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.
Sorry, for the delay in getting Part 5 posted. I just started a new job and you know how that is. I'll try to stick to my plan of posting a new part every week.
I would like to hear your comments,
please write me at
I want to thank all of you who have written to tell me how much you like
the Jesse and Jennifer stories. Your comments are greatly appreciated
and I'm grateful that you took the time to write.
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted August 2004
Jennifer sat on the same flat rock she had used the night before to watch Jesse and KC play in the lake. From her perch, she could see for hundreds of miles in every direction. It was a panorama she had never in her life envisioned and she was enjoying every second of it as she watched the sun rise in the east and paint the sky in pinks, reds and oranges. It was a glorious morning. Especially when she considered that less than twenty hours before she had been trapped on the side of a cliff trying to pick her way across a washed out section of trail, unsure if she or her family would survive.
Jennifer's eyes surveyed their campsite situated in an alpine meadow that gently sloped down to a crystal clear mountain lake. The meadow was quite large forcing the trees of the surrounding forest some distance from the camp. The supply packs were stacked about fifty feet from the shoreline and a campfire had been built between them and the water. This morning, the fire glowed softly, surrounded by dark forms still tucked in their bedrolls. The horses were happily munching on an early breakfast of ankle deep, sweet, dew covered grass and tender wildflowers,
Jennifer heard a sound. Instantly alert, she scanned the area for the source. Across the meadow, a elk cow and her spotted calf cautiously emerged from the shelter of the forest. At the same time, far off in the distance, Jennifer heard the cries of a coyote greeting the dawn. The mother elk lifted her head and listened, taking a few sniffs of the air while her calf pranced nervously at her side. Deciding the coyote posed no immediate threat to her calf, the elk put her head down to graze. The gangly calf edged close to the cow and nosed underneath her belly for the tit and warm milk it knew would be there.
The elk reminded Jennifer of her own wife and child sleeping a few feet away. Jesse lay on her back with KC sprawled on top her. The baby's head was nestled between the rancher's breast, a long arm draped securely over KC's back. Jennifer felt the sting of tears in her eyes as she observed the peaceful sight. This was the life she wanted and she resolved to protect it from any and all threats, including her father.
"Billie," Ruthie looked in disbelief at the sheriff, "they can't arrest her for that. It's not true."
Billie had come to the Slipper to have breakfast with Ruthie. They were seated at one of the dining room's tables and he was telling Ruthie and Bette Mae about the marshal's arrest warrant for Jesse.
"What ya plan ta do abou' this, Billie?" Bette Mae asked when the lawman remained quiet.
"Nothin' much I can do," Billie sadly shook his head. "Warrant is legal. If the marshal finds Jesse, he will arrest her."
"Must be somethin' ya can do," Bette Mae slumped in her chair, looking expectantly at the sheriff. She knew Jesse and Jennifer had left the valley and that keeping that information from the marshal could get Billie into trouble. She also knew that Billie was Jesse's best friend and looked out for her like a brother.
"Been doin' what I can," Billie said in a low voice. Right now, it was more important to him to keep the marshal occupied chasing his tail while Jesse and Jennifer got far away from Sweetwater.
"It's bad enough that Miss Jennifer's father has come back," Ruthie was close to tears thinking of the women who had been so kind to her, "but, to be accused of this. Poor, Miss Jesse. And, what will Miss Jennifer do?"
"I'd like to know who made up such a story and how they got the governor to believe it," Billie, unthinking, reached out and gently took the hand of his upset fiancé into his own.
"I'll bet tha' sorry excuse for a papa has somethin' ta do with all this," Bette Mae said as she thoughtfully considered the intimate gesture. "Somethin' the two of ya wants ta be tellin' me?" she asked in a lighter mood, smiling at the pair.
"Oh," Ruthie's cheeks turned a deep rose color as Billie quickly withdrew his hands.
"Been kinda wondering that myself," Thaddeus Newby had entered the Slipper in search of breakfast. He sat in the table's vacant chair just as Bette Mae asked her question.
"Well," Billie, his skin also a slightly deeper shade than normal, looked at Ruthie, "guess we were plannin' on breaking the news sometime, weren't we, honey."
Ruthie smiled bashfully, "go ahead, Billie."
"Well, we did kinda want to want until Jesse and Jennifer were here but," he reached out and re-took Ruthie's hands, "Ruth has agreed to be my wife."
"Well, lordy," Bette Mae chuckled, "it's abou' time ya asked her. Littl' Ruthie a married woman. Ain't that grand," she smiled broadly at the blushing soon-to-be-bride.
"Congratulations, Billie," Thaddeus thumped the sheriff on the back. "And, to you, Ruthie. When do you plan on tying the knot?"
"Oh," Ruthie immediately spoke up, "not until Miss Jesse and Miss Jennifer come back."
"Maybe by then you'll get use to not using the 'Miss' with their names like they keep askin' ya," Billie teased the shy girl he loved.
"Come back from where?" the voice came from the steps leading upstairs to the boarding rooms.
"Damn," Billie muttered.
Marshal Morgan completed his descent of the stairway and crossed to the table.
"Come on, Ruthie," Bette Mae stood, "we have work ta do in the kitchen. Jesse don't pay us to sit around all mornin'."
"Yes, ma'am," Ruthie sprang to her feet, she was petrified she had given away Jesse and Jennifer's secret.
"I ask again, sheriff," the marshal repeated, "come back from where?"
"From wherever they've gone off to," Billie calmly poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot Bette Mae had placed on the table earlier. "Care for a cup, marshal?" he asked, casually.
The marshal studied Billie as he took a seat and accepted a cup of the hot coffee. He had been told the sheriff was a good friend of the Branson woman and wasn't to be trusted. But, until he could prove the man was keeping information from him, he would have to accept what he was told.
"Here's yor breakfast, Billie," Bette Mae came out of the kitchen carrying two plates heaped high with eggs, ham, and potatoes. She placed one in front of the sheriff and the other in front of the newspaperman, "and, yor's, Thaddeus." Then, turning to the unwelcome third man sitting at the table, she asked scornfully, "ya be wantin' anythin', marshal?"
"Bring him a plate, Bette Mae," Billie answered with a wry smile, "just 'cause he has a job to do, don't mean we can't be friendly."
"If that's wha' ya be wantin', Billie," Bette Mae said without acknowledging the marshal. "Though, I don' rightly know why we have to put 'im up and feed 'im when he wants ta arrest Jesse," she mumbled as she disappeared behind the kitchen door. Moments later she returned with a plate, not half as full as the others, for the marshal.
Marshal Morgan ate in silence while Billie and Thaddeus, not wanting to inadvertently say anything of interest in front of the marshal, discussed a engagement announcement to be published in the Gazette.
When all three plates were empty, Billie asked, "want are your plans today, marshal?" He hoped he could spend another day leading the man on a fruitless search for the missing women.
"Think I'll talk to folks around town," the marshal pushed his chair away from the table and stood. "Maybe someone heard or saw something last time Branson was in town."
"I'll come along," Billie downed the last of his coffee, "if you don't mind."
"Actually, sheriff," Morgan said as he walked to the door, "I think it's best I do this alone."
"Suit yourself," Billie reached for the coffee pot to refill his empty cup. "Let me know if you need my help." He smirked as the marshal's only response was a grunt while he walked out of the building.
"Aren't you afraid he might talk to the wrong person?" Thaddeus asked.
"Nah," Billie leaned back in the chair. "Nobody knows nothin'. Jesse and Jennifer kept their plans to themselves."
Billie figured the white lie was better than telling any more to the newspaper editor and having him accidentally say something that got back to the marshal. It was bad enough that Ruthie had made the slip earlier. Luckily, that one was easy to cover but there was no guarantee the next would be. No, it was better to keep the information of the women's whereabouts as secret as possible. He would make a point of telling that to the only others that knew, Bette Mae, Ruthie and Ed, when he could talk to them privately.
