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 mickeyminner@yahoo.com

 

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ROLLING THUNDER
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted  September 2004

 

PART 11

It was the third night after Jesse and Jennifer had left Bannack and the family was asleep inside their tent.  The women slept cuddled together in their bedroll while KC and Charley slept within arm's reach in make-shift cradles that Jesse had fashioned out of empty supply packs.  The regular contents of the packs were stacked neatly in one corner of the tent with their saddles and other supplies. 

Hidden behind clouds, the moon provided little light for the man and woman soundlessly approaching the campsite.  They slipped through the tent's door flap and, moving carefully around the sleeping women, crossing to stand silently next to the sleeping babies.

The woman knelt beside KC, her hand slowly reaching out to lovingly brush a lock of hair away from the little girl's eyes.  She smiled at the child sleeping so contently near the women who had become her mothers.  Pulling back her hand, she placed a kiss on her fingertips before gently pressing the fingers against KC's cheek.  After several moments, the woman held her arm up to the man so he could assist her back up.  He helped her stand then, wrapping his arm around her waist, pulled her tight against his side.  He smiled at the woman, placing a tender kiss on her temple.

Jesse and Jennifer became restless in their sleep, sensing the presence inside the tent.  As quietly as they had appeared, the man and woman moved to leave the tent, the woman turning back towards the sleeping women. 

"Thank you," she whispered. 

Then, she and her husband, slipped out of the tent, disappearing into the night.

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

"Somebody better go get the sheriff," a man said to the others standing around him.

"Who do you think did it?" asked one of the group as a boy broke away from the group, rushing out the building's door to summon the lawman.

"Don' take much ta figure that," a grizzled miner walked behind the bar that stretched the length of one side of the room.  Pulling a bottle of whiskey and several glasses off a shelve under the bar, he started filling the glasses for the men who quickly accepting the free liquor.

"Can't say I'm too surprised," a man in a business suit said as he placed his empty glass on the bar.  He didn't have to wait long before it was refilled by the impromptu bartender.

"Me, neither."

"Should hav' 'xpected it after what he said in court."

"Man was a fool to say that 'bout Plummer," the business man again emptied his glass.

"You was a fool not ta stand up to 'im," the grizzled miner argued.

"Didn't see you bustin' down any doors in Virginia City."

Sheriff Billie Monroe entered the building, the boy who had summoned him on his heels.

"Mornin', sheriff," the man behind the bar lifted the partially drained whiskey bottle.  "Care for a drink.  It's on Skinner," he laughed and the others enthusiastically joined him.

"No, thanks," Billie replied.  He scratched his cheek, the day old growth of beard was itchy.  He had been preparing to shave it off when he heard someone shouting that he was needed at the saloon.  "Who found him?" he asked the men helping themselves to the unguarded liquor supply.

"Came in like we does every mornin'," one of the men answered.  "Found him like that."

"Alright, bar's closed," Billie told the men crowding into the saloon, word had spread quickly about the early morning discovery,  "Everybody get out.  Except you," he told the boy who had interrupted his morning shave.  "You go find Judge Henry.  Wake him up if you have to."

"Ain't goin' like that," the boy grumbled.

"Just do it," Billie grunted.  He walked behind the bar, removing the bottle of whiskey from the miner still pouring free drinks.  "Finish what you've got and get out," he shoved the cork back in the bottle and set it aside.  Stepping to the end of the bar, he waited for the grumbling men to leave then turned to survey the scene.

The room was approximately twenty feet by forty feet and open without any dividing walls.  There was only one door and no windows in the small building, the only illumination coming from several oil lamps hanging along the log walls and from the ceiling beams.  A few broken down tables were situated about the room with various non-matching chairs haphazardly scattered about and near them.  In the back corner of the opposite side of the room, a couple of cots were pushed against the walls.  Men, too drunk to find their way home after a night of whiskey and cards, could sleep on the cots for the price of a couple of drinks.

The only thing of any real value in the saloon was the bar Billie stood beside.  The elaborately hand-carved bar ran the length of the room.  A border of scallop shells set out by a rope of flowers adorned the lip of the bar which was supported by four ornate pillars carved in a circular motif.  But, it was the top of the bar that truly made it special.  Shaped from a single piece of hard wood the bar top was almost thirty feet long and three feet wide.  Billie had heard stories of the bar being brought up the Missouri River to Fort Benton and then by wagon to Bannack.  It had made Cyrus Skinner the envy of many saloon owners in the territory.  As he ran his hand along the opulently carved wood, Billie doubted if they would envy the man now.

Billie loosened the rope tied around one of the bar's pillars, the other end had been thrown over one of the crossbeams supporting the building's roof.  At the end of the rope hung the lifeless body of Cyrus Skinner. 

"Figured the vigilantes would catch up to him," Judge Henry said as he entered the room.  "Just didn't expect them to be so quick about it."

"Sure it was them?" Billie asked as he slowly lowered the body to the floor of the saloon.  "Seems there'd be plenty of folks who wouldn't be too pleased with his testimony at Jesse's trial.  The third bandit, for one," he said of the man sent by Sheriff Plummer to kill Jesse and Jennifer but who had escaped after Jesse killed his companions.

"Maybe," Judge Henry walked to the saloon owner's body and bent over it.  He pulled a piece of paper free from where it had been pinned to the dead man's shirt.  "But, this should answer your question," he said as he straightened back upright, handing the paper to the sheriff.

Billie read the writing, "3-7-77." 

It was the same message the vigilantes left on all their victims.  No one had yet unraveled it's hidden meaning but everyone knew it served as a warning for law breakers in the territory to leave Montana or suffer the consequences. 

"Surprisin' he didn't leave after the trial," Billie gave the note back to the judge.

"Guess he had no place to go," Judge Henry placed the paper into his pocket.  "You best get back to the jail, sheriff.  There's not much else for you to do here."

Billie scratched his itchy cheek.  "They caught me before I could shave this morning," he explained to the judge.

"Well, you go on and get that taken care of.  I'll get the undertaker to take care of Skinner."

"Sounds good,"

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

"Go back to sleep, darlin'," Jesse told her half asleep wife.  "I'll take care of Charley."

The whimpering infant had awakened the women.  It wasn't the first time and both women were exhausted after getting up several times during the night.  KC had been many months older when they first found her and was already sleeping through the nights.  But, Charley was just a week old, and neither woman was used to gettin up every few hours with a hungry baby. 

Jesse rolled away from Jennifer and sat up, lifting Charley from his cradle and hugging the infant in her arms.  "Shhhh," Jesse rubbed the infant's back to calm him, "don't want to be waking up your sister."

In a way, she had welcomed Charley's cries.  They had interrupted the disquieting dream she was having and she was thankful for the chance to clear her mind of it's memory.

"Come on, Charley," Jesse whispered to the tiny boy, "let's get some milk in your tummy.  Bet that will make you feel better."  She grabbed the canteen of milk and feeding bottle that had been left within easy reach.  Placing the baby on top of her crossed legs, Jesse filled the bottle.  "Here you go," she lifted the baby up, cuddling him in her arms as she offered him the bottle.

Charley gratefully accepted the bottle, his eyes drooping sleepily as he suckled.

