The wind blew mildly that day as Ellen Cross walked over the yard towards the house that lodged her neighbors and friends. As she approached, she thought it strange not to see Lou waiting for her on her porch. The day before the two women had agreed to go to town together, and Lou was usually punctual. Ellen knew that for some reason or another she was normally the one to be late even though Lou had two more children, one of whom was a toddler. Even today Ellen was a few minutes late, so she had expected Lou to be waiting for her. Something must have happened to Lou, or maybe she had just forgotten about their plans.
Ellen knocked at the door lightly and when the door opened, Matt appeared before her. "Hi, honey. Is your Ma around?"
"She's upstairs, Aunt Ellen. In her bedroom. Ginnie made a mess," the boy explained.
"I see," Ellen replied with a smile. "Do you mind if I go up and find her?"
The boy simply shrugged his shoulders in indifference, and turned away from the woman, silently giving her his particular permission. Ellen smiled as she headed for the stairs. Once she was in front of the bedroom door, she dared to open it a crack as she called, "Lou? May I come in?"
"Please come in," Ellen heard her friend's voice and when she got inside, Lou was undressing Virginia. The child's clothes were covered in a thick substance as well as parts of her small arms and hair. Ellen even noticed that Lou's dress was also stained and there were smudges of the same goo on her right cheek.
"What happened?" Ellen asked.
"Ginnie got into one of her enthusiastic moods. You know how eagerly she welcomes her food. I don't know how, in a distraction of mine she hit the plate with her puree, sending it flying. Needless to say, where all that found its way. Jane is cleaning the kitchen."
Ellen laughed. "Oh Virginia, have you been a naughty girl?" the woman said, brushing her hand over the toddler's bare belly. The girl let out a gurgling sound as if she understood what her aunt Ellen was saying.
"I'm sorry for this delay," Lou said as she finally removed the last piece of clothing from the baby, noticing that somehow the puree had got from under the clothes, and her arms and chest was also stained.
"Don't worry about that," Ellen replied. "Why don't you let me wash Virginia while you get changed?"
While Lou walked to her wardrobe and picked out another dress, Ellen took a flannel and after dipping it in the washbowl, she started washing the toddler. Virginia seemed pleased by the soft strokes of the flannel on her skin, and Ellen looked as delighted. After a few minutes, she exclaimed, "There you go, young lady, all clean and neat!" Lou had already put on a new dress, and handed Ellen fresh clothes for the toddler. Ellen smiled, and said, "I sometimes envy you, Lou."
"What?" Louise let out in evident confusion.
"I long for a baby so much," Ellen whispered with a pained expression as she started dressing Virginia. "I wish Buck and I could have a big family, but you know, it won't happen."
"You have a nice family, Ellen. Billy and Ike are good boys; you couldn't wish for better children," Lou replied.
"I know that, but I can't help wanting more," Ellen continued. "Thinking about Billy's untimely arrival and everything that happened afterwards, I sometimes wonder if my inability to bear any more children is God's punishment for my mistakes."
"Ellen!" Lou exclaimed. "That's not so! Ike's birth was very difficult, and you know the doctor feared for you and the baby. You both survived. How could you say that God's punishing you when you and Ike are both alive and fine?"
Ellen sighed. "Yes, you're right, and I'm just being silly. I have too much on my mind lately. The boys are growing up, and I… I'm scared."
Lou understood perfectly what Ellen was talking about. Both women had shared joys and pains, fears and hopes, worries and secrets all over the years. Ellen did not have to voice what she was not saying, because Lou knew what she meant. "Honey, there's nothing to fear, but you can't go out of your way to find excuses to put off you know what."
"Well, I don't know, Lou, maybe things should stay the way they've always been. There's no reason to stir up our waters," Ellen whispered as she finished doing up the last button of Virginia's dress.
"I don't agree with you, Ellen. You should put yourself in his place, but naturally, it's your family, and you're the only one to make that decision, nobody else," Lou said, squeezing her friend's shoulder affectionately.
Ellen looked at her with a sad smile, and just whispered, "Thank you."
"Gentlemen, we're about to face a dangerous and important mission. Our lives are in danger, and our honor is at risk. The enemy is close by, and we need to be very careful. As your captain, I'm ready to die and sacrifice my existence for you, my brave men."
