See Part I for disclaimers..
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted April 2003
The tracks left the dry creek bed and led them along a forest path to a large meadow. As Dusty walked out from the trees into the clearing, she came to an abrupt stop.
"What's wrong," Jennifer cried out at the sudden motion.
"Shh," Jesse said. "Look, but don't make any noise."
Jennifer peeked over Jesse's broad shoulders and saw several dozen large deer-like animals grazing on the meadow's grasses.
"What are they?" she whispered.
"They're beautiful," Jennifer was immediately taken with the magnificent animals.
Some stood as tall as Dusty and carried the beginnings of large racks of antlers on the heads. Their brown coats blended in with the growing shadows and if it hadn't been for their light colored rears, Jennifer would have had trouble picking some of them out. A few lifted their heads from the grass to look at the intruders. But, sensing that they meant them no harm, they quickly went back to grazing. Several of the younger ones skirted around to put their mothers between themselves and the women.
"It'll be dark soon," Jesse looked to the western sky. The sun stayed in the sky late this time of year but when it started to drop, it fell fast and night was a short time coming. "Guess this is as good a spot as any to set up camp."
"We're going to camp here with them," Jennifer was a little nervous thinking of trying to sleep with the big animals wandering around.
"No," Jesse nudged Dusty around the elk herd to the edge of a small creek running through the clearing. "They'll be gone by nightfall. They don't stay in one spot for very long."
"Oh," Jennifer continued to watch the elk. Impressed at the way they moved with their heads held high. "They're so majestic when they move."
"Yeah," Jesse said as she swung her leg over Dusty's neck and slipped from the saddle. "I could sit and watch them all day."
Jennifer slid down from the saddle and landed next to Jesse. "I can see why," she agreed as she stretched her back and legs.
Jesse pulled the saddle bags and gear off Dusty and placed it on the ground. Then, she pulled the saddle and saddle blanket off. Rummaging around in one of the saddle bags, she found the grooming tools and immediately began to give Dusty and good rub down. "Been a long day for you, girl. Hasn't it?"
Dusty raised her head in agreement.
"Let me get you cleaned up and then you can run free for the night."
"Aren't you afraid she'll run off," Jennifer questioned.
"Nah," Jesse continued her chore. "Raised her from a foal. She and I are good pals, we look out for each other. I'd never leave her and she'd never leave me. Right, girl?" Jesse patted the mare's neck before removing the bridle.
Dusty whinnied her response then took off at a run right through the center of the herd, the elk scurrying out of her way. Both women laughed at the mare's antics.
"Best get camp set up while we still have light."
"What can I do," Jennifer asked at a loss. She had never, in her entire life, slept outside. She had no idea how it was done. Where did Jesse have the bed? It couldn't possible fit in one of the saddlebags.
"Well, you could gather up firewood," Jesse suggested.
Looking around, Jennifer wasn't sure where she would find a stack of chopped firewood. "Um," she scanned the meadow. "Ah, Jesse?"
"Yes," Jesse was gathering rocks for a fire ring.
"Where is the firewood?"
Looking up, Jesse was puzzled at Jennifer's question.
"Well, you could start with that branch you're almost standing on," she answered.
Reaching down, Jennifer lifted the branch in her hand. "You mean this?"
"Yes, what did you think I meant by firewood?"
"Well, I guessed you meant like the chopped wood Ed brings to the school house every day."
"Oh," realization slowly dawned on Jesse. "Sorry, I should have known you probably never did anything like this before," she grinned apologetically.
"I can truthfully say that I've never set up a camp before," Jennifer grinned back.
"Ok," Jesse said. "Let's start again. You can go around and pick up all the pieces of wood, like that branch, you can find. Just stay in the meadow and don't get near the elk."
"Right," Jennifer set off on her task.
After setting up the fire ring and clearing the loose debris around it so that a spark wouldn't set the meadow on fire, Jesse rolled out her bed roll and placed her blankets next to it. "Guess I'll be sleeping on the grass tonight," she said as she looked down at her only bedroll.
"Did you say something?" Jennifer returned with an armload of wood. She dropped it next to the fire ring.
"Just thinking I should have picked up another bedroll when we stopped at the ranch," Jesse reached for a few of the smaller branches and placed them inside the ring.
"Oh," Jennifer looked at the lone bedroll and pondered it's possible advantages.
"We'll need more wood," Jesse broke into her thoughts. "It'll get cold tonight."
Jennifer set off on another foray of firewood gathering, "I bet I know one way to keep warm tonight.
"Did you say something?" Jesse asked as she took out a match from the small box in the saddlebag.
"No, nothing at all," Jennifer smirked.
When she brought her second armful of branches back to the camp, Jennifer was surprised to see a fire was started, a small pot of water was warming on a rock placed amidst the burning wood, and Jesse was gutting two large fish.
After dropping her load with the other, she asked, "where did those come from?"
"The creek," Jesse gave her a very self-satisfied grin.
Jennifer walked over and looked into the small body of water flowing between the creek's banks. "In there?"
"Jesse, there's not enough water in that for me to take a bath."
Jennifer considered meeting the challenge, then shook her head and walked back to the fire. "They're big."
"Rainbows. Every taste one?"
"Don't think so."
"Then, you are in for a treat. Rainbows are the best when they're fresh from the water and cooked over an open fire."
Jesse finished cleaning the fish and placed them in a frying pan. Soon, the smell of grilling fish filled the air.
"Smells wonderful," Jennifer said from the log she sat on. Jesse had found it not far from their camp and had rolled it next to fire.
Darkness had overtaken the meadow and camp by the time the fish were ready to eat.
Jennifer was laying on her back on the bedroll. She stared up into the night sky, "I have never seen so many stars."
"You don't have stars back home?" Jesse asked as she washed up in the creek.
"Not as many as these," the more Jennifer stared, the more the stars began to take on shapes and forms. She had once read a book that talked about the stars and she remembered the book had called various groupings constellations. But, she had never been able to compare the book's descriptions to the actual stars in the sky because her father had told her it was nonsense for a woman to do such things and had forbade her to stay out at night to try.
"This is so different from back home," Jennifer sighed.
"How so?" Jesse sat on the log and placed a few more branches on the glowing fire.
"I don't know if I can describe it," Jennifer sat up to face Jesse. "I felt so restricted back there. So controlled. Here," she swept her arm around the meadow. "I feel so free. Like I can do anything."
Jesse smiled, "you can do anything, Jennifer."
Jennifer cocked her head and looked at Jesse, "that sounds nice."
"What, that you can do anything."
"No, the way you say my name. You put so much feeling into it when you say it. No one has ever done that before."
Neither woman knew what to say after that. They just sat quietly watching the fire light reflect off the other.
Dusty trotted back to the camp.
"Tired of irritating the elk?" Jesse asked the mare who had spent much of the evening chasing the large animals.
