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 or any other character, real or fiction.  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

 

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ROLLING THUNDER
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted  August 2004

 

PART 7

Jennifer heard KC whimpering again in her sleep. 

The schoolteacher had been relieved not to have to stay in one of the town's hotels, where noise from the many saloons would have kept her and KC awake.  As it turned out, worrying about Jesse kept both of them awake most of the night anyway.  The baby had slept fitfully, crying out periodically for her mommy.  Jennifer had spent the night, tossing and turning as she worried about Jesse locked in the dismal jail cell. 

Since she obviously wasn't going to get any rest, Jennifer figured there was no point in remaining in the bed she was sharing with KC,  She rolled away from the baby to slip off the bed without disturbing her but KC woke with the movement and cried out for her.

"It's okay, sweetie," Jennifer rolled back over and pulled the baby close to her. 

"Mommy," KC whimpered.

"I know," Jennifer scooted back against the bed's head board, pulling KC into her lap as she did.  "I miss mommy, too.  But, we'll go see her after breakfast, okay?."

"Otay," KC leaned, despondently, against Jennifer's chest.  She didn't understand why her mommy wasn't staying with them.

Jennifer wrapped her arms around the baby and began to rock slowly.  She stared, unseeing, out the window as the darkness began to brighten. 

The sound of someone quietly moving about in the other half of the cabin drew Jennifer's attention.  She smiled to herself, Marianne must be up.  By the time, Jennifer and KC arrived the night before at the home of Bannack's schoolteacher, she had been too tired to do much more than fall into bed with her upset daughter.  Now she would welcome the chance to talk with her friend and properly thank her for taking them in. 

Having just one bed, Marianne had insisted Jennifer and KC sleep in it while she slept on the floor in the other part of the cabin.  Jennifer guessed that it must have been uncomfortable for the woman and that probably contributed to her being awake so early this morning.

Keeping a firm hold on KC, Jennifer swung her legs over the side of the bed.  Her cane was leaning against the wall next to the headboard and she grabbed it before attempting to stand.  He leg was tired and sore and she knew she would have to take it easy as much as she could during the coming day.  She hoped she'd be able rest the leg and do whatever needed to be done to get her wife out of jail.  Straightening her nightshirt, she took the few steps to the curtain and pulled it back a few inches to peek around it's edge.

"Ah, good morning," Marianne caught the curtain's movement in the corner of her eye.  "I was hoping you were sleeping but I figured you probably weren't."  During the night, she had heard the baby's cries and Jennifer's restlessness.

"No," Jennifer said as she slipped past the curtain to join her friend.  "I'm afraid neither of us slept much."

"Sit," Marianne pulled a chair away from a small table tucked into the corner of the cabin.  "I've just put some water on to heat.  We'll have coffee soon and I can whip up some eggs."

"Don't go to any bother, Marianne," Jennifer eased herself down onto the chair and stretched her leg out in front of her.  "We're supposed to meet the others at the hotel for breakfast."

"I suspect that will be some time from now," Marianne knew the sun had yet to rise over the surrounding hilltops.  "And, I doubt if you ate much yesterday," she said as she placed various food items on her woodstove in preparation of cooking.  "So, indulge me and let me cook for you."

"Momma, yum," KC answered for her mother.

In the growing morning light, Jennifer looked around the compact log cabin Marianne called home.  It measured twelve by twenty feet and had been built by notching the end of logs so they would sit on top of one another without the need of fasteners.  Mud chinking was stuffed into the spaces between logs to keep out the wind.  The cabin was dark inside and the small windows at each end did little to light the interior, which was why Marianne usually did her schoolwork on the front porch or at the schoolhouse.

A curtain had been hung down the middle of the cabin and separated the sleeping area from the cooking area.  At one end of the cabin, a wood stove served both heating and cooking duties, a cupboard hung on the wall near the stove held dishes and food staples.  A bed and dresser occupied the sleeping end of the cabin.  The table and chairs where Jennifer sat completed the room's furnishings.

"I've got some fresh milk, right here.  Bought it yesterday," Marianne lifted the lid off a wooden container and poured milk into a glass.  "I'm sorry, I don't have any bottles."

"That's okay," Jennifer smiled as she accepted the glass and held it for KC to drink, "Jesse taught her how to use a glass."

Hearing her missing mother's name, KC stopped drinking and looked, hopefully, around the room, "mommy."

"No, sweetie.  Mommy's not here."  Jennifer said, encouraging KC to finish the milk.

"Care to tell me what's going on?" Marianne asked, thinking there was no reason to beat around the bush. 

"Yeah," Jennifer nodded.  Everything had happened so fast over the last couple of days that she really hadn't had much of a chance to get it all straightened out in her own mind.  It would be good to talk about it.  "I don't really know where to start, so much has happened."

"Well," Marianne suggested as she cracked open several eggs and dropped them into a frying pan, "just start at the beginning.  We'll take it from there."

"Alright," Jennifer took a deep breath.  "I wrote you about what happened when Jesse and I returned to Sweetwater after our trip here," she began.

"About your father?"

"Yes."

"I thought he was banished from the territory."

"So did we," Jennifer sighed.  "He decided to return and finish what he had started with his first trip.  On his way here, he met a man that works for a company back east that is buying a mine near Sweetwater.  Somehow, and I'm still not sure how, he got Mr. Harrington to contact the territorial governor and rescind the 'arrest on sight' warrant issued should he ever return to Montana.  At the same time, my father convinced Mr. Harrington, who in turn convinced the governor, that Jesse had murdered the Williams and that she had kidnapped KC."

Marianne was standing by the stove looking at Jennifer, her mouth hanging open, "how in the hell?"

"My feelings exactly," Jennifer sniggered at the other schoolteacher's language.  "Could we?" she asked, holding the empty glass up.

"Of course," Marianne refilled the glass and handed it back.

Jennifer continued, "any way, I had received a letter from Andrew's father," seeing the questioning look on the other woman's face, she explained, "the young man my father arranged to be my fiancÚ."

"Oh, yes."

"Mr. Barrish warned me that father was planning to return to Montana.  Jesse and I decided not to wait around and give him a chance to cause us any problems.  We left the ranch, planning to meet a friend near the buffalo herds and wait for word from Sweetwater when it was safe to return," she wiped a few drops of milk off KC's chin with her finger.  "Feel better, sweetie?"

For an answer, KC snuggled against her.

"We no more than rode into Walk's camp when my father, Thomas, Billie and the marshal ride up."

"And, who?"

"I told you it was complicated.  My father.  Thomas, my oldest brother.  Billie Monroe, our friend and the sheriff in Sweetwater.  And, Marshal Morgan.  He was sent by the governor to free my father and arrest Jesse."

"Mommy," KC again looked around hopefully.

"Guess, I'm going to have to stop using her name," Jennifer said sadly as the baby, disappointed at, again, not finding Jesse, nestled back against her. 

Marianne placed two plates of scrambled eggs, ham, and biscuits on the table.  She returned to the stove to retrieve the coffee pot and two cups.  Then, added silverware and napkins.  And, finally a dish of jam before sitting down to join Jennifer.

KC perked up when she saw the plates of food place within her grasp.

"Hold on there, sweetie," Jennifer laughed.  "Let me feed you or we'll spend the day washing."

KC pouted but complied with her mother's request.

"So, who is this Walk person?"

"Walks on the Wind, he is an Indian and an old friend of Je...," Jennifer stopped herself.  "An old friend," she said as Marianne nodded to show she knew what was meant.  "He travels to the buffalo herds every summer to hunt for his people."

"And, your brother?"

