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 much use of the "B" word in this part. My apologies to anyone this offends.

I would like to hear your comments, please write me at mickeyminner@yahoo.com.

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ROLLING THUNDER
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted July 2004

PART 3

The stagecoach left Denver at sunrise with three passengers. Just before nightfall, the horse team was pulled to a stop at the overnight stop. The men inside were relieved that the first day of their journey was over.

At the best of times, traveling by stagecoach was never pleasant. If the road was wet, mud would be thrown everywhere, caking into globs of sticky goo. If it was dry, dust would coat the horses, coach, baggage and passengers without prejudice. Either way, the coach's canvas window covers were almost always tied down to protect the passengers as much as possible. The curtains did help keep the mud and dust out but they also kept the heat and stall air in, making for steam bath conditions inside the coach.

Stage roads were seldom more than ruts littered with potholes and rocks, causing the stage to lurch violently as it raced over the obstacles. On the rare occasion that the stage traveled along a relatively smooth stretch of road, the coach would still swayed robustly. No matter the road conditions, the passengers inside were continually thrown against one another and the sides of the racing coach. Any attempts at carrying on a conversation while the stagecoach was in motion were quickly abandoned when passengers found all their energy was required just to maintain their seats.

Thus, it was that the three passengers had spent an entire day together with no more than a nod of the head between them.

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

"We're leaving tomorrow." Martin Kensington stood in the small parlor of his house, his three sons standing in various positions around him. He had just informed them of his plans to return to Montana and, with the help of his sons, force Jennifer back home. His wife would also be brought back to his house and would return to her proper duties. Once he had the women where they belonged, he would make new arrangements for a marriage of Jennifer that would benefit his company.

"Father, I don't think that is wise," Thomas, his eldest son said.

"And, why not?" Kensington bellowed. "Am I to leave my wife and daughter in the hands of that bitch? That outlaw?"

His son continued as calmly as possible, "that is not what I'm suggesting. I just think that there are better ways to handle this."

"Such as?"

"I don't know," when he saw the look of contempt flash across his father's face, Thomas quickly continued, "give me time to make inquiries into the matter."

"No," Kensington barked, "they belong here. I will not allow them to defy me one more day."

"But, father," William, his youngest son injected, "did you not say that you were allowed to leave Montana Territory only because you swore you would never return."

"Do you expect me to be held to such an oath?"

"It is legally binding," Thomas asserted.

"There is nothing about that god forsaken land that is legal," Kensington stormed. "If there had been any law, that bitch would have been sent to prison for causing Barrish's death and your sister and mother would be here, as they should be."

"I don't think that is necessarily the case," Thomas countered.

"Besides," Howard, the middle son added, "sounds to me like Jennifer is pretty happy where she is. Why should we interfere?"

Martin's head whipped around to look at his son. Thomas and William exchanged fearful glances, knowing that their brother had just let their secret out.

"How...do...you...know...that?" Kensington asked, his words deliberate and his anger barely contained.

"Damn," Howard muttered.

"Answer...me."

"We received a letter from mother," Thomas revealed.

"You what?" Kensington boiled at the information. "And, you chose to keep this from me."

"She asked us to."

"Since when do you let a woman tell you what to do?" Kensington stormed.

"Calm down, father," Howard spoke, an action he would quickly regret when his father's large hand struck him across the face, knocking him backwards.

"Father, stop," Thomas grabbed his father's arm while William knelt to check on Howard.

Thomas Kensington had not inherited his father's temper, but he had inherited his size and, after years of loading and unloading cargo from the family's ships, he was more than a match for the large man. He easily resisted Martin's attempts at breaking his hold.

"Let me go," Kensington screamed.

"I will as soon as you calm down," Thomas tightened his grip. "How is he?" he asked his younger brother.

"Dazed, but he should be alright," William told him. "He's got a pretty nasty gash on the back of his head. Must of hit something when he fell."

"Think you can get him to the doctor's office by yourself?"

"Yes," William helped his brother stand on wobbly legs. "You going to be alright?" he asked, concerned about leaving his eldest brother alone at this time.

"Yes, get him out of here."

"We'll be back as soon as we can," William half-carried his brother to the door.

Martin watched dispassionately as his two youngest sons left the house. "I want to see the letter," he demanded of the son who still held him.

"No," Thomas said, releasing his grip.

"Give me the letter."

"I burned it."

"Something else she asked you to do, I suppose," Kensington snarled

"Yes," Thomas lied as he carefully sat on one of the delicate chairs that his mother had furnished the room with. "Sit down and we'll talk."

"With or without your help, I'm going back to Montana," Martin proclaimed as he dropped into a matching chair, uncaring how his large stature strained the fragile frame.

Thomas remained silent. He studied the look of determination on his father's face and knew that nothing he could say would change his mind. He thought of the letter he had received several weeks earlier from his mother, describing Jennifer's life in Montana. He was still trying to understand the concept of his sister marrying another woman but from what his mother had written, Jennifer was happy and that was all that really mattered.

His mother had gone on to explain the events of his father's trip to Montana. How he had attacked Jesse. How he had forced Andrew Barrish into helping him kidnap Jennifer. How Jennifer had been seriously injured during her unsuccessful attempt to protect the young man from the mountain lion. How his father had been arrested and was saved from being sent to prison only because Jennifer asked that he, instead, be forced to leave Montana Territory and told never to return.

Thomas compared the details in the letter to the version his father had told upon returning from Montana. It appeared his father had left out quite a few facts, especially his role in the tragic consequences that cost Andrew Barrish his life. He wondered what the cost might be if his father fulfilled his threat to go back to Montana.

Thomas was several years older than his sister and had had almost nothing to do with the girl as she grew. It wasn't really intentional, at the age of twelve he was already working in the family business by the time of Jennifer's birth and had little time to spare for the new arrival. He smiled as he thought of the little girl who always seemed to have a thousand questions. She had been so full of spirit. He now realized, that over the years, that spirit had gradually disappeared under their father's discipline.

Thomas had been upset by his mother's letter, as had his brothers. It had been disturbing to read of their sister's memory of them and, looking back, they knew that they had allowed their father's opinion of women to color the attitudes they had shown their mother and sister. The brothers had discussed if there was any way to make up to Jennifer for such a lonely and unhappy childhood. They hoped their mother was right and that, now, Jennifer was, indeed, happy.

As he sat watching his father seethe, Thomas determined not to allow his father to destroy the happiness Jennifer appeared to have found in Montana. "I will accompany you to Montana. But, only I will accompany you and only under the following conditions."

"If I refuse," Kensington sneered at his eldest son.

"I will send word to the territory authorities, alerting them to your intentions."

"You wouldn't dare," Kensington growled.

Thomas smiled at the man who had always controlled his family through the use of intimidation, no wonder his sister had chosen to run away. He considered why he had never taken the same option. "I will," he promised.

When his father didn't reply, Thomas continued, "Condition one, you will not seek Jennifer's return. Condition two, you will allow mother to make her own decision as to whether she returns to live with us or she stays with Jennifer."

"Then, what's the point in my going?" Kensington asked, bemused.

'Exactly,' Thomas thought to himself. "For me to talk to them and ascertain if they are well and what their wishes are in this matter. And, for me to ask mother to return," Thomas said. He missed his mother and wanted her to be a part of his life again, especially now that he was preparing to ask a wonderful young lady to be his wife.

"Not your sister?"

"Jennifer has a new life, father. She is married and has a child. There is nothing for her here."

"A bitch and a bastard," Kensington snorted. "Some life."

Thomas' jaw clinched at his father's words, "do you agree to my conditions?"

