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.
There is a scene in Part 2 with a brief reference to an act of violence against a woman. I apologize to anyone this may upset.
I would like to hear your comments, please write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted July 2004
Mayor Miles Perkins strode into the general store like he owned the place. "Ed, I need to place an order," he informed the storekeeper who was currently engaged with another customer.
"Be with you in a minute, Miles," Ed didn't like the arrogant mayor but he was a good customer and paid his bills on time. "That should take care of your order, Ruthie. Tell Bette Mae, I'll have it sent over as soon as I'm done unpacking this morning's freight delivery."
"Thank you, Mr. Granger."
"Are you done yet," Mayor Perkins barked, frustrated with having to wait. Mayor Miles Perkins was a middle-age, balding man who seemed to be wider than he was tall. He wore a bushy mustache that fluttered when he spoke and seemed to perpetually be in need of a good trimming. And, he always thought that his business should take priority over anything and anyone else. An attitude that seemed to have gotten more forceful in the last few weeks.
"I'll thank you not to use that tone with Ruth," Billie Monroe stepped in from the boardwalk. He had seen Ruthie walk past the jail on her way to the general store and had planned to wait for her outside. But, hearing the way Mayor Perkins was talking, he decided to enter the store. He was the town's sheriff and, more significantly at the moment, he was courting the shy girl that worked at the Silver Slipper.
"I have important business," Mayor Perkins explained.
"You can wait your turn like everyone else," Ed told the mayor. "Besides, what can be so important, your boys eat through the pantry again?" It was well known that the mayor's sons could put away more food than half the ranch hands in the valley. It was a wonder the man could afford the cost of feeding them.
"No," Perkins responded, indignantly. "I have received a charter from the territorial governor for a bank in Sweetwater," he announced. "I need to place an order for building materials."
"A bank?" Billie asked, walking to stand next to Ruthie by the store's counter. "How'd you get that?" It wasn't easy to be granted a bank charter, especially for a small town like Sweetwater.
"Doesn't matter," the mayor slapped a piece of paper down on the counter. "This is a list of the materials that I will need. My architect drew it up, so follow it exactly when you send in the order."
"Arc-e-tech, uh," Ed repeated as he picked up the sheet and began to read. "Let's see. Lumber shouldn't be a problem, but you'll probably have to wait a few weeks since I sent in an order a few days ago. Bricks and sandstone blocks," he commented on the next items, "goin' be a mighty fancy building, Miles. You sure Sweetwater needs somethin' like that?"
"We need a bank," Perkins stated, matter-of-factly.
"Never said we didn'," Ed was just as aware as the mayor that it was more than a nuisance to have to travel to Bozeman for the closest bank. Especially during the winter months. "Jus' wonder if we need such a fancy one."
Ignoring the storekeepers comments, he asked, "can you get those supplies?"
"Yes," Ed pulled a form from under the counter. "Will take several weeks for the bricks. Might be several months on the sandstone."
"I need it sooner than that," Perkins demanded.
"I can put a rush on it," Ed offered, "but, probably won't make much difference. Don' even know if my suppliers in Bozeman can handle an order this big. And, they're goin' want a deposit."
"Send the order, Ed. Let me know if they can handle it. If they can't, I'll send to Denver. Already, had to order the safe through there. It's coming from a company in New York City, best safe makers in the country," the mayor boasted. "If they need a deposit, I'll take care of it." The mayor turned and marched out of the store.
"Damn," Billie blew out a breath. "Wonder how he got the governor to give him a charter?"
"I wonder where he's getting the money," Ed started transferring the information on the mayor's paper to the order form. "This stuff ain't cheap."
"Good question, Ed," the sheriff took a glance at the list of materials. "Maybe, I should do a little checking into our mayor's activities. Seems to me, I heard he took a trip to Denver not too long ago."
"Yep, when we was in Bozeman with Jesse and Jennifer."
"Maybe I'll stop and see if Thaddeus knows anything," turning to the young woman who was standing patiently beside him, "can I walk you back to the Slipper, Ruth?"
"I'd like that," Ruth smiled shyly.
"Shall we?" Billie held out his arm and Ruth timidly took it.
As the couple left the store, Ed smiled to himself. "Almost as cute as Jesse and Jennifer," he mumbled.
"I can't help you, Billie," Thaddeus Newby owned and operated the Gazette, the valley's only newspaper. "I heard Miles had gone to Denver but, if he told anyone why, no one's talking. Why are you asking?"
"He was in Ed's earlier ordering building materials for a bank," the sheriff had stopped at the newspaper office after walking Ruth back to the Slipper. "Seems he got a charter from the territorial governor."
"For here, in Sweetwater?" Thaddeus questioned.
"Yep," Billie nodded, "Wondering how he was able to do that, is all."
"You think his trip to Denver has something to do with it?"
"Could be," Billie took off his hat and scratched his head. "Don't see that he would have that kind of influence on his own. Not to mention the money."
"Well," Thaddeus thought for a moment. "Been rumors of some eastern financiers taking an interest in the valley, seems one or two of the mines are starting to show some good color. Miles would be just the man they'd talk to if they were thinking of doing anything around here." Thaddeus added.
"Guess the mayor would be the one they'd go to first," Billie agreed.
"I've been planning to take a ride out to some of the larger mining camps in a day or so," Thaddeus told the sheriff. "See if there's any happenings that would interest the Gazette. Let me do some checking, Billie, I'll see if I can come up with anything."
"Alright," Billie said before walking next door to the jail and his office.
Jesse was standing on top of a ladder leaned up against the back wall of the small cabin that was soon to become the home of her mother-in-law. She was nailing down the last row of shingles that would complete the roof repair. Jennifer came around the corner of the small building and stood at the bottom of the ladder.
"Sweetheart," Jennifer held her hand up in front of her face to shield her eyes against the bright sun as she looked up to see Jesse. "Mother just made some lemonade. Why don't you come down and rest for a while."
Jesse figured she had less than a dozen shingles left to nail down. Having been working on the roof since breakfast, she was anxious to get the job done and get out of the oppressive afternoon heat. "Give me a few more minutes and I'll be finished," she told Jennifer without stopping her work.
"Alright," Jennifer patted Jesse's leg before walking back around the small building.
"Is she coming?" Mary asked when Jennifer re-entered the cabin.
"She'll be here in a minute. She wants to finish," Jennifer sat on the edge of the room's bed.
KC, who had been playing on the floor with her toy horse, quickly crawled to Jennifer and began to pull herself upright on her momma's leg, "up." Jennifer lifted the baby into her lap.
"Can't say I'll miss the noise," Mary handed Jennifer a glass of the cold beverage she had recently mixed.
"Mommy," KC pointed to the roof and held her hands over her ears.
"Yes, sweetie," Jennifer smiled, "mommy is making a lot of noise. But, she's almost done." As she listened to the sound of Jesse's hammering, Jennifer glanced around the cabin, which was no more than ten by twenty feet.
There was only one entry into the cabin, a door placed slightly off center in the front wall. Each of the walls held a window making the building's interior surprising bright, especially after the window glass had received a good scrubbing. Standing against the back wall was a wood stove that would be used for both heating and cooking. The rough plank floor had been covered by rugs to help control dust.
The day before, Jennifer and Mary had worked on fixing up the inside while Jesse worked on the outside of the cabin. The women had spent the day emptying the cabin of it's meager furnishings and cleaning it of years of cobwebs and dirt. Jesse had re-hung the door and replaced missing chinking between the logs to keep out the nastier weather. She repaired a broken window and constructed a new frame for it, the old one having rotted through. And, the small porch had needed some attention.
Since this morning, while Jesse worked to replace the section of leaky roof, Jennifer and her mother had decorated the cabin's single room. New curtains had been hung in the windows and a table and chair moved in. The bedsprings had been thoroughly cleaned and now held a new mattress and bed coverings. A few dishes and some food staples had been neatly stacked on a shelf near the stove. Although, Mary would take her meals with them, Jennifer had wanted her to have the items for any times she might want to eat in the cabin.
Jennifer surveyed their work. The bed occupied one end of the cabin and the table and chair had been placed in the front corner at the other end, the arrangement offered anyone sitting there a view out two windows. The furnishings were sparse and Jennifer wondered if her mother, who had been surrounded by much more luxurious possessions back east, would be happy in the small cabin.
"Mother," Jennifer hesitated.
"Yes, dear," Mary was sitting at the table, enjoying the view of the ranch yard and forest beyond.
"Are you going to be happy here," Jennifer asked. "I mean, this isn't exactly how you're used to living."
Mary turned and looked at her daughter. KC had crawled off Jennifer's lap and was happily rolling around on the soft bed, giggling as she entertained herself. Mary rose from the chair and crossed the floor to sit next to her apprehensive daughter.
"I'll be very happy, dear," she took Jennifer's hands into her own and lovingly rubbed them.
"Are you sure?" Jennifer would hate to have her mother return to living at the Silver Slipper. But, if she would be more comfortable....
"Yes, I'm very sure. Here, I can sit and listen to birds singing in the trees instead of freight wagons rumbling under my window," she referred to the daily activity on the stage road through Sweetwater. "And, I'll be able to spend time with you and Jesse and your beautiful baby," she told Jennifer. "I couldn't ask for anything better."
