This is an original story and reflects a loving relationship between two women. If you are offended by such a relationship, please do not read any further. Having said that, this story is a "G" rating, nothing graphic.
Please do not reproduce this story without my permission.
I would like to hear your comments (positive and helpful, please. hate mail will be zapped immediately). Please write me at email@example.com.
I hope you enjoy.
a story by Mickey
@copyrighted April 2003
The moon slipped behind the drifting clouds just as Jennifer crawled over the window sill and out onto a narrow section of roof. Though she was glad for the extra cover to help conceal her movements, the deepening darkness did make her immediate journey that much more difficult. Tentatively, she stepped to the roof's edge and, without giving herself any time to reconsider, she made the short jump onto a sturdy branch of the massive oak tree that had stood outside her bedroom window for as long as she could remember. Carefully, using the tree's many branches as hand and footholds, she climbed down the thick trunk to the grassy yard below. Pausing only long enough to untie the small canvas travel bag strapped to her back, she quickly crossed the yard and passed through the waist high cast-iron gate before disappearing into the night's shadows.
As she walked swiftly towards the business district, Jennifer gave little thought to the fact that she was leaving behind the quiet neighborhood where she had been born and raised. Instead, her attention was focused on the distant whistle of the midnight train chugging its way to the town's station. She quickened her steps because the last thing she wanted was to miss being a passenger on that train as it left town a short 30 minutes after arriving.
Even at this late hour, the business district was alive with activity. Delivery wagons stood in front of the station, prepared to take on cargo the train delivered. Representatives from the town's hotels and boarding houses rushed to greet late arriving guests on the wood-planked platform circling the brick depot building. Music from pianos, most badly in need of tuning, filled the night's air around the numerous drinking and gambling houses that shared the district with more respectable businesses. Knowing this was not a good place for a single woman to be, especially at night, Jennifer kept her eyes focused straight ahead and made her way rapidly to the relative safety of the station's platform.
Jennifer reached the station just moments after the train rolled to a stop and the loud hiss of it's releasing steam drowned out the other noises of the busy depot. She climbed the depot's steps, looking back along the route she had just traveled to see if anyone had taken undue notice of her. Relieved that no one was paying her any attention, Jennifer turned to find a place to wait while the disembarking passengers gathered their luggage and moved off of the platform and into the night. Trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, she leaned against the cool brick of the depot's wall. She forced her body to remain still, afraid that any movement would give her away. Jennifer was determined not to relax until she could feel the wheels of the train moving beneath her.
The night's shadows and the floppy lace hat Jennifer wore did a good job of hiding her features. She wore a dark blue dress which easily blended into the shadows where she stood and she hugged her travel bag close to her chest, concealing her frame that much more. Her long hair was braided and tucked up and into her hat. If anyone had taken the time to pay the young woman any attention, they would have noticed that her eyes continually scanned the activity on the platform, looking for any recognition in the faces passing by her. But, the people moving about that night were much too concerned with their own business to notice the young woman and they passed her right by without thought.
"All aboard," the conductor's call broke Jennifer from her surveillance.
"Finally," she whispered to herself as she pushed away from the depot's wall and nervously took another glance around the corner of the building. Relieved to see no one she knew, she hurried across the platform. By the time the conductor had finished calling out the names of the train's next few stops, Jennifer was standing impatiently next to him waiting for her ticket to be checked.
"Going all the way to Denver, Miss," the conductor commented as he took her ticket. "You'll be wanting the sleeper car then. Just continue right through this car and into the next. Take any bunk you like."
"Thank you," she smiled at the man as she retrieved her punched ticket and tucked it securely back into her bag.
Jennifer mounted the high steps and without a look back at the only home she had ever known, she entered the passenger car and made her way to the sleeper. When, a few moments later, the engineer blew the steam whistle warning of the train's imminent departure, she was situated in the top bunk at the far end of the sleeper car. Jennifer was almost thrown from the bunk as the steam locomotive lurched to life, jerking the cars behind. But, she quickly resettled herself on the lumpy mattress, her thoughts gradually returning to the events that had led to her present circumstances.
Five Days Earlier
"No," his deep voice boomed. "I will not have a daughter of mine working."
"But, Father," Jennifer tried again to make her father understand her feelings.
"Absolutely, not," his voice boomed again as he paced about the room. Jennifer's father was a large man, well over six feet tall and solidly built. Watching the large man stomping about the elegant furnishings in their home's small sitting room would have been amusing under different circumstances. But, Jennifer was anything but amused. She had had this 'discussion' many times with her father and his response was always the same.
"Respectable women do not work. Your mother never worked. She married, as was her duty, and you will do the same."
Jennifer's father, Martin Kinsington was a successful business man, having inherited a prosperous shipping company from his father who had, in turn, inherited it from his father. Her three brothers worked in the company and she had thought that she could too. Not on the ships or down at the docks where the cargos were loaded and unloaded, but in the shipping office where her skills with numbers and writing could be of use. She had listened to her father constantly complain of inadequate help in that area and she wanted to make a contribution to the family business. Not to mention, the money she could earn would help fund her dream of traveling. She longed to explore the country's western territories. The last thing she wanted was to be the wife of one of the numerous suitors that her father was constantly arranging to call on her.
Jennifer watched her father cross and re-cross the room, while her mother sat quietly in a chair saying nothing. Jennifer took a deep breath and tried again, "just a few hours a week, Father. Just enough to make me feel useful and allow me some spending money."
"NO," her father's shout rattled the room's windows. "You do not need money. A silly thing like you would not know how to handle money. Look at your mother," he came to a stop directly in front of Jennifer and pointed to the small woman sitting without expression in the corner of the room. "She has never had two coins to rub together and she has never needed them. I see to all of her needs, just as your husband will see to yours."
She said nothing as her mind raced for just the right reason that would convince her father. Her shoulders slumped as she realized that she would never make her father understand, Jennifer sighed deeply and dropped her head to her chest in defeat. Seeing this, her father moved quickly to reinforce her apparent capitulation.
"I never want this subject brought up again. Do you understand?" he leaned down until he was mere inches from her face and waited for her reply.
"Yes," Jennifer whispered.
"Good," he straightened back up, towering over Jennifer. "I have a shipment to see to," he said with a nod to his wife. And, after one final look at Jennifer as if to say 'this matter is settled' he turned and left the house.
Jennifer sat in the now deafening silence and for several minutes studied her mother.
In contrast to her father, Jennifer's mother, Mary Stancey Kinsington, was a small woman of slight statue and delicate features. Born into the well respected Stancey ship-building family, Mary was only seventeen when Jennifer's grandfathers had arranged for the marriage. Jennifer knew that her mother had not loved her father at the time of their marriage but, over the years since, had come to adore him. Jennifer was never quite sure what her mother meant when she spoke of her father in that way. Mary Kinsington spent most of her days seeing to the running of the Kinsington home and supervising the family's small staff of domestic help. She attended few social functions unless her presence was required for her husband's benefit. Instead, spending her free time participating in sewing and reading circles which were in actuality nothing more than gossip sessions.
