Rolling Thunder continues the story of Jesse and Jennifer Branson begun in the stories of Sweetwater, Bannack and Bozeman. It is recommended that you read those stories before reading this one.
This is an original story and the characters belong to me. Please do not reproduce or copy any of my stories without my permission.
This story portrays a loving relationship between two women. If you are offended by such a relationship, please do not read any further. If such a relationship is illegal where you live, work to change the laws.
In this part of Rolling Thunder, there is mention of Sheriff Plummer, a real lawman hung for his illegal activities in Bannack, Montana during the late 1800s. I mean no disrespect or harm to the historical record by the use of this character, or any other character, real or fiction. My descriptions of Bannack is based on the existing buildings remaining in what is now a ghost town but some details may be changed to fit my purposes for this story. Please, do not hold this against me.
I would like to hear your comments, please write me at email@example.com.
Sorry for the delay in getting this chapter posted, I caught the cold that has been making the rounds and spent several days last week too sick to write.
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted August 2004
Martin Kensington had not believed his luck when he found the pony. He was even more surprised, upon scanning the area, to find no sign of anyone around. Never having been one to, unnecessarily. question a fortunate windfall, Kensington pulled himself up into the saddle and immediately kicked the horse into a gallop. He had ridden hard through the night and just before dawn, Kensington spotted tiny lights twinkling in the distance.... Bannack.
"I don't understand why they didn't just let Jesse go after what that man said yesterday. Now, there's evidence she didn't kill those people," Thomas said as he, Mary, and Billie entered the Goodrich Hotel's dining room for breakfast.
"More charges against her than just the Williams' deaths," Billie explained as they moved to an empty table. "You're right, it's pretty much proven that Jesse didn't kill them folks. Or steal their horses and burn their wagon. But, I think Judge Henry is lookin' for more than that."
"What else is there?" Mary asked as she sat in the chair Thomas was holding for her.
"Who's behind the charges against Jesse," Billie sat in another chair at the table, "and why. Not to mention, what to do about KC."
"Oh, my god," Mary gasped. "You don't think he'll take her away from Jennifer and Jesse," Mary knew the extreme heartbreak that action would cause.
"Mother, the judge has seemed very friendly where KC is concerned," Thomas said, reaching over to squeeze his mother's hand, "I can't believe he'd take her from the only parents she remembers. Do you, Billie?"
"Depends," Billie sipped coffee from the cup filled moments earlier. "Don't know how much influence the reverend has in this town."
"That deplorable man," Mary shuddered.
"Ya may not like his methods but he does what few others will," Billie reviewed the limited menu that he already knew by heart. "I'll have the steak and eggs," he smiled at the waitress patiently waiting to take their orders. Billie waited for Mary and Thomas to order before he continued, "mining camps are full of young 'uns that have no family. Reverend is doing his best ta find them places to grow up."
"Maybe," Thomas stirred sugar into his coffee cup, "but at what price? From what Jennifer says, they end up as cheap labor on some farm or ranch. What kind of way is that for a child to grow up?"
"Not saying I agree with it but it does give them a chance. If they have ta fend for themselves, they could end up doing a lot worse," Billie thought sadly of the childhood his fiancÚ had suffered through. "At least, the reverend puts a roof over their heads and food in their belly."
"And, not much else," Mary sighed.
"The frontier can be rough on young 'uns, growing up in a mining camp is even worse. Many don' live long enough to see their fifth birthday, sickness and hunger see to that. Then, there's accidents like running in front of a horse or wagon or falling down an old mine shaft. Even if they survive, there ain't always a doctor around to see to their injuries. Then, ya take into account somethin' happenin' to their parents and, well, it just ain't easy for 'em. And there ain't many willing to foot the bill for group homes or orphanages. So, much as I hate to say it, the reverend, at least, is tryin' ta help. "
Mary thought about the sheriff's words, "I guess we've forgotten what it's like to raise children in a wilderness since we don't face those challenges back east any more."
"Looks like KC was very lucky to have Jennifer and Jesse find her when they did, for a lot of reasons," Thomas observed as the waitress returned with their breakfasts.
"'Course, I'm not saying that the reverend shouldn't get the burr out from under his saddle when it comes to Jesse and Jennifer." Billie took a forkful of eggs from the plate the waitress placed in front of him, "love is love, even if he don' want to say so."
"Guess we should get going," though she spoke the words, Jennifer made no effort to leave the chair she occupied.
Jesse and Jennifer had awakened early, thankful for the solace provided from sleeping in each other's arms during a long, restless night full of strange and troubling dreams. KC, seeming to sense her mothers' trepidation, had also slept fitfully and awakened in a very cranky mood.
When Jesse and Jennifer emerged from behind the curtain that separated the sleeping area from the rest of Marianne's cabin, they found their hostess already busy preparing breakfast. It had taken Jesse, playfully teasing the baby, almost the entire morning meal to get KC to smile. Once she had, the baby seemed to forget her reasons for being upset.
"Yeah," Jesse tilted a glass of milk for KC and let her finish the little bit remaining. "Don't want to be late to court," she said, distractedly. After the testimony from the saloon owner, Cyrus Skinner, the day before she wondered what else could possibly be needed to prove her innocence. But, she had to admit, she was also a little concerned over what the judge planned to do about her admission to killing the bandits that had been sent to kill her and Jennifer.
"It's almost over, sweetheart," Jennifer placed a comforting hand on the rancher's arm.
"I hope so," Jesse smiled at her wife, wiping a few drops of milk from the baby's chin, "because all I want is to take you and KC and go home."
"I'd like that," Jennifer sighed as she leaned over and laid her head on Jesse's shoulder. "I love you."
Jesse softly rubbed the back of her knuckles on Jennifer's cheek, "I love you, too, darlin'."
"Me, wuv?" KC looked up at her mothers, hopefully.
Jennifer pulled the baby up to her chest, "yes, sweetie. We love you, too."
Marianne quietly watched the exchange. She had never seen so much adoration shared by a couple, even after all they had been through to protect their family. She could only hope that one day she would find someone to love her as much as Jesse and Jennifer loved each other.
"We should get dressed, darlin'," Jesse kissed her schoolteacher's forehead.
Jennifer tilted her head, urging Jesse to kiss her lips. The rancher didn't hesitate to accommodate her wife.
By the appointed time of the morning for the trial to reconvene, the courtroom was packed with citizens of Bannack and the surrounding smaller camps. Word of the previous day's testimony by the saloon owner had spread through Bannack like wildfire. Some had come because, though convinced of their ex-sheriff's involvement with the outlaw gang, they were more than a little curious if any more would be revealed about Plummer's illegal activities. Some had come just to see the women Plummer had been so troubled over that he would order their deaths for that reason alone. Others had come simply because they wanted to show support to the two women who had had the courage to stand up and do what none of them had been willing to do, report their suspicions about the lawman. No matter their reasons, there wasn't an empty chair in the courtroom and people were standing two to three deep around the back of the room, with more standing in the hallway outside.
