Rolling Thunder continues the story of Jesse and Jennifer Branson begun in the stories of Sweetwater, Bannack and Bozeman.  It is recommended that you read those stories before reading this one. 

This is an original story and the characters belong to me.  Please do not reproduce or copy any of my stories without my permission.

This story portrays a loving relationship between two women.  If you are offended by such a relationship, please do not read any further.  If such a relationship is illegal where you live, work to change the laws. 

I would like to hear your comments, please write me at mickeyminner@yahoo.com

 

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ROLLING THUNDER
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted  July 2004

 

PART 1

Jennifer Branson reached back and lifted the hair off the back of her neck in a futile attempt to cool her clammy skin.  It was summer and, even with all the schoolhouse windows open, sitting inside during the afternoon hours was next to unbearable.  From outside, the sound of horse hoofs clomping against the hard packed street and of wagon springs creaking drifted in on the still air.  Jennifer smiled and began to clear her desk, Jesse and KC were coming. 

As she opened her desk drawer and neatly placed her work papers inside, Jennifer's thoughts strayed to the events of the last few months.  Had it really only been such a short time since she'd come to Sweetwater to teach the town's children?  She had arrived barely more than a child herself and now she was married with a daughter of her own.   So much of her life had changed in the past few months.

It had been late spring when Jennifer prepared to secretly leave her birthplace in the east and travel west.  Determined not to be forced into an arranged marriage and anxious to experience life in the west, Jennifer had slipped away from her parent's home during the night and boarded a train bound for Denver.  There she had contracted for the position of schoolteacher for the town of Sweetwater, Montana Territory. 

A few days after arriving in town, Jennifer had boldly risen to Jesse's defense against charges of cattle rustling.  When the rancher had been threatened by a lynch mob, Jennifer had broken the woman she scarcely knew out of jail and the two had set out to find evidence to prove her innocence.  They soon discovered that an old enemy of the rancher had returned to the valley and framed Jesse.  Before the man could be arrested, Jesse had been shot in the head and Jennifer had been terrified that she would die.  Luckily, the bullet had only grazed Jesse and, after a few days, she was well on her way to recovery.  A recovery that was hastened along by the women's declaration of love for each other.

After Jesse's recovery, the women had headed for the mining camp of Bannack to check on a friend.  Unfortunately, their planned quiet trip to Bannack was spoiled when they found a young couple murdered by bandits and later discovered that Bannack's sheriff was their leader.  Sensing that Jesse and Jennifer were a threat to his outlaw organization, Sheriff Plummer had ordered their deaths.  Ambushed as they tried to return to Sweetwater, Jesse had been forced to kill the bandits in order to save their own lives.  But, the disastrous trip to Bannack had also brought joy as they had decided to keep and raise the infant daughter of the murdered travelers.  And, Jesse had proposed to Jennifer.

Upon returning to Sweetwater, the women had announced their engagement and their friends had immediately started planning a wedding.  Theirs was to be the first held in Sweetwater and the whole town came to the festivities.  Their happiness was soon shattered as, soon after vows were exchanged, a message arrived from Jennifer's father.  He was traveling to Sweetwater to take her back and he was bringing her fiancÚ.

Jennifer had hoped her father would never discover where she had run off to but a chance meeting in Bannack had given away her secret.  Determined to remain in Sweetwater with Jesse and their daughter, Jennifer had refused to accompany her father back east.  Undeterred, her father had assaulted Jesse and kidnapped Jennifer.  Unwilling to lose her new wife, Jesse had tracked Jennifer and her kidnappers.  She had been within minutes of rescuing Jennifer when a mountain lion had attacked and killed the young man who was to be her husband.  In an attempt to save the boy from the cougar, Jennifer had been clawed and her leg ripped open.

'It had, indeed,' Jennifer thought, 'been an exciting few months since her arrival in Sweetwater.'

Jennifer was brought back to the present by the sound of boots crunching on the gravel path leading to the schoolhouse and a steady stream of baby gibberish.  She grabbed the cane leaning against the wall behind her desk and made her way to the building's front door, slightly limping on her damaged leg.  Some days were better than others for Jennifer but, usually, a nice long soak in a hot bath and a rubdown by Jesse helped eased her discomfort. 

Jennifer left the stuffiness of the schoolhouse and stepped out onto the small porch.  She waited in the shade of the building's porch, smiling at her wife and daughter completing their walk up the path. 

"Afternoon, darlin'," Jesse Branson smiled broadly as she greeted the schoolteacher.

"Momma," KC's outstretched arms reached for the ginger hair woman waiting on the porch.

"Hi, sweetie," Jennifer gladly took the baby from Jesse. 

KC wrapped her tiny arms around Jennifer's neck and kissed her on the cheek.  Jennifer returned the kiss, "I've missed you."

"What about me?" Jesse asked as she wrapped her long arms around Jennifer and pulled her close.  Their mouths meeting for a tender, lingering kiss.

"Oh," Jennifer sighed when their lips parted.  "I've missed you, too, sweetheart."

"How's your work going?  Finish it up, yet?" Jesse asked as she kept her hold on Jennifer.

"Almost," Jennifer leaned into Jesse.  She had come to the schoolhouse that morning to work on study plans for the coming school session.  "Come on," Jennifer said as she gently pushed out of Jesse's embrace, "help me get the windows shut so we can go home."

"Alright," Jesse followed the schoolteacher into the schoolhouse.  "Looks like we could get thunder bumpers tonight," she commented on the clouds building over the mountains to the west.

"Thunder bumpers?" Jennifer asked as she placed KC down on the floor so she could help Jesse.

"Storms we get this time of year," Jesse pulled down a window.  "Usually begin to roll in just before nightfall.  Lots of thunder and lightening."

"And, rain?" Jennifer asked hopefully.

"If we're lucky."  With all of the windows closed, Jesse looked around for KC.  "Mostly, just lots of booming."

"Oom?" KC peeked out from under Jennifer's desk.

"Yep, sunshine," Jesse playfully approached the baby like a tiger on the prowl.  "Boom, Boom, BOOM," she teased.

KC giggled at her mother. "oom, oom, OOM," she repeated.

"It sure would be nice to get some rain to break up this heat," Jennifer wiped sweat from her forehead.

"This summer sure has been a hot one."  Jesse grinned as she lifted KC from the floor, "come on, you rascal.  Looks like we better start tying a rope to you, you squirt around so much.  Only way we'll be able to keep track of her," she explained when she saw Jennifer's disapproving look.

Jennifer tried not to smile as an image of Jesse walking around Sweetwater linked to KC by a long rope popped into her head.  She could just imagine what trouble the two of them could cause.  "We'll find another way," she assured the rancher.  Changing the subject before Jesse could offer any other suggestions, she asked, "should we stop by the depot?"

The town of Sweetwater did not have a telegraph or post office.  Messages and mail traveled to and from town on the stage and were held at the stage office until picked up.

"Stopped by there before we came here," Jesse carried the giggling KC to the front door and held it open for Jennifer.  "Nothing, yet."

Jesse thought back on the events of the previous month when she had reunited with her parents after years of no contact.  She had asked them to move to Sweetwater and live with her and her new family.  Her father, a proud man who didn't want to be seen as accepting charity, had agreed to think about the offer.  But, as yet, had made no decision.  At least, not one he had decided to share with her.

