“Did you check the telegram before you sent it?” Theo called out, his words garbled slightly from the pencil between his lips, bent over the desk in the front of the station like he was with his hair a messy array on top of his head.
“Checked, double-checked, and checked again,” Deputy Riley answered good-naturedly, carrying a stack of papers with him back to the desk in the corner.
Theo smiled, shaking his head as he looked over the correspondence he’d been rewriting for the last half hour, his fondness for the boy apparent. “If you checked it that many times I’ll eat my badge,” he muttered, proudly indicating the sheriff’s badge on his chest.
Riley paused, seeming to consider how willing he was to push for such a thing before finally giving in and laughing. “I checked it though, sheriff, and I’m telling you, they said it was a done deal.”
Theo paused, looking up at his deputy with a slight frown as he nodded. “It’s important that we get it right,” he repeated for what had to be the third time that day.
“Important that we get what, right?” a sweet voice called from the doorway, pushing open the wooden paneled door and letting in a big beam of sunlight with her as she entered the station.
The pencil fell from Theo’s mouth as his lips broke into a ready grin, his green eyes lighting with appreciation as he watched his wife close the door with her foot, balancing a basket on one hip and smiling back at him with all the love he’d never thought he’d find.
“Sheriff Thomas, there was just making sure I sent off the right response about those bandit brothers to Chicago,” Deputy Riley responded, rolling his eyes as he began sorting the files on his desk.
Theo winced as the grin fell from Elsie’s lips, quickly crossing the room to take the basket from her as she instinctively reached down to rub the wide arch of the top of her rounded belly.
“There was news from Chicago?” she asked softly, worry marring her brow as she followed Theo back to his desk.
“Only that they’ve found more crimes to add to the brother’s lists,” Theo answered gently, pulling the chair he’d been avoiding sitting in for his wife to sink gratefully down into. “They were requesting more information from Missouri to see if they couldn’t possibly extend their sentences even further….”
Elsie nodded. The brightness of her smile diminished in the aftermath of the news.
Theo knew that even though it had been a year and a half since their arrest that Elsie still sometimes worried about Bill and Patrick. Especially since she’d found out, she was with child. Her worry seemed to have grown exponentially since then.
“You were able to send them the information, right?” Elsie fretted.
Theo put the basket she had brought on top of the desk, pushing a milk crate over from the wall to in front of where she sat so that she could put her feet up. Something she seemed to do now without even thinking about it, something he was proud of considering how much she’d tried to avoid it in the beginning, trying to stay ‘strong and tough.’
“We were,” he promised her. “The way things are looking for them now, they’ll both be serving more years than they’ll be alive for,” he informed her seriously, watching as she digested the information slowly.
Her hands spread out against the top of her belly, mapping out the shape of it idly as she stared at the desk, nodding after a moment. “Good,” she murmured. “I know that might be awful of me, but….”
“No, not awful,” Theo promised, kissing her forehead as he leaned back into his desk. “They deserve all of it and more, darlin’.”
Her lips twitched at the pet name, taking his hand slowly and holding it between hers as she leaned back in his chair. “You’ll take care of it,” she declared trustingly, nodding and closing her eyes as she breathed a deep sigh.
Theo knew that it was her way of dismissing the topic, giving it over to her faith in him rather than occupying her mind with more worry than she already had.
“What brought you out from the farm today, darlin’?” Theo asked, changing the subject gently and allowing her to rub her fingers into his palm as she kept her eyes closed and her face lifted, breathing deeply. He half wondered if she didn’t have the stomach pains again she had complained of the week before. “I hope you didn’t walk all that way just to bring me lunch again….”
Elsie snorted, opening one eye to grin at him as if she considered letting him think that was just what she had done. She seemed to think better of it, though, shaking her head. “No,” she mused. “Your brothers are working on more of our house on our bit of the property today. Carl pulled me out to go and make some decisions on doorways and such since you were at work.”
Theo laughed, shaking his head. “Oh? You sure it’s not because you told them you were the main decision-maker there?”
Elsie’s cheeks dimpled, her shoulders rolling in a shrug as she tossed her neatly plaited hair back over one shoulder. “It might have something to do with that too,” she admitted amusedly. “But it was just placement decisions. John says he reckons we’ll be able to start putting flooring down and move in by the end of the spring.”
Theo’s grin grew. “That’s an ambitious timeline,” he confessed, not quite so sure that would be the case himself. “We’ll certainly be there before our child makes their grand entrance,” he promised, reaching out and putting his palm gently over the curve of her belly and pressing down in the hopes of coaxing a kick or two out of the little mischief-maker. “But, I think it might be early Fall before we’re moving in.”
