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.
In Rolling Thunder, there is mention of events that took place in Bannack, Montana during the late 1800s. I mean no disrespect or harm to the historical record by the use of these events or any character, real or fiction. My descriptions of Bannack are based on the existing buildings that remain in what is now a ghost town. Some details may have been changed to fit my purposes for this story. Please, do not hold this against me.
I would like to hear your comments, please write me at email@example.com.
a story by Mickey
"Good morning, darlin'," Jesse whispered as Jennifer stretched in her arms.
"Morning, sweetheart," Jennifer squinted her eyes to block the bright sunlight filtering through the cabin's shaded window. "Seems we slept in this morning."
"Guess we must have needed it," Jesse rolled slightly onto her side so she could slip her arm under Jennifer without waking KC, still sound asleep on top of her.
"Guess we did," Jennifer snuggled closer to Jesse's warm body, groaning when she couldn't get the skin to skin contact she craved. At home, they always slept in the nude but here, in Marianne's bed, they wore nightshirts and she missed not being able to press against her wife's warm skin.
"What's wrong?" Jesse asked concerned when she noticed the schoolteacher's frustration. "Does your hand hurt?"
"No," Jennifer grinned, sheepishly, "I just miss not being able to feel you."
"Me, too," Jesse smirked back. "I can't wait until we're back home in our own bed."
Both women flinched at the words.
"Sorry," Jesse frowned. "I keep forgetting it's all gone," she sighed.
Jennifer slipped her uninjured hand out from under the blankets and placed it tenderly alongside Jesse's face, "I'm so sorry he...."
"No," Jesse placed her own hand on top of her wife's, "I don't ever again want to hear you apologize for what your father has done. Not ever." She brought Jennifer's hand to her lips and lovingly kissed each finger, "you're not responsible for him, darlin'. Or, for anything he's done."
"I know you're right," Jennifer's brow knitted in thought. "It's just..."
"No, darlin'," Jesse placed a finger against Jennifer's sweet lips, "what's done is done. We can't change the past but," she smiled, "we have the chance to go forward, now that he's going where he can never hurt us again."
"What if he escapes?" Jennifer asked quietly.
"From what I've heard of the Deer Lodge prison, no one has ever escaped it's walls. I doubt if your father will be the first."
"He could pay somebody off."
"You heard Thomas last night," Jesse reminded Jennifer, "he's already taken steps to prevent your father's access to the family and company's assets. So, he won't have anything to bribe anyone with."
Jennifer was quiet for a moment. The night before, when they had gathered in the Chinese restaurant for dinner, her brother had promised that he would make sure their father never again was able to bother her and Jesse. But, she couldn't help feeling that he would never stop trying. "I don't like him being so close, Jesse. I just don't trust him."
"I know, darlin'," Jesse sighed as she curled her arm around Jennifer, pulling her tight. "I don't much care for him bein' so close, either. But, I guess there's not much we can do about it, except put our faith in the law to keep him inside the prison and away from us."
"I'm not sure I have that much faith," Jennifer grumbled, laying her head on Jesse's shoulder.
"Well, one's thing for sure," Jesse said, "once Judge Henry gets done with the territorial governor, I doubt if your father will ever talk his way out of prison."
"Let's hope so," Jennifer agreed.
KC woke to the sound of her mothers' quiet voices. She lifted her head and looked, first at Jesse, then at Jennifer, to make sure her mothers were both in bed with her. Once assured, she smiled brightly and pushed herself upright to sit on Jesse's stomach. A frown replaced her smile as she reached back, patting her soiled diaper.
"Uck," KC proclaimed.
"Well," Jennifer laughed, "and good morning to you, too."
"Well, on that note," Jesse laughed, "I guess we better get up and dressed. I'm sure Bette Mae and your mother will be wantin' to spend time with us today."
Jennifer sighed deeply but didn't answer.
"Darlin'?" Jesse hooked a finger under Jennifer's chin, gently lifting her face so she could look into her wife's beautiful eyes, "what's going on in your pretty head?"
"Well, I know that Bette Mae and Ed only arrived yesterday and it probably isn't the best of manners considering they came so far," Jennifer hesitated.
"Well, I'd really like to just pack up KC and head back to Sweetwater."
Jesse was relieved to hear Jennifer express the same desire she had about leaving Bannack as quickly as possible. "What about your mother and Thomas?"
"Thomas is going back east from here. As for mother, maybe she could go back with the others," Jennifer said quietly.
"Are you sure that's what you want?"
"What I want, sweetheart," Jennifer propped herself up on an elbow, her eyes never leaving Jesse's, "is to have some time alone with you and KC. I want to be some place quiet where we can be a family again."
"I know what you mean," Jesse groaned, "I feel like I've been in the center of a whirlwind ever since we got here."
"That's because you have," Jennifer reached out and caressed Jesse's face. "Can we just go, Jesse?" Just us?" she pleaded.
"Of course, we can, darlin'," Jesse leaned forward and placed a tender kiss on her wife's wrinkled forehead. "After breakfast, I'll talk to Bette Mae and explain what's going on. She'll be disappointed but she'll understand. And, I'm sure Ed and Billie will be glad to have Mary travel back to Sweetwater with them. We'll need to find a store to buy supplies, other than Chrismans," she said of the store owned by one of the men to testify against her at her trial. "We'll leave as soon as we say our goodbyes."
"That sounds wonderful," Jennifer smiled at Jesse, her voice slightly huskier than normal from the emotion she was feeling at the moment. "Take us home, sweetheart."
"I love you," Jesse pulled Jennifer back down to her and captured her lips for a long, lingering kiss.
After several moments of watching her mothers' lip lock, KC started to bounce on Jesse, "uck, uck, uck."
The baby giggled as Jesse's long arm swept her off her perch and she quickly found herself buried under an avalanche of tickles and kisses.
"Morning, marshal," Billie knocked on the jail door and waited patiently while Marshal Morgan unlocked the door from inside the small log building. "I've got your breakfast," Billie told the other lawman when the door was pulled open, "and some for the prisoners."
"Morning, sheriff," Morgan pushed the door shut and relocked it as Billie set the heavy tray he carried down on the table in the corner of the room.
"Bit quieter in here this morning," Billie commented. When he had left the jail the evening before, Martin Kensington had been screaming at the lawmen to remove his shackles and set him free.
"Fool finally ran out of steam a few hours ago," Morgan grumbled as he sat at the table lifting the cloth covering the items on the tray. "Thanks for bringing this over," he poured himself a much needed cup of coffee.
"Want me to spell ya for a while?" Billie asked as he filled a second cup with coffee and sipped the hot liquid. "You could go over to the Goodrich and get some sleep," he offered the obviously tired lawman.