Jennifer pulled the door shut, making sure it was secure before turning to face Jesse.  She had heard the disappointment in her partner's voice and knew there really wasn't anything she could say to lessen it.  Jennifer held out her hand and Jesse instantly accepted it.  They began the walk down the gravel path to the footbridge spanning the creek at the bottom of the knoll the schoolhouse occupied.  On the other side of the footbridge, sat a buckboard.  Standing patiently in front of the wagon was a large draft horse Jesse had inherited when she purchased an abandoned ranch.  Jennifer had been speechless, probably for the only time in her life, when Jesse explained the horse's name was 'Boy' because it was a boy

Jesse helped Jennifer up into the buckboard, careful not to jar Jennifer's damaged leg.  She then handed KC up to her momma.  KC promptly crawled off her mother's lap and plopped herself down in the center of the bench seat.  She liked to sit between her mothers where she could hold on to both of them while the buckboard bounced along the road.  Naturally, her mothers preferred to sit side-by-side and, much to KC's dismay, Jennifer pulled her back onto her lap. 

"They'll come, sweetheart," Jennifer placed a hand on the rancher's thigh when Jesse joined her on the seat,  "Just give them some time."

Jesse took Jennifer's hand in her own.  She brought it to her lips and tenderly kissed the gold band that adorned Jennifer's ring finger, she wore a matching band on her own hand.  Jesse smiled when she remembered how her father had given them the rings.

"Married folk should wear rings.  You don't wear one."

"Not too many places to buy one in Sweetwater," Jesse looked at her unadorned hand.

Without another word, her father stood and disappeared into the house, reappearing moments later.

"Here," he handed Jesse a small box.  "Belonged to your momma's parents.  Always figured we'd give 'em to our son when he married.  Guess it don't make much sense letting 'em go to waste."

Jesse slowly opened the box.  Inside two gold wedding bands glittered in the sunlight.

"I hope you're right, darlin'," Jesse gently squeezed Jennifer's hand.  "I'd hate to lose them again."

"You won't," Jennifer returned the squeeze.  "Bozeman isn't that far away.  We can visit them as often as you like."

Jesse nodded as she unwrapped the reins from the brake handle and slapped them lightly on Boy's hind quarters.  The large draft horse started walking in the direction of the Silver Slipper, a saloon that Jesse won in a poker game and had turned into a respectable boarding house and restaurant.  The women sat quietly as Boy plodded towards the Slipper. 

Sweetwater was located at the northern end of a river valley, nestled up against a ponderosa pine forest at the foot of the Rocky Mountains.  The town took it's name from the valley which was named for the sweet tasting waters of the rivers running through it.  Being centrally located amid the mining camps tucked away in the surrounding mountains, Sweetwater served as a stop for the stagecoach and freight wagons from Bozeman. 

The town consisted of a dozen or so buildings of various sizes and shapes lining the stage road which doubled as the town's only street.  An old adobe structure, badly in need of repair, was the oldest permanent building in town.  And, although telegraph wires had yet to reach Sweetwater, the adobe had always been referred to as the depot and telegraph office.   Directly across the street was the town's only store.  A building next to the store housed the town hall, sheriff's office and jail, and the office of the Gazette, the town's newspaper.  The only other businesses in town were the Oxbow Saloon on the same side of the street as the depot and the stables and blacksmith which occupied the land behind the Oxbow.  Besides the schoolhouse, the remaining structures in town were private residences located between the business district and the Silver Slipper located at the far end of town.

Used to stopping at the Slipper, Boy walked to the front of the two story building and stopped in the shade of it's wrap-around porch.  Jesse hopped down from the wagon then hurried around to help Jennifer.

"Afternoon," a woman stepped out of the boarding house.  "Why I was jus' tellin' ya momma that it was 'bout time for you's to be stoppin' by on ya way home."

"Afternoon, Bette Mae," Jennifer greeted the woman who served as manager for the Silver Slipper and was a good friend to both women.  "Sit still until mommy can get you," she instructed KC who was excitingly bouncing in her lap.

KC liked the older woman and was always happy for the opportunity to spend time with her, especially if Bette Mae was baking.

"Best take care of her first," Jesse told Jennifer who nodded and helped KC crawl into Jesse's waiting arms.

Jesse handed the baby to Bette Mae. 

"Lordy, but ya is growin' like a weed.  I do declare you is bigger than ya was this mornin'," Bette Mae tickled the child's belly.

Jesse laughed, "don't suppose it has anything to do with the treats you keep baking for her."  She turned her attention to Jennifer and carefully lifted her from the wagon.  Jesse carried her up the steep steps before gently setting Jennifer down on the porch next to Bette Mae.

"You don't have to carry me," Jennifer complained.

"Hush," Jesse smiled at her wife.  "I don't mind." 

"Yes, sweetheart, I know," Jennifer leaned on her cane.  "I just don't like feeling helpless," she said unhappily.

"Oh, you're far from helpless, darlin'.  Besides, you'll be running up those steps in no time and I won't have any excuse then to do it."  She grinned at Jennifer, "I really like to, you know."  Jesse wrapped Jennifer in a loving hug.  She had been devastated when the doctor had handed Jennifer a pair of crutches, explaining that she would probably always need them to walk.  He had added that her leg would never heal completely due to the extensive muscle and nerve damage inflicted by the cougar's claws. 

Jennifer never complained.  Instead, she insisted an using the leg as much as possible and it had slowly begun to regain it's strength.  Enough that she had thrown away the crutches and replaced them with the cane she now used.  She had even started riding Blaze, the mare Jesse had surprised her with before their trip to Bannack.  Mostly, she took short rides around the ranch house but each one was a little longer than the last.  She hoped to be able to ride to town before long.

"I love you," Jesse placed a loving kiss on her frustrated wife's lips. 

"Com' on," Bette Mae turned to take KC inside.  "That's not fittin' for a child to see," she smirked at the two women.

"Ah, Bette Mae," Jesse laughed as she broke off the kiss.  "She's seen worse."

Jennifer blushed, "Jesse Marie Branson!!"

"Ya best com' wit' me, angel," Bette Mae said to KC.  "Looks like ya mamas are fixin' to have a fight.  Course now," she whispered mischievously to the child, "they only fight so's they can make up."

"Come on, darlin'," Jesse scooped Jennifer up into her arms.  "Let's see what goodies Bette Mae has waiting for our daughter.  We can make up when we get back to the ranch."

"Jesse," Jennifer exclaimed as her blush deepened.

Being bored with the conversation up to this point, KC perked up upon hearing 'goodies' and asked, "cookie?"

The women laughed as they went inside the Slipper.

"I thought I heard your voices," a small woman with delicate features rose from an over-stuffed chair where she had been enjoying a book from the Silver Slipper's extensive library.

"Hello, mother," Jennifer embraced the woman once Jesse released her.

Mary Stancey Kinsington had accompanied her husband to Sweetwater to reclaim their daughter.  She had been surprised to find her daughter happier than she could ever remember and, unlike her husband, it hadn't taken long for her to appreciate the love Jesse and Jennifer shared.  When Martin Kinsington had been forced to leave Montana Territory or face criminal charges, Mary had decided to stay behind to build a relationship with Jennifer and her family.  Jesse had offered to make room for Mary at the ranch but she decided to stay in town.  She moved into a room at the Silver Slipper, the same room Jennifer had used when she first arrived in the small town. 

"Sit, daughter," Mary Kinsington pointed to a chair at the closest table.  "You should be resting that leg."

"I'm fine, mother," Jennifer assured her mother as she sat.  "Besides, with the mothering Jesse gives me, I really don't need any more."

"You can never have enough mothering," Mary smiled as she sat in the chair next to her daughter.

"Grmm," KC told Bette Mae as she pointed at her grandmother.

"Yep, angel," Bette Mae laughed.  "That's ya grandma.  Still havin' trouble gettin' ya littl' mouth around tha' big word, I see."

"You wouldn't think that was such a littl' mouth if you had to listen to her wail when she wakes up hungry," Jesse chuckled as she pulled a chair close to Jennifer.

Bette Mae placed KC in her grandmother's lap before sitting at the table.

"Grmm," KC smiled at the older woman.  "Cookie?" KC asked.

"Oh," Mary nervously said to the child that reminded her so much of Jennifer at the same age.  "I think there may be some in the kitchen."

