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 firstname.lastname@example.org. I appreciate all the e-mails I have received. Thank you for your kind comments and encouragements.
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted October 2004
"Momma, wat dat?" KC craned her neck to see around Jennifer who was dressing Charley.
"What's what, sweetie?" Jennifer asked, sitting with her back to the tent's doorway, Jesse had tied open the door flap moments before.
"Dat," KC pointed outside.
Jennifer turned to look over her shoulder. "It looks like snow," she said, astounded to see everything outside the tent covered in a light dusting of white. "But, it can't be," she murmured to herself.
"Sure it can," Jesse said, stomping her boots free of the wet powder before re-entering the tent.
"Jesse, it's too soon for snow, isn't it?" Jennifer picked up Charley, wrapping him in a blanket to protect the infant against the morning's frostiness.
"Never too early to snow in Montana, especially this high up." Jesse was gathering up the loose items in the tent, packing them as she went. "Never too late, either. Couple of years back, we had several inches fall one night in July. Wet and heavy, too," she frowned remembering the event. "Broke off branches, even split a tree or two right down the middle. Lost most of the apple trees that were at the ranch. Had to cut them down, snow caused too much damage for 'em to recover."
"Guess it's a good thing we're heading home," Jennifer settled Charley on the tent floor next to his sister, freeing herself to help Jesse pack.
"Momma, pray?" KC crawled to the tent opening, reaching out and scooping up a handful of snow. When the cold snow started to melt in her hand, KC laughed, "ook, Wie." She offered the melting scoop to Charley.
"Oh, no you don't," Jennifer intercepted her daughter's hand, "I just got him dressed."
"Come on, sunshine," carrying a pack outside, Jesse lifted KC up and tucked her under her arm. "You can play in the snow out here," she told the giggling baby.
"Sweetheart," Jennifer called after her wife, "I don't want her getting cold."
"Sun's already warming things up out here," Jesse saw steam rising from the cold ground wherever the sun's rays fell on it. One advantage of waiting to break camp until KC and Charley woke up was that the sun was well up and it's warming beams were already at work. "Snow won't last very long," she knew what little snow had fallen overnight would be gone by midday, "let her play while she has the chance." Jesse set the pack down on a clear spot of dirt, depositing her daughter on top of it.
"But, it's cold out there," Jennifer protested.
"She'll be fine," Jesse walked the few steps back to the tent.
KC slapped her hands at the small mound of snow Jesse had placed between her legs, Reaching into the rapidly melting snow pile, KC grabbed a small amount. Happy to discover the snow formed a ball in her fist, she drew her arm back and threw as hard as she could. Giggling, KC watched the snowball strike the ground a foot in front of the pack she sat on. Reaching back into the pile of snow, she pulled out another snowball.
"It's not that cold," Jesse picked up the other pack, "but it has dropped a bit from yesterday. I'm surprised you weren't cold last night, darlin'."
"Sweetheart," Jennifer grinned, "I'm never cold when I sleep with you."
"Glad to be of service," Jesse paused to plant a kiss on Jennifer's lips before carrying the second pack outside.
Whistling for Boy, Jesse carried the pack toward KC. Boy trotted up. Stopping near the baby, he dropped his head to continue grazing while Jesse loaded their gear. With a convenient target so close, KC let her snowball fly. It smacked into the ground at Boy's nose, startling the large draft horse. Laughing, KC clapped her hands enthusiastically as Boy pranced about, vigorously shaking his head to free the cold snow from his muzzle.
"Whoa, there," dropping the pack to the ground, Jesse rubbed Boy's neck to calm him, "it's just a little snow. No reason for you to get so riled up," she brushed him free of the offending snow.
KC formed another snowball, preparing to fire it at the annoyed horse.
"Nope," Jesse warned the child.
Dropping her handful, KC looked sadly up at her mommy. "Pray?" her lower lip quivered.
With Boy settled, Jesse turned her attention to her daughter. "Playing is when everyone is having fun, sunshine," she knelt in front of KC, putting herself at eye level with the sad girl. "Boy wasn't having fun, was he?" Jesse stood up, lifting KC as she did. "I think you owe Boy an apology for scaring him like that."
With her mother holding her, KC leaned her head against Boy's neck and patted the large horse. Boy, seeming to know what was happening, twitched the muscle under KC's head causing the baby to laugh. Apology accepted.
"Now," Jesse kissed KC's nose, "let's get you into your carry sack and this stuff on Boy so we can get your momma and brother home."
"Otay," KC brightened, glad that her mommy didn't seem upset with her any more. She didn't like it when she did something to make her mommies mad. If throwing snowballs at Boy was going to cause that, she sure wouldn't do it again. She let Jesse place her inside her carry sack, sitting quietly as her mommy slipped her arms through the shoulder straps and adjusted the bundle on her back.
"Everything okay out here," Jennifer asked softly, having watched the events from inside the tent. She carried their bedrolls out to Jesse, carefully laying them on top of the packs so they wouldn't roll off.
"Yep," Jesse swung the harness onto Boy that she would secure their packs to, "I'll get the packs taken care of, then we can take down the tent. Give ya someplace dry to keep Charley until then."
"Okay," Jennifer reached up and tweaked KC's nose, "did you like playing with the snow, sweetie?"
KC smiled, her head bopping up and down.
"But, you're not going to throw it again, are you?"
KC's lower lip popped out as she shook her head from side to side.
"Good girl," Jennifer smiled at her daughter and waited until KC smiled back. "I love you, sweetie."
"Wuv, momma." KC leaned forward, wrapping her arms around Jesse's neck, "wuv, mommy."
"I love you, too, sunshine," Jesse reached back, patting KC on the head. "Now, let's get going or we might as well spend another night here."
"Oh, no," Jennifer headed back for the tent. "I want to get home and back to a nice warm bed with a solid roof over my head if it's going to be snowing."
"Easterner," Jesse teased.
"It snows in the east, sweetheart," Jennifer called back, "just not in the summer."
"Ain't much left of summer," Jesse lifted a pack into place and tightened the ropes securing it.
"There's enough left that it shouldn't be snowing."
"I can't believe we had snow this morning," Jennifer fanned her face with her stetson.
Jesse and Jennifer were sitting in the shade of a huge cottonwood tree, the babies napping on a blanket next to them.
"Told ya we weren't done with summer yet," Jesse smirked.
"That water sure looks nice and cool," Jennifer eyed a small lake a few feet from where they sat.
"Sure does," Jesse agreed.
"Last one in has to wash diapers tonight," Jennifer challenged, already unbuttoning her shirt.
"Oh, no," Jesse began tugging off her boots, "you're not sticking me with that again."
