Every day Louise spent a great deal of her time in the kitchen, cooking for her family, and putting all her love and care in her dishes. She was not a great cook, but she had learned quite a lot over the years, and even liked it. When she had first married Kid, she had proudly resisted to accepting the role that was expected from her. So in those days she was more frequently around the ranch, helping Kid and Buck, than looking after the house. Yet, when the children had started coming, she had to become a housewife full-time. Sometimes it surprised her to think how domesticated she had turned out. Yet, despite her strong convictions of independence back then, Lou could not say she regretted anything. Her family was the most important thing in her life, and she would not change them for anything in the world. There was a time she had aspirations to do important things in life, and thought she could undertake great deeds, but the years had taught her that she had accomplished grand enterprises, because what was greater than her four children?
Since today was Sunday, Lou always tried to make lunch special. It was the only day of the week that all the family could gather to enjoy the midday meal. During the week, Jane and Matt were at school, and most of the time Kid did not even stop for lunch, and she simply saved some food, and took it to him. So Lou loved Sundays even though it often meant more work for her. Today she was going to prepare roast chicken and a vegetable cream, which Kid loved. The chicken came from their coop, and Lou had chopped it into smaller pieces, and seasoned, following one of Rachel's recipes. When the chicken was in the oven, she had peeled the vegetables, washed, and diced them. Then she had put them in a saucepan with some milk, and heated the contents on the stove.
It was not even the middle of the day, and she was exhausted. The morning had started early for her when Virginia had woken up for her feeding, and even though the baby had fallen asleep afterwards, Lou had not been able to go back to bed. She had cleaned all the rooms downstairs, even the kitchen, although she would have to prepare breakfast just a few minutes later. She really liked to see her kitchen look impeccable; that way she felt more at ease and worked more comfortably.
Louise approached the crib in a corner of the kitchen. And as she looked down at the sleeping figure of her daughter, she smiled. Ginnie was growing up so quickly that it amazed her. Lou stooped, placed a soft kiss on her head, and pulled the blanket up over her body. Intending to pick up a jar of her home-made jam from the shed, Lou walked out of the kitchen. As she crossed the living room, Matt was there, looking quite glum.
"What's that face for?" Lou asked as she stopped before her son.
"Why don't you go and play with Ike?" suggested Louise.
"He's not home. Aunt Ellen took him to town," Matt explained with a pitiful tone.
"Why don't you play something by yourself? You're an imaginative boy, and I don't think Ike'll be long," Lou suggested, patting his head affectionately, and then walked away.
When Mattie was left alone, he could not think of anything he could play on his own. He started rummaging in his pants pockets, which were usually full of his little treasures, as he called them, and a myriad of objects poured from the inside: marbles, a picture card, a small figure, a bottle cap, a spinning top. When he discovered the last of his treasures, he smiled. He had completely forgotten the firecrackers he had bought from Tompkins a few days ago. Since his mother did not allow him to play with crackers, Matt had hidden them and had forgotten about them. Maybe he could set off the crackers now, since his mother was not around.
Matt then walked into the kitchen, intending to find something he could light the crackers with. His mother was cooking something on the stove. By the smell Matt recognized that it was a cream of vegetables which he hated, and wrinkled his nose in disgust as he resolutely marched to the stove. He opened its metal door, feeling the heat of the flames, and without thinking about it twice, he brought one of the crackers closer, lighting its wick. Then suddenly, he heard the front door close, and some humming that he knew came from his mother, and he got alarmed. He tried to blow the flame in the cracker out, but it was impossible, and in his panic he did the first thing that came to his mind. He threw the cracker into the cooking pot, but as luck would have it, the cracker oddly fell in an upright position in the thick concoction, the burning wick pointing upwards. Matt tried to catch it, but in his hurry he got burned, and knowing that the cracker was going to explode at any moment, the boy ran to hide under the table.
