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.  I appreciate all the e-mails I have received with your comments.  Thank you.

 

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

ROLLING THUNDER
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted September 2004

 

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

 

PART 12

"This is amazing," Jennifer gawked.  "All these animals in one place."

"Yep," Jesse adjusted her position to keep the infant she cradled in the shade cast by her broad shoulders.  "Hard to believe the herds used to be a lot bigger."

"How could they get bigger than this?" Jennifer swept her arms across the scene playing out in front of herself, Jesse and Walks on the Wind.

The three were sitting high up the slope of a grass covered hill.  Before them, spread across the valley floor and dotting the surrounding hillsides, was a massive herd of bison numbering in the hundreds of thousands.  The air was rich with the sounds of their grunts and bellows and the ground vibrated with each passing hoof as it stomped against the hard earth.  Here and there, clouds of dust swirled up from wallows being carved into the ground by animals rolling in the dirt, attempting to protect their sensitive skin from annoying flies and ticks.  Occasionally, the crack of skulls would ricochet around the valley as two males fought for dominance, their deceivingly  short, stubby legs driving muscular bodies against each other.  The skirmishes commonly covered great distances as the rivals battled.

The women had arrived at Walks on the Wind's camp that morning to find Walk and the other hunters and their families preparing the bison killed during their hunt for transport back to their village.  Knowing that Jennifer wanted to see the large animals up close, Walk had offered to accompany the women to a spot where they would be able to safely observe the bison.  He had guided them to a knoll several miles from his camp where they sat watching the bison herd for the past few hours.

KC was draped across Jennifer's legs, her attention switching between the large animals and the adults whose laps she crawled in and out of continuously. 

"Ook, momma," KC pulled on Jennifer's pant leg, "ook t'ere."  She pointed as a bison bull pawed the ground, raising a large cloud of dust.

"I see, sweetie," Jennifer reached out a hand to steady KC as she rolled off her momma's legs to climb atop Walk's folded legs.  "I can't believe the herds were bigger than this.  What happened to them?"

"White man," Walk said as he kept an eye on KC squirming in his lap.  She was struggling to pull herself upright using his deerskin vest for handholds.  "They kill the bison for sport, not caring that we depend on them for our way of life."

"For sport?" Jennifer turned to look at her friend.

"Yes," Walk smiled at KC when she accomplished her goal to stand on unsteady legs, an arm encircling his neck for support.  "They see all these animals and think that shooting a few won't have any effect.  But, they kill the cows as well as the bulls."

"Fewer cows mean fewer calves come spring," Jesse added.

"But, they seem so docile," Jennifer said of the animals that walked so near yet had showed them little notice, never making any move to threaten or charge.

"Ain't much of a challenge to shoot them," Jesse rocked Charley who was starting to fuss.  "If you have one of the new rifles they're making back east, you can drop a bull with one well placed shot."

"Don't the others run away?" Jennifer asked.

"No," Walk tickled KC's leg eliciting a burst of giggles.  "Their kinda stupid when it comes to that.  They'll stick around a dead one to see if they can figure out what happened to it."

"By the time they do," Jesse reached for the milk bottle next to her, "someone shoots them."

"What do they do with them?" Jennifer held out her arms for Charley and smiled when Jesse laid the boy in them.

"Most rot in the sun," Walk said, disgusted with the wasteful practice.  "Some take the hides, some the tongues.  The rest is left where the animal dies."

"Their tongues?"

"Yep," Jesse passed the milk bottle to Jennifer once she had Charley settled, "seems it's a delicacy in eastern restaurants."

"Don't they know that the Indians depend on the bison to live?"

"Don't care," Walk shook his head.

"Ook, 'Alk," KC pointed to a pair of bulls jousting.  "Boom, boom," she imitating the loud noise the animals thick skulls made when they collided.

"Think they'd give themselves a headache," Jesse chuckled.

"Especially since," Walk laughed, "their heads ain't half as thick as yours."

"Mommy," KC scooted out of Walk's lap, crawling over Jennifer's legs to Jesse's now empty lap.  "Boom, boom."

"Pretty loud, ain't they, sunshine?" Jesse pulled the baby up and kissed her before twisting her around to look at the milling herd.  "Almost as loud as Charley is when he wakes up hungry."

"Yep," the baby agreed.

"Guess as soon as Charley is done," Walk looked over his shoulder to the western horizon, the sun was beginning it's descent.  "We probably should get back to camp."

"Thank you for bringing us here," Jennifer smiled.  "It's a sight I'll never forget."

"Glad you got to see it," Walk said sadly, "probably won't be around much longer."

"What do you mean?"

"Some folks are starting to say that the bison should be eliminated," Jesse's voice was as sad as her friend's.  "Say that they can force the Indians onto reservations if they don't have the bison for food anymore."

"That's horrible," Jennifer was shocked by what Jesse was telling her.

"Yes, it is," Walk pushed himself up from his resting spot, "but, unfortunately, it's true.  Without the bison to provide us meat, clothing and shelter, we'd have little choice but to go to the reservations."

"I hope it never comes to that," Jennifer shook her head, the thought of the proud Indian people being forced to live confined to small reservations because of the wanton annihilation of their primary food source was appalling.  "Hopefully, the soldiers will stop that from happening."

"Wouldn't place too much hope with them," Jesse said as she stood with KC, "they're some of the ones doing most of the taking."  

Jennifer, tears forming in her eyes, scanned the valley and the dark shapes that filled it.  Could these magnificent creatures really be destroyed so senselessly.  She earnestly hoped not.

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

"Here's where we have to make a decision," Billie pulled his horse to a stop.  He, Ruthie, Ed and Bette Mae had left Sweetwater the day before when Marshal Morgan left town with his prisoner, Martin Kinsington.

"Are you sure two deputies are enough?" Thomas questioned the marshal when he arrived at the stage depot with his father, shackled and handcuffed.

"Don't worry," Marshal Morgan helped Kinsington into the empty stage then climbed inside himself to lock the chain to the leg shackles around the seat support.  "I have it under control."

"Time to go," the station master announced to the group of people waiting in front of the depot.  One deputy climbed inside the stage while the other climbed up into the seat he would share with the driver atop the coach.

Ed, Bette Mae, Billie and Ruthie had come to say goodbye to Mary and Thomas Kinsington.  They were the only people to see the stage off since it would carry only the Kinsingtons and the lawmen, an arrangement the marshal had ensured.

"Well, I guess this is goodbye, then," Mary told the others. 

"Ya come back and visit us, ya hear," Bette Mae hugged Mary, then Thomas.  "Always a place fer ya at the Slipper."

"Thank you, Bette Mae," Mary wiped a tear from her cheek, "we will.  You look out for Jennifer and Jesse for me.  And, my grandchildren."

