Lanterns lit the night sky along a long, wooden porch railing, the only source of light except for those lit just as brightly from inside of the house as a woman paced back and forth in front of the front door. She jumped at every creak of the front porch steps, her eyes checking the windows again and again, as if waiting for the sight of someone walking up… but no one came.
Of course, they didn’t.
Flora was reminded, again and again, of the adage concerning watching a pot of water boil, but she couldn’t stop herself from checking over and over again any more than she could stem the anxiety that had built in the base of her belly. It had tied her in knots hours past, making it difficult for her to do more than what she was currently accomplishing. In the two years of being married to Calvin, waiting at home while he was out on the job had never become any easier. Every minute that ticked past on the clock beyond when he should have been home felt like an hour, her mind conjuring the worst possible scenarios that could have befallen him.
And Calvin was very often late.
Not because there was ever anything horrible that actually happened, or even because he meant to be. It was solely the type of person he was, staying until the job was done despite how it inconvenienced him. It had made him and Flora have to rearrange plans last-minute on more than one occasion, but Flora didn’t mind that as much as she did the crippling worry that came before it. Calvin was just a good man.
A good man who also happened to be the sheriff of Reston.
Reston, which had been being plagued by a bandit company as of late. Ethan and he had managed to capture the majority of them, but the leader of the gang had managed to avoid capture at every turn until he had become arrogant earlier that day. Flora had been in town when the posse rode in, yelling for Calvin and talking about how the bandit had been sighted robbing Old Man Peterson’s farm on the edge of town.
What had been an uneventful, comforting lunch at the station had turned into Ethan and Calvin both riding off as if the hounds of hell were on their heels in order to try and finally put to rest the crime that had been plaguing the town.
That had been hours ago though, well before dark, and Flora hadn’t seen hide nor hair of her husband since then.
Her throat ached, her eyes darting to the clock on the mantle on the fireplace, cast in odd shadow for how big of a fire that Flora had stoked in the hearth beneath it. It wasn’t minutes or an hour that he was late this time, but multiple hours, and no matter how much she tried to talk herself down from it Flora couldn’t shake the sick feeling curdling her stomach like milk that had been left on the shelf for too long.
When the wood creaked next, knocking followed it, and Flora all but raced to the front door, throwing it open and her shoulders slumping as she saw Daisy standing on the other side.
Her sister-in-law wore the same weary, worried expression she did, her face lined even more so for the purple bags under her eyes from lack of sleep. The culprit of those bags was held close in her arms, the little body wrapped in a light blanket with his angelic face resting in sleep despite the way that his mother shifted from foot to foot multiple times in the space it took for Flora to recognize them alone.
“I saw your fire from across the street,” Daisy explained, glancing wryly at the lanterns lighting the front porch. “And the lanterns… Were you trying to send our husbands smoke signals or did you just decide that the dark was too black tonight?” Her voice was teasing, despite the undercurrent of worry cut through it as Flora stepped back to allow her entry. Daisy passed slowly, rearranging Junior in her arms as Flora closed the door behind her.
“Both,” Flora answered, her voice tight despite the humor she was trying to infuse into it. “The night certainly feels too black tonight… Come sit down, it can’t be comfortable carrying him like that with how big he’s getting,” she offered, pulling the quilt out of the rocker by the fire and throwing it haphazardly over the arm of the couch.
She meant that much at least, and could also clearly see the truth of the statement as Daisy all but folded into the rocker with a deep sigh. Junior seemed to be favoring the Cooper men fairly obviously, at nine months he was already larger than most one-year-olds. Flora could still remember Daisy’s frantic visit to her the month after she and Ethan had first been married, worrying over how to break to Ethan that they were expecting Junior in the first place.
“They probably just got caught up in closing the case,” Daisy offered, her voice uncertain as if she were trying to convince herself of it as much as she was Flora.
“It’s certainly possible,” Flora answered, equally doubtful. She didn’t see why they would have to take so long closing the case when the leader was the last man from the gang that they had to catch… Not to mention how set Ethan always seemed to be on making it home in time to be able to be the one to rock Junior to sleep. The time for that had obviously come and gone some time ago.
“Why don’t you come sit too?” Daisy offered gently, her gaze worried as she glanced at the way Flora paced back in front of the window.
Flora didn’t answer immediately, unsure how to tell Daisy that she couldn’t sit with the feeling that was seizing her so completely. She didn’t want to worry her sister-in-law with so little reason, but that feeling as if something was off just wouldn’t budge. The more that she faced it, as well, the more that she felt like she knew. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t been there, it didn’t matter that Daisy was right and there was any number of harmless explanations that could cause them to run so late… Flora just knew.
She knew that something had gone wrong, despite not knowing what it was, or even being able to narrow it down even slightly. Something had gone wrong. Something had happened, and the nausea rising in the back of her throat as she paced back and forth only felt like further confirmation.
