Rachel Dunne took a glimpse at the watch hanging from the waistband of her skirt. It was midday and time for the children to have their usual break for lunch. The teacher rose to her feet, clapped her hands to draw their pupils' attention, and said, "Children, let's have our break now. But please, exit the schoolhouse orderly like the well-behaved boys and girls you are."
Despite Rachel's words, most of the younger students ran out of the place, laughing and talking loudly. Among the elder students was Jane McCloud, who slowly walked to the door with her friend Daisy, both carrying their lunch pails. "Janey, you coming?" a voice called from the end of the aisle between the desks.
Jane pursed her lips, and gave Daisy a knowing look. "Billy Cross, how many times have I told you to stop calling me Janey?" she said a bit irritated when she reached the boy.
"Jane or Janey? What's the difference? It's just a name… whatever people call you won't make you older," he added pointedly.
The comment did not sit well with the girl. "I don't want to be or look older, but Jane's my name… not Janey."
Billy shook his head in amusement as they walked out of the schoolhouse. Everybody had called her nothing but Janey for as long as he remembered, and he did not see the point of her late demand. In fact, in the last months Janey had started acting quite strangely, and the easy friendship that had always joined the two of them was in danger of becoming damaged. "Well, I'll call you Jane when you start calling me William. How about that?"
Janey snorted, not finding his comments amusing at all. "Well, I might do just that, Mr. William Cross," she replied a bit stiffly.
Billy started to laugh. "Oh Janey, how do you expect me to call you Jane with a straight face when you behave so much like a child sometimes?"
Janey sent him a murderous look, which spoke louder than words, and hooking her arm around her friend, she said, "Daisy, let's go, and let the monkeys hang out with those of their own breed."
Billy stayed at the schoolhouse door with a smile on his lips while watching the two girls scurrying away to a nearby tree, under the shade of which they always had their lunch. He enjoyed so much picking on Janey; she was so easy to rile up, and it was kind of amusing to make her angry. That showed she was still a bit childish as he had told her. However, he admitted silently there was something he had fibbed about.
Janey now looked less like a child, and more like a very young lady. She was almost thirteen, a year younger than he was, and because of their similar ages and living just a few feet from each other, they had always been very close friends. It was lately that she was drifting away, or maybe it was him. Billy couldn't be sure. They were growing up, and Billy really missed the innocent friendship they had always shared. However, there was a part of him that did not want those times back; things were changing and he hoped for the good.
Inside the schoolhouse, almost all the desks were now empty and the room in silence. Yet, Mattie and Ike lagged behind as their attention was drawn to the bright and very expensive toy steam train that one of their school friends had. "It's beautiful!" Mattie exclaimed, as he ran his index finger over the shiny surface of the toy. "I remember seeing it at Tompkins' but my ma told me straightaway to forget about it."
"How did you get that, Stuart?" asked Ike.
"My pa gave it to me," the boy replied.
Ike and Mattie exchanged a puzzled look. Everybody knew that Stuart lived with his mother alone; there was not a Mr. Shears. "Your pa?" Ike asked again. "But you don't have a pa."
"Of course I have!" Stuart exclaimed. "He came yesterday… and whenever he visits, he always brings me lots of presents, toys, candy and things like that." The boy opened the lid of his desk to reveal a tin box of chocolates. "You want some?" he offered, and the other two boys did not even hesitate, and took two each, and put them into their mouths eagerly.
"And where was he all this time, Stu?" Mattie asked, his chocolate-stained teeth showing as he spoke.
"He lives in Kansas… he and ma are divorced," Stuart explained.
"Divorced? What's that?" Ike questioned this time.
"It means they ain't married anymore. They have a paper that says so. That's why he doesn't live with us."
Both Ike and Mattie nodded at the same time. "And do you like that?" Mattie asked.
"Yeah, why not?"
"Maybe you miss him," Mattie continued.
"Not really," Stuart replied indifferently. He did not have the sensation of missing his father, since he did not even remember his pa living with him and his mother. "He always sends me lots of things when he's in Kansas, and when he comes here, he also brings me presents. He wants to make sure I know he loves me. So it's nice." Stuart smiled, and since he had nothing else to say, he added, "Shall we go out now?"
