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Early May 1890
I don’t see how Riley could ever have thought teaching our two-and-a-half-year-old son to swim would be a good idea. Maybe it goes back to, again, the difference between mothers and fathers? Because right now, despite his assurances, my heart won’t stop quaking. I just know the lesson will go horribly awry, and by the end hopefully he and Jared will still be around for me to say “I told you so”—not dragged beneath the current and drowned. Oh, please, God, never that!
While I scraped spoonsful of burnt stew out of my ruined cooking pot, Riley scrounged around inside the icebox. Mother had sent us home from Sunday dinner the day before with two loaves of fresh bread, and Riley cut off several generous hunks and layered them with slivers of meat and cheese. “Nothing like cold sandwiches and a picnic with my family to remind me of how blessed I am,” he quipped, stuffing our supper into a wicker basket.
I could barely manage a smile at his words. What had started out as a slight throbbing in my head had spread its tendrils around my skull, curling behind my brow and into my ears until I felt dizzy. Between hunger and worry over my baby boy’s safety, the pain had deepened to a hard intensity. Take it easy. I sucked in a breath and let it out carefully, willing my heart to slow down and the blood to stop rushing in my head. I reckon this is one of those instances where I simply have to trust that Riley knows what he’s doing. Another breath. Even if it’s obvious he doesn’t.
Riley whistled a cheerful tune as he led the way to the creek. He spread a quilt over the grass and I settled myself onto it, shifting back and forth to find a comfortable spot. Baby Prescott had added his movements to the churning sensation in my belly, and I didn’t think my legs could’ve held me up for much longer. But, I mused as I smoothed my skirt over my knees, now I’m stuck sitting on the ground until someone helps me up.
The realization sent a wave of helplessness washing over me from head to toe. My eyes strayed to the creek, which for some horrible reason was mighty full right now. It shouldn’t be, not in May, not even when it was fed by a year-round underground spring. But a couple of rare and drenching rainstorms had done their work on the usually clear and bubbling stream. My goodness! It looked more like small river than a large creek!
Watching it gurgle and sweep downstream brought the familiar taste of bile to my mouth. What if Jared started to sink and neither Riley nor I could get to him in time? What if I had to watch my son’s hazel eyes stay riveted on me as he went down, begging me to save him, and I couldn’t?
No! I will not think of that. I swallowed. Hard. One fist curled in my lap, knuckles whitening from my fierce hold. Focus on the pattern in the quilt. The view of the far-off Sierras . Anything but—
I was jerked back to reality when Riley plunked the wicker basket on the ground beside me. He dusted his hands off on his trousers and grinned, not a trace of anxiety anywhere in his features. “Jared and I will probably get right to the lesson, then come back for our sandwiches. Do you want to wait for us or eat now?”
I shook my head. “I’ll wait.” The thought of food made my belly heave and my throat tighten. Riley’s surprise is quickly beginning to unravel into a nightmare. Despite the late-afternoon heat, a shiver coursed through me. A nightmare from which I cannot escape.
My thoughts must’ve shown on my face. Riley put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently. “It’ll be fine, sweetheart,” he promised. “I’ll be very careful with our son.” I acknowledged his assurances with a stiff, halfhearted nod.
“I think I’ll feel better when it’s all over.”
“You won’t be waiting long. This should go fairly quickly.” Riley gave me a lopsided grin and pressed a kiss to my forehead. “In the water, do a couple strokes, and out. After all, we can’t have our supper spoil while we’re off playing.” Seeing that I still wasn’t about to relax, his hazel eyes turned pleading. “Trust me in this, my princess. All right?”
I looked up into his face. My heart twisted. I’d always been able to submit to Riley’s judgment before. Not willingly, maybe, but I did all the same. He’s never yet steered me wrong. In that moment, I made my decision. Not allowing myself time to rethink it, I nodded—a motion that cost my mama’s heart everything. “All right.”
By now, Jared had wandered over and dug his hands into the picnic basket, looking for a sandwich. Catching my gaze, he wriggled, dimples appearing in both cheeks. “Hungry, Mama.”
“Hold off on the food for a while, little man,” Riley said. He scooped Jared into his arms and tickled him. The toddler threw back his head and squealed in laughter. The sound made me smile, but only for a moment. What Riley said next caused my lips to clamp down in a firm, worried line all over again.“ Daddy’s gonna teach you how to swim in the creek. Would you like that?”
The grin didn’t fade from Jared’s face. “Creek!” He clapped his hands and squirmed. “Daddy! swim!”
Riley chuckled and lowered our son to the ground. “That’s right, little man.” He winked at me. “See? Having him eager to learn is half the battle.”
I hugged my arms against my chest and kept quiet. I agreed to this. It’s too late to back out now.
Riley tossed off his shirt, shoes, and trousers so that he was wearing only his long johns. He took one step into the creek. Then one more. It wasn’t long before he stood in water up to his waist. Foam and bubbles lapped as the current pushed against him. I bit my lip. Not good. The water looks cold.
Jared stood on the creek bank. He stretched out his arms and yelled. “Daddyyyy! Me too!”