After a long drink in the creek, Dusty walked over and pushed her still dripping muzzle into Jesse's face and blew out a long breath through her nostrils. She then turned and trotted away from Jesse with a spring to her gait. Jennifer did everything she could to not laugh.
"Smart ass," Jesse grumbled as she wiped her face dry on her shirtsleeve.
Dusty whinnied her response.
Jesse looked over at the schoolteacher holding in her laughter. "Oh, go ahead and let it out before you bust a gut."
Howls of laughter rang out scaring away any elk that remained in the meadow. Slowly, the laughter ran down until Jennifer began to hiccup and couldn't stop.
Now, it was Jesse's turn to laugh. "Serves you right," she told the suffering woman.
Finally, taking pity on the schoolteacher, Jesse handed her the canteen. "Take a large gulp but don't swallow until you feel a hiccup coming. Swallow at the same time."
Jennifer did as she was instructed and the hiccups stopped. Taking a large lungful of air, Jennifer handed back the canteen. "Where'd you learned that?" she wheezed out.
"Don't know. Just always worked for me." Jesse walked over to her saddle and picked up the saddle blanket tossed over it. She lay down on the ground next to the log and pulled the blanket over her, "best we get some sleep."
Her breathing back to normal, Jennifer watched Jesse as she settled into the saddle blanket.
"What are you doing?"
"Going to sleep. What does it look like?"
"It looks like you plan to sleep wrapped in that smelly blanket."
Jennifer paused, then said what she had been thinking all evening. "Jesse, come share the bedroll with me."
Jesse took a deep breath, she wanted so much to do as Jennifer asked. Her feelings for Jennifer made the idea of sleeping close to her both terrifying and spine-tingling.
"I don't know."
"Please," Jennifer asked. She opened the blankets and crawled inside. Then holding them open, she added "we'll both be warmer."
"Alright," Jesse got up and slowly walked around the fire to where Jennifer lay waiting. She slipped between the blankets. Nervously, she lay on her back and waiting to see what Jennifer would do. The bedroll wasn't really wide enough for two people but Jesse wasn't going to move now that she was here.
Jennifer smiled at Jesse before moving to lay on her side next to Jesse. She placed her head on Jesse's shoulder and wrapped an arm around her waist. Timidly, she asked, "is this okay?"
"Yes," Jesse smiled as she felt the weight of Jennifer's body pressed against her own. "Are you comfortable?"
"Very," Jennifer snuggled closer and was surprised, but very pleased, when she felt Jesse's arms pull her close.
"Jennifer," Jesse said then paused. She continued awkwardly, "what would you think if I said that I was having feelings for you?"
Jennifer's heart leaped into her throat. Was it possible that Jesse felt for her the same way she felt for Jesse. She was afraid to ask but she had to know, "what kind of feelings?"
"The kind of feelings a woman must have for a man when she wants to spend the rest of her life with him," Jesse said in one long burst. She wanted to get the words said before she chickened out.
Not hearing a response from Jennifer, Jesse knew she had made a mistake in saying anything to Jennifer. She began to get up.
Jennifer felt Jesse move beneath her and she placed a hand on Jesse's chest to stop her. She raised her head up to look into Jesse's eyes.
"I'm so sorry," Jesse said when she saw the tears rolling down Jennifer's cheeks.
"No, Jesse," Jennifer smiled through the tears. "I'm glad you said it because I feel the same way."
"Then, why are you crying," Jesse reached up and softly wiped the tears away.
"Because, you've just made me very happy," Jennifer captured Jesse's hand in her own and pulled it to her chest as she laid her head back on Jesse's shoulder. She could hear Jesse's heart racing and knew that her own was beating just as rapidly.
"Good night, Jesse," Jennifer whispered.
Jesse wrapped the blankets around their joined bodies. "Good night, Jennifer."
It was early afternoon and they had been back on the rustlers' trail since dawn. For the past hour, the trail had led them in a southwesterly direction and was sloping more downhill. Jesse knew that they would soon leave the relative safety of the forest and be back in the open canyon country at the south end of the valley.
Jesse pulled Dusty to a stop.
"Listen," Jesse twisted in the saddle so she could see Jennifer. "I don't know what we're going to find when we leave the trees. Maybe, it would be best if you stayed here and..."
"No," Jennifer instantly cut her off. "Leaving me here is not an option. You're right, you don't know what we'll find but, whatever it is, we'll have a better chance if we stay together."
Jesse hesitated, she didn't want to put Jennifer in danger but it did make better sense to stay together. She looked in Jennifer's eyes and saw the schoolteacher's determination. Her decision was made. "Okay, but if we run into trouble, you do as I say. Deal?"
Jennifer nodded, "deal." To herself, she added 'maybe'.
Twisting back around in the saddle, Jesse nudged Dusty forward at a walk. This end of the valley was mostly box canyons and scrub brush ravines. Whoever they had been following could now be waiting in ambush in any number of places. Other than turning around and traveling back through the forest to meet the posse following them, there really wasn't much choice than to ride out and face whatever awaited them head on. Jesse only hoped that Billie had some good trackers in the posse and that they would catch up with the women soon.
As the forest began to thin, Jesse was able to see the opening country beyond. The trail was leading to a small meadow before leaving the forest completely. Dusty walked into the clearing and stopped. She nervously pawed the ground.
Jesse saw the source of her mare's apprehension. Across the meadow, a camp was set up and a fire was burning. Three horses stood tied to a picket line but their owners were nowhere in sight.
"Damn," Jesse muttered.
"What?" Jennifer had a death grip on Jesse's waist.
"Maybe," Jennifer whispered fearfully as she peeked over Jesse's shoulder, "we should go back."
Jesse continued to search the meadow and surrounding trees for any movement. "Too late for that," she said as a man stepped out from the trees, his rifle leveled at Jesse and Jennifer. He waved two younger men out from their hiding places, both also armed with rifles.
"Been a long time, bitch," the first man said.
"Johnson?" Jesse was puzzled that the previous owner of the Silver Slipper would be here.
"So, you remember me," Johnson sneered.
Jesse didn't answer but took the time to study the three men facing them. Johnson's younger companions looked uneasy, almost like they didn't want to be there. Johnson, on the other hand, looked jubilant, like he had fully expected Jesse to ride into his camp.
"What do you want, Johnson?"
"The Slipper back."
"It's not for sale," Jesse stalled as she tried to devise a plan to get herself and Jennifer safely out of the trap Johnson had sprung.
"Don' plan to pay for what I already own, bitch."
"Game was fair. You lost."
Tired of the conversation, Johnson commanded, "come over here. Nice and slow."
"If I refuse?"
"I'll shoot that pretty schoolteacher you brought with you."
With a gentle flip of the reins, Dusty began to walk forward.
"Hold it," Johnson shouted. "Throw down any weapons you have with you, first. And, you get off and walk. Don' want you tryin' anything."
