See Part I for disclaimers..


a story by Mickey
@copyrighted April 2003



Bette Mae wrapped an arm around Jennifer's shoulders and gently led her back to the Silver Slipper.  Reaching the stairs, she threw Dusty's reins over the nearest hitching rail.  She didn't take the time to secure the reins as she knew Dusty would remain until her mistress came to retrieve her.  Jennifer began to tremble as the older woman led her up the steps and across the porch.  Once inside the building, Bette Mae directed the schoolteacher into Jesse's private office.

"Come on in here, child," Bette Mae opened the office door and pushed Jennifer through it. 

Ruth, the young girl who had befriended Jennifer her first day in Sweetwater by sewing her a much needed dress, followed Bette Mae and Jennifer into the Slipper.  Seeing the two women head for Jesse's office, she followed to offer her assistance but Bette Mae stopped her at the office door.

"See to our supper guests, Ruthie," Bette Mae instructed the girl.  "Miss Jennifer needs some time to herself right now."  Bette Mae softened her voice and continued, "keep an ear out and tell the other girls to do the same."

Ruth nodded, then turned and headed for the kitchen to pass the request to the rest of the Slipper's staff.

"Do you think they'll try to hurt Jesse?" Jennifer had heard Bette Mae's instructions and her body stiffened in fear.

"Probably not," Bette Mae said as she crossed the office to a liquor cabinet standing against the far wall.  Opening the cabinet's door, she removed a bottle, left from the previous owner of the Slipper, and two glasses before crossing back over to the couch Jesse kept in her office for late nights.  Sitting on the couch, Bette Mae set the glasses on the small table in front of it and poured a small amount from the bottle into each glass.

"Sit down, child," Bette Mae commanded Jennifer.  "Come on and sit before you fall down."

Jennifer wanted so much to run from the room and out of the Slipper to the jailhouse.  She wanted to see Jesse, wanted to touch her and assure herself that Jesse was alright.  But, she did as she was told and sat beside the older woman.  The thoughts scrambling around in her brain were making no sense as they bumped about and into each other.  Why did she have such a need to see to Jesse's well-being?  What would she say to Jesse if she did go to the jailhouse?  Can you even feel about a woman the way that she was feeling about Jesse?  None of it made sense and Jennifer groaned as she propped her elbows on her knees and laid her head in her hands.

"There, there," Bette Mae reached out and patted Jennifer on the leg.  "Don't you go frettin' about Jesse, she can take care of herself."  Bette Mae picked up one of the glasses and held it out to Jennifer.  "Here, drink this."

Raising her head to see what Bette Mae was offering her, Jennifer looked suspiciously at the liquid.  "What is it?" she asked as she took the glass from Bette Mae's hand.

"Just a little something to settle your nerves," Bette picked up the other glass.  "Yer still shaking from firin' that gun."

"First time I've done that," Jennifer said as she continued to warily look at the glass and it's contents.  "First time I've even held a gun," she watched as Bette Mae emptied her glass in one large gulp and then shook her head, releasing a long hiss as the liquor slid down her throat. 

Jennifer handed the glass back to Bette Mae.  "Uh, thanks but I've never tasted spirits before and from what you just did to get this stuff down, I don't believe I want to start now."

Chuckling, Bette Mae took the glass from Jennifer and replaced it on the table.  "Now, I told Jesse you was a smart one."

Jennifer smiled at Bette Mae's comment.  Then thinking of Jesse's current dilemma, the smile faded.  "What are we going to do about Jesse, Bette Mae?" Jennifer asked as her head dropped back against the couch.  "I know she didn't steal those cattle.  Why were the ranchers so angry?  Jesse has never done anything to harm them, has she?"

"Rustlin' is serious business in cattle country.  But, Miss Jesse has never taken anythin' that didn't belong to her," Bette Mae quickly added when Jennifer started to protest.  "Only takes one or two hot heads to stir a crowd up and that Mr. Butler never has liked Jesse," Bette Mae shook her head sadly at the memory of some of the things she and the other girls had heard the man say about her friend.  "Doesn't think a woman should own a business, especially not a ranch."

"But, that doesn't make sense," Jennifer sat up to face Bette Mae.  "Jesse is the kindest woman I know.  And, look what she's done for the women who work here.  She's given them a decent life.  And, from what I can tell, the Slipper is making money.  Isn't that what a good business owner does?"

"Don't have to convince me about Jesse's goodness," Bette Mae agreed.  "But, some men don't see any good in women except to have their babies and cook their meals."

Jennifer fell back against the couch, memories of her father flooding her mind.  "Yeah, I know what you mean," she said sadly.  "But, what about Jesse?" she asked again in a voice so quiet that Bette Mae wasn't sure the young woman had actually spoken.

"She has an explanation, those men just haven' given her a chance to say her piece," Bette Mae assured the worried schoolteacher. 

Several long minutes went by, their silence broken only by the ticking of a clock that occupied a prominent spot on the fireplace mantle. 

Jennifer studied the room.  She had never been inside of Jesse's office and she found that the room had a warm, welcoming feeling to it.  Most of the furnishings were made of soft pine wood and softer leather.  Jesse's large desk sat almost in the exact center of the room attesting to the fact that this room was used for work and not entertaining.  Shelves filled with ledgers and other record keeping books stood against the wall behind the desk.  At each end of the desk sat a lamp to provide light when Jesse worked late into the night.

The couch that the women occupied sat against the wall in front of the desk and to the side of the room's door.  A small chair sat on the other side of the door and provided a comfortable seat to anyone that might have business with the building's owner.  Jennifer noticed that there were no windows in the room and no door leading to the outside of the building.  After considering this for several moments, she decided that it made sense for security purposes.  Anyone wanting to enter Jesse's office would have to do so through the Slipper and would more than likely be observed doing so.  Jennifer realized that, with the town having no bank, Jesse must have a safe somewhere in the room and having only one entrance probably lessened the chances of robbery.  The more she looked about the room, the more she thought of the woman that had made it her office.  A deep breath from Jennifer finally cracked the silence.

Disturbed from her own thoughts, Bette Mae looked at the young woman and saw the small smile begin to make it's way across her face.  Bette Mae grinned at the Jennifer, "you like Jesse, don't you?"

Confused by the question, her smile quickly disappeared as Jennifer turned to Bette Mae.  "Of course I like her.  She's done so much for me..."

Bette Mae reached over and took Jennifer's hands into her own, "No.  I mean you really like her."

A blush began to creep up Jennifer's neck as she understood what Bette Mae was asking. 