After his speech to his invisible men, Matt saluted them pompously, and then took the small telescope that Teaspoon had given him a few days ago. He opened it to its full length and from his position in the hall, he studied his surroundings through it. There was light coming from one of the rooms, and he said, "Gentlemen, enemy spotted. Let's approach our aim and remember: be careful."
Matt fell to the ground, and made a waving motion for the men to follow him. He crept along the length of the living room, uttering different sounds as he advanced towards the studio. When he reached it, he brought a finger to his lips, reckoning his men to keep quiet, and then he opened his telescope again, and had a look inside the room. He could see his father at the desk, reading some papers, and Jane was also there dusting the books on the shelves. Neither of them was looking at the door, and Matt quickly dashed inside, and hid behind a small sofa in a crouching position so as not to be seen.
"Pa, is this the box where Ma keeps her photographs?" Jane asked as she took hold of a wooden box that was on one of the shelves. From his position Matt dared to have a look, and recognized the box. He still remembered when he and Ike had used one of his mother's photographs because Ike wanted his parents to get divorced. Mattie did not even want to remember the punishment he and Ike had suffered afterwards because of their meddling in their parents' matters.
Kid looked up from the papers he was checking, and said, "Yes, that's right."
"Can I have a look at the photographs?" Jane asked.
"I don't see why not," Kid replied.
Janey smiled, and came to sit on the sofa Matt was hiding behind. The boy ducked, trying not to be spotted, and in his own fantasy once again he motioned the men to be quiet. Jane opened the box, and started going through the photographs in silence. A few seconds later, Lou came into the studio, and went straight to her husband. "Kid, have you seen Matt?"
Without lifting his eyes, Kid shook his head and said, "He's not here as far as I know."
"I left him in the living room a couple of minutes ago, and now I can't find him. He needs to take his medicine," Lou said. From his hidden position Matt was relieved to hear that for the moment he had been saved from taking that horrible medicine. Last week he had suffered from a cold, and even though he was feeling much better now, his mother insisted on him taking that tonic. So for that reason the boy lowered his body, lying flat over his stomach, and crept a bit closer, almost placing himself under the sofa.
"What are you doing, Kid?" Lou asked when she noticed the stack of papers in front of her husband.
"Just checking these. Mr. Tomlinson says we owe him $100, and I'm completely sure we paid off that debt. I just can't find the receipt."
"Can I have a look?" Lou asked.
"All yours," Kid replied, rising from his chair and letting Lou sit down. Louise started to look through the papers while he did the same over her shoulder.
"Oh!" Jane exclaimed in a sweet tone, which drew the attention of both her parents. The girl shifted her gaze to them, and showing the photograph she had in her hand, she added, "This one is of your wedding day, but it's different from the one you have in the bedroom."
Kid slowly walked up to his daughter, and took the picture from her. It was the day he and Lou got married. It was a family photograph, with Teaspoon, Rachel, and the riders all gathered around them. He sat down next to Jane, and said, "I hadn't seen this photograph in years."
"You and Ma look so nice," Jane remarked.
"Thanks, honey," Lou said from her position at the desk. "Your father actually looked handsome despite the bruises on his face from his fight with your Uncle Jimmy the day before."
Jane stared at her father. "You and Uncle Jimmy fought? Why?"
"Over a woman," Lou said before Kid had the chance to reply. Kid sent his wife a sharp look, and Louise stuck out her tongue at him in tease.
"Pa!" Jane exclaimed, shocked that his father could have been involved in a fight over another woman the day before he had married her mother.
"Don't worry, honey. It wasn't that romantic kind of fight. It was a completely different matter," Lou explained.
"And a matter I'd rather not talk about," Kid added pointedly. Even though many years had passed by, he still resented Rosemary Burke, and how her mere presence had caused a rift in the Pony Express family. Kid still thought she had been indirectly responsible for Noah's death, and her deeds afterwards had not helped to make Kid like her any better.
Jane gazed at the photograph again, and after a few seconds, she said, "I don't know if it's just an impression, but everybody's smiling, but they don't look very happy."
