Rolling Thunder continues the story of Jesse and Jennifer Branson begun in the stories of Sweetwater, Bannack and Bozeman.  It is recommended that you read those stories before reading this one. 

This is an original story and the characters belong to me.  Please do not reproduce or copy any of my stories without my permission.

This story portrays a loving relationship between two women.  If you are offended by such a relationship, please do not read any further.  If such a relationship is illegal where you live, work to change the laws. 

In this part of Rolling Thunder, there is mention of Sheriff Plummer, a real lawman in Bannack, Montana during the late 1800s.  I mean no disrespect or harm to the historical record by the use of this character.  Also, my descriptions of Bannack are based on the existing buildings remaining in what is now a ghost town but some details may be changed to fit my purposes for this story.  Please, do not hold this against me.  

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

 

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

ROLLING THUNDER
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted  August 2004

 

PART 6

After leaving the Indian camp, Marshal Morgan escorted his prisoner southward.  Jesse, her hands bound by handcuffs, hung on to Dusty's saddle horn as the horse's reins were controlled by the marshal, who was taking no chances at having her ride off.  Not that she would, considering Jennifer and KC were riding behind them.  The marshal had insisted that Jennifer, Billie, Mary and Thomas trailed several feet to the rear and not attempt any contact with Jesse.

Sitting in the carry sack on Jennifer's back, KC sniffled and laid her head against her momma's back.  She could not understand why her mommy was riding so far in front of them and why she wouldn't respond to her cries.  Jennifer shared the baby's pain and hoped the marshal would let Jesse hold their daughter when they camped for the night. 

If they camped for the night.  So far, determined to reach Bannack as quickly as possible, the marshal had refused all requests to stop and was planning to travel straight through the night.  Though she and KC were tired and her leg was throbbing, Jennifer was just as determined to shadow the lawman and her wife all night, if necessary.

The riders reached the end of the valley and started over a low pass that would take them into the adjoining valley.  It was well past dark and Jesse's bound wrists and legs were tingling from a lack of blood circulation.

"Marshal," Jesse addressed the man who rode single mindedly beside her, "I need a break."

"You'll have plenty of time to rest in Bannack," he told her.

"I've lost feeling in my legs," Jesse explained.  "Just let me walk around a bit.  And, Jennifer needs to rest," Jesse was concerned about her wife after the long day in the saddle.

"She can stop whenever she wants," the sheriff kept riding. 

"Mommy," KC cried when she heard Jesse's voice, the despair in the small voice tore at the hearts of the others, even the marshal's.  But, having a job to do, he tried to ignore the baby's cries.

Jesse couldn't take it any longer, if she was sore and tired then her wife must really be suffering.  Not to mention their little daughter.  "Dusty, stop," Jesse instructed the golden mare who immediately halted.

"What the hell," Marshal Morgan said as his arm was pulled backwards by his grip on Dusty's reins.  He yanked on the leather to get the mare to move, "come on, you dumb....."

"She ain't goin' nowhere," Billie rode up beside the marshal.  "Seems like a good spot to camp for the night."

"I'm taking my prisoner to Bannack.  Tonight," the marshal grunted as his efforts to get Dusty to move continued to fail.  "Damn it," he stared at Jesse, "make her move."

"No," Jesse spoke calmly as she stared down the marshal, "If you haven't noticed, marshal, my wife suffered a severe injury not very long ago and she needs to rest.  Now, you can yank on Dusty's reins all night but she won't move until I tell her to.  So," Jesse smiled at the man but her eyes held no humor, "I suggest you allow us to stop for a few hours."

The marshal knew he had no real choice.  He was outnumbered five to one.  He wondered again why the elder Kensington had not accompanied the group when they left the Indian camp.  The man was more trouble than he was worth but, at least, he would have helped to even the odds.

"Alright," the marshal reluctantly agreed.  "But, we're leaving at dawn.  I want to be in Bannack tomorrow."

Billie slipped off his horse and helped Jennifer dismount.  Though the schoolteacher was grateful for his help, she wished it were Jesse's arms around her instead of the sheriff's.  "Why don't you take KC over there, "he indicated a grassy spot not too far from where they were standing, "and I'll see about getting the marshal to let Jesse sit with you."

"Thanks, Billie," Jennifer smiled as she pulled her cane free of the saddle's scabbard.  Her leg ached and she couldn't wait to stretch it out.  But what it really needed she knew she wasn't going to get, a rubdown from Jesse gentle hands.  "But, I need to get some stuff out of the packs.  KC needs fresh britches and she's hungry."

"Go sit down," Thomas stepped up beside his younger sister.  "I'll take care of unpacking for you."

Jennifer looked up at her brother.  She had been shocked to see Thomas riding toward the Indian camp, thinking that he had come to assist their father in his quest.  She had been even more surprised when he had done just the opposite.  Unfortunately, the events of the past several hours had prevented her from speaking to her brother and finding out his reasons for being here. 

"Thank you, Thomas," Jennifer leaned heavily on her cane.  I don't think I could manage by myself," she admitted.

"Go on," Thomas nodded, sadly.  He had known of his sister's injury but had been unaware until just this moment how much she suffered from it.  "Mother, why don't you go with her," Thomas said as Mary joined them.

Billie walked up to the marshal who had dismounted and was untying Jesse's legs.  "Have a favor to ask you, marshal," Billie stayed a few feet away, not wanting the other lawman to think he was a threat.  "The baby's been crying for Jesse," he needlessly told the marshal who had been listening to the child's whimpers along with the others, "it would do her a world of good if Jesse could hold her, just 'til she fell asleep."

"That child is not my problem, sheriff," the marshal finished freeing Jesse's legs and motioned her to dismount.  "Prisoner will be tied up until we leave in the morning."

"Suit yourself, marshal," Billie winked at Jesse who was stomping her feet to get the blood moving again.  "But, I know little KC and she'll be wailing all night if you keep them separated.  Jesse will promise not to cause any trouble if you let her spend the night with her family, won't ya?"

"Yes," Jesse nodded solemnly, she would do anything to be allowed a few moments with her family.  "There won't be any trouble."

The marshal looked over to see KC reaching for Jesse even as Jennifer tried to feed her.  Well, if it would get the kid to stop her relentless crying, he thought.  "You'll be tied up," he told Jesse, she nodded in agreement.  He pulled a set of leg shackles from his saddlebag, "alright."

Jennifer watched, hopefully, as the marshal lead Jesse in her direction.  KC, seeing her mother approach, began to crawl towards her.  "Stay here, sweetie," Jennifer stopped the baby. 

Jesse was led to a small tree close to where Thomas had set out the bedrolls. 

"Don't move," the marshal commanded before kneeling down to attach one of the shackles around his prisoners ankle.  The other shackle he secured around the tree.  He stood back up.

"What about these?" Jesse held up her wrists to display the handcuffs.

"They stay on," the marshal said as he walked away.

"Thank you," Jennifer told the marshal who did not respond.  With KC, she rushed to Jesse and wrapped her arms around her wife.

"How ya doin', darlin'?" Jesse choked back tears, it felt so good to feel Jennifer pressed against her.

"I'm fine," Jennifer sighed, and she was now that Jesse was in her arms.

"You need to sit down," Jesse said but she didn't move.

"Mommy," KC grabbed for Jesse.  But, with her hands restrained and her arms wrapped in Jennifer's, the rancher couldn't hold the baby.

"Let's sit down," Jesse suggested.