"Guess I'll take a walk and see what Perkins and Harrington are up to this morning," Thaddeus told Billie. "Heard that they might be riding up to the Songbird mine today to take a look around."
"Say, Thaddeus," Billie was curious about something that had been nagging at him ever since he'd heard the Songbird was the mine Harrington's investment company had purchased. "You've been up to the mining camps, what's the scuttlebutt on the Songbird?"
"What do you mean, Billie?"
"Well," Billie scratched his jaw, "seems to me that the fella who was workin' it never had much more than two coins to rub together when he came to town for supplies. Fact is, he always had a balance owing at Ed's. Kinda surprisin' that the Songbird is worth the effort Harrington and his investors are goin' to."
The sheriff knew when miners stuck a good vein or found a few nuggets, they would usually came to town and drink up any money they received for their find. And, when miners drank, they talked. It was rare for a miner to keep a rich strike a secret.
Thaddeus thought about the sheriff's comment for a moment, "it might be worth looking into. I'll ask around and see what I can find out."
"Let me know."
"Will do," Thaddeus headed for the dining room's door.
"Keep an eye out for the marshal, too."
Ed Grainger was sweeping off the boardwalk in front of the general store. As he swept, he heard the sound of quarrelling coming from what used to be an unoccupied field next to his store. The storekeeper walked to the end of the boardwalk to see what was causing the ruckus. Freight wagons were lined up at the back of the field with piles of lumber and other supplies stacked next to them. Several men were milling about, most looked unhappy and many were grumbling among themselves. Near the road, two men stood toe-to-toe, one towering over the other and both trying to out shout the other.
"I'm telling you, Perkins," Frank Wilson shoved a finger into the mayor's chest with some force, "I can't ask these men to work without feeding them first." If it wasn't for the mayor's solid girth, the foreman would have had no trouble pushing the shorter man backwards.
"The cook hasn't arrived," Mayor Perkins held his ground against the man who stood well over a foot taller than himself. "He should be here soon. As soon as he comes, the men will be fed."
"Are you an idiot?!" Wilson shouted. It was only his second day in Sweetwater and already he was wishing he was somewhere else. "These men have to eat. And, I'm not going to eat any more of that slop they serve at the Oxbow," he referred to the saloon next to the stage station where his boss, Tobias Harrington, had insisted they eat the night before.
The Oxbow's clientele was made up of cowboys and miners who came to town for a night of drinking and they normally weren't too particular about the food that might accompany their liquor.
"There's nothing I can do," the mayor shouted right back, though he wasn't really sure why he and not Harrington was handling this situation. After all, Harrington was responsible for the work crews while he was only supposed to deal with the town folk. After all, Harrington had been the one to decide the Slipper was off limits to the workers.
"Well, there's something I can do," Wilson told the mayor. "I'm taking them to the Silver Slipper for breakfast." The foreman's words were greeted with cheers from the hungry men who immediately started walking in the direction of the building at the opposite end of town.
"That's not allowed," Perkins sputtered as the men charged past him.
"If Harrington doesn't like it, he can get his ass out here and start cooking." Wilson joined the workers, leaving the hapless mayor standing alone in the street.
"Morning, Miles," Ed smirked from the boardwalk. "Trouble?"
"Ah, no," Mayor Perkins looked at the departing men. "Just a misunderstanding. Nothing for you to concern yourself with."
"If you say so," Ed chuckled.
Muttering under his breath, the mayor stepped up onto the boardwalk to return to his office. He wasn't sure how he would explain the recent events to his business partner but he was sure that no matter how he spun the story, Harrington would blame him..
"Bet Harrington will be real pleased to see the Slipper's bill for feeding that group." Ed called after the mayor as he scurried along the boardwalk to his office. "I know Jesse will be more than happy to collect it."
Ed noticed a man come out of the stage station and look his way. He decided to wait in front of his store when the man strode directly across the street towards him. As the man neared, Ed saw the badge he wore.
"Morning," Ed nodded as the marshal stepped from the dusty street onto the wooden boardwalk.
"I'm Marshal Morgan," the man responded. "I'm looking for Jesse Branson. Understand you're a good friend."
"That I am," Ed had heard of the marshal's reason for being in Sweetwater and had no intention of helping him complete his task.
"Do you know where she is?"
"At their ranch, I s'pose," Ed turned to go into his store.
"She's not there."
"Well," Ed said over his shoulder, "she ain't here, either."
"Damn friendly town," the marshal mumbled. Since leaving the Slipper, he had talked to a dozen people. All denied any knowledge of Jesse Branson's whereabouts. He decided he might have better luck with the ranchers in the valley and stepped off the shaded boardwalk to retrieve his horse at the livery.
Martin and Thomas Kensington were just finishing their breakfast when the door to the Slipper's dining room opened and several, obviously hungry, men rushed in, grabbing every available chair. Two men sat in the empty chairs at the table the father and son occupied.
"What the hell is the meaning of this?" Kensington bellowed as one of the men helped himself to the coffee remaining in the pot.
"I'm sorry, sir," Frank Wilson apologized for the men's behavior, "but my men haven't had a decent meal since we left Bozeman."
"I don't give a damn," Kensington started.
"Father," Thomas interrupted, "we were finished. Let's just go."
Martin pushed back from the table and stood, "is there no civility in this god forsaken country."
"For a man tha's mighty lackin' in tha' there area, I wouldn' be so uppity," Bette Mae said as she cleared the table of the dirty dishes in preparation of serving the new diners.
"When my daughter takes over ownership of this establishment," Kensington began a threat that had been heard several times since he and Thomas took rooms at the Slipper the day before.
Bette Mae had only agreed to let the two stay since they were Jennifer's kin but she was regretting the decision more and more. "Jennifer already owns the Slipper and I'm still here," Bette Mae countered. "So, if yo's done with yo'r meal....."
"We're leaving, Bette Mae," Thomas smiled apologetically, "thank you."
"Yo're welcome, Thomas," Bette Mae was beginning to like Jennifer's brother. "You," she emphasized the word, "come back any time."
"Let's go, Thomas," Kensington growled, he would see that woman run out of town if it was the last thing he did in Sweetwater. "I've got things to do."
"What things?" Thomas asked as he followed his father to the door.
The night before, Jesse hadn't given any argument when Jennifer finally asked her to leave the cool waters of the lake and go to bed. And the fact the rancher was still sound asleep was testament to how exhausted she had been after the previous day's harrowing experience.
"Ugh," Jesse groaned as she forced her eyes open. She was laying on her side with one arm folded under her, tingling from lack of blood. She flopped over onto back to free the arm. Everything hurt and she decided she would just lay there until the others woke up. It took her brain, still muddled with sleep, a few minutes to realize she was alone on the bedroll and the sun was almost to the half way point in its day's journey. She begrudgingly pushed her sore body upright.
Jesse looked around the empty camp. The fire, not needed during the hot day, had been allowed to burn down but was banked to keep a small flame burning under a cooking pot. Jesse's stomach growled as her nose recognized the aroma of one of the spices Jennifer liked to use coming from the simmering pot.
Jesse wondered where her family had gone. Lifting a hand to shield her eyes from the harsh sunlight, she spotted the missing women at the far side of the lake, leisurely exploring the shoreline. Jesse smiled as she watched Jennifer, always the teacher, point out interesting things to KC.
Jennifer sensed she was being watched and smiled as she looked across the water to see Jesse sitting up. "Mommy's awake," she told KC as she waved to Jesse.
KC bounced in Jennifer's arms, excitingly calling, "Mommy, mommy."
Jennifer quickened her steps to return to camp.
Jesse stood with the intention of walking to meet Jennifer and KC but her body had other ideas. She took a few tentative steps before being forced to stop by legs stiff from the previous day's struggles. Her back ached and it was difficult to find a position that didn't add to it's pain. Not to mention, she was a little lightheaded from having slept so deeply.