Seconds later, the cracker exploded so loudly that it seemed that the whole house was going to come down. The explosion was followed by the cries of Virginia, who had woken up by the terrible noise. Lou had heard the commotion from the living room, and ran to the kitchen like a mad woman, unsure of what was happening, just fearing for her baby. As she reached the kitchen, she quickly dashed to the crib, and took Ginnie in her arms as she tried to soothe her. "There, my love. Mama's here. Everything's all right," she said, and swept her eyes around with a horrifying expression. The pot that she had left on the stove was busted, and her cooking was spread all over the kitchen floor, and all the surfaces. Her impeccable kitchen now looked like a pigsty, and as she wondered how this had happened, she caught sight of Matt, and his other crackers on top of the table. It did not take Lou long to work out the rest of the story. She felt her cheeks flame as anger coursed all over her. "Matthew, get out from under the table now," she said in a tone that was unmistakable.
As soon as Matt heard his mother call him Matthew, he knew he was in big trouble. She never called him by his full name unless she was really angry. Matt slid out from under the table, and stood before Lou with a regretful countenance. "I'm sorry, Ma!"
"What were you thinking?" Lou exclaimed loudly. "What do I tell you about firecrackers?" she continued in the same tone, grabbing the two crackers on the table with her free hand.
"That I must not use them."
"That's right!" Lou exclaimed again. "They're dangerous, Matthew! Don't you understand that or what? You could have hurt your sister or get hurt yourself! Why are you always like this? Why can't you play normal games like all children do? Why do you have to turn everything into a danger? Why?"
"Ma, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare Ginnie, or hurt her. The cracker slipped off my hand, and fell into the pot," Matt explained.
"You ain't allowed to have crackers, Matt. Do you ever listen to what I say?"
"Doesn't seem so. Where did you get those crackers?" Lou asked in a less strained tone, rocking Ginnie in her arms, who was a bit calmer now.
"I bought them from Tompkins."
Lou made a disagreeable face. "I'll make sure you can't get them anymore," she said, silently wondering how Tompkins could sell those crackers to small children. These ones were really big, and from the tremendous noise this one had made, she could guess they were dangerous too. At the first chance she had to go to town, she would give Tompkins a piece of her mind, and make him clear that she did not want him to sell crackers to her children. "I don't know what I'm going to do with you, Matt. You never listen, and do just what you want. I'm very disappointed."
"I'm really sorry, Ma."
"Yes, you're always sorry," Lou muttered, shaking her head. "Now go to your room, and stay there until I say so. You're grounded, understood?"
"Yes, Ma," the boy replied in a low voice, but did not move.
"Haven't you heard me? Go to your room now. I don't want to see you around," Lou said in a firm tone. She was still very angry. What Matt considered a game was always something dangerous, and Lou did not know what to do in order to make him see that. Lou did not want to even think about the possibility that her children might have gotten hurt in this antic of Matt's. It scared her to death. Matt worried her especially; he never thought of danger, and Lou feared that one day he might get injured in one of his games.
Matt started to shuffle towards the stairs very sullenly. He was feeling very sad because it was true that he had meant no harm, but his mother never believed him. She always got angry with him, all the time. He only wanted to play, and if he sometimes got into trouble, it was because of some unlucky accident. She should understand that. He had not even intended to explode those crackers in the kitchen. He would have dropped them outside, but he had got startled by his mother's unexpected arrival. That was all. He knew he had messed the kitchen up, and frightened Ginnie, but it was not his fault.
As he reached the staircase, he turned round before climbing to his room. In the kitchen his mother was still holding Virginia, and now that the baby had stopped crying, his ma was smiling at her, and talking to her in low tones. Matt watched them sadly. He brought his index finger into his mouth, and licked it to soothe the throbbing sensation. He had burned his finger, and it hurt now, but Ma had not even let him tell her. He had been the one who had got hurt, maybe because of his own fault, and not Ginnie. And he had to go to his room all alone with his neglected, damaged little finger. It was not fair.