"I, uh," she stuttered.  "I...I don't know what I'm feeling," she said honestly.  "When I'm near her I just want to touch her.  And when I touch her my skin burns at the contact.  I need to be near her but when I am, I don't know what to say or how to act." 

Jennifer looked up into Bette Mae's eyes, "is it possible...?"

"... to love a woman," Bette Mae finished for her.

Jennifer nodded shyly.

"Yes, child," Bette Mae squeezed her hands.  "It most definitely is."

Before Jennifer could ask any of the questions that had inundated her brain at Bette Mae's statement, the door to the office opened and Ruth stepped in before quickly closing the door behind her.

"What is it, Ruthie?" Bette Mae turned to the girl.

"Sally sent me to tell you that there's trouble brewing."

"What kind of trouble?" Jennifer rose from her seat.

"A cowboy is talking up to the others that they shouldn't wait until the circuit judge comes next week.  Says they should take Jesse out tonight and hang her."

"Damn ta all blazes," Bette Mae said then remembered the schoolteacher's presence.  "I'm sorry, Miss Jennifer."

Jennifer waved off the apology and addressed Ruth, "what cowboy?"  Jennifer couldn't believe any of the locals would be calling for Jesse's lynching.

"Sally says she's never seen him before."

"What do we do?" Jennifer asked Bette Mae.

"Some one needs to go alert Billie that there may be trouble, so he doesn't get surprised."

"I'll go," Jennifer said before she even had a chance to think it.

"Alright," Bette Mae agreed knowing she would be unable to stop Jennifer if she attempted to prevent her from going to the jail.  "I'll go see if I can calm things down in the bar."  She placed a motherly arm on Jennifer's, "be careful."

Jennifer had the oddest sense that Bette Mae was talking about more than her going to the sheriff's office.  But, the thought came and went so fast she didn't have time until much later to realize it had even occurred.  Assuring Bette Mae that she would indeed take care, Jennifer was out the door before Bette Mae and Ruth could say any more.

As Jennifer made her way across the porch and down the steps, she took notice of Dusty still patiently standing at the hitching rail.  She took the few steps to Dusty's side and retrieved her reins.

"Come on, girl," she started to lead the horse down the street to the sheriff's office.  "Let's go get Jesse."  A whinny and soft nudge in her back encouraged her on.


After listening to Jesse's side of the day's happenings, Sheriff Billie Monroe was more than convinced of her innocence in any rustling activities.  But, he knew that he would still have to hold Jesse in the jail's one cell until the circuit judge arrived the following week.  After all, it would be up to the judge to hear both sides and to make the final ruling.

"Hate to do this, Jesse," he apologized.  "But, I'm going to have to lock you up."

"I know, Billie," Jesse rose from the chair she had been occupying and crossed the small room to the even smaller jail cell behind.  "Guess this means you won't be getting any sleep the next few nights," Jesse laughed, she knew Billie lived in his office and slept on the cot in the cell.

"Yeah," Billie shared the laugh.  Billie stopped Jesse before she could enter the cell, "have any weapons on ya, Jesse?"

Reaching down to her boot, "just this knife."  She pulled the knife from its scabbard and handed it to the sheriff.

"Thanks," the sheriff took the knife and nodded for her to enter the cell.  Once Jesse was inside, he closed the door and locked it.  "Sorry about this, Jesse," he apologized again.

"Just doing your job, Billie," Jesse could see how much locking her up was hurting her friend.  "That's what the town council pays you for, isn't it," she joked, trying to lighten the sheriff's mood.

"Yeah," he grumbled.  "Days like this, they don't pay me nearly enough."

"Once the judge gets here, this will all be over and I'll buy you a drink," Jesse said.

"Think I'll be the one buying," the sheriff moved to his desk and placed Jesse's knife in the drawer for safe keeping.  He was about to ask Jesse what she wanted for her evening meal, the town having an arrangement with the Slipper to provide meals for all prisoners.  And, after all, Jesse was now an official prisoner of the town of Sweetwater.  But, before the sheriff could ask someone knocked on the jail's door.

"Miss Jennifer," the sheriff was surprised to see the schoolteacher when he pulled the jail's door open.  "What are you doing here?"

"Bette Mae sent me," Jennifer informed the sheriff.  Her eyes sought out Jesse and once they had located the tall woman they never left her.  Jennifer crossed to the cell and stood next to it's door.

"Why did Bette Mae send you?" Jesse asked as she stood on the opposite side of the cell's bars.  The sheriff knew he shouldn't let anyone that close to a prisoner but he wondered what harm the schoolteacher could possibly cause.

Talking only to Jesse, Jennifer quietly told her "there's a stranger in the Slipper's bar stirring up a lynch mob."  Her eyes conveyed the fear she felt for the woman who occupied the cell.

"Damn," the sheriff muttered.  "I'm going to have to go over there.  I'll need to find someone to stay here while I'm gone."

"I'll stay," Jennifer told him.

"Thanks for the offer, Miss Jennifer.  But, I don't think it would be safe to expect you to face down that crowd if it decides to come this way."

"I did it once before.  And, I can do it again if..." Jennifer started.

"No, Jennifer," Jesse's quiet voice stopped Jennifer's protest.  "Billie's right.  It's not safe.  Go back to the Slipper and let Billie handle this."

"I'm not leaving," Jennifer looked into Jesse's eyes.  "I won't leave you," she firmly told Jesse.

Seeing the resolve on the schoolteacher's face, the sheriff went to the cabinet that held his shotguns and pulled one out.  Checking to make sure it was fully loaded, he placed a few extra shells in his pocket.  "Jesse, I won't be long.  Miss Jennifer, lock the door behind me and don't unlock it for anyone but me."

As soon as the sheriff left the building, Jennifer locked the door and, for an extra measure of security, she shoved his desk against the door.

"What are you doing?" Jesse asked as she listened to the woman grunt and groan as the heavy desk moved begrudgingly across the floor.

Jennifer didn't answer.  Once the desk was secure against the door, Jennifer opened the desk drawers and rummaged through them.  "Ah, ha," she declared as she pulled a ring of keys from it's hiding place.

"Do you plan on telling me what's going on?" Jesse was getting agitated at the lack of information.

Jennifer crossed to the cell and began to unlock the door, "I'm breaking you out."

"Are you crazy?" Jesse stepped back from the door shaking her hand from side to side.  "Oh, no you're not.  Do you know what they'll do to you?"

"Don't care.  Now come on, we don't have much time," Jennifer swung the cell door open.

"No, Jennifer," Jesse held her hands up with the palms facing Jennifer.  "I'm in enough trouble as it is," she backed as far back into the cell as she could.

"Jesse, did you steal those cattle?" Jennifer asked the retreating woman.

