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“Ya sure ‘bout taking them babies over the mountains again, Jesse?” Bette Mae asked, watching Jesse fill the buckboard with supplies needed for the ranch and the impending trip to Granite. She was sitting in the shade of the awning that covered the loading dock at the back of the mercantile.
“Somethin’ wrong with me taking my family to visit friends?” Jesse questioned, lifting a bag of flour off the wooden deck.
“No. It’s just…”
“Just what?” Jesse stopped her work to look at her friend. She pushed the stetson back off her brow and used her sleeve to wipe the sweat away. “Dang it’s hot,” she sighed.
“Well now, that there’s another reason ya should’t be takin’ them babies.”
“Jennifer wants to visit Leevie,” Jesse cocked her head to study the older woman. “You want us to leave KC and Charley with you?” she asked innocently, taking a quick glance at the children sleeping on a blanket next to Bette Mae’s chair.
“Heavens no,” Bette Mae shook her head. “Why KC would have the Slipper turned inside out ‘fore ya was halfway out the valley.”
“Thought she was your little angel,” Jesse smirked, returning to the work of getting the pile of supplies into the wagon. School would be out soon and she wanted to be there to pick up her wife.
“She is,” Bette Mae looked down at the children. “She’s jus’ got more piss in her than a wolverine in a bad mood. And ya know tha’ its neigh impossible ta say no to tha’ young ‘un. She’s jus’ so…”
“Cute?” Jesse snickered. She was well aware of how easy it was for her daughter to get her way with a simply cocking of her head and smiling. It had worked on her enough times.
“Jesse, ya ain’t helpin’,” Bette Mae grumbled.
“Okay,” Jesse hopped up to sit on the edge of the wide porch. “What’s wrong, Bette Mae? Why don’t you want us to take the young ‘uns?”
“It’s jus’ tha’ every time you go ‘way from the valley, somethin’ always seems to happen,” Bette Mae explained.
Jesse could see the concern in the older woman’s eyes. “Nothing is going to happen, Bette Mae. We don’t have rustlers setting us up for a lynching and there’s no outlaws lying in wait to ambush us. Jennifer’s father is locked away back east and Harrington hasn’t been heard from since he left town. So there’s nothing to worry about.”
“There’s always somethin’ when ya’s involved, Jesse. I don’ wan’ any of ya to get hurt.”
“We won’t,” Jesse stood and walked to where Bette Mae sat. “I promise. I won’t let anything happen to any of us,” she leaned over to place a quick kiss on her temple. “Besides,” she said as she straightened back up. “Jennifer has you beat in the worrying department and she won’t let me take any chances this time. She’s made me promise that if we run into trouble, any trouble,” she emphasized. “We high-tail it back home.”
“Lordy,” Bette Mae smiled, “at least one of ya’s has som’ sense. So what about the ranch? Yo’r poppa can’t handle it alone.”
“And why not?” Stanley walked out the back of the store. “I’m not dead yet,” he glowered at Bette Mae.
“Get what you needed, pop?” Jesse asked her father.
“Yep. Ed had some real nice ones,” Stanley held up a pair of new axes. “These should make short work of cutting firewood. Told him to put it on the Slipper’s account, I did,” he winked at Jesse.
“The Slipper’s account,” Bette Mae jumped at the bait. Once the bank had opened in Sweetwater, Jesse set up an account for Bette Mae to use to cover expenses at the Slipper. “Now why would ya go and do a fool thing like tha’? Ya know full well I ain’t gonna buy ya no new axe. Why the cost of tha’ would probably pay for a week’s worth a flour. And the Slipper needs flour a hell a lot more than it needs ta pay for yo’r toys.”
“Ain’t a toy, Bette Mae,” Jesse defended her father’s purchase. “Axe I’ve been using out at the ranch is getting tpo worn to keep sharp, hard to cut firewood with a dull axe. And we’ve got to cut back some willows down by the river. With the river getting’ so low, cattle are having a rough time getting’ through them to it. Had to free up two that got tangled in them this week alone.”
“Why ain’t ya movin’ ‘em up high then?” Bette Mae asked.
“That there is a mighty good question,” Stanley added his purchases to the back of the buckboard. “Been askin’ her that myself for the past few weeks.”
The ranch’s boundaries encompassed acres of forested land and hidden in the trees were several large mountain meadows some distance above the valley floor. The difference in elevation meant the meadows stayed cooler and the grass stayed greener long after the valley’s grasslands had dried out from lack of moisture.
Jesse knew it would be better on the cattle to move them but something deep in her gut was telling her not to. “Not sure why but I just know it isn’t the best idea,” she told the others. “It may be a little hard on the herd to stay put but that’s what they’re gonna do. Weather has to break sooner or later,” she scratched the back of her head, hoping that by saying the words they would come true. The sound of KC waking up drew her attention. “Pop can you get the rest of this in the wagon? I need to see to the young ‘uns.”
“Yep,” Stanley was already lifting the last box of food stuffs over the side of the wagon.
“Mommy,” KC sat up, rubbing her eyes. “I ‘ungry,” she mumbled.
Bette Mae laughed a hearty joyful laugh that floated on the dry air. “When ain’t ya child? When ain’t ya?”
Hearing the familiar voice, KC twisted her head around to look for its owner. “Hi, ‘Ette,” she smiled brightly.