Though she was determined to make amends to Jennifer and accept her and Jesse as they were, Mary was still having trouble adjusting to her granddaughter.  It wasn't so much that the baby wasn't Jennifer's by birth but more that KC was her first grandchild and she wasn't sure she was ready to be a grandmother.

"Oh, no you don't," Jesse shook her head at KC.  "You've had more than your share of cookies today."

KC sadly looked at her mother and poked out a quivering lower lip.  Her pout was so pitiful that all four women had a hard time keeping straight faces.

"You're mommy is right," Jennifer told her daughter.  "You can wait until we get home and have supper."

Jesse reached over and gently pushed KC's lip back into its normal position.  "Don't want you tripping on that when we leave," she teased the baby. 

KC playfully tried to nip at Jesse's finger but it was withdrawn too fast. 

"Ha, you missed," Jesse triumphed.

"Som' day my littl' angel is going to catch tha' there finger and than we'll be seein' wha' ya have to say," Bette Mae chuckled.

"Never," Jesse boasted.

"Right," Jennifer smirked as she used her cane to steady herself as she pushed up from the chair.  "Come on, speedy," she placed a hand on Jesse's shoulder, "let's get her home before she asks for something else these two would be happy to spoil her with."

Bette Mae protested, "I do not spoil tha' littl' angel.  I'm jus' tryin' to help her grow big and strong like her mommas.  Ya got ta admit, she is a might on the tiny size."

"Give her time, Bette Mae," Jesse said as she stood.  "She's not yet a year old.  She's got plenty of time to grow."

"I didn't think you knew how old she was," Mary said as Jesse took the baby from her.

"We don't know for sure," Jennifer told her mother.  "But, we figured she was around eight or nine months when we found her."

"Well, tha' would mean tha' she's goin' be a year right soon," Bette Mae said.  "Looks like maybe we should start plannin' a birthday party."

Jennifer looked at Jesse who shrugged, "don't see that it would hurt anything.  She should have a day she can celebrate."

"But, which day?" Jennifer asked.

"Guess you could pick any day you want," Mary told the women.  She was surprised to feel excitement over the prospect of a birthday party for her granddaughter.  Maybe she was finally getting used to being a grandmother.

"Guess we could," Jesse agreed.  "Tell you what, let us give it some thought and we'll let you know what we decide.  You can plan the party then."

"Don' you worry," Bette Mae gave KC a goodbye kiss, "we'll hav' the biggest party this town has ever seen."

"Oh, boy," Jennifer and Jesse groaned at the same time.

**********************

"Jesse," Jennifer was placing a sleeping KC into her crib, "what do you think we should do about KC's birthday?"  With thunder booming and lightening crashing overhead, it had taken extra time to get the baby to sleep.  But, she had finally given in and closed her tired eyes.

"Don't rightly know," Jesse added another pail of heated water to the tub she was preparing for Jennifer. 

"When is your birthday?" Jennifer asked as she began to undress.

"March 21st," Jesse tested the tub's water to be sure it wasn't too hot.  "Your's?"

"June 5th."

Jesse lifted the last pail of heated water from the fireplace and slowly poured the water into the tub as she thought about Jennifer's response.  Jennifer had arrived in Sweetwater around the first of June.

Jennifer turned at Jesse's silence, "sweetheart?"

"You never said anything," Jesse solemnly stirred the water in the tub.

Jennifer, naked from the waist up, walked to Jesse.  She wrapped her arms around her lover, "we were kind of busy at the time."  Her birthday had been the day after she broke Jesse out of jail to save her from a lynch mob.

"Still," Jesse sighed at Jennifer's touch.  "I could have got ya a present or something."

"Oh, silly," Jennifer turned Jesse in her arms and planted a kiss on the pouting lips.  "You gave me the best birthday present I could have ever hoped for."

"I did?" Jesse circled her arms around Jennifer and pulled their bodies closer.

"Yes, sweetheart," Jennifer nodded.  "You gave me you."

Thinking back on the events of that day, Jesse had to agree.  That was the day she had first expressed having feelings for Jennifer.  "Guess I did at that," she smiled.

"Yes, love," Jennifer smiled back.  "You certainly did."

"Still," Jesse kissed the end of Jennifer's nose, "you could have said something."

Jennifer considered how strange it was that she felt as if she had known Jesse forever and, yet, there was still much they didn't know about each other.

"Darlin', are you okay?" Jesse asked when she saw the look on Jennifer's face.  It was if she was a thousand miles away.

"Yes, I was just thinking," she sat on one of the chairs at the table they used for their meals and bent to remove her boots.

"Let me," Jesse quickly knelt at her wife's feet.  "What were you thinking?" she carefully pulled the boot free from Jennifer's injured leg. 

"How much we still don't know about each other."

"Like what?" Jesse pulled off the other boot then stood and held out her arms offering to help Jennifer off the chair.

"Our birthdays, for one," Jennifer accepted her wife's help.  She leaned on Jesse as her pants and undergarments were pulled down.  One by one, she lifted her legs so Jesse could finish removing the clothing.

"Well, you know that now.  As for the rest, guess we'll just find out as they come up," Jesse leaned back on her heels to enjoy the view before her.

"Water's getting cold, sweetheart," Jennifer blushed as Jesse's eyes moved, unhurried, up her naked body.

"I can always heat more," Jesse wiggled her eyebrows.

Jennifer reached down and pulled Jesse upright, "no, that would mean you'd have to go outside and fill those buckets at the well.  I prefer to keep you right here."

"Oh, you do," Jesse laughed as she helped Jennifer step into the tub.  After making sure Jennifer was comfortable, Jesse picked up the wash rag and soap.  "Now, about those things you'd be wanted to know about me.  I suppose you could make up a list," the rancher teased as she worked the soap into a lather on the wash rag.

"No," Jennifer laughed, "I wouldn't know where to start.  And, once I got going, I probably wouldn't know when to stop." 

"Now, ain't that the truth," Jesse chuckled, knowing her wife's penchant for long shopping lists.. 

Jennifer leaned back and closed her eyes, savoring the feel of Jesse's gentle hands washing her body.

"Ready for your hair?" 

Jennifer opened her eyes and slowly sat upright.  "Yes," she said as she ran a hand through her tresses.  "I can't seem to keep it clean, what with it being as hot as it has been."

Jesse soaped up her hands then began to gently cleanse the schoolteacher's hair.  It took a couple of soapings to get the day's sweat out of it.  But, that was alright with Jesse, she loved the feel of Jennifer's locks as they slid through her fingers.

After Jesse rinsed all the soap from her hair, Jennifer again leaned back against the tub's smooth surface.

"Join me."

Jesse was reaching for a towel when she heard Jennifer's request.  Her hand stopped in mid-air and she turned back to look at her lover, "you sure?"

"Yes, sweetheart," Jennifer smiled, "I've missed it."  She and Jesse had begun to bathe together soon after the schoolteacher had moved to the ranch.  But, since her accident, Jesse had refused in fear of hurting Jennifer.  "Please, my leg is much better."

Jesse hesitated.  She had missed their shared baths.  And, Jennifer's leg did seem to be as healed as it was probably going to get.  "Okay," she grinned and began to strip off her clothes.  Moments later she joined her wife in the tub.

"Ahhhhhhh," Jesse sighed as she leaned back to rest against Jennifer, "I've missed this, darlin'."

"Me, too," Jennifer picked up the soapy rag and started to wash the parts of Jesse she could reach.  When her hands came into contact with the rancher's breasts, she felt the nipples harden at her touch.  Dropping the wash rag, Jennifer took the firm globes in her hands and gently squeezed.  Her head bent to leave slow, loving kisses across the rancher's strong shoulders.

Jesse moaned as her body responded to Jennifer's loving touches, "don't think we should...." 