"I will," Bette Mae assured her.

"You be sure and let us know you arrived safe," Ed shook Thomas' hand. 

"We will," Thomas grasped the storekeeper's hand firmly.  "And, thank you for looking after my sister.  It means a lot knowing she has you."

"She means a lot to me," Ed smiled, "kinda like the daughter I never had."

Martin Kinsington grunted, hearing the comment.

"Shut up," Marshal Morgan warned the prisoner before he could say anything in response.

"Good luck on your marriage," Thomas told Billie and Ruthie, and your dress shop."

"Thank you."

"Come on, folks," the station master interrupted, "we're behind schedule as it is."

Mary, with her son's assistance, climbed into the coach, Thomas followed immediately and the coach's door was slammed shut by the station master.

"Hang on," the stage driver yelled to the deputy as he released the brake and whipped the horses into a gallop.

"Goodbye," was shouted by those inside the coach and those watching the stage leave Bannack, a cloud of dust marking its departure.

"Next stop, Sweetwater," Billie said shaking dust off his hat.

"Can't wait ta git home," Bette Mae turned to walk to where their horses were tied waiting for them.

"I'm right behind you," Ed followed the woman.

"We go north, follow the stage road and get home in five to six days," Billie explained even though he knew the others were aware of their choices.  "Or, we go west, over the mountain pass, and get home in three or four."

"West," Ruthie couldn't wait to be out of the saddle.  She had ridden very little before traveling from Sweetwater to Bannack and her sore muscles screamed for relief.

"West," Bette Mae agreed. 

"West," Ed voted.  He was anxious to get back to his store.

"West, it is," Billie lead the group in the named direction.

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

"Good day," a bald, overweight man with a cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth entered Mayor Perkins office, "I understand that we might find Mr. Tobias Harrington here."

"Who are you?" the mayor asked, cautiously. 

"My name is Weese and this," he stepped aside to expose a much thinner, red-haired man, "is Mr. Glade.  We have been sent to check on the progress of Mr. Harrington's work here."

The men had arrived on the afternoon stage and, after surveying the nearly completed structures of their company's bank and hotel, were directed to the mayor's office by a workman.

"Not more of you people," Perkins groaned.

"Excuse me," Glade moved further into the room, "but, I don't think I caught your name."

"Perkins," the mayor said bluntly, he wasn't in the mood to deal with any of his former business partner's associates.  "Mayor Perkins."

"Ah," Weese stepped forward and held out a beefy hand, "a pleasure to meet you Mayor Perkins.  I understand you have served our company well."

Perkins stared at the sweaty hand, deciding he had no intention of touching it.  "Harrington is in jail," he told the men in hopes they would leave his office.

"You mean at the jail?" Glade asked.

"No," the mayor grimaced.  Oh, how he wished this whole affair was over.  More so, he wished he had never gotten involved in it to begin with.  "I mean he is IN the jail.  I ordered him to be held until the sheriff gets back from Bannack."

"Excuse me," Weese blew out a large cloud of cigar smoke, "but, why would you have him arrested."

Perkins waved at the cloud floating towards him to disburse it, "would you put that blasted thing out before you set my office on fire."

"You haven't answered the question," Glade said.

"Perhaps, you should go ask Tobias what he's been up to," Perkins smirked.  "Unless, of course, your company is already aware of the many laws he has broken since arriving in Sweetwater."

Both men looked bewildered by the mayor's comment.

"He has committed," Perkins continued, "fraud, conspiracy, and attempted murder.  Just to name a few."

"What are you talking about?" Glade demanded.

"Jail is two doors down.  You can't miss it, it's the one with the bars on the windows," Mayor Perkins told the men between coughs caused by the thick fog of cigar smoke over his desk.  "Take that damn cigar and go ask him," he ordered.

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

"Wilson, you have to get me out of here," Tobias Harrington was telling his foreman.

"Hell," Frank Wilson leaned against the wall opposite the cell bars, "your arrogance and stupidity got you in there.  I say it's where you belong."

"Fool," Harrington paced in the small cell, "can't you see?  I can't fix this from in here."

"How you goin' fix it, Harrington?" Wilson chuckled.  "Goin' make some more secret plans with Kinsington?"

"How was I to know the man was crazy?"

"Should have been pretty obvious, if you ask me," Wilson had only heard stories about Kinsington and that was enough to make sure he stayed away from the man when he was in town.  "Besides, I don't recall the company being interested in a cattle ranch.  Just what were you planning to do with it?  Maybe, a little side line of your own?  Not to mention, promising company stock to a complete outsider is a little beyond your authority, isn't it?"

"That's none of your business," Harrington growled.

"But, it is ours," Glade sneered as he walked through the door that separated the cells from the jail office, Weese right behind him.

"Mr. Glade, what are you doing here?" Harrington stopped pacing, the color draining from his face when he saw the board members.  "You too, Mr. Weese."

"We were sent to check up on you," Glade informed the man he had never liked or trusted.  "Though, we were told you're activities here seemed troubling, we weren't expecting to find you in jail.  JUST, WHAT THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN DOING!"

"Oh, god," Harrington sunk down onto the cell's cot.  "This can't be happening."

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

"I don't believe this," Weese moaned.

"Believe it," Frank Wilson said, "it's all true."

Wilson, Weese and Glade had left Harrington to his own thoughts, retreating to the sheriff's office.  The cigar smoking man sat in the chair behind the desk, his huge frame straining the furniture's limited strength, while Glade occupied the chair Billie kept for the use of visitors.  Wilson stood by the office window, keeping an eye on the workmen putting the finishing touches on the hotel across the street.  Instead of trying to explain things to the other two men, Wilson had given them copies of the Gazette's most recent editions to read. 

"I don't understand," Weese tossed the paper on the desk.  "If the Songbird is worthless, why would he continue the project."

"He didn't know," Wilson said, "and, by the time it was brought to his attention, the bank and hotel were just about done anyway.  No sense stopping 'em then."

"Are you defending him?" Glade barked, crumbling his copy of the Gazette up and throwing it across the room to bounce off the wall before rolling to a stop near the closed door behind which the man causing his frustrations sat.

"No," Wilson turned to face the other men, "Harrington deserves what you do to him.  But, I have to be fair, he was taken in by the miner who sold it to him.  So, as far as the mine goes, he was played for a sucker and the company paid the price.  I think he planned to go ahead and operate the bank and hotel, or, maybe, sell them.  Either way, he could have recouped some of the losses."

"Maybe so," Glade considered the foreman's words.  "But, what about the rest?"

"As for the rest of it," the foreman sighed, "I haven't got a clue why he did it.  Pride, I guess."

"Pride?"

"Seems, he didn't take kindly to the Bransons saying no to him when he offered to buy the Silver Slipper."

