie was unaware of the fact.
“What’s that got ta do with anything?” Dannie asked, exasperatedly. “Every week I hear you’ve been in town complaining ya don’ have enough wagons and teams to haul your freight and every week ya tell me ya don’ have business fer me.”
“And I don’t. Everyone knows a woman can’t drive a team of horses,” the man grumbled.
“I drive a team, you fool,” Dannie shouted.
“Well driving a team in the valley ain’t the same as on the mountain.”
“I live on this mountain and I’ve driven my team up and down almost every one of its dammed roads.”
The man thought for a moment. He knew Dannie owned a wagon and team and he knew she was a good driver and honest one. But he also knew if he hired her, he’d have to explain his decision to the mine company’s owners and stock holders in St. Louis. And the prospect of trying to get them to understand why he needed a woman to drive freight was not very agreeable to him. “Sorry,” he shook his head. “I can’t take ya on.”
“I need the money,” Dannie explained.
“Sorry.” The foreman returned to his work, effectively stopping any further conversation.
Dannie turned to leave. Pulling the door closed, she took a moment to stand in front of the building and take in her surroundings. Silk Stocking Row stretched off to her left leading to a maze of streets where the mine’s other offices, workshops, warehouses and storage sheds were located. From where she stood, she could look across to the road to Phillipsburg where ore and freight wagons were lined up waiting their turn to load or unload their cargos, whichever the case might be. Between her and the road, she saw the hospital the company had built to take care of its workers and the much smaller home of the resident doctor beside it. A barn, stables and blacksmith’s shop occupied the ground below the road. Without looking, Dannie knew that several hundred feet up the side of the mountain behind her was the mine itself and the enormous wooden roof that covered the immense structure.
Everywhere she looked screamed money and Dannie wondered why she wasn’t allowed to share in just a little portion of it.
‘No sense putting off the inevitable,’ Dannie thought as she started the walk back to the house she shared with Leevie. The trip she’d made to Tower the day before barely paid enough to buy feed for her horses for a week. With the foreman still refusing to hire her and most of the business owners in both Granite and Phillipsburg just as reluctant as he was, Dannie realized her stay in Granite and her dream of living with her lover were at an end. ‘Best go home and break the news to Leevie.’
“Are you sure that’s what you want to do, Jennifer?” Leevie asked. She and Jennifer were sitting on a bench in the school yard, the students having been called inside by their teacher.
“I’m tired of spending my days with other folks young ‘uns. I want to be with my own,” Jennifer said.
“What about Jesse? Have you told her?”
“Not yet but I don’t think she’ll mind much. What with the Silver Slipper, the dress shop, and the ranch, there just isn’t enough time to take care of everything any more. I’m sure she’ll be just as happy to have me home as I’ll be.”
“It’s tempting, Jennifer,” Leevie smiled. “It really is. As you heard from Sarah,” she named the Granite schoolteacher who they had spent the past hour talking with before the students returned for their afternoon classes. “The chance of me being offered a teaching position here is not very likely. And I know Dannie is having a hard time finding jobs even though she keeps assuring me everything is alright. Thing is,” Leevie frowned. “Just like you want to be with Jesse, I want to be with Dannie. I don’t think I could live away from her any more.”
Jennifer smiled. “And you won’t have to. That’s what makes this so perfect,” she said excitingly. She knew she had Leevie almost convinced to move to Sweetwater and take over her duties at the schoolhouse. What she was about to say should definitely convince her friend. “Jesse’s been helping Ed out with his deliveries for the mercantile but she really hates it when she has to be gone overnight. So if Dannie was there…”
“She could make the deliveries,” Leevie grinned.
“Yes,” Jennifer nodded. “And she should have no shortage of jobs because Sweetwater doesn’t have anyone to delivery freight once it comes in from Bozeman.”
“Think she’d be willing to move to Sweetwater? It’ll be different than what you’re used to after being here and in Bannack.” Jennifer asked. She knew so little about Leevie’s lover and what she knew wasn’t all that favorable.
“I think she’d be happy any place she could find work and we could be together,” Leevie said, crossing her fingers. “Let’s get back so I can ask her.”
“And I can break the news to Jesse,” Jennifer had her own fingers crossed, hoping her wife wouldn’t be too upset with her desire to give up teaching.
Jesse had gotten bored just sitting and waiting for Jennifer to return so after feeding the babies and putting them down for their nap, she decided to muck out the stalls in the barn. She figured it was the least she could do to help repay Leevie and Dannie for their hospitality. She paused to wipe the sweat off the back of her neck. Once the sun had cleared the mountain, the temperature had risen significantly and working in the barn was like being inside a cook stove. Glancing to the doorway where KC and Charley were napping on a blanket to take advantage of a light breeze blowing up the gulley from the valley, she was glad to see that neither was showing signs of waking. She still had a bit of work to do and she hoped to finish it before she had her young ‘uns to keep entertained.
“What are you doing?” Dannie asked, carefully stepping around the sleeping children to enter her barn. She wasn’t happy to see the rancher cleaning out the stalls, something she had been meaning to find the time to do for days.
“Jus’ thought I’d help out,” Jesse said adding another shovel full of horse biscuits to the wheelbarrow. “Not used ta sittin’ around all day doin’ nothin’.”
“I can take care of my own barn,” Dannie approached the rancher.
“Never said ya couldn’t,” Jesse turned to face the angry wagon driver. “Jus’ helpin’ out, looked like ya could use some.”