"Wait a minute," Jennifer released her wife and handed the baby to Jesse, who happily accepted the child into her freed arms.  "Let me pull our blankets over here."

KC, overjoyed to be in her mommy's arms, didn't care that the woman's hold on her was awkward.  "Mommy," she kissed Jesse's face, "wuv you."

"I love you, too, sunshine," Jesse cried with the child.

Quickly situating their bedrolls and blankets close to the tree that tethered Jesse, Jennifer helped her wife sit.  KC clinging to the rancher. 

"I want to hold you," Jesse whispered as Jennifer snuggled next to her.  She scooted back so she could lean against a stump and spread her legs.  "Sit here a minute, sunshine," she said, placing the baby on the blanket next to her.  When Jesse lifted her arms up and out of the way, Jennifer slipped between her legs.  KC crawled into Jennifer's lap and Jesse dropped her arms over Jennifer's head to wrap them around her family.

"I love you," Jesse kissed the top of Jennifer's head.

Jennifer relaxed against Jesse and closed her eyes, safe, once again, in her lover's arms.  "I love you," she sighed.

Marshal Morgan watched the exchange as he pulled the saddle off his horse.  The first seed of doubt creeping into his subconscious.

Billie and Thomas worked together to collect firewood and build a campfire.  They unburden Boy of his packs and unsaddled the other horses before brushing and picketing them for the night.  Then, they helped Mary put together a quick meal for the group.

After eating, the group settled into their bedrolls for the remainder of the night.  Jesse lay on her back with KC sprawled on top of her.  Jennifer lay on her side snuggled against the rancher, a arm and leg draped over her wife's body.

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

Unable to sleep, Jesse watched the moon rise from behind the mountains to the east.  The camp was quiet with everyone asleep.  Even the marshal, having decided his prisoner wasn't going to try to escape, had nodded off.  Jesse clumsily adjusted her arms, not used to having her hands bound.

"You should be sleeping," Jennifer whispered as Jesse fidgeted.

"So, should you," Jesse gave up trying to find a comfortable position.

"Can't," Jennifer snuggled closer, she began to gently massage the rancher's wrists.

"Feels good," Jesse sighed.  The handcuffs were tight and their rough surface was scrapping her skin raw.  "How are you doing?" she asked, keeping her voice low not to wake the others.

"Wishing we were home in our own bed."

"Me, too."

"Jesse," the schoolteacher looked into her wife's eyes, the moon's reflection shining brightly in them.  "Why is this happening?"

Jesse didn't answer right away.  She knew as well as Jennifer did what, and who, was behind their present predicament.  She also knew that wasn't what her wife was really asking.  Why did their relationship seem to be such a threat to others? 

In Sweetwater, they were surrounded by friends who supported them.  But even there, they faced intolerance.  People who would whisper as they walked by or stop talking if they entered a room.  Some disliked them because they were women owning and operating businesses.  Some because they were strong and stood up for themselves.  Some because of their love for one another.  Why couldn't people like Jennifer's father just accept them for who they were and not what they were?  Jesse wondered if there would ever come the day that they would not have to defend themselves against other folk's unreasonable beliefs. 

"I don't know, darlin'," Jesse finally said.  "I don't know why some folks are so against.  Seems they won't be happy 'til they destroy what we have."

"They can take away everything, sweetheart.  But, I'll never stop loving you," Jennifer vowed as she tightened her hold on her wife.  "No matter what, I'll love you forever.  Even after we leave this life, you will always hold my heart."

Tears filled Jesse's eyes as she listened to her wife's words, "you are my life, darlin'.  Nothing will ever change that," she leaned forward and tenderly kissed the lips she adored.

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

"Any news," Ed asked Thaddeus when the newspaper man returned from meeting the stagecoach. 

It had been several days since the the marshal had left town in search of Jesse and Jennifer.  Thaddeus met the every stage in hopes that a message would come telling them what was going on.

"Nothing," Thaddeus shook his head. 

"Been thinkin' I might close up the store for a few days and go lookin' for them," the store owner said.  "Been putting it off hopin' Billie would send word, but maybe I should just do it."

"Don't know," Thaddeus stepped onto the boardwalk beside the large man, "might give it a few more days.  By now, they could be anywhere and you'd just be riding around in circles.  I'd ride out to look myself but there's too much happening here," he referred to the recent upsurge of activity in town that, as the newspaper editor, he was obligated to report on for the Gazette.

"Yeah," Ed looked to the lot beside his store where men were hammering a new building into existence.  Similar activity was taking place across the street next to the stage station.  "I'll wait two more days," he decided, "then I'm leaving."

"Can you afford to close the store?" Thaddeus asked.  The mercantile was the only place in the valley for folks to buy the necessities of life.

"No," Ed honestly answered.  "Guess I'll talk to Bette Mae 'bout a couple of the girls keeping an eye on it for me.  Shouldn't be a problem.  But, if I have to, I'll lock it up," he looked at Thaddeus.  "Right now, I'm more concerned about Jennifer and Jesse than I am about it."

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

"Of course, Ed," Bette Mae listened as the storekeeper told her of his plans to find Jesse and Jennifer.  "Ruthie and Nancy can take care of the store for you."

"Thanks, Bette Mae," Ed was relieved that he wouldn't have to lock the business doors.  Not that he minded losing the income but he didn't want to cause any hardship for his customers.

"But," the innkeeper added, "I'm comin' wit' ya."

"Alright," Ed knew it would be useless to argue.

"Bette Mae," Ruthie had been listening to the conversation and boldly approached the pair.  "I'd like to go with you.  I'm worried 'bout Billie."

"It'll be a long ride, Ruthie," Bette Mae gently told the girl who she knew had spent very little time on the back of a horse.

"I don't care," Ruthie said, determined to be allowed to accompany Bette Mae and Ed when they left town.  "I want to go."

Bette Mae studied the woman who had recently become engaged to the sheriff.  She seemed like a completely different person from the one Bette Mae knew.  The old Ruthie would never have approached with her request, no matter how much she wanted to.  Bette Mae considered how much Ruthie had changed over the past several months since Jesse had become the Slipper's owner.  She wondered how much of the girl's maturity was due to the confidence given her by Jesse and Jennifer and how much was due to the sheriff's love of the girl.  She decided it really didn't matter.  Whatever it was, she ws now facing a young, self-assured yet still somewhat shy, woman who was willing to do whatever it took to check on the man she loved.   

"Okay, Ruthie," she smiled, "Nancy can take care of things here." 

Nancy tended bar in the Slipper's saloon and the men in town had quickly learned not to cross the tall redhead who, since the night of the lynch mob, kept a double barrel shotgun under the bar loaded and ready to use at a moment's notice.

"We'll be ready, Ed," Bette Mae returned her attention to the waiting storekeeper.  "Ya jus' say the word."

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

Frank Wilson, the construction foreman for Tobias Harrington's investment group, picked his way up the narrow, rocky trail that snaked it's way to the top of a mountain approximately five miles from Sweetwater.  As he climbed, Wilson realized it was going to take a great deal of work to turn the rough path, barely wide enough for a man to walk, into a road suitable for the cumbersome supply and ore wagons to travel. 

Nearing it's destination, the trail leveled and approached a slope devoid of most vegetation due to the numerous snow slides that raced down it's incline every winter, carrying everything in their path down with them.  At the edge of this gradient, cut into the hillside was an opening just large enough for a man to pass through.  Stretching behind that breach Wilson knew there to be a tunnel carved into the mountain for approximately two hundred feet.  He was looking at the Songbird mine.