"Thanks, I could sure use some. But I'm leaving for Deer Lodge with Thompson as soon as I eat," Morgan lifted a forkful of eggs to his mouth.
"What about Kensington?" Billie asked, confused as to why the marshal would only be escorting one prisoner to the territorial prison.
"Judge Henry said to leave him here," Morgan explained around a mouthful of bacon. "Seems other arrangements been made for him."
"Guess you'll have to ask the judge," Morgan shrugged. "He didn't give me any details. I will need you to stay here and guard Kensington until I get back. Shouldn't be more than three or four days. Sorry, to delay your return to Sweetwater but I've got no choice, I can't leave him here without a guard and the judge wants Thompson taken to Deer Lodge today."
Billie carried a plate of food to the cell occupied by Marcus Thompson and slid open the cover blocking the small slot beside the door. "Grab this if you want to eat," he told the man sitting despondently inside. "Guess I don't mind staying," he slid the cover shut and returned for a second plate. "Just wish I knew what the judge had in mind," he said as he approached the second cell.
Morgan stood and lifted the ring of keys from the hook in the jail's wall, "maybe he's sending him to another prison. One back east," he offered as he crossed the room to unlock the door to Kensington's cell. Unlike the other cell, the one occupied by Jennifer's father did not have a feeding slot. The plate of food would have to be placed inside the cell within the chained prisoner's reach.
"Maybe," Billie said as he stepped inside the dark, windowless cell to find Kensington asleep on the log floor. "Wake up," the sheriff nudged the sleeping man with the toe of his boot after setting the plate down next to him, "time for breakfast." He backed away as soon as Kensington began to stir.
The cell door was shut and secured by the lawmen before the prisoner could voice any protestations.
After finishing breakfast, the women reclaimed their horses from the livery, Dusty and Blaze were left tied to the hitching rail in front of the Goodrich Hotel where Jesse and Jennifer were to have supper with the others before leaving Bannack. KC rode atop Boy, her small hands clutched in the horse's mane, while Jesse walked beside the big horse, keeping a close eye on the baby to make sure she didn't loose her balance. Jennifer walked alongside Jesse as they made their way to Yankee Flats, a small community located across Grasshopper Creek at the west end of town. Marianne had told them they would find a store there after they expressed a desire not to have to buy their supplies from Chrismans.
"Mining camps aren't very pretty, are they, Jesse?" Jennifer commented as she looked at their surroundings.
The hillsides were spotted with exploratory pits dug by miners hoping to find their pot of gold, piles of discarded dirt marking the mouth of each hole. Hastily thrown together shacks were packed together on any available piece of open ground, smelly outhouses interspersed among them. Very little vegetation could be seen along the town's streets or on the hillsides, as every usable piece of wood had been used as fuel or building material. And, few gardens were planted, there being little time for such trivial pursuits. Even the creek, running under the wooden bridge they crossed had little to offer, it's waters uninvitingly murky. The water's surface a rainbow of strange colors caused by the mining activity along its banks. Jennifer was sure that this was one creek her talented wife would be unable to find any fish to catch, if she had wanted to try.
"Something else to be said about Sweetwater," Jesse muttered as she, too, surveyed the scene.
"Is this what Sweetwater will become when Harrington's mine begins operating?" Jennifer looked at Jesse, shocked at the thought of their small, picturesque valley being so mistreated. "Jesse we can't let that happen," she almost cried, the thought was so disheartening.
"If what Billie says is true," Jesse didn't want that future for Sweetwater any more than Jennifer, "hopefully, it won't."
"What did he say?"
"Told me last night that Thaddeus thinks the Songbird was salted."
Jesse laughed at the perplexed look Jennifer was giving her.
"It means that the miner Harrington bought the claim from made it look as if it had gold, but it really doesn't."
"How could he do that?" Jennifer asked, hoping that it was true and Harrington wouldn't be able to destroy their hometown.
"Many ways to do it, depending on the type of mine and what kind of ore it's supposed to have. Helps, too, if you can bribe an assayer to write up a report supporting your assertions."
"Do you think Harrington did that?"
"Billie didn't know much more than that. Seems Thaddeus was going to do some pokin' around and see if he could find out any more. Don't think it matters much if Harrington was in on it or not," Jesse smirked at the thought, "he'll surely end up having to answer for it, one way or the other."
"I bet his investors won't be too happy, if it's true," Jennifer sniggered, the image of the arrogant man trying to explain how he had made such a bad investment held her attention. Then, another man entered her vision, "oh, my. What about Mayor Perkins?"
Jesse considered the question before answering, "I doubt if he knew. Somehow, I don't think Harrington has told him very much about his dealings. Perkins is just a convenience for him. When the time comes, Harrington will throw him to the dogs to save his own neck."
"Hmm," Jennifer walked silently for several steps. "Doesn't seem quite fair."
"Don't worry about Perkins, darlin'," Jesse smiled. "Everyone in Sweetwater knows he's a fool. Folks won't be too hard on him."
"Are you sure?" Jennifer didn't really like the pompous mayor but she didn't dislike him either. He was more like that odd uncle every family has, and simply tries to ignore at family functions, knowing that he will do something to embarrass himself and his relatives before the night is over.
"Yep," Jesse assured her, "they'll give him a hard time about for a while but it'll be forgotten before long. That must be the store Marianne told us about," she nodded towards a large canvas tent several feet in front of them.
"What was your first clue?" Jennifer teased.
"Oh, I don't know," Jesse drawled, "maybe that there big sign that says mercantile."
The women laughed as they lead Boy to the tent and tied him to a hitching rail Jesse reached up to lift KC off Boy's back, "Come on, sunshine," she sat the baby in the crook of her arm, "let's go get our supplies so we can go home."
"Me, go?" KC bent her head upwards to question Jesse.
"Yep," Jesse winked at the baby "where we go, you go.".
"I've decided to return east with Thomas." Mary and Jennifer were sitting in the lobby of the Goodrich Hotel.
When Jesse and Jennifer had returned with Boy, Mary had asked to speak to them. Sensing that Mary really wanted to talk to Jennifer alone, Jesse encouraged her wife to accompany her mother inside.
"Go on, darlin'," Jesse told her reluctant wife.
"Are you sure?" It wasn't that Jennifer didn't want to go with her mother, she just didn't want to leave Jesse.
"Yep," Jesse smiled. "I have a couple of things to finish packing. Then, I want to say goodbye to Billie."
"Alright," Jennifer unenthusiastically agreed, "don't be too long."
"I won't." Jesse playfully swatted Jennifer on the backside, "now, git."
