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Jesse Branson stood halfway up the rungs of a ladder, tightening the last of the bolts she was using to hang a swing from a support beam of the porch roof. She tested the chains now attached to the beam, assuring herself that the swing was secure. Satisfied that the porch swing, a surprise for her wife, was secure, Jesse hopped off the ladder. Taking a step back to view the results of her labors, Jesse smiled while she imagined what Jennifer's response to seeing the swing would be. She knew her wife was upset over missing the children during the day when she performed her duties as Sweetwater's schoolteacher. Jesse hoped the swing would provide a place for her and Jennifer to sit at the end of the day, watching the sun going down and their children growing up. She bent down to place her wrench back into her toolbox, her daughter's urgent calls breaking into her thoughts.
"Mommy," KC stomped over to the porch, stopping at the bottom of the steps. She wasn't allowed to climb stairs by herself and she knew all too well how unhappy her momma got when she tried. "Mommy," she insisted.
"Yes, sunshine," Jesse straightened back up, examining her mud-covered daughter.
"Cha-wie bein' bad," KC wrinkled her nose. A piece of drying mud was making it itch and she swiped at it with a mud-caked hand.
"Oh," Jesse lifted her eyes from her daughter to look at her son sitting in the middle of a mud puddle at the edge of the garden. "What's he doing?" she asked as Charley happily slapped at the mud surrounding him.
"He makin' mud pies," KC scowled.
"Umm," Jesse gave her daughter's statement due consideration. "Well, aren't you making mud pies too?"
"Yep," KC's head bopped up and down.
"So why is Charley being bad if he's making mud pies?"
"He's oosing my mud," KC said indignantly, stomping a bare foot into the sloppy ground.
Struggling to keep a smirk off her face as she watched the antics of her strong-willed daughter, Jesse scratched the back of her head. "Well," she drawled, surveying the ranch yard. The melting winter snows and spring rains had turned most of the area into a sea of mud. "I'm pretty sure there's enough mud in the yard for both of you. So, you go back and share it with your brother."
KC frowned. She studied her mother for a moment before twisting her head to look back over her shoulder at Charley playing without her. "Otay," she grunted, stomping back to her brother and the contested mud puddle.
"Oh, boy," Jesse chuckled, "I better get those two cleaned up before Jennifer gets home."
"You want me to heat water for a bath or shall we just dump them into the horse trough?"
Jesse turned to see her mother standing in the doorway of the house.
"Hi, mom," Jesse greeted the older woman, leaning down to pick up the toolbox, "didn't know you were inside.
"Needed some flour," Marie Branson stepped out onto the porch. She and her husband lived on the ranch with their daughter's family. They had enlarged a small hut and used it for their living quarters but were free to make use of the larger ranch house's accommodations, including the well-stocked kitchen. "You sure got your hands full with that little one," she laughed.
"Yep," Jesse reached for the ladder.
"So about that bath?" Marie asked as she watched KC diligently pat mud into a flattened round shape and hand it to Charley who immediately threw it down causing mud to splatter both children.
"Better start the water heating," Jesse chuckled as she shook her head at her giggling children. "Dusty and Boy will never speak to me again if I dump them in the trough. But I think I'll wash them off out here first. No sense in takin' half the yard into the house."
"I'll get a couple of buckets ready for you," Marie smiled.
"Thanks, mom," Jesse stepped off the porch carrying the ladder and toolbox, she headed for the barn. "Sure be glad when this starts to dry out."
"Kids won't," Marie turned to go back inside.
"They'll adjust," Jesse muttered, her boots squishing across the soft ground.
Jennifer Branson watched as the children filed out of the schoolhouse, another day of lessons finished. She gathered up the papers spread over her desk, creating a neat pile she tucked it safely away in the desk drawer. Pushing herself up from the chair, she took a moment to stretch her tired back before reaching for the cane leaning against the wall behind her. It was more than two years since she'd been attacked by the mountain lion but her leg would heal no more and she required the cane to walk more than a few steps. She limped to the row of coat hooks near the door of the schoolhouse, retrieving her coat she started to pull in on. She was surprised to hear the sound of someone climbing the steps outside. She smiled, wondering if Jesse had come to pick her up.
"Jennifer?" a deep voice reverberated though the almost empty room.
"In her, Ed," Jennifer called out to the storekeeper, a gentle giant of a man who had become her surrogate father.
