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.
I would like to hear your comments,
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a story by Mickey
@copyrighted July 2004
The sun's rays were just starting to peek over the mountains in the east, the sky unsurprising cloudless after another night of light rain. Jesse, with KC snug in the carry sack on her back, mounted Dusty, Moments before she had assisted Jennifer onto Blaze while Mary mounted her borrowed horse. Jesse made a last visual check of the ranch buildings. Satisfied nothing looked amiss, she knew it was time to leave.
"Ready, darlin'?" she asked Jennifer.
"Yes. Mother are you ready?"
"Okay, let's go," Jesse tapped her heals against Dusty's sides and the large palomino started walking, Jennifer and Mary urged their horses forward. Boy had no choice but to follow since his lead was wrapped around Jesse's saddle horn.
Jesse led the group due east from the ranch. Within an hour, they left the rolling hills of the valley floor behind them and entered the pine forest at the foot of the mountain range. At first, with no trail to follow, Jesse guided Dusty through the trees and underbrush picking the best path as they rode. As their horses kept pace with Dusty, Jennifer and Mary looked in awe at the splendor of the terrain they were traveling.
Ponderosa pines standing hundreds of feet high and with trunks several feet in diameter surrounded them. The reddish brown bark shone bright wherever the sun's rays penetrated the dense canopy above. The recent rains had encouraged wildflowers to bloom and the forest floor was carpeted in a mixture of yellows, blues, and reds. Squirrels chattered at them and birds were heard singing and chirping in the tree's branches. Occasionally, deer or elk bounded through the trees after being startled by the group of riders.
It was late morning when Jesse pulled Dusty to a halt next to a small creek. "Let's take a break," she said as she swung her leg over Dusty's back.
"How ya doin', darlin'?" Jesse asked Jennifer, helping her to the ground.
"So far, so good," Jennifer gingerly put weight on her damaged leg, it was sore but seemed alright. She took her cane from the, otherwise, empty rifle scabbard on her saddle.
"This is beautiful," Mary said, walking to the edge of the creek where the forest yielded to a small clearing covered in pine needles and moss. Small boulders were jumbled in the creek, it's water washing over and around them. A few more boulders were scattered about the clearing, providing handy places to sit and rest. A large pine tree, probably blown down the previous winter, lay on it's side stretching from the clearing across the creek and back into the forest on the opposite bank. The creek's waters flowing under the fallen tree.
"Water's a little dirty," Jesse commented as she and Jennifer joined Mary. She noticed the creek was muddier than usual.
"Is that bad?" Jennifer asked as she sat on one of the larger boulders.
"May mean trouble up higher," Jesse slipped her arms free of the carry sack and gently placed it next to Jennifer. She helped KC out of it, "let's check your britches, sunshine."
KC, released from the carry sack's confinement, started scooting for the rock's edge.
"Hold on there, squirt," Jesse grabbed KC before she could get too far. "You stay right here with momma while I get you a fresh diaper."
"Pftttt," KC expressed her disappointment over not being allowed to play.
Jennifer lifted the pouting baby into her lap. "Sweetie," she said to KC, "I know you want to play but you need to stay with mommy or me or your grandma, okay?"
KC continued to pout.
Jennifer kissed the baby's forehead, "I don't want you to get hurt. So, you be a good girl and, I promise, mommy and I will let you play when we stop for the night. Okay?"
"That's right, sunshine," Jesse returned with the pack Jennifer had filled with the baby's diapers and clothes. "You be a good girl and I'll take ya in the creek after supper."
KC cheered somewhat with her mothers' promises, but she was still disappointed she wasn't going to get to play until later.
Mary had been exploring the clearing and spotted what looked like a path coming out of the trees on the opposite side of the creek, then turning to follow the creek eastward. "Is that the trail, Jesse?"
Jesse didn't look up from changing KC's soiled diaper, "Yep. It's an old Indian trail, this end isn't used much any more. It'll take us all the way to the pass and down the other side."
"Why don't they use it anymore?" Jennifer could just make out the overgrown path from where she sat.
"It's not safe for them, now. Not with so many white men in the valley. They still use it from the other side to reach the pass and the hunting grounds near the summit."
"Will we run into Indians?" Mary asked, suddenly concerned for the group's safety.
"Maybe," Jesse finished with the baby and sat her up. "There ya go, sunshine. All ready until we stop again." Returning her attention to Mary's question, "might be a hunting party around. But, I don't expect we'll have any trouble with them, most are pretty friendly unless you give 'em a reason not to be."
"Oh," Mary said regretting her apprehension. She knew her fear was wrong, especially after the pleasant evening she had enjoyed with Walks on the Wind. Realizing how affable the man was, she had wondered why the Indians were generally referred to as savages or worse. Back home, she had read many gruesome newspaper accounts of violent Indian attacks against settlers but Walks on the Wind had said his father had been attacked and killed by white men. She'd talked to Jesse about that and had been surprised by her daughter-in-law's response.
"Been bad things done by folks on both sides," Jesse said sadly. "I've learned it's best not judge a fella by what his kinfolk have or haven't done. Way I figure it, there's good and bad in every group of people so I try to take each person for who they are, not what they are."It was good advice and it showed Mary that she was going to have to work a lot harder to overcome her own preconceptions of the native people.
Jesse carried the pack back to Boy and tied it in place. She retraced her steps to place KC back into the carry sack and found the child anxiously waiting for her.
"Mommy, go," KC said as Jesse approached. If she couldn't play here, she wanted to get to where she could. And, the sooner the better.
"Alright, sunshine," Jesse bent down and lifted the baby.
"Here, let me help," Jennifer stood and took the baby allowing Jesse to slip her arms into the straps of the carry sack. She placed KC into the pocket of the sack and made sure the baby was comfortable, "all set."
Jesse turned to face Jennifer, pulling her wife into a hug, "I love you."
Jennifer melted into Jesse's embrace. "Mmmm," she sighed, she wasn't sure what prompted Jesse declaration but she was glad to share it, "I love you, too."
"Wuv," KC, not wanting to be left out, added as she wrapped her little arms around Jesse's neck and squeezed hard.
"Ack," Jesse laughed, choking a little. "Not so tight, sunshine."
Jennifer reached up and gently loosened the baby's grip, "you're getting strong, KC." Then, she smiled as she thought about her words, "she is, isn't she, Jesse?"
"Yep," Jesse agreed, "she's not the littl' tyke we found, any more."
"No, she's not," Jennifer looked at the baby on Jesse's back. No longer the tiny infant they had discovered buried under the remains of a burned out wagon, KC was growing into a healthy, resilient child. "She's getting so big," Jennifer said sadly as she remembered the infant, "she's not a baby anymore."
Chuckling, Jesse tightened her hold on her tearful wife, "darlin', she's still a baby. Don't go marryin' her off just yet."
Jennifer sighed deeply. "I'm being silly," she sheepishly grinned at the rancher.
"Nah," Jesse leaned to kiss sweet lips, "you're just bein' a momma."
"I am, aren't I?" Jennifer smile widened. It was amazing, right here in this little forest clearing, she had everything she had ever dreamed of. A spouse she loved and loved her in return, and a beautiful child. Happiness. Then she remembered the threat looming over that happiness and her thoughts darkened. "Let's get going," she pulled out of Jesse's embrace. "We've rested enough."
"Alright," Jesse could guess the cause of Jennifer's sudden mood change and she agreed it was time to get moving. "Ready, Mary?" she called to her mother-in-law.
"Yes, I'm coming."