“That,” Bette Mae pointed at the girl, “is wha’ I was talkin’ ‘bout. How do ya say no ta that?”
“Ya don’t,” Stanley grumbled.
“Hi, Grumps,” KC turned at her grandfather’s voice. “You ‘ungry too?”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Jesse knelt down beside the blanket. “We don’t have time for you to work your magic to get some treats. We need to get Charley up and changed and get over to the school to pick up your momma. Today’s the last day of school and she’s gonna be in a big hurry to get home.”
KC’s face fell at her mother’s words. “No treats,” she pouted, her lower lip quivering.
“Did I hear someone say treats?” Thaddeus Newby, the town’s newspaper owner and editor, walked out from the back of the store carrying a handful of freshly baked cookies. “I was over having lunch at the Slipper and I just couldn’t leave without some of these. Fresh from the oven too,” he bent down handing one of the cookies to KC. “This one’s for Charley when he wakes up,” he said, placing a second cookie on the blanket near Jesse.
“T’anks,” KC grinned, grabbing the warm cookie and breaking off a piece. She held the bite out for Jesse while she bit off a piece for herself. “Good,” she grinned as she chewed. “You eat.”
Jesse opened her mouth wide to gather in the offered bite and her daughter’s fingers. “You’re right,” she smiled at the girl, “you do taste good. The cookie isn’t too bad either.”
“You silly,” KC giggled, shoving the rest of the treat into her mouth. “Mor’, pease,” she held her hand up to Thaddeus.
“Nope, sunshine,” Jesse grabbed the hand and placed it back in KC’s lap. “That’s all you get.”
Charley’s eyes popped open and the baby smiled at his mother.
“Hi there, little man,” Jesse reached over and tickled the boy’s tummy. “Did you smell that cookie?” she laughed as Charley giggled.
Charley rolled over onto his stomach before pushing himself up on all fours. He crawled to Jesse, plopping down to sit next to her and waited.
“How come your sister isn’t that behaved?” Jesse chuckled, bending over to kiss the baby’s head. She picked up the cookie, breaking it in half. “Here ya go,” she said as she handed a half to Charley. “What say we keep this piece for momma?”
Charley smiled around a mouthful of cookie.
“Charley says otay, mommy,” KC stood and toddled over to Jesse.
“Lordy, tha’ poor child ain’t never gonna learn ta talk,” Bette Mae snickered.
“Mommy,” KC patted Jesse’s shoulder.
“What is it, sunshine?”
KC leaned in close and whispered, “Ette say ain’t.”
“That she did,” Jesse nodded. “But I think that’s okay. Your momma just doesn’t want you or me to say it.”
“Oh,” KC peeked around Jesse to look at Bette Mae. “Its otay,” she informed the woman.
“Come here, child,” Bette Mae laughed, opening her arms wide.
Giggling, KC ran for Bette Mae and was immediately wrapped up by the woman’s arms. “Ya take real good care of yo’r momma and mommy, ya hear,” Bette Mae hugged the girl tight. “I don’ wan’ nothin’ happenin’ ta them.”
“Otay,” KC agreed even though she wasn’t real sure what was being asked of her.
“Leaving in the morning, Jesse?” Thaddeus asked.
“No,” Jesse laid Charley on the blanket so she could change his britches. “Have a few things to take care of out at the ranch first. Probably first of the week.”
“Too bad you’re not taking a wagon,” Ed said walking out of the store. “Have some things for a young couple in Phillipsburg. You could make some money out of the trip.” He insisted on paying Jesse whenever she made a delivery for his mercantile.
“What kind of things?”
“Why’d they order that from you?” Thaddeus asked. “Can’t they get those in Phillipsburg?” Granite was located a few miles up the mountain from the larger mining camp.
“They was passing through town a few weeks back and stopped in Ruthie’s shop. Ordered a couple of dresses and I agreed to get them delivered when they were ready.”
“Well, a couple of dresses can’t take up much room,” Jesse said. “Guess we could add them to one of the packs.”
“Don’t want to put you out none,” Ed said, hoping Jesse wouldn’t change her mind.
“Wrap ‘em up and we’ll take them with us.”
“Thanks, Jesse. I’ll be right back,” the storekeeper disappeared back into the building.
“Here ya go, Charley,” Jesse pulled the baby into her arms. “All fresh and clean for momma.” She stood up and carried the boy to the wagon. She handed him up to his grandfather already sitting on the wagon bench. “Come on, KC.”
KC gave Bette Mae a peck on the cheek then dropped out of her lap and ran towards her mother. Not hesitating when she reached the edge of the platform, she flew into the air.
Jesse turned just in time to catch her daughter. “Whoa there, sunshine,” Jesse snatched the girl out of the air. “You need to make sure I’m ready for ya.”
“You ready, momma,” KC wrapped her arms around Jesse’s neck. “You always ready.”
“With you around, smart britches,” Stanley grumbled, taking the toddler from Jesse and setting her in his lap with Charley. “She ain’t got much of a choice.”
“Ain’t tha’ the truth,” Bette Mae chuckled.
“Here you go, Jesse,” Ed came back out of the store. “It’s not too big a package is it?”
“Nope,” Jesse took the bundle wrapped in brown paper and tied tightly with a piece of string from the storekeeper. “Won’t be a problem at all.”