“You’re going to have to forgive me, husband, if I want to side with your brothers on this one,” Elsie teased, closing her eyes again and smiling as Theo’s wish was granted with a rapid little tap-tap against his hand.
“I can do that,” he agreed, rubbing her belly before straightening. “Seeing as we would have already been moved in if it weren’t for me taking this job….”
“We needed a sheriff!” Deputy Riley called out suddenly, butting in from where he sat with wide eyes.
Elsie covered her mouth, her eyes dancing with amusement.
Theo gave the boy a lopsided grin, knowing that Deputy Riley’s main issue was knowing that if Theo hadn’t stepped up to take over for the retiring sheriff, they wouldn’t have had a sheriff at all, leaving him without a job to come to when he’d had the inkling.
“The town did need a sheriff,” Elsie agreed gently after she got her brimming laughter under control. “And you needed the job,” she reminded him, squeezing his fingers.
Theo couldn’t argue with her there. After coming back from their adventures and starting their life together, he’d known something was missing, as loathe as he’d been to admit it. It had taken a lot of soul searching and heart to hearts with his new wife before he’d realized that it was a call to serve that had gripped him. He wanted to keep people safe from the mess he and Elsie had to deal with, to protect the town they’d moved into and that he planned on starting his family in.
Taking over as sheriff was the only way he could do that without being away from his wife and family all the time.
“I’m sure glad you did,” Deputy Riley muttered. “I’d hate to think what woulda become of this place otherwise.”
“Oh, it would have been fine,” Theo disagreed, nudging his wife. “What the town needed was a school teacher.”
“Oh,” Elsie exclaimed, sitting up straighter with her gasp before she dissolved into laughter. “Why, I’ll be. I’ll tell you, Theo, I reckon this baby is making me as scatterbrained as can be,” she told him, pushing a stray hair off of her forehead and shaking her head in wonder. “That’s why I came into town today!”
“Because the town needed a school teacher?” Theo asked, confusion filling his tone.
“No, silly. Because your mama found some old chalkboards in her attic and was giving them to me for the schoolhouse,” Elsie answered with a smile. “Me and the girls brought them and a few other of the things I’ve been getting together into town with your mama’s shopping list.”
“Now, darlin’, you don’t have no kind of business being on your feet all around town chasing down what my mama needs,” Theo started, the lecture filling his voice despite how even he tried to keep it.
Elsie rolled her eyes, but it was with a good-natured smile. “No, the girls are handling that,” she promised, talking him down as she went back to rubbing her belly. “I just wanted to get the things in the schoolhouse and take a look around… See what all else I need before school starts up in the Fall.”
“I don’t know how you’re gunna manage a new baby and being a teacher, Elsie,” Deputy Riley said in wonder, looking at her large belly and then Theo with red filling his cheeks. “Not that I’m sayin’ you can’t. That’s not at all what I was trying to get at….”
Theo laughed, watching how Elsie stretched and trying to hide the grimace that came with it. It was a question he’d put to his wife several times since she’d announced her intentions of opening the schoolhouse in the Fall.
“I’ll manage,” she murmured, cracking one eye to shoot a warning look at Theo. “And don’t you start in on me, mister. I told you good and well before you were even thinking about courting me that I wanted to be a school teacher.”
“And I told you I thought that was mighty admirable of you,” Theo answered with a chuckle. “Admirable and crazy, but I support your dreams the same as you’ve always supported mine, darlin’,” he promised.
Her beautiful smile was all the thanks he needed.
In the year they’d been married, she’d stuck by him through every decision, adding her voice as support to any and every choice he’d made. He knew that teaching with a new baby would be difficult for her, especially considering that his two younger sisters would be two of her first pupils… but he also knew that where there was a will, there was a way. And God alone knew how strong of a will Elsie had.
“Hey, boss, why don’t you give her some more good news,” Deputy Riley prompted, waving a stack of files that took Theo a moment to recognize.
When he did, though, he sat a little straighter as Elsie looked at him in question.
“I almost forgot,” he admitted, surprised with his own scatterbrainedness. “We got word early this morning that they just arrested the last of the Hardy Gang. That was what prompted all those telegrams in the first place!”
Elsie sank back into the chair, wincing again. “That’s great,” she enthused, but Theo could hear the hesitation behind her tone.
If he hadn’t been watching her so closely since she’d come in, he’d have worried that she was upset with the news they’d just shared. But he’d been picking up on her winces and her shifting, her weight hauling about in that chair as she tried to hide what he’d at first thought was just discomfort.
“Darlin’, is your stomach paining you?” he asked, keeping his voice low to try and give her some sort of privacy with it just in case it was Deputy Riley being there that was making her so uncomfortable admitting anything to him.