Sitting on his bed, Matt played with small carved figures of cowboys and horses that his Grandpa Teaspoon had made for him. He moved the toys on the surface of the bed, making them ride on the horses or fight each other as he accompanied his own actions with noises of all kinds. After a while, he got bored, and left the small cowboys idle next to him on the bed. Even though just half an hour had passed since his mother had sent him to his room, Matt thought that he had been there for hours. In that half an hour he had hardly kept still, moving around in the bedroom as he tried to find a distraction. He had seesawed between the window and almost every corner of the room. It was not fair that he had to stay here because of some accident.
Matt was very angry, and as he looked out of the window, and saw life outside, he felt even angrier. He had seen Ike and his mother come back from town, and then his father and Uncle Buck taking some horses from the stables. When he moved from the window to the bed again, he heard his mother's steps outside, and he smiled hopefully, thinking that she was coming to tell him that he could go. But his heart fell when he realized that his mother was not stopping. She was talking, and Matt could hear Jed's voice as well.
Matt looked down, feeling lonely and dejected, as his little hands toyed with one of his small cowboys. He was used to being grounded, and being scolded, because for some reason what he thought was fun seemed to be considered mischief by his parents. Compared to his siblings, Matt felt he was a loser. Janey was the good one, the brilliant student, the pretty one. Jed was cute, all happy, and everybody adored him. And Ginnie was just a baby, and did not have to do anything to have all the attention. The idea that he was nothing saddened Matt. He also wanted to make his parents proud of him, even just once. Why couldn't he do something right?
A creaking sound made him look up, and, as the door opened, Jed appeared at the threshold. Matt was not in a good mood, and said, "What do you want, Jed?"
"Play," the younger boy replied with a smile.
"I can't play with you. I'm grounded."
Jed looked at him with his brown big eyes, and said, "I'm big boy. I helping Mama."
"Go to her then, and leave me alone," Matt grunted unhappily, and when Jed did not move, he repeated, "Go away, Jed!"
"You angry, Mannie?" Jed asked, uttering his brother's name in his own way.
"Leave me alone!" Matt barked, and as a way to scare him away, he threw the little cowboy in his hand in his brother's direction. But unluckily, the toy travelled directly to Jed's face, hitting him square on the forehead. For one moment the younger boy looked at his brother with big eyes, but then he puckered up his face, and burst out crying, wailing loudly.
"What's going on?"
Lou's voice reached from outside, and when she appeared in the bedroom, Jed ran to her, pointing at his own head, as he cried, "Mannie hit me!" And then he threw himself against his mother, hugging her legs tightly.
Louise lifted her eyes to her older son, and Matt just said, "It was an accident. I didn't mean to." His words sounded too feeble even to himself, and he did not bother to say anything else. He knew he was at the losing end. Everybody knew the rule. If a very young child cried because of an older one, the older child always lost even though it was the other one's fault.
After his words, Lou closed her eyes tiredly, and brought her fingers to massage her forehead that was starting to complain. As she reopened her eyes, she said, "Honestly, Matt, I just don't know what else to say to you. I'm really running out of patience." Not expecting an answer, Lou lowered her body, and crouched before Jed. "Let me see your face, honey," she said, wiping the boy's tears with a white handkerchief and checking his face. There was a big red mark on his forehead, but Lou imagined that Jed had got upset because of getting startled rather than because the impact had hurt too much. "This is nothing, honey. It will go in no time."
Lou rose to her feet again, and stretching her hand to Matt, she added, "Give me those toys. If you can't play with them properly, you shouldn't have them."
Matt knew he better not protest, and do what his mother said. So he gave her his cowboys and horses, and Lou put them in the pocket of her apron. "Matthew, while you're here, try to reflect upon your behavior. I'm afraid Pa's going to hear about this and what happened in the kitchen, and he's not going to like it," Lou said, resorting to anything that might work with Matt. Almost every day she had to get angry with him, and she did not know what she could do to make him behave, and as of lately, he was even more impish.
Lou took Jed by the hand, and closed the bedroom door, leaving Matt inside. When his mother was gone, the boy crossed his arms angrily. It was not fair. It had been an accident. It was Jed who had come disturbing him, and how come only he got an earful? And now he was going to get into trouble with his father.
