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Several weeks had passed since Jesse promised Jennifer she would agree to make no more deliveries for Ed that required her to be away from home for more than a day. The days were growing longer and warmer and the ground had dried out making it easier to attend to the chores around the ranch.
Jesse was mucking out the horse stalls in the barn. KC working beside her, using a miniature shovel her mother had made to drop horse biscuits into a bucket that Jesse would periodically empty into the wheelbarrow. Charley sat on a blanket spread out over a bed of fresh hay, playing with some toys. Outside, Jesse’s father, Stanley, was repairing a section of corral fence that had been damaged over the winter when a tree branch blew into it.
“Rider coming,” Stanley looked up from his work. Pulling a kerchief from his back pocket he wiped his brow as he watched the rider.
Jesse walked to the barn door. Looking across the ranch yard, she saw a horse galloping down the hillock. The flaming red hair flying behind the rider gave away her identity. “Come on, Sunshine,” she called to KC. Hurrying back into the barn she plucked KC off the floor then did the same to Charley. “Pop, can you saddle Dusty,” Jesse yelled, taking off for the back of the house.
“What’s wrong?” Marie asked, startled from her work in the garden when her daughter charged past.
“Sally’s coming.” Without breaking stride, Jessed leaped up onto the porch on her way to the kitchen and water pump inside. Setting Charley on the floor first, she put KC down on the counter next to the basin. Pumping the handle to get water flowing, she grabbed the soap bar and began lathering her hands. “Here,” she handed the soap bar to KC, “scrub as much of that stuff off your hands and face. We need to go to town.”
“See momma?” KC asked as she followed her mother’s directions.
Jesse smiled at her daughter, “yep, to see your momma. And your Aunt Ruthie, she’s having her baby.”
“Like Cha-wie?” KC mumbled through soap bubbles as she scrubbed her face.
“Yep,” Jesse pumped the handle a few more times, rinsing her hands and face in the cold water that flowed into the basin. Picking up a towel, she dried her daughter’s face and hands. “You’re about to have a cousin.” Her nose wrinkled as it detected a smell not coming from her or KC, “but we need to change Charley’s britches ‘fore we go.”
“I’ll take care of him,” Marie entered the kitchen.
“Thanks, Mom,” Jesse was using the hand towel to brush dirt off KC’s clothes. “We’re back here,” Jesse called out when she heard the screen door at the front of the house bang shut.
“Miss Jennifer said to tell you to hurry,” Sally told Jesse, the words gasped out as she tried to catch her breath.
“How soon?” Marie asked.
“Bette Mae said she could deliver at any moment.”
Jesse carried KC to the table. “Sit and don’t move,” she ruffled KC’s hair before walking over to the row of wood pegs near the back door where their coats were hung. She pulled the carry sack she had made when KC was a baby off one of the pegs. Slipping her arms through the straps, she turned around to walk back to KC and her mother. Sally was still standing in the doorway, breathing hard. “Get yourself a drink of water and sit for a spell,” she told the redhead.
“We’ll be there just as soon as Stanley gets Boy hitched to the buckboard,” Marie told Jesse as she lifted Charley up to place him into the carry sack.
“You take your time, Mom,” Jesse adjusted the sack more comfortably on her back. “There’s no reason for you to take any more of a beating on that rutted road than necessary.”
“Don’t you worry about us,” Marie leaned over to kiss KC. “You just be careful with the babies.”
“I will,” Jesse held out her arms for KC now standing on the table. The girl jumped without fear, confident her mother would catch her. “Don’t let your momma see you do that,” she whispered into KC’s ear. “She’ll spank both of us,” Jesse thought that wouldn’t necessary be a bad thing as she listened to her daughter giggle. “There’s Pop,” she said, seeing Stanley walk her palomino, Dusty, up to the back porch. “You can ride back with the folks, Sally,” she said as she walked for the door with her children.
“If it’s all the same to you,” Sally said, rubbing her sore backside. “I think I’ll just stretch out in the back of the wagon.” Riding a horse was something she rarely did and never at a full gallop like today.
Jesse smirked and nodded. Walking to the edge of the porch, she swung her leg over Dusty’s broad back. With KC sitting in front of her and Charley on her back, Jesse took the reins from her father, “thanks. We’ll see you in town.”
“We’ll be there,” Stanley nodded. “Now git.”
A slight tap of Jesse’s boots to Dusty’s sides and moments later the golden horse was charging up the hillock, KC’s happy squeals drifting behind.
Jesse sat on the porch of the mercantile watching Billie nervously pace back and forth. Ed and Stanley were sitting opposite each other, a crackle barrel between them and a checker board balanced on top of it.
