See Part I for disclaimers.
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted April 2003
"What do you think, Dusty?" Jesse patted the mare's neck as she drank from the creek. "Looks like three, maybe four riders," Jesse stated as her eyes followed the hoof prints until they disappeared into the creek several yards from where she stood. Dusty raised her head, water dripping from her muzzle, and twisted her head to look at her mistress. The mare cocked her head as if to ask what her mistress was waiting for.
"Yeah, " Jesse mumbled as she swung herself back up into the saddle. "Let's see if we can figure out who made them."
Jesse had been out checking on her small herd when she first spotted the tracks. Since, she worked her ranch alone, it was unusual to find the tracks of other riders on her land. It was possible that it was just some cowboys cutting across her land to one of the neighboring ranches but it didn't hurt to check them out.
Jesse urged her golden mare, Dusty, forward at a slow walk. She hung her head down low next to Dusty's shoulder as she tried to locate the tracks further upstream. After riding up the small creek bed for almost a mile, Jesse spotted the tracks as they left the creek and climbed back up the muddy bank. She followed the tracks away from the creek and back into the ponderosa pine forest that bordered this part of her land. She wondered what riders would be doing this far on her land. 'Strange,' she thought 'there are no other ranches this side of the valley.'
Jesse continued to follow the tracks until she lost them where the riders had crossed a rocky stretch of ground between the forest and the valley. The riders could have traveled in several different directions from that point and with nightfall not too far away, Jesse turned back to her ranch house.
"I'll have to ask around town. Maybe, someone saw three riders heading this way," Jesse said to Dusty as they turned back. Dusty raised her head and neighed in agreement.
After spending most of the day walking, Dusty was ready to stretch her legs and Jesse encouraged her to do so. If anyone had come across them that evening, they would have seen the mare running like the wind, her golden tail and Jesse's hair flying behind as they raced the growing darkness home
"Rustlers." Conrad Billingsley slammed his fist down on the bar rattling several glasses and knocking some over.
"Can't be," Sheriff Monroe answered. "The valley is too small for rustlers to go unnoticed."
"I'm telling you I lost a dozen head this past week and some of the other ranchers said that they're missing cattle, too. So," Billingsley jabbed a finger into the Sheriff's chest. "You better get off your lazy butt and go find out what's happening,"
Conrad Billingsley stood half a foot shorter than the sheriff but was not afraid to stand his ground. He had seen more action than he cared to remember during the conflict between the north and south and had headed west as soon as his discharge papers were signed. He had staked his claim in the valley soon after the stage line was pushed through. Being the first rancher in the valley, he felt gave him more influence than the others who had followed him. And, he was not shy in trying to force his way whenever he believed it necessary.
"Now, hold on," the Sheriff protested.
William 'Billie' Monroe had served as Sweetwater's sheriff for the past three years. After Mayor Perkins had appointed him to the position, he had dealt with countless bar fights, numerous cowhands needing a place to sleep off a night's drunk, and the occasional busted gambler looking for trouble. But, not much in the way of serious crimes. Sweetwater was just too small to attract much attention from the seedier side of life. Especially, since Jesse had cleaned up the Silver Slipper. The Oxbow was now the only place for card sharks and that usually didn't provide enough action to make it worth their time.
But, no matter what the threat, Sheriff Monroe had done his duty and he wasn't about to let Conrad Billingsley talk to him like he was the town's lackey. And, he didn't care if Billingsley owned the biggest ranch in the valley.
"I'll do my job, Conrad. But, rustlers in this valley don't make sense. Hell, you know there's only a couple of passes in or out of this valley. How could they get the cattle out without being caught?"
"That's your problem," Billingsley again slammed his fist down on the bar, rattling more glasses.
"Before you destroy all of my glassware," Jesse had entered the saloon side of the Silver Slipper having been attracted by the loud voices she heard all the way across the dining area and into her office. "Maybe I can shed some light on this. What say we sit down and give the bar a rest?" Jesse sat at a table and indicated for the men to join her.
"What have you got, Jesse?" Billingsley asked as he lowered his stocky body into a chair.
"Found some tracks on my land yesterday," Jesse motioned to Sally, a tall redhead that tended bar in the Slipper, to bring a bottle and glasses to the table. "They were three, maybe four riders by the looks of 'em. Picked 'em up at the far end of the meadows and trailed them southeast until I lost them in the granite field. It was gettin' too dark to track 'em any further."
Sally approached and placed three glasses and a bottle of whiskey on the table before returning to the bar and cleaning up the broken glasses.
"That's pretty deep onto your land, Jesse," Billingsley pulled the cork from the bottle and poured the brown liquid into the glasses.
"Any idea who it was?" Sheriff Monroe asked as he lifted a glass to his lips, emptying its contents in one swallow.
"Nope," Jesse left her glass on the table, she had never really acquired a taste for liquor preferring a glass of milk to whiskey any day. Sally read her boss's thoughts and disappeared into the kitchen coming out moments later with a tall glass of cold milk that she placed on the table in front of Jesse.
"Thanks," Jesse told Sally before she retreated back behind the bar. "No one's been near my place for some time. Can't say why anyone would be passing that way." Jesse took a long gulp of milk and wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve.
"Don't know how you drink that stuff, Jesse," Sheriff Monroe grimaced as Jesse emptied the glass with a second long swallow.
"It's good for ya, Billie. You aught to give it a try sometime," Jesse grinned as the Sheriff shuddered at her suggestion.
"So, what do we do?" Billingsley attempted to draw the conversation back on track, he wasn't amused at the playful bantering when he had cattle missing.
"I'll go out and see if I can pick up those tracks," Sheriff Monroe said.
"You'll be wasting your time," Billingsley poured himself another shot of whiskey. "You can't track worth beans."
"I'm not going to sit here and listen to you insult me, Conrad," the Sheriff shouted as he pushed back his chair and starting to rise.
"Sit down, Billie," Billingsley voice was also getting louder. "You gettin' your feathers in a twist won't solve this problem."