She pulled a face, grimacing outright then as she shook her head. “Not exactly?” she murmured, straightening again and stretching her spine out as she frowned. “The small of my back is hurting something fierce though, Theo, and I keep getting these little… Well, they aren’t quite pains,” she said, trailing off as she seemed to try and figure a way to explain it.
Theo’s frown deepened, his hand reaching out to pass gently over her stomach once more.
“The baby’s not moving as much as usual either,” she whispered, suddenly seeming frightened in the face of saying it all out loud.
“Mama said you’d be getting some pains now and then with as close to having that baby as you are,” Theo soothed, trying to offer her some measure of comfort with his hands. “You reckon that might be what they are?”
Elsie shrugged. “Maybe? Like I said, they aren’t so much pain as a tightening? I don’t know how to rightly explain it to you, Theo, and besides, I’m still a whole month out from when we’re expecting the baby to arrive.”
Theo chuckled. “Maybe a month. The doctor told you it might be before then.”
Elsie’s eyes widened, her lips pressing into a straight line. “Well, I don’t much- oh.” Her whole back straightened, her hand pressing into her stomach, and her face contorted, making Theo rise off the desk in concern.
“Oh?” he asked, leaning over her and trying to see what she was holding that was paining her so much.
“Oh,” she breathed, exhaling heavily and making another face. “That was a pain,” she admitted, her nose wrinkling. “I think-”
She stopped again, gasping in a way that had Theo standing completely up then, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he waited for her to tell him what was hurting her like that.
“You think what?” he pressed when she didn’t answer him right away.
“I think that the baby may be coming now,” she gasped after a moment, her whole body still rigid as her hand shot out to grab his. Her fingers were like a bear trap, closing around his hand as she breathed out again and all of the concern Theo felt quadrupled in that instant.
“Right now?” he asked dumbly, his face paling.
Elsie nodded, and Theo’s breath gusted out of him as he watched tears fill her eyes.
He turned, looking at Deputy Riley and trying to think of what he was supposed to do through the sudden haze in his brain. “Go run and get the doctor,” he ordered the deputy, his voice far calmer than he felt.
He didn’t have to repeat himself. Deputy Riley nearly kicked his chair over in his haste to run from the room.
“Tell him to meet us at the farm!” Theo hollered after him, helping Elsie to her feet as she groaned.
“Oh, Theo, it was supposed to be another month!” she fretted, her voice choked.
“Or sooner,” he reminded her again, forcing a smile despite his own worries. “And this baby chose sooner. I guess I shouldn’t have bet against you and my brothers with the house, huh? Because now I reckon we’re going to need it even sooner,” he teased, putting one hand on the small of her back and helping her waddle towards the door.
“Theo! I’m not ready. We don’t have anything set up yet. We don’t have names picked out,” she listed all of the reasons as if they had any bearing on what was happening, and somehow in the midst of it all Theo really did find his calm.
Sweat beaded along his wife’s forehead, her gaze harried and terrified in a way he hadn’t seen in so long. But, looking at her, he couldn’t help but remember everything that they’d already made it through…, and he knew they would be okay.
“We’ll get it set up,” he promised her, kissing her forehead even as he helped her out of the door and down the front steps towards the wagon. “And we’ll find a name after the little rascal gets here,” he offered. “I didn’t think I was ready yet either.”
Elsie stopped mid trying to get up into the wagon, her eyebrows raised even through her pain. “And you are now?” she asked in disbelief.
Theo cupped her face with one hand lovingly, smiling as he ran his thumb down the side of her face. With her face in one hand and her stomach pressed against the other, he couldn’t help but feel like he held his whole world between his two hands once more. “I am,” he said confidently.
“Because I love you,” Theo answered easily. “Because I love you, and I know how far we’ve come already, darlin’. And now you’re bringing me something else to change my life like you did, and I can’t wait to see where that takes us. Through all the trials life brings us, remember?”
Elsie’s expression shifted, the love shining in her gaze impossible to ignore as she nodded, a soft smile covering her lips only seconds before Theo kissed her. He pulled back when she gasped again, watching as her hand shot to her belly.
“Through all the trials,” she agreed as he helped her settle in the wagon’s seat. “But you better hurry, Theo, because I don’t think this little one wants to wait.”
Theo laughed as he ran around the wagon to jump in the driver’s seat.
With a mama like that baby had, how could anyone blame them for wanting to meet her early?
Theo knew if he could have met her sooner, he would have. Not that it made him listen to her any less, the wagon taking off with a lurch as they raced into their future, smiles brightly despite Elsie’s grimacing interrupting hers every so often.