Author's Note: Another story of my 'Our Dear Children' series which depicts the lives of Kid, Lou, and Buck, and their children

The wind blew mildly that day as Ellen Cross walked over the yard towards the house that lodged her neighbors and friends. As she approached, she thought it strange not to see Lou waiting for her on her porch. The day before the two women had agreed to go to town together, and Lou was usually punctual. Ellen knew that for some reason or another she was normally the one to be late even though Lou had two more children, one of whom was a toddler. Even today Ellen was a few minutes late, so she had expected Lou to be waiting for her. Something must have happened to Lou, or maybe she had just forgotten about their plans.

Ellen knocked at the door lightly and when the door opened, Matt appeared before her. "Hi, honey. Is your Ma around?"

"She's upstairs, Aunt Ellen. In her bedroom. Ginnie made a mess," the boy explained.

"I see," Ellen replied with a smile. "Do you mind if I go up and find her?"

The boy simply shrugged his shoulders in indifference, and turned away from the woman, silently giving her his particular permission. Ellen smiled as she headed for the stairs. Once she was in front of the bedroom door, she dared to open it a crack as she called, "Lou? May I come in?"

"Please come in," Ellen heard her friend's voice and when she got inside, Lou was undressing Virginia. The child's clothes were covered in a thick substance as well as parts of her small arms and hair. Ellen even noticed that Lou's dress was also stained and there were smudges of the same goo on her right cheek.

"What happened?" Ellen asked.

"Ginnie got into one of her enthusiastic moods. You know how eagerly she welcomes her food. I don't know how, in a distraction of mine she hit the plate with her puree, sending it flying. Needless to say, where all that found its way. Jane is cleaning the kitchen."

Ellen laughed. "Oh Virginia, have you been a naughty girl?" the woman said, brushing her hand over the toddler's bare belly. The girl let out a gurgling sound as if she understood what her aunt Ellen was saying.

"I'm sorry for this delay," Lou said as she finally removed the last piece of clothing from the baby, noticing that somehow the puree had got from under the clothes, and her arms and chest was also stained.

"Don't worry about that," Ellen replied. "Why don't you let me wash Virginia while you get changed?"

"All right."

While Lou walked to her wardrobe and picked out another dress, Ellen took a flannel and after dipping it in the washbowl, she started washing the toddler. Virginia seemed pleased by the soft strokes of the flannel on her skin, and Ellen looked as delighted. After a few minutes, she exclaimed, "There you go, young lady, all clean and neat!" Lou had already put on a new dress, and handed Ellen fresh clothes for the toddler. Ellen smiled, and said, "I sometimes envy you, Lou."

"What?" Louise let out in evident confusion.

"I long for a baby so much," Ellen whispered with a pained expression as she started dressing Virginia. "I wish Buck and I could have a big family, but… you know, it won't happen."

"You have a nice family, Ellen. Billy and Ike are good boys… you couldn't wish for better children," Lou replied.

"I know that, but I can't help wanting more," Ellen continued. "Thinking about Billy's untimely arrival and everything that happened afterwards… I sometimes wonder if my inability to bear any more children is God's punishment for my mistakes."

"Ellen!!!" Lou exclaimed. "That's not so!!! Ike's birth was very difficult, and you know the doctor feared for you and the baby. You both survived. How could you say that God's punishing you when you and Ike are both alive and fine?"

Ellen sighed. "Yes, you're right, and I'm just being silly. I have too much on my mind lately. The boys are growing up, and … I… I'm scared."

Lou understood perfectly what Ellen was talking about. Both women had shared joys and pains, fears and hopes, worries and secrets all over the years. Ellen did not have to voice what she was not saying, because Lou knew what she meant. "Honey, there's nothing to fear, but you can't go out of your way to find excuses to put off you know what."

"Well, I don't know, Lou, maybe things should stay the way they've always been. There's no reason to stir up our waters…" Ellen whispered as she finished doing up the last button of Virginia's dress.

"I don't agree with you, Ellen. You should put yourself in his place… but naturally, it's your family, and you're the only one to make that decision, nobody else," Lou said, squeezing her friend's shoulder affectionately.

Ellen looked at her with a sad smile, and just whispered, "Thank you."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Gentlemen, we're about to face a dangerous and important mission. Our lives are in danger, and our honor is at risk. The enemy is close by, and we need to be very careful. As your captain, I'm ready to die and sacrifice my existence for you, my brave men."