Jesse looked for a place to sit, and quick. A small section of a fallen tree had been rolled into camp the previous night to use as a bench and Jesse dropped down on it to wait for Jennifer and Mary to arrive.
"Sweetheart," Jennifer hurried into the camp after watching Jesse's aborted effort to walk, "are you alright?" She bent down so she could look directly into her eyes.
"Little sore, darlin'," Jesse smiled in a futile attempt to allay Jennifer's concern.
"Mommy," KC reached for Jesse.
"Hi, sunshine," Jesse opened her arms and Jennifer placed the baby inside them. When the rancher tightened her arms in a hug around the child she grimaced in pain, her back protesting the action.
"Jesse?" Jennifer had seen the expression. "Sweetheart, maybe you should lay back down," she took the baby back. "Hush, sweetie," Jennifer told KC when she grumbled at being removed from Jesse's lap, "mommy can't hold you right now. Come on, you can sit next to mommy over here," she carried KC to the bedroll and sat her down. "Stay here while I help mommy."
Jesse didn't complain when Jennifer helped her up off the log, she was happy to have the assistance. She leaned on the schoolteacher as they slowly made their way to where KC was waiting and groaned as she lowered her tender body back to the ground.
"What can I do to help?" Jennifer asked as Jesse eased herself down.
"Not sure," Jesse responded. KC crawled to her side and laid her small head on the rancher's stomach, her eyes looking sadly up at her mother. Jesse smiled at the baby and ruffled her fine hair. "A rub down might be nice," she told Jennifer.
"Okay," Jennifer gently patted Jesse's leg. "Let me get a pot of water heating so I can wrap you in hot towels afterward," she had found the hot wraps Jesse used on her leg to be extremely effective in relieving the pain and soreness she experienced at the end of the day. "Then, we'll get started," she used her cane to push herself upright and started for the lake, picking up a bucket on her way.
"Is there anything I can do?" Mary asked, smiling uneasily at her daughter-in-law. She was aware that without Jesse's extraordinary efforts the day before, they probably would not have made it safely off the cliff and she felt awkward that the woman was suffering today while she was unscathed..
"No," Jesse guessed why the older woman was edgy and smiled at her, "I'll be alright, Mary. Just need a little rest."
"Which you'll have plenty of," Jennifer said as she added wood, stoking the flames before she placed a large pot of water on a rock in the center of the fire. "I don't see any reason for us to leave here for a couple of days."
"Darlin', we can't stay here," Jesse started.
"Yes, we can," Jennifer left the pot to heat and went to the stack of packs and gear. She rifled through a pack until she found the bottle of lotion she sought, "no one will follow us across that slide. Besides," she said as she limped back to Jesse, "you said, we would stay here as long as I wanted. So, we'll stay. Now, take off you clothes and turn over."
Jesse started to unbutton her shirt, "guess I did, didn't I."
"Yes," Jennifer smirked, enjoying the view of Jesse undressing.
Sensing her wife's eyes on her, Jesse's skin colored with a light blush.
"Roll over," Jennifer instructed, her eyes twinkling as they playfully dropped down the length of Jesse's athletic yet lithe body, pausing momentarily on her gorgeous breasts and again at the tantalizing apex of her legs.
"Now, that's not nice, darlin'," Jesse blushed deepened as she followed Jennifer's eyes, embarrassed with her wife's candid display of desire. "What will your mother think," she whispered even though Jennifer's mother was standing only a couple of feet away.
"She'll think that my daughter has married a very beautiful woman," Mary told the rancher.
Both, Jesse and Jennifer looked at Mary as if she had just spouted a second head. They never would have expected the demure woman to make such a comment.
"Now, I think I'll check on that pot of stew," Mary chuckled as she left the two slack jawed women alone.
"Wow," Jesse murmured after a few moments.
"Yeah," Jennifer looked after her mother, "wow."
Ed Grainger came out to greet the driver of a heavily loaded freight wagon that had just pulled to a stop in front of the general store..
"Afternoon," Ed said as the driver climbed down from the wagon's bench seat.
"Afternoon, Ed. Sorry, I'm late but had some trouble on the road."
"Nothin' serious, I hope," the storekeeper looked over the load.
"Nah, just some boys thinkin' their loads was more important than mine. Found it best to pull over and let them go by 'fore they caused some real problems." The freight road over the mountains was narrow with few places for the big freight wagons to pass one another on the twisting path. It wasn't unknown for a wagon to get too close to the edge and roll over the side, destroying the wagon, it's contents and, many times, the driver.
"Let me guess," Ed looked to the end of the boardwalk and the men working in the field there.
"Yep," the driver followed his gaze. "Them boys was sure in a hurry ta git here."
"Kinda wondered how they got their supplies 'fore mine," Ed shook his head, would this insanity with Harrington and his investment company ever end? "Considerin' how I sent theirs in a couple days after mine."
The driver stomped his boots on the boardwalk trying to loosen some of the dust clinging to them, "ya don't know the half of it. Som' fellow was bullying the stores in Bozeman to fill their orders first," he told Ed, "got real nasty when they refused. What's going on in Sweetwater that's so important?"
"Harrington," Ed muttered, not really answering the man's question. "Come on inside," Ed slapped the driver on the shoulder, regretting it when a cloud of dust rose off the man's shirt, "I was just goin' to pour me a glass of cold cider. Bet, you could use one yourself."
"Sure could, Ed. Thanks," he followed the storekeeper.
"Way things are going," the livery hand was telling Thaddeus Newby, "we gonna need to buy some more horses."
"Why's that?" the newspaperman asked as he saddled his horse. Thaddeus had come to the livery to get the horse he boarded there. After listening to the sheriff's questions about the Songbird, he figured it would be worth a ride out to the mining camps to ask some of the miners their thoughts on the recently purchased mine.
"Well, with so many folks askin' to rent our horses, ain't got 'nough to go around."
For the first time, Thaddeus noticed that most of the barn's stalls were empty. "Who's been renting them?" As the editor of the valley's newspaper, he was also alert to possible story sources.
"Well, first Miss Jennifer's ma came in a asked for one. Then, that Harrington fella got one ta use whilst he's in town and Wilson, his foreman, came by yesterday and hired a couple more. Jus' this morning, that Kensington fellow came by an got two more. Don't leave any but the old mare and she's no good for ridin' anymore."
"Sounds to me like business is pretty good," Thaddeus commented as he wondered where Kensington would be going that he needed a horse. Only one place he could think of and he hoped he was wrong. He walked his horse out of the livery before mounting and rode straight for the sheriff's office.
"Billie, you in there?" Thaddeus asked as reached the jail.
"Yep," the sheriff came out of the building and crossed the wide boardwalk to stand at its edge. "What's up, Thaddeus?"
"Thought you might want to take a ride out to Jesse's."
"I was just over at the livery," he told the sheriff, "said Kensington rented horses this morning. Can't think of any place else he'd be riding to."
"Damn," Billie's gut clinched as he listened to Thaddeus. "He better not be up to anything."
"Chances are, he is," Thaddeus didn't like the idea of Kensington being out at Jesse and Jennifer's any better than the sheriff.
"I'll leave now," Billie said as he reached back inside the jail's door for his hat. He pulled the door closed, "you headed that way?"
"No," Thaddeus shook his head, "I'm going out to the camps to check on your doubts about the Songbird. Be back in a couple of days."
"Be careful," Billie said as he stepped off the boardwalk to retrieve his own horse from the livery.
"You, too," Thaddeus urged his horse into a trot and was soon leaving a cloud of dust behind him as he rode out of town.
"Father, what are we doing here?" Thomas asked as they rode under the gate to his sister's ranch.
"Don't you want to see where your little sister has been living? And, how?" Kensington sneered.
"We shouldn't be here. Especially, since Jennifer isn't here."