Ike and Mattie nodded, and the three boys quickly made their way out of the building, and joined the other boys and girls in their games, forgetting about their conversation for the rest of the school recess.
In the afternoon Rachel announced the end of the day, and the children all rushed out of the schoolhouse, eager to put down their books till the following day. When Janey walked out of the building, she was surprised to find her mother waiting outside. "What's my ma doing here?" she asked to no one in particular. Yet, the voice of Billy resounded next to her.
"I don't know."
Mattie and Ike had already reached Lou, and like usual, they were already blabbering on, and fighting to make their voices heard over each other. Jane and Billy approached, and the girl asked, "Ma, what are you doing here?"
"I need to see Dr. Maxwell, so if you wait for me, we can all go back home on the wagon," Louise explained.
"Dr. Maxwell? Why? Are you all right, Ma?" asked Jane, growing visibly concerned after her mother's words.
"Of course. Just a normal checkup," Lou replied as she stroked her very pregnant middle.
"You sure?" Jane insisted.
"Oh my God, you're as big a worrywart as your father!" Lou exclaimed. "Honey, I'm good, or do you think your pa would let me come to town unchaperoned if I wasn't fine?"
"Pa never says no to you, Mama," Matt blurted out, as he had listened carefully at the exchange between his mother and sister.
At his comment, Louise burst out laughing, her mirth soon joined by Jane, Billy and even Ike. "Yes, honey, you're right," Lou replied, ruffling her son's sandy hair. The boy smiled proudly, pleased by his mother's words. "Let's go now," Lou added, and when she quickly swirled round, she suddenly found herself bumping against a body. She staggered, and a hand reached to grab her arm, trying to steady her.
"I'm so sorry, Ma'am. Are you all right?"
Lou looked up to find herself face to face with the concerned expression of a very attractive man. Deep black eyes reigned on perfectly-outlined traits. It took Lou a few seconds to get over the startle, and then she said, "It's me who should be apologizing, sir. I turned round without looking where I was going."
"But are you all right?" the man insisted.
"Yes, fine… honestly."
The man smiled in a way that made Lou feel awkward. Then, a little voice broke in, "Hey, Pa, these are my friends Matt and Ike… the ones I told you about, remember?"
As the man made a comment that did not really reach Lou's ears, she swept her eyes from Stuart to the man he had called 'Pa'. Though surprised, Louise remained impassive as she said, "So you're Mr. Shears?" The man nodded, and Lou added, "It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"The pleasure's mine, Mrs.…"
"Mrs. McCloud," Lou filled him in as the man courteously took her hand, and brought it to his lips. The man eyed the four children with Louise, and added, "How can such a young and beautiful woman have so large a family?"
Louise smiled. "Actually, only Jane and Mattie are mine," she said, brushing a hand over her children's shoulders. "Well, I have another one at home, and this one who's coming in a couple of months."
"Ma, let's go," Janey broke in abruptly. "Let's hurry up. You know Pa worries when we are late."
Mr. Shears tilted his head politely to Lou in goodbye, and took his leave. Lou gave Matt and Ike a few coins to spend at Tompkins' while she was at the doctor. The children shot away, followed by Billy, who volunteered to keep an eye on them. Louise and her daughter walked towards the doctor's office together, and the woman asked, "What was that with Mr. Shears, honey?"
Janey looked at her mother, and after hesitating for a few moments, she finally said, "I don't like the way he was looking at you, Ma!"
Louise shook her head, grinning. "Oh Janey, don't be silly! He was just being kind with this very pregnant woman."
"Ma, I heard in town that he likes all ladies, and that's why Mrs. Shears left him."
Lou pursed her lips unhappily. This town was full of gossips, and she hated that all those tales even reached their children. "Janey, you shouldn't believe everything you hear. People like talking too much, and inventing stories even more. Besides, whether Mr. Shears likes women or not doesn't have anything to do with me."
Jane shrugged her shoulders, but did not comment on anything else. They reached the entrance to the doctor's office, and before entering, Jane called her mother's attention. "Ma, do you mind going there alone? I have a lot of studying to do, and I'd rather go home now."
