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 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.
Night fell. Matt was getting ready for bed after having one of the worst days in his young life. He could not stop thinking that in just ten days he would have to say good bye to the only world he had known, his family, his home, his friends, everything. The whole thing terrified him. Matt did not know what his parents had planned. Would his Pa leave him at an orphanage and he would have to grow up there like his mother had done? Or would he have to go to live with a family of strangers? Or maybe Pa would just drop him in the town, and he would have to become a tramp? Whatever the case was, Matt did not like any of the possibilities. He did not want to leave. This was his home, and he loved his parents even though they did not love him. How could they do this to him?
All day he had wanted to ask his parents what was going to happen, but he had not dared. He had felt like crying every moment, but he was too stubborn to let the tears show. So he had just kept to himself, watching his family as if he did not belong here anymore. From his voluntary isolation, he had witnessed the laughter and smiles between his parents and his siblings, the jokes, the conversation, the hugs and kisses, and Matt longed with all his heart to have a part in this. The boy now regretted all his bad deeds, which had caused him to lose his parents' love, and in turn his family. Matt wanted to tell his mother how sorry he was, and that he was going to do his best to be a good boy now, but he felt he was too late.
In his bedroom Matt got changed into his nightshirt while Jed kept babbling on and on. Of course Matt did not hear any of his words since his mind was too full of his own concerns to pay attention to anything else. A single knock drifted his mind away from his negative thoughts; his mother was at the door and she said, "You boys ready for bed?"
Unlike any other night that he tried to protest, Matt silently got under the bedding while Jed said, "A tale, Ma!"
"You want me to tell you a tale?" Lou asked as she walked into the room.
"Yes!!!" Jed exclaimed enthusiastically.
"Very well then," Lou replied, and as she came closer to her younger son, she helped him into the bed, tucked him in, and sat down. "Let me think what tale I can tell you. Any requests, honey?"
"A new one!"
"A new one, huh? My, that's kind of complicated. I think I've told you all the existing tales," Lou said, and after a pause, she added, "I think I've never told you about Little Tom Thumb."
"Little Tom Thumb?" Jed echoed with evident curiosity.
"Yeah, Little Tom Thumb was a little boy, no bigger than a thumb, but extremely clever… just like you," Lou said, ticking her son's sides, which sent the boy laughing. "Well, Little Tom Thumb was the youngest of seven brothers… all boys, and they all lived with his parents in the forest. His father was a woodcutter, but they were very, very poor. They didn't have money or food, and one day the woodcutter talked to his wife. He told her that they couldn't support the children, and they had to do something or they would all die. So he suggested they leave the boys in the forest." Lou continued telling the story of Tom Thumb as Jed listened to her with rapt attention. Jed, though, was not the only one hanging on Lou's every word, because from his own bed, Matt was also listening to his mother's tale. He usually did not care about the stories she told Jed, but today it was different. The parents in the tale were also planning to abandon their children in the same way his own parents would do to him, and he wanted to know what would happen to Tom Thumb and his brothers.
When Lou reached the part in which the boys were left alone in the forest, Jed yawned, and she said, "Shall we leave the rest for tomorrow, honey?" The boy nodded as he snuggled down in his bed. Lou stooped to give a kiss to her son and said, "I love you."
"Love you too, Ma!" Jed exclaimed, and then closed his sleep-laden eyes.
Lou then walked to the other end of the spacious room, where Matt's bed was. "Time to sleep, Matt."
"Ma? What… what happened to Tom Thumb and his brothers?"
"You already know. I've told you that fairy tale dozens of times," Lou replied.
"But I don't remember."
Lou frowned. "Matt, is this another game of yours to put off sleeping time?"
"No, Ma. I really want to know."
"Well, Tom Thumb and his brothers ended up in the house of an ogre. That big ogre wanted to eat them all, but Tom Thumb outwitted him, and saved himself and his brothers. And then they returned home."
Matt kept thoughtful, and then said, "Ma, you and Pa… you and Pa would never abandon me in the forest, would you?"
Lou smiled. "How could we do that to the poor animals in the forest?" Lou replied teasingly, but in his own world, Matt did not perceive the light tone in which his mother was talking. He remained serious, and noticing his expression, Lou asked, "Something wrong, Matt?"
Lou stared at him for a while, thinking that there was something odd she could not put her finger on, but thinking that after all that had happened today, it was logical that Matt was acting up. "Good night, honey," she said, planting a soft kiss on his forehead, and after blowing out all the lights, she left the room.
In the darkness, Matt was trembling, and the tears that he had choked all day long started to flow freely. His mind was full of different images that frightened and saddened him. The conversation between his father and his mother kept replaying in his mind, and each time he felt more and more miserable. Ma didn't love him, he repeated over and over again, as the tears continued trickling down his face. He couldn't stop thinking that she had told Jed 'I love you' but not him. And then she had laughed when he had asked her about Tom Thumb, and parents leaving their children in the forest. Matt feared what might happen to him when his father left him in Seneca. Would he have a place to call home? Who would he be living with? He did not believe in ogres, but he did know there were bad people. What if he ended up in the company of some bandits or worse? He was not as sharp or intelligent as Tom Thumb was, and he would never manage to outwit anybody. And what was worse he would never be able to return home. I don't want to leave, I don't want to leave, Matt kept whispering in the silence of the room, and his voice faltered as sobs racked his young body in the darkest night of his life.