"Because of that, he conspired to send an innocent woman to prison?"

"Or, the gallows," Wilson wanted to be sure the men understood the severity of Harrington's plot.

"Oh, my god," Weese stammered, "do you realize what that would have done to the company's reputation?"

"Not to mention, Jesse Branson's neck," Frank Wilson said humorlessly. 

"Now, what?" Weese asked his fellow board member.

"I guess we need the records Harrington was keeping.  But, before that, we need to get ourselves settled for the night.  It looks to be a long one." Glade scowled.

"Records should be in the mayor's office," Wilson informed the men.  "You can get rooms at the Silver Slipper."

"But, isn't that the establishment Harrington tried to purchase?" Weese stammered.

"Yes, but unless you want to sleep on a cot in the back of the stage depot, it's the only place in town to rent a room and get a meal."

"I thought you said the hotel was finished?"

"Mostly is.  But, unless you plan to sleep on the floor, I suggest you get a room at the Slipper," Wilson smirked at the robust man.

"Mr. Wilson," Glade stood, walking the few paces to stand beside the foreman.  "How much longer before your work is done on those buildings?"

"Structures are basically finished," Wilson told the slender man.  "Have a little more work on the roof of the hotel, should be done today or tomorrow.  Bank has a couple of windows left to be put in.  I was planning on paying off the men by the end of the day.  'Course, the insides aren't done, no furnishings or such.  I put a hold on the orders," he informed the man who was now his boss since Harrington was in jail, "figured you'd be wanting to save the money."

"Thank you, Mr. Wilson," Glade smiled at the foreman, "I assure you, your hard work will not be forgotten."

"Yeah," Wilson said skeptically, having heard similar empty promises many times before. 

"Mr. Wilson," Glade wasn't sure what to make of the foreman's attitude, deciding to ignore it for the moment.  "We will need you to take us to the Songbird tomorrow."

Frank Wilson removed his hat, wiping the sweat off his forehead,  As he replaced the stetson, he looked over the two men.  One was average height and thin as a rail, his otherwise non distinct form was topped by a head framed in curly, red hair and sideburns.  The other man was of a similar height but much rounder and a cloud of cigar smoke seemed to follow the man everywhere.  Wilson chuckled to himself, if he had a few drinks under his belt it would be easy to imagine Weese as one of his cigars and Glade as the matchstick used to light it.

"It's a steep climb to the mine," Wilson looked at the rotund Weese, "sure you can make it?"

"I thought you were constructing a road," Weese blew out a puff of smoke.

"Hadn't started it yet when I found out about the assay report," Wilson waved his hand to clear the smoke that was beginning to fill the room.  "Didn't think the company would want me to waste the money building a road to a worthless mine."

"Ah," Weese, standing to join the other men, let another puff loose, "smart man, Wilson.  Too bad Harrington didn't think like you."

"You want to go to the mine," Wilson waved his hand again, "the cigars stay in town."

"What do you mean?" Weese frowned.

"If you haven't noticed, Mr. Weese," Wilson glared at the thoughtless man, "we haven't had much rain around here in a while.  One spark and you could set the forest on fire."

Weese looked around at the mountains surrounding the Sweetwater Valley, "looks plenty green to me."

"That's because pine trees stay green year round," Wilson explained to the easterner who was used to trees loosing their leaves in the fall.  "But, it 's dry and I won't take a chance on a fire getting started."  Not to mention, he wasn't about to spend a day breathing in the disgusting fumes that swirled about the man.

"What could it hurt?" Weese asked as he took a deep draw on his cigar, releasing a large puff of smoke.

"Lot's of folks live up in those mountains, that's what.  You want to go to the Songbird, no cigars." Wilson was done talking, "I've got work to do.  You can hire horses at the livery behind the Oxbow," he pointed to the saloon down the street.  "Find me when you're ready.  And, make sure he leaves the cigars in town," Wilson rushed through the jail door, seeking the fresh air outside.

"Come on," Glade looked disgustingly at Weese and his cigar, "let's go get us some rooms."

"Afternoon, gentlemen," Thaddeus Newby greeted the men as they exited the jail.  Hearing that the two easterners were with Wilson, the newspaper editor had hurried to the jail.  He was anxious to question the men about Harrington and the ramifications of his actions.

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

After returning from their day of watching the bison herd, Jesse took KC to explore a creek near the Indian camp.  Jennifer remained at their tent with Charley, the baby needing feeding and a change of diapers.  Walks on the Wind wandered over to the tent, sitting beside Jennifer.

"How's your hand?" Walk asked his friend.

Jennifer paused to flex the fingers on her right hand.  "Still a little stiff," she returned to changing Charley's diaper, "but it's okay.  Jennifer finished with Charley's diaper, then lifted the baby into her arms, gently rocking the infant.

"Don't you go to sleep before your mommy and sister get back," Jennifer laughed at the sleepy eyed baby.  "You know how much they like to say goodnight to you."

"We've looked for fish in that creek for days," Walk stretched his hands behind him, leaning back on his braced arms, "haven't found a single one big enough to eat, yet."

"Jesse will," Jennifer grinned.  She didn't know how her wife did it, but Jesse never failed to catch fish when she set out to do so.  "We'll be having trout for supper."

"Hmmm," Walk would welcome the change of menu after days of eating nothing but bison meat.  He was sure that if Jesse caught any fish, she would bring back enough for everyone.

Jennifer watched as her wife sat on the creek bank, removing her boots and rolling up her pant legs.  After saying something to KC, the rancher stepped into the creek to capture her prey.  Jennifer was struck by the naturalness of the scene and the freedom it represented.  She realized that the Indians had enjoyed such freedom for thousands of years, only now to find themselves threatened with the loss of it.  She knew how she felt when her way of life had been in jeopardy and wondered how her friend felt about the impending loss of his own.

"Walk, don't you worry about what will happen?" she turned to look at the relaxed man.

"When?"

"If the bison are killed?  If your village is forced onto a reservation?"

Walk sat back up, brushing the dirt from his hands, "worrying won't change it from happening, Jennifer.  My tribe has always tried to live in peace with the white man but that didn't save my father." 

"How did he die?" Jennifer asked, not wanting to cause her friend pain but curious as to the circumstances that caused him to lose his father while just a boy.

"It was early spring and a small herd of elk had been spotted not too far from my village.  Father was part of the hunting party sent to kill them.  A troop of soldiers on their way to Fort Walla Walla heard the sounds of gunfire and panicked, thinking they were being attacked by a war party.  They charged, firing as they rode."  Walk sighed deeply, "none of the hunting party survived."   

Jennifer placed a hand on Walk's arm, "I'm so sorry."

