Catherine had always loved the view from the front porch.
Every time she sat out on it, it reminded her of the rough start that she’d found moving out West, and the happiness that had come from all of it. Missy liked to tease her that she was getting soft in her advanced age, and Catherine wasn’t so sure that she was wrong. At twenty-nine years old, there were some mornings she felt like she was bordering closer to sixty, especially on the rougher ones. Elias liked to chime in about the time they got to talking about it that he swore he could see gray hair here and there when she turned her head just right.
She figured if she had any gray hair it was because of the children he’d given her to raise, and she said as much whenever the conversations turned to such matters.
She hummed softly to the youngest of that bunch, holding him carefully in her lap as she rocked back and forth, watching the wagon carrying her husband and another three kids toward the house. Elias sat in the front with a weary expression on his face, lending Catherine enough of a hint for what was coming.
Elias grumbled almost as much as Jacob on the days that it was his turn to fetch the three oldest children between the two houses from school, more so on the days that they were more talkative.
Which, from the sounds of it, would be a day like today.
Mitchell swung from the wagon before it had even come to a full stop, laughing at the loud remark yelled after him by his sister. Catherine watched as Bart, his younger cousin, tried to copy the motion, only falling to his face once it was that he had. She hid her own grin behind her hand as Elizabeth, by her feet, perked up from all of the noise.
“That’s not fair! Mitchell, I told you I wanted to tell Mama first!” Helen cried, following after them more carefully due to her skirts being in the way. She hitched them up higher around her calves after she got down, trying to race her ten-year-old twin and their six-year-old cousin up to the porch steps.
“Mama!” “Aunt Catherine!” “Mama, tell them to stop!” All chorused at once as the three oldest children tripped over one another to catch her attention first, a gaggle of curly, brown-haired children vying to be seen. Elizabeth ran through all three sets of legs, squawking indiscernibly just to be heard among them.
“Mama, there was a bird that got in the schoolhouse today,” Helen talked loudly over the other three, pushing her way to the front and waving her hands in her animation. “It dropped down from the rafters right as Ms. Silsbury was giving her lecture on attendance—”
“And then it started flapping about the whole room!” Mitchell cut in, ignoring the jab of his sister’s elbow as he finished the story. He wasn’t quite as animated, though the same amount of amusement crinkled the corner of his eyes and mouth.
“Poor Ms. Silsbury,” Catherine laughed, rubbing her hand over the top of Oliver’s head as they bounced around one another in front of him. He cooed and reached for them, his little body squirming on her knee despite her best efforts to keep him in place—a task that had become much harder as of late.
“That’s enough,” Elias spoke confidently over the squabbling, shaking his head and bending as Elizabeth threw herself off of the front step at him. He caught her easily, swinging her up into his chest and kissing the side of her face before focusing on the older three children. “I thought you all said you had homework to do?”
“Daddy,” Helen pouted, her eyes widening. “We just got home!”
“That’s a good point,” Elias muttered, running his free hand through his graying hair. “So, why don’t you just take Elizabeth inside, clean yourselves up, and eat some of those apples and cheese for a snack before we start in on homework and chores?”
“Dadddddy,” Helen whined, louder than the long-suffering sighs of her brother and cousin. None of the three offered any real argument, though, Mitchell reaching out to take Elizabeth from his father and suffering her little toddler hands mussing his curls up and pulling at the ends as they all trudged inside to follow Elias’ directions.
Or, at least, to give the appearance of following them. The closer the twins got to becoming teenagers, the more little acts of rebellion they chose to engage in. Catherine took the kisses to her cheek as they passed, the screen door almost slamming behind them for the quickness with which they moved.
The silence that encompassed the porch after their departure was comforting, Elias’ small sigh as he crossed the porch to Catherine letting her know that the arguing and talking had been nonstop since he had picked them up. He weathered it better than his brother usually did, but Catherine was partial to thinking that it was just because he had more practice with them having as many children as they did.
“I like this stage the best,” Elias grumbled, bending to kiss Oliver’s head before sitting on the porch swing beside Catherine. “Before they can argue and cause such fuss.”
“Oh, you do not,” Catherine laughed, lifting her face for the sweet kiss that she knew was coming. Her cheeks heated still, even five years later, for the love she could feel in even that simple gesture. She leaned into his torso as he wrapped his arm around her shoulder, resting her head on his arm and smiling at the comfort his presence brought her.
“I’m sorry I missed our morning coffee this morning,” he murmured, pressing his lips again into the top of her hair as he took Oliver out of her arms and moved him into his own. Catherine hummed, smiling at the way that both Oliver and Elias’ faces transformed as they grinned at one another.