"Both of you back down," Jesse quietly said. She glared at the Sheriff until he resumed his seat. "Conrad is right, Billie. It would be a waste of time to try to pick up those tracks,"
"Now, just a minute Jesse," the Sheriff started to rise again, "I can track just as good as most can."
Jesse held up a hand to calm the Sheriff, "that's not what I'm saying Billie. I know you can track. But, those tracks were already old. If those riders were just passing through, they're long gone. If they were up to no good, they could be holed up in any number of places. You know the south end of the valley hasn't been explored much. Hell, if one had a mind to, they could hide out in those hills and canyons for months before anyone took notice."
"Yeah, you're right," the Sheriff agreed. "So, what do we do?"
"How many ranches have reported cattle missing?" Jesse asked.
"Well, there's mine," Conrad started to tick off his fingers. "Kelly, McPhillips, and Butler, that I know of."
"Guess talking to them would be a good starting point," Billie concluded and the others nodded. "I'll head out now. It'll probably take a day or two to cover all the ranches."
"In the meantime, I'll have my riders keep a lookout for any strangers in the valley."
"Might be a good idea to have Ed keep an eye out as well."
"Good idea, Jesse," the Sheriff said. "I'll have a talk with him before I leave."
"Guess that about does it," Conrad put the cork back into the whiskey bottle. "How much I owe for the broken glass, Jesse?"
"How many, Sally?" Jesse called to the barkeep.
"Only two broke, boss."
"Looks like you got lucky this time," Jesse slapped Conrad on the arm. "Not enough to worry about. Just take it easy on the Slipper next time."
"You've got yourself a deal," Conrad laughed. "Watch yourself out at your place, Jesse. You've got no one watching your back."
"I'll be careful." Jesse carried the bottle and dirty glasses over to the bar as the sheriff and rancher left. After talking to Sally a few moments, she turned to return to her office. It was only then that she realized another person was in the saloon. Jennifer sat quietly at a table near the door.
Jennifer had heard the loud voices when she came into the Slipper after completing her teaching duties for the day. Although, she couldn't make out all that was being said, she had heard the word "rustlers" and knowing what that meant in cattle country she had grabbed a pencil and pad from the bag she used to carry lessons to and from the schoolhouse. She left her bag on the floor next to the door that separated the dining area from the saloon and quietly pushed the door open. Slipping inside, Jennifer had taken a seat at the closest table and listened to the conversation between Jesse and the two men, taking notes as they talked. Now she found herself under the scrutiny of Jesse as she made her way across the now empty room.
"Miss Jennifer," Jesse acknowledged the schoolteacher. "Something I can do for you?"
Jennifer was now unsure of the justification for her eavesdropping. When she had entered the room, she told herself that as a 'reporter' for the Gazette, it was her duty to find out if there was a story that needed reporting. Now, she wasn't so sure.
"I.. well, I.." Jennifer stuttered. Jennifer normally had no difficulty coming up with something to say but with those gorgeous eyes staring at her, she found herself tongue-tied.
"Yes, Miss Jennifer," Jesse stood towering over Jennifer and waiting for a coherent response.
"Well, I'm working afternoons at the Gazette and I heard the talk of rustlers, so I thought...,"
"That, there might be a story here," Jesse finished for her.
"Yes. I know I shouldn't have been eavesdropping but," Jennifer began.
"It's a public place. Guess if we had wanted a private conversation, we could have gone into my office. I don't think you would have followed us in there," Jesse raised an eyebrow as she glared down at the young woman.
Jennifer was sure that she had angered the tall woman until she looked up and saw the barest of grins on Jesse's face.
"No," Jennifer smiled. "I would not have followed into your private office."
"Good. I would have hated to boot your pretty little butt out of there," Jesse chuckled, then blushed as she realized what she had just said.
Jennifer wondered why Jesse referred to that part of her anatomy. And, why in that manner. But, whatever the reason, Jennifer liked it.
"May I ask you a question?" Jennifer asked.
"Go ahead," Jesse was looking at her boots, hoping she wouldn't say anything else to embarrass herself in front of the schoolteacher. 'Why do I react to her this way', Jesse was thinking and missed hearing Jennifer's question.
"Miss Jesse, are you okay?" Jennifer asked when Jesse didn't answer.
"I'm sorry," Jesse mumbled, "what did you ask?" 'Get some control, girl' Jesse chastised herself as she concentrated on listening to Jennifer.
"I asked if you thought there was a rustler problem in the valley," Jennifer repeated her question.
"Can't say," Jesse answered. "Some of the ranchers say that they're missing cattle. The sheriff is looking into it. Guess maybe you should ask him."
"Have you lost any cattle, Miss Jesse," Jennifer asked.
"Thank you," Jennifer made a few notes on her pad. "Guess I should let you get back to your business and I should get over to the Gazette before Thaddeus thinks I'm not working today."
"School teaching doesn't keep you busy enough, Miss Jennifer?"
"My afternoons were left open. Thaddeus needed help at the Gazette and was kind enough to offer me a position," Jennifer informed Jesse, not wanting to tell her the real reason she had needed a second job.
"I see," Jesse said.
"Well, I best be going," Jennifer gathered her things and headed back into the dining area.
Jesse watched her go thinking that Thaddeus was one lucky man to be able to spend every afternoon with the pretty schoolteacher.
"Are you sure about this?" a tall, lanky boy, barely old enough to shave, asked as he leaned closer to the fire. He could hear the cattle settling for the night in the small forest clearing that he and his companions had chosen for their camp. The sun had given way to a full moon and, as was common in the Rockies, the heated air of the day had turned cold. He rapidly rubbed his hands up and down his arms in an attempt to warm them but gave it up after a few moments when it didn't seem to help. He turned his attention to the older man across the fire from him.
Johnson glared at the boy and pulled his coat tighter around his body. He had planned his revenge for months and now that it was within his grasp, this kid was getting cold feet. Johnson reached into the pile of firewood they had gathered earlier and threw a couple of the larger pieces onto the already blazing fire. "You havin' second thoughts, Jimmie?"
"No," the boy answered. "Just askin' if you're sure. Seems like we're puttin' ourselves in a tight spot ifin' we have to get out of this valley in a hurry." Rustling cattle didn't bother Jimmie but escaping without a rope necktie did. And, being camped in the valley with a couple dozen stolen cattle just didn't seem like the best of ideas.