After his speech to his invisible men, Matt saluted them pompously, and then took the small telescope that Teaspoon had given him a few days ago. He opened it to its full length and from his position in the hall, he studied his surroundings through it. There was light coming from one of the rooms, and he said, "Gentlemen, enemy spotted. Let's approach our aim… and remember… be careful."

Matt fell to the ground, and made a waving motion for the men to follow him. He crept along the length of the living room, uttering different sounds as he advanced towards the studio. When he reached it, he brought a finger to his lips, reckoning his men to keep quiet, and then he opened his telescope again, and had a look inside the room. He could see his father at the desk, reading some papers, and Jane was also there dusting the books on the shelves. Neither of them was looking at the door, and Matt quickly dashed inside, and hid behind a small sofa in a crouching position so as not to be seen.

"Pa, is this the box where Ma keeps her photographs?" Jane asked as she took hold of a wooden box that was on one of the shelves. From his position Matt dared to have a look, and recognized the box. He still remembered when he and Ike had used one of his mother's photographs because Ike wanted his parents to get divorced. Mattie did not even want to remember the punishment he and Ike had suffered afterwards because of their meddling in their parents' matters.

Kid looked up from the papers he was checking, and said, "Yes, that's right."

"Can I have a look at the photographs?" Jane asked.

"I don't see why not," Kid replied.

Janey smiled, and came to sit on the sofa Matt was hiding behind. The boy ducked, trying not to be spotted, and in his own fantasy once again he motioned the men to be quiet. Jane opened the box, and started going through the photographs in silence. A few seconds later, Lou came into the studio, and went straight to her husband. "Kid, have you seen Matt?"

Without lifting his eyes, Kid shook his head and said, "He's not here as far as I know."

"I left him in the living room a couple of minutes ago, and now I can't find him. He needs to take his medicine," Lou said. From his hidden position Matt was relieved to hear that for the moment he had been saved from taking that horrible medicine. Last week he had suffered from a cold, and even though he was feeling much better now, his mother insisted on him taking that tonic. So for that reason the boy lowered his body, lying flat over his stomach, and crept a bit closer, almost placing himself under the sofa.

"What are you doing, Kid?" Lou asked when she noticed the stack of papers in front of her husband.

"Just checking these. Mr. Tomlinson says we owe him $100, and I'm completely sure we paid off that debt. I just can't find the receipt."

"Can I have a look?" Lou asked.

"All yours," Kid replied, rising from his chair and letting Lou sit down. Louise started to look through the papers while he did the same over her shoulder.

"Oh!" Jane exclaimed in a sweet tone, which drew the attention of both her parents. The girl shifted her gaze to them, and showing the photograph she had in her hand, she added, "This one is of your wedding day, but it's different from the one you have in the bedroom."

Kid slowly walked up to his daughter, and took the picture from her. It was the day he and Lou got married. It was a family photograph, with Teaspoon, Rachel, and the riders all gathered around them. He sat down next to Jane, and said, "I hadn't seen this photograph in years."

"You and Ma look so nice," Jane remarked.

"Thanks, honey," Lou said from her position at the desk. "Your father actually looked handsome despite the bruises on his face from his fight with your Uncle Jimmy the day before."

Jane stared at her father. "You and Uncle Jimmy fought? Why?"

"Over a woman," Lou said before Kid had the chance to reply. Kid sent his wife a sharp look, and Louise stuck out her tongue at him in tease.

"Pa…" Jane exclaimed, shocked that his father could have been involved in a fight over another woman the day before he had married her mother.

"Don't worry, honey. It wasn't that romantic kind of fight. It was a completely different matter," Lou explained.

"And a matter I'd rather not talk about," Kid added pointedly. Even though many years had passed by, he still resented Rosemary Burke, and how her mere presence had caused a rift in the Pony Express family. Kid still thought she had been indirectly responsible for Noah's death, and her deeds afterwards had not helped to make Kid like her any better.

Jane gazed at the photograph again, and after a few seconds, she said, "I don't know if it's just an impression, but… everybody's smiling, but they don't look very happy."