"No," Jesse snapped, hurt that the schoolteacher would think her capable of such an act.

"I know you didn't," Jennifer softened her tone.  "But, there are several drunk men over at the Slipper that don't care if you did or didn't.  All they care about is lynching someone and guess whose neck they plan to put their noose around."  She started to plead knowing that the time to make their escape was rapidly disappearing, "please, Jesse.  Come with me."

Without thinking, Jesse reached up and rubbed her neck.  She could almost feel the noose tightening around it.  "We can't go back to the Slipper.  And, we can't just walk out of town.  They'll catch us in no time," Jesse made one final attempt at stopping the unstoppable. 

Jennifer grinned, knowing she held all the aces and was ready to lay the last one on the table, "Dusty is waiting for us out back."

Jesse knew the right thing to do was to stay put.  But if she did, there was a good chance she would hang for something she didn't do.  If she ran, she knew she shouldn't involve the schoolteacher but, then, Jennifer was already involved.  And, for reasons that made no sense to her, Jesse wanted the schoolteacher with her.

"Well, then," Jesse returned the grin.  "What are we waiting for?"  Jesse joined Jennifer outside of the cell and the two moved quickly to the back door of the jail. 

"Wait," Jesse stopped and crossed to the sheriff's desk.

Jennifer watched as Jesse opened the top drawer and removed a knife, then bent to replace it in her boot.  Standing up, she saw Jennifer watching her quizzically. 

"Yours?" Jennifer asked.

"Mine," Jesse nodded.

Jesse rejoined Jennifer and carefully opened the rear door.  Seeing only Dusty standing patiently in the moonlight behind Sweetwater's tiny business district, Jesse opened the door wide enough for Jennifer to pass though.  Dusty raised her head in a silent greeting to her mistress and stood quietly as Jesse mounted her.  Without a word, Jesse stretched a hand down to Jennifer who took it and was swung effortlessly up into the saddle behind Jesse.

"Hang on," Jesse whispered.  Jennifer wrapped her arms around Jesse's waist and, gladly, did as she was told.


After a nerve-wracking ride from Sweetwater, Dusty finally reached the hillock that overlooked Jesse's ranch.  Expecting to be discovered at any moment, neither woman had spoken a word on the ride from town.  Jennifer had never loosened her tight hold on Jesse's waist, not even after she had become accustomed to Dusty's gait and could have held on with a looser grip.  She found that she liked the feel of her arms wrapped around Jesse.  It felt, well, it just felt right, she decided.  And, Jesse didn't seem to mind.

Jesse had ridden from Sweetwater with both ears attuned to any sound that would indicate the jail break had been discovered and they were being chased.  She was more than relieved to hear only the regular night sounds of an occasional owl hooting or coyote howling in the distance.  Nothing else disturbed Jesse's concentration.  Well, almost nothing.

As much as Jesse tried to free her mind of thoughts of the two arms wrapped tightly around her waist and of the breathing at her back, she could not.  She found herself liking the feel of Jennifer riding behind her.  Sometime between Sweetwater and their present location, Jesse had placed one of her own arms atop Jennifer's and, Jesse had decided, it felt right.

As Dusty crested the top of the rise, Jesse turned the mare so that she could have an unobstructed view of their route from Sweetwater.  Even though the night was dark, there was enough of a moon to allow Jesse's sharp eyes to scan the trail for any sign of a dust cloud that would reveal a posse was in pursuit.  As Jesse scanned what was behind them, Jennifer took the time to check out what lay before them.

Nestled in a small basin at the bottom of the hillock sat Jesse's ranch.  A one-story cabin, which served as the ranch house, stood in the middle of the basin and faced west with a clear view of the mountains in the distance.  It looked to be not much bigger than the dining area of the Silver Slipper, with a similar wrap-a-round porch.  The house was flanked by chimneys at its north and south ends and a long, neglected garden took up the area behind it.  About one hundred feet beyond the garden, stood a barn almost three times the size of the ranch house.  The moonlight reflected off the new portions of roof and the newly rebuilt corral fence encircling three sides of the building.  There were a couple of other outbuildings but, not being familiar with ranches, Jennifer could only guess to their purpose. 

Jesse turned Dusty back towards the ranch and encouraged the horse to continue down the road.  Just where the road flattened out at the bottom of the hillock, two large logs stood on either side of the path.  Arching from the top of one log to the other was a third log with the side facing incoming visitors cut flat.  Carved into the flat surface was the name Jesse had given the ranch, J's Dream

Dusty carried her two passengers under the arch and to the ranch house.  Jesse slipped out of the saddle as soon as Dusty stopped and turned to help Jennifer down.

"We don't have much time," Jesse said as she lead Jennifer onto the porch.  Opening the cabin's door, she urged Jennifer inside.  "They have no doubt discovered us missing by now," she told Jennifer as she crossed the room to the sleeping area.  Jesse opened a trunk that sat at the foot of the bed and began pulling items out of it.  She discarded most of what she took out until she held an old pair of jeans and a worn flannel shirt.

"Put these on," she tossed the clothes to Jennifer.  Digging further into the trunk, she pulled out a pair of boots.  "These, too," she placed the boots on the floor.  Jesse slammed the trunk closed. 

"These don't look like they belong to you," Jennifer said as she held the clothes up in front of her.

"They don't.  Found the chest when I bought the place.  Figured they were left by the previous owner."  Seeing that Jennifer had not moved, Jesse snapped "hurry up.  Get those on if you're coming with me."

Hearing Jesse's comment and deciding that she did not want to give her any excuse to leave her behind, Jennifer jumped into action.  As she began to remove the dress she wore, she asked "what's wrong with my own clothes?"

Jesse had crossed the room to the kitchen area and was filling an old flour sack with supplies.  "You won't be very comfortable where we're going in that dress and those shoes," she answered without stopping from her task.

"Where are we going?" Jennifer asked as she pulled on the denim pants.  They were too long for her legs and she bent to roll the cuffs up.

Jesse's breath caught in her chest as she turned to answer and her eyes fell on the half-dressed body of the schoolteacher.  She tried to look away but her eyes would not follow her commands and stayed focused on Jennifer as she rolled the pant legs up to free her feet.  "You're beautiful," Jesse said to herself, or so she thought.

"Did you say something?" Jennifer turned her head to look in Jesse's direction.  Her eyes locked onto Jesse's.  For several long moments, both women absorbed the varying and changing emotions flashing in the eyes of the other.  They might have remained locked in that moment forever if Dusty hadn't whinnied outside. 

Jesse finally pulled her eyes from Jennifer, "um, I, um."  Jesse couldn't make her mouth form the words she wanted.  She finally gave up and went back to filling the sack. 