Both women rushed to remove their clothing. Jesse paused in her own disrobing to kneel in front of Jennifer and tug off her boots, knowing how difficult it was for her wife to twist her damaged leg into position to do so herself.
"Come on," Jesse stood, offering a hand to Jennifer.
Jennifer scooted past the waiting rancher. Hurrying to the lake shore and splashing into the water up to her knees before coming to an abrupt stop. "Ahhhhhhhh," she screamed, "Jesse this is cold."
"Yep," Jesse ambled to the edge of the lake, stepping in only enough to cover her ankles, "But, the best way to get used to it, is just to jump in." She took a couple of steps before diving under the surface, reappearing moments later in the center of the small lake. "Ya have ta admit, it sure does cool ya off," she grinned.
"You could have warned me," Jennifer playfully groused as she swam out to Jesse.
"Now, darlin'," Jesse easily treaded water until her wife reached her, "where would be the fun in that."
"Brat," Jennifer slapped the water, spraying Jesse with cold droplets.
Rolling over unto her back, Jesse floated by Jennifer, "does feel better than sitting in the shade sweating, doesn't it?"
"Yes," Jennifer rolled over to float beside her wife. "I still can't believe there was snow on the ground this morning."
"That's Montana for ya, darlin," turning her head, Jesse smiled at Jennifer. "Don't like the weather, just stick around for an hour or so. It'll change."
"I'm finding that out," Jennifer reached out a hand that was instantly taken by Jesse.
"Jesse, I think I'll head back," Jennifer was beginning to feel chilled in the cool water of the mountain lake.
"Yeah, it sure ain't warm enough to stay in too long," Jesse flipped over to swim to shore with Jennifer.
The women emerged from the cool lake at a small, sandy beach. Jesse moved to a couple of large boulders that had been soaking up the sun's warm rays. "Here, darlin'," she sat on the largest rock, "we can sit here in the sun to dry off."
Jennifer stretched out on the stony surface, exposing as much of her wet skin to the sun's rays as possible. "Think I may still need a towel, sweetheart," she shivered a little.
"Be right back," Jesse scooted off the boulder to walk to where Boy was grazing, their packs still secured on his back. After pulling out a towel, she quickly made her way back to her chilled wife, picking up their clothes as she checked on the sleeping babies. Kneeling beside Jennifer, Jesse lovingly wiped the water from her wife's body.
"You are so beautiful," Jesse dropped down next to Jennifer, enjoying the sight of her naked lover.
Jennifer smiled at Jesse, normally she would be embarrassed to be unclothed where anyone could see her. But, sitting here with Jesse admiring her body seemed so natural. Of course, being able to gaze upon her wife's nude body wasn't so bad either.
Jesse's smile disappeared as she placed her fingers on Jennifer's ankle, running them lightly up her damaged leg. Leaning down, she kissed the ugly scars. Thinking of the pain her wife endured every day, tears flowed from her eyes, dropping onto Jennifer's skin.
"Sweetheart, what's wrong?"
"I'm so sorry," Jesse cried, .
"Sorry for what?" Jennifer sat up. "Come here," she opened her arms, encouraging Jesse to move inside them.
Jesse didn't move, her head hanging down so Jennifer couldn't see her face, "darlin', I'm so sorry."
"Sweetheart, please tell me what's wrong," Jennifer moved to Jesse, embracing her. "Please, tell me," Jennifer whispered.
"If I had been there sooner, it wouldn't have happened," Jesse sobbed.
"What wouldn't have happened?"
Jesse couldn't say the words. Instead, pointing at Jennifer's leg and the obvious damage done by the mountain lion's claws.
"Oh, sweetheart," Jennifer tightened her arms around her distraught wife. "What happened to my leg is not your fault."
"No, Jesse," Jennifer tenderly lifted Jesse's chin so she could look into the eyes she loved, "you cannot blame yourself for this. You did all you could, sweetheart, and by killing the cougar when you did, you saved my life."
"No," Jesse shook her head, "I should have been there sooner..."
"Oh, sweetheart," Jennifer began to cry, the grief in Jesse's voice was so heart-wrenching. "Please don't blame yourself. I don't."
Jesse took a moment to look back into Jennifer's eyes, "I just wish..."
"So do I, sweetheart," Jennifer smiled, sadly, "but it happened and I won't let you blame yourself for it. She kissed the tears off Jesse's cheeks, "I love you, Jesse Branson. Don't you ever tell me again you should have been able to prevent this. Not ever," she added when Jesse started to speak.
"I love you," Jesse tearfully smiled back.
Jennifer slowly laid back down on the boulder, pulling Jesse with her. "Let it out, sweetheart," she stroked Jesse's head, running her fingers through wet hair. "You've been holding on to this hurt way too long. Just let it out," she murmured as her wife cried in her arms.
"Sorry," Jesse said when her sobs lessened and the tears stopped flowing.
"For what?" Jennifer kissed her forehead.
"I'm not the one who should be crying about this," Jesse tried to sit up but Jennifer held her tight.
"Because it's not me who has to suffer over it."
"Don't be an idiot," Jennifer said more harshly then she meant. "I've seen the pain in your eyes when you have to watch me struggle to do something that used to come easy. I may carry the physical scars, sweetheart, but you carry scars in here," she tapped Jesse's head. "And, here," she placed her hand over Jesse's heart. "We both have to live with it for the rest of our lives," her voice softened, "but we will live, Jesse. And, that's all that's important to me. And, should be to you."
Jennifer felt her leg. What had once been a symmetrically shaped limb was now uneven and erratic, the flesh stretched and pulled together to cover the gashes carved out by the sharp claws. Chucks of flesh were missing from her thigh and above her knee and would never be replaced. The scars would eventually fade but now their bright reds and purples stood out against her, otherwise, tanned skin. She still had trouble accepting the deformed leg as her own.
"Does seeing it bother you, Jesse?" Jennifer asked hesitantly even though Jesse had never given her any reason to believe that it did.
"No, darlin'," Jesse knew what Jennifer was asking. Placing a hand on the leg in question, she reassured the worried woman beside her, "it only makes me hurt for you."
"It's so ugly,"
"No, darlin'," it was now Jesse's turn to comfort Jennifer, she rearranged their bodies so she could hold her wife. "There's nothin' ugly about you. You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. Seeing those scars just reminds me how much I love you."
Jennifer sighed, laying her head on Jesse's shoulder. The women remained wrapped in each other's embrace for several minutes until their much needed interlude was suddenly interrupted by their daughter.
"Momma, Wie yum," KC grumbled after being awakened by the baby's whimpers.
"Uh, oh," raising her head, Jesse looked to where they had left the children. "Sounds like someone is awake."
"And, hungry," Jennifer pushed herself up. "Guess we better get dressed."