"Mr. Thompson, don't bother," Judge Henry instructed the prisoner as he was escorted into the courtroom and Marshal Morgan looked for an empty chair in the gallery to seat him, "Since, you've finally decided to make an appearance, I don't want to waste this opportunity. You can take the stand and be sworn in."
Jesse and Jennifer sat at the defendant's table, somewhat apprehensive over the large number of people in the room. KC stood in the rancher's lap, leaning on her hands braced against Jesse's chest. The wide-eyed baby peeked curiously over Jesse's shoulder, she had never seen so many people in one place before.
Jennifer glanced back and, seeing the many friendly smiles and nods of support directed at her from the large gathering, relaxed a little bit. Turning back around in her chair, Jennifer patted Jesse on the thigh, "it's going to be okay, sweetheart. I can feel it."
Jesse looked at her wife and nodded, nervously, "I hope so, darlin'." Jesse couldn't help feeling that some in the room must be friends of the men she had been forced to kill and worried that they might be there to settle the score.
"I see we have a few more folks interested in these proceedings, today," Judge Henry looked around the crowded room. "Let me make it clear to everyone that I will not tolerate any outbursts of any kind," the judge told the spectators, his grim expression emphasizing his words. "Marshal Morgan, Sheriff Monroe, you will remove anyone that speaks out or causes any disturbance."
Both lawman nodded as they took up their posts at opposite sides of the room.
"Very well," the judge picked some papers off his desk and, after scanning them, placed all but one back. "Mr. Thompson, you are the owner of a dress shop in Bannack?" the questioning of the witness began.
"Yes," Marcus Thompson looked like a man who wished to be any where but where he found himself. He had spent the past two days trying to figure out a way to extricate himself from the predicament his greed had brought him. His introspective had revealed no solution and he was now scared that the law would punish him in ways far outweighing the reward received from Martin Kensington. But, one thing he knew for sure, if there was a price to be paid, he would not pay it alone.
"Did you have occasion to meet the defendant during her trip to Bannack some months ago?"
"No, sir," Thompson said fretfully.
"You did not meet the defendant?" Judge Henry was puzzled, this was supposed to be the key witness to Jesse's guilt.
"Not face to face," Thompson swallowed nervously.
"Care to explain?" the judge glared at the witness.
"She came into my store with Jennifer Kensington."
"You knew Mrs. Branson?" the judge asked, ignoring the man's use of Jennifer's maiden name.
"Yes. No. Well, not exactly," Thompson wiped sweaty hands on his pants. Thompson took a deep breath and tried to settle his nerves. It didn't work.
"Mr. Thompson, will you please give me some straight answers. What exactly happened in your dress shop to make you accuse the defendant of murder?"
"I never accused her of murder," Thompson shook his head rapidly from side to side. "I didn't. I just told her father where he could find her, that's all, I swear."
"You told Jesse Branson's father.....?" Jesse and Jennifer listened to the perplexed judge's question already knowing the answer.
"No, the other one."
"Mr. Thompson, will you please tell me what happened?"
"They came into the shop and talked to my wife about having some dresses made. I was in the back room and thought I recognized her," Thompson said referring to Jennifer. "I got to thinking about it and realized she looked like the daughter of an acquaintance of mine back east. And, I remembered that just before we left to come west, I'd heard she had run away and her father was paying a reward for any information as to her whereabouts. So, we needing the money and all, I sent him a telegram and said she was living in Sweetwater."
"Is that all?"
"Mr. Thompson, do you expect me to believe that Jesse Branson has been brought before this court and charged with these contemptible crimes just because you reported a runaway?"
"Well," Thompson swallowed, the motion so exaggerated it was seen by those standing at the back of the room, "I ain't sure but I may have led Kensington to believe......"
"Oh, tell him the truth, for god's sake," a woman's voice called out from the gallery. "You told him much more than that."
Marshal Morgan was nearest to the woman and quickly covered the few steps to where she stood.
"Hush, woman," Thompson shouted at his wife.
"Mrs. Thompson, come forward," the judge demanded of the lady now being held by the marshal.
Jesse and Jennifer watched as the petite dressmaker was brought forward to face the judge and her husband. Jennifer had always suspected that the Thompsons had alerted her father to her new life. A suspicion that was confirmed when her mother had remembered her father receiving a telegram.
"How did father find me, mother?" the question had continued to trouble Jennifer.
"I'm not sure," Mary returned to her chair with a fresh cup of tea. "He received a telegram one day and announced he would be leaving immediately. He wouldn't tell me who had sent the telegram but I did see it for a brief moment. I think the name at the bottom was Thomas," she considered the sound and decided it wasn't quite right. "Or, something like that."
Jennifer thought, why did the name sound familiar? "I knew it, The dress shop in Bannack... Thompson's Dress Shop. I knew that man gave me the creeps, now I know why."
"Of course," Mary nodded. "Marcus Thompson. He did some work for your father before he and his wife left for the west."
"Mrs. Thompson, what do you know of this matter?" the judge asked the dressmaker.
"Shut up, woman," Thompson hissed when his wife began to answer.
"Marshal, silence the witness or have him gagged."
"Some time after my husband sent the first telegram to Mr. Kensington, he received a letter back. Mr. Kensington offered to pay him a substantial amount of money if he knew of anything that could put Jesse Branson in prison or," she paused to glance at Jesse and Jennifer. By the slump of her shoulders and the shame in her eyes, they knew she didn't want to say what she was about to, ".....or, to get her hanged."
Judge Henry rapped his gavel on the bench as murmurs rumbled through the spectators. His look of warning was enough to quiet the whispers.
"What did your husband do?" the judge asked, the courtroom becoming deathly silent as everyone held their breath waiting for the answer.
"Don't, say anything, woman," Marcus Thompson scornfully shouted from the witness stand. The marshal stood next to him, threatening to gag him with a kerchief he held.
"He wrote Mr. Kensington and told him that she had bragged about killing the Williams so she could steal their baby and raise her as her own."
"NOOOOOOOOOO," Jennifer screamed, slamming her hands against the table and pushing herself up from the chair. It was happening all over again, her father trying to tear her family apart.
"It's okay, darlin'," Jesse stood, she tried to wrap her free arm around Jennifer but was pushed angrily away.
"Why?," Jennifer glared at Thompson, her eyes boring holes through the man. "Why would you try to destroy us like that?" her voice softening as a deep, bone wrenching sorrow replaced her anger.
Thompson hung his head, unable to bear the look of anguish on the schoolteacher's face.
"Don't you understand," Jennifer whispered, tears streaming down her face. "Don't you understand how much he's hurt us? Why would you help him to it again?"