Jennifer smiled to herself as she returned to her task of dressing. her question forgotten by both women.

After dropping the full sack at the cabin's door, Jesse walked to a chest standing against the rear wall of the cabin.  Opening it's doors, she reached inside and filled her free hands with ammunition for her rifle and pistols. 

"You about ready," she asked Jennifer as she walked back to the cabin's door and pulled it open. 

"Yes," Jennifer was stuffing the bottom of the too big shirt into the top of the too big pants.  She felt like a little girl wearing her big brother's clothes.  At least, she thought that was what she felt like since she had never in her life worn pants before.  Surprisingly, the boots seemed to be the right size for her.  One more firm tuck to secure the shirt and she crossed to the door.  Since Jesse was busy placing the bullets into Dusty's saddlebags, Jennifer bent and picked up the sack Jesse had filled.

"I'll get that," a tender voice spoke into her ear and sent a warm shudder through her body.  Jesse was standing behind her and carefully took the sack from her hands.  After securing the sack to Dusty's saddle, Jesse swung herself up into it.

"Make sure the door is secure," she instructed Jennifer who stood watching on the porch. 

After doing so, Jennifer quickly crossed the porch and took Jesse's offered hand to be again lifted into the saddle.  Not needed to be told, Jennifer wrapped her arms around Jesse and hung on as Dusty took off at a fast trot.  As they rode away from the ranch, Jesse laid a arm over Jennifer's and heard a soft sigh at her back.



To the east, the sun was beginning to replace the night's darkness with its light.  In the town of Sweetwater a small group of recently sobered men sat on their horses in the street outside of the jail house.  Sheriff Billie Monroe, a bandage wrapped around his upper arm and sporting a nasty bruise on his jaw stood on the boardwalk in front of the building.

The night before, Sheriff Monroe had listened to Jesse's side of the events and knew the woman had nothing to do with stealing cattle.  As he left the jail after Jennifer brought word of a growing lynch mob in the Slipper's saloon, he wondered how he would convince the stirred up cowboys and ranchers of this.  He could see several men milling about the porch and in the street in front of the Slipper.  He didn't have to be too close to know that they had consumed more than enough liquor to make them dangerous. 

As Billie made his way from the jail to the Slipper, he was joined by Thaddeus, the newspaper editor, who had just ridden into town.  He left his horse tied up outside the newspaper office and met the sheriff in the middle of the street.

"What's going on, Billie?" he asked.   "Heard lots of talk about a hanging when I rode past the Slipper."

"Billingsley and Butler are accusin' Jesse of being a cattle rustler," Billie explained without breaking stride.

"That's a pile of horse poop and you know it," Thaddeus fell into step with the sheriff.  "Where is she?"

"In jail."

"You left her alone?"  Thaddeus was incredulous at the sheriff's seeming lack of protection provided to his prisoner.

"Didn't have much choice.  Couldn't stay there to protect her and try to break up the lynch mob.  Besides, she ain't alone.  Miss Jennifer is with her."

"Miss Jennifer?"

"Yep, wouldn't have it any other way.  There's a lot of spirit in that woman."

"Are they safe?  Want me to go back there?"

Billie thought for a minute before shaking his head, "might could use your help here more.  I'd ask Ed to go, but don't have the time."  Having reached the Slipper, he climbed the steps to the porch and was immediately confronted by the drunk men.

"What do ya say," one man slurred, "we just take her off ya hands, sheriff?"

"Yeah, what 'ta ya say?" added another man who was holding himself upright by wrapping his arms around a post.

"Not tonight, boys," Billie eased past the men.  "Can't have the circuit judge come to town and have nothin' to do."

"It'll save the town some money," the first man said.

"Maybe," Billie had reached the door and pulled it open.  "But, I can't let ya do it."

Once inside, the sheriff saw Bette Mae and the other girls huddled near the saloon door.  One look at them and Billie knew the situation was bad.  He couldn't remember ever seeing Bette Mae scared and right now she looked down right petrified.  Billie flashed a brief smile in the women's direction before entering the saloon where he knew he would have to confront the real trouble makers on this night that he was already wishing he could forget.

"'Bout time ya showed up, Billie," Conrad Billingsley yelled from his spot against the room's long bar.  "We was just goin' to come get ya." 

Billie knew that the rancher was drunk.  Hell, he knew that everyone in the room was drunk with the exception of himself, Thaddeus, and Sally, who tended bar for the Slipper.  One glance around the room and he knew he was in trouble.  Two sober man standing against a lynch mob did not bode well for Jesse's chances. 

"Well, here goes," he muttered to Thaddeus as they made their way through the crowd to the bar.  Billie thought 'wish us luck, Jesse'.

Upon reaching the bar, Sheriff Monroe leapt up onto the well cared for surface.  Looking down at the men in the room, he announced "bar's closed."  Shouting over the protests that followed he continued, "you've all had more than enough.  I'm asking you to go home and sleep it off.  We can talk about Jesse when you are sober and thinking right."

"Like hell," the rancher Butler slammed his fist down on the bar at the sheriff's feet.  "We'll hang the bitch tonight."  Several other men in the room voiced their agreement to the declaration.

Hoping to stop what was happening, the newspaperman appealed to the richest rancher in the valley.  "Billingsley, help put a end to this before you all make a serious mistake."

"Why, Thaddeus?" the rancher responded.  "She stole the cattle.  Let her pay the price."

"Conrad, you know she didn't steal any cattle," the sheriff took up the appeal for reason.  "I've heard Jesse's side and I can assure you that she had nothin' to do with this."

The shouts for hanging were getting louder and more forceful.  Many of the men who had been outside had now come in to hear what was being said and were adding their voices to the chaos.  The sheriff's voice was lost in the increasing noise and he stood on the bar watching any influence he might have had slipping away. 

Trying one more time to save his prisoner, the sheriff shouted, "I'm ordering you all to GO HOME NOW."

As the sheriff looked over the crowd to see if any would do as he had ordered, a shot rang out.  The sheriff was thrown sideways by the shock of the bullet ripping through his arm.  Unable to protect himself, he could not avoid cracking his jaw on the edge of the bar as he fell.  Before his body reached the floor, the darkness of unconsciousness had claimed him.

A moment of silence filled the room as the men watched the sheriff disappear behind the bar.  Then a voice from one of the men sounded in the stillness, "now's our chance, boys.  Ain't got to worry about the sheriff tryin' to stop us now."

As if all of the bodies were in someway linked together, the men surged towards the saloon's door.  The first man had barely reached the opening when another shot exploded in the room.