Jesse guided the horses through the shallow water of the creek and onto the trail. It showed evidence of once being a well used path, wide enough for two people to have walked side-by-side along it's surface of hard packed dirt covered by leaves and pine needles. The trail paralleled the creek as it wound it's way east through the forest to the mouth of a canyon. After a mile or two, the trail began a gradual ascent with the path narrowing and becoming rocky and irregular, making travel more difficult for the horses and riders. The trail started to distance itself from the creek and, though soon lost from sight, the riders continued to hear the water tumbling and cascading down the canyon to the valley now far behind them.
The further into the canyon Jesse led the group, the closer the canyon's steep stone cliffs closed in on them. At one point, Mary was sure she could easily have lobbed a rock from one canyon wall to the other.
The trail eventually found it's way back alongside the creek and the horses were making their way across a sandy stretch enclosed by a rocky ledge on the one side and the creek running along the other. It was a welcome break for the horses who had spent the better part of the last miles picking their way along the rough stone littered path.
Being so close to the creek's waters did little to relieve the heat building in the canyon. As the sun beat down, it's warmth was absorbed by the rock and radiated back out, baking everything between the canyon walls. Jesse, sweat rolling off her back where KC sat, started to look for a camping spot. They would stop as soon as she could find an adequate location.
Riding at the front of the group, Jesse could not see the strained features of Jennifer's face. Her leg had begun to throb and ache and no matter how many times the schoolteacher adjusted her position in the saddle, she could not ease the pain. Jennifer looked up at the sky and saw that the sun was well past the midday point, she was sure Jesse would be calling an end to the day's travels sometime soon. She knew she only had to tell Jesse to stop and the rancher would do so immediately but she refused to say anything. She would wait to rest her leg, first she wanted to get her family as far away from her father as she could. And, she was more than willing to endure any pain to do so.
The horses crested a rise and the rocky, uneven trail leveled and smoothed. A small clearing opened before the riders. Jesse looked around, the creek was close, the ground was relatively level, there were plenty of trees for shade and a good supply of firewood laying about.
"We're camping here," she announced and wasn't surprised when she heard no objections.
Jesse swung herself down from Dusty and turned to help Jennifer who was struggling to dismount. The rancher grabbed the schoolteacher around the waist and carefully placed her on the ground. When Jennifer maintained her hold on the saddle and made no attempt to remove herself from Jesse's steadying hands, the rancher knew something was wrong. She scooped Jennifer up into her arms and carried her to a nearby tree, setting her wife down softly on the bed of pine needles at it's base.
"How bad is it?"
"It's not too bad," Jennifer lied. "I just need to rest it for a while."
"You should have said something," Jesse scolded as she slipped KC and her carry sack off her back.
"Here's some water," Mary walked up, handing Jennifer a canteen. "You don't look well, daughter," she knelt beside Jennifer, extremely concerned about the paleness of her skin. When she placed her hand against Jennifer's cheek, the skin felt damp and clammy.
"I'm okay," Jennifer tried to smile but the pain was too great. "I just need to rest."
"Stay with her, Mary," Jesse said, "I need to take care of the horses."
"Momma," KC crawled to where Jennifer sat and started to climb onto her good leg, "yum."
"Are you hungry, sweetie?" Jennifer reached to lift the baby into her lap but stopped immediately when the action caused a stab of pain to shoot up her leg.
"You sit still," Mary placed KC next to Jennifer. "I'll help Jesse."
Jesse had pulled the saddles and packs off the horses and was standing near the creek letting the animals enjoy a long drink. Mary knelt by the packs and began to open the ones holding the cooking utensils and food. Each woman, feeling guilty for not paying closer attention to Jennifer's discomfort during the day's ride, kept a remorseful eye on the schoolteacher.
Happy to be out of her carry sack and unaware of her momma's suffering, KC pulled herself upright against Jennifer's shoulder, she stood on wobbly legs pointing and telling her momma about the surrounding sights. Jennifer tried to pay attention to KC's gibberish but she found it hard as she watched Jesse and her mother prepare the campsite. She was exasperated and annoyed at not being able to help.
Jesse let Dusty and Blaze loose, knowing they would not wander far, but Boy and Mary's borrowed horse were picketed next to the creek with a good supply of grass within reach. Next, she set to work getting the campsite set up. Water for cooking and cleaning was brought from the creek, a fire was started and bedrolls were laid out. She made sure Mary had everything she needed to prepare their supper, even offering to help cook but Mary had insisted she could manage on her own. With nothing else to keep her from Jennifer, the embarrassed rancher walked to where Jennifer waited.
"I got your bed ready, darlin'," Jesse knelt beside Jennifer. "It'll be more comfortable than sitting here on the ground. I'm so sorry, Jennifer," Jesse blurted, cupping her hand on the side of her wife's face, "I should have been payin' closer attention. I should have stopped hours ago."
"Jesse," Jennifer's eyes filled with tears when she saw the mortified look on her lover's face. "You have nothing to be sorry for, sweetheart. I should have said something but," she leaned into Jesse's touch, "I wanted to get as far away from Sweetwater as we could. I'm so sorry."
Jesse moved so she could sit behind Jennifer and lovingly wrapped her arms around her wife, Jennifer gratefully leaned back into her embrace.
"Come on, KC," Mary walked over and lifted the baby. "Let's get you pants changed and then you can help me make supper," she told the baby, knowing the women needed some time alone.
Jennifer awoke to the sound of water splashing and KC giggling.
"Hush, sunshine," Jesse whispered, "we don't want to wake momma."
"Otay," KC whispered back but, as babies will do, continued making noise.
Jennifer opened her eyes to discover the sun was well up in the sky. "Guess yesterday took more out of me than I thought," she said, not thinking anyone would hear.
"It sure seemed to." Mary was sitting close by, she had been watching Jesse and KC play as Jennifer slept.
Jennifer grimaced as she stretched to work out the kinks that sleeping on the ground can cause. The night before, Jesse, unable to provide a hot bath for her wife, had soaked towels in hot water and wrapped them around the leg. Just before they went to bed, the rancher had lovingly massaged her tired body, lavishing special attention on her leg. By the time sleep claimed Jennifer, the pain had lessened considerably. Unfortunately, stretching the muscles had reawakened the raw nerves.
"I'd ask how your leg was, but seeing the look on your face, I think I have a pretty good idea," Mary frowned. She was still feeling guilty for not noticing Jennifer's distress the day before. "Are you hungry?"
"A little," Jennifer smiled to ease her mother's concern, "and, the leg isn't as bad as I expected. Isn't much worse than a normal morning."
Mary knew better than to question Jennifer any further. For her daughter, the leg was just a fact of her life now and didn't need to be discussed. It had taken Mary some time to understand, that for Jennifer, it was easier not to have to talk about the leg because that kept away the awful memories of the cougar's attack and Andrew Barrish's death. She appreciated that Jennifer lived with a great deal of pain and soreness, and had come to respect how she never allowed herself to complain.
As more laughter floated across the campsite, Jennifer propped herself up on her elbows so she could see what KC was doing that sounded so fun. Jesse was sitting in a small, shallow pool with KC sitting on her legs and the two were splashing each other unmercifully. The pool was encircled by several large stones that separated it's calm water from the creek rushing beside it. Jennifer didn't recall seeing the pool the night before so she figured Jesse must have created it that morning. Jennifer chuckled as she watched her wife and daughter play.
"Jesse sure has a way with the child," Mary observed as she followed Jennifer's eyes toward the creek.
"Yes, she does," Jennifer, now fully awake, realized how warm the day was and how hot she was under the blankets covering her lower body. She threw the blankets aside, "and, KC simply adores her,"
"Seems she adores both of you," Mary told her.
"Momma," the movement of the blankets attracted the attention of KC.
"Good morning, sweetie," Jennifer called to the baby. "You're not getting mommy too wet, are you?" she laughed when KC punched her little fists into the pool causing water to fly everywhere.
"Afternoon, darlin'," Jesse held up her hands to protect herself against KC's assault.
"Afternoon?" Jennifer questioned.