"Hush," Jennifer whispered.  The women had not made love since before Jennifer's kidnapping and both longed for the other.

Jesse shivered as one of Jennifer's hands began to trace irregular circles from her breasts down her stomach and continued lower.  Jesse's head fell back against Jennifer's shoulder, she turned to face Jennifer and moaned when her lover's lips claimed hers.  Jennifer's tongue pressed between parting lips and hungrily explored Jesse's waiting mouth.  As they kissed, Jennifer slipped her hand between Jesse's legs, her fingers sliding smoothly in the slickness they encountered.  Jesse spread her legs invitingly and was instantly rewarded when Jennifer's fingers gently pinched her clit sending electrically surges throughout her body.  While, Jennifer's tongue continued it's assault on Jesse's mouth, she slid her fingers down Jesse's inner lips and slipped them inside her lover.  Their entry aided by Jesse's growing wetness. 

Desperate for her lover's touch, that was all Jesse needed to climax.  Her hands clutched onto the tub's sides as her thighs clinched tight around Jennifer's hand, holding it in place.  Her hips arched up and her chest heaved as the weeks of pent up longing exploded within her.  She screamed into Jennifer's kiss.  Her body trembling with aftershocks even as she collapsed back down into the tub, causing water to slosh over it's sides.

Jennifer wrapped her arms protectively around Jesse and held her as she recovered.  In the throes of their passion, her leg had been wedged between the tub's side and Jesse's hip, but she didn't care.  All that mattered was the love she had been able to show her wife, something she had been wanting to do for weeks.

"God," Jesse's sighed, her body feeling boneless in Jennifer's embrace. 

"I love you," Jennifer left a trail of delicate kisses down the side of the rancher's face and neck.

"Whoa, darlin'," Jesse reached a shaky hand up and gently pushed Jennifer's mouth away.  "Seems that's how I ended up like this in the first place.  Give me some time."

"That good, huh?" Jennifer grinned.  She loved making love to Jesse.

"Uh, uh," Jesse agreed.

As Jesse's strength returned she realized she had Jennifer's bad leg pinned against the side of the tub.  "Oh, darlin'" she jerked away, "I'm so sorry.  Did I hurt you?"  Jesse sat up and ran her hands over Jennifer's leg searching for any apparent injuries.

"Stop," Jennifer pulled Jesse back against her.  "It's fine."

"Are you sure?" Jesse couldn't believe she had let that happen.  "I'm so sorry."

Jennifer cupped a hand against Jesse's face, her thumb tracing Jesse's lips to quiet them.  "It's okay."

"Really?"

"Really."

Jesse's tongue stretched out and pulled Jennifer's thumb inside her warm mouth.  As she sucked, her eyes locked on Jennifer's. 

"Oh, no," Jennifer read Jesse's thoughts.

"It's only fair," Jesse smirked as she released her wife's digit.  "You've had your fun.  Now, I should have mine."  A long arm reached up and cupped the back of Jennifer's neck.  Jesse pulled Jennifer to her and pressed their lips together.  It was several moments before they parted.

"Well," Jennifer breathed.  "You better finish your bath and take me to bed if that's what you want."

"Yes, darlin'," Jesse quickly searched around the bottom of the tub for the wash rag.  She wasn't one to keep her wife waiting.

*******************

"August 1st," Jennifer said.

"What about it?" Jesse asked not raising her head from where it rested between her wife's breasts.

After finishing her bath, Jesse had carried Jennifer to their bed and made love to her.  They now lay in the tangled sheets, the scent of their recent activity hanging in the air around them.  Jennifer was laying on her back with one arm bent up and tucked behind her head, her other hand played with Jesse's hair.  Her injured leg was propped up on a pillow, safely out of harm's way.  Jesse was laying half on and half off of Jennifer, with one arm draped across her wife's waist.  A soft breeze blew through the open window next to their bed, it felt good as it washed over their heated bodies.

"For KC's birthday," Jennifer answered.

Jesse thought for a moment, "why the 1st?"

"It's her first birthday.  Seems right."

"Oh," Jesse lifted her arm and lightly ran fingers up and down Jennifer's leg leaving behind goosebumps.

"That tickles," Jennifer giggled.  "So, what about it?" she asked.

"Sounds fine by me," Jesse's stilled fingers were replaced by lips softly kissing Jennifer's stomach.

"Jesse," Jennifer purred, "you start that and we'll never get to sleep tonight."

Jesse pushed herself up on her elbow and gazed into Jennifer's beautiful sapphire eyes.  An eyebrow slowly raised.  "Who said anything about sleeping?" Jesse asked, seductively, as her lips claimed Jennifer's.

*******************

Jennifer was still sound asleep when Jesse woke to the sound of KC moving about in her crib.  Knowing KC had been experimenting with trying to climb over the crib's sides, Jesse reluctantly left the comfort of the bed and warmth of Jennifer's body to see just what their daughter was up to.  KC, wet, hungry, and ready to start a new day, was very happy to see her mommy look into her crib.

"Up," KC raised her tiny arms in the air.

"Okay," Jesse lifted the child free of the crib, "but, you have to be real quiet.  Momma is still asleep," Jesse whispered.

"Otay," KC whispered back.  "Ugh," the baby said as she patted her wet bottom.

"Yeah, ugh," Jesse agreed as she carried KC to the dresser where they kept clean clothes. 

As Jesse dug in the dresser for a fresh diaper, KC peeked over her shoulder at her sleeping mother.

Jesse pulled a small shirt and pair of britches out of the drawer and added them to the diaper.  She carried the clothes and baby to the table in the kitchen end of the ranch house.  "This will have to do since we can't change you on the bed," she told KC as she laid her down on the wooden surface.

"Momma seep," KC whispered.

"That's right, sunshine," Jesse removed the soiled diaper and nightshirt.  "And, we want her to stay that way."

"Otay,"  The baby sat up as soon as Jesse finished dressing her.  "Mommy, dow," she commanded.

"Nope, you keep your little behind stuck to that table until I get rid of this," Jesse deposited the dirty garments in a wash basket.  She returned and washed her hands in a pail of water kept warming by the fire for that purpose.

Bright eyes, the same shade as Jennifer's, watched Jesse's every move.  "Mommy, cookie."

"No, not this morning.  Here," Jesse grabbed a handful of soft biscuits left over from the previous evening's supper and handed one to the hungry child.  "These will have to hold you until Momma cooks breakfast."

"Otay," KC said as she took a bite.

"Guess you're coming with me to do chores," Jesse lifted KC from the table.

"Baze cookie?," KC reached for another biscuit.

"Yep," Jesse sat the baby on the floor so she could get dressed.  "Blaze, Dusty and Boy will all be hungry."

Jesse dressed quickly not being sure how long she could count on KC's good behavior.  Scooping the child up, she grabbed her boots and stetson and left the now quiet room to her exhausted wife.

******************

"Morning, darlin'," Jesse greeted Jennifer as she entered the cabin.  She had to duck when she walked through the doorway so as not to knock KC off her shoulders.

"Momma, ook," KC beamed at her mother from under the stetson she wore.

"What have you two been up to?" Jennifer asked as she kissed Jesse.

"Was supposed to be the morning chores," Jesse handed a basket of eggs to Jennifer.  "'Till the squirt here decided to help collect eggs," Jesse reached up and carefully lifted the baby over her head.  "Sure got those hens riled up when she crawled through the henhouse.  Probably won't see another egg for days,"

"So, that's what woke me up," Jennifer laughed as she placed the basket on the table.  She took KC from Jesse and kissed her.  "So, you were chasing chickens," Jennifer plucked a chicken feather from KC's fine hair.

"Owie," KC pointed to a red mark on her arm.

"Hens got a peck or two in before I could round her up," Jesse retrieved her stetson and hung it on a peg next to Jennifer's.  "Sorry, we woke you, darlin'."