The men turned to see Sally standing behind the bar, a shotgun in her hands and pointed into the crowd.  A dead silence took over the room as the men checked to see if anyone had been wounded.  Before they could regain their mob momentum, Sally calmly aimed the shotgun at Conrad Billingsley chest. 

"Next man who talks of lynching Miss Jesse, I'll blow your head off," she informed the rancher.

"Come on, boys," the voice in the crowd spoke again.  "She won't shoot anyone."

"She might not," Bette Mae stood in the kitchen's doorway, a shotgun leveled at the tall rancher.  "But, I sure as hell will."

"Come on," the voice again cried out.  "Two women ain't goin' 'ta stop us."

"Two women and one man," Thaddeus said from his place behind the bar.  After the sheriff had been shot, the newspaperman had ducked behind the bar to check on his condition.  Seeing that the bullet had gone clean through his arm, he took a handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wrapped it around the wound.  Then, he pulled a pistol from the unconscious man's holster and took his place behind the bar.  "And, it look's like there's a few more women out there just hoping you'll try to leave," he nodded to the open door leading into the dining room where some of the girls had gathered, some holding weapons.

Seeing that he was facing the barrel of, at least, two shotguns and a pistol, Conrad Billingsley was rapidly sobering up.  He knew that Thaddeus, Sally, and the other girls might be overrun before they could shoot but Bette Mae would drop him before anyone could take a step.  Weighing his options and finding that he had none, Billingsley gave up. 

"Alright," he shouted to the men stirring about him.  "This has gone far enough." 

"Like hell, it has," the voice called out.

Cutting off further conversation, Billingsley commanded, "I said ENOUGH.  Everyone sit down, NOW."

Slowly, the men began to obey.  One by one, they sat in the nearest chair and when all the chairs were taken, they sat on the floor until no one was left standing except the rancher and the women with their weapons pointed at him. 

"That's better," Bette Mae said from her post at the kitchen's door.  "How's Billie?"

"Bullet went clean through," Thaddeus informed her.

Sally placed the shotgun on the bar in front of Thaddeus, then knelt down to the sheriff slumped on the floor.  "He's coming around," she stood back up.  "He's goin' have a headache for a few days."

Bette Mae signaled to one of the women standing behind her.  The woman ducked under Bette Mae's arms still holding the shotgun and made her way among the men to the bar.  She and Sally helped the sheriff up and half-carried him into the kitchen area so that they could attend to his injuries.

"Now," Bette Mae addressed the men, "you are goin' to stay here 'til mornin'.  You won't move, you won't say anythin'.  I suggest that you get some sleep 'cause ya goin' wish you had come sunrise."  Not hearing any argument from her captive audience, Bette Mae continued.  "My girls and I ain't goin' nowheres, so don't get any ideas." 

After a long look at the men sitting about the room, Bette Mae added "Sweetwater's population of jackasses sure done grown tonight.  And, you can put that in your paper, Thaddeus."

"I'll make it my headline," Thaddeus said as he took a more comfortable position sitting atop the bar.  A rippling of laughter was heard from the women.  Exchanging the pistol for the shotgun, he place it across his legs. 


It took a couple of hours but Sheriff Monroe's vision was finally clearing and the ringing in his head was down to a loud roar.  His arm was wrapped in a clean bandage and a piece of ice wrapped in a towel was pressed against his jaw.  He was sitting in the kitchen and being attended to by one of the woman that worked at the Slipper.  The sheriff tried to think of her name but eventually decided that he had never known it.  He remembered that the girl was very shy and said very little.  She worked in the kitchen and laundry areas of the Slipper and rarely came into contact with the guests.  As his mind cleared, the sheriff wondered why he hadn't taken notice of the pretty girl before.  Maybe after this mess was over, he would come by the Slipper's kitchen and see if he could get the girl's attention.

"How's the head?" Bette Mae sat beside the sheriff and, effectively, brought his thoughts back to the events at hand.

"Feels like my horse kicked me," the sheriff said cautiously so as not to jar his injured face too much.

"Probably will for a while," Bette Mae handed him a fresh piece of ice and took the wet towel from him.  "What now, Billie?" she asked.

"You keep them here and I'll go check on Jesse," he nodded a thank you for the ice before pressing it against his jaw.  "She probably thinks something happened to me by now."

"Somethin' did happen to you," Bette Mae wrung out the drenched towel and handed it back.

"Yeah," he said as he wrapped the towel around the chunk of ice.  "Good thing it happened at the Slipper and you stood up to them," the sheriff rose from the chair, swaying a bit as he stood.

"Hang on, Billie," Bette Mae reached out and placed a steadying arm on the sheriff's.  "Maybe one of us should walk with you."

"Nah," he tried to smile but it quickly turned into a grimace when his jaw protested.  "I'll be okay once I get going.  Besides, I'd rather you stay and help Thaddeus keep an eye on them," he tilted his head in the direction of the saloon.

"Okay," Bette Mae agreed.  "I'll have Ruthie keep an eye on you from the porch.  She can make sure you make it back to your office."

"Sounds good," Billie reached for his hat that rested on a shelf near the door.  Without care, he placed it on his head, mashing his disheveled hair under it.  "Thanks, again, Bette Mae."

"You give our love to Jesse," the older woman squeezed the arm that she still gripped.  "And, send Miss Jennifer back here so I can see that she is alright."

"I will," the sheriff said as he left.

Sheriff Monroe gained strength as he walked from the Slipper towards his office.  It was still dark out and this surprised the sheriff.  It felt like the night's events had lasted several days instead of just a few hours.  Billie stepped into the moonlit street and stopped in the middle of it.  Careful not to move his jaw any more than necessary, he took several deep breaths.  The cold, night air felt good as it filled his lungs and the lingering dizziness from his fall seemed to dissipate as he continued to draw in the fresh air.  After several minutes, he continued his journey.

He reached his office to find the front door locked as he had instructed Jennifer to do upon his departure just hours earlier.  He knocked lightly, sorry to have to wake the women he was sure to be asleep inside.  As his knocking received no answer, he knocked louder and called to Jennifer.  Still only silence answered him.  Moving to the window beside the door, he peered into his office.  He could see nothing as no lamp was lit inside the building.  He rapped his knuckles strongly against the window pane in hopes that the sharper sound would wake the women.  No answer.

"Strange," Billie mumbled.  He had always heard that Jesse was a light sleeper and would awake at the smallest of sounds.  "Must really have been worn out after tonight's excitement," he said to no one in particular. 

The sheriff was about to try the other window when something caught his eye.  It wasn't much.  Just the flash of moonlight reflecting off the cell's bars.  The sheriff stood frozen in place while he tried to reason out why that had caught his attention.  It was just the moonlight and that wasn't unusual on a clear night for the moon to penetrate into his office.