"But," Jennifer started.
"I'm happy, Jennifer," Mary didn't give the schoolteacher a chance to finish. "I really am. This is the first time, in a long time, that I'm doing exactly what I want to do."
"I'm glad," Jennifer leaned over and kissed her mother's cheek. "I'm really glad you're here."
"Now, where's that lemonade you mentioned," Jesse entered the cabin, she pulled a kerchief from her back pocket and, lifting her hat, wiped the sweat from her brow. The women had been so concentrated on their conversation they hadn't noticed when the hammering stopped.
"Mommy," KC cried out excitingly at the sight of Jesse. She started crawling towards the edge of the bed.
"Whoa there, sunshine," Jesse plucked the baby off the bed before she fell over the side. "That's a might far for you to bounce."
"Finished?" Mary asked she walked to the table to retrieve the pitcher of lemonade and a glass for Jesse.
"Yep," Jesse gladly accepted the cold drink and took a long swallow. "Better than new if I do say so myself."
"Mommy, owie," KC grimaced at her mother and held her ears.
"Sorry, sunshine," Jesse kissed the tip of the baby's nose. "But, we couldn't let your grandma be rained on, now could we?"
KC wasn't quite sure what her mother had said but the banging had stopped and that's all she really cared about. "Dink," she asked for the glass Jesse held.
Jesse looked at Jennifer, not sure if the baby should have the lemonade.
"A little bit shouldn't hurt," Jennifer told the rancher. "But, we probably should stick with milk for a while longer."
Jesse allowed KC a small sip of the tangy liquid.
"Mo'," KC asked, even as her nose crinkled up at the strange taste.
"Nope," Jesse emptied the glass before placing it back on the table. "Sure looks nice in here," she told Jennifer and Mary. "You wouldn't know it was the same room we had to kick our way into yesterday."
The ranch's previous owner had obviously been using the cabin as a storage shed. Jennifer, Jesse and Mary had carried out box after box of bits and pieces before they could start cleaning the small room. Most of the stuff was piled in the yard waiting to be burned since they discovered what hadn't been eaten by bugs and mice was too rotten or rusty to be of any use.
"It sure was a lot of work," Jennifer nodded. "But, it does look nice, doesn't it."
"Yep," Jesse shifted KC in her arms, they were sore after all the heavy work she had done. She was glad the roof repair was finally finished and was looking forward to a nice, long soak in the tub after dinner. But, there were still a few chores before she could call it a day. "Say, I think I'll leave you ladies and go check on the horses."
"Me, go?" KC asked.
"Sure, sunshine," Jesse nodded, "I can use your help milking that cow you like so much."
"Will you be long, sweetheart," Jennifer was concerned about Jesse working anymore in the hot conditions of the late afternoon.
"Nope, there's another storm brewing over the mountains. Looks like this one could have some rain in it. I'll just make sure the horses are bedded down and everything is put away so it won't get wet if we do get rain."
"Mommy, hat," KC reached for Jesse's stetson as they disappeared out the door.
Jennifer looked out of the cabin's window that faced west. "Does look like a nasty one," she said as she saw the dark clouds building over the mountains. "I better get back to the house and start supper."
After finishing the evening meal, the three women continued to sit around the table listening and watching the storm outside. KC sat in Jesse's lap, she alternated between covering her ears whenever thunder boomed to playing peek-a-boo with her grandmother. Outside, a bolt of lightening flashed, followed a few moments later by thunder rumbling across the dark sky. A gust of wind hit the side of the ranch house, shaking the window shutters.
"It looks pretty bad out there," Jennifer watched as another lightening strike illuminated the yard.
"Goin' to get worse before it gets better," Jesse muttered. She wasn't very happy that she had to postpone her bath, but she knew she might have to go out during the storm if something happened.
"Mommy, Stee?" KC frowned at Jesse. She was still learning to say Dusty, the name of Jesse's horse.
"Dusty and Blaze are okay, sunshine," Jesse told the worried baby. "Good thing we left them in the barn tonight." It had become her practice to let the horses stay out in the open corral on hot nights.
"Think we'll get much rain tonight?"
Before Jennifer could finish the sentence, the heavens opened and rain poured out. The drops were so big that they sounded like stones were being hurled at the windows.
"Guess that answers my question," Jennifer laughed.
KC stopped her game and looked at the window, she had never seen rain before. Using Jesse's shirt, the baby pulled herself up to get closer to the window and pressed her nose against the glass. Just then, another bolt of lightening flashed. Startled by the bright flash, KC fell back into Jesse's lap and began to whimper.
"Hey, I think you better stay away from that window, sunshine," Jesse comforted the startled baby. "Don't want your pretty hair to get frizzled."
"Sweetie, are you okay?" Jennifer reached over and gently rubbed KC's back.
"Owie," KC pouted.
"I know," Jennifer looked at Jesse. "Think we can get her to go to sleep."
Jesse looked outside as another bolt of lightening lit up the sky. The strikes seemed to be getting closer.
"Maybe I should go back to my cabin before it gets any worse," Mary offered.
"No," Jesse handed the baby to Jennifer. "I'll get her some milk. Why don't you try rockin' her," she suggested before turning her attention back to Mary. "This will be over in another hour. It's best you stay put until then."
"Alright," Mary breathed a sigh of relief, she really had not wanted to go out into the storm.
Jennifer carried the upset baby to the rocking chair Jesse had made for them. As she rocked, she hummed softly to calm the baby. KC quieted but her eyes remained on the window and the storm.
"You really think this will be over so soon?" Mary looked out the window, a burst of lightening lit up the yard and she could see the nearest trees were nearly doubled over by the wind.
"Yep," Jesse seemed unconcerned with the storm as she filled one of the baby's bottles with milk. "It'll blow like crazy, rain like there ain't goin' be a tomorrow. Then, it'll just stop. Clouds will move on east and the stars will come out. Tomorrow, you'll wonder if you didn't dream the whole thing."
"I doubt that," Mary instinctively pulled away from the window as drops from another cloudburst began to beat against the glass.
"At least, it should be cooler tomorrow," Jennifer said.
"Don't count on it, darlin'," Jesse her the bottle. "Soon as that sun peeks over those mountains, it'll be just as hot as today. Maybe, hotter."
"Really," Mary looked surprised. "All this rain won't have any effect on the heat."
"Nope," Jesse shook her head. "Not only won't it have any effect but you'll be raising dust clouds when you walk across the yard."
"Come on, Jesse," Jennifer protested. "All that water must have some effect."
"Wait and see," Jesse told the doubting women as she again sat at the table with Mary. "You'd think this valley was at the bottom of a lake the way water runs off it. All I can say, is it's a good thing we have as many rivers in the valley as we do. Otherwise, the land wouldn't be much good for growing anything but rocks."
"Guess we'll see," Jennifer murmured as she took another look at the storm raging outside.
A little over an hour later, Jennifer was putting a sleeping KC to bed as Jesse walked Mary to her cabin. Before leaving the woman alone, Jesse made sure her repairs on the roof had held. Seeing that the cabin appeared to be in good order, she bid Mary goodnight.
"Don't forget, Mary," Jesse said, "you have any trouble, you pull on that string. Any trouble, at all. Even if you just want someone to talk to." The day before, Jesse, knowing Jennifer was concerned about her mother being alone in the cabin, had strung a cord from Mary's cabin to the ranch house. A cow bell was tied to it's end and would serve as an distress signal. Jesse grinned at the memory of the reward she'd received from her appreciative wife.
"Jesse?" Jennifer sat on the bed waiting for the rancher to finish drying off after their bath.
"I think I owe you something for stringing the alarm bell to my mother's cabin."
"Oh," Jesse tossed the towel she had been using over the back of a chair. "And, just what were you thinking, darlin'?"
"A reward, maybe," Jennifer teased as she scooted back on the bed and laid down. She held a hand out and, when Jesse took it, she pulled her lover onto the bed. Jesse stretched out on top of Jennifer pressing their naked bodies together. Jennifer's hands roamed over Jesse's back before pulling her even closer. Slowly, she lifted her good leg, forcing it between Jesse's. When Jesse opened for her, Jennifer thrust her thigh upwards. She felt Jesse's warm wetness smear over her cool skin.
Jesse moaned, slowly rubbing against Jennifer's thigh. She locked her arms on either side of Jennifer, giving the necessary support to rub harder against her thigh. Jennifer brought her hands around to Jesse's chest, cupping her breasts and squeezing the firm mounds together. She lifted her head to suck hardened nipples into her mouth, teeth raking over sensitive skin. Jesse responded to the overwhelming sensations, throwing her head back and forcing her breasts against Jennifer's caressing hands.
Jennifer continued kneading Jesse's breasts with one hand as she slowly slid the other down Jesse's stomach and between their bodies. Her fingers slipped into Jesse's wetness, quickly finding the hard clit and firmly pressing against it. Jesse's body jerked, her nipples unwillingly pulled from Jennifer's sucking mouth. Jennifer reached up and pulled Jesse down to her, capturing Jesse's lips and crushing their mouths together.