When he had visited the site a few days earlier with Harrington, Wilson had been bothered by something but had been unable to pinpoint any reason for the uneasy feeling.  He just knew that something didn't seem right in the mine.  The sensation had continued to nag at him and he had come back to the mine alone to see if he could identify what was causing his sleepless nights. 

"Howdy, Mr. Wilson," greeted the ex-cowboy had hired to guard the mine.  "Wasn't expecting anyone today."

"Spur of the moment trip," Wilson told the guard.  "Just need to check out a couple of things."

"Alright," the guard smiled.  "Need my help?"

"No," Wilson didn't want anything, or anyone, to disturb his thoughts while he was in the mine.  "I can handle this myself."

"Give a holler if you change your mind."  The guard was more than happy to stay outside, he didn't like having to enter the dark cavern. 

"Thanks."

Lighting the lantern kept at the tunnel's entrance, Wilson left the brightness of the day and walked into the darkness of the mine.  Carefully, he stepped a few feet into the chasm and stopped to study his surroundings.  Near the entrance, the tunnel's walls were braced to keep the enormous mass of the mountain from collapsing them.  But, as he raised the lantern shoulder high and scanned down the length of the tunnel, he noticed that the braces became further apart until they disappeared altogether. 

"Not too smart to work in an un-reinforced tunnel," Wilson declared, thinking the mine's original owner had probably been unwilling to continue the arduous work of cutting and installing the fortifications.  Preferring instead to use his energy and resources to dig out the valuable ore.  He slowly walked deeper into the shaft, closely examining the walls as he passed.  When he reached the end, he studied the rock face that had caught his eye days before.

He held the lantern as close to the stone wall as he could and ran his finger along what appeared to be a vein of ore running several feet along the wall.  He scrapped at the vein with his fingernail and then pulled out his pocket knife and scrapped some more.  He frowned when tiny bits of the shiny material flaked off and fell to the ground at his feet.  Kneeling, he picked up some of the flakes and rubbed them between his fingers.

"Damn," Wilson muttered when he stepped back out into the midday's sunlight.  "I wonder if that fool knows about this." 

"You say something, Mr. Wilson," the guard was sitting in the shade of a tree near the mine's mouth.

"Never mine," Wilson told the guard.  He blew out the flame of the lantern, returning it back to it's resting place ready for the next person to use.  "You have everything you need up here?" he asked the man who was staying on the mountain to protect the company's most recent investment.

"Yep," the guard tilted his head in the direction of a tent that served as his living quarters.  "Got it fixed up nice and cozy," he grinned.

"Good," Wilson was glad the man seemed happy to be on the mountain.  He didn't think he'd so pleased to be so isolated, but to each his own he decided.  "Be sure to send word if you think of anything."  Wilson had made arrangements for supplies to be brought to the guard weekly.

"Thanks, Mr. Wilson," the guard smiled, his new job sure beat chasing cows for a living, "I'll do that."

Wilson nodded before turning to retrace his stops back down the mountain.  He was grateful for the time the descent would take him, he had to figure out what to do about the discovery he had just made.

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

"You can't keep me here," Martin Kensington yelled for the upteenth time to the occupants of the Indian camp.

"You're free to leave at any time," Walks on the Wind again told the irrational man. 

A man sitting near Wind said something in their native language and Wind nodded.  "Brave Bear asks that you quit yelling, it is making his head hurt," Wind informed Kensington.

"Give me my damn horse," Kensington screamed, ignoring the request.

"Mr. Kensington," Wind took a deep breath, this had been going on since Jesse was taken away from their camp the night before.  "As I have told you, the horse is no longer here and we cannot give one of our horses as they are needed to get the buffalo meat back to our village."

Kensington was more than irritated at the Indian.  Not only had the man remained calm in the face of his own anger but he also spoke English better than most white men in the frontier territory.  And, he knew the Indian was speaking the truth about his horse.  When he had ridden into the Indian camp the day before, he had failed to restrain the pony and it had wandered off during the confrontation between the marshal and Jesse.  At least, that's what he had been told when later he couldn't locate the animal.  But, there were several Indian ponies in the camp and there was no reason for them to refuse to give him one of them.

"Look," Kensington started.

"No," Walks on the Wind had finally had enough.  Besides, by now Jesse and Jennifer must be close to Bannack and he no longer needed to retain Kensington to keep him from causing them any problems on the trip.  "We will not give you a horse.  Bannack is south, over that small range of hills," he pointed in the proper direction in case the easterner didn't know.  "You can walk there in four or five days.  You may even get lucky and find your horse on the way.  Now, Mr. Kensington, I am asking you to leave our camp."  The last words were spoken in a hard voice that warned the man not to argue.

Kensington stared at the man who dared to talk to him in such a manner.  His features turned hard as he took a step in Walk's direction.  Before he could take another, he was surrounded by the other warriors of the camp.  Words were exchanged between the men and Walk, then Kensington was roughly forced away from the camp. 

"Mr. Kensington," Walk called to the man fighting his escorts.  "I can no longer protect you," he hinted at the angry warriors.  If the man hadn't been Jennifer's father, he would not have protected him for this long.  "Please do not attempt to return to our camp," Walk spoke in his native language and Kensington was shoved further away from the camp.  "You will not receive a pleasant welcome."

With no other options, Kensington began to walk to the south end of the valley.  He took a moment to cast a final glare over his shoulder at the Indian.

Walk smiled as he watched Kensington walk away.  He would give the belligerent man a head start then he would ride for Bannack himself, making sure to stay out of the man's line of sight.  And, he laughed to himself, he'd take the man's horse with him.

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

Jennifer rode beside Jesse with KC on her back.  The baby had wanted to ride on Jesse's back but had agreed to settle on Jennifer's as long as she could see her mommy. 

"How's your leg?" Jesse asked.  They had been riding since dawn and except for a few short stops to see to KC's needs, Jennifer had been in the saddle the whole time.

"I won't lie to you," Jennifer had learned that lesson the hard way and wasn't about to forget it.  "I will be more than glad to get off Blaze, for good.  But, I would stay up here forever if it meant keeping you out of jail."

"Don't think that's goin' happen, darlin'," Jesse said, sadly.  "We should be in Bannack by nightfall," she figured there'd be no excuse for her wife not to rest once she, herself, was locked in a jail cell.

"That's enough talk," Marshal Morgan told the women.  That morning as he was attaching the shackles to both of Jesse's legs, the chain hanging under Dusty's belly, he had relented and allowed that the two could ride side-by-side but only if they didn't talk.  He did it for no other reason than to save his ears from another day of listening to the baby's unhappy cries. 

Jennifer mouthed the words 'I love you' to her wife as they obeyed the marshal's warning.  Neither wanted to do anything that would cause the lawman to change his mind.

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

"Perkins," Tobias Harrington was standing by the window of the mayor's office looking at the building that marked the end of the town of Sweetwater, "how in the hell could you allowed them to marry?"

"Who?" the mayor was sitting behind his desk reading over some papers.  Without a preacher in town, the mayor presided at any marriages held, as he had done at the ceremony for Jesse and Jennifer.

"Those women," Harrington sneered.  "Who the hell do you think I'm talking about?"

"There's no law against it," Mayor Perkins replied, offhandedly.

"Law or not, it's wrong," Harrington turned to look at the mayor.  "You should never have allowed it to happen."