Matt's eyes fluttered as his mother's sing-song voice reached him. Next, the light fell on his eyes as Lou opened the curtains to a brand new day. Little by little, the boy's senses came back to life. He lightly lifted his head to see his mother, waking his brother by shaking him gently. As soon as Matt was more aware of his surroundings, he sat up, and suddenly noticed something. His eyes opened in surprise, and he quickly shifted in the bed, moving to the far corner that formed his bed and the wall, and tightened the bedding around his body. The squeaking sound of the bed came to Lou's attention; she turned her head, and smiled. "It's good to see you awake already," she said. Every day she had to struggle in order to wake Matt. He never wanted to wake up in the same way as at night he never had any desire to go to bed.
"And now get up and start getting dressed," Lou said as she turned back her attention to her younger son, and helped him to put on his clothes. As she did so, Jed kept babbling on and on in a jovial way. Lou smiled even though she could not understand many of his words. At three Jed was a chatterbox, but he still could not articulate everything clearly.
When Lou had finished with Jed, she turned round, and realized that Matt was still in bed. Louise sighed tiredly. "Matt, please, didn't you hear me? Get up, please. What are you waiting for?" The boy did not reply, and just kept staring at his mother with a serious expression. Lou approached the bed, and said, "Come on, Matt. Get a move on."
"No!" Matt cried as his hand gripped the blanket around him when Lou reached for it.
"Matt, what's wrong with you?" Louise exclaimed, and finally pulled back the covers from his body. Straightaway, she understood what the problem was. The acrid smell hit her and her eyes noticed the real evidence among the sheets. "Matt…" she whispered bewildered, and when she looked up, Matt was red with shame and his eyes were lowered. "Are you sick, honey?" Lou asked, and her hand reached to touch the boy's forehead.
"I'm fine," Matt muttered, roughly removing his mother's hand.
"Oh! Mannie wetted the sheets!" Jed exclaimed when he approached from behind Lou.
Matt lifted his eyes angrily, and barked, "Shut up!"
"Everybody calm down, all right?" Louise said in a loud voice. "Jed, go and find Janey in her bedroom, will you, honey?" The boy nodded, and quickly walked out of the room. As the door closed, Louise turned her attention back to Matt. "Don't worry, honey. It's fine. I'll prepare a bath for you, and then I'll change the bedding. There's nothing to worry about."
Matt did not answer. He was too embarrassed to say anything. That had never occurred to him, and he did not even know how this had happened. He had been too scared last night, but how didn't he notice it?
True to her word, Lou heated a few buckets for Matt's bath, and then while the boy was in the tub, she stripped down the bed. Later she would ask Kid to take the mattress out, and change the stuffing. Otherwise, the smell would not go away for days.
Lou thought the matter was odd. Matt had never done something like that. Actually, he had stopped using diapers both during the day and at night when he was barely two. It had taken Jane much longer, and she still made Jed use diapers at night as a precaution even though he had not wetted himself in weeks. Anyway, these things happened to children all the time, especially when they fell sick or had a temperature. Matt, though, was all right. However, even though he did not show any symptoms, her sixth sense told Lou that there was something strange. Today Matt was extraordinarily quiet and reserved for somebody as talkative as he was. Yesterday she had put his peculiar conduct down to his misbehavior and its consequences, but Matt did not usually mope for too long. Naturally, his wetting accident must have got it down as well. Lou tried to disregard the whole thing, but a little voice kept nagging in her mind.
About half an hour Lou and Matt finally climbed down the stairs towards the kitchen, where the family got together for breakfast every morning. Today Kid was not around since he and Buck were busy, shoeing horses, a task that took them all day. Lou led the way to the kitchen, carrying the dirty sheets, and Matt followed her. Jane had cooked breakfast today, and both she and Jed were already eating at the table. As Lou entered the kitchen, she walked to the far end to leave the sheets in her laundry basket, whereas Matt took his usual place at the table.
Jane looked at her brother with a crooked smile. Matt usually teased her for everything, so now it was her turn to retaliate. "What happened, Mattie? Do you need to use Ginnie's diapers now?" she said, snickering in amusement.
As soon as Lou heard the comment, she turned round, and walked to the table. "That's enough, Jane. I don't want to hear a single word about this. Matt just had an accident, that's it. It could've happened to anyone, understood?"
"It couldn't have happened to me," Jane muttered, lowering her eyes.
"Didn't you hear what I said? Not a single word. And I don't want you to say anything else, not here, not at school!" Lou said in a stern tone. She could tell that Matt was already feeling bad, and she did not want this private matter to be known. Children could be too cruel, and even though Matt was a strong and independent boy, Lou would hate if other children picked on him. "Is that clear, Jane? This is a private matter, and stays here."