Dannie was in a foul mood after her talk with the mine foreman and coming home to find someone else doing her work was more than she could bear at the moment. “I can take care of my own affairs,” she spat out. “I don’t need the likes of you showing up here and trying to say I can’t.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Jesse tossed the shovel aside. “I said I was jus’ helpin’ out. Don’t know why you’re so upset over it. Someone offer to muck out my barn, I sure as hell wouldn’t turn them down.”
“This ain’t your barn.”
“I know that.”
“You think ‘cause you’ve got things your way in Sweetwater you can jus’ walk in and take over here, don’t ya? Well, ya can’t.”
“Dannie,” Jesse reached for the canteen she had hung on the side of the stall. “I don’t know what kind of burr ya got stuck under your saddle but I wish you’d pull it out. You’ve been actin’ like Jennifer and I have done somethin’ wrong ever since we first met ya.”
“Everythin’ always goes right fer ya, don’ it?” Dannie growled. “Ya win a poker game and ya end up in business. Ya buy a ranch. Ya find children. Everythin’ comes easy fer ya. ‘Cept ya wife’s a cripple…”
Jesse had her hands around Dannie’s throat before she could say anymore. “Jennifer ain’t no cripple,” she snarled in the other woman’s face. “And if ya call her that again, I’ll…”
“Jesse,” Jennifer screamed. She and Leevie had just walked up to the barn and she was about to check on the babies when she heard the ugly confrontation between her wife and Dannie. She hurried into the barn, Leevie on her heels. “Let her go,” she said as soon as she reached the rancher’s side. She had never seen her wife so angry and she was afraid Jesse would seriously injure the woman she was choking.
Dannie’s eyes bulged, both from a lack of air to breath and from seeing the fury in the rancher’s eyes. She felt Jesse’s hands trembling as she tightened her grip.
“Please, Jesse,” Jennifer whispered. “Please, let her go.”
Jesse looked down. KC’s arms were wrapped around her leg and the toddler was looking wide-eyed up at her. She instantly relaxed her hands.
“Are you alright?” Leevie ran up to Dannie as soon as she was freed.
Dannie nodded. Gasping for breath, she rubbed her neck trying to ease the burning sensation that lingered after the rancher’s hands were removed.
“What did you say to her?” Leevie asked, her tone more accusatory than she had intended.
Dannie looked at her lover. Slowly she shook her head as she mumbled, “even you think she’s better ‘n me.”
“No, Dannie,” Leevie cried, realizing how what she said must have sounded like to the woman she loved. “No. That’s not what I meant,” she tried to wrap her arms around the Dannie.
Dannie swiped at Leevie’s arms, knocking them aside. “No point in me stickin’ around if tha’s the case,” she snarled, striding for the barn door. “Do what ya want with the horses and wagon,” she yelled as she walked out into the sunlight. “I don’ have the money ta keep them anyway.”
“Dannie,” Leevie screamed. “Where are you going?” She started to run after her lover but Jesse reached out to stop her.
“Let her be.”
“Let me go,” Leevie cried.
“Let her be,” Jesse said again. “She needs some time.”
“Jesse, what happened here?” Jennifer asked.
Jesse bent down, lifting the whimpering KC up to console her. “It’s okay, sunshine. Mommy’s not mad.”
“You yellin’,” KC sniffled. Snuggling against her mother, she could hear her heart’s rapid beating inside her chest.
“I know,” Jesse nuzzled the toddler’s head. “I’m sorry.”
“Jesse?” Jennifer asked again. “What happened?”
“I’m not sure.”
“You were choking her,” Jennifer whispered.
“She said something she shouldn’t have,” Jesse muttered, unhappy she had reacted to the wagon driver’s words the way she had. “We both said some things we shouldn’t have.”
“Is she gone?” Leevie stood, staring at the empty opening at the end of the barn. “Is she really gone?” she cried, tears flowing down her cheeks.
“No,” Jesse said, handing KC to Jennifer. “Where would she go?”
Leevie looked at the rancher, not understanding her question.
“Ta blow off the steam she’s got built up,” Jesse explained. “Where would she go?”
“I’m not sure.”
“She’s walking so I doubt she’ll go far. Is there someplace in town?” Jennifer asked, hopefully.
“Maybe Donegal’s. It’s a saloon next to the hotel.”
“What are you going to do?” Jennifer asked when Jesse started to walk away.
“Go find her,” Jesse told her wife. “See if I can work this out between us. And bring her home.”
“Sweetheart, are you sure you should?”
“No,” Jesse shrugged. “But somehow I think she’s got some things she needs to talk out. She’s been keeping them bottled up inside and that ain’t good. Maybe she’ll…”
“Talk to you?”
“And you know this because you do the same thing,” Jennifer smiled.
“Used to,” Jesse grinned. “’Fore I met you.” She leaned close, kissing Jennifer. “Stay put ‘til we get back.”
“Bring her home,” Leevie told the rancher.
“Don’t worry,” Jesse hugged her friend. “She’s got a hard head like me, but she’s not goin’ ta walk away from the woman she loves.”
Jennifer watched Jesse leave. “Damn,” she sighed.
“Think she’ll find Dannie?”
“She won’t stop until she does,” Jennifer smiled. “She’s right about them both having hard heads.”
“What do you think Dannie said to her?”