"Why?" Perkins looked up.  Harrington was outlined in the bright sunlight flooding though the window and the mayor seemed to gage for the first time just how diminutive the domineering easterner was.  "What harm is there in it?"

"You idiot," Harrington crossed to a chair and sat down.  "Don't you see?" he asked then answered his own question when the mayor looked at him perplexed.  "There will be more people coming to Sweetwater.  Important people.  And, some of them will be bringing their families and settling here.  What are they to think when they find out the town's schoolteacher is married," he shuddered when he said the word, "to another woman?  And, not just any woman but the owner of a whorehouse."

"The Slipper's not a whorehouse," Mayor Perkins pointed out.  "At least, not any more.  But, I see your point," he had to agree that the women working at the Slipper did have disreputable pasts.  "So, what can we do about that?"

Harrington smiled, "it's not what we can do about it but what you can do about it."

"And, that would be?"

"Pass a law making it illegal for two women to marry each other and dissolve the marriage.  And, find yourself another schoolteacher.  A respectable one, this time."

"But, I can't do that."

"Why not?"

"Sweetwater doesn't have an official form of government, we can't just make our own laws.  We have to abide by the territorial laws, and there isn't one saying Jesse and Jennifer can't be married."

"Well, that brings up another subject I've been meaning to talk to you about," Harrington leaned back in the chair, his arms bent at the elbow with fingers spread and fingertips pressed together.  "I think it's time for Sweetwater to have a town council.  Honest citizens that can be trusted to pass the laws that will make this a decent town.  And, to give the position of mayor the authority it deserves."

"Oh," the mayor was instantly in agreement with Harrington's suggestion.  "I've been considering that myself."  He pulled a blank sheet of paper in front of him and began to make a list of the people who would serve their needs as council members.

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

Thomas was riding beside his mother.  Not knowing what to say to the woman who raised him, he hadn't spoken a word since they broke camp that morning.

"Thomas," Mary decided it was time to break the forced silence.  "Why are you here?"

Listening as they rode several feet ahead, Jesse and Jennifer were both interested in his answer.

Thomas took a deep breath before responding. 

"Father insisted on returning here for Jennifer and you.  We tried to talk him out of it but he wouldn't listen.  He said he was going to come back, no matter what.  I agreed to accompany him only on the condition that he would let Jennifer make up her own mind about where and how she wanted to spend her life.  And, because I wanted to ask you to come home.

"You mean to order me back home," Mary suggested skeptically to the son that had always copied his father's every attitude.

"No," Thomas looked at his mother and vigorously shook his head.  "Ask.  I, well, I...," he hesitated to gather his thoughts.  "I've asked a wonderful young lady to marry me and she's agreed,".he smiled as he thought of his fiancÚ waiting for him to return.  "I wanted you to come home for the wedding and," he emphasized, "to be part of our family,"

Mary looked thoughtfully at her son.  Before she had come to Montana, she had been unaware that Thomas had been courting and wondered why he had kept it secret.

"I never would have come here," Thomas continued, "if I'd known what father was capable of.  Never."  He looked at Jennifer and Jesse who were looking back at him, "I'm so sorry."

Seeing how upset her eldest son was, Mary gently asked,  "Thomas, what has your father done?"

"You don't know?" Thomas looked at Billie.  He was sure the sheriff would have found the time to tell Jesse and Jennifer about their home.

"Thought it best to wait until all this was over," Billie shook his head to let the man know he hadn't said anything to the women, he had wanted to save them from any more heartbreak.

"Know what?" Jesse brought Dusty to an abrupt stop and Jennifer pulled Blaze up next to her..

"What's going on?" the marshal asked when he found himself moving forward alone.

"Know what?" Jesse asked again, her voice more demanding.

"I'm so sorry, Jennifer," Thomas tearfully told his sister.  "I should have stopped him but I didn't..."

"What the hell did he do?" Jesse shouted.

Billie spoke up when it became apparent that Thomas was unable to answer, "he burned down the ranch."

"What!!" Jennifer screamed.

"I'm sorry," Billie said, "it's gone."

"All of it," Jesse asked, stunned by the news.

"No, just the house.  Thomas saved the rest of the buildings," he hoped that news would speak well for the distraught man.

"How?" Jesse asked.

"Why?" Jennifer asked at the same time.

"It was an accident," Thomas finally found his voice.  "He didn't go there to do it, it just happened."

"Why was he there, Thomas?"

"I don't know.  He never told me."

Jennifer didn't care if her brother was upset, she wanted to know why her father had been allowed to go to the ranch.  She couldn't believe he had managed to destroy the one thing that meant so much to Jesse while the entire town was supposed to be watching out for him.  "Why wasn't he in jail, Billie?"

"He was," Billie explained.  "I arrested him as soon as he set foot in Sweetwater.  The next day, the marshal here arrives with a warrant for Jesse and a writ from the governor releasing your father.  I had to let him out."

Jennifer glared at the hapless marshal who could only sit on his horse and listen to the conversation unfold around him.  It was obvious that the group wasn't going anywhere until some questions were answered. 

"You let my father out of jail," the schoolteacher accused.  "After everything he did to us, you let him out of jail."

KC began to whimper in the carry sack, she didn't like it when her mothers raised their voices and right now both of them were angry.

"It's okay, sunshine," Jesse lowered her voice and smiled at the baby.  "Kensington was ordered out of Montana, never to return," Jesse told the marshal.  "Why in the hell would the governor rescind that order."

"Tobias Harrington," the marshal informed the group.

"What does he have to do with any of this?" Jennifer asked, dumbfounded that the condescending little man was involved..

"He provided the information to the governor about your crimes," he told Jesse.  "And, about your father," he said to Jennifer, "being wrongly accused."

"Oh, my god," Jennifer would have laughed if the situation hadn't been so serious.  "And, the governor believed him?"

"Harrington is an old acquaintance of the governor's, he had no reason to disbelieve him."

Jennifer could not believe what she was hearing.  "Did the governor think we made the whole thing up?  How Andrew was killed because of my father?  How my father beat Jesse senseless and kidnapped me?  And, what about this," she patted her damaged leg, "did I make this up, too?  My father is responsible for all of that and much more," she glared at the marshal.  "Not to mention KC.  Tell me, marshal, did anyone even bother asking the people in Bannack what happened?  That we reported finding the Williams?  That Jesse and I buried them?  How we searched for any relatives of the baby's?  Well, marshal, did you?"

"You can ask them yourself during the trial," the marshal was uncomfortable with the accusations addressed his way.  Not to mention, that he was beginning to have some doubts as to the validity of the information he had been given.  "It's time to get moving."

Jesse sat quietly, her mind rehashing everything she had just heard.  Things were starting to make sense.

"Come on," Jesse kneed Dusty back into action. 

"Jesse," Jennifer reached out to stop the rancher.  "What are you saying?"

"The sooner we get to Bannack, the sooner we can prove I didn't do anything and I can get rid of these," she shook the handcuffs.  "And, then I can find your father and finish this once and for all," she shrugged off Jennifer's hand.  "Let's get going."

"I hope that wasn't a threat," the marshal said as his horse fell in step beside Dusty.

"Nope," Jesse said.  "That, marshal, was a statement of fact.  Something you seem to be lacking much of."

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

Frank Wilson rode directly to the stage station when he returned to town.  He had made a decision and wanted to carry through with it before anyone could change his mind.

"Need to send a telegram," the foreman told the station master when he entered the old adobe building.

"Write it up," the station master pointed to a small desk with a supply of paper, a pen and ink bottle.  "It'll go out on t'morrow's stage."