"Yes, Ma," Janey replied, and continued eating her breakfast.
Lou shifted her eyes, and smiled at Matt, who was looking at her with a sad expression. There it was again. His sad expression. Lou wondered what he was thinking about. This sadness was totally new to her. Somehow she still thought something was bothering Matt. This was not like him at all; he was usually cheerful, talkative, and this attitude was so alien that it worried her. Maybe she was just overreacting, and was seeing smoke where there was no fire. Kid used to call her a worrywart. It was true that she had changed over the years, especially when she had become a mother. The least thing managed to worry her beyond reason, but she could not help it. Her family was her life. Probably, nothing was the matter with Matt. He was just in a bad mood or a bad day, and tonight when he came back from school, he would be his usual mischievous self again.
Wednesday was the day Louise went to town to make the usual purchases for her home. Kid normally tagged along whenever she had to get more than she could manage on her own, or when he had to buy provisions for the ranch. Today, however, she was unaccompanied, and actually, she needed her solitude to think about a few things. In fact, there was just a matter that hogged all her concerns, and that matter had a name, Matt. She was very worried about her son. The boy was acting very strange lately, and Lou did not know what was wrong with him. He hardly talked, smiled or played. Every day when he returned from school, he did his homework, and daily chores straightaway, and then he just sat alone in the living room for hours until dinner time. Lou had tried to make him talk, but he kept saying that he was fine, and there was nothing wrong. Louise knew better. This was not like her son, and it was not just his change of habits. It was more than that. He looked subdued all the time, his eyes showing a sad shine that Lou had never seen before.
Louise was very concerned, and wished Matt could share his problems with her. He had always been a very independent boy, and even though he talked for England, he was always very reluctant to speak about things that worried him. Louise remembered once when he was six, he had started to act weirdly. During that time whenever it was time to go to school, he whimpered and faked to be sick. As a rule, Matt always grunted and protested about school, but that was nothing compared to what had happened years ago. Lou had later learned that a big girl at school always snatched his lunch, and mocked at him, and when the problem was tackled, Matt had returned to his usual self. Maybe, Lou pondered, he had a problem at school, so that was why Lou wanted to talk to Rachel before heading for Tompkins.
As Lou approached the school yard, she realized that the children were at their lunch break, some of them playing, others just talking quietly, and some others eating their food. Louise looked around to locate her children. Jane was sitting on a bench under a tree in the yard, talking to Daisy and some other girls. Lou scanned the yard, looking for Matt, but she could not see him anywhere. Ike and some of his other friends were playing tag, but there was no trace of her son. Louise lifted her hand in greeting when she noticed that Rachel was coming up to her.
"Hello, Louise!" the teacher greeted her warmly.
Lou hardly heard her words, and blurted out, "Where's my son, Rachel?"
Rachel sighed. "He… he's inside."
"Inside the schoolhouse," Rachel explained.
"Is he punished?"
Rachel shook her head. "I'm glad you came, Lou. I wanted to talk to you about Matt. His behavior lately is kind of strange. Well, he seems distracted all the time, and at recess he never wants to go out and play."
Louise sighed. "He does the same at home," Lou whispered.
"I talked to him, but he won't tell me why he's like that."
"I'm very worried, Rachel. I know something's happening, but he doesn't talk to me either," Lou exclaimed. "Do you have any idea what it can be? You're used to dealing with children all the time."
Rachel kept thoughtful. "Could it be that Matt's jealous?"
"Yes, of Jed and Ginnie. Maybe he just wants to draw your attention and Kid's."
"I know he's been acting up since Ginnie was born. He's worse than ever, and I have to tell him off almost every day. With Jed he was unaffected, but now his mischief must be a way to show his feelings… I guess," Lou explained.
"Sometimes second children start feeling they're not special, and Matt might feel something similar. You know, Jane is special because she's your first, Jed is in that time in which everybody comments on how cute he is, and Virginia is a baby, who gets all your attention. So Matt might feel in a delicate position."
"But we treat all our children the same way."
"I know, honey. But sometimes children perceive things in a different way," Rachel replied.
"So do you think that's what's happening to Matt? Ginnie is almost six months-old. Why this attitude now?"
"I don't know, Lou. Maybe it's something else. Only your son knows," Rachel said.
Louise nodded. "Thanks, Rachel. I think I'll go talk to him now."
Lou walked into the schoolhouse, and as she stopped at the threshold, she saw Matt sitting alone in the empty room, hunched over a book. Louise started advancing towards the aisle formed by the desks, and on hearing her steps, Matt turned his head. Lou smiled whereas the boy remained with a serious expression.
"Hi, honey," she said, sitting on the empty seat by his side. "What are you doing here all alone? Why don't you go play with your friends?"
Matt shrugged his shoulders. "I don't feel like it. That's all."
"Have you and Ike argued?"
"Has anybody picked on you? You know you can tell me or Aunt Rachel."
"Has Jane said anything about what happened on Monday… you know, about your little accident?"