"I'm going," Kensington declared. "And, when I get your mother and sister back here where they belong, I will make sure they understand the consequences of defying me. Train leaves tomorrow," Kensington said as he rose from the chair, "whether you go or not, is your choice." He stormed from the room.

"For Jennifer's sake, I hope the love she shares with her Jesse is as strong as mother says," Thomas muttered to the empty room. He made a silent vow that he would not let his father hurt Jennifer ever again. And, if his mother chose to return, things would be different for her, also.

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

"What do you mean married to one another," a heavyset bald man asked as he puffed on a cigar.

"Just what I said," Tobias Harrington repeated, "two women married to each other. All nice and legal according to Mayor Perkins."

"Scandalous," a tall, thin man shook his head.

"They refused our offer?" a third man asked.

"Never heard the offer," Harrington explained. He was standing at the head of a large circular table around which sat a dozen men who formed the investment group that employed him. He had returned to their office to report on the developments in Sweetwater. "Turned Perkins and me down before we could give the details."

"This mayor," a man with curly red hair and bushy sideburns spoke, "did he not promise he could make things happen for us in this town, what's the name of it.... "he reviewed several pages of notes spread out before him on the table, "Sweetwater?"

"Yes, but,' Harrington began.

"Yet," the red haired man continued, "the first thing we ask of him fails to take place?"

"Well," Harrington tries again.

"I don't understand," the bald man with the cigar interrupted. "how can such a marriage be legal?"

"Will you shut up," the red haired man shouted. "I don't give a tinker's damn if the women are married to each other. I do care that we are now required to spend thousands of dollars building a hotel that we hadn't budgeted for. And," he directed his barb at Harrington, "I wonder if the men we entrusted this project to are worth the money we're paying them."

Harrington felt the ground slipping out from under him and he struggled to regain solid footing, "Mayor Perkins is very influential in Sweetwater."

"Doesn't appear to be," Harrington searched the faces around the table, unsure which of the men had spoken.

"Can we trust him?" a man sweating heavily asked. "And, do we even need him?"

"We do need Perkins for the bank charter," Harrington interjected. "Has to be a resident of the territory."

"Hell, we can get any idiot to front for us on the charter," the red haired man argued. "Perkins is supposed to be able to get things done and do it without costing us money."

"Perkins, non-withstanding," everyone else at the table quieted as the elderly man sitting opposite of Harrington spoke, "is there any chance of getting these women to change their minds."

"I don't believe so, sir," Harrington told him, omitting that he had no intention of returning to Sweetwater to remake the offer to those rude and improper women.

"Then, there is no sense in us continuing this discussion," the group listened to the elderly gentleman who happened to be the president of their investment company. "Harrington, I want you to return to Sweetwater and oversee our operations there. You are to make arrangements for the building of a hotel and at as little expense as possible. Do you understand?"

"With all due respect, sir," Harrington objected, he couldn't believe he was being ordered back to that nothing of a town. "It was my assignment to secure an ally in Sweetwater. That I have done. I do not see any reason for me to have to return there." The very last place on earth he wanted to go was back to Sweetwater.

"You are correct, Mr. Harrington," the company's president replied. "However, it was also your assignment to provide us with a good starting point. Which, it is very evident, you have not done. Why was the offer for the boarding house handled so inefficiently? You said that the owners never actually heard our offer. Yet, they turned it down. What happened?"

Harrington couldn't believe he was being held accountable for those unnatural women refusing to sell. But, he wasn't about to tell these men why his attempt at making the offer had been so abruptly rebuked. Anyway, he didn't believe his behavior in the Slipper that morning played any part in the rejection. "Mayor Perkins believed that......"

"Mayor Perkins is a fool," the president slammed a fist on the table, "and you should have made a better choice for our advocate. Now, we are stuck with this man who seems to be incapable of following instructions. I have just today received the list of building materials he ordered for the bank building."

'Oh, no,' Harrington thought. 'I knew I shouldn't have left that up to him.'

"Did you know he has engaged the services of a well known Denver architect to design the building?"

"No, sir." Harrington did vaguely remember Perkins mentioning something about this but the man rambled on so that he tended to tone him out. Maybe, he should have paid closer attention.

"Did you know he is planning to use brick and sandstone blocks in it's construction?"

"No, sir." He definitely should have paid closer attention to the mayor's ramblings.

"Did you know he has ordered the most expensive safe available from New York City?"

"No, sir." He would straggle that overly talkative little man when he got back to Sweetwater.

"It is apparent to me, Mr. Harrington, that you have not performed your duties in a satisfactory manner. Therefore, I want you on the next train back to Sweetwater. And, you will not return until you have successfully completed this undertaking. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, sir."

"And, keep an eye on Mayor Perkins. I do not want him causing us any more problems. Or, more importantly, costing us any more money."

"But, sir..."

"You are dismissed."

Harrington nodded, thinking to himself, 'those Branson women are the cause of this. If only they had accepted the offer for their boarding house. One way or another, I will most definitely make them pay.' He quickly exited the room.

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

"I don't know, Miss Jennifer," Ruthie was flipping through the pages of a catalog. Each page was filled with descriptions of different kinds of cloth and their advantages for different types of clothing. "It's hard to know what to order when you can't see it," the catalog lacked pictures.

"I agree," Jennifer was looking through a second book. "And, all the descriptions are so general. Like this one," she pointed to a spot on one page, "yellow flowers on pale background. How are you supposed to know what that is?"

"This one jus' says 'gingham'," Bette Mae pointed at another part of the page. "Doesn't even say what color."

"And, the notions are even worse," Mary added.

"Notions?" Jesse looked up from the paper she had been sketching on.

"Thread, ribbons, buttons, etc,." Jennifer explained. "Here it says the thread comes in red, blue, green, black. That's it, no shades of red, just red."

"So," Jesse asked, absently as she continued to draw.

"What if you're sewing a rose dress," Jennifer said, "what color thread will you use so it blends in and doesn't show."

Jesse lifted her arm and examined the sleeve of her cotton shirt, she scratched her head. The thread didn't blend in. In fact, it was quite easy to see. "Does it matter?"

Jennifer chuckled, "yes, you old cowhand. For a lady's dress, it most certainly matters."

"Oh," Jesse went back to her diagram.

The women were in the Slipper's office. Jennifer and Ruthie were sitting on the couch, the catalogs Ed had for the Bozeman suppliers were spread out on their laps. Mary was sitting in a chair brought in from the dining room and Bette Mae had pulled the arm chair next to the couch. Mary and Bette Mae were leaning forward to see the books Ruthie and Jennifer held. Jesse sat at her desk with KC perched next to her, the baby watching Jesse intently.

"T'ere," KC offered, pointing at Jesse's paper. She was enjoying this game, she would point at the paper and her mommy would draw something.

"Um," Jesse considered KC's suggestion. "Well, now, we could put the window there but then Ruthie might have some trouble working around it." Jesse had drawn the interior of the office on a sheet of paper and was trying to figure out the best way to remodel the office into a dress shop. "How 'bout we put that window in this wall," she pointed to a slightly different spot than KC had.

"Otay," KC agreed.

"Okay," Jesse drew in a window. "Now, where should we put the next one?" she asked the baby.

"T'ere," KC pointed at the paper, her finger landing on the location of the office door.

"Jesse?," Jennifer asked.

"Um," Jesse drew another window on the outside wall.

"I think we should make a trip to Bozeman."

"Oh," Jesse muttered absently as she reviewed her drawing. She wasn't sure how many windows it would take to brighten the dark room or the best place to locate them. The office had two outside walls but she had the covered porch on the other side of those walls to consider.