"Guess you're not used to being up all night either," Jesse chuckled softly. 

Remembering her dream, Jesse looked to see if the flap of the tent had come undone while they slept or if any of their belongings had been disturbed.  She was relieved to see the tent's opening still tied shut and nothing inside looked amiss.  KC was sleeping soundly in her cradle, her toy horse clutched in her hand.  Jesse was further comforted by the sounds of their horses moving about not far from the tent, knowing they would have alerted the women to any danger. 

Shaking off the last fuzzy remnants of the dream, Jesse began to hum softly as she gently rocked her new son. 

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

"Where's Bette Mae?" Ed Grainger asked Ruthie when she joined him in the dining room of the Goodrich Hotel.

"Said she had something to do this morning?"

"What business could she have in Bannack?" the storekeeper wondered.

Before Ruthie could respond, Mary and Thomas Kensington entered the room to join them.

"Good morning," Mary greeted the pair already sitting at a table.

"Good morning, Mary," Ed stood as Mary was assisted into a chair by her son.  "Morning, Thomas."

"Good morning, Ed," Thomas acknowledged the other man.  "Not too busy in here this morning," he commented on seeing several empty tables in the room. 

"Guess folks have gone back to their business," Ed looked around the half empty room, "now that the trial has finished."

"Isn't Bette Mae joining us," Mary enjoyed the other woman's company and was disappointed not to see her at the table.

"Seems she's got some business to attend to," Ed explained.  "Though, I don't rightly know what that could be."

"She didn't tell me, Mr. Granger," Ruth said when she saw the questioning looks on the faces around her.

"Well, since she's not coming," Ed nodded to a waitress, "no point in waiting any longer to order."

As the waitress walked away from the table with their orders, two men entered the dining room talking loudly.

"Damn fool," one of the men was saying.  "Was almost like he was just waitin' for it to happen.  Ya think he'd had tried to get outa the territory."

"Well, I'm sure as hell not going to shed any tears over it.  Sides, I say he got exactly what he deserved.  Surprised they didn't get around to him before now."

"Maybe so.  But, ya think they coulda at least drug him out of town ta string him up."

"Gallows are still up where they hanged Plummer.  They could have used those, I 'spose."

"Or, any number of other places."

"Excuse me," Thomas interrupted the men as they walked past their table.  "May we ask what you are talking about?"

The men stopped and looked at Thomas and his tablemates.

"Ain't you related to that fool they've got locked up in jail?  The one that got knocked out by that woman?"

"Pretty good punch," the other man laughed, "ta put down a man as big as him.  Did ya see the look on his face when she slugged him?"

"Better than a lot of punches I've seen between the boys when they get ta goin' afta each other."

"Sir, please," Thomas tried to get the men to answer his questions.  "You're not saying that he's been hanged?" he asked in horror.

"Nah, though he maybe should be for what he done to those women," one of the men said.

"Vigilantes hanged Skinner during the night.  Strung him up right inside his own saloon," the other man told them.

"My, goodness," Mary gasped.  "Here in town?"

"Yeah, slick as a whistle.  Just like they did with Plummer," the men laughed as they walked to an empty table and sat down.

"Billie said that might happen," Ruthie sipped from her glass of water to ease the lump that had formed in her throat at the news.  She didn't think much of the saloon owner, still hearing that he had been hanged was disconcerting.

"I'd say he was lucky to survive the vigilantes as long as he did," Ed added sugar to his coffee cup.

"Well, if it's all the same to you," Mary asked the others, "I would very much like not to talk about this during breakfast."

"That would be nice," Ruthie agreed.  "I don't think I can eat much as it is."

"You're right, enough has been said," Ed agreed.  To lighten the mood, he turned to the shy, young woman at the table and asked, "So, Ruthie, why don't you tell us what plans that sheriff of yours has made for getting the two of you hitched?"

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

"When did you find the time to catch these?" Jennifer asked about the fish frying in the pan over the fire.

"Couldn't sleep," Jesse patted KC on the rear after changing her diaper.  "All nice and fresh, sunshine."'

"Otay," KC smiled at her mother then crawled over to the blanket where Charley had been placed as the women went about their morning chores.  She plopped down next to the baby, tilting her head as she scrutinized the little person.

"What do you think about your new brother?" Jennifer asked the curious little girl.

KC scratched her nose, then leaned over to get a closer look.  Soon, she was almost nose-to-nose with the infant.  KC poked out a small finger and placed it on the baby's nose.  "Onk," she giggled.

"Be gentle," Jesse said as she sat next to KC.  "He's not big enough to play with just yet."

KC pulled back her finger and crawled into Jesse's lap.  "Mommy?" she looked at Jesse.

"Yes, sunshine," Jesse smiled at her daughter.

"Go?" she pointed at Charley who was watching her with bright eyes.

"Yep, sunshine," Jesse reached over and tenderly stroked the boy under his chin.  Charley wrapped his tiny fingers around her much larger one.  "We're going to take him home.  Is that okay?" she asked, concerned that KC might feel like she was being replaced.

KC again looked at the baby, her head tilted as she considered her mommy's question.  Finally, she answered, "yep."

"Good girl," Jesse hugged her daughter.

"Anybody hungry?" Jennifer asked.  She had been watching and listening to the exchange between her wife and daughter and was pleased that KC didn't seem to mind the new addition to their family.

"I'm starving," Jesse smiled at Jennifer.  "How about you?" she tickled KC.

"Yum, yum, yum," KC giggled.

As Jesse helped Jennifer wash up after breakfast, she noticed her wife seemed preoccupied.  "You okay, darlin'?"

Jennifer frowned as she looked aimlessly at the children on the blanket a few feet from them, KC playing with her toy horse while Charley lay beside her.

"Darlin', is everything alright?" Jesse tried again.

"Uh," Jennifer realized Jesse was talking to her.  "What did you say?"

"I ask you if everything was okay," Jesse repeated.  "You seem to be someplace else this morning."

"Hmm," Jennifer turned to face Jesse, she reached out her hand and smiled when the rancher instantly covered it with her own.  "It's just that I had a strange dream last night.  I can't seem to shake the feeling that....."

"Someone was in the tent watching us," Jesse finished her thought.

"Yes," Jennifer looked quizzically at Jesse.  "Was there?"

"Not that I can tell," Jesse tugged on Jennifer's arm, encouraging her to come closer.  "But, I had the same feeling.  I thought it was a dream but it seemed....."

"So real," Jennifer returned the favor and finished Jesse's thought.

"Yes," Jesse wrapped her arms around her wife, pleased at having her snuggling against her.

"Jesse," Jennifer said after several minutes.

"Hmmm."

"Do you think.....," Jennifer began.

"It was the Williams?" Jesse finished.  "Could have been.  What do you think?"

"I think they wanted to be sure KC is alright," Jennifer pushed back just enough to look into Jesse's eyes.  "But, why now?  Why here?"

"Maybe because they're buried not far from here."

"Oh," Jennifer looked around at the sparsely vegetated hillocks surrounding them.  During the last few days, she had paid little attention to the landmarks they were traveling past.