"I see," Jennifer wasn't surprised by her mother's comment but it did sadden her. She had enjoyed the time she had spent with her mother the past several months and was disappointed that it had come to an end.
"I've enjoyed my stay with you Jennifer," Mary voiced her daughter's own thoughts. "I think Jesse is a wonderful woman and I'm so very glad that you found her. And, KC is a delight, I'll miss not seeing her take her first steps. But," Mary shook her head sadly, "we both know that the frontier is not where I belong. This isn't the kind of life I'm used to or comfortable with," she admitted. "My home is back east. That's where I'm needed."
"I'll miss you, mother, but I understand." Jennifer had been surprised when Mary decided to stay after her husband had been forced from the territory. Jennifer knew she was used to finer things and life on the rough frontier had been a hard adjustment for her to make. But, Mary had made the most of it and now it was time for her to return to her home. Asking her mother to stay wouldn't be right. "I'll send your things to you," Jennifer offered of the few items left at the ranch.
"No, keep them," Mary smiled. "It'll give me an excuse to come visit."
"You don't need an excuse," Jennifer told her mother.
"I know," Mary reached over and covered Jennifer's hand with her own. "I would very much like to come back and see how my granddaughter is growing," she said, sincerely.
"Jesse and I would love to see you, too."
Mary turned serious, "Jennifer, I want to tell you something about your father."
Jennifer felt her stomach tighten into a knot.
"With Judge Henry's permission, I have made arrangements to have your father transported to the hospital of a friend of mine."
"The hospital for the insane?" Jennifer asked. She was aware of her mother's long time friend that was the chief of staff at a major mental hospital in the east.
"Yes," Mary nodded. "I believe that your father needs treatment for this sickness that has taken over his mind. Treatment that he would not have access to in prison."
"But, a hospital mother. That means he could be released," Jennifer began to protest. Much as she didn't want her father in Montana, she definitely didn't want him someplace he could just walk away from and be free to threaten Jesse and her family again.
"No," Mary interrupted to reassure Jennifer. "Judge Henry has sent instructions that should your father ever be declared sane, he is to be returned to Montana to complete his prison term. But, I am quite sure that day shall never come," she wondered if Jennifer realized the true meaning of her words.
"Mother, are you sure you want to do this?" Jennifer asked softly. Her question addressed the price that committing her husband would take on her gentle, compassionate mother, not at the deed itself.
"Yes, daughter," Mary sighed. "He is my husband but my concern is for your safety. And Jesse's. I could not bear to have your father cause you any more pain. So, I accept what I am about to do."
"Does Thomas know?"
"It does not pleasure him any more than you or me, but he has agreed it is for the best. As will your brothers," she said of her two sons awaiting her return.
"When will you leave?"
"We must wait until the official papers agreeing to the terms of his commitment are received and approved by Judge Henry. Then, Thomas and I will accompany him east."
"You and Thomas can't take him back alone," Jennifer spoke harshly, shocked that her mother would attempt to take her father back east by themselves.
"No," Mary patted her daughter's thigh to calm her. "Judge Henry has offered Marshal Morgan's services and deputies will be hired to assist him. Thomas and I will only along travel with them, your father will be Marshal Morgan's responsibility."
"I can't say that this news makes me unhappy," Jennifer said. "In fact, I'm relieved that father won't be in Montana because I do fear he'll never give up on me or Jesse."
"He will never again bring you or your family harm, daughter. I promise you that."
Billie had carried the chairs out of the jail and he and Ruthie were sitting in the shade behind Chrismans' Store. From their position, he could keep an eye on the jail yet not have to listen to Kensington's incessant ravings. He wasn't too concerned with leaving the shackled and chained prisoner alone because he knew there was no way for the man to escape. Especially, since there was only one way in or out of the small log building and that was the doorway directly in front of him.
"Ya'd think he'd get tired of yelling at the walls," Billie muttered, rubbing his temples in a fruitless attempt to lessen the throbbing brought on by Kensington's howlings. He had been listening to the prisoner shouts since the marshal had left for the territorial prison a couple of hours before. When his fiancÈ had knocked on the jail door, he wasn't about to have her sit inside the dark building and listen to the disturbed man.
"He must realize that you can't let him out." It was obvious to Ruthie why the sheriff had a headache.
"Don't think he realizes much about all the trouble he's in," Billie said. "He still thinks Harrington is going to get him out of this."
"Nah," Billie gave up trying to get rid of his headache and decided, instead, to enjoy Ruthie's visit. He was going to be spending the next few days at the jail and he didn't want to waste any time he had with the woman he loved. He smiled shyly as he scooted his chair closer to Ruthie's, "Harrington is going to be in as much trouble as Kensington if Thaddeus is right about the Songbird."
"Do you think he is, Billie?"
"Good bet that he is," Billie reached over and timidly lifted Ruthie's hands, holding them gently in his own. "I never saw that old miner with anything but holes in his pockets. Hard to believe he was working such a rich vein and never had anything to show for it."
"What will happen to Sweetwater if it's true?"
"Reckon we'll have to wait and see," the sheriff frowned. "But, we'll probably get a new hotel and bank out of it. Don't know who'll be staying in the hotel since the stage never brings more than a handful of folks to town each week and the Slipper has plenty of room for them. But, we can sure use the bank. Folks don't like havin' ta travel to Bozeman all the time."
"What about all those men who came to work for Mr. Harrington?"
"They'll find other places to go. Won't be much use in staying in Sweetwater if there's no work for them."
"They could help Miss Jesse build a new home for her and Miss Jennifer," Ruthie had been deeply saddened at the news of the fire destroying the home she knew meant so much to Jesse.
"Honey," Billie gently caressed Ruthie's hands, "I think Jesse will be wantin' to build her family's new home all by herself."
"You're probably right," Ruthie smiled. "Maybe, someday, you can build us our own home," she shyly made her wishes known.
"Ain't nothin' in the whole world I'd rather do, honey. And, that's a fact."
Jesse walked down the narrow passageway between Chrismans' store and the building next to it. She smiled when she came out at the back of the buildings and saw the couple staring into each other's eyes. How often had she and Jennifer done the same thing, she wondered. How often did they still do it, she laughed to herself.
"See, I told ya your Uncle Billie would be here, sunshine," Jesse said in a voice loud enough to warn Billie and Ruthie of her approach.
Ruthie started to pull her hands free of the sheriff's, but Billie held them in place.
"Figured you'd be stoppin' by," Billie addressed his friend. "Saw your horses in front of the Goodrich," he explained. "You plannin' on leavin' today?"
"Yep," Jesse smiled. "Can't wait to put Bannack behind us," she lowered KC to let the baby sit in Billie's lap.
"Guess no one can blame you for that," Billie acknowledged. "Sure you want to travel alone?"
