Spring arrived over night, it seemed. The trees had a lovely haze of green and Gloria Potter's tulips poked their heads out and decided to bloom. It was April and everyone wanted to be outside. The school children couldn't be kept in the classroom so we went on field trips to the stables, the clinic, the church and every other place we could think of.
Will still couldn't walk very far so he stayed with Nathan at the clinic while I kept Amanda with me during my teaching hours. Occasionally, we'd swap children and little Will enjoyed the other children once he got to know them. I had the feeling that he'd been the only child in the bordello where he was born. The other children were gentle with him and his shy manners won him friends among the students.
His vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds, his sentences growing longer every day. I was so proud of him that I could hardly contain myself. After a life of deprivation, he was rather like those bright red tulips that brightened the back yard of Mrs. Potter's building, expanding and reaching for the sun. Nathan and I showered him with love and he bloomed for us.
Six-month old Amanda thought he was her own personal playmate and he played endless games with her. I taught them patty-cake and several little nursery rhymes that they played over and over while the adults talked. Carrying Amanda back home after my classes, I thought about the house plans that had taken over half the dining table. We had decided to build near each other both for safety and convenience.
Our home had four bedrooms, an indoor bathroom, a nice big kitchen with an adjoining dining room and a parlor that would be comfortable rather than formal. Nathan had indulged my desire for the kitchen with a smile and a statement, that he'd give me any thing I wanted so long as I kept cooking such wonderful meals. I smiled to myself and tipped my hat to Mrs. Travis who stopped for a moment to compliment Amanda on the red ribbon in her dark hair and to inquire after Will.
I assured her that his limp was much less pronounced after the warm oil massages that Nathan gave him every night. I was hoping that the warmer weather would bring on even more of an improvement. I was able to return to her a compliment on Billy's behavior with the other children. He had turned into a leader who enjoyed taking care of the other students. She blushed and smiled happily before continuing on her way.
I opened the clinic door and the little bell brought Nathan to the waiting room door. Will poked his head around him and his little face lit up when he saw us. "Papa! Is it lunch time?"
"Yes it is, Will. What have you and Pa made for our meal?" I teased him and he looked wide-eyed up at my grinning lover.
"Well, I was thinking of eating with the others at the saloon. If that would be all right with Her Highness?" Nathan picked Will up and joined us by the door. He contented himself with a soft finger caress to my cheek since we were semi-public.
Amanda crowed out loud and chortled at Nathan's soft kiss. I chuckled. "It sounds like she approves. Let's go and see what Inez has cooked for our noon day meal."
Will grinned and leaned over to kiss my cheek. "Yes, Papa, Inez cooks good food."
"She does indeed, sweetheart. Hopefully she'll have some milk for Princess Amanda." I held the door for them and we crossed the street angling towards the saloon. Usually noon meal was much less crowded there and no rowdy customers posed a threat to our children. Inez welcomed us with smiles and we joined Vin and Chris at the table in the corner that had been ours for the last two years.
Josiah and Mother were still off on their honeymoon trip to Santa Fe. We missed them but we knew they'd be returning within the week and I, for one, was looking forward to seeing how being married might have changed them. Nathan just chuckled whenever I voiced my thoughts aloud and reminded me about his earlier statement about Josiah's passion for living. It still felt odd to think of Mother as a passionate person but I hoped with all my heart that they were doing well.
I'd come to enjoy having Mother nearby after all the years of rarely seeing her more than a month at a time. Odd ... how I had changed since loving Nathan. Looking at the tall man by my side, teasing Vin about something, I felt my heart swell in gratitude. My life was a joy instead of a sorrow and it was all because of this wonderful man who loved me. Amanda seemed to know what I was thinking because she patted my cheek with her little hand and shared a smile with me.
Life just didn't get much better than this. Inez served the simple meal of ham and beans with a smile for Will and a bottle for Amanda. Nathan helped our son with his spoon so the beans didn't land on him rather than in him while I fed our daughter. Ours. That thought could still make me catch my breath in wonder at how my joy in living had grown. I was part of a family and that was such a gift that I just had to give thanks again and again.