"We can't possible know what to order by looking at these catalogs. I think we should take Ruthie and go visit the suppliers ourselves. That way we can see what the material actually looks like."

"Oh, Miss Jennifer, I couldn't," Ruthie protested.

"Hush, child," Bette Mae shushed the seamstress. "Ain't nothin' ta go to Bozeman. "B'sides, ya gonna have ta learn ta do some of this by yoself. Jennifer ain't gonna always have time, 'specially when school starts again."

"Bette Mae is right, Ruthie," Jennifer smiled at the nervous woman. "Once school starts, I won't have time to do much. And, well," she laughed, "we know Jesse isn't going to be of much help."

"Hey," the rancher glared at her wife. "I can help. I know what I like to see on my wife and," she grinned, mischievously, "what I like to see off."

"Jesse," Jennifer's cheeks colored as the other women giggled. "You are so bad."

"Mommy bad?" KC asked.

"Yep, sunshine," Jesse winked at Jennifer, "guess momma is goin' have ta spank me when we get home."

"Jesse Marie Branson!!" Jennifer cried.

"Oh, oh," Bette Mae whispered to Mary. "Seems these two are fixin' ta have a spat. Care ta join me for a cool drink in the other room?"

"I think that would be a wise decision," Mary stood to follow Bette Mae out of the office. "Come on, Ruthie," she waited for the younger woman to join them.

"T'ere," KC pointed. She didn't want the game to stop just because the others had left.

"Just a minute, sunshine," Jesse said as she saw the look on Jennifer's face. "I'm thinking I might have just stuck my boots in a cow pie." Picking up KC, she walked to the couch and sat beside her steaming wife.

"My mother was in the room, Jesse," Jennifer said, quietly,

"I know," Jesse draped an arm around her wife's shoulders and pulled her close. She was relieved when Jennifer didn't resist. "I'm sorry, darlin'. Guess I jus' wasn't thinkin'."

Jennifer remained silent but leaned into Jesse's embrace. "So," she purred after several long and awkward minutes, "just what sort of clothes do you like to see off of me."

Jesse smiled, glad Jennifer wasn't going to stay mad at her, "well, darlin'. She hooked a finger under Jennifer's chin and tenderly tilted her face upward, "just about anything you have on, I like to see come off. I love you," she sighed as she softly pressed her lips against Jennifer's.

"Mommy." When Jesse had plucked KC off the desk, KC had done the same to the drawing. "T'ere," she poked her tiny finger at the paper.

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

The one story stage station was separated into three sections. A dining area in the front with a cooking area behind a partial wall to the side. The sleeping area for the stage driver and passengers took up the rear half of the building.

In the middle of the dining room sat a roughly made table which was nothing more than a wide plank resting on two blocks of wood. Benches on either side of the table were similar in design, only not as wide and not as high. As the three passengers carried their luggage into the building, the station master's wife was placing bowls of food on the table.

"Put your bags back there," the woman pointed to the doorway leading into the back room. "Best come eat while it's hot.

All three men groaned when they entered the sleeping quarters. Spaced unevenly about the room were a dozen cots, some looking as if their days of usefulness had passed years before. Covering the cots were linens, pillows and blankets, all of which were dirty, stained, full of holes and, most unquestionably, bed bugs. Quickly claiming the cots that seemed to pose the least danger, the men set down their luggage and returned to the other room.

"Privy is out back," the woman told them as they took seats at the table. "Best be careful where you step, rattlers get pretty active this time of day." She placed a pot of coffee in the center of the table. "If'n you be wantin' a bath, you'll have to use the trough by the barn. Just don't get it too muddy. Horses don't take kindly to that." With her duty done, she disappeared into the cooking area.

The men looked at the meal provided for them. It was hard to deduce what many of the bowls held but they were hungry after the long day and started to fill their plates.

As he reached for the coffee pot, Harrington glanced at the men sitting on the opposite side of the table. One was obviously older than the other and, judging by their resemblance, he presumed them to be father and son. "Coffee?" Harrington offered the men and filled their cups when they nodded. "I'm Tobias Harrington," he told them.

"Kensington," the older of the two responded. "Martin Kensington and this is my son, Thomas."

"Kensington," Harrington took a bite of the stew, frowning when he couldn't readily identify the animal the meat had come from. "Seems I've heard that name before. On the coast, perhaps."

"Kensington Shipping Line," Martin said proudly.

"Ah, yes," Harrington nodded. "Mighty fine company you have, sir. It is well known in the east as one of the best," maybe this trip wouldn't be so bad after all. If he could get into the good graces of this Kensington, a position in his company was possible and, then, he wouldn't have to deal with the town of Sweetwater, ever again.

"Thank you," Martin reached for more biscuits, thinking that they were safer to eat then the meat Harrington was having so much trouble chewing. "However, I prefer to think of it being the best."

"Yes, of course," Harrington gave up on the meat and quickly swallowed to get rid of it. "You built it on your own?"

"Took it over from my father and his father before him. As my sons will one day take it from me."

'Probably sooner than you think,' Thomas said to himself.

"A business to pass on to your sons is a wonderful legacy," Harrington decided to give the bowl of roasted potatoes a try.

"Yes," Martin agreed.

"What brings you west, Mr. Kensington?" Harrington used a knife to cut through the undercooked vegetable. "There aren't any sea ports in the territory, that I know of," he added lightly so his dinner companions wouldn't think he was prying.

"No," Kensington struggled with a potato of his own. "Personal business. I've come to escort my wife and daughter back home."

"Visiting relatives, are they?" Harrington asked.

"Excuse me, Mr. Harrington," Thomas interrupted. "But, I do believe our family business need not be discussed with strangers." He did not want to listen to anymore of his father's ravings about Jennifer and her wife, which is all he had heard on the long train journey to Denver.

"Thomas," the elder Kensington barked. "Mr. Harrington meant no harm."

"It is a private matter, father," Thomas refused to back down.

Martin fumed at his son's impertinence but, rather than create a scene in front of the other man, he chose to drop the matter. For now.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Harrington," Martin smiled, uneasily. "It has been a long trip and my son is tired."

"No offense taken," Harrington smiled back. There was no reason to alienate the man when he saw potential for a future business relationship with Kensington's company. "I think I'll stretch my legs before turning in," he rose from the table.

The station master and coach driver entered, their work rubbing down and feeding the horses complete.

"Best git ya some sleep," the driver told Harrington as he headed for the front door. "We'll be leaving at dawn. You'll git called f'r breakfast a hour b'fore."

"Just a short walk to stretch my legs," Harrington told the man.

"Keep a watch out f'r snakes," the station master called after Harrington.

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

"Do you really think we need to go to Bozeman?" Jesse asked again as she and Jennifer lay in bed, their naked bodies pressed together.

"Sweetheart," Jennifer lifted her head off Jesse's shoulder so she could look into the eyes she so loved. She leaned down and kissed sweet lips. "I know why you don't want to go," Jennifer whispered, "but, I think you'll feel better if you talk to him."

Jesse knew Jennifer was talking about her father. She still had heard nothing from her parents after they initially agreed to move to Sweetwater and join her family at the ranch.

"Maybe, you're right," Jesse hesitated. "But, what will I say to him."

"Don't worry," Jennifer started a trail of soft kisses down Jesse's neck. "You'll figure something out," she murmured as her hand found it's way between her wife's legs.

It didn't take Jesse long to figure out a course of action, though she was sure it wasn't exactly what Jennifer had been talking about. She rolled over, taking her lover with her.