"It's okay," Jennifer said as she examined KC's arms, kissing each peck mark.  "Looks like you'll live," she placed KC on the cabin floor and playfully swatted her on the butt.  "Next time leave the chickens be."

"Otay," KC crawled to her toy box and toys started flying through the air.

Jesse shook her head as she surveyed the growing disarray on the cabin's floor.  "Sure glad we only have one of her," she chuckled.  "Mmm, something sure smells good," she changed the subject.

"Thanks," Jennifer pulled a pot from the fireplace they used for cooking.  "Get washed up, breakfast is just about ready."

"Come here, sunshine," Jesse called to KC.  "Time to wash up for breakfast."

"Yum," KC dropped her toys and crawled to Jesse.  "Up," she asked as she pulled herself upright on Jesse's pant leg.

Jesse reached down and lifted the baby up.  She stood KC on the hearth next to the wash bucket, the baby dropped her arms over the bucket's side and started splashing in the warm water.

"No, KC," Jennifer scolded.  "Wash, don't play."

"Otay, momma," KC's lower lip pushed out as she did as she was told.

"Best get that lip back in place, sunshine," Jesse whispered into the baby's ear.  "Otherwise, you might not get to eat whatever yummy breakfast momma has made for us."

The pout instantly disappeared, replaced by a smile.  "Keen, mommy," KC held her dripping arms out for Jesse to see.

"Good girl," Jesse winked at her daughter.  Using the towel Jennifer handed her, Jesse dried the water from KC's arms and hands before placing her in the highchair she had made for the child soon after they brought KC home.

Jennifer filled two plates with eggs, bacon, biscuits, and potatoes and placed them on the table.  Both mothers fed KC small bites of food as they ate and talked.

"I'd like to go into town again, today," Jennifer said as she wiped egg off KC's chin.

"I figured you'd want to stay here today.  Especially since it'll be hot again.  Storm last night didn't bring more than a few drops of rain."  Jesse filled a glass with milk.

"Moo," KC liked the white beverage as much as Jesse did.

"Here you go," Jesse held the glass for KC to drink.  "Small sips," she reminded the baby.

"I'd like to finish up at the schoolhouse.  I want to send my class plans to Bannack and have Miss Temple review them," Jennifer told Jesse.

Mary Temple was the schoolteacher in Bannack.  While in town, Jennifer had spent an enlightening afternoon talking with her.  Miss Temple had been teaching in a one-room school for a few years and provided Jennifer with many helpful ideas for instructing different grade levels at the same time. 

"And, I didn't get a chance to stop by Ed's.  I like to see how he's doing," Jennifer added. 

For the last several years, Ed Granger had operated the general store for his brother-in-law, Stuart Cassidy, who had bounced from one gold strike to another spending all his time at the poker tables.  Until one night in Bannack when his wife, Ed's sister, came to take him home.  As usual, Cassidy was drunk and losing.  Irritated at his wife for interrupting his game, Cassidy had shot her. 

"Alright," Jesse nodded.  "I'll hitch Boy up as soon as we finish here."

*********************

"Where's Jennifer?" Mary Kinsington asked when Jesse and KC entered the Silver Slipper.

"At the schoolhouse.  She wanted to finish up before it got too hot," Jesse told her mother-in-law.

"Grmm, owie," KC held her arm out for her grandmother to see.

"Lordy, I done known tha' was my littl' angel's voice," Bette Mae came through the kitchen door.

"Used to be me you listened for," Jesse joked with the older woman.

"That was befor' ya brought this littl' one home," Bette Mae kissed KC then pulled Jesse down and gave her a quick peck on the forehead.  "Happy?"

"Owie," KC repeated, only louder.  Obviously, she thought her chicken pecks deserved more attention than they were getting.

"Well, now.  What have we here," Bette Mae examined the arm but saw nothing more than a couple of small, red marks about the size of a pin head.  She looked at Jesse for an explanation.

Jesse told the women of KC's morning adventure in the chicken coop. 

"My, that must have been a sight," Mary laughed.

"Think them chickens will survive," Bette Mae wiped tears of laughter from her eyes.

"Don't know.  Most probably will, but a couple are doubtful," Jesse chuckled.

"OWIE!!"  KC was not at all amused that the women had ignored her injuries.

"Oh, my," Mary took the child from Jesse and placed her in her lap as she sat on a settee on the library side of the Slipper's dining room.  She made a big show of checking out each and every spot, nick, and blemish on the baby's arms, placing a kiss on top of each one.  "Better?" she asked KC.

"Otay," KC smiled at her grandmother.  "Cookie?"

Jesse groaned at her daughter's instant change of mood and plopped down next to Mary.  "How did you ever raise so many, Mary?  This one is more than I can keep up with."

"You're doing just fine," Mary assured Jesse.  "In fact, I think you and Jennifer are doing an excellent job of raising KC.  You both seem to be natural mothers."

"Lordy, Jesse," Bette Mae winked at Mary, "you's doin' such a good job, I'm thinkin' ya should have two or three more."  The pillow thrown at her bounced harmlessly off the door Bette Mae disappeared behind to the safety of the kitchen, her squeals of laughter echoing back into the dining room.

"Don't even suggest that to Jennifer," Jesse warned Mary.  "She'd have a dozen or two, if it was possible."

Turning serious, Mary asked, "you didn't want children, Jesse."

"Never gave it much thought," Jesse said as KC crawled into her lap and curled up to take a nap.  "Then, we found KC and, well, she just kinda grew on me."  Jesse absently caressed the sleepy baby in her arms.

"She loves you very much," Mary said softly.  "Would you consider having more?" Mary continued.

Jesse thoughtfully watched the baby a few moments.  "I don't know," Jesse answered, honestly.  "But," she smiled, "if Jennifer wanted to, I couldn't say no."

"Jennifer is lucky to have you, Jesse."

"Nah," Jesse looked up from her sleeping daughter.  "I'm the lucky one.  Now, if you'll excuse us, I'll go put KC down in the office."

"Of course," Mary wondered what it would feel like to be loved as much as Jesse and Jennifer loved each other.  'Heaven knows,' she thought, 'such love is precious and so rare.'  She definitely didn't have it with her husband.  In fact, she wondered, exactly what she did feel for him.  To be honest, not much at the moment. 

As Jesse rose, careful not to wake KC, Mary asked, "will you be stopping by here before you return to the ranch this evening.  It seems like I've had so little time with Jennifer."

Jesse considered the question.  She and Jennifer had fully expected Mary to live at the ranch with them but, instead, she had chosen to stay in town.  By doing so, she had limited the time Jennifer could spend with her.  Knowing that Jennifer was just as anxious to find time to spend with Mary, Jesse said, "why don't we plan to eat here tonight."

"That would be nice," Mary smiled.  "Thank you."

Jesse nodded then walked to her office, KC sleeping contently in her arms..

********************

Jesse finished reading the newspaper about the same time KC started stirring from her nap.  Spending less time in town, she had little time to read the Gazette, so Bette Mae stacked the weekly paper on the desk until Jesse could spare a few moments.

"Good timing, sunshine," Jesse said as she folded the paper she had been reading.  "It's time to go get your momma."

KC was laying on the couch in Jesse's office.  As sleep drifted away, she stretched her legs and rubbed her eyes.  Then she looked around for her mother, "mommy."

"Right here," Jesse said as she stood from the chair she had occupied for the last two hours.  "Let's get your britches changed and go get momma."

"Otay," KC sat up, not quite fully awake.  "Moo?"

"I suspect Bette Mae will have some nice fresh milk in the kitchen," Jesse laid the baby back down so she could change her.

A knock on the office door was quickly followed by Bette Mae entering the room.  She carried a tray holding a pitcher of milk, two glasses, and a plate of cookies.