"Yeah," Jesse rubbed her eyes, red and itchy from crying.
"I'll take care of them," Jennifer pulled on her shirt, she'd leave the pants and boots for later. "You take a few minutes to wash the tears from your face," she offered. "You know how KC gets if she thinks we're upset."
"Okay," Jesse kissed Jennifer, "you are much too good for me, darlin'."
"I love you, too."
Wheezing heavily, Weese stumbled onto the plateau where the Songbird mine was located. Once back on level ground, the stout man braced his hands on his knees, trying to draw air into his empty lungs. His rubbery legs barely supported him and he felt lightheaded, almost ready to pass out.
Glade had crested the top of trail several moments before and was already talking to the young man hired to guard the mine.
"Is he okay?" the guard asked when he spied the rotund man gasping, his face as red as one of the apples he had eaten for breakfast.
"Too many cigars," Glade took a lazy glance in the suffering man's direction. "He'll be fine in a few minutes. Now, as I was saying," he turned back to the guard. "You're services will no longer be required since the Songbird holds nothing worth guarding. You may pick up your wages from Mr. Wilson in Sweetwater."
"Alright," the young guard was still watching Weese, he definitely didn't look too good.
"I would suggest that you sit for a while," Thaddeus appeared over the crest of the trail, having followed the two men since they left their horses tied at the bottom of the path. "You're not used to being this high up, you could have killed yourself trying to climb up here."
"Newby, what the hell are you doing here?" Glade glowered at the newspaperman.
"Thought it would be interesting to see your face when you got a look inside the Songbird," Thaddeus said as he handed Weese, now sitting in the shade of a ponderosa, a canteen.
"Whatever," Glade shook his head. "Go on," he told the guard, "light a couple of lanterns. You can keep an eye on him," he nodded towards Weese, "while we're inside."
"Any thing particular you're looking for?" Thaddeus asked as they walked to the mine's entrance. "Ah, I see you're still not answering questions," he said when he received no reply. "Well, maybe after you see the nice empty hole in the ground Harrington purchased in your name, you'll change your mind."
"Mr. Newby," Glade accepted a lantern from the guard and stepped into the dark mine tunnel, "might I ask a question of you?"
"Fire away," Thaddeus accepted the second lantern and followed Glade inside.
"How did you come to find out about the Songbird's false assay report?"
"Like any good reporter," Thaddeus bragged, "I followed the leads."
"And, those would be," Glade slowly made his way down the tunnel as he studied the rock walls of the mine.
"Well, to be honest, Mr. Glade," Thaddeus held his lantern so it would cast light where the other man was looking, "I took an instant dislike to Harrington."
"Hmph," Glade grunted.
"And," Thaddeus continued, "I started to check on his background. Then, when Miles got involved and starting making promises he shouldn't have been, I really began to wonder about Harrington and the company he represented."
"But, it was when Billie mentioned that he had doubts about Jensen that I decided to visit the mining camps and see what I could find out."
"He wondered how a miner that never seemed to have enough gold dust to pay off his balance at the general store could be sitting on a claim as rich as Harrington made it out to be."
"It was in one of the mining camps that I discovered the assayer was related to Jensen and that he had packed up and moved back east right after he had prepared the report on the Songbird. Seemed a little odd to me, don't you think?" Thaddeus' smirk was lost on the other man in the dark mine.
"What are these flakes?" Glade had reached the end of the tunnel and was examining the vein of quartz running through the rock.
"Fool's gold," Thaddeus leaned against the cool stone face, "probably shot into the quartz with a shotgun."
"Umm," Glade dug one of the flake out with his fingernail and rubbed the tiny flake between his fingers. "Is this common practice in the west?"
"It's been known to happen a time or two."
"To sell a worthless claim to a unsuspecting fool, no doubt?"
Glade turned to walk back to the mine's entrance. "Is there a reason, Mr. Newby, that you chose not to make your suspicions known to my company?"
"The Gazette doesn't serve your company, Mr. Glade. My concern was for Sweetwater and how Harrington's activities were going to affect the town and the folks that live around here. Harrington refused to cooperate. So..."
"Fair enough," Glade stepped out of the mine, shading his eyes against the harsh sunlight.
"I've answered your questions, Mr. Glade," Thaddeus blew out his lantern before handing it back to the guard. "How about answering mine?"
"I'm sorry, but I have yet to question Harrington about this. I must insist that you wait until I have done that."
"I'm trying to be fair to you and your company, Mr. Glade, but I must say you aren't making it very easy. Folks want to know what is going to happen now that you no longer have a reason to be in Sweetwater. I'd say it's only fair you tell them."
"I shall, Mr. Newby. But, not until I have sent my report back to the company's president and receive his instructions in return."
"Suit yourself," Thaddeus walked away from the man, "I have a deadline to meet."
"What do you plan to write?" Glade called after the newspaperman.
"The truth, Mr. Glade. Nothing but the truth."
"Come on, Weese," Glade growled as he passed his prostrate partner. "Let's get back to town."
Unable to return to Sweetwater by the same trail they had left, Jesse was leading her family over the mountains by a different route. The horses struggled up the steeper path as they climbed the eastern slopes of the mountains.
"We should reach the summit soon," Jesse told Jennifer when she looked back and saw the grimace on her wife's face.
"I'm alright," Jennifer tried to smile but the effort was too much at the moment. After leaving the valley floor, they had been climbing almost steadily for the past few hours. It was a strain to hold herself in the saddle, her leg aching and throbbing with the effort. She was grateful that Jesse had insisted on carrying both children to let her concentrate on herself during the rough ascent.
"We can stop and rest."
"No," Jennifer blew out a long breath trying to ease the tension in her body, "I'd rather keep going if it's not too far."
Jesse looked back up the trail, she could just make out the rock outcropping that marked the summit, "another hour at the most, darlin'. Maybe, we should stop," she was concerned that Jennifer would try to push herself too much. With the lateness of the season, they did not have the luxury of resting for a few days at the summit. They would have to continue on their journey as they were not equipped to be in the mountains if the weather should take a more winter-like shift.
"No, let's keep going," Jennifer said through clenched teeth. She knew she was pushing it but she was all too aware that if she stopped now, she might not be able to continue and she wanted to get her family home. Especially, the babies.
"Okay," Jesse didn't argue. She, too, wanted to get the family back to the safety of Sweetwater.
"Harrington," Glade pulled a chair from the sheriff's office into the area in front of the cells. "We've been to the Songbird and we've looked at your records," he placed the chair opposite the occupied cell before sitting. "Now, I want to hear what you have to say."
"Where's Weese?" Harrington asked when the other man did not appear.
"The climb up to the Songbird was too much for him," Glade smirked as he recalled the rotund man's efforts to hike the steep, rocky trail. "He's at his room, resting."
