One Year Later
“He kicked me!” Daniel yelled, clearly frustrated, from where he sat on the ground inside of the corral. He wore a disgruntled expression, his eyebrows furrowed and his eyes narrowed at the young black-and-white splotched colt that was jumping around several feet off from where Daniel had fallen.
Sam had to bite back a laugh, trying to remain serious as he nodded. “I saw that,” he murmured.
“He’s just like his papa,” Daniel complained as he rose from the ground, dusting himself off and glaring at the young stallion as he jumped happily around the corral.
Sam didn’t think that was a bad thing but, then again, Sam hadn’t been the one who had just gotten kicked, either. It was true that Skipper was a lot like his father. He had been from the minute he was born, all wobbling knees and trying to run. He’d been slower to learn how to do so gracefully than his sisters. It was how he’d gotten his name.
Where Pacer pranced… his only son skipped about.
“You say that in that tone of voice when Jenny is out here,” Sam warned as he leaned on the fence of the corral with his forearms, chewing on the dried blade of grass he held between his lips.
Daniel snorted but didn’t argue with that. “I’m not dumb,” he muttered. “I don’t get it. Pacer’s all calm and docile now… well, comparatively,” Daniel quickly admitted, wincing, and Sam knew he was remembering the way he’d been knocked down by a relatively soft head-butt only a week prior. “He lets you groom him now, he’ll even let me lead him about… and all of his girl offspring are calm as anything. But Skipper?”
“Skipper is spirited.” Sam chuckled, watching as the little colt danced about again as if to prove that fact.
He had to bite back another laugh as Skipper started eying the way Daniel was standing, stomping his front hoof and lowering his head.
Maybe he really was more like his father than even Sam admitted.
He whistled, low and long, and watched as Skipper’s head shot up, his eyes gleaming merrily as he abandoned his pursuit of knocking Daniel down to skip over the fence where Sam was, instead. He came right up to the fence, turning so that Sam could pet him as soon as he reached it.
And in some ways, he was more like his dame.
“I don’t think we’re going to be able to board any more young horses with this one here,” Daniel pointed out, still obviously upset about getting knocked down. If anything, he almost sounded a bit more upset after catching Skipper considering knocking him down again.
Sam shrugged. “He’ll calm down,” he said easily. “I’m not about to turn anyone in town away and make them think they need to go looking for help anywhere else.” Namely, Nathan’s, though out of respect for that being Daniel’s father-in-law, he didn’t directly say as much.
Ever since his jail stay and people realizing that he couldn’t bully them the way he had before, they had started pulling their horses out of his stables. It had been a slow trickle at first but, according to Ellie, Nathan had fully closed that side of his operation only a handful of months back after there not being enough clients or revenue.
In that or training. Which made Sam the only boarding and training ranch within a hundred miles.
“You don’t have to beat around the bush, Sam, Ellie’s not here,” Daniel said knowingly.
“That’s still your father-in-law,” Sam said respectfully.
“Oh, I know,” Daniel sighed. “You don’t gotta remind me of that, Sam. God help me.”
Sam’s lips twitched, both amused and apologetic. “How’s that going, by the way?” he asked carefully.
Daniel shrugged, approaching Skipper slowly and holding his hand out for the now-happy colt. “It’s going,” he said slowly. “Ellie says that last time she was over there, they were drunk and fighting in the middle of the day… but she’s done said that on three different occasions now, so I just reckon that’s how things are.”
“That’s got to be rough for Ellie,” Sam said regretfully.
Daniel nodded as Skipper butted his hand, giving him permission to pet him. “It is. She says the place is a mess. She feels guilty at times, but we’re working through that. Jenny helps.”
Sam smiled. He knew she did. Jenny helped with almost everything. He’d never known a person to take on so many problems at once, and successfully at that.
“Speaking of Jenny…” Daniel laughed, shaking his head and looking down after glancing behind Sam.
Sam frowned, turning to see what had Daniel trying to hide his laughter, and he had to immediately swallow some of his own.
Jenny was picking her way carefully across the yard towards the corral, her body waddling from side to side as Pacer pranced from one side to the other around her, his head ducking and weaving as if he was going to bump her back up into balance. Her huge belly stuck out in front of her, her hand on top of it as she frowned down at it.