“Don’t know,” Jennifer answered, unwilling to say that whatever it was she was sure it had something to do with her or the babies because there was nothing else that would cause her wife to get so protective. “It’s not important,” she turned to Leevie. “Let’s get the young ‘uns inside. I bet KC would like a glass of your lemonade.”
“Alright,” Leevie smiled when KC nodded enthusiastically.
Jesse located Donegal’s saloon on Broadway and walked through the open doorway leaving the bright sunlight for the dark interior of the log building squeezed between the hotel and a mercantile.
The furnishings inside were sparse. Half a dozen tables and twice as many chairs littered the room and a bartender watched her from behind a plank of wood resting on two empty flour barrels. Oil lamps hanging from the log walls and set on a couple of the tables provided the only illumination in the windowless room.
Jesse looked around, finding most of the patrons to be men who looked back at her suspiciously. Spotting a figure hunched over at a table in the shadows of the far back corner, she knew she’d found Dannie.
“Go away,” Dannie grumbled when Jesse pulled out a chair to sit at the table.
“Jennifer would beat me to within an inch of my life if I didn’t bring you back.”
Dannie looked up to glare at Jesse.
“Thought ya wore the pants?”
Jesse laughed. “If you haven’t noticed, Jennifer is quite fond of wearing britches.”
“You drinking or talking?” the bartender called over to the women.
“Give me ‘nother beer,” Dannie yelled back.
“You have any milk?” Jesse asked, smiling at the guffaws of the other patrons.
“Then make it two beers.”
The women waited until their drinks were served to continue their conversation.
“I’m sorry,” Jesse said as soon as the bartender retreated back behind the plank of wood. “I shouldn’t have done what I did.”
“Why did ya?” Dannie asked, still a little afraid of the temper the rancher had displayed.
“I don’t like people making Jennifer out to be less than what she is.” Jesse took a swallow of the warm beer as she waited for a response.
“Guess I was wrong calling her what I did,” Dannie shrugged.
“You were. Mine telling me what the rest of what ya said was about?”
“Forget it,” Dannie gulped down half her beer then raised the almost empty glass mug for the bartender to see.
“I’d rather not.”
“Seems to me, we’re gonna be seein’ a lot more of each other if’n our wives have anything to do with it. We might as well get all this out now.”
“We ain’t married,” Dannie spoke the obvious.
“Ya should be,” Jesse grinned.
“You got money to pay for these, Dannie?” the bartender asked, setting two fresh mugs of beer on the table.
“I should be picking up a load tomorrow,” the wagon driver muttered.
“Sorry,” the bartender started to pick up the mugs.
“Leave them,” Jesse said, reaching into her pocket to retrieve some coins. “This should take care of us for a while.”
Dannie’s eyes narrowed when she saw Jesse nonchalantly hand the coins to the bartender, her anger from before returning. “You got it made, don’ ya,” she sneered.
Jesse looked at the woman, trying to figure out what had caused her sudden change in mood. “You really think that, don’t you?” she asked, confused as to why Dannie, a woman she hardly knew, would bear such resentment towards her. But it wasn’t the first time she had seen the same look and heard the same words. “Dannie, I know from where you’re sitting it probably looks like I’ve got it easy. But my life ain’t always been so rosy. And what it is today is mostly due to hard work and Jennifer.”
Dannie nursed her beer as she listened. “I work hard,” she muttered. “But men don’t wan’ ta use me ‘cause I’m a woman. You don’ have tha’ problem.”
Jesse laughed. “Damn, is that what this is all about? You think I’ve got it easier than you in that department? Hell, Dannie, half the ranchers in the Sweetwater Valley refuse to talk to me. ‘Ain’t fittin’ for a woman to own a ranch,’ they like ta tell me. ‘Ain’t fittin’ for a woman to own a saloon.’ ‘Ain’t fittin’ for a woman to drive a wagon’, bet you’ve heard that one a time or two.”
“Jus’ ‘cause they say it, don’ make it true,” Jesse frowned. “After I took over the Slipper and tried to turn it into a respectable boarding house, folks would cross the street rather than have to acknowledge me. If it wasn’ for Ed who could have cared less if I was a woman or a man jus’ so’s long as I paid my tab at his store, I never could have stayed in business. The boarding rooms spent more time collectin’ dust than customers and ‘bout the only folks Bette Mae was feeding in the dinin’ room were the girls and me. But word slowly got around tha’ the Slipper had clean beds and good food and folks started comin’ jus’ to check thing’s out. Lucky for me, they decided to stick around.
“Business finally got good ‘nough for me to buy a run-down cabin and some grass covered land that I could call a ranch. Only problem was none of the other ranchers would sell me any cattle. Had ta talk ‘til I was plum tired of talkin’ to convince one of ‘em to sell me a dozen cows fer twice what they was worth.”
Jesse twisted around in her chair, signaling to the bartender they needed their mugs refilled.
“Hell, Dannie, only thing ever ta come easy ta me was my love fer Jennifer. She had that from the minute she stepped off the stage, though I was too stupid to figure it out for a while. And I probably never would have if she hadn’t helped me,” Jesse smiled at the memory of those first few weeks she’d shared with the newly arrived schoolteacher.
“I’m broke,” Dannie sighed. “And much as I love Leevie, I don’t know how ta tell her. Granite is first time we’ve managed to live together. It’ll break her heart if I have to go someplace else to find work.”
“What if she could come with you?” Jesse asked as two more mugs of beer were left on the table.