“You know,” Jesse smirked at the nervous men. “Wearing a rut in these planks ain’t gonna make that baby come any sooner. Besides,” her eyes drifted down to KC and Charley asleep on a blanket in the shade at the back of the porch. “All your stomping is making it hard for the young ‘uns to sleep.”
“Damn it, Jesse,” Billie dropped in the chair next to her. “This ain’t easy. First Bette Mae says the baby could come any time,” he ran his fingers through his hair, scratching his scalp. “Then she says it could be a while.”
Jesse took pity on the expectant father who was more of a brother to her than a friend. “Babies come when they’re good and ready,” she reached over, squeezing Billie’s arm. “You can’t hurry them up or slow them down.”
“You had it easy,” Billie sighed. “Yours came already hatched.”
Ed snorted at the comment.
“Well, I wouldn’t have put it exactly like that,” Jesse chuckled. “And I don’t think I’d let Jennifer hear you say it but you’re right, I didn’t have to go through this. That’s not to say I agree with the having ‘it easy’ part. ‘Fore they come out is the easy part, after that they keep you mighty busy.”
“You ever regret having ‘em?” Billie asked, looking at the sleeping babies. He adored Jesse’s children but he doubted he could be the parent the rancher was proving to be.
“Not once,” Jesse said truthfully. “Can’t imagine not having the little rascals around.”
“You’re happy, ain’t ya, Jesse?” Billie gazed at the woman he remembered riding into Sweetwater lonely and without a future. Now she was married with a growing family and a successful business woman. And her eyes had been free of sadness ever since a certain ginger haired schoolteacher had arrived in Sweetwater. That is, until recently.
“I’m very happy, Billie,” Jesse smiled, but her eyes reflected the melancholy Billie had been noticing.
Jesse leaned back in the chair before answering. “I miss Jennifer,” she sighed.
“What do you mean?” Billie was puzzled, Jennifer hadn’t gone anywhere.
“With her teaching duties keeping her in town and the ranch keeping me out there,” Jesse frowned. “Seems like we’re just riders passing on the road sometimes. I wish she could be home more.”
“You could ask her to quit,” Billie suggested.
“No,” Jesse shook her head. “It’s what she wants to do. It’s why she came to Sweetwater. I can’t ask her to give it up anymore than she’d ask me to give up the ranch.”
“But you would, wouldn’t you?”
“Give up the ranch.”
“Yes. If she asked, I would.”
“Don’t ya think she feels the same about her teaching?”
Jesse stared at the schoolhouse sitting on a knoll not far from the mercantile. Was Billie right? Would Jennifer be willing to give up teaching and stay home? A baby’s cry interrupted her thoughts.
“You best be gettin’ up there,” Jesse jumped up and pulled Billie to his feet. She wrapped her arms around her friend, hugging him tight. “Sounds like you’re a poppa.”
Ed slapped Billie on his back as the new father stood frozen in place. “She’s right, boy,” he laughed at the mixed look of fear and excitement on the young man’s face. “Go on, now,” he shoved Billie towards the doorway. “Ruthie will be waiting for you.”
Billie stumbled across the porch and through the doorway. By the time he reached the stairs leading up to the rooms he shared with his wife, his brain had finally caught up to the situation. Taking the steps three at a time, he raced up to meet his first child.
Jennifer was coming down the stairs and had to flatten herself against the wall to avoid being bowled over by Billie.
“I’m a father,” Billie stopped when he reached the schoolteacher. Grinning, he pulled Jennifer into a hug, kissing her on the cheek. “I’m a father,” he repeated as he released her and continued upstairs.
Jennifer giggled, watching the animated man disappear down the hallway.
“You okay, darlin’?” Jesse was walking up the stairs to Jennifer, afraid the exuberant Billie might have hurt the schoolteacher’s bad leg in his rush to get upstairs.
“I’m fine,” Jennifer looked lovingly down at her wife. “It’s a boy, a fine healthy boy,” she told Jesse when the rancher wrapped her arms around her.
“He’ll like that,” Jesse murmured, kissing Jennifer’s forehead. “How’s Ruthie?”
“Fine. Tired but fine. Bette Mae said the baby didn’t tear her much.”
“Speaking of babies,” Jennifer leaned into Jesse. “Where are ours?”
“Sleeping,” Jesse said as she helped Jennifer down the stairs. “Ed and Pop are keeping an eye on them.”
“Hi, Pop, Ed,” Jennifer greeted her father-in-law and storekeeper as soon as she stepped out on the porch. “Thanks for watching them.”
“They don’t make much trouble when they’re sleeping. Too bad you can’t keep them that way,” Ed grumbled but his eyes were twinkling as he teased the mothers. KC’s curiosity had caused him more than a few messes to clean up in his store.