Once more, Jesse reached for Jennifer, this time her attempt wasn't rebuffed as she pulled her distraught wife to her. Jesse kissed Jennifer's temple, hugging her tightly. KC whimpered, huddling between her wounded mothers.
"Why, Jesse?," Jennifer sobbed. "Why can't he just leave us alone?"
No one in the room was immune to the agony of Jennifer's cries. Many feeling as if their own hearts were being ripped from their chests as they listened to her sobs.
"I think we can all use a few minutes to compose ourselves," Judge Henry said. "Everyone is to remain in their seats, court is recessed for fifteen minutes," the judge rapped his gavel before motioning for Jesse to take Jennifer into his chambers.
"Darlin'," Jesse softly asked Jennifer, "come with me."
Jennifer nodded and allowed Jesse to guide her away from the table and into the sanctuary.
Mary and Thomas sat in their chairs, stunned by the revelation they had just heard about their husband and father.
"I had no idea," Thomas whispered, shaking his head. "I had no idea."
"Your father...," Mary started then stopped. What was she going to say? What could she say? She had no understanding of who her husband had become or why he was trying so hard to ruin Jennifer's life? Could his only reason truly be that she had refused to accept the life he had planned for her and had discovered the fortitude deep within herself to seek out her own destiny. Could he really hold so much hatred for his own child over that one, alleged, act of defiance? Or, was it simply because that by doing so, Jennifer had found a life that made her so happy. A life that did not require her father's presence or guidance.
"Thomas," Mary said to her son, "I'm not sure why your father has done this. But, I do know that it is time to put an end to it. When this trial is over, I want you to go find your father. Then, we'll make sure he never does anything to Jennifer again."
"Alright, mother," Thomas didn't know what his mother had in mind but the look on her face left no doubt that whatever it was, his father would never again trouble his sister.
"Here, sit," Jesse gently pushed Jennifer down onto a leather settee before sitting beside her.
"I'm sorry," Jennifer said in a voice so mournful Jesse had trouble holding back her own tears.
"It's okay, darlin'," Jesse pulled a bandanna from her pocket and used it to dry her wife's cheeks. "You had good cause."
"Momma," KC reached for Jennifer and was helped into her lap by Jesse.
"I love you, sweetie," Jennifer hugged the baby as if her life depended on it.
"Don't squash her, darlin'," Jesse smiled, "she's the only one we've got."
Jennifer laughed, weakly. She knew Jesse was trying to lighten the mood but she was still disturbed at learning her father was, again, behind their current troubles.
"Darlin," Jesse leaned back and pulled Jennifer with her, "this will soon be all over and we'll be back in Sweetwater. You'll be teaching school and I'll be workin' the ranch...."
"What about father?" Jennifer sniffled.
"I have a feeling that the judge will have something to say about that," Jesse wiped away the few tears still dripping from her wife's eyes.
"I hate him, Jesse," Jennifer quietly declared.
"I know, darlin," Jesse tightened her hold on Jennifer, pulling their bodies together.
The women sat, locked in each other's embrace, for several minutes until a soft knock at the door interrupted their respite.
"We'll be out in a minute," Jesse called to the unseen knocker, knowing it was probably the judge's clerk.
"Come on, darlin'," Jesse stood and offered her hand to Jennifer. "Let's get this over with so we can go home."
Ed Grainger pulled his horse to a stop beside a small stream. Bette Mae and Ruthie followed his example and let their horses drink. They had ridden hard, stopping only to allow their horses to rest, and were now just a few hours ride from Bannack.
"Do you think we're too late?" Ruthie asked as the horses enjoyed the cool, mountain water.
"Too late fer what?" Bette Mae asked.
"To help Miss Jesse?"
"There's no way a judge is goin' find my Jesse done anythin' wrong," Bette Mae avowed. "And, if'n one does, I'll make damn sure he's aware of his mistake," she emphasized her statement by throwing a rock into the swiftly moving water.
"There's someone else in a mighty big hurry to get to Bannack," Ed pointed to a rider cresting a far hill. The rider disappeared over the crown almost before Bette Mae and Ruthie turned to see him. "We best get movin'," the storekeeper told the women.
"Mr. Thompson," Judge Henry addressed the witness once Jesse and Jennifer had retaken their seats at the defendant's table. "Do you admit to conspiring with Martin Kensington to file false charges against the defendant?"
"No," Thompson said emphatically. "I didn't know what he planned to do with the information. I figured he was just going to use it to scare her, make her give up on Jennifer. That's all, I swear. I never thought he would do this."
"So," the judge looked at the witness, "you do admit that you provided Mr. Kensington with the false information against the defendant."
"But, I never....."
"Did you, or didn't you, provide him the information?" the judge bellowed.
"Yes," the witness finally agreed.
"Mr. Thompson, I'm charging you with conspiracy and making false accusations. Due to your admission before this court, you are found guilty of said charges and are sentenced to serve ten years in prison for your despicable actions."
Thompson gasped when he heard the judge's declaration.
"Furthermore, Mr. Thompson, you will be escorted to Deer Lodge as soon as this trial is over to serve your sentence."
Marcus Thompson sat dejectedly in the witness chair, resigned to his fate.
"Jesse Branson, please stand," Judge Henry addressed the defendant.
Jesse stood and no one in the room was surprised when Jennifer stood defiantly alongside of her to hear the judge pronounce his verdict.
"I would suggest, most strongly," Judge Henry looked to the people sitting in the gallery, "that you withhold any reactions until this court's business is concluded."
Jesse smiled when she felt Jennifer grasp her hand and entwine their fingers.
"Jesse Branson, as to the charges brought against you, I hereby find the following:
For the charge of murder of Kenneth Williams, I find you innocent.
For the charge of murder of Katherine Williams, I find you innocent.
For the charges of taking possession of a horse without the knowledge or permission of said owner, I find you innocent.
For the charge of taking possession of a cow, dairy, without the knowledge or permission of said owner, I find you innocent.
For the charge of setting a fire with the intention to destroy, I find you innocent.
For the charges of removing personal property without the knowledge or permission of said owner, I find you innocent.
For the charge of disturbing the peace, I find you innocent.
For the charges of reckless disregard of the use of a firearm, I find you innocent.
For the charges of theft, I find you innocent.
For the charges of filing a false report with an officer of the law, I find you innocent.
For the charges of knowingly and willingly providing false information to an officer of the law, I find you innocent.
For the charges of failure to cooperate with an officer of the law in the investigation of a crime, I find you innocent."
No one said a word as the judge spent the next several minutes writing out his findings. Everyone, especially Jesse and Jennifer, were aware that he had not addressed two charges made against Jesse.