"Alright," Jesse said. She slowly swung her leg over the saddle horn and slid easily to the ground. They were a good 50 feet from the men and Jesse knew she had to use the opportunity this presented. Turning to pull her rifle from the saddle's scabbard, she whispered to Jennifer, "keep looking at Johnson. I need you to listen to me and do as I say."
Jesse sensed Jennifer's body stiffen and Jesse patted her leg to reassure her. "Please, Jennifer. We don't have time to argue."
"What's taking you so long?" Johnson began to walk towards the women.
"Rifle's caught in the scabbard, give me a minute," Jesse turned to face the man. Seeing him stop, she turned back so he couldn't see her face. "I want you to ride Dusty back through the forest and find Billie."
"I can't," Jennifer began to protest.
"Yes, you can. I'm going to distract Johnson and his pals, then I'll signal Dusty. Hold on tight to the saddle horn so you won't be thrown off when Dusty starts to run. Find Billie, tell him to bring the posse as fast as he can."
"How will I find him?" Jennifer asked as Jesse pulled the rifle free and tossed it on the ground.
Jesse wrapped the reins loosely around the saddle horn, "just hang on. Dusty will take you to him." She looked up and smiled confidently at Jennifer, "you can do it."
Jesse reached into the saddle bag and pulled her pistols from it. She slipped one pistol into the back waistband of her pants while she made a show of tossing the other one down next to her rifle. Then she walked up and patted the mare's neck, "take care of Jennifer for me, girl."
Jesse stepped away from Dusty and spread her arms wide away from her sides. "Get ready," she said to Jennifer.
"Wait," Jennifer cried. "Jesse you can't too this." Jennifer kneed Dusty's sides in an attempt to move her closer to Jesse but the horse wouldn't budge. "Please, Jesse," she pleaded as Jesse moved further away from her.
"Bring her with you," Johnson commanded.
"No," Jesse barked back. Johnson raised his rifle and pointed it at Jennifer. Jesse pulled the pistol from it's hiding spot and dropped to the ground rolling. She fired a couple of shots at Johnson, the bullets digging into the trees behind him.. Johnson dove to the ground and Jesse used this moment to whistle to Dusty.
Jennifer felt Dusty's muscles tense and just had time to grab the saddle horn with all her might before the golden horse sprung into action. In a few strong steps, Dusty had turned and reached full speed as she sped for the safety of the forest. Jennifer tried to rein the horse in but her attempts were ignored by the mare. She heard more gunshots behind her and a cry of pain that she was sure came from Jesse but before she could turn around to look, Dusty had entered the forest and the trees blocked her view of the meadow.
Holding on as tight as she could, Jennifer let Dusty carry her away from Jesse. Tears streamed down her face as she imagined the worse had happened. "Please," she whimpered, "let her be alright."
It seemed like an eternity had passed when Dusty ran out of the forest and into the meadow where they had spent the previous night. Jennifer saw the sheriff and posse examining what remained of their campfire. Dusty was already making her way towards the men, when Jennifer started shouting, "Sheriff. Sheriff."
Dusty galloped right up to the posse before skidding to a stop literally at their feet.
"Thank god, we found you," Jennifer cried in relief.
"Miss Jennifer?" the sheriff asked. "Is that you?" It was hard to tell that the sweat and dirt covered rider dressed in jeans and flannel shirt was indeed the pretty schoolteacher from Sweetwater.
"Yes, it's me," Jennifer breath was coming in ragged gasps as she tried to control her emotions.
"Arrest her, sheriff," Butler grabbed for Dusty's reins. The horse snorted and reared pulling the reins from the rancher's hands.
"Stop that," Jennifer screamed as she almost fell from the saddle. Dusty settled back on all fours but shied away from the man still attempting to grab at her.
Ed stepped out of the group of men and eased his way up to the horse, "take it easy, there now, Dusty. No one is going to hurt you or Miss Jennifer." His gentle voice and smooth movements calmed the mare and she did not resist when the storekeeper took hold of her reins.
Thaddeus also stepped forward and the two men attempted to help Jennifer off the horse. But, Jennifer shook her head at the offer.
"You have to save Jesse," the woman pleaded to the two men. "Please, we don't have time to wait."
"Hang on there, Miss Jennifer," Ed told her. "We can't help if we don't know what the problem is. Now, why don't you get down off that horse and get yourself calmed down enough to tell us what's wrong."
"No," Jennifer cried. "There isn't time."
"Jennifer," Thaddeus looked up into Jennifer's tear streaked face and softly continued, "Ed's right. We can't do Jesse any good until you tell us what's going on. Come on and get down." He reached up to help Jennifer but was nudged out of the way by the taller storekeeper. Ed put his large hands around Jennifer's waist and lifted her out of the saddle.
"Just get her to tell us where Jesse is so we can get this over with and go home," Butler shoved the sheriff toward the woman. "And, arrest this one, too."
"Hold on," Billie said.
"He's right, Billie," Billingsley agreed. "She's wanted for breaking Jesse out of jail. Arrest her." Murmurs of agreement rippled through the other members of the posse standing around.
"Look, she's not going anywhere," Billie told the ranchers. "Let's hear what she has to say."
"Shut up," Jennifer screamed at the men standing around her. When Butler started to speak, she looked him straight in the eye, "I said to SHUT UP!"
Ed handed Jennifer a canteen. She smiled weakly at the big man as she accepted his offering and took a long drink of the water. It tasted so good and as she drank she wondered if Jesse had been given something to drink or if she was even still alive. Tears filled her eyes at the thought and she wiped them away with the dirty sleeve of her shirt.
"They shot Jesse," Jennifer said, her voice so full of emotion that she could barely get the words out.
"Is she dead?" Butler smirked.
"I don't know."
Seeing the tears, Ed softly said, "why don't you tell us what happened." He reached out and covered Jennifer's hands with one of his much larger ones and gently squeezed.
"We were following the rustlers' tracks when we came to a meadow. A man named Johnson and two others," Jennifer began.
"Johnson?" Billingsley cut her off. "What the hell does Johnson have to do with anything?"
"He said he wanted the Slipper back," Jennifer informed the group.
"Where are they?" Billie asked.
"At the south end of the valley where the forest meets the canyons," Jennifer pointed to the south.
Jesse felt a searing pain as the bullet ripped through her left upper arm. The force twisted her around and out of line of the other bullets fired at her. As she hit the ground, she looked to see if Jennifer had escaped unharmed. Dusty was well on her way to the tree line and in a few more strides would disappear into the forest.
Jesse heard Johnson yell at his cohorts to shoot Dusty and stop Jennifer. Jesse fired her remaining bullets at Johnson and the other men, it wasn't much but it kept them from injuring her mare or the schoolteacher. When her pistol clicked on an empty chamber, she threw it away in disgust. Realizing that she was too far away to reach her rifle and other pistol, she called out to Johnson and his companions, "hold your fire."
"Save your bullets, boys," Johnson said to the others. "Show yourself," he directed at Jesse.