"Of course not. Go then, honey. Billy can help me with the children and the wagon," Lou replied, and before the girl left, she added, "And please don't tell your father about our encounter with Mr. Shears."
Jane lifted her eyebrows in surprise. "Why? Didn't you say all those rumors are lies?"
"I don't know if they're true or not, but I do know your father, and he's more than able to greet this man with his shotgun just for smiling at his wife too much," Lou explained in an exaggerated tone. Deep down she knew that Janey was right about the man. She had not liked the way he had looked at her either, but of course she was not going to admit that before the girl. Yet, Kid was another story, and he was terrible when he got jealous. Sometimes she liked it because it boosted her confidence as a woman, but right now with the discomforts of her pregnancy she did not have the patience to bear his jealousy. So even though she had nothing to hide, she knew that the less he knew, the better.
At Tompkins' store Mattie and Ike lingered at the end of the store, craving for the candy in the bright glass jars. There was a whole cabinet with sweets in every flavor and color, and the two children ran their big eyes over every single container. "Come on, boys. Make up your mind. We don't have all day," Billy complained, running out of patience.
"It'll be a while before Ma is done at the doctor," Mattie replied without taking his eyes off the jars.
"And you can also buy yourself some candy, Billy. I have enough pennies for the two of us," Ike added.
"No thanks," the teenager said, smiling. Sometimes he wished he had an older brother he could have more things in common with. An eight-year-old boy like his brother was sometimes as alien to him as the rain in the dessert. Ike was more often than not a pain in the neck; whatever Billy did, Ike was always around, hearing everything he said, watching everything he did, and what was worse, not only he but also his friend Matt repeated everything they heard, and usually more than they should. More than once Billy had found himself in trouble just because the eight-year-olds had let away something that his parents should have been kept in the dark about. However, deep down Billy had to admit that he loved the young boys, and they very often surprised him, either for good or worse.
Suddenly, an excited voice from the other side of the store drew their attention. "Oh Pa, I love it! Are you really sure Ma won't say anything against it?"
"Just leave your mother to me. Don't worry."
From their position between the shelves at the other end, Billy and the two younger boys unblinkingly watched Stuart and his father, especially the pellet rifle the child was holding in his hands. "Look at that," Ike whispered, as he saw the money passing from Mr. Shears to Tompkins. "He's buying Stuart that gun."
"Bah, that's just an air rifle," Billy added. "I want a real one… with real bullets."
"You know Pa won't let you have any guns. Remember what happened when you took Uncle Jimmy's? You were grounded for two weeks."
"Well… I guess I could settle for a pellet rifle then," Billy admitted. "Or at least, a father like him."
"Stu says his father buys him everything he wants because his parents have that divorce thing," Mattie explained.
"It's logical," Billy replied.
"Is it?" Ike echoed, exchanging a puzzled look with Mattie.
"I imagine so," Billy confirmed.
Stuart and Mr. Shears were leaving the store then, and Mattie exclaimed, "Let's see where they're going now!"
Before Billy could stop the two boys, they had already run off, and were out of the store. So he had no other option but to follow them. Father and son had gone into the restaurant, and Mattie and Ike positioned themselves behind the window, through which they could have a good view of their friend. "Boys, stop this nonsense. Let's go find Aunt Lou," Billy tried, but despite his words, he was also watching Mr. Shears talk to the waiter, moving his hands ostentatiously.
"Just a minute. I want to see what they're going to do," Mattie added.
"What do you think they're gonna do in a restaurant? Play the flute?" Billy replied sarcastically.
"But I also wanna see what they're gonna eat," Ike continued, obviously going along with his friend's idea.
"You're a couple of fools," Billy exclaimed. "We've also eaten at the restaurant."
"But it ain't the same!"
Billy shook his head, but moved by curiosity, he also stayed, glancing into the restaurant. In a way, what Ike had said was true. It was different, because Mr. Shears seemed to have an enormous appetite, and the waiter kept bringing plate after plate of almost everything on the menu. When dessert was served, Mattie's and Ike's eyes were as wide as saucers as they saw the big plate with big chunks of cake Stuart was wolfing down.