"I know what I'm doing, Johnson assured the boy. "So, quit worryin'. Besides, by the time anyone figures out what's goin' on, we'll be in the Slipper celebrating. Now, get some sleep. Your watch starts in a couple of hours and I don't want you falling asleep again."
"Alright," Jimmie lay down on his bedroll that was unrolled close to the fire. For several minutes, he quietly watched Johnson and wondered about his present predicament. A month earlier, Johnson had approached Jimmie and his older brother, offering them a generous payoff if they would help with his plan to get the Silver Slipper back. Jimmie hadn't liked Johnson from the start and wasn't at all sure that Johnson could deliver on his promises. But, his brother had gotten into some trouble in Denver and it had been decided that helping Johnson was better than spending time in jail. Now, Jimmie wasn't so sure they had made the right decision. Deciding that he couldn't do anything about it until later when he could talk to his brother, Jimmie pulled his bedroll tight around him and promptly went to sleep.
Johnson tossed another piece of firewood onto the fire. "How can it be so damn hot during the day and so damn cold at night," he grumbled to no one in particular. As he stared into the flames, he again recalled the poker game that had cost him the Slipper. Each time he replayed the events, he became more convinced that somehow the tall woman had cheated. 'Ain't no way that bitch won fair,' he told himself. Standing to stretch out his cramped legs, Johnson walked to where their horses were picketed. After making sure the rope was secure, he grabbed his own bedroll. He pulled the blanket tight around his shoulders as he settled on a large boulder that provided him a good view of the clearing and the cattle, Thoughts of revenge would keep him occupied for the hours of his watch.
Jesse sat in front of the fire that warmed her ranch house. She had purchased the abandoned spread from the bank after the Silver Slipper started to make more money than she needed to run it. The ranch's original owner had had a gambling habit and disappeared from the valley one night never to be heard from again. Since Jesse was a girl, it had been her dream to own her own place. She had always assumed that would be the family ranch until her father had sold it. After that, she didn't think she would ever be able to realize her dream. But, the Slipper had changed that.
Allowing Bette Mae to help manage the operations of the Slipper left Jesse with the time to concentrate on rebuilding the ranch. Jesse had repaired the ranch house to livable condition and put a new roof on the barn that would keep hay dry for winter. The corral fence had been replaced and the well was now topped with a functioning pump. She had a dozen head of cattle grazing in her fields and hoped to purchase a breeding bull soon. There was still a lot of work to be done but it was livable and, most important, it was hers.
After her conversations with Billingsley and Sheriff Monroe, and then with Jennifer, Jesse had returned to her office to finish the reports she had been struggling over. It wasn't that Jesse couldn't do the Slipper's bookkeeping, she just preferred to be working at the ranch than figuring columns of numbers. Finally, giving up on the ledgers, Jesse had bid Bette Mae goodnight and ridden out to the ranch. She had decided to stay at the ranch while Billie checked on the other ranches and had spent the long, hot days replacing the leaky roof on the ranch house.
Jesse could not shake the uneasy feeling that had nagged her ever since she discovered the mysterious tracks. If there were rustlers in the valley, why were they on her property. 'Why my land?' Jesse kept turning that question over and over in her mind but no answers were forthcoming. 'Somethin' just ain't right,' Jesse told herself as she watched the fire.
The morning sunlight made its way through the east facing windows and found Jesse asleep in the chair where exhaustion had claimed her the night before. The beams spread across the ranch house's floor and slowly crawled up her body. Jesse woke with a groan when the bright sunlight reached her face. She stretched her long limbs to loosen the kinks developed during the night. Twisting her neck from side to side, she eased the tight muscles. Slowly, she pushed herself up and out of the chair and stretched some more. After satisfying her aching muscles, she picked up the fire poker and stoked the embers. Adding a couple of split logs, she watched as the fire burst back into life. She filled a large cooking pot with fresh water and placed it on the spit to heat. Then taking her coat off the back of the door, she pulled it on as she left the house to do her morning chores.
Jesse loved this time of day. The sun was just beginning its long journey across the big, Montana sky. The animals were beginning to wake and the songs and calls of several different birds filled the morning air. Jesse could hear the chatter of squirrels in the trees around the ranch buildings. Far in the distance, a coyote greeting the morning with a long, mournful howl. A smile crossed Jesse's face as she began the new day.
Jesse pushed open the heavy door to her barn. She made her way to Dusty's stall and was greeted with a warm muzzle being pressed against her chest. "Morning, girl," Jesse greeted the golden mare and handed Dusty the apple she had grabbed from a barrel by the barn's door. As Dusty munched happily on the treat, Jesse led her out of the barn and into the adjoining corral.
Dusty began to sidestep nervously and raised her head to test the scents on the morning breeze. "You feel it, too," Jesse scratched Dusty's head to comfort the horse. Jesse's eyes scanned the far end of the valley, "someone is out there. Maybe, we should take another ride out that way and see if there's any fresh track. Or," sapphire eyes filled Jesse's thoughts. "Maybe, we should ride into town and see if there's any news."
Dusty nudged the daydreaming Jesse in the arm.
"Okay, let me get you fed, the rest of the chores done, and me cleaned up. Then, we'll head to town." With that decision made, Jesse headed back into the barn to finish her chores and to wonder why the thought of seeing Jennifer was so appealing this morning.
Jennifer sat on the wide porch of the Silver Slipper sipping coffee from a large mug. The sun had been up long enough to begin chasing away the night's chill. It was going to be another hot, dry day and Jennifer was intent on enjoying the morning coolness while she could. From the Slipper's porch, Jennifer could look down the entire length of Sweetwater's dusty main street. Not much activity broke the morning's stillness. Ed was getting the general store ready for business by sweeping the boardwalk and Jennifer could see smoke start to pour out of the livery's smokestack, indicating the forge had been fired up. A horse was hitched in front of the jailhouse, the rider had already disappeared inside. Lights were on in several of the houses at this end of town but she had yet to see any of their occupants.