"Any way to get something out sooner?"

"Messenger, but don't know if anyone is 'vailable to carry it."

"I'll pay extra,"

"Hmm," the station master considered the offer.  "Seems I saw Pete ridin' up to the Oxbow a while back.  Lit me see if he's interested."  The man hurried out to find Pete, a trusted cowhand on one of the ranches who often carried messages between Sweetwater and the nearest telegraph office.

It wasn't long before the station master returned with the cowboy. 

Wilson handed Pete a sealed envelope and a five dollar bill, "I'll give you another when you return with an answer."

"Yes, sir," that was more than the cowpuncher made in a couple of months.

"It's important," Wilson told the excited man.  "Don't lose it.  And, don't let anyone read it before you give it to the telegraph operator.  Make sure you bring the answer directly to me.  Understand?"

"Yes, sir."  Hearing no further instructions, Pete ran out of the station, mounted his horse, and galloped out of town.

From the mayor's office, Tobias Harrington had watched the foreman enter the stage station and was watching when the cowboy charged out of town.  He wondered what Wilson was up to and decided to ask him.  He walked out of the office and crossed the street to meet the foreman as he came out of the stage station.

"Afternoon, Wilson," Tobias smiled pleasantly, yet his eyes were guarded.

"Afternoon," Frank Wilson wasn't surprised to see Harrington and was glad his message was already on it's way out of town.

"Heard you went up to the Songbird today."

"Yes," Wilson started walking to the new hotel's construction site.

"Any particular reason?" Harrington walked beside him.

"Just wanted to double check something."

"Pays to be cautious," Harrington didn't like the fact the man wasn't being too forthcoming.  "But, I do expect to be informed of these things," he prodded.

"Look Harrington," Wilson didn't know if Harrington was aware of the mine's status and was on a fishing expedition to find out what he knew.  Or, if Harrington was unaware and just being his normal officious self.  Either way, he didn't trust the overseer and was not about to share his recent discovery with him.  "I've got two buildings to put up and a road to construct.  I don't have time to play games with you.  I went up to the mine to check out some stuff.  That's my job.  If you don't like it, have me replaced.  Until then, leave me the hell alone." 

Wilson stomped off, the workman scurrying out of his way.

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

Ed was trying to find places in his storeroom for the latest shipment of supplies to arrive.  Scratching his head, he surveyed the cramped space.  There wasn't a spare inch to cram another item into.  "Ain't gonna happen," he told himself as he looked at the stack of items still to be put away.  He definitely needed to get his expansion project started now that he had received the lumber necessary to complete it.  But, in the meantime, "best figure out someplace else to put some of this," he mumbled, sorting through the various boxes and crates. 

An hour later, Ed entered the Silver Slipper in search of Bette Mae.

"Littl' early for supper, ain't it?" Bette Mae asked when the large man walked into the kitchen.

"Not here for that," Ed smiled.  He ate almost every meal at the Slipper and one could set their watch by his punctuality.  "Some of the supplies came in for Ruthie's dress shop and I'm running out of room for everything at the store.  I was hoping I could bring them over here."

"Don' see why not," Bette Mae agreed.  "Office ain't bein' used for anythin' right now."

"Thanks," Ed nodded.  "Those smell good."

Bette Mae had just pulled a batch of cookies out of the oven, they were cooling on a counter.

"Should," the innkeeper laughed, "I baked 'em.  Here," she handed a handful of the warm treats to Ed, "take these wit' ya.  I'll make some more for the supper guests.  Now, git."

"Thanks, again," Ed mumbled around a mouthful of cookies as Bette Mae shooed him out the door.

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

It had been several hours since Martin Kensington had been forced out of the Indian camp.  His feet, not used to walking long distances. were sore and blistered.  He was following the trail of hoof prints left by the group of riders that had left the camp that morning and still had some distance to go before reaching the small string of hills that split one valley from the next.  It hadn't been until he was some distance from the Indian camp that he realized he had no supplies with him.  No weapon.  No food.  No sleeping gear.  No water.  Luckily, he had crossed a few small creeks and had drunk from these. 

Now, as the end of the day neared, Kensington was getting hungry, cold, and scared.

For all his arrogance, Martin Kensington was only comfortable in the confines of a large, noisy city.  He didn't like this wide open, quiet country where one could travel all day and not encounter so much as another person.  But, now, he found himself alone.  Completely alone.  He could have yelled as loud as he wanted and there was probably no one for miles to hear him.

Kensington knew he needed to find a safe place to spend the night because it would be more than foolhardy for him to attempt to continue walking in the darkness.  He looked around and saw nowhere that looked promising.  He would have to sit in the open without a fire or weapon and hope nothing threatened him during the night.  His thoughts swept back to the day his daughter had been attacked by the cougar.  The cat's claws ripping a gash the length of her leg, exposing the bone usually buried deep within protective tissue and muscle.  He shook his head to clear the terrifying memory from his mind. 

Kensington definitely was not looking forward to the long, dark hours ahead.

Hidden by the tall grass atop a ridge a few hundred feet behind Kensington, two dark eyes kept watch on the easterner's movements.

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

Jesse heard Bannack long before the town came into sight, the sounds from the active mining camp floating on the still, early evening air.  Crossing Grasshopper Creek, they rode past the shantytown of Yankee Flats, a community of Union sympathizers that separated itself from the more southern leaning population of Bannack.  Even though it was almost dark, there were miners screening the gravel creek bed hoping to find an elusive gold nugget. 

The riders entered Bannack, passing the residences at the beginning of town and continuing on to the commercial buildings that lined the main street.  Most of the buildings were made from rough-hewn logs or wood planks with a few adobe and brick buildings scattered among them.  The group attracted attention from all they passed. 

Jesse was embarrassed to be led into town in handcuffs and leg shackles but she held her head high, refusing to show her true feelings.  Jennifer inched Blaze up beside Dusty so she could proudly ride into Bannack beside her wife.

Marshal Morgan pulled his horse to a stop as a couple of miners staggered out of one of the numerous saloons that dotted Bannack's main street.  "Where can I find the sheriff?" he asked the slightly inebriated miners.

"Ain't got one," one of the unsteady men answered.

"Where's the town's law, then," the marshal tried again.

"Ain't got one," another of the miners repeated.  "Are ya deef?" he looked quizzically at the marshal.

"You got a jail?"

"Yep." the men said together as they stumbled away down the wooden sidewalk.

Billie smirked when the drunks left without providing any more information.  Not wanting to be too helpful, Jesse and Jennifer sat patiently waiting for the marshal to make his next move. 

The marshal rubbed his chin.  "Come on," he said as he moved down the street to ask some other bystanders for the location of the jail.

"What's she done, marshal?" a young boy ran up to the riders.  "She kilt som'body?"

Jesse tensed at the boy's words.

"You live in town?" the marshal asked the lad.

"Yeah," the boy pointed down the street, "live down there with my pa.  Why?"

"Is there a lawman in town?"

"Nope."

"Who takes care of that kind of thing, then?"

"Judge at the courthouse," the boy pointed to a two story brick building about half way down the street.  The marshal began to ride to the courthouse.

Jesse and Jennifer didn't remember seeing the large brick structure before and concluded it must have been recently constructed.

"Ain't nobody there this late in the day," the boy said as he skipped alongside the horses.  "Judge'll be at the Goodrich having supper.  Want me ta sho' ya?"