Jesse sat up. She ripped a sleeve off her shirt and wrapped it tightly around her bleeding arm. The wound stung but Jesse was grateful to see that the bullet had only grazed her. Tending to her wound gave her time to think about her predicament and what she thought wasn't good. She was just glad that Jennifer had gotten away and hoped the woman could hang on as Dusty took her for the ride of her life.
"Bring her here," Johnson ordered his companions.
Jesse watched as the two younger men cautiously approached her.
"Can you stand?" Clinton, the older of the pair asked her.
"Yeah," Jesse struggled to her feet.
"You got any more guns hidden on ya?" Jimmie, the younger brother asked behind the gun shaking in his own hand.
Jesse looked at the shaking boy and it became obvious why she hadn't been hit by more of the bullets fired at her. "No, if I did, I would have used them. Why don't you point that somewhere else before it goes off," she told the boy.
He looked at his quivering hand and dropped his arm. "Not used to pointin' one of these at anyone," he mumbled.
"What's takin' you two so long?" Johnson shouted. "Bring her here."
"Come on," the older boy said as he grabbed Jesse's wounded arm.
"Hey," she winced at the jolt of pain that resulted. "If you need to grab something, try the other arm."
"Sorry," the boy released her arm. "Come on, he ain't goin' wait forever," he told her.
The boys escorted Jesse to a impatiently waiting Johnson. "Well," Johnson gloated. "Looks like the cards are all in my hand now."
"Look," Jesse started. "I'm not sure what exactly you want but you might want to know that there's a posse just a couple of hours behind me."
"They'd be lookin' for a cattle thief and," Johnson jabbed a finger in Jesse's chest, "that, would be you." Johnson glared at Jesse and before she knew what was happening, a huge fist slammed into her face. Jesse dropped to the ground like a stone.
"Why'd ya do that," Jimmie cried.
"Tie her to that tree," Johnson pointed at the broken trunk of a ponderosa pine near their camp. "Then, go find the other one and bring her back."
"What about the posse?" Clinton asked.
"What about them?" Johnson sneered. "They ain't lookin' for you. Now, git."
The boys dragged an unconscious Jesse against the tree and propped her up before tying her to it. After securing Jesse, they claimed their horses and rode toward the forest. Once they were safely deep enough into the trees to be hidden from the meadow, Clinton pulled his horse to a stop.
Jimmie followed suit and looked at his brother quizzically, "you thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?"
"Yeah," Clinton said as he looked back in the direction of Johnson's camp. "Let's get the hell out of Montana while we still have a chance." He kicked his horse into action and led his brother away from the crazy Johnson as fast as their horses could run.
It was almost dusk when Jesse's brain began to clear. The throbbing of her arm was nothing compared to the pounding going on in her head. She shook her head trying to clear it and groaned in pain. She could hear laughter but was unable to focus on its source. Slowly, she lifted her head from where it rested on her chest and tried to focus her blurry eyes. She blinked several times but her vision still didn't clear. With a grunt, Jesse laid her head back against the trunk she was tied to.
Johnson rose from his spot next to the fire. "Bout time you woke up." He glared down at her but it was lost on the woman who could only see a blur standing over her. "How's the head?" he laughed.
"Fine," Jesse lied. No use in him knowing the truth.
"Right," Johnson laughed again as he returned to the warmth of the fire. He couldn't get accustomed to the cold nights in the mountains.
Jesse finally gave up on trying to focus her eyes when she realized the left one was swollen shut. Gradually, the vision in the right eye began to clear. Jesse saw Johnson huddled next to the fire, his companions nowhere in sight. The sound of movement caught her attention and she turned her head to see a horse grazing a dozen feet away. "Ugh," she moaned as the action caused her head to throb even more.
Johnson looked up from the fire. "Thought you was fine," he chuckled. He reached for the coffee pot warming by the fire and refilled his cup.
"Could I have some water?" Jesse asked, her throat so dry she could barely get the words to come out.
Johnson looked at the woman, considering her request. He didn't want to get too close to the troublesome woman but he had checked the ropes holding her several times while she was unconscious and was sure she wouldn't be able to get loose. He put down his coffee cup and stood. Walking to his horse, he removed a canteen from his saddle and ambled back over to Jesse. Holding the canteen above her head, he emptied the contents in the general direction of her open mouth. More water missed than hit the mark, but she was able to capture enough to give her some relief.
"Thanks," she sneered after swallowing.
"You're welcome," Johnson dropped the empty canteen onto the ground next to her before returning to the fire.
Jesse watched the man as her thoughts went over the day's events. Something Johnson had said earlier continued to run around in her mind. It didn't make sense, unless...
"You knew the posse was looking for a rustler," Jesse voiced the thought. "How?"
"Because, I set you up," Johnson shrugged.
"The Slipper. By the way, I hear you've turned it into a respectable business," he mocked. "Won't take too much to change it back. I will even give you odds that the whores will be happy to return to their previous duties."
"You're a pig," Jesse spat. Thinking of Johnson regaining ownership of the Slipper and forcing her friends back into their previous livelihoods filled Jesse with rage. After a few moments to calm her racing heart and throbbing head, Jesse asked, "if you wanted the Slipper back, why not just make me an offer?"
Johnson stared at Jesse, "you think I'm that stupid? I knew you'd never sell the Slipper to me. Besides, you cleaned me out that night in Denver."
Jesse considered replying to his question, then thought better of it. As the darkness grew, she wondered about Jennifer. Was she safe? Did she find the posse? Did they believe her story? If they did, where were they? Calculating, the time she had been unconscious, Jesse wondered why they hadn't found Johnson's camp yet. They couldn't have been that far behind, not with the trail she had left for Billie to follow. Well, until they showed up, Jesse thought it was best to keep Johnson talking.
"So, how would setting me up for rustling get you the Slipper back?" she asked.
"Easy," Johnson grinned as he began to describe his 'perfect' plan. "Once the good folk of Sweetwater discovered you was nothin' but a cattle thief, it would be easy to convince them that you was probably a card cheat too. I would get the Slipper back because you had cheated me out of it in the first place."
"You don't really think they'd believe that, do you?"
"Why not? Clinton had them ready to hang you the other night. If that damn schoolteacher hadn't butted in, you'd be crow bait by now."
Jesse shuddered when she realized just how close to the truth Johnson was. "So, Clinton was the mysterious cowboy stirring up the others?"
"Yep," Johnson added a few branches to the fire. "Had them going good. Even got a shot off at the sheriff. Only winged him but it would have been enough to get him out of the way if it hadn't been for Bette Mae. Known I should have killed that bitch years ago, but she kept the other whores in line," Johnson began to ramble.
"What did Bette Mae do?" Jesse asked to pull Johnson back on track. She hoped that her friend was alright.
"Clinton said she and the other girls held the entire group at gunpoint until they sobered up. Wouldn't let anyone leave, even made Billingsley stay put. Bet he liked being told what to do by the ol' whore."
