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Jennifer and Jesse sat at the kitchen table. Jesse held Charley on her lap, feeding the baby tiny bites of egg and bacon from her own plate. KC was in the chair next to Jesse, kneeling on the seat in order to eat her breakfast. Jennifer carried a pot of coffee to the table before sitting down to the plate of eggs, bacon, and biscuits waiting for her. She pulled an envelope from her pocket, placing it on the table in front of Jesse.
"Ed brought this by the schoolhouse yesterday. I forgot all about it last night."
"Op'n it, mommy," KC cried excitedly. She enjoyed getting mail. If it was from her grandmother, it usually contained a small treat for herself and her brother.
"First you finish up your breakfast," Jesse told her daughter.
"Pease," KC pouted, her lower lip quivering.
"Nope," Jesse held back a smirk, the pout was so adorable. "We don't want momma to be late to school, do we?"
"Nope," KC agreed softly.
"We'll read it on the way to town. Okay?"
"Otay," KC cheered right up and returned to eating the food on her plate.
"Slow down, sweetie," Jennifer gently scolded KC who was shoving bites of egg and bacon into her mouth as fast as she could.
KC did as she was told, knowing if she didn't she might not get to open the envelope laying so tantalizingly close to her.
"Who's it from?" Jesse asked, keeping an eye on KC to make sure she didn't start gulping food again.
"You know," Jennifer laughed, "I didn't even look. I was in such a hurry to get home that I just put it in my pocket."
"Well," Jesse flipped the envelope right side up. "It's from Granite. Who do we know in Granite?"
"No one I can think of," Jennifer replied thoughtfully as she poured coffee into two cups. "Maybe we should open it now."
KC looked up excitedly, hoping she would be allowed to do just that.
"Go on, sunshine," Jesse grinned. "But be careful, we want to be able to read the letter."
KC grabbed the envelope off the table, pulling it into her lap as she sat on her chair. She carefully tore the end of the envelope open, removing only the barest fraction of paper. After several minutes, she pulled the letter out and triumphantly held it up for her mother's to see she hadn't ripped it too. As soon as Jesse took the letter from her, KC turned her attention back to the envelope peering inside of it to see what treats awaited.
"It em'ty," KC muttered, tossing the useless envelope on the floor.
"KC Branson," Jennifer scolded.
Knowing she was in trouble, KC slipped off her chair to retrieve the envelope. "Sorry, momma," she said, climbing back into her chair. "Here," she held the envelope out to Jennifer. "It em'ty," she repeated as if that had given her amble reason to throw it away.
"It's bad enough I have to clean up after your mommy," Jennifer reached over, pulling her daughter into her lap. "I don't think I should have to clean up after you too," she tickled KC to let her know she wasn't really mad at her.
"Hey," Jesse protested. "I clean up after myself."
"Uh, uh," Jennifer grinned. "Where'd I find your shirt this morning? And your britches?"
"Well, darlin'," Jesse drawled. "I was a little busy last night when I took them off," she smiled, recalling carrying her wife up the stairs to their bedroom to make love to her.
"I guess you were at that," Jennifer tried to rub away the blush coloring her cheeks. "What's it say?" she pointed to the letter in Jesse's hand, trying to change the subject.
Jesse smirked but turned her attention to the paper she held. "It's from Leevie."
"Leevie?" Jennifer had been wondering about their friend. Leevie Temple was the schoolteacher in Bannack and had befriended the women when they had visited the mining camp. "My goodness, why is she writing from Granite?"
"Only one way to find out," Jesse said as she prepared to read the letter to her family.
My dear friends,
I'm so sorry it has taken me so long to answer your letters but your last two have just now found their way to me. I meant to write and tell you that I was leaving Bannack but there were so many things I had to get done before I left town that it simply slipped my mind. I am living in Granite now with someone who is very dear to my heart. There is so much to tell you that I'm not sure where to begin.
I should have been more honest with you when we first met. Forgive me, I just couldn't bring myself to confine in you. For the last several years, I have loved a wonderful person, Dannie, and she has finally persuaded me to live with her. I have to say that it was seeing how happy you were that did most of the persuading.
It is hard to admit but things are not going as well as we had hoped. Dannie runs a freight wagon between Granite and Phillipsburg but even with all the activity in the two towns loads have been lacking. I had expected to continue my teaching here, however I was surprised to discover the town has an abundance of women qualified to teach school.