Jennifer loved this time of day. It was peaceful and quiet, except for the chirping of morning birds in the surrounding trees. She could think of no better way to spend the morning than welcoming the waking day. Well, maybe one thing would make it better, if Jesse was sharing it with her. 'Whoa, where did that thought come from?' Jennifer was so startled by the sudden appearance of Jesse in her thoughts that she spilled the contents of her cup. As she rose from the chair to go back to the kitchen and get more coffee, she wondered why the beautiful rancher seemed to be sneaking into her thoughts more and more.
"I'm telling you, sheriff, the tracks led to Jesse's land," Pete, a wrangler for Conrad Billingsley spread was standing opposite the sheriff's desk.
"Why would Jesse be stealing cattle?," Sheriff Monroe was more than a little perturbed at his morning beginning with the cowboy's banging on the jail's door. He was sitting at his desk trying to rub the sleep from his eyes.
"All I know, is that Mr. Billingsley told me to ride in and get you. He said I should drag you back out there tied over the back of your horse if I have to," the cowboy was getting angry at the sheriff's obvious lack of interest in his news.
"You can go back and tell that...," Sheriff Monroe starting before deciding that taking his anger at the rancher out on the cowboy was probably not the best way to handle his frustration. "Look, Pete," the Sheriff leaned back in his chair and ran his fingers through his uncombed hair. "Go back and tell your boss that I'll be out after I get breakfast. Maybe by then Jesse will be over at the Slipper and I can ask her about those tracks."
The cowboy wasn't about to return to the Rocking B without the sheriff. Not with the mood his boss was in after losing more cattle to the rustlers working in the valley. "Nope, I ain't leaving here without you. The boss would shoot me on the spot," the cowboy stood his ground.
"Have it your way," the sheriff stood. "I'm going to wash up and go over to the Slipper. You can wait for me here or join me. Your choice," he said as he poured water into the bowl resting on a shelve hung haphazardly on the wall. Several minutes later, the sheriff left the jail and headed down the dusty street for the Silver Slipper. The cowboy trailed angrily behind him.
Jesse threw Dusty's reins over the hitching rail at the side of the Silver Slipper's porch. She climbed the steps and crossed the wide porch to the Slipper's front door, hesitating for a moment to consider the cause of a wet spot in front of one of the chairs. Jesse reached for the knob to open the door and just as her hand touched the metal, it was pulled away from her grasp.
"Oh," Jennifer gasped as she realized Jesse was standing before her.
"Good morning, Miss Jennifer," Jesse greeted the schoolteacher while thinking that seeing her was a wonderful way to start the morning.
"Good morning, Miss Jesse," Jennifer smiled. "I was just coming out to clean up the coffee I spilled," Jennifer pointed to the drying stain.
"Don't bother," Jesse said. "The sun will dry it before long." Jesse began to step though the Slipper's door. "Have you had breakfast yet? Perhaps, you would like to join me if you haven't." Jesse heard herself ask, surprised that she had spoken her thoughts out loud.
Before Jennifer could answer, they were interrupted by the Sheriff.
"Jesse, glad to see you," Sheriff Monroe called out from the bottom of the stairs. "We need to talk. Join me for breakfast."
"Well, I," Jesse stammered. "I was just asking...,"
"It's okay," Jennifer reached out and gently squeezed Jesse's forearm. "You have business with the sheriff. We can talk later." Jennifer nodded to the sheriff and cowboy before turning and retreating up the stairs leading to her room.
Jesse was surprised at Jennifer's touch and even more surprised at how her skin tingled where Jennifer's hand had rested. She wanted to protest Jennifer's departure but her mouth refused to form words. Jesse watched mutely as Jennifer disappeared up the stairs. Disappointed that Jennifer would not be her breakfast partner, Jesse joined the sheriff.
Jennifer hurried up the stairs and down the hallway. As soon as she entered her small room, she collapsed against the closed door. Her heart was beating so fast that she was sure it would burst from her chest. When she had touched Jesse's arm, a jolt of electricity had surged through her body. Jennifer had never felt anything like it before and she was sure that by the look on Jesse's face that she had felt it too. She had had to get away from Jesse before she embarrassed herself even more. Yet, as Jennifer leaned against the rough wood of the room's door, she had to admit that as unexpected as her reaction had been, it had most assuredly been a wonderful feeling. And one she would like to experience again. And, soon.
By the time Jennifer had regained her composure and returned downstairs, Jesse and the sheriff were just finishing their morning meal. She took a seat at a table across the room where she could watch Jesse without being too obvious. Bette Mae came out of the kitchen with a pot of coffee. After refreshing the cups at Jesse's table, she crossed the room to where Jennifer sat.
"Thought you had changed your mind on havin' breakfast," Bette Mae said as she filled a cup with coffee for Jennifer.
"No," Jennifer smiled at the older woman. "Just wanted to freshen up a bit. But, I'm ready for it now."
"Good. I'll be right back," Bette Mae returned to the kitchen.
Jennifer returned her attention to the table where Jesse sat. Not intentionally meaning too, she began to listen in on the conversation between Jesse and the sheriff.
"Can't be," Jesse was saying. "I don't have any cattle on that part of the ranch. It's too far from the house to keep track of them."
"That's what I've been trying to tell this cowpoke," the sheriff told her.
"The tracks are there," the cowboy insisted. "I saw them myself. Must have been twenty head moved up there."
"Well, they aren't mine," Jesse finished her last bite of egg before washing it down with coffee.
"Never said they was," Pete mumbled, he was more than annoyed that he was still sitting in Sweetwater when he should be riding back to the Rocking B with the sheriff.
"Guess it won't hurt to go out and take a look," the sheriff finally agreed. "You can come with us, Jesse. If you want."
Jesse emptied her cup before responding to the sheriff's offer.
"No, Billie," she told him. "I think I'll give the meadows another look. See if those riders have been back through." In the back of her mind, she wondered if she should tell the sheriff about the feelings she's had earlier that morning but decided against it. Probably, wasn't anything.
Bette Mae returned with Jennifer's breakfast just as the sheriff and cowboy stood to leave. As she thanked Bette Mae for serving her, Jennifer heard the sheriff's parting words, "I'll let you know what I find Jesse. Come on, Pete. We've kept your boss waiting long enough."