As her need to release built, Jesse pressed harder and faster against Jennifer's thigh, spasms intensifying at her center and expanding outward. Jennifer slipped her hand inside Jesse, moving her fingers rapidly in the circular motion Jesse liked.
Jesse's back arched, her body going rigid as vaginal walls clinched around Jennifer's fingers. "Oh, god, yessssssss," she cried when wave after wave crashed through her. Moments later, as the pent up tension discharged, Jesse collapsed onto the bed beside her lover.
Jennifer rolled onto her side, gently rubbing Jesse's back as she regained her breath.
"I liked my reward," Jesse gasped.
"I thought you would," Jennifer playfully traced irregular patterns on Jesse's heated and sensitive skin.
Jesse adjusted her position so she was facing Jennifer. "I love you, Jennifer Branson."
"I love you, Jesse Branson," Jennifer bent forward, kissing her wife.
Jesse smiled, "And, now, darlin'," she tenderly pushed Jennifer onto her back, "I'm going to show you just how much."
Jesse kissed Jennifer, starting with her mouth then leaving a wet trail of kisses down her neck, around her breasts and trailing to the patch of curly hair at the apex of her legs. She inhaled deeply, breathing in the scent of her lover.
Jennifer's hands clutched at the bed sheets as Jesse set her skin on fire, her breathing becoming unsteady pants.
Jesse slid between Jennifer's legs, lifting them onto her shoulders. Tenderly, she kissed up and down the inside of first one thigh and then the other, teasingly moving closer to the center of Jennifer's passion with each pass.
"Please," Jennifer whimpered. Jesse was driving her mad.
Jesse placed her hands on the inside of Jennifer's thighs and gently spread her legs wider, opening her lover up to her. For a moment, she simply gazed at the beauty spread before her. Then, slowly, she began to examine Jennifer with her tongue. The tip of the strong muscle barely gazing the sensitive clit that pulsed beneath it.
Jennifer moaned for more contact.
Jesse adjusted to press her tongue firmly against the nether lips it explored, enjoying the sweet, tangy juices flowing from her lover.
"Inside," Jennifer begged.
Jesse did as she was asked, driving her tongue inside her wife. She pulled out and thrust in again, at the same time, pinching Jennifer's clit between her fingers. Jennifer ground her heels into the mattress as her body bucked upward, the motion forcing Jesse's tongue deeper inside her.
"Jesseeeeeeeeeeeee," she screamed.
"Thank you, Jesse. I'm sure I'll be fine." Mary watched a faraway look spread across her daughter-in-law's face, she wondered what could be causing it. "I promise, I'll pull on the string if I need anything. Now, please, go back. I'm sure Jennifer is starting to worry by now."
Captivated by her own thoughts, Jesse wasn't quite sure what Mary had said. "Uh, well, yes. See you in the morning, then," she stumbled.
Before returning to the ranch house, Jesse went to the barn and checked on the horses. Satisfied, they were okay and the barn had survived the storm undamaged, she walked back across the yard. Overhead, the moon was shining behind one of the few remaining clouds and thousands of stars twinkled in the black sky. Jesse stopped for a moment to enjoy the sight. As she stood looking upward, she heard familiar footfalls coming towards her.
"Beautiful, isn't it," Jennifer said as she wrapped her arms around Jesse and pressed her body against the woman she loved.
"You certainly are," Jesse claimed Jennifer's lips.
"I was talking about the stars," Jennifer sighed as their mouths parted.
"I know," Jesse leaned forward until their foreheads touched. "But, I do believe you are the most beautiful sight my eyes have ever been blessed with."
"Ah, Jesse," Jennifer felt her eyes fill with tears. "You are so romantic."
"I love you," Jesse whispered. "More than anything else on this earth."
A tear dropped from Jennifer's eye and began a journey down her cheek. Jesse tenderly reached up, cupping her face. She wiped the tear away with her thumb.
"Don't ever leave me, Jesse," Jennifer sighed. "I don't think I could live without you."
"Ain't goin' nowhere, darlin'," Jesse pulled Jennifer close.
Jennifer twisted in Jesse's arms and laid her head on Jesse's shoulder. The world around them faded until there was nothing but the two of them, happily enveloped in each other's arms.
"How about that bath?" Jennifer asked after some time.
"Oooo, I thought you'd never ask." Jesse grabbed Jennifer's hand and started running for the house.
"Mommy," KC tucked her head against Jennifer's shoulder and watched sadly as Jesse mounted her golden mare, Dusty, and prepared to ride to Sweetwater alone.
"I won't be long, sunshine. Just want to check on Bette Mae and make sure the Slipper survived intact," Jesse told Jennifer.
Hearing the name of her baking buddy, KC brightened, "cookie?"
Jesse smiled at the baby, "we'll see what she's got in the oven." The rancher leaned in the saddle to give Jennifer a kiss. "I'll be back before nightfall. Stick close to the house, okay."
"Is something wrong, Jesse?" Jennifer asked again. Since they woke that morning, Jesse had seemed preoccupied but she refused to share her concerns with Jennifer.
"Stick close. Promise," Jesse looked into Jennifer's eyes.
"Yes, I promise. I just wish you'd tell me what was bothering you," Jennifer tried again.
"Not sure," Jesse straightened in the saddle. "Just a feeling, I've got." She urged Dusty forward.
"Be safe, sweetheart," Jennifer called after Jesse. With a wave of her hand, the rancher rode toward the ranch gate. Two large logs standing on either side of the road from town, arching from the top of one log to the other was a third log with the side facing incoming visitors cut flat. Carved into the flat surface was JJ's Dream. Jesse had surprised Jennifer by carving the second "J" into it's face after they returned from Bozeman.
"Come on, sweetie," Jennifer said to the unhappy child watching her mommy disappear over the hillock topped by the ranch gate. "Let's go see if your grandma is up, yet."
"Otay," KC reluctantly agreed.
Mary's cabin was approximately fifty feet south of the ranch house and separated from the barn and outbuildings by the garden. As Jennifer walked, she smiled at it's neat rows of vegetables and flowers surrounded by a new picket fence. After moving to the ranch, she and Jesse had spent several days pulling weeds and tilling the ground so it would be useful again. It was a good feeling knowing that their hard work had turned the neglected, weed-infested patch of ground into something so beautiful.
"Come in, dear," Mary called out through the open door of her cabin.
"Grmm," KC perked up when she heard her grandmother's voice.
"Everything okay, mother," Jennifer entered the cabin. Mary was sitting at the table, sipping a cup of tea.
"Yes. I'm fine. Water's hot if you'd like some tea," Mary pushed her cup towards the center of the table as KC was placed in her waiting arms. "How are you this morning?" she asked, as she kissed the baby's cheek.
"Mommy, go," KC pouted.
"Jesse went to town. KC wanted to go, too," Jennifer explained. "We were expecting you for breakfast," Jennifer sat on the bed, the cabin being too small for a second chair.
"Oh, I just woke up a short time ago," Mary informed her.
"Did you sleep alright?" concerned that her mother might have spent a restless night.
Mary chuckled, "I can't remember ever sleeping as well as I did last night. That is, once I got used to the quiet."
"It is quiet out here, isn't it?" Jennifer thought back to the town she had grown up in. Carts and buggies seemed to always be traveling the cobblestone streets. And, the business district around the train depot was never tranquil, the noise from the saloons and freight wagon yards carrying far on the still air. Many a night, she had laid awake unable to block out the noise.
"Do you ever miss it, dear," Mary wondered if her daughter was ever homesick.
"You mean back east?"
"Yes. Do you ever miss home?"
Jennifer was silent for a moment, "this is home for me, mother. Wherever Jesse is, will always be my home." She watched as KC slipped from her grandmother's lap dropping to the floor to crawl towards her. "But, do I miss where I grew up? No, mother, I don't."
"Was it really that bad?" Mary asked as she pulled her tea cup close and took a sip.
"It was never right for me," Jennifer reached down and helped KC up. The baby curled up in her lap and yawned. "I felt trapped there, mother. All I ever wanted was to travel and make my own way in life. But, father...,"
Mary smiled, sadly, "he believes in his ways."
"His ways are wrong," Jennifer's old frustrations began to pout out. "How often did you hear him complain about needing someone in the shipping office he could trust? Or, someone to handle the correspondence from suppliers and customers so he could be free to see to the ships and their cargos? I could have done that, mother. I could have contributed to the company. But, he only saw me as a way to make a business deal."
Mary understood the resentment Jennifer had over being left out of the family business. After all, it had been her own arranged marriage to Jennifer's father that had provided the funding to keep the business afloat.
"What about your brothers, dear. They do love you."
Jennifer laughed, a touch of bitterness in her voice, "my brothers barely acknowledged me, mother. I have no memory of any of them playing a game with me or reading to me. Or, even talking to me, except to order me about." Jennifer shook her head, "no, mother. There is nothing in the east that I miss. Or, wish to return for," she said before her mother could suggest a visit.
"I'm sorry, Jennifer," Mary placed her empty tea cup back on the table. "I knew what your father expected of a daughter, my father had expected the same of me. I did try to talk to him after you were born. I didn't want my daughter forced into a love-less marriage like I had been. But, your father is a very stubborn man."