"Yes," Jennifer alternated between feeding herself and feeding KC bites of food.  "I was shocked to see him accompanying my father.  As it turns out, he came along to try to keep my father from doing anything.  Unfortunately, he hasn't been very successful."

"You mean because of the governor?"

"That and," she paused and took a deep breath, "he burned down our house."

"What?!"

Jennifer could only nod, the pain of repeating the comment was too much.

"Oh, Jennifer," Marianne reached out and squeezed her friend's hand.  "I'm so sorry."

The women ate in silence for several minutes until Jennifer felt ready to continue her story.

"Does the marshal really believe she killed the Williams?" Marianne finally asked, careful to omit Jesse's name from her question.

"I don't know," Jennifer wiped the baby's face and hands with a napkin.  "I can't imagine why anyone would believe that.  Especially, after how hard we tried to find any family she might have.  But, he told the judge that he has a list of witnesses willing to testify against her."

"Hog wash," Marianne exclaimed, as she picked up the dirty dishes.

KC giggled at the funny phase.

"You think that's funny, don't you," Jennifer tickled the baby, glad to see her smiling.  "Marianne, I want to thank you for letting us stay here.  I know it's a hardship on you."

"Nonsense," the other schoolteacher replied.  "Having friends is never a hardship.  Now, why don't we get dressed and get to the business of getting you-know-who out of jail."

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

Martin Kensington woke with a start, something had brought him out of a deep sleep.  He quickly sat up when he heard the noise again.  A deep, ugly growl rumbled from somewhere in the grass not far from where he had spent the night.  As he listened, the growl changed to a series of high pitched yips, then stopped altogether.  After several minutes of silence, he decided whatever it was must be gone and he was again safe.  At least as safe as he could be in the middle of the frontier with nothing but the clothes on his back.

Kensington rubbed his eyes and stretched his sore back and legs.  He wasn't use to sleeping directly on the cold, hard ground.  Reaching for his shoes, he started to put them back on but stopped when he discovered his blistered feet had swelled overnight.

"Damn," he swore.  He could wait and let his feet heal enough to comfortably wear his shoes.  But, that would delay him getting to Bannack and his daughter.  Not to mention, he might miss the opportunity to see Jesse with a noose around her neck.  Kensington looked to the south and saw that he had another full day of walking just to reach the hills that needed to be crossed. 

"When I get my hands on that bitch," the fixated man mumbled as he crammed his bloated feet into the leather shoes, "she'll wish she had never crossed me."  Tentatively, he started on the day's forced march, his empty stomach grumbling.

Two dark eyes cautiously followed the man as he left the place he had rested during the night.  When the man had walked far enough downwind, he moved out from the cover of the tall grass to check on his recent kill.  The wolf had been stalking the man but he had stopped it before it could reach their common prey.

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

After waking, Walks on the Wind walked down from the hilltop.  He dropped into a small gully north of town, following it until it crossed the road that curved around Cemetery Hill and entered town through Hangman's Gulch, so named because it was where the vigilantes had served justice on the town's previous sheriff.  The streets were starting to fill with miners and businessmen on their way to work.  A few looked curiously at the Indian as he strode past the stonemason's shop and livery on his way.  But, considering the town was named after the local Indian tribe, most folks gave him little mind as they were used to seeing Indians in town  Walk hunkered down in the morning shadows at the corner of a building to wait.

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

"Any sign of her?" Mary asked Thomas again.  They had left their rooms on the second floor of the hotel several minutes earlier and were waiting in the lobby for Jennifer to arrive.  Thomas continually went outside to look for his sister before returning inside to report to his mother.

"No," Thomas said as he moved to stand by the window by the front door.  "But, Billie is coming back."

The lawman had gone to the livery to check on their horses and to retrieve more of their baggage.  As he rounded the corner from the road the livery was on to the main street, Billie saw a familiar figure across the street partially hidden in a narrow passageway between two buildings. 

"Sheriff, did you see Jennifer?" Mary asked as soon as Billie entered the lobby.

"No," Billie told Mary.  "Why don't you two go in and get breakfast.  I'll take this stuff up to our rooms and then go lookin' for her.  She's probably stopped by the jail before coming here."

"But, we were to have breakfast together," Thomas protested, not wanting to eat without his sister.

"Wouldn't surprise me to find out she's already eaten," the sheriff said as he started up the stairs to the rooms above.  "Go on.  No sense in you walkin' a hole in that fancy rug," he added as Thomas moved to the door again.

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

"You're going to have to bring her out of that cell, marshal," the doctor had been summoned to tend to the prisoner's wounds.  "I can't treat what I can't see."

"I'll have to handcuff her," the marshal told the physician, he wasn't at all happy to have the doctor in the jail.

"Come now, marshal," the doctor laughed.  "I was led to understand her wrists are where her injuries are located.  I can't do anything if you have her in handcuffs.  Now, bring her out in the sun where I can get a good look."

"Is there a problem?" the judge asked as he entered the jail.  He had come to make sure the doctor was being allowed to treat the prisoner.

"Marshal expects me to look at her in the cell," the doctor explained.  "Either have her brought out in the sun or I'll go back to my office.  I don't have time for this," he said, meaning the marshal's lack of cooperation.

"Marshal, bring the prisoner out," the judge was also becoming frustrated with the lawman.  "She's not going to try and escape, I have her word on that."

Jesse had been standing on the other side of the heavy wooden cell door since before dawn.  She knew the door would have to be opened at some point and she couldn't wait for that moment.  She felt as if she were drowning in the close quarters of the cell.  When she heard the key turn in the door's lock, she thought she would faint with relief.

"Back off, Branson," the marshal said as he spied Jesse standing so near the door. 

Jesse quickly backed up until she bumped into the log wall. 

"Doctor wants you outside to see to your wounds.  Don't do anything to make me shoot you," he said as he pushed the door fully open and motioned her to come forward.

Jesse nodded.  She followed the marshal's directions and walked to the outside door.  Stepping through the doorway, she was forced to lift her arm and shade her sensitive eyes against the harsh sunlight.

"Over here, please," the doctor asked of the prisoner.  In a patch of morning sunbeams, two chairs had been set facing one another.  The doctor sat in one chair and indicated Jesse was to sit in the other.  "Let's see what we have," he said as the rancher took a seat.  He took Jesse's hands into his own and slowly rotated her wrists so he could see what lay beneath the bandages Jennifer had applied the night before.  "Nasty business, handcuffs are," he said as he examined the torn and raw skin.  "You should file the inside of those things down before you put them on another prisoner," he told the marshal as he reached into his physician's bag for some ointment and fresh bandages.

The salve felt cool on her ripped skin and Jesse sighed as the doctor wrapped clean bandages around her wrists to protect them. 

"Mommy," KC cried when she spied her mother sitting in the sunlight.

Jesse tensed as she caught the motion of the marshal pulling a pistol free of his holster.  "Don't shoot," she screamed.

"Put that gun away, you fool," the judge ordered.  "Or, do you plan to shoot one of my witnesses?"

Marianne had led Jennifer up a back alley from her cabin to the jail buildings.  KC had been the first to spot Jesse and, happy to see the woman, had called out.  As soon as the schoolteacher heard Jesse's scream, she yanked Jennifer and the baby behind one of the privies that lined the alley.  It wasn't much of a shield if the marshal fired, but it was all they had.

Jennifer and Marianne huddled behind the privy, protecting KC as much as they could.

"It's alright, Mrs. Branson," the judge called to the women.  "The marshal has put his weapon away."