"I don't think so," Matt replied.
"Matt, you know you can talk to me about everything… about anything that worries you."
The boy looked at his mother sideways. "Yes," he whispered.
"Honey, I know you're worried about something. Why don't you tell me what it is?"
"Because… because… because it's nothing," he finally said.
Lou sighed. This was frustrating. When Matt decided to keep quiet about something, it was like speaking to a wall. And if she insisted, he would be less willing to talk. Louise noticed the boy's lunch pail sitting between them, and said, "You didn't eat your sandwiches. I made your favorite, cheese."
"I'm not hungry."
"You haven't had much of an appetite lately," Louise pointed out, trying to approach the matter from another angle. "Does your belly ache?" the boy shook his head. "Matt, it's not healthy. You're growing up, and you need to eat properly." The boy just shrugged his shoulders, and Lou added almost to herself, "Maybe you're coming down with something." She paused, and then said, "I think we should pay a visit to the doctor now."
Matt looked at his mother with a surprised expression. "Now? But I'm at school!"
"Yes, it won't take us long. I want to make sure you're fine."
Just like Lou had told her son, the visit to the doctor did not take long, and they were out of the building in no time. Dr. Maxwell did not find anything wrong with Matt, and just prescribed him a tonic. As Louise walked across the street next to the boy, she kept thinking about Rachel's words. She might be right, and Matt just needed a little extra attention, to feel he was special. "Honey, I have an idea. I have to buy a few things at Tompkins', but then we can have some lunch at the restaurant. I've heard that they make some lovely desserts. You and me alone. And then you don't need to go back to school. Let's do a special occasion for us out of today. How about that?"
Matt stared at his mother with a serious expression, considering her suggestion, but then he said, "I'd rather go to school"
Louise felt disappointed by his refusal, growing more and more concerned. If Matt chose school over a free afternoon, this was really strange. Yet, Lou kept smiling anyway. "All right then. If that's what you want," she said. "Do you want me to walk to the schoolhouse with you?"
"No, I'll go alone," Matt muttered. He was about to walk off, but Lou rested her hand on his shoulder stopping him.
"Aren't you going to give your old mother a kiss?"
Matt nodded. Louise crouched before him, and as the boy kissed her right cheek softly, she brought her hands around his young body, hugging him tightly. "Oh Mattie, you're growing into such a fine boy!" Lou exclaimed. "I'm so lucky to have a son like you!" And then she gave him a big kiss before standing up and going her way.
Matt kept looking after his mother, and stroked the part of his face she had kissed. He started to feel hopeful. Maybe Ma was having second thoughts about sending him away. Otherwise, she would not be so loving and caring as she was now. That was because he was behaving like a good boy, and she had understood that he was not so bad. In fact, he was not doing any efforts to behave; lately his own worries did not let him think about anything else other than what would be happening to him in a week. He had even lost his appetite, and his desire to have fun. However, he was still very afraid, but maybe things could change… he could not go; this was his home, his only home. Even if his parents did not love him, this was the only place he wanted to be. Nowhere else.
Once his chores were done that afternoon, Matt returned to the house with slow steps. In the kitchen he washed his hands, and walked into the living room. His younger brother was alone there, and when he saw Matt appear, he exclaimed, "Mannie, play with me!"
Matt did not answer his request, and asked instead, "Where's Ma?"
Wanting to let his mother know he had finished all his chores, and homework, Matt rushed up the stairs. As he advanced along the corridor, he could hear voices coming out from the bedroom he shared with Jed. He approached, and stopped at the door from which he could watch his mother and Jane inside.
"Ma, where shall I put these?" asked Jane, holding a pile of clothes in her arms.
Lou looked through the garments. The boys' wardrobe was too full of clothes that the children did not get to wear anymore. In some cases, the boys had outgrown them, and in others, the garments were so worn out that they needed to be thrown away. So today Lou had thought she could tidy up the wardrobe. She would get rid of the tatty clothes, and since Kid would be going to Seneca soon, he could drop by the orphanage there and donate those clothes Matt and Jed did not need anymore. Her children were very lucky to have been born in a loving home, but that was not the case of many. So Lou tried to help whenever she could, and do something for the children who were living a similar situation to the one she had lived many years ago. So even though she could keep some of Matt's clothes for when Jed could wear them, she decided to give them away too. "Put the shirts in the carpet bag, honey. These go to Seneca."
From the door, Matt watched them in shock. His mother had not changed her mind, and still intended to send him away. She was already packing his things, having everything ready for his departure. Now Matt was coming to realize there was no way back. Nothing he could do would change the direction of this road, and he needed to come to terms with his new reality. Why then had Ma said she was happy to have him as a son? Why was she so loving lately if she was sending him away anyway? Maybe she was just being kind, and wanted to make his last days at the ranch nice. Matt felt a terrible urge to cry, but he resisted the tears stubbornly.