"Yes, dear," Mary explained. "Jesse didn't want to wake you, she said you needed to rest. She does look after you, doesn't she?"
That was one of the things Jennifer loved most about Jesse, she was always there for her. Even when she didn't think she needed it, her wife would surprise her with a thoughtful word or action and her heart would melt all over again. Like now, when she looked to the pool and saw the center of her life playing with their baby as if they didn't have a care in the world.
"Yes, mother," Jennifer sighed, contently, "she does."
Jesse stood up, lifting KC from the water as she did. The baby was not happy to be removed from the pool but Jesse whispered something in her ear and KC smiled and nodded. Jesse sloshed to the edge of the pool, her long legs making short work of the distance to the campsite.
"Jesse!," suddenly Jennifer became aware that Jesse was as naked as KC.
"How ya doin'?" Jesse settled on the bedroll next to Jennifer, the sun's warmth making quick work of drying the water droplets remaining on her tanned skin. KC climbed from Jesse's lap onto Jennifer's.
"You're naked," Jennifer whispered.
Jesse scratched her head, bewildered at Jennifer's comment, "usually am when I take a bath."
"But, Jesse," Jennifer wrapped her discarded blanket around the rancher, "someone could see you."
"Darlin'," Jesse laughed, "ain't nobody around here for miles. How's the leg?" she turned serious.
"It hurts," remembering how hurt Jesse had been the day before when she'd kept her leg's condition to herself, Jennifer decided to tell Jesse the truth. "I don't think I can ride very far today."
"No problem," Jesse bent to kiss Jennifer, "we're staying here. Aren't we, sunshine?"
"Yep," KC said proudly.
Jennifer laughed as the baby imitated Jesse, "how long have you been working on getting her to say that?"
"A while," Jesse smirked. "Thought since she looks like you, she should sound like me."
"Oh, you did," Jennifer shook her head, amused, "I'm not sure I'm ready for that."
"Too late," Jesse told her. "Come on, KC," Jesse placed a hand on the baby's back to steady her, "get off your momma so she can get up."
"Otay," KC swung her feet off Jennifer's side, she slipped off to sit next to Jesse on the bedroll.
Mary brought a cup of stew to Jennifer.
"Thank you, mother," Jesse accepted the cup, thinking about what Jesse said. "Sweetheart, maybe we shouldn't stay here today. Father could already be in Sweetwater."
"Darlin'," Jesse was too concerned about Jennifer's leg to care where her father-in-law was, "we don't know that he's even arrived in the territory, yet. And even if he has, he can't find us here. Very few people know about this trail and the one's that do, won't be tellin' him anything. Besides," she delicately ran her hand the length of Jennifer's leg, "you need to rest."
"But," Jennifer wasn't convinced her determined father wouldn't be able to find them.
"No," Jesse said softly. "We stay here today. Tomorrow, if we have to."
"Alright," Jennifer agreed. There really was no point to argue. Jesse was right, her leg needed the rest,
"Miles, what in the hell were you thinking?" Conrad Billingsley demanded.
The citizens of Sweetwater crowded into the dining room of the Silver Slipper, it being the largest room in the town for such a gathering. The day before, the Gazette had broken the story of the mayor's association with the eastern investment group and of the guarantees he had provided them. It hadn't taken long for a town meeting to be called.
"It's good for Sweetwater," Miles Perkins, the embroiled mayor, tried to worm his way out of the fact he had promised rights to valley resources he did not own or control.
"I'm not giving up my water rights so some group of dandies back east can dig up a mountain," Billingsley continued. Conrad Billingsley had come west after serving in the conflict between the northern and southern states, and had been the first rancher to pound in a stake claiming part of the valley as his own. He built his Rocking B ranch into the largest in the valley and, with it, he owned more than half the valley's water rights.
"They will compensate you, Conrad," Perkins told the angry man. "Rather handsomely, I might add."
"You fool," Billingsley reached for the mayor's neck, "I can't water my herds on their greenbacks."
"Back off," Billie Monroe, Sweetwater's sheriff, stepped between the two men before any harm came to the mayor. "Sit down, Conrad," Billie commanded the rancher. "We need to talk about this but I'm not going to let anyone get hurt."
"He promised them my water rights," Billingsley stood his ground.
"And mine," Marcus Butler, owner of another of the valley's biggest ranches said. "I don't care how much money this Harrington and his investment group plans to pay, I'm not selling those rights."
"SIT," Billie was tired of everyone trying to out shout the others, "so we can discuss what we can do."
"Hang the bastard," someone yelled, many others in the crowd quickly voicing their agreement.
Perkins blanched, he instinctively reached for his throat as if a noose was tightening around it.
"No one's going to be hanged," Billie told the angry people. "I know what Miles did was wrong and he'll pay. As for selling your rights, you don't have to accept their offers."
"Billie's right," Thaddeus Newby walked from where he had been watching the proceedings to stand next to the sheriff. It was the front page article in his newspaper that had alerted Sweetwater's residents to their mayor's activities. "You can tell Harrington and his group you refuse, just like Jesse and Jennifer did."
"What about Jesse?" Billingsley asked the newspaperman.
"Tha' Harrington waltzed in here and said he was ta buy the Slipper," Bette Mae told the room. "Miles done told him they'd be happy to sell."
"I did not," Perkins protested. "I simply said that Jesse and Jennifer were too busy to bother with this place," his arm swept around the room. "And, that they'd probably be real glad to have someone offer to take it off their hands."
"What 'bout me and the girls?" Bette Mae glared at the mayor. "What was we supposed ta do?"
"I'm sure you could find jobs in Bozeman or Bannack or one of the mining camps," the mayor explained. "After all, your services aren't exactly dependent on Sweetwater."
"Why ya littl'......." Bette Mae stormed towards the arrogant mayor." Several of the women who worked for the Slipper followed close behind.
At one time, the Silver Slipper had provided gambling, drinking and prostitution to the miners and cowboys in the valley. But after being won by Jesse in a card game, the drunks and dishonest card dealers were tossed out and the use of the building's second floor rooms by the 'working women' was stopped. Jesse kept part of the main floor as a saloon and turned the rest of the Slipper into a boarding house and restaurant. The women who had once plied their trade in the upstairs rooms had become the Slipper's card dealers, maids, and cooks and took great pride in the new professions.
"Stop," Billie moved in front of the angry women. "Killing him won't solve anything, Bette Mae," he told her even though, after hearing the mayor's offensive remarks, he could have killed the man himself for insulting the Slipper's employees which just happened to include his fiancé.
"Miles Perkins," loud and clear, a voice from the middle of the room cut through the confusion of angry shouts. "I knew you were a horse's ass when I married you, but I will not sit here and listen to you say such terrible things."
"Why now, I think Mayor Perkins simply spoke the truth. The Silver Slipper is nothing but a whorehouse. And, it's scandalous that decent folks are expected to allow such an establishment in their town."
Everyone in the room looked to see Tobias Harrington standing just inside the Slipper's front door. At his side stood Martin Kensington and another man.
"Kensington, what the hell are you doing back here?" Ed Grainger roared, seeing the easterner brought back the memory of fear on Jennifer's face just days before when she and Jesse had come to town with the news of her father's intentions to return to Sweetwater.
"Mr. Kensington has a right to be here," Harrington, confidently, told Ed.
"Like hell he does," Bette Mae turned her anger away from the mayor and at the man who had caused Jesse and Jennifer so much pain.
"Who the hell is that?" Billingsley and Butler both demanded at the same time, having never seen Harrington before.
"Mr. Harrington, it's so good to see you again," Mayor Perkins, anxious to focus the room's attention onto someone else, literally ran to greet his benefactor. An action his dismayed wife could not recall ever seeing before.
"That's Harrington?" Billingsley started for the small man at the door.