Yet, we are together and that is what truly matters.
I must close for now as Dannie will be home soon and I promised her a walk around town later. Thank you for your wonderful letters; it's so much fun to hear how little KC and Charley are growing.
My love to all of you, Leevie.
P.S. Please come and visit sometime. Our home is small but there is always room for such good friends as you. And I would love for Dannie to meet you. She has heard so much about you, I'm sure she would like to see that you really do exist.
Kisses to all.
"Well, looks like you were right," Jesse leaned over and kissed her wife when she finished reading.
"About Leevie being like us. Remember?"
Jennifer smiled, she did remember. They were saying their goodbyes to Leevie before leaving Bannack with the baby they had decided to keep and raise as their own.
Leevie smiled at the women, "I'd say that KC is one lucky little girl to grow up with two loving mothers." The schoolteacher winked at the women, "you take care of each other. You have something special, don't loose it."
Jennifer was speechless. Could this woman know their true relationship? "Jesse, do you think she knows about us?"
"Don't know. Maybe she just sensed it."
"You think maybe she's like us?"
"Could be," Jesse smiled at her lover. "We can't be the only ones."
"I wonder what she's not telling us," Jennifer said as she reread the letter.
"About what?" Jesse wiped egg off Charley's chin then held a glass of milk for the boy to take a drink.
"Why they're having such a rough time of it," Jennifer frowned. "Seems like they'd be more than enough freight business to keep Dannie busy."
"Probably has to do with her being a woman," Jesse said as she stood with the baby. "Charley needs fresh britches before we leave."
"Take KC with you and wash her face," Jennifer set the girl on the floor.
"Okay. Come on, sunshine," Jesse reached a hand down for KC to grab hold off. With an easy swing of her strong arm, she lifted KC up to her chest. "Ugh," she teased the girl, "did you get any of that egg in your tummy?"
"Yep," KC nodded. "Lots."
Jennifer watched the rancher carry the children upstairs to get cleaned up. Slowly, she pushed herself up from the table and started to gather up the dirty dishes. As she did, she considered Jesse's comment. It wasn't easy for a woman to run a business in the frontier unless it was a rooming house, laundry, or eating house. Jesse had faced lots of opposition when she took over the Silver Slipper from many of the businessmen in town. Jennifer wondered why men had to think so little of women, couldn't they understand that women were just as capable as men.
Jennifer carried the dirty dishes to the wash sink. She limped to the end of the counter where a bucket sat under the well spout. Pumping the handle, she filled the bucket and carried it to the sink. She would use the clean water to rinse the dishes after they had been scrubbed.
As Jennifer slipped her hands into the warm water Jesse had filled the sink with before breakfast, she looked out the window to the west. The sun was just beginning to peek over the mountains in the east and the morning sky was tinged in pink and red. Jennifer smiled. This was home and this was where she wanted to be. If only she didn't have to go into town each day to teach the children of Sweetwater. A thought floated into her mind. "Maybe," Jennifer whispered to herself, her smile spreading wider.
"All nice and clean," Jesse said as she carried the children back into the kitchen. "Now you play with your toys," she told them when she placed them on the floor beside their toy box. "And keep clean."
"Otay," KC walked over and peered into the box, her bare feet softly slapping the wood floor. "Here, Cha-wie," she pulled a small wooden bird out of the box. "You play wit' that," she dropped the toy in front of her brother.
Charley frowned. He wanted to choose his own toy. Crawling up to the box, the baby pulled himself upright and pushed up onto his tiptoes to look at the jumble of toys inside. Pointing, he let loose a string of baby gibberish that KC seemed to understand.
"Otay," KC said, annoyed. "Here," she pulled a stuffed dog out of the box, a gift from Jennifer's mother, dropping it on the floor for Charley.
Charley let go of the toy box, plopping down on the floor beside the dog. Happily, he pulled the dog to his chest.
KC went back to digging through the toys, her body bent in half over the edge of the box. "Dere you are," she exclaimed when she spotted what she was looking for. Standing upright, she clutched a wooden horse in her hand. "Look, Cha-wie," she showed the horse to her brother. "Baze."
"With all of those toys to choose from, she always seems to pull that horse out of the box," Jesse commented as her daughter's favorite toy reappeared.
"I'm surprised that horse is still in one piece," Jennifer chuckled. The wooden horse had been KC's first toy and she seemed to never tire of playing with it.