Jennifer peeked around the corner of the privy, seeing Jesse looking expectantly at her, she rushed to her wife's side. 

"Sweetheart, are you okay?" Jennifer asked as she ran to Jesse's side and was instantly engulfed by her arms.

"I'm fine, darlin'," Jesse thought she was going to cry, holding Jennifer felt so good.

"Mommy," KC called excitingly, reaching for the rancher..

"She'll be fine," the doctor told both women, seeing he was no longer needed.  "I'll come back later and change the bandages."

"Thank you, doctor," Jesse smiled, her arms still tightly wrapped around her family.

"My pleasure," the doctor smiled back.  "Now, marshal," he turned to the lawman, "I don't want to see those handcuffs anywhere near her wrists again."

"She's a prisoner," the marshal told him.

"It's my personal belief, marshal," the doctor closed his bag and prepared to return to his office, "that she won't be for long.  Damn fool charges you've made against her," he muttered as he walked away.

"Mrs. Branson," the judge approached the two women but addressed Jennifer.  "I'm happy to see you this morning."

Jesse released her hold on Jennifer and gently pushed her into the chair she had recently occupied.  KC demanded to be held by Jesse and her mother happily obliged.  She stood behind Jennifer, a hand tenderly resting on her wife's shoulder.  Unthinking, Jennifer reached up and placed her own hand atop Jesse's.

Though, he noticed the gesture, the judge made no mention of it as he sat in the other chair.

"Mrs. Branson," the judge told Jesse, "I have decided to release you to the custody of your wife."

"Now, just a minute," the marshal protested.  "You can't do that."

"Marshal, must I remind you that I am the judge in this town.  I can do whatever I wish to do."

"But, there have been charges brought against her."

"I am well aware of the circumstances you have caused," the judge glared at the marshal.  "I said I was releasing her to the custody of Mrs. Branson.  I did not say I had dropped the charges.  Now," he returned his attention to the two women.  He grinned when he noticed that KC had climbed high up on Jesse's chest and was wrapped tightly around the woman's face and neck.  Jesse was incapable of doing much about the situation since one hand was supporting the baby while the other was grasped by her unsuspecting wife.

"I'm sending out subpoenas this morning to everyone on the marshal's list of witnesses," the judge told the women.  "I've informed them that they are to be in my courtroom at one o'clock this afternoon.  I see no reason not to start your trial immediately, do you?" he asked Jesse.

"No, sir," she mumbled around KC's hand that was covering her mouth.

Hearing Jesse's muffled voice, Jennifer looked up and saw that their daughter had a straggle hold on her wife. 

"Oh, sweetheart," Jennifer started to laugh.  She was joined by the judge and Marianne who had been quietly watching the rancher's dilemma.

Jennifer released Jesse's hand allowing her to get control of KC and place her in a more comfortable position in the crook of her arm.

"Dang, she's getting strong," Jesse laughed with the others. 

Only the marshal found no humor in the incident and maintained a stern look at his prisoner.  Though, behind the unyielding mask, he wondered why a child that had supposedly been kidnapped and ill-treated by the tall woman would behave so affectionately towards her.

"As I was saying," the judge chuckled, "I see no reason not to start the proceedings today.  I am releasing you to your wife's custody should you wish to obtain witnesses of your own.  I expect to see all three of you in my courtroom at the appointed time," he looked directly into Jesse's eyes.

"We'll be there," Jesse nodded.

"Thank you," with tears in her eyes, Jennifer leaned forward and clasped the man's hands. 

"This jail was never meant to hold ladies."

"Will she have to stay there again tonight?" Jennifer asked, hopefully.

"Let me think on it," the judge said as he stood.  "I'll let you know at the end of court."

"Thank you, judge," Jesse added.  "Don't know how to repay you for this."

"Just promise to keep a hold of that young 'un of yours while court is in session," he laughed.  "I get the feeling that she is trouble in the making."

"That she can be," Jesse laughed, she lifted her arms up, swinging KC over her head to sit the baby on her shoulders.  KC reached around Jesse's head and covered both eyes.  "That she surely can be," Jesse repeated as she tried to regain her vision.

As the judge walked towards the small path alongside Chrismans' store, Billie appeared walking the opposite way. 

"Morning, judge," the lawman greeted the passing judge.

"Morning, sheriff," the judge still wondered the reason for the sheriff to be in town if the marshal was holding the prisoner.  He shook his head figuring that it would probably come out during the woman's trial.

"Jesse, Jennifer," Billie greeted his friends.  "Your momma is worried sick about you," he told Jennifer.

"Well, I had to stop and see Jesse," Jennifer had stood and was again wrapped in Jesse's arms. 

"That's what I told them," he looked quizzically at the freed prisoner.  "You ain't makin' a jail break, is ya?"

"Nope," Jesse grinned.

"The judge released Jesse to my custody," Jennifer proudly told their friend.  "We have to be in court this afternoon but until then, she's all mine."

"Oh, boy," the sheriff smirked.  "That sounds like it could be trouble."

"It surely does," Jesse laughed, yet in her heart she was hoping Jennifer would command her to bed.  After all she had been through the last few days, she didn't have the energy to make love to her wife but, she would relish the opportunity to just hold her for the next several hours.

"I suppose we should go let mother and Thomas know what's happening," Jennifer told Jesse.  "Then, maybe we could go back to Marianne's for a while."

"I'd like that," Jesse sighed as she pulled Jennifer close, glad her wife had read her mind.

"Don't leave Bannack," the marshal told the women as they started towards the back of Chrismans' store.

"We'll see you this afternoon, marshal," Jesse called back to the lawman.  "I don't plan to leave this town until my name is cleared and you have to go back and tell the governor that Kensington played him for a jackass."

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

"So, you're free?" Mary asked, hoping the nightmare was over.

"Not yet, mother," Jennifer explained.  "She's been released to my custody until the trial starts this afternoon."

Jesse, Jennifer, KC, Billie and Marianne had walked to the Goodrich Hotel and found Mary and Thomas just finishing their breakfasts.  Since, Jesse and Billie had yet to eat, they decided to stay and order their meals while Mary and Thomas were brought up to date with the morning's news.

"What's going to happen at the trial, Jennifer?" Thomas asked.

"I'm not sure," Jennifer looked to Billie for help.

"Hard to say," he said as he handed a piece of toast to KC, who had been trying to snag it off his plate.  "You said the judge sent out subpoenas for the marshal's supposed witnesses," he waited until Jesse and Jennifer nodded in agreement.  "Well, my guess would be that he plans to question them first and see if there's any reason to continue with a trial."

"You mean he might let Jesse go by the end of today?" Jennifer asked.

"He could," Billie lifted his empty coffee cup and asked the waitress to bring more.  "Or, if he hears something that makes him think Jesse is guilty, he could continue the trial longer.  But," he stopped when the waitress appeared with a fresh pot of coffee, "thank you," Billie told the young girl.  He was much more polite to waitresses since falling in love with one.

"But," Thomas prodded.

"Since we don't know who or how many are on that list of witnesses, we don't know how long it'll take to question them.  Could be the trial could stretch a couple of days just because of that."

"Hell, Billie," Jesse sputtered, "sorry, darlin'," she apologized.  "There can't be very many names on that list since no one could have possibly seen me do anything."

"This whole thing is made up, Jesse."  Jennifer offered, "they could have made up the witnesses, too."

"Hard to do that, Jennifer," Billie shook his head.  "They sent Jesse here for trial so there has to be people on that list that are known to live here.  They can't just make up some names and write them down.  Someone would have to show up to testify."

"Oh, I never thought of that," Jennifer agreed.  "But, still, it has to be a short list."