“I’m the one who was sick so late into the morning,” Catherine disparaged, all but grousing herself at the remembrance. In the five years that they’d been honoring that tradition, Catherine could only count on one hand the number of times they had missed their morning ritual. Even when they were arguing, even when things weren’t going as easily as they usually did, their morning coffee had always remained the same.
Elias laughed at her admission, bending down slightly so that he could affectionately rub her protruding stomach. Looking at the way his smile creased the corner of his eyes and his blue eyes shone with such warmth, it was hard to believe that she had once found him emotionless and rough.
“Maybe our next will be less work for you to carry,” he murmured, his fingers splaying so that he could try and cover as much of her belly as was possible for him to do.
Catherine swatted at his hand indignantly, her breath catching in her throat. “Our next?” she parroted, her voice raising dramatically around the two words. “Next? Elias Matthews! This is our last baby! Isn’t five enough for you?” Disbelief filled her tone without her even trying to force it there, her eyes going from where his hand had been on her belly to where their youngest son, Oliver, was chewing contentedly on his father’s other hand.
Catherine could still remember the first time they’d discussed having a child of their own. It had been a few nights after their one-year anniversary, after Helen had asked when they were planning on having more kids. The conversation had been joyful and full of tears, and more than a little awkward for either of them to start. Awkward for her because she hadn’t even known she wanted more, and him for not wanting her to feel pressured.
That was three kids past, though, and now she was just surprised that he wanted to keep going.
Elias grinned at her from behind the sweet face of her son, kissing the top of his blonde head of hair and shrugging. “Well, now obviously, I’m not saying right now…”
“Elias!” Catherine exhaled roughly, moving her hand to the side of her ribs that the baby housed inside of them was kicking so hard at her raised voice. “Obviously not right now, why I never… Is this because Missy and Jacob are expecting again? You’ve already got more kids than Jacob has, and it isn’t a competition in the first place!”
“Maybe I just like seeing you carry my children,” he answered evenly, not looking at all bothered by her raised voice or all of the indignation lining her words. He ignored her swatting at his arm just as easily, as well.
“Well, I’m sicker than a dog carrying your children,” Catherine sighed, remembering her misadventure that morning with a grimace. “And bloated, and six times the size of the whole state of Texas, and—”
“Beautiful,” Elias cut her off, cooing back at Oliver when he laughed. “Just as beautiful as the day I met you. The only thing there that’s changed is the ‘lip,’ as Jacob tried warning me about.” His words were gently amused, his eyes watching the red flare in the apples of her cheek before he leaned in again, cutting off her argument with a kiss.
She huffed, settling back against his side and trying to hide the smile that played about her lips as they looked out over their front pasture together. She wanted to argue, but the words dried up as she realized just how much love was in her life now, especially compared to how much had started out when she had first moved out here.
No matter how much she might fuss and talk against it, she would never be mad about bringing another baby into the world with the man who had gifted her all of that. Elias loved her in a way that defied all expectation and all understanding, and their children and home were proof of that. Not a day went by that Catherine didn’t get to witness it in their household.
From the way that Helen woke up early to help get breakfast ready on mornings that she knew Catherine wasn’t feeling so well to Mitchell’s never-ending soothing of his younger siblings, it shone through their children and reflected back onto them.
“You don’t have an argument for that?” Elias asked softly, his thumb brushing down the side of Catherine’s shoulder as she huffed.
“I don’t have one ready, no,” she replied primly, thanking Helen for that response mentally even as she pinched her husband.
His answering laugh brought her smile even brighter, her nose digging into his side as if to reprimand him, when really it was to further hide her smile. Watching him lean his head down into Oliver’s questing hands even as their son poked, pinched, and prodded at the skin none too gently was all that she needed to feel that resolve wavering.
How could she say no to the man who had brought her out of her darkness? The man who left her sweet notes around the house, showing his love of language and his affection when she had first thought him so cold? What a fool she’d been.
She opened her mouth, lifting her face off of his arm to say as much when the front door banged open once more.
Elizabeth ran screeching out of the screen door, her shirt clutched in one hand and only one shoe on her feet as she streaked past them as quickly as her little toddler legs could carry her. Her golden curls were a mess of smashed cheese, what looked like milk covering her bare torso. Behind her, Mitchell and Helen slipped in the trail that she left, fighting to stay upright and chase after her at the same time.
“Elizabeth Ida Matthews, get back here, right now!” Helen yelled, falling to her knees once more and rising up only to be dragged down by her twin trying to use her to regain his footing, as well.
Catherine sat up in shock and confusion, her eyes widening as she took in the chaos of the scene unfolding. “What in the world,” she muttered, almost being dislodged from the swing by her husband’s deep laughter from beside her.