A voice calling them cut their show short, and they saw Lou coming up to them at as quick a pace as her condition let her. Rachel was with her, and when her son and her friends turned their attention to her, Lou said, "Boys, I'm so sorry. The doctor was so busy I had to wait longer than I thought."
"It's all right, Aunt Lou," Billy replied.
Louise sighed. "Let's go now. I'm quite tired."
"Let me fetch the wagon," Billy volunteered.
"Thanks, honey. You're a dear," Lou said with a smile.
The teenager shot off towards the stables, and as Lou told the younger boys to carry on, Mr. Shears and his son came out of the restaurant. The man tilted his hat politely to Lou as he said, "We meet again, Mrs. McCloud."
Louise simply nodded, and said, "Good day, sir." She continued walking with Rachel by her side, and after Mattie and Ike warmly bid their friend Stuart goodbye, they followed the women at close range.
"Do you know Mr. Shears?" asked Rachel.
"Not really," Lou replied. "I met him when I was waiting outside the school. He just introduced himself to me, that's all."
"He seems to be a very nice man," the teacher commented breezily.
Louise turned her eyes to her friend, and arched her eyebrows. "Why, Rachel, are you trying to tell me something?"
The teacher laughed heartily. "I was talking from a professional point of view. He seems to be a concerned father."
Louise lowered her voice as she asked her following question, "Is it true what people say? You know, about him and Mrs. Shears."
"That he had a lover, and that's why she left him? Well, I guess it is," Rachel replied in the same low tone. "At least, the boy seems unaffected by all that."
"Yes… lucky him," Lou said wistfully.
This conversation brought her back to her own childhood. Living with her own father had been a horrible agony, but even when her mother had the guts to run away, it had not been easy either. There was always somebody asking about her father, and she had to come up with a credible lie for everybody. Somehow she had always felt like a marked girl, a different kind, the fatherless one, the one everybody pitied, even herself. It had been a very difficult time, which had got worse when her mother had died.
Louise was glad that time was long gone, but sometimes the memories came back to her, and she feared something similar might happen to her own children. She and Kid did not have problems, and she was as much in love with him as the day they had married. She knew, though, that things could change. But however much everything could change, she was sure she and Kid could have the sense to think of the children first, and try to be as civil as possible. They had even talked about it once or twice. But even though she was positive that they could control things for their children's sake, it scared her to death to think about it. She could not start imagining her life without Kid, her children's lives without their father. It was too scary, and she almost trembled as she continued walking next to Rachel with the two children in tow.
"No… no… won't do … no," Ike's monotonous voice resounded in the silent room as he looked through the photographs his friend was showing him. "None of them are good enough," he added, and taking one of the photographs in his hand, he asked, "Who's this fella with the big moustache?"
"My grandmother's father," Mattie replied. "But, well, if you don't like them, better that way."
"It's not that I don't like them… it's just that they aren't any help. I need the photograph of a pretty lady, at least prettier than my mother," Ike explained as he kept looking at the pile of old photographs.
"How about this one?"
"That's your Aunt Theresa!" Ike exclaimed.
"She hasn't been on the ranch or in Rock Creek for months… she ain't good," the boy said, and rummaging through the photographs, he picked up one. "Your mother looks very nice here."
Mattie snatched the photograph from his friend's hands. "No, not my mother."
"She's going to have a baby… and … and … I don't want you to use her photograph, all right?" Mattie exclaimed a bit exasperated.
"Yeah…" Ike replied apathetically.
"And I still don't like this," Mattie added.
"Why not? You heard my brother… what he said about Mr. Shears, and your ma even said Stu was lucky. We're doing a good thing."
Mattie shrugged his shoulders. "I don't have any more photographs. And if my mother learns that we took her box, she'll have my hide."
Ike got hold of another picture. "This is the only decent one. Who is she?"
"No idea," Mattie replied unenthusiastically.
"We'll use this one then," Ike added. "And now you write down a dedication on the back."
"What for?" Matt asked, creasing his forehead in confusion.
"So that my mother believes she's my pa's lover. Write this: To my dear lover Buck."
"But you know I have bad handwriting," Mattie complained.
"But my ma knows what mine looks like. She will guess the truth at once. I can't do it."
Matt was not totally convinced yet. "And do you really think this will work?"