“Well, what was it?” Stanley asked, his elbow resting on the checker board dislodging most of the play pieces.
“A baby boy,” Jesse said proudly, even though she’d had nothing to do with the end result.
“Well, I’ll be,” Ed beamed. “Bet Billie is bustin’ off his buttons at that news. And Ruthie?”
“She’s fine,” Jennifer answered, sitting in the chair Jesse had guided her to. “Bette Mae and Mom are cleaning her up. I couldn’t stand any longer,” she turned to Jesse, an apologetic look on her face.
“Hush.” Jesse gently cupped her hands around Jennifer’s cheeks, smoothing out the worry lines in her forehead. “You did what you could, darlin’. Ruthie wouldn’t ask for any more.”
Jennifer leaned into the caress, closing her eyes as she let her wife’s love soak into her.
“You look tired, daughter,” Stanley told Jennifer from where he sat. “You should take her over to the Slipper so she can get some rest, Jesse.”
“No, I’m alright,” Jennifer protested, fighting to hold back a yawn.
“Pops right, darlin’,” Jesse grinned when Jennifer lost the battle. “Let me gather up the young ‘uns and we’ll walk over. Or do you want me to get the buckboard?” The wagon was in front of the mercantile where Stanley had left it when he and Marie arrived in town.
“No, I can walk,” Jennifer said. “It might help to stretch out the leg after standing for so long.”
Jesse knelt down, carefully lifting the sleeping babies into her arms. With the children secured, she stood and walked back over to Jennifer who was leaning heavily on her cane. “Ready, darlin’?”
“Yes. Will you tell Billie and Ruthie will come back later?” she asked Ed and Stanley. “KC will want to meet her cousin.”
“You go on now,” Stanley smiled at his daughter-in-law. “It’ll be a while ‘fore she’s ready for company. Marie slept for a week after givin’ birth to that there wife of yours.”
“Come on, darlin’,” Jesse waited until Jennifer wrapped her free hand around her arm. “Let’s go before he thinks of any other lies to tell about me,” she smiled at her father.
“Humpft,” Stanley grunted.
When Jennifer woke she was alone in bed but the whispered voices of her wife and daughter told her they were somewhere in the room. She rolled onto her side in the direction of the voices.
“Mommy,” KC whispered, “we see baby?”
“Yep, Sunshine,” Jesse whispered back, “just as soon as your momma wakes up.” She was bent over Charley changing his britches.
“Mommy,” KC whispered again. “Does baby ‘tink like Cha-wie?”
Jesse chuckled, poking KC in the ribs causing the girl to burst into giggles. “Yep. Just like Charley and just like you do when you need a bath.”
“I don’ need bath,” KC scooted away from Jesse’s propping finger.
“Oh, yes you do. And so do I,” Jesse sniffed loudly. “Remember what we were doing before we came to town this morning.”
“And what were you two filthy things doing?” Jennifer asked.
“Momma,” KC and Charley cried at the same time.
KC hopped up and ran for the bed, scrambling up onto the chest at the end of the bed to reach her mother. “Momma, I hav’ cossin,” she said, wrapping her arms around Jennifer’s neck. “We go see it now.”
Jennifer rolled onto her back, her arms wrapped around KC. “’IT’ is a boy,” she tweaked the girl’s nose. “And I refuse to go anyplace with you until you have a bath. Just what were you doing this morning, Jesse?”
“Mucking out the barn,” Jesse said, sitting on the bed with Charley. The baby pushed out of her lap to crawl to Jennifer. “Sorry,” she bent down to kiss Jennifer. “We didn’t have much time to wash up after Sally rode in with the news. I’ll see if the wash room is available since it looks like we’ll be spending the night in town.”
Jennifer turned her head to look out the room’s window. “How long did I sleep?” she asked, seeing that night had fallen outside.
“Few hours,” Jesse smiled. “Guess Pop was right when he said you looked tired. Having babies must be hard work.”
“It sure looked to be,” Jennifer remembered how much pain Ruthie had looked to be in when she was giving birth. She wondered if anything could be worth that much suffering.
“Momma,” Charley snuggled against his mother, providing the answer to her question.
“You want to eat first?” Jesse asked. She walked across the room to a dresser that held extra clothing for the family.
“No, you need a bath and so does KC,” Jennifer laughed when Jesse made a face at her. “We might as well throw Charley in with you.”
“What about you?” Jesse wiggled her eyebrows. “You want to join us, too?”
“As much as that offer intrigues me,” Jennifer smirked, “bathing with you as you wash horse biscuits and who knows what else off really isn’t that appealing.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” Jesse returned to the bed with her arms full of clean clothes. “Does she, Sunshine?”