"God, must you be so crude," Jesse sighed. She smiled as she imagined Bette Mae standing up to Billingsley and the other ranchers. So, that's how she and Jennifer were able to leave town unnoticed. 'Gotta remember to thank her if I ever get out of this,' Jesse thought.
"So, now what?" Jesse asked. "Your plan didn't exactly play out the way you were expecting."
"Now what?" Johnson repeated. "Now, I'll just have to shoot you myself. Then, I'll take your carcass back to Sweetwater. I'll tell them I caught you with stolen cattle, you tried to shoot me but I got you first."
"If you're just going to shoot me, why haven't you already done so?"
"Waiting for the boys to get back with your schoolteacher," Johnson casually informed her.
Jesse's heart clinched. That's where the other two men had gone, to get Jennifer. She began to struggle against the ropes, she had to make sure Jennifer was safe.
"Hey," Johnson looked at the struggling Jesse. "What got your bloomers twisted all of a sudden?"
"Why can't you leave her out of this?" Jesse cried. "She hasn't done anything to you." Jesse was frantic but the ropes were too tight and the more she fought them, the more her head ached. She finally collapsed back against the tree, her heart racing so fast she thought she might pass out again. "Just leave her alone," Jesse begged. Jesse closed her good eye and let visions of Jennifer fill her thoughts. "I'm sorry, Jennifer," she whispered too quietly for Johnson to hear. "I love you."
The posse was surprised on the forest path by two riders barreling into them.
"Hold up, there," Billie commanded. "I'm Sheriff Monroe from Sweetwater, what are you two running from in such a hurry?"
Clinton and Jimmie instantly threw their hands into the air, figuring taking their chances with the posse were much better odds than Johnson would ever provide them.
"We got nothin' to do with murder, sheriff," Jimmie blurted out. "We helped rustle cattle, but we didn't sign on to kill anyone."
Jennifer went pale at the boy's words. "Is Jesse dead?" she asked through fresh tears running down her face.
Ed reached over to comfort the woman then barked at the boys, "answer her question."
"No," Clinton shouted as he looked at the angry man. "No, she was alive when we left but he plans to kill her. At least, that's what he told us."
"Take their guns," Billie instructed the cowboys surrounding the brothers. "Tie 'em to their saddle horns and let's get moving."
The posse continued as quickly as possible, still it was almost dusk when they finally reached the meadow. The riders dismounted after moving the horses further into the trees so as to not alert Johnson of the posse's presence. The brothers were questioned and Clinton pointed out where they had left Johnson and Jesse. Billie sent a cowboy ahead to verify they were still in the meadow. The cowboy returned after several long, anxious minutes.
"He's there, just where he said he was. Jesse's there too."
"Is she alright?" Jennifer quietly asked.
"Can't tell. She's still tied to the stump. Didn't move the whole time I was watching."
"Okay, you stay here with them," Billie told a couple of the cowboys, referring to the brothers. "Miss Jennifer, I want you to stay here, too."
"No," Jennifer shook her head violently. "I need to see Jesse."
"He's right," Thaddeus said as he placed a hand on Jennifer's shoulder. "It might be better for you to stay here until we know more."
"NO," Jennifer shook off his hand. "I'm coming," she started out of the forest.
Thaddeus put out an arm and stopped Jennifer. "If you're going, you'll stay with us." he motioned for Ed to join them. "Jesse won't be too happy if we let anything happen to you."
Jennifer started to protest but the resolve on the faces of the two men, made her think better of it. "Alright," she consented. "But, let's quit wasting time."
"Okay," the sheriff took charge. "Stay to the trees and get positions as close to the camp as you can. Get to them quickly but don't alert Johnson. Then wait for my signal. Let's go," Billie led the men into the shadows and they quickly disappeared into the forest.
Ed and Thaddeus guided Jennifer into a small pile of boulders at the edge of the meadow and they hid behind one of the larger rocks. Their hiding spot provided a good view of the meadow and camp. Jennifer studied Jesse's still form. In the firelight, she could see the bloody bandage wrapped around Jesse's arm but she was unable to see Jesse's face because her head was hanging down onto her chest. Somehow, Jennifer knew Jesse was alive and her body ached to hold the injured woman.
"We're here, Jesse. Hang on, we're here," Jennifer whispered. Her two companions said nothing but both echoed her sentiments.
The sheriff had reached his vantage point. He was hidden in the trees approximately 20 feet from Johnson, who sat next to the fire drinking coffee. Jesse was between Johnson and the sheriff and he thought briefly of trying to reach her without Johnson noticing. But, he rejected that idea when Jesse groaned.
Johnson rose from his spot next to the fire. "Bout time you woke up. How's the head?" he laughed.
At Johnson's words, Billie took a closer look at Jesse. Her face was bruised and one eye appeared to be swollen shut. "Damn," he muttered under his breath. Johnson had returned to the fire and Billie was about to signal the posse members into action when Jesse asked for water. Johnson again stood and Billie waited. He didn't want Johnson too close to Jesse when the posse made it's move.
Jennifer watched as Johnson carried a canteen to Jesse and poured the water over her head. It took all the strength Ed and Thaddeus possessed to keep the schoolteacher from rushing out of their hiding spot and taking Johnson on single handed.
Billie also watched as Johnson drenched Jesse with water. 'Come on,' Billie said to himself. 'Go back to your nice fire.' Again, Billie was just about ready to signal the posse, when Jesse asked Johnson.
"You knew the posse was looking for a rustler. How?"
Knowing that Butler and some of the others had not believed the story told by the brothers, Billie decided that it might be a good idea to hear Johnson's answer. Besides, it didn't look like Jesse was in any immediate danger. And, Billie could, at any time, signal the posse to move in to stop Johnson from further hurting Jesse.
Billie and the others listened as Johnson told of his plot to have Jesse hang as a cattle thief and to retake ownership of the Silver Slipper. Billie had decided that they had heard more than enough to convince even Butler of Jesse's innocence when Johnson threatened Jennifer. Billie was surprised at Jesse's violent reaction to Johnson's words until he heard her whispered pledge of love for the schoolteacher.
A movement across the small meadow caught Billie's attention. "Damn," he muttered when he recognized Jennifer moving rapidly down from the boulders, Ed and Thaddeus hot on her heels. He saw Johnson pick up Jennifer's movements and reach for his gun. Billie stepped from his hiding place and leveled his rifle at Johnson.
"Don't," Billie commanded. "It's over, Johnson. Put your hands up." At his words, the rest of the posse members stepped from their hiding places and Johnson saw that he was surrounded by armed men.
Jesse lifted her head when she heard Billie's familiar voice. Johnson seeing his plans of revenge collapsing, swung around and aimed at Jesse's head. For Jesse, time seemed to stand still as she stared into the barrel of Johnson's six-shooter. Somewhere, she heard someone screaming but her eyes refused to leave the sight of the gun pointing at her. Explosions went off all around her and Jesse thoughts turned to the schoolteacher and what they could have had. Then everything went black, again.