“I wrote their name on the paper and where they said they could be found,” Ed smiled glad to have his problem solved. He didn’t have many delivers to Phillipsburg and his only other choice would have been to send the package by stage, something that would have cost more money than he cared to spend.
“Have a good trip, Jesse,” Thaddeus said.
“We will,” Jesse replied, tucking the package into the back of the wagon. “You folks make sure to keep an eye on Ruthie and the baby. Jennifer doesn’t want her working too much right now.”
“I’ll make sure Billie spends as much time with her as he can,” Ed agreed. Billie and Ruthie lived above the store and Billie helped Ed out at the store when he needed it.
“Be careful,” Bette Mae had walked to the edge of the platform and was standing between Ed and Thaddeus.
“We will,” Jesse said, climbing up into the wagon seat. Unwrapping Boy’s reins from the brake handle, she used her booted foot to release the brake. With a flick of the wrist, the reins slapped on the broad back of the work horse and he took a few steps forward, straining against the wagon’s weight until the wheels began to turn.
“Bye, ‘Ette,” KC had squirmed out of Stanley’s grasp and was kneeling between her mother and grandfather facing backwards on the wagon seat. With one hand holding tight on the back of the seat, she waved to her friends with the other. “Bye. T’anks for the cookie.”
“Bye, littl’ angel,” Bette Mae waved back, wiping a tear from her cheek.
Jesse pulled the barn doors closed, preparing to return to the house after checking on the horses and making sure they were settled for the night. As she walked across the ranch yard, she looked up at the night sky, unsurprised to see it free of any clouds. Stars twinkled brightly and she smiled. On evenings like this, she always thought of the first few nights she and Jennifer had spent together camping out under the stars and falling in love. Thinking of her wife made her want to get back to the house where she would find the woman that had become everything to her and she quickened her steps.
“Hi,” Jennifer said when Jesse climbed up onto the back porch.
“Whatcha doin’ out here, darlin’?” Jesse asked seeing that Jennifer sat alone in the porch swing.
“Waiting for the woman I love,” Jennifer smiled.
“Oh,” Jesse smirked, walking over to the swing. “You expectin’ her soon or can I snuggle up with you until she gets here.”
“That depends,” Jennifer demurely looked up at her wife, patting the swing’s seat beside her.
“On what?” Jesse asked as she took the offered seat.
“On how good you snuggle,” Jennifer leaned against Jesse, sighing happily when she felt strong arms wrap around her.
“Well,” Jesse drawled, pulling the schoolteacher close. “I’ve had lots of lessons from the best cuddler ever so I’m thinking I can do a right fair job of it.”
“Oh,” Jennifer snuggled into Jesse’s embrace. “And who would that be?”
“Why, a little ginger haired spitfire if there ever was one,” Jesse teased. “I think you might even know her.”
“Does she have a name?”
“Yep, might pretty one too.”
“Care to share?”
Jesse rolled her head, placing a tender kiss on the tip of Jennifer’s nose. “Why I’m surprised you don’t know, darlin’,” she grinned, pressing her forehead against Jennifer’s. “Her name is KC.”
“Bad,” Jennifer playfully slapped Jesse on the belly.
“I love you,” Jesse leaned in just enough to press her lips against her wife’s. She took her time exploring the soft skin with her lips and tongue.
“Hmmm,” Jennifer moaned, her eyes sliding close as she let her wife’s love spread throughout her body. “That was nice,” she sighed when Jesse took a moment to breathe.
“Yes, it certainly was,” Jesse was so close to Jennifer that she could taste the air her lover exhaled.
Jennifer’s eyes slowly opened to look into Jesse’s. “I love you.”
Jesse leaned back on the swing, pulling Jennifer with her and bracing her foot on the porch. “What about that woman you said you was waiting for?” she asked, pumping her legs slightly to start a gentle motion of the seat beneath them.
“What woman?” Jennifer laid her head against Jesse’s shoulder, content in the closeness of her wife and the soothing motion of the swing.
“Forgot her already, did ya?” Jesse chuckled.
“Nope,” Jennifer started unbuttoning Jesse’s shirt. “Just found somebody I like a whole lot better,” she said, slipping her hand inside to rest it on the warm skin hidden under the flannel material.
The women sat like that for several minutes. No words were necessary as they savored the peaceful night, the starlit sky and each other.
“So, you planning on telling me why you were sitting out here all alone?” Jesse murmured in Jennifer’s ear. The swing had been well used since she’d hung it months earlier as a surprise for her wife. But almost always, Jennifer had the children with her or the two of them would sit in it after the children had been put to bed.
“I was just thinking,” Jennifer’s hand began to creep up towards the firm breasts she loved to hold.
“’Bout what?” Jesse gasped, feeling her heart beat speed up.
Jennifer stilled her hand. She wanted to tease Jesse but she also wanted a little time to think about her answer. Should she tell Jesse why she wanted to see Leevie? She didn’t want Jesse to try and talk her out of the decision she had made some time earlier but was it fair to wait and spring it on her once they arrived in Granite? Then again, would Jesse even care?
The sound of feet padding across the kitchen floor and someone leaning against the screen door interrupted the women’s thoughts.
“Didn’t you put them to bed?” Jesse whispered.
“Yes,” Jennifer whispered back. “Didn’t you tell her she wasn’t s’posed to climb down the stairs alone?”