"I would think so," Billie concurred.

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

Walks on the Wind watched as a young boy ran out of the brick courthouse with a hand full of papers.  The boy worked his way down the length of one side of the street before reversing his course down the other side.  Occasionally, he would enter a store or office for a few moments before continuing on his task.  Walk saw that the stack of papers grew smaller with each stop the lad made, until disappearing altogether before the boy returned to the courthouse.

One of the stops on the boy's route was the dressmaker's shop next to where Walk waited.  A few moments after the boy left the shop, Walk heard angry voices raised inside the building.  An window was located about a third of the way down the shop's wall and Wind noticed that the window was open.  Quietly, he moved away from the street, down the narrow passage between the shop and the assay office next door.  He knelt beneath the opening to listen.

"I told you not to do this," a woman's voice cried.

"How did I know he would take it this far?" a man's voice huffed back.

"Because, he's crazy when it comes to his daughter and that woman.  Did you really think when you made up that story, he wouldn't use it against them?"

"We needed the money.  You sure weren't making enough sewing dresses."

"If you weren't out gambling every night, we could have done without it."

"Well, it's too late now,"

"I told you this would only lead to trouble but you just had to send that telegraph."

"Be quiet and let me think, I have to figure a way out of this."

"How?  The subpoena says the marshal will arrest you and take you to court if you don't show up.  How are you going to get out of that?"

"I'll think of something."

Walk remained where he was until the man had stomped out of the shop and down the boardwalk.  Then, he carefully made his way back to the street.  Settling back in his original spot, he returned to watching the activity in town.

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

As Jesse, Jennifer and Marianne walked to the schoolteacher's cabin, Jesse saw Walks on the Wind shadowing them on the other side of the street.  When they reached their destination, she left the door unlatched and waited.  A few moments after the women had entered the cabin, Walks on the Wind slipped through the door.

"Howdy, Walk," Jesse smiled at her friend.

"Jesse," Walk smiled back.  "You sure got yourself in one pile of horse......."

"Walk, don't say it," Jennifer warned as she came out of the sleeping area with KC after changing the baby.

"Sit, darlin'," Jesse took the baby and waited for her wife to get off her leg.  "This is our friend, Marianne Temple," Jesse introduced the schoolteacher. 

"And, this is Walks on the Wind," Jennifer added, "the friend I was telling you about this morning."

"It's a pleasure to meet you," Walk told the woman.

"Oh, my," Marianne gasped.  "You speak..."

"pretty good English for a injun," Walk grinned.  "Yes, I know."

"Well, please sit down," Marianne grinned back, embarrassed but glad the man didn't seem to hold her tactlessness against her.  "I can make coffee."

"No, thank you," Walk answered.  "I just wanted to pass something on to Jesse and Jennifer."  Walks on the Wind repeated the conversation he had overheard earlier.

"I should have known that bastard would be part of this," Jesse stewed.  "I swear when this is over my fist is goin' be sore from all the noses I plan to break." 

At the mention of the specific piece of anatomy, KC reached up and tweaked her mother's nose, "onk."  Jesse looked surprised then burst out laughing.

When Walk and Marianne looked to Jennifer for an explanation, she told them, "Jesse's been playing a game with her.  She squeezes KC's nose and honks like a goose.  She's been trying to get KC to do it, too.  Today's the first time she has."

"Onk," KC bopped the rancher's nose again, "onk."

"You pick the darnest times to say somethin'," Jesse stilled the baby's hands and kissed them. 

"Well, I better get back and see if I hear anything else," Walk told the laughing women.

"Thank you, Walk," Jesse solemnly told her friend.  "I'm glad you came."

The Indian nodded and then was gone.

"Should we tell someone about this?" Jennifer asked.

"No," Jesse looked thoughtfully at her wife.  "Let's wait and see if Thompson shows up in court.  If he does we can use it against him.  If he doesn't, we'll have Walk tell the judge what he heard.  Either way, Thompson will have a lot of explaining to do."

"Okay."

"Now, if you don't mind, Marianne," Jesse asked the schoolteacher.  "I'd like to lay down with my family.  I didn't get a wink of sleep last night and it doesn't look like you did either, darlin'.  I think we'll probably need some before this afternoon."

"You go right ahead," Marianne told the women.  "I have some schoolwork to look over.  I'll wake you in plenty of time to get something to eat and make it to court on time."

"Thanks," Jennifer said as Jesse helped her up.

Moments later, the Branson family was soundly, and happily, asleep in each other's arms.

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

Thomas and Mary were sitting in chairs on the boardwalk in front of the Goodrich Hotel.  They sat alone.  Jesse and Jennifer had left a few minutes before to return with Marianne to her cabin.  And, Billie had gone off to see if he could gain any insight on what names the marshal's list of witnesses might contain.

"Mother," Thomas looked down the street, his eyes following his sister's family as they walked.  "I'm sorry this has turned out like this.  I thought I could control father but," he paused.  "I guess it would have been better just to do what I had originally planned to."

"And, what was that, Thomas?" Mary asked.  She had spoken little to her son since his appearance with her husband.  Not sure of her son's feelings concerning Jennifer and her life in Montana, she'd decided to let her son talk before she said much.

"Alert the authorities here and let them deal with him.  As it turned out, that wouldn't have done much good."

"Your father is a determined man when he wants something," Mary said quietly.  She knew all too well how Martin Kensington would do anything to accomplish an objective.

"Yes, I see that now," Thomas sighed.  "We received your letter, Mother."

"Oh," Mary looked at her son, it was the first she knew her letter, describing Jennifer's new life and the feelings she had about her old one, had reached her sons.  "And, how did it make you feel."

"Sad.  We talked about it, Howard and William and I," Thomas named his brothers.  "We hadn't realized how Jennifer felt.  It wasn't intentional, leaving her out of things.  We were just busy..."

"With the company," Mary frowned, so much of their lives had been put aside for the success of her husband's company.

"Yes," Thomas agreed.  "But, that's going to change."

Mary remained silent, giving her son the time to fill in the details.

"When I return east, I will speak with Howard and William about removing father from the company.  I think it's time for that.  Many things are changing in the business world and father has refused to change with them.  And, now, with his behavior here, I question if he is mentally stable enough to continue in the capacity of company president."

"And, your brothers, how will they feel about that?" Mary was unaware of any of the company's dealings, her husband had not seen fit to include her in the business.  An incongruity Mary never accepted as it had been her dowry that had provided the funds for the company to grow into the dominant enterprise it had become.

"They'll agree.  William has been talking of leaving the business, working the ships is not how he wants to spend his life.  And, Howard has said that he may leave if father doesn't start making changes to keep us competitive with the other shipping companies.  You've seen how things move about here, mother.  You can't get to Montana by ship."

"No," Mary smiled, "you cannot.  And, you Thomas, will you stay with the company?"

"Yes," Thomas nodded.  "It's in my blood.  I'll stay but I want to build for the future, railroads and freight lines."

"And, your young woman?"  Mary had been surprised when, days before, Thomas had told her he was engaged.  She wanted to know more about her son's fiancÚ.

"She's beautiful, mother," Thomas said proudly.  "I met her just before you came to Montana, at one of the socials.  We danced the first dance together and I didn't let her out of my sight all night.  We sat and talked.  And laughed.  And, by the end of the night, I was in love.  I finally got the nerve to ask her to marry me and you could have blown me over when she agreed."

"Have you set a date?" Mary was happy for her son.

"No," Thomas took his mother's hand into his own, "I said we had to wait until you could be there.  I'm hoping you'll come back with me, mother.  Howard and William want you to come home, too."