"Give her some room before you smother her," Ed was saying.
Jesse felt hands tending to her wounds, including a new one where Johnson's bullet had skimmed along the side of her head. But, the only touch she was thinking about were the hands caressing her face. Without opening her eyes, she knew the hands belonged to Jennifer and she spent several moments enjoying the feeling.
"Wake up, sweetheart. Please, wake up," Jennifer was crying.
Jennifer didn't care that she was surrounded by the ranchers and cowboys who were giving each other strange looks over her use of the endearment. She had sprung from her hiding place and raced across the meadow when she saw Jesse start to fight against the ropes that held her. Her heart had stopped when she saw Johnson point his gun at Jesse's head and she had screamed at him not to shoot. An burst of gunfire exploded in the meadow but Jennifer had not missed a step in her dash to reach Jesse.
Fresh blood covered Jesse's face and her head hung down against her chest. Jennifer had tried to untie the ropes but her shaking hands couldn't grab hold of the knots. Billie knelt beside Jennifer and pulled the knife hidden in Jesse's boot, he sliced through the ropes freeing the injured woman. By then, Ed and Thaddeus had arrived and they helped Billie lay Jesse on the ground where her wounds could be tended. Jennifer sat beside Jesse and tried to pull her bleeding head into her lap.
"Give her some room before you smother her," Ed gently pulled Jesse from Jennifer's grasp and poured water on a rag before carefully cleaning the cut left by the bullet. Jennifer leaned over Jesse and begged her to wake up.
"Ugh," Jesse said as she opened her good eye. She looked up into the bluest eyes she had ever seen or ever wanted to see. "Hi," she tried to smile but it quickly turned into a grimace of pain.
"You're awake," Jennifer cried. "Thank god, you're awake." Tears began to stream from her eyes. Seeing the agony on Jesse's face, she quickly told her, "don't move, sweetheart. You're hurt."
"Kinda figured that one out myself," Jesse said.
"That's the best I can do until we get you back to Sweetwater," Ed said as he finished bandaging Jesse's head. "You're going feel this for a good while."
"Thanks, I think," Jesse looked at her friend.
"Ain't nothin'," Ed patted her shoulder, then stood and motioned the men away to give the two women some privacy.
"How are you?" Jesse asked. She wanted to reach up and pull Jennifer into her arms. But, even blinking hurt, so she decided it probably wouldn't be a good idea.
"I'm fine," Jennifer gently stroked Jesse's bandaged head. "This must really hurt."
"I've won't say it doesn't but," Jesse reached up and took Jennifer's hand into her own, "seeing you makes the pain go away."
"Then, I'll just have to stay right by you at all times," Jennifer smiled.
"I think I'd like that," Jesse smiled back. It hurt, but damn it, she couldn't stop herself. Looking at Jennifer just made her want to smile.
Ed returned with the sheriff and some blankets.
"Here," Billie said. "It'll get cold tonight."
Thaddeus arrived with an armful of wood for the fire he had built next to where Jesse lay. "This should help, too."
"How you feeling?" Thaddeus asked Jesse.
She looked into Jennifer's eyes, "just fine. I'm feeling just fine."
The man laughed as he and Ed walked back to the other fire. The sheriff stayed behind.
"You look like you've had a couple of rough days," Jesse said to her friend.
Nodding, Billie said, "'bout the same as you. How's the head? Didn't think Johnson had that in him."
"You trying to make me feel good by saying it was a lucky punch," Jesse said.
"Is it working?"
"No," Jesse winced. "Hurts like a son of a..."
Jennifer placed her fingers over Jesse's mouth. "Sweetheart, is that any way to talk in front of a respectable woman?" she teased.
"Sorry," Jesse looked chastised. "Guess I just don't think about you in that way."
Billie laughed as Jennifer snorted and slugged Jesse in her good arm.
"Hey," Jesse protested. "I'm wounded here."
"You're lucky I didn't hit the other arm. Now, behave yourself."
"I see that you're in good hands, Jesse," Billie told the pouting woman "We'll be heading home at first light, so get some sleep."
Jennifer picked up the extra blankets and began to arrange them on the ground so that she could lay close to Jesse but not with her..
"Hey," Jesse interrupted her actions.
"Put those blankets over here," Jesse patted the ground beside her.
Jennifer looked questioningly at her.
"I want to hold you," Jesse said quietly.
Jennifer nodded happily. When the blankets were re-arranged to Jesse's satisfaction, Jennifer lay down beside her. She carefully placed her head on Jesse's shoulder and wrapped her arm around Jesse's waist. "How's this?"
"Wonderful," Jesse sighed. Moments later, both women were fast asleep.
The trip back to Sweetwater was pure agony for Jesse. She rode Dusty with Jennifer riding behind her and helping hold her in the saddle. Every step Dusty took sent jolts of pain through her body and exploded in her head. Only Jennifer's non-stop encouragement and support kept her from screaming out her distress. The group rested several times during the day to give Jesse a break from the constant pounding. This was both a blessing and a curse, the breaks allowing Jesse much needed rest but they also extended the length of the trip. Jesse was sure that she would be unable to take any more when Sweetwater finally came into the riders' view.
Ruthie was keeping watch on the porch of the Silver Slipper when she saw the posse appear over a rise some distance from town. She ran to the building's main door and shouted, "they're back."
Bette Mae came rushing out of the kitchen, followed closely by the other girls.
"Where?" Bette Mae asked as she ran out onto the porch.
"There," Ruthie pointed to the riders still about a mile from town.
"Is Jesse with them?" one of the girls asked.
"That's Dusty in the middle of the group," Bette Mae answered.
"What about Miss Jennifer?" another asked.
"She's ridin' with Jesse," Bette Mae hoped that the women was alright.
Just about that time, a couple of the riders broke from the group and hurried toward the Slipper. As they neared the edge of town, Bette Mae recognized them as the storekeeper and the newspaper editor. The two men rode directly for the Slipper.
"Is Jesse?" Bette Mae began as the men rode up.
"She's hurt but alive," Ed answered before Bette Mae could finish her question. "She'll need some lookin' after for several days."
"Ruthie," Bette Mae called to the girl. "Go in and fix up the room first off the stairs."
"No," Thaddeus grinned. "Best you fix up Miss Jennifer's room for Jesse."
A grin broke across Bette Mae's face, "well, I'll be. Go on, girl," Bette Mae said to Ruthie who was standing with a look of puzzlement on her face. "You heard him. Fix up Miss Jennifer's room. Go on, git."
Ruthie scurried into the building to do as she had been told but not understanding Bette Mae's obvious pleasure at the newspaper editor's words.
"How is Miss Jennifer?" Bette Mae asked.
"She's fine. Just worried about Jesse. Won't leave her side, not for a minute," Ed said as he climbed down from his horse. "Damn, I'm too old to spend that much time in the saddle," he rubbed his sore backside and stretched out his long legs.