Jesse watched the sheriff walk out the front door, the cowboy trailing behind mumbling under his breath about how he could explain the delay to his boss. As she stood and turned away from the table to go to her office, her eyes fell on the schoolteacher. She smiled as she remembered the earlier touch.
Jennifer saw Jesse look her way and watched as a smile covered the tall woman's face. Brown eyes met blue and the world narrowed to just the two women caught in each other's gazes. Bette Mae stood watching both women and smiled when she realized that they were unaware of anything except each other. Mayor Perkins burst through the front door breaking their enchantment and both women self-consciously looked away from the other. Jesse made her way to her office door and disappeared inside. Jennifer waited several minutes before the butterflies in her stomach settled down enough for her to eat the breakfast cooling on the plate in front of her.
"My usual, Bette Mae," Mayor Perkins said as he sat at one of the empty tables.
"Hurry up and finish the rest of 'em," Johnson growled at his companions. He kept a constant vigil on the scrub covered walls that formed the small box canyon he stood in. Sagebrush was the only vegetation in the canyon and it provided little cover if anyone would come upon the men before they finished their work. Even though they had yet to be disturbed, he was nervous and wanted to get away from the canyon as quickly as possible.
Jimmie and his older brother, Clinton, were heating a running iron in the fire. The hook tipped piece of iron was the tool rustlers used to change brands on stolen cattle. If done properly, the change would not be noticed until after the animals were butchered and the inside of the hide could be seen. But, the brothers had never used a running iron before and their attempt at changing brands was anything but unnoticeable. It was a shoddy job but that was Johnson's plan, he didn't want any doubts that the brands had been changed.
A few feet from the fire, recently re-branded cattle were bunched behind a make shift rope barrier. There was barely enough room for the dozen or so cattle and they were constantly juggling for position. The canyon had no water and the thirsty cattle loudly bawled their unhappiness at their predicament. Another half dozen animals were waiting their turn with the branding iron.
"Come on," Johnson yanked on a rope pulling a cow closer to the fire. "Let's get this done and get out of here before anyone shows up."
Jimmie walked to the cow and roped its feet. As the cow struggled to free itself, it lost its balance and tumbled to the ground. The red-hot iron was removed from the fire and pressed against the cow's hide, as he burned a new brand over the top of the animal's original marking. As soon as he finished, the cow was released and another was pulled near the fire and the process repeated. In short order, the remaining cows joined the rest of the rustled and re-branded herd behind the barrier.
"Make sure them ropes will hold 'em," Johnson ordered the brothers who were busy throwing dirt on the fire to put it out. "No, leave the iron in the fire," he told them when Clinton started to remove it.
Jimmie rechecked the ropes that made up the barrier holding the cattle. It wouldn't hold the thirsty and hungry cattle long but that was also part of Johnson's plan. The sooner a few of them escaped, the sooner the rustled herd would be discovered. After securing the rope fence, the men mounted their horses.
Jimmie said, "fire's still smokin'."
"That's okay," Johnson informed him. "Makes it easier to find. And, we want to make this as easy as we can." Johnson kicked his horse into a trot and headed out of the box canyon and into the open floor of the valley. Without looking back, he knew that the other two would follow.
"He's crazier than a rabid dog, brother," Jimmie told his older brother as he watched Johnson ride away.
"Yeah," Clinton muttered. "Let's just hope we can get out of this without a rope around our necks," shaking his head, he urged his horse to follow Johnson. He wondered if a couple of month's in the Denver jail might not have been such a bad idea after all.
"Yeah," Jimmie hesitated just long enough to consider his chances at reaching the dense forest a couple of miles away before Johnson put a rifle shot into his back. Deciding the odds weren't all that good, he hoped his brother was right and they would escape the hangman's noose.
"What did I tell you, Billie," Billingsley was pointing to the tracks of several cattle being moved up a trail that eventually led to the box canyons at the south end of the valley. "There's another trail about a half mile that way," Billingsley pointed to the west. "It leads in the same direction. I don't run cattle up at that end of the valley, no one does. Ain't enough grass in those canyons to keep 'em fed."
"I know, been up there a time or two myself. It's rough country for cattle," the sheriff spoke from where he was kneeling next to the tracks. "Looks to be no more than a day or two old," he stood and shook out the cramped muscles in his legs. "You send any riders up that way?" the sheriff asked as he remounted his horse.
"A couple. Came back just before you got here. Said they saw smoke coming from the canyons down towards the end of Jesse's land," Billingsley mounted his own horse and signaled his men to do the same.
"Jesse ain't no rustler," the sheriff glared at the rancher.
"Never said she was. But, the tracks lead that way and the smoke was coming from her land," the rancher returned the sheriff's stare. "She's been building her herd up a lot the last few months. Kinda makes you wonder where she's getting the money, Slipper can't be doing that well. What with all those women she's keeping employed." Billingsley pulled his rifle from the saddle scabbard and checked to make sure it was loaded and ready for use. His cowboys followed his example.
"Let's hope we don't need to use those," Billie said as he watched the men prepare their weapons. He knew Jesse would never steal and the Slipper seemed to be a thriving enterprise ever since Jesse cleaned it up. But, he was smart enough to know that one man, even if he was the law, couldn't do much against a dozen armed and angry cowboys.
"Law says we can hang rustlers," Billingsley stated as he shoved the rifle back into its holder.
"Let's get this straight now," Billie raised his voice so all of the men would have no trouble hearing him. "If there are rustlers out there, we are bringing them back alive. The circuit judge will decide their fate, not you," he stared directly at Billingsley as he spoke the final word.
Billingsley returned the sheriff's stare for several moments, his ranch hands waiting quietly. Not too many people spoke to Conrad Billingsley in that manner and got away with it. He glared at the sheriff and considered his options. Sure they fought and exchanged words on many an occasion but the truth was that Billie Monroe was a good sheriff and the rancher had to admit that he liked the man. Finally, he decided that having the sheriff on his side would be a lot easier than having to fight rustlers and the sheriff. Billingsley gave in, "we'll do it your way, Billie."