"I don't know, Thomas," Mary was hesitate to return to her home in the east.  She knew she would never again tolerate her husband's treatment of her.  Or, of her children.

"Things will be different, mother," Thomas promised.  "I'm buying a house for when we are married and there is room in it for you."  He apprehensively looked at his mother, "if you'd like."

Mary felt the tears build in her eyes.  "Thank you, Thomas," she barely got the words out of her tight throat.  "Let me think about it."

"Of course, mother," Thomas pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to the tearful woman.

 ****************

"No," Marianne said again.

"Miss Temple, I want the child."  The preacher had knocked on the cabin's door insisting that KC be turned over to him.

"Reverend," the schoolteacher stood in front of the door to her cabin blocking all attempts the man made to enter the building, "you are not welcomed in my home.  Now, please leave.".

"That child needs to be protected," he tried again to push his way past the schoolteacher.

"That child, as you call her, is being protected.  She has two mothers that love her very much and would do anything to make sure she doesn't face any harm.  Including, from you."

"Get out of my way, woman," the preacher shouted.  "Those women have no right to that child.  Their union is an unholy one and the child must be taken from them."

"You lay one hand on my daughter," Jesse growled from behind Marianne, "and I'll break it into a thousand pieces."

"You have no right to the child," the preacher began his argument all over again with Jesse.  "You removed her from Bannack under false pretenses and you must return her."

"Who the hell do you think you are?" Jesse asked.  "You have no right coming here demanding KC.  She is our daughter."

"You are to stand trial for..."

"You, of all people, know those charges are false," Jesse interrupted.  "You know how we tried to locate any family of KC's.  You were the one to tell us she had none.  You do remember that, don't you?"

Jesse clearly remembered the conversation she and Jennifer had had with the reverend in the Goodrich Hotel's dining room. 

"Excuse me," the reverend approached their table.  "Are you the young women from Sweetwater with the baby."  Spotting KC asleep in Jesse's lap, he continued, "ah, I see that you are.

We're looking for her kin," Jesse told the reverend.

"Well, I'm sorry to say, Miss," he hesitated a moment.  "Branson, isn't it?"  When Jesse nodded, he continued, "Yes, Miss Branson.  I'm sorry to say that you won't be finding any of her kin.  I, myself, talked to the Williams when they passed through.  They had no kin, that's why they were traveling west.  Indians attacked their settlement in Wyoming and kilt most everyone.  They lost their entire families."

"What's wrong?" Jennifer stood beside Jesse, having been awakened by the loud voices.  "Reverend Tobias," she sneered when she recognized the man standing outside the door.  "What do you want?" she asked, remembering her last meeting with the man. 

Jesse and Jennifer were preparing to leave Bannack and had ridden to the reverend's church to tell him they were going to raise KC themselves.  The reverend was opening the large wooden doors to the building as the women rode up.

"Ah, morning, ladies," the reverend greeted them.  "Looks like you're leaving town," he said as he walked down the building's steps to stand on the boardwalk.  "Guess that means you'll be leaving the child with me.  I talked to a nice couple just yesterday that are looking for a daughter."

"Sorry, Reverend," Jesse cut the man off.  "We've decided to keep KC with us.  If any of her family makes inquiries, you can have them contact us in Sweetwater."

"Now, ladies," the reverend began to protest.  "You can't be thinking of raising her yourselves.  A child needs to be raised in a decent home with both a loving father and mother."

"Don't worry, Reverend," Jennifer readjusted the restless baby in her arms.  "KC will be raised with all the love she'll need."

"Miss Branson," the reverend sputtered.  "You can't be suggesting that you can raise a child without the firm hand of a father."

Jennifer began to answer the indignant man but Jesse spoke first, "we thank you for your offer, Reverend.  But, KC is going home with us.  Come on, Jennifer," she said as she turned Dusty back to the street.

"I must protest," the reverend called after them. 

Jennifer sadly shook her head at the angry man, "you can protest all you want.  But, KC is not going to grow up in a home where she is no better thought of than the family mule."  With that she turned Blaze to follow Dusty, leaving a still sputtering reverend on the boardwalk.

"He's come to take KC from us," Jesse glared at the man as she informed her wife of the man's intentions.  "No doubt he has a family in need of another farm hand," she said referring to the reverend's practice of placing orphaned or abandoned children with families needing cheap labor to work their land.

"How dare you talk to me like that," the reverend gasped.  "You have been accused of the ghastly crime of killing that poor child's parents."

Before Jesse could grab the man by the neck as Jennifer was sure she wanted to do, the schoolteacher stepped in front of her wife.  "Reverend, I have not been accused of any crime.  And, I can assure you that no matter what the court decides as to Jesse's innocence or guilt, KC will remain with me.  Do I make myself clear?" her eyes bore through the infuriating man.

"We'll just see about that," the preacher threatened as he backed off the porch.

"We most certainly will," Jennifer called after him.  "Now git.  Grrrrrrrrrrrr," Jennifer growled, loudly when the man didn't move away fast enough.

"Down tiger," Jesse smirked, placing a comforting hand on Jennifer's back.  The women watched the preacher make a hasty retreat across the street to the safety of his church. 

Marianne closed the door and latched it, "I'm sorry.  I had no idea it would be him or I wouldn't have opened the door."

"It's okay," Jesse said, surprising calm after the upsetting encounter.  "I kinda figured he would try something like this."

"You did?" Jennifer asked.

"You have to admit, darlin'," Jesse sat down and pulled Jennifer into her lap.  "He wasn't exactly happy when we kept KC in the first place.  It wouldn't really surprise me to find out he's one of the marshal's witnesses, either."

"Darn," Jennifer leaned against her wife, thinking.  "Say, sweetheart?"

"Umm."

"You think everyone named Tobias is a pain in the butt?"

Jesse laughed, not having made the connection before.  "Well, now darlin', that could explain Harrington, now couldn't it?"

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

Ed Grainger was pulling lumber off one of the several piles of supplies stacked behind the store.  He was starting his expansion project in the hopes that it would keep his mind off his missing friends.  He picked up his hammer and a fistful of nails and started pounded boards together, his hammer blows blending in with the ones coming from next door where the town's new bank was taking shape.  As he returned to the pile for more cut wood, Ed heard the distinctive sounds of the approaching stagecoach.  He dropped his hammer and rushed back through his store.

When Ed came out onto the boardwalk at the front of the store, he saw Thaddeus Newby was already hurrying across the street to the stage depot.  The newspaperman squirted in front of the stage's horses as they skidded to a stop at the station.  Ed waited impatiently for Thaddeus to return.

Moments later, Thaddeus stepped back around the stage waving an envelope in the air.  He motioned for Ed to follow him down the street to the Silver Slipper where Bette Mae and Ruthie were anxiously waiting in the shade of the building's wide covered porch.

"What's it say?" Bette Mae called out before the men even reached the Slipper.

Thaddeus tore open the envelope and began to read it as he climbed the steps to the porch.

"Marshal Morgan arrested Jesse at the Indian camp.  He took her to Bannack where she's to stand trial."

"Damn," Ed grunted.

"Darn fool," Bette Mae shook her head in disgust.  "Go git our things, Ruthie.  Seems we'll be goin' ta Bannack."  Ruthie turned and ran back inside the Slipper.

"When was it sent, Thaddeus?" Ed asked.

"Yesterday.  Billie had it sent special so it would get here today.  He doesn't say when the trial is supposed to begin."

"Then, we best git there as soon as possible," Bette Mae told the men.