"Me, too," Thaddeus agreed as he joined Ed on solid ground. "It'll be good to get back into my desk chair."
The rest of the posse rode up with the sheriff leading the way. Ed and Thaddeus moved immediately to Dusty's side and gently eased Jesse out of the saddle. Instantly, Jennifer was on the ground next to her and held Jesse around the waist.
"Come on," she told the injured woman. "We'll get you into a nice, soft bed and you can rest."
Unable to speak because of the pain, Jesse barely managed a nod as she allowed Jennifer to lead her to the stairs leading up to the Slipper's porch. It was clear to everyone that Jesse would never be able to climb the few steps on her wobbly legs.
Without asking, Ed lifted Jesse into his powerful arms and carried her up the steps. Jennifer shadowed the big man all the way into the building and up the stairs to her room where Ruthie stood with the door open. As soon as Ed placed Jesse on the bed, Jennifer took back Jesse's hand.
Bette Mae shooed everyone but Jennifer out of the room. "Well, let's see what we got here," the older woman said as she began to unwrap Jesse's bandages.
"She needs a doctor," Jennifer said.
"Bette Mae's the best doctor this town has got," Jesse assured the schoolteacher. "Aren't you?"
"Can't argue with that statement. Got any other wounds I need to know 'bout?" she asked Jesse as she carefully washed the blood and dirt from Jesse's face.
"How 'bout you?" Bette Mae asked Jennifer.
"No, I'm okay." Jennifer sat on the edge of the bed. "Is she going to be alright?" she asked hesitantly.
"She'll be fine. Lucky, she got hit in the head. It's her hardest part," Bette Mae chuckled.
"When I'm feeling better, I'll make you pay for that," Jesse tried to swat at her friend, realizing too late that she was using her injured arm. She hissed at the pain.
"Lay still," Bette Mae grabbed her arm and gently laid it back on the bed. She wrapped a fresh bandage around Jesse's head and then started on her arm. "Damn, you are one lucky woman, Jesse. Two bullets and both only grazed ya."
"They hurt like they more than just grazed me."
"I bet they do. Few days rest will fix them right up. 'Course, that eye's goin' take a tad longer to heal. But, the blow to your head is what's goin' ta cause you the most bother. What'd you get hit with?"
"Johnson. What does that bastard have to do with all this?"
"He set Jesse up for the cattle rustling. Thought if she'd hanged, he'd get the Slipper back," Jennifer supplied the answer.
"Always thought he was a card or two short of a full deck," Bette Mae finished wrapping a fresh bandage around Jesse's arm. She took the dirty bowl of water and tossed it out one of the rooms windows.
"Might be someone standing under there," Jesse remarked.
"Hope it's Butler," Jennifer muttered, surprised to hear Bette Mae laugh at her comment.
"Yep, she's a feisty one," Bette Mae winked at Jesse as she started to remove her boots. "You best get some sleep and give your body time to heal. I have a bath prepared for you, Miss Jennifer. Your bath will have to wait another day," she told Jesse who made no argument.
"I can wait, too," Jennifer said. "I don't wait to leave Jesse."
"Go on," Jesse said softly. "You'll feel better. Besides, I'm not going anywhere."
"You sure," Jennifer thought that a hot bath did sound pretty good.
"I'm sure. Just," Jesse whispered, "hurry back."
Jennifer bent down and softly kissed Jesse's cheek. "I won't be but a minute."
The pain in Jesse's head disappeared as she felt the warmth of Jennifer's lips. Her eye closed as she savored the touch, "I'll be waiting."
When Jennifer pulled her head back, Jesse was already asleep.
Ruthie came out of the kitchen carrying a tray with three full plates of food. She placed the dishes in front of Billie, Ed, and Thaddeus. Bette Mae had offered hot meals to all the posse members but the ranchers had declined stating that they wanted to return to their ranches. Bette Mae thought they decision to leave immediately was based more on their embarrassment at accusing Jesse of a crime than any desire to get right home.
The sheriff, storekeeper and newspaper editor had accepted the offer and were enthusiastically digging into their plates after eating trail food for the past couple of days.
"How's Jesse and Miss Jennifer?" the sheriff asked between bites.
"Sound asleep." Bette Mae took a long drink from her glass of lemonade. She had helped the schoolteacher with her bath then had had to practically carried the young woman back to her room when exhaustion overcame her. She tucked Jennifer under the blankets and smiled as the two sleeping women snuggled close to each other.
"Seems like the two of them got to be real good friends out on the trail," Billie said as he shoved a forkful of ham into his mouth.
"I do believe you are right," Thaddeus chuckled.
"Now, you stop that," Bette Mae playfully scolded the men. "It was only a matter of time 'fore they figured out they liked each other. Being out there just gave 'em the little push they needed."
"They do make a cute couple, if I say so myself," Ed smiled. "Any chance of getting more of this ham, Bette Mae?" the big man asked holding up a empty plate.
"After bringin' back my girls, you can have the whole damn pig," Bette announced as she rose from the table and disappeared into the kitchen.
Reappearing a few moments later with a large platter of ham and potatoes, Bette Mae rejoined the men. "I take it Johnson is in the blanket?" Bette Mae referred to the body wrapped in a blanket and thrown over the back of a horse Billie had led into town.
"Yep," the sheriff stabbed a large potato off the platter. "Tried to shoot Jesse after we caught up to him."
"Tried?" Bette Mae snorted. "Seems he managed to put two holes in her."
"Yeah, well he was aimin' between her eyes on the last one." Billie cut the potato into chewable pieces. "Didn't give us much choice but to shoot him first."
"Just as well," Ed added.
"What's next, Billie?" Thaddeus asked. "Will Jesse have to stand trial?"
"Nope," the sheriff answered around a mouthful of potato. "Johnson confessed, everyone heard him. Hell, even Butler couldn't argue it. When the circuit judge gets here, I'll tell him what happened and Jesse will be in the clear. Miss Jennifer, too."
"Why, what did Miss Jennifer do?" Bette Mae asked.
"She broke Jesse out. If Jesse had been guilty, she would have had some big trouble over it."
"But, Jesse wasn't guilty," Bette Mae stated.
"Yep. So, Miss Jennifer won't get more than a talkin' to by the judge."
"What do you bet, it's the judge that will be getting the talking to?" Thaddeus laughed and the others quickly joined him.
The following morning, Jesse was still sleeping as Jennifer dressed to reluctantly return to her teaching duties. The mid-morning sun was beating through the room's windows when Bette Mae quietly entered to check on her friend. She was surprised to see Jesse awake and standing by the window that faced town.
"Mornin'," Bette Mae greeted her. "Didn' think you'd be up."
Jesse took a deep breath and let it out slowly. She had been watching the schoolhouse hoping for a glimpse of Jennifer. When she awoke a short time before, the first thing she noticed was how empty the room seemed. She missed Jennifer.