Sam knew she was trying to see her feet, but that ability had disappeared as a possibility for her a good two months past.
“And in-laws, since it looks like we have time,” Daniel joked. “Aren’t yours supposed to be coming in soon?”
Sam snorted. “Next month or the one after,” he answered dryly.
He didn’t mind. His in-laws were nothing like Daniel’s. He liked Mrs. Adams, even if she wasn’t overly impressed with life out West. He had no idea how he was going to get along with Mr. Adams, but he wasn’t too worried about it. Jenny loved her daddy and that was all that really mattered to him. He could make anything work to make and keep her happy.
“Jenny just had to show off Pacer’s three foals, huh?” Daniel laughed, cutting off as Skipper butted him just a little too hard in the hand. “Hey!”
“You aren’t handling him right!” Jenny called out from where she was still waddling her way over.
Pacer whinnied behind her, as if punctuating her statement. Although, only seconds after he did, he lowered his head to keep Jenny from pitching too far over to the left.
As amusing of a sight as it was, Sam was also more grateful than he cared to admit that Pacer followed her around like he did, even if he was a little warier of people getting close to her since she had become so obviously pregnant.
He didn’t stop Sam from getting near, and that was the most important bit.
“Oh? Tell me how I’m supposed to handle him right, then,” Daniel called back sarcastically. It was good-natured, even if it was also clearly frustrating to him.
Jenny finished making her way over to the fence, taking Sam’s hand as he held it out to help balance her. “You’ve got to stop letting him think that you’re upset.”
“I am upset,” Daniel muttered.
“And that’s the problem.” Jenny laughed. “He knows he’s winning. He likes the reactions. If he knows he can get one from you, he’s going to fight to get one.”
Daniel turned to stare at the colt, narrowing his eyes.
Like the black and white foal wanted to prove Jenny right, he immediately tossed his head, nickering and skipping a few feet back as if he were considering running at him.
Daniel sighed, shaking his head as he headed toward the gate. “It’s your fault, you know,” he told Pacer under his breath as he went to undo it.
Pacer snorted, watching, and Sam had to stop from outright laughing as Skipper took another few steps back and started to run right at the seat of Daniel’s pants while his back was turned.
Pacer whinnied before Skipper could make contact, a warning note beneath the noise, and the young colt skidded to a stop and changed course with a toss of his head.
Daniel, one foot out of the gate, stood perfectly still, staring at Pacer. He finished leaving the corral, walking to Pacer with a bowed head. “I reckon I’ll have to bring you alfalfa tonight now,” he acknowledged, running his hand over Pacer’s flank in thanks as he passed. “But don’t think I’m going to change my mind about where his attitude comes from.”
“I wouldn’t think he’d want you to.” Jenny laughed, leaning into Sam and allowing him to wrap his arms around her so that he could rest his hands on her extended belly. “He’s proud as anything of his three foals.”
Daniel grinned, shaking his head as he walked off.
“I don’t think he’s the only one proud of them,” Sam teased, running his palms slowly over Jenny’s stomach as he rested his chin on her red-gold hair. They watched Skipper run around the corral happily.
“Oh, I know you are,” Jenny joked back, leaning her head back against his shoulder.
“I’m proud of my wife,” Sam whispered, kissing the top of her head. “And I know she’s proud of her stallion.”
“I am,” Jenny admitted happily. “He’s come such a long way, and his foals really are beautiful. I didn’t expect Skipper to come out black and white like he did. Or Circe, the red and white…”
“And Petunia looks just like him,” Sam added. “He did have some stunning foals.”
“I think they’re pretty well-tempered too,” Jenny said searchingly, almost as if she was asking if Sam agreed.
Sam chuckled. “Well, they’re tempered,” he allowed, watching as Skipper began trying to prance on his shadow.
“Spirited!” Jenny corrected defensively.
Sam hugged her close, closing his eyes as he felt the babe in her belly respond to her mood and start kicking at his palms just as spiritedly as the colt was dancing around the corral. “They are that,” he agreed again, laughing when he felt her stiffen. “I’m sorry, Jenny. Of course I think they’re good foals. I’m excited to see what they do with some training.”
Pacer leaned down, blowing hot air on Jenny’s face and then going lower to nudge Sam’s hands aside.