"If we take the south route over the pass, like Jesse and Jennifer took last time," Ed was thinking out loud.  "And we ride all night, we could get there in three days."

"Git yor horse, Ed," Bette Mae told the big man.  "We'll meet ya at the store as soon as I round up Nancy."  Bette Mae had agreed to leave the red head in charge of Ed's store while they were gone.

"Are you coming, Thaddeus?" Ed asked the newspaperman when Bette Mae disappeared inside.

"Wish I could but too much is happening in Sweetwater right now.  I need to stay here."

"I'll send word when I know anything," Ed told the other man.  "I better go get my horse," he walked down the porch steps and hurried to the livery.  He knew Bette Mae was likely to leave without him if she thought he was taking too long to get ready.

Thaddeus watched the man go, disappointed he couldn't travel to Bannack to support his friends.  But, being owner of the newspaper, he had a job to do in Sweetwater.  And, speaking of that, Frank Wilson was making his way to the mayor's office and, by the look on the foreman's face, he wasn't happy.

"Time to get back to work," Thaddeus grinned.

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

Shortly before one o'clock, Jesse, carrying KC, and Jennifer entered the brick building that housed the judge's office and courtroom.  They had left Marianne's cabin in plenty of time to make a stop at the doctor's office so he could redress Jesse's wounds and still make it to court on time. 

Immediately inside the impressive building's door, Jesse and Jennifer turned right and faced the massive, hand carved, staircase that corkscrewed up to the second floor.

"Um, Jesse," Jennifer knew they was no way she could walk up the tall steps.

Jesse frowned at the obstacle.  "Guess there's only one way to do this, darlin'."

"Jesse Branson, I will not have you carrying me up those stairs," Jennifer protested as Jesse smiled at her.

"You don't want to be late to court?" Jesse asked. 

"No, but those steps are too steep for you..."

Jesse bent forward and kissed Jennifer to stop her objections.  "You hold KC," she handed the baby to her wife, "and, I'll take you," she scooped Jennifer up in her arms, "and, we'll get to court on time."

Jesse's long legs made short work of the staircase and before Jennifer could say any more, she was being placed gently down on the second floor landing. 

"Shall we?" Jesse took back the baby and offered her arm to Jennifer who laughed as she slipped her own arm around Jesse's.  The women walked, arm-in-arm, down the corridor to the courtroom. 

Marshal Morgan was leaning against the enclosed judge's bench at the front of the courtroom when Jesse and Jennifer entered.  He immediately walked towards them, his hand on the butt of his pistol.

"Is that really necessary, Marshal?" Jesse asked, nodding towards his weapon.  "I thought I made it clear that I wasn't going to anything."

"No matter what the judge says, Branson," the marshal glared at the woman he thought should have spent the day locked safely away in the jail.  "You're still my prisoner and I'll do whatever I feel necessary to make sure you stay that way."

A man came out of a door to the side of the judge's bench and scanned the courtroom.  Spotting Jesse and Jennifer, he scurried over to them.

"Mrs. Branson," he nodded to Jesse.  "Um, Mrs. Branson?" he looked at Jennifer, "I'm Judge Henry's clerk."

Jennifer smiled at the befuddled man, "why don't you call me Jennifer and her, Jesse?" she offered.  "It might be a little less confusing."  She realized that this was the first time she had heard the judge addressed by name.

"Oh," the clerk brightened, "thank you.  Jennifer," he acknowledged the change, "if you would sit here, with the defendant."  He took the women to a large table set slightly off center of the judge's bench and to it's left.  Two oversized chairs had been placed behind the table requiring their occupants to face the judge.

"Thank you," Jennifer told the clerk as she sat in one of the chairs, finding it to be quite comfortable.  She wondered if the judge had arranged that for them.

Jesse sat in the other chair and whispered something in the baby's ear.  KC settled in the rancher's lap and cuddled against her, her eyes looking around the strange room.  Jesse reached over and took hold of Jennifer's hand while Marshal Morgan took up his sentry at the side of the room, next to the defendant's table.

Billie came into the courtroom with Mary and Thomas.  They took seats in the first row of chairs directly behind the table where Jesse and Jennifer sat.  Marianne entered the courtroom and took a seat in the row of chairs next to Billie and the others.  The remaining chairs were occupied by residents of Bannack. 

Jesse and Jennifer looked around to see who the other people in the courtroom were, most they didn't recognize but a few they remembered from their first trip to town.  The young woman who had served them their meal at the Chinese restaurant,  The gravedigger and the boy from the stonemason's shop.  The desk clerk at the Goodrich Hotel and the waitress from the dining room.  The clerk from Chrismans' store.  The men from the livery where they boarded their horses.  As they made eye contact with the folks sitting behind them, many spoke words of encouragement or expressed outrage over the charges against Jesse. 

The women were surprised by the outpouring of support and nodded their thanks in return. 

Jesse's eyes hardened when the dressmaker entered the room and took a seat.  But before she could say anything the door to the judge's chamber opened and the clerk came out.  He looked around the courtroom then went back through the door marked "Judge Chambers" only to reappear a few moments later carrying some papers which he place on the judge's bench. 

"Must be the marshal's list of witnesses," Billie guessed.

"All rise," the clerk ordered.

Judge Henry entered the room and took a seat behind the elevated desk.  "Good afternoon," he addressed the courtroom, "please be seated."  The judge reviewed the papers before him, "Marshal, it appears that Mr. Marcus Thompson has failed to appear as ordered.  Would you kindly go find him and bring him to court."

"But, sir," the marshal was startled to be ordered away from his prisoner.

"Oh, yes," the judge smiled, humorlessly, "you prisoner must be guarded."

The marshal relaxed back against the wall.

"Sheriff Monroe," the judge looked at Billie.

"Yes, sir."

"Would you be willing to stand in the marshal's place and guard the prisoner in his absence?"

"It would be my pleasure," Billie grinned.

"Very well.  Marshal Morgan, please go find Mr. Thompson.  Since, he seems to be one of the most important witnesses you have listed, his absence could weigh heavily on the findings of this court."

The marshal stormed out of the courtroom as Billie took his place against the wall.

"Very well," the Judge Henry looked at the clerk.  Shall we get started?"

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

Martin Kensington was limping badly on feet that felt like they were being torn apart inside his shoes.  He had walked nonstop since waking that morning and, except for drinking from any water source he crossed, he'd had no nourishment to replenish the energy he was expending.  He was beginning to wonder i fhewouldmakeittoBannack.  Or, if he would fall prey to the Montana prairie, never to be seen or heard from again.  He couldn't understand why Thomas hadn't come back for him or sent someone else to rescue him. 

As he hobbled towards the range of hills that were his target for the day, Kensington began to list all the things he disliked about Montana.  There was the frontier, itself.  It's cloudless skies that seem to stretch forever between the horizons.  And, the hot sun that beat down on anything and everything beneath it.  The never ending open plains that he now found himself trying to walk across.  The lack of a sense of order by the frontier's occupants, who didn't seem to know their place in a traditional hierarchy.

But, the thing Martin Kensington disliked the most was that he had lost control of the very events he had put into motion.  Who knew what would happen if he wasn't in Bannack to monitor how the bitch's trial went.  Not to mention, that Harrington couldn't be trusted to uphold his part of their bargain if he wasn't there to assure it.  He rolled the various outcomes around in his mind, each a little more disastrous than the one before.  How had his well laid plans come to this?

No matter how he thought about it, Kensington found he could only lay the blame at the feet of one person.  The woman who had tried to take everything from him.  Jesse Branson. 