"We need some time, Billie," Jesse smiled sadly. The last few days had taken a huge toll on her and she wasn't ashamed to admit it.
"Guess that's ta be expected."
"Will you be going straight back to Sweetwater, Miss Jesse," Ruthie asked as she watched KC play in her fiancÈ's lap. She smiled at the thought that one day he would be holding a child of their own.
"No," Jesse told the young woman. "We'll be spending a few days at the buffalo camp of Walks on the Wind. It'll give us time to get over what happened here."
"Up," KC lifted her arms to her mother.
"Sorry you can't join us for supper, Billie," Jesse lifted the baby back into her arms.
"Wish I could, Jesse," Billie stood. "Be nice to get away from Kensington's hollerin',"
"Big man, big mouth," Jesse muttered as she listened to the muffled screams coming from the jail. "Will you be joining us, Ruthie?"
"Well," Ruthie turned a light shade of pink, "I was hopin' to stay here with Billie."
"Then, that's what you should do," Jesse grinned at the shy woman. "If you love him, don't ever let him out of your sight."
"Thank you, Miss Jesse."
"Do me a favor on your ride back to Sweetwater, Billie."
"Work on getting her to drop the 'Miss'."
"I'll try, Jesse," the sheriff smiled, "but, she's a might hard headed when it comes to that."
"She must be hard-headed to put up with you," Jesse laughed and stretched out her hand to the sheriff.
"Have a safe trip home," Billie grasped the offered hand, laughing with the good-natured teasing.
"I appreciate all you did for me, Billie," Jesse kept hold of her friend's hand.
"I just wish I could have done more," Billie answered earnestly.
"You did more than could have been expected," Jesse said of the sheriff's efforts to prevent the marshal from finding her and Jennifer. "It could have cost you your job."
"Losing a friend would've been worse, Jesse."
"You're welcome. Now, you better be gettin' back to the Goodrich. Isn't Jennifer waiting for you?"
"She's talking to Mary," Jesse finally released her friend's hand. "But, I did tell her I wouldn't be long."
"Then, we'll see you in Sweetwater."
"Count on it," Jesse turned to walk away. "Seems like we'll be needin' to make some wedding plans when we all get back."
"I wouldn't do it without you, Jesse," Billie called after the rancher. "And, you can tell Jennifer that we expect her to stand up for Ruthie when the day comes."
"She's already talking to Bette Mae about that," Jesse said as she disappeared back into the passageway.
"Will they be alright?" Ruthie asked as Billie retook his seat.
"They'll be fine," Billie retook Ruthie's hands. "After what they've been through, nothin' and nobody will ever hurt them again. They've done paid their dues."
"I hope you're right, Billie."
"Is something wrong," Jesse asked as she carried KC into the hotel lobby and saw the gloomy looks on Mary's and Jennifer's faces
"No, everything is fine," Jennifer held out her arms when KC reached for her. "Mother was just telling me about some new developments concerning father."
"Anything I need to know," Jesse was always concerned when it came to her wife's father.
"Yes, but why don't we talk while we get this cute little thing," Jennifer tickled KC, "some fresh britches before the others arrive for supper."
"I think I'll freshen up, myself," Mary rose from the chair she occupied. "I'll meet you and the others in the dining room."
Jesse had remained quiet while Jennifer repeated her conversation with her mother. They had taken KC into the hotel office located in an alcove behind the lobby desk. The desk clerk let them use it whenever they needed to change KC's diaper so that Jennifer would not have to climb the stairs to her mother's room or walk the length of the town back to Marianne's cabin. With the baby changed, Jennifer sat in the desk's chair and placed KC on the floor to play. She looked over at her wife leaning against the office wall, her arms folded across her chest and a scowl on her face.
"Sweetheart," Jennifer sighed, "what are you thinking?"
Jesse looked down and watched KC crawl around the floor, looking for some trouble to get into. The baby seemed to sense her mother's eyes and twisted around to grin at the woman before resuming her exploration of the room. Jesse was again amazed how much the ginger haired, blue eyed baby resembled Jennifer. It was hard most times to realize her wife hadn't actually given birth to their daughter.
"I'm thinking," Jesse lifted her eyes to gaze at her wife, "that having your father locked away back east where he can never hurt you again," she smiled as she took the few steps to where Jennifer sat and kneeled down in front of her, "is the best news I've had since you agreed to become my wife."
Jennifer raised her hands to tenderly hold Jesse's face. She gently pulled the rancher close, "Jesse Marie Branson, becoming your wife is the best thing that ever happened to me."
Their lips met.
With her mothers preoccupied, KC was free to investigate anything that looked interesting. The rows of shelves at the back of the room peaked the baby's curiosity and she crawled towards them. The shelves were full of all kinds of different shaped and colored boxes and KC couldn't wait to see what was inside each one. She found the boxes on the bottom shelf to be too heavy for her to move so she pulled herself upright using the heavy boxes for support. Wobbling on shaky legs, she placed one hand on the shelf to steady herself while she reached into the nearest box on the shelf next up from the bottom and pulled out a handful of shiny objects. Thinking these looked like something she'd like to play with, KC opened her hand, dropping the items back into the box. To get the box off the shelf so she would have access to it's appealing contents, KC released the hand steadying her up and reached as far back on the box as she could then, with a grunt, she pulled the box towards her.
Much to KC's delight, the box began to move. The only trouble was she was in the way of it coming completely off the shelf but she continued to tug on it. As she inched the container towards her, more of the weight of the box was off the shelf than on and the box started to fall. Unable to do anything but go where the box took her, KC was forced over backwards, falling to the floor. The box followed her down and crashed onto the floor, spilling its contents.
"What the....," Jesse jerked away from Jennifer as the crash echoed about the room.
"KC," Jennifer immediately began looking for who she was sure to be the source of the commotion.
"Ook," KC sat in the midst of a jumble of door keys holding up two hands full of the shiny metal.
"Goodness, is everything alright?" the desk clerk hurried into the room after hearing the crash.
"Okay, sunshine," Jesse bent down, plucking the baby off the floor, "what have you done now?"
"Ook, mommy," KC proudly showed her new toys to her mother.
"Those aren't yours," Jennifer scolded the baby as Jesse set her in her momma's lap so she could pick up the mess the baby had made.
KC pouted as the keys were taken away from her. She ducked her head, cuddling against Jennifer. Her lower lip poked out as she watched Jesse put the keys back into their box.
"Sorry 'bout this," Jesse apologized to the hotel clerk. "She's a bit curious when she's in new places."
"She can't hurt those keys," the desk clerk said. "I'm just glad she didn't get hurt when they fell on her."