Kid and Lou shared a knowing look in the short distance. "Well, in a way you're right, honey. Our wedding was a great event for the family. We were the first ones to get married, and for weeks we were all very excited, especially your ma and me, of course. But it was a difficult time. A war was brewing in the east, the Pony Express was dying, and many of us didn't know what would happen afterwards. Your Uncle Cody joined the army, Jimmy apparently had plans with this woman, and I even wondered if I would leave to fight. It was a time full of changes. Our wedding day was very special for us, but that bleak atmosphere of the war lingered over all of us," Kid explained, omitting some parts of that day like the young soldier dying just after they had left the church.
Jane listened to him attentively, and something in her father's speech drew her attention. "You and Ma got married in March, didn't you?"
"Yes, that's right," Kid replied.
"Billy was born in February that year. How come you were the first ones to get married? What about Uncle Buck?"
At Jane's question Kid blushed, realizing what he had said. His eyes shifted to Lou, who was looking at him with clear disapproval. He started stammering without uttering a single word, and after a while, he just said, "Well, honey, some… sometimes things like this happen. Billy was born and Uncle Buck and Aunt Ellen got married a bit later." Jane stared at his father completely flabbergasted. Kid felt awkward because he did not want Jane to think that he was putting his friends down for that, but neither did he want Jane to get the impression that he condoned intimacy between unwed people. Even though he and Lou had enjoyed the pleasures of love before their marriage, now that he was a father, he could not even imagine that one day his daughter could do the same. "These things… uh… happen and when young'uns play with fire, they often get burned. Your Uncle Buck is an honest, responsible man, and of course did the right thing. But Jane, there are many unscrupulous men out there, who won't doubt to leave a woman in the lurch. So you know, a young girl cannot consent certain things."
Jane started feeling uncomfortable with the direction the conversation had taken. She did not want to talk about these things with her father, and before he could ask and tell her something that would make her feel even more awkward, she said, "I'll see if I can find Matt."
Jane dashed out of the studio as if the devil was after her. Once she was gone, Kid dared to look at Lou again, who was shaking her head in obvious disapproval. "I'm sorry, Lou. It was a slip of the tongue. I never realized what I had said."
"You could have told her you made a mistake, and Buck was actually the first one to get married," Lou added pointedly.
Kid sighed. "You know I ain't good at lying. I'm too obvious. You're right, but I couldn't think of anything sensible to say. "
"Yes, I know. I sometimes wonder how you managed to keep my secret from the others for so long back then." Lou replied, rising to her feet and coming closer to her husband.
"Because I was afraid to lose you, and I made a real effort," Kid replied and Lou smiled. "Anyway, I didn't say much about Buck and Ellen. I'm not such a fool to spill the beans. And I think Jane will be discreet about this."
"I know," Lou replied, and stretching her hand to him, she said, "Here's your receipt. You see? Two pairs of eyes see better than one."
"Thank you. You've saved us 100 bucks. I owe you one," Kid replied.
Lou smiled mischievously. "You owe me too much already, and I wonder when you'll pay me back."
"What about tonight, milady?" he suggested, passing his right arm over her shoulders seductively.
"That sounds really good," Lou replied in a husky voice, brushing her lips seductively over his cheek, as they walked out of the room, never noticing that their son was hiding behind the sofa, listening to every single word they had uttered.
"Ike, drink your milk," Ellen patiently said for the umpteenth time. Ten minutes ago the rest of the family had finished their breakfast, but like every morning her youngest son whined and resisted from having his milk.
"I don't like it!" Ike repeated.
"I don't want any more protests, young man. Drink it up now! Matt and Jane will be here any minute to go to school. Do you intend them to wait for you today again?"
Ike did not say anything to his mother's words, but did not try to grab the glass of milk, which had been sitting in front of him for over thirty minutes. Ellen shook her head in exasperation. The door of the kitchen opened and Buck came in from outside. He could not help but to smile when he saw his son in the same position as ten minutes ago, and Ellen on the verge of losing her patience.
"Ike, haven't you drunk your milk yet?" Buck asked in a mildly scolding tone.
"And I won't. It tastes like a cow, and I don't like it."
"And you know what a cow tastes like?" Buck asked in amusement.
"Of course. It tastes like milk," the boy replied stubbornly.