"Mrs. Branson," Judge Henry looked up from his papers, "I wish to express my sincerest apologies for the grave injustices these charges have brought upon you. I do not know why the governor chose to believe the men responsible for this but I can assure you that I will personally present my findings to him. And, I will have some rather strong words to go along with them."
"Thank you," Jesse said apprehensively, her insides were tightening into a knot that she knew would never come undone if the judge took KC away from them. She felt Jennifer's body press against her and could feel her trembling. KC, held in Jesse's strong but shaky arms, looked worriedly up at her mothers.
Judge Henry smiled as if to reassure the women, "in the matter of the two men killed by you, I find that you acted in self-defense and you shall not face any charges for your actions. Just in case someone gets it in their head to try and use that against you," he winked at Jesse.
"Now, as for the remaining charges," Judge Henry turned serious. "I purposely asked that Miss KC be brought to court for a reason. I wished to observe how she interacted with the defendant. I also wished to monitor how the defendant and Mrs. Branson interacted with the child. I am very pleased to say that I have never seen a child cared for by any more loving or devoted parents. Nor, have I ever seen a child that so obviously reveres her parents. Therefore, as to the charges of kidnapping and of endangering this child, I find the defendant, Jesse Branson, innocent."
Jesse's knees started to shake and she was sure she would have fallen if Jennifer hadn't had an arm around her. Several sighs of relief were heard from the crowd behind them.
"Now, as for this child's future," the judge continued, "I find it impossible to imagine anyone providing a better home...."
"You can't be thinking of leaving that child with them," Reverend Tobias howled from the rear of the room. "I most strongly object to that possibility."
"Reverend Tobias," Judge Henry sadly shook his head as he addressed the contemptuous preacher, "I have listened to your assertions against these women and find that the only reason you object to their caring for this child is the fact that they are, indeed, two women. Therefore, since you have provided this court with no reasonable, or acceptable, argument to what I am about to do," the judge took a deep breath before continuing. "I am granting the Bransons full adoptive rights for the child. And, to make sure that they have no further problems in this matter," he said directly the sneering preacher, "I have put my decision in writing. Would you hand this to the Bransons," he passed a sheet of parchment to his clerk.
Jesse and Jennifer could barely read the paper through the tears flowing from their eyes..
It is hereby ordered that the infant daughter of Kenneth and Catherine Williams (deceased), having no known blood relatives to provide for a home, is to be placed in the care of Jesse and Jennifer Branson. The child shall be known from this day forward as KC Branson. It is further hereby ordered that this relationship is legally binding and shall not be questioned or challenged by any other party.
By order of Judge Henry, Bannack, Montana Territory.
"Reverend Tobias," the judge softened his voice as he again spoke to the displeased preacher, "it is hard enough to find good homes for children that are in need. That is a situation I'm sure you will have no trouble agreeing to. Might I suggest that you look into your heart and be glad for little KC. She will grow up having what many children can only hope for. This is something to be cherished, not attacked. Perhaps, when you go back to your church and think about it, you'll see this with different eyes."
The preacher turned and left the courtroom, still wearing his expression of outrage.
"How can we thank you?" Jennifer asked, tears streaming down her face.
"Just make sure you prove me right," Judge Henry smiled as he lifted his gavel, glad to finally have the travesty over. Or, so he thought.
The door to the courtroom burst open and Martin Kensington marched in. Thomas immediately stood to block his father's entrance but was greeted by a fist to the face.
"That's for leaving me out there, you sorry excuse for a son," Kensington said as he stepped over his son's prone body.
"Martin," Mary screamed as she watched Thomas fall.
"Good, you're here," Martin sneered at his wife. "Alright, Jennifer," he stepped towards his daughter, "it's time you did as you are told."
Jesse tried to hand KC to Jennifer as she moved to place her body between her wife's and Kensington but Jennifer moved quicker and pushed Jesse out of the way.
"You sorry excuse for a father," Jennifer roared as she pulling her arm back, coiling into it all the strength that months of frustration, pain, anger, disappointment and anguish can create and unleashed a wicked, roundhouse, uppercut punch. Her fist catching her surprised father on the chin with blow powerful enough to stop Martin Kensington in his tracks. He stared absently at Jennifer for a few seconds before falling over backwards.
Cheers erupted in the courtroom as Thomas scrambled to get out of the way of his father's falling body.
"Damn," Billie stared, dumbfounded. He, and many others in the room, had expected it would be Jesse who would flatten the large man when he made an appearance.
"You okay," Jesse casually draped her arm around Jennifer as they looked down at Kensington stretched out on the courtroom floor, too stunned to fully comprehend exactly what had hit him.
"I think I broke my hand," Jennifer leaned into Jesse.
"Should have let me do it," Jesse gently lifted the hand to examine it. A large black and purple bruise was already spreading across the fleshy part and the knuckles were scrapped and starting to swell, but she didn't think it was broken. Though it was going to hurt for some time. She tenderly cradled the hand against her body.
"Felt good," Jennifer stated, matter-of-factly.
Martin Kensington tried to sit up. He raised a hand to the side of his face and winced when he touched his bruised jaw.
"Arrest that man," Judge Henry ordered.
Marshal Morgan moved towards Kensington with sheriff Billie Monroe right behind him. Even stunned, it would take both lawmen to restrain the larger man.
"What the hell?" Kensington tried to remove himself from the clutches of the lawmen.
"You're under arrest," Billie happily informed Kensington.
"You can't arrest me," Kensington continued to struggle as the lawmen half pushed, half dragged him to the front of the courtroom.
"Martin Kensington," the judge spoke to the struggling man. "I am reinstating your prior order of arrest, having found that you have violated it's conditions by returning to Montana Territory."
Billie had thoughtfully provided his copy of the order to the judge before the start of the trial on the chance that things would turn out the way they did. He had also informed the judge of Kensington setting fire to Jesse and Jennifer's ranch house, and of the other crimes he had committed in the territory.
"I am also charging you with conspiracy, arson, and assault. And, I'm sure they'll be more before we're done. Needless to say, Mr. Kensington, you will be spending the next several years behind the walls of the territorial prison. I hope you enjoy your stay. Remove him, marshal."
"Now just a minute," Kensington shouted as he was forced to turn away from the judge. "That bitch is the one going to prison. Harrington assured me....."
"Tobias Harrington?" Jennifer pulled away from Jesse and advanced on her father.
"Yes," Kensington fought to loosened the lawmen's grip. "He promised she would be sent to prison if I promised to sign over the Silver Slipper and the ranch. It was all arranged, the bitch would be out of your life and you would be forced to return east with me. Not to mention, I'd make a nice profit out of the deal," he added.
"You did all this just to get me back east even after I told you I would NEVER, EVER go back there?"
"You belong there," Kensington defiantly told his daughter.