“You sure it’s her?”
“It sure ain’t Charley,” Jesse grumbled. Without moving, she addressed her daughter, “sunshine, are you out of bed?”
“Yep,” KC said through the screen door.
“Didn’t momma tell you to go to sleep?”
“Then why are you up?”
Jesse and Jennifer heard the screen door squeak slightly as it was slowly pushed open. They listened as small feet padded across the wood planks on the porch and tried not to laugh when their daughter walked in front of them, cocking her head to the side to study them.
“Me tired,” KC told her mothers, one hand balled into a fist to rub her eyes.
“That’s why your momma put you to bed,” Jesse smirked, trying hard not to laugh. With her hair sticking out in every which direction, the toddler looked just like Jennifer when she woke in the morning.
Jennifer sat up, pulling her hand out of Jesse’s shirt. She laughed when the rancher groaned in protest over the action. “Sweetie,” she bent down to talk to KC, “why did you get out of bed if you’re tired?” She reached out for the baby, lifting her into her lap when KC moved into her arms.
“Miss mommy,” KC looked up at Jennifer, her face sad.
“What do you mean, you miss me?” Jesse asked, confused by the toddler’s statement. “I’m right here.”
“I think,” Jennifer told Jesse, “that she means she missed you saying goodnight to her. Isn’t that right, sweetie?” she asked KC. “Did you and Charley miss mommy’s kisses tonight?”
“Yep,” KC nodding, her lower lip poking out as she looked up at Jesse.
“Oh,” Jesse smiled at her daughter. “Then I guess I better fix that, huh?”
KC waited, expectantly.
“Come on, sunshine,” Jesse held her arms open, “let’s go put you to bed properly.”
KC scrambled into her mother’s arms, giggling happily when Jesse smothered her with kisses.
Jesse stood, holding a hand out to Jennifer. “Shall we put this young ‘un to bed, darlin’?”
“I think that would be best,” Jennifer let Jesse pull her out of the swing.
“Is your brother awake, too?” Jesse asked as she and Jennifer walked hand-in-hand for the door.
“No, Cha-wie seeping,” KC told her mothers.
“Oh, so he doesn’t need me to kiss him goodnight,” Jesse pouted.
“He jus’ baby, mommy,” KC patted her mommy’s cheek.
“And you’re not?” Jesse held the screen door open for Jennifer.
“No,” KC beamed, “I big girl.”
“Not that big,” Jesse snickered, tickling the toddler. “You still need your mommy to kiss you goodnight.”
“Jesse, stop it,” Jennifer warned when KC let loose a flood of giggles. “You’ll wake up Charley.”
“Sorry, darlin’,” Jesse stopped agitating KC. “Settle down, sunshine,” she told the girl, “so’s I can help your momma upstairs.”
“Otay,” KC settled immediately. She knew how hard it was for her mother to climb stairs and she didn’t want to make it any harder.
Jennifer slipped her arm around Jesse’s, taking advantage of her wife’s strength to help pull her damaged leg up each step.
It took several minutes to reach the top landing but, as usual, Jesse took every step with her never voicing any complaint.
The women carried KC down the hall to the children’s bedroom and slipped inside to find Charley sitting up in his crib.
“Hey, little man,” Jennifer leaned over to kiss her son. “Are you waiting for mommy to kiss you goodnight, too?”
Charley smiled at his momma as he started to chatter in gibberish.
“Cha-wie say yep,” KC told Jesse as she placed her in her own crib.
“That’s an awful lot for him to be saying if all he said is ‘yep’,” Jesse snickered, tucking the blanket around KC. She bent over and kissed the girl on the cheek. “Good night, sunshine. You go to sleep now, okay?”
“Otay,” KC yawned.
Jesse switched places with Jennifer. She bent over the side of the crib to kiss Charley. “Good night, little man,” she said, checking the blanket Jennifer had tucked around the baby.
Charley reached up, pressing his tiny hand against his mother’s cheek.
Jesse felt the tears building in her eyes and brushed at them before they had a chance to fall. “I love you, too,” she whispered.
“That should do it, darlin’,” Jesse pulled the strap tight that helped bound the packs to Boy.
“Good,” Jennifer stood on the back porch of the house where for the past couple of days they had piled the items they would take with them to Granite. She looked around to make sure they hadn’t forgotten anything when she and Jesse had carefully tucked the gear and supplies into the packs that now rested on the draft horse’s broad back.
“We goes?” KC asked. She and Charley were sitting in the porch swing watching their mothers work.
The women had quite accidentally discovered the little girl couldn’t get out of the moving swing on her own which made it perfect for keeping track of their easily distracted daughter.
“Pretty soon, sunshine,” Jesse smiled at the toddler. “First, we need to check Charley’s britches and say goodbye to your grandma and grandpa.
“Otay,” KC said, slapping her hands against her thighs in frustration. She was anxious to get going since she liked to ride Dusty with her mommy.
“Where are Mom and Pop anyway?” Jennifer asked surprised Jesse’s parents hadn’t appeared out of their cabin by now. The sun had been up for a couple of hours and they knew the women were planning on leaving. “I’d expected them to eat breakfast with us this morning.”
“Don’t know,” Jesse made a final check of the straps and bindings. “I’ll walk over and check soon as we get Charley changed.”