“Nope,” KC grinned, wiggling about to give her momma a good whiff of her.
“Arrr,” Jennifer cried. “Jesse, get her off of the bed before we have to wash it too.”
“Come on, you rascal,” Jesse lifted KC up by her britches. “Leave your momma alone before she makes me sleep on the floor tonight.”
“I seep with you, mommy,” KC said, hanging in mid-air.
“Ain’t the same, Sunshine,” Jesse carried the baby out the door. “It just ain’t the same.”
“Hmmm,” Jennifer told Charley, rubbing circles on his back. “Seems she forgot something.”
“Sorry,” Jesse reappeared. She picked the baby up by his britches then holding both children out at arm’s length, she bent down to kiss Jennifer. “I’ll send Sally up for the clothes,” she said as she spun around and carried the squealing babies out the door.
“I love you, Jesse Branson,” Jennifer smiled.
“What you plan on calling him?” Jesse asked of the baby sleeping in her arms. She was sitting cross-legged on the floor in Billie and Ruthie’s sitting room, KC draped over her shoulder watching the infant.
The small room was overflowing with people as Bette Mae, Ed, Stanley, Marie, Jesse, Jennifer, KC, Charley, and the new baby were squeezed into the tiny room.
“Michael.” Billie answered.
“Michael Monroe,” Jesse said out loud. “Has a nice sound to it.”
“We thought so,” Billie said, mockingly.
“Lordy,” Bette couldn’t help but bend over and pinch the infant’s toes, “he is jus’ adorable. Ya’d never know Billie was capable of havin’ such a thing.”
“No, I’d say young Michael must get his looks from his momma,” Jesse teased.
“Momma,” Charley repeated. He was sitting in Jennifer’s lap and turned his head up to see his mother.
Jennifer bent down to kiss the baby’s out stretched hand. “I’m your momma,” she explained. “But Ruthie is Michael’s momma.”
“Momma,” Charley twisted around in Jennifer’s lap, snuggled against her breast.
“Don’ think he quite knows wha’ ya is tryin’ to tell him,” Bette Mae chuckled.
“No, I don’t think he does,” Jennifer cradled her baby boy.
“It’s been a long day,” Marie said, she being the only other woman in the room who had given birth to a child, she knew how tired Ruthie must be feeling. “I think it’s time we left these folks alone for awhile.”
“She’s right, Jesse. And it’s time the babies go to bed.”
“Alright,” Jesse handed Michael up to Billie who came to gather up his son. She stood, stretching out the kinks in her long legs. “Don’t you be worrying about the dress shop,” she said to Ruthie. “We’ll do what we can and what we can’t can wait until you feel up to coming back.”
“Tha’s a mouthful, even for me,” Bette Mae laughed.
“What’s she’s trying to say,” Jennifer smirked, “is you take all the time you need.”
“Thank you,” Ruthie smiled when Billie laid the baby in her arms. “It won’t be long, I promise.”
“He’s a beautiful baby,” Jennifer smiled at the young seamstress. “You spend some time with him; you don’t want to miss anything.”
Jesse could hear the regret in her wife’s voice. Maybe it was time to talk to Jennifer about giving up teaching and staying at the ranch with the children. “Come on, KC,” Jesse pulled the girl into her arms, “let’s take your momma and grandparents back to the Slipper.”
“Otay.” KC swiped her arm in a wide arc, “come on, grump. Let’s go.”
“Oh, boy,” Jesse groaned as Stanley began to growl as the others snickered. She helped Jennifer stand, “we really need to get her to stop calling him that,” she whispered.
“I’ve tried,” Jennifer whispered back.
Marie said her goodbyes to Billie and Ruthie then stopped by Jesse and Jennifer. “Don’t worry,” she whispered loud enough for everyone to hear. “He likes it even if he does growl at her.”
“Woman,” Stanley huffed. “Are you ready to leave or not?”
“Yes, dear,” Marie winked at her daughter’s. “I’m ready. Now go get your granddaughter so Jesse can help Jennifer down the stairs.”
Stanley grumbled but he didn’t complain when KC was passed to him from Jesse.
“Grump,” KC settled in her grandfather’s arms. “We go Slipper and get treats. Otay?”
Jesse just stood and shook her head as her father carried KC out of the room to the laughter her comment caused.
“Yep,” Ed chuckled, slapping Jesse on the back. “You have got your work cut out with that young ‘un. You surely do.”
“We better go, sweetheart,” Jennifer slipped her arm around Jesse’s, “before she talks him in to something else.”
“Oh, boy,” Jesse groaned, taking the sleepy baby from Jennifer. “Oh, boy.”
Continued in Chapter Four
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