Matt walked back to the window, and looked out of it. After a while, he saw his mother leave the house through the front door, and then she turned the corner. Matt felt his stomach rumble with hunger, and an idea started forming in his mind. Thinking that his mother had gone to the stables to talk to his father as she had said, Matt imagined that it would take a while to come back. So in the meantime he could go down to the kitchen and grab something. He knew he should not leave the room, but he was really hungry. Ma would never learn about his escapade.
Without stopping to reconsider his intentions, Matt dashed out of the bedroom and down the staircase. He needed to be quick before his mother returned. So he entered the kitchen, and directly opened a cupboard in which he knew Ma kept a jar with cookies. He opened the lid and took one. The cookie disappeared in a few bites and as he was munching the last piece, he threw a glimpse out of the window, and saw his parents were on their way back and were dangerously close. Like when he had set off the cracker, Matt panicked. He did not want to get another scolding, and in his fear to be discovered, he tried to find a place to hide. His attention got drawn to a huge wicker basket in the corner that his mother used for the dirty laundry. He opened the lid, and saw it was empty. Due to his small size, he got into the basket easily almost at the same time as the kitchen door opened and his parents stepped inside.
"Kid, we need to do something. I'm really tired of not knowing what to expect next from him," Lou was saying, and from his hideout Matt could tell that she was still very angry.
"What do you mean?" Kid asked, filling a glass with water.
"I don't want him around anymore!" Lou exclaimed.
"Oh please, I think you're exaggerating," Kid replied.
"Exaggerating? Didn't you see what he did today? And it's not only today; it's practically every day. He's not only a nuisance, but a danger for me, for you, for the children. There's no need for us to put up with this. Kid, he's our worst mistake, a pain and a headache."
Kid shook his head. "I know you're right, but I… I don't know, Lou. I'm kind of fond of him."
"You must be the only one. Buck and Ellen would also be glad to see him go because of Ike's attachment to him."
"What do you mean go, Lou?"
"Kid, I don't want him here. I don't need this extra hassle," Lou replied.
"But this is his home."
Lou laughed at his comment. "Oh Kid, you're such a romantic!" She paused, and then adopting a serious tone again, she added, "I don't want him around anymore. Please humor me in this. I have run out of patience, and I'm tired of coping with him."
Kid sighed. "Well, Lou, let me think what we can do," he said, and after stopping for a second, she added, "You know, I'm going to Seneca in ten days. Maybe I can take him with me, and find him a place. "
"That's a good idea. We can do that," Lou exclaimed with a smile.
"And now time to go back to the stables," Kid announced.
"Let me walk with you," Lou said, and as they walked outside, and closed the kitchen door, Lou added, "And now that we've sorted out this matter, let me talk to you about your son Matt."
As the couple continued their conversation on their way to the stables, inside the kitchen Matt got out of his hideout. His face was white, and his eyes were wide open in shock. His steps shuffled heavily out of the kitchen as if his body weighed double than just minutes before, and he slowly made his way back to his bedroom. He was not hungry anymore, and after hearing his parents' words, he did not feel like doing much of anything.
It seemed as if he had been in the same position for hours, just sulking and feeling sorry for himself, as he sat on his bed. A knock snapped him out of his own thoughts, and looking up, Matt saw his father's head show in the gap between the door and its frame. "Lunch time, Matt," Kid said. Matt nodded, and when he did not move, Kid walked inside, and sat next to him. "Ma told me what happened today. She was very upset."
"I know," Matt muttered.
"You wanna talk about it?" asked Kid, trying to catch his son's eye, who kept looking down at his own lap.
"No," Matt just said.
"You sure?" Kid insisted. The boy nodded, and Kid added, "You know why your ma was so angry with you, don't you, Mat?"
"Of course I do. I'm not silly!" the boy exclaimed annoyed.
"All right, all right. Calm down, buddy" Kid said, knowing that like Lou, when Matt was in a bad mood, it was better to leave him alone. "You know, I'm feeling quite hungry. Why don't we go and have some lunch?"