"Damn," Billie jerked away from the window.  The moonlight, that was the answer.  There was no way for the moonlight to reach that part of the jail unless it came through the back door.  And, the only way for it to come through the back door was if the door was open.

Billie raced down the boardwalk until he reached the entry to a walkway that ran between the jail and the town hall.  He ran along the walkway and slid to a stop at the back of the jail.  The door stood wide open.  He entered the building already knowing what he would find.  It was empty.  The cell that he had left Jesse securely locked in was open and vacant.  His desk was pushed up against the front door to keep out any unwanted visitors.

"Damn," the sheriff repeated.  "Why, Jesse?" he said to the empty room.  "They'll hang you for sure when they catch you."

"Then you'll have to make sure they don't catch her," the sheriff swung around to see Ed standing in the open doorway.

"Did you know?" he shot the accusing question at the big man.

"No," Ed shook his head.  "Didn't think she'd break her way out."

"She didn't," the sheriff informed him.  "She had help from Miss Jennifer," he pointed at the key ring still hanging from the cell door's lock.

A smile slowly made it's way across Ed's face and his belly laugh filled the air.  "Damn," he chuckled.  "That schoolteacher has sure got some spunk."

"Yeah," Billie was pulling his desk away from the front door.  "That spunk may get them both killed."


Ed accompanied the sheriff back to the Silver Slipper.  The short walk was made in silence as both thought on the opinion the sheriff had voiced in his office.  They knew that a posse would have to be formed and Jesse and Jennifer would be hunted down and brought back to face judgment for the jail break.  Any hope of the judge letting Jesse off after hearing her testimony regarding the rustled cattle was gone.  The sheriff pondered how he could keep control of a posse of men who would now be angry that they had been forced to sit in the Slipper's saloon while Jesse made her escape.  Ed wondered if Jesse could keep herself and the schoolteacher safe until they could uncover the truth behind the rustlers and clear both their names.

As the sheriff entered the Slipper to inform the now sobering men of the jail break, Ed stopped him with a large hand on his arm.

"Give Jesse the time she needs," the storekeeper asked knowing that he didn't need to explain his request.

"I'll do what I can," Billie agreed and then entered the saloon.  Ed following close behind.

A few men were talking quietly but most of the men were sleeping or just sitting, consumed by their own thoughts.  They stepped over the men on the floor and made their way back to the bar where Thaddeus still sat.  The sheriff pulled a chair behind the bar and stood on it.  Still a little unsure on his feet after his injury, he did not want to chance climbing on top of the bar. 

Thaddeus slipped off the bar and handed Ed the shotgun, "you'd probably be more comfortable with this than I am." 

"Thanks," the large man accepted the gun and stood beside Billie.  Thaddeus took up a position at the end of the bar where he could watch the proceedings and make notes.  After all, he did have a newspaper to run and this was the biggest story to hit Sweetwater since he started the paper.

Once everyone was situated to his satisfaction, the sheriff picked his pistol up from the bar and rapped it hard on the wood surface.

The men who were already awake and watching the sheriff's actions, were ready for the sharp noise of his gun hitting the bar.  The sleeping men were not and woke in various stages of alarm.  After a few moments, the sheriff rapped the bar again.

"I hope I have everyone's attention now," he told the room. 

"Hey, what's with all the noise?" one man asked.  "Thought you wanted us to sleep?"

"Listen to me," the sheriff cut the man off.  "Something has happened and I need to form a posse."

This news brought the room back to life and several men shouted questions at the same time.  The sheriff held up his hands to quiet the men.  "Hold your questions and listen to me.  I'll tell you want happened, but first I'm setting some ground rules."

A few grumbles could be heard but, since the men wanted to find out what was going on, most remained silent to encourage the sheriff to continue.

"Alright," the sheriff took a deep breath and began.  "I'm naming the posse members.  The rest of you are to return to your homes and ranches and go back to your own business.  If any of you try to interfere with the posse, I'll arrest you.  And, you can answer to the circuit judge when he gets here."

More grumbles were heard, but were shushed by those around them.

"Billingsley and Butler, name three of your best trackers."

"That's it?" someone in the crowd asked.

"No, I'm asking Thaddeus and Ed to join us," the sheriff said.  "And, that's it."  Sheriff Monroe wasn't sure that putting the two ranchers on the posse was the best of ideas but he knew he would never leave town without Billingsley.  And, it was better to have Butler, who had a major dislike for Jesse, where he could keep an eye on him.  Plus, both men employed the best trackers in the valley.  The best besides Jesse.  That little piece of information gave the sheriff some piece of mind as he knew Jesse would not make it easy for the posse to follow her. 

The sheriff's decision to add the newspaper editor and the storekeeper to the posse was two-fold.  First, it would give him two extra sets of eyes and ears that were not out to harm Jesse and the two men would provide neutral testimony when the women went on trial.  The sheriff knew he had to bring the women back but he wasn't going to bring them back to hang.

"Alright, Billie," Conrad Billingsley rose from the chair he had been occupying.  His legs were stiff and his back ached and he was in no mood for any games from the sheriff.  "You've named your posse.  Now, do you mind telling us what the hell is going on."

"Jesse escaped from jail last night."

Shouts arose from every man in the room but the sheriff cut them off by firing his pistol in the air.

"Miss Jesse ain't goin' like all them bullet holes in her new ceiling," Ruthie said to Bette Mae as they watched the proceedings from the kitchen.

"Hush, child," Bette Mae scolded.  "Them's the least of our worries right now."

"Alright," the sheriff was trying to out shout the men.  Calls for the sheriff's arrest, and worse, for letting a prisoner escape started to make their way about the room.

Realizing that he couldn't hold back the men alone, the sheriff turned to the rancher standing on the other side of the bar.  "Billingsley, you know this has gone too far.  We have to work together or Sweetwater will pay the price for years to come."

Studying the sheriff and listening to the growing anger of the crowd, the rancher gave in for the second time in less than six hours.  He nodded and walked behind the bar to stand beside the sheriff and storekeeper.

"QUIET," Billingsley's bellow rolled around the room and the men paused.  The smart ones saw the intensity in the eyes of the men behind the bar and quieted.  The not-so-smart ones and the ones still too intoxicated, foolishly continued to protest.  "I SAID QUIET," a second, more forceful bellow rattled the glasses behind the bar and got everyone's attention.

"Last night was a mistake," Billingsley lowered his voice.  "We're ranchers, not a lynch mob.  Jesse has been a good friend since she came to Sweetwater."

"Speak for yourself," the rancher Butler mumbled.