Driven with a renewed, single-minded purpose to pursue and achieve retribution from his adversary, Kensington, now more determined than ever to reach Bannack, quickened his stride southward.

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

"You can't change the plans, now," Frank Wilson slumped down in the chair in front of the mayor's desk.

"Mr. Wilson," Tobias Harrington leaned back in the chair on the other side of the desk, "you are paid to build what you are told to build.  Those changes came directly from the president of the company."

"But this means, tearing out the entire west wall and starting over," the foreman knew the overseer didn't care about the problems his new orders would cause.  "It's going to put us behind schedule.  Not to mention the extra cost."

"Mr. Wilson, are you telling me that you cannot complete this project on time?  And, on budget?" Harrington would love to have an excuse to be rid of the foreman.

The foreman contemplated if it wouldn't be better to tell Harrington that he couldn't meet the schedule and let Harrington fire him.  It would be better than putting up with the arrogant little man.  Then, he thought of the telegram he had sent the day before.  If what he thought was true, Harrington wouldn't be a problem for much longer.  He figured it wouldn't hurt to stick around so he could be there when Tobias Harrington was brought down.

"I'll finish it," Wilson said without really answering the question.  "By the way, Harrington," Wilson changed the subject, "I plan to start the construction of the road to the Songbird first thing next week.  You have any problem with that?"

"No," Harrington studied the man across from him, Wilson was up to something.  First, the foreman goes up to the Songbird without telling him.  Then, Wilson sends a message out of town by special deliver, a message that he is unable to attain the contents of even though he tried.  Now, Wilson hints that he might have a reason to slow the preparations for the mine's expanded operation.  "Any reason I should?"

"Just asking," the foreman shrugged.  "Well, if I'm going to have to tear down a wall, I better get to it."

Harrington watched the foreman leave.  He didn't know what the man was up to but, sooner or later, he'd find out.  And, then, Mr. Frank Wilson would be at his mercy.

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

"Jesse Branson, please stand," the Judge Henry commanded.  "The clerk will read the indictment."

Jennifer squeezed the hand she held before releasing it so Jesse could follow the judge's instructions.  Jesse started to hand KC to Jennifer.

"That won't be necessary," the judge told her.

"Jesse Marie Branson, a resident of, and business owner in, the town of Sweetwater, Montana Territory," the clerk started to read, his voice clear and strong, "is charged with having knowingly, and willingly, caused the following actions: 

The murder of Kenneth Williams;
the murder of Katherine Williams;
the kidnapping of one infant child, female;
the endangerment of said child's welfare;
taking possession of a horse without the knowledge or permission of said owner (2 counts);
taking possession of a cow, dairy, without the knowledge or permission of said owner;
setting a fire with the intention to destroy;
removing personal property without the knowledge or permission of said owner (2 counts);
disturbing the peace;
reckless disregard of the use of a firearm (2 counts);
theft (6 counts);
filing a false report with an officer of the law (3 counts);
knowingly and willingly providing false information to an officer of the law (12 counts);
failure to cooperate with an officer of the law in the investigation of a crime (23 counts)."

Expecting a short list of crimes, Jesse shook her head in disbelief as the clerk read.  Several in the court started to chuckle and soon the room was full of raucous laughter at the ridiculous charges.

"Ya forgot to charge her wit' stealin' the ground she buried them poor folks in," someone called out.

"Sure ya got the right piece of paper?" another person asked.

"Order," the judge rapped his gavel against the desk, "order.  Now, I'll be the first to admit," he said as the courtroom quieted, "that is a long list of wrongdoing for this defendant.  But, the charges have been brought and we need to treat them seriously.  Mrs. Branson, would you kindly tell this court how you plead?"

Jesse could not believe the absurdity of the situation but answered the question, "not guilty."

"Very well," the Judge Henry made a notation on the papers in front of him.  "Do you wish for a jury trial or will you allow me to stand in judgment?" he asked.

Jesse wanted to get the trial over as quickly as possible and, given that, the judge had shown both her and Jennifer such kindness since arriving in Bannack, she responded, "you'll do fine, judge."

"You may be seated," the judge made another notation.  "Call the first witness," he instructed the clerk.

Jesse settled back down into her chair, KC snuggled against her chest.  She could hear her mommy's heart beating hard inside her chest and she placed a small hand on top of the spot to try and help it calm. 

Jennifer scooted her chair closer to Jesse's and re-took hold of her wife's hand.  She leaned over and whispered, "I love you, Jesse Marie Branson.  And, when this is all over, I'll break my father's nose," she declared.

Jesse chuckled as the first witness was sworn in.

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

"Mr. Tevey, did you see the defendant when she came to Bannack several months ago?," Judge Henry was asking the witness.

"Yes, she and the other young lady came into the Goodrich," the hotel clerk answered.  He was an older man, well on his way to losing what was left of his hair.  He wore the same black vest over a smartly pressed white shirt that Jesse remembered from their first visit.

"Did she have a child with them?"

"Yes."

"Did she say how she came about having the child?"

"Said they had found the baby's parents on their way into town.  They had been murdered."

"What, if anything, else did she say?"

"They ask to rent a room, I only had one left, with one bed, and they said they could share, they being sisters and all." 

Jesse looked at Jennifer who shrugged as several in the courtroom tried unsuccessfully to restrain giggles.

"Then," the desk clerk continued not understanding the laughter his previous comment had caused, "she asked where they could board their horses.  I told them to go see Jasper, he'd take care of them."

"Anything else?"

"They asked where they could find the sheriff.  I told them to check at Chrismans' store."

"Is that all?"

"Well," the man thought for a moment.  "Sheriff Plummer did come looking for them one evening."

"What for?"

"He wouldn't say.  Just asked if they were in their room, when I said no, he asked for the key and went upstairs."

"I knew someone had been in our room," Jesse said under her breath as she heard mumblings behind her.

"Did you inform Mrs. Branson that the sheriff had taken the key to their room?"

"No, sir.  He told me not to."

"Step down.  Call the next witness."

"Jasper Peabody, please step forward."

A grizzled man with one leg slightly shorter than the other stood and moved forward to the witness chair.  Judge Henry wrote notes while the clerk swore the witness in.

"Mr. Peabody," the judge began, "did you see the defendant when she came to Bannack several months ago?"

"Yep, boarded two horses and a cow, dairy," he added, chuckling as he repeated the language used in Jesse's indictment.

"Did you notice the brands on the horses?"

"Sure did, I always pay 'tention to those.  Never know when som' horsethief will try to pass one over on ya."

"What was the brand?"

"Had a J with the cross bar looping round ta form a D.  JD."

"Mrs. Branson," the judge looked at Jesse, "what is the name of your ranch?"

"At the time, sir," Jesse said knowing she had renamed the ranch after marrying Jennifer.  "Jesse's Dream.  My brand is a JD."

"Thank you."

"Mr. Peabody, did the defendant tell you how she came to be in possession of the cow?"

"If ya meanin' how she found it?" he looked at the judge for clarification.

"Yes," the Judge Henry grinned, "that's what I mean."

"Said she found it when she found them folks dead.  Said, she figured they had it to feed the young 'un."

"Did she say anything else?"

"'Bout what?"

"Anything that would be relevant to this case?"

"Nope.  Paid to board the horses and cow, and left."

"Thank you, Jasper.  Step down.  The next witness, please."

"George Chrismans, please step forward."

"Mr. Chrismans," the judge began as the man sat after being sworn.  "Did you see the defendant when she came to Bannack several months ago?"

"Yes, she and the other one came into my store."

"And?"

"They asked where they could find Sheriff Plummer."

"Did she say why?"