"You talked to him," Jennifer was surprised to hear that her mother had contested her father's actions. She could not remember a time her mother had even questioned her father during her years growing up. Jennifer was getting to see a completely new side of her mother.
"Yes. But, it was no use," Mary looked into her empty cup. "I was scared when you left, Jennifer. But, I was also glad. I prayed you would find happiness," she smiled, knowing Jennifer had found that and more. "I just wish you had sent word telling me that you were alright."
"I'm sorry, mother." Jennifer had sent no communications to the east, afraid that somehow they would find their way to her father. "I was afraid that father would find out and come after me."
"I understand," Mary rose to prepare herself another cup of tea. "Tea, dear?" she asked.
"No, thanks," Jennifer shook her head. "Never developed a taste for the stuff. How did father find me, mother?" the question had troubled Jennifer since receiving notice of his pending arrival.
"I'm not sure," Mary returned to her chair with a fresh cup of tea. "He received a telegram one day and announced he would be leaving immediately. He wouldn't tell me who had sent the telegram but I did see it for a brief moment. I think the name at the bottom was Thomas," she considered the sound and decided it wasn't quite right. "Or, something like that."
Jennifer thought, why did the name sound familiar? "I knew it," she cried, KC fussed in her arms at the abrupt sound. "Sorry, sweetie," Jesse rubbed the baby's back until she re-settled. "The dress shop in Bannack... Thompson's Dress Shop. I knew that man gave me the creeps, now I know why."
"Of course," Mary nodded. "Marcus Thompson. He did some work for your father before he and his wife left for the west."
"I'll have to remember to pay him a visit next time I'm in Bannack," Jennifer vowed. "I'm real sure Jesse would like stop by and say howdy."
Both women laughed at a vision of Jesse throttling the man who had caused the young couple so much pain.
"Bet he won't send any more telegrams after Jesse is finished with him," Mary chuckled.
"No, I'm sure he won't," Jennifer agreed. "Now, about that dressmaker," Jennifer began, "I haven't had a chance to try on the dresses she made me. And, considering the poor job she did fitting my wedding dress, maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea. Want to help?"
"Good," Jennifer stood, careful not to wake KC. "Let's go put her to bed." Then, forgetting Jesse's warning, she suggested, "maybe, when she wakes up, we can walk down to the river."
"That would be nice."
"Anything else, Bette Mae," Jesse was on the porch of the Slipper sweeping up broken glass. She had been happy to learn that the building had survived the storm with only a broken window, a branch having been blown into it. Jesse had measured the empty frame and was getting ready to walk over to the general store to buy a replacement pane.
"Nope," the innkeeper answered as she righted another chair, the wind had blown the porch chairs about. "Broken glass from that winda was all we found this mornin'. Ruthie and Nancy checked all the rooms upstairs. I gave ya office a quick peek, couldn' find anythin' amiss."
"Alright, I'll go see if Ed has the glass for a new window or if we have to order it from Bozeman. Either way, I'll come back and cover that hole."
"Ya can pick me up som' salt whilst you're there," Bette Mae said as Jesse walked down the stairs.
"Okay," Jesse stepped from the shade of the porch into the harsh sunlight. It was hard to believe the storm had been raging less than ten hours before.
As Jesse walked, she spotted Miles Perkins standing in front of the empty space on the far side of the general store. His arms swinging wildly about as he talked to another man she didn't know. Jesse wondered what the town's mayor was up to now. It didn't take her long to find out.
Ed was standing on the boardwalk in front of his store watching the mayor, "have you heard what Miles is planning?"
"Nope," Jesse gratefully stepped into the shade alongside Ed.
"He's opening a bank."
"Yep, he was in here yesterday ordering the material for the building. Goin' ta use sandstone blocks, make it real impressive, he said. Even has a safe coming all the way from New York City."
"Well, I guess that is one thing Sweetwater can use." Jesse took off her stetson and wiped her sweaty brow. "Can't believe how hot it is after all that rain last night."
"Funny, isn't it," Ed agreed. "What brings you to town, Jesse? Tired of being surrounded by women all ready?" Ed chuckled.
"No," Jesse glared at her friend as she returned the stetson to her head. "Came in to check on the Slipper. Need some glass cut. You have any in stock?"
"Think so," Ed turned to enter the store. "Let's go see."
Jesse followed Ed into the store and through to a back room Ed used for sleeping. A small cot, looking too small to hold the big man was shoved out of the way of the many boxes and crates stacked in the room. Ed moved a couple of the boxes and looked behind them.
"Thought I had one piece left," he said as he gingerly lifted the glass free. "Hope this is big enough for you."
"Looks to be," Jesse said. "I'll be sure as soon as we can set it down and measure it."
It didn't take long for Ed to find a safe spot to lay the glass down so it could be measured and cut to size. He offered to wrap it in paper for Jesse but she declined.
"I'm taking it right back and sticking it in place. No use to waste the paper."
"Anything else for you today, Jesse?" Ed asked as he carefully disposed of the left over slivers of glass.
"Bag of salt," Jesse told him.
"Alright," Ed walked a few paces down the counter and pull the requested item off a shelve. "How's the work comin' out at the ranch?"
"Finished," Jesse accepted the bag from the storekeeper. "Looks real nice, too."
"Jennifer's momma sure seems like a real, nice lady," Ed opened his ledger and made a notation it
"She is," Jesse was sure the Slipper still had a positive balance on account but she waited for Ed to verify it.
"Too bad her husband is such a bad character," Ed did a quick calculation. "You still have money coming, Jesse. I'll just put this against it."
"Thanks, Ed," Jesse readjusted the piece of glass. She wanted a firm grip on it before she left the store. "You order the lumber for your add-on, yet."
"Yep, sent the order to Bozeman a couple days ago. Miles wasn't too happy to hear he'd have to wait 'til mine was filled. Seems he was hoping that there fella could start building right away."
"Who is he, anyway?" Jesse asked.
"Miles called him a, what was it now. Some fancy name, oh yeah, an arc-e-tech. Came all the way from Denver."
"Um," Jesse rolled the word around on her tongue, "arc-e-tech. Wonder what that fancy word means."
"Somebody who makes buildings, I reckon," Ed muttered as he replaced the ledger.
"Glad I caught you, Jesse."
"Something wrong, Billie?" Jesse was putting away her tools after installing the new window pane when the sheriff came looking for her.
"Wanted to tell ya that I talked to a couple of the Rocking B boys this morning." Conrad Billingsley's Rocking B ranch was one of the oldest and the biggest ranch in the valley.
"They said that lot's more rain fell in the mountains last night. 'Xpect the rivers to start rising sometime today. Thought you'd want to keep a lookout for high water seeing how the river is so near your place."
Jesse heart dropped into her boots and she gasped as if someone had slammed a fist into her stomach.
"Hey, you okay?" Billie was troubled by the look of pure panic spreading across Jesse's face.
"I've got to get back to the ranch," Jesse told him as she ran off the porch. Moments later she and Dusty were galloping out of town.
"What bit her in the butt?" Bette Mae asked the sheriff at Jesse's sudden departure.
"Don't know," Billie looked after his friend. "Think maybe I'll ride out to the ranch, just to be sure."
"Well, that's the last of them," Jennifer pulled a pale yellow dress with a flowery pattern from a box. She stepped into the dress and pulled it up her slender body.
"I don't know, dear," Mary scrutinized the fit of the dress. "I'm not sure that this one is any better than the others."
"My measurements couldn't have change that much.," Jennifer looked in the full length mirror that stood in the corner of the house. The dress bagged around her waist and was a good half foot too short. "And, I certainly didn't grow since we were in Bannack."
"My," Mary said as she tested the length of the dress sleeves, "her talent as a dressmaker is somewhat lacking. This work would never have been accepted back home."
"Maybe that's why she moved west," disgusted, Jennifer removed the dress and placed it with the others on the bed. She retrieved her denim pants and pulled them on. She was buttoning up her shirt when the door burst open.
"Jennifer," Jesse shouted.
KC, playing on the floor, jumped as Jesse charged into the room. The commotion scared the baby and she began to howl.
"Jesse, what's wrong?" Jennifer was so surprised at Jesse's sudden entrance, she nearly fell before she managed to steady herself with her cane.
"You're here," Jesse bent to pick up KC, the baby sobbing loudly.
"Where else would we be?" Jennifer asked.
"You didn't go down to the river today, did you?" Jesse was rubbing the baby's back attempting to calm her.
"Well, we were going to," Jennifer admitted. "But, then, I remembered my promise to you that we would stay near the house."
Jesse let out the breath she had been holding since leaving town as she dropped into the rocking chair, her arms encircling KC. "It's okay, sunshine," she soothed the baby. "Mommy didn't mean to scare you."
"She's not the only one you scared," Jennifer scolded. "Mind telling us just what that was about."
Jesse shrugged, sheepishly. "I just had a feeling something bad was going to happen today. Then, when Billie told me what he did. Well, I know how much you like to walk down to the river in the afternoon. And, I just... I guess I just figured that if somethin' was bound to happen, that would be it."
"Sweetheart, what in blazes are you talking about?" Jennifer walked over and caressed Jesse's cheek, "take a deep breath and tell me what happened."