Matt did not reply, and just followed his father down to the kitchen, where they usually had their meals on a daily basis. It was when they have guests that they moved to the dining room. Janey was setting the table while Lou was sitting on a chair, feeding Ginnie her bottle. She looked up when Kid and Matt stepped inside, but did not say a word. The boy kept looking at her with a wary expression as he sat down on his usual seat next to Jed.
"Don't you have anything to say, Matt?" Lou asked suddenly. The boy stared at her clueless, and Lou added, "I think you owe an apology to your brother."
Matt nodded, and turning to Jed, he said, "I'm sorry, Jed." The younger boy smiled his big smile, and Matt added, "And I'm sorry, Ma. I'm really sorry."
Lou got up from her chair, and as she patted Ginnie's back to make her burp, she added, "Matt, you really need to think about what your actions mean, and be ready to face the consequences."
The boy did not dare to ask what she meant by that, especially because he already knew what consequences he would have to face. What he really wanted was to beg his parents for a second chance, but he could hardly speak. He was very sad, and he knew that if he said a word, he would start crying, and he did not want to do so in front of Jane and Jed. He was a big boy, and big boys were not supposed to cry like babies or women.
Lou served lunch to her family. Matt did not have much of an appetite even though the roast chicken his Ma cooked was his favorite dish. Lou had to urge him to eat a few times, and not wanting to anger her more, Matt forced himself to eat. He was still eating the chicken when the rest of the family was already tasting dessert, a scrumptious piece of lemon cake. Some knocks resounded in the kitchen, and then the door opened, and Ike appeared. "Hello, Aunt Lou, Uncle Kid."
"Hello, honey," Lou replied. "What brings you here?"
"I want to ask Mattie if he wants to play with me in the yard," Ike explained.
"I'm afraid Matt's grounded," Lou explained.
Ike sent a look at his friend, who was staring at him with a sad expression, and exclaimed, "Again?"
Matt shrugged his shoulders, and then dared to voice a request to his mother. "Ma, can I talk to Ike for a moment? Just for a minute? Then I'll go back here."
"Have you eaten your chicken?" Lou asked
"Yes. All of it," Matt replied, showing the clean plate to her.
"All right. Talk to your friend," Lou agreed.
Matt and Ike left the kitchen, and stepped outside. They sat on a ledge under the window, and Matt did not lose any time and blurted out, "I have a problem, Ike. A very serious problem."
"A problem?" Ike echoed in confused. "What's wrong?"
"My parents are sending me away," Matt explained.
"They don't want me here anymore."
"Please, Mattie, don't start with one of your stories," replied Ike, fully aware that his friend tended to exaggerate everything.
"It's not a story. It's true. My mother told my father, and he's going to take me to Seneca and leave me there."
"But whereabouts in Seneca? Are you going to a boarding school or what?" Ike asked with a confused frown.
"I don't know, but I don't think I'll be coming back. It's for keeps," Matt said in a very sullen tone.
"They… they don't love me, especially my mother."
"Don't be ridiculous, Matt!" Ike exclaimed. "All parents love their children."
"That's not true. I remember that once the reverend's wife told us at Sunday school a story about a lady in the Bible who left her baby in the river, and he could have died there," Matt explained the story of baby Moses in his own way, only remembering parts of it, and not the reason why that mother had left the baby in a basket on the river.
Ike did not remember much of that story either, and simply listened to his friend. "What are you going to do then?"
"I don't know. What can I do?"
"Maybe if you try to be extra good, your parents might not send you away," Ike suggested.
"I don't think my Ma'll change her mind," Matt muttered.
"I'm going to miss you."
"Me too. I don't want to leave," Matt said in a husky voice, feeling his eyes moist and his throat going dry.
The door behind them opened, and Lou stepped out. "Matt, have you finished?"
"Then come back inside. Say goodbye to Ike."
Matt did not say a word as he rose to his feet, keeping his head lowered to hide the unshed tears that glazed his eyes. When he was at the door, he turned his head to his friend, sending him a pained expression that only Ike perceived, and without another word, he scurried into the house.