"I hate to think of the day something happens to it," Jesse said as she wiped the table with a damp cloth. She never would have believed that years later the tiny horse, still in one piece, would sit in a place of honor on her daughter's bookshelves.
"We're almost done in here," Jennifer rinsed the last of the dishes then dried it off with a towel. "Why don't you got get Boy hitched up."
"Okay. I may be a few minutes," Jesse rinsed out the cloth she had been using before stretching it over the windowsill to dry. "I want to talk to Pop if he's around."
"Take your time," Jennifer leaned against the rancher. "We'll wait on the porch."
"Bit chilly this morning," Jesse wrapped her arms around the schoolteacher. "I'll come in when I'm ready."
"I love you," Jennifer placed her forehead against Jesse's, breathing in the smell of her wife.
"I love you, darlin'," Jesse adjusted to gently press her lips against Jennifer's.
Charley chose that moment to point at the toy box and release some more gibberish in hopes his sister would provide another toy for him to play with.
"Hush, Cha-wie," KC admonished her brother. "Mommy kissin' momma."
"Pffttpp," Charley shook his head.
"Yep," KC nodded.
Jesse didn't have to do anything to get her big draft horse Boy to pull to a stop at the beginning of the gravel path to the schoolhouse; the large horse was so used to the trip from the ranch to town that he didn't need much guidance.
"I'll walk you up, darlin'," Jesse said, wrapping the reins around the wagon's brake handle.
Jennifer smiled, "all right." She liked it when Jesse took the time to escort her to school. The rancher would always stay until the children started to arrive, giving the couple precious time to spend together.
Jesse climbed down from the wagon then reached back up for her wife. After helping Jennifer to the ground, she pulled the cane from under the wagon seat and handed it to the schoolteacher. "Ready, sunshine?" she asked, walking to the back of the wagon to retrieve the children.
"Yep," KC was standing at the rear of the wagon bed, her arms outstretched as she waited impatiently for her mother to lift her out.
"There ya go," Jesse ruffled KC's fine ginger colored hair once the girl was standing at her feet.
"Momma, I com'n'," KC called out to Jennifer who was waiting for Jesse and the children.
"Come on, little man," Jesse lifted Charley into her arms. "Let's go walk your momma to school."
Charley smiled, his little arm pointed at Jennifer.
"That's right, Charley," Jesse kissed the boy's cheek. "That's your momma." She carried the baby back to Jennifer, KC having already joined her momma. "Ready?"
"Yes," Jennifer smiled. "KC hold my hand, sweetie. I don't want you stumbling on the gravel," she told the girl.
"Otay," KC reached up, wrapping one hand around Jennifer's fingers and the other around Jesse's.
Ed Grainger watched the family walk across the footbridge spanning the creek then up the gravel path to the schoolhouse from the porch of the building that housed his store. Built by the eastern investment company that had expected to reap huge profits out of a gold mine near Sweetwater, the building had originally been designed as a hotel. When the mine turned out to be nothing more than an empty hole in the side of a hill, the mining company had sold the building to Ed before pulling out of Sweetwater. Most of the first floor was occupied by his mercantile with a corner being leased to the stage line for a depot. The second floor was split into living quarters for Ed and Billie and Ruthie.
"They make a fine lookin' family, don't they?" Billie Monroe had stepped out onto the porch after coming down from the apartment upstairs he shared with his wife, Ruth.
"That they do," Ed agreed without taking his eyes off Jesse and Jennifer.
"I'm glad they've got the young 'uns," Billie nudged Ed in the arm.
Ed looked down to see Billie was holding two cups of steaming coffee. "Thanks," he smiled, accepting one of the cups. "Speaking of young 'uns," Ed said after taking a sip of the hot liquid. "How's Ruthie this morning?"
Billie grinned, his eyes twinkling with the pride her felt for his pregnant wife. "She's taking it easy this morning. I told her I'd go back up in 'bout an hour to help her get dressed to go to the shop."
"Thought Jennifer told her not to worry about the shop until after the baby comes," Ed took another sip.
"She did but you know Ruth," Billie leaned against the railing that encircled the porch. "If she doesn't have somethin' to keep her hands busy, she goes crazy. Made her promise not to over do it," he told the storekeeper. "And I'm sure Bette Mae will make sure she keeps that promise."
"I'm sure she will," Ed laughed.