"That's exactly why we should be here," Kensington said as he rode up to the ranch house, it's door hanging haphazardly open from being kicked in by him during their earlier visit. He dismounted and tossed the reins to his horse over the hitching rail Jesse had erected for that purpose, disappearing inside the house before Thomas could dismount.
Martin Kensington stood in the center of the log building that his daughter called home. He had come to the ranch to see what he could find out about the property the women owned. He had tried to get into the office at the Slipper but found his access blocked by Bette Mae who kept a close watch on his every move. He had remembered that during his previous visit to Sweetwater, Jennifer saying she helped the rancher with the Slipper's bookkeeping and he thought he might find the information at the currently unoccupied ranch.
Kensington had been considering whether the boarding house might be worth keeping after Jesse was out of the picture. He already decided he could make money by selling the ranch to one of the other ranchers in the valley. If necessary, he could find a way around his agreement to have both the Slipper and ranch signed over to Harrington in exchange for an interest in his company's mining operations, But, first he had to know the financial situation of the Silver Slipper, then he would decide which was his more profitable option.
Kensington surveyed the room's simple furnishings, looking for a desk or other likely space to keep the ledgers and other business records. His eyes abruptly stopped when they fell on the room's sole bed. "Bitch," he growled, at the perceived symbol of the aberrant power Jesse held over his daughter.
"Father," Thomas entered the plain but cozy room. "What are you doing?" he cried when he saw Kensington pulling the coverings off the bed and throwing them into the fireplace used for warming the sleeping area of the room.
"It's unnatural," Kensington didn't hesitate in his frenzied activity, "to be sleeping in the same bed."
"Stop it," Thomas ran to his father and tried to remove the items from his grasp.
Kensington pushed his son aside, "I will not have my daughter doing such things." He tossed the bulky blankets at the stone opening. Grabbing a lantern off the mantle, Kensington threw it against the back of the fireplace. The lantern exploded spilling its contents.
"Father," Thomas screamed. "You can't do this."
"Shut up," Kensington's rampage continued as he crossed to the chest of drawers, yanking each drawer free. Clothes flew everywhere as he whipped the drawers around. He spotted Jesse's bookcase and ripped it from the log wall, the books spilling out. Then, he stormed to the kitchen area, frantically demolished the neatly stacked cups and dishes. The shelves were pulled from the walls and the table and chairs tossed outside through the windows.
"Please, father," Thomas begged, though he knew his pleas were falling on deaf ears. He couldn't believe what he was witnessing, his father was destroying everything. Thomas made several attempts to stop his father but the older man's rage seemed to give him strength and he easily eluded the efforts.
The smashed lantern's fuel slowly dripped down the rock surface at the back of the fireplace, pooling in the coals remaining from the fire Jesse had tended during the last night she and Jennifer had spent in the cabin. Buried deep in the coals a small piece of wood still smoldered. When the flammable liquid reached this source of heat it burst into flame, igniting the linens that lay within the fire's reach. Licking it's way along the layers of blankets and sheets that stretched from the fireplace to the bed, the fire began to spread out on the wood floor of the cabin. The tongues of flame discovered the clothing scattered in it's path and fed hungrily on this additional source of fuel. It didn't take long for the inferno to spread to the furniture and then up the log walls.
Thomas, concentrating on his raging father, wasn't aware of the fire until he smelled the smoke. When he turned to look, he found the entire bedroom end of the cabin in flames. He knew there was no way to save the house.
"Father," Thomas moved to grab the older man still intent on destroying anything he could, "the house is on fire. We have to get out."
At first Kensington did not hear his son's warning. The thickening smoke made breathing difficult and only when he started to cough on the caustic fumes did he notice the flames covering the other end of the building. He laughed, "a fitting end."
"Father," Thomas pulled at his father, "we have to get out."
"Yes," Kensington cackled. "Yes, let's go outside and watch it burn."
Thomas followed his father outside to the safety of the open yard. Seeing a bucket next to the water pump, he ran to fill it. Pumping furiously, Thomas watched as flames broke through the roof and black smoke billowed out. With the bucket full, he ran back to the porch and threw the water uselessly on the hot flames.
"Don't waste your time," Kensington crowed. "Let it burn."
Not agreeing with his father but knowing it was futile to attempt to put out the fire by himself, Thomas dropped the bucket and watched his sister's home consumed. Tearfully, he asked, "how could you?"
"How could I?" Kensington barked. "How could I? Your sister defies me. She runs away to live here. To live a life with that woman? And, you ask how could I? If you were anything of the man I raised you to be, you would have done this and saved me the trouble. How dare you ask how could I."
Thomas stared at the man before him. A man he realized he didn't truly know. "You're right, father," he said, "I'm not the man you raised me to be. And, because of that, I could never have done this. Not to Jennifer. Not to anyone."
Thomas went to his horse who had pulled free of the hitching rail as the fire grew and was standing nervously next to the corral fence. He walked the horse inside the corral and closed the gate. Then, he returned and picked up the discarded bucket. Filling it at the pump, Thomas began to wet down the other buildings to keep any stray spark from igniting them.
"What are you doing?" Kensington asked as Thomas made another trip to the water pump.
"Making sure you don't destroy anything else."
"Let the damn buildings burn," Kensington tried to take the bucket from his son.
"No," Thomas pushed the man away. "Go back to Sweetwater and your friend Harrington. Better yet, go home. You've done enough here," he returned to his undertaking.
"Come back here," Kensington yelled after his son. When Thomas continued to douse water on the buildings, Kensington shrugged. "Good riddance. You were never much good as a son, anyway," he muttered as he turned back to the burning structure, the roof collapsing as he gleefully watched.
"Guess that's it," Ed had finished explaining the recent events in Sweetwater to the freight wagon driver. He had left out the part about the marshal and Jesse, figuring the man didn't need to know.
"Sounds like Sweetwater done got itself a wagon load of trouble. Been my 'xperience that folks make a big fuss whenever they think they've hit pay dirt. Build everything up, then leave it all ta rot when the ore runs out. Seems ta me, they'd do better to leave things alone. Be a lot less broken lives, if ya ask me," the freight driver finished off his glass of cider. "I best be getting the wagon unloaded so I can head back. Thanks for the cider."
"You're not staying in town?"
"Can't," the man answered. "Lettin' them other wagons go by put me behind schedule. Got ta git back to Bozeman, got me a load waitin' ta go to Virginia City."
"I'll give you a hand, then," Ed offered.
"Much obliged. Work goes a lot faster when ya help," he grinned at the large man who could lift three times the weight he could.
The two men worked non-stop to unload the wagon. By the time they finished, Ed was glad he'd decided to make some changes to the general store. One thing for sure, the dock he was planning for the rear of the building would make the unloading of freight much easier.
With the wagon's load now on the boardwalk, Ed noticed some of the load contained the items Jesse had ordered for the redesign of her office at the Slipper into a dress shop for Ruthie. He thought of the missing women and hoped they were safe.
"Feeling any better?" Jennifer asked as she slipped beside Jesse sitting on the flat rock by the lake.
Jesse laid her arm across Jennifer's shoulders and pulled her close. "Much. KC asleep?"
"Yes," Jennifer melted against Jesse. "Mother is napping with her."
Jennifer had finished Jesse's massage a short time earlier and, after a lunch of stew and biscuits, the baby had been put down for a nap. The women sat silently, content just to be with the other.
"It's beautiful here," Jennifer finally broke the silence.
"I saw an elk this morning in the meadow, sweetheart," she smiled at the memory.
"Yes. She was so beautiful and she had a baby with her." Jennifer looked down at her hands, "it made me think of you and KC."
Jesse hooked a finger under Jennifer's chin. As she gently lifted her wife's face upward, she leaned over and captured her sweet lips. At first, the kiss was tender as Jesse softly explored Jennifer's welcoming lips but after a few moments the kiss deepened. Jesse sought entrance into Jennifer's warm and waiting mouth and it was quickly granted. The women's tongues danced and twisted around one another. Needing to breathe, the kiss ended with the women clinging together.