"Yep, right on the other side of that rise," Jesse pointed at a hill about a half mile behind them.  "Maybe, they thought it would be the last time they'd have to check on her."

"Do you think they know how much we love her?" Jennifer asked as she remembered the graves she and Jesse had dug not that long ago.

"I'm sure of it," Jesse hug Jennifer tightly.

"How?"

"Because, just before she left the tent, she thanked us."

Jennifer thought for a moment, "she did, didn't she?"

"Yep."

"I love you."

"Love you, too, darlin'," Jesse captured her wife's lips for a long, amorous kiss.

KC stopped playing with her toy horse to watch her mothers kiss.  She twisted to look at Charley, "uck, uck, uck."  She cackled when Charley, seemingly in response to her comment, blinked at her, his feet kicking wildly.

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

Bette Mae chose to walk along the road to the cemetery atop the hill overlooking Bannack.  It would take longer but the grade was not as steep nor the path as rocky as the more direct trail to the fenced graveyard.  She had been putting off her visit, unsure how she would react or what she would do when finally faced with the reality of her friend's death.  But, she knew she would be returning home in another day or two and she couldn't wait any longer to do what was needed.

As she made her way around the wide, sweeping curve the road took as it worked it's way to the top of the hill, Bette Mae thought back on a time many years before when as a young girl, not much older than Ruthie was now, she had met the person who was to mean so much to her.  She had been living in Fort Benton at the time, working the gambling halls for the money that could be made seeing to the needs of the gamblers, gold seekers, adventurers and other travelers the steamboats brought to town.

It was a typical night in the saloon.  The noisy, smoke filled room was full of men fresh off the steamboats and looking for a little action before they left town on the morning stage or as part of one of the freight wagon trains heading to Bozeman, Virginia City and other points west.  She glanced towards the front door when she heard the whistles and catcalls coming from the men at that part of the saloon. 

A girl stood just inside the doorway, looking petrified of her surroundings but also looking determined to accomplish whatever mission had brought her into the establishment.  As she watched, the terrified girl scanned the men in the saloon.  Her eyes resting on a face for an instant before she rejected it and looked to the next.  The drunken men were becoming more vocal and she moved to intercept the girl before anything worse than rude remarks could darken her path.

"Come wit' me," she grabbed the girl's arm and pulled her back out the saloon's swinging doors.

"Let go of me," the girl tried to yank her arm free but found it caught in a strong grasp.

"Saloon ain't no place for a lady to be," she continued to pull the girl away from the building.  The banks of the Missouri River weren't too far from the saloon and she headed for them.  This time of night the river was usually deserted, any men about would be in the saloons and gambling halls.

"Stop it," the girl cried, "you're hurting me."

She immediately released the girl, pulling back as if her hand had been burned. 

"Damn, I'm sorry.  Never meant ta cause ya no harm.  Jus' wanted to get ya out of tha' place 'fore them men decided ya was there for their pleasurin' and tried ta take ya upstairs."

"I was looking for my husband," the girl declared, annoyed by the suggestion.

"Yo'r married?" she thought the girl looked too young.

"Yes," the girl answered indignantly.

"Who's ya husband?" she asked as she sat on a crate that had tumbled off the edge of one of the steamboat docks and lay upside down on the sandy shore.

"Mr. Stuart Cassidy."

She felt a knot twist around her guts.  The man the girl was looking for was well known in the saloons and gambling halls in Fort Benton.  He had been coming into her place of business every night for the past couple of nights, throwing money around like it grew on trees.  What he didn't lose at the poker tables, he spent on the women that plied their trade in the upstairs rooms.  Which is where he was at the current moment.

"Do you know him?" the girl asked anxiously.  She had caught the brief look of recognition on the other woman's face before she tried to mask it.

She didn't answer.  She couldn't.  How could she tell the girl that her husband was in the arms of another woman.  A woman who expected to be paid for sharing the company of complete strangers.

"You don't have to protect me," the girl said in a voice so soft she had trouble hearing it over the lapping of the river against the shore.  "I know he's in there.  And, I know he's with one of them."

"I'm sorry," she couldn't think of anything else to say to the distraught girl.  At least, not anything that would remove the look of hurt on the girl's face.

"I can smell them on his clothes when he finally comes back to our hotel room.  He thinks the cigar smoke and smell of whiskey hides it, but I can smell them."

"Why do ya stay?" she scooted over to make room for the girl to share the crate.

"I have no place else to go," the girl sighed as she sat down. 

"Can't ya go back ta yo'r family?"

"They don't want me back," tears filled the girl's eyes.  "Momma thinks the world of him.  She'd never believe it if I told her he turned out to be no good."

"Then, go som' place else," she wasn't sure why she cared what the girl did.  But, something deep inside was telling her the girl needed her and she didn't know how to ignore it.

"He's spent most of our money.  Even started to sell some of the supplies back to the merchants."

"Supplies?"

"We're going to the gold camps where he's going to open a store.  'Make his fortune,' that's what he kept telling momma.  Made it sound so good he even got my brother to join him as a partner, he's going to meet up with us after he finishes the planting back home.  Anyway, everything seemed to be alright until we got here.  That's when we found out the wagon train we were supposed to travel with left a day before we arrived.  The steamboat was slowed down by a wreck a few days out of St. Louis, the captain kept promising to make up the time but he never did.  By the time we landed here, the wagons were gone and we were told we had to wait for the next one.  It doesn't leave for another few days.  Anyway, my husband had made arrangements for the supplies for our store to be here when we arrived.  Last couple of days, he's been selling them back to the merchants to get money for gambling and...."

"Tha's not right," she spat, wanting to go back inside and tell Stuart Cassidy exactly what she thought of him and the way he was treating this beautiful young woman.

"He's my husband," the girl said sadly.  "He has a right to do as he sees fit."

"Horse pucky," she grunted.  "Man ain't got no right ta treat his wife like that jus' 'cause he's a horse's ass."

The girl snickered.  "I've never heard a woman talk like you," she smiled shyly at her.

"Guess it jus' comes naturally.  Grown up 'round saloons all my life.  My momma pleasured the men and I never known who my daddy was.  Had me lots of aunts that helped raise me.  Musta picked up som' of their sayin's along the way.  Name's Bette Mae," she grinned, holding out her hand.

"Mary Elizabeth," the girl grasped the proffered hand.  "I'm glad I met you."

"Pleasure is all mine," Bette Mae felt a tingling moving up her arm from their clasped hands.  It was a sensation that was new to her but one she was most undeniably enjoying.  "Most definitely, the pleasure is all mine."

The women saw a lot of each other during the following days.  Every afternoon when her husband would leave their room for the gambling halls and saloons, Mary Elizabeth would hurry down to the river where Bette Mae would be waiting.  They would spend the next several hours talking about whatever came into their thoughts, then Bette Mae would escort Mary Elizabeth back to her hotel room to await her husband's reappearance.

Bette Mae wasn't sure exactly when it happened but some time during one of their talks, she realized she had fallen in love with the girl.  She found herself waiting breathlessly for the few hours a day they would spend together.  Casual touches set her skin afire and she yearned for the courage to kiss the sweet lips that spoke so sweetly to her.  Much too quickly, their time together came to an end.  Her heart still feeling the pain from the day Mary Elizabeth had come to her with the news of her departure from Fort Benton.