The marshal nodded and the boy ran ahead to a two story wooden structure a few doors past the courthouse.  Jesse and Jennifer knew exactly where the Goodrich Hotel was located, having stayed there during their first visit to Bannack.

"Sheriff, can I trust you to hold the prisoner while I go in to talk with the judge?"

"I'm not going anywhere," Jesse answered for Billie.  "Just be quick about it.  I don't want Jennifer to have to stay on her horse any longer than necessary."

The marshal looked at Jesse.  With all the trouble she was in, her first thoughts were always for the woman she referred to as her wife and the child she was accused of kidnapping after killing her parents.  Maybe, the governor had accepted bad information. 

"I'll be as quick as I can.  Perhaps, Mrs. Branson," the marshal said to Jennifer as he dismounted, "it would be best if you went inside and obtained a room for yourself and child."

"I'll stay with Jesse until she's settled," Jennifer told the marshal.  She was still infuriated that the lawman was partially responsible for letting her father out of jail. 

"Momma, yum," KC whimpered from the carry sack.

"Darlin'," Jesse's arms ached to hold her baby, "why don't you go on and get a room.  You'll be needing someplace to stay."

"KC won't sleep in those noisy rooms," Jennifer said quietly.  "And, neither will I."

"Jennifer.  Jesse.  Is that you?" a familiar voice asked.  Both women looked to see Marianne Temple hurrying down the boardwalk.  "It's so good to see you," the woman happily greeted them.  Then, she spied Jesse's restraints, "what's wrong?" she asked, now concerned for the women.

"Jesse's been arrested, Marianne," Jennifer sadly told the Bannack schoolteacher.

"What on earth for?"

"For kidnapping KC and killing her parents," Jennifer choked out the awful words.

"You're kidding, right?" the woman stared in disbelief at her friend. 

"It's true, Marianne," Jesse said.  "Darlin', please go in and get a room," she asked Jennifer.

"Nonsense," Marianne shook her head.  "You'll stay with me."

Happy at the prospect of staying with the other schoolteacher instead of at the hotel, Jennifer instantly agreed, "thank you."

Marshal Morgan came out of the Goodrich Hotel accompanied by another man.

"These all your prisoners?" the other man asked, not expecting the large group of people waiting for the marshal.

"No, judge" the marshal retrieved his horse's reins.  "This one is the prisoner, Jesse Branson.  The rest are her kinfolk," he was too tired to take the time to explain Jesse and Jennifer's relationship at the moment.

"Alright," the judge told the sheriff.  "Let's get her locked up."

The marshal followed the judge, leading his horse and Dusty.  Jennifer and the others tagged along with Marianne bringing up the rear.

The judge led the group across the street and down the side of Chrisman's general store to the jail buildings sitting twenty feet behind the store.  The judge quickly covered the short distance between the back of Chrisman's store and the jails.  The marshal dismounted and stepped next to Dusty to remove the shackles around Jesse's ankles so she could climb down from the horse.  Billie slipped from his horse and helped Jennifer to the ground, keeping a steadying hold on her while she tested her leg.  Already off his horse, Thomas helped his mother down.

Several town folk had stopped their evening activities to watch the procession pass then fell into step behind it, rapidly filling the space between the store and the jails.  Someone asked Marianne what Jesse was charged with and she passed on the information she had been told just moments before.  Word spread quickly through town and what had been a small crowd soon grew into a large throng.  Some in the gathering assembly remembered Jesse and Jennifer from their previous stay in Bannack and their attempts to find KC's family.  Those jeered the marshal for arresting the woman on, what they believed to be, bogus charges.

Bannack had the use of two jails.  One was mainly used for prisoners who were too drunk to leave on the streets while the other, more sturdily constructed building, was used to detain prisoners accused of more serious crimes.  After lighting a lantern that was hanging on the side of the sturdier building, the judge unlocked the door and ushered the marshal and prisoner inside.  Before he could shut the door, Jennifer forced her way into the small room.

Wide eyed, Jesse and Jennifer looked around the dismal room.  The jail had been assembled by stacking large logs atop one another and separated into three parts.  Half of the building consisted of a room where a guard could sit to keep watch on the prisoners.  The other half consisted of two jail cells about six feet square.  These cells were separated from the rest of the room and each other by solid log walls and were entered through a small door.  A heavy ring was anchored into the logs that made up the cell's floor and prisoners were normally chained to the ring to prevent escapes through the building's sod roof.  Guards could observe their prisoners through a small opening in the cell door and, when not in use, the opening would be covered by a panel that was only accessible from outside the cell.  The cells had no windows and when the cell door was closed and the opening covered, a prisoner would be confined in the dank cell, engulfed in total darkness.

"I must say, marshal," the judge hung the lantern on a peg, the noise of the crowd dimming behind the jail's thick door.  He struck a match and lit another lantern, adding more light to the dark room.  "I'm a bit surprised at the charges against Miss Branson, myself."  He had heard the cries of disbelief coming from many in the crowd.  "I certainly hope you have evidence to back up your warrant."

"I have a list of witnesses who live in Bannack and are willing to testify against her," the marshal supplied.

"Really," the judge was astounded to hear that anyone in Bannack would be willing to swear in court someone besides Sheriff Plummer had been responsible for the murders of the young couple.  Especially, since the encompassing reign of terror had ended with the sheriff's death.  "I'll be interested in seeing that list, marshal.  I take it you'll be staying here with the prisoner?" he asked as he handed the man the keys to the cells' doors.  "We haven't found anyone to take the job of jailer or sheriff since the vigilantes hanged Plummer."

"Yes, I'll be staying with her," the marshal accepted the keys.

"And, the sheriff?" the judge wondered why the other lawman had been left outside.

"No, just me," he said as he unlocked one of the cells.  "Inside, Branson," he commanded.

"May we have a few moments together?" Jennifer asked softly, the thought of Jesse being incarcerated in the tiny cell was tearing at her heart.

"You can see her in the morning," the marshal said roughly.

"Don't see the harm in giving them some time," the judge told the marshal.  He remembered seeing the women walking around Bannack only months earlier.  They had introduced themselves as sisters but something about their behavior led him to believe there was much more to their relationship than sisterhood.

Reluctantly, the marshal allowed Jennifer and KC to join Jesse inside the cell.  A knock at the jail's door gained the attention of everyone inside the building.  The judge opened the door to see Billie standing outside holding a sack.

"They'll be needin' this for KC," the sheriff said as he handed the sack to the judge.  "Tell Jennifer we'll wait for her out here.  Sent the town folk away so's the marshal don' have to worry 'bout them."

"Thank you, sheriff," the judge took the sack as he looked over Billie's shoulder.  Sure enough, except for Marianne and those that had ridden into town with the prisoner and marshal, the area was clear.  He closed and secured the door before carrying the sack to the cell where the women stood.  "This is for you," he smiled as he handed it to Jennifer.  "Marshal, remove these shackles," he commanded.

"But," the marshal began to protest.

"I don't think Miss Branson has any plans to leave town without her family," he said as Jesse nodded in agreement.  "Remove these shackles and bring one of those lanterns in here.  We don't want the dark to scare the baby."

"Thank you," Jesse sighed.

"You're taking a big chance," the marshal mumbled as he knelt to unshackle Jesse's legs.

"I don't believe in treating prisoners like animals 'til they've been found guilty.  Until then, we can treat them like people.  Take off the handcuffs, too." 

When the marshal backed out of the small cell, he left the door open so he could watch the women. 

"Pull the door shut, marshal," the judge sat in the room's only chair.  "Give them some privacy."