"Of course it will!!! When my ma sees that photograph in my father's jacket pocket, she will get a divorce… it can't fail."
"And then your father will buy you all the toys you want? And the candy? And a pellet gun?"
"Naturally. I'll be lucky… like Stu," Ike replied proudly.
"But you will lend me your toys and the gun, won't you, Ike? And will you invite me to the restaurant too?"
"Yeah… yeah," Ike replied indifferently. "Come on, Mattie. Write it down."
Matt grabbed the pencil, and pressed it against the back of the photograph, scribbling in a terrible handwriting what his friend had told him. When he finished, he read it silently, and said, "I don't know, Ike. I think there's something missing."
"It's just too flat. We need something else," he reflected, and suddenly was hit by an idea. "I know! Just wait here. Janey likes reading all those silly books about romance. She has lots in her bedroom. I'll grab one, and we can copy a few lines."
"I think that's a great idea, Matt. We are a perfect team," Ike exclaimed proudly, and a smile colored his features as in the solitude of the room, he thought how good things were going to be from now on.
Dinner was a raucous event like usual as four adults and five children sat around the table. Tonight the two families had gathered at the Cross's, but apart from the two married couples and their offspring, there were no other guests. When dinner was over, the women started to clear the table. Buck approached his wife, and, gently placing a hand on her shoulder, he said, "I'll give the horses their nightly feed, and I'll be back in straightaway afterwards."
The woman shoved his hand off her shoulders roughly, and without lifting her eyes, she mumbled in a stiff tone, "Don't bother yourself for my sake. Do whatever you want… as you usually do."
Buck was more than surprised by his sweet wife's rebuff. "Something wrong, honey?"
"Something wrong… something wrong," she mimicked his voice comically. "Don't make me laugh!!!"
Before Buck could react, Ellen stormed away, carrying a pile of dirty plates, and slamming the kitchen door shut. Buck, Kid and Lou exchanged a surprised look, and even Janey, who was helping her mother, was clearly stunned by the strong reaction of her usually-very-calm Aunt Ellen. "I have no clue what's eating her. She's kind of been acting up for the last couple of days."
"It's true she's been awfully quiet during dinner," Lou reflected, and then added, "Buck, you and Kid go do your business, and I'll talk to her."
The men nodded. When they were gone, Lou went to find her friend in the kitchen. She opened the door to a crack, and saw her before the sink, sniffing and looking very upset. "Is it safe for me to walk in?" asked Louise.
Ellen cast a look at her, and nodded her permission. Louise walked closer, placing herself beside her friend. "Ellen, what's going on?"
The woman let the plate in her hands fall in the water-filled sink. "Oh Lou!" she exclaimed. "If you knew…" Ellen could not finish her sentence as she burst out crying.
"Honey, you're scaring me."
Ellen sighed, drying her hands in her apron, and trying to calm down. "I'm gonna tell you, because otherwise, I'm prone to burst. Last night I couldn't sleep a wink. Couldn't make it leave my head!" She paused, and as Lou stared at her with full attention, Ellen blurted out, "Oh Lou, Buck has a mistress!!!"
Because of how ridiculous the idea was, Lou felt the temptation to laugh, but refrained from doing so, since her friend was really distraught by her obviously misconceived suspicions. "Where did you get that from? It's impossible! You know both your husband and mine work their fingers to the bone on the ranch. They don't have time to find other distractions. Gosh, Kid even often complains of not having more opportunities to have me for himself."
"Maybe my husband doesn't miss me, because he's found a substitute somewhere else. You know that as of lately he is the first to volunteer to travel when there's a delivery, or some business dealing in another town."
"But that's because he doesn't want Kid to leave Rock Creek while I'm pregnant," Lou replied, trying to reason with her friend.
"No, Lou. I thought I knew my husband, and I'd never have believed he could cheat on me, but I was wrong. I have a proof, and there's another woman," Ellen continued.
"Proof? Did anybody tell you something?" Lou asked suspiciously. "I wouldn't mind any tales, honey. You know what people are like. Don't heed those wagging tongues."