"I love you," Jesse whispered as she lay Jennifer back on the rock's smooth surface, her nimble fingers opening the buttons of the schoolteacher's shirt.
Jennifer arched into Jesse's touch as gentle hands cupped her breasts, squeezing lightly. Feeling aroused nipples press against her palms, Jesse playfully pinched them between her thumbs and index fingers while her lips covered the sinuous breasts with feathery light kisses. Jennifer moaned, burying her hands in Jesse's long hair, urging her to continue. Jesse complied, planting soft kisses around the outside of the mounds of soft tissue. Slowly, her lips trailed down to Jennifer's taut stomach, the skin twitching beneath her kisses. With her lips exploring her wife's body, Jesse undid Jennifer's pants and pushed them down below her knees. Loving hands glided back up the inside of damp thighs, teasingly stopping just below the spot that Jennifer needed her the most.
"Please," Jennifer gasped as she spread her legs, opening herself to her lover.
Jesse's nose detected the sweet, musky bouquet of Jennifer's arousal as her lips neared the thatch of silky hair. Her lips retraced their path back to Jennifer's firm breasts then broke new trail up a smooth neck, then along her jaw line and, finally, back to waiting lips. She slipped her hand between her lover's legs and stroked the clit, her fingers sliding easily through a thick wetness. Fingers slid along drenched labium lips to ring the vaginal orifice. Jesse felt Jennifer's hands move down her back, clinched fingers digging into the skin demonstrating her desire.
Wasting no time, Jesse drove three fingers into Jennifer and felt the muscular walls tightened around them as the schoolteacher climaxed. Jennifer screamed as her heels braced against the rock's hard surface, her hips thrusting hard against the fingers inside her. Feeling her beautiful wife's thighs clamp together, trapping her hand in place and hearing Jennifer cry her name was all Jesse needed to join her lover in a shared ecstasy. Her back arched and her body stiffened as orgasmic waves washed through her.
With their energy spent, the lovers collapsed, their bodies pressed together.
Jennifer recovered first. She lay under Jesse, kissing and caressing her face, "Jesse Marie Branson, I love you so much."
"Mmmmmm," was all Jesse could manage.
Billie saw the black smoke before he reached the gate to the ranch, his horse already at full gallop. As he rode over the rise just before the road dropped down to the ranch yard, the sheriff could see the burned out shell of the ranch house. He pulled his horse to a stop several feet from the smoldering remains, not bothering to dismount. The house had been completely consumed along with everything inside.
"Damn, Jesse," the sheriff whispered, "I'm so sorry." There was little doubt as to what had happened, Billie passed Kensington riding away from the ranch as he raced for it.
Slowly, he rode to the barn knowing he would find the tools inside he would need to clear a perimeter around the destroyed building, making sure the fire didn't spread to any of the other buildings. Noticing the horse inside the corral, he pulled his pistol. Looking around and not seeing the rider of the horse, he called out, "who's here?"
"It's me, sheriff," Thomas came out from behind the small cabin his mother had been staying in. "Find a shovel and come help me," he said before disappearing again.
Billie dismounted and hurried into the barn to find the requested implement, then he rushed to find Thomas. Rounding the corner the cabin, he saw Jennifer's brother trying to contain a fire on the side wall of the building. Using the shovel, Billie threw dirt on the blaze while Thomas doused it with buckets of water. It didn't take long for the men, working together, to put out the fire that had started when a burning shingle had drifted against across the yard.
"Glad you came along, sheriff," Thomas wiped his brow with a sooty sleeve leaving a streak of black across his sweaty skin. "Wasn't sure I could stop it by myself."
"How'd this happen?" Billie indicated the burned ruins.
"It was an accident I'm not excusing what he did," Thomas quickly added when he saw the look of disbelief on the sheriff's face. He went on to explain the events after his father had entered the cabin. "My father is to blame but I don't believe he came here with any intention to burn it down."
"Doesn't much matter whether he intended to or not," Billie handed the other man his bandanna and pointed at his smeared forehead. "He's the cause and I'm going to arrest him as soon as I get back to town."
Tobias Harrington was sitting at the mayor's desk going over the purchase papers for the Songbird mine. Needing a place to conduct business while in Sweetwater he had taken over the mayor's office. Mayor Perkins sat in one of the chairs on the opposite side of the desk struggling to read the papers upside down. Both men looked up when the office door burst open.
Martin Kensington strode in, he was covered in soot and ashes and reeked of smoke but didn't seem to notice. "Afternoon, gentlemen," he said cheerfully as he dropped into the chair beside the mayor.
"Kensington," Harrington looked suspiciously at the man. "What have you been up to?"
"Taking care of some business," Kensington leaned back in the chair. "Went out to the bitch's ranch to have a look see. Unfortunately, there was a small accident while I was there."
"Anybody hurt?" Harrington asked. Although, he really didn't care..
"No," Kensington brushed some ash off his pant leg. "What they referred to as a house, caught on fire."
"Don't suppose you had anything to do with that?" Harrington was beginning to believe that Kensington may not be the answer to his problems as he had hoped. In fact, the businessman was beginning to be more trouble for him than the mayor. Maybe he should have just left him in the sheriff's custody.
"You burned down Jesse's ranch?" Mayor Perkins gasped.
"I did not burn it down," Kensington smirked, "it just happened to catch on fire while I was there."
"Oh, my god," the mayor drooped in his chair. "We can't have these things happening," he said to Harrington.
"Why do I care if their house burns down," Harrington told the mayor. "It's not like they'll be needed it."
"What are you talking about?"
"When the marshal finds Jesse, she'll be going to prison. If she's lucky," he smirked. "And, Jennifer will be going back east with me, where she should be," Kensington smugly informed the mayor. "Neither one of them will be coming back to Sweetwater and I'll have Jennifer sign over her interest in both the ranch and the saloon to Harrington." That is, he'd have them signed over, if he decided not to keep them for himself.
"Is there something you wanted, Kensington?" Harrington interrupted, he wasn't comfortable with their secret plans being so openly discussed in front of the gossipy mayor. "I have to ride up to the Songbird with Wilson this afternoon and I have a lot to go over with Perkins before I leave."
Kensington resented the other man's tone, "just wanted to know if the marshal has come up with anything, yet."
"Haven't seen him," Harrington said, his attention returning to the papers in front of him. "I suggest you find the marshal and ask him yourself."
Kensington rose, he really didn't like the small man's attitude. Harrington needed to be put in his place and he knew just how to do that. He would contact the man's employers, detailing why they should put him in charge of their business in Sweetwater. After all, he had experience running a large company. And, with himself in charge, Harrington would become his employee and have to show him some respect. Yes, he would waste no time in sending a message to the investment company back east.
"Don't let me keep you from your work," Kensington stomped out of the room.
"Fool," Harrington muttered under his breath.
"What did he mean, he would have Jennifer sign over the Slipper to you?" Mayor Perkins was not happy with the way things were going in Sweetwater. What he had thought to be a opportunity for the small town was rapidly turning into anything but.
"Doesn't concern you," Harrington growled as he neatly stacked the papers and placed them in the top drawer of the desk. "Do you have a key to this?" he asked.
"Yes," the mayor nervously answered.
"Give it to me."
Mayor Perkins pulled a ring of keys from his pant's pocket. Selecting one, he handed the ring to the other man.
Harrington separated the key from the ring and tossed the discarded keys on the desk. He locked the desk drawer before placing the key into his own pocket. "I have to meet Wilson," he said as he pushed himself up from the desk. "Try not to let anything happen while I'm gone."
"Now, just a minute," Mayor Perkins didn't mind sharing his office but the man couldn't lock him out of his own desk. "I have important papers in this desk."
"I doubt it," Harrington walked to the office door. "But, I'm sure anything you have in there will wait until I get back," he slammed the door behind him.