“I’m okay,” she lied tensely, trying to force a smile to her face as she glanced back to Daisy.
Daisy stared at her for a long minute, clearly trying to decide whether or not it was worth arguing, and it was only when the sound of creaking floorboards sounded again that she looked away.
The door opened again, Flora hurrying over from the window with an expression of terror covering her features.
It was Calvin, just as she’d felt it would be, but he wasn’t coming in with flowers and an apology as he had so many times before.
He was covered in the red dust and sand of the desert around Reston, his face beleaguered and lined with exhaustion as he made his way inside. Not unhindered either. He limped through the threshold, his left leg dragging slightly behind him, with Ethan right behind him as though afraid that Calvin might fall.
Flora wanted to pretend that she wasn’t so shaken, to offer the stoic support that was no doubt expected of a sheriff’s wife, but the noise that left her as she took in the sight of her beaten, bloody husband was half cry and half whimper, her eyes filling immediately with tears.
“What’re you trying to do, turn night into day?” Ethan joked, obviously trying to dispel the tension suddenly filling the room, but even his attempted grin fell short as his wife turned her withering gaze onto him.
“Calvin,” Flora cried, rushing to him and ducking under his one arm to offer her support as she helped him over to one of the chairs in the living room. The sick feeling in her stomach didn’t disappear, nor did her expression lighten any as she helped him sit.
“Now is not the time for jokes Ethan!” Daisy snapped, her eyes narrowing as she heaved herself up from the rocker, hurrying to go over to Calvin’s side, but Ethan stopped her with one hand, shaking his head slightly. “Don’t you try and make me not go over there!” she snapped. “Move aside and let me check on my brother Ethan Jamieson or so help me—”
“Your brother is fine. He got shot in the leg,” Ethan paused only at the sound of Flora’s strangled gasp, his face creasing in apology before he put his arm around his own suddenly crying wife. “And I’ll explain all of that to you at home, my love, he’s patched up—but Calvin and Flora have some things to discuss, and I want to hold my own wife and child now. We’ll see them in the morning.”
“You can meet us at the saloon for breakfast even,” Calvin offered, his voice scratchy as he pulled Flora down into his lap despite the way she tried to avoid sitting anywhere near his injured leg.
Flora didn’t know what Daisy answered in response. Truthfully all of her attention had focused too solely on her husband, her tears spilling out of her eyes and down over her cheeks as she tentatively touched his face, her index finger tracing the dark purple and black line of bruising down one side of his face. She didn’t even have the words to say anything as the sound of their front door closing behind her sister and brother-in-law sounded.
“I’m okay,” Calvin promised, his voice low. He reached out to her, encircling her in his arms and holding her close to his chest, but all that did was make Flora cry even harder. “It’s fine,” he continued soothingly. “It’s not that bad of a wound, the doctor said I’ll heal quickly, and—”
“It’s not fine!” Flora cut him off with a wail, her shoulders shaking with all of the fear and anxiety she had been repressing. “It isn’t fine! I knew something was wrong, I knew that something had happened, Calvin. I paced here the whole time, back and forth—all night, waiting on someone to come to the door and tell me that you hadn’t made it or that—” she cut off, her sobs overtaking her words as she pushed her face into his shoulder, feeling her tears soak the shirt beneath it.
“But I didn’t. I didn’t die,” he promised, rubbing her back in large, soft circles. “I’m fine.”
“I’m not!” Flora choked out. “All I could think about while I waited was how our child was going to grow up without knowing you, how they were going to miss out on having a father at all, and all of the things that you would miss getting to see them grow up,” she cried. ‘
A long beat of silence followed her words, Calvin sputtering for a moment before finally managing to eke out a, “Our child?” in confusion.
Flora’s sobs deepened, hating even more how this had ruined what she had been holding onto to deliver as happy news over dinner that night just the two of them. It was supposed to have been a magical moment, but now it was just her blurting it out through her tears and grief.
She felt Calvin’s hands fall to her abdomen, pushing softly into the dress there, and feel the softly rounded belly beneath with surprise.
He had been too much of a gentleman to comment on how much softer she had been as of late, and she had been too embarrassed at first thinking that it was a result of all of their picnics and lunches as of late, but when she had realized she was having other symptoms she had gone to the doctor that morning.
Her stuttered answer was stopped before she could even get it out of her mouth, Calvin lifting her face and covering her lips in a searing, happy kiss. She didn’t know how he could ignore the pain in his leg, or how he could hold her so tightly with his injury, but he wasn’t giving her a chance to ask either, framing her face and kissing her again and again in his jubilation.
“Our child,” he repeated wonderingly between kisses. “Oh, Flora, I’m so sorry,” he breathed, his knuckles framing the side of her face and rolling softly down it. “I promise this won’t happen again. I’m here, our child won’t grow up without me. Our baby will never have to wonder, and you will never have to worry about that again. God, Flora,” he cut out, laughter pressing between his kisses as he swept her up against him. “I’m so sorry, darling, I’m here,” he swore.