Sam complied willingly, watching in amusement as he pushed his nose right into where their baby had just been kicking like he needed to feel it, too.
“Speaking of, I’ve been thinking about it.” Jenny sighed. “I don’t think I can be the one to train Skipper.”
Sam froze in surprise, his mind reeling at the announcement.
“I thought Skipper was the one you wanted to train?” he asked carefully as he watched Jenny smooth her hands over Pacer’s face as he snorted into her belly. “You said since he was the most like Pacer…”
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Jenny chuckled, gesturing down to where Pacer’s nose was still against her stomach. “I can barely walk in a straight line as it is now with Pacer!”
“I think that has a bit more to do with your condition,” Sam teased.
“Oh, you know what I mean! I can’t have two stallions this attached to me. Not right now, and especially not with the baby coming. I can’t imagine how Pacer would have reacted if I had to take a step back before he’d really calmed down. I’m already worried that he’ll try breaking into the house to come to see me while I’m in bed with the baby. And the midwife says I can’t ride at all for up to six weeks, if not longer, after giving birth…”
They were all valid concerns, although Sam could see how much it pained Jenny to admit to them.
“I’ll train Skipper,” Sam offered gently. “Then if you want to take over when you can…”
“No, no,” Jenny rushed to assure him. “I don’t want to do that either! It makes me sad that I won’t have as active of a role training his first son, but I know he’ll have plenty more. I need to focus more on the baby these next few months, anyway. I reckon that’s more important.”
“Ah, yes.” Sam hummed. “Baby training.”
Jenny laughed, pushing Pacer’s face away and turning to Sam so she could loop her arms around his shoulders. “I figured I’m already versed in husband and horse training.”
“You do very well in both of those, yes,” Sam confirmed happily, leaning down to rest his forehead against hers.
“Speaking of…” Jenny said with a smile.
“Husband or horse training?” Sam asked with a raised brow.
“Neither. It was a poor way to change the subject,” Jenny admitted sheepishly. “I just wanted to tell you that my mother has finally answered my last letter.”
“Did she give you a date they’re going to be here?” Sam asked, rubbing his thumbs into the small of Jenny’s back, feeling the knots that were building there and smiling as she relaxed further into his arms.
“They said a month after next. They want to be sure the baby is here,” she hummed happily. “She lectured me, though, for asking her to come to meet the foals and not her first grandchild,” Jenny muttered, sounding as if she couldn’t understand her mama’s point.
Sam laughed again. “The nerve.”
“Oh, that’s not what I meant,” Jenny confessed, laughing at herself then. “Sam?”
“Do you think I’ll be a good mom?” she asked, abruptly changing the subject again. Sam had gotten used to it the further she got in her pregnancy, though.
That and the strange foods she had taken to putting together to eat.
He could have teased her for asking, as it was hardly the first time she had, but he knew it was a real worry for her.
“I think you’ll be the best mama,” Sam promised her with certainty. “You want to know how I know?”
“How?” Jenny asked in a small voice.
“I know because you go out of your way to make everyone feel included. I know because you love even the things that other people find unlovable. I know because you don’t know how to give up on something that you love, and you love so wholly it’s almost without bounds. I know because you have the patience to bring a broken, abused horse back from the brink of being unsalvageable. I know because you find the beauty in everything and because you make other people see it there, too. I know because you thawed my busy heart and made me learn to slow down and appreciate the small things.” He kissed the tip of her nose, smiling gently at her.
“I know because you can face down a raging grizzly bear before hibernation and still go on to face the unjust with all the composure of a saint. I know because when you set your mind to something, you always succeed.
“I know because you are my wife,” he whispered. “And I know that no matter what comes, you and I together can overcome any obstacle.”
Jenny stared up at him, conviction filling her eyes. “I love you, Sam,” she whispered.
“And I you,” he answered before bending his neck to seal the words with a kiss. Just like he had the first time, just like he had the last time, and just like he had all the times that were to come.
Sam didn’t know a lot outside of horses and horse training, but he knew that.
And he knew that happily ever after wasn’t just some line they fed to girls to convince them to marry men like him out West. Happily ever after was in his arms, kissing him as sweetly as the first sip of sweet tea on a hot summer day.
Happily ever after was Jenny Morton, and he was sure glad he’d found her.