"So soon?" tears flooded her eyes and she couldn't stop them from falling.  Thankfully, the dark night kept them from being seen by her companion.

"Yes.  The wagons are packed and we will leave at dawn," Mary Elizabeth excitingly told her, unaware of the misery her words were causing.

"Where will you go?" she asked heartbroken.

"Bozeman to start.  If there are already too many stores there, Stuart says we will go to Sweetwater.  He says that there are a lot of new mining camps around there.  Miners will be needing someplace to get their supplies."

"I'll miss you," she said as her heart broke, the shattered pieces never to be mended.

"I'll miss you, too, Bette Mae.  I have never known anyone that I could talk to so freely.  I feel as if I've known you forever and I'm so glad that I met you.  I just don't know how else I would have made it through these last few days."

The tears flowing down her cheeks and the lump in her throat made it almost impossible to speak.  "Goodbye," Bette Mae turned to walk away from the young woman who had come to mean so much to her..

"Wait," Mary Elizabeth called after her friend.  "Bette Mae, where are you going?  We still have several hours before I have to be back at the hotel."

"I have to get back to work," she said without looking back.

Bette Mae walked away from the woman she loved and into the night, stopping only when she reached a small abandoned shack at the edge of town.  Slipping inside the door barely hanging onto to its hinges, she curled up in the corner of the filthy room.  No longer able to hold back the sobs, she cried until sleep finally claimed her just before dawn.

Weeks later, unable to get the woman out of her thoughts, Bette Mae left Fort Benton to try to find Mary Elizabeth.  She arrived in Bozeman only to learn that Stuart Cassidy and his wife had continued on to Sweetwater.  Her heart rose when she rode the stage into Sweetwater and saw the sign proclaiming "Cassidy's Mercantile" on a building across from the stage station.  But, her hopes were crushed when she questioned the boy operating the store.  He informed her that Cassidy had left him in charge until his brother-in-law arrived from Bozeman.  Cassidy had gone to the gold fields to seek his fortune and Mary Elizabeth had obediently accompanied her husband.

Out of money and with little hope of ever finding her lost love in the numerous gold camps that dotted the mountains around Sweetwater Valley, Bette Mae accepted an offer to work at the Silver Slipper.  Though she lost track of Mary Elizabeth, her heart still clung to a glimmer of hope until the horrible day Jesse and Jennifer had come to her with the news of Mary Elizabeth's death at the hands of her husband. 

Now, she was making her way to the grave of the woman who would forever hold her heart.    

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

"Seems I remember there being a hot springs 'bout where that line of trees start," Jesse stretched her arms out, a giggling KC held high above her head.

"At the base of that hill?" Jennifer looked up from changing Charley's diaper. 

"Yep," Jesse tossed KC into the air, catching the squealing child as she dropped back to the ground.

"Don't you drop her," Jennifer warned.

"Wouldn't dream of it.  Would I, sunshine?" she asked as she tightened her arms around her daughter and rubbed noses with her.

"Mo', mommy," KC giggled.

"Okay," Jesse let the girl fly again, being careful not to throw her too high. 

"Mo', mommy," KC begged when Jesse set her on the ground after catching her.

"Not now, sunshine," Jesse ruffled the girl's hair.  "I need to help momma.  You stay here and keep an eye on Charley."

"Otay," KC looked at the baby unsure what she was supposed to be keeping an eye on.  The baby never moved except to wave his arms or kick his legs.  He couldn't crawl like she could. 

Jennifer had finished with Charley and was putting items back into their packs, preparing to continue the day's travels.

"What do you say," Jesse joined her wife, pulling tightly on the ropes that secured the packs to their draft horse, Boy, "we head for that hot springs.  Should be able to reach it in an hour or two."

"I'd like that," Jennifer sighed as she stretched her back.

"Back sore, darlin'?" Jesse asked when she saw Jennifer wince.

"A little.  Guess I'm still not used to carrying a baby."

"Why don't you let me carry him for a while?"

"You're already carrying KC," Jennifer pointed out.  "I'll be okay."

"I can carry both."

"I know you can, sweetheart," Jennifer leaned against Jesse.  "Maybe when we get to that hot springs, you can give me one of your special massages."

"You can count on that," Jesse began to work her hands up and down Jennifer's back.  She could feel the tight muscles under her shirt.

"In the meantime...," Jennifer began.

"In the meantime," Jesse smiled at her wife, "I'll carry Charley."  She gave Jennifer a look that said she would not accept any protest, "it'll give your back a rest."

Knowing that arguing would be useless, Jennifer agreed.  "Alright.  BUT," she insisted, "if Charley gets restless, we switch back."

"Agreed," Jesse said as she turned around to return to their children.

Jennifer turned to follow Jesse, running smack into her wife's back, "what?"

"Shh," Jesse whispered.  "Look."

Jennifer peeked around Jesse to see KC laying on her stomach right next to Charley.  Her little body was pushed up and supported by her arms bent at the elbows.  She was talking spiritedly to the infant, but few words other than momma and mommy were recognizable.  Every so often KC would giggle and drop her head down to tease the baby in a game of peek-a-boo.  Charley's eyes never left his sister. 

As Jesse and Jennifer watched the baby's lips curled up into his first smile.

A smile quickly spread across KC's face when she saw the baby mimic her.  She scooted around to sit up, carefully pulling the baby partially into her lap.  Leaning over, she placed a kiss on Charley's head,

Jesse sat beside the KC and rescued the baby from his precarious position of half in and half out of his sister's lap.  KC pulled herself upright using her mommy's shirt for handholds. 

"Wuv, Wie," KC announced as she leaned against Jesse, her arms snaking around her mommy's.

"Charley loves you, too, sunshine," Jesse smiled at the little girl.

Jennifer stood behind Jesse, her hands resting on her wife's shoulders.  Tears flooding her eyes as she smiled down upon her family.

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

Bette Mae stood beside a gravestone.  Etched on the polished face was the name 'Mary Elizabeth Granger' and under the name read, 'beloved sister and friend'.  At the top of the stone, an angel floated, symbolically protecting the person resting below. 

"Might purtty headstone Jesse and Jennifer bought ya," Bette Mae whispered as she ran her hand lightly over it's surface.  The grave was well cared for, unlike most of the others in the cemetery.  Another gift from Jesse and Jennifer who had paid the gravedigger to take care of the woman's resting place.  It was outlined by stones laid out in straight lines and the ground inside the stones had been picked free of weeds.  Fresh flowers had been placed at the base of the stone in a small hole lined with tin to keep it's shape. 

A small bench made of a thick board placed atop two relatively flat stones of equal size sat invitingly alongside the grave.  Bette Mae took a seat on the bench.

"Don' rightly know what I wan' ta say," tears filled the woman's eyes as she thought of what might have been.  "Wish I'd had the nerve to speak my mind back in Fort Benton," she sniffled.  "Don' know if it would have made much difference," crying she pulled a hankie from her sleeve.  "I should have don' better by ya, Mary Elizabeth.  I shoulda insisted ya leave tha' bastard.  We coulda gon' some place where ya could hav' been happy."