"The soldiers were young and new to our lands.  If they had only stopped to see what my father and the others were doing, they would have known they were in no danger.  If they had approached in friendship, they would have been welcomed as brothers."

Jennifer frowned, "before I came here, I read many descriptions of Indian attacks in the eastern newspapers.  They made it seem as if Indians tried to kill every white man and woman they saw.  I'll admit, I was afraid of what might happen if I saw an Indian."

"Yet, you came here."

"Yes, something seemed to draw me to Montana."

"Or, someone," Walk laughed.

Jennifer grinned, "I suppose so.  Anyway, it wasn't until I met Jesse that I saw the other side of the picture.  She made me see Indians as people, with the same thoughts and worries and hopes as everyone else.  I guess I never took the time to look at them that way." 

"You are wrong, Jennifer," Walk said, sadly.  "We are not the same.  White men come into our lands, not to live as our brothers as we would ask, but to take away what has been ours for many generations.  They fence our hunting grounds so their cattle can eat the tall grasses.  They kill our young braves because they are scared when they see them ride in groups.  They kill our elders and young children with the diseases they carry.  We offer them peace but they give us death."

"Yet, you are still friendly towards us," Jennifer commented.  "I don't know if I would be the same."

"You and Buffalo Heart have shown me only friendship, why would I show you anything less?  I cannot judge a whole people by the acts of some."

"It's sad that more people don't feel that way."

"My mother's second husband said it is the way of the white man to conquer and control.  They will not be happy until they take all the land between here and the great water in the west.  I only hope that enough of my people survive to tell our stories to our children's children and their children," Walk looked at the baby now sound asleep in Jennifer's arms,  "I still hope that one day our peoples will live together, in peace."

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

Jennifer was surprised to see the horses still grazing near the creek when she limped back to camp from the small thicket of trees.  Walks on the Wind and the other Indians had left just after sunrise to return to their village.  She and Jennifer had waited for the babies to wake up and be fed before they broke down their own camp.  She was expecting to find Jesse packing the tent and their other supplies onto Boy, but the tent was still standing and her wife and children were nowhere to be seen. 

"Jesse," Jennifer called out as she approached the campsite.

"In here, darlin'," Jesse answered from inside the tent.

Jennifer stepped through the opening left by the tied back canvas flap.  Jesse was laying on their bedroll, stretched out on her belly with her elbows tucked under her chest.  KC was stretched out on Jesse's back, one arm wrapped around Jesse's neck, her head next to her mommy's.  Both mother and daughter seemed to be enchanted by the sight of the diaper clad infant laying on the bedroll before them.

"What are you doing?" Jennifer chuckled.

"Praaying," KC said as Jesse blew on the baby's tummy, her loose hair tickling his bare skin. 

"Playing?" Jennifer eased herself down on the bedroll on the opposite side of Charley.

"Yep," KC giggled when Charley kicked his tiny feet in response to Jesse's tickling.

"I thought you were going to start breaking camp, sweetheart," Jennifer placed her pinkie finger under Charley's tiny hand, the baby's fingers instantly wrapping themselves around it. 

Jennifer smiled as Jesse continued to tease smiles from their son and giggles from their daughter. 

It never ceased to amaze Jennifer how much Jesse was fascinated by the children, the rancher simply adored them.  Jennifer had always loved children and always wanted children of her own.  She had been less sure of Jesse's feelings, as had Jesse herself.  But, any doubts Jennifer may have had regarding her wife and children were cast aside when KC entered their lives.  The rancher was captivated by the infant and seemed to know instinctively what the baby needed and how to meet those needs.  Now, with Charley added to their family, Jesse seemed even more mesmerized by the babies.      

"Sweetheart?" Jennifer asked, gently when Jesse made no effort to stop playing.

"Hmmm."

"Do you plan to play all day or are we going home?"

Jesse cocked her head to one side, smirking at Jennifer. "oh, guess I kinda got carried away."

"Guess you did," Jennifer laughed as she lifted the baby into her arms.

KC slipped off Jesse's back, crawling to Jennifer's side and plopping down beside her. 

"Now, I know where she gets that," Jennifer was amused when KC's head tilted to the side just as Jesse's had done moments before.

"Get's what?" Jesse asked as she pushed up from the bedroll.

"That," Jennifer pointed at their daughter, her head cocked to one side as she continued to watch her brother.  "That's what you do when you're thinking."

"I do."

"Yes."

"Hmmm," Jesse scratched her head, "never noticed."

"Trust me," Jennifer ruffled KC's hair.  "You do."

"Okay," Jesse surveyed the array of items needing to be packed and loaded on the pack horse.  "Well, guess I better get busy if we're going to start for home today."

"I'll get Charley dressed and these two settled where it's safe while you get the horses saddled," Jennifer smiled as Jesse helped her to her feet.  "If we both work at getting packed, it won't take too long."

"You've got yourself a deal," Jesse walked out of the tent. 

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

"Mr. Newby," Glade was walking towards the Silver Slipper, carrying his travel bags.  "We cannot possibly respond to your questions at this time."

"Mr. Glade," Thaddeus doggedly followed the man trying to avoid him, "a simple comment as to why you and Mr. Weese are in Sweetwater is not too much to ask."

"As I have said," Glade was thankful to reach the steps to the Slipper's broad porch.  "We are here to look into matters.  That is all I am going to say at this time."

"When can the people of Sweetwater expect more of an answer?" Thaddeus bounced up the steps behind him.

"As soon as possible," Glade entered the Slipper, leaving his associate to answer any more of the newspaperman's questions.

Thaddeus stood waiting on the porch as Weese lugged his travel bags up the dusty street.  The obese man stopped upon reaching the bottom of the steps, wheezing loudly as his tobacco damaged lungs struggled to take in enough oxygen for the strenuous activity that awaited him.

Taking pity on the rotund man, Thaddeus walked back down the steps to pick up the man's bags.  "Come on, it'll be cooler inside," he said as he re-climbed the stairs.  Crossing the porch, Thaddeus held the Slipper's door open as Weese struggled to make it inside before collapsing from the exertion of walking the length of Sweetwater's one and only street.

Once inside the building, Weese headed straight for the nearest chair, slumping down into it.  "Thank you," he panted when Thaddeus set his bags down at his feet.

Glade shook two room keys at Weese, taking pleasure telling the exhausted man, "our rooms are upstairs,"  When the other man only stared at him in response, Glade tossed one of the keys onto the table beside his companion, "guess you can make it up after you've had some rest.  Or, you can stay here until I'm ready to go back to the mayor's office and look at Harrington's ledgers," he smirked at the plump man before turning to go up to his room.  "Don't answer any questions," he called out as he climbed the steps to the upstairs boarding rooms.

"Well," Thaddeus dropped into a chair next to Weese, "guess that referred to me."