"Shut up, Butler," Ed glared at the man.  "You don't like Jesse 'cause she's a woman and she runs a ranch.  That doesn't mean she should hang for something she didn't do."

"Is that how you treat cattle rustlers in Sweetwater?" a voice asked from the back of the room.

The sheriff looked in the direction of the voice, "who said that?"  The sheriff continued, "someone's been trying to stir you men up all night.  Always pushing you towards a lynching.  Look around, who do you see?  You see your friends and neighbors.  People you have known for several years.  Not people who would want to hang a friend."

Billingsley nodded at the sheriff's words as he realized that he was speaking the truth.  Someone had been stirring the pot most of the night, but why?  Maybe Jesse was innocent.

As the men searched the faces of those standing or sitting near them, no one took notice of the lanky cowboy who sat at a table in the back of the room.  To all who looked in his direction, he appeared to be just another of the young cowboys employed by one of the valley's ranches.  His outward calmness hid the fact that his heart was in his throat and the hands he hid under the table were shaking so bad he was afraid they would give him away.  The boy's thoughts were concentrated on whether or not he would manage to escape from the room alive.  He was in way over his head and he decided that no amount of money Johnson was going to pay him would compensate for what he was going through. 

As the men continued to search for the owner of the voice, the sheriff drew their attention back to the front of the room.  "Okay, any more questions, or problems, before we break this up?"

Some of the men shook their heads but most just stood quietly.

"Good," Sheriff Monroe said.  "Billingsley, you and Butler pick your men and meet me at the jail in half an hour.  Bette Mae, the Slipper is closed until the posse gets back," the sheriff told the women watching from the kitchen.  Without waiting for a response, he continued, "I expect no harm to come to the Slipper or to Jesse's ranch and livestock.  There's no proof she had anything to do with the rustling.  And after hearing her story, I'm convinced she had nothing to do with it.  But, we will bring her back and let the judge decide."

The sheriff bent to step down from the chair, then changed his mind and straightened back up.  "Now, for the last time, GO HOME," he said to the men.

An half hour later, a small group of recently sobered men sat on their horses in the street outside of the jail house.  Sheriff Monroe, a bandage wrapped around his upper arm and sporting a nasty bruise on his jaw stood on the boardwalk in front of the building.  The newspaperman and storekeeper were astride their own horses standing slightly apart from the ranchers. 

With one final look at his posse, the sheriff mounted his horse and turned it in the direction that would take them to Jesse's ranch.  "Let's go."



"Where are we going?" Jennifer asked from her place behind Jesse. 

After leaving Jesse's ranch, Dusty had maintained a steady pace.  They rode east from the ranch and into the thick forest on that side of the valley.  Jesse led them deep into the trees before changing directions to travel south in the direction where she had lost the rustlers' tracks the previous day.  'Was it really only one day', she thought.  So much had happened.

"Jess," Jennifer twisted in an effort to see Jesse's face.  "Are you okay?" she softly asked.

"Yes," Jesse patted the arms wrapped tightly around her waist.  "Just thinking."  She turned in the saddle to smile back at her passenger and was surprised to see the concern in Jennifer's eyes. 

"Guess I got myself in a pretty good mess, uh?"

"We'll get you out of it," Jennifer said.  She didn't know how and she didn't know why but she did know it was important to her future, both their futures, to see Jesse cleared of the charges against her.

"Wish I was as sure as you are," Jesse turned back around to guide Dusty through yet another rocky stretch of ground.

"Wouldn't it be easier to avoid the rocky areas?"

"Yes, but it would also make it easier for the posse to follow us."

"Oh," Jennifer turned to look behind them.  All she saw were trees, "are they following?"

"Probably," Jesse said.  After taking note of the location and length of the sun's shadows, she added, "should have reached the ranch by this time."  She wondered if Billie would be able to stop the ranchers from tearing it apart looking for more evidence that she had stolen their cattle.  With a sigh, she realized that there wasn't much she could do about it now.

"So, where are we going?" Jennifer repeated.

"South, to the spot where I tracked the rustlers yesterday.  Hopefully, I can pick up their tracks again."

"Then what?"

"Then, I try to find out who they are and why they want me to hang."

Jennifer stiffened, "don't say that."

"Hey," Jesse gently stroked Jennifer's arm.  "I have no intention of being the guest of honor at a necktie party.  But, you have to admit, someone is trying real hard to make me look guilty."

"I know," Jennifer's voice was soft as she laid her head against Jesse's back.


It was late morning when Dusty left the cover of the forest.  They quickly made their way across the south end of Jesse's property, Dusty carrying them on a path that would cross the rustlers' trail. 

"That's the canyon I found the cattle in yesterday," Jesse pointed.

Jennifer lifted her head from Jesse's back, "shouldn't we check it out?"

"Nah, I doubt they would go back there."  Jesse shook her head at her stupidity.  If only she had left the cattle where she had found them and had gone to find Billie.  But, the animals had been hungry and thirsty and she knew she had done the right thing for them.  Unfortunately, it wasn't the right thing for her.

Dusty stopped at a small creek their path crossed.  Jesse realized her horse was right and a break was in order.  Unlocking Jennifer's arms from her waist, Jesse swung her leg over the saddle horn and slipped to the ground.  She reached up to help Jennifer from Dusty's back.  Free of her riders, Dusty enjoyed a long drink of water.

As soon as her feet touched the ground, Jennifer groaned at her sore muscles.  She arched her back into a stretch, "goodness, I never knew riding a horse was so hard on one's body."

Jesse laughed as she stretched out her own tired muscles, "takes some getting used to.  I take it you didn't do much riding back home?"

"Only if you count horse drawn buggies," Jennifer took a few tentative steps to get the blood flowing again in her legs.

"Here," Jesse offered the canteen.  "Drink.  Won't be long 'til the sun is really beating down on us."

Jennifer accepted the offer and took a long drink before handing it back.  As, Jesse knelt to refill the canteen from the creek, Jennifer joined her.  After rolling her sleeves above her elbows, Jennifer cupped her hands and filled them with the cool water which she splashed on her arms and face. 

Watching, Jesse pulled the bandana from her neck, soaked it in the creek and partially wrung it out.  "Put this around your neck," Jesse held the still dripping cloth out.  "It will help keep you cool."

Jennifer smiled gratefully as she took the bandana from Jesse.  "What about you?"

"I'm used to the heat," Jesse lied.  She knew that in a short time the sun would make their ride miserably but it was a small sacrifice to give Jennifer some relief from the heat.  "Keep that wet," Jesse added.  "Let me know if the canteen gets low."