"And, you thought you could just sell the Slipper and the ranch and keep the money?" Jennifer's anger was rising all over again. "Why, you," she pulled back her fist ready to strike a second blow against her father, determined to wipe the triumphant expression off his face.
As soon as Jennifer had left her side, Jesse passed an disgruntled KC to Mary. Now, free of the baby, she stepped between Jennifer and her father, "don't, darlin'."
"Get out of my way, Jesse."
"He's not worth it>"
"Get out of my way!"
"Please, darlin'," Jesse tried another tact, "if you hit him again, you will break your hand."
"I don't care," Jennifer's eyes narrowed as she took aim on the man standing behind Jesse.
Desperate to stop Jennifer from doing something she would later regret, Jesse looked directly into Jennifer's eyes and started to smirk, "I have plans for that hand when this is all over," her eyebrows danced, suggestively.
Jennifer gasped as the meaning of Jesse's words sunk in, a blush steadily creeping up her neck and coloring her cheeks. "Jesse Marie Branson," she lowered her fist and, opening her hand, swatted at the rancher. When her injured fingers came in contact with Jesse's muscular arm, Jennifer was instantly sorry and pulled her hand back, hissing in pain.
Jesse pulled Jennifer to her, cradling the injured hand.
"I can't believe you said that," Jennifer groaned as she buried her face into Jesse's shoulder.
"Sorry, darlin'," Jesse kissed the top of her wife's head, "but, I needed to get your attention."
Jennifer looked up to see Jesse's eyes sparkling back at her, "I love you."
"I love you, too."
"Momma," KC cried. "Mommy."
Jesse and Jennifer looked to see their daughter struggling to free herself from her grandmother's arms.
"Okay, sunshine," Jesse walked over and caught the baby as she launched herself towards her mothers, "I think we should get your momma to the doctor's. What do ya say?"
KC, happy to be reunited with her mommy, reached up and squeezed Jesse's nose, "onk, onk."
Laughter exploded in the courtroom, releasing the tension that had built up over the past several minutes.
"This trial is over," Judge Henry joined in the laughter, rapping his gavel against his desk for the last time.
Mary held Thomas back as a crowd of well-wishers converged on Jesse and Jennifer. "See if the judge has a moment to speak to me about your father," Mary directed her son.
Thomas looked at his mother and then at his father who was being led out of the courtroom with Marcus Thompson. "Alright," he nodded as he turned back to his mother. "I'll be right back."
"Mr. Wilson," Thaddeus Newby approached the construction foreman at the site of Sweetwater's new bank, "I was wondering if you could spare a few moments of time."
"What for?" Frank Wilson wiped the sweat off his face. He looked up into the cloudless sky and wondered if they would get any thunder storms later in the day, he would sure welcome some rain.
"I have a few questions I'd like to ask you about the Songbird mine," the newspaperman said.
"Shouldn't you be asking Harrington those?" Wilson walked to a bucket of water sitting in the shade of one of the building's partially completed walls.
"I think I have a better chance of getting some honest answers from you," Thaddeus followed the man into the shade.
"Not my job to answer questions," Wilson sunk a dipper into the liquid, then lifted it to his mouth.
"Mr. Wilson," Thaddeus leaned against the wall, "I'm about to run an article in the Gazette exposing the Songbird as a fraud. And, I have good reason to believe that you are aware of the mine being salted," he referred to the practice of someone making a worthless claim seem valuable by placing about small amounts of gold bearing ore. Of course, if someone also had the cooperation of a dishonest assayer, the job of convincing a prospective buyer of a mine's potential payout was much easier. "What I would like to know is what are you going to do about it before Sweetwater pays the price for the deception?"
Wilson dropped the dipper into the bucket, it rattled against the wooden side before disappearing beneath the water. He looked at Thaddeus, considering his response to the man's question.
"I think you best be addressing your questions to Harrington." Wilson said added, "perhaps, it would serve your readers more to hear what he knows and what he is doing about it."
"Do you think he knows?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Newby," Wilson retrieved the dipper and hooked it back onto the bucket's side, "but I don't think I should answer that question."
The foreman's responses confirmed for Thaddeus that he did know about the mine's lack of gold ore. But, Wilson was right. The real question was whether, or not, Tobias Harrington knew.
"Very well, Mr. Wilson," Thaddeus smiled, "I shall address my questions to Mr. Harrington."
"You can't do this to me," Martin Kensington struggled to prevent shackles from being tightened around his ankles. "Do you have any idea who I am?"
The sheriff and marshal had brought their prisoners back to the jailhouse and shoved them inside. As soon as they were through the jail door, Billie slammed it shut and jammed the locking bolt in place to prevent Kensington from escaping. He and the marshal had then set to the task of placing manacles on the belligerent prisoner.
"Yeah, I know who ya are," Billie grunted as he fought to hold onto the man while the marshal completed the task of securing the leg irons. "You're a arrogant, pig-headed, fool of a man who's got more money than brains," the lawman panted. "But, now you're the property of the territory of Montana and ya money ain't goin' do ya much good where ya goin'."
While the lawmen grappled with Kensington, Marcus Thompson passively entered one of the two cells and stood patiently waiting. He saw no reason to fight the inevitable.
"Damn, man," Marshal Morgan snapped when he was smacked in the head by one of Kensington's flailing knees. "Would you stop kicking me," he barked.
"Hold still, Kensington," Billie tried to control the thrashing man, "ya ain't goin' change anything."
"There," Marshal Morgan finally got the cuffs around Kensington's legs. "Let's get him in the cell and chain him down," he told Billie as he stood, rubbing the side of his head.
Kensington was dragged into the same cell Jesse had been locked into only days before. But, unlike Jesse's confinement, a heavy chain was run through the iron ring in the middle of the cell's floor and it's ends were padlocked to each of the leg irons clasped around the prisoner's ankles. With his movement severely restricted, the lawmen had a somewhat easier time of placing similar restraints on Kensington wrists.
"You can't do this to me," Kensington screamed, pulling against the chains. "Harrington promised this couldn't happen."
"That was another mistake ya made," Billie muttered as he followed the marshal out of the cell. "Harrington ain't much better than a snake in the grass."
"Let me ouuuuuuttttttt of hhhhheeeeeeerrrrrrreeeeeee," was heard as the heavy, reinforced, wooden cell door was slammed shut.
"I hope you don't plan to follow his example," Marshal Morgan glared at his other prisoner.
"No," Thompson said meekly.
"Good," Morgan slammed the door on Thompson's cell. He quickly slipped a chain through two rings bolted to the log walls that enclosed the cells and padlocked the end links together preventing the cell doors from being opened.
"Well, that takes care of that," Billie said as he heard the lock click shut.