"It's not that, Lou," Ellen replied. She sighed, and after a pause, she exclaimed, "Oh my God, after what we went through before getting married, I can't believe he's going to ruin everything. I opposed my family… they practically disowned me even though, you know, my circumstances were very special. These long years with Buck proved to me and them that I was right to marry him… that he was the right man for me… Can you imagine what all this will now mean for me, my children and … my family?"
"Ellen, I think you're overreacting," Lou tried to calm her down.
"I found a photo last night… the photo of a woman… in his jacket," Ellen whispered in a croaked voice.
"Might be a friend," Lou tried, but her explanation did not sound very convincing, even to herself. Buck did not have other friends, and they both knew that.
"Look…" Ellen said, taking the photograph from the pocket of her apron, and showing it to Lou.
Louise ran her eyes over the dedication, and read it in a low voice. "To my dear lover Buck. My soul is consumed by the flames of your passion, and my body is burning, waiting for yours to cool it down." Lou made a face, horrified by the message and even disgusted by the words, imagining her very good friend with another woman. "Oh my God!" she exclaimed.
"Didn't I tell you? There are no doubts."
"This woman is …is… is… disgusting, and look at the handwriting. So ugly!!!"
"She's not much of a beauty either," Ellen continued.
Moved by curiosity, Lou turned over the photograph to see the face of the woman who had apparently stolen Buck's heart, and also his common sense. Her eyes widened in total surprise when she recognized the woman. "Charlotte!!!"
"What? Do you know her?" Ellen asked.
"She… she's my friend Charlotte," Lou stammered.
"A … a friend of yours?" Ellen repeated in a trembling voice as the tears showed in her eyes.
Louise met her friend's eyes, and said, "Ellen, Charlotte's dead."
"She's dead," Lou repeated. "She died a few months before Kid and I got married… fourteen years ago."
"But… but… what does this mean? Do you mean she and Buck were intimate then?" Ellen said, trying to find an explanation to this matter.
Louise shook her head. "I don't think they even exchanged a word back then," Lou said as she kept looking at the image of her friend on the photograph. "Poor Charlotte."
"But what kind of morbid joke is this?"
"Ellen, I had this photograph in a box with other photographs, and I have a very good idea who stole it from there," Lou said. Ellen listened to her with full attention, and then Louise added, "This message on the back can't have been written by anybody else but my dear son Matthew."
"I guess he was helping yours. Yesterday when we were coming from town, they were going on and on about Mr. Shears, and how their friend Stu was so happy with him."
Ellen's face was getting red with sheer fury. "Oh… oh those two little devils. How could they? How could they? I don't know about you, Lou, but at least, my son is going to learn what happens when I'm really, really furious. This time he's gone too far, and he's going to be grounded until he turns eighteen. Mark my words."
Fuming, Ellen attempted to move towards the door, but Lou stopped her by putting a hand on her shoulder. "Wait, Ellen. I have a better idea," she said, and at her friend's quizzical stare, she added, "They're going to learn a lesson they'll never forget."
From the kitchen Lou heard the front door slam closed, followed by heavy steps, and Jane's voice, scolding her brother for dropping his books carelessly on the sofa as he usually did. Lou shook her head, as she shared a look with Kid. "Ma!!!" Mattie called, ignoring his sister, as he ran to the kitchen. His mother always had a snack ready for him when he returned from school, and today he was especially hungry. His feet stopped short at the door when he noticed that strangely his father was at home at this time of the day. This was not what surprised him, though, but the solemn expression of both his parents' faces as they talked in low tones.
"Ma…" Mattie whispered.
Lou turned to the voice, and smiled tiredly as she saw her son. "Hi, honey," she said, bringing a white handkerchief to her eyes, and wiping them. "I didn't know you were back."
"Is something wrong?" Mattie asked, shifting his eyes between his mother and his father.
Lou and Kid shared a look, and he said, "Well, Lou, I think Matt is old enough to know certain things. And he's gonna learn about this sooner or later."
Mattie frowned, his curiosity growing by the minute but at the same time he felt apprehensive. "You're right, Kid," she said, as she came closer to her son, and stroked his soft hair. "Come and sit with us, Mattie."
Looking at his parents warily, Matt sat down at the table. Lou placed her hand over the boy's as she said, "I'm afraid it's bad news."