It was then that Lou realized the boy's presence, and she smiled. "Hey, honey," she greeted him, as she approached. "Have you finished your chores?" Matt nodded somberly. Lou noticed that her son was in a subdued mood again, and he looked as if he was about to cry. "Are you all right, Matt?" she asked, brushing her hand over his sandy hair.
"I'm fine," the boy replied in a low voice.
Lou stared at him for a few seconds, and then added, "What are you gonna do now?" Matt shrugged his shoulders in indifference, and Lou said, "Will you do me a favor, sweetheart?"
"Yes, I want you to go and play with Ike… It's a lovely day outside, and I know he misses you," Lou explained with a smile.
Matt kept quiet for a while. "And what will Uncle Buck and Aunt Ellen say?" he asked, as he brought to mind his mother's words a few days ago about how Ike's parents did not want Ike to hang out with him.
Louise frowned in confusion, not understanding what Matt meant by that. When the boy did not elaborate, Lou added, "Well, I imagine as long as Ike has finished his homework, Aunt Ellen won't have anything to say against it. Come on, let's go. I'll walk there with you."
Matt shrugged his shoulders, and followed his mother. Ten minutes later both boys were in the yard. Matt was not in the mood to play, and went to sit on the edge of Ike's porch. "What do you want to play?" asked Ike as he approached his friend.
"I don't really want to play," Matt muttered.
Ike sat down next to his best friend, and watched him with curiosity. He had never seen Matt look so low, and he really worried him. "Do you still believe that silly idea that your parents are sending you away?"
Matt sent him an annoyed look. "It's not a silly idea. It's the truth."
"I'm sorry, Matt, but I can't believe it."
"I didn't make it up! I heard them!"
"Maybe they were talking about something else. It wouldn't be the first time you got confused. Your Ma came to the school today just to take you to the doctor's. Why would she do that if she didn't love you?" Ike insisted.
Matt shrugged his shoulders. "I dunno. Maybe they're planning to sell me to some people, and want to make sure I'm fine for them."
"That's crazy!" Ike exclaimed.
"And… and she's packing my clothes right now. That's why she brought me here to play with you. She doesn't want me to know, but I do know. She's sending me away," Matt said in a quivering voice. "I'm not inventing that! Jane's even helping her. Nobody wants me to stay."
Ike looked at his friend sadly. "I do. I want you to stay," he whispered.
"When you go to live in Seneca, I'll visit you. I'll ask my father to take me there. You'll be my best friend forever… no matter what."
Matt smiled sadly. "Yes, and you'll be mine… no matter where I go, no matter where I am."
"How's your head?" asked Kid as he stepped into his bedroom that night. Lou had complained about a terrible headache that evening, and he had convinced her to go to bed earlier than her usual time.
Lou looked at him with half-open eyes, and muttered, "The same. I've tried to sleep, but I can't."
"Too many worries, huh?" Lou nodded. Kid was also very concerned about Matt, because it was clear that something weird was going on with the boy. Tonight at dinner time he had been even quieter than these past days, and had hardly eaten, and his sullen bearing told them that there was something wrong.
"Have you checked on the children?" asked Lou, resting her hands on the mattress and pushing her body up.
"They were in bed before I went out to feed the animals," Kid explained.
"Could you please check on the boys again, and make sure they're already asleep, please?"
"Sure," Kid replied promptly, and walked out. When he crossed the door of the boys' bedroom, he first approached Jed's bed. They boy was sound asleep. Kid smiled at seeing his son. He had his right thumb in his mouth, and his free hand tightly held an old stuffed toy which used to belong to Matt. Lou was trying to stop him from his habit of sucking his thumb, but she had not succeeded so far.
Kid rearranged the blankets around the boy, and after placing a soft kiss on his forehead, he walked to the other end of the room where Matt slept. When they had first bought the house, Lou had complained that the rooms were too small, so Kid had gradually made some extensions, and the bedrooms were now ample, and airy just like Lou had wished. Kid was proud of his hard work in their home. The children enjoyed comfortable lodgings, having their own space in the same bedroom, and even if the family increased, they would still have plenty of room for any newcomers.
Kid looked down as he stood before Matt's bed. The boy was buried under the quilt, which covered him from head to toe. Kid could notice his shivering figure under the bedding, and when he gently uncovered him, he heard the muffled sobs that the boy was trying to muffle. Matt had his eyes closed, but the tears flowed down his cheeks, and his body, curled up, was trembling like a leaf. Kid grew concerned, and shook the boy softly. "Matt, buddy, wake up."
The boy opened his eyes at once because he was not really sleeping. On seeing his father, he wiped his tears with his sleeve, and muttered, "Pa…"
"What's wrong, Mattie? Were you having a nightmare?" Kid asked, but when the boy did not answer, he insisted, "What is it? You can tell me."
"Scared of what?" Kid asked, but when Matt did not answer, and apparently did not intend to do so, Kid added, "Mattie, do you want me to stay with you until you fall asleep?"
"Please, Pa," Matt replied, nodding energetically.