Flora didn’t have the strength to answer asking him how he could be sure, or the will to keep her tired eyes open as she sank back against him.
She listened only to the beat of his heart and the low timbre of his promises as she drifted off to sleep, allowing her racing heart to slowly calm.
She didn’t know when she had fallen asleep, or how long she had done so in Calvin’s arms. All she knew was that when she woke up it was no longer to the dark of night with lanterns and a fire lit about her. It wasn’t even in the living room, or with her husband, but alone in their bed, still fully clothed and with her hair rumpled from how she had slept.
She sat up slowly, blinking wearily before she could recognize the angle of the sun winking merrily from outside her bedroom window, her mouth popping open in surprise as she looked about the room for any sign of Calvin, suddenly worried that the night before had all been a dream… but right next to her on the bed was a note with his writing on it.
I cannot apologize enough for last night. I cannot thank you enough either, but you looked so tired I didn’t want to wake you before you were ready…
I’ve gone ahead and gone to the saloon, by the time you’re reading this. I did promise Daisy and Ethan breakfast…
If you’ll meet me there I have more news I want to share with you.
While I fear it cannot top yours, I hope it can at least somewhat make up for what I put you through last night.
I love you, my moon.
Flora read over the note again and again as she got dressed to go and meet him, trying to guess what news he could be alluding to and coming up blank.
Even as she walked to the saloon she couldn’t fathom what it could be. It didn’t help that, despite how long she had slept, she was still utterly exhausted. She knew, after Daisy having Junior, that that was just a symptom of the love she was carrying, but that didn’t help with it either. The night before felt like a strange dream as she walked into the saloon, looking about only to find Calvin standing with his father and sister, Ethan standing behind her as they laughed and joked over Daisy’s head.
Standing like he was, Flora could almost forget that he had been injured the night before, though as she walked up she could again see the bruising and cuts about his person from where he had struggled as well.
He looked up before she even reached his side, wrapping his arm around her shoulders and kissing the top of her head to the sound of Ethan’s laughter.
“Good! Sleeping Beauty has joined us!” Ethan joked, nudging his wife and nodding to Flora. “Maybe now Jeb and Calvin can tell us what they’ve been being so hush-hush about this whole time!”
“Give her time to arrive even,” Calvin answered with a shake of his head. “Or, you know, say hello even,” he groused, rolling his eyes at his friend and squeezing Flora’s shoulders.
Flora half-smiled, leaning into Calvin and shrugging herself. “Oh, I don’t know, I’m pretty curious myself after the letter you left me this morning,” Flora admitted, looking up into his eyes and grinning at the way the green winked mischievously down at her.
“Well, it’s only half my announcement,” Calvin hedged, cutting off at his father’s impatient snort.
“I’m not going to hold any of this up,” Jeb Cooper announced matter-of-factly. “I already talked to Daisy about this months ago. I’m old. I’m ready to retire. But with the new babe and her duties as a wife she doesn’t feel she can run the saloon on her own.”
Flora blinked in surprise, looking between Daisy and Jeb as if waiting for the rest of the news. She didn’t understand what that had to do with them unless of course, Jeb was saying that he wanted to sell?
“And I came in this morning to talk to Dad about me retiring from being sheriff,” Calvin finished, surprising Flora even further.
She whipped around to face him, her eyebrows climbing her forehead as if they were trying to fully climb off of her face.
“Like I explained to him,” Calvin continued evenly. “Between the two of us, Daisy and I can run the place just fine, and this way it’ll keep you from ever having to pace around again, worrying about me due to work.” He addressed the last part solely to Flora, a tender smile pulling at the corners of his lips.
“You don’t have to do that,” Flora breathed though, suddenly worried that he was doing so only because of her reaction the night before. She didn’t want to steal his dream job from him, not after all they had gone through and the work he had put behind keeping it. Her eyes filled with tears, her throat closing up, but Calvin dropped his hand, cupping the front of her belly lovingly as he shook his head.
“Don’t,” he whispered, his forehead pressing into hers as Daisy squealed excitedly from across from them. “I want this. There are some things more important than being sheriff,” he promised, holding her closer to him and angling her face up higher to meet his gaze more fully. “I want to be home to see our child born, and to watch him or her grow. Flora, how can you even question that you aren’t the most important thing in my life, that you and my child aren’t enough solely on your own?”
Flora blinked, her tears finally spilling over as she smiled. “I love you,” she breathed, meaning the words even more than ever she had before.
“And I, you,” Calvin promised, his palm caressing her belly.
Looking at him Flora knew he meant it, Looking at him, thinking about the last year and a half by his side, she didn’t know how she could be any happier than she was right then, but she knew with him as her husband that that was all that would happen. Happier, stronger, healthier. He was better than her knight in shining armor, he was the other half of her soul.