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

"Are you sure about this?" Billie Monroe, Sweetwater's sheriff, asked Thaddeus Newby, the Gazette's editor.

"Yes," Thaddeus nodded. "Got it from a newspaperman in Denver. He has a friend back east, they checked the details twice before sending that to me." Thaddeus had just returned to town after visiting the surrounding mining camps and had found a letter waiting for him. After reading it, he had immediately taken the letter next door to the sheriff's office.

Billie reread the letter. "Damn," Billie shook his head. "I can't believe he'd do this without telling anyone," he said about the town's mayor. "Folks should have had some say in this."

"I agree," Thaddeus took the paper from Billie. "I'm sure they'll have plenty to say when the next edition of the Gazette comes out."

"You printing all of it?"

"Yes. I'll give Miles a chance to tell his side of it but, like you said, folks have a right to know."

"How many mines we talking about?"

"One, for sure. Possibly, a couple more."

"I wonder which one," Billie knew that the mountains around Sweetwater were dotted with hundreds of claims. Anywhere from small placer mines worked by one or two men, to larger operations requiring several men and heavy equipment to extract the ore from the ground.

"Word in the camps is that the Songbird hit a vein," Thaddeus replied.

"Hell, that's at the top of a mountain," Billie was aware of the general location of the Songbird claim but didn't know much about the miner that worked it. He was a loner and talked very little whenever in town.

"Besides, the hotel and bank, the road they'll need to build to get the equipment up there will cost thousands."

"That's a lot of money," Billie whistled. "Must have got a pretty good assay." The higher percentage of ore in the rock, the greater the mine's earnings.

"Yep, and Miles stands to share in the profit."

"Think I'll ride out and talk to Jesse." Billie thought of the rancher like a sister and he was concerned that the mining company's looming investment in Sweetwater could hurt the Silver Slipper's business.

"Say," Thaddeus opened his desk drawer, "if you're going that way, will you give this to Jennifer," he handed the sheriff an envelope. "Got mixed up with mine."

"Sure thing."

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

Jesse was cleaning out the horse stalls in the barn. Knowing better than to leave her inquisitive daughter free to wander, especially after the chicken coop incident, KC sat in the carry sack on her mother's back.

Shortly after she and Jennifer brought KC home, Jesse noticed how hard it was for them to carry the baby while riding horseback. Using a piece of deer hide, she had set to work making the carry sack for her daughter. She cut openingsin the hide for the baby's legs to drop through and fashioned shoulder straps that would provide a way to carry the sack on their backs. Then, she had sewn the pieces together with strong rawhide cords.

"Mommy, ook," KC pointed over Jesse's shoulder to a pile of manure that had somehow been missed in Boy's stall.

"Thanks, sunshine," Jesse muttered as she re-entered the stall she thought she had just finished cleaning.

"Jesse, I think you should take this more seriously," Billie said from his cozy perch on a hay bale. Jesse's offer to let him help with her work had fallen on suddenly deaf ears.

"Billie," Jesse emptied the pitchfork into the wheelbarrow, "I can't stop them from building a hotel. Besides, if they're planning to do all the stuff you say, they'll be plenty of new folks coming to town and plenty of business for both their hotel and the Slipper."

"Billie," Jennifer walked into the barn, she had seen the sheriff ride up, "what brings you out here?"

"Came to warn us that a hotel is being built in Sweetwater," Jesse started on Dusty's stall.

"Sweetheart, give KC to me," Jennifer instructed the rancher when she saw how difficult it was for Jesse to work with the active baby on her back. "Harrington's investors?" she asked.

"Yes," Jesse came out of the stall and turned to let Jennifer remove the sack and baby from her back. "They're buying one of the mines and expanding the mining operations." Now free of KC's weight, she stretched the muscles in her back. "Seems, Miles is working for them. That's how he got the charter for the bank."

"Well, we figured when we refused to sell the Slipper that they'd build their own." Jennifer pulled a few stalks of hay from KC's hair and looked at her dirt stained face and arms, "how you manage to get so dirty, I'll never know."

"Mommy," KC pointed at Jesse, busy in Dusty's stall.

Jennifer looked and, sure enough, Jesse was just as dirty as KC, "guess you do take after her in that way."

"Well, a new hotel is goin' ta take business away from the Slipper," Billie began his argument again.

"Seems like more people coming to town will only help the Slipper's business," Jennifer echoed Jesse's earlier comments as she placed a handkerchief in a bucket of water. Wringing the cloth of excess water, she used it to try and clean some of the dirt from KC's face.

"Phttttt," KC stuck out her tongue, shaking her head from side-to-side to avoid the wet cloth. She was not at all happy to have her face washed.

"Alright," Jennifer gave up, "you'll just have to wait and take a bath with mommy."

"Otay," KC grinned. "Dow."

"Nope, you can leave some of the dirt on the barn floor, today," Jennifer kept a firm grip on the baby. "You and mommy are wearing more than enough already."

KC's lower lip slowly pushed out as she pouted.

"What about the Slipper?" Billie asked.

Jesse stopped her work and leaned on the pitchfork, "Billie, ain't nothin' we can do, one way or the other. We'll just have to see what happens when their hotel opens. Hopefully, it won't hurt the Slipper but if it does, we still have the ranch."

Jennifer said nothing but she knew Jesse was aware if it wasn't for the Slipper's income, they never could afford the ranch. If they ever set aside enough money again to get the breeding bull Jesse wanted then, maybe, the ranch would begin to pay. She still felt guilty that Jesse had to use the money she had saved for the bull's purchase to pay the doctor in Bozeman. She'd already decided to give Jesse her stipend for the coming school year to help replace the spent funds.

"Alright, Jesse," Billie stood up and brushed hay off the back of his pants, "guess you're right. We just have to wait and see. Mayor Perkins will have a lot of explaining to do as soon as Thaddeus gets the Gazette out this week. Maybe, then, we'll know more about just what those 'investors' have up their sleeves."

"Staying for supper, Billie?" Jennifer asked.

"Thanks, Jennifer, but I'm meeting Ruth for supper."

"When you goin' to ask her to marry you?" Jesse asked as she came out of Dusty's stall with the last pitchfork load of manure.

"Damn, Jesse," Billie reddened. "Ain't talked to her about that yet."

"Sheesh," Jesse leaned the pitchfork against the stall wall and bent to lift the handles of the wheelbarrow, "how long ya need? You know ya love her." She pushed the wheelbarrow out of the barn to dump it's contents.

"Hush, Jesse," Jennifer patted Billie on the arm. "You take your time, Billie."

"Thanks, Jennifer."

"Just don't take too long," Jennifer teased.

"I'll see you two later," Billie shook his head at the good intentions of his friends. "Oh, wait a minute. Here, I almost forgot, Thaddeus asked me to give this you," he pulled the envelope from his pocket.

"What is it?" Jennifer asked as she accepted the envelope from Billie.

"Letter came for you."

"Oh," quizzically, Jennifer read the return address.

"Well, I best be getting back." Billie turned to leave the barn. Jennifer followed him outside, tucking the letter into her pocket.

"See ya, Billie," Jesse said as the sheriff walked past her. "What is it, darlin'?" she asked when she saw the worried look on Jennifer's face.

"A letter from Andrew's father," Jennifer told her.

"Aren't you goin' to read it?" Jesse asked.

"Later," Jennifer didn't want to open the letter, apprehensive of what it might contain. Andrew had been the 'fiancÚ' her father had arranged for her. After his death, the young man had been sent back to his family for burial. Though, she had truly played no part in the young man's death, Jennifer continued to feel responsible for it. While still recovering from her own nearly fatal wounds, she had written a long letter to his family.