Bette Mae managed the Silver Slipper, a brothel Jesse had won in a poker game and turned into a respectable boarding house and restaurant. It sat at the end of Sweetwater's one and only street, the only two story building in town until the building Ed now owned had been built. Bette Mae was older than most of the women working at the Slipper and had naturally become a surrogate mother to them and Jesse and Jennifer, keeping a close eye on all of them.
"You going to the Slipper for breakfast?" Billie asked, even though the storekeeper ate there every morning.
"Yes, but I think I'll wait for Jesse to come by," Ed said as he saw the rancher come out of the schoolhouse, her arms full of her giggling children. "I'll walk over with her."
"Afraid KC will do something in the store again?" Billie teased. The girl's adventures were becoming legendary in Sweetwater and had forced the storekeeper to construct what he referred to as a "holding pen" to keep KC confined anytime she visited the store.
"Now that she has Charley to help her," Ed smirked, "I don't think Jesse can afford to keep covering the costs of the trouble that young 'un manages to git herself into."
"Ain't that the truth," Billie chuckled.
"Morning, boys," Jesse greeted her friends as she approached the mercantile. "How's Ruthie?" she asked Billie.
"Still in bed."
"Good," Jesse climbed the steps to the porch. "Jennifer's worried about her."
"Mommy, down," KC squirmed in Jesse's arms.
"Nope," Jesse kept a firm grip on the girl. "We're not going to be here long enough for you to make any trouble," she winked at Ed. "Bette Mae's waiting for us at the Slipper but I wanted to give you Jennifer's shopping list." She tried to reach the paper in her shirt pocket but was prevented from doing so because of the babies she carried. "Sunshine, get the list out of my pocket," she told KC.
"Otay." KC's pushed her hand into the pocket, her searching fingers pressing against her momma's breast.
"Ah, KC," Jesse was more than a little uncomfortable because of the girl's actions. "Get the list. Quick."
Ed and Billie smirked, enjoying the rancher's distress.
"Here 'tis," KC pulled the paper free. "Momma wan's t'is stuff, pease," she passed the list to the storekeeper.
"Well then," Ed made a show of taking the list from the girl, "I will make sure that she gets everything on here. I'll bet there's even some goodies on her for you and Charley," he told KC.
"Yep," KC grinned. "Momma puts lots a' goodies on dere."
Ed laughed out loud at the reply, Billie and Jesse joining in.
"Come on, you little rascal," Jesse stretched her fingers to tingle KC's side. "Let's go see Bette Mae. You coming?" she asked the men.
"Sure am," Ed nodded.
"You go on ahead," Billie told them. "I'm going to go check in on Ruth."
"You be sure to tell her Jennifer will coming by after school," Jesse passed on the message her wife had given her before she left the schoolhouse.
"I will." Billie said, plucking the empty coffee cup from Ed's beefy hand and turning to go back into the building.
"Let's go," Ed told Jesse after Billie left. "I'm hungry."
"Me too," KC chimed in.
"You're always hungry, sunshine," Jesse grumbled. "I swear, Ed," she told the chuckling storekeeper, "if I didn't know better, I'd think she was hollow inside."
"You better hope Charley doesn't turn out the same way," Ed laughed, lifting KC out of Jesse's arms and swinging her up to sit on his shoulders.
"Ugh," Jesse grunted, swinging Charley up onto her shoulders.
The children giggled all the way to the Silver Slipper.
"I was beginnin' ta think I'd never be seein' my babies today," Bette Mae complained as soon as Jesse walked into the Slipper's dining room.
"We walked Jennifer to school," Jesse explained as the older woman rushed to greet the children.
"Oh, my babies," Bette Mae exclaimed as the children were passed to her. Hugging them to her buxom, she planted kisses on the faces until both KC and Charley were squealing with laughter.
Ed and Jesse took seats at one of the unoccupied tables, knowing it would be several minutes before Bette Mae relented.
When he thought he had been ignored long enough, Ed picked up a coffee cup and started banging it on the table top. "I must say, Jesse," he spoke loudly to be heard over the children's shrieks and the laughter of the other diners enjoying the impromptu floor show. "The service in this here restaurant of yours surely seems to be lacking. What's a poor workin' man supposed to do to get a meal around here? Not to mention a hot cup of coffee."
"Lordy, Ed," Bette Mae plopped into a chair beside Jesse. "Ya can' be begrudgin' me a little time to say howdy to my babies," she groused playfully.