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

"Are you sure about this?" Mayor Perkins looked up at the newspaper editor after reading the lead story of his latest edition.

"Yes," Thaddeus Newby had brought the first paper off the press to Sweetwater's mayor.  "I thought you might want to know what kind of company you've been keeping," he told the man who was a partner to Tobias Harrington and his dealings in Sweetwater. 

"But, to make up those lies about Jesse," the mayor tossed the newspaper onto his desk.  "Just so he could get her ranch."

"There's more to it than that, Miles, and you know it," Thaddeus dropped wearily into the chair opposite the desk.  "He's a man who will do anything to accomplish what he wants.  My question is how much of this did you know about?

"None," the mayor emphatically said.  "I swear, I knew nothing."

Not surprised by the man's response, Thaddeus asked, "then what do you plan to do about Harrington and his company, now that you do know?"

"Know what?" the man being discussed barged into the mayor's office.

"That the Songbird is nothing but a hole in the side of a mountain," Thaddeus angrily confronted the unwelcome man, ticking off his fingers as he laid out the facts.  "That you and Kinsington conspired to have Jesse arrested and imprisoned for crimes she did not commit.  That you made a secret deal with Kinsington for him to sign over ownership of the Silver Slipper and Jesse's ranch for a percentage of the Songbird's profits."

"You can't possible know that," Harrington sputtered, caught off guard by the accuracy of the last accusation.

"I know that and much more," Thaddeus was now pacing around the room, trying his best to restrain himself from kicking the arrogant man all the way back to the east coast from which he had come.

"Tobias, why would you do such things?" Miles Perkins asked, unsure why he ever got involved with the man and his activities.

"I have done nothing wrong," Harrington tried to explain himself out of the mess unraveling around him.  "I was taken in by the Songbird's owner," he looked to the mayor for help but received nothing but a blank stare in return.  "I had no idea the mine was worthless.  How am I going to make the investors understand?"

"What about Jesse and Jennifer?" Thaddeus exploded, caring little about the money the man had spent on the worthless mine.  "Why would you do that to them?  They did nothing to you, you sorry son of a bitch!" he bellowed at the man so concerned about himself.

"They laughed at me," Harrington sneered remembering the day he had approached the women about selling the Silver Slipper.

"I represent a group of investors in the east.  They have plans for the town of Sweetwater and they wish to purchase your establishment."

"No," Jesse and Jennifer said at the same time.

"Excuse me," Huntington demanded.

"The Silver Slipper is not for sale," Jennifer explained.

"I am authorized to make you a rather generous offer," Huntington began.

"As my wife said," Jesse walked to the office door and opened it.  "The Slipper is not for sale.  Not for any price.  Not at any time.  And, especially, not to you.  Good day."

"You are making a big mistake," Huntington protested, this was not going at all as he expected.

"GET OUT!" Jesse demanded.

"Damn, Harrington," Mayor Perkins shook his head, "you did all this because they wouldn't sell the Slipper to you?"

"Yes," Harrington began.  "Well, no.  I mean it didn't start out like that.  The investors were upset over having to spend money to build a hotel, I thought if I could get the Slipper.  When I met Kinsington on the stage I thought it was too good to be true when he made me the offer for the Slipper."

"It was," Thaddeus sighed.  He couldn't believe all that Jesse and Jennifer had gone through because this man's pride had been wounded by the women.

"But, it made sense.  I would save my company money and Kinsington would get his daughter back.  After all, he is an important man back east."

"Well, I hate to break this to you," the newspaperman growled, "but this ain't the east and out here Kinsington ain't nothing but a big man with a bigger mouth.  And, speaking of Martin Kinsington, you might be interested to know that he is currently awaiting Marshal Morgan's escort to a prison.  Seems the judge in Bannack wasn't too happy with your little conspiracy.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if the territorial governor doesn't issue a warrant for your arrest once he's told the kind of a fool you played him for."

"What?" Harrington gulped audibly.  "That can't happen."

"Sounds like what Kinsington has been saying since he was arrested and tossed into jail," Thaddeus smirked.  "If I were you, Mr. Harrington, I'd be making plans to get as far away from Sweetwater as fast and as far as I could.  I don't think too many folks are going to be wanting you around once the Gazette hits the streets this afternoon."

"But," Harrington mouth opened then closed unable to think of anything further to say.

"Mayor," Thaddeus again asked the other man in the room, "what do you plan to do about this?"

Mayor Perkins finally found the courage to confront the man who had almost destroyed his town and some of it's citizens.  "Thaddeus, in the absence of Sheriff Monroe, I'm deputizing you.  Would you please take Mr. Harrington to jail, I don't think he should be allowed to leave town until all of this is settled."

"Perkins, don't be a fool," Harrington hissed at his former business partner.

"You've been the fool, Harrington," Mayor Perkins stood, stomping to within inches of the smaller man.  "Of all the things you've done, I can't believe you would do such a horrible thing to Jennifer and Jesse.  After all that man Kinsington has already done to them, you go and help him do even more just so you can make yourself look good to your investors.  You," he jabbed a finger into Harrington's chest, "are a despicable human being and I will make sure you do not get away with this.  Thaddeus," he commanded, "lock this bastard up!!"

Thaddeus chuckled at seeing a side of the mayor he never knew existed.  "Damn, Miles," he said as he approached Harrington to comply with the mayor's instructions, "I didn't know you had that in you."

"Neither did I," Perkins honestly replied, collapsing back into his chair.

"Get you hands off me," Harrington shouted, attempting to break free of the newspaper editor's grip but years of operating a printing press had made the muscles in the newspaperman's arms as strong as steel cables and he was unable to budge them.

"Come on, you worthless piece of horse pucky," Thaddeus pulled the screaming man out of the mayor's office.

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

After breakfast, Ed decided to walk up and visit his sister's grave, something he had done every day since arriving in Bannack.  His strong legs made little work of the steep, rocky trail that led straight up the hill to the cemetery.  Cresting the top of the hill, he recognized the woman sitting on the small bench inside the fenced graveyard.  Deep in concentration and with her back towards him, she hadn't heard Ed's approach.  Not wanting to intrude and curious as to why Bette Mae would be at his sister's graveside, Ed leaned against the fence to wait.  In the still morning air, he could hear the words the woman spoke.

"I was too young, Mary Elizabeth," Bette Mae wiped at her tears.  "I was scared ya think less of me if I tol' ya the truth.  But, oh how my heart ached afta ya left.  I come lookin' for ya, did ya know that?  Listen to me," she laughed sadly.  "'Course ya didn' know.  But, I did.  Followed ya to Bozeman but he had already taken ya away from there.  And, by the time I made it ta Sweetwater, ya was gon' again.  Would hav' kept lookin' for ya, but I ran out of money.  Took a job at the Slipper 'cause I figured ya'd come back there someday, with ya brother running the store, and all.  But, ya never did.  Guess I coulda asked Ed 'bout ya but," she sighed deeply, "I never did."

For several minutes, Bette Mae sat silently looking at the grave of the only person she had ever loved.