"Good," Ed entered the room, standing in the doorway for a moment while his eyes adjusted to the change in lighting from outside. "I was hoping I'd catch you before you left. A letter came for you on the stage today." Ed rented a section of his store to the stage company and accepted any mail delivers. He would hold the letters and packages for the folks living in town to come pick them up. Any belonging to folks living out of town or in the mining camps scattered in the surrounding mountains, he would add to any delivers he made in that area. Since Sweetwater lacked a freight company, Ed was forced to also provide delivery service to his customers.
Jennifer accepted the letter.
"Aren't you going to open it?" Ed asked when the schoolteacher shoved it into her coat pocket within even a casual glance.
"No, I'll wait until I get home. Jesse and KC like to open the mail. They feel cheated if I've already opened the envelopes," she grinned. "It's probably just another letter from Mother asking me when we're going to come east."
"You thinking of going back for a visit, are you?"
"Haven't given it much thought," Jennifer's smile had faded. "But I can't say that the idea would make me happy."
Ed nodded silently. The schoolteacher had told him of her childhood sharing a house with a father who thought nothing more of daughters than an arranged marriage to further his business interests and brothers too busy to spare a moment for her. And even though her father was now confined to a mental hospital and she had made peace with her brothers, he could understand her reluctance to return to the town she was born and raised in.
"Besides," Jennifer continued as she led Ed through the doorway to the small porch at the front of the schoolhouse. "I doubt Jesse would be too happy cooped up on a train for the time it would take to get back there. And can you imagine her once we got there?" she said as she thought of her wife, used to wide open spaces, being in the cramped, noisy city for any length of time.
"That would be a sight," Ed laughed, pulling the door shut behind them. "She hates to spend a full day in Sweetwater."
"And let's not forget about KC," Jennifer laughed, locking the door. "I'm pretty sure that even with my three brothers keeping a tight hold on their reins, the two of them could get into more trouble than the city was willing to accept."
"Ain't that the truth," Ed chuckled. He assisted Jennifer down the steps then fell into step beside her as they made their way down the gravel path to where her horse, Blaze, was tethered in the shade of a cottonwood tree beside the creek that ran alongside Sweetwater's main, and only, street.
"Yes," Jennifer smirked, "I think it's best I keep my two wild horses in the west where they can run free."
"It is truly interesting how much little KC takes after Jesse," Ed commented. "For someone who wasn't sure she would be a good mother, she sure has a knack with your young 'uns."
"She does doesn't she," Jennifer said, the pride clearly evident in her voice. "She adores KC and Charley. And they adore her," she untied the reins to Blaze.
"Seems to me," Ed said as he helped Jennifer into the saddle. "Them young 'uns adore the both of you."
Jennifer smiled down at the big man. "I can't imagine my life without Jesse or the children. I love him to death, Ed."
"Then you better quit yakkin' to me and get back out to your ranch and family. I bet they're all sitting on the porch waiting for you to ride into view," Ed knew that to be a good bet because as much as Jennifer loved her family, her family loved her back just as much and more. "Tell Jesse and the young 'uns hello for me."
"You can tell them yourself tomorrow, Ed," Jennifer said as she tapped her heels against the flanks of her horse. "Jesse is bringing the wagon to town for supplies."
"Thanks for the warning," Ed called after the schoolteacher. "I'll make sure everything in the store is nailed down."
"That would be a good idea," Jennifer laughed as she waved without turning around. It wasn't unusual for her active daughter to create havoc in Ed's store given half a chance. It was a good thing Charley was less adventurous than KC but given time, and KC's guidance, her son would probably match his sister for creating trouble. As she rode, Jennifer wondered about her children and what activities might have kept them occupied while she was in town. Tears clouded her vision as she thought about another day spent away from her family.
Jesse was bent over the washtub that sat on one end of the back porch, something Jennifer had insisted on when they built the house after their log cabin was burned to the ground. Concerned about privacy when she and Jennifer were bathing, Jesse had hung a rod for a thick curtain to be pulled around the tub when necessary. But it wasn't used when the children bathed.
Charley looked up at Jesse, his head covered in soap suds as his mother washed the mud off of him.
"How you get so dirty," Jesse grumbled, "I'll never know."
"He jus' like you, momma says," KC giggled from a chair set beside the washtub but far enough away to keep her dry as she had already had her bath.
"Seems momma says the same thing about you, sunshine," Jesse carefully poured warm water over Charley's head.
"Yep," KC grinned.
Charley sputtered water out of his mouth.
"You're s'posed to keep that closed, Cha-wie," KC advised helpfully. "Tha' what momma says."
"That's right, Charley." Jesse held another pitcher of water up, waiting for her son to close his mouth and eyes. When they were shut tight, she poured the clean, warm water over her son. "That should do it, Charley. Let's get you dried off and dressed so you'll be nice and clean for momma." She lifted the boy out of the tub, setting him down on the porch floor to wipe him dry.