"Well, she's got to learn not to go sticking her nose where it don't belong," Jesse reached over and tapped KC on the nose.
"Your mommy's right, KC," Jennifer spoke softly to the baby. "You shouldn't play with things that don't belong to you. Now, look at the mess you made."
The clerk was having a hard time keeping a straight face at the absolute look of misery on the disappointed baby's face. After Jesse replaced the box onto the shelf where KC had found it, he reached inside and pulled out one brand new shiny room key. "Here ya go," he handed the key to KC. "A souvenir of your stay in Bannack,"
KC snatched the key from his hand, a huge smile replacing her pout. "Ook," she held up her prize so Jesse could see.
Jesse shook her head, smirking at the baby. "It's a good thing you're as cute as your momma," she lifted the baby from Jennifer, "otherwise, I don't know what I'd do with you." She held out a hand to help Jennifer up.
"Thank you," Jennifer told the desk clerk. "For letting us use this room and for being so nice to KC."
"Aw," the clerk grinned, "she's a cutie. Saw that the first time you carried her in here." He had been the first person Jesse and Jennifer had talked to when they came to Bannack after finding KC. "I'm just glad it's you having to keep track of her and not me," he teased.
"I'm just glad we only have one of her," Jesse laughed as she shook the man's hand. "Appreciate all you've done for us."
"Never much cared for Plummer," the man said. "Least I can do for the ladies who finally rid this town of him."
"You could have done it yourself, you know," Jesse would never forget that she had been forced to kill two men because the citizens of Bannack had refused to stand up to their own sheriff.
The clerk took a deep breath, "I not proud of my actions. Fact is, I'm downright ashamed that I wasn't more forthcoming with you at the time," he had the good graces to look humiliated as he spoke, "but, I'm man enough to admit my mistakes. I know there isn't much I can say to make it up to you but," he looked sincerely at Jesse and Jennifer, "I truly regret what you had to go through."
"That means a lot," Jesse graciously told the man.
Jesse carried KC as she and Jennifer entered the dining room at the back of the Goodrich Hotel. Mary, Thomas, Bette Mae, Ed and Marianne were already seating at table pushed together along one side of the room.
""Bout time ya showed up," Bette Mae greeted the women, "we was beginnin' ta think ya took off without saying goodbye."
"We wouldn't do that, Bette Mae," Jennifer protested.
"I know that, child," Bette Mae grinned, "I was just joshin' ya. Now, let me hold my littl' angel. Seems like it's been forever since I seen her," she held her arms out for the baby.
"Show Bette Mae where her nose is," Jesse whispered to KC before placing her in the older woman's waiting arms.
Doing as her mommy instructed, KC grabbed a hold of Bette Mae's nose, "ooonnnkkk."
"Bless my soul," Bette Mae exclaimed, startled by KC's actions.
A huge grin on her face, KC looked to Jesse for assurance she had done as her mother wanted.
"That's my girl," Jesse laughed, winking at the baby.
Jennifer teasingly slapped Jesse on the arm. "You shouldn't be teaching her to do that," she admonished, trying not to smile at the flabbergasted look on Bette Mae's face.
"First time I've known Bette Mae to be speechless," Ed guffawed.
"Well," Bette Mae tweaked the baby's nose, "I'm mighty shameful ta say that with this littl' one around, I bet it ain't the last." She joined the others in a good-natured laugh.
Two empty chairs had been placed between Mary and Bette Mae at the table and Jesse held one for Jennifer to sit. "Here ya go, darlin'," she smiled at her wife.
"Thank you," Jennifer sat, then waited for Jesse to sit beside her. "Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm starving. Shall we order?"
"Yum," KC answered for everyone
After their meal was completed and the dirty dishes removed from their table, Jesse decided it was time to explain the plans she and Jennifer had made that morning.
"It's been hard on us and we need some time," the rancher was saying.
"Well, I won't argue with ya," Bette Mae frowned. "But, don' ya think it would be better if'n we all go back ta Sweetwater together?"
"She's right, Jesse," Ed nodded. "Considering all that's happen, it might be best."
"Jennifer," Mary turned to her daughter beside her, "I would feel better if you didn't go back alone. After all, you'll have plenty of time when you get back to the ranch."
"We'll be fine, mother," Jennifer spoke to her mother but was responding to the others as well. "I want some time with Jesse, now." Her voice softened as she continued, "we're going to have much to do when we get back to Sweetwater."
Though she didn't say the words, everyone at the table knew she was referring to the loss of their home and the rebuilding of their lives.
"I understand, daughter," Mary really didn't want the women to travel alone, "but there's so much that can happen and you'll be alone."
"I have faith in Jesse, mother," Jennifer reached for her wife's hand and squeezed it when she felt Jesse entwined their fingers, "she will get us home safely."
"Besides," Jesse tried to lighten the heavy mood that had descended over the group, "we plan to meet up with Walks on the Wind and spend a few days with him. Jennifer wants to see the buffalo herds and I promised we would."
"They're a sight to behold," Ed picked up on Jesse's intentions. "Hard to believe so many animals living together. You'd think they'd want more elbow room," he chuckled.
"Must be like some of the cities in the east," Thomas added. "Thousands of people crowded into such a small area."
KC looked at her uncle who was sitting across the table from Bette Mae. The baby took notice of the similarities between the man and her momma and decided she wanted a closer look. Before Bette Mae knew what was happening, KC crawled onto the table and made her way to Thomas. She dropped into her uncle's lap, then pulled herself upright using his shirt for handholds. Standing on unsteady legs, she leaned forward and looked keenly at her uncle's face.
"Well, hello there, KC," Thomas instinctively placed a hand on the baby's back to steady her.
"Momma?" the baby recognized the man's smile.
"Guess, she must see the family resemblance," Jesse remarked. "You do look alike."
"Much more than Howard or William," Mary agreed. "They take after me."
"Oh, please don't say I look like father," Jennifer groaned.
"No," Mary patted her daughter's hand, "you look like your brother, Thomas." But, everyone at the table knew Thomas was the spitting image of his father.
"I'd take that as a compliment," Thomas teased Jennifer.
"How about some dessert before you go?" Ed asked motioning the waitress over.
A man in his mid-30s nervously approached the Goodrich Hotel. In his arms, he awkwardly held a crying baby, no more than three or four days old. The man hadn't shaved in several days and a scruffy beard covered his face. His clothes were dirty and showed the wear of someone who toiled in the dirty and dusty mines. His boots, caked with dried mud, clunked on the boardwalk as he stepped anxiously through the doorway and into the building. He walked down the hallway to the restaurant at the rear of the building and studied the room's occupants. Seeing the person that had been described to him, he made for the table where Jesse and Jennifer sat.