Then Riley did something that sent my long-ago breakfast rising to my throat. “Jump in,” he told Jared. “Come get Daddy.”
I knew what would happen next. At least, what should have come next. Jared would jump in, Riley would catch him, and the two of them would wade back to shore. Simple. The tension in my shoulders eased up, at least a little.
But as Jared surged forward, Riley moved backward. Our little son’s body hit the water with a distinctive plop. His head disappeared below the surface. “Riley!” My shriek exploded with a scary vengeance. I clawed at the quilt in a desperate attempt to find something that would help me get to my feet. “Save him! He’s drowning!”
Riley didn’t respond. His demeanor was as calm and steady as always as he reached for Jared. His hand closed around the toddler’s arm and drew him upward. Jared emerged, choking and spluttering. “Daddy!”
I stopped struggling and sank back to the ground, half-relieved, half overcome with fury. Why would Riley—
“Easy, Jared. Listen to Daddy.” Riley’s patient tone sliced through both Jared’s panic and my own. I watched as my baby quieted down beneath his daddy’s firm grip. “Good boy,” Riley crooned. “You were swimming all by yourself.”
Jared looked up, swallowing a sob. A smile cracked his lips as Riley’s words took root in his mind. “Swim? My own self?”
Riley nodded. “Yep. Now Daddy’s gonna help you a little more.” He slid his arms under Jared’s small body and slowly, carefully, continued to guide him through the motions of swimming. He didn’t let him go again until he was certain Jared could stay afloat on his own.
My eyes grew round as I watched them. Almost before I knew it, I was smiling and clapping and cheering Jared on. His plunge into the water had given him confidence, and his daddy’s presence and constant encouragement had long since destroyed any lingering fears he might have had. Even the chilly water didn’t seem to bother that little man.
Jared practiced his newfound skills for several minutes. His arms wind-milled and his legs kicked. I laughed. He looked so funny! The exertion finally caught up to Jared, however. As his breaths grew short and his body sagged, Riley scooped him up and hoisted him over one shoulder. “I think that’s enough swimming for one day.” A wide grin nearly split his face in two. “What do you think, Mama?”
“I think you did a fine job.” I could feel my eyes twinkling. “Both of you.”
Riley was still beaming as he and Jared waded to shore. They grabbed a couple towels from the house to dry off, Riley pulled on his clothes, and they settled around the quilt to eat.
I swallowed another bite of roast beef and Mother’s soft bread and turned to ask Jared if he was warm enough. He lay stretched out on the quilt, fast asleep, a half-eaten sandwich sat beside him. I nudged Riley, who peeked over my shoulder and chuckled. “He’s really tuckered, isn’t he?”
“I’ll say.” I shook my head. “I must admit, you really had me worried.” I fingered one of Jared’s small toes. He didn’t stir. “I didn’t think—”
“Things would end well?” Riley finished.
I ducked my head. “Yes. Especially when Jared made that jump and you didn’t catch him.”
“By the way you screamed, I had an inkling you weren’t too happy with that.” Riley’s teasing look faded as he slipped an arm around my shoulders. “I’m sorry I scared you like that, my princess. I wasn’t sure about going that route either, but it seemed like the only way to build up Jared’s confidence and let him experience things for himself. If I’d caught him, he’d have expected me to do it over and over again. He never would have felt comfortable with letting go and doing things on his own.”
Silence settled between us, broken only by the rushing of the creek and the hum of faraway birdsong. I leaned back against Riley and felt exhaustion take its hold. It wouldn’t be long before I dozed off. But first . . .“When did you learn how to swim?” The question was out almost before I realized I’d asked it. I cracked my eyes opened and waited for Riley’s reply.
“Not till I was years older than Jared.” Riley flushed, his expression becoming distant. “Most of the forts Pa was stationed at weren’t ideal for a boy’s swimming hole. Some had water, sure. But it was always too rocky, too shallow, or the current was too strong for me to get in and learn. By the time we lived near water safe enough to swim in, my fear had built up, and I wasn’t sure I could do it on my own. So”—he shrugged—“I asked Pa to toss me in.”
He shook his head. “The method worked, but the terror I felt that day taught me an even bigger lesson.” He grinned. “I didn’t want Jared to have to deal with those feelings later in life like I did, so I thought starting at a younger age might work.”
“Well, you were right.” I let out a long, peaceful breath. “Swimming never entered my mind as a girl. This creek”–I waved my arm to the briskly flowing water–“was mostly for fishing or splashing. After I fell in, water and I became even bigger enemies.” I looked up at Riley. “You’re a great father. I think our children are very blessed. I know I’m very blessed, even if you did scare me half out of my wits earlier.”
Riley squeezed my hand. “Does this mean you want me to help you with your swimming lesson after this little one arrives?”
I sucked in a breath. Uh, no. One look at Riley, and I knew he was teasing. A smile arched my lips as my eyes closed. “We’ll revisit that question later.” Riley’s quiet laughter was the last thing I heard as I drifted to sleep on this lazy, warm May afternoon.