All at once, everyone in the room was shouting, their rage directed at Harrington, Kensington and Perkins, individually or together depending on their situation. Chairs were overturned and tables knocked aside as folks jumped to get closer to the men standing near the front door.
"Dammit," Billie yelled over the growing bedlam. "Everyone calm down."
Seeing the hostile crowd surging towards them, Thomas Kensington pulled his father and Harrington back out the door. Mayor Perkins squeezed through the opening seconds before Thomas yanked the door shut for the slight protection it might provide. "Run," he directed the men.
"Where?" Harrington asked.
"This way," Perkins took off down the stairs like a stick of dynamite had been stuck up his.... well, um.... okay, under his shoes.
"My office." Harrington and Kensington followed immediately as Thomas continued to hold the door against the frantic efforts to open it from inside the Slipper. As he felt the door slowly begin to be pulled from his grasp, Thomas heard a shot inside the building. Releasing his grip, he took off at a run after the others.
Inside the Slipper, chaos had taken over. Shouting, pushing, arguing, everyone seemed to have a different idea as to what should be done with Kensington and Harrington and Perkins. And, they were voicing their opinions quite loudly and freely.
Thaddeus looked at Billie, "another orderly meeting of Sweetwater's finest." His tone mocking as he remembered a night not too long ago that he and Billie had faced another out of control mob.
"Seems there's only one way to get their attention," Billie pulled the pistol from the holster he wore around his waist.
"Jesse won't like another hole in her ceiling," Thaddeus said as he saw the gun in the sheriff's hand.
"Doubt if she'd like them tearing the place up," Billie pointed the gun towards the ceiling and pulled the trigger.
"Please," Billie told at the crowd, "sit down." He was smiling but his tone was anything but happy. Folks continued to murmur between themselves as they followed the sheriff's order.
Conrad Billingsley, still standing next to the Slipper's door which he had just about managed to pull open when the gun was fired, asked Billie, "what you plan to do about Miles?"
"And, Kensington?" Bette Mae added.
"You're letting them get away," someone in the room shouted.
"No one is getting away," Billie calmly replied, his gun remained in his hand, ready if needed. "Miles won't go any further than his office and I'm sure the others are with him."
"So, what are you going to do?" Billingsley repeated.
"I'll go over there and talk to them. Before you say anything, Bette Mae, I'm arresting Kensington for violating his release agreement."
"You can tell that Harrington, I'm not selling my water rights. No matter how much he plans to pay," Billingsley said, many others echoed his sentiment.
"Alright," Billie nodded, "I'll tell him. Now, I want you all to go back to your own business."
"This is our business," Butler said angrily, from where he stood by Billingsley.
"I know that," Billie, just as angry, shouted back. "Let me handle this. Anyone that wants to can come by my office and file a complaint against Mayor Perkins. The judge will have to sort all that out when he comes to town next month. Until then, I'll tell Harrington the deals he made with the mayor are invalid. He'll have to approach each of you individually and you can make your own deals with him, if you have a mind to. Okay?"
"Alright, Billie," Billingsley nodded to the sheriff. "We'll let you handle it for now. But, if that man sets one foot on my property, I'll blow his head off."
"You talkin' Harrington or Perkins?" Butler asked.
After the townsfolk cleared out of the Slipper, Billie took a moment to talk to Ruthie.
"Billie," the young woman was worried about the sheriff facing the mayor and other men alone, "why don't you take Mr. Grainger and Mr. Newby with you?"
"I'll be fine, honey," Billie assured his fiancé, "and Thaddeus is coming with me. He'll be wantin' to write it up in the Gazette."
"You be careful," Ruthie wasn't appeased at all. "I don't trust Miss Jennifer's father. And, he brought that other man with him who looks just as mean."
"I'll be careful."
"Billie, ya ain't plannin' ta keep tha' sorry excuse for a papa in your jail, are ya?" Bette Mae walked up to the couple. "'Cause, I'm thinkin', he ain't goin' be too safe there. 'Specially since, I do all the cookin' for your prisoners," she grinned, wickedly.
"Hope that's not a threat," Billie glared at Bette Mae.
"Yes, sir," she sneered, "tha's 'xactly what tha' is."
Billie thought for a moment. He knew Bette Mae disliked Jennifer's father. Disliked probably wasn't a strong enough word to describe her feelings, yet she wasn't about to poison the man. At least, he didn't think so. However, she just might be willing to make him a little sick. Okay, probably much more than a little sick.
"You promise not to poison him," Billie smirked, "and I'll take him to Deer Lodge in the morning." The territory's prison was located in the small town on the other side of the mountains.
"Make sure ya git the nastiest horse the livery has to drag his sorry butt there," Bette Mae huffed as she started to straighten up the mess left behind by Sweetwater's citizenry.
"I've got to go," Billie told Ruthie as Bette Mae walked away. "I won't be able to see you tonight, I'll have to stay at the jail."
"Alright," Ruthie smiled, demurely, "I love you."
"I love you, too," Billie, after a quick check to make sure Bette Mae wasn't watching, pecked her on the cheek.
"Be careful," Ruthie's face was tinted by a blush.
"I will." Billie walked to the door, "come on, Thaddeus."
"Right behind you," the newspaper editor smiled, he had watched the exchange between the couple and knew a story when he saw one. Billie would be answering some questions of his own before the day was done.
Billie and Thaddeus went straight to the sheriff's office after leaving the Slipper. Billie took a shotgun out of the rack behind his desk and loaded it, putting extra shells in his pocket. The sheriff marched out of his office and walked the few steps to the office next door, the newspaper editor on his heels. Without warning, Billie kicked in the door of the mayor's office. "Nobody move," he leveled the shotgun at the room's occupants.
Mayor Perkins sat at his desk while Harrington paced nervously about the room. Martin Kensington and his son sat in chairs opposite the desk watching the irritated man.
"Perkins," Harrington stopped momentarily to look out the window at the Slipper. Seeing no activity outside the building, he continued, "your mess just keeps getting bigger."
"But, I," Perkins tried.
"Shut up," Harrington was pacing again. "I have to think. Martin, you dealt with these people. What do you think they'll do next?"
"Father, what in the hell have you gotten us missed up in?" Thomas couldn't believe the angry reactions his father's appearance had provoked from some of the people in the Slipper. Not to mention, the open hostility shown towards Harrington.
"Be quiet," Kensington hissed. "You wanted to come along. Don't start questioning it now."
"I said we'd talk to Jennifer, nothing more."
"Look," Harrington slammed a fist down on the mayor's desk, "right now, I don't give a damn about your family problems. I have a job to do. A job that seems to have just gotten much more complicated thanks to you, Perkins," he snarled at the mayor. "But, nonetheless, I have every intention of doing as my employers have ordered. Now," he demanded, "I need to know what the townspeople are likely to do and how I can....."
The door burst open and the men were shocked to find themselves looking down the barrel of a loaded shotgun held in the sheriff's rock solid hands.
"Nobody move." Billie stared at each of the four men, making sure they knew he was serious. "Martin Kensington," he focused on the large man, "you are in violation of your agreement to never return to Montana Territory. By order of the Bozeman court, I'm placing you under arrest."
"Just a minute," Kensington started to stand.
"Don't move," Billie ordered.
"Father," Thomas saw that the sheriff was in no mood for a confrontation. "Sit down, please."
"I will not have this incompetent lawman arrest me again," Kensington shook off his son.
"Kensington, you take one more step and I'll blow a hole clean through you," Billie calmly aimed the shotgun's barrel at the man's chest. "And," he smiled viciously, "I'll take great pleasure in pulling the trigger."
Realizing, the sheriff meant what he said, Kensington stopped.
"Just a minute, sheriff," Harrington protested, "you have no authority to arrest Mr. Kensington."