Kid and Lou shared a knowing look in the short distance. "Well, in a way you're right, honey. Our wedding was a great event for the family. We were the first ones to get married, and for weeks we were all very excited, especially your ma and me, of course. But it was a difficult time. A war was brewing in the east, the Pony Express was dying, and many of us didn't know what would happen afterwards. Your Uncle Cody joined the army, Jimmy apparently had plans with this woman, and I even wondered if I would leave to fight. It was a time full of changes. Our wedding day was very special for us, but that bleak atmosphere of the war lingered over all of us," Kid explained, omitting some parts of that day like the young soldier dying just after they had left the church.

Jane listened to him attentively, and something in her father's speech drew her attention. "You and Ma got married in March, didn't you?"

"Yes, that's right," Kid replied.

"Billy was born in February that year. How come you were the first ones to get married? What about Uncle Buck?"

At Jane's question Kid blushed, realizing what he had said. His eyes shifted to Lou, who was looking at him with clear disapproval. He started stammering without uttering a single word, and after a while, he just said, "Well, honey, some… sometimes things like this happen. Billy was born and Uncle Buck and Aunt Ellen got married a bit later." Jane stared at his father completely flabbergasted. Kid felt awkward because he did not want Jane to think that he was putting his friends down for that, but neither did he want Jane to get the impression that he condoned intimacy between unwed people. Even though he and Lou had enjoyed the pleasures of love before their marriage, now that he was a father, he could not even imagine that one day his daughter could do the same. "These things … uh… happen and when young'uns play with fire, they often get burned. Your Uncle Buck is an honest, responsible man, and of course did the right thing. But Jane, there are many unscrupulous men out there, who won't doubt to leave a woman in the lurch. So you know, a young girl cannot consent certain things."

Jane started feeling uncomfortable with the direction the conversation had taken. She did not want to talk about these things with her father, and before he could ask and tell her something that would make her feel even more awkward, she said, "I… I'll see if I can find Matt."

Jane dashed out of the studio as if the devil was after her. Once she was gone, Kid dared to look at Lou again, who was shaking her head in obvious disapproval. "I'm sorry, Lou. It was a slip of the tongue. I never realized what I had said."

"You could have told her you made a mistake, and Buck was actually the first one to get married," Lou added pointedly.

Kid sighed. "You know I ain't good at lying. I'm too obvious. You're right, but I couldn't think of anything sensible to say. "

"Yes, I know. I sometimes wonder how you managed to keep my secret from the others for so long back then." Lou replied, rising to her feet and coming closer to her husband.

"Because I was afraid to lose you, and I made a real effort," Kid replied and Lou smiled. "Anyway, I didn't say much about Buck and Ellen. I'm not such a fool to spill the beans. And I think Jane will be discreet about this."

"I know," Lou replied, and stretching her hand to him, she said, "Here's your receipt. You see? Two pairs of eyes see better than one."

"Thank you. You've saved us 100 bucks. I owe you one," Kid replied.

Lou smiled mischievously. "You owe me too much already, and I wonder when you'll pay me back."

"What about tonight, milady?" he suggested, passing his right arm over her shoulders seductively.

"That sounds really good," Lou replied in a husky voice, brushing her lips seductively over his cheek, as they walked out of the room, never noticing that their son was hiding behind the sofa, listening to every single word they had uttered.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Ike, drink your milk," Ellen patiently said for the umpteenth time. Ten minutes ago the rest of the family had finished their breakfast, but like every morning her youngest son whined and resisted from having his milk.

"I don't like it!" Ike repeated.

"I don't want any more protests, young man. Drink it up now! Matt and Jane will be here any minute to go to school. Do you intend them to wait for you today again?"

Ike did not say anything to his mother's words, but did not try to grab the glass of milk, which had been sitting in front of him for over thirty minutes. Ellen shook her head in exasperation. The door of the kitchen opened and Buck came in from outside. He could not help but to smile when he saw his son in the same position as ten minutes ago, and Ellen on the verge of losing her patience.

"Ike, haven't you drunk your milk yet?" Buck asked in a mildly scolding tone.

"And I won't. It tastes like a cow, and I don't like it."

"And you know what a cow tastes like?" Buck asked in amusement.

"Of course. It tastes like milk," the boy replied stubbornly.

Buck shifted his eyes to his wife, and smiled, but Ellen kept a serious countenance. "What am I supposed to do with this son of yours?" she said.

Buck shrugged his shoulders, and could not hide his amusement. "Uh… Ike, I need to pick up something from upstairs, and I hope when I come back, you'll have finished your breakfast. Be a good boy to your mother, will you?" Buck ruffled the boy's black hair, and walked out.