"He ought to give up his cigars," Harrington mumbled.
"You want to tell me your side of all this?" Glade brought the conversation back to it's original purpose.
Harrington took a deep breath, releasing it slowly. He sat on the bunk in his cell, his usually neat appearance no longer evident. He had several days worth of stubble on his face and his clothes were rumbled from being slept in. Running a hand through his disheveled hair, he said, "I did what I was told to do. I was just following my instructions."
"Okay," Glade settled in for a long afternoon. "Let's start with the fact that you were sent to Montana to find a suitable mine for us to purchase. How did you go about that?"
"I visited many of the mining camps, listening to what people said. Talked to several assayers to find out what areas showed the most promise," Harrington was proud of the work he had done and his tone reflected that pride. I had narrowed it down to a half dozen possibilities before I made the deal on the Songbird."
"Why the Songbird?"
"Why ask me? The board made that decision."
"Did we?" Glade asked, already knowing the answer but he wanted to hear Harrington's explanation for making the deal on that particular mine.
"Of course, you did," Harrington responded. He didn't like the way Glade was watching him, seeming to study his every word and movement. "I received a letter telling me that the board had decided on the Songbird. It ordered me to meet with the miner that held the claim and buy it from him."
"Did those instructions come for the entire board?"
"No," Harrington didn't have to think about his answer, it had bothered him at the time that only one board member had signed the letter. But, he hadn't been paid to question his instructions, only to carry them out.
"Who signed it?"
"In all the years you have worked for us, Harrington," Glade asked, "how often did you receive instructions from a single board member?"
"Have you ever known any member of the board to make a decision that was not supported by the president of our company?"
"Have you ever received an instruction or order not signed by the president?"
"Yet, you chose to follow instructions that were sent to you by a single board member and not signed by the president."
Harrington remained silent, there was nothing for him to say.
"Have you met all of the board members?" Glade was beginning to pity the man sitting so dejectedly in the cell.
"I believe so."
"Yet, you do not know all their names, do you?" Glade asked, guessing this was the reason Harrington had unquestioningly accepted the signature on his instructions. And, if so, the board really couldn't blame the man for what he had done. After all, wasn't it the board members' liability for having such arrogant attitudes that they had never even introduced themselves to their employee. "Would it surprised you to learn that we do not have a board member named Jensen?"
Harrington stared at Glade, his stomach dropping as he suddenly realized the impact of the question. "You don't?" Harrington groaned.
Harrington slumped against the cell wall, knowing he had spent thousands of dollars on a project that was doomed from the start.
"Is there a reason you chose not to listen to both Mr. Newby's and Mr. Wilson's warnings about the Songbird?"
Again, Harrington had nothing to say.
"I'll take your silence to mean that your ego once again got in the way of your responsibilities," Glade sighed. "Would it not have been prudent for you to, at least, let the board know that inconsistencies had been noticed concerning the Songbird's true value? After all, you could have saved the company a great deal of money if you had done so."
Glade paused a few moments to let Harrington respond, but he remained silent.
"Would you care to explain your arrangement with Martin Kinsington? It is most unusual for company stock to be bantered about so offhandedly. Especially, to a complete outsider. Not to mention, by a man who is nothing but a low level employee, at best," he insulted Harrington. "I can see no reason for you to take such action except for your own personal gain. Ownership of the Silver Slipper and the Branson ranch would have been most beneficial to you, isn't that true?"
"Do with me as you will," Harrington lay down on the cot. "I have nothing left to lose."
"True, Harrington. Very true," Glade sat back, gathering his thoughts in the heavy silence that hung over the room.
"Much to my regret, Harrington," Glade shrugged his shoulders, "I feel that I must report to the board that I am unable to hold you responsible for this situation. Though, I have never liked you or your methods, I am forced to admit that, if nothing else, you have always been a loyal employee. Even here in Sweetwater, you simply carried out your instructions. We told you to find a town that we could invest in and you did that, Sweetwater being ideal for our plans. Unfortunately, we failed in making sure that the Songbird was the mine that you had been led to believe it was. And, for that, it will be my opinion that the board must take full responsibility and bear the cost of our attitude."
Harrington looked at Glade hopefully, maybe he would survive this debacle after all.
"However, as for Kinsington and the Branson woman," Glade continued, Harrington's hopes quickly fading. "I can only imagine why you did what you did, Harrington. And, I'm sure, that as you look back on it, you, yourself, must admit that it was a rather foolish road to travel. But, as it stands, I will report that the company bears no responsibility in these particular matters and you, alone, must face whatever judgment the law chooses to place on you."
Glade stood to leave Harrington to his fate, "Mr. Harrington, I suggest that you prepare yourself for the very real possibility that any response from the board and president will result in the company no longer requiring your services. Good afternoon," he said, leaving the room.
Ed, Bette Mae, Billie and Ruthie rode up to the Silver Slipper.
"Where's Jesse and Jennifer?" Thaddeus Newby questioned as he rushed to meet his friends, having seen the riders approaching town.
"They'll be along," Ed stretched his back after dismounting. "They needed time for themselves and the young 'uns before they come back."
"Young 'uns," Thaddeus repeated.
"Yep," Billie slipped out of his saddle, turning immediately to help Ruthie to the ground. "Got themselves a baby boy."
Ed helped Bette Mae off her horse.
"I can't wait to hear that story," Thaddeus laughed.
"Well, you're gonna have to wait for that," Ed told the newspaper man. "We've been in the saddle for too many days and all I want is a nice, long hot bath. I'm sure the ladies will agree."
"That sounds wonderful," Ruthie sighed as she rubbed her sore back.
"Sure does, honey," Billie said as he pulled saddlebags off the horses. "I'll take the horses back to the livery. Why don't you and Bette Mae go on inside," he placed the bags on the Slipper's porch. "I'll come by when I've seen to them."
"May be a little later than that," Thaddeus told the sheriff. "You've got a prisoner over at the jail."
"Harrington. Mayor Perkins ordered his arrest."
"Figured Harrington would have some legal problems to deal with after hearing about Jesse's trial. Not to mention he may have some problems here in Sweetwater."
"Two big shots from his company are in town looking into his activities."
"What do they plan to do with him?" Ed asked.
"Refuse to say anything."
"I'll be back as soon as I can, honey," Billie gave Ruthie a peck on the cheek, then gathered the reins to the horses. "They know about the Songbird?"
"Whole town does," Thaddeus dropped into step with Billie as he made his way to the livery.
"Well, I figured there'd be more to deal with when we got back. Let's hope we can get it taken care of before Jesse and Jennifer get here. Hate to have them step back in the middle of it."
"So, tell me about this new baby of theirs," Thaddeus slapped Billie on the back.