Jennifer studied the woman who had given her life and had raised her and her brothers with as much love as any mother had ever given their children. And yet, in her own sixteen years of life, Jennifer could not recall her mother ever voicing an opinion that had not been first uttered by her father. In fact, it was hard to remember a time when her mother had voiced any opinion. Her mother lived her life in her husband's shadow and was. seemingly. content to do so.
'No,' Jennifer vowed to herself, 'I will not end up like her.' She rose from the chair and crossed the room to where her mother still quietly sat. Leaning down, she kissed her mother gently on the forehead.
"I'm going to the library," she told her. "Don't worry, I'll be back in time for dinner." Her father required the entire family's attendance at evening meals unless demands of their shipping business interfered. She took the few steps to the front door, turning back she told her mother "I'll make my dreams come true no matter what Father says."
And, with that she left never seeing the single tear that slowly made it's way down her mother's cheek.
"I pray that you do, daughter," a soft voice was barely heard in the silence of the room. "I pray that you do."
Jennifer pushed open the heavy oak door that greeted visitors to the Kensington Library. Her father's 'gift' to the town was a massive sandstone building with oak framed windows, oak bookshelves and oak reading tables. 'Genteel understatement' Jennifer had satirically described the building at its elaborate opening ceremony. Its design was for one purpose only and that being to impress the town with her father's generosity. Of course, Jennifer knew the real reason behind the gift. Her father had wanted to increase his dock space and in order to sway the town council to his way of thinking, he had 'donated' the library and had provided a yearly stipend to employ a librarian and to purchase books. And in return he had, not surprisingly, received permission to expand his docks.
Jennifer really didn't care why her father had donated the library, she was just glad that he had, as she spent as much time as she could at the building. In fact, the library was the best thing her father had ever done for her. She had read almost every book it's shelves held and she had become good friends with the young man hired for the librarian position. Her dreams had taken root in the library and it's many books continually nourished them. But, Jennifer kept her dreams to herself because she knew her father would seal the massive oak doors shut if he knew the part his library played in them.
Jennifer trudged across the oak floor and dropped down into one of the large overstuffed chairs provided for reading.
"What did he do now?" Matthew, the young man who served as librarian, asked looking up from his work cataloging the latest delivery of books. It was not uncommon for Jennifer to come to the library after arguing with her father and Matthew rarely had to guess the cause of his friend's mood. He had graduated from a nearby college a few years previously and had been offered the position of librarian immediately thereafter. He was a few years older than Jennifer but being new in town and naturally shy, he had found her friendship a welcome bonus to his duties.
"He turned me down again," she answered.
"You know that he'll never change his mind, don't you?"
"Yes," she sighed.
Having had this conversation with Jennifer several times before, the librarian knew she would need some quiet time. Leaving Jennifer to her own thoughts, Matthew went back to his work.
Almost an half hour passed before Jennifer pulled her legs up under her to got more comfortable in the chair
"So, Matt," Jennifer turned her attention to the librarian. "You planning on letting me see today's delivery?"
"Maybe," Matthew looked at his friend and was glad to see her face free of most of the frustration it had carried when she had first entered the building. He smiled, knowing Jennifer was fully aware of what the latest delivery contained since she had helped him make out the order list weeks earlier. With Jennifer's fascination with the west, it was a favorite game of theirs to argue over the orders. She would insist on more books covering the west and he would insist that the library provide a wide range of subjects for reading. Then, after the list was finalized, he would always add one or two additional "surprises" for his young friend.
"Got something here that might just bring a smile back to your face," Matt reached down into a box at his feet and pulled out a rolled up newspaper.
"What is it?" Jennifer asked as she rose out of the chair and made her way to Matthew's desk.
"All the way from Denver," Matthew handed her the paper which she took and immediately began to devour.
"Matt, this is great," Jennifer cried excitingly without lifting her eyes from the pages she read. "But, how did you manage it," she asked knowing that it was hard enough getting copies of newspapers from cities on the east coast let alone one from the western territories.
"Chap I know at the publishing house mentioned they sometimes send books out west. Asked him for a favor and that's what he sent. Only a month old. Not bad, eh?" Matthew was pleased that he was able to surprise Jennifer with the newspaper.
"Not bad. I'd say it was fantastic," Jennifer smiled at her friend. "I can't wait to read the whole thing."
"Go on," Matthew motioned her to one of the large oak reading tables. "Spread it out and enjoy. I've got to finish cataloging the rest of these books."
A comfortable silence fell over the library as Jennifer read the Denver paper and Matthew continued with his cataloging. Jennifer had finished the news part of the paper and was reading through the advertisements at the end.
"Oh, my," she gasped as her eyes fell on the small ad at the bottom of one page.
"Are you okay?" Matthew looked up from his work.
"Yes, I'm fine," Jennifer reread the ad. Turning to look at the librarian, she asked hesitantly, "Matt, do you think I'd make a good schoolteacher?"
"You'd make a great teacher," Matthew replied. "Why do you ask?"
"There's an ad here. It says they need single women to teach school in towns out west."
"Jennifer," Matthew crossed from his desk to where Jennifer sat "you're not thinking...?"
"Matt," Jennifer was getting more exciting the more she read and re-read the ad. "It's perfect. I can make enough money to be on my own AND have a chance of being out west. And, you said yourself that I would make a good teacher."
"Great," Matthew leaned over Jennifer's shoulder to read the ad she was pointing to. "I said that you would make a 'great' teacher. But, no way is your father going to allow you to travel west to be a schoolteacher."
"Then, I just won't tell him."
"Jennifer, you can't."
Jennifer thought for a moment before deciding. A sense of purpose grew inside her and she twisted her head in order to face to her friend. "I'll be 17 in four months, Matt. Father has already decided that I shall be married by my 18th birthday, whether I agree or not." She looked pleadingly into his eyes, "please, Matt, promise me you won't say anything."
"I don't know," Matthew started to pace reminding Jennifer of her father's actions only a couple of hours earlier.
"But, he is, technically, my employer and,,,"
"Matt," Jennifer grabbed her friend's arm. "Please, this is a chance I have to take. I may never get another."
Matt sat down and studied the girl sitting beside him. Jennifer was willowy and taller than most women he knew but not quite as tall as his own 5 feet 10 inches. Her ginger hair set off her sapphire blue eyes and he believed her to be one of the prettiest young women in the town. Indeed, she could have her pick of the town's eligible bachelors but, for reasons he never fully understood, she continually turned down all requests to be courted.
Jennifer was like a sister to him and Matthew had watched her grow from a naive girl into a young woman with an independent spirit filled with dreams and hopes. Matt was convinced that her inner strength could wear down the strongest of men but could she survive in a part of the country so different from what she has only known.