"Guess it does," Morgan walked to the opposite end of the room and placed the ring of keys on a hook pounded into the wall. "Too bad these walls aren't thicker," he groaned as the men listened to Kensington's unending screams of protest. "Not much reason for both of us to stay here," he dropped into a chair, worn out after his recent exertion. "Why don't you go back and spend some time with your friends."
Billie studied the other man. Although, he didn't approve of his methods, Billie knew the marshal had only been doing his job when he arrested Jesse. And, that wasn't something he planned to hold against the fellow lawman. "Alright," Billie reached out his hand to the marshal, "I'll come back and spell you later tonight."
Marshal Morgan accepted Billie's gesture and shook the sheriff's hand. "No need, I can stay here tonight," the marshal smiled. "Be obliged if you'd have something sent over for supper."
"Consider it done," Billie nodded, then unbolted the jail's door and left. With the way, Kensington was yelling, he figured he'd have some cotton sent over with the marshal's meal so he could stuff his ears. "Otherwise, he won't be gettin' any sleep tonight," Billie chuckled as he walked away.
After enduring a jubilant celebration for almost an hour, Jesse and Jennifer begged out of any further congratulatory wishes explaining that KC needed a nap and they wanted some time alone to absorb all that had happened in the courtroom that morning. They made their way through the crowd and, when confronted by the steep stairway to the ground floor, were flabbergasted to be lifted onto the shoulders of some of their well-wishers. The men carried them down the stairs, out the large double door of the brick building and down the outside steps before lowering them to the boardwalk. Jennifer laughed as Jesse indignantly protested the entire time they were being manhandled but was grateful when the jostling came to an end and her own boots landed on solid ground.
KC thought the entire trip a wonderful adventure and jumped up and down in Jesse's arms trying to get her mother to do it all over again. Jesse refused to indulge the child, grumbling under her breath when Jennifer teasingly joined in with the baby's pleas. Jesse thanked the men for their assistance and, gently pushing Jennifer before her, walked away from the courthouse where the celebration continued.
"Boy," Jennifer grinned, "I can't believe all those people reacting that way." She eased closer to Jesse as they walked, laughing at the wild hooting, hollering, back slapping and revelry that had taken place after Judge Henry declared the trial over.
"Guess it doesn't take much for folks to have a good time around here," Jesse shrugged, wrapping an arm around her wife's waist. But she, too, had been surprised at the overwhelming outpouring of support from the town's citizens, most of whom were total strangers to the two women.
"Aw, come on, sweetheart," Jennifer chided, "it has to be more than that."
"Well," Jesse drawled, "I suppose they were happy to have their doubts about Plummer finally laid to rest."
"But, the vigilantes hanged Plummer," Jennifer brow wrinkled in thought. "Wasn't that good enough for them?"
"It's one thing to have people accuse someone of wrong doing and secretly talk about it. It's somethin' else to have someone involved come right out and say it happened."
"You mean like Skinner did?"
"Yeah. My guess is that hearing him tell what he knew about Plummer just gave folks the opportunity to let go of all the bottled up fear and doubt they've been carrying around for some time."
"So, it really didn't have that much to do with us. We just happened to be caught in the middle?"
"Hmm," Jennifer frowned.
"It kinda takes the fun out of it when you put it that way."
"Oh, I wouldn't go disclaiming all of it, darlin'," Jesse smiled. "I'm pretty sure some of that was because they'd got a real kick out of seeing you wallop your pop."
"Really?" Jennifer looked down at the swollen hand carefully cradled against her chest.
"Oh, yeah," Jesse smiled, proudly. "Oh, yeah."
"Thank you for seeing me, Judge Henry," Mary smiled as she was met at the door to the judge's chambers.
"Your request intrigued me, Mrs. Kensington," the judge motioned for her to sit on the settee Jesse and Jennifer had occupied hours earlier. "I must say, I was surprised that, under the circumstances, you would wish to speak to me about your husband," he said as he pulled a chair across the floor and sat down.
"Yes, I'm sure it does seem a bit strange," Mary settled back, the events of the last several days were catching up to her and she felt exhausted. "It is my understanding that you intend to send my husband to prison here in Montana," she hesitated, ordering her thoughts before continuing.
Judge Henry nodded, allowing the woman to take the time she needed.
"I would like you to consider an alternative destination for him."
"I see. And, why would I do that?"
"Judge Henry, it is no secret the trouble my husband has caused my daughter and her family."
The judge nodded.
"I can't bear to bring myself to think about the consequences of some of his actions," she blinked back tears as she thought of Jennifer screaming in agony, her leg ripped open by the mountain lion's claws. "I fear that should my husband remain in Montana, even though he would be confined to prison," Mary looked at the judge, her eyes revealing the desperation she felt, "he will find a way to continue his persecution of Jennifer and Jesse."
"You spoke of an alternative," Judge Henry, sadly, believed the woman's concerns about her husband to be well founded.
"Yes," Mary took a deep breath and reconsidered what she was about to suggest. She didn't take long to decide that it was, most certainly, the best option for everyone. Especially for Jennifer and Jesse. "I would like to have Martin transported to a facility back east."
"I believe my husband needs what a prison cannot provide," Mary sighed. Taking a deep breath, she continued, "I am well acquainted with the director of one of the finest mental hospitals on the east coast. I can assure you that if Martin is placed under his care, never again will Jennifer, or Jesse, have to fear his actions. I can also assure you that he will never set foot outside the hospital walls. Ever," she stressed, leaning forward and locking eyes with the judge.
Judge Henry recognized the look in Mary's eyes for what it was, a declaration that she intended to have her husband committed for life. He stood and stepped to the window behind his desk. Looking outside, his eyes tracked the activity along the street below his window. He smiled when he noticed two familiar figures walking arm-in-arm, a child happily riding on the shoulders of one. He thought about the women who were still so young and, yet, had endured so much. And, somehow, had become all the stronger for it. He felt that the Branson family deserved a real chance at life, a chance not constantly interrupted by a man who's aberrant behavior seemed to have no bounds.
"It will be expensive to transport him that far," Judge Henry commented as he watched Jesse and Jennifer, "an expense the territory will not afford, I'm afraid."
"I will pay all costs."
"Guards will need to be hired."
"He must be shackled and handcuffed at all times."
"I would expect no less."
"I will need to receive confirmation from your acquaintance that he will abide with all terms I specify for your husband's confinement."
"I will telegraph him today."
"Very well, Mrs. Kensington," Judge Henry turned away from the window. "As soon as I receive the confirmation, I will draft the order. Your husband will remain in jail here until then."
"Thank you," Mary stood and reached out her hand to the judge.
"I am glad that your daughter has one parent to share her life with," Judge Henry clasped Mary's hand and lightly squeezed it. "You should be very proud of her," he smiled.
"I'm proud of all three of them," Mary smiled back. "I don't know many who could go through what they have and still be standing tall."
"They are very remarkable."