"Thought she'd be wakin' 'bout now," Bette Mae set the tray on Jesse's desk then stood nervously as if waiting for something.

"Expect me to throw another pillow at you?" Jesse smirked at the woman.

"Wouldn' put it past you," she relaxed upon hearing her earlier words hadn't upset Jesse.  "Ya know you've done a right proper job with KC," she said as she filled a glass with milk.

"Thanks, Bette Mae.  That means a lot to me," Jesse sincerely told the woman who had become more than just a friend to her.

"Moo," KC asked again.

"Want some milk, young 'un?"

"I'd like a glass, too," Jesse said as she reached for a cookie.

"I was talkin' to ya," Bette Mae squealed as Jesse shook her head in bemusement.

*********************

Jesse easily balanced KC in one arm as she helped Jennifer cross Sweetwater's only street.  Earlier that morning, Jennifer had asked Jesse to leave the buckboard at the Slipper when she and KC came to the schoolhouse.  She wanted to walk to the general store and then back to the Slipper.  Since the town was so small, Jesse saw no harm in letting Jennifer test her leg. 

Jennifer climbed onto the boardwalk in front of the general store, Jesse keeping close watch in case Jennifer's leg gave her problems.  Jennifer smiled as Ed came out of the store's open front door.

"Afternoon, Ed," Jennifer warmly greeted the man who, since her arrival in Sweetwater, had become the father she had always wanted. 

"Jennifer, how are you?" Ed quickly covered the few steps separating them and wrapped Jennifer up in a bear hug. 

"I'm good," Jennifer said when Ed relaxed his hold.

"Jesse, good to see you," Ed greeted the rancher.  "And, little KC.  My, don't you look like just your momma."

"That she does, Ed," Jesse agreed.  It was remarkable the similarities between Jennifer and her adopted daughter.  Both had ginger brown hair and bright sapphire blue eyes.  Jesse even swore that KC had Jennifer's smile.

"Come on, inside.  It's a bit cooler.  Not much, but a bit," Ed guided the women inside the store.  "Here you go, Jennifer," he pulled a chair out from behind the counter.

"Thanks, Ed," Jennifer gratefully sat.  The walk hadn't been long but it still felt good to get off her leg.

Jesse placed KC on the floor at Jennifer's feet.  "You stay put, sunshine," she handed KC her toy horse.  Then, the rancher pulled a barrel of dried beans over next to Jennifer's chair and promptly sat on it.

"You know, Jesse," Ed tilted an empty wood crate onto it's side and joined the women.  "It'll be hell to pay to move that barrel back."

"I know," Jesse smirked.  Ed was a big man, his solid muscular body toned from years of hard work.  Yet, Jesse had always found pleasure in matching her strength against his.  "I'll help you put it back," Jesse teased.

"Good thing I like Jennifer so much," Ed told the rancher.  "Otherwise, I just might have to do something about your sense of humor."

"Ha," Jesse laughed.  "You use to threaten me with that before Jennifer came to Sweetwater."

"That I did," Ed laughed with Jesse.

"Be good," Jennifer slapped Jesse on the leg.

"Nothin' but, darlin'," Jesse bent over and kissed the top of Jennifer's head.

"So," Jennifer said as she good-naturedly pushed Jesse away, "how are you doing, Ed?"

"I'm fine, Jennifer," Ed answered, knowing that Jennifer was asking about his sister.  "I just wish she had picked better for a husband.  Shame she didn't get more out of life."

Sensing that the merchant needed to get some thoughts out, the women remained silent. 

"You would have like her, always full of life she was," Ed continued.  "When we was kids, I don't think I ever saw her sad.  But, after she married that Cassidy fella, that was her whole life."  He seemed to remember something, "except for those few weeks we spent in Fort Benton.  Funny, now that I think about it.  She seemed happy there.  Don't rightly know why considerin' that good for nothing spent all of his time at the gambling tables.  Lost most of their money there.  Barely had enough to pay to get them to Sweetwater."

Jennifer looked at Jesse and a silent acknowledgement passed between them.  It was in Fort Benton that Bette Mae had met and fallen in love with Ed's sister.  A love that Bette Mae had never confessed to anyone except Jesse.  It appeared that Bette Mae may not have been the only one to have feelings for the other.

"But, she's happy now," Ed reached over and patted Jennifer's good leg.  "I just know it."

Jennifer took the big hand in her own and held it, "I know it, too,"

"You okay here," Jesse asked.  "I mean, Cassidy didn't leave any debt on this place, did he?"

"Nah," Ed shyly withdrew his hand.  Jennifer had become the daughter he never had but he was still self-conscious about their bond.  "Store's done pretty well in the last couple of years.  Well enough to clear his debts with the freight companies and put some money away in a Bozeman bank."  Ed laughed as he sadly shook his head, "always felt bad about keeping that a secret from sis but I was afraid he'd just gamble it away if he'd known about it."

"You did the right thing, Ed," Jennifer assured him.  "She would have agreed with you keeping it secret."

"Guess, now that she's not needin' it, maybe I can use it now to expand the store like I've been thinking to," Ed looked around at the crowded shelves and aisles surrounding them.  Now, with his sister dead and her husband hanged, Ed owned the store outright and could make changes to it..

"That's a great idea," Jennifer exclaimed.  "What do you have planned?"

"Oh," Ed scratched his head, "thought I'd build on out back.  Make a place for the freight wagons to unload without pilin' it out front and blocking the boardwalk.  I could put a small room upstairs for sleepin' and enlarge the back room for keeping the freight that's waitin' for the ranchers to pick up.  Would give me a place to move some of this stuff," his arm swept around the room at the piles of crates and boxes stacked everywhere.

"Sounds like a good idea, Ed," Jesse nodded.  "Let me know if I can help.  It's sure been a long time since anything new was built in town."

"Schoolhouse was the last," Ed supplied.

"I think it would be nice for Sweetwater to start growing," Jennifer suggested. 

"Don't know, darlin'," Jesse drawled.  "I kinda like Sweetwater just the way it is."

"Can't say that I'd be unhappy to see a few more people around," Ed said.  "And, it would mean more business for the Slipper, Jesse,"

"Well, I don't know," Jesse shook her head. 

"Jesse," Jennifer interrupted, "if the Slipper was making more money, we could afford to do more out at the ranch.  Like buy that breeding bull you want."

"I guess," Jesse was determined not to give in too easily.  "Bad things happen when stuff starts to grow."

"KC," Jennifer looked to make sure the baby was okay.  "KC, where are you?"

"Uh, oh," Jesse muttered as she began to search the store for her daughter.

Ed helped Jennifer up and then the two joined in the search.

"KC," Jesse called.  "Where are you, sunshine?"

"Mommy," a small voice came from the rear of the store. 

All three adults converged in the direction of the voice.

"Damn," Ed stood, hands on his hips. 

"Momma, ook," KC smiled innocently.

"Yes, I see, sweetie," Jennifer said, her mouth beginning to twitch.

"Like I said, bad things happen when stuff starts to grow," Jesse stared at KC.

The baby was covered from head to toe in flour and was sitting atop a pile of the feathery light powder.  Next to her, a gallon keg of pickles lay on it's side, it's contents strewn about and juice leaking down into cracks in the floor.  KC was mixing pickle juice with the flour, then patting the mixture into small, flattened cookie shaped mounds she stacked around her.

KC picked up one of the gooey concoctions of flour and pickle juice and offered it to Jesse, "cookie."

"Guess you'll be putting more than that bean barrel back," Ed slapped Jesse on the back before doubling over in laughter.  Jennifer could no longer hold back and joined Ed, the two guffawing loudly.

*******************

"No more cooking lessons with Bette Mae," a very perturbed Jesse sputtered as she poured water over her head to rinse the soap from her hair.

"Yes, dear," Jennifer tried not to laugh but was having a hard time of it. 