“Why don’t you and KC do that while I take care of Charley,” Jennifer offered, as anxious to get moving as her antsy daughter.
“Yes, go ahead.”
“Alright,” Jesse stepped up onto the porch, wrapped her arms around Jennifer and hugged her tight. “We won’t be long, darlin’.”
“Just bring them back with you, I want to know they’re okay,” Jennifer said, leaning into her wife’s embrace.
“Hey, we thought you might be on your way by now,” Stanley Branson rounded the corner of the house, his wife right behind him.
“We were just coming to look for you,” Jesse smiled at her parents. “Where have ya been?”
“Marie is feeling poorly this morning,” Stanley stepped up onto the porch. “Took me this long ta talk her into coming over and saying goodbye, she didn’t want ya worrying none. I told her the young ‘uns would be expectin’ us.”
“Grumps,” KC called out to her grandfather, her hands held high in anticipation of being set free of the swing.
“You’re not feeling well, Mom?” Jennifer asked Marie as she picked Charley up from the swing, she didn’t want the baby sitting in it alone.
“Maybe we should hold off goin’ for a few days,” Jesse crossed the porch to where her mother was standing.
“Nonsense,” Marie patted Jesse on the face. “It’s just a womanly thing,” she whispered. “Your poppa has never understood those things.”
“You sure, Mom?”
“Course I’m sure. You go on with your plans,” Marie smiled to reassure her daughter. “I’ll be just fine in a day or two.”
Jesse was torn. She knew Jennifer was anxious to get to Granite but she was concerned about her mother. Marie had never been a strong person and she worried anytime the older woman got sick.
“We can wait a few days, Jesse,” Jennifer said, carrying Charley to stand with the others.
“No,” Marie insisted. “I’ll be fine. Just need to take it easy for a day or two.”
“I don’t know, Mom,” Jesse was convinced. “If it’s alright with Jennifer, I think we should stay put. At least until you’re feeling better.”
“Jesse Marie Branson, you will do no such thing,” Marie bristled. “I said I’ll be fine and I will. Now you take your wife and your young ‘uns to Granite like they’re ‘specting you to do.”
“And they say I’m the stubborn one,” Stanley whispered to KC who giggled.
“Alright, if you’re sure,” Jesse rubbed her cheeks, trying to hide the red tint that was starting to color them. Shrugging she looked at Jennifer, “guess we’re going, darlin’.”
“Let me take care of Charley,” Jennifer began.
“I’ll do that,” Jesse snatched the baby from her wife and hurried into the house.
“Um,” Jennifer watched the screen door bounce against the door frame after Jesse rushed inside. “I think I should go check on her,” she told her in-laws. “You be good, KC. Mommy and me will be right back. Okay?”
KC nodded, her face sad. She didn’t like to see her mothers upset.
After Jennifer had gone inside, Stanley turned to his wife. “What the blazes was that all about?”
“I don’t know,” Marie sighed. “But I think I hurt her feelings.”
“Mommy sad,” KC told her grandparents.
“What for?” Stanley grumbled.
KC laid her head on her grandfather’s shoulder, her eyes glued to the screen door. “Don’t like yell,” she murmured.
Marie looked at the baby, a flood of memories flashing through her thoughts. Memories of a small girl who could do no right it seemed. She wondered how much hurt that must have caused her daughter to have her still carrying it with her. “I think I should go see to Jesse,” she told Stanley.
“Wait,” Stanley sat in the swing. He had his own memories of his daughter’s childhood and not many of them made him proud. But he was proud of the woman she had grown into and the daughter she was to him now. He knew Jennifer was a big part of that and if anyone could ease Jesse’s pain it would be her wife. “Leave ‘em be for a minute.”
“Jesse?” Jennifer tapped on the door frame to the children’s room, not wanting to startle her wife.
“You didn’t need to come up here, darlin’,” Jesse grabbed a chair, placing it near Jennifer for her to sit. “That’s a lot of strain on your leg just ‘fore we leave.”
“That’s okay,” Jennifer limped past the chair to stand beside Jesse. “You alright?” she asked, wrapping her arms around her wife.
“Yep,” Jesse twisted her head to smile at her wife. “Guess I made a fool of myself down there, huh?”
“No.” Jennifer continued to hold Jesse as she finished dressing Charley. “What to talk about it?”
“Not much ta talk ‘bout. Haven’t heard Mom use that tone in some time,” Jesse lifted the baby into her arms and turned to face her wife. “Guess it just caught me off guard. I kinda felt like I was that little girl again,” she wrapped her free arm around Jennifer. “The one that always tried so hard to please them but never could.”
“That’s not who you are now, sweetheart,” Jennifer leaned into Jesse. “It’s not who they are either.”
“I know,” Jesse kissed Jennifer’s forehead. “It just caught me off guard, that’s all.”
Jennifer leaned back just enough to look into the rancher’s eyes. “Ready to go get our daughter and say goodbye.”
“I love you, Jesse Marie Branson.”
“I love you too, darlin’,” Jesse bent forward to capture her wife’s lips in a tender kiss.
“Bleck,” Charley snorted.
Both women looked at their son.
“Is that a word?” Jesse asked, smirking.
“I don’t know,” Jennifer stared at her son. “I hope not, I’d hate to think that was the first one he said.”
“Well, I don’t know, darlin’,” Jesse chuckled. “Seems if I remember right, KC’s first word was ‘moo’.”