Could Mr. Barrish be writing to place blame on her?, she wondered. "I'll read it while you and KC have your bath. Speaking of which, I better go start heating the water."

"Darlin'," Jesse walked to Jennifer's side. "Are you okay?"

"Yes," Jennifer sadly smiled at her wife, "just afraid of what he might say. I'd rather read it later."

"Okay," Jesse wanted to wrap Jennifer in her arms but considering her just completed chore, she opted to kiss her on the forehead. "Why don't you take KC inside. I'll just finish up here, won't take long."

Jennifer nodded and turned to walk to the ranch house.

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

Dear Miss Kensington,

I write this letter for two reasons. First, and foremost, I wish to thank you for the kind words you wrote regarding our son, Andrew. It was with strong reluctance that I agreed he should accompany your father west. As you may know, Andrew was my wife's and mine only son and we wished no harm to come to him in such a wild and dangerous country. However, circumstances clouded our judgment and, for that, I will always blame myself.

I was outraged to hear of your father's demands that Andrew assist him in his efforts to forcible remove you from your home and to participate in the unspeakable treatment of you during that terrible ordeal. I have taken up these issues with an attorney and assure you that your father's actions will not go unpunished.

It is, therefore, that I come to the second reason for this letter. It has come to my attention that your father has recently booked rail passage to Denver. I can conclude no other purpose for doing such, then he intends to return to Sweetwater and, again, attempt to force your return to the east. I sincerely hope that this warning reaches you in time to prepare for his arrival.

I wish for you to know, your description of our son's honorable conduct from his arrival in Sweetwater to the event that eventually led to his death has done much to ease our lose. I shall be forever grateful to you for giving that to us.

Yours,

Mr. Benjamin Barrish

Jennifer read the letter to Jesse as the rancher washed the day's grime from her body. KC splashed noisily between her mother's legs.

"Bastard!" Jesse exclaimed. "Sorry, Mary."

"I completely agree with you," Mary had been listening while she cut up vegetables for the evening meal. "I cannot believe he would dare return."

Jennifer silently refolded the letter and returned it to it's envelope. "What are we going to do?" anxiously, she asked Jesse.

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

The sun had dropped from the sky and the moon was rising in it's place. Upon finishing their meal in the Slipper's dining room, Billie had escorted Ruthie to the porch, where they now sat in the shadows.

"Ruth have you ever thought about..." the sheriff stopped, he wasn't quite sure how to broach the subject of marriage.

"About what, Billie?"

Billie took Ruthie's hand and squeezed gently, he thought back to the night he had first noticed the shy girl. It was the night he had been shot while attempting to control a lynch mob that wanted to take Jesse from her jail cell.

His vision was finally clearing and the ringing in his head was dropping to a loud roar His arm was wrapped in a clean bandage and a piece of ice, wrapped in a towel, was being pressed against his jaw by one of the young women that cooked and served meals for the Slipper. He looked up into the prettiest auburn eyes and tried to think of the girl's name. After several attempts, he, regretfully, decided that he had never known it and wondered why he hadn't taken notice of the pretty girl before.

Figuring that he had recovered enough to go back to the jail and check on his prisoner, the sheriff made a mental note that when this matter with Jesse was settled he would come back to the Slipper and see if he could get the girl's attention.

He didn't have long to wait, a few days later when he and the posse returned to Sweetwater, the pretty girl was keeping watch on the porch of the Silver Slipper. They had ridden over a rise still some distance from town when she'd spotted them. He smiled when he saw her, even though he was sure he was too far away for her to notice.

Later, when he and the others were enjoying their first hot meal in days, she had come out of the kitchen carrying a tray. He smiled at her again when she placed a plate in front of him and his heart jumped when she had smiled shyly back.

It had taken him a couple of days to build up the nerve, but one evening when the girl had brought him his supper, he had asked if she would accompany him on a ride to a local lake. Hesitating for only a moment, she bashfully nodded yes.

"Do you remember that buggy ride?" Billie asked as he remembered how proud he was that night when Ruth had agreed to go with him.

Confused a little by the change in subject, Ruthie hesitated. Then, she smiled, remembering the nervous man she had served that night. She still wasn't sure why she had said yes but she was mighty glad she had.

"Yes, Billie," Ruthie started to giggle. "I remember it quite well."

Billie had arrived at the Silver Slipper in a buggy hired at the livery, it had been polished until it sparkled in the late morning sun. The matching team of black horses had also received special attention that morning, their coats glowing under the recently polished and oiled harness. Billie was wearing his Sunday suit complete with tie, his hat had been brushed free of all dust and dirt, and his boots matched the shine on the buggy. Ruthie thought he looked adorable.

"Miss, Ruth," he anxiously crossed to where Ruthie was sitting on the Slipper's porch. "Are you ready?" he stood in front of her, twitching under his pressed pant legs.

"Yes. I took the liberty of preparing a picnic basket," Ruthie bent to lift the large basket next to the chair. She knew the sheriff had a healthy appetite so she had packed a lot of food.

"I'll get that," Billie quickly reached down, picking up the basket before Ruthie could. He was thankful she had thought of bringing food because, so focused was he on making sure the buggy was prepared properly, he had completely forgotten they probably would get hungry sometime during the day. He nervously offered Ruthie his arm, "shall we?"

Ruthie timidly laid her arm across his, she allowed the sheriff to lead her across the porch and down the stairs. She felt his strong hands gently grasp her waist as he helped her step up into the buggy, her skin tingling under his touch.

It had taken a little less than an hour to reach the small lake that was their destination. They talked as they rode, their conversation uneasy at first but becoming more relaxed as the miles passed. At the lake, Billie pulled the team of horses to a stop. He helped Ruthie from the buggy and lifted the food basket out, setting it down on a sandy spot near the water's edge. Normally, this part of the shore was underwater but, because of the dry summer, the water level was down considerable.

"I'll just tie the team to that tree," Billie told Ruthie.

Surrounded by water a few feet from the shore, lay a tree that had fallen during some storm and had somehow made its way into the lake. The tree lay with what would have been its canopy end resting in deeper water and the twisted and gnarled root system in shallow water. Billie thought he would tie the team to the closest end, giving the horses access to the lake's water. Between dry land and the tree were several large stones that Billie figured he could step on to reach the stump without getting his boots wet. What he hadn't figured on was a thin, slimy layer of moss covering the stones that were usually underwater.

Ruthie watched as Billie gingerly stepped onto the closest stone. When the stone didn't rock or move, Billie warily placed his other foot on a second stone. He stood on both stones, testing their steadiness. When neither stone moved under his weight, he became confident to move closer to the tree, a bit too confident.

Not paying close attention to the placement of his feet, Billie missed seeing the small rock half buried under the large stone he was about to step on. As his foot came in contact with the stone, it shifted and threw Billie off balance. Tightening his grip on the reins he held in his hand caused the horses to rear and made his tenuous footing more unstable. He quickly tried to shift his weight back onto his other leg but the action caused his boots to completely lose their grip on the slippery stones. Billie's feet flew out from under him as his arms flayed uselessly in the air. Before, Ruthie knew what was happening, Billie fell backwards and splashed into the cold lake. Luckily for him, he landing in a patch of muddy lake bottom and not the hard stones he had been trying to navigate.

Billie was wet. Very wet. There wasn't a dry spot on him. His boots were full of water, his Sunday suit was waterlogged and he had a very nasty feeling that the muck on the lake bottom was starting to seep though the suit's material. His hat, knocked from his head when he landed, was floating off towards the deep end of the lake. Water, from his drenched hair, ran down his face and dripped off his nose.

