“That’s right around the time Jessie is set to calve.”
Tell snickered. “I doubt she’d find the humor in comparing her to a heifer.”
“No shit. She ain’t finding humor in anything. Brandt told me she cried for an hour after she dropped a dish and she couldn’t bend down to pick up the broken pieces.”
“That don’t sound like Jessie.”
“That don’t sound like Brandt, neither. He never tells me shit like that.”
Tell downshifted as they crested a small rise. “He’s just worried about this pregnancy. And who can blame him?” Shortly after their dad got out of rehab, Jessie had miscarried. In a moment of anger, Brandt blamed the loss on the stress their father caused. Being a total asshole, Dad said the baby dying was God’s will.
Yeah, that’d been a fun day.
So Jess and Brandt hadn’t announced her pregnancy until she’d reached the end of the fourth month. Everything was progressing normally. But the truth was, they were all a little anxious.
The pastures still had enough grass they hadn’t needed to supplement feed. Funny how the only time cattle paid attention to them was when they were hungry.
While Dalton catnapped in the truck, Tell walked the fence line until he reached the first section they’d rip out and replace.
He and Dalton were unloading equipment when Brandt drove up. He was all business. “Mornin’. Let’s only do the first half today. Jess has a doctor’s appointment this afternoon, so she’s home. And there’s no cell service on this part of the ranch, so I—”
“Worry,” Tell and Dalton finished simultaneously. Then they grinned at each other and high-fived. Eerie, how often they were on the same wavelength. Although he and Brandt were closer in age, Tell and Dalton had spent more time together as kids and as adults, because Luke and Brandt had been so tight.
“Looks like I’m workin’ with Tweedledee and Tweedledum today.”
Dalton poked at Brandt’s belly. “Looks like we’re workin’ with the Pillsbury Doughboy today.”
“Jesus, Dalton,” Tell said with a groan.
The comment rolled right off Brandt. “Yeah, I know I’ve packed on an extra twenty pounds. But Jess is so damn self-conscious of how much she eats that if I’m not shoveling food in my mouth right along with her, she won’t eat. That ain’t good for her or the baby. So I’ll deal with my flabby gut after that kid is out of my wife.”
“If you need someone to be your fitness drill sergeant, I’m game,” Dalton said.
“You just wanna stand over him and yell,” Tell retorted.
“Yep. And ain’t you jealous that you didn’t think of it first?”
They dragged fence posts, a posthole digger, shovels, barbed wire and various hand tools to the first rotted post.
They’d done this enough times there wasn’t need for discussion, which Tell knew would’ve bugged the crap out of most people. Silence ruled out on the western plains and between the McKays.
And if they’d had the radio blasting or been jawing about nothing, he probably wouldn’t have heard the rattler.
He’d noticed a weird-shaped chunk of rock behind Dalton’s boot. Then that rock rose up.
“Ah, Dalton. There’s a rattler about a foot from your left boot,” Tell said calmly. “It’s ready to strike at something, so I suggest you don’t move.”
Dalton said, “Shit,” but stayed put.
“Brandt, can you get on the back side of it?”
“What am I supposed to do? Poke it with a stick?”
“That’s what Dad would tell you just to see if it’d strike you first. Hit it with a rock and see if it’ll move away.”
Brandt approached the snake with a spade and tossed a rock five feet behind it. But instead of it slithering the opposite direction, the snake moved forward, right between Dalton’s feet.
Once the snake had slithered through, Brandt said, “Catch,” and tossed Dalton the spade.
Dalton brought the shovel down hard, slicing the snake in two.
“Nice. You keeping the pieces to make yourself a snakeskin hat band?”
“Never. I don’t even want the damn rattles.” Dalton shivered from head to toe. “I hate them things.”
“It’s the season. Guess that’s a sign to break out the tall boots from here on out,” Brandt said.
Dalton and Tell groaned. Most rattler bites happened below the knee, so thick leather boots that hit directly below the knee were necessary in the summer months. They all hated wearing them.
Even though it was just a little after one, they reloaded the equipment, deciding to call it a day.
Jessie’s SUV bumped up the path to the fence.
Brandt was down the hill before Jessie opened her door.
Dalton and Tell weren’t far behind.
The first thing Tell heard? Sweet Jessie snapping, “For Christsake, Brandt, will you move your ass and let me out of the damn car?”