"I'm sorry," Weese picked up a cloth napkin from the table, using it to wipe the sweat from his face and neck.  "But, I can't say anything to you," he smiled apologetically to the man who had helped him.

"But, you will," Thaddeus smiled back.

After a pause to make sure Glade had disappeared from sight, "we are here to look into Harrington's misuse of company assets."

"And?"

"I'm sorry, but I really can't say any more," Weese leaned down to pick up his bags. 

"The citizens of Sweetwater will want more than that," Thaddeus told the drained man.

"And, they shall have it.  After," Weese stood, "we have finished our review.  Until then, I'm sorry."

"Alright," Thaddeus said, although he was not yet ready to give up.  "But, you can at least tell me what you plan to do while in Sweetwater."

"We will review Mr. Harrington's records this evening and tomorrow we will examine the Songbird."

"I want to accompany you," Thaddeus wanted to see the men's faces when they walked into the worthless tunnel Harrington had purchased for them.

"I'll talk to Glade," Weese said walking to the flight of steps he was dreading having to climb every time he went to his room.  He hoped their stay in Sweetwater was a short one.  "I can promise nothing."

Thaddeus watched the stout man labor up the steps.  If Glade refused his request to ride to the Songbird with them, he would just meet the men there.  After all, he knew his way to the mine's locations as well as anyone.

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

"Ook, mommy," KC pointed, excitedly.  "Ook."

"I see it, sunshine," Jesse pulled Dusty to a stop. 

Jesse and Jennifer were following a trail that paralleled a small river.  At a point where the distance between river banks narrowed, a family of beaver had built a dam blocking the water's progress and causing the back up water to form a large pond.  At the far side of the pond, a moose stood in hip deep water grazing on the nourishing plants he found growing under the water's surface.

The moose raised his head, water dripping off his antlers and shaggy head.  A large brown eye scrutinized the riders as he chewed his mouthful of plants.

"Ook," KC bounced in the carry sack on Jesse's back.  "Ook, Wie," she was disappointed that Charley was showing no interest in the large, gangly animal.

"Sweetie, he's too small to see," Jennifer stepped Blaze up alongside Dusty.  "Funny looking, aren't they?" Jennifer said of the moose.  She had seen several before and always thought they looked like someone had taken several parts from different animals to put them together. 

The moose had dark, thick hair covering its hide.  Large ears stood out on either side of its head fronted by a bulbous nose.  It's round belly and lumpy hips were supported by long, skinny legs that seemed to all moved independently of one another when it ran.  A long, clump of hair hung under it's neck and served no purpose that Jennifer could guess.

"Oh, I don't know," Jesse reached for the canteen hanging from her saddle.  "I think they're kinda cute."

"Really?" Jennifer chuckled, lifting her own canteen and holding it so KC could drink.

"Yep," Jesse smiled.  "Kinda soft and cuddly, like."

Jennifer took a drink as she watched the moose dunk it's head back under water in search of more food.  "They look like all legs and nose to me."

"But, they have those big, brown eyes," Jesse urged Dusty forward.  Even though they were next to the river, it was hot sitting in the sun.  She wanted to reach a small meadow just inside the forest they were nearing before stopping for the day. 

"That they do," Jennifer took a firmer hold of her reins when Blaze moved to follow Dusty.  She took one last look at the moose, it's head again raised out of the water.  "Jesse, why do you think it has that lump hanging under it's neck?"

"My guess," Jesse lead the horses off the main trail and onto a less used path that heading directly for the forest.  "Is it's for their protection."

"Protection?" Jennifer laughed.  "How could that protect a moose?"

"When wolves attack, they go for the neck."  As she explained, Jesse sadly recalled a similar conversation she'd once had with her father.  She again wondered why her parents, after accepting an offer to move to the ranch, had not appeared in Sweetwater.  "If they get a hold of that lump instead, the moose can escape with only a minor injury." 

"Oh," Jennifer never thought about such a large animal being attacked but when she did, Jesse's explanation made sense.

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

"Are you sure of your facts?" the territorial governor was skeptical of the information Judge Henry had brought to him. 

"Very sure," Judge Henry had traveled from Bannack to Virginia City to personally inform the governor of the consequences of his act ordering the release of Martin Kinsington on the word of Tobias Harrington.  And, of the men's subsequent plot against Jesse.

"But, I have known Mr. Harrington for some years and have had numerous business dealings with him."

"Everything I have told you is true," Henry assured the other man.  "And, you cannot let Harrington leave the territory without standing trial."

"That woman..."

"Jesse Branson," Judge Henry offered.

"Yes.  She is the same woman that brought Sheriff Plummer to our attention?"

"Yes, she and her wife reported his activities to Sheriff Monroe of Sweetwater.  Who, in turn, sent the information to you."

"Then, the territory owes them it's gratitude," the governor said, thinking aloud.

"I think they'd be more interested in having Harrington face up to his actions," Judge Henry replied.

The governor leaned forward in his chair to pull a quill from the inkwell of his desk.  "I shall have Tobias Harrington held in Montana Territory and order him to stand trial in Bannack for the charges you have made against him."

"Might be best to hold the trial in Bozeman," Judge Henry commented, "don't think I should be on the bench at his trial."

"Of course," the governor wrote his order on a sheet of paper.  Picking up a small, silver bell from the corner of his desk and flicking his wrist, the governor rang it.

Almost immediately, the door to the office opened and the governor's assistant stepped inside.

"Yes, sir."

"Have this order taken directly to Sweetwater.  It is to be delivered into the hands of Sheriff Billie Monroe.  Also, have copies delivered to every lawman between Sweetwater and Denver."  He turned to Judge Henry, "just in case Harrington tries to leave the territory before he can be arrested."

"Yes, sir," the assistant took the paper from the governor and quickly exited the room.

"I can't say that I'm happy to hear this news," the governor leaned back in his chair.  "But, I am glad you saw through Harrington's and Kinsington's plot.  I will take the necessary steps to inform Harrington's employers of his deceit.  I, most certainly, do not appreciate him using the power of this office to further his personal vendettas." 

"I didn't think you would."

"As for Kinsington?" the governor asked.

"He is on his way east where he is to be committed to a mental hospital."

"Do you think that appropriate?"

"Yes," Judge Henry said not wanting to go into the exact details of Kinsington's imprisonment.

"Very well," the governor stood, holding out his hand to the judge.  "I shall trust your judgment on this matter."

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

"Do you really think you can put me in prison and forget about me?" Martin Kinsington questioned his wife.  "I have many friends that will see that I am freed."

"Father, please," Thomas pleaded after listening to his father's rants for the last few hours.  "We can do nothing about this.  Judge Henry has made the order.  Please stop taking it out on Mother."