“Sweetwater needs someone ta haul freight. Ed’s got more supplies arriving every day for the mining camps and ranches. It’s too much for me and Billie to keep up with; especially since I have the ranch and Slipper ta worry about. You have a wagon and team and Ed would put you ta work soon as you made it ta town.”
“What about Leevie?”
“I’ve been wantin’ to ask Jennifer to stop teaching. Young ‘uns and I need her at home. She’d be more willing ta do it if she had someone to replace her.”
“Where’d we live?”
“Room at the Slipper ta start with. After that, guess you can figure that out on your own.”
“Sure town wants more of us around?” Dannie asked seriously. It was one thing to have one pair of women living together but two might be asking too much of Sweetwater’s citizens.
“I’m not sayin’ it’ll be easy. You’ll get the stares and looks from some, same as Jennifer and me. But if’n ya pay them no mind, ya can go about your business.”
“What about the ranchers? They goin’ be wantin’ me driving a wagon up to their places.”
“You’ll be workin’ for Ed so most won’t question it. Most ain’t gonna like, but they won’ question it.”
“What about you?”
“What about me?”
“You gonna want me livin’ ‘round ya?”
“Look, Dannie,” Jesse drank down the last of her beer. “I’ve got nothin’ against ya. And I like Leevie, she’s good for Jennifer. But no one,” she glared at the wagon driver to make sure her point was being made. “No one talks about Jennifer or KC or Charley like you did and ‘xpects me to let it go.”
Dannie nodded. She couldn’t argue with the rancher’s assertion, she felt the same about Leevie. “Guess we should be gettin’ on back home.”
“Probably a good idea,” Jesse smiled. “They’re probably worried what ditch we’ve fallen in after beatin’ the stuffin’ out each other.”
“Be good to have some good news ta tell Leevie for once.”
“You’ll come to Sweetwater?”
“Don’t see any reason not to,” Dannie smiled, stretching her arm across the table to Jesse. “Ya mind if we start this meetin’ thing all over?”
“Nah,” Jesse laughed, taking the offered hand and squeezing it with her own. “Glad ta meet ya. I’m Jesse Marie Branson.”
“Dorothy Annabelle Northly.”
Jesse snorted. “That’s where DANnie comes from?”
“And if you ever tell anyone, I’ll rip your tongue out. Not even Leevie knows my given name.”
“She won’t hear it from me,” Jesse snickered, standing up. She dropped her hands to the table, hanging on while the room spun around her. “Fact is, after what I just had to drink, I doubt I remember it by morning.” She hadn’t consumed a single beer in months and was pretty sure the last time she’d had more than one at the same sitting was long before she met Jennifer.
“What’s that?” Jennifer asked, hearing the sound of loud laughing coming from outside the house.
“Just a couple of drunks on their way home,” Leevie frowned, more than used to the nightly activity on the street in front of the house.
Jennifer turned her head to hear better, something was oddly familiar about one of the slurred voices. “You don’t think…?”
“It couldn’t be,” Leevie said as she too recognized one of the voices.
Both women hurried to the door, opening it just as Jesse and Dannie stumbled up to the porch.
“Uh, oh,” Dannie whispered loudly when she saw the look on her lover’s face.
“Jesse, you’re drunk,” Jennifer said as indignantly as possible through the grin she wore.
“Sorry, darlin’,” Jesse whispered.
“Well I certainly hoped you two got your differences worked out.”
“We did,” Jesse smiled. “We’re moving ta Sweetwater,” she slurred while slowly collapsing to the ground, her rubbery legs no longer able to support her.
Jennifer stood over Jesse, looking down on the disheveled pile of limp limbs that was her wife. “Guess we know where you’re sleeping tonight,” she giggled.
“Yes, darlin’,” Jesse curled into a ball. “Love you.”
“Wimp,” Dannie snickered. “Let’s go ta bed,” she reached for Leevie.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Leevie stepped out of her lover’s grasp. “You can sleep out here with her.”
“But, Leevie…” Dannie whined.
“Come on, Jennifer,” Leevie turned her back to Dannie. “Let’s get inside where it’s warm and we eat some of those ginger cookies waiting for us.”
Dannie swallowed hard at the mention of the food. Feeling her stomach start to tumble, she swallowed again.
Returning inside the house, Leevie said to the waiting children in a voice louder than necessary, “I bet you two would like a nice big glass of milk and a nice warm ginger cookie. Wouldn’t you?” she asked, slamming the door shut.
Dannie’s fist flew up to her mouth as she looked around for someplace to empty her rumbling stomach. Staggering to the edge of the stone wall, she bent over retching.
“Who’s the wimp now?” Jesse smirked and fell asleep.
“Where mommy?” KC asked, lifting her arms above her head so her momma could drop a clean shirt over it. She was sitting on the bedroll spread out on the floor where she had spent the night with her mother and brother.
“Outside,” Jennifer giggled. She had checked on Jesse earlier in the morning and found the rancher still curled up in a ball near the front porch.
KC looked over her mother’s shoulder. The sun was shining brightly through the windows at the front of the house. “It late.”
“Yes, it is,” Jennifer smiled, sucking on her lower lip. “Maybe you and Charley would like to go see if she’s awake.”
KC nodded, “we goes.”
“Let me get your moccasins on first.”
“Otay,” KC leaned back on her hands, holding both feet up in the air to make the job easier for her momma.
“You seem to be taking this awfully well,” Leevie said from across the room where she was frying bacon in a pan.