Dusty was ready to continue and Jesse mounted up.  She reached down for Jennifer and as soon as the schoolteacher was settled, she urged Dusty into a trot.

Jesse soon picked up the rustlers' tracks and began following them back into the forest where the tracks had split up.  Guessing that the three riders would eventually rejoin each other, Jesse decided to stay with the one that had continued south.  It was a direction that would keep them in the trees and out of the sun.  And, would make a easier ride on Dusty and them.


Dusty was picking her way up a dry creek bed.  Jesse and Jennifer were walking alongside to give the tired horse a break.  It was hot but the large ponderosa pines around them served to block the sun's intensity.  Jennifer had long ago given up on keeping Jesse's bandana wet.  The afternoon's oven like conditions dried it almost as fast as she could pour water over it. 

They had been following the same set of tracks for so long that Jennifer was able to pick them out almost as easily as Jesse.

Wanting to break the heavy silence that had grown between them, Jesse asked, "so, what brought you to Sweetwater?  Other, than the schoolteacher position, I mean."

Jennifer was quiet for several moments while she decided how much she wanted to tell her companion.  But after considering that she had just broken Jesse out of jail after knowing her for only a few days, she decided there wasn't much reason to not tell the truth.

"I come from a family where girls are raised to marry, have children and not question their father's or husband's decisions.  I wanted more than that.  A friend gave me a newspaper from Denver, I saw the ad for schoolteachers and I answered it."

"Your father, or," Jesse hesitated.  "Or, husband must have had something to say about you leaving."  She held her breath not really sure she wanted to know the answer to her unspoken question.  

Jennifer laughed softly, "oh, I'm not married.  Not that my father didn't do everything in his power to make sure that I was.  I didn't tell anyone I was leaving.  Oh, except for Matt.  He's the friend," she smiled as she thought of the librarian.  "He helped me.  Bought the train ticket and gave me some money to live on until I received my schoolteacher's pay.  He kept my secret even though he works for my father.

"I knew if my father found out what I was planning, he would have had my brothers watch my every move.  To him, I wasn't worth anything more than being the incentive part of a business deal," she said bitterly.  "Just a way to make his shipping business more profitable by marrying me off to the son of one of his associates." 

Jesse was saddened by Jennifer's words and wanted nothing more than to pull the schoolteacher to her and hug her tight.  Instead, she asked, "what about your mother?"

"Like I said, the women in my family are taught to obey.  I don't think I ever heard my mother question my father.  Whatever he decided was fine with her.  And, my brothers went along with father as long as he controlled the family business."  Jennifer sighed deeply, "it may have been good enough for mother, but I was not going to live like that.  So, here I am."

Jesse smiled, "I'm glad you're here."

Jennifer smiled back shyly, "Me, too.  So, what about you?"

"I'm sure Bette Mae or one of the girls has told you the story.  I won the Slipper in a poker game.  Not much else to tell."

"Sure there is," Jennifer protested.  "I mean, it's not usual for a woman to be riding around the west by herself.  What about your family?"

"I was born on my folk's ranch outside of Bozeman.  Just the three of us.  My mom had a boy a year after me, but he died the same day.  She couldn't have any more children after that.  I don't think my dad ever forgave her.  He'd always wanted a son."

"But, he had you."

"Yeah, he worked me liked he would have a son, that's for sure.  I worked that ranch since the day I learned to ride, and I was riding before I could walk.  Guess I just figured one day the place would be mine.  He figured it differently."

"What happened?"

"Came home one day after riding fence to find them packing up and moving into town.  Told me he sold the ranch and I was on my own."

Jennifer gasped, "he threw you out."

"Guess you could say that.  Seems I had taken too long to find myself a husband and the son that he could finally pass the ranch to.  So, he took the money when it was offered."

"What did you do?"

"Got back on Dusty and never looked back.  Found myself in Denver one night and decided to try my luck in a poker game.  You know the rest."

"Some pair we are, uh?" Jennifer began to chuckle.  "Neither of us any good to our families because we wouldn't get married."

"Yeah," Jesse joined in the laughter.  "Looks like we'll be a pair of old spinsters, puttering around Sweetwater in our old age."

"As long as we do it together, you won't hear me complain," Jennifer said before she could stop herself.

Jesse grinned and this time she didn't hesitate, she wrapped her arms around Jennifer and hugged her tight.  "Me, too," she whispered.  "Me, too."

Jennifer melted into Jesse's arms.  She looked up into Jesse's eyes and saw the same affection reflected back at her.  Now, she knew why she had turned away every suitor her father had arranged for her.  None had looked at her like Jesse was and none had made her feel important like Jesse did by just holding her.  She had left the place of her birth, traveled half way across the country and had found her home.  And, she couldn't think of a better place to be at this very moment.

Jesse felt Jennifer return her embrace without hesitation.  It felt so good to hold her.  If she could stay in this moment forever, she would be a very happy woman.  No one's touch had ever affected Jesse the way the schoolteacher's did.  And, Jesse was going to do everything in her power not to lose the feeling.  After several minutes, Jesse gently broke their embrace. 

"We need to keep moving," Jesse told the disappointed schoolteacher. 

Jennifer sighed but knew Jesse was right, "when this is all over, I want to pick up where we left off."

Jesse smiled, "that's a promise."

They resumed their journey picking their way around the larger rocks in the dry creek bed.

"You would think that he would try to hide his tracks," Jennifer referred to the rustler they were tracking.

"Um," Jesse had had the exact same thought more than once.  It was almost as if the rider wanted to be followed.  "Maybe."

"Maybe?  It's almost as if he wants us to follow," Jennifer gave voice to Jesse's thoughts.

"Well, if that's the case, I guess we're obliging him," Jesse told her.

"Jesse," Jennifer reached out a hand and gently rested it on Jesse's forearm.  "What do you plan to do when we catch up with the rustlers?"

Jesse stopped and looked down at the hand on her arm before raising her eyes to meet Jennifer's.  "I plan to find out why they are doing this to me and then I plan to figure out a way to get them back to Sweetwater and let Billie deal with them."

"But, what if," Jennifer started to ask when Jesse reached up and placed two fingers on her lips to quiet her.

Jennifer's lip were soft and Jesse wondered what it would be like to kiss them.  After several moments of considering doing just that, Jesse dropped her hand.

"It'll be okay," Jesse said with a confidence she didn't really feel.  "Come on," Jesse said as she lifted herself back into the saddle, "let's ride."

Jennifer reached up to take Jesse's outstretched hand and soon found herself seated behind Jesse in a position she was quickly becoming accustomed to.  She reached up and touched her lips, where only moments before, Jesse's fingers had rested.  She smiled.


Continued in Part 4.
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