Jesse walked out of the Silver Slipper not long after the sheriff and cowboy left. As she mounted Dusty, Jennifer came out of the Slipper and crossed the wide porch.
"Where are you going?" Jennifer asked softly.
Jesse took a deep breath and studied the woman leaning against the porch railing, her delicate hands spread before her on the flat board. Jesse wondered what it would be like to have those hands exploring her body. A light blush started to crawl up Jesse's neck as she realized where her thoughts were leading.
Jennifer saw the blush and wondered what Jesse was thinking to cause it but did not comment. She waiting patiently for Jesse to answer her question. Both women studied the other, their thoughts on feelings they were experiencing for the first time in their young lives. Both wanted to express their feelings but neither had the nerve to do so.
"Thought I'd take a look around."
"Just a feeling."
"Shouldn't you have told the sheriff?"
"I will if I find anything."
"Be careful," Jennifer looked up at Jesse.
Jesse was puzzled by the concern in Jennifer's eyes. She smiled down at the woman who owned her dreams.
"I'm not going out looking for trouble," she assured Jennifer.
"I know," Jennifer said. "But, if someone is out there, you'll be all alone."
"Don't worry," Jesse laughed. "Dusty is the fastest horse in the valley. She'll get me out of any trouble I might find myself in," Jesse tried to relieve Jennifer's worries.
"Still," Jennifer smiled up at Jesse, "be careful."
"I will." As Jesse rode away from the Slipper, she thought how nice it felt to have someone worry about her.
Jennifer watched Jesse until she disappeared from sight. "Come back to me," she sighed, before returning back inside the Silver Slipper.
Jesse saw the thin, wisp of smoke as she made her way to the canyon country at the south end of her land. But, while she watched the smoke rising up into the clear sky, she missed the figures of three riders crossing the valley and disappearing into the forest. Her vision blocked by the gently rolling hills of the valley's open fields. Had she seen the three riders, the next couple of days might have played out much differently. But, years later, Jesse would say that she was glad events took place as they did.
"Looks like we were right, Dusty," she spoke to her mount. "Someone is up in those canyons." Dusty nodded her head in agreement and increased her pace. "Good idea, girl," Jesse told the now galloping mare. "Best get up there and check it out as quick as we can."
Jesse stopped at a small creek that provided the last water source before entering the dry canyons. As Dusty enjoyed a long drink of the cool water, Jesse scanned the terrain in the direction they were headed. The smoke has long since faded as the fire fueling it must have burned out. Jesse's attention was drawn to the sounds of cattle bawling in the distance. Dusty raised her head from the creek and twisted her ears in the direction of the cries.
"Sounds like they're not happy, girl," Jesse pulled her canteen from Dusty's saddle. Taking a long drink from the canteen, Jesse tried to focus in on the sound. Dusty's ears continued to twitch as she also tried to locate the exact direction from which the sound came. Jesse knelt next to the creek and refilled her canteen. Wrapping its cord around the saddle horn, Jesse swung up into the saddle. Rider and horse started a mutual search for the cattle that cried out from somewhere before them.
An hour later, found Jesse and Dusty cautiously moving up the rocky floor of a box canyon. "Those cattle have to be somewhere, girl."
Dusty nickered in response and continued to carefully move further back into the canyon. A bend near the back of the canyon prevented Jesse from seeing the cattle but, as Dusty moved closer, their cries got louder. And, there was no mistaking the increasing stench of cattle sweat and dung.
Dusty moved around the canyon's bend and Jesse's eyes fell upon a couple dozen miserably hot, thirsty, and hungry animals held in place by a ropes tied from one canyon wall to the other. A fire, long burned out, was a few feet from the cattle, and a now cold running iron lay inside the fire ring.
Dusty quickly covered the distance to the rope fence and Jesse leaped from her back. Pulling a knife from her boot, Jesse jumped up onto a boulder that secured one end of the ropes. She cut through the ropes, the freed cattle lost no time in escaping the hot canyon. Dusty sidestepped against the boulder to keep from being trampled.
Once the cattle had left the makeshift corral, Jesse dropped down off the boulder and examined the fire's remains. She picked up the running iron, turning it over in her strong hands.
"Guess we better let Billie get a look at this," Jesse told her mare as she jammed the dirty iron into her saddle bag.
"Ground is too hard in here to leave many tracks and the cattle probably took care of any that were around," Jesse climbed back into the saddle. "Let's see if we can pick up something out in the open."
As they exited the canyon's mouth, Jesse eyes were trained at the ground scanning for any sign of horses or men. After riding some distance from the canyons, Jesse spotted the track of a horse and directed Dusty to follow it.
Jesse and Dusty made their way across the valley and had reached the forest's edge when Sheriff Monroe and the ranchers rode up over a small rise and spotted them.
As the group followed the stolen cattle tracks, they had been joined by other ranchers and their ranch hands. The group now numbered a couple dozen men and the sheriff was more than concerned at what might happen if the group located the rustlers.
"Look," one of Billingsley men pointed at the rider and horse in the distance.
"Hey," Billingsley cried excitedly, "ain't that Jesse?"
"Looks like her horse," Marcus Butler, another rancher missing cattle answered. "Only one golden palomino in the valley, that I know of."
"Wonder what she's doing out here?" Billingsley continued to question.
Before the sheriff could voice a reply, another shout went up. "Look," one of the riders had spied the cattle grazing on the valley grasses between the forest Jesse had now disappeared into and the box canyons opposite.
"Well," Billie said as he urged his mount forward. "Let's go see what they're doing up there."
"This one's been changed, too," Pete, the cowboy who had awakened the sheriff at dawn, said.
"Looks like they've all been changed. Not a very good job, must have been someone new to the game," Lucas Kelly, a ranch owner in the group commented.
"Like Jesse," Butler accused.
"Hold on," Billie knew where this conversation was headed and he didn't like it. "We don't know that Jesse had anything to do with this. After all, this is her land. She could have been out checking on her own cattle."
Before Billie could continue, two of Billingsley's cowboys rode up at a gallop and pulled up their mounts as they reached their boss.