As Buck crossed the living room, he saw Billy on the sofa, a book splayed out on his lap. The boy lifted his eyes, and smiled at his father. Buck approached him, and asked, "What are you reading so intently, son?"

"Just a book that Aunt Rachel lent me."

Buck sat down next to his son, and took the book from him. He read the title, and asked, "Is this another novel, or is it something you need to learn for school?"

"It's a novel," the boy replied. "But you also learn a lot from reading novels."

"You're the most avid reader I know, and that's good," Buck said, patting his son on the back. He smiled at him, admiring what a fine man Billy was turning into. He could see a lot of Ellen in him; while Ike was his spitting image, Billy looked like his mother, and was keen on books like her. "This is your last year in the school. We haven't discussed about what you're going to do afterwards? We know you're a fine student, and if you want to go to college, we can study the possibilities. We can afford the expense if that's what you want."

Billy kept thoughtful for a while, and then said, "I don't want to leave Rock Creek. I would like to work here… with you and Uncle Kid."

"Are you sure?" Buck asked. "Of course I'd love to have you with us. This place will belong to you and your brother one day, but you don't have to do this just because of me or your mother."

"I am sure. I love horses, and work here."

Buck eyed his son, feeling that there was something more in this story. "Is this the only reason?"

"I… I like a girl. I can't consider courting her if I don't have anything to offer her," Billy explained.

"Is this girl someone we all know?" Buck asked with a small smile. Billy did not reply, and Buck added, "You need to think things through, Bill. You can't leave everything because of a woman. You're young, and you needn't hurry. There's plenty of time to do everything, and you can't sacrifice your dreams."

"This is my dream, Pa. I want to live here, and one day I hope to have her in my life too," the boy insisted.

"And this thing between you and this girl… is it mutual? Does she feel the same way too?" Buck asked.

"I don't know, Pa. All I'm sure about is that she belongs with me," the boy replied, and after a moment's pause, he asked, "How did you know that Ma felt the same for you?"

"Difficult to know at the beginning, actually. I guess I knew for sure when she accepted to become my wife," Buck replied, smiling as he remembered those old days. "I sometimes even wondered what on earth I did to deserve such a fine woman like her." He shifted his eyes back to his son, and added, "But, son, let me say this again. You're young, and have your whole life ahead of you. Think about all this again, and whatever you decide, do it because you really want that, and not because of anybody else, deal?"

"Yes, Pa. Thank you."

Buck rose to his feet, and on doing so, through the window he caught sight of Matt and Jane McCloud crossing the yard towards the house. "Matt and Janey are coming. I have to say she is growing into a very pretty girl… a beautiful young lady, don't you think, Bill?" Buck asked, winking at his son teasingly.

Billy blushed, and simply muttered, "I don't know, Pa. I don't know anything about those things." He got up and added, "I'll tell Ike to hurry up." The young boy dashed into the kitchen, and Buck kept smiling, amused. Bill and Janey. It could be a very sweet story, and for his son's sake he hoped the girl would share his enthusiasm, or otherwise, Billy would start suffering very early in his life.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The Morgans' farmland was on their way to school, and like every day Daisy was waiting for them, and joined her best friend and the boys. The girls walked ahead while the boys lagged behind. Billy purposefully fell back into this position because that way he could discreetly watch the girls as they talked, laughed and walked in front of him, especially Janey, of course. He loved her gracious movements, her beautiful smile, her musical laughter, and the way all her self glowed in every detail and motion. Billy was not sure when he had started to fall for Jane, but he knew he loved her like a man loves a woman. As far as he remembered, Jane had always been there; sometimes she had been his best friend, sometimes she had been his personal pain in the neck, and other occasions she had been just a very discreet part of his landscape. Now Billy was very aware of her presence in all senses. At home he spent hours and hours looking through his bedroom window just to catch a glimpse of her, and if by any chance she came out to the yard that the two families shared, Billy almost broke a leg to go to her and made up the silliest excuses to explain his showing up.

Billy was certain that Jane was the one for him. He knew her so well after years of living just a few yards away, but that did not diminish what he felt. People had always referred to them as family, as cousins, but Janey was not his cousin. Their parents were just close friends, but one day in the future if things progressed with Jane in the way he wanted, they would join the two families for real.

"Billy."