The wagon bounced over the ruts in the road, jostling the man and woman occupying the bench seat. The bed of the wagon was covered with a tarp to protect their meager belongings from the dust raised by the team of horses. The man leaned over the edge of the wagon to check on the status of the rear wheel, relieved to see that the patched axle seemed to be holding. They had only recently been able to continue their journey, being forced to stop for several hours to make necessary repairs. The old wagon had served many hard years on the rough mountain roads and the worn wood had finally gave up after being jarred one too many times. The man hoped he could nurse the wagon as far as Sweetwater.
"When do you think we'll get back to Sweetwater?" Jennifer asked as she relaxed next to the fire.
"Day after tomorrow," Jesse carried another armload of wood into their camp. "How do you feel?"
"Tired," Jennifer flexed her legs under the towels Jesse had soaked in heated water before wrapping them around her legs. "But, this feels good."
"Probably gettin' cool by now," Jesse knelt beside Jennifer. "Let me re-soak 'em."
"Mommy, pray?" KC looked up at Jesse, her eyes full of hope. She had been trying to engage Charley in playing with her toy horse but, to her great disappointment, her brother just gurgled at her.
"In a minute, sunshine," Jesse smiled at the girl, "let me get momma taken care of first."
"Otay," KC resumed her efforts with Charley.
Once they reached the summit, Jesse, not wanting Jennifer to remain in the saddle any longer than necessary, had began looking for a place to camp. A few miles further, they came across a small meadow with a spring off to one side and Jesse called a halt to their day's travels. Insisting that Jennifer simply rest with the children, Jesse set to work setting up their camp. She quickly had a fire built and water heating for Jennifer's wrappings. Jesse unpacked the horses and set them loose, set up their tent, and laid out their bedrolls. She changed the babies' diapers and filled a bottle for Charley that Jennifer fed to him while Jesse massaged her legs, then wrapped them in towels soaked in the heated water. KC was given a snack to hold her until supper could be prepared. Then, Jesse set out to gather enough firewood for the night.
Wringing out the towels, Jesse moved back to Jennifer's side. "Wish we had a way to give you a hot bath, darlin'," Jesse gently wrapped the towels around Jennifer's legs.
"It's okay, sweetheart," Jennifer smiled, "this really does help. Give me a few more minutes and I'll start supper."
"That's okay," Jesse winked at her wife, "KC and I will cook supper. Won't we, sunshine?"
KC ginned at her mommy, "otay." She handed her horse to Charley before crawling to Jesse and pulling herself upright on the rancher's arm.
"Are you sure?" Jennifer quizzed the woman who would do just about anything but cook.
"Sure," Jesse shrugged her shoulders, "how bad can it be, uh?"
"Tell ya what," Jesse smirked, "you tell me what to do and I'll do it."
"Sounds like a better plan," Jennifer grinned.
"Come on, sunshine," Jesse circled the baby with a strong arm, lifting her as she stood. "Let's see what we have for supper. I bet you're hungry."
"Otay," KC giggled as Jesse tickled her tummy. "Yum."
Jennifer laughed as she watched Jesse carry the baby inside the tent to their packs. "I think there's enough of the dried meat Walk gave us to make stew," she called to Jesse. "Should still be some bread left, too."
"Well, Charley," Jennifer reached over to rub the infant's belly, "supper ought to be interesting tonight."
Smiling, Charley looked back at Jennifer, his legs kicking and arms waving in response to his momma's attention.
"I heard that," Jesse reappeared with her hands full of food, pots, utensils and KC. She sat the items and baby down next to Jennifer before carrying a cooking pot to the spring. Filling it with water, she walked back to her family and sat cross-legged next to the fire waiting for her instructions. It didn't take long before she had cut up the meat and a few vegetables remaining from their purchases in Bannack, adding them to the pot to cook.
As their supper simmered, Jesse lay on the blanket next to Jennifer and waited for KC to climb atop her. The baby's shouts of laughter soon echoed around the meadow as Jesse held her at arm's length, swooping and swinging the baby above her head.
"Mo', mommy," KC giggled.
"Oof, enough," grunting, Jesse dropped KC onto her chest, her arms too tired to keep the child aloft any longer. "Ya ain't as tiny as ya used ta be," she tickled the growing girl.
KC squirmed about until she could sit up, her legs hanging at Jesse's sides. Her little hands dug into Jesse's ribs, tickling her mommy back.
"Hey," Jesse laughed, playfully batting at KC's hands, "you're not supposed to do that."
KC's fingers worked harder as she screamed with laughter.
"So, ol' Jensen hoodwinked all of 'em," Billie said as he and Thaddeus walked to the jail. He wasn't surprised to see Ed sweeping the boardwalk in front of his store, the big man had become more and more concerned with his business as the days away from town passed.
"Wonder how he figured it?"
"Don't know all the details but I did find out that Jensen worked for a company in St. Louis that made it's money by investing like Harrington's."
"But, how would he know that Harrington didn't know all the board members names?"
"Took a chance, I guess," Thaddeus contemplated. "After all, what did he have to lose?"
"Hmm. Now what? Do they go after Jensen and try to get back their money?"
"Won't do them much good. I tried to contact him," Thaddeus told the sheriff. "Seems he's left for the gold fields in California."
"You'd think he'd have enough money already."
"When you've got gold fever, there's never enough."
"So, it's over then?"
"Except for their plans for Sweetwater."
"Wouldn't think they'd have any more plans considering the Songbird doesn't have any gold in it," Billie stepped onto the boardwalk, stomping the dust off his boots. Nodding at Ed, he opened the door to the jail.
"They've still got the hotel and bank," Thaddeus reminded him.
Billie had noticed that both buildings had been completed during their absence, "doesn't make much sense that they'd want to run them now. Probably just sell them off, if you ask me."
"Nobody around here has the money to buy them," Thaddeus followed the sheriff inside.
"Maybe," Billie crossed his office to the door leading to the cells. "Afternoon, Harrington," he cheerfully greeted the man confined behind bars. "Looks like you've had a rough few days."
Harrington lay on the cot. Having nothing to say, he remained silent.
"I will have to talk with Mayor Perkins to see what charges he plans to bring against you," Billie placed a hand around one of the cell's bars and peered in at the dispirited prisoner. "Of course, I'm expecting to receive word from the governor as to charges he'll be bringing after Judge Henry talks to him. And, Jesse may have a thing or two to say about your future. And, if she doesn't, I'm sure Jennifer will."
Harrington rolled his head to stare at the sheriff.
Looks like hitchin' ya horse to Kinsington's cart wasn't the best of ideas." Billie chuckled at the man he strongly disliked. "Must say, Harrington, this is the first time I've seen you with nothin' ta say."