"Momma?" Charley looked in the direction Jennifer would come from town.
"Soon," Jesse told the boy, wishing Jennifer didn't have to be away so much. But she would never say anything to her wife because she knew how much her position as Sweetwater's schoolteacher meant to her. She was just glad that lessons ended in the early afternoon and Jennifer was able to spend the rest of the day at the ranch.
"We wait for momma on porch?" KC asked hopefully.
"Sure," Jesse agreed instantly. "Let's get Charley dressed and we'll sit on the porch and wait for momma. Does that sound like a good idea?" she asked her son.
Charley nodded happily.
"We sit dere?" KC pointed to the swing Jesse had spent most of the morning attaching to the porch roof at the opposite end of the back porch.
"We can't see momma from back here," Jesse explained to her daughter. "We'll sit on the front porch. Grandma was backing some cookies earlier; maybe she'll bring you and Charley some."
"Cha-wie likes cookies," KC dropped out of the chair, her bare feet thumping on the wood surface of the porch.
"And you don't?" Jesse smirked.
"Nope, I like cookies too," KC stood, her head cocked to one side as she watched Jesse dress her brother. "But Cha-wie really likes cookies," she emphasized for her mother.
"That's because he wants to grow big and strong like you," Jesse poked KC in the belly, causing the girl to burst into giggles. "Don't ya, Charley?" she asked, lifting her son up as she stood. She settled the boy into one arm before heading for the back door of the house.
"Yep," KC answered for her brother, her arms stretched skyward.
Jesse reached down; grabbing KC's hands and effortlessly pulling her up into the crook of her other arm.
Jennifer could hear the squeals coming from her children as soon as she passed under the arched log announcing she had entered the ranch property.
Charley spotted Blaze trotting down the hillock to the ranch yard and had begun to yell. "Momma," Charley pointed excitingly towards the rider. "Momma."
Jesse quickly made her way to stand at the foot of the porch steps, the children waited impatiently on the porch. Charley started crawling towards the edge of the porch but his sister stopped him.
"Ya got's to let them kiss first," KC whispered loudly into her brother's ear.
Jesse chuckled at the comment, it hadn't taken KC long to figure that out but her brother was having a harder go at the concept. As soon as Blaze stepped alongside her, Jesse reached up to lift Jennifer out of the saddle. Hugging her wife tightly, she pressed their lips together. It was several heartbeats before Jesse set the schoolteacher on the ground.
"See," KC told Charley.
The women smiled knowingly at each other when they heard their daughter's comment.
"Missed you, darlin'," Jesse said, placing another tender kiss on her wife's lips.
"I missed you too," Jennifer sighed, resting her head against Jesse's for a moment before she went to her waiting children.
Jesse pulled the cane out of the otherwise empty rifle scabbard and handed it to Jennifer. "Go on," she smiled. "I'll take care of Blaze. Mom's in the kitchen," she called out as she led the horse to the barn.
Rather than climbing the porch steps immediately, Jennifer pressed her body against the edge of the porch opening her arms wide for the children. KC rushed into her mother's arms, kissing her several times before her brother could crawl beside her. Jennifer lifted the baby up so he could wrap his arms around her neck.
"Were you good today?" Jennifer asked between kisses and hugs.
"Yep," KC answered, a little too forcefully her mother thought.
Charlie's head bopped up and down in agreement with his sister.
"Ah uh," Jennifer smiled, sure that they was more to learn about the children's activities.
"Gramma make cookies," KC reported. "Cha-wie eat two all by hims'lf."
"Oh, and how many did you eat?" Jennifer asked.
KC smirked, "two."
"KC?" Jennifer's tone told the child she wanted the truth.
"Twee," KC frowned. "They was goods," she said as if the explanation would get her out of the trouble she had gotten herself into by not telling her mother the truth to begin with. Her lower lip quivered as it poked out, her pout beginning.
"Hmm," Jennifer fought to keep the smile off her face. "Let me get up there with you and we'll go see what gramma is up to."
"Otay," KC hopped back a few steps, hoping she would avoid any further punishment. "Come on, Cha-wie," she tugged on the boy's britches.
Jennifer made her way up the steps then crossed to the screen door, pulling it open for KC to scamper through. She waited for Charley to reach her then bent down, scooping the crawling baby up into her arms. "I miss you today, little man," she buried her face into the boy's neck, blowing raspberries against his soft skin. Smiling when Charley burst into loud giggles, she carried him inside and followed KC into the kitchen.
"Hi, mom," Jennifer greeted her mother-in-law. "I hear you made some 'goods' cookies today."