Jesse did as she was told, and started again. "Billie said that there had been a lot more rain in the hills last night than what we got here in the valley. And, he said, that the rivers were probably going to be rising, causing some flooding. Well, I thought that if you went down to the river like you like to do," the words rushed out in a torrent of their own.
"You thought we might get trapped by high water?" Jennifer asked, softly.
"Oh, sweetheart," Jennifer lifted the baby from Jesse's lap and took her place. "I promised to stay here and I would never break a promise I made to you."
"I....," tears started to pour out of Jesse's eyes. "I was so scared, darlin'. I thought that was what the bad feeling was about. I had to know."
Jennifer kissed Jesse's wet cheeks, "I understand. I would have done the same thing under the circumstances," she pulled Jesse's arms around herself and KC.
"Mommy," KC reached for Jesse, a sad look on her miniature face.
"It's alright, sweetie," Jennifer kissed the top of KC's head. "Mommy is okay. She was just worried about us, like any good mommy would be."
Jesse remained silent as the adrenaline drained from her body leaving her feeling exhausted. "Guess I kinda over-reacted," she smiled weakly.
"Nah," Jennifer kissed her on the forehead. "You just love us."
"I must say," Mary finally got over the shock of the rancher's sudden appearance. "It is extremely exciting around you two."
Jennifer looked at her mother then at Jesse. Both women broke into giggles. KC, happy to see her mommies smiling again, joined them.
After several minutes, Jesse realized that there were dresses and undergarments strewn about the room. "What have you two been up to?"
Jennifer started to remove herself from Jesse's lap but Jesse held her tight, "I decided I should try on the dresses we bought in Bannack. Good thing I did."
"Don't you like them?" Jesse asked hearing Jennifer's tone. She had spent a lot of money to have the dresses made and shipped to Sweetwater. If there was a problem, she wanted to know.
"Not a single one fits," Jennifer proclaimed. "They're worse than the wedding dress." Jennifer had discovered the wedding dress they brought back from Bannack needed major alterations and if it hadn't been for Ruthie, a talented seamstress that worked at the Slipper, she would not have been able to wear the dress for their ceremony.
"Guess I'll be sending a letter to Mrs. Thompson," Jesse growled.
"There's something else you need to know about the Thompsons," Jennifer said cautiously, knowing Jesse was not going to take the news kindly. "Mr. Thompson is the one who told my father where to find me."
Jesse said nothing but her jaw muscles tensed and the veins in her neck began to pop out. That was the man behind all the pain Jennifer has suffered. Mr. Thompson would be receiving more than a letter from Jesse. Oh yes, much more.
"Sweetheart, would you please breathe before you pass out," Jennifer watched her lover's face change various shades of color as the anger built inside her. She guessed correctly that if she and KC weren't occupying Jesse's lap, the rancher would have been on her way to Bannack already. "He's not worth it, Jesse. Let it go," she said, quietly.
"He hurt you," Jesse hissed.
"I know, sweetheart," Jennifer gently kissed her agitated wife. "But, I'm alright now. If you go after him, I'll just be hurt all over again."
Jesse stared into Jennifer's eyes. She loved this woman so much. She never wanted to do anything to hurt her. "Alright," she nodded. "I'll let it be."
Jennifer smiled, "good girl".
"For now," Jesse got in the last word.
Meanwhile, down by the river, the pine tree that Jesse, Jennifer and KC liked to sit under when they took their afternoon walks, was undercut by a current swollen with the recent rain. Slowly, tilting until it could no longer hold itself upright, the tree crashed into the rushing water and was rapidly carried downstream. The river bank vanishing under the churning flow until nothing was left of their favorite picnic spot.
When Billie rode up, he found Dusty standing in front of the ranch house, her reins hanging loose in the dirt and the door to the house standing wide open. Billie cautiously dismounted, pulling his pistol from it's holster as he stepped onto the porch. "Everything alright," Billie called guardedly into the house, the gun ready for use.
"Everything's okay," Jesse called back as she continued to change KC's britches. "Come on inside." The women had heard Billie's horse when it entered the yard. Looking out a window, they had seen Billie and gave little thought to his unexpected arrival.
"Billie," Jennifer peeked out the door. "Goodness, put away that gun before you hurt somebody."
Billie poked his head through the door opening,
Jesse patted KC on her padded rear end, "there you are, sunshine. All nice and dry again."
"Dow," KC asked for help getting off the bed.
Jesse took hold of the baby's arms and dropped her safely onto the floor. KC crawled immediately for her toy box.
"Well, come on in," Jesse repeated as she placed the soiled diaper in the wash basket. Billie still stood outside the door, mouth agape. "What's wrong, you never seen a diaper changed before?"
"Damn, Jesse," Billie said as he holstered the pistol and stepped inside. "The way you lit out of town, I thought maybe Jennifer or KC were in trouble."
"What?" Jesse looked confused until she remembered the manner in which she had left Sweetwater. "Oh, sorry, 'bout that."
Mary started to chuckle as she cut vegetables for the stew Jennifer was preparing for supper. "Never a dull moment with you two, is there."
"Hush, mother," Jennifer playfully swatted at her with a towel. "Staying for supper, Billie?" Jennifer asked, casually.
"Well," Billie continued to look confused at the happy family scene before him. "I guess," he shook his head. "But, only if you bother tellin' me what happened."
"Go on and sit down, Billie," Jesse laughed as she filled two cups with fresh brewed coffee from the pot. She joined the sheriff at the table and began to tell him why she had ridden out of town like someone had lit her on fire.
"So, none of the dresses fit," Billie asked as he finished off his second piece of apple pie.
"Not a single one. I'll have to ask Ruthie if she'll mind fixing them," Jennifer poured coffee into Jesse's empty cup. "I probably should of had her sew them in the first place."
"Thanks, darlin'," Jesse rolled an idea around in her head as she sipped the hot liquid. "You know," she drawled, "that may not be such a bad idea."
"What?" Jennifer asked, feeding a small bite of pie to KC.
"Yum. Mo'," KC held onto the fork as if more pie would magically appear on it.
"Having Ruthie sew your dresses."
"You lost me, sweetheart," Jennifer pulled the fork from KC's grasp.
"Much as I hate to admit it," Jesse started to explain. "Sweetwater is beginning to grow. Ed's going to add on to the store and Mayor Perkins is opening a bank."
"He is," Jennifer interrupted. Jesse hadn't had time to tell her wife about her earlier conversation with Ed.
"There'll be more folks in town. Women aren't going to be willing to travel to Bozeman or wait for the freight wagons every time they need a new dress or their young 'uns need clothes."
"What are you suggesting?" Billie asked as he took a gulp of coffee.
"Opening a dress shop."
Billie choked on his coffee, "you plannin' to take up sewing, Jesse."
"No," she scowled at the sheriff. "I was thinkin' that Ruthie might be interested."
"That's a wonderful idea, sweetheart," Jennifer enthusiastically agreed.
"That's a nice thought, Jesse. But, Ruthie can't afford anythin' like that."
"Wasn't expectin' her to pay for it, Billie," Jesse told the man who was sweet on the shy girl who worked for her. "We'd set up the shop," Jesse told her friend. "All she'd have to do, is the sewing."
"I don't know," Billie knew how shy Ruthie was. But, it would be nice to see her doing something she enjoyed instead of working at the Slipper. Not that Jesse hadn't been more than generous with her. "Guess it wouldn' hurt none to ask her."
"We could use your office at the Slipper," Jennifer said. "You barely use it anymore."
After convincing Jesse to let her help with the Slipper's bookwork, Jennifer had moved most of the ledgers and other records to the ranch house so she could do the books at home. The office was only used now for Jesse to catch up on reading the Sweetwater Gazette or to go through any mail that might come.
"It's kinda dark in there for sewing, don't you think?" Mary asked.
"Guess we could put in some more windows," Jesse hadn't really thought about converting her office into a dress shop but it did make sense to use the idle space. "Be obliged if you didn't mention this to Ruthie, Billie. I want to give it some more thought. We'll talk to Ruthie and Bette Mae next time we're in town."
"Mommy," KC looked sleepily at Jesse, "seep."
"Guess it is past your bedtime, sunshine," Jesse lifted the baby from the highchair.
"Time for me to be gettin' back to town," Billie stood. "Thanks for supper, Jennifer."
"You're welcome any time Billie," Jennifer handed the sheriff his hat. "Come by more often."
"Goodnight, Miss Mary," Billie nodded to Jennifer's mother. "'Night, Jesse."
"I'll walk you out, Billie," Jesse kissed the top of KC's head before passing the tired baby to Jennifer. "I need to check on the horses."
"I'll come, too," Mary gave Jennifer and KC goodnight kisses. "If you'll be so kind as to walk me to the cabin, Jesse."
"Glad to, Mary," Jesse held the door open. "Be right back, darlin'."
By the time Jesse returned to the house, KC was fast asleep in her crib and Jennifer was soaking in the tub.
"Better hurry before the water gets cold, sweetheart," Jennifer purred as clothes began to fly around the room.
Bette Mae had just placed Ed's breakfast in front of him when the door to the Slipper opened and a nattily dressed man entered the dining room.