Marshal Morgan returned to Sweetwater after a long day of riding. He had visited many of the valley's ranches only to be met with the same response, no one knew the whereabouts of Jesse Branson. As he rode up to the livery, he silently debated his options. It was apparent that the people of Sweetwater weren't going to help him find the fugitive. Maybe, he should head back to the woman's ranch in the morning and see if he could pick up any tracks.
"Surprised to see you back in town, marshal," the livery hand said as the tired man walked his horse inside the barn.
"Why's that?" the marshal didn't recall seeing the boy before. There had always been an older man at the livery when he had been there.
"Thought ya was goin' after Jesse," the boy commented as he took the marshal's horse from him.
"Haven't found her yet," the marshal followed the boy to the stall where he was pulling the saddle off his horse's back. "No one in the valley seems to know where she is."
"She ain't in the valley."
"You know where she is?" the marshal was surprised by the boy's response.
"Yeah, they went over to the east side of the mountains."
"Yeah," the boy picked up a pair of well used brushes and went to work on the tired horse's coat, "gone to see the buffalo."
"How do you know this?" the marshal angry, he had been looking for the woman all over the valley. Now, he hears that she left Sweetwater. And, quite possibly, people in town knew about it.
"Miss Jennifer's ma came in a few days back and borrowed a horse. Said they was going to meet up with a friend to see the herd."
"Don't know," the boy continued his work, "some injun, I think."
"Why didn't you say anything before?"
"Nobody asked me. 'Sides, this is the first time I seen ya. Been gone the last couple of days visiting my brother in Garnet."
"Brush him down and feed him. Then, get his saddle back on. I'll be leaving as soon as I talk to a few people," the marshal turned and left the boy to his task. As he walked out of the livery, he saw the sheriff and Thomas ride up to the Slipper and quickly go inside. He had intended to talk to Tobias Harrington about what he had just learned but, seeing the sheriff, he changed directions. He would find out what the sheriff knew about the Branson woman's plans.
"He burned their house down," Bette Mae shouted as she listened to Billie and Thomas. They had just returned from Jesse and Jennifer's ranch and figured they'd start their search for Kensington at the Slipper.
"Well, not intentionally," Thomas said, "but, yes."
Tears flooded Bette Mae's eyes and flowed down her cheeks, "tha' house met everythin' to them two. They worked on it together ta make it their home. Why'd ya let 'im do it?"
"I didn't let him, Bette Mae," Thomas protested. "It happened too fast, I couldn't stop it." Thomas felt sick over the loss of his sister's home. "What could I do?"
Bette Mae looked at the dejected man, he was nothing like his father and she was sure he had no hand in the burning of the house other than having the misfortune to be there as a witness to his father's rampage. "I'd be obliged if ya was ta go upstairs and pack yor papa's things up. He ain't welcome in the Slipper any more," Bette Mae softly asked the distraught man.
"Alright," Thomas didn't have the energy to argue, not that he saw any reason to. His father had gone too far in his attempt to destroy Jesse and Jennifer's life together. He could face the consequences of his behavior, starting with finding himself somewhere else to stay if he chose to remain in Sweetwater.
"He ain't gonna need his things, Bette Mae," Billie injected.
At that moment, Kensington, still steaming over Harrington's treatment of him, entered the Slipper.
"Thomas," Kensington said as soon as he spotted his son among the people standing together, "I'm glad your here. I need to send a telegram, you can leave for Bozeman immediately."
"Martin Kensington," Billie officially addressed the man still covered in ash and soot, "I'm placing you under arrest."
"What the hell for?"
"Trespassing, for starters. Destruction of property," Billie glared at the man, "and arson."
"You can't arrest me," Kensington laughed at the lawman. "Before long, you'll be sitting in a cell right next to that bitch. Besides, are you forgetting about the governor's order?"
"Order applies to crimes in the past," Billie placed a hand on his gun, ready to use it if that was what it would take to put the man in a jail cell. "Not laws you broke today."
"Father," Thomas tried to pacify his father and avoid any more trouble, "I told the sheriff you had no intention to set fire to the house and that it was an accident. I'm sure the judge will understand that when you talk to him."
"I don't need you to defend me," Kensington snarled at his son.
"You're gonna need somebody," Billie said as he approached the angry man. "Now, don't give me any trouble, Kensington. You are under arrest."
Marshal Morgan shoved the door open and entered the Slipper. "Hold on there, sheriff," the marshal ordered after hearing Billie's last words.
"This ain't your business, marshal," Billie said. "Kensington set fire to Jesse's ranch house."
"Speaking of the elusive Miss Branson, did you know she made plans to leave the valley days ago?"
"She what?" Kensington spun around to face the marshal. "Is Jennifer with her?"
"And, your wife," the marshal nodded. "Well, sheriff?"
"Who told you that?" Billie asked. He knew he was in trouble and was trying not to get in any deeper. He wouldn't be any good to Jesse and Jennifer in a jail cell.
"Well, what are we waiting for?" Kensington moved to the door. "Let's get going, marshal?"
The marshal was still staring at Billie waiting for a reply to his question, "you aren't coming."
"Like hell, I'm not," Kensington bellowed. "I haven't come this far to have the likes of you telling me I can't go retrieve my wife and daughter."
"I need to know, sheriff," the marshal ignored Kensington.
"We're wasting time, marshal," Kensington would not be ignored.
"No," Billie lied. The marshal was wrong. The warrant was wrong. Harrington was wrong. He was sure Kensington was behind all of it. He would protect Jesse, no matter the cost. The mayor could take his badge, he didn't care. "I didn't know. You have any more information 'bout where she might have gone?"
Marshal Morgan knew the sheriff was lying but he didn't have the time to deal with it now. It would wait until he had Jesse Branson behind bars.
"Boy said Mrs. Kensington mentioned meeting a friend some where near the buffalo. An Indian."
"Walks on the Wind," the sheriff explained. "He's a friend of Jesse's. His tribe hunts buffalo every year 'bout this time."
"You know where to find them?"
"Yes," Billie knew he had no choice but to guide the marshal to the buffalo hunting grounds. "I'll be ready to ride in half an hour."
"Alright," the marshal didn't like the idea of the sheriff going along to arrest Jesse. On the other hand, he figured she was less likely to give him trouble if her friend was there. "I'll meet you at your office, I need to talk to Mr. Harrington before we leave."
"I'll be right behind you, marshal," Kensington left the Slipper. He had returned his horse to the livery and needed to reclaim it.
Billie shook his head in disgust, he knew they'd be no way to leave the man behind. "You coming?" he asked Thomas, hoping he'd agree to accompany them. He could use an ally on the trip.
"What about my father?"
"I'll deal with him later. I can't leave town with a prisoner in the jail and I can't do Jesse and Jennifer any good sittin' here."
"I'll get my things," Thomas wasn't about to let his father go after Jennifer alone.
"Where's Ruth?" Billie asked Bette Mae when the two of them were left alone.
"In there," Bette Mae pointed to the kitchen door. "You bring my girls home, Billie," she said as the sheriff walked past her in search of his fiancé. "All of 'em."
"I will," Billie promised.
After three days of resting by the mountain lake, Jennifer agreed that Jesse was fit to continue their journey. They packed the horses, cleaned their campsite, and headed down the eastern slope of the pass. The women had also agreed that, due to Jennifer's limitations and Jesse's exhaustive experience, they would travel shorter days. So, by mid-afternoon, they began looking for a place to camp and called a halt to the day's travels as soon as a suitable site was located. The trail wasn't as rocky as it wound it's way down through the pine forest. With the easier descent, they made good time even with traveling less hours.
It was the morning of the second day since leaving their camp at the mountain summit.
"Sweetheart," Jennifer tilted her head to get a better listen to a strange roar coming through the trees that surrounded them. "What is that?"
"Waterfall," Jesse said as she guided Dusty along the trail. She been listening to the distinctive sound for the past several miles.