"You weakling," Kinsington spat, "I'll have you removed from the company.  Your brothers will see to that."

"Kinsington," Marshal Morgan had heard enough.  He wasn't about to listen to the man scream all the way to Denver and beyond.  "Either you shut up and keep quiet the remainder of the trip or I will gag you."

"You will sit there and allow him to threaten me?" Kinsington bellowed at his wife.

Mary stared out the coach's window, doing her best to block out her husband's words.  In a brief moment of weakness before they left Bannack, she had felt guilty over her plan to have her husband committed.  But, after listening to his ravings as the miles passed, she knew in her heart she had made the right decision.  Turning to face her husband sitting on the opposite side of the coach, she said, "yes, Martin.  I will let him threaten you.  And, if you continue in your ravings, I will sit by and let him gag you."

"Bitch," Kinsington's face turned red with anger as his wife's words sung in.  The woman he had controlled since their wedding day had spoken back to him.  "How dare you...."

"Father, SHUT UP," Thomas lunged for his father.  Only the marshal's quick reflexes kept him from tightening his fingers around the man's throat.

Morgan pulled a neckerchief from his pocket, "deputy, hold Kinsington while I gag him.  Thomas sit down," he ordered.

Kinsington's struggles against the lawmen's effort came to no avail as they soon had him gagged and his handcuffed hands tied securely to his leg shackles, preventing him from removing the gag.

"Damn, man." Marshal Morgan sat back down, breathing heavily from fighting with the prisoner.  "You'd think you'd learn you aren't in charge anymore."

Mary looked sadly at the shackled, handcuffed and, now, gagged man.  Any semblance to the man she had married was long gone and a stranger sat in his place.  She turned back to the window, feeling no emotion whatsoever for the marshal's prisoner

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

"Is Bette Mae, alright?" Ruthie asked as the older woman again took her plate and moved away from the others to eat her meal alone.

Since leaving Bannack, Bette Mae had been unusually quiet.  She had said little while they rode and when they stopped to camp, had prepared their meals in silence declining all offers of help.  She answered inquiries about her well being with polite but short responses that presented no opportunity for further questioning.

Ed watched as Bette Mae walked away from their camp to sit beside the creek flowing a short distance away.  "Sometimes," he sadly answered Ruthie's question, "the past comes back to you, bringing all the hurt you thought you'd left behind."

Ruthie and Billie looked quizzically at the storekeeper but before they could ask for a clarification of his statement, Ed picked up his own plate and moved to sit next to Bette Mae.

"Do you know what's goin' on?" Billie asked his fiancÚ having been at the jail most of their last few days in Bannack, forced to guard Kinsington until Marshall Morgan returned from Deer Lodge.

"I don't know," Ruthie shook her head.  "She's been like this ever since the day she said she had business to attend to."

"What business?"

"Don't know.  She left the hotel one morning and she's been like this ever since."

"Hmmm," Billie pondered the information as he watched Ed sit beside Bette Mae.  The two began speaking quietly and Billie sensed they wanted their conversation to be private.  "What would you say to a short walk?" he turned to ask Ruthie.  "Looks like we're goin' have a clear night and a full moon," he smiled.  "Perhaps, we could do some courtin'?" he asked, boldly.

"Billie," Ruthie blushed at the sheriff's suggestion, "I've already agreed to marry you."

"Doesn't mean we can't do any courtin'," Billie stood, offering his hand to Ruthie.  When she placed her hand into his, he gently pulled her upright.  "Besides, I could do with a good stretch of my legs after being in that saddle the past few days."

Hearing movement behind him, Ed turned to see Billie and Ruthie walking alongside the creek in a direction that took them away from him and Bette Mae.  Grateful for the added privacy, he turned back to Bette Mae.

"You can tell me it's none of my business and I'll leave ya be," Ed gently broached the subject that had been on his mind for several days.

"She was yo'r sister," Bette Mae sniffled.  "Guessin' that makes it yo'r business."

"What went on between you ain't my business if you don't want it to be."

Bette Mae sat silently watching the water rippling over the rocks in the shallow creek.  "I didn' do right by her," she said in a quiet voice.

"I don't believe that, Bette Mae," Ed was happy that the woman seemed to be willing to talk to him.  "She had a strong will, did just what she wanted.  Always had."

"I could hav' spoke up.  Could hav' tol' her how I felt."

"Don't think it would have made much difference," Ed said softly, not wanting to hurt Bette Mae any more than she already was.  "Don't know what she told you, but she loved Cassidy.  Would have stayed with him no matter what."

"Said she thought 'bout leavin' 'im.  But, she had no place to go."

"I know, she told me that, too."

Bette Mae looked up at Ed, her eyes questioning what he had just told her.

"I tried to get her away from Cassidy many times," Ed tossed a pebble into the creek, watching it until it got lost among the other stones on the creek bed. 

"She said yo'r momma thought the world of him.  That you liked him, too," she countered Ed's comments.

"Oh, momma liked him alright.  Believed all his get rich quick claims, thought he'd buy her a big house with lots of servants.  And, I admit," Ed added as Bette Mae continued to look at him, doubtfully, "for a while, I believed his boasts.  But, soon as I met up with them in Bozeman, it didn't take long to figure out he was all talk.  He gambled away more money than their little store made.  Wasn't long before he had bill collectors knocking on their door day and night.  Then, I woke up one day to find them gone.  Bastard made promises to folks that I'd clear his debts so I had to get me some jobs and I stayed until I had."

"Mary Elizabeth left you there to pay off their debts?"

"Oh," Ed tossed another pebble, "she had a real blind spot when it came to Cassidy.  No matter what that bastard did, she stuck up for him.  When I finally made it to Sweetwater, he had taken off again.  I followed them to try and get her to leave him.  But, she wouldn't.  Just kept telling me that he was going to strike it rich in the gold camps.  Over the years, I gave up.  I kept track of her by the towns he left owing money.  He always told folks to send any bills to the store and that I'd pay 'em.  They spent time in just about every mining camp in the territory, Garnet, Coloma, Granite, Pony, Elkhorn, Boulder, Nevada City, Alder Gulch, Marysville, Last Chance.  You name it and Cassidy owed money there."

"But, she was so..."

"Smart.  I thought so, too.  Until she met him," Ed took Bette Mae's hands into his much larger ones.  "I know you're thinking that you could have made a difference.  And, I truly wish that she would have had the same feelings for you that you had for her.  But, the truth is, she loved him, Bette Mae.  And, no matter how rough it got or how poorly he treated her, she was determined to stick by him."

"She was mighty pretty, Ed.  I do believe she took my heart tha' first night we met.  I woulda don' anythin' to save her from the pain he gave her."

"I know you would, Bette Mae.  Just sometimes we can't be saved from ourselves."