“That doesn’t mean I want Charley’s to be ‘bleck’.”
“Come on, let’s get downstairs before KC talks all of them into coming up here,” Jesse bent forward to finish what she had started a few moments before.
As soon as their lips touched, Charley voiced his opinion again. “Bleck,” he said, scrunching up his nose and shaking his head.
“Oh, boy,” Jesse stared at the baby. “We are really going to have to keep you away from your sister.”
“You have a good trip,” Stanley was standing beside Dusty, Jesse sat in the saddle with KC sitting in front of her. “And don’ ya be frettin’ about the ranch. It’ll be here when ya git back, I promise.” His pledge wasn’t an idle one, he knew the last time Jesse and Jennifer had left the ranch for a period of time they had come back to a burned out shell of rumble instead of the home they loved. He was determined that would not happen again, not on his watch.
“Thanks, Pop,” Jesse reached her hand down to her father. “I know you’ll take care of the place.”
Stanley grasped the offered hand, “I promise, daughter.”
“Bye, grumps,” KC grinned, her little hand waving enthusiastically. “Bye, gramma.”
“Goodbye, smart britches,” Stanley reached up to tickle the toddler. “You be good, you hear.”
“I good, grumps,” KC giggled.
“You’ll watch out for her, won’t you?” Marie asked Jennifer of Jesse. When the women had reappeared from inside the house, she had apologized to her daughter but she could see the hurt still reflected in Jesse’s eyes.
“I will, Marie,” Jennifer said, repositioning the carry sack on her back where Charley sat. “She’ll be fine,” she smiled down at her mother-in-law. “Really.”
Marie smiled back. If there was one person to entrust her daughter to it was Jennifer and she knew it. “Be safe,” she whispered.
“We will.” Jennifer nudged Blaze up beside Dusty. “Ready, sweetheart?”
“Just waitin’ for you, darling,” Jesse grinned.
“Well, then let’s get going.”
“Okay, sunshine,” Jesse ruffled her daughter’s hair. “Momma says it’s time to go.”
“Gid-diup, Dusty,” KC yelled, tapping her heels on the horse’s sides.
Dusty raised her head, shaking it then twisted her neck to look back at the miniature rider giving the commands.
“Better get used to it, girl,” Jesse laughed. “Won’t be long ‘fore she’s running the whole show.” She tightened her grip on Boy’s reins then flicked her other wrist to set Dusty in motion. The golden horse stepped forward a few steps.
Not happy with the palomino’s speed, KC again yelled, “gid-diup.” Her legs slapping against the mare’s sides as she tried to encourage it to go faster.
“Best let her set the pace, sunshine,” Jesse stilled the girl’s legs. “We don’t want her to git mad and make us walk all the way to Granite.”
KC frowned but said nothing.
Dusty quickened her pace to a slow trot as soon as KC quit trying to make her do it.
“Don’ know which one of you is worse,” Jesse smirked at her daughter then turned to her parents. “You be sure and send for Bette Mae if you don’t feel better tomorrow,” she called to her mother.
“You just worry ‘bout yourselves, I’ll be fine.”
“Goodbye,” Jennifer waved as they rode around the corral fence and headed south.
Jesse looked to the sky, the sun was almost straight up. “Bit later than we was expectin’ to leave,” she told Jennifer.
Jennifer laughed. “It seems we have a bit more to get ready now.”
“That it does,” Jesse chuckled. “Well gid-diup, Dusty. We’ve got some ground to make up.”
The mare snorted before picking up the pace.
KC clapped her hands, happy to finally be moving fast enough for the wind to rustle her hair. “Cha-wie,” she called to her brother. “Dis fun.”
“I’ve missed this,” Jennifer said, stirring a pot of soup. She was sitting on a stool Jesse had fashioned out of a piece of canvas and some legs from an old chair. It provided her a comfortable way to sit in front of the fire without having to kneel on her bad leg and collapsed when not in use into an easy bundle for packing.
“Missed what?” Jesse asked, pausing in her task of setting up the camp to look at her wife. “Cooking? You do that every night, darlin’.” She sorted through their packs pulling out their bedrolls and blankets.
“No silly,” Jennifer grinned. “I missed being out like this. Just us.”
“Ain’t just us anymore, darlin’,” Jesse carried bed rolls into the tent and spread them out.
“It’s just us, sweetheart,” Jennifer turned her head to check on KC and Charley who were playing on a blanket near the fire. “It’s just more of us.”
“Yeah,” Jesse smiled as she stepped outside of the tent. “Funny. Last time we used this tent, they both slept in empty pack boxes. Don’t think we’d get them to that now.”
“No,” Jennifer giggled. “I doubt we would. Do you need help, sweetheart?”
“Nope, almost done. You just stay put and rest that leg. After we feed them and get them to bed, I’ll give you a nice rub down. Just like before.”
“I don’t think we’ll have much trouble getting them to sleep tonight,” Jennifer watched KC rubbing her eyes.
“Nothing like riding on the back of a horse all day to tucker out young ‘uns,” Jesse grinned. “You want to give ‘em a bath tonight?” Jesse asked, kneeling beside Jennifer. She placed a hand on her wife’s thigh, gently squeezing it.
“No. I don’t think they’ll stay awake long enough for that. Soup is ready. You want to get Charley?”