"What do you plan to do, Billie?" Thaddeus asked.
"Not much to do tonight," the sheriff sniffed the air. "'Cept maybe get Harrington, here, a bath. Smells worse than some of the miners that come ta town after digging in the hills for a month."
"What about Perkins?"
"Right now, I want a hot bath and a hot meal. But first, I want to check on Ruth. Everything else can wait until tomorrow," Billie turned on his heels, walking out of the room and leaving the building without another word.
"Don't supposed you'd have anything to say?" Thaddeus asked the prisoner.
Harrington rolled over to face the wall, putting his back to the newspaperman.
"Didn't figure you would," Thaddeus turned to leave the jail. "Guess you'll be waiting another day for your bath."
"This stew's pretty tasty," Jesse refilled her bowl from the pot.
"It is," Jennifer wiped her last bite of bread around the inside of her bowl, then popped it into her mouth. "For your first attempt at real cooking," she grinned, "you did pretty well."
"Didn't do much but cut the stuff up," Jesse said around a mouthful of stew. "You told me what spices to put in."
"Still, I think you did a good job. Don't you?" she asked KC, wiping crumbs off the girl's chin.
"Yep," KC nodded. "Mo?"
"My, you are the hungry one tonight," Jennifer laughed. "Must have been all that playing you and mommy did before supper."
"You plum wore me out," Jesse groaned, causing KC to giggle. She couldn't imagine what it would be like to keep the girl entertained when she started walking. "You sure it's a good idea to feed her so much?"
"Sweetheart," Jennifer fed KC another spoonful of stew, "not feeding her won't stop her from growing. Besides, I think it's good for you."
"How's that?" Jesse emptied her bowl, setting it aside to be washed later.
"It'll keep you in shape for Charley when he gets big enough to play with the two of you."
"Ugh," Jesse grunted. "Don't remind me."
"You'll be just fine," Jennifer chuckled, teasingly patting Jesse on the head. "You are a wonderful mother."
"Yep," Jennifer and KC answered together.
"I better get the dishes scrubbed up," Jesse began collecting the dirty items, "so we can get to bed."
"It's a little early, isn't it?"
"Well," Jesse scratched her head, "I was kinda hopin' we could get an early start in the morning."
"In a hurry to get home?" Jennifer teased, but she shared Jesse's feelings.
"Yeah," Jesse quietly answered.
"Me, too, sweetheart," Jennifer sighed. "Me, too."
"A baby boy," Nancy, the red-haired bartender gushed.
"He's so adorable," Ruthie continued. "And, he looks just like Miss Jesse."
"I can't wait to see him," the red head said. She watched as Bette Mae left the dining room where Ruthie was telling the other girls about their trip to Bannack. "Bette Mae's been awfully quiet since you got back. Is she okay?"
"I don't know," Ruthie lowered her voice so Bette Mae wouldn't overhear them talking about her. "She's been like that for days. I've tried to talk to her but she'll only talk to Ed. And, only sometimes, at that. Maybe, she misses Miss Jesse and Miss Jennifer and the babies. I'm sure she'll perk up when they get back."
"I hope so," Nancy murmured. "Kinda scares me when she gets all quiet like that. Reminds of the days before Jesse took over the Slipper."
Before any more could be said about Bette Mae, the door to the Slipper opened and Billed entered.
"Aw, here's your beau," Nancy teased Ruthie, causing the shy girl to blush.
"Stop that, Nancy," Billie knew the teasing wasn't meant to hurt his fiancÚ, "else we won't be invitin' you to the wedding reception."
"Yes," Ruthie smiled as Billie joined them, giving her a kiss on the cheek. "We've decided to have a small ceremony."
"And, a big dance afterward," Billie quickly added as he saw the disappointment on the other women's faces.
"Where you planning on having this small ceremony?" Nancy asked. She wasn't too surprised with the announcement from the shy couple. "Going to Bozeman?"
"Nope, we're hopin' Jesse and Jennifer will let us hold it at the ranch," Billie told her. "Afterwards, we'll come inta town for a dance. A big one that everyone can come to."
"Sounds like we've got some planning to do," Nancy laughed.
"What ya doing, Ed?" Billie had followed the storekeeper as, first thing in the morning, he drove a wagon from the livery to the back of his store.
"Figured Jesse and Jennifer could use this wood to build them a new house," Ed jumped down from the wagon seat.
"Thought you were plannin' on adding on to the store?"
"I am," Ed picked up an armful of cut lumber and loaded it into the wagon. "I put in a order this morning, store can wait until it arrives. Once Jesse gets here we can figure out any differences."
"Want a hand?"
Charley fussed at being put in the carry sling. He wasn't used to be awakened so early in the morning. KC wasn't much happier but she allowed Jesse to place her in the carry sack without any protest. Once she was settled on her mother's back, she laid her head down and fell back to sleep.
"Wish Charley would do that," Jennifer tried to comfort the infant.
"He will, once we get moving," Jesse made one last walk around their campsite, making sure they hadn't left anything behind. "Ready?" she asked as she swung herself up onto Dusty's back.
"Yes," Jennifer was already mounted on Blaze, waiting for her.
"Okay. We ride until you get tired," Jesse reminded her wife of the agreement they'd made earlier that morning. "You promised to speak up."
"I will, sweetheart."
"Good," Jesse nudged Dusty forward. "Then, let's not waste any more time."
"Damn," Billie shook his head, "I still can't believe that bastard burned it down."
"Nasty sight, that's for sure," Ed blew out a long breath. "And, to do it to your own daughter's home."
The men had driven the wagon of lumber out to the ranch where they planned to unload it, leaving it ready for Jesse to use in building a new home for her family. It had been the first time Ed had seen the blackened hulk of what once had been Jesse and Jennifer's home.
"Think we should clean it up for them?" Ed asked.
"No." Billie would have happily cleared away the burned logs but he knew Jesse would want to see the ruins. It was the way his friend was and, though he didn't understand, he would respect her feelings. "Jesse will be wantin' to see what happened. Best we leave it to her."
"Okay," Ed knew the sheriff was right and there was no point in arguing. "Where should we leave this?"
Looking around the ranch yard, Billie saw several suitable spots but without knowing where Jesse planned to locate the new ranch house he didn't want to put the pile of lumber where it would be in her way. "Over by the barn," he decided. "Only place for sure, it'll be out of the way."
Slapping the reins on the horses backs, Ed maneuvered the wagon next to the barn.
"Let's get this done," Billie said as he jumped down from the wagon. "I still need to talk to Perkins today. And, get Harrington a bath."
"He smell that bad?" Ed asked, joining Billie at the back of the wagon.
Jesse pulled Dusty to a stop.