"I loved ya, Mary Elizabeth," she spoke the words softly and Ed, standing only a few feet away, had to strain to hear them.  "It's the only thing in my life tha' I'm proud of."

Bette Mae stood to return to town, "Ya have a real pretty restin' spot, Mary Elizabeth.  And, someone is seeing ta ya, that's nice."  She took a single step then stopped and looked back at the grave, "I won' be comin' back.  I hope ya understand," she felt fresh tears rolling down her cheeks, "it hurts too much, my love.  Goodbye."

Ed waited uncertainly, knowing that Bette Mae would see him as soon as she turned completely away from the grave.  He had never known about the feelings the woman held for his sister and he now wondered how much different their lives might have turned out if the love had been mutual.

"Ed," Bette Mae was startled to see the storekeeper standing so near.

"Sorry," Ed walked the few steps to wrap the grieving woman in his arms, "didn't mean to intrude but I never expected to see you here."

"I...," Bette Mae welcomed the concerned man's embrace, "I just wanted....."

"Let it go, Bette Mae," Ed could feel the woman's body shaking with bottled up emotion.  "You've got a right to grieve."

"But.. How?" Bette Mae asked between sobs.

"I heard enough to know you loved her."

"I'm sorry," Bette Mae was unsure how the big man would take the news.

"Don't be," Ed gently rubbed the sobbing woman's back.  "It makes it easier knowing she had someone who cared."

"I did, Ed," Bette Mae cried, protected in his strong arms.  "I surely did."

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

"Billie," Ruthie sat between the sheriff's legs in the shade of a cottonwood tree along the banks of Grasshopper Creek. 

"Hmmm," Billie was leaning back against the tree's rough bark, his arms draped around his fiancÚ.  The jail was within his line of sight, not that anyone would make an attempt to free his overly vocal prisoner.

"What kind of wedding do you want?" Ruthie had told Billie about the good-natured teasing she had endured during breakfast on the subject.

"Guess I just kinda figured you and Jennifer would make those plans," the sheriff chewed on a stalk of grass.

"Don't you have any ideas?" Ruthie expected to get plenty of help from Jennifer.  And, Bette Mae.  But, she still wanted to know what Billie thought.

"Well," Billie threw away the grass stalk.  "To be honest, I don't want a big wedding like Jesse and Jennifer's."

"You don't?" Ruthie didn't want a large wedding either but had hesitated to say so knowing so many of the town's folk would want to attend the ceremony.

"No.  I was thinking more of a small, simple ceremony.  With just a few close friends, like Jesse and Jennifer, Ed, Thaddeus, Bette Mae."

"Really?"

"Yep.  But, I know you want a big wedding, honey, so..."

"No, I don't," Ruthie twisted in Billie's arms, looking into his eyes.  "I want a small wedding, too," she said shyly.

"Really?"

"Really."

"Be a lot of disappointed folks."

"I know," Ruthie groaned as she turned back around and cuddled against Billie.

"Well," Billie considered their predicament.  Nothing said they had to have a large wedding.  It's just that with so few social events in Sweetwater, every one seemed to turn into a huge celebration that everyone anticipated.  "We could have a small ceremony for us and dancing afterwards for the rest of the folks."

"Like the receptions Miss Jennifer was talking about?" Ruthie asked, hopefully.  Jennifer had told them about the large weddings receptions held back east when the bride and groom came from important families.  Like the Kinsingtons.

"Yeah, like that."  Billie was proud that he had come up with a solution to their dilemma.

"I'd like that, Billie," Ruthie sighed in pleasure.

"Then, that's what we'll do, honey."

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

"Ohhhh," Jennifer moaned dipping low into the steaming water of the hot spring.  "This feels so good."

Riding no faster than a walk, it had taken almost three hours for the women to reach the hot springs and it was quickly decided to set up camp for the night before enjoying the heated mineral waters.  Jesse had chosen a small glade protected by trees to pitch the tent.  Nearby, a creek of cold mountain water merged with the scalding water flowing out of the hot springs, creating a pool just the right size and temperature for the women to immerse themselves into the soothing water.

"You can say that again," Jesse held Charley, using a cloth to wash the baby's skin in the warm water.  "This will sure make it easy to sleep tonight."

"Be careful, sweetie," Jennifer told KC who she held in her arms.  KC was happily splashing water at Jesse.  "Wait until mommy is finished giving Charley his bath," she quieted the girl's hands, "then you can play with her."

"Otay," KC looked for some other way to entertain herself.  Her eyes followed the path of the creek as it traveled away from them into the valley.  "Ook," she pointed excitingly at a doe drinking from the creek some distance downstream.

"A deer," Jennifer smiled.  "Oh, sweetie, look," she lifted KC up so she could see better, "she has two babies."  A pair of smaller animals stood beside the doe, they were no longer marked with the spotted coloring of fawns but it was obvious by their size that weren't yet a year old.

"Ook, mommy."  Wanting to be sure everyone saw the deer family, KC poked Charley in the leg.  "Ook," she commanded her tiny brother.

"He's a might small to see them, sunshine," Jesse said as she leaned back, slipping most of her body under the warm water.  Charley lay between her bare breasts, securely held in place by her strong hands.  She continually swept warm water over the wash rag draped over the baby so he wouldn't get chilled. 

Seeing that Jesse was finished with Charley's bath, KC forgot about the deer.  She started bouncing in Jennifer's lap, "mommy, mommy, mommy."

"I think it's time for you to play," Jennifer teased her relaxed wife.

"Ugh," Jesse playfully stretched out a long leg to tickle KC with a toe.  "Don't want to play."

"Mommy, mommy, mommy."

"I think it's time for Charley and me to get some clothes on," Jennifer stood. 

Jesse leisurely watched as water ran off her wife's naked skin in rivulets.  "I can think of a reason not to do that," she smiled, twitching her eyebrows.

"I'm sure you can," Jennifer sloshed over to Jesse.  "Maybe you should keep that thought until after the children are asleep," she said as she offered to trade KC for Charley.

"Oooo," Jesse held Charley up to her wife, "I will definitely keep it until then."

As soon as Jennifer set KC down on top of her mommy, the little girl began to splash water at her, giggling when Jesse gave her a playful glare.

"Don't be too long," Jennifer said as she carried Charley out of the pool.  "The stew should be ready soon."  She had left a pot with their evening meal simmering over the campfire Jesse had made earlier.

"I won't be any longer than it takes to splash this little thing silly."  Jennifer smiled as shrieks of laughter escaped from her daughter once Jesse began drenching her with a barrage of splashes.  

Jennifer stirred the pot of stew keeping a sharp eye on Charley laying on a blanket a few feet away.  She was getting ready to call Jesse and KC to supper when Jesse strode into camp with a squirming, wet daughter tucked under her arm.

"Mommy, dow'," KC giggled.

"Not 'til you get some britches on," Jesse carried the laughing girl into the tent. 

"Sweetheart," Jennifer sat beside Charley, the baby's eyes were beginning to droop and she knew it wouldn't be long before the infant was fast asleep.

"What?" Jesse called from inside the tent.

"How long do you think it will be before we reach Walk's camp?"

"Tomorrow or the next day.  Why?"

"The way Charley's going through the milk we brought, I'm afraid we may run out."