“Sure,” Jesse said but she stayed where she was.
Jennifer looked into Jesse’s eyes. She smiled, seeing the love reflecting in them.
“Have I ever told you how pretty you are?” Jesse asked, her voice low and husky.
“A time or two.”
“Not enough. I should tell you every day,” Jesse leaned forward until her forehead was resting against her wife’s. “Jennifer Branson, you are the prettiest girl I have ever seen. And I love you so much I think sometimes my heart is gonna jus’ up and burst.”
Jennifer smiled. “Jesse, you are the most romantic person I think I’ve ever met. Now, go get them young ‘uns so we can feed them and put them to bed. I want to show you just how much I love you.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jesse leapt to her feet. “Come on, young ‘uns,” she growled playfully at the children. “You got’s to be eating your supper and quick. Your momma wants ta show me somethin’.”
“Me see, mommy?” KC asked as Jesse scooped her and Charley into her arms.
“Nope, sunshine,” Jesse buried her face into KC’s belly causing the babies to giggle uncontrollably.
“Jesse, where do you always have to stir them up just before bed?” Jennifer shook her head, resigned to her wife’s behavior.
“Cause it’s so much fun,” Jesse sat down on the ground next to Jennifer. She propped KC up her lap and handed Charley up to his momma. “And ‘cause I love them.”
“You’re impossible,” Jennifer laughed, handing a bowl of warmed soup to the rancher.
“And you still love me,” Jesse accepted the bowl then held it for KC to take a sip. She kept close watch on the girl as they shared the soup in the bowl.
“Yes, improbable as it seems, I certainly do love you.” Jennifer held a spoonful of soup to Charley’s mouth, letting the baby swallow it in his own time. “Jesse, will we take the same pass over the mountain as before?”
“Nope,” Jesse answered while she refilled the bowl from the pot simmering over the fire. “We won’t go as far south as before. We’ll cut across a pass just this side of the badlands.”
“What’s it like?”
“First part of the trail follows a creek to a nice little waterfall. Then it leaves the creek for a few miles as it climbs up to the pass. Once we get up there, we’ll go by a couple of small lakes and pick up another creek flowing the other way. We’ll be in trees most of the way so that should keep these two from getting too hot. And there’s lots of places to stop and rest so we don’t have to worry about traveling too far each day. Once we drop down out of the trees, we’ll be a pretty little valley. From there, we follow the creek almost to Phillipsburg. Then we have to climb out of that valley, over a range of hills and drop into the Flint Valley. Phillipsburg is on the other side of it and we’ll take the wagon road from there up to Granite, at the top of the mountain.”
“How long do you think it’ll take?”
“Quickest we can make it is two days. But we can take as long as you want.”
“Hmm,” Jennifer considered what she did want. She wanted to get to Granite and be able to talk to Leevie. But being alone with her family was also something she wanted. She decided to just take it day by day. Either way, she couldn’t really lose.
“Darlin’,” Jesse said quietly. “I think your soup has done put this one to sleep.”
Jennifer looked down to see KC sound asleep, her head rolled back and resting on Jesse’s arm.
“I’ll put her to bed,” Jesse gently cradled the toddler in her arms as she stood. “Then I’ll come back and get him,” she nodded to the baby half asleep in Jennifer’s lap.
“How’s that feel?” Jesse asked.
“Wonderful,” Jennifer sighed. Wearing only her shirt, she was lying on her stomach on a blanket next to the fire. Jesse was straddling her legs, massaging the soreness out of her damaged one.
As she worked her fingers into tight thigh muscles, Jesse’s hands roamed a little further up Jennifer’s legs. Her wife’s quiet moans encouraging her to continue.
Jennifer felt Jesse’s hands move closer to the top of her legs and she felt a surge of heat burst from around her clit and spread up her belly. “Jesse, you keep that up and…”
“And what, darlin’?” Jesse purred.
“And,” Jennifer rolled over, surprising her wife with the sudden movement. “And I’m just going to have to do this,” she grabbed hold of Jesse’s shirt, pulling her down on top of her. Her other hand slipped up her wife’s back until it found her neck and she pulled Jesse to her. Jennifer’s mouth was open when their lips met and she didn’t have to wait long for Jesse’s tongue to enter it. Wrapping her tongue around her wife’s, she pressed their lips together in a searing kiss that caused her toes to curl.
“Wow,” Jesse breathed out when their lips parted moments later.
“There’s more where that came from,” Jennifer grinned, pulling Jesse’s shirt free of her pants.
“Darlin’?” Jesse lifted herself up, aiding her wife in undressing her. “Don’t you want to go into the tent?”
“No,” Jennifer began unbuttoning Jesse’s shirt as the rancher held herself over her. “I don’t want to move. I want to make love to you right here.”
“Okay,” Jesse smirked as Jennifer leaned up to latch onto a recently uncovered nipple. As soon as she felt warm lips sucking on her tender flesh, she felt a jolt of heat explode in her groin. She couldn’t have stopped now even if Jennifer wanted. She pressed her hand down on Jennifer’s patch of silky hair, the heat she felt there matching her own.
“No,” Jennifer said in a soft voice, reaching down to still Jesse’s hand. “I want to make love to you. Change places with me.”
Jesse did as she was asked.