The voice snapped the young man out of his thoughts, and looking at his side, he noticed Matt looking at him. "What do you want?"

"I have a question," Matt asked.

Billy shook his head. "Another question of yours, Matt? What is it now?"

"How is it possible to have a baby without being married?" Mattie blurted out the question.

"What?" Billy exclaimed amused. "Why do you care, boy?"

"I just want to know. I'm curious," Matt said.

"I want to know too," Ike added, like usual following his best friend's lead.

"You're both too young to know about those things," Billy replied.

"Come on, Billy. Tell us… I know you know," Matt insisted.

"Oh yes? How are you so sure?" Billy asked with a crooked smile.

"Because you know… it happened to your parents," Matt replied in a soft voice.

At his words, Billy stopped dead in his tracks, and looked at him with a frowning expression. "What are you saying, Matt?"

Mattie glimpsed at Ike momentarily, who was looking at him with confusion, and then shifting his eyes back to Billy, he added, "My father said that you were born before your parents were married."

Matt's words did not sit well with Billy, and in a rage the older boy took his little friend by the collar of his shirt strongly, as he cried, "Take that back!!! That's not true!!!"

His loud voice came to the girl's notice, and when Jane looked, Billy had grabbed her brother from the shoulders and was shaking him violently until he fell to the ground. Jane ran to help the young boy, and pulled Billy off him. "What's gotten into you, Billy? Let my little brother alone. He's just a child and you're a brute!" she exclaimed as she helped Matt onto his feet.

Billy ignored Jane, and his angry eyes kept focused on the eight-year-old. "I'm sick and tired of your stories, Matt McCloud. And this ain't funny. My mother is a decent woman, and I'm not gonna let you spread that kind of malicious tales about her! She's a good person, unlike you, who are nothing but a liar."

Matt did not know why Billy was so upset. He had just asked a simple question, and did not understand what all the fuss was about. From previous experience, Matt knew that Billy should be let alone when he got angry, but this time the eight-year-old would not let the matter rest. Billy had called him a liar, and that was not true. "I'm not a liar. My father told my sister about it, didn't he, Janey?"

Jane blushed to the root of her hair. She did not know how her brother had got wind of what their father had told her yesterday, and like usual, Matt had to babble about it. This was a too embarrassing matter, and all she could say was her brother's name in a scolding tone. "Matt, please! Why don't you ever keep quiet about what you know nothing about?"

Billy turned his eyes to Jane, and asked, "Do you also believe that?" The girl did not reply, and just shared a shy look with Daisy. "I'm asking a question, Jane. Do you believe that or not?"

"I don't know. That's what my father said," Jane finally replied.

Billy's features hardened at her words. "But that's not true. Your father is wrong."

"Maybe," Jane conceded even though she could not think of a reason why her father had to come up with this story. Actually, Jane had the suspicion that she had forced the truth out of her Pa when she had noticed that the dates did not match. "It's not such a big deal, Billy. Let it go."

"It is a huge deal when my mother's virtue is questioned!" Billy exclaimed. "And I'll prove it to you!" he added, pointing a finger at Jane.

"Billy, you don't need to…"

"I can and I will," Billy said loudly, cutting Jane off, and without waiting for her response, he walked off, grunting and groaning unhappily, followed by Ike.

The girls and Matt kept looking at the two brothers walking away in the short distance, and a few minutes later, the boy said, "I don't understand why Billy is so angry."

Jane glared at her brother while she exclaimed, "Will you just shut up, Matt? When will you learn to keep your trap shut?"

"But, Janey, what did I do wrong? I don't get it."

Jane just shook her head, and turning to Daisy, she said, "Come on, Daisy. Let's go." And as the girls started off to school, Matt followed them, still clueless about what had happened to Billy, and why he had got so upset. He just did not understand that at all.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Billy, this is silly. You don't need to prove anything to me!" Jane said as she followed her friend into his house, which they knew was empty at the time. They had seen Ellen go out a couple of minutes before with the laundry basket to hang a pile of wet clothes in the back yard, so they knew she would not be back for at least ten minutes.

Billy stopped, and turned around to Jane. "I want to show you that you and your father are wrong!"

"Oh please. Whether your parents were married or not when they had you doesn't matter. We know they're decent people, and that's what counts."