"Shut up," Billie hissed. "You have enough of your own trouble, Mr. Harrington, without taking on this. By the way, any agreements you've made with Mayor Perkins are being declared invalid until the judge gets here next month. Until then, you talk directly with the property owners. If they want to deal, okay. If not, you get nothing." He looked at the younger version of Kensington sitting beside the man, "you related?"
"Jennifer's brother?" Billie was surprised at the man's identity.
"You here to make trouble?"
"No, I just want to talk to her and my mother."
"Guess that's up to them," Billie told him.
"Will you ask them to see me?"
For some reason, Billie trusted the younger man even though it didn't make much sense considering his father's unreasonable behavior. "Right now, I need to get your father to the jail and locked in a cell for the night. I'll be taking him to Deer Lodge first thing in the morning. Once I get back, I'll talk to Jesse and Jennifer."
"Fair enough," Thomas agreed knowing he couldn't do much else.
"Let's go, Kensington," Billie motioned for the man to accompany him.
"Don't worry, Martin," Harrington told his secret partner. "The marshal should be here, any day."
"Marshal?" Thaddeus Newby had been quietly taking notes as he stood off to the side of the room.
"Yes," Harrington puffed up, "my employers have arranged for a U.S. Marshal to be assigned to bring law to Sweetwater."
"We have already have law here," Thaddeus pointed at Billie with the end of his pencil.
"Honest law," Harrington sneered. "Not someone to turn a blind eye on the unlawful acts of certain individuals." Billie's comments about shooting Kensington had convinced him that his partner was telling the truth about the sheriff's willingness to turn aside the law in order to protect the Branson women.
"What are you talking about?" Thaddeus asked.
"I think the sheriff knows the answer to that," Harrington challenged.
"I don't have time for your games," Billie had no idea what Harrington was talking about and really didn't care at the moment. "Come on, Kensington," Billie led the man from the room, Thomas followed at a safe distance.
"Care to explain your comments?" Thaddeus asked again after Billie left with his prisoner.
"No," Harrington smugly replied as he sat on the edge of the mayor's desk. "I think it will become apparent when the marshal arrives."
"And, when will that be?"
"Any day, now."
Jennifer woke up giggling with Jesse nipping and nuzzling her ear. It was still dark out and Jennifer was glad for the warmth of both their bedroll and Jesse's body wrapped protectively around her. "Stop that," she playfully batted at Jesse.
Jesse continued to suck on the silky earlobe before whispering back, "if your mother wasn't sleeping on the other side of the fire, I'd be doing much more than this." Her hot breath softly puffing across Jennifer's skin and awakening other areas of her body.
Jennifer turned her head and captured Jesse's busy lips with her own, she moaned quietly when her wife's tongue traced around her mouth before seeking entrance. After several long moments of shared exploration, the women pulled apart.
"We can't," Jennifer whispered as she twisted her entire body to face Jesse's.
"I know," Jesse confessed. "But, this is good, too," she smiled as she pulled Jennifer close. "How do you feel this morning?" she asked, hoping the day of rest had helped the schoolteacher's leg recover.
"Well," Jennifer stretched her leg, testing it for soreness and pain. "Actually," she happily reported, "it feels pretty good."
"Think you can ride?" Jesse kept her voice low since Mary and KC were still asleep and there was no reason to wake them if they weren't going to break camp.
Jennifer was unsure how to answer, "how far would we be riding?"
"Summit is 'bout half a day's ride," Jesse told her, thinking that if they could make the summit, it would be enough riding for the day. "But, it's rough trail the last few miles and the canyon really narrows at the top. We'll have a drop off to one side and a steep cliff on the other. there'll be no where to stop once we start up."
"I think I'm ready," Jennifer told Jesse but the worried look on her face said otherwise.
"You need to be sure, darlin'. We can stay here, for as long as you want," Jesse didn't want Jennifer to feel forced into continuing their journey,
Jennifer considered their options. They could remain in the camp, it was a nice spot and was probably far enough away from Sweetwater to keep them safe. On the other hand, she wasn't sure how far her father would go to find her. Even if Billie arrested him, she was sure that he would never have returned to Montana without a plan to circumvent the prior agreement with the territory authorities. And, if he somehow found the trail they had taken out of the valley, they were less than a day's ride from the ranch. No, it would be better to keep going. The more distance they could put between themselves and her father, the better they would be.
"I can make it," Jennifer said, her determined tone more to convince herself than Jesse.
"Okay, if you're sure," Jesse looked into Jennifer's eyes in order to catch any doubt that might flash through them.
"I'm sure, sweetheart," Jennifer nodded, her jaw firmly set to the day's task. "When should we leave?"
"As soon as we can, we'll want to get to the top before the afternoon heat sets in," she wasn't sure Jennifer was telling her everything but she was just as anxious to reach the summit and put the worst part of their journey behind them.
"Alright," Jennifer tried to push herself upright but found she was still securely held by the rancher.
"I love you," Jesse placed a tender kiss on her lover's lips. "What say, I see about catching us some fish for breakfast while you get the sleepy heads up," she pulled away just as Jennifer tried to deepen the embrace.
"That wasn't nice," Jennifer pouted as Jesse sprang to her feet, leaving the schoolteacher alone in their bedroll. Well, almost alone. KC was tucked safely in the blankets where Jesse had placed her the night before.
The citizens of Sweetwater watched as freight wagon after freight wagon rumbled along the stage road and pulled into the open field next to the general store. Several men climbed down from their perches atop the heavy loads to help unpack the wagons. Mayor Perkins and Tobias Harrington rushed out of the mayor's office to greet the wagons. Hearing the commotion, Thaddeus Newby quickly followed.
"Mr. Harrington," one of the workers broke from the others to meet the men.
"You're late," Harrington grumbled as he hurried past the man's outstretched arm to inspect the materials being unloaded. "Be careful, there," he shouted at a couple of men struggling to unload a large, bulky box. "Anything broken will be deducted from your wages."
"Mr. Harrington," the first man turned to join the overseer. "My name is Frank Wilson. I'm the foreman sent to...."
"I know who you are and why you're here," Harrington kept his eyes on the workers. "Why are you late?"
Frank Wilson had not been happy to hear he would be working with Tobias Harrington in Sweetwater. The diminutive man was known in the mining camps for doing whatever was necessary to complete his assignments. He also had a well earned reputation for being rude, arrogant and uncooperative. But when orders came to pick up the building supplies in Bozeman, hire a work crew, and proceed to Sweetwater to build a bank and hotel for the company, Wilson complied. He only hoped Harrington would make himself scarce once he saw that the foreman was more than capable to carry out his orders without his help. Until then, he would have to try to get along with the supercilious man.
"We came as quick as we could. The loads were heavier than we expected, it's been tough on the horses."
"Humpth," Harrington grunted. "You have the invoices, I assume."
"Yes," Wilson handed Harrington an envelope. "This is what they gave me."
"Well, let's hope you didn't leave anything behind," Harrington ripped open the envelope and began to scan the papers inside. "How soon can you start building?"
"Soon as we get unpacked and I get the men rooms at the boarding house."
"You'll find tents and cots among the items in the wagons. You can set the tents up there," he pointed behind the site where the hotel would be built. "You and the men will be staying in them. I've hired a cook to prepare your meals. One of the tents will need to be set up near the creek for him."
"What?" Wilson had been told to house the men wherever he saw fit. And, sleeping outside in a tent was not what he had in mind. Especially since he'd heard many stories about the Slipper's clean rooms and good meals.
"Boarding house is off limits to employees of the company," Harrington shoved the papers back inside the envelope and turned to return to the mayor's office, now also his office. "I suggest you get the hotel built quickly if you don't like the arrangements," he told Wilson as he walked past him.