"It was done up there." one of them told Billingsley, pointing back to the box canyons. "Found the remains of a fire and ropes where she held them in the canyon.
"Wait a minute," the sheriff started before being cut off by the other cowboy.
"Only one set of tracks in the canyon. They lead in the direction we saw Jesse ridin'."
"Well, sheriff," Billingsley finally addressed the sheriff. "How much more evidence do you need? We found the cattle on Jesse's land. The were re-branding in a canyon on her land, with only her tracks in the canyon. And, she was riding away when we spotted the cattle."
"Seems pretty clear cut to me," Kelly agreed.
"I say we go after her," Butler said.
Things were getting out of hand and Billie knew he had to do something and fast before a lynch mob rode after Jesse. "Alright, you found your cattle. I suggest you take them back to your spreads."
"What about Jesse," Billingsley demanded.
"I'll go after Jesse." Before the ranchers could protest, Billie added, "I'll bring her in. Circuit judge is due next week. She can tell her side of this to him."
The ranchers and their men looked in uncertainty at the sheriff, unsure if they could trust Billie to arrest his friend. The sheriff seeing the looks, hurried to remove any doubts from their minds. "I said I'd bring her in and I will. Now take your cattle home."
Billie mounted his horse and rode off in the direction Jesse had last been seen before anyone had a chance to object further.
Jesse followed the rustlers' tracks for a couple of miles before coming to the spot where the three men had split up, each taking a different route deeper into the thick forest. Nightfall was rapidly approaching and Jesse decided to head for town rather than try and follow the rustlers after dark. She gave Dusty her head and the two made short time of the distance to town.
Once she arrived in Sweetwater, Jesse headed first to the Silver Slipper. Sheriff Monroe was just stepping out of the building when Jesse rode up. He had lost Jesse's trail soon after entering the forest and had returned to Sweetwater expecting Jesse to check in at the Slipper sooner or later. He was glad to see that he had made the right decision.
"Evening, Jesse," the man stood on the Slipper's wide porch. "I've been looking for you."
"Evening, Billie," Jesse swung down from the saddle. "I just rode into town," Jesse reached for her saddlebag.
"Hold it, Jesse," the sheriff warned, his right hand moving quickly to rest on the pistol that he wore on his hip. Knowing that Jesse carried her pistols in her saddle bags, the sheriff said, "leave your guns be."
Jesse froze when she saw the motion of the sheriff's hand. "Is there a problem, Billie?"
As Sheriff Monroe made his way down the steps to where Jesse stood, warily watching him, Jennifer came out of the Slipper. When she spied the sheriff's hand on his pistol and Jesse frozen in the street, Jennifer ran across the wide porch to the stairs.
"Stay on the porch, Jennifer," Jesse cried out. Jesse had seen more than one person shot accidentally when someone pulled a gun and over-reacted to an unexpected movement. There was no way she would let the schoolteacher fall victim to a similar accident.
The sheriff kept his eye on Jesse while he spoke to Jennifer, "Suggest you go back inside, Miss Jennifer. This is official business."
"Are you arresting Jesse?" Jennifer was standing on the top step, every instinct told her to go to Jesse's defense but better judgment kept her feet rooted in place. She needed to find out what was happening before she could help Jesse.
"Haven't arrested her yet," the sheriff answered Jennifer. "But, I need to ask her some questions and I don't want any trouble while I do that."
"You want to tell me what's going on, Billie?" Jesse asked.
"We found the stolen cattle today," the sheriff informed the tall woman standing apprehensively in the street. "They'd been held in a box canyon on your land."
A smile came to Jesse's face when she heard the sheriff's words. "I know," Jesse started to relax. "I came across them and cut them loose hoping they'd find their way home. Followed the rustlers' tracks until I lost them when they split up in the trees. I was going to tell you about it after I checked in with Bette Mae."
"Only found one set of tracks, Jesse. They were yours," the sheriff informed her.
"Wait a minute," Jennifer exploded off the porch. Planting herself right in front of the sheriff, she poked a finger into his chest "You're not accusing Jesse of stealing cattle, are you?"
Surprised by the quickness of Jennifer's movement and by having the woman jabbing him in the chest, the sheriff was momentarily confused as to how to react.
"Hold on, there," Jesse placed her hands on Jennifer's arms. At her touch, Jennifer forgot all about the sheriff and could only concentrate on the warmth generating from where Jesse was holding her. She allowed Jesse to pull her gently away from the sheriff. "Billie hasn't accused me of anything," Jesse spoke quietly to Jennifer. "Have you?" she asked the sheriff.
Seeing Jesse holding Jennifer, the sheriff feared that Jesse might try to use the schoolteacher as a shield. He pulled his pistol from its holster and pointed it at Jesse's head. "Back away from her, Jesse."
Jesse looked at the man pointing a six-shooter at her head, a man she had considered to be a friend, and her eyes went cold. She gently moved Jennifer off to the side and stepped further into the street putting even more room between herself and the schoolteacher. "Go back inside, Jennifer."
"No," Jennifer held her ground, blue eyes bore into the sheriff. "Please don't shoot her," Jennifer whispered.
By now, the commotion in the street started to attract the attention of the Sweetwater citizenry. Many people had stopped their evening's routines and were watching from various locations along the town's street. Bette Mae stood on the Slipper's porch with the rest of the girls. Most of the evening's diners had willingly interrupted their meal to see what was happening. Cowboys, after leaving their drinking and gambling activities in the Slipper's saloon, poured out onto the porch. While Bette Mae, the girls, and diners stood mostly in silence watching the drama unfold before them, the cowboys, encouraged by their consumption of liquor, were calling out for the sheriff to arrest Jesse.
Jesse watched the crowd on the Slipper's porch and could hear similar comments being shouted from the direction of the Oxbow and knew that the situation could quickly get out of the sheriff's control. "You know I don't carry a gun, Billie," Jesse raised her arms to indicate she was unarmed. "Why don't we go to your office and you can tell me what this is all about."