“Well,” Jennifer pushed herself up off the floor. “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen Jesse in this condition. And to be honest, I’d much rather she came home drunk then shot or beat up. Besides, after they get through with her, I doubt she does it again any time soon,” she said, watching KC holding the door open for Charley to crawl outside.
“Think they can take care of Dannie, too?” Leevie asked, looking out the window. Her lover was sound asleep on the top of the wall, precariously close to the edge.
“Don’t you think you should go wake her up before she rolls off that wall?”
“No,” Leevie used a fork to remove the bacon from the pan then poured several scrambled up eggs into the pan to cook. “This isn’t the first time she’s come home drunk. Maybe if she falls off, she’ll stop doing it.”
“Is it a problem for her?” Jennifer asked rolling up the bedroll.
“Just when she gets frustrated over not being able to find work. What do you think Jesse meant last night when she said we’re moving to Sweetwater?”
“I have no idea,” Jennifer placed the roll of blankets next to the wall where they would be out of the way during the day. “I wish she wake up, so we could ask.”
“Don’t think she’s going to have much choice about that,” Leevie laughed as KC and Charley approached their sleeping mother.
KC tip-toed up to Jesse. “Mommy seeping, Cha-wie,” she whispered to the baby crawling beside her. “We needs be quiet,” she held her finger up to her mouth to emphasize her instructions.
Charley looked up at his sister and frowned. He looked at his mother who had rolled over onto her back, her arm slung over her eyes to block out the morning sun. He liked to sit on his mommy’s stomach and bounce and right now she was in the perfect position to do just that. Ignoring his sister, he started crawling again.
“Cha-wie,” KC whispered at her brother. “Cha-wie, you gots ta stay put.”
“Bleck,” Charley shook his head, his hands and legs still moving forward. He missed playing with his mommy the night before and he wasn’t going to lose out again now.
KC started to run after her brother, more concerned with stopping him than her sleeping mother.
The baby reached Jesse, swinging an hand up to her shirt he grabbed a fistful of material to pull himself up.
“Cha-wie, no,” KC cried, the toe of her moccasin catching a root poking out of the ground. Unable to stop herself, the toddler stumbled a few steps forward her arms flailing as she tried to regain her balance.
Charley ducked when his sister flew past him, landing squarely on top of their mother.
“Oof,” Jesse jerked awake, unsure of where she was or what was squirming about on her chest.
While KC struggled to untangle her arms and legs, Charley pulled himself up to sit on Jesse, his legs hanging over her sides.
“Wha?” Jesse muttered, her tongue sticking to the roof of her cotton-dry mouth. “Whath goin’ on?” she tried again.
Hearing his mother was awake, Charley giggled and started bouncing.
KC finally got herself turned right side up. She bent down, nose-to-nose with her mother. “Hi, mommy. We makin’ bacon and eggs. You hungry’s?”
Jesse clamped her jaws shut, feeling the bile rising up her throat. “Charley,” she hissed out through her clinched teeth. “Please stop that.”
Encouraged when his mother spoke to him, Charley increased his bouncing.
KC pushed herself up on her knees, the sharp bones poking into Jesse’s ribs. She twisted around to tell her brother, “mommy says stop, Cha-wie.”
“Bleck,” Charley wrinkled up his nose, refusing to obey his sister.
A shadow fell over Jesse and she looked up to see Jennifer standing over her. “Help me,” she moaned pitifully, “please.”
“KC,” Jennifer laughed. “Go wake up your Auntie Dannie.”
“Otay,” KC pushed herself up, her feet replacing her knees on Jesse’s chest. “Me be back, mommy,” she shouted, jumping to the ground.
“Charley, stop bouncing,” Jennifer softly told the baby who immediately still his movements.
“Thank you,” Jesse groaned.
“Did KC tell you Leevie is cooking up a batch of bacon and eggs for breakfast?” Jennifer asked cheerfully.
Jesse forced the bile back down as she glared up at her wife. “Ya’re enjoying this, ain’t ya?” she hissed.
“Yep,” Jennifer chuckled. She bent down to pick up Charley but found herself in Jesse’s grip instead.
“Jennifer Stancey Branson,” Jesse growled, wrapping her arms around her wife’s waist and pulling her down beside her. “I never knew you could be so wicked.”
“Make me sleep alone while you’re lying out in the dirt like some common drunk,” Jennifer giggled. “And you haven’t seen the end of my wickedness.”
“What the hell………?”
Jesse and Jennifer looked in the direction of Dannie’s yell to see KC standing on the top of the stone wall looking over the edge, Dannie no where in sight.
“Oops,” KC said, her hands coming up to her mouth in surprise. “Auntie Dannie, you’s otay?”
“Can this day get any worse?” Jesse dropped her head back, groaning when it connected with the hard ground.
“Bleck,” Charley giggled, renewing his bouncing.
Jennifer buried her face into Jesse’s shoulder, her body shaking with laughter
“Why didn’t you just tell me you wanted me to stop teaching?” Jennifer asked washing Jesse’s back.
The rancher sat in the tub on the back porch of Dannie’s and Leevie’s house. A curtain was hung around the tub providing some privacy from the surrounding homes. KC and Charley were playing on the porch next to the chair Jennifer sat on.
“Didn’t think it was my place to ask you to give up somethin’ ya loved,” Jesse admitted.
“Sweetheart, I love you and the young ‘uns much more than I do teaching,” Jennifer rinsed soap off her wife’s smooth skin. “You should have just asked.”