Not quite sure what to do, Billie remained where he had landed. He was certain that his unintentional performance would ruin any chance he had with the pretty girl. Humiliated, he looked to the shore.

Ruthie was mortified. Billie looked like a drowned rat. A very cute drowned rat. But, a drowned rat, nonetheless. She met his eyes.

What Billie saw on Ruthie's face surprised him, she looked concerned not amused. Well, maybe a little amused but mostly concerned. His lips began to twitch, when he speculated that he probably looked pretty silly.

Ruthie was relieved to see that Billie appeared uninjured. Her lips began to twitch with his.

Soon, both Billie and Ruthie were laughing so hard that Billie ending up staying in the water for some time before he sloshed his way back to shore.

"Made quite a fool of myself that day," Billie chuckled.

"No, you didn't," Ruthie objected. "I thought you looked cute."

"I looked like a drowned rat."

"A very cute drowned rat."

Billie stood from his chair and stepped in front of Ruthie, kneeling down onto one knee. Ruthie's heart began to race.

"Ruth," Billie took both of her hands into his. "That day at the lake, I fell in love with you. And, each day since my love for you has grown. I've tried to come up with a romantic way to say this but I think I just have to get it out," he took a deep breath, slowly releasing it. "Ruth, I love you. And, I would be the proudest man in the territory if you would do me the honor of becoming my wife."

Tears rolled down Ruthie's cheeks as she listened to the most romantic words she had ever heard. "Yes," she whispered. "I would be honored to marry you, Billie."

Billie reached up and cupped his hands around Ruthie's face. He gently brought their lips together and tenderly kissed his beloved for the first time.

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

Jennifer and Jesse were talking over their options with Mary. Jesse was standing by the fireplace while Jennifer and her mother sat at the table. KC had been put to bed many hours before.

"I'm not running from him, Jesse." Jennifer was adamant that her father would not invade her life again.

"I'm not saying to run, darlin'," Jesse picked up the coffee pot to refill her cup, then set it back down. She'd had so many cups in the last few hours she'd lost count and the thought of drinking anymore of the dark liquid was suddenly very unappealing. "Just get out of Sweetwater long enough for Billie to handle things."

"I think Jesse is right," Mary was just as upset as the other women over her husband's plans to return to Sweetwater. "Who knows what he is capable of, Jennifer. You can't give him the opportunity to cause you or Jesse any more pain."

"This is our home," Jennifer whispered. She knew Jesse and her mother were right but... "Why do we have to leave? He's the one in the wrong."

Jesse sat next to Jennifer and spoke quietly, "we let Billie take care of your father. When he tells us it's okay, we'll come home." Taking Jennifer's hands into her own, she pleaded, "please, darlin'. I would die if anything happened to you. Or, KC."

Jennifer looked at the crib where their daughter was peacefully sleeping. Jesse was right. If anything happened to any of them........ "Alright, sweetheart," Jennifer leaned into Jesse, "where will we go?"

Jesse thought for a moment, "you wanted to see the buffalo."

"Walks on the Wind?"

Jesse nodded, "there's no way your father can find us there. It would mean you'd have to ride Blaze, we can't take the wagon on the trail."

"Okay," Jennifer wasn't sure whether her leg would be able to handle the stress of a long ride but she was determined to do whatever she had to, to save her family from her father.

"I think you two should get some sleep," Mary stood, yawning. "I know I can sure use some."

"I'll walk you," Jesse offered.

"No," Mary bent to kiss both women on their cheeks. "When I get to the cabin, I'll pull the cord to let you know I got there. You stay here with Jennifer."

"We'll go to town in the morning and talk to Billie," Jesse said. "And, get supplies. We don't know when your father left so it's best we leave as soon as possible. Mary, it'll be safer for you to stay at the Slipper while we're gone."

"I have no interest in waiting for him to arrive," the older woman announced, "I'm coming with you."

"Mother, are you sure?" Jennifer asked, surprised at her mother's stated intentions.

"Yes. I'll see about a horse at the livery tomorrow," she said. "Besides, I think I'd like to see those buffalo Walks on the Wind talked about."

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

"Are you sure he's coming here?" Billie asked,

Jesse and Jennifer had walked into the sheriff office just before noon with the news of Kensington's plans.

"Yes," Jennifer watched as KC unwillingly played on the floor at her feet. "Can you have him arrested?"

"Considering that was part of the deal for him to leave," Billie dug around in his desk drawer for his copy of Kensington's plea arrangement. "I'll wire all the sheriffs between here and Denver to arrest him on sight and take him to the territorial prison in Deer Lodge.

"Good," Jesse blew out a breath. "Send word to us when he's locked up."

"That's a good idea for you to stay at the ranch until this is taken care of," Billie nodded. "Ah, got it," Billie found the paper and pulled it out.

"We're not staying at the ranch," Jesse told him. She was standing behind Jennifer, her hands resting on her wife's shoulders, she could feel the tense muscles under Jennifer's shirt.

"You're not?"

"No, we're going where he won't be able to find us. I don't want to take the chance of him trying anything with Jennifer, again."

"You sure you need to leave?" Billie was concerned about the women running into trouble and there being no one to help them.

"I think it's best,"

"Where ya goin' ta go, Jesse?"

"East of the mountains. Jennifer wants to see the buffalo herds. Walks on the Wind is there with his tribe."

"You plan on meeting up with him?" Billie had met the Indian a few times at Jesse's ranch and liked the quiet man.

"Yes, you can send word there. It'll be safer."

"You're probably right," Billie made a notation on the paper. "Okay, I'll start writing the telegrams. You going to the Slipper?"

"No, Ed's," Jesse told him, "we need supplies for the trip."

"Mary staying in town?"

"Momma, up," bored with her position on the floor, KC tugged on Jennifer's pant leg.

"She's going with us," Jennifer lifted the baby into her lap. "I don't want him to find us, Billie," she hugged KC, her voice charged with emotion.

"He won't, Jennifer," the sheriff promised. "Just be careful. The less folks you tell about your plans, the better."

"No one will know except you, Ed, and Bette Mae," Jesse assured the sheriff.

"When you plan on leavin'?"

"First thing in the morning," Jesse said as she helped Jennifer up from the chair. KC reached for Jesse and she took her from Jennifer's arms.

"Alright," Billie rose to walk the women to the door. "You stay put with Walks on the Wind and his folk until you hear from me."

"Thanks, Billie," Jesse clasped Billie on the shoulder.

"Be safe, both of you," Billie told his friends.

"Bye, bye," KC held up her hand, fingers bending up and down.

"Goodbye, KC," Billie playfully rubbed KC's head. "You take care of your mothers for me, okay?"

"Otay."

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

"I can't believe it," the storekeeper said after Jennifer told him about the letter she'd received.

"You can't tell anyone, Ed," Jennifer said.

"I won't," Ed pulled Jennifer into a hug, he could tell she needed one. "You don't worry 'bout anything, you hear. Billie and I will take care of ya daddy."

Jennifer started to cry, "I thought this was over."

"It will be, soon," Ed assured her.

"Darlin'?" Jesse was worried about Jennifer. It was a good thing they were leaving Sweetwater because if they'd stayed and she saw Kensington, she'd take care of him herself. And, she'd make sure he never hurt Jennifer again.

"I'm alright," Jennifer released herself from Ed's embrace and dried her tears on her sleeve. "Let's get what we need. I want to get out of here as soon as possible."

As KC watched from her 'holding pen', her mothers and Ed quickly filled the back of the buckboard. with the necessary supplies. It wasn't long before Boy was pulling the wagon toward the Silver Slipper.