The marshal pulled the cell door shut and leaned against the wall beside it.  "You're mighty trusting of your prisoners," he grumbled.

"Only the ones I question the reason for being brought before me.  Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to take a look at that list of witnesses you claim to have.

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

The town's citizens pressed closer to the jail, squeezing around Billie, Thomas, Mary, Marianne and the horses.  Many couldn't believe that Jesse had been arrested for a murder they were sure had been ordered by the town's previous sheriff.  Their vocal reactions triggered by the memory of the man's crimes still fresh in their minds.  Some in the crowd had been drinking when the news of Jesse's arrest brought them out of the numerous drinking establishments and those individuals, becoming more unruly as the moments ticked by, shouted offers to spend the night in jail with the pretty prisoner.

Since the marshal had remained inside the jail, Billie decided to take control of the growing threat.  "Okay, folks," he shouted to be heard above the shouts and catcalls, "there's nothing any of us can do tonight.  So, why don't you go back to your own business for now."

"Who are you to be tellin' us that?" a voice was heard above the others.

"I'm Sheriff Billie Monroe from Sweetwater.  Now, please, go home.  This will all be sorted out in court," he added when the crowd slowly began to disburse even as many continued to protest Jesse's arrest and jailing.

"Mother, I think we should go see about rooms at the hotel," Thomas said after most of the town folk had returned to whatever they had been doing before joining the throng around the jail. 

Mary was tired but she didn't want to leave until Jennifer reappeared, "you go on and take care of it, Thomas.  Come get me when you're ready.  I want to wait for Jennifer."

"Alright.  You need a room, sheriff?" Thomas asked, it would be just as easy to get three rooms as two.

"I will," Billie was untying a sack from Boy's back.  He carried it to the jail's door and knocked.  "They'll be needin' this for KC," he said handing the sack to the judge on the other side of the opened door.  "Tell Jennifer we'll wait for her out here.  Sent the others away so's the marshal don' have to worry 'bout them," he sarcastically told the judge.  Billie felt the marshal had failed in his duty to protect a prisoner by allowing the large crowd to form.

With the sack delivered and the crowd dispersed, Billie had two more things to do and he didn't want Mary waiting alone..

"Thomas, would you mind staying here for a bit longer?" Billie asked. 

"Why?  Where are you going?" the other man asked.

"I need to get the horses boarded and to send a telegram to Sweetwater.  They'll be wondering what's happening."

"Alright," Thomas had forgotten that the horses would need to be stabled while they were in Bannack.  "I'll wait."

"Thanks," Billie started to gather the horses.  He and Thomas removed the bags that would be needed for the night.  "I'll be back as soon as I can.  If Jennifer comes out before I get back, I'll meet you at the hotel."

"Right."

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

Not everyone had joined the gathering at the jailhouse.  In Skinner's Saloon that had once served as headquarters for Sheriff Plummer's gang of thugs, the bartender had remained to serve his only customer of the evening. 

At a table in the back corner of the rectangular building, a man sat nursing a bottle of whiskey.  He had watched the women riding into town earlier and had instantly recognized them.  His thoughts drifted back to a day not too long ago when he had been sharing a drink with a friend and another man at a table near the front of the bar.  They had watched as the very same two women rode out of town.  Moments later they had been joined by Sheriff Plummer.

"We going after them?" his friend asked the sheriff.

"Yes.  Give 'em a couple hours lead," Plummer threw a coin on the bar's surface and received a glass of whiskey in return.

"What are they carrying?" he asked.

"Nothing."

"Nothing.  Did why bother?" his friend questioned the sheriff.  Usually, they were sent out to rob travelers carry gold dust or other valuables.

"I don't trust 'em."

"So, what do you want us to do?" the other man looked at the sheriff.

"Kill 'em.  And, make sure you get the brat this time.  I don't want it showing up again and people askin' questions," Sheriff Plummer slammed his empty glass on the table and stormed out of the saloon. 

"I don't know boys," he said.  "Killin' babies ain't what I signed on for."

"You can't stomach this, I can take care of that right now," the other man said as he pulled a pistol from his holster and pointed it at him.

"Didn't say I won't do it," he scrambled to save his life.  "Just said I didn't like it."

"You can stay here ifn' you ain't willing to hold up your end.  We'll tell Plummer you chickened out," his friend offered.

"Hell, he'd shoot me 'fore I could leave town."

"You're choice.  Make it," the other man growled.

"Shit," he muttered as he scratched his week old beard.  "I'll go get the horses."

Now, the women were back in town and word was that one had been charged with a murder he had helped commit.  He reconsidered the wisdom of remaining in Bannack after Plummer's death, he knew it was only a matter of time before the vigilantes would connect him to Plummer's gang.  Maybe it was time to leave town for good.

The bartender took a dirty rag and started to wipe down the long bar that stretched along one entire side of the saloon.  As he wiped, he kept watch on the other man out of the corner of his eye.  The barkeep knew the vigilantes were convinced he had taken part in Plummer's illegal activities and were seeking a reason to put a noose around his own neck.  As he wiped, he tried to figure out the best way to pass on the information he had without ending up at a necktie party in his honor.  Maybe the woman's impending trial would give him the opportunity to slip out of that noose. 

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

"Mommy, yum," KC repeated her pitiful cry as the cell's door closed.  She was tired, hungry, and wet.  And, she wanted her mommy to hold her.

"Okay, sunshine," finally free of restraints, Jesse lifted the baby out of the carry sack.  "Here, darlin'," she told her exhausted wife, "sit down."  She wanted Jennifer to get off her impaired leg.

"Hold me," Jennifer whispered as she pressed her body against the rancher.  It was the first time the women had been alone all day and she ached for her wife's touch.

Jesse quickly complied.  It was tricky trying to hold the fussing baby and Jennifer.  Releasing her arms from the schoolteacher, Jesse sat on the dirty blankets that covered the cell's cot and pulled Jennifer down beside her.  The women huddled together for several minutes until KC asked again to be fed.  Jennifer lifted the sack onto the cot, opening it she pulled out some leftover biscuits and meat from a meal earlier in the day  KC hungrily grabbed at the small pieces Jennifer broke off for her.

"She needs changing," Jesse told Jennifer what she had known for some time.

"I know, but let her eat first," Jennifer leaned against Jesse.  "It's been a rough day on her."

"Been rough for all of us," Jesse sighed as she placed her head against Jennifer's.  "What about you?" Jesse asked.

"I'm okay.  But, when this is all over, you, dear wife, are giving me a rubdown that will last a month," she smiled but her weary heart wasn't behind the action.

"Oooh," Jesse grinned, trying to cheer the schoolteacher, "sounds like a mighty fine idea."  She reached out to wipe a crumb off the baby's cheek.

"Oh, sweetheart," Jennifer cried when she saw the damage the handcuffs had done to Jesse's wrists.  "We need to take care of that."  She pulled a clean diaper from the sack and tore it into thin strips.  Wetting one of the strips with water from the canteen Billie had thoughtfully placed in the sack, she cleaned Jesse's wounds as best she could.  "Maybe I should ask to have a doctor look at these," she said as she tenderly wrapped the makeshift bandages around the abrasions.

"Owie," recognizing the bandaging for what it was, KC bent forward and kissed Jesse's wrists.

"Don't think the marshal will go for that," in appreciation of the gesture, Jesse gently rubbed the baby's smooth cheek.

"Wasn't planning on asking him," Jennifer said.  "I'm sure the judge will agree."