"Hi, honey," Marie smiled at her daughter-in-law. "Did she tell you she snuck one off the table?"
"No," Jennifer looked over at KC who was trying to look as innocent as possible. "That must explain the extra one she said she ate."
"Would have had one or two more if Jesse hadn't come in to sneak a couple for herself and caught her," Marie laughed. The similarities between her daughter and granddaughter grew by the day.
"What am I going to do with those two?" Jennifer laughed. She pulled out a chair from the table and sat down, holding Charley in her lap. "Good thing my little man doesn't take after them," she nuzzled the boy's head.
"Give him time," Marie smiled, pulling out a chair for herself. "You look tired," she studied Jennifer's drawn features. "Want me to stay around and make supper tonight?" she asked as KC climbed into her lap.
"No, I'm fine," Jennifer smiled but she didn't seem convinced of the truth of her statement.
"Yes," Jennifer sighed. "I'm just a little tired. I didn't sleep very well last night."
"Anything wrong?" Marie asked, concerned that the young woman was trying to do too much with raising a family, teaching school, and helping to run the Silver Slipper and the dress shop she and Jesse had set up for their friend Ruthie.
"No, everything's fine," Jennifer tried to reassure her mother-in-law. "And thank you for the offer," she smiled, "but Jesse and I should be able to handle supper for these two."
"Alright," Marie reluctantly agreed. "Then I best be getting back to start supper for Stanley."
"Grump?" KC twisted her head around to look at her grandmother.
"Yes," Marie laughed at the use of the nickname only KC could get by using. "He's been out all day and will be hungry when he gets home."
"Oh," KC turned back around.
"What's he been up do?" Jennifer asked.
"A few of the cows wandered off to the south end of the range again," Marie explained. "With Jesse having to stay here with the children, he went off to find them."
Jennifer sighed. Jesse would have done anything not to have her aging father have to spend the day in the saddle. Anything but leave her children, especially KC who continued to refuse to be out of sight of at least one of her mothers at all times. If only she had been home instead of in town, Jesse would have been able to ride after the cattle instead of her father.
"Ah, here you are," Jesse said as she entered the kitchen.
KC scooted off her grandmother's lap, running as quickly as she could for the rancher.
"Pop's back," Jesse told her mother as she swung KC up into the air.
"I'm better get moving then," Marie stood then walked for the doorway out of the kitchen. "Let her do the cooking tonight," she said, patting Jennifer on the shoulder. "It'll do her some good."
"Something I need to know about, darlin'?" Jesse asked as she leaned against the kitchen table in front of Jennifer.
"Your mother thinks you need to learn how to cook," Jennifer lied, not wanting Jesse to worry about her.
"Mom hasn't eaten enough of my cooking," Jesse smirked. "Hey," she turned to KC, "did you tell momma about her surprise."
"Nope," KC shook her head from side-to-side.
"What say we show it to her now?"
"Yep," this time, KC's head bopped up and down. With her mother's help, she scrambled down to the floor and raced to the back porch.
"A surprise?" Jennifer asked as she watched her daughter waiting just outside the back door, bouncing from one foot to the other.
"Yep," Jesse smiled as she offered a hand to Jennifer to pull her to her feet. "Got ya somethin' to help you rest at the end of the day," Jesse said as she took Charley out of Jennifer's arms. She led the schoolteacher to the back porch.
"Oh, my goodness," Jennifer gasped when she saw the muddy water still in the washtub and the dirty clothes and towels strewn about the porch.
"Oops," Jesse shrugged sheepishly. "Guess I forgot to clean up after their baths. Leave it," she told Jennifer who was bending over to pick up the mud encrusted shirt that Charley had been wearing earlier. "I'll take care of those later. Come see your surprise."
Jennifer looked up to see her wife, daughter and son standing beside the swing, all beaming widely.
"Oh, Jesse," Jennifer cried as she walked towards the swing. "When did you do this?"
"Today," Jesse held the swing still for her wife to sit down on it. "While the young 'uns were seeing how much mud they could wear, I hung this up for you." She sat beside Jennifer and waited for KC to climb aboard before she started to push with her long legs to gently move the swing.
Jennifer leaned again the rancher. After several quiet minutes, she said, "this is nice, sweetheart."
"I'm glad you like it, darlin'," Jesse wrapped an arm around the schoolteacher's shoulders. "Thought you'd like a nice place to sit and watch the sunsets."
"Only if you sit with me," Jennifer could feel fill the tears building in her eyes. .
"Wouldn't be anyplace else, darlin'."
Continued in Chapter Two