As he continued to study her, Matt knew that Jennifer was right. Her dreams were too precious to destroy by forcing her into a future that would only bring her unhappiness and misery. Being forced into marriage by a father who was only seeing it from the standpoint of a good business deal, was definitely not the right life for the young woman watching him so intensely.
"Alright," he gave in. "But, how do you plan to get to Denver? You have no money," he reminded her.
"You're due to get your next stipend this week," she thought out loud.
"Oh, no," he shook his head halfheartedly. "Your father would hog tie me and throw me on the next ship to the Orient if he found out I not only kept your plans a secret from him but that I also gave you the necessary funds."
"He'll never know. I'll save the money I make and, as soon as I can, I'll send you enough to make up what you give me. Please Matt," she pleaded again, her dreams were within her grasp and she was not going to let them fall through her fingers.
"Gosh, I know this is wrong," Matthew ran his hands through his hair fretfully. He looked into her eyes and knew that he could not, would not, refuse her.
"Your father is due to come by the day after tomorrow with my stipend. There should be enough for you to buy a ticket to Denver and have money to see you through until you find a position."
"Thank you," Jennifer threw her arms around Matthew's neck and kissed him on the cheek. "Your the best friend anyone could ever have."
"Just promise me one thing," Matthew asked as she unwrapped her arms from his neck.
"Promise me you'll make your dreams come true."
Jennifer stood before her friend, eyes brimming with tears, "I promise you, Matt."
Matthew wrapped his arms around Jennifer and hugged her close, "If anyone can, Jennifer, I know it will be you."
Matthew released Jennifer. "You better be getting home. It's almost dinner time and you don't want to be late."
"Yes, you're right," Jennifer did not want to leave the refuge of the library but she also did not want to give her father any new excuse to rage at her. "Matt, one more thing."
"You want me to buy the ticket," he smiled knowing that Jennifer could not go to the train station and purchase a ticket to Denver without raising suspicions and word would quickly get back to her father.
"If you don't mind," Jennifer smirked.
"Just remember me when you're out west enjoying yourself," he laughed.
"Don't worry," Jennifer answered sincerely. "If this works, I'll never forget you."
"Did you get it," Jennifer slid to a stop at the librarian's desk, breathless after running all the way from her house.
"Just got back," Matthew handed her an envelope holding a single ticket for the next scheduled train through town.
"Did anyone question you?" Jennifer asked as she clutched the envelope to her chest.
"No," Matthew laughed, "I can honestly say that I've never seen any of the station workers within these walls. And, since I don't get to that end of town very often, it's not too likely that anyone knew who I was. They probably assumed I was just another business man traveling west."
"Good," Jennifer was staring at the ticket in her hands.
"Are you sure about this?" Matthew asked. "I mean, it's not too late to change your mind."
"No, Matt," Jennifer sat in the chair next to his desk. "This may be my only chance. I can't let it pass."
With a sigh, Matthew dropped into his chair behind his desk. He knew Jennifer spoke the truth. In a way, he was jealous of his friend. Not because she was doing something to make her dreams come true but because she had dreams. He was content with his life and really had no desire to change it. He would miss Jennifer after she left, but he would find other friends and he would happily take whatever life provided. But, he knew Jennifer would never just settle for what life handed her. No, she wanted to go out and reach for her dreams, forcing life to bend to her wishes. And, he had no doubt she would do just that.
"Okay, I purchased a round trip ticket. That way you can cash in the return trip when you get to Denver and you won't need to carry so much money on the train. Next train leaves in two days, just after midnight. Are you sure you'll be able to get out of the house to make it?"
"I'll make sure."
Jesse reached down and grabbed the corners of the fifty pound bag of flour, then effortlessly lifted it from the scarred wooden floor of the general store and settled it across her broad shoulders. She carried the bag out of the store to place it in the back of the buckboard waiting in the hot, dusty street. Returning back into the store, she asked "is that all of it?"
"Yep, Jesse," the storekeeper replied. "Everything on your list."
"What's the damage?"
"Give me a minute to finish this," the storekeeper returned his attention to the column of numbers before him.
Ed Granger was a big, bear of a man but was one of the gentlest souls Jesse had ever met. A beard covered his handsome features that would easily break into a broad smile and hearty laugh when given the slightest reason. His head was topped with graying hair that matched his eyes, sparkling with an ever present good humor. His leather work apron stretched over a growing paunch, 'too many good meals at the Silver Slipper' Ed chiding himself ever morning as he wrapped the apron around his growing middle. He had assumed the operation of the general store from his brother-in-law who was traveling from one gold strike to another hoping to strike it rich. Always willing to help out someone down on their luck, Ed was well-liked and respected as a honest businessman in a occupation not always known for honest dealings.
"Take your time," Jesse rested her tall, sinewy body against the well-worn wooden counter in front of Ed. She crossed one booted ankle over the other and waited patiently for Ed to finish adding up her charges.
Ed finally scratched a number on the paper, "looks like $16.83 this trip, Jesse."
Reaching into the pocket of the faded flannel shirt she wore, Jesse pulled out the folded bills she had placed there earlier that morning. She tossed the bills on the counter. "Here. You can put the rest on my account."
"Thanks, Jesse," Ed made a notation in the store's ledger before closing the large book and putting it back in it's place beneath the counter. "Want me to send the boy over to help you unload?" He knew what the answer would be but it didn't hurt to offer.
"No, thanks. I can manage." Jesse left the store and stepped back out onto the shaded boardwalk that lined the front of the building. Heat waves were rising from the dirt packed surface of the street and it wasn't yet mid-day. Jesse knew the town was in for another scorcher, the sky was completely cloudless and there was no indication that rain would be forthcoming anytime soon. Not wanting to leave the relative coolness of the shaded boardwalk just yet, Jesse leaned against the nearest support post and observed the town she now called home.
Located at the northern end of a river valley and nestled up against the forest that separated the valley from the bordering Rocky Mountains, Sweetwater wasn't much by anyone's standards. The town had been built around the stage station, it's main purpose to serve as a supply point for the ranches and mining camps in the surrounding valleys and mountains. A dozen buildings of various sizes and shapes lined the stage road that doubled as the town's only street. The original adobe stage station still served that purpose and was located directly across the street from the general store. The town had received its name from the sweet tasting waters of several creeks that flowed out of the nearby mountains to form the river running down the center of the valley. The constant supply of fresh water made the valley an ideal place for ranching and kept the town alive during long summer month's of drought.
Jesse had lived in Sweetwater just shy of a year. She had arrived with nothing but the clothes on her back and the horse she rode. In her shirt pocket, she had carried the deed to a gambling house she had won in a Denver poker game. Never having heard of Sweetwater before the night of the game, Jesse had come to the small town intent on making a fast sale on the Silver Slipper and leaving town with some gold in her empty pockets. But, as the fates would have it, Jesse had fallen in love with the town and the surrounding valley. So, instead of selling the establishment of questionably repute, she had decided to stay and make it into a respectable business.