"Hey, wait a minute," Wilson called after Harrington.
"Perkins will answer any other questions you may have," Harrington never broke stride.
Wilson looked at the mayor who smiled nervously,
"Mr. Wilson, I have the buildings' plans for you," Perkins handed the disgruntled man several rolled up drawings. "The hotel is to be built on that lot," he pointed across the street to the empty space next to the stage station, "and the bank is to built here," he pointed to where the men were unloading the wagons, next to the general store. "You might want to stack your materials elsewhere." he suggested.
"Damn," Wilson took the drawings as he mumbled, "this is starting off great. You men," he called to the workers, "stop unloading that stuff. We need to move the wagons further back." Ah yes, he thought as he listened to the men grumble, he could tell that the coming weeks were going to be a lot of laughs.
"If you have any questions or require anything, you can find my office there," Mayor Perkins pointed to the building on the other side of the general store. "Nice to meet you," he said before scurrying away before the man could think of anything.
Sheriff Billie Monroe looked up as the door to his office opened and a form stepped through blocking out the late morning sunlight. He had planned to leave for Deer Lodge at first light but trouble with a couple of drunks at the Oxbow saloon had delayed his departure.
"I'm looking for the sheriff," a man wearing a badge over his left breast said.
"I'm Sheriff Monroe," Billie figured that the mysterious marshal Kensington had been bragging about all morning had finally arrived. "How can I help you?"
The man stepped further into the small office and shut the door behind him. He stood about the same height as Billie but was thinner and older. He wore a faded blue cotton shirt tucked into a pair of denim pants. His well worn leather coat and boots were covered in trail dust. A black stetson sat on his head and was pulled down tight over his eyes. A thick salt and pepper handlebar mustache was about all of his face the sheriff could make out.
"I'm United States Marshal Bret Morgan," the man pulled a wrinkled paper from his pocket. "I have an arrest warrant for one Jesse Branson."
Billie was taken aback by the man's announcement. "What the hell are you talking about?" Billie leaped out of his chair.
"I told you things would be changing around here," Kensington laughed. He was listening to the conversation from his cell.
"Shut up, Kensington," Billie shouted.
"Would that be Martin Kensington?" the marshal asked.
"What if it is?" Billie really didn't like the way this was going.
"Yes, marshal," Kensington called from his cell. "I am Martin Kensington."
The marshal reached back into his pocket and pulled a second wrinkled paper free, "I have a release order for Mr. Kensington."
"From who?" the dismayed sheriff asked.
"Territorial governor," Morgan tossed both papers onto Billie's desk. "All charges have been suspended pending investigation into the charges against Branson."
"I don't believe this," Billie collapsed back into his chair. He picked up the papers and read them, very carefully. "You can't be serious," he told Morgan as he read. "There's no truth to these charges."
"That's for a judge to decide. Where can I find her?"
"What's up, Billie?" Thaddeus entered the room, he had seen the marshal enter the sheriff's office from where he was watching the freight wagons being unloaded.
"See for yourself," Billie handed the papers to the newspaperman before opening his desk drawer to retrieve the cell door keys.
"Now, sheriff," Kensington said as Billie unlocked his cell, "you can take me and the marshal to where my daughter and that bitch are."
At that moment, Billie was very glad Jesse had the forethought to leave town with Jennifer and KC. "Sure," he agreed knowing that he was about to lead the men on a wild goose hunt, "we can ride out to their ranch."
"Billie, are you crazy?" Thaddeus looked up in surprise. Since Jesse and Jennifer had not told him of their plans, he assumed they would be at the ranch.
"Marshal has a warrant," Billie told him. "I have to cooperate."
"Jesse didn't do this," Thaddeus shook his head. "You'll be giving her over to the hangman."
"Why don't you ride with us, Thaddeus?" Billie hoped his friend would, he could use his help in making the marshal's job as hard as possible. Something he knew Thaddeus would be glad to do once he realized Billie wasn't riding out to arrest Jesse.
"That's a good idea," Harrington proclaimed. "Then, you can write how that bitch is going to pay for her crimes and how Jennifer is going back east with me, where she belongs."
"Dammit, Kensington," Billie grabbed his hat from a peg on the office wall, "don't you ever get tired of making a fool out of yourself?"
"Father," Thomas entered the sheriff's office, expecting to find his father behind bars, "what's happening?"
"We're riding out to find your sister and arrest the bitch who took her from us."
"You can't do that," Thomas was concerned how such an action would affect Jennifer.
"Sheriff, I'd like to get this taken care of as quickly as possible," the marshal said, tired of all the talk. Especially, since he couldn't figure out how half of it was possibly related to his stated business.
"Alright," Billie nodded, "let's go."
The trail narrowed becoming increasingly rocky and treacherous. Recent rains had loosened the ground further up the canyon's walls and rock slides had covered many stretches of trail with jagged stones. A few of the slides had been big enough to wash out small sections of trail. The women let the horses pick their own way around the obstacles as they slowly made their way towards the summit. Jesse knew they were rapidly approaching the point where turning around would be impossible, she had to stop and ask Jennifer how she was doing.
Choosing a spot where the trail widened as it re-entered the cover of trees for a short stretch, Jesse pulled Dusty to a stop. "Jennifer," she turned as her wife rode up beside her, "if we have to turn around, this is the place to do it."
Jennifer knew what Jesse was asking. She took her booted foot out of the stirrup and tested the leg. It was sore and she had begun to feel a little pain about an hour before but it didn't feel too bad.
"How far to the top?" she asked as she reached behind Jesse to give KC a drink from her canteen.
"Three miles," Jesse drank from her own canteen, "four, at the most."
"Mother, how are you doing?" Jennifer wanted to hear her mother's answer before she made any decision.
"I'm fine," Mary had dismounted to stretch her own legs. "I can make another few miles."
"It's going to be rough," Jesse told both women. "Rougher than what we've already seen."
Mary considered this information. The past few hours she had spent holding on to the saddle horn with a death grip hoping that her borrowed horse wouldn't suffer a misstep that sent both of them plunging down the steep slope to the creek now several hundred feet below them. If the miles ahead were worse........ Of course, once they reached the summit, the frightening trail would be behind them.
"I can go on," Mary remounted.
Jennifer reached for Jesse's hand and brought it to her mouth, placing a tender kiss on the soft skin. "I'm okay, sweetheart."
"Alright," Jesse wanted to get to the summit as much as the other women. "Let's check KC's britches and get moving. If we don't run into trouble we should make the summit in a couple of hours." They wasted no time in seeing to the baby's needs and getting back on the trail.
Half the distance to the summit had been covered when Dusty rounded a granite outcropping and came to a stop. The trail ahead was gone, washed away by a mudslide.
"What's wrong?" Jennifer asked, Blaze had yet to clear the outcropping and she could only see the back end of Dusty..
"Wash out," Jesse told her. Carefully, she stood in the stirrups to get a better look at how much of the trail had been washed away. "Damn," Jesse muttered, frustrated that she couldn't see an end to the damaged section. There was no way to turn the horses around and go back and it was too dangerous to try to back them down the trail. She would have to find a way across.
"Stay there," Jesse told Jennifer, "I'm coming back to you." She looked to her left, the slope of the mountain was almost perpendicular and covered in debris from the slide. To her right, the drop was just as steep and she couldn't see the bottom.
"Easy girl," she settled Dusty before trying to dismount. With the baby on her back, she didn't need Dusty getting nervous just now. Jesse turned her head to look into the baby's eyes, "sunshine, I need you to sit very still. Okay."
Sensing the danger, KC whispered, "otay."
Jesse edged Dusty as close to the left as possible, then carefully swung her leg over the saddle. She made sure her foot was on solid ground before putting all her weight on her leg. Carefully, she worked her way down Dusty's side, breathing a sigh of relief when she reached the trail behind the horse.