"'Xcuse me, ma'am," the miner removed his hat. "But, would ya be the lady that was on trial?"
"Yes," Jesse answered, warily. Not being sure what the man wanted.
"Well, they was talkin' in camp and I heard what the judge said about you and yo'r missus," the miner explained. "And, I'd be obliged if'n I could talk with ya. Won't take much of yo'r time," he quickly added.
"What a beautiful baby," Jennifer craned her neck to see the tiny infant the man held. "Is he hungry?" she asked as the baby continued to wail.
"Probably so, ma'am," the miner held the child as if he were afraid of it.
"May I?" Jennifer asked, holding out her arms.
"Yes, ma'am," without hesitation, the miner passed her the child, sighing with relief to be rid of his screaming bundle.
"Oh, hungry and wet," Jennifer told Jesse.
"Do you have anything for him?" Jesse asked.
"No, ma'am," the miner shook his head. "That's what I'd be fixin' to talk with ya 'bout. Please ma'am, if'n you could just give me a few minutes, I'd be mighty obligin' ta ya."
"Alright," Jesse could sense that whatever the man wanted to discuss didn't come easy for him. "But, we can't talk over his crying." She signaled for the waitress, "do you think we could have some milk for the baby. In a bottle if you have one." The waitress nodded and rushed into the kitchen, as anxious as everyone else in the room to stop the infant's cries.
"Why don't you join us?" Jesse asked the miner.
"Thank you, ma'am, but I won't take but a minute of yo'r time," the miner fretfully shifted from on foot to the other.
"Here you are, ma'am," the waitress returned and handed a bottle of milk to Jennifer.
Jennifer shifted to hand the baby and bottle to the miner.
"Ma'am," the miner jumped back as if a hot poker had been jabbed at him. "Please ma'am, I'd be obligin' if'n you'd keep him."
Thinking that the man meant only while they talked, Jennifer nodded and offered the bottle to the infant, who began to drink hungrily when the bottle's nipple was placed in his mouth.
"Okay," Jesse spoke to the miner while she watched Jennifer with the baby, "why don't you tell us what you want."
"Well, ma'am," the miner began.
"Jesse," the rancher corrected him.
"Yes, ma'am," the miner continued taking no notice, "like I said. I heard 'bout what the judge told the reverend 'bout you and your missus being good parents to that young 'un there you adopted," he nodded towards KC sitting in her uncle's lap, curiously watching the tiny baby being held by her momma. "Well, I'd be obligin' if'n you'd take my boy and raise him, too."
"What about his mother?" Jennifer sputtered at the unexpected request.
"His ma died givin' birth to him," the miner looked down at his dirty hands, a look of extreme sadness on his face. "I buried her yesterday, out by our claim. She was a good woman. Would've made a fine ma to the boy."
"What about you?" Jesse asked sympathetically. "You're his father."
Before the miner answered Jesse, he drug a dirty sleeve across his face to dry the tears in his eyes.
"I work in the mines all day, ma'am, from dark to dark. Ain't no place for a baby even if'n I was ta know what ta do with him. Ain't never had no trainin' for carin' for young 'uns and, now, with his ma gone, I got no one to look after him. Please ma'am, I want ya to take him and raise him as if'n he was yo'r own. I even had this here paper writ up," the miner reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a crumbled sheet of paper. "Says that the boy is yours, free and clear. I ain't askin' for nothin' in return, ma'am. Ain't needin' nothin' but ta be able ta tell his ma that he's in a good home. She'd be right proud to know you and yo'r missus will be lookin' after him."
"Mister?" Jesse asked.
"Finnigan, ma'am," the miner said, fearfully waiting for Jesse's answer.
"Mr. Finnigan, do you know what you're asking?" Though Jesse was flabbergasted by the man's request, she was also intrigued by the prospect of a second child being added to her family. And, by the way Jennifer was cooing at the infant, it was pretty clear how she felt about that possibility.
"So, if'n you'll take the boy," the miner handed Jesse the paper he held, "I'd be obligin'."
Jesse accepted the crumbled paper and started to read it.
"Thank you, ma'am," the miner said turning to leave the restaurant, secure in the knowledge that his son now had someone to care for him.
"Wait, if you change your mind," Jesse said to the departing man.
"No ma'am," the miner stopped and turned to take one last look at the baby. "Like I said, ain't got no place for the boy now with his ma gone," his voice was heavy with the pain of leaving his only child a day after burying his beloved wife. His pace quickened as he crossed the dining room back to the hallway.
"Wait," Jennifer called after the man. "What's his name?"
"His ma didn' have a chance to name him," the man called back over his shoulder. "Reckon you'll be wantin' to take care of that," was the last they heard from the miner as he disappeared down the hall and left the building.
"Well, darlin'," Jesse blew out a long breath, "now what?".
"Don' rightly know what ta make of you two and Bannack," Bette Mae chuckled. "Seems like every time ya come ta this here town, ya come back with another young 'un," she quipped.
"If this paper is legal," Jesse looked uncertainly at the paper they had been given by Charley's father.
"It is," Judge Henry stepped to their table. He had been eating his own mid-day meal on the other side of the room. He reached for the paper, "may I?"
Jesse nodded, handing the judge the document.
Judge Henry read the writing on the paper, then placed it on the table in front of Jesse and Jennifer and bent to add a few notations of his own. "This," he smiled as he straightened, returning the paper to Jesse, "is a legally binding adoption. Congratulations."
"Thanks," Jesse grinned.
"He's a lucky boy," Judge Henry reached down and chucked the baby under his chin, "two fine mothers to raise him and a big sister to help out." He winked at KC who was unsure what to make of the tiny baby that seemed to be garnering everyone's attention..
"Thank you, Judge Henry," Jennifer said, "for everything."
"I'm glad I was here to help," Judge Henry told the women. "I wish you the best of luck. You have earned that much," he said as he returned to his table and sat to finish his meal.
Jesse looked at her wife and new son. "Well, darlin', if we're going to take him home, I think we best get back to that store and get us some baby bottles and some more diapers."
"Sweetheart," Jennifer smiled, "let him say hello to his sister first."
Jesse stood so she could retrieve KC from Thomas, then she held her so she could get a close up look at the baby.
"Uck," KC pulled back when she got a whiff of the soiled britches and smelly gown the baby wore.
"I think we're also going to need some baby gowns," Jennifer had to agree with KC's assessment of the baby's current condition. "And, he needs a bath."
"Me, go?" KC asked when she heard a bath mentioned, she liked to play in the water.
"Okay, sunshine," Jesse chuckled, "we'll give both you stinkers a good washing before we leave town." She held a hand out to Jennifer and gently pulled her to her feet.