After assuming ownership of the Silver Slipper, Jesse had immediately thrown out the dishonest card dealers. She had shut down the second floor rooms to use by the 'working women' and had turned them into boarding rooms. The main floor had been split into two sections, one providing a quiet place for diners to enjoy a well-cooked meal. The other allowed the continuation of the gaming tables for anyone interested. The women who had once plied their trade in the upstairs rooms had become the Slipper's card dealers, maids, and cooks. It hadn't taken much persuasion on Jesse's part to win the women over to the new way of doing business. Those who weren't happy with the changes had been given ten dollars and a one-way stage ticket out of Sweetwater. Those who had decided to stay soon found liking serving meals, cleaning rooms, or dealing cards much more then they had their previous horizontal profession.
Cattle and horse buyers coming to Sweetwater to do business with the valley's ranchers quickly discovered they could get a clean room and good meal at the Slipper and made it their primary place of business when in town. Folks riding the stage to and from points further west, enjoyed the atmosphere they found at the Silver Slipper much better than staying at the old stage station and were more than glad to spend the extra dollars to rent a room for the night. And, once word got out that the tables at the Silver Slipper provided honest games of chance, there was no shortage of customers. Jesse soon had a thriving business.
The Silver Slipper also provided Jesse with enough money to purchase a small ranch just outside of town where she was beginning to slowly build a cattle herd. It had always been a dream of Jesse's to own her own ranch. Growing up, she had thought that she would take over the running of her family's ranch from her father. After all, she had no brothers and it seemed like the natural thing would be for her father to let her assume the ownership of the ranch. But, that was not to be. When her father had reached the point that he was no longer able to work the ranch, he had sold it without ever discussing his decision with Jesse. She had come home after riding fence for several days to find her father and mother packing their belongings in the back of a heavy freight wagon. She was informed that the ranch had been sold and her parents were moving into Bozeman. She 'being of legal age, and showing no inclination to marry', her father had told her, could now find her own way in life.
After months of drifting around the western territories, Jesse had found herself in Denver and, being low on cash, had decided to sit in on one of the poker games taking place in the saloon where she sat nursing a glass of whiskey. Lady Luck was with Jesse that night and, by late in the evening, she had won most of the money on the table. One player, having consumed more than his share of whiskey during the game, had insisted on one more hand.
"Only fair to give me a chance to win back my money," he told the rest of the players, his words slurred from the liquor.
"Ah, call it a night, Johnson," another player said. "You ain't got nothin' left to bet with."
Reaching into his coat pocket, Johnson pulled out a crumpled piece of paper and placed it on the table smoothing the sheet with his rough hands. "I can bet with this."
"What is it?" the third man at the table asked.
"Deed to the Silver Slipper. Best whorehouse in Sweetwater," Johnson bragged.
The other men at the table and those at nearby tables hearing the loud boast burst into laughter. "You mean, the only whorehouse in Sweetwater," the third player guffawed. "Broken down wreck. Even you whores ain't much from what I've heard."
"It's worth enough," Johnson shouted, his face beet red in anger at the jeers directed his way. "Come on," Johnson said to the other players. "What have ya got to lose?"
"I'll play," Jesse said quietly. She had remained silent up to this point being content to leave the game with her winnings. But, she didn't take kindly to the way the men talked about the 'working women'. Seemed like men were always mighty glad to have the ladies share their beds but were loathed to have the same women share their table.
"I'll put two hundred in the pot," that amount was half of the money in Jesse's neat stack of bills. But, she figured she could chance losing it and would still have a great deal more than she'd had when she entered the saloon.
"Now we're talking," Johnson placed the deed in the center of the table next to Jesse's bet. "Anyone else want in," Johnson looked expectedly at the other two men sitting round their table.
"Nope, I'm out," said the first man remaining in his chair but pushing back from the table..
"Me, too. If I don't get home soon, my woman will meet me at the door with her frying pan again," the second man rose to a chorus of sniggers and catcalls from the saloon's patrons now crowding around the table. It wasn't often that this kind of money was bet on one hand and everyone wanted a good view knowing that the game would be talked about for months to come.
"Okay," Johnson glared across the table at Jesse. "We'll cut the cards to see who deals," he said matter of factly and reached for the deck.
"I have a better idea," Jesse said in a manner that demanded no argument. "Barkeep, a fresh deck of cards." If she was going to play for these stakes, she wanted to do so with a deck that hadn't been marked. Then, looking around the crowd of faces circling the table, she pointed to a boy who didn't look old enough to be out this late at night let alone in this type of establishment.
"You deal," Jesse told the boy.
The boy found himself being slapped on the back and pushed toward the empty chair at the table. Several in the crowd laughed and scoffed at his instant celebrity. He sat heavily down on the chair and gulped loudly as the barkeep handed him the fresh deck.
"Why him?" Johnson demanded. If he couldn't deal, he wanted to pick his own dealer, one that could slip him a card or two from the bottom of the deck.
"Looks honest," Jesse stated. She stared at Johnson daring him to voice an objection to the neutral dealer.
Johnson studied the woman that sat across the table from him. She was taller than himself and a lot of the men in the crowd. Though her body showed all the curves he would expect to see on a woman, it also showed a strength built over time from long days of hard work. Johnson saw a woman that could be more than a match for his own fighting skills and decided that this night was not the time to put his theory to the test. "Fine," he mumbled. Turning to the nervous dealer, he barked "Deal, damn you."
The boy broke the seal on the pack of cards, he removed the jokers from the deck before proceeding to shuffle the cards. After several shaky shuffles, cards were dealt out to the two players. Jesse picked up her cards and gave them a long look as she cradled them in her hands so no one else could see what she held. Leaving the cards in the order they had been dealt, she placed her hand face down on the table. Her gaze turning to her opponent.
Johnson was staring at his cards, beads of sweat had formed on his upper lip and he wiped at them with the back of his hand. He looked at Jesse, trying to find any hint in her expression as to what she held in her hand. Seeing nothing, he grunted and studied his hand again. Johnson took two cards from his hand and threw them face down on the table. "Two," he told the dealer, asking for new cards.
The boy dealt two cards to Johnson before turning to Jesse.
"One," Jesse calmly informed the dealer and placed a card in the center of the table. A wave of mumblings swept through the watching crowd as Jesse added the new card to her hand, she nodded to Johnson to play his cards.
"Three sevens," Johnson smiled as he placed his hand face up on the table. "Looks like Lady Luck decided to change sides," Johnson gloated and reached for the pot in the middle of the table. He wasn't going to lose the Silver Slipper after all.
"Let the lady show her cards," someone in the crowd called out forcing Johnson to withdraw his hands.
"Go on," Johnson growled at Jesse. "Show 'em you ain't got enough to beat me."
Jesse gave Johnson a half smile, half smirk as she started to turn her hand over, one card at a time. A hush fell over the room as a king of hearts was followed by a king of spades. Next, a two of diamonds was turned over and then a two of clubs.