Matt's big eyes darted to meet his father's, who nodded. "No need to get alarmed, buddy. It's a matter of grown-ups… something concerning your Uncle Buck and your Aunt Ellen."
Matt kept quiet, and Lou took up where Kid left off. "Honey, you know that we grown-ups also have disagreements, and sometimes things get so bad that a solution ain't possible anymore."
"Have Uncle Buck and Aunt Ellen fought?" Matt asked, realizing that Ike's idea had actually started to take effect.
"I'm afraid so," Kid replied.
"And, unfortunately, they have decided to separate… you know, like your friend Stu's parents," Lou continued.
Matt nodded, imagining that Ike must now be glad that their plan had worked. Like Stuart had told them, Uncle Buck would have to make sure Ike knew he loved him, and that meant presents and toys. And since he was Ike's best friend, Matt was sure he would also enjoy the benefits of having a divorced relative. "I understand," he finally said.
"It's so sad," Lou sighed. "And we're going to miss them… very much."
Her words hooked Matt's attention at once. "Miss them?" he echoed, his forehead creased into a frown.
"Aunt Ellen and the boys are moving to St Louis to live with Mr. Mason," Kid added, referring to Ellen's father.
At once Matt panicked. This was not how things should turn out. He and Ike had thought that unlike Stu's father, Buck would not go anywhere since he had his business here. It had never occurred to Ike that his mother would decide to move him out of town. "But Ike doesn't like his grandfather!!!" Matt exclaimed passionately. "He can't leave Rock Creek!"
"Honey, I'm afraid that nobody has any say in this matter other than his parents. So if Aunt Ellen thinks moving to St. Louis is the best for her family, we just need to respect her decision, and wish them the best."
"No!!!" Matt cried, his young face red with frustration, and his eyes stinging with unshed tears.
Lou and Kid shared a look. He had agreed to go along with his wife's idea to give a lesson to the children, but now seeing how upset Matt was getting, Kid hesitated. His son might be a terrible troublemaker, but he was also a very sensitive boy, who took things too much to heart. "Matt, you don't need to worry, and…"
"I know you'll miss Ike, but he won't be gone forever. You'll get to see him when he comes visiting."
"No!!!" Mattie exclaimed even more loudly. "He can't leave!!!" And before his parents could say anything else, he jumped to his feet, tipping the chair over, and ran out of the kitchen towards the front door. This was a complete disaster, he thought as he ran across the yard. Ike couldn't leave, he just couldn't.
Matt spotted his friend, sitting on the porch steps of his house, and he cried his name loudly. "Ike!!!"
Ike looked up, and curiously saw his friend run towards him at top speed. Panting, Matt reached him, and it took him a few seconds to get his breath back. "What's going on?" Ike asked.
"Oh Ike!!! Something terrible!!!" Matt exclaimed. "Did your parents tell you anything?"
"Your plan worked," Matt blurted out.
"Did it?" Ike said with a smile, but at the same time he felt the heat rush to his cheeks. Suddenly, he had a strange uncomfortable sensation pressing his chest, but he tried to reassure himself by saying, "That's good… really good."
"No, Ike. Nothing's good!" Matt contradicted him, and he proceeded to tell him what his parents had told him.
"With Grandpa Fred?" Ike asked with an unhappy expression. "I can't believe that! Ma can't make us live with him. He's even grumpier since Grandma Caroline died. It can't be true."
"It is, Ike."
The boy tried to act strong in front of his friend, but he was totally scared inside. "Let's ask my mother," he suggested, coughing to cover his trembling voice.
Matt followed his friend into the house. Ike started calling his mother, but only silence responded to his summons. They walked into the living room, and something drew Mattie's attention at once. "Look!" he said, pointing at a couple of carpet bags sitting on the floor of the room.
Ike approached them, and when he opened one of them, he discovered it was full of his own clothes. It was then that he started to panic. His plan had backfired, and he was going to face consequences he had not counted on. He loved his life here; all his family and friends were here, and he did not want to lose them. He did not want to live so far from his father, and as the reality of what was going to happen dawned on him, he started to cry, burying his face in the pair of pants he had taken from the carpet bag.
"Ike, we need to do something," Matt said resolutely, patting his friend on the back.