“Elizabeth, will you come back and let us clean you up for a cookie?” Mitchell called after the wild toddler now running laps around the wagon to avoid her siblings, cutting under it whenever they got too close. He tried sounding more reasonable, but the note of desperation was still there.
Bart wandered idly out onto the porch after the three of them, biting into a wedge of cheese and watching the scene unfold with just as much interest as the adults did.
“They’re going to need help,” Catherine sighed, biting back her giggles as Helen dived for Elizabeth, resulting in a mouth full of dirt and an even more disgruntled expression.
“You don’t want to let them run around the wagon a few more times?” Elias asked, chuckling as he stood, rearranging Oliver from his lap to his hip with a sort of practiced ease. “I could go for watching them run around the house a few times… It’s payback, if you think about it, for all of the times we had to chase them about. Don’t you remember that incident after you first moved, with the mud?”
Catherine groaned, rolling her eyes good-naturedly. “You need to put the horses and the wagon up,” she chided teasingly, going to stand from the swing with difficulty due to her extended girth. “And I’ll—oh.”
She cut off suddenly after she rose to her feet, her body freezing in place and her stomach tightening.
“Ohhhh,” she drew out more fretfully as one hand went to her back and the other to the front of her stomach.
Elias turned to her concernedly at the same time as they heard a cheer go up from the front yard. Helen held Elizabeth aloft, her milk-and-cheese-streaked body lifted above Helen’s head as she stomped her way back to the porch. “I got her!” Helen crowed.
“Catherine?” Elias asked slowly, watching the way that her face seemed to tense even further.
Catherine was busy counting the seconds between her stomach tightening and cramping, her brow furrowed as she measured to see if there was movement coming from her belly, too. “Ohhh,” she groaned, trying to answer him and breathing her pain out vocally instead.
She looked up to see Elias’ face clear, his worried brow smoothing as he walked back to her. “Helen, get your sister inside and cleaned up. Mitchell, I’m going to need you—”
“I caught her!” Helen interrupted, sounding almost outraged. “Why do I have to clean her up if I caught her? Why can’t—”
“Mitchell,” Elias cut Helen off. He didn’t raise his voice or speak crossly, simply said it loudly and authoritatively enough to end the discussion. “I’m going to need you to drive the wagon out to your uncle’s property. Now, I know you haven’t gone on your own before, and I wouldn’t be asking if it weren’t absolutely necessary. Do you think you can handle it?”
Mitchell’s wide eyes cut between his father and Catherine, his brows raising slowing with comprehension before he jerkily nodded. “Yes sir,” he breathed out, turning on the spot as if he meant to climb into the wagon without another word.
“Mitchell!” Elias called, recapturing his attention. “You tell your uncle and your aunt that someone needs to go into town for the doctor, you hear, and then you come back here.”
At the word doctor, Helen stopped dead on the porch where she had been going to walk past them, her irritated mumbling ceasing and her eyes going even wider than Mitchell’s. A grin broke through the sour expression she had been wearing before kicking the door open with one foot.
Catherine laughed, the sound laced with pain as another contraction kicked in.
Elias passed Oliver off to Helen, as well, allowing his oldest daughter to take both of the babies inside before coming to help Catherine start to waddle toward the front door. He braced one hand against her back, the other supporting her middle, as they headed in unison to the house. “Well, your kids sure do know how to make an entrance,” he offered, kissing the top of her head and going to open the screen door.
“At least,” Catherine huffed, breathing heavily between the pains, “this one isn’t in the middle of a thunderstorm.”
“Or in the back pasture with no horse in sight,” Elias reminded her, not flinching even a little as she dug her nails into his arm that time. “At least they’re always worth the drama.”
Catherine smiled through gritted teeth as he led her to bed, closing her eyes and trying to focus on that aspect of it. “Last baby,” she reminded him, her voice firm as he helped her swing her legs up into the bed.
“You’ve said that about all of them,” Elias laughed, pulling the covers over her suddenly shaking form and ignoring her reproachful glare. “I love you, Mrs. Catherine Matthews—last baby or not.”
“And I love you,” Catherine breathed shakily back, cracking one eye. “But this is our last.”
And she meant it. Or… she wanted to. Either way, even in the midst of her labor pains, she knew that she was the luckiest woman who had ever lived. Elias took her hand as he sat beside her on the bed, waiting for the doctor or for it to progress. He didn’t ask her this time whether she thought it was a boy or girl, he didn’t pace worriedly back or forth.
It didn’t matter if it was a baby girl or a baby boy, it didn’t matter if it was their last. Just like it hadn’t mattered where she had given birth previously—if there was anything that their last five years had taught them, it was that they could weather anything that life threw at them, and that they would be happy both during and after it. As long as they were together.