Buck shifted his eyes to his wife, and smiled, but Ellen kept a serious countenance. "What am I supposed to do with this son of yours?" she said.
Buck shrugged his shoulders, and could not hide his amusement. "Uh…Ike, I need to pick up something from upstairs, and I hope when I come back, you'll have finished your breakfast. Be a good boy to your mother, will you?" Buck ruffled the boy's black hair, and walked out.
As Buck crossed the living room, he saw Billy on the sofa, a book splayed out on his lap. The boy lifted his eyes, and smiled at his father. Buck approached him, and asked, "What are you reading so intently, son?"
"Just a book that Aunt Rachel lent me."
Buck sat down next to his son, and took the book from him. He read the title, and asked, "Is this another novel, or is it something you need to learn for school?"
"It's a novel," the boy replied. "But you also learn a lot from reading novels."
"You're the most avid reader I know, and that's good," Buck said, patting his son on the back. He smiled at him, admiring what a fine man Billy was turning into. He could see a lot of Ellen in him; while Ike was his spitting image, Billy looked like his mother, and was keen on books like her. "This is your last year in the school. We haven't discussed about what you're going to do afterwards? We know you're a fine student, and if you want to go to college, we can study the possibilities. We can afford the expense if that's what you want."
Billy kept thoughtful for a while, and then said, "I don't want to leave Rock Creek. I would like to work here with you and Uncle Kid."
"Are you sure?" Buck asked. "Of course I'd love to have you with us. This place will belong to you and your brother one day, but you don't have to do this just because of me or your mother."
"I am sure. I love horses, and work here."
Buck eyed his son, feeling that there was something more in this story. "Is this the only reason?"
"I… I like a girl. I can't consider courting her if I don't have anything to offer her," Billy explained.
"Is this girl someone we all know?" Buck asked with a small smile. Billy did not reply, and Buck added, "You need to think things through, Bill. You can't leave everything because of a woman. You're young, and you needn't hurry. There's plenty of time to do everything, and you can't sacrifice your dreams."
"This is my dream, Pa. I want to live here, and one day I hope to have her in my life too," the boy insisted.
"And this thing between you and this girl… is it mutual? Does she feel the same way too?" Buck asked.
"I don't know, Pa. All I'm sure about is that she belongs with me," the boy replied, and after a moment's pause, he asked, "How did you know that Ma felt the same for you?"
"Difficult to know at the beginning, actually. I guess I knew for sure when she accepted to become my wife," Buck replied, smiling as he remembered those old days. "I sometimes even wondered what on earth I did to deserve such a fine woman like her." He shifted his eyes back to his son, and added, "But, son, let me say this again. You're young, and have your whole life ahead of you. Think about all this again, and whatever you decide, do it because you really want that, and not because of anybody else, deal?"
"Yes, Pa. Thank you."
Buck rose to his feet, and on doing so, through the window he caught sight of Matt and Jane McCloud crossing the yard towards the house. "Matt and Janey are coming. I have to say she is growing into a very pretty girl… a beautiful young lady, don't you think, Bill?" Buck asked, winking at his son teasingly.
Billy blushed, and simply muttered, "I don't know, Pa. I don't know anything about those things." He got up and added, "I'll tell Ike to hurry up." The young boy dashed into the kitchen, and Buck kept smiling, amused. Bill and Janey. It could be a very sweet story, and for his son's sake he hoped the girl would share his enthusiasm, or otherwise, Billy would start suffering very early in his life.
The Morgans' farmland was on their way to school, and like every day Daisy was waiting for them, and joined her best friend and the boys. The girls walked ahead while the boys lagged behind. Billy purposefully fell back into this position because that way he could discreetly watch the girls as they talked, laughed and walked in front of him, especially Janey, of course. He loved her gracious movements, her beautiful smile, her musical laughter, and the way all her self glowed in every detail and motion. Billy was not sure when he had started to fall for Jane, but he knew he loved her like a man loves a woman. As far as he remembered, Jane had always been there; sometimes she had been his best friend, sometimes she had been his personal pain in the neck, and other occasions she had been just a very discreet part of his landscape. Now Billy was very aware of her presence in all senses. At home he spent hours and hours looking through his bedroom window just to catch a glimpse of her, and if by any chance she came out to the yard that the two families shared, Billy almost broke a leg to go to her and made up the silliest excuses to explain his showing up.