The boy lifted his head, and furiously wiping his tears, he added, "We have to tell them."
Matt nodded and followed Ike around the house, but there was nobody in. They then went outside, checking the back yard, the stables, and the tack room, but they could not find anybody. "Let's ask my parents," Matt suggested, and they headed toward the McClouds' household. When they got there, Mattie's parents were not alone; Ike's were with them too. Both couples were sitting around the dinner table as well as Billy and Janey, while little Jed was playing with his wooden blocks and singing to himself in the corner of the room.
Ike and Matt came closer to the table. "There's something we need to tell you," Ike started in a very low voice, and when they turned their full attention to him, he hung his head in shame as he whispered, "It was me who put the picture of that lady in Pa's pocket. It is a lie."
"And I helped," Matt added in the same awkward tone when he noticed the irritated expressions of the four adults.
"What were you thinking, Ike?" Ellen exclaimed loudly. "This is not a joke!!! It's not funny, and family is the most sacred thing in this world. You can't just play and make fun of it!!! What am I going to do with you?"
"I'm sorry, Ma. I wasn't … wasn't playing."
"Then what? Did you really want me out of your life?" asked Buck, his hurt feelings showing in his question.
"No… I… I just wanted a pellet gun," Ike muttered, unsure of what else to say.
"What?" Buck said, frowning in confusion.
"Mr. Shears bought his son one," Billy exclaimed, amused by the two boys' mischief.
"I see," Ellen replied stiffly, shaking her head at the same time.
"And Billy said we should have a father like him… a divorced father," Ike continued.
"Hey! Don't drag me into this!" Billy protested as he noticed his mother's angry eyes on him. "I didn't say that."
"You should have more sense, and avoid making those kinds of comments in front of your brother. You know what he's like, and how his imagination flies at the least provocation!" Ellen said sternly. "For goodness' sake, William, you're fourteen! When are you going to start thinking straight?"
Billy made a scowl. How come his brother, the troublemaker, had made the biggest shenanigans anybody could do, and he got dressed down too. He was not responsible for his brother's actions, and if he had taken his words the wrong way, it was just Ike's fault, not his.
"Ma, we ain't going to Saint Louis, are we?" Ike asked warily, touching the point he was most worried about.
"To tell you the truth, we really should, so that you can learn your lesson. But it's not fair that your father and I get punished because of you!" Ellen exclaimed.
"I'm really sorry. And I love you and Pa very much," Ike added in the same shy tone.
Buck and Ellen could not help but to share a smile. "Stop buttering us up," he told his son as he rose to his feet. "I'm afraid that won't free you from your punishment."
Ike nodded, and as Ellen got up from her seat, she said, "Let's go now, and finish discussing this matter at home." She turned to her friends, and added, "Lou, Kid, thank you."
When the Cross family was gone, Matt remained rooted on the spot, fully aware that he should expect something coming his way too. And he did not have to wait long for his own lecture. "And what do you have to say, young man?" Kid asked.
"I'm sorry too."
"I've told you many times not to touch my things without asking," Lou continued as she directed her eyes to the picture of her friend Charlotte she held in her hands.
"Yes, Ma. I won't do it anymore."
"And now go to your room, and do your school homework," Kid continued in a stern tone. "No playing with Ike after school for the next two weeks."
"Yes, Pa," Matt replied as he slowly walked to the staircase.
Lou shook her head as she ran her eyes through the message at the back of the photograph. "Matt, one moment," she called her son. Mattie stopped just at the first step, and looked at her. "Where did you get these words from?" she asked, pointing at the back of the photograph with her index finger. She knew the boy could not have come up with that very lewd sentence himself.
"I just copied it from one of Janey's novels," Mattie replied casually.
As soon as the boy talked, both Kid and Lou turned their very unhappy faces towards their daughter. The girl blushed, and jumping to her feet she said nervously, "Oh I better start my chores now. Look at the time. So late."
The girl almost ran from the room, eager to leave her parents' presence, and as she almost reached the front door, she heard her mother's voice loud and clear. "Janey, come here!"
Author's Note: Thanks to Jessica for beta-reading this story, and the LJ girls for their constant encouragement.