"Told ya," Johnson crowed. "She ain't got nothin' but two pair."
Before Johnson could get the words out of his mouth, Jesse turned over her last card to reveal the two of hearts.
A loud shout broke the silence and members of the watching crowd began to whoop and holler at Jesse's victory. She gathered the money and deed from the table. Carefully folding the deed before placing it into her shirt pocket, Jesse then took twenty dollars from her stack and pushed it across the table to Johnson.
"No one should leave the table broke," she offered to Johnson.
Johnson picked up the bills and flung them back at Jesse, "Don't want your money, bitch." He stood so fast that the people standing behind him did not have a chance to move and several were knocked back into others crowding behind. The table was jostled and would have tipped over had the young dealer not grabbed on with both hands to steady it. Jesse watched Johnson leave the table, handed a five dollar bill to the boy who had dealt the cards then rose from her seat. She smiled at the several patrons shouting offers to buy her drinks, "Sorry, boys. It's been a long night and I think a nice, warm bed is a better idea." Some of the men immediately changed their offers from whiskey to sharing her bed. She politely declined and, working her way through the crowd, made for the same door that Johnson had exited moments before.
Once outside, Jesse stood for several minutes enjoying the cool night air after the stuffy heat of the saloon. Her horse, Dusty, stood patiently at the hitch in front of the saloon. Jesse walked over to Dusty and patted her gently on the neck. "Looks like we own a house of ill repute in Sweetwater," Jesse reported to Dusty. "Didn't think I'd ever be returning to Montana," Jesse said as she unwrapped the reins from the hitching post. She pulled herself up into the saddle, "by the look of Johnson, seems best to hightail it out of Denver. So, guess we'll be heading north tonight."
Dusty vigorously raised and lowered her head several times in agreement before turning to the street and breaking into a trot without Jesse's urging.
Jesse laughed, asking her horse, "you know something I don't?"
Standing in the alley by the saloon and hidden in the night's shadows, Johnson watched as Jesse mounted her horse. Johnson reached for the pistol in his holster but before he could get a shot off a group of men, still talking about Jesse's winning hand exited the saloon, blocking his view. When the men finally walked past Johnson, Jesse was no longer in sight.
"'Bout time for the stage to arrive," Ed broke into Jesse's thoughts as he stepped out onto the boardwalk and stood next to her. Looking across the street, Jesse noticed that people were beginning to gather at the stage station.
"New schoolteacher is supposed to be on the stage," Ed said excitingly.
"Yep," Jesse answered thinking 'that explains the crowd of single men waiting for the stage today.' There seemed to be have been little else discussed in town for the past several weeks since Mayor Perkins had announced that a schoolteacher would be arriving from Denver to take on the duties at the schoolhouse. The town had built the school last summer but it had stood empty because the town lacked a qualified teacher.
Jesse's ears picked up the sounds of beating hoofs and slapping leather. The cries of the stage driver yelling commands to his team of straining horses announced the stage's impending arrival. Moments later, the coach could be seen where the road broke from the forest. The stage thundered into Sweetwater and skidded to a stop in front of the stage station, a choking cloud of dust filled the air and covered everything and everyone it came into contact with.
Jesse looked across the street as the passengers began to step from the stage. A young woman was helped from the coach and the small gathering of single men surged towards her. 'That must be the new schoolteacher', Jesse thought as she reached up and removed her stetson, releasing a shower of shoulder length reddish, brown hair. Using the sleeve of her shirt, Jesse wiped the sweat from her brow and waved the stetson in front of her face to clear the dust kicked up by the stage.
At the same moment, the young woman stepped away from the stage. Getting her first look at the town of Sweetwater, she turned to observe the side of the street where Jesse stood. The motion of Jesse's hat attracted her and her eyes fell upon the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. A pair of sapphire eyes locked onto a pair of auburn eyes and the world seemed to stand still for both women.
"Hey, are you alright?" Ed asked Jesse as she drew in a startled breath and slumped against the boardwalk's post. The sound of Ed's voice allowed Jesse to break her gaze, she jammed the stetson back on her head and stepped down into the street.
"Yeah, I'm fine," she said to Ed as she walked around her buckboard. Climbing up onto the seat, she immediately urged the team forward. Ed shrugged his shoulders at Jesse's rapid departure and then stepped off the boardwalk, crossing the street to join the crowd by the stage.
Jesse concentrated on the dusty road in front of her trying not to think of what had just happened. But, as she looked down at the reins her hands held, she saw that they were shaking. "What the heck," Jesse muttered to herself as she left the new schoolteacher and her crowd of instant admirers behind.
Jennifer stood in the dusty street surrounded by several young men all speaking at the same time, but she heard nothing but the beating of her own heart. She watched as the buckboard carried the auburn haired woman away from her and wondered why she had an almost uncontrollable urge to run after it.
"Let me through," a middle-age, balding man was elbowing his way through the young men surrounding the new arrival. He finally came to a stop directly in front Jennifer and grabbed her smaller hands in his beefy ones, shaking them heartily.
"Miss Kensington, it is so nice to finally make your acquaintance," the man said enthusiastically. His actions taking Jennifer's attention away from the retreating buckboard. She turned to find a balding man barely as tall as herself but much wider and with a bushy mustache that hung down hiding his mouth, it's hairs blowing out from his face with every word he spoke.
"Please allow me to introduce myself," he continued pumping Jennifer's hands up and down. "My name is Perkins, Miles Perkins. I am Sweetwater's Mayor and it is I who arranged for your position," the mayor continued, always ready to take credit for any project he had any part of, no matter how small his contribution might have been. And, in this case, it had actually been the mayor's wife that had insisted he make arrangements for a schoolteacher so that she could be free of their children for some part of the day. Mayor Perkins had known that if he didn't quickly follow his wife's instructions, he would be spending cold nights in the old shed behind his house. But, regardless of how it had come about, a schoolteacher was now in town and Mayor Perkins was taking the credit.
Jennifer smiled sweetly at the man as she extricating her hands from his, her arms feeling like the bones had come loose after the vigorous shaking. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Perkins."
"You can call me Mayor. Everyone does," the mustache billowed as several not too well hidden groans could be heard from the crowd pressed around them.
"Do you have any luggage?" the mayor asked.
"Just the one," Jennifer indicated the small, canvas travel bag she had removed from under the seat inside the stage. Many of the young men surrounding them offered to carry the bag for Jennifer but she insisted on taking it herself. It wasn't very large and she could easily carry it. Besides, the last thing she wanted was a brawl to break out amongst the young men begging for her attention.
"Go on, now," Mayor Perkins instructed the un-welcomed men. "I'm sure your employers expect you to be earning your pay and not lolli-gagging about. Now scoot, the lot of you." Mayor Perkins took Jennifer's arm and started to walk down the street in the same direction that the buckboard had taken. As they walked, he pointed out the purpose of the scattered buildings they passed.