"Yes," Mary released the man's hand, "they are."
After a stop at the doctor's office to treat Jennifer's bruised hand, she and Jesse walked back to Marianne's cabin for some well deserved time alone. As they approached, they spotted Walks on the Wind waiting for them, leaning against the fence that surrounded the cabin.
"Figured you'd be coming back here," Walk greeted his friends. "I'm glad it all worked out," he said to Jesse.
"Thanks," Jesse grasped the Indian's outstretched arm. "Appreciate you helpin' out."
"Doesn't appear you needed my help," Walk chuckled as Jennifer threw her arms around him and hugged him tight, not caring that it caused her hand to ache.
"Having you here, helped," Jennifer told Walk when she released him from her hug.
"Then, I'm glad I came."
"Will you be stickin' around?" Jesse asked. Jennifer listened eagerly for his answer, hoping he would be.
"No, I must get back to camp," Walk told the women. "They need me at the hunt."
"Oh," Jennifer was disappointed that their friend would be leaving so soon. They had barely had any time to spend with him.
"Maybe you can stop by on your way back to Sweetwater," Walk suggested as he mounted his horse.
"Can we, Jesse?" Jennifer still wanted to see the large buffalo herds.
"Don't see why not, darlin'," Jesse agreed. "We'll see you in a few days, then," she told Walk.
"I'll look forward to it," Walk waved as he rode away. "Take care of that hand, Jennifer. And, Jesse," he called over his shoulder, "this time, leave the posse at home."
"Smart ass," Jesse muttered, as the Indian's laughter drifted back to them.
"Billie," Ruthie called out when she located Billie in the crowd in front of the courthouse. "Billie."
Hearing his name being shouted, the sheriff turned to look down the street in the direction of the sound. A smile quickly spread across his face as he saw Ed Grainger, Bette Mae, and Ruthie riding towards him.
"Ruth," Billie waved as he ran towards the riders. He pulled his fiancÚ off her horse and swung her around in a circle, hugging her. "What are you doing here?"
Ruthie gasped for breath, Billie's hug was so tight. "Let me go, honey," she laughed. "I can't breathe."
"Sorry," Billie loosened his hold but kept the woman in his arms. "So, what are you doing here?"
"We came to help Miss Jesse," Ruthie explained.
"What's all the celebratin' fer?" Bette Mae asked as she dropped from her horse.
"Trial's over," Billie told them. "Jesse was found innocent of all charges."
"Of course, she was," Bette Mae said, exasperated. "That don' 'xplain the celebratin'."
"It's so good to see you," Billie grinned, unable to take his eyes off Ruthie.
"It's good to see you, too," Ed teased the love struck sheriff as he joined the others. "Damn, that's a loud bunch," he raised his voice to be heard over the revelers.
"It sure is," Bette Mae agreed. "Where are Jesse and Jennifer?"
Billie looked back over his shoulder at the crowd that seemed to have grown in the last few minutes and was getting pretty wild after many of the celebrants had visited the numerous nearby saloons.
"Why don't we find someplace quiet," Billie suggested. He helped Ed gather up the horses and tie them to a convenient hitching rail. Then, grabbing Ruthie's hand, led the group across the street and down a narrow passage between two buildings. A short walk brought them to the banks of the Grasshopper Creek and they settled down in the shade of a large cottonwood tree to talk.
Jennifer snugly tucked KC into bed, bending to place a kiss on the child's forehead. For a few moments, she stood beside the bed and simply watched the baby sleep. The sound of soft crying drew her attention to the other side of the cabin. The curtain that normally hung down the center of the one room building was pulled back and she could see Jesse huddled on the floor at the base of the far wall, her face buried in her hands. The ragged movement of the rancher's shoulders, gave away her quiet sobbing.
"Oh, sweetheart," Jennifer quickly crossed the room and slid down beside Jesse, gathering the weeping woman into her arms.
Jesse fell into Jennifer's embrace, her sobs deepening as she released her emotions, letting them drain out of her with her tears.
Jennifer held her grieving wife, tenderly stroking her hair and gently rocking their joined bodies. She wasn't sure what had precipitated Jesse's letdown but she was extremely grateful it had finally happened. It hadn't escaped her notice the toll being taken by Jesse's need to maintain a brave front through all that was happening. It was quite amazing to Jennifer that her wife had managed to go as long as she had before breaking down.
After several minutes, Jesse wiped at her eyes with her shirt sleeve. The soaked cloth did little to dry the moisture from her face.
"Here, sweetheart," Jennifer pulled a napkin off the nearby table and handed it to Jesse.
"Thanks," Jesse said, her voice shaky and raspy.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Jennifer asked softly, prepared to drop the subject if Jesse balked.
"Not much to talk about," Jesse raised her head to look at Jennifer with eyes that were red and puffy. "I was reading that paper again, the one the judge gave us. And," she had to stop as her voice caught in her throat, a deep sob trembling through her. "I can't believe she's really ours," Jesse cried, fresh tears overflowing from her eyes and racing down her cheeks. "She's really ours."
Jennifer felt her own eyes fill with tears as the impact of Jesse's words sunk in. KC was truly their daughter, the judge had seen to that. And, no one, not even the Reverend Tobias, could ever question that again.
"Yes, sweetheart," Jennifer whispered as tears streamed down her face, "KC is our daughter."
"Ours," Jesse smiled as she repeated the word.
"Yep," Jennifer returned the smile, "ours."
"I can't believe we missed that," Bette Mae wiped tears of laughter from her eyes.
"I can't say that it surprises me," Ed laughed. "She's got a lot more fire than most give her credit for."
Billie had spent the better part of the past hour filling in the latecomers on the events of the trial. He had just finished telling them about Jennifer knocking out her father.
"Well," Billie Monroe slapped his knee, "I sure didn't see it coming. When I saw Kensington throw that door open and strut into the courtroom, I expected Jesse would be the one to thump him. I can tell you, I wasn't the only one shocked when Jennifer beat her to the the punch."
"In more ways than one, it seems," Bette Mae started laughing all over again.
"Then, what happened, Billie," Ruthie asked, she was sitting next to the sheriff being careful to keep a respectable distance between them.
"Well, the judge ordered Kensington arrested and he refused to believe it was happening. Damn fool, said that he couldn't be arrested because Harrington had promised Jesse would be the one to go to prison."
"What ta hell does that snake have to do wit' all this?" Bette Mae asked.
"That's exactly what Jennifer asked her father," Billie told them. "Seems the two of them made a deal that Harrington would have Jesse sent to prison. And, in return, Kensington would sell him the ranch and Slipper."
"Why that....," Ed's hands clinched into fists. "I ought to go over to that jail and....."
"Won't do ya any good, Ed," Bette Mae tried to calm the big man, "his head is too damn thick. Even ya big fists wouldn' have much effect on him. All you'd manage to do is break yo'r hands."