"Something wrong?" Jennifer asked.
"Yep," Jesse swung her leg over the back of Dusty. "Someone needs a fresh diaper," she reached her arms up to help Jennifer down to the ground.
"Oh," Jennifer giggled, "thought I was beginning to smell something."
"Sleeping, finally," Jennifer slipped the sling off her shoulder and gently laid the baby in a shady patch of grass.
"Sorry, darlin'," Jesse was chagrinned at having to stop after Jennifer had spent the last hour getting the infant to sleep.
"It's okay," Jennifer helped Jesse remove KC from the carry sack. "He'd be needing a change himself soon. Might as well take the time to take care of him, too."
"How're you doing?"
"Not too bad," Jennifer limped a few steps to ease the kinks in her leg. "Easier ride, so far," she said as she walked back to Jesse, "I'm not having to grip the saddle as much."
"Should be that way most of the day," Jesse pulled a couple of clean diapers from the packs. "Think he'll be hungry?" she didn't want to take any more out of the packs then necessary.
"No," Jennifer peeked at the sleeping baby. "He should be okay for a while."
"Okay, sunshine," Jesse dropped to her knees, spreading out a blanket to lay KC on. "Let's get your britches changed."
Jennifer looked around, the early fall sun warming her face as she enjoyed the view.
Finishing with KC, Jesse sat her up, "you sit real quiet while I change Charley. We don't want to wake him up."
"Otay," KC whispered as she crawled to one side of the blanket, plopping down to watch.
Jesse carefully removed the infant from the carry sling and placed him on the blanket in front of her. Expertly, she undressed the sleeping baby enough to replace his soiled diaper, then redressed him. Within a few moments, she was handing Charley, still sound asleep, up to Jennifer who had remounted Blaze. Helping KC back into her carry sack, Jesse slipped the sack onto her back then folded up the blanket, putting it and the dirty diapers into their packs.
"It's beautiful up here," Jennifer commented as they returned to the trail.
"It sure is," Jesse smiled as she looked around.
"How come more people don't live in the mountains, Jesse?"
"Winters are hard. Lots of snow, wind, and cold. Even the animals move south when that time of year comes around."
They were high enough up that the majority of trees were below them and they had an unobstructed view of the surrounding mountain peaks, many topped with a fresh covering of snow. On a bare hillside about a half mile away, a small herd of elk grazed on the remaining grasses and wildflowers. Soon, they would be driven to lower hillsides and meadows by the coming winter's snowfalls. High above their heads, an eagle flew in lazy circles hoping they would stir up a gopher or rabbit providing him an early lunch. He, too, would be heading south soon to spend the winter in a more hospitable location.
"So, nobody lives in the mountains over the winter?"
"Few do. Mostly, fur trappers or the occasional miner looking for his next strike. But, even they don't do it more than a year or two. If they survive, that is."
"What do you mean?"
"Either you'll freeze, starve, or meet with an accident. It's no place to be if you're not prepared."
"You make it sound horrible."
"It would be if you were stuck up here, darlin'."
"But, it's so beautiful, now.
"Yep. And, come winter, it'll look beautiful from a distance."
"Hmm," Jennifer tried to imagine the passing scenery covered in snow. "I think it would look beautiful close up, too. That is, as long as you had a nice warm cabin with a great, big fire."
"And, who would be going out to collect the firewood to keep that great, big fire burning?"
"You would, sweetheart," Jennifer laughed, "because you love me so much."
"Don't know if I love you that much, darlin'," Jesse edged Dusty away from Blaze before her wife could swat her.
"I don't know," Mayor Perkins was sitting in his office talking to the sheriff. "I thought you would know what to charge him with."
"Seems like we have more than enough choices," Billie told the mayor. "But, we might just wait and see what the governor decides to do. Might be better for Sweetwater, if we do."
"What do you mean?"
"If the governor wants to file charges against him, he'll have to go to Bannack or Virginia City to face them. If we charge him, the trial will have to be held here. That will just keep him in town longer and," Billie sneered at that thought, "I say the quicker we can be rid of him, the better."
"But, what about the things he's done here?"
"Other than being a pain in the ass, he ain't really broken any laws. Fact is, Miles," the sheriff glared at the other man, "you've done more in that area than he has."
"What? Why?" the mayor fumbled to respond. "What laws have I broken?"
"Lots of folks weren't too happy you made promises to Harrington to sell their property."
"That's not quite true," Perkins protested.
"Doesn't matter," Billie was tired of the whole affair, "if they don't bring charges against you, I'm sure not going to waste my time dealing with it."
Relieved, Mayor Perkins smiled, "you make Sweetwater a good sheriff, Billie."
"Been meaning to talk to you about that," Billie changed the subject. "You'll be needin' to hire a new sheriff."
"Ruth and I have been talkin'," Billie explained. "Once we get married, I won't serve as sheriff any more."
"Come now, Billie," Mayor Perkins laughed at the comment. "How will you support a wife if you have no job?"
"Being sheriff ain't the only thing I can earn a living at, Perkins," Billie's eyes flashed with anger, he wasn't about to let this pompous fool laugh at him. "Just find yourself a new sheriff, and be quick about it," he stormed out of the mayor's office.
Jesse looked in the direction Jennifer pointed, "looks like an old cabin. Want to check it out?"
The women had stopped a short time earlier, setting up their camp near a small creek. Too early for supper and wanting to stretch out her legs, Jennifer suggested a short walk. Hand-in-hand, they were exploring the woods around their campsite. With Jennifer needing to support herself on her cane, Jesse carried Charley while KC rode on her shoulders.
"Who do you think built it?" Jennifer asked as they neared the log structure.
The roof and one wall had collapsed leaving the interior of the cabin exposed to the elements. The other walls, made by placing cut trees atop one another, looked ready to follow. Inside, what once had been someone's home was covered in branches and other debris blown in by the wind.
"Hard to say, darlin'," Jesse peered through a window. If it ever held glass, it was long gone. "It's been here a while so I'm guessing a fur trapper. But, it's a good distance to any rivers big enough for beaver so that's probably wrong. Could have been a prospector."
Jennifer moved to the open wall of the structure to get a closer look inside.
"Careful, darlin'," Jesse warned. "You never know what the ground is like near these old cabins. If it was a miner, he could have dug holes around it."
"Oh," Jennifer carefully stepped back to Jesse's side.
"Ook, mommy," KC pointed to a squirrel sitting on a branch that hung over the cabin. The animal seemed to be as curious about them as they were about the cabin.
"Isn't it cute?" as Jennifer looked up the squirrel began to chatter.
"Make a good stew for supper," Jesse eyed the noisy squirrel as it scampered higher into the tree and out of her range.
"Jesse, that's awful," Jennifer groaned.