“Yeah?” Jesse smiled.
Jennifer tapped her finger against the tip of the rancher’s nose, “yeah. Now let me get your hair washed. I don’t even want to think about what might be crawling around in it.”
KC stood up. Resting her hands on the edge of the tub, she cocked her head to one side looking at the mother. “Mommy?”
“You gots bugs?”
“No, I don’t hav…,” Jesse started to protest but it was cut short when Jennifer poured a bucket of water over her head.
“You sure you want to do this?” Leevie asked Dannie. The women were sitting atop the stone wall waiting Dannie’s turn with the tub.
“Ain’t got much choice,” Dannie muttered. “Can’t git ‘nough work here to keep the horses fed.”
“That’s not much of an answer, Dannie.”
Dannie looked at her lover. “Yes, I want ta do it. If what Jesse said is true, it’ll be what we always hoped fer. You can teach and I can drive my wagon. And,” she smiled shyly, “we can be together.”
“It does sound perfect, doesn’t it?” Leevie leaned her head against Dannie’s shoulder.
“Yes,” Dannie started to slip her arm around her lover but stop abruptly, wincing at the pain that shot through the bruised limb. “Damn,” she rubbed her forearm.
“At least it isn’t broken,” Leevie took the arm into her own, gently rubbing the tender tissue.
“No thanks ta tha’…”
“Dannie,” Leevie warned.
“Hmpft. Who told her she could call me auntie?” Dannie grumbled. “Makes me sound like an ol’ bitty jus’ waitin’ ta die.”
“She likes you,” Dannie snickered. Once KC was let loose on her lover, the toddler seemed to enjoy pestering the cantankerous woman.
“Well I ain’t so sure I like her.”
“Sure you do,” Leevie chuckled. “You know why?”
“Because I bet you were a lot like her when you were a young ‘un.”
“You do, uh?”
“What if I say I wasn’t?”
“I wouldn’t believe you.”
“Auntie Dannie,” KC ran around the corner of the house. “Mommy says yous needs take baff.”
“She does, does she?” Dannie cringed as the toddler ran up to her.
“Yep,” KC nodded, seriously. “You comes now.”
“What if I’m not ready for my bath jus’ yet?” Dannie questioned KC.
“You comes,” KC glared at Dannie, stomping her foot on the ground. “Mommy says.”
“Maybe I need ta rethink this move,” Dannie grumbled.
“Go on, you need a bath,” Leevie shoved her lover, trying to encourage her to stand.
“I’ll just bet that smartie rancher is back there laughin’ her fool head off ‘bout sendin’ this here pip squeak out here tellin’ me wha’ ta do.”
“Only way you’re going to find out is to go back there,” Leevie laughed.
“Comes on, Auntie Dannie,” KC tugged on the woman’s shirt. “Water goin’ git cold.”
Dannie begrudgingly stood up then offered her good arm to Leevie, helping her to her feet. “Don’ know ‘bout this,” she grumbled as she let KC tug her in the direction of the back porch. “Next she’s gonna wanna wash my back.”
“Me helps,” KC grinned. “Me like take baff. Cha-wie likes baff too. Bu’ he splashes too much. Gits waters everywhere.”
“What are you looking at?” Jennifer asked, walking up to Jesse who was standing in front of the house looking towards the sunset.
Jesse wrapped her arm around her wife’s waist, pulling her close. “Those clouds look different,” she pointed to the smoke clouds to the west. “They’re not as dark as before.”
“You think the fire’s burning out?”
“I’m thinking there’s rain coming,” Jesse smiled. “Air is damp. I can smell it.”
“Thank goodness,” Jennifer smiled. She had long tired of the stench that hung in the air and the soot and ash that fell out of the sky.
“Time we thought about going home, darlin’,” Jesse said softly.
“I know,” Jennifer leaned against her wife. “Dannie’s going into town tomorrow to see if she can find someone to buy the house and barn. Leevie figures they’ll be ready to leave day after. Says they don’t have much to pack since they’re not planning on bringing much of the furniture.”
“We don’t have ta wait on them,” Jesse offered.
“Do you mind if we do?” Jennifer turned her head to look into her wife’s eyes. “You’re still having trouble breathing and I’d feel better having…”
Jesse kissed Jennifer. “It’s okay,” she smiled when they lips parted.
“Sure. ‘Nother day or two won’ make much difference. But I ain’t riding in the back of that damn wagon.”
“Wouldn’t ask you to.”
“Think we should go inside and save them from the young ‘uns?” Jennifer smiled.
“Nah,” Jesse leaned in to kiss the woman she loved. “KC will come get us if they start to be a problem.”
A week later, Dusty and Blaze walked through the ranch gate and started down the slope to the ranch house. It was about an hour before sunset and there was still plenty of light for the horses’ riders to see the damage the forest fire had left behind. To the east and south, slashes of black cut across the otherwise green forest and grasslands stopping only when they reached the Sweetwater River. The fire had come close to the ranch buildings but skirted past without doing any damage.
“Least it didn’t reach the house,” Jesse let out the breath she’d been holding ever since they left Dannie and Leevie in the care of Bette Mae in town.
“I’m so glad,” Jennifer sighed. “I don’t think I could have stood to see another one burned.” Even with all the time that had past since they returned to find their first home in ruins, she still shivered whenever she thought about it.
“Looks like Pop brought the cattle in,” Jesse said, seeing the herd packed into the corral. “Good thing we don’ have any more than we do,” she grinned, wondering how long the fence would hold the crowded animals.