"Make room for me then, buddy." Matt shifted his body in the bed, and Kid lay down next to him. Instantly, Matt wrapped his arms around his father, hugging him tightly. His body was still trembling, and he wanted to keep crying, but he fought the tears now that his father was with him. He noticed Kid's hand stroking his head as he sometimes used to do when he was younger.
Both father and son remained in silence for a while, and then Matt called him in a whispering voice, "Pa?"
Mattie did not speak straightaway. He kept considering how to ask his father what worried him. "Pa… Pa, are you … are you really fond of me?" he asked, wanting to make sure that what his father had told his mother was true.
Kid smiled at the choice of words of his son. "Yes, Matt. I'm very, very fond of you."
Matt smiled timidly even though his fears were still very real. "Pa?" he called a second time.
"Do we… do you always do what Ma says?"
Kid grinned again. "A good question," he said in a thoughtful way. "Well, your Ma is a clever girl, and knows what's best for all of us. Don't tell her this, so between you and me, she's really the boss in this house."
Matt sighed. This was not the answer he wanted to hear. Even if his father were not happy about the Seneca thing, he would never oppose Ma in this. "And Pa…"
"I love you and Ma very much. I really do."
"I know," Kid replied, stroking the boy's head affectionately.
"And I like our family, our home…"
"That's good to know."
"And families need to be together all the time. Isn't that true, Pa?" Matt insisted.
"Yeah, sure. It's true… most of the time."
"Most of the time?" Mattie echoed in confusion.
"Well, not everybody is so lucky, buddy," Kid explained, as he pondered about his own experience or Lou's. Unfortunately, they had not enjoyed a normal childhood, and they had grown up under very hostile circumstances to have an average family life. He had been forced to face adult responsibilities when his father had disappeared and his brother had left. And Lou had spent much of her own childhood in an orphanage. "Sometimes things happen, Matt, and in some cases it's not possible for everybody in a family to be together."
"I see," the boy muttered in a sad voice. "But that's very sad, and scary."
"I know, but you needn't worry about that, Matt. You needn't worry about anything at all, all right?"
Matt did not reply. How could he not worry? He did not even know what was going to happen to him when he was sent to Seneca. He wished he could ask his father, but he was too scared. All he wanted was to believe that he was going to stay here with his family all his life, and if he did not know the truth, maybe it would not happen after all. He wanted to believe this was just a bad dream, only a nightmare. Matt closed his eyes, hugging his father even more tightly, and little by little, he finally fell in a deep slumber that took him to a world where there was no Seneca, no worries, and no fears.
Matt's worst fear became a terrifying reality when at lunch his father announced that he had changed plans and was leaving for Seneca the next day. Apparently he had received a telegram from the fella he was supposed to meet, and for some reasons that Matt did not care to understand, he had to travel tomorrow. The rest of the day had been terrible for the boy; he was so scared that he could hardly move, talk or eat. He had even thrown up his lunch. His mother had made him lie down in his bedroom for a while, and tonight she had not said anything when he had refused to eat.
Louise entered the boys' bedroom, and headed straightaway to Matt's bed. "How are you, honey?" Lou asked, automatically pressing her hand on his forehead to check whether he was running a fever. Fortunately, that was not the case, but Lou was very worried, and tomorrow they would pay another visit to Dr. Maxwell. "Are you feeling sick?"
"No," Matt muttered apathetically.
"Does your belly ache or anything?" Lou insisted, but Matt only responded by turning his head from her, and directing his eyes to the wall instead. "Well," Lou continued, "I guess a good night's sleep will do you good." Lou bent over to kiss him on the forehead, and as she straightened up and saw Jed watching her with big eyes, she added, "And that goes for you too, young man. Tomorrow's gonna be a long day." With Kid away, and having to shoulder all their responsibilities on her own, she knew she was up to a few hard days. In times like this she wished she could swap roles with her husband, and he could be the one to stay at home with the children.
"Yes, Ma!" Jed exclaimed as he closed his eyes tightly, and hugged his stuffed toy against him.
Lou turned to put out the lamps, and noticed Matt's big eyes staring at her with a strange expression. "Something wrong, honey?" The boy shook his head, and once again turned his face back to the wall. "Good night then," Lou said, finally leaving the room in darkness.
When she walked into her own bedroom, Kid was getting ready to go to bed, and asked, "How's Matt?"
"I… I don't know," Lou replied tiredly, as she dropped down on the bed, and started to undo the buttons of her blouse. "He won't say a word. He's like… in his own world, and I really don't know what to do."
"I wish I didn't have to go to Seneca, and could stay at home. I don't like to leave you alone with this problem," Kid said, sitting next to her on the bed, and caressing her back affectionately.
"Hopefully, Matt will come around while you're away."
"It's not easy to be a parent, is it?" Kid added.
Lou shook her head sadly. "And nobody teaches you how to be one."
Kid smiled, and placed a soft kiss on her cheek. A knock resounded in the room, and he added, "Let me deal with this one." He walked to the door, and as he opened it, he found his eldest son, tears rolling down his face. "Matt…"
On hearing the boy's name, Lou jumped off the bed, and came behind her husband. When she noticed his tears, she grew even more worried than she already was. "What's wrong, honey?"
