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Five Years Later

Wyoming 1884

“Mommy!” Jasmine exclaimed as she ran into the kitchen and buried herself under Caroline’s skirts.

“What’s the matter?” Caroline demanded as she continued to stir the cake batter she was busy mixing.

“Gregory is trying to throw a toad at me!” Came her daughters muffled response from under the folds of fabric.

“Am not!” Gregory exclaimed defensively as he entered the kitchen at a whirlwind pace and skidded to a stop on the hardwood floor.

“What’s behind your back?” Caroline asked as she fought back a smile. Gregory kept his hands clasped firmly behind him and shrugged.

“Nuttin.” he mumbled. Caroline couldn’t help but laugh when the toad in his hands let out a loud ‘CROAK!’ Gregory was so much like his uncle, his namesake, that sometimes Caroline wondered if she and Ethan hadn’t made a mistake by giving him her younger brothers name.

“That’s a pretty loud ‘nuttin’.” Caroline replied. She pointed toward the door. “Take the toad back outside and stop trying to scare your sister.”

“I wasn’t trying to scare her. I just wanted her to pet it. She ain’t nothing but a big ol’ crybaby.”

“Am not!” Jasmine spat angrily from beneath Caroline’s dress.

“Folks must be right when they call me crazy.” Grayson said with a laugh as he walked into the kitchen. “Because I could have sworn I just heard your skirt talk.”

“That was me, uncle Gray.” Jasmine said with a giggle as she poked her head out of her hiding spot.

“Well I’ll be!” Grayson exclaimed with feigned surprise as he covered his chest with his wrinkled hand. “What are you doing under there?”

“Gregory’s toad is trying to kill me.” Jasmine replied in a very serious manner. Caroline was unable to keep herself from laughing lightly. Jasmine was the most dramatic three year old that Caroline had ever known.

“Is that so?” Grayson asked, clucking his tongue against his toothless gums. “Why I ain’t never heard of a killer toad before.”

“It ain’t a killer toad, Uncle Gray. It’s just a regular one.” Gregory replied as he held it up for Grayson to see.

“That’s funny, because I thought you said it was a nuttin.” Caroline reminded him with a raise of her brow. Gregory gave her a sheepish grin that reminded her of Ethan and then he ran for the door.

“Come on, Uncle Gray, help me put it somewhere safe!” he exclaimed. Grayson started toward the door laughing and Jasmine jumped out from under Caroline’s skirts and joined them.

“Keep it away from my chickens!” she yelled.

Peace and quiet once again overtook the kitchen of their small, homey cabin and Caroline poured the cake batter into a pan. Ethan had been gone for nearly two months taking some cattle to market and getting supplies but he was due home today and she wanted to have this cake done before he arrived.

She had news to tell him about the tiny life that was growing inside of her. Their third child. She placed the pan of batter into the oven and then stood straight and laid her hand over her stomach.

Life had been so hard for so long. Death, pain, fear and desperation had seemed as if it would never end for her or for Ethan. But finally they had a home and a family of their own. The ghosts from their pasts were dead and they were happy.

True to his word, Ethan had taken her away from Texas and they had not been back since and for that Caroline was glad. While she knew that evil people came from everywhere and not just Texas, that place held too many painful memories for her. As did Oklahoma where she had once lived with her parents and siblings.

She grabbed the freshly churned butter, sugar and milk and began to mix together the icing for the cake. She could see Grayson chasing after Gregory and Jasmine on his old legs, which were still surprisingly swift and agile for his age.

Ethan had picked the names for their children. He said he wanted to honor the losses that she had suffered and give her a piece of what had been stolen from her back. Caroline knew that there were still moments that Ethan fought his demons of guilt and it was in those times that she simply loved him the best way a woman could and helped him to see the goodness that was inside of him.

Though there were still nights that she woke up sweating and shaking as memories of Mitchell’s cold soullessness came flooding back to her mind. On those nights it was Ethan’s turn to love her though it.

She was lost in her thoughts, gazing down at the icing she was mixing when suddenly she felt two arms close around her waist. Instantly her heart kicked in her chest and she grabbed the knife lying beside her on the counter. She twisted in her attackers arms and brought the knife to his throat, just as she realized it was Ethan.

“I missed you too, darlin'.” he said with a smile as his dark eyes filled with amusement. Caroline gasped and tossed the knife back to the counter before throwing her arms around his neck and clinging to him tightly.

“I have missed you so much!” she admitted, breathing in the scent of dust, sweat and horse still clinging to his skin and clothes.

Ethan held her close and buried his face in her dark hair.

“Have the kids been good for you?” he asked.

“As good as they ever are.” Caroline replied and then she frowned as she pulled away. “Why didn’t they tell me you were here? I didn’t even hear the cart pull up.”

“I came the back way and I left the cart at the edge of our land, darlin'. I wanted to sneak in and have a few minutes alone with you.” Caroline smiled and then rose up and pressed her lips to his. He kissed her tenderly and reached in his pocket as he pulled away.

“What do you have there?”

“A present.” Caroline eyed him curiously as she took the small black box. She opened it and nearly dropped the box in her surprise when she saw the beautiful gold bracelet.

“How did you get this?” she gasped.

“The price of cattle went up since last year so I had a little extra.” he replied as he took the bracelet from the box and then grabbed her tiny wrist in his free hand. “Do you like it?”

“I love it.” she promised. He fastened it and she held her arm up, letting the sunlight coming through the window, glint of the shining metal.

“I have a surprise for you as well.” she admitted.

“I smell a cake.” Ethan replied as he slid his rifle off his back and walked toward the oven.

“It’s more than just a cake.” she replied and he looked at her and frowned. “I believe we’re going to need that addition built onto the cabin after all.” She added as she laid her hand over her stomach.

Ethan's smile was so broad that his face nearly cracked as he quickly crossed the floor and lifted her off her feet, spinning her around and around. They were both dizzy and she was breathless from laughter when he finally sat her down.

“Who would have thought we’d ever be this happy, darlin'? This at peace?” Ethan asked quietly as he kept Caroline wrapped in his arms.

“I had always kind of hoped for it.” she replied. “Though I’ll admit there were days that I started having my doubts.”

“Pa!” Jasmine exclaimed as she ran into the house and straight into Ethan’s waiting arms followed closely by her brother.

“Did you bring us something?” Gregory asked.

“Something pretty?” Jasmine added. Caroline smiled as she watched her family laughing and talking together. If she looked hard enough she could almost see her lost loved ones in the corner smiling with their approval and their happiness.

Caroline had lost a lot in her lifetime but it was worth every hardship she had ever faced to be here now with her children and her outlaw.