Billy was certain that Jane was the one for him. He knew her so well after years of living just a few yards away, but that did not diminish what he felt. People had always referred to them as family, as cousins, but Janey was not his cousin. Their parents were just close friends, but one day in the future if things progressed with Jane in the way he wanted, they would join the two families for real.
The voice snapped the young man out of his thoughts, and looking at his side, he noticed Matt looking at him. "What do you want?"
"I have a question," Matt asked.
Billy shook his head. "Another question of yours, Matt? What is it now?"
"How is it possible to have a baby without being married?" Mattie blurted out the question.
"What?" Billy exclaimed amused. "Why do you care, boy?"
"I just want to know. I'm curious," Matt said.
"I want to know too," Ike added, like usual following his best friend's lead.
"You're both too young to know about those things," Billy replied.
"Come on, Billy. Tell us… I know you know," Matt insisted.
"Oh yes? How are you so sure?" Billy asked with a crooked smile.
"Because you know, it happened to your parents," Matt replied in a soft voice.
At his words, Billy stopped dead in his tracks, and looked at him with a frowning expression. "What are you saying, Matt?"
Mattie glimpsed at Ike momentarily, who was looking at him with confusion, and then shifting his eyes back to Billy, he added, "My father said that you were born before your parents were married."
Matt's words did not sit well with Billy, and in a rage the older boy took his little friend by the collar of his shirt strongly, as he cried, "Take that back! That's not true!"
His loud voice came to the girl's notice, and when Jane looked, Billy had grabbed her brother from the shoulders and was shaking him violently until he fell to the ground. Jane ran to help the young boy, and pulled Billy off him. "What's gotten into you, Billy? Let my little brother alone. He's just a child and you're a brute!" she exclaimed as she helped Matt onto his feet.
Billy ignored Jane, and his angry eyes kept focused on the eight-year-old. "I'm sick and tired of your stories, Matt McCloud. And this ain't funny. My mother is a decent woman, and I'm not gonna let you spread that kind of malicious tales about her! She's a good person, unlike you, who are nothing but a liar."
Matt did not know why Billy was so upset. He had just asked a simple question, and did not understand what all the fuss was about. From previous experience, Matt knew that Billy should be let alone when he got angry, but this time the eight-year-old would not let the matter rest. Billy had called him a liar, and that was not true. "I'm not a liar. My father told my sister about it, didn't he, Janey?"
Jane blushed to the root of her hair. She did not know how her brother had got wind of what their father had told her yesterday, and like usual, Matt had to babble about it. This was a too embarrassing matter, and all she could say was her brother's name in a scolding tone. "Matt, please! Why don't you ever keep quiet about what you know nothing about?"
Billy turned his eyes to Jane, and asked, "Do you also believe that?" The girl did not reply, and just shared a shy look with Daisy. "I'm asking a question, Jane. Do you believe that or not?"
"I don't know. That's what my father said," Jane finally replied.
Billy's features hardened at her words. "But that's not true. Your father is wrong."
"Maybe," Jane conceded even though she could not think of a reason why her father had to come up with this story. Actually, Jane had the suspicion that she had forced the truth out of her Pa when she had noticed that the dates did not match. "It's not such a big deal, Billy. Let it go."
"It is a huge deal when my mother's virtue is questioned!" Billy exclaimed. "And I'll prove it to you!" he added, pointing a finger at Jane.
"Billy, you don't need to…"
"I can and I will," Billy said loudly, cutting Jane off, and without waiting for her response, he walked off, grunting and groaning unhappily, followed by Ike.
The girls and Matt kept looking at the two brothers walking away in the short distance, and a few minutes later, the boy said, "I don't understand why Billy is so angry."
Jane glared at her brother while she exclaimed, "Will you just shut up, Matt? When will you learn to keep your trap shut?"
"But, Janey, what did I do wrong? I don't get it."
Jane just shook her head, and turning to Daisy, she said, "Come on, Daisy. Let's go." And as the girls started off to school, Matt followed them, still clueless about what had happened to Billy, and why he had got so upset. He just did not understand that at all.