After cleaning up KC's impromptu bakery and by the time they got the baby back to the Slipper, Jesse was covered in the same white goop that her daughter was.  Bette Mae had taken one look at the pair and started laughing so hard she had been unable to do anything but point to the bathing room.  Both Jesse and KC were stripped and placed in the tub to scrub themselves clean.  KC thought the whole affair was a funny game, after all everyone was laughing.  Everyone, that is, except her mommy who stewing at being the butt of the laughter.

"Oh, sweetheart," Jennifer tried again to pacify Jesse.  "She was only playing."

Jesse glared at her.

"Mommy," KC was sitting in Jesse's lap playing with a wash rag. 

When Jesse looked at her daughter, she was greeted by a loving smile and twinkling eyes.  But, Jesse was determined to stay upset.

Getting no response from her mother, KC pulled herself upright using handholds that generally were reserved for the exclusive use of Jennifer. 

"Mommy," KC tried again as she was now eyeball to eyeball with Jesse.  "Wuv you."

Jesse's heart melted.  She wrapped her arms around the baby and hugged her close, "I love you, too, sunshine."

Jennifer smiled and wiped a tear from her cheek as she watched the two people who were her life.

"Here," Jesse handed the baby to Jennifer.  "Let mommy get you dressed."

As Jennifer accepted the baby, she took hold of Jesse's hand and held it.  "I love you, too."

Jesse smiled.  "Wonder if Bette Mae found me any clothes."  Jesse used to keep clothes in her office during the days when it wasn't unusual for her to spend a night or two in town.  But, since Jennifer had moved to the ranch, Jesse hadn't had the need and had removed all her personal belongings from the Slipper.

A knock on the bathing room door was her answer. 

"Well, looky there," Bette Mae cried out cheerfully as she entered.  A little too cheerfully Jesse thought.  "I do believe ya look a sight better.  Ya almost scared me to death walkin' in white as a ghost before.  I done thought it was time ta meet my maker, I did," Bette Mae chuckled.  "Why, when I told Billie and Ruthie wha' you done walked in lookin' like, I thought poor Ruthie would....."

Jesse didn't hear the rest, as she slipped under the surface of the bath water.

******************

"Evening, Mary," Jesse joined Jennifer and her mother at a table in the Slipper's dining room.  She wore the clothes that Bette Mae had managed to find, a pair of denim jeans a size too big and a well-worn denim shirt a size too small.  At least, she had been able to put her own boots back on.

"Evening, Jesse," Mary smiled at the rancher.  "Heard you had quite the afternoon," Mary commented as Ruthie, a young woman who worked for the Slipper, set plates of food in front of the women.

"Bet the whole town has heard by now," Jesse grumbled as she filled a fork with the whipped potatoes on her plate.

"Oh, I doubt everyone knows," Jennifer handed a bite of cooked carrot to KC who hungrily shoved it into her mouth.  "I'm sure only the people in town have heard.  It'll take a few days to reach the ranches."

"Not to mention the mining camps," Bette Mae added as she placed a pitcher of cold milk on their table before hurrying back to the kitchen.

"Funny," Jesse jammed her elbow on the table and plopped her chin into her hand.  "It'll probably be weeks before anything happens to give folks something else to talk about," she said then reconsidered.  She looked at KC, happily munching on a biscuit covered with a small amount of butter and honey.  It wasn't long before the baby had butter and honey smeared all over her face with biscuit crumbs sticking to the mess. 

Jesse brightened, "then again, with you and KC around, you just never knew what might happen." 

"Bad, Jesse," Jennifer admonished. 

"Now, darlin'," Jesse sat up straight, "you have to admit. since you hit town, it has been plenty excitin' around here."

"Ain't that ta truth," Bette Mae chirped in as she walked by carrying a pot of coffee.

"That's not fair," Jennifer cried. 

"It's okay, darlin'," Jesse smiled.  "I wouldn't have had it any other way."

"Good thing," Jennifer smiled back.

Mary had watched the playful argument with interest.  "A lot has happened to you, Jennifer."

"Yes, mother, it has," Jennifer said, somewhat suspiciously. 

"And, yet, you are happy, aren't you?" Mary asked, even though she was sure she already knew the answer..

"Yes, mother.  I am very happy," she smiled at Jesse who was listening to the conversation with interest.

"I'm happy for you," Mary reached over and took Jennifer's hand into her own.  "I truly am."

"Thank you, mother."

"I just wish it would be a little less exciting in the future," Mary added.

"Here, here," Jesse raised a glass of milk and nodded.

"Mooooooooooo," KC loudly let her feelings be known.

*****************

The women had finished their meal and moved from the dining room to Jesse's office where they could enjoy a quiet conversation.  Jesse and Jennifer were sitting on the couch, Jesse's arm draped over Jennifer's shoulders.  Mary sat in the armchair with KC sleeping in her lap.

"Mother, why won't you come live at the ranch?  We'd have more time together," it had hurt Jennifer when Mary had decided to stay in town.

"It wouldn't be right, all of us living in that small house."  The one-room log cabin that served as the ranch house was not much bigger that the dining area of the Silver Slipper.

"I don't understand," Jennifer said.

"You and Jesse would have no privacy, dear.  To do, well," her mother's face reddened. 

Jennifer looked at her mother quizzically.

"I think she means that she'd be uncomfortable with us....," Jesse tried to explain.  "Well, you know," she tried again.

Jennifer looked from Jesse to her mother and back.  Slowly, she began to understand what her mother was worried about.

"Oh," she blushed.  "I guess that would be a problem."

The women fell silent, thankful that no one had had to actually speak the words.

"You know," Jesse started slowly.  "We've got that old cabin that isn't used for anything.  Fact is, I think the man owned the ranch used it for livin' in before he built the ranch house.  We could clean it up and make it livable.  It would give you your own place.  That is, if you'd like."

"That's a wonderful idea, Jesse," Jennifer said, excited at the prospect of having her mother closer. "It wouldn't take much to fix it up.  A good sweeping out, some curtains, and such."

"Needs a new roof," Jesse added.

"I don't know," Mary wavered.  "Seems like a lot of work."

"Nah," Jesse told her.  "Couple days and it'll be all shiny and new."

"Please, mother," Jennifer pleaded.  "I really would like to have you at the ranch.  So, would KC."

"What about you, Jesse," Mary asked. 

Jesse thought for a moment, she enjoyed having the ranch as a place for just her family.  It would be different having someone else living there.  She looked at Jennifer who was watching her expectantly.  'Well, Mary is family now, isn't she', she thought. 

"Well, the ranch is for my family," Jesse said.  "And," she beamed, "you're family.  Of course, I'd like you to come and stay there.  For as long as you'd like," she added as Jennifer breathed a sigh of relief.

"Thank you, Jesse," Mary said, sincerely.  "But, only if you let me help fix it up."

"Agreed," Jennifer said before anyone could change their mind.

Jennifer suggested, "sweetheart, why don't we stay upstairs tonight."  It was late and by the time they rode back to the ranch, it would be well after midnight.  "Then, mother can ride with us out to the ranch tomorrow.  We can fix up a bed for her at the house until the cabin is ready."

"Okay," Jesse nodded.  "I'll ask Bette Mae which room we can use tonight.  Be right back," she rose from the couch.

"Better bring some milk for KC, she'll be hungry before too long," Jennifer reminded Jesse.

"I don't have to stay at the ranch, dear," Mary said after Jesse had left the room.  "I can stay here until the cabin is ready."

"No, mother," Jennifer protested.  "It will only take a few days to get your place ready and I'm tired of not seeing you except for a few minutes at a time."

"Alright, if you're sure," Mary agreed.

"I am.  We'll go by Ed's before we leave town tomorrow and get everything we need to fix the place up proper for you.