"It must be big. Will we see it?" Jennifer loved seeing the plummeting water of the cascades that could be found on the creeks and rivers they passed. When they traveled alongside the waterways, hardly a mile went by that they didn't get to enjoy water tumbling over some rocky ledge or obstacle.
As they continued riding through the trees, the roar grew louder. Looking down the trail, Jesse began to see a misty cloud that billowed around the trees and knew they were getting close to the falls. They rode into a small clearing to find themselves literally at the base of the falls, the forest concealing the watery splendor until the very last moment.
The women looked up in awe as water dropped down a half dozen stone precipices to plunge into a deep chasm carved out by the plummeting water. Pooling at the bottom of the falls, the water spilled out to form a creek and continue it's exodus. The top of the falls was over one hundred feet above them and the spray caused by the tumbling water reached almost as far outward. The droplets falling on them, as drenching as a light rain.
The churning water made talking impossible and Jesse pointed to a spot across the creek that was somewhat protected from the spray but still afforded a view of the falls. When Jennifer nodded, the rancher led the horses into the creek to cross. Surprisingly for the torrent of water cascading over the falls, the creek wasn't more than a few inches deep as the water spread out over a large area before eventually finding its way back into a narrow channel hundreds of feet down stream. Once they were protected from the watery spray, the women sat on their horses to enjoy the natural spectacle.
"Mommy, uck," KC said as she wiped water droplets off her forehead.
"Yep, sunshine," Jesse chuckled, "it's a little on the wet side."
"But, it's so beautiful," Mary expressed. She had never seen such displays of nature before coming to Montana. The falls she was used to seeing were mostly narrow chutes of water falling a few feet. Nothing like what she was looking at now.
"Yes, it is beautiful," Jennifer agreed. "Can we stay here for the night?"
"Better not," Jesse smiled regretfully at her wife. With the falling water drowning out all other sounds, the rancher was concerned she'd be unable to hear any danger that might threaten the group. And, KC was right, it was damp this close to the falls. "We don't have much further to go before we reach the valley," she explained. "We should be able to spot the buffalo herd before nightfall. I'll feel safer when we find Walk and his people."
"You're right," Jennifer reached out and patted Jesse's arm. "Maybe we can come back when all this is over."
Jesse lifted Jennifer's hand to her lips, kissing it lovingly, "I promise."
The women left the roar of the waterfall behind them and continued east. Shortly after a stop to change KC's britches and grab a quick snack, the trail left the cover of the forest for the last time. It gradually became indistinguishable from the valley floor before disappearing all together.
"What happened to the trail?" Jennifer studied the ground around them.
"Don't need it anymore," Jesse stood in her stirrups, studying the horizon. "The trail is only used to get over the pass," she continued, "in the valley, you just go wherever you need to."
"And, where do we need to go?"
"There," Jesse pointed southeast. "See that cloud of dust?"
Far in the distance, Jennifer could barely make out a hazy cloud at the bottom of a bluff, "I think so."
"That's where the buffalo are," Jesse settled back in the saddle. "That's where we go."
"Is that where Walk will be?" Mary asked as she scanned the horizon for Jesse's dust cloud.
"Somewhere close by," Jesse answered.
"Will we find him by nightfall?" Jennifer pulled her canteen free and offered KC a drink.
"Only one way to find out," Jesse waited for KC to finish drinking before she urged Dusty forward. She had a feeling something was wrong and she wanted to get to the safety of her friend's camp as soon as possible.
Dusty started across the valley at an easy trot with Blaze and the other horses following. Around mid-day, the women stopped at a small grove of trees along a creek for a short rest. While Jesse saw to the baby, Jennifer carried their canteens to the creek to refill them. She kept looking up at the sky and shaking her head.
After the third time of seeing her wife look to the sky, Jesse asked, "what's wrong, darlin'?"
"I'd swear I hear thunder but there isn't a cloud in the sky," Jennifer carried the canteens back. She had been hearing a deep rumble, like the sound thunder makes as it crashes across the sky.
"It's the buffalo," Jesse put KC back into the carry sack and swung in up on her back, "the herd must be moving."
"What are you taking about, sweetheart? How can a herd of animals sound like that?"
"I'll show you," Jesse helped Jennifer remount Blaze then pulled herself aboard Dusty. "Come on."
Jesse led the horses away from the grove of trees to the top of a small bluff not too far away. From there, the women could look down into the wide valley. A dark mass was moving in the direction of their bluff from the far end of the valley. As they watched the mass grow closer, the horses began to fidget. The women dismounted to calm them. They could feel the ground beneath their boots start to shake and small rocks dislodged from the bluff's edge, falling several feet to the valley floor below.
Jennifer could not believe the number of buffalo in the valley below her, the herd had to number over a hundred thousand strong. She had read many descriptions of the shaggy haired, short legged animals but the authors of those descriptions had not done justice to their subject.
Gradually, the herd slowed and the women could pick individual animals out of the dark mass. Mixed in with the larger animals were several smaller ones, their coats a bright orange brown color.
"Jesse, why do some of them have lighter colored coats?" Jennifer asked.
"Those are the babies," the rancher answered, she was watching several men on horseback following the herd at a safe distance. They were too far away to make out individual features but she hoped one of them was her friend, Walks on the Wind.
"Isn't that an unusual color?" Mary asked. "It sure stands out."
"You wouldn't think so if you're a wolf or coyote, they can't distinguish the color from the grass and shrubs. Makes it safer for the babies," the rancher informed her mother-in-law, her eyes still on the outriders as one broke off from the group and headed their way.
"Oh," Mary had never had reason to consider that predatory animals might be color blind.
Jesse smiled as she recognized the rider approaching them. "It's Walk," she told the others.
Jesse turned away from the bluff's edge and walked to greet her old friend. Jennifer and Mary followed.
Walks on the Wind raced his horse up the bluff's sandy slope and leaped to the ground when he reached the women. "Jesse, Jennifer, I wasn't expecting you."
"Changed our minds," Jesse grasped Walk's outstretched arm. "Hope that's okay."
"You're always welcome in my camp," Walk smiled.
KC peeked over Jesse's shoulder, she remembered the man who had played with her when he visited their home not so long ago. She smiled and let out a string of gibberish in greeting.
"You, too, KC," Walk playfully tapped the baby on the nose. "Have a few little ones in camp about her age," the Indian commented.
"Not sure I've got the stamina for more than one of her," Jesse laughed.
"They'll keep each other busy," Walk chuckled, "leaves the elders free to rest during the day."
"Funny," Jesse growled.
"Serves you right," Jennifer teasingly elbowed Jesse in the ribs. "You know you love chasing KC around all day. It's hard to tell which of you enjoys it more." She turned to Walk, "is your camp near?"
"Not too far," he looked to the bottom of the bluff where one of the other riders was calling to him. He responded in his native tongue and the man rode away. "I told them you were friends and would be staying with me at the camp. He's going back to let the others know."
"Walk," Jesse turned serious, "there's a reason we're here. And, I think you need to know it before you invite us into your camp. It could mean trouble."
"You're my friend, Buffalo Heart," Walk said. "Your trouble is mine."
"I appreciate that," the rancher nodded. "But, I'd feel better if you knew what was going on."
"Okay," Walk had sensed a problem from the time he rode up to the group. It wouldn't hurt to know what was causing it, "you can tell me as we ride."
"It should be over there," Billie pointed to a bluff a couple of hours ride across the valley. "Walks on the Wind usually camps there during the hunt."
"How do you know?" Kensington asked.
"Joined him and his people on a few hunts," Billie frowned, remembering the good times he had had in the Indian camp. He knew, this wasn't going to be another.
"Let's go," Marshal Morgan urged his horse forward, "I want to get there before nightfall."