"I'm looking for the proprietor," the man announced pretentiously.
"Jesse ain't here," Bette Mae filled Ed's cup with hot coffee. "Somethin' I can's help ya with?"
"I sincerely doubt it," the man sneered. "When can I expect him to arrive?"
Bette Mae examined the man standing before her. He wasn't very tall, barely coming up to her chin, and she wasn't a tall woman. He had dark hair with a handlebar mustache to match. His eyes narrowed to slits as he observed the woman analyzing him.
"He is a she," Bette Mae said slowly. "And, when Jesse comes to town is her business. Now, you interestin' in havin' breakfast or ya just goin' stand there wastin' my time."
"Eat. HERE. I think not," the man shuddered at the thought, ignoring what Bette Mae had said about Jesse.
"Then, I s'gest ya turn around and walk your uppity butt back outside. You's scarin' my customers."
The man looked around the dining room where several of the tables were occupied with folks eating their morning meal, many of them sniggering at him. He took a deep breath, holding it for a moment before releasing it. Then, he turned and left the Slipper.
"Looks like Mayor Perkins done got him some competition for town's most pompous ass," Bette Mae observed as she made her way back to the kitchen. Hearty laughter erupting among the diners.
"So, who was he?" Jesse asked.
After spending the past several days at the ranch, Jesse and Jennifer decided a trip to town was in order. Mary had asked to accompany them. Their first stop had been to the Slipper to check in with Bette Mae, who now was telling of the strange visitor she'd had.
"Didn' say," Bette Mae told the women. "Jus' said he wanted ta talk to the proprietor. Said it like he was real important, he did." It wasn't hard for Jesse and Jennifer to figure Bette Mae disliked the man.
"Well, I guess we'll just have to wait until he comes back when I'm here. Or, Jennifer."
"Plan ta do som' work in the office?" Bette Mae asked, she didn't care if the dandy ever returned.
"Nope," Jesse said.
"Got shoppin' to do?"
"Jennifer workin' at the schoolhouse?"
"Then what did ya com' all the way inta town for?"
"Well," Jesse drew out her response just to frustrate her friend. "We were kinda hopin' to talk with you."
"And, Ruthie," Jennifer added.
"Oh, lordy," Bette Mae exclaimed. "What trouble ya got yourselves into now?"
Jesse laughed, "no trouble, Bette Mae. Just find Ruthie and come into the office."
"Alrighty," Bette Mae said, "but I do not trust you Jesse Marie."
"Ooh," Jennifer teased Jesse, wiggling a finger in her face. "You're in trouble now."
"Ha, ha," Jesse brushed the finger aside. "Mary, you're welcome to come into the office, too."
"Thank you, Jesse," Mary smiled. "But, I think I'll sit out here."
"It shouldn't take long, mother," Jennifer said.
"You take all the time you want," Mary assured the women. "I'll be fine. Would you like me to watch KC for you?"
"Well," Jesse hesitated. Since Jennifer's kidnapping, KC had refused to be out of sight of her mothers. "Sunshine, do you want to stay with grandma while mamma and I go in there?" Jesse pointed to her office door.
"No," KC vigorously shook her head. "Mommy, no."
"Sorry, Mary," Jesse apologized.
"It's okay, Jesse," Mary patted the rancher's arm. "She needs to feel she's safe, with her mothers."
"Ah, Jesse, there you are," Mayor Perkins entered the Slipper, followed close behind by another man. "I thought that was your wagon outside."
"Miles," Jesse acknowledged the mayor.
"Jesse, I'd like to introduce Mr. Tobias Huntington," the mayor motioned the other man forward.
"That's him, Jesse," Bette Mae came out of the kitchen door with Ruthie in tow.
"You are the proprietor of this establishment?" Huntington looked at Jesse, perplexed. When Mayor Perkins had told him the Silver Slipper's owner was a Jesse Branson, he had assumed the owner to be a man.
"If you mean, do we own the Slipper, the answer is yes, we own her," Jesse included Jennifer.
"I wasn't expecting a woman."
"Do you have a problem with that?" Jesse dared the man to answer in the affirmative.
Thinking for moment, Harrington decided not to answer the intimidating, and quite tall, woman's question. "I have a proposition for you," Huntington stated. "I expect you have somewhere private we can talk."
"We have an office," Jesse told the man. "if'n we were wanting to talk to you, privately."
"Very good," Huntington gestured for the mayor to lead the way, "shall we."
"Yes, yes, very good," Mayor Perkins pointed to the office door, "this way."
"Bring us some coffee," Huntington ordered Bette Mae. Before she could respond, Jesse had stepped in front of the men, blocking their path.
Sensing Jesse was ready to throw the men out of the Slipper by the seats of their pants, or worse, Jennifer spoke before her wife had a chance. "Mr. Huntington, we are not accustomed to treating our staff, who are also our friends, so rudely. Perhaps, if you wish to have some coffee, it would be better for you to ask for a cup."
"I don't have all day, Perkins," Huntington tried to brush Jesse aside but she refused to move and there was no way the small man was going to make her.
"Jesse, please," the mayor pleaded. "Just a few minutes of your time."
By now, Jesse had no inclination to listen to what the arrogant man and mayor had to say but Jennifer was curious. "Perhaps, we could give them five minutes," she said to Jesse.
"We have other business to attend to today, so this better not be a waste of our time," Jesse glared at the men. "Forget about the coffee, Bette Mae," Jesse said. "They won't be here long enough to drink it."
"That suits me jus' fine," Bette Mae nodded.
"Alright, Perkins, you have five minutes." Jesse turned and walked to the office door, she held it open for Jennifer to enter.
"Business is with you," Huntington stated.
Jesse had had all she was going to take off this self-important man. "Look, mister," she growled, "I don't know who you are or what you want. But, you want to talk business about the Slipper, then you talk to me and Jennifer, or leave, now."
"And, don' let the door hit ya in the arse on the way out," Bette Mae muttered on her way back into the kitchen.
"Come on, Tobias," Mayor Perkins pulled Huntington towards the Slipper's office. "I told you they were partners."
Huntington reluctantly followed the mayor. If he hadn't been under orders from his bosses to quickly complete the offer on the Slipper, he would have turned on his heel and left rather than continue dealing with these women..
Once the office door was shut and Jennifer, now holding KC, was seated comfortably in the chair behind the desk, Jesse demanded, "what the hell do you want?"
"Miss Branson," Huntington began.
"Mrs.," Jesse corrected.
"If you are married," Huntington stammered, "I should be talking with your husband."
Mayor Perkins looked like he had swallowed something bad for breakfast and was seeking the quickest way to be rid of it. "I explained all of this to you, Tobias. Jesse and Jennifer are married."
Huntington looked at the women, then at the mayor, "how is that possible?"
"Doesn't matter," Jesse said. "It is. We are. So, deal with it."
"Mr. Huntington," Jennifer smiled pleasantly at the annoying man and asked, "did you wish to discuss something with us, or not?"
"Go on," Mayor Perkins urged.
Realizing he had no options if he was to carry out his employers' orders, Huntington started, "I represent a group of investors in the east. They have plans for the town of Sweetwater and they wish to purchase your establishment."
"No," Jesse and Jennifer said at the same time.
"Excuse me," Huntington demanded.
"The Silver Slipper is not for sale," Jennifer explained.
"I am authorized to make you a rather generous offer," Huntington began.
"As my wife said," Jesse walked to the office door and opened it. "The Slipper is not for sale. Not for any price. Not at any time. And, especially, not to you. Good day, gentlemen," she waited for the mayor and Huntington to leave.
"You are making a big mistake," Huntington protested, this was not going at all as he expected.
"GET OUT!" Jesse demanded.
After Harrington and the mayor left, Jennifer patiently watched Jesse storm about the office until the steam she had built up over Harrington's attitude finally abated.
"Mommy owie?," KC asked Jennifer.
"No, sweetie," Jennifer told the baby. "She's just upset over the way that man talked."
"Man, ugh," KC replied.
"Yes, sweetie," Jennifer chuckled at her daughter's insightfulness. "He definitely was ugh."
"This is going to cost my employers money they weren't expecting to spend," Tobias Huntington was pacing around Mayor Perkins office.
"I told you she was a stubborn woman," Perkins protested. "They can build another boarding house."
"Of course, they'll build another one," Huntington stormed. "They just didn't want to go to that expense at this time. The Silver Slipper is already operating, it would have saved time and money if that woman would have accepted their offer. Her refusal will not make them happy. I'll just have to go back and talk to her. Make her understand that there are changes coming to this town. Important changes."
"You won't change her mind," the mayor shook his head. "She runs that place like those women were her family."
"All whores from what I hear," Huntington stopped pacing and looked out the office window to the building at the edge of town. "Decent people shouldn't have to do business with whores. And, what about the relationship between those Branson women?" he turned to face the mayor. "Indecent, if you ask me. How could you allow something like that to take place?"
The mayor stayed silent rather than tell his new business partner that he had not only allowed it but had performed the wedding ceremony.
"Down right indecent," Huntington repeated. "It appears I have no choice but to return to the east and inform my employers of this unfortunate development. What time does the next stage leave?"