Charley, a little overwhelmed by his sister's and Bette Mae's enthusiastic display, reached for Jesse who pulled the baby into her lap.
"Oh, is that what you was doing," Ed teased back. "The way they was crying and carryin' on, I done thought ya was afflicting them young 'uns somethin' awful."
"Puh," Bette Mae pursed her lips together to glare at the snickering man.
"Food, pease," KC, now sitting in Bette Mae's lap, looked up hopefully at the woman.
"Don' ya tell me yo'r mommy didn' feed ya this mornin'," Bette Mae sympathized with the girl.
"We ate 'fore we left the ranch," Jesse grumbled, "so don't you be feeding her again. Jennifer will have my head if you do."
"Well then," Bette Mae smiled, giving KC a gentle squeeze. "How 'bout a nice big glass of fresh milk?"
"Yep," KC nodded. "Cha-wie get one too?"
"You bet," Bette Mae agreed. "Sally bring two big glasses of milk for my babies."
Sally normally worked as the Slipper's bartender but when business was slow in the bar off the dining, she helped out where needed.
"Make that three, Sally," Jesse added. "Oh, and you better bring Ed his breakfast before he starts to eat the table."
"You got it, boss," Sally answered. "Be right back," she said before disappearing through the door that led into the kitchen.
"Got a load to take to Garnet," Ed was telling Jesse as he finished off his breakfast.
Jesse was holding a sleeping Charley and KC was playing on the floor at her feet. "I don't know, Ed," Jesse was watching KC. "That's a three day trip and a long time to be away from Jennifer and the young 'uns. It'd be a lot easier if Jennifer wasn't teaching," she added. "Then they could come with me."
"I understand, Jesse. It's just with Billie not wanting to leave Ruthie until the baby comes, I don't have many options." Billie, once Sweetwater's sheriff, had given up the badge when he asked Ruthie to marry him and now worked for Ed in the store. And with Sweetwater being too small to have its own freight service, the storekeeper had to find drivers to make any deliveries he had for the mining camps in the surrounding mountains.
"Let me talk to Jennifer," Jesse wanted to help out her friend and they could always use the extra cash but being away from her family for more than a day wasn't something she liked to do.
"Fair enough," Ed popped the last bite of toast into his mouth. "I'll check with some of the cowboys in town. Maybe one of them would be interested." With the numerous cattle ranches in the valley, the town had no shortage of ranch hands in town looking for trouble.
KC yawned, rubbing her eyes.
"Looks like I best get these two put down for their naps," Jesse said as KC climbed into her lap.
"Tired, mommy," KC mumbled, leaning against Jesse.
"Okay," Jesse made sure she had a good hold on the babies before standing. "Let's get you and Charley upstairs." Since the dress shop Ruthie operated now occupied what had been Jesse's office, a room was kept free upstairs for her and Jennifer to use whenever they were in town.
"Need a hand?" Ed asked, seeing the woman adjusting her hold on her children as she stood up.
"Thanks, but I think I've got them. I'll let you know when we pick up the supplies later."
"Three days?" Jennifer asked, not at all happy with the prospect of her wife being away that long. Jesse and the children had come to pick her up after school and the rancher had just finished telling her of Ed's offer. "What are you going to do?"
"Well I don't want to do it," Jesse frowned, "but with Billie staying close for Ruthie, Ed's kinda in a bind. The supplies have to be delivered." She was standing by one of the windows that lined one side of the schoolhouse; from there she could see Ed working among the stacks of boxes and crates on the loading dock at the rear of the mercantile.
Jennifer walked over to stand beside Jesse. Leaning against her, she sighed, "I don't want you to go, sweetheart. I feel so alone when you're gone." Over the past year the rancher had made several trips for Ed, many of them as long or longer as the one they were discussing.
Jesse wrapped her arm around Jennifer's shoulders. Through the window, she noticed a cowboy come out of the back of store and say something to Ed. After the men exchanged words for a few minutes, they shook hands and the cowboy disappeared back into the store. "Maybe Ed will find someone else to make the trip," Jesse said, hoping she hadn't misread the transaction she had just witnessed. "Either way, darlin'," she turned to look into Jennifer's eyes. "I promise this will be the last time."
"Thank you," Jennifer whispered. When Jesse pressed their lips together, she leaned into the kiss.
Continued in Chapter ThreeReturn to the Academy