"Sweetheart?" Jennifer saw the trepidation on Jesse's face.
Jesse was glad to see that the section of trail where Jennifer and Mary waited was actually wider than than she thought. It would provide a place for them to wait without worrying about being right next to the edge. It wasn't a lot but it would have to do.
"Mudslide took the trail out," Jesse helped Jennifer and Mary carefully dismount.
"What are we going to do?" Jennifer asked.
"You're staying here," Jesse took a deep breath. "I'm going to lead Dusty across and set a trail."
"Jesse, no," Jennifer shook her head violently. "We can go back."
"Darlin'," Jesse placed her hands around Jennifer's face, "we can't. Not without leaving the horses."
"Jesse, please," the schoolteacher was scared that Jesse would fall down the mountain.
"Listen," Jesse tried to assure her wife, "Dusty is the most sure-footed horse I know. We'll go slow and find a way across. Then, I'll come back for you."
"No, Jesse," Jennifer was on the verge of tears. "I can't lose you," she whispered, desperately.
"I'm not going anywhere," Jesse wiped the tears away with her thumbs. "I promise, darlin'," she smiled, "I'll be back."
"Jesse," Mary wrapped her arms around her distraught daughter, "are you sure that's the only way?"
"Mary," Jesse answered quietly, "you know what lays behind us. This slide can't be that long, we're almost to the top. I'll be back before you know it."
"Be careful," Jennifer pleaded.
Jesse pulled Jennifer close and kissed her. With her own voice full of emotion, she told the woman she loved more than anything, "I love you, Jennifer. You are my life, I won't lose you now." She swung the pack off her back and handed KC to Jennifer. "I love you," she kissed the baby's forehead. "You be a good girl."
"Wuv," KC threw her arms around Jesse and held tight.
"I love you, Jesse," Jennifer gently pulled the baby off Jesse. "Come back."
"I will, I promise," Jesse said before turning to work her way back to Dusty.
"Okay, girl," Jesse rubbed Dusty's head. "Let's get this done, we have people counted on us." She turned to survey her options of a path through the debris field. It didn't look good, rocks, tree branches, and dried mud covered the mountain side in front of her. "Guess there's only one way to do this," she said as she started to pick her way across the rubble. She held the reins loosely in her hand, not wanting to be pulled over the side if Dusty lost her footing.
Jesse was scared as she worked her way across the wash out. One wrong move and she'd be on a fast trip to the canyon bottom before she could stop herself. She thought of Jennifer and KC waiting for her and was determined to return to them. She came to a solid ledge under the debris and was grateful for it's support on the otherwise shaky cliff. Just at the end of the ledge, a boulder blocked her progress. She thought she could climb over it but there was no way for Dusty to do so. Jesse studied the situation, she saw a small branch wedged under the rock and holding it in place. If she could move the branch, the boulder would fall down into canyon and out of their way. But, she wondered, how much more of the hillside would go with the rock.
Calculating that the ledge she and Dusty currently occupied was relatively secure, Jesse decided to try to move the branch and hope for the best. She really didn't have any option. She could go back to where Jennifer and Mary waited but Dusty could not. Warily, she climbed upslope of Dusty so she could pull the rope coil from her saddle then she returned to the ledge. She opened a loop in the rope and tossed it over the end of the branch.
"Please let this work," she prayed as she yanked the rope as hard as she could. At first the branch resisted her efforts, then ever so slowly it began to slip out of the mud under the boulder. It had pulled only partway free when the rock began to budge. Sensing, the rock's movement, Jesse released her hold on the rope so she wouldn't be pulled with it if the branch was carried down slope by the boulder. Moments later, the boulder rolled free, bouncing and crashing all the way to the bottom of the canyon.
Jesse froze. Breathlessly, she waited. The ground beneath her feet held.
"I hope we don't have to do that again," she let out a long sigh.
Looking beyond where the boulder had rested, she thankfully spied the end of the washout less than fifty feet ahead where the trail curved out of sight. It wasn't long before she and Dusty were standing back on the trail and firm ground.
The sheriff had led the men into the ranch yard moments earlier and made a show of calling out for Jesse and Jennifer. When no response came, Kensington had kicked in the door to the ranch house looking for his daughter. The marshal rode to the barn to check there and Thomas had walked off to investigate Mary's cabin.
"Where are they?" Thaddeus whispered to Billie so the other men wouldn't hear.
"Gone," was the only reply.
"Where are they?" Kensington stormed out of the empty ranch house.
"Sheriff, do you know where they are?" the marshal asked returning from the empty barn.
"Nope," Billie told the man. "Figured they'd be here since they weren't in town."
"You know where they are," Kensington tried to pull Billie from his horse but was stopped by Thomas.
"Stop it, father," the younger man threw Kensington to the ground. "How would he know where they are? They could just be out for a ride or something."
"They must have known I was coming," Kensington picked himself up and brushed the dirt from his clothes.
"How?" Thomas countered. "You didn't send word telling them, did you?"
"No," Kensington considered the question. "But, you could have," he accused his son.
"I wish I had," Thomas mounted his horse, disgusted by his father's behavior. He hoped Jennifer had had prior warning and was somewhere safe and very far away.
"Guess I'll just have a look around," the marshal looked at the sheriff, trying to gauge his reaction. He had a gut feeling the lawman knew more than he was saying and considering he had been sent to Sweetwater because the sheriff was accused of collaborating with Jesse, he was determined not to trust the man. "Maybe I can pick up some tracks."
"Suit yourself," Billie shrugged, confident in the fact that Jesse was one of the best trackers in the territory and was just as skilled at hiding tracks. He was sure she had left nothing behind to give away their movements. "Think I'll swing by the river on the way back to town."
"Where they like to picnic?" Thaddeus asked, picking up on Billie's attempt to keep the marshal chasing his tail for a while.
"Yeah," Billie nodded, "by that big pine tree."
The marshal watched Billie and Thaddeus ride away, Thomas and his father close behind. He looked around at the empty ranch yard and scowled. There were a hundred different ways Jesse Branson could have ridden away from the ranch and most would take her to extremely remote parts of the territory. The kid was right, if they hadn't had prior warning, they were probably just out for an afternoon's ride or picnic. They were sure to show up sooner or later. Maybe, he'd do well to follow the sheriff. Morgan kicked his horse into a trot and rode after the others.
Jennifer waited, her heart in her throat, as Jesse made her way back across the washout alone. She had refused to wait with Mary but had stood at the edge of the slide watching every move Jesse made. She had almost screamed when Jesse loosened the boulder, sending it to the bottom of the canyon. But she hadn't, afraid it would startle the rancher causing her to loose her footing and fall. Now, Jesse was returning to her and she could breath again.
"Whoo," Jesse whistled when she reached Jennifer. She wrapped her arms around her wife and hugged her tight.
"You okay," Jennifer asked from the safety of Jesse's arms.
"Yep," Jesse tightened her hold. "I am now." Jesse released Jennifer then led her back around the outcropping to Mary and KC.
"You're back," Mary rushed to hug Jesse, KC in her arms.
"Mommy," KC reached for the rancher.
"Hi, sunshine," Jesse laughed as the baby literally leaped into her arms. "Have you been good?"
"Yep," KC giggled.
"What now, Jesse?" Jennifer asked, she knew they still had to cross the stretch of washed out trail.
"Now, I take the horses across," Jesse told her. "Then, I come back for you."
"Can't we go at the same time?" Jennifer offered.
"No," Jesse picked up a canteen and took a long drink. The heat was building between the canyon's walls and she was starting to feel it. "It's not safe to try with the horses, too much could go wrong." She pulled the canteens from the saddles to leave with Jennifer and Mary.