In the adjoining office, Thaddeus Newby thanked the stars for the thin wall between his office and the mayor's. From his desk, he pulled a clean piece of paper and began to quickly jot down a message to a newspaper friend in Denver. Thaddeus sealed the note in an envelope and addressed it, then stood and picked up his hat from the corner of the desk. He hurried from his office, the stage was due soon and he wanted to be sure his letter was on the coach when it left town.
Once Jesse had calmed down, Jennifer asked Bette Mae and Ruthie to come into the office. Jesse was slumped in the armchair, still simmering over Harrington. KC was busily crawling around Jesse's chair and climbing under and over her mother's long legs. Jennifer sat at the desk while she explained their idea of a dress shop to the women seated on the couch.
"Well, lordy," Bette exclaimed. "That is a right fine idea."
"I don't know, Miss Jennifer," Ruthie said shyly, looking down at the floor. "I don't think I could... Well, I..."
Ruthie wasn't much older than Jennifer but had seen a much different side of life growing up. Shortly after her fifteenth birthday, she had been forced into a life of prostitution when her mother died and her father abandoned her. Her face bore the scars of being sliced by a customer that had wanted more than Ruthie was willing to give.
Jennifer knelt in front of Ruthie, she tenderly placed a hand on the girl's knee. "I know you're self-conscious about your scars," Jennifer stopped Ruthie's hand from instinctively covering her face. "But, you are a very pretty girl and a very talented seamstress. And, I know that you'd rather make dresses than work in the kitchen. You've told me that, yourself. Jesse and I don't want you to do this unless you want to."
Ruthie thought about what Jennifer said. It was true, she did like sewing a lot better than working in the Slipper's kitchen and serving folks their meals. But, she felt uncomfortable whenever people stared at the scars the bastard had left on her.
"Can't hardly see them scars anymore, Ruthie," Bette Mae said, softly. She had been so frightened when she'd heard Ruthie crying for help that night. She had hurried to the girl's room to find the man straddling Ruthie on the bed, his arm raised in preparation of driving the bloodied knife down into the girl's chest. Without hesitation, Bette Mae had pointed and fired the gun she'd grabbed when she'd heard the screams.
Ruthie had refused to be with any other men after that night and was sure she'd be told to leave by the Slipper's owner. But a few days later, Jesse arrived having won the Slipper in a poker game. She not only kept Ruthie on but had paid for her to go to Bozeman and see a doctor.
"If you decide you can't do it," Jesse assured the girl, "you just say so."
"Alright, Miss Jesse," Ruthie agreed. "I'd like to try," Ruthie smiled, valiantly, at Jennifer.
"Good," Jennifer pushed herself upright off the floor.
"So's, where you plannin' to build this dress shop?" Bette asked.
"Well, actually," Jennifer returned to the chair behind the desk, "we thought we'd do it here."
"In this room."
Bette Mae looked around the office. The room's few furnishings consisted of the couch she and Ruthie now occupied, a small table beside it, the desk placed in the center of the room, the small armchair Jesse was slouched in, a liquor cabinet that was unused, and a set of shelves behind the desk. It wouldn't take much to convert the room into a sewing room for Ruthie. Only one problem she could see, the room was windowless.
"Might dark in here, don' ya think," Bette Mae voiced the obvious.
"Figured I'd use Harrington's head and knock a hole or two in the walls," Jesse grunted, her lips twitching as she tried not to smile.
"Bet ya'd like that," Bette Mae returned the playful jab. At least, she hoped Jesse was only kidding.
KC climbed as far up Jesse's leg as should could, "mommy, up."
Jesse pulled the baby the rest of the way to her lap, "getting tired, sunshine?"
"Moo," KC yawned.
"Well, unless there's anything more to discuss," Jesse placed a protective hand on KC's back as the sleepy baby snuggled against her chest. "Jennifer and I will make arrangements with Ed to order the windows."
"We'll see if he has any catalogs, Ruthie" Jennifer said. "So, you can start ordering dress material and other supplies."
Ruthie blanched at the thought of accepting such responsibility.
"Don't worry, Ruthie," Jennifer quickly added as she saw the girl's reaction. "Jesse and I will help you."
"Come on, Ruthie," Bette Mae stood. "Let's go git my littl' angel some milk so's she can take a nap. Ya can worry 'bout bein' a high and mighty seamstress after you git them 'taters peeled."
After Bette Mae and Ruthie left, Jennifer dropped onto the couch. Jesse carried KC over and joined her.
"Some morning, huh?" Jennifer asked as KC switched laps. She leaned against Jesse and felt the warmth of the rancher's arm draped over her shoulders.
"I'll say," Jesse sighed.
"Sweetheart, why do you think Harrington's investors are interested in Sweetwater?"
"Pompous ass," Jesse growled, before she answered. "Probably has something to do with the mines."
"Takes a lot of money to get the ore out of the ground," Jesse explained. "Investors back east have that kind of money."
"But, what would they be doing in Sweetwater? The mines are all in the mountains."
"Well," Jesse leaned back and got comfortable. "When a mine hits pay dirt, eastern investors send their errand boys to sniff around like buzzards on a carcass."
"You mean, like Harrington?"
"Yep. They offer the claim owner a fraction of the mines anticipated value."
"Why would they accept so little?"
"Like I said, it takes lots of money to turn a pile of rocks into a gold brick. Men who stake the original claims and do the work to find the ore, don't have it. So, when a vein is struck, they sell out. They get a lot more than they ever dreamed of and the investors get the future profits.
"But, that doesn't explain why they'd be interested in the Slipper."
"To make the mine pay, they have to bring in machinery, stamp mills, processors, stuff like that. To get that equipment to the mines, they have to build roads. They'll bring in mining engineers, assayers, men to build the roads and take care of the ore wagons and mining equipment. Those men will need somewhere to stay until lodging can be built closer to the mines. The investors will want to come and see what their money is being spent on and they'll need a place to stay."
"They can stay at the Slipper even if we own it, can't they?"
"Yes, but the investors like to own what they use. That way, they keep more of the money. Probably why Perkins got the bank charter. My guess is that Harrington's investors will also own the bank. All those men will need to get paid and it wouldn't be too safe bringing the payroll in from Bozeman every month."
"Can't they just build their own rooming house?"
"Probably will since we turned down their offer. Just would have been cheaper for them to buy the Slipper."
Jennifer considered all that Jesse had just told her. "Town is really going to grow, isn't it?"
"'Fraid so," Jesse sighed.
Bette Mae came into the office carrying a tray. Along with a pitcher of milk and glasses, the tray held a plate of sandwiches and another of cookies, straight out of the oven.
"Thought, ya'd might be hungry," Bette Mae said as she set the tray down on the desk. She filled a baby bottle with milk and brought it to KC, "there ya go, angel."
KC hungrily grabbed the bottle and laid back in Jennifer's arms, sucking happily.
"That's a right nice thing ya is doin' for Ruthie," Bette Mae told the women.
"Thanks, Bette Mae," Jennifer watched KC, making sure she didn't try to drink too fast. "Would you ask mother to join us?"
"She said ta tell ya she'd be back in a bit," Bette Mae informed her.
"Oh," Jennifer was surprised. "I wonder where she went."
"Headed down to Ed's," Bette Mae said as she left the room.
"Uh, I wonder what she's up to," Jennifer wondered out loud.
"Maybe she just wanted to stretch her legs," Jesse offered.
Mary took the envelope out of her bag and turned it over in her hands. She again debated whether or not she should she send it or leave well enough alone. She had been saddened by Jennifer's memories of a childhood devoid of any affection from her brothers. Maybe it wasn't too late to right the wrong she had allowed her husband to commit by passing his views of women onto their sons. 'Yes,' she thought, 'she had to try.'
With her decision made, Mary told Bette Mae she was going to go for a short walk and left the Silver Slipper. Not wanting to ask Bette Mae where to post the letter and give away her intentions, Mary headed for the general store. Certainly, the storekeeper could help her.
"Why, sure," Ed replied when Mary asked for his help. "Mail goes out on the stage. You can drop your letter over at the depot."
"When is the next stage?"
"Well, let's see," Ed pulled a pocket watch from his shirt pocket and took a look at the time. "Should be coming in 'bout two hours. That is, if it's on time. Most days it runs late. Would you like me to take it over for you?" Ed offered. "I was fixin' to walk over in another few minutes myself."
"Oh, I wouldn't want to be a bother," Mary said, but the idea of Ed posting the letter instead of her made some sense. If Jennifer saw her going into the small adobe building, she would most definitely have questions.
"No bother at all," Ed replied. "I have a few letters to post myself, got some orders to send to my suppliers in Bozeman. So, I can toss yours on the pile."
"Thank you," Mary told the helpful storekeeper.
Mary returned to the Slipper just as Jennifer came out of the office.
"Mother," Jennifer was relieved to see the older woman. "I was just going to go search for you. Why did you need to go off by yourself? You're not used to being out west."
"Why, child," Mary laughed, "I'm quite capable of walking around this quaint, little town all by myself."
"I know, mother," Jennifer stammered, slightly embarrassed, "I was just worried."
"Ah, good, you're back," Jesse came out of the office with KC.
"Grmm," KC grinned, cookie crumbs smeared across her face.