Mary was waiting on the Slipper's porch. A dark brown horse was tied to the hitching post next to the stairs, evidence that her trip to the livery was successful.

The women hurried inside to find Bette Mae.

"Lordy, but tha' man must be thicker than a tree stump," Bette Mae said when she heard about the letter. "Don' ya be worryin' 'bout me. Ya go on and git goin'," she told the women. "The Slipper 'ill be jus' fine. And, I'll have someone keep an eye on the ranch for ya."

"No one can know that we're not there, Bette Mae," Jesse told her friend.

"And, no one will," Bette Mae wrapped her arms around the rancher and hugged her tight. After a few moments, she released Jesse and hugged Jennifer. "Now, git," she told the rancher and schoolteacher.

Jesse and Jennifer stayed just long enough for KC to give Bette Mae a hug and kiss, then they returned to the buckboard.

"We can tie him on back," Jesse told Mary, referring to the horse.

"That's okay," Mary said as she pulled herself into the saddle. "I think I better ride. It'll give me a chance to get use to doing it again." Mary had proved herself an excellent rider when she'd accompanied Jesse on the ride to rescue Jennifer a few months before. But, she had done little riding since they returned to Sweetwater.

"Okay," Jesse said as she helped Jennifer climb into the wagon, careful of her damaged leg. She hoped the leg would survive the ride ahead of them. Of course, she knew, if it started to give Jennifer trouble, they'd just hole up somewhere in the mountains. At least, that way, Kensington would have no hope of finding them.

Jesse settled beside Jennifer and snapped the reins over Boy's hindquarters. The women were quickly on their way out of town, completely unaware of the controversy taking place in the newspaper office.

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

"Damn it, Miles," Thaddeus Newby sat back in his chair as the Sweetwater's mayor paced around his office, the late morning sun streaking through the building's windows. "Those weren't decisions you had the right to make."

"As mayor, I had every right," Miles Perkins was not amused at having been summoned to the newspaper editor's office to answer his questions.

"The position of mayor is a honorary one, Miles. You have no real power. Heck, we don't even have a town council. You know it's always been the custom for the town folks to vote on this kind of stuff."

"What's to vote on, Thaddeus? They're giving us a bank, building a hotel, improving the road, hiring more workers. All good things for Sweetwater."

"But, at what price? You guaranteed them water rights, Miles, on stretches of the river that belong to the ranchers. You promised to let them cut timber on land that doesn't belong to you. You told them Jesse and Jennifer would sell the Slipper."

"The owners will be compensated. And, Jesse would have been paid substantially more than that old building is worth, if she'd only listened to the offer instead of throwing us out of her office."

"That's not the point. They should have been asked before you promised."

"There wasn't time," Perkins protested.

"Especially since you would lose your percentage if you asked," Thaddeus told the mayor the one piece of information he least wanted to hear.

"You know about that?" Perkins turned white.

"Yes, and soon everyone else in the valley will too. Here's the next edition of the Gazette," he tossed a newspaper at the mayor. In bold print, the headline screamed, 'MAYOR PERKINS SIGNS CONTRACT WITH MINING COMPANY. GIVES AWAY VALLEY'S WATER AND TIMBER RIGHTS.'

"Care to make a comment, Mayor Perkins?"

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

It was dark in the mine shaft. Dark, damp, dirty, and smelly. But, he wouldn't have to put up with the conditions much longer. The Songbird mine would soon be someone else's problem and he'd be heading back to St. Louis, his wife and children with a bag full of money. He whistled tunelessly as he worked to clean up the mine shaft as best he could in the dim light his lantern provided. No reason to leave anything laying about. The assayer had come and gone and all that was left was to sign the papers and get his money, which he would do the next day. Yes, soon he would be living on easy street and those big shots from back east could deal with this mountain of rock.

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

KC had been placed on the floor to play but, instead, she was keeping a close watch on her mothers and grandmother. She knew something must be wrong because after they arrived back at the ranch, Jesse, Jennifer and Mary had been busy rushing around the ranch house.

"Sweetheart, should I pack our heavy coats?" Jennifer asked as she laid out the clothing they would take.

"No," Jesse was filling a pack with food stuffs. "It's too hot for those. Our jackets should be fine."

"Won't it be cold in the mountains at night?"

"As hot as it's been it'll only get cold for a few hours. Our blankets should be enough," Jesse carried the pack to the ranch house's door and set it on the floor with the other items they were taking. "Coats will be too bulky and we don't want to overload Boy." Since Mary was accompanying them, she had decided to take Boy along as a pack horse.

"Alright," Mary lifted a saddle bag for the table to test its weight. "That's it for me. One benefit about having so few things," she said as she set the bag back down satisfied she could handle it.

"I think we need to start supper," Jesse went to check on Jennifer's progress. "If we want to leave at dawn, we better get to bed soon."

"Okay," Jennifer nodded. "Why don't you finish here and I'll make us something quick."

"Okay,"

"I can help," Mary said as she started to clear the table.

KC crawled to where Jesse was packing their folded clothes into a pack that would be strapped on Boy in the morning. The baby pulled herself up on Jesse's leg, "mommy."

Jesse stopped her work and lifted the baby into her arms, "what's up, sunshine?"

"Me go?" KC pointed to the clothing spread on the bed. She didn't like it when one of her mothers went somewhere without her

"Yep," Jesse kissed the baby's cheek. "You, momma, grandma and me. We're all going on a trip to see buffalo."

KC smiled, happy to hear she wasn't being left behind.

"Why don't you sit right here while I finish packing," Jesse set the baby down in a clear spot on the bed where the clothes were spread.

By the time Jesse finished packing their clothes and adding them to the pile by the door, Jennifer and Mary had put together a hot supper.

"Smells good, darlin'," Jesse said as she washed her hands before joining her family at the table.

"Thanks," Jennifer blew on a spoonful of stew to cool it before feeding KC.

"Jesse," Mary filled a glass with milk and placed it by Jesse's plate, "how does one find the buffalo herds?"

"That's pretty easy, Mary," Jesse took her place at the table. "The herds are so big that once you get within fifty miles of them, you'll see the dust cloud they kick up when they're on the move. The closer you get, you'll start to hear them grunting and the bulls buttin' heads. If the herd happens to be running, you'll feel the ground shake. It really is a remarkable sight."

"Hard to imagine that," Mary said as she tried to visualize a herd of animals so large they could make the ground shake from so far away.

"In a few days, you won't have to," Jesse told her.

"Walks on the Wind said they were taking the 'southern trail', is that how we'll go?" Jennifer asked.

"No," Jesse took over feeding KC so Jennifer could eat. "That trail is further south than the one we took over the mountains to Bannack. "We'll head due east from here and take an old trail that's seldom used anymore. It's a bit rougher but it'll get us there quicker. And, chances of us meeting anyone on it is next to nothin'."

"How long of a ride do you think it is, sweetheart?" Jennifer was still apprehensive about her ability to ride any distance with her injured leg.

"Four, five days if the trail over the pass is in good shape. Another day or two, if not." Sensing Jennifer's worry, she added, "we can stop anytime, darlin'. We don't have to get to the buffalo. Any place along the trail we can hole up and wait for Billie to find us. You just say you can't go any farther and we'll stop."

"Okay," Jennifer smiled at Jesse. "That makes me feel better."

"Any time, darlin'," Jesse repeated, "and we'll stop." Jesse sniffed the air a few times, "darlin', are you trying to burn somethin'?"