"Please, please, don't take me," he hiccupped, joining his hands together as if he were praying. "Let me stay, please. I'll be good… I promise… I'll be good, please."
Kid and Lou shared a confused look. "Matt, what are you saying?" Kid asked, passing an arm over the boy's shoulders, and steering him into the room.
"I don't want to go to Seneca. I want to live here with you … and with Janey, and Jed, and Virginia."
"Honey, come here, and explain to me what's all this about Seneca," Lou said, taking his hand, and guiding him to her bed. She made him sit down while wiping his tears with a white handkerchief. "Just calm down, and tell me everything."
Matt's tears gradually subsided, and then said, "I heard you and Pa the other day when you were talking about sending me to Seneca and leaving me there."
"What?" Lou exclaimed, sharing a look with her husband. She did not understand a word.
"On Sunday. The day I set off the firecracker in the kitchen, and you got angry. You said you didn't want me here anymore."
Suddenly, it dawned on Louise what her son was referring to. "But, Matt, we weren't talking about you. We were talking about Ramon."
Mattie creased his forehead in bewilderment. "The goat?"
"Yeah… he's a real pain in the neck. He gnaws at everything, charges at everybody, and you know what he did on Sunday?" Matt shook his head, and Lou continued, "He ate all my strawberries!!!" Lou had been trying for years to make her strawberry bushes in the orchard to bear fruit, and last spring she had gleefully discovered the first few berries. "And remember what happened when he followed Ike into his house? Didn't you see the way the living room was after Ramon had been there?"
"Aunt Ellen was very upset afterwards," Matt added with a smile. He looked up at his mother with hopeful eyes, and added, "So I'm not going to Seneca?"
"Matt, how could you even think we could do something like that to you?" Lou exclaimed.
"That's what worried you all this time?" Kid asked.
The boy nodded. "Oh Matt!" Louise let out, shaking her head. "That wild imagination of yours is a real danger … for everybody, especially you."
Matt shrugged his shoulders, not really understanding what his mother meant. He was totally relieved, but there was still a little matter that nagged at him. "Ma?" he called, lifting his big blue eyes to his mother.
"Do… do you love me?" he finally managed to ask.
At his question, Louise felt a tug in his stomach. "Of course, sweetie. I love you."
"Even though I'm bad?"
"Listen to me, Matt," Lou said, framing the boy's face in his right hand. "You're not bad. You're naughty, but that doesn't mean I love you less. Nothing… nothing in this world would make me stop loving you. I sometimes get angry, but it's because I worry about you, honey. You need to understand that certain games are dangerous. When we say no, it's for your own good… Pa and I just want the best for you because we love you. Do you understand that, Matt?" she finished, caressing the boy's soft hair.
"Yes, Ma. And I want to be good."
"And buddy," Kid added, crouching before the boy, "you also need to tell us what worries you. We're here to help you, and you know you can tell us everything. If you had come to us about this matter from the first moment, you wouldn't have to have been so worried and scared."
"I'll do that, Pa."
"And now, young man, time for bed," Kid added.
Matt turned to his mother. "Good night, Ma. I love you."
"Night, sweetie," Lou answered back, hugging her son tightly against her chest. "I love you more."
Matt smiled when he pulled away, and as he rose to his feet, Kid said, "I'll walk you to the bedroom, and tuck you in." The boy nodded, shuffling to the door alongside his father, and just before walking out, he turned round, and waved to his mother goodbye.
When the boy was settled in his bed, Kid returned to his own bedroom. Lou was still sitting on the bed, almost in the same position, but her face was buried in her right hand, and Kid could hear soft sounds of weeping. Kid ran to sit next to her, and without another word, he took her in his arms and rocked her softly. After a while, she looked up, her eyes bright with tears, and cried, "What am I doing wrong, Kid? My son thought I didn't love him. What kind of mother am I?"
"Lou, don't take this to heart. Matt's just a child, and sometimes children are like this."
"Maybe I'm too hard on him," Lou continued, brushing her hands over her face, still wet with tears. "You know he's always getting into trouble… and I don't really know how to deal with him sometimes."
"Honey, you're with the children all the time while I spend a lot of hours working in the stables. In a way, you have to play the part of the bad fella, and make sure one day they'll be good men and women. You're doing an incredible job."
Louise sighed and leaned against her husband. "When he asked me if I loved him, it almost broke my heart," she whispered. "Love him? God, I can't even express what my children mean to me."
"I know, Lou," Kid replied, completely understanding what his wife was saying, because he felt the same way.
"And he's my special boy… my very special boy," she carried on.
Kid nodded, placing a soft kiss on her right temple. When Matt was born, Lou used to call him her miracle baby. After having Jane, they had tried to have another child, but all of the three pregnancies Lou had next ended up in miscarriage. Lou had been disheartened, and when she got pregnant again, she had doubted that baby would be born. But months went by, and that baby was received by tears and fears. Kid remembered being absolutely terrified. Thinking that there was a reason why Lou had not carried her pregnancies to term, he had feared that something might happen to her during labor. Fortunately, everything turned out fine, and he had to agree with Lou. Matt was a very special boy. And after him, Lou had never had any problems with the other pregnancies, and it was strange they now had four children, when there was a time they thought Jane would be their only daughter.