Jennifer straddled Jesse’s waist and finished undoing the buttons on her shirt. She pushed the fabric over Jesse’s shoulders exposing the rancher’s chest. Cupping her hands around each breast, she gently kneaded the firm tissue. Seeing the nipples begin to hardened, she rolled them between her thumb and finger, applying a little more pressure with each pass.
“Ahhhhhh,” Jesse groaned. She tried to reach for her wife but the shirt pushed only part way down her arms prevented her for doing so.
Jennifer smiled. “Tonight, you’re mine,” she whispered, leaning down to press her lips against her wife’s. As she deepened the kiss, her tongue slid into Jesse’s mouth, she reached between their bodies to the buttons on Jesse’s pants. With the pants loose, she slipped a hand inside, her fingers exploring the pulsing clit and surrounding wetness.
“Uhhhh,” Jesse moaned, her hips rose to meet Jennifer’s hand.
“Not yet, sweetheart,” Jennifer whispered, pulling her hand away from Jesse’s heated center. Placing both hands on the rancher’s hips, she slowly pushed herself up until she was again straddling her wife’s thighs. She rose up on her knees, pushing the pants down Jesse’s long legs until they could go no further because of her boots. Gently easing Jesse’s knees apart, she pushed them up until they were parallel to her hips.
What Jennifer had in mind would be awkward because Jesse still had her boots on and her pants were bunched around her ankles, but she didn’t care. Tonight she would show the rancher just how much she loved her.
“Jennifer?” Jesse voice shook with desire as she watched her wife position herself between her legs.
“Shhh,” Jennifer smiled at Jesse. “I love you,” she murmured, lowering her mouth onto the rancher’s clit.
Jesse thought her head was exploding. It flew back against the blanket at the same time a scream flew past her lips.
Jesse’s hips were bucking making it hard for Jennifer to maintain her hold on the hard bundle of nerves she was lovingly sucking on. She waited until Jesse stilled.
Jesse, unable to move her arms, balled her fists into the blanket she lay on. Her chest was rising and falling at a speed that matched her racing heart. She had never felt anything like the rush of ecstasy that Jennifer’s lips on her clit had produced.
Jennifer, feeling Jesse begin to settle back onto the blanket, moved her lips and tongue away from Jesse’s clit, slowly kissing and licking her way to the center of Jesse’s need.
“Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” Jesse groaned, her breath coming in short bursts as her orgasm began to build.
Jennifer reached the orifice through which she could taste the source of Jesse’s nectar. Wasting no time, she plunged her tongue as far inside her wife as she could. She enjoyed the smooth, silky texture of the tissue she found inside and she let her tongue roam freely over it.
“Oh, godddddddd,” Jesse bucked as waves of hot molten lava crashed throughout her body. Her muscles instinctively clamping down on Jennifer’s tongue trying to draw it deeper inside her.
Her mouth mashed against her wife’s wet, throbbing sex, Jennifer was lost in the sensations she was tasting and feeling. She felt her own need building as she tried to force her tongue further inside. Her hand moved up to Jesse’s clit, thumb pressing hard against the bundle.
Jesse could take no more. Her orgasm exploded inside her. Hips bucking uncontrollably, she forced her sex against her wife’s mouth intensifying the sensations. So lost in her own pleasure was she that she didn’t feel when Jennifer’s body began to convulse or hear her wife’s screams of pleasure.
“Darlin’?” Jesse croaked, her throat was so dry she could barely force the word out.
“Hmmm?” Jennifer was sprawled between the rancher’s legs, too exhausted to move.
“Darlin?” Jesse tried again. She wanted to hold her wife in her arms but she couldn’t get them to move and couldn’t remember why. “I need you,” she managed to choke out.
Hearing the desperation in Jesse’s voice, Jennifer pushed up on her elbows to look at her wife. “Are you okay?” she asked, concerned she might have done something to hurt the rancher.
“No,” Jesse lifted her head just enough to look at Jennifer. “I need to hold you.”
Jennifer crawled up Jesse’s body.
“My arms,” Jesse told her. “Free my arms.”
“I’ll try.” Jennifer studied the situation. “You’re going to have to sit up,” she said when she saw she could not move the shirt without Jesse’s help. She grabbed hold of Jesse’s shoulders.
With both women struggling to overcome their weakness, they managed to get the shirt off one arm.
Free to move her arms, Jesse wrapped them around Jennifer as she collapsed back on the blanket.
“That was the… Well, I’ve got to tell you… Damn, Jennifer,” Jesse squeezed Jennifer with the little strength she had left. “That was really somethin’.”
“It was, wasn’t it?” Jennifer grinned.
“Yes, ma’am, it surely was.” Jesse rolled her head to kiss Jennifer.
“You taste good,” Jennifer whispered, ducking her head.
“I do, huh?” Jesse pulled her wife’s face back up to look at her. “I think you taste pretty good yourself.” She slipped a hand between Jennifer’s legs, pulling her hand back up, fingers coated with her wife’s cum. “Ready for bed?” she asked after sucking her fingers clean.
“Oh, yes. I don’t think KC and Charley will be the only ones not having trouble sleeping tonight,” Jennifer giggled.
“Probably not,” Jesse slipped out from under Jennifer. It took some effort but she managed to stand on her shaky legs. “Come on,” she reached down for Jennifer. Once Jennifer was standing, Jesse scooped her into her arms, carrying her to the tent.
Continued in Part 7
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