"I'm sorry, Jane, but it matters to me. And it's important for me that you know," Billy replied, and without waiting for her answer, he resumed walking. He crossed the living room, and headed for his father's studio at the end of the corridor. Jane followed him despite herself. The afternoon sun timidly made its way in the room, leaving the inside in a game of lights and shadows. Billy left the door ajar after Jane had stepped inside, and then closed the widow shutter, which left the studio in complete darkness. Next, he lit up the lamp on the desk, and when the studio came to light again, he started what he had come to do here. "My parents keep all the important papers in this drawer," Billy informed his friend, but when he tried to open it, he let out a curse. "It's locked," he muttered bitterly.

"Better that way, Billy. We have no right to snoop around your parents' things," Jane said.

"Give me a hairpin, Janey."

"What?" the girl asked with a frown.

"One of your hairpins. Just give it to me!" Billy ordered eagerly.

Despite her reluctance, Jane did as Billy told her, and when the boy got hold of the hairpin, he stuck it in the lock, and worked on it. "What are you doing, Billy?" Jane asked.

"Just trying to open the drawer," the boy replied without stopping, and after a few minutes, Jane heard a metallic sound, and Billy finally pulled the drawer open.

"Where did you learn to do that?" Jane asked, her voice showing her surprise and admiration at the same time.

Billy looked over his shoulder to her, and smiling coyly, he said, "That's my secret." In fact, he had learned the trick from his father. For some reason Billy did not know, the small closet under the staircase had no key, and when his mother wanted something from there, his father used a hairpin to open and close its lock, and from watching him, Billy had learned how to do it. Why his parents did not change the lock of that door was something Billy did not know, but right now that trick had come in handy.

Jane approached and had a look inside the drawer. There were lots of documents and papers. Billy took a handful, and started to look through them. "Jane, come on. Help me out," he urged the girl.

Jane picked up a stack of papers, and followed her friend's example. "What are we supposed to be looking for?" she asked.

"My parents' marriage license. I want to show you the date they got hitched."

"Billy, wouldn't it be easier if you just asked them?" Jane replied.

"I want you to see the evidence. That will show you we're a decent family," Billy replied.

"You don't need to. I already know that!" Jane protested, a bit irritated by the fact that Billy could think she was so narrow-minded. As she had told him, she did not care about what Uncle Buck and Aunt Ellen did years ago. "Billy, everybody makes mistakes. Nobody's perfect, and that includes parents. I'm sure my parents have their share of secrets too."

Billy did not like to hear how Jane did not entertain any doubts about what her father had told her about his parents and his birth. "Keep looking," he muttered grumpily, keeping his eyes down, and focused on the documents he was scanning.

Jane shook her head at her friend's stubbornness, and shifted her attention to the stack of papers in her hands. After a few seconds, she stopped leafing through the documents, and her eyes stared intently at one of them. She read the contents with confusion, and surprise, but kept quiet about it. Through the corner of his eyes, Billy noticed that Jane's attention had got caught by something, and he asked, "What do you have there?"

"Uh… nothing," Jane stuttered, and quickly placed the paper at the bottom of her pile. However, Billy unexpectedly grabbed her sheaf of papers, and she only could let out a loud, "No!" Naturally, Billy did not mind her, and retrieved the document to read it. "Please, Billy. Don't read that. Please. Do it for me."

The boy looked at her sideways in indifference, and then shifted his eyes back to the paper. "This is a birth certificate," Billy said slowly, and as he threw a glimpse at Jane, she gave him a tense, uncomfortable look. He kept reading the contents, and she muttered, "I wonder who this William Capland is and why his birth certificate is among my parents' papers." He kept reading the document, this time aloud. "He was born in St. Louis, on February 2nd, 1861. Name of the father: William Russell Capland. Name of the mother: Ellen Margaret Capland, née Jackson." As he read word by word, his voice started trembling, and when he finished, he lifted his shocked eyes to Jane as she exclaimed, "This is my birth certificate!!!" Jane was as shocked as the boy, and did not know what to say, and Billy continued, "I… I don't understand. I just don't understand. Capland? Who's this William Russell Capland? Janey… my father isn't my father?" Billy was trembling from head to toe, and even though the truth the document unfolded was clear, he tried to find a possible explanation to what seemed senseless to him.

"Maybe that's the name your father went by back then. I mean… Indians don't really have a family name, do they? So I don't know… maybe that was the one he used back then."