"What say we get back to camp?" Jesse laughed.
"Good idea. Maybe, instead of eating the cute squirrel, you can find us some trout in that creek."
"Already spotted a pair. Nice and fat, too," Jesse told Jennifer as she lead them away from the cabin and squirrel.
"Baggage car will do just fine," Marshal Morgan told the train conductor, he had no intention of his prisoner riding in the passenger coaches.
"Mary, don't you dare leave me," Martin Kinsington shouted as his wife was lead away from him by their eldest son. "Thomas, come back here," the shackled man demanded.
Ignoring his father's shouts, Thomas escorted his mother to a car at the front of the train while the marshal and his deputies half lead, half carried their prisoner up the steps to the baggage car.
"Back there," the marshal directed the men to where a steel cage occupied the end of the car. Intended to secure valuable cargo, the cage would substitute as a holding cell for Kinsington.
"Make sure those chains are secure," the marshal ordered the deputy weaving the chains through the mesh sides of the cage. "And, lock them to that ring," he said spotting a iron ring that had been bolted to the car's floor just outside the cage. "That should keep him put until we get back east."
"Damn," one of the deputies back out of the cage, rubbing a new bruise on his arm. "Fool doesn't give up, does he?"
Martin Kinsington had fought the lawmen every step of the way since leaving Bannack. Being forced onto the train in Denver had not lessened the man's desire to struggle against his confinement.
"He'll give up once he gets to where he's going," Marshal Morgan checked to make sure all the padlocks were closed properly before he back out of the cage and locked it's door. "I want two of us watching him at all times. We'll rotate twelve hour shifts."
"We sleeping in here, too," one of the deputies looked around the car crowding with travel trunks and other baggage.
"Yeah," Morgan frowned. This wasn't exactly his first choice for a long train ride. "This will be home until we deliver him."
"Great,' the second deputy groaned.
"Guess we can draw straws to see who gets to sleep first," the first deputy suggested.
"I'll stay up," the other deputy said, "I'm more hungry than tired.
"Go ahead," the marshal told his deputy, "after fighting with him, I'm too wired to sleep anyway."
"How long 'til we get rid of him?" the second deputy asked.
Martin Kinsington sat in the corner of the luggage cage. He was exhausted, having fought against the restraints and his jailers since leaving Bannack several days before. What, he wondered, had he done to deserve such punishment? Why had his family betrayed him? He had been a good provider. A good father and husband. Hadn't he? When had things gone so terribly wrong?
It was she who turned his daughter against him. She had cast her spell over Jennifer, causing the sweet girl to turn her back on all she had known and loved. Even refusing to use his name, now calling herself Branson just like that bitch.
Mary was making a mistake taking him back east. Back to where he had friends. Back to where people owed him favors. There wasn't a prison on the east coast that he hadn't done business with, his ships carrying supplies or prisoners to their gates. He knew the warden of each one and he would use that to his advantage.
Oh, yes. He need only wait until he was deposited into which ever prison the marshal was taking him to, then he could arrange for his escape. And once he was out, Jesse Branson would again be in his sights.
Kinsington smiled, devilishly, as plots for revenge began to form in his brain.
"Do you think we should have told him, Mother?" Thomas asked as the train pulled out of the Denver station.
"No," Mary looked out the window, "I think it's best to keep that information to ourselves for a while longer."
"How do you think he'll react?"
"I don't know, Thomas," Mary placed a hand on her son's arm. "But, he has no one but himself to blame. If only he had left Jennifer alone."
"Yes," Thomas placed his hand on top of his mother's, "if only...."
"We'll be sleeping in a nice, comfy bed tomorrow night, darlin'," Jesse said as Jennifer snuggled against her.
"Hmmm, can't wait."
"'Course it'll mean staying at the Slipper."
Jennifer draped a leg over Jesse's, "sweetheart, how long will it take to build the new house?"
"Hard to say," Jesse turned her head to kiss Jennifer, "have to order the wood from Bozeman. Could take a while for the mill to send it."
"You don't think we'll have to wait until spring, do you?" Jennifer did not like the thought of spending the winter in town. She had gotten used to being alone with Jesse out at the ranch where they were free to be themselves.
"Sure hope not, darlin'," Jesse adjusted her position to pull Jennifer on top of her. "Don't think I'd much care to stay in town that long."
"Me, either," Jennifer rested her head on Jesse's chest.
Jesse had been amazed at how quickly Jennifer had taken to living on the ranch. She'd just assumed that being used to living in a city, the schoolteacher would prefer to live in town. But, Jennifer insisted on moving to the ranch once they expressed their love for each other and had never shown any regret over her decision.
Jesse had grown up on a ranch and fondly remembered the years she had spent exploring the land he father worked. Playing make-believe among the big rocks in the boulder fields, tracking animals through the woods, galloping across the plains on the back of her pony. To her, it was the best place for a child to grow up but she wondered if Jennifer felt differently.
"Do you still think that now that we have the babies?"
"Especially now that we have the babies."
Jennifer's answer surprised Jesse, "what do you mean?"
"The city is no place to grow up," Jennifer sighed remembering her own unhappy childhood. "You have no place to play but your own yard, and you can't play there because it would ruin the grass he paid so much to nurture and care for. There were a few parks scattered about, I remember mother used to take me to them. Until he refused to allow her to go anymore."
Jesse let Jennifer talk. It was rare for her wife to talk about her childhood and she knew if Jennifer was talking about it, she needed to get it out. Besides, she hadn't missed Jennifer's switching references to her father.
"I longed for a place to run barefoot in the grass or play in a cool stream. I felt so constrained, forced to play in my room so I wouldn't get dirty. He didn't like me to be dirty, said it wasn't what little girls did. Little girls were supposed to be proper little ladies at all times. If you let him, he would take away your dreams. Take away who you really are," Jennifer's voice trailed off as she spoke. "But, I wouldn't let him, Jesse. I refused to have them taken away from me like he had from my brothers," she said, her voice regaining it's strength. "Lucky for me, I was a girl. He couldn't force me to work long hours on the ships and at the docks, that wasn't proper for a little lady."
Jesse, feeling a growing wetness between her breasts, held Jennifer tightly as she cried.
"When he donated the library so the town council would let him build the additional docks he needed for his ships, I almost danced for joy. All those books with all their stories restored my dreams and made them grow even bigger. I knew that one day I would leave the city and him far behind me. I knew I would find someplace to run barefoot. To be myself." Jennifer tilted her head to look up at Jesse, "I found it with you." Eyes brimming with tears, she begged her wife, "I never want our children to feel like I did Jesse. Promise me they never will."
Jesse tightened her hold on Jennifer, "I promise, darlin'."
Continued in Part 14
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