"That is, as you know, the stage station," the mayor pointed to the small, adobe building that looked to be ready to fall in on itself "and telegraph office. The telegraph hasn't reached Sweetwater yet but you can have a message sent by stage to the nearest telegraph office. You will probably want to send your folks a message letting them know that you have arrived safely in Sweetwater." Jennifer nodded in agreement to the mayor even though she had no intention of sending a message to her family and providing her whereabouts to them.
"That, there, as you can see, is the general store," he pointed across the street where Ed was back standing again in the shade of the boardwalk. Ed waved to the mayor and his charge, "that's Ed Granger, he runs the store for his no good brother-in-law." Jennifer smiled and waved back at Ed.
"Now, that's the town hall and jail," Mayor Perkins indicated the buildings adjoining Ed's store. "And, next to the jail is the town's newspaper, The Gazette. Over here," the mayor was now pointing to the near side of the street again, "that's the Oxbow Saloon and not a decent place for a young lady like yourself" the mayor informed her. "Behind the Oxbow, are the stables and blacksmith. Most of the town folk live up at this end of town, you'll have a chance to meet everyone at the social in your honor tomorrow evening."
Jennifer thought his description of "this end of town" rather an overstatement for a town no bigger than a couple of city blocks back home. But, she kept her thoughts to herself instead asking, "and, where is the schoolhouse?".
"Right over there," the mayor stopped and pointed to a building sitting atop a small knoll on the other side of a creek that ran out of the forest behind the stables and flowed past the Oxbow before paralleling the road out of town. A foot bridge allowed access across the creek and a gravel path lead to the schoolhouse. "We'll be having the social there, so you can get acquainted with it then. It's all ready for you to start your lessons. Books and supplies already purchased and waiting for you."
Jennifer had wanted to see the schoolhouse first but decided that tomorrow would be soon enough. Besides, the sun was reaching its peak in the cloudless sky and she was more than ready to get out of its blazing heat. So, without comment she continued to follow the mayor down the dusty street. Other than what were obviously private homes, there was only one other building in the direction they were walking. A two story structure that looked to be newly painted with new curtains hanging in its many windows. A large painted silver slipper graced the side of the building facing the stage road. And, standing in the shade in front of the building stood the buckboard.
"This is the Silver Slipper," the mayor was telling Jennifer. "The town has arranged for you to have a room here, it's the closest thing Sweetwater has to a rooming house. Jennifer's heart nearly jumped from her chest. Mistaking, Jennifer's reaction for uneasiness, the mayor hastened to add, "no reason to fear, Miss. Kensington. The Slipper is a very respectable place now that Jesse is running it. Clean rooms and the best food in town. Jesse will take good care of you, you have my personal guarantee on that."
Jennifer followed the mayor up the steps to the Silver Slipper's wide porch. It wrapped entirely around the building provided places to enjoy the coolness of its shade regardless of the time of day or the season. The edge of the porch was protected by crossed rails between the support posts and the rails were topped with a wide flat board providing a sturdy place to sit if one so desired. The shade of the porch felt wonderful after the heat of the street and Jennifer had to stop herself from flopping down in one of the many chairs scattered about the porch.
"Mayor Perkins, it is good to see you again," a stout woman opened the door to the building. "This must be our new schoolteacher." smiling broadly, she held out a hand to Jennifer.
"Yes, this is Miss Kensington. I believe you are to have a room ready for her," Jennifer noticed that Mayor Perkins addressed the woman arrogantly but she seemed not to take any offense to his manner.
"Of course," the woman gently squeezed the hand Jennifer offered before releasing it. "Welcome to the Silver Slipper, Miss Kensington. Do come in. I've just finished makin' a fresh batch of lemonade. Perhaps you would like to join me," the woman opened the door wide to allow Jennifer and the mayor to enter.
Jennifer was disappointed that this was not the woman she had seen earlier. This woman appeared to be of the same age as Jennifer's mother but had obviously seen a great deal more of life. She stood of average height and though she looked to be somewhat frail, Jennifer was sure that the woman leading her into the building could easily outwork most men. She seemed genuinely friendly towards Jennifer, unlike Mayor Perkins who accompanied the two women inside, and Jennifer instantly liked the older woman.
"Thank you, Miss Jesse,"
"Oh, dear," the woman chuckled. "I'm not Jesse."
"I'm sorry," said Jennifer confused. "I thought Mayor Perkins said..."
"I said that Jesse owns the Slipper. This is Bette Mae, she helps run the place for Jesse," the mayor quickly filled Jennifer in.
"Oh," said Jennifer, "I apologize."
"There's no need," the woman stopped her. "Now, please sit and have some of this here lemonade. Jesse is workin' in her office but you'll have plenty of time to meet her later." Bette Mae had expected Jesse to meet the schoolteacher and was surprised that she hadn't appeared from her office.
Jennifer dropped down into the closest chair. "I'd love a glass," she said as she placed her bag on the floor next to the chair.
"Good," Bette Mae poured a large glass and handed it to Jennifer. "How about you, Mayor?"
"No, thank you. I must be getting back to my other duties. A moment of your time, please, Bette Mae," the mayor motioned that he wished to speak to the woman privately.
"I'll be right back. You jus' help yourself to refills," Bette Mae told Jennifer before following the mayor back out onto the porch.
Jennifer studied the room in which she sat. Several tables similar to the one she occupied were spaced about the room. Each table was covered with a linen tablecloth and a small arrangement of fresh flowers were placed in the center of each table. Silverware was set out on the tables ready to be used by any diner that might request a meal. This was obviously the dining room of the establishment but it was also so much more. Jennifer was surprised to see against the far wall, bookcases overflowing with books. In front of these, a varied arrangement of overstuffed chairs and settees made an inviting place to spend a few moments or hours enjoying the written word. Curiosity got the better of her and Jennifer rose from the table crossing the room to see what kind of books would be found on the shelves. She was amazed at the wide range of titles and authors.
"You like to read?" Bette Mae's question surprised Jennifer in her search. "Now, that was a silly question to be askin' a schoolteacher, wasn't it?"
Jennifer smiled at the woman, "what is that saying, no question is a silly question as long as you are really interested in the answer." Jennifer returned to the table and her glass of lemonade. "This is wonderful, thank you. And, to answer your question, I love to read. I've spent many an hour in the library back home. Some of the best afternoons of my life."
"Oh," Bette Mae was surprised that a girl as pretty as Jennifer would be forced to spend afternoons within the stuffy walls of a library. "And, where would home be, Miss Kensington?"
"Please call me Jennifer." Not wanting to discuss the home she had so recently left, Jennifer quickly changed the subject to the mayor's private discussion with Bette Mae, "is everything alright with the arrangements?"