"Guess it wouldn't hurt to ask," Jesse didn't want to tell Jennifer how much her wrists hurt.  Looking down, she noticed that KC was started to doze now that her stomach was full, "let me change her."  She pulled the dirty blankets back exposing the not much cleaner straw mattress below.  "Hand me a clean towel," she told Jennifer, "I need something to lay her on." 

Jennifer scooted to the end of the cot to give Jesse room to work on the baby.  She pulled a clean diaper and nightshirt out of the sack and handed them to her wife after the requested towel.  "I wish I could stay with you tonight," Jennifer murmured as she watched Jesse change KC's clothing.

"No you don't," Jesse countered.  The thought of spending the night in the damp, dirty, and dark cell wasn't very pleasing for the rancher.  And, there was no way she would allow Jennifer to experience it, even if the marshal would agree.  "I think you should take KC and go," Jesse lifted the clean and sleepy baby off the cot and cradled her in her arms.

"I want to stay until they make me go," Jennifer scooted back and snuggled against Jesse.

"I know, darlin'," the rancher draped an arm around Jennifer and pulled her close.  "But, Billie and your mother are waiting outside.  And, I'd feel better if I knew you were off that leg for the night."

"I love you, Jesse," Jennifer tilted her head invitingly.

Jesse accepted the invitation and kissed the schoolteacher.  Pulling Jennifer tighter against her, she deepened the kiss. 

Pounding on the cell door broke the women apart, KC jerked awake in Jesse's arms.

"Alright," the marshal pulled the cell door open, "you've had your time for tonight."

"I'll be back first thing in the morning," Jennifer assured Jesse as she was handed the baby, now cranky from being awakened.  "I love you."

"I love you, too."

The marshal pulled the door shut as soon as Jennifer cleared the wood frame.

"I want a doctor to take a look at Jesse's wrists," Jennifer told the marshal.

"I'll see what I can do," he said, but his tone indicated he really didn't care.

Hearing the marshal's less than wholehearted response, the judge told Jennifer, "I'll have a doctor check her out in the morning." 

"Will I be allowed to visit her during the day?" Jennifer wanted to get the grounds rules settled while the friendly judge was there to overrule the uncooperative marshal.

"No reason you shouldn't," the judge told her.  "Is there, marshal?"

"None you'd agree with," the marshal grumbled, opening the jail door in an attempt to get the woman to leave.

"Thank you." Jennifer smiled at the judge.  "Good night, marshal," she said as she walked past the man.

"Good night, Mrs. Branson," the marshal saw the schoolteacher outside then slammed the door shut and slid the bolt into place.

"Mrs. Branson?" the judge asked.

"Seems the two of them are married," the marshal informed the judge.

"Seems they are," the judge smiled to himself, glad to know that his earlier feelings about the women had been correct.  "Goodnight, marshal," he stood to leave the marshal alone with his prisoner.  "I'll expect you to cooperate in allowing Mrs. Branson and the child to visit the prisoner," he said as he unbolted the door and stepped outside.

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

Mary rushed to Jennifer's side as she limped out of the jail.  "How is she?" she asked about Jesse.

"As good as anyone would be who was locked up for for something they didn't do," Jennifer was too tired to keep the anger and frustration from her voice.  She just wanted to be able to take Jesse and KC and go home where they belonged.  A home, she suddenly realized, no longer existed.

"I'm sorry," Mary softly said to her understandable upset daughter.

"No, mother," Jennifer shook her head, "I'm sorry.  I shouldn't be taking this out on you."

"We're all tired," Mary kissed Jennifer's cheek.  "I think it best we all try to get some sleep and then see what we can do in the morning."

"You're probably right," Jennifer definitely needed to get off her leg and try to get a night's sleep.  She wasn't at all sure that was possible under the circumstances.  "Did you get rooms at the Goodrich Hotel?" Jennifer asked.  Adding when she didn't see the sheriff, "where's Billie?"

"Thomas is on his way there now," Mary explained, having sent her son to the hotel as soon as Jennifer came out of the jail.  "The sheriff has taken the horses to be stabled and then was going to send a telegram to Sweetwater."

"Thank goodness," Jennifer sighed.  "I completely forgot about Bette Mae.  She must be worried sick by now."

"I think we should get you and KC to bed," Marianne stepped forward and offered to take the child.

Jennifer thankfully passed the sleeping baby to the other schoolteacher.  "Mother," she said to answer her mother's questioning look, "this is my friend, Marianne Temple.  She is the schoolteacher here and she was very kind to Jesse and me when we last visited Bannack."

"It's a pleasure, Miss Temple," Mary said uncertainly.  She wasn't too sure she liked the idea of Jennifer staying somewhere besides the hotel where she could help take care of her daughter and KC.

"I'm pleased to meet you," Marianne said more enthusiastically.  "I'm sure we'll have plenty of time to get better acquainted in the coming days but, now, I really think Jennifer needs to get some sleep.  Jesse is going to be needing you tomorrow," she told her fellow schoolteacher.

"Mother," Thomas reappeared around the corner of Chrisman's store.  "I have rooms for us and the sheriff.  Are you alright?" he asked his sister.

"Yes," Jennifer nodded.  "Please take mother to the hotel."

"Okay," Thomas leaned down and picked up the travel bag that contained his clothes and his mother's saddle bag.  "What should we do tomorrow?"

"I can't think about that now," Jennifer yawned.  "We'll meet in the morning after I see Jesse and discuss things."

The four walked alongside Chrisman's store and said their goodbyes when they reached the sidewalk.

Thomas and Mary crossed the street to the Goodrich Hotel while Jennifer accompanied Marianne down the wooden sidewalk to the log cabin she called home at the other end of town.

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

"You sure that will reach Sweetwater tomorrow?" Billie asked the telegraph operator in the small office.  He had left the horses at a livery on the road that passed the cemetery on it's way out of town and walked to the telegraph office located in the front of the courthouse's main floor.

"Yes," the operator finished the transmission.  "I marked it urgent so they'll send it by messenger to Sweetwater."

"Fair enough," Billie wanted the telegram to reach town as quickly as possible, he didn't want Ruth to be worrying about him.  "How much do I owe you?"

"Let's see," the operator counted the words Billie had written.  "That'll be a dollar, sheriff.

Billie handed the man a few coins before heading outside.  He was ready to fall into bed and hoped there would be a room waiting for him when he got to the hotel.

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

Sitting on top of a hill above the north side of town, Walks on the Wind had watched as the riders approached Bannack.  He had tracked their progress as they rode into town, eventually, ending up in front of two small buildings behind the larger buildings lining the town's main street.  He observed Jesse as she was taken inside one of the buildings and he saw Jennifer when she came out of the building some time later.  He watched Jennifer and the other woman as they walked along the length of town and entered a small cabin.  He continued to watch the cabin until the lights inside went dark.  Only then did the man who had ridden hard most of the day to reach Bannack lay down in the grass and close his eyes.

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

For a long time after Jennifer left, Jesse sat in the cell staring at the emptiness, the lantern slowly burning down as its limited supply of fuel was consumed.  As she sat in the fading light, the room's walls seem to close in on her.  She wondered if she would survive the night in the depressing surroundings.  A vision of Jennifer formed before her eyes and Jesse had her answer.  There was too much of her life outside the room's log walls to give up now.  Closing her tired eyes, Jesse laid back on the cot, "sleep well my darlin'.  I love you."

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

 

Continued in Part 7

Return to the Academy