Perhaps there really was a deity who looked after gamblers.
Amanda had finally learned to hold her bottle so I was able to eat a few bites of the hot meal while she nursed. Vin was telling us of the chance to buy some horses from his friends in the tribe and I listened to him enthuse about the great breeding stock they'd be. Buck and JD came in and sat down across from us with a smile for both Amanda and Will.
They'd been to Sarney for the weekly supply run and Buck relayed the perils of their trip with the same gusto he applied to everything else. JD laughed at him but shook his head when asked if he could tell it any better. Some of the books I'd ordered for Nathan had come in and my lover lit up when told what they were. The Cluny Herbal was well known in the South and I'd finally tracked down a used copy for him. A Desert Garden was the other and I had hopes that it would enable us to grow more of the medicinal herbs that seemed to help so many.
"And last but not least, we found something that we think Will and Amanda will enjoy." Buck winked at Will and our son bounced on Nathan's lap.
"What, Buck? What did you bring us?"
"Ah, now that would be telling, Will. We need a little help in delivering some of the supplies. Would you be willing to help us out?"
"Yes!" Will smiled happily at Nathan. "May I, Pa?"
"Yes, you may, Will. Would it be all right if I helped too?" Nathan chuckled.
Will turned to Amanda and me. "You too, Papa?"
I shook my head. "Princess Amanda needs to take her nap and we can't leave her alone. You and Pa can help out then come home and show us your surprise."
"We'll miss you, Papa but we'll be back soon." He smiled sweetly at us and leaned over to kiss Amanda's cheek. "I'll share, Mandy."
Nathan and I exchanged a smile. Our children were such fun that I wished we had a dozen of them. Random chance had given us a daughter but it was surely Fate who sent Claude to rescue our son from durance vile. Everyday I gave thanks that I was so blessed with family and friends. I just hoped that Buck had thought first before getting their surprise.
I carried Amanda home after lunch and we went upstairs to take our nap. We'd had quite a strenuous trip to the livery stables and I was feeling a little weary myself. So I changed her diaper and dressed her in a flannel-sleeping wrap. Then we both lay down on the bed and took a nap.
"Ssh-h-h, Pa, we'll wake them up." Will's voice seemed to come from far away but the depression of the mattress told me that the other half of our family had returned.
"I'm awake, Will. Did you bring the surprise back with you?" I managed to open my eyes in time to see what he clutched to his chest.
A kitten. Oh, Buck had definitely outdone himself this time. He was a tiny orange and cream tiger with big golden eyes that looked back at me solemnly. Will's look was almost the same but with a pleading note that told me my softhearted lover had left the ultimate dispossession of the cat up to Papa.
"Goodness, what a wonderful surprise you brought home." I injected just the right pleasure into my voice and watched Will beam. "He will be a good mouser, I think and he can share Amanda's milk."
"Really, Papa?" The kitten escaped the tender hold and immediately jumped onto my chest to delicately pick his way up to my chin. A raspy tongue licked that ticklish spot that Nathan loved to tease and I chuckled.
A soft coo from Amanda caught his attention and he purred at her while her little hand reached out for him. He backed off a bit but she didn't try to grab him, just rubbed her fingers over his head. His purr grew bigger while Will giggled and helped her pet our new family member.
My eyes met Nathan's and we both grinned. "My love, did you by chance bring home something to use as a litter tray?"
"We stopped at the livery and picked up some sawdust. I thought we could use that ugly pan that Mrs. Gray gave us, the one we can't figure out how to use." Nathan helped Amanda sit up so she could see what was going on.
"Good idea. Will, what is his name?" I asked our son who looked at me in surprise.
"I don't know, Papa." He frowned a little, obviously thinking hard.
"Well, my first thought when I saw him was how much like a tiger he looked." I slowly slid up, dislodging him onto the blanket and using the headboard as a backrest.
"What's a tiger, Papa?" He crawled onto my lap and I hugged him close.
We sat there enjoying our new kitten while I told him about the magnificent creature that I'd seen in the Ringling Brothers circus a few years before. Nathan had never seen one either and my whole family listened to me tell about the giant cat who performed in the big ring. I promised that if the circus ever came through, we'd all go to see if they had a tiger.