Bette Mae picked up on the subject change but being from the west where you didn't ask too many questions, she let it pass. "Everything is fine. He was just making sure that Jesse understood the importance of looking after you while you're staying here at the Slipper. As if Jesse would take such a thing any way but seriously. Mayor Perkins can surely be a pompous ass given half a chance," Bette Mae laughed. "Oh, excuse my language, child."
Jennifer smiled at the woman, she had heard much worse than that when her father was on one of his numerous rampages. "I imagine he takes some getting used to. He about shook my arms right out of their sockets before I could get my hands out of his," she laughed remembering the mayor's energetic greeting.
"That he most definitely does," Bette Mae joined in her laughter. "Well, I suspect you'd like to see your room and freshen up. Maybe even take a nap. Ridin' that stage can shake the fillin's loose in your teeth. Not to mention the dust them horses kick up."
"It certainly wasn't quite what I had imagined," Jennifer agreed as she rose from the chair.
"Well, let's get you settled then," Bette Mae picked up Jennifer's bag refusing to listen to her protests. She led Jennifer to a staircase midway between the bookcases.
As she climbed the stairs, Jennifer noticed for the first time an alcove tucked behind the staircase with closed door marked 'private'. She wondered if it led to the office of the mysterious Jesse.
Upon reaching the top of the stairs, Jennifer followed Bette Mae down a long hallway to the room at the far end. Bette Mae unlocked the room's door and handed Jennifer the key before pushing the door open for Jennifer to enter. It was smaller than her room back home but had everything Jennifer would need. In one corner, sat a four-poster bed with a thick mattress and covered by a warm quilt. Pushed against the wall next to the bed, stood a small chest of drawers. In the opposite corner of the room, there was a well traveled trunk that doubled as a sitting bench. A small desk sat against the other wall, neatly stacked writing paper and sharpened pencils lay on its surface ready for use. An oil lamp sat atop the desk and another sat on top of the dresser.
The room was located in the corner of the building and had windows on both outside walls, Jennifer especially liked this and she quickly crossed the room to enjoy the views. When she looked out the window facing the front of the building, she saw the auburn haired woman retrieving items from the back of the buckboard below. "Who is that beautiful woman?" the words were out of her mouth before she even knew she had been thinking them.
"Why, that's Jesse," Bette Mae said without pausing in her work emptying Jennifer's travel bag and putting the few items into the top drawer of the chest next to the bed.
Jennifer watched until Jesse disappeared under the porch's roof on her way back into the building before turning away from the window.
"I'm sorry, I did not intend for you to do all of the work."
"Hush, child, you didn' have enough in that bag to require two people to unpack. Looks like you're goin' need a few things before you start teachin' school. How many dresses do you own?" Bette Mae asked although it was obvious that the only dress Jennifer had was the one she was wearing.
"Just this one," Jennifer said. "I was hoping to buy a couple more once I arrived."
"Heavens, that won't do for the town's new schoolteacher. Now, take it off so I can have it washed while you take a nap. No argument, hand it over," Bette Mae held out her hand, she was not moving until she had the dress. Jennifer pulled the dress over her head and handed it to Bette Mae. "Now, git yourself into that bed. A nice long nap will do you good."
Jennifer removed her dust covered shoes and stockings before crawling between the cool sheets on the bed. She hadn't realized how tired she was after being tossed about on the long stage ride from Denver and she snuggled down in the softness of the feather mattress and pillows. Before Bette Mae reached the bottom of the stairs, Jennifer was fast asleep dreaming of a woman with the most beautiful brown eyes.
Behind the door marked 'private', Jesse sat at her desk. The sounds of the schoolteacher's laughter floated into her office from the dining area and she knew she should go out and greet the schoolteacher. But, before she could get up the nerve to do that, the sound of steps on the stairway told her that Bette Mae was taking the young woman upstairs to her room. Unable to concentrate on the ledgers spread out before her, Jesse decided to get the items remaining in the buckboard. She had just settled back in behind her desk when she heard a knock at the door.
"Come in, Bette Mae," Jesse knew she would be coming to fill her in on the Slipper's newest guest.
"Brought you some lemonade, thought you might could use a cold drink," Bette Mae entered the room with a tray holding a half full pitcher and two empty glasses. She set the tray down on a table and filled both glasses, handing one to her employer and friend.
"Thanks," Jesse smiled.
"You should do more of that," Bette Mae said as she settled into one of the chairs opposite Jesse's desk.
"More of what?" Jesse questioned the woman.
"Smile. Makes you look years younger," Bette Mae grinned at Jesse's discomfort.
Changing the subject, Jesse asked "is she settled?"
"Yes, she's taking a nap,"
"Room okay with her?" Jesse had been unsure as to what requirements the schoolteacher would need in a room and had decided to give her the best room in the Slipper. After all, the schoolteacher would be spending a lot of time in the room and Jesse figured she might as well be as comfortable as possible.
"Her name is Jennifer," Bette Mae informed Jesse. "Jennifer Kensington. And, she'll be needin' some clothes 'fore she starts with her teachin' duties."
"What?" Jesse asked, confused as to why Bette Mae would find that to be of interest to her.
"This is the only dress she has," Bette Mae held up the dress she had carried into the room with the tray. Jesse had assumed it to be a rag Bette Mae would use to clean up after they finished with their drinks.
"Yup." Bette Mae continued, "It probably was brand new when she left home. But, now, it ain't decent to wear."
"There's no seamstress in town," Jesse drained the last of the lemonade in her glass.
"Ruthie can sew," Bette Mae refilled both glasses. "I'm guessin' we can find a dress or two at the general store and Ruthie can alter them to fit the lass. That'll do until Ed can order some material from Bozeman."
Jesse cringed at the mention of the town where her parents now lived. "Okay, get what you think she needs. Tell Ed to put it on the Slipper's tab."
"Best find Ruthie and get over to Ed's then," Bette Mae gathered up the tray and dirty glasses.
Jesse watched the woman leave her office. She leaned back in her chair and wondered why she had just agreed to finance a new wardrobe for the schoolteacher. She had no obligation to the recent arrival except provide her room and board. But, somehow she felt a need to take care of the young woman. But, why? As she pondered her dilemma, the image of the woman with the most beautiful blue eyes filled her thoughts.
Jennifer stood at the front door of the schoolhouse. She had decided to spend her free time before the evening meal visiting the schoolhouse. For the umpteenth time, her hands brushed smooth the new gingham dress she wore. A smile crossed her face as she remembered how she had been presented with it after waking from her nap.
"I can't take it, Bette Mae," Jennifer declared to the two women standing in her room with the dress draped over the younger woman's arms.
"Nonsense, you need somethin' to wear," the older woman thrust the dress at Jennifer.
"I have this dress," Jennifer indicated the only dress she owned that was now washed and carefully folded atop the chest of drawers along with her stockings.
"That dress is nothin' but a rag. Why it barely survived the washin' to get the dirt and dust out of it. Now, don't be upsettin' Ruthie here after she spent the last couple of hours alterin' this one so it would fit you."