"Alright," Sheriff Monroe was glad for an excuse to take his questioning of Jesse to a private setting. He could tell that it wouldn't take much for the intoxicated cowboys to stir up a big pot of trouble. He turned to the crowd on the Slipper's porch, "you can all go back to your business inside. This matter doesn't concern any of you."
Seeing no one move at the sheriff's words, Bette Mae took matters into her own hands and began to shoo people back inside the building. The diners went without complaint but the cowboys were a different matter. They insisted on accompanying the sheriff to make sure Jesse was 'good and locked up', as one of them shouted. It wasn't until Bette Mae offered the first round on the house that most of the cowboys decided a free drink was better than a dusty walk to the town's jailhouse.
Once the porch was cleared of onlookers, Bette Mae turned her attention to Jesse. She looked with concern at her friend and started to cross the porch, hoping to have a few words with Jesse before the sheriff escorted her to his office.
"It's okay, Bette Mae," Jesse said to stop the older woman from approaching her. "Take Jennifer inside. I'll go talk with Billie and get this all straightened out."
"Alright," Bette Mae reached for Jennifer only to have her hand slapped away.
"I'm going with you," Jennifer told Jesse.
"Stay here," Jesse's eyes locked onto Jennifer's and pleaded with her to obey.
"No," Jennifer was adamant. "As a reporter for the Gazette, I have a right to be there."
"I'm sorry, Miss Jennifer," the sheriff said to the determined woman standing again before him. "I can't let you come."
Tilting her head to meet the sheriff's gaze, Jennifer said in a voice barely audible, "you'll have to shoot me to stop me."
Before the sheriff or Jesse could respond to Jennifer's challenge, the ground began to shake as a dozen horses thundered into Stillwater and surrounded them. At the front of the group rode Conrad Billingsley. Ranchers Butler and Kelly and cowhands from all three ranches made up the rest of the group.
Billingsley jumped down from his horse before the animal had come to a full stop. "Why haven't you arrested her yet, Billie?" he bellowed at the sheriff.
Billie stood his ground, "I told you I'd handle this and I will."
"What's to handle?" Butler questioned as he swung from his saddle to stand beside Billingsley. "We saw her leaving, her tracks were the only ones in the canyon, and her brand was on the cattle. Arrest the bitch and get it over with," Butler spat dust from his mouth. He, unlike most others in the valley, had never liked Jesse. Didn't think much of women being business owners except maybe to a boarding house or other domestic enterprise. But, no way was it proper for a woman to run a ranch. 'Went against nature,' he had been fond of saying when Jesse first purchased the run-down ranch.
"I was just takin' her to the jail when you rode up," Billie tried to pacify the group of riders. The uproar caused by the riders had brought most of the occupants of the Slipper back out onto the porch where they eagerly added their opinions to the confusion.
Wanting to avoid a full scale riot, Sheriff Monroe grabbed Dusty's reins and started to lead the horse and Jesse down the street. "Come on, Jesse," he said as he passed the ranchers and cowboys. "We'll finish this in my office."
Jennifer marched after the sheriff and the woman she seemed to need to defend. The ranchers and cowboys fell in behind Jennifer.
Sheriff Monroe stopped and faced the crowd. "Stop," he ordered. "No one but Jesse is coming with me. The rest of you- GO HOME," he shouted.
Stopped in their tracks by the sheriff's words and tone, most of the crowd began to break up. Some going back into the Slipper and some heading for the Oxbow. The rest remounted their horses and started to do as the sheriff had ordered, go home.
"What the hell is this?" Butler's voice shattered the rapidly growing silence as the crowd disbursed. As Jesse, Jennifer, the sheriff and others turned, they saw him pulling the running iron from Jesse's saddlebag. Dusty began to sidestep uneasily as the crowd of men pushed in for a closer look at Butler's discovery.
"Trying to hide the evidence, Jesse," Butler said as he held the iron high above his head so all could see.
"Damn," Jesse muttered as she realized that in freeing the cattle and carrying the running iron, she had provided all the evidence to hang her for the crime.
Calls for Jesse's arrest grew as the men saw the branding iron. Then cries to find a rope began to be heard.
Jennifer instinctively reached out for Jesse, the angry calls of the crowd frightening her to the core of her being. She couldn't allow anything to happen to Jesse but the throng was growing by the minute and she knew she had no chance at stopping them if they decided to grab Jesse and drag her to the nearest tree. But... she had to do something.
Without realizing that her hands were no longer reaching for Jesse but had instead reached for the gun now back in the sheriff's holster. Jennifer pulled the gun free. Holding it in her shaking hands, she pointed it into the darkened sky above.
Dusty reared at the sound of the second shot and Jesse grabbed her reins to keep her from injuring anyone.
Jennifer had never held a gun before, let alone fired one. The noise was louder than she had expected and the recoil had almost ripped the weapon from her hands.
With a voice quivering with emotion, Jennifer turned on the crowd, "Billie told you to go home." Her voice could barely be heard and the men strained their ears to listen to the schoolteacher holding a gun that looked extremely large in her hands. "I suggest you do as he says. Jesse is not a rustler and I'm sure once she has a chance to tell her side to Billie, you'll see your mistake. Now go home and let the Sheriff do his job."
The men stood, unsure what to do. Standing in front of them was a woman who had stolen their cattle and re-branded them with her own brand. They had the evidence to prove that, or so they thought. But, between them and that woman was another woman. A sapphire-eyed bundle of raw courage who was not afraid to take them all on.
As the men stood considering their options, Bette Mae made her way through the crowd and wrapped Jennifer into her arms. Removing the gun from Jennifer's grasp she handed it to Billie, then took Dusty's reins from Jesse.
"Go," Bette Mae commanded.
Wasting no time, Billie and Jesse made their way to the sheriff's office. Once they were inside, Billie locked and bolted the door. He dropped into the chair behind his desk and placed his face in his hands. Nervous energy shook his body as he tried to catch his breath.
Jesse collapsed into the other chair in the room. She stared at the sheriff and wondered if he was capable of protecting her from the men still milling about in the street outside. Then, her thoughts turned to the schoolteacher who had defended her against the mob of cowboys. A smile slowly crossed Jesse's face.
"Damn," she sighed.
*************Continued in Part 3.