I got up while the children were still playing with the newly christened kitten. Dinner needed to be gotten ready and I bustled around putting the roast that Nathan had brought home onto the stove. Strong arms stilled my busy hands and I turned into them for my kiss.
He tasted of love to me and I sucked on his tongue lazily while his hands smoothed caresses down my back. We were both semi-hard but content to let the passion build slowly. Back when we were so new, it had been a forest fire feeling but now it was the steady fire of the cook stove just behind us. I loved Nathan so much sometimes that I still had to pinch myself to believe that he loved me, too.
"Sweet Ezra, thank you for letting us keep him." Nathan kissed me once more and let me go reluctantly.
"He'll be a fine mouser for us so I don't have to worry about the pots and pans. I dislike those nasty little vermin quite intensely." I shivered a little. "I shared a room with one once and I hated it."
"Don't think much of them myself." Nathan smiled and stroked my cheek. "They spread disease and filth so maybe Tiger can keep us mouse free."
The sound of giggles and a squeak distracted Nathan who hurried in to the bedroom to make sure that poor little kitten wasn't being squeezed to death. Giggles erupted and Nathan's chuckle floated back to me while I started cutting up the potatoes to place around the roast. We still had some carrots left but they were beginning to grow tiny roots so I scrubbed them before cutting them up small to join the potatoes.
Will limped out to hug my leg. "Thank you, Papa. Tiger will be fun."
"He will indeed, sweetheart. Now, would you set the table for me so we'll be ready to eat in two hours?" I combed my fingers through his soft hair and he giggled.
"Okay, Papa, I'll help." He had taken over several small tasks to help me keep our home tidy. It gave him a sense of belonging that was important to him and would be for Amanda as well once she got big enough to help.
I popped the roast into the oven after first checking the state of the red-hot coals that would cook it through. I put one of the cookie sheets over it to keep in the steam. Then I got down the porcelain bake pan that was too small to be completely useful for our growing family and put two inches of sawdust into it before trying to decide where to put it.
"We could put it by the door, Papa. I promise to empty it every day." Will came over after finishing his chore. "Pa told me what we had to do."
"Very good, Will. I think you're quite right. By the door means we don't have to take it out so far." We placed it on the opposite side of the door from where we usually put our boots and I thought I might need another hooked rug to place under it to catch any sprays.
"Ezra, do we have time for a bath?" Nathan's call caught Will and me crouching by the kitten pan.
"Please, Papa?" Will's eyes lit up and I chuckled, standing and picking him up in my arms.
"I think that is a perfect idea, Nathan." I carried our wiggling son back into our room in time to find my lover beginning to undress.
We took our baths all together and had from the first. Will and Amanda were both water babies and they loved the water play. Vin had made a waxed paper boat for Will that always joined us in the tub. It was looking a little dilapidated after all the play. Amanda had a wooden ring that she chewed all the time and loved to drop in the water so she could fish it out again.
That game never failed to amuse and I undressed while keeping a sharp eye on Will who was shedding his own clothes quickly. "Papa, can Tiger come in too?"
Nathan chuckled and I hung up the discarded clothing. "No, sweetheart, Tiger takes care of his own bathing. Cats rarely like water. They like to keep their fur dry."
"That reminds me, we better shut the door so he doesn't get into the other room until we can be there to watch him." Nathan crossed to the bedroom door and closed it just in time for Tiger to jump down off the bed. He was heading for Amanda's cradle, which had moved slightly when Nathan passed by.
Our life had just gotten a little more fun and I picked up our son to take him into the bathroom while Nathan brought in Amanda. I was the luckiest man alive and I was reminded everyday what a joy it was to be alive. Life was good and about to get even better. Tiger would soon be a force to be reckoned with and some of that energy the children shared would have a new outlet.
"Papa, are you sure that Tiger couldn't come in with us?" Will looked longingly over my shoulder.
I chuckled. Tiger might just get baptized as well as christened if our son had anything to do with it.
The end for now