"I'd still like a chance to smack him," Ed grumbled but he smiled, knowing Bette Mae was probably right.
"I wouldn't worry too much about Kensington," Billie chuckled. "I think Judge Henry plans to make sure he spends the next several years locked away at Deer Lodge."
"I would hope so," Ruthie exclaimed. "All the things that man has done," she shook her head, "I can't imagine how anyone could be so mean."
"Some men just don' know how ta take 'no' for an answer," Bette Mae patted the younger woman on the leg. "Ya remember tha' and make sure ya don' let Billie get away with anythin' after ya get hitched," she snickered as the lawman glowered at her.
"Bette Mae is right, Billie. Ruthie should know these things before you put the ring on her finger," Ed joined in the playful teasing.
"How are you feeling?" Jennifer asked after she and Jesse had sat in silence for many minutes. She squirmed trying to get her leg in a more comfortable position.
Jesse immediately picked up on her wife's discomfort. "Damn, darlin'," Jesse jumped to her feet and helped Jennifer off the floor. "You shouldn't be sitting down there," she pulled a chair over and eased Jennifer into it. "Is that better?"
"Yes, sweetheart, thank you." Jennifer sighed, "but what would really be good is one of your massages."
"Well," Jesse grinned, "I'm pretty sure that can be arranged. Of course," she pondered, "we are supposed to meet your mother and brother, and Marianne for dinner in a bit."
"Not for another couple of hours," Jennifer supplied, hopefully.
"Hmm," Jesse tilted her head and pretended to contemplate something, "Well, KC is asleep in the bed," she responded.
"The floor isn't that uncomfortable," Jennifer tried to keep a straight face but failed, "especially if I was to be laying on top of a nice soft blanket."
As Jesse smirked at her wife, she suddenly was overcome by the deep love she had for the woman smiling back at her. Dropping to her knees in front of Jennifer, Jesse slowly reached up and captured Jennifer's face between her hands. Thumbs traced seductively over smooth cheeks and around soft lips as she looked into the depths of Jennifer's eyes, "I love you so much."
Jennifer leaned forward, placing a hand behind Jesse's neck and gently pulled the rancher towards her. She sighed as their lips met. The kiss began tenderly but quickly escalated into much more, only their need to breath eventually forced the women apart.
"You stay right there," Jesse pushed herself up from the floor. "I'll be right back with that soft blanket."
"That was really somethin'," Bette Mae stretched her arms behind her and leaned back, "the judge puttin' it in writin' about my littl' angel."
"I'll say," Billie scratched his head. "You sure could have knocked Jesse over with a feather when he told them what he had done."
"Bet, it didn't make that preacher too happy," Ed tossed a pebble into the creek.
"Nope," Billie answered, "he left the room like a nest of bees had swarmed into his britches. Don't think they've seen the last of him, yet."
"Well, let's hope he takes some notice to what the judge told him," Ed tossed another pebble and watched it disappeared into the murky water. "I doubt if Jesse will take much more off of him."
"I think he's got a lot more to worry about with Jennifer than Jesse," Billie laughed. "She sure took out after him during his testimony."
"Well, I hate ta be the one ta break this up," Bette Mae sat up and dusted off her hands, "but, we need ta be gettin' some rooms for the night. And, I want ta be seein' Jesse and Jennifer, and KC."
"Well, we should be able to get you rooms at the Goodrich. And, they've got a stable for your horses," Billie stood and held out his hands to help Ruthie up. "As for Jesse and Jennifer, they wanted some time to put KC down for a nap. But, we made plans to meet up for dinner later. You can come along," he pulled Ruthie into a hug after tugging her to her feet. "Bet they'll be mighty glad to see ya."
"Bet they'll be mighty surprised, ya mean," Bette Mae laughed. "Come on, Ed. I could use a little nap myself."
Jesse carried KC as she and Jennifer walked into the Chinese restaurant where they were supposed to meet Mary, Thomas and Marianne. They were surprised to see Ed, Bette Mae, Billie and Ruthie waiting with the others.
"Oh, my gosh," Jennifer smiled, "when did you guys get here?"
"They rode in 'bout an hour after you left the celebration," Billie said as the pair approached the group.
"Figured you'd be at the jail tonight, Billie," Jesse said. "Ruthie, you came too?"
"I was worried about Billie," the young woman shyly explained.
"We're glad you came," Jennifer hugged Ruthie. "And, I know Billie is glad to see you," she teased the sheriff.
"Marshal Morgan is stayin' there tonight," Billie explained. "And you're right, Jennifer," he smiled at his fiancÚ, "I was mighty glad to see Ruth ride into town."
"Give me a hug 'fore I burst," Bette Mae cried. "You had me so worried," she sniffled as Jesse and Jennifer embraced her.
"Mommy, uck," KC protested being squished by the hugging women.
"Come here, my littl' angel," Bette Mae snatched the baby away from Jesse. KC was soon giggling under the barrage of kisses the older woman was placing all over her face.
"Guess we need to add a few folks to our reservation," Jesse smirked.
"It's all taken care of that, Jesse," Ed happily gathered Jesse and Jennifer into one of his bear hugs as soon as Bette Mae released them. "We took over the entire restaurant for the night."
"Ed," Jesse stared at her friend in amazement, "are you kidding?"
"Nope," Billie replied for the storekeeper. "It's all ours. We figured you could use some time without half the town watching your every move."
"Well, I'm not going to deny that," Jennifer laughed. The last few days in the courtroom had been especially trying for the normally private family.
"Jennifer," Mary timidly approached her daughter, unsure what kind of reception she would receive.
"Mother," Jennifer just as timidly greeted her mother, unsure how her mother felt about her actions that morning in the courtroom. She hadn't been raised to strike her parents.
"I'm sorry, Jennifer," Mary began. "If I could have down something to stop him....."
"Oh, mother," Jennifer closed the distance between them and hugged her mother. "I don't blame you."
"I love you, Jennifer."
"I love you, too."
"Okay, now that ya got that out of yo'r gizzards," Bette Mae sighed as Jennifer and her mother shared a tearful reunion. "What say we stop the cryin' and get ta eatin' this here fancy food Billie's been braggin' 'bout all afternoon. I ain't had a decent thing ta eat since we left Sweetwater."
Jesse moved close to Jennifer and stood ready to fulfill any need she might have during what appeared to be the start of an emotional night. "I agree. Let's eat, I'm starved."
"Yum," KC loudly let her feelings be known. "Yum, yum, yum."
"What's the matter, littl' angel," Bette Mae clucked to the child, "ain't yo'r mommas been feedin' ya?"
KC grinned at the woman who held her, she reached out and grabbed Bette Mae's nose, "oooonnnnkkkk."
Continued in Part 10
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