“So much of the grassland burned, Jesse,” Jennifer was looking beyond the ranch yard to the scorched hills where the cattle normally grazed, “how will we feed them?”
Jesse looked up into the sky where storm clouds had been building all day. “Soon as that lets loose,” she smiled. “New grass will start sprouted soon after. In the meantime, I’m guessing Pop already has the barn full of hay.”
“Speaking of them, where are your folks?” Jennifer turned her gaze towards the ranch buildings. “I don’t see them.”
“Dere, Grumps,” KC pointed as her grandfather walked out from behind the house. “Grumps,” she shouted. “Grumps, we’s home.”
Stanley Branson turned when he heard his granddaughter calling to him. “Marie,” he shouted back to the garden where his wife was working. “Marie, they’re back.”
Jesse nudged Dusty into a trot and Blaze immediately fell into step.
By the time the horses reached the house, KC was already trying to scoot out of the saddle to greet her grandparents.
“Whoa there, sunshine,” Jesse tightened her hold on the squirming toddler.
“Hi, Grumps,” KC waved, smiling happily. “Hi, Gramma.”
“Oh, I was just saying to Stanley that I thought you’d be home tonight and here you are,” Marie reached up for KC. “You come give me a big hug,” she smiled, wrapping the toddler in her arms. “I’ve missed you so much.”
KC giggled at her grandmother’s attention.
Jesse slid out of the saddle, walking over to Blaze.
“You okay?” Stanley asked.
“We’re fine, Pop,” Jesse said, helping Jennifer to the ground then removing the baby from the carry sack she wore. “Here,” she handed Charley to his grandfather. “Tell Grumps all about your trip.” Jesse smirked when her father glared at her. “You have any problems with the herd?”
“Nope,” Stanley smiled at the baby. “Billie came out and helped me round them up. Good thing we didn’t move them into the high meadows,” he told his daughter. “They all burned.”
“Jesse looked to the east. “Guess that explains the knot in my gut I had there for awhile.”
“You must be tired,” Marie told Jennifer. “I bet you’re hungry too, I was just pulling up some carrots to put in the stew I have simmering.”
“Yep,” KC nodded. “Me eats. And Cha-wie.”
“Go on, darling,” Jesse smiled at Jennifer. “I’ll be in soon as I take care of the horses.”
“Don’t worry about bringing any of that stuff in tonight, Jesse,” Jennifer told her wife. “We can make due with what we’ve got inside.”
“Alright,” Jesse agreed, happy that she didn’t have to unload the heavy packs until the morning. “Go on inside,” she gave her wife a quick kiss on the forehead, “I won’t be long.”
Jennifer waited until Jesse and Stanley walked away, taking the horses to the barn.
“Good trip?” Marie asked.
“Oh, yes,” Jennifer smiled at her mother-in-law.
“You have any trouble with that fire?”
“A little. Let’s go inside and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Jesse sat on the front porch watching KC pick wildflowers for Jennifer who was inside changing Charley’s britches.
“Look, mommy,” KC ran up with a fist full of bright red flowers. “What dis called?”
“Those, sunshine,” Jesse lifted the toddler into her lap, “are called Fireweed. Ya know why?”
“’Cause after there’s a fire and the rains come, they’re the flowers that come up first. When you see them bloomin’, ya knows the land is on the mend.”
“They sure are.”
“She sure will.” Jesse said, catching the movement of a rider coming over the top of the hillock and through the ranch gate. She recognized the horse as one the livery in town offered for hire and knew whoever was riding it must be a stranger.
“Who dat?” KC asked when she looked to see what her mommy was watching.
“Don’t know. Guess we’ll just have to wait until they get here.”
KC started snuggling into a more comfortable position in her mother’s lap.
“You sit here,” Jesse stood up, placing the toddler back in the chair she had just vacated. “Stay put, okay.”
Jesse stepped to the edge of the porch to greet the stranger. “Afternoon,” she nodded when the man rode up.
“Afternoon,” the man said nervously. “I’m looking for a Jesse Branson. I was told I could find her here.”
“Any particular reason?”
“My name is Todd Evans. My sister was Catherine Williams.”
Jesse’s heart fell when she heard the name of the man’s sister, her chest tightened and it was all she could do not to show the jumble of emotions she was feeling.
“What’s your business?” Jesse asked through clinched teeth.
“I was told in Bannack that my sister’s child was with you.”
“You ain’t takin’ her,” Jesse snarled. “We’ve got a paper signed by Judge Henry saying she’s ours.”
“Mommy,” KC had climbed down from the chair and was hugging Jesse’s leg.
Jesse reached down, placing her hand protectively on her daughter’s head.
The man on the horse smiled, looking affectionately at KC. “She favors my sis,” he said, smiling at some long forgotten memories. “And you don’t need to be worrying about me taking her,” he raised his eyes to look at Jesse. “I’m on my way to the Oregon territory and I don’t think she’d much care to be going there.”
“How’d you end up here?” Jesse relaxed a little at the man’s words.
“I was looking to meet up with my sister and her family but folks in Bannack told me what happened, and how you took the baby in as your own. I’m much obliged. I know my sis would be grateful that she has lovin’ folks looking out for her.”
“Mommy, up,” KC raised her hands above her head.
Jesse pulled the toddler into her arms. “You want to get down, Mr. Evans?” Jesse asked.