"Momma," KC whimpered as she started to wake.

"I better go find, Jesse," Jennifer stood.  "This one will be crying for her mommy and her moo before long," she took the half-asleep baby from her mother.  "We'll see you in the morning."

"Goodnight, dear," Mary kissed Jennifer on the cheek.  "Say goodnight to Jesse for me."

"I will.  Goodnight, mother."

******************

Jesse loaded Mary's few belongings into the back of the buckboard while she was still inside saying her goodbyes to Bette Mae and the other women who worked at the Silver Slipper.  Jennifer, holding KC, stood on the Slipper's porch, enjoying what coolness they was in the morning's shadows.  There had been another rainless thunder bumper the night before and the day was well on it's way to being another scorcher.

A horse and rider passed on the road, Jennifer watched as the rider stopped in front of the general store and dismounted.  The rider wore buckskin pants and vest without any shirt, his dark skin exposed to the sun's harsh rays.  Long black hair, decorated with eagle feathers and beads, hung in two braids down his back.  Instead of boots, his feet were wrapped in a covering that looked more like a pair of slippers than shoes. 

"Sweetheart," Jennifer called softly to Jesse, "isn't that an Indian?"  She had read many stories about the native people but this was the first time she had actually seen one.

Jesse turned to look down the street, the man was pulling a bundle of furs off the back of his horse.

"Yep," Jesse acknowledged.

Ed came out of the store.  Seeing the Indian, he walked to the edge of the boardwalk and and began making hand gestures at the man.  The Indian returned the gestures with some of his own.  After a few minutes, Ed accepted the bundle of furs, taking them inside his store.  He reappeared with what appeared to be a sack of flour and some smaller sacks that he handed to the man.  The Indian tied the sacks together then threw them over the neck of his horse before remounting.  He rode back toward the Slipper.

As he passed, the Indian glanced in Jesse's direction.  Jennifer was surprised to see her nod in recognition at the man before he disappeared around the side of the Slipper and out of town. 

But, how would Jesse know a........

"Oh, my, is it safe?" Mary gasped, having caught a glimpse of the passing native.

"Yep," Jesse climbed the Slipper's steps to help Jennifer down them.  "He's a friend."

Jennifer looked at Jesse quizzically, "but...."

"We'll talk later," Jesse told her.  "Come on, let's get to Ed's and get that taken care of.  I want to get back to the ranch before noon.  The horses need tending to," she took Jennifer's arm and guided her to the stairway. 

Jennifer knew there wasn't going to be any more said about the stranger until later.  So, she let the matter drop, confident that Jesse would tell her about the man at a future time.

"Come on, mother," Jennifer called back to Mary who was now discussing the rider with Bette Mae.

"Ya go on, now," Bette Mae assured the woman.  "Jesse knows what she's doin'.  She'll take right good care of ya.  There's nothin' ta be concerned over."

Unconvinced, Mary reluctantly join Jesse and Jennifer at the buckboard.

*********************

Upon arriving at the store, Ed had directed the women to the front end of the store's long counter.  There a space approximately five feet square had been fenced off with a length of chicken wire.  Every few inches the wire was tacked to the wood floor.  Inside the enclosure a blanket had been spread out and a few toys were scattered about the blanket.

"And, just what is that supposed to be?" Jesse asked.

"That," Ed said proudly, "is a holding pen for that there young 'un of yours."

"Ummmm," Jesse considered the prospects of the flimsy wire holding KC for long, "well, let's give it a try."  Jesse dropped KC over the wire fence and set her down on the blanket.

KC looked suspiciously at her surroundings.  "Up," she demanded.

"No, sweetie," Jennifer told the baby.  "You stay there, and be good, while momma shops."

KC pouted, her lip jutting out.

Jesse reached down and ruffled KC's silky hair, "we won't be long, sunshine.  Then, we'll go home and feed Dusty and Blaze."

"Otay," KC picked up one of the conveniently placed toys and began to chew on it.

With the baby settled and, hopefully, contained, Jennifer looked around the store, deciding on the best approach for finding the items on the list she had written out during breakfast.  Finally, with a plan of action decided on, she set off.

Ed returned to a stool behind the counter and watched Jennifer go through the store's inventory with the precision of a military quartermaster.  Every time her arms filled with items, she would take them to the amused storekeeper so he could make a record of them in his ledger.  Once they were recorded, Jesse was ordered to pack them in boxes and carry them out to the wagon.  Mary chose to sit quietly next to KC's 'holding pen' and watch her daughter's foraging. 

"Anything else, darlin'," Jesse asked as she returned after placing the last box into the back of the buckboard and making sure it was secure.

"Let's see," Jennifer reviewed her list.  "Nope," she said crumbling the paper up and tossing it into a small basket Ed kept behind the counter for rubbish.  "That's all of it.  Guess you can go ahead and pay Ed."

"Thanks," Jesse smirked.  "Glad I'm good for something."

"Me, too," Jennifer gave Jesse a pat on the rear end, her hand lingering for a moment.

"Ooo," Jesse purred.  "Someone woke up in a happy mood this morning."

"Sweetheart, I always wake up happy when I wake up next to you."

"If you two love birds are done," Ed chuckled, "I do have other customers waiting."

"Where?  In Bozeman," Jesse asked as she looked around the store, empty except for her family.

"Don't be smart," Ed told the rancher.  "Okay, with what you got today.  Plus," he paused to clear his voice and loudly announce, "one bag of flour and one gallon of pickles."

"Just tell me the total, Ed," Jesse growled.

"Twenty Seven Dollars and thirteen cents."  He winked at Mary, "sure you're ready to be around this grouchy one all day?"

Jesse slapped three ten dollar bills on the counter, "put the rest on the Slipper's account.  And," she glared at Ed but there was a twinkle in her eyes, "keep your opinions to yourself."

Ed took the money and made a notation in his ledger.  Then, he leaned across the counter and whispered loud enough for everyone to hear, "let's just see how long it is before you're making excuses to come to town to get away from all the women folk you have out at the ranch, now."

Jesse leaned on the counter and whispered just as loud, "I'm one of those women folk."

"Yeah," Ed whispered back.  "But, you don't count."

"Well, you're probably right on that one," Jesse started to laugh and slapped Ed on the shoulder.  "Come on, ladies," she bowed to Jennifer and Mary.  "Your chariot awaits."

"Oh, my," Mary swooned, "how gallant."

"My knight in shining armor," Jennifer said as she passed Jesse on her way out the door.  "Don't forget the baby."

"I don't know, Ed," Jesse said as she collected KC from the 'holding pen'.  "I think I may be in way over my head."

"Well, you're outnumbered.  That's for sure," Ed laughed.  "But, I think you'll do just fine, Jesse.  Besides, you know where to find me if you need a break."

"Thanks.  I think."

"Mommy?" KC asked as Jesse walked to the door.

"Yes, sunshine."

"Toy."

"Don't you think you have enough of those at home?" Jesse asked the baby.

"No."

"Yep, Jesse," Ed walked over and handed KC a small but brightly painted bird, "you are definitely outnumbered."

"Don't suppose this is on the house?" Jesse asked.

"Cheep, cheep," KC said as she grabbed the toy.

Ed started to snigger and, without another word, Jesse left to join Jennifer and Mary outside. 

"Ready, darlin'?" Jesse asked, after settling on the seat next to Jennifer. 

"Yes, sweetheart," Jennifer slipped her arm around Jesse's.  "Let's go home."

Jesse released the buckboard's brake and, with a slap of the reins, Boy started down the street in the direction of the Silver Slipper and the ranch beyond.

"Momma," KC held her new toy up for Jennifer to see.  "Cheep, cheep."

Jennifer examined the bird, "it's very pretty, sweetie," Jennifer told the baby as she laid her head on Jesse's shoulder.

**********************

Continued in Part 2

 

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