"Looks like we've got ourselves the makin's of a family, darlin'," Jesse boasted.
"That it does, sweetheart."
"I have no intention of answering any of your questions," Tobias Harrington rudely addressed Thaddeus Newby. He had not been pleased when, moments before, the newspaper editor walked into the office he shared with Mayor Perkins and started asking questions about the Songbird mine.
"Don't you believe the citizens of Sweetwater deserve to know what is going on?" Thaddeus asked, unsurprised by the other's man reaction. "After all, it is the folks who call this valley home who will ultimately pay the price of any.....," he paused wanting to be careful in his wording. "....of any, shall we say, dubious actions of you and your company."
"Are you suggesting that we are, somehow, being deceitful in our business dealings?" Harrington narrowed his eyes as he challenged the editor.
"I am questioning the truthfulness of some of your statements," Thaddeus smiled at the diminutive man. "And, if they are not to be trusted, then I would suggest that the measures you are taking based on them must also be subject."
"I don't know what you are suggesting," Harrington paced to the room's window and stared out at the dusty stretch of ground that made up Sweetwater's only street. Except for the sounds of construction coming from the building sites at the end of town, the street was vacant of all activity. He couldn't believe that he was standing here allowing the owner of a nothing newspaper in a nothing town question him. "Mr. Newby," he turned to face the newspapermen, "I am a law abiding citizen, as is, the company that employs me. Something you can't say for some of the citizens of this town...."
"If you're talking about Jesse," Thaddeus cut in. "I'm sure she'll be acquitted of the charges against her. After all, there is no truth to them."
"Truth, ha," Harrington stomped back to the desk and dropped into the chair. "I don't think you are much of a judge of truth, Mr. Newby. After all, you have defended that bitch in your paper more than once. In fact, it seems that most folks in your fine town," he sneered, "don't mind lying to the law to protect a murderer."
"Just a minute, Tobias," Mayor Perkins spoke for the first time. He had been reading when Thaddeus had entered the room and had felt it in his best interest to let Harrington respond to the man's questions. But, now, that the good name of his town was being besmirched, he decided to speak up. "You know that no one knew where Jesse was when they told the marshal....."
"Shut up, Perkins," Harrington grunted. He leaned back in the chair and placed his elbows on it's arms, his hands upraised with fingertips pressed together. "If that is all you wish to talk about, Mr. Newby, I'll bid you a good day."
Thaddeus took a few deep breaths in an effort to keep himself from grabbing Harrington around his scrawny neck and shoving his superior attitude down his throat. After composing himself, Thaddeus smiled shrewdly at the arrogant man, forcing down his desire to just come out and ask Harrington what he knew about the Songbird's false assay report.
"Mr. Harrington," Thaddeus asked, "how much do you know about mining and about judging a mining claim's true value?"
Caught off guard by the change in subject, Harrington answered. "I may not be a mining engineer but I am qualified to hire competent men to make the proper determination."
Thaddeus wondered what Harrington meant by "proper determination" but didn't want to play his cards just yet. "So, you believe that you are a good judge of men and their qualifications?"
"An excellent judge," Harrington bragged.
"And, you stand behind the decisions these men make?"
"Of course. However, no decision is made without my final approval. So, in essence, every decision is, effectively, my own," Harrington declared smugly.
"And, the decision that the Songbird claim was one worth purchasing," Thaddeus moved in for the kill. "Was that your decision?"
Thaddeus smiled knowing that Harrington had just admitted responsibility for purchasing a worthless mine. Now, he needed to find out if the man knew of the Songbird's true worth at the time he made the decision. "Then, you are aware that the Songbird is nothing more than a worthless hole in the side of a mountain?"
"I know no such thing," Harrington angrily answered. "The Songbird's ore-bearing rock assayed out at one of the highest levels ever seen in these mountains."
"And, that didn't make you suspicious?"
"Why would it?" Mayor Perkins asked. He was suddenly interested in what the newspaperman was saying.
"Because, no one else had ever showed the least bit of interest in the Songbird. Then, Harrington comes along and the Songbird is the richest strike in the mountains."
"But, the assay?" Perkins asked.
"The assay report was false," Thaddeus informed him.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Harrington exploded out of his chair, the veins in his neck standing out in anger.
"The previous owner of the Songbird paid your assayer to give you a false report," Thaddeus thought Harrington looked like a man who had just seen his life flash before his eyes.
"He did not such thing," Harrington pounded the desk. If what Newby was saying was true, he would be responsible for his company becoming the laughing stock of the east coast. Not to mention the thousands of dollars that had been spent to purchase the Songbird. And, the money already spent on the bank, hotel, wages, bribes...... He would be ruined. "It simply can't be true," Harrington looked pleadingly at the newspaper editor.
"I have a report here from an assayer I hired," Thaddeus pulled a copy of the report from his jacket pocket. "As you can read, the Songbird is worthless. Unless, of course, your plan is to dig for quartz, because that is all that the Songbird's 'rich' vein is composed of.".
"How did you get this?" Harrington snatched the paper out of the newspaperman's hand.
"I'd rather not say," Thaddeus didn't want to get the mine's guard in trouble for allowing him access to the Songbird.
"Of course not, since it is as worthless as you claim the Songbird to be," Harrington huffed as he read the report..
"Perhaps," Thaddeus said calmly, "but would it be of interest to you to know that the assayer who prepared your report just happens to be a cousin of the original owner? And, that both men left the territory immediately after receiving payment from you for the Songbird claim."
"You're making this up just to get me out of your precious town," Harrington dug through the papers on top of the desk looking for his original assay report.
"Oh," Thaddeus grinned. "I'm quite sure you will be leaving. The only question is whether you'll be walking away or if you'll have the law chasing you. But, either way, Sweetwater will be rid of you."
"Is this true?" Mayor Perkins gasped as he digested the information.
"Shut up, you fool," Harrington groaned as he compared the two assay reports. "Can't you see he's trying to get us to say something showing we knew about this so he can print it in his newspaper and ruin us."
"But, I had nothing to do with the purchase of the Songbird," Perkins protested. "That was all your doing."
"Don't be an idiot," Harrington hissed at his business partner. "You're the one who said you knew of the perfect mine for my plans." The harried man didn't realize how his words sounded.
"May I quote you on that Mr. Harrington?"
"No," Harrington barked, his fight coming back. "And, if you write one word of what you have just told me, I will have you sued for libel."
"It's not libel, Harrington, if it's true. I stand by my sources, which I might add, have slightly more credibility than yours."
"I'll have you brought up on charges if you print a word of this," Harrington threatened.
"You seem to be very good at that. Perhaps it was you who precipitating the charges against Jesse?"