"Damn," Jesse re-emerged from the tent, both she and KC dressed. 

"We should be okay," Jennifer started to push herself up in order to dish up the stew.

"Stay put," Jesse sat KC down on the ground next to Jennifer.  "I'll get supper.  Looks like Charley will be asleep soon."

"Uh, uh," Jennifer pulled a corner of the blanket over to cover the boy.  "Expect KC won't be too far behind," she watched as her daughter's mouth opened wide in a yawn.

"Here you go," Jesse handed Jennifer a bowl of stew before sitting next to her with her own bowl and a chunk of bread to share.  "Come on, sunshine," Jesse patted her thigh for KC to crawl into her lap, "let's get you fed before you fall asleep on us."

"Too bad we don't have a hot springs at home," Jennifer laughed as she remembered the many nights they had stayed up late with KC who refused to go to sleep.

"Maybe we could make one," Jesse blew on a spoonful of stew before feeding it to KC.  "But, I think it's more likely riding the back of a horse all day than the hot water that's got her tuckered out."

"Probably," Jennifer tore off a piece of bread, offering it to Jesse.

"How you doing?" Jesse asked, always concerned about Jennifer's damaged leg and the pain it caused her wife.

"Okay," Jennifer smiled at Jesse, "but, I wouldn't say no to a rubdown tonight."

"Good," Jesse smiled back, "I was planning on giving you one as soon as we put these two to bed."

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

"I hope Jennifer and Jesse are alright," Mary fretted as she walked down the stairs in the Goodrich Hotel.  She and Thomas were on their way to the dining room for supper.

"I'm sure they're fine, mother," Thomas followed Mary down the steps.

"I worry about them being alone with those babies."

"Seems they've done pretty well on their own, so far," Thomas said.  "I wouldn't worry about them now."

"Good evening," Marianne walked into the lobby just as Mary and Thomas reached the bottom of the stairway.

"Good evening, Marianne," Mary smiled at the schoolteacher who had opened her home to her daughter's family.  "I wasn't expecting to see you tonight."

"Well," Marianne explained sheepishly, "the cabin is kinda empty.  I was hoping I could eat with you."

"Of course, you can," Mary understood how empty a house could seem.  "Come on."

The trio walked down the hallway leading to the dining room.  Ed and Ruthie were already seated at a table and they waved them over to join them.

"Where's Bette Mae?" Mary asked concerned over the other woman's absence  all day.  "Is she not feeling well?"

"She's fine," Ed assured Mary.  Not wanting to give away Bette Mae's secret, he added, "she had some catchin' up to do with an old friend and it tuckered her out.  So, she's making it an early night."

"Oh," Mary accepted a menu from the waitress.  "I didn't know she had any friends in Bannack."

Anxious to change the subject, Ed asked, "what shall we have tonight?"  The others laughed as they all knew the menu was limited, offering few choices.

"I guess Billie is still keeping stickin' close to the jail," Ed spoke directly to Ruthie.

"Yes," Ruthie had spent most of the day with her fiancÚ and would have preferred to stay and share the evening meal with him.  But, the sheriff had insisted she return to the hotel when the day began to fade.  He didn't want her walking back to the Goodrich in the dark, his duties at the jail preventing him from escorting her back.  "I wish the marshal would get back," she grumbled, then turned red when she realized the impact of her words.  The marshal's return would mean Martin Kinsington would be taken back east to be confined to a mental hospital. 

"It's alright," Mary patted the embarrassed girl on the forearm.  "I wish he would get back, too.  I would like to put an end to this whole affair."

"I expect he'll get back tomorrow," Ed knew how long the ride was to the territorial prison in Deer Lodge and that the marshal had had time to get there and back.

"I guess we can last that long, can't we Ruthie?" Mary smiled.

"Yes," Ruthie nodded, demurely.  "We'll be leaving for Sweetwater as soon as he arrives, won't we, Ed?" she was as eager to leave Bannack as Jesse and Jennifer had been.  After all, she had a wedding to prepare for and a dress shop to open.

"Far as I'm concerned," Ed answered, "we can leave the minute the marshal gets back.  I've got a store to get back to," he knew it was being looked after by the girls at the Silver Slipper but it wasn't the same as if he were there himself.  "Not to mention, I'd like to see what that Harrington fella has to say about all this.  I sent a letter to Thaddeus a couple of days ago, laying out the details of the trial.  Hopefully, he'll have some use for it."

"I'm sure if what you suspect is true about Mr. Harrington's dealings," Thomas spoke, "he'll have more than your newspaper editor to worry about.  I've heard of the company he works for and I'm quite sure the owner will not be pleased to hear his money has been wasted on a worthless hole in the ground."

"Maybe so," Ed looked at the other man, "but my concern is more for Sweetwater than Harrington.  He's caused folks there a load of trouble and I'm just hoping it ain't so bad the town can't recover."

"I'm sure Sweetwater will be fine, Ed," Thomas smiled.  "Besides, your fine town now has a new hotel and bank to show for his efforts.  Those you will have, and the business they bring, long after Harrington is gone."

"Bank we can use," Ed considered the man's comments.  "Ain't so sure we need the hotel.  Especially, since it'll take business away from the Slipper," he said about the rooming house and restaurant Jesse and Jennifer operated.

"Ha," Thomas laughed, "the Slipper has the best cook in the territory in Bette Mae.  Folks will still get their meals there."

"Besides," Mary added, "with Ruthie's new dress shop, there'll be plenty of reasons for people to continue staying at the Slipper.  I think Thomas is right, a new hotel is not going to take much business away.  As more people come to Sweetwater, the more business the Slipper will have.  As will your store, Ed."

"I hope your right."

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

"I demand you release me from these chains," Martin Kinsington stood indignantly as Billie placed his plate of supper on the jail cell floor.

"Ain't gonna happen, Kinsington," the sheriff muttered, he had heard the same demand every day since the man had been arrested.

"This is no way to treat a gentleman," Kinsington bellowed.

"Don' see no gentlemen around here," Billie backed out of the cell.

"At least give me a lamp," Kinsington's tone began to change, a mere hint of fear creeping into his words as he was about to be consumed by complete darkness again.

"No," Billie pushed the solid wood door shut.

"A candle, then," Kinsington begged.

Billie pulled the chain through the metal loops and locked the ends together with the padlock.  He could feel sorry for the man shackled in the windowless cell.  He could if he didn't think about the pain the man had caused his friends, that is.  He tossed the ring of keys back onto their hook and sat at the table preparing for another long night of listening to the prisoner's protestations and empty threats.

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

"How do you feel?" Jesse asked the woman wrapped in her arms. 

"Wonderful," Jennifer sighed.  Jesse had just finished her promised massage, leaving her feeling almost boneless.  They were laying atop their bedroll laid out on the floor of the tent, a lantern hung overhead providing them a dim light.  KC and Charley were sleeping an arm's length away, snug in their make-shifts beds.  "I'm glad you bought this tent," Jennifer snuggled closer to Jesse.

"Does help keep out the cold," the rancher pulled the blanket draped loosely over their naked bodies up over Jennifer's shoulders to cover the goose bumps forming on her delicate skin.  Summer was ending and the nights were getting longer and cooler.  Many of the trees they rode past were already showing the bright reds and yellows of fall.