"But, sweetheart," Jennifer noticed Jesse appeared drained from the treacherous first crossings of the washout, "that means you have to make two more crossings."
"It's okay," Jesse smiled. "I know the way now. Won't take nearly as long this time. Plus, the horses will beat down a path for us to follow and make it that much easier."
"I don't know, Jesse," Jennifer would rather be able to get everyone across and be done with it.
"Trust me, darlin'," Jesse grinned. "I'll be back before you know it."
Jesse tied Boy to Blaze's saddle horn and Blaze to Mary's horse, preferring to lead the horse most unknown to her. She was confident that Blaze and Boy would follow with little difficulty. With quick kisses planted on Jennifer's cheek and KC's forehead, Jesse started back across the debris field. Having Dusty's hoof prints to follow was a big help and it wasn't nearly as long before she reached the other side. Once she had secured the horses, Jesse began to ease her way back to her family.
It was getting hotter and it didn't help that the debris field was in the open providing no protection from the sun. Jesse could feel the sweat rolling down her back, legs, and arms. When this was done she planned a nice long soak in the small lake at the top of the summit.
Jennifer met Jesse with a canteen, the rancher quickly drained it. "Glad this is the last trip," she said as she picked up KC's pack and prepared to put the baby into it.
"Why don't you let me carry her?" Jennifer reached for the sack.
"No, darlin'," Jesse kept the sack out of Jennifer's grasp. "You will have enough to walk across, I'll take KC."
Jennifer knew Jesse was right, trying to make her way across the narrow, uneven path would be all she could handle. If she was honest with herself, she wasn't really sure she could do it.
"Here ya go, sunshine," Jesse placed the baby in the carry sack and swung it onto her bag. "You need to sit real still for mommy, okay?"
"You've been a real good girl today, sunshine," Jesse twisted to smile at KC. "There's a nice lake not too far away and when we get there we'll go swimming. Does that sound good?"
"Yep," the baby smiled back then hunched down in the pack to do as her mommy asked.
"Good girl," Jesse winked at the waiting baby.
"I'm ready," she wasn't so sure, but she'd made it this far. What was another few hundred feet? She had the canteens tied around her waist, most were empty so they didn't add much weight to her small frame.
"Yes, I'm ready, sweetheart."
"Okay," Jesse adjusted the pack on her tired back. "I'll go first, then Jennifer, then Mary. Follow the path the horses left. If you have any trouble, call out. It's better to wait than try to force your way across," she looked at the women to make sure they understood. Both nodded.
"Let's get out of here," Jesse lead the women out of their temporary sanctuary.
Leaning heavily on her cane, Jennifer made it partially across the washout when she realized her leg would go no further. Picking her way through the debris had taken it's toll and to make matters worse, her bad leg was on the downhill side. "Jesse," she called to the rancher several feet ahead of her.
"What?" Jesse froze in place, hearing the anguish in her wife's voice.
"I can't go any further," Jennifer told her.
"Don't move," Jesse said as she continued to make her way to the other side. She couldn't help Jennifer with KC on her back without endangering all three of them. "I'll be right back.
Unable to move, Jennifer could do nothing but watch Jesse's move steadily away from her.
Reaching the spot she had left the horses, Jesse placed the carry sack at the base of a small tree. KC still sat inside. "KC," she told the baby, "I want you to sit right here. Don't move. I have to go get momma," Jesse wasn't sure the baby understood but leaving her in the carry sack would limit her ability to go anywhere. "Sit right here."
"Otay," the baby looked up at her mommy. Somehow, she knew her mother was counting on her to do exactly what she was told.
Jesse bent to kiss the baby and had to put a hand on the tree to keep herself from keeling over. She was tired. More than tired, exhausted. Taking her time, she stood and waiting for the dizziness to pass. She looked for a canteen, then realized Mary was carrying all of them. Not that they would do her much good, most were empty. She had to get back to Jennifer and then get the family to the summit where they could all rest.
"Come on," Jesse told herself. "You only have one more trip to make. You can do it," she headed back for Jennifer and Mary.
Jennifer was getting concerned when Jesse didn't reappear around the curve at the far end of the washout. She was about to call to her when the rancher walked out of the shadows and started back for her. The closer Jesse got, the more Jennifer could see how worn out she was.
"Tomorrow, we're resting in camp for you," Jennifer mumbled.
"What's that?" Mary asked from where she waited a few feet behind Jennifer. Too concerned with where she was placing her own feet, Mary had not realized Jennifer was having problems until she'd called to Jesse. At first, she had been happy to wait and rest but, now, she was anxious to be off the slippery slope and on solid ground.
"Nothing, mother," Jennifer's eyes never left Jesse. "Jesse is on her way back."
By the time, Jesse reached her stranded wife, she was breathing hard.
"Are you okay?" Jennifer was more than concerned over the rancher's condition.
"Fine," Jesse smiled but her tone said otherwise.
"You need to rest."
"Let's get you over there so we all can rest," Jesse turned her back to Jennifer and bent down. "Climb on."
"Jesse," Jennifer thought Jesse had lost her mind. "You can't carry me."
Slowly, Jesse stood upright and turned back to face Jennifer. She took a deep breath before speaking, "darlin', you can't walk. Can you think of any other way to get you across?"
"You can't carry me," Jennifer couldn't imagine Jesse carrying her in her present state of exhaustion.
"Then, what?" Jesse tiredness was making her frustrated. When she heard no answer, she added, "KC is all alone over there. No tellin' how long before she decides to try and find us. Please, climb on my back so we can get this over with," Jesse pleaded.
Mary said a silent prayer as she listened to their conversation and knew the exhausted rancher would get her daughter to safety even if it cost her her own life. Mary hoped it wouldn't come to that.
Jennifer sighed. Damn, it was times like this that she hated her father. If it hadn't been for him, she would not be in this situation. She and Jesse would never have been forced to leave their home. She would not have been attacked by the mountain lion. She would not be dependent on an exhausted woman to carry her to the top of a mountain. 'Damn you, Martin Kensington,' she thought, 'if I ever see him again, I'll make sure he never, ever, does this to us again.'
Jennifer nodded and Jesse turned to present her back to her wife. Jennifer climbed on Jesse's back and waiting breathlessly while Jesse got her balance and straightened. Her steps were shaky but Jesse carried Jennifer to safety and set her down near KC before collapsing.
"Jesse," the schoolteacher cried when she saw Jesse drop to her knees.
"Water," Jesse asked, her throat so dry the words hardly made their way out.
"Here," Mary handed Jesse the last canteen to carry any of the precious liquid.
Jesse gulped the water down, sucking in the last drop.
"We're camping here," Jennifer announced, even though they were only in a wide spot in the trail with the horses tied to trees standing within inches of the path.
"No," Jesse said, her energy returning as she resolved to get her family to the safety of the summit. "The summit isn't far from here."
"Jesse, you need to rest," Jennifer was just as determined her wife would go no further. They could get to the summit tomorrow, or the next day, for all she cared.
"Darlin', we need water," Jesse pushed herself upright. "If we don't run into any more problems, we'll be there in less than an hour. Then, we rest. For as long as you say," she added when she saw Jennifer was about to protest.
Jennifer glowered, she'd been outmaneuvered. "Okay, but remembered you promised."
"I'll remember," Jesse smirked.
"You get the horses, I'll carry KC."
Jesse lay in the cool waters of the mountain lake with barely any part of her visible except her face. KC sat on her stomach splashing and laughing. Jesse had been underwater since they had finished supper.
Jennifer sat on a smooth rock, her bare legs tangling in the water. "You planning on staying in there all night?" Jennifer inquired of the submerged rancher.
"Yep," KC answered.
Jennifer could see the ripples in the water created by Jesse's silent laughter. "I give up," she chuckled as she lay back on the rock to enjoy the setting sun.
in Part 5