Jennifer was embarrassed and uncomfortable with the two women knowing she had so little and could afford even less. But, she had left home with the barest of possessions not thinking through how she would get by the first few weeks until she received payment for her teaching duties.
"I know it's not as nice as what you must be used to but it's the only dress Ed had in the store," the younger woman Ruth explained. She was not much older than the students Jennifer would be teaching but already bore the marks of a rough life. Fading scars marred her face which would have been considered very pretty otherwise. Jennifer wondered why this girl would spend her time sewing a dress for a complete stranger.
"It's a beautiful dress, Ruth," Jennifer smiled at the girl as she held the dress up and admired the handiwork of the seamstress. "I don't know how I'll pay you. Maybe I can ask Mayor Perkins for an advance on my salary," she offered.
"No need. Jesse has already taken care of it. And, as soon as Ed gets some dress material from Bozeman, Ruthie will sew you some more to go along with this one."
"Miss Jesse did this. But, why would she?" Jennifer asked.
"Don't know," Bette Mae answered, omitting her part in seeing that the new schoolteacher had decent clothes to wear. "But, you can ask her at supper. We'll eat in an hour," and with that Bette Mae and Ruth left Jennifer to change into her new dress.
At supper, Jennifer found herself eating alone, Bette Mae and Ruth were seeing to the paying customers and Jesse had not appeared from her office. Jennifer finished the excellent meal and decided that she might as well return to her room since it was obvious that her benefactor had no intention of joining her. With a heavy sigh, she rose from her chair and crossed the room to the stairs. As Jennifer passed in front of the alcove leading to Jesse's private office, the door opened and the mysterious woman stepped out.
"Oh, Miss Jesse," Jennifer was startled at the sudden appearance.
"Evening," Jesse nodded to the young woman.
"I'm sorry I missed you at supper," Jennifer said shyly. She was close enough to reach out and touch Jesse, and it took all the self control she possessed not to do just that.
"Sorry, I lost track of time," Jesse mumbled.
"Oh, I understand," Jennifer cut in. "I'm sure running a business like the Silver Slipper must take up most of your time. Maybe, you can make it some other night."
"Maybe," Jesse wondered what Jennifer would say if she knew that Jesse had purposely remained in her office through supper. Jesse had been unable to bring herself to face the schoolteacher who seemed to have such a strong effect on her. So, she had stayed until she was sure that Jennifer would have finished her meal and returned to her room upstairs. Jesse had no way of knowing that Jennifer had stretched out her evening meal in the hopes that she would make an appearance. And, so Jesse was just as surprised to see Jennifer still in the dining room as Jennifer was to see Jesse open the office door.
Sensing Jesse's unease, Jennifer said, "well, it's been a long day and I'll bid you a good night Miss Jesse." Then remembering the dress she wore, Jennifer rushed to add "thank you for the dress. You really didn't have to go to such trouble. I'll talk to Mayor Perkins tomorrow about an advance on my salary so that I can pay you back."
"No need," Jesse replied.
"Oh, no. I insist you let me pay you back, Miss Jesse," Jennifer reached out and lightly placed a hand on Jesse arm. Both women were startled at the sensations that resulted from the touch.
"I'm sorry, Miss Jennifer, but I really should be getting back to the ranch," Jesse pulled her arm from Jennifer's touch, her long strides carried her to the Slipper's front door. As she reached the door, Jesse turned and looked back at Jennifer. She stood where Jesse had left her, her light brown hair backlit by the oil lamps that provided the room's illumination. Jesse rubbed her hand over her still tingling arm, then she turned and was out the door.
Jennifer slowly followed Jesse out the door. She stood on the porch until long after Jesse and the buckboard had been swallowed by the night's darkness.
Jennifer released the children after her first day of class. The previously quiet schoolhouse was instantly filled with the sounds of laughing and talking children. Jennifer smiled. Was it really only two days since she had stepped from the stage that had carried her into Sweetwater? It seemed like she had been in this small western town all of her life.
Jennifer found that her schoolteacher responsibilities would require her to teach twelve children ranging in age from six to sixteen. Their skills and knowledge coming in every combination imaginable and it would take her a few days to uncover each student's strong points and weaknesses and to develop study plans that would work with such a diversified group. But, she looked forward to the challenge and the students seemed just as determined to work hard at their lessons.
Jennifer was surprised to discover that class would be held from mid-morning to early afternoon only, as the students were needed to help out with chores at home. This would leave her with most of the afternoon free and she planned to make use of the free time by getting a second job to earn enough money to pay Jesse back for her new dresses.
Jennifer closed the schoolhouse door and quickly made her way back to the Slipper, She was anxious to ask Bette Mae about the employment opportunities in town.
"There must be something that I can do, Bette Mae. Are you sure that Miss Jesse couldn't use some help in the office? Or, I could help you in the kitchen. I'm a pretty good cook if I say so myself."
"Oh, no. Miss Jesse would have my hide if'n I put you to work around here. Not fittin' work for a schoolteacher," Bette Mae shook her head vigorously from side to side.
"Well, I must find something," frustrated, Jennifer slumped back in the chair she occupied. "I must pay Jesse back for the dresses." 'Not to mention the extra income would help pay Matt back for advancing the money for my trip west', she thought.
"If you'll excuse me ladies," a man sitting at a nearby table spoke to the two women. "I might just have a solution."
Jennifer sat up straight in her chair and looked at the man. He was of middle age with salt and pepper graying hair and deep brown eyes. It appeared that he had forgotten to shave that morning and a light beard covered his cheeks and chin. His shirt sleeves were rolled up to just below his elbows and both the shirt and his hands were blotted with ink stains.
"You're Mr. Newby," she offered. She had met the man at her welcoming social the evening before. "If I remember, you own the Gazette."
The newspaper editor wiped his hands on the napkin then stood and crossed to stand next to the table Jennifer and Bette Mae occupied. "Thaddeus Newby," he offered an ink stained hand to Jennifer. "Yes, I own the Gazette and serve as its editor, reporter, typesetter, and anything else that might be necessary," he laughed as he shook her hand.
"Please join us, Mr. Newby. You said you might have a solution," Jennifer encouraged the editor to continue.
"Thaddeus, please," he said as he took a seat in the chair between the women. "Yes, I could use someone at the Gazette to help me."
Jennifer was intrigued, "But, I have no newspaper training, Mr. Newby."
"You're a schoolteacher and I assume that you can read and write. That's all the training you need," the editor told her.
Wondering what she had done to be so lucky, Jennifer stuck her hand out to the editor, "You have a deal Mr. Newby. When do I start?"
"Just as soon as you learn to call me Thaddeus," he laughed and shook her hand.
"Looks like Sweetwater has itself a new reporter," Bette Mae joined in the laughter. "I'd say that calls for a drink," she filled three glasses with lemonade and they toasted Jennifer's new position.
continued in Part II
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