Lou's voice startled him, and brought him back to reality. "Yes, honey?"
"I think I'll try to talk to Matt more often. I think we have overlooked how sensitive he is. And he's very clever."
Kid gazed into her eyes, and smiled. "I think he takes after you. And you're amazing."
Lou wrapped her arms around him tightly, and as they held onto each other, she whispered, "And you're an incredible husband, and father, Kid McCloud."
A soft murmur gradually crossed the barrier of sleep, and little by little his mind could make out the sound of his name being uttered. His eyes fluttered, and when Matt finally opened them, he squinted them against the morning light filling his bedroom. The image before him became clearer, and he then could see the smiling face of his mother. "Good morning, honey!"
"Morning, Ma," Matt replied in a husky voice.
"Pa's leaving for Seneca. Wanna tell him goodbye?" Matt nodded silently, and Lou added, "Good. Get dressed then. You, Jed and I are gonna see him off. Is that right, honey?" she asked, turning her head towards Jed, who was wide awake and sitting on the bed.
"Yes!!!" replied the younger boy.
Fifteen minutes later, Louise and her two sons approached the stables in front of which Kid was getting ready for his trip to Seneca. He smiled when he saw them appear, and said, "What are you three doing up so early?"
"Pa!!!" Jed exclaimed, running towards him and jumping to his father's arms.
At the boy's spontaneous reaction, Kid shared a smile with his wife, and Lou added, "We came to give you a proper goodbye."
"That's very nice. Thank you very much," he replied, ruffling Jed's hair, and shifting his eyes to Matt, he added, "Did you sleep well tonight?"
"No nightmares or worries?" Kid asked again, and the boy shook his head. "That's great."
"When are you coming back?" Matt questioned, not wanting to talk about what had worried him sick all week.
"In a couple of days, and I want you to be very good to your mother, all right?"
"I'm good!" Jed exclaimed proudly.
"And you, Mattie?"
"Yes, I'll be good. I promise," the boy replied seriously.
"These are my boys! I'm so proud! " Kid exclaimed, as he put Jed back on his feet, and then he approached Lou, "I'm going to miss you."
Louise nodded. "Be careful when you're out there, all right?"
"Lou, it's just a short drive to Seneca. I've done it dozens of times."
"Yes, but you never know what might happen. Newspapers are full of stories about travellers being assaulted. Please come back safely to us."
"I will," Kid replied, and wrapped his arms around her. "I have too much here to risk it." His hands travelled from her waist to her face, and framing her cheeks he brought her mouth to his and kissed her.
Seeing their parents in a tender moment was not so uncommon, and both boys reacted differently. Jed smiled from ear to ear whereas Matt let out a protesting 'Ma!" loudly. Kid and Lou pulled away with a smile. "Time to go then," Kid announced, and shifting his eyes to the edge of the stables where Ramon, the goat, was tied to a post, he added, "Boy, you and I need to get going."
Louise glanced at the animal, which for some strange reason had a strange kind of glum expression, and when she shifted her eyes to her children, they were looking at her with sad faces, and sending her a silent, obvious plea. Lou knew that she would be sorry sooner than later, but right now she did not have the heart to carry out her desires. Kid was already untying the goat when Lou said, "Kid, leave Ramon where he is. We'll keep him."
The two boys cheered happily, and staring at his wife with a surprised expression, he asked, "Are you sure, Lou?"
"I guess… Like you said, this is his home too. Getting rid of him is the easy way… maybe we need to teach him better."
"I will do that, Ma!" Matt exclaimed happily.
Lou smiled, and then added, "Why don't you boys go back to the house? Ask Janey to start breakfast. I'll be back in a minute."
"Yes, Ma! Bye, Pa!" Matt shouted, and before either of them could say anything, he dashed across followed by Jed.
"Matt, take care of your brother!" Lou called, and then she saw Matt stop at the porch, and taking Jed's hand, he led him into the house.
"He's a good boy," Kid said.
"I know. I was very worried about him, and I'm glad he talked to us."
"And things will probably go back to normal," Kid added.
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, they heard noise coming from the house, the sound of glass breaking, a loud thump as if a piece of furniture had been tipped over, and Virginia wailing. And almost instantly Jane's angry voice wafted over loud and clear, "Matt!!! What have you done?"
Kid and Lou shared a look. "You see? Back to normal, honey. Have fun," he said with an amused smile, kissing her on the cheek, and quickly climbed onto the wagon seat. "I'll see you in a few days."
Lou shook her head as Kid drove off, and mumbled between gritted teeth, "Coward. In a few days… yeah… you'll see, in a few days."
Author's Note: Thanks to Jessica for beta-reading this story, and the LJ girls for their constant encouragement.