"Not to mention it's not so embarrassing to be naked when I know no one can see us."

"Ain't nobody for miles, darlin'," Jesse chuckled.  "Unless you're talkin' 'bout the animals."

"You know what I mean," Jennifer said, lightly pinching Jesse's arm.  "Besides, you never know when someone might ride by."

"Yeah," Jesse stretched leisurely, exposing her torso as the blanket fell away, "having this tent does have a number of advantages."  She had purchased the canvas covering in Yankee Town after they had been blessed with Charley.  Usually, she enjoyed sleeping under the stars but she decided it would be better to have the extra protection.  Especially, now that they had KC and Charley to consider.

Charley gurgled in his sleep.

"He'll be waking up hungry, soon," Jennifer looked over at the baby as she placed a hand over one of Jesse's bare breasts.

"And, I thought KC ate a lot for a baby," Jesse put her own hand atop Jennifer's, encouraging her caress.  "Good thing we still have that milk cow at home."

Charley gurgled again, his eyes fluttering open.

"Damn," Jennifer groaned.  Feeling Jesse's firm nipple pressing into her palm had begun some equally pleasurable sensations between her own legs.

"I'll get the milk," Jesse said without moving. 

Jennifer shifted slightly, replacing her hand with her mouth, to suck on the aroused nipple.

"Darlin'," Jesse moaned, "I don't think this is a good time to be startin' that."

Charley was now awake and very hungry, his cries becoming more insistent.

Jennifer raked her teeth over Jesse's nipple before releasing it.  "Damn," she moaned again, flopping over onto her back. 

"I'll get the milk," Jesse repeated, her voice shaky from the fire Jennifer had ignited within her.  She pushed herself upright and reached for the milk and feeding bottle.  "Darlin'," she took a deep breath to calm her racing heart, "that wasn't nice." 

Jennifer giggled as she lifted Charley from his temporary cradle.  "I'm sorry, sweetheart," she laid the baby on the bedroll she and Jesse occupied, "guess I have to work on my timing now that we have Charley."

"Oh," Jesse smirked, "I don't think you're timing is at fault."  She carefully poured milk into the feeding bottle while Jennifer removed Charley's soiled diaper.  "I think you just wanted to torture me," she passed a clean diaper to Jennifer.

"Now, why would I do that?" Jennifer snickered.  

"Because, you're mean," Jesse teased.

"Ha, guess I had a pretty good teacher," Jennifer finished with the diaper.  "Here, feed our son,"  Charley was placed in Jesse's arms.

"Hi, there, big boy," Jesse settled the baby in her arms before offering him the bottle.  "How long before you sleep through the night?" she asked the baby as he suckled.

"Sweetheart," Jennifer scooted over to sit beside Jesse, leaning her head against Jesse's shoulder.  "He can't help it if he gets hungry."

"He ain't the only one hungry," Jesse pouted.

"Stop that," Jennifer laughed.  "They'll be plenty of time when he goes back to sleep."

"What makes you think I'll still be in the mood?" Jesse teased.

"Oh, somehow I think you will," Jennifer slipped her hand between Jesse's crossed legs and into a thatch of moist hair.  She smiled when her wife jumped at her touch.

"That's not fair," Jesse growled.

"Just making my point," the hand was withdrawn.

"Funny."

Wrapping her arm around Jesse's waist, Jennifer placed her head back on her shoulder as she watched the baby.  "He's adorable," she smiled.

"Yeah," Jesse tilted her head against Jennifer's, "he is.  But, he's so little.  Guess I never figured they started out so small."

"He'll grow.  Just like KC is."

The women thought back to the day they had discovered the baby girl.  She had been so small, barely stretching the distance between Jesse's elbow and fingertips.

"She has grown a bit, hasn't she?" Jesse looked over at their sleeping daughter.

"Yes, and so will Charley.  We just have to give him time."

Jesse nodded, time was one thing she had plenty of when it came to her family.

"He has your coloring," Jennifer said after several quiet moments.

"What do you mean?" Jesse was taken off guard by the comment.

"Look," Jennifer lovingly ran her fingers through the fine hair atop the infant's head.  "It's going to be reddish brown like yours.  And, he has brown eyes."

Jesse looked at the baby in the muted light.  "He must have got that from his mother," she said, remembering that his father was sandy haired with light blue eyes.

"Kinda funny, isn't it?" Jennifer asked.

"What is?"

"How much KC looks like me and, now, how much Charley looks like you."

"I think it's a little soon to be laying that on the boy," Jesse grumbled, but she wasn't really upset with the idea.  She had taken great pleasure in the way KC favored Jennifer and she was proud that Jennifer thought the tiny boy favored her.  "I'm just glad to have him.  And, KC," she turned to kiss her wife.  "And, I'm really glad to have you," she whispered as their lips met.

"Let's put him back to bed," Jennifer suggested when they broke apart several heartbeats later, Charley sound asleep in Jesse's arms.

It didn't take the women long to place the baby back into his pack and to check on KC sleeping in her own pack beside him.  Within minutes, they were back on the bedroll wrapped in each other arms.

"Have I told you today how much I love you?" Jesse sighed as she planted light kisses along Jennifer's chin line.

"Yes, but you can always tell me again," Jennifer allowed Jesse to roll her onto her back, liking the feeling of her wife's body pressed on top of her's.

"I love you so much," Jesse's lips continued down her lover's neck, stopping only when she found a breast to explore.

Jennifer moaned as Jesse ran her hand first down, then back up her leg, fingertips barely touching soft skin. 

"You are so beautiful," Jesse whispered as she placed a trail of kisses along the path her fingers had just laid.  Slipping her body between Jennifer's legs, Jesse gently spread them apart revealing her wife to her.  She breathed deeply, inhaling the sweet, musky scent of her lover's arousal.  Dropping her head, she encircled Jennifer's clit with her tongue, the muscle sliding easily in the wetness it found. 

Enjoying the taste, Jesse ran her tongue along her lover's nether lips, exploring every dip and fold along it's path.  She teasingly circled Jennifer's opening, her tongue poking in for a few seconds before retreating.

"God, Jesse," Jennifer cried, her body was on fire and only Jesse could put out the blaze.

Jesse's tongue moved slowly back to the waiting clit, exploring the silky softness as it went.  She placed her mouth over the clit and sucked it inside.  At the same time, her hands moved up to claim Jennifer's breasts, kneading the firm globes.

"Please," Jennifer buried her hands in Jesse's thick hair, encouraging her downward to where she needed her wife the most.

After a moment of resistance, Jesse complied.  Her tongue traveled back to the source of Jennifer's sweet nectar.  Squeezing erect nipples between her thumbs and fingers, Jesse thrust her tongue inside her wife.

Jennifer's hand flew back as her heels dug into the rough material of their bedrolls, thrusting herself against her lover's tongue.  Toes curling and back arching, she grabbed handfuls of blanket as Jesse bore into her.  The building pressure finally exploding into powerful orgasmic waves that washed over her as she screamed Jesse's name.

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

Continued in Part 12

 

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