"She's ta only one I's ever loved," Bette Mae leaned against Ed's strong shoulder.  "Ta only one I ever will."

"I know," Ed whispered, hoping it wasn't true and that his friend would someday find someone who would love her back as much as she loved them.  It was sad to think of his sister with a man who never really loved her when she could have had so much more.  "I know."

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

"Gentlemen," Mayor Perkins whined, "it's late and my wife is waiting supper on me."

"Mayor Perkins," Glade did not look up from the papers he was studying, "I have told you before that you may leave.  Your assistance is no longer required."

"I can't leave you in my office," Perkins argued.

"You afraid we're going to steal something?" Weese taunted the mayor about his sparsely furnished office.

"No, it's just that..."

"Either leave or be quiet," Glade growled.  "I can't concentrate with all this babbling going on."

"Fine," Mayor Perkins grabbed his coat from the hook beside the door, "just lock the door when you leave."

"Good night, mayor," Weese blew out a puff of cigar smoke.

"Do you ever not smoke those?" Glade coughed as the sharp tasting smoke entered his nose and mouth.

"Only when I sleep," Weese took a long drag on the offensive cigar.

"Then, why don't you go back to the hotel and go to sleep.  You're not helping much here, anyway."

"Isn't much for me to do with you hovering over those papers like that," Weese leaned back in his chair, content to let the other man do all the work if he so chose.

"Damn," Glade pushed the papers aside and pulled a ledger book in front of him.  "From what I can see, Harrington followed his instructions to the letter with the exception of his dealings with this Martin Kinsington."

"Seems I've heard that name," Weese puffed out a perfect ring of cigar smoke, watching it float to the ceiling before breaking apart.

"You should have," Glade shook his head, wondering again why the ignorant man was on the company's board of directors.  "We've done business with his shipping company many times.  Usually dealt with his son, though," he added. more to himself.

"Ah, yes, now I remember," Weese let loose another smoke ring.  "What about his purchase of the Songbird?" Weese asked, addressing the true crux of the matter.

"The board approved the assay report before he signed the papers," Glade pulled a specific sheet from the stacks on the desk. 

"How is that possible?" Weese sat up, his movement so abrupt he almost spit his cigar at Glade.  "I don't recall the board ever voting on that issue."

"The board didn't," Glade pushed the paper across the desk.  "One board member approved the purchased outright."

"That's not possible," Weese reached for the paper, rapidly reading it.  "But, he had no authority."

"No, but he signed that didn't keep him from signing the order authorizing Harrington to buy the Songbird."

"But, why?"

"That is a very good question?" Thaddeus Newby asked himself.  He was sitting in the office of the Gazette, which just happened to share a wall, a very thin wall, with the mayor's office.  He wasn't officially eavesdropping, he told himself, but rather working late given that the opportunity to gain some insight into the dealings of Tobias Harrington had, so conveniently, presented itself.

"I don't know," Glade scratched his cheek, it was time again to trim his sideburns.  "Wait a minute," he exclaimed.  Something had been gnawing at the back of his mind, something that would explain what he had just told Weese. 

"What?"

"That assayer's report, where is it?"

"Which one?"

"The first one."

"I think it's in that pile," Weese pointed to the desk.  "We looked at it earlier."

"You're right," Glade started through the mound of documents in questions.  "Yes, here it is.  Damn."

"What?"

"The name of the miner that sold the Songbird to Harrington?"

"Jackson, no," Weese scratched his bald head.  "Jerkins, no."

"Jensen," Thaddeus whispered.

"Jensen," Glade shouted.  "Look at the signature on that order."

"Jensen.  It could be a coincidence."

"Don't be a fool."

"Well, I'll be," Thaddeus chuckled.  "Ol' Jensen made fools out of all of 'em."

"This doesn't make sense," Weese scrubbed out his cigar on the mayor's desk.  "Besides us, he protested this deal the most."

"Clever of him," Glade slumped back in his chair, "don't you think.  What better way to cover his tracks?"

"But, why wasn't the purchase questioned."

"The board sent Harrington here to buy a gold mine, one that showed promise of a rich vein.  He receives a follow-up order, signed by Jensen, telling him the board has decided on the Songbird based on a assay report he ordered, not Harrington.  Why would he question it?"

"But, he said nothing about this to the board?"

"We weren't asking him about the mine.  Only about the cost overruns caused by his failure to purchase the Silver Slipper."

"That's right.  He had no reason to mention it."

"Thinking we already knew."

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

Billie tenderly held Ruthie's face between his hands as he kissed her.  With the full moon highlighting her face in it's soft glow, Billie thought she was the most beautiful woman on earth.  "I love you," he whispered as their lips parted.

The couple had walked for some time before decided to sit.  They chose a sandy beach, carved by the creek in times of high water it was now dry, providing a pleasant spot to sit and enjoy each other's company.  Billie sat with his back against a small boulder while Ruthie was nestled between his legs and wrapped in his embrace, half-turned in his arms..

"I love you, too, Billie," Ruthie smiled at her soon-to-be-husband.

"It's a beautiful night," Billie said, his eyes never leaving his fiancÚ's face.

"Yes, very beautiful," Ruthie tilted her head back to gaze at the millions of stars twinkling above them.  She smiled as one shot across the sky, a sign of good luck.  "Billie?"

"Yes, honey."

"If I asked you to do something, would you think about it?" Ruthie asked, her tone serious even as she continued to gaze at the sky.

"What is it, Ruth?" Billie asked, concerned Ruthie was changing her mind about the marriage.  When he received no answer, he gently pulled her face back towards him.  "Tell me what's wrong," he begged.

"I don't want you to...," Ruthie stopped.  What she was about to ask could ruin the loving relationship that was growing between them.

"Don't want me to what?"

Ruthie dropped her eyes, unable to look into Billie's when she said, "I don't want you to be sheriff after we get married."

"Oh," Billie let out a breath.  "Why not?" he asked, already knowing the answer.

"I don't want anything happening to you, Billie," her fear so real, Ruthie almost couldn't say the words.

"What could happen to me in Sweetwater?" Billie laughed in an attempt to lesson Ruthie's fears.

"You've already been shot, Billie," Ruthie cried.  "I don't want it to happen again."

Billie hadn't forgotten that Ruthie was in the Slipper the night he faced the lynch mob.  How could he?  That was the night he fell in love with the shy girl as she helped to dress his wounds. 

Normally, Sweetwater's sheriff had little to do but lock up the occasional drunken cowboy until he sobered up and could return to whatever ranch employed him.  But the night he had had to face down an angry group of men he thought of as his friends, taught Billie that even in his usually quiet town, the sheriff was vulnerable to violence.