"Tobias, did you?" Perkins asked. The mayor was sure that any future he might have had as a business partner with Harrington, was now destroyed. He would be lucky if he came out of this without being run out of town.
"But, if you lied to have her arrested," Perkins wanted to know how much trouble Harrington had caused for him.
"I said shut up. There's more at play here than that bitch's reputation."
"Such as?" Thaddeus demanded.
"Get out," Harrington ordered.
"What are you up to, Harrington?" Thaddeus asked, now more than ever he wanted to know what the easterner had planned to accomplish in Sweetwater.
"I'll find out eventually and when I do, I'll splash it all over the Gazette. And, I'll make sure my newspaper friends in Denver and St. Louis hear about it. Whatever you're playing at, Harrington, Sweetwater will be the last town you try to do it to. And, Jesse will be the last person you try to destroy for your own gain. You can trust me on that."
Jesse and Jennifer lead Dusty, Blaze and Boy away from the Goodrich Hotel. Anxious to leave Bannack and the memories of the trial behind them, the women had changed their minds about bathing their new son in town. Instead, Jesse borrowed a pot of warm water from the kitchen and gave the infant a quick washing in the water bowl in Mary's room. He would be given a thorough cleaning when they made camp at the end of the day's travels.
The women turned to wave goodbye to their family and friends standing on the boardwalk waving back at them.
"Goodbye," Jennifer called. "We'll see you back in Sweetwater. Have a safe trip home, mother, Thomas"
"Bye," Bette Mae waved. "Ya be takin' good care of them young 'uns.'
"We will," Jesse assured her. "You take care of yourselves."
"See you in Sweetwater," Ed added.
"Write us," Jennifer asked her mother and brother.
"We will," Thomas called. "We'll be coming to visit, too."
"We'll be expecting you," Jesse told her brother-in-law. "Don't wait too long," she said before turning back around to continue out of town.
"Love you," Jennifer waved one last time before joining Jesse.
With Jennifer at her side, Jesse carried the baby boy that had so recently joined their family while sat snugly in the carry sack on Jesse's back. The women were returning to the store in Yankee Flats to buy the supplies needed for the infant.
"I'll miss them," Jennifer sighed as she took one final look over her shoulder. Her mother was still standing on the boardwalk waving at them. She waved back, blowing a kiss.
"We don't have to leave," Jesse offered but she hoped Jennifer wouldn't change her mind.
"Yes, we do," Jennifer slipped her arm around Jesse's. She looked at the baby Jesse held, "he's adorable."
"But, tiny," Jesse smiled at the boy watching her. "Smaller than KC was when we found her."
"He's a lot younger," Jennifer told her.
They walked a few paces in silence.
"Jesse, why do you think that man brought him to us?"
"Guess it was like he said," Jesse sighed. "He must have heard about the trial and what Judge Henry said."
"I suppose," Jennifer looked at KC, the little girl watching her parents intently. "But, whatever the reason," she smiled at her daughter, "I'm glad he did. Now, we have two wonderful children. And, a real family."
"You're all the family I ever needed, darlin'," Jesse smiled at her wife. "But, I'm real proud to have been given the chance to raise these children with you. I love you."
"I love you, too."
It didn't take Jesse and Jennifer long to make their additional purchases. While Jesse added the items to their packs, Jennifer fashioned a sling from a piece of linen to carry the baby boy in while they traveled. Jesse would make another carry sack like they had for KC as soon as they could obtain the necessary deer skin. But, until then, they could use the sling, similar to the one they had used after finding KC.
With their packs secure on Boy's back, Jesse helped Jennifer slip the sling over her head and waited for her to mount Blaze. She handed the tiny boy up to Jennifer who placed the baby inside the sling and made sure he was in a comfortable position. Jesse swung herself up into Dusty's saddle.
"Ready?" Jesse asked Jennifer
The women rode away from Yankee Flats, back across Grasshopper creek and, upon reaching the wagon road, turned the horses west. With a mutual sigh of relief, they quickly put Bannack behind them.
The women had been riding for a couple of hours when Jesse decided to call a halt for the day. KC was getting restless in her carry sack and the baby boy was beginning to fuss.
"I know we haven't gone too far, darlin," she said as she surveyed the terrain surrounding them. "But, what do you say we make camp and set up the tent over by that grove of cottonwoods?"
With the night's getting colder and with the addition of their son, Jesse had decided it would be better for her family not to sleep in the open at night. So, she had added a canvas tent to their purchases at the store in Yankee Flats.
"Alright," Jennifer jerked the reins she held to guide Blaze to the trees Jesse had indicated. Between her leg and injured hand, she would welcome a short day in the saddle.
As soon as they reached the trees, Jesse slipped off Dusty's back. She stepped to Blaze's side and reached up to accept the baby boy from Jennifer.
"He's hungry," Jennifer said as she swung her leg over the saddle and dropped down to join Jesse. "Bet you are too, sweetie," she ruffled KC's hair.
"Okay," Jesse waited a moment while Jennifer settled down onto a grassy patch of ground near the banks of a small creek before handing the baby back, "you hold him while I get our stuff unpacked. "KC," she spoke to the little girl as she helped her out of the carry sack, "you stay right here and don't cause any trouble."
"Otay," KC sat on the ground a few feet from where Jennifer held the baby, her head tilted to one side curiously observing the baby.
Jesse made quick work of getting the packs off Boy's back. She pulled open the bundle that contained clothes and diapers for KC and the baby. Pulling a canteen of milk from another bundle, she poured the liquid into a bottle and handed it to Jennifer.
"Come on, sunshine," Jesse pulled a clean diaper from the pack, "let's get your britches changed while momma feeds the baby." She spread a blanket on the ground and waited for KC to crawl on top of it.
"Otay," KC rolled unto her back so her mother could remove her soiled diaper.
"Jesse," Jennifer watched the hungry baby drink.
"Hmm," Jesse removed KC's soiled diaper, preparing to replace it with a fresh one.
"I think we should give him a name."
Jesse looked up to see Jennifer watching her expectedly, "what shall we call him?"
Jennifer lightly tickled the baby under his tiny chin before announcing, "Charley. Charley Branson."
"Charley?" Jesse asked, liking the sound of the name.
"Yes. I've always wanted a son named Charley."
"Alright," Jesse finished redressing KC and sat beside Jennifer, with KC sitting in her lap. "Charley, it is," she said as she leaned against Jennifer.
KC reached out and grabbed a tiny foot that hung down within her reach, she giggled when Charley pulled his foot out of her reach.
"What do you think, sunshine?" Jesse propped KC up so she could get a good look at her brother, "cute isn't he?"
Continued in Part 11
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