Okay. Maybe she wasn’t so sweet today.
“What’s wrong?” Brandt demanded.
“Nothin’ is wrong. I saw you forgot your water bottle and I knew it’d be hot out here, so I brought it to you.” She hoofed it up the small incline and gestured to Tell and Dalton, panting, “Brought you guys some too.”
Seemed Jess’s belly had grown another six inches in the last week. She looked like she’d swallowed a beach ball.
Not that Tell would share that observation with her.
“Thanks, sweetheart,” Brandt said. “That’s mighty thoughtful, but aren’t you supposed to be—”
“Locked in the damn house going out of my freakin’ mind? I’m supposed to sit around with my feet up so I can watch my ankles swell up like toads?”
“Don’t you tell me to calm down or use that patronizing tone with me, mister. You’ll be in the doghouse right along with Lexi. The little shit pissed me off today.”
“Your dog pissed you off?”
Jessie’s gaze pierced Dalton. “Yes. And if you spout off anything smart, Dalton McKay, you’re liable to piss me off too.”
Dalton’s hands went up in the air. “Forget I said anything.”
“Good idea.” When she turned to her husband—too fast—and started to lose her balance, Brandt was right there, keeping her steady. He was smart enough not to warn her to be careful. Or to open his mouth at all.
“The other reason I came out here was because some guy called the house phone and needs to talk to you right away about irrigation sprinkler heads. Something about a back order? He’s only going to be in the office another hour and then he goes on vacation for two weeks.”
“Goddammit. Those have already been on back order for six weeks. I ain’t waiting another month and a half for them. Let’s go. I’ll drive your car and Dalton can bring my truck to the house.”
“You go on,” Jessie said. “Now that I’m out of jail and see how nice it is, I’m taking a few minutes to breathe in some fresh air.”
Brandt looked torn, wanting to command her to get in the car, but also wanting to keep his head attached to his body. “Fine. But don’t wander off. Dalton just killed a rattler.” He set his hands on her belly, kissed her—twice—and whispered something that made her smile. Then he whacked her butt before he jogged to his truck.
Once Brandt was gone, Jessie put her hands on her hips and squared off with both of them. “I lied about needing fresh air.”
“I wanted to talk to you guys without your brother hovering.”
Tell and Dalton exchanged a look. “What’s up?”
“You tell me. Brandt is beyond tense. Like heart attack and stroke-level stressed out, and I’m scared. He won’t talk to me. So I wondered if maybe something was going on with Casper or your mom or Landon or the ranch, or if you two boneheads are sneaking around, trying to buy some land again, and my husband is hiding all of this secret family shit from me so I don’t get upset!”
Jessie’s voice had become louder until she shouted the last part.
Dalton popped the tailgate on the pickup. “You can yell and scream at us all you want, Jess, but you’re gonna do it while you’re sittin’ down. So park it.”
Surprisingly, Jessie didn’t quibble. “Sorry. It’s just…you have no idea how on edge Brandt is.”
“Yeah, we do. We were just talkin’ about it.”
“And did you come up with a solution to get him to calm the fuck down?”
Tell stepped in front of her, bracing himself for her wrath. “Know what I think? You need to calm the fuck down too.”
Jessie’s stubborn chin came up. “What the hell are you talking about? I am calm. I’m as calm as the fucking sea of tranquility! No one is more goddamn calm than me!”
A crow cawed in the silence.
Then Dalton started laughing. “Girl, that baby is gonna come out swearing a blue streak if you keep talkin’ like that.”
Tell started laughing too.
After a minute, she cracked a smile. “Pay no attention to the hormone-crazed pregnant lady cussing like a McKay.”
“Look, Jess, you and Brandt are feeding off each other’s anxiety. Brandt sees that you’re uptight, then he gets uptight and paranoid that something is wrong with you or the baby, something that you’re not telling him because you don’t want him to worry. Which makes you even more uptight and you don’t want to talk to him about it because you believe your worries will just add to his. See how this goes?”
She nodded and started to cry.
“Oh Jesus. Don’t cry. Brandt will kill us both if he thinks we made you cry.”
“These last two months I’ve cried enough that it doesn’t even faze him anymore.” She sniffed and set her hand on her belly. “Hey, little kicker, that was uncalled for.”