"Time we started back to the ranch," Jesse informed Jennifer and Mary.
"I'll just get my coat," Mary hurried off before Jennifer could ask any more about the purpose of her walk.
"You're own shop," Billie was sitting with Ruthie in the Slipper's dining room. Ruthie had just told him of the offer from Jesse and Jennifer. Keeping his word to Jesse he didn't mention he already knew of the plan. "Jesse is supplying everything?"
"And, Miss Jennifer," Ruthie reminded him.
"I can't believe it," Billie whistled. "That's a mighty fine thing for them to do."
"I don't know if I can do it, Billie," Ruthie said, uneasily. Even though she had earlier agreed to the plan, she was having second thoughts.
"Why not, honey?" the sheriff asked. He smiled nervously, the use of the endearment still sounding strange to the couple. "It's what we've talked about, if we ever had the money."
"I know, Billie," she reached up and touched the scars on her otherwise pretty face. "You know I don't like people looking at them."
Billie smiled at the woman he was falling in love with and pulled her hand away from her face. "Bette Mae is right, Ruth. They've faded to where you barely notice them. Besides, I think you're the most beautiful woman in the entire valley," he crowed.
"Miss Jesse and Miss Jennifer are the most beautiful," Ruthie countered.
"Not to me, honey," the sheriff took Ruthie's hand and held it. "I think you should give it a try, Ruth. Jesse said you could say no at any time, right? What do you have to lose?"
Ruthie thought for a moment, "I guess it can't hurt to try."
"That's my girl," Billie said proudly. "Now, would you give me the honor of buying you dinner?"
After arriving back at the ranch, the women spent a few hours working in the garden. While her mothers and grandmother weeded and tended the rows of vegetables, KC plucked flowers and played in the dirt. It wasn't long before the baby was covered from head to toe in grime. Mary returned to her cabin to rest before supper while Jesse and Jennifer gave the baby a bath.
"More coffee, Jesse?" Jennifer filled her own cup as she watched KC splashing happily in the tub.
"Nope, darlin'," Jesse smiled. "Think I'll go check on the horses. Might as well take the buckets with me, I can refill them on the way," she picked up the water buckets they would heat for their own bath later in the evening.
"Me, go?" KC asked when she saw Jesse reach for her stetson.
"Sorry, sunshine," Jesse knelt down beside the tub. "Can't carry you and the buckets. You stay here and keep an eye on your momma for me. Besides, we just got you clean."
"Otay," KC frowned, water dripping off her nose.
Jesse stood and pulled Jennifer to her, their lips met. "I'll be back before you get the squirt dressed," Jesse breathed into Jennifer's mouth.
Jennifer felt her body react to Jesse, "maybe she'll go to sleep early tonight."
"Let's hope so," Jesse continued to hold Jennifer.
A knock on the cabin door interrupted the women.
"Who could that be?" Jennifer asked, knowing her mother would have said something after knocking.
"Don't know," Jesse was concerned that she hadn't heard anyone approach the cabin. Whoever was at the door could be trouble. "Stay here with KC," she told Jennifer before quickly crossing to the cabinet that held her weapons. She pulled a rifle from the rack and checked to make sure it was loaded. Then, she walked to the door.
"Who is it?" Jesse cautiously asked before opening the door.
"A friend," came the reply.
"Damn, Walk," Jesse quickly pulled the door open when she recognized the voice. "You gave me a scare."
Jennifer, now with KC secure in her arms, watched Jesse open the door to reveal the Indian she had seen in town several days before. Jesse had told her the man was called Walks on the Wind in his language and that he was an old friend, having met during the years she had wandered the west before winning the Slipper in a Denver card game.
The man smiled and stretched out an arm which Jesse immediately clasped, "you must be getting old, Buffalo Heart. Even a young boy would have heard me from the time I put my horse in your corral."
"Come in, old friend," Jesse pulled the man into the cabin before releasing her grip. As she returned the rifle to the gun cabinet, she continued, "I figured you would be stopping by, after we saw you in town."
"Momma, cold," KC told Jennifer.
"Sorry, sweetie," distracted by the man's arrival, Jennifer forgot the baby in her arms was naked. "Come on, let's get you dressed," she started for the bed but Jesse stopped her.
"You have a family, Buffalo Heart," Walks on the Wind commented.
"Yes," Jesse smiled proudly. "This is my wife ,Jennifer, and this," she took the baby from Jennifer, "this is our daughter, KC. Darlin', this is my friend, Walks on the Wind."
"It's nice to meet you," Jennifer smiled. Though, nervous about the stranger, she trusted Jesse.
Walks on the Wind looked at Jennifer, then the baby. The resemblance was startling. "I knew you were of two spirits, Buffalo Heart, but I didn't know you could make a baby."
Jesse laughed as she handed KC back to Jennifer to dress, "I can't. Here, sit," she beckoned Walks on the Wind to a chair, "we found her after her folks were killed. When we couldn't find any other family, we decided to raise her ourselves."
Once dressed, KC asked to be put down on the floor, Jennifer complied. Without hesitation, KC crawled to Walks on the Wind and pulled herself upright on his leg. "Up," she demanded.
The warrior cheerfully did as he was told and lifted KC into his lap. Jennifer's fears for the baby's safety quickly evaporated while she watched KC engage the man in a conversation of gibberish.
"Looks like KC has taken a likin' to ya," Jesse laughed as her daughter pointed and gestured. After a few minutes, she retrieved her daughter, "she'll talk your ears off if you let her. Go on and play with your toys for a while," she told KC as she placed her near the toy box. Returning her attention, to her friend, she said, "we were just gettin' ready to prepare supper. You'll join us?"
"I'd like that."
"Hello," Mary tapped on the cabin door.
"Come in, mother," Jennifer called.
"Oh, my," Mary gasped as she entered the cabin and spied the Indian.
"It's alright, mother," Jennifer took hold of her mother to reassure her. "This is Walks on the Wind, a friend of Jesse's. He's having supper with us."
Walks on the Wind stood and held out a hand to Mary.
The women and their guest were finishing up their evening meal. KC was sitting in Mary's lap fighting sleep.
"I must say, Walk," Mary addressed the Indian as he had earlier asked. "Your English is, well..."
"Pretty good for an injun," he finished for her.
"Well, yes.... I mean, no," she was embarrassed to continue.
"It's all right, Mrs. Kinsington," he smiled to ease her embarrassment. "My mother married a English fur trapper, he taught me the language. And, I spent a couple of years at a missionary school."
"I see," Mary found that she liked the man. "So, you are part white?"
"No, the trapper was my mother's second husband. My father was killed when I was a child. Fighting soldiers."
"Oh. I am sorry."
Feeling an uneasiness invade the room, Jennifer decided to change the subject, "why do you call Jesse, Buffalo Heart?"
"She's never told you of her first buffalo hunt?"
"And, I don't think now is the time to start," Jesse warned Walks on the Wind. "Come on, darlin', help me clear the table."
"No, I want to hear this," Jennifer refused to budge from her chair. "Please," she encouraged the man to continue.
Ignoring the looks he was receiving from Jesse, Walks on the Wind began the story.
"Buffalo Heart joined my people on a buffalo hunt. She was not much older than some of the young boys we had allowed to take part in their first hunt. And, like the boys, she wanted to prove she was as good or better than the seasoned hunters. So, she was determined to kill the largest bull in the herd. She tracked that bull for three days before she got close enough to shoot it and brought it down with one shot to the heart. Some of the young warriors were jealous and told her she had to rip the heart from the animal and eat it to prove her worth as a hunter. Buffalo Heart met their challenge."
"Ugh," KC yawned.
"You got that right, sunshine," Jesse took the baby from Mary in order to rock her to sleep.
KC curled up in Jesse's arms and promptly went to sleep. Seeing that the baby didn't need rocking, she carried KC directly to her crib.
"The medicine woman gave her the name that night in a ceremony thanking our gods for a good hunt," Walks on the Wind concluded the story.
"Most disgusting thing I've ever eaten," Jesse shivered at the memory.
"Okay," Jennifer held up her hands, "I don't want to hear any more details."
"I agree," Mary looked as if her supper was trying to make a reappearance.
Jesse and Walks on the Wind began to laugh.
"So, what brings you to Sweetwater," Jesse asked her friend. "It's a bit out of you way, isn't it."
"I came to ask you to join us on our hunt this season."
Every summer, Walks on the Wind's tribe left their homeland in the west and traveled over the mountains to the buffalo herds east of the Rocky Mountains. Hunting the buffalo provided the meat the tribe needed to survive the winter.
"Sorry, Walk," Jesse returned to the table. "I have my family now. Can't take the chance on something happening to me."
Jennifer was disappointed that Jesse declined the offer. She would have loved to have the opportunity to see the large animals she had read about. But, she appreciated that Jesse put her family well being first.
"We are traveling on the southern trail," Walks on the Wind told Jesse. He hoped Buffalo Heart would change her mind and join the hunt.
Later that night, blankets were spread on the cabin floor in front of the kitchen fireplace to provide Walks on the Wind a comfortable place to sleep. When Jesse awoke the next morning, her friend was gone.
Continued in Part 3
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