"That doesn't make sense, Janey," Billy replied, pacing up and down. "There's only one explanation. Buck Cross isn't my real father … this fella is. My mother has been lying to me all this time." As he talked, anger bubbled inside him, and he felt totally humiliated with shame.

"Please, Billy, don't jump to conclusions."

The boy stopped his frantic pacing, and his angry eyes bored into the girl's intensely. "You know I'm right! Don't try to disguise the truth with silly ideas. This is the evidence I've been deceived all my life!!!"

"Please, Billy…" Jane tried to calm him down, and dared to stroke his tense shoulders softly. Billy kept a serious countenance, just staring back at her in silence. He was feeling devastated inside, and wanted to yell, or do anything to relieve the pressure squeezing his chest. Yet, he just stood there, just looking at the girl he loved, which brought about some strange peace to the tumult in his soul. From where the two teenagers stood, they heard the front door open and close, and then Ellen's voice humming a tune. Billy took a deep breath, and not giving a second thought about what all his self told him to do, he turned around and left the studio.

"Billy, no!!!" Jane exclaimed, running after him. The boy turned a deaf ear to her pleas, and walked resolutely to the kitchen.

Ellen was folding a pile of clothes over the kitchen table, and almost jumped when a voice resounded in the silence of the kitchen. "Ma!"

"Honey, you startled me," the woman said sweetly as she smiled at her son.

"Who's William Capland, Ma?" Billy blurted out the question without any preambles.

"Wh… what?" Ellen stuttered in a shivering voice on hearing the name after so many years. "Where did you hear that name?"

"Who is he, Ma?" Billy repeated the question, and when Ellen did not reply straightaway, he added, "Is he… Is he my father?"

Ellen's face had suddenly turned pale, her stomach was churning, and she felt she was going to be sick at any moment. She tried to force a smile on her face while she exclaimed, "Sweetheart, what are you talking about? Your father? What do you mean?"

"Ma, stop treating me like a fool!" Billy replied sternly. "This paper explains everything clearly. My father is William Capland!!! And I'm named after him!!!" the boy cried angrily, pointing with his index finger at the paper he held in his hands.

"Look, honey…"

"Answer me, Ma!" Billy cut her off in an imposing voice. "Is William Capland my real father? Tell me the truth. I need to know the truth."

Ellen's eyes filled with tears. She shared a brief, intense look with Jane, who stood behind Billy, unsure of what to do or say, and then the woman lowered her eyes, and in a very quiet voice, she said, "Yes, he is."

After the confession, silence settled in the kitchen. Billy stared at his mother with big, scared eyes, Ellen began weeping softly, and Jane stood on the same spot, feeling broken inside for what her friend was going through in this moment. In a way, the girl felt guilty because somehow she had opened the box of Pandora. It had been her innocent question that had started everything.

The door opened at that moment, and Buck entered. He instantly noticed the tense mood in the kitchen, and when he saw his wife crying, he got alarmed. "What's going on here?" he asked as he approached Ellen.

The woman lifted her teary eyes to her husband, and said in a husky voice, "Billy knows… Billy knows."

"What?" Buck asked, clueless about what his wife was talking about. He sent his son a questioning look, trying to understand what was wrong with Ellen. Billy sent him a furious glare, and he could not keep quiet any longer.

"That's right. I know… I know you two have been lying to me all my life!!! How could you do this to me? How could you not tell me the truth? I had to find out by myself, and only because Janey's father said something!!!!"

"Billy, please, calm down," Ellen tried, unable to control her tears. "Let me explain…"

"Don't you think it's a bit late for that, Mother? You had fifteen years to tell me, and you lied and deceived me like a fool!!! I didn't even know my real name!!!"

"Bill, don't talk to your mother like that!" Buck stepped in, taking the boy by the arm in an authoritative way. "We've always taught you to show respect to your elders, and nobody deserves that respect more than your mother."

Billy roughly disengaged himself from his hold and said in the same loud, angered tone, "And you have no right to tell me anything. You're not my father!!! You're nothing to me… nothing… nothing!!!"

"Billy!!!" Ellen exclaimed in shock, and the boy just shot off towards the staircase. "Billy, come back here! Billy!!!" Ellen cried over and over again but it was in vain. The boy's loud steps running up the stairs and then upstairs were her only response to her summons, and then a door slammed closed, followed by total, agonizing silence. Ellen sighed, sharing a hurtful look with her husband, a look that spoke louder than words. There was no use to talk; words were useless