Billie had led the party from Sweetwater to the valley where the buffalo herds gathered in the late summer. At the marshal's insistence, they had ridden through the night stopping every few hours just long enough to rest the horses. What the sheriff had hoped to be a ten day trip had been accomplished in half that time. There was nothing to do now but hope Jesse and Jennifer had decided to stay somewhere in the mountains, safely tucked away where their pursuers couldn't find them..
"Where's Billie?" Thaddeus Newby asked Bette Mae. He had arrived back in Sweetwater after spending the last few days in the mining camps. He wanted to talk with the sheriff and, finding his office vacant, he had come to the Slipper on the chance Billie would be there with his fiancé, Ruthie.
"On his way to arrest Jesse," Bette Mae told the newspaperman.
"Marshal found out tha' they gone over the mountains to get away from Kensington," Bette Mae said, sadly. "Billie couldn' do nothin' but go with him. Took Kensington and Thomas with 'em."
"Damn," Thaddeus sat at an empty table.
"That ain't the half of it," Bette Mae joined him. "Kensington set fire to the ranch. Burned it to the ground."
Thaddeus' shoulders slumped at this news. He had alerted the sheriff that Kensington might be up to trouble at the ranch. Obviously, his warning hadn't been in time. "What can happen next?"
"They can hang Jesse." The days of worrying about her friends finally became too much for Bette Mae to bear and the restrained emotions broke free. "Please, god, don't let that happen," she wailed.
"Jesse's not going to hang," Thaddeus tried to comfort the distressed woman. "No judge in the territory will believe the charges they've made against her."
"But, Jennifer's papa," Bette Mae wiped at the tears streaming down her cheeks, "why won' he leave 'em be? Ya know what it'll do ta Jennifer if anything happens ta Jesse."
"He's twisted inside, Thaddeus. Bent and twisted like the vines in the forest. He don' know what's right anymore. Jus' knows what he wants. And he wants Jesse dead."
"That won't happen," the newspaperman hoped it was true. But, he wasn't foolish enough to believe that Kensington wouldn't do everything in his power to make it come true.
A call went through the camp when the approaching riders were spotted.
Jennifer was just finishing feeding KC and she carried the baby to where Jesse was spreading out their bedrolls. "Sweetheart, isn't that Billie's horse?"
Jesse frowned, "it is." It was Billie but he wasn't alone. Jesse wondered if the sheriff was bringing good news why he had brought the other men with him.
"Oh, my god," Jennifer gasped.
"What is it, darlin'?"
Mary rushed to her daughter's side when she heard who was coming. "Are you sure?" she asked, the men still too far for her to see them clearly.
"Yes, and Thomas is with him."
"Thomas?" Jesse asked. Jennifer closed the distance between them and Jesse wrapped her arms around her wife.
"My oldest brother."
"I wonder who the fourth man is?" Jesse muttered.
"Is this your trouble," Walks on the Wind walked up to the women.
"Seems to be," Jesse told him.
Billie and the other men rode into the Indian camp.
"I can have them chased away," Walk offered.
"No," Jesse shook her head. "We best face this and get it done with."
"Jesse," Billie tried to reach the women first but the others were right behind him.
"Well, it's about time we found you," Martin Kensington was off his horse and storming toward Jennifer. "Take you hands off my daughter," he screamed.
"Back off, Kensington," Jesse pushed Jennifer behind her and faced the angry man.
"Father, stop," Thomas ran after his father, grabbing him by the arms and pulling him away from his sister's wife.
"Jesse Branson, you're under arrest," Marshal Morgan had reached into his saddle bags for the handcuffs he carried and walked towards the rancher to place them on her wrists.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Jesse asked.
"Martin, why are you doing this?" Mary cried.
"Jesse, what does he mean you're under arrest?" Jennifer questioned.
KC heard the fear in her momma's voice and felt the arms holding her trembling, and started to cry.
"Back off," Billie yanked the marshal around to keep him from Jesse.
"Get out of our way," Kensington tried to break Thomas' grip.
"Enough," Walks on the Wind stepped in front of Jesse and Jennifer, he held his arms up, palms facing the lawmen and Kensingtons. "You have entered our camp uninvited," he told them. "If you wish to remain you must obey our customs."
"Like hell," Kensington started to protest.
"Shut up," Marshal Morgan hissed. "I have a job to do and I won't have you making it any more difficult than it has already been."
"Billie," Jesse asked from behind Walk, "what's going on."
The sheriff looked at his friend, his sad eyes telling her that the news wasn't good. "We need to talk, Jesse. This is Marshal Morgan, he has a warrant for your arrest."
"For what?" Jennifer asked, she tightened her hold on Jesse.
"For the murder of Kenneth and Catherine Williams," the marshal answered. "And, the kidnapping of their infant daughter."
Jesse's knees went weak and if it hadn't been for her arms wrapped around Jennifer she would have fallen to the ground.
"Father, what have you done?" Jennifer felt like a fist had slammed into her stomach. This couldn't be happening again.
"Just told the governor what I was told by the good people of Bannack," Kensington crowed. "Maybe now you'll understand what this bitch is really like."
"Have you gone mad?" Jennifer screamed. "I was with her when we found KC. She didn't kill the Williams, Sheriff Plummer did."
"Not the way I heard it," Kensington sneered.
"Martin, please don't do this," Mary pleaded. "I know Jesse, she's a good woman. And, Jennifer loves her very much."
"Ha," Kensington grunted, "she can't love another woman. It's not natural."
"I see being around this bitch has corrupted you, too. Well, I'll fix that as soon as we get back home."
"Thomas, are you here to help him?" Mary asked of her eldest son.
"No, mother. I came to try to keep him from causing you and Jennifer any trouble. Unfortunately, I haven't done a very good job."
"Sweetheart?" Jennifer felt the rancher's body begin to shake as she silently sobbed. "Oh, Jesse," she cried.
"I can't lose you," Jesse whispered.
"I'm not going anywhere, sweetheart," Jennifer readjusted her position so she could hold Jesse and the baby. "You didn't kill anyone and we'll prove that in every court in the territory if we have to."
"Don't leave me."
"Never my love," Jennifer kissed Jesse's cheeks, tasting the salty tears that covered them. "Never."
"Alright, enough of this," Kensington snarled. "Thomas, get your mother and sister on their horses. You can leave the brat here for the savages to take care of."
"No," Thomas quietly told his father.
"What did you say?"
"I said no. I will not help you force them to do something they don't want to do. It's bad enough what you've already done to them."
"Get the horses."
"Marshal, I want my wife and daughter put under protective custody."
Kensington glared at the man, "you were sent here by the governor..."
"Mr. Kensington, I am well aware of the duties I was assigned by the governor. And, they do not include anything to do with your wife or daughter."
"Alright, if I have to do this myself I will," Kensington set off to find two horses for Mary and Jennifer to ride. Walk signaled to a couple of the men standing nearby and they left to make sure he wasn't successful in his search.
Jesse sat on Dusty, her hands bound together by handcuffs and her legs tied to her stirrups.
Jennifer walked up, leading Blaze. KC sat in the carry sack on her back, her features stained by tears. She reached for Jesse and couldn't understand why her mommy didn't lift her into her arms. The rancher could only smiled tearfully back at her beloved daughter.
"Marshal Morgan?" Jennifer asked.
"Yes, Miss Kensington."
"Mrs. Branson," Jennifer corrected. "Where are you taking her?"
"Bannack, Mrs. Branson," the marshal acknowledged the name correction. "She'll stand trial there."
"Thank you. Then, I will be accompanying you there."
"As will I," Mary joined Jennifer.
"I suggest you and your mother return to Sweetwater," the marshal said.
"You don't know these two," Billie smiled at Jennifer, he stepped up to help her mount Blaze. "Where one goes, the other is right behind."
"Sheriff, with what is likely to happen in Bannack," the marshal spoke softly to Billie, "I think you should take them home."
"Jesse didn't kidnap that baby, marshal. And, she sure as hell didn't kill anyone," Billie shot back. "We're going to Bannack."
in Part 6