“Wish I had the time,” Evans smiled. “But I’ve got a ticket on the next stage west and I need to be getting’ back to Sweetwater.”
“Mommy, who dat?” KC whispered in Jesse’s ear.
“That’s Mr. Evans. He’s your uncle.”
KC tilted her head to the side, studying the man. She scrunched her nose up and whispered, “he no look like momma.”
Jesse chuckled when Evans looked at her quizzically. “Sorry, the only uncle she knows is my wife’s brother. You don’t look much like him.”
“Oh,” Evans laughed. “I bet I don’t. Must say I’m surprised to find her looking as healthy as she does,” he pushed his hat back on his head.
“Seems I remember my sis writing that she was a sickly baby, didn’t think she’d make it through the first year.”
“You must know how old she is then,” Jennifer said hopefully, pushing open the screen door to step out on the porch. Carrying Charley downstairs, she had overheard the conversation between Jesse and Evans. Hearing who the man was, she decided to wait just inside the door to listen. “And her given name?”
“This is my wife, Jennifer,” Jesse said proudly when Jennifer joined her. “And our son, Charley.”
“Pleasure, ma’am,” Evans reached up, tapping the rim of his hat with his hand. “But don’t you know?” he asked in response to Jennifer’s questions.
“No. When we found her, there was nothin’ that said and no one in Bannack knew much about your sister or husband, and less about KC.”
“We found a wallet with the names Kenneth and Catherine Williams,” Jesse explained. “We figured them to be her folks. Jennifer thought it was fittin’ to name her after ‘em.”
“That’s a nice gesture,” Evans smiled. “Well let me think,” he leaned back in the saddle, swinging a leg over the horse’s neck to rest it across the saddle. “Seems I got a letter saying sis had given birth just before the end of spring. Though I don’t recall her saying what they named the baby.”
“Are you sure?”
“Best as I can recollect. Can’t remember her saying the exact day either, if that’s what you’re wanting to know.”
“It would be nice but what you remembered helps,” Jennifer leaned against Jesse. She was disappointed KC’s uncle couldn’t tell them anymore. But they now knew the toddler was a few months older than they had guessed and she was at least happy to know that.
“I best be getting back,” Evans swung his leg back over the horse’s neck, slipping his boot into the stirrup.
Jesse stepped off the porch, lifting KC up to sit on her shoulders. “Thank you,” she stretched her arm up to Evans. “You’re welcome any time. I’m sure KC would like to know about your sister when she’s a bit older.”
Evans shook Jesse’s hand. “Doubt I’ll be back through these parts, it’s taking all I have just to get to Oregon. If things don’t work out there, I’ll be trying my luck in California. Besides, you’re her family now.” He nodded goodbye to Jennifer. “You’re a lucky woman, Jesse Branson. There’s lots of folks would feel blessed to be standing in your place. Best you never forget it,” he said, tapping the sides of the horse and pulling on the reins to turn him around.
“I won’t,” Jesse said as she watched the man ride away. Then she turned, stepping back up on the porch and striding into the house.
“Jesse?” Jennifer asked when her wife marched past her.
“Somethin’ I’ve been meaning to do,” Jesse stopped to hold the screen door open for Jennifer. Lifting KC off her shoulders, she set the toddler down on the floor before walking up the stairs, taking the steps three at a time.
“Be right back,” Jesse called down the stairs.
Jennifer didn’t have to wait long before Jesse came back down the stairs carrying a framed piece of glass and a nail sticking out from between her lips. She watched as Jesse stopped at the foot of the stairs, studying the wall in front of her.
Jesse held the frame up to the wall, her arms stretched out in front of her as far as they could go and her back arched back away from the wall to add to the distance her eyes had to look. She moved the frame a little to the left. Then back to the right. Then up a bit. Then she smiled and nodded. Setting the frame on the floor and leaning it against the wall, she pulled a hammer from her back pocket. Removing the nail from her lips, she pounded it into the wall then lifted the frame hanging it on the nail.
Jennifer walked over to stand beside her grinning wife. “Mind letting me know what you’re doing?”
“Had Ed make that up for me that last time I was in town, wanted to find the perfect place to hang it and now I have. Every time I come downstairs, I’ll see it. Every time I walk from the kitchen into here or from her into the kitchen, I’ll see it. It’ll remind me what’s most important to me.” Jesse wrapped her arms around Jennifer, holding her wife in front of her and turning her in the direction of the wall. “So, like Evans said, I never forget,” she whispered, placing her head against her wife’s.
“Jesse,” Jennifer sighed as tears filled her eyes. Neatly framed under the glass, were three pieces of paper each having meaning to the women that no words could express. “It’s beautiful.”
“I’m glad you like it, darlin’,” Jesse smiled.
“Mommy, wha’ dat?” KC tugged on Jesse’s pant leg.
Jesse reached down, lifting the toddler into her arms. “Well, sunshine,” she held KC so she could see the contents of the frame. “That says that I belong to your momma,” she pointed to the marriage certificate Mayor Perkins had presented the night of their wedding. “And this says you belong to momma and me,” Jesse pointed to KC’s adoption papers. “And this says that Charley belongs to momma and me,” she pointed to the third piece of paper protected by the glass.
“And all of them together say that we’re a family,” Jennifer stepped up beside Jesse, slipping her arm around the rancher’s waist. “And that’s the most valuable thing we’ll ever have.”
“That it is,” Jesse leaned in for a kiss. “That it is.”
THE END……. until Book Five
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