"Don't know what else I could do," Billie began.  Ruthie's heart dropped, sure that Billie was going to refuse her request.  "But, I'll find something," he smiled as she looked back up at him."

"Thank you," Ruthie leaned against Billie.

"Can't refuse anything that would make you happy, honey," Billie stroked Ruthie's cheek.  "Fact is, I've been thinking of finding somethin' else to do."

"You have?"

"Yeah," Billie kissed her the crown of Ruthie's head, "that night at the Slipper kinda got me thinking.  I was plannin' on asking Jesse if she needed help at the Slipper or out at the ranch.  But, all this stuff with Kinsington kinda got in the way."

"You could still ask."

"I will, honey.  Soon as all this is over."

"What do you mean?" Ruthie pushed away from Billie just enough to see his face.

"Something tells me, there's gonna be some trouble in Sweetwater to deal with when we get back."

"What kind of trouble?"

"Harrington."

"Oh."

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

"Beautiful night," Jennifer said, leaning back on her arms braced behind her, her head tilted back as she scanned the cloudless sky.

"Sure is," Jesse's head rested on Jennifer's thigh, her legs stretched out with booted feet crossed at the ankles.

KC and Charley were asleep in the tent that had been set up on the opposite side of the fire.  The tent flap was tied open so the mothers could keep watch on their sleeping children.

"You've been quiet tonight," Jennifer lifted one hand, brushing it free of dirt before running it though Jesse's silky hair.  "Anything wrong?"

"No."

"Sweetheart?"

"No."

"They're going to come, Jesse."

Jesse rolled her head to look at Jennifer, "how do you know what I'm thinking?"

"I'm your wife," Jennifer smiled.  "And, I love you."

"That doesn't explain it."

"Sweetheart," Jennifer sat completely up.  Looking down at her wife, her hair hanging over Jesse's face as she tenderly caressed it, "you've had this on your mind since we left Bozeman.  I don't think a day's gone by that you haven't thought about it, at least once.  There's a reason it's taken so long and when they get to Sweetwater they'll let us know what it was."

"They could send us a letter," Jesse groused.

"Oh, Jesse," Jennifer giggled.  "You are a very proud woman, do you know that?"

Jesse looked at Jennifer, unsure where she was heading with the question.

"Have you ever thought to ask where you get that from?"

"Pop?" Jesse offered after a few moments.

"That's right," Jennifer playfully tapped the end of Jesse's nose. 

"You think Pop's ashamed to come to the ranch?"

"No, I think he just has to do it in his way."

"Just like I would."

"Yep."

"How'd you get so smart?"

"I spent my youth in a library."

"Ugh," Jesse smirked.  "How awful for you."

"You're rotten," Jennifer laughed, smacking Jesse's arm.

"Come here," Jesse held out her arm, waiting as her wife scooted around to snuggle against her.

"This is nice," Jennifer sighed.

"Very nice."

The women looked up at the sky they knew so well.  It was a practice they started on the first night they had spent sleeping under the familiar blanket of stars.  The were tired, dirty, and being chased by a posse but it hadn't stopped them from falling in love.

Jennifer was laying on her back on Jesse's bedroll, staring up into the night sky, "I have never seen so many stars."

"You don't have stars back home?" Jesse asked as she washed up in the creek.

"Not as many as these," the more Jennifer stared, the more the stars began to take on shapes and forms.  "This is so different from back home," Jennifer sighed.

"How so?" Jesse tossed a few more branches on the glowing fire.

"I don't know if I can describe it," Jennifer sat up to face Jesse.  "Here," she swept her arm around the meadow.  "I feel so free.  Like I can do anything."

Jesse smiled, "you can do anything, Jennifer."

Jennifer looked at Jesse, "that sounds nice."

"What, that you can do anything."

"No, the way you say my name.  You put so much feeling into it when you say it.  No one has ever done that before."

Neither woman knew what to say after that.  They just sat quietly watching the fire light reflect off the other.

Jesse walked over to her saddle and picked up the saddle blanket tossed over it.  Spreading it out on the ground, she lay down pulling the blanket over her, "we best get some sleep."

Jennifer watched Jesse as she settled into the saddle blanket, "what are you doing?"

"Going to sleep.  What does it look like?"

"It looks like you plan to sleep wrapped in that smelly blanket."

"I do."

Jennifer paused, then said what she had been thinking all evening, "Jesse, come share the bedroll with me."

Jesse took a deep breath, she wanted so much to do as Jennifer asked.  Her feelings for Jennifer made the idea of sleeping close to her both terrifying and spine-tingling. 

"I don't know."

"Please," Jennifer asked.  She opened the blankets and crawled inside.  Then holding them open, she added "we'll both be warmer."

"Alright," Jesse got up and slowly walked around the fire to where Jennifer lay waiting.  She slipped between the blankets.  Nervously, she lay on her back and waited to see what Jennifer would do.  The bedroll wasn't really wide enough for two people but Jesse wasn't going to move now that she was here.

Jennifer smiled at Jesse before moving to lay on her side next to her.  Placing her head on Jesse's shoulder and wrapping an arm around her waist, she timidly asked, "is this okay?"

"Yes," Jesse smiled as she felt the weight of Jennifer's body pressed against her own.  "Are you comfortable?"

"Very," Jennifer snuggled closer and was surprised, but very pleased, when she felt Jesse's arms pull her even closer.

"Jennifer," Jesse began, then paused.  She continued awkwardly, "what would you think if I said that I was having feelings for you?"

Jennifer's heart leaped into her throat.  Was it possible that Jesse felt for her the same way she felt for the rancher.  She was afraid to ask but she had to know, "what kind of feelings?"

"The kind of feelings a woman must have for a man when she wants to spend the rest of her life with him," Jesse said in one long burst.  She wanted to get the words said before she chickened out.

Not hearing a response from Jennifer, Jesse knew she had made a mistake in expressing her feelings to Jennifer.  She began to get up.

Jennifer felt Jesse move beneath her and she placed a hand on Jesse's chest to stop her.  She raised her head up to look into Jesse's eyes.

"I'm so sorry," Jesse said when she saw the tears rolling down Jennifer's cheeks.

"No, Jesse," Jennifer smiled through the tears.  "I'm glad you said it because I feel the same way about you."

"Then, why are you crying," Jesse reached up and softly wiped the tears away.

"Because, you've just made me very happy," Jennifer captured Jesse's hand in her own and pulled it to her chest as she laid her head back on Jesse's shoulder.  She could hear Jesse's heart racing and knew that her own was beating just as rapidly. 

"Good night, Jesse," Jennifer whispered.

Jesse wrapped the blankets around their joined bodies, "good night, Jennifer."

"Darlin," Jesse asked, "you tired?"

"No."

"Want ta go to bed?"

"Yes."

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

Continued in Part 13

Return to the Academy