"Damn," Jennifer jumped to her feet and grabbed a towel. She pulled a pan away from the fire in the fireplace. Carefully, she removed the pan's contents and placed a piece of the slightly overcooked cake on four plates. In the center of one piece, she pushed a small candle. Then, she carried the plates to the table.

"What's this?" Jesse asked.

"It's KC's birthday," Jennifer announced.

"It is?" Mary remembered them talking about the baby's first birthday but couldn't remember any date being decided on.

"Yes," Jennifer placed the piece with the candle in front of KC. "No, not yet, sweetie," she told KC when she reached for the plate. "We need to light the candle."

"Guess I kinda forgot all about it," Jesse admitted.

"Actually, I did, too," Jennifer retook her seat. "But, today, when we were in the general store, I happened to see a calendar Ed has on the wall. Sorry, mother, I meant to tell you but somehow, with everything going on, I forgot."

"That's okay," Mary reached over and patted Jennifer's hand. "I'm just glad I'm here to celebrate with you."

"Me, too," Jennifer told her mother.

"Bette Mae is sure goin' be mad when she finds out," Jesse said.

"Oh," Jennifer laughed uneasily, she knew the older woman would be hurt that she'd missed the occasion. "I guess we'll be drawing straws to see who has to tell her."

"Nah," Jesse winked at Jennifer, "we'll just let Mary do it."

"Momma, yum," KC demanded before Mary could protest.

"Oops, seems the birthday girl wants her cake," Jennifer reached back and snatched the box of matches off the fireplace. "Do you want to blow out your candle, KC?"

KC tilted her head and looked at Jennifer like she had just grown a horn in the middle of her head.

"Guess she doesn't know what that means," Mary laughed at the baby's expression.

"Here, KC," Jesse leaned close to the baby. "Do this," she took a deep breath, puffing out her cheeks out and blew. The released breath tickling the baby's face.

KC laughed at her mommy.

"Come on," Jesse tried again. "Do this," she repeated her attempt at teaching the baby.

KC looked intently at Jesse, puckered her lips, took a deep breath, puffed out her cheeks, and..............

The women waited. And, waited. And, waited.

Jesse reached out and gently poked a finger in a bloated cheek, releasing the confined air before the baby turned blue from holding her breath.

"Yum," KC pointed to the cake, figuring she had done what her mommy asked.

Mary chuckled.

"Guess that's going to take a little practice," Jesse scratched her nose.

"Here, sweetie," Jennifer pushed the plate close enough for KC to feed herself and pulled the candle out. "Looks like we'll be keeping this for next year."

With the cake within her grasp, KC dug in with both hands.

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

The men had endured several rough days of stage travel. Harrington had made no further attempts to question Kensington about his reasons for traveling west, deciding to wait until he could have a private conversation with the businessman. So far, Kensington's son had kept close by his father's side but Harrington was patient. His patience finally paid off one night when he took his after supper walk.

Martin Kensington stood next to the cascading waters of a small creek.

"Mr. Kensington," Harrington said as he approached.

"Mr. Harrington."

"Seems our trip is almost complete," Harrington sat on log partially stretched over the creek.

Kensington nodded, "and, none to soon for me."

"Yes," Harrington adjusted his position to move off a sharp piece of bark poking him in the backside. "I, too, will be glad for this trip to end. Although, I'm not anxious to face what awaits me."

"What does bring you, obviously a man of some refinement, to this god forsaken country?" Kensington sat on the log a few feet from Harrington.

"My employers have sent me back to oversee their investments. They have been forced to unnecessarily expend funds becausethe proprietor of a rundown, worthless boarding house in the town of Sweetwater...."

"Jesse Branson," Kensington spat out the name.

"You know her," Harrington looked surprised.

"She is the very reason I have come west." Kensington proceeded to tell Harrington of his earlier trip to Sweetwater, it's cause and it's unfortunate outcome. Of course, he conveniently left out his part in the sordid affair. "That bitch should be in prison."

"But, the law, Mr. Kensington," Harrington questioned. "Did they do nothing?"

"Law, ha," Kensington rose from the log and began to pace, his agitation growing. "Sheriff in Sweetwater is her best friend. There is no law. Not for decent people like you and me."

"I can't believe this," Harrington was worried. "Why, I had been guaranteed that Sweetwater was a law abiding town."

"By whom?" Kensington didn't think anyone in Sweetwater was worth much, especially since none would agreed to help him during his earlier visit.

"Mayor Perkins."

"That son-of-a-bitch," he sneered. "Why, he's the bastard that married my daughter to that bitch."

"He WHAT!!" Harrington rose off the log in anger.

"Guess he left that little fact out of his resume," Kensington laughed, humorlessly.

Harrington kicked at the log with his booted foot. "I must wire my employers about this immediately. They will not be pleased to hear that the law in Sweetwater cannot be trusted," Harrington was sure that this bit of news would probably cost him his job but he felt obligated to report it anyway. "They will take the appropriate action."

"What can they do?" Kensington became very interested in what Harrington was saying.

"They will have the territorial governor assign a U.S. Marshall to look into these matters."

Kensington looked at the man he had, until now, taken little notice of, "your employers seem to have friends in high places, Mr. Harrington."

"It is in their best interest to ensure their money is not wasted."

Kensington nodded. "Maybe, Mr. Harrington, we can help each other."

"How so?"

"You want the Silver Slipper?"

"Agreed."

"I want that bitch out of my daughter's life."

Harrington listened, saying nothing.

Kensington continued, "if you were able to have her arrested and put in prison, the Slipper would revert to my daughter. Once that happened, I would have Jennifer sign over all rights in the Slipper to you."

Harrington consider the proposition. If he could deliver the Slipper to his employers, he would regain their trust and, quite possibly, be able to return back east. On the other hand, if he could put Jesse Branson behind bars, Kensington might just be grateful enough to offer him a position with his company. Either way, he couldn't lose. "And, what would you have her arrested for?" he asked.

"I have it on good authority that the child being referred to as my granddaughter was orphaned when it's parents were murdered."

"That seems to be common knowledge in Sweetwater."

"Do you know the entire story?" Kensington asked. When Harrington shook his head in the negative, he continued. "The story told is that the child was discovered by my daughter and that bitch when they traveled to Bannack. When they arrived with the child in Bannack, they reported to the sheriff that outlaws had killed the parents during a robbery attempt."

"And?"

"I have a friend in Bannack who informed me that when Sheriff Plummer went to investigate their story, instead of outlaws, he found evidence that the Branson bitch had actually been the killer."

"Why wasn't she arrested?"

"She managed to get Plummer hanged before he could do anything about it."

"How'd she do that?"

"Talked her friend, Sheriff Monroe, into sending a telegram to the territorial governor reporting Plummer to be the leader of a gang of outlaws. Vigilantes got wind of it and took the law into their own hands."

"If what you say is true..."

"It's true enough," Kensington figured if it would get Jesse hanged, it didn't hurt to stretch the facts a little. "I suggest you have that U.S. Marshall check into it."

Harrington thought for a moment. "Mr. Kensington, if what you have just told me turns out to be true and you do, in fact, deliver the Silver Slipper to me. I will make sure that you are rewarded with a percentage of the Montana mining investments of my employers."

"You take care of that bitch," Kensington held out his hand, "I'll take care of Jennifer."

"You have yourself a deal," Harrington put out his own hand and the men smiled as their deal was sealed.

"Father," Thomas, who had been looking for his father, saw the two men shaking hands. "What's going on here?"

"Nothing that concerns you, son," Kensington nodded to Harrington before turning to walk back to the stage depot.

"Good evening," Harrington said to Thomas as he followed Kensington.

"What the hell are they up to?" Thomas wondered.

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

Continued in Part 4

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