"Said they had some trouble on the trail.  Wouldn't say anymore.  Just got uppity and said she'd rather discuss it with the sheriff.  So, I told 'em his office was out back." 

It was rumored that Chrismans store was more than just a building that the sheriff kept an office in.  Many in town believed Chrismans was not only aware of the sheriff's activities but also a part of them.  So, it came as no surprise to those in the courtroom that he would be a less than friendly witness for Jesse.

"Is that all?"

"Well, they bought som' baby bottles and linen while they was in the store."

"Linen?" Judge Henry looked to the women for an explanation.

"Diapers for KC," Jennifer supplied.

"I see," the judge again wrote in his notes.

"Step down, Mr. Chrismans."

"Wait, I saw them talking to Sheriff Plummer the day they left town," the storekeeper remained seated. 

"And?"

"Sheriff had told them to check in with him before they left town.  He caught them trying to leave without doing that."

"Mr. Chrismans, I am unaware of any law that requires people to check in with the sheriff before leaving Bannack.  Why would the sheriff tell anyone to do that?" the judge asked, although he knew the answer.  He wondered if the witness was willing to give an honest response.

"He wanted to let folks know what roads were safe to travel," the storekeeper realized he had talked himself into a corner as several in the courtroom scoffed at his answer.  "Plummer also wanted to tell them what he had found when he went out to the place them folks was killed."

"And, what did he find?" everyone in the room was interested in the answer to that.

"Didn't say," Chrismans groaned, he needed to keep his mouth shut.  He couldn't tell the judge that the sheriff had never gone out to where the Williams had been shot because he knew what he would find, having ordered their deaths.  "But, he asked them why they wasn't leavin' the brat with Reverend Tobias."

"Grrrrrrrrr," Jennifer growled at the preacher's mention.

"Why would the sheriff be interested in that?" the judge wanted to know. 

So did Jesse, now that she thought about it.  The reverend had approached them almost immediately after they had talked to Plummer.  And, Plummer had questioned if the preacher was agreeable to them keeping KC.  Jesse wondered what the connection, if any, there was between the two men.

"Mr. Chrismans?" Judge Henry asked when he received no answer from the witness.

"Don't rightly know," he said, truthfully. 

"Alright," the judge reviewed his notes, "besides Sheriff Plummer sticking his nose...,"

Jesse reached down and grabbed KC's hands before the baby could repeat her performance of earlier in the day but she wasn't fast enough to stop her from shouting "ook, ook."

"Do I even want to know?" the judge chuckled.

"No," Jennifer said as Jesse whispered in the baby's ear. 

Now that she had mastered it, KC thought the goose game was fun and wasn't happy when Jesse told her she couldn't play it right now.  Her lower lip pushed out in a pout and she, dejectedly, thumped down in Jesse's lap.

"I'll try again, if Miss KC will allow," the judge smirked, thinking the look on the baby's face was adorable.  "Anyway, except for Sheriff Plummer sticking his,"

Before he could say the word, Jesse shook her head warning against it.

"Except for Sheriff Plummer," the judge tried again, "looking into business that he had no reason to, is there anything else you can offer on the case before this court?"

"No."

"Step down."

Jesse was starting to fidget more than KC.  For the past two hours, they had sat and listened as one after another witness was sworn in to testify that, several months before, they had seen Jesse come to Bannack.  Some said they had seen her with a baby.  Others that they had seen her leading the dairy cow.  All had testified that she had sought out Sheriff Plummer to report what she and Jennifer had found on their way to Bannack.

After excusing Mr. Chrismans, the judge pulled out his pocket watch and opened it.  "It appears the marshal is having trouble locating his star witness," the judge observed as he deliberately wound the watch..  "It also appears that, so far, most of the witnesses the marshal has provided have nothing to offer this court concerning the charges brought against Mrs. Branson.  I could call one more witness before calling it a day."  He looked at the baby squirming in Jesse's lap.  "Think she'll sit for one more?" the judge asked.

"Probably, better than I will," Jesse candidly answered. 

"So, I've noticed," the judge grinned at the restless woman.  He banged his gavel a couple of times to quiet the snickers in the room. 

The door to the courtroom opened and Marshal Morgan entered pushing another man before him.

"Ah, I see our elusive Mr. Thompson has been found," the judge announced.  "Might I ask where?"

"Skinner's saloon," the marshal said as he pushed the missing witness to the front of the court.  "He isn't in any shape to testify at the moment."

Marcus Thompson swayed on unsteady legs.  He had gone to Skinner's to talk with the bartender and come up with a way out of his dilemma.  Unfortunately, the only thing he had accomplished was downing half a bottle of whiskey.

Seeing the condition of the witness, the judge told the courtroom, "due to the late hour, I will recess until tomorrow morning.  Perhaps, Mr. Thompson will be able to throw some light on the charges against Mrs. Branson, at that time.  Marshal, you will see that Mr. Thompson is kept in custody overnight.  Court will continue at ten o'clock," the judge rapped his gavel once and stood up.  "Oh, and since you will have a male occupant in the jail, I will allow the defendant to remain in her wife's custody until court tomorrow.  Good night, everyone."

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

"Did he say what he was looking for?" Tobias Harrington asked the guard stationed at the Songbird mine.  After his earlier conversation with Frank Wilson, Harrington had decided to visit the mine and try to find out what his foreman had been doing there.

"No," the guard scratched his head.  "Just said he wanted to check on some things."

"He didn't say anything else?  Or, act funny?  Or, anything?"

"Well, now that you mention it," the guard rubbed his chin, "he didn't want me going inside with him.  Not that I minded, can't stand close places like that.  But, usually, anyone comes here, wants me to hold the lantern or carry the equipment for them.  Not Mr. Wilson, he just wanted to be left alone."

"Hmmm," Harrington had been in the mine and had seen nothing unusual.  The vein of rich ore still marked the rear wall of the tunnel, though it looked like something had scrapped it recently.  But, he could see nothing amiss.  Maybe, he had read Wilson wrong.  "Okay," Harrington walked away from the guard.

"Good night, Mr. Harrington."

"Right."

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

It had been a long afternoon and having to sit for so long had not helped.  But, right now, Jennifer was in heaven.  "Ahhhhhhh," the schoolteacher moaned as Jesse's strong hands soothingly manipulated the kinks out of her tired muscles.

Jennifer was naked and laying face down on the bed in Marianne's cabin.  After returning to the cabin after court, Jesse had insisted her wife take a hot bath and receive a massage.  Jennifer had not objected to either demand.  Her only regret was that, due to propriety, Jesse could not share the bath with her.

Jesse knelt at the end of the bed, her legs spread to straddle Jennifer as she carefully worked her hands up and down her wife's legs.  KC was sitting in the small of her momma's back kneading Jennifer's back with her little hands.

"Ohhhhhhhhhhh," Jennifer moaned, again.  "That feels soooooooooo gooooooooooddddddddd."

Jesse gritted her teeth.  Sitting over her lover's naked body and listening to her moans was causing the rancher's libido to do flip-flops.  It was all she could do to keep herself from tearing off her own clothes and making love to her beautiful wife.  It didn't help that they hadn't been intimate for several days.

"Darlin'," Jesse leaned down and whispered so Marianne wouldn't hear on the other side of the curtain.  "You better stop that moaning or Marianne is going to be hearing a lot more than that."

Unsure what Jesse meant, Jennifer took a moment to think about it.  "Oh," she finally grasped the meaning.  "I'm sorry, sweetheart."

"Yeah," Jesse groaned, "so am I."

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

 

Continued in Part 8

 

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