"How 'bout a nice, hot bath to wash all that dirt off?" Bette Mae asked.
"Hmm," Jesse's eyes never left the schoolhouse.
Bette Mae peered out the window, she smiled when she realized what held Jesse's attention. "Come on," the older woman gently steered Jesse to the door. "A good scrub, a change of clothes, a hot meal, and you might just be presentable by the time Miss Jennifer is done teachin' for the day."
Jesse allowed herself to be led from the room without complaint. The bath did feel wonderful and it was indeed good to get the dirt and grime scrubbed off her skin and out of her hair. When they returned to the room, she discovered that the bed linens had been changed and a tray of hot food had been set out on the desk. She didn't have much of an appetite but she did her best to eat.
"Now, you get some rest," Bette Mae told Jesse as she cleaned up the dirty dishes. "It'll be a while before Miss Jennifer gets back and your head can use it."
Jesse snuggled between the clean sheets. The quilt had been removed as the day's heat was already too much to need it's extra warmth. Jesse looked up at the woman who had become her first friend after arriving in Sweetwater. There was much she didn't know about Bette Mae but the one thing she did know was that she trusted the older woman's advice.
"Bette Mae," Jesse said before she could leave the room. Jesse had heard the comments and snickers the cowboys had whispered about Jennifer and her on the ride back into town. Love between two women was not unheard of on the frontier but it wasn't exactly accepted either. Jesse was confused, she had feelings for Jennifer that she had never had for anyone else. And, she knew Jennifer felt the same. But, was it right? Could they... No, should they respect those feelings? She needed to ask.
"Bette Mae, what would you do?"
Knowing what Jesse was asking, Bette Mae recalled a moment many years before when she had asked herself that very same question. A far away look crossed her face as she remembered her choice that day. Smiling sadly at Jesse, Bette Mae quietly answered.
"Follow your heart, Jesse. Follow your heart."
As the door closed behind the departing woman, Jesse rolled her head and gazed out the room's window. She couldn't see the schoolhouse from where she lay but she could visualize where it stood out on the small knoll. And, she knew that at this very moment that schoolhouse held her heart. Smiling, Jesse let the sleep she had been fighting reclaim her.
Jennifer rushed from the schoolhouse as soon as the day's lessons were over. She missed Jesse terribly and she couldn't wait to see her. Bette Mae was clearing a table in the dining room when Jennifer burst through the Slipper's door.
"Afternoon, Miss Jennifer," Bette Mae brushed the crumbs off the table. "How was school today?"
Although, Jennifer wanted to run up the stairs to her room, she paused long enough to answer the woman, "just fine. How's Jesse?" Jennifer asked when she saw the grim expression on Bette Mae's face.
Bette Mae straightened from her task, "well, now, let's see. She's had a bath, put on clean bedclothes, ate some breakfast, took a nap, just had lunch. And,"
Jennifer's heart clinched, "is something wrong?"
"Yep," Bette Mae was having trouble maintaining a straight face.
"She's been missin' you, somethin' awful."
"She has?" Jennifer blushed.
"Yep," Bette Mae laughed unable to hold back any longer. "Suggest you don't spend too much time down here talkin' to this old woman when you can be up there with her."
Jennifer was halfway up the stairs before Bette Mae finished.
Jesse was standing by the window. She had seen Jennifer leave the schoolhouse and walk towards the Slipper. She couldn't wait for Jennifer to walk into the room but she was unsure what to do when that happened. She turned to face the door when she heard Jennifer's footsteps moving rapidly moving down the hallway. Without hesitation, Jesse threw open her arms as soon as Jennifer appeared in the doorway. Jennifer ran into the welcoming embrace.
"I've missed you," Jesse held the schoolteacher tight.
"So, I've heard."
After several long minutes, the women separated. Jennifer examined Jesse, "how do you feel?"
"Head's still a little on the dizzy side. But, overall, I feel pretty good. Considering..."
"Considering that the last couple of days, you've been punched in the face, shot twice, tied to a tree stump, bounced on horseback, and you're about to go on trial for cattle rustling. I certainly hope that that doesn't describe a normal week for you," Jennifer observed.
"Nope," Jesse shook her head then instantly wished she hadn't. "I can honestly say that nothing even close to that has ever happened to me before you showed up." Jesse thought for minute before adding, "say, you don't think..."
"Don't even go there," Jennifer scolded.
Jesse looked at the schoolteacher and Bette Mae's words came back to her, 'follow your heart'.
Jennifer held her breath as Jesse reached out gently cupping her hands around Jennifer's face. Jesse pulled her close until their faces were almost touching. Looking into the schoolteacher's eyes, Jesse whispered, "I love you."
Jennifer leaned forward to close the gap and timidly placed her lips on Jesse's. At the touch, a warmth spread through her body and Jennifer pressed harder. Jesse returned the kiss. It was a new experience for both woman. Tentatively, they began to explore each other's soft lips and warm mouths until a need for air caused them to part.
Jesse release a long breath, "wow."
"Yeah," Jennifer said before she recaptured Jesse's lips.
Jesse stood in the street next to the steps leading up onto the Silver Slipper's porch. Johnson was dead, the brothers he had talked into helping in his plot were behind bars, the stolen cattle had been returned to their rightful owners, and she had been cleared of all charges. So, why was she so fearful?
Jesse nervously shuffled from one foot to the other. After recuperating at the Slipper for the last several days, Jesse was eager to return to the ranch. She wanted to ask Jennifer to join her but didn't know if it was too soon. After all, their growing relationship was only days old. It was obvious that they were deeply in love but neither of them had been confident enough to take their relationship to the next level.
Jennifer stood at the bottom step, quietly watching Jesse. She smiled when Jesse quit studying her dirty boots and looked up to face her. Jesse opened her mouth but nothing came out. Jennifer had hoped Jesse would ask her to accompany her to the ranch but had been too afraid to make the first move. Now, seeing her own feelings reflected back at her, her fears melted.
Jennifer stepped forward to meet Jesse. She reached out and wrapped her arms around Jesse. Leaning forward, she pressed her lips against Jesse's in a tender kiss. Surprised but very pleased, Jesse slipped her arms around Jennifer and pulled her close. The kiss deepened as the women spent the next several moments enjoying the intimate touch of the other.
After much too short a time, Jennifer pulled away and laid her head on Jesse's shoulder, "let's go home, love."
A smile spread across Jesse's face. Taking Jennifer's hand, Jesse led her to a patiently waiting Dusty. She helped Jennifer up into the saddle then swung up behind her, wrapping an arm around Jennifer waist. With her free hand, she unwrapped the reins from the saddle horn.
"I love you," Jesse whispered into Jennifer's ear.
Jennifer leaned back into Jesse's warm body and entwined her hand with Jesse's, "I love you, too."
Dusty raised her head and whinnied her approval before moving off at a walk. She would carry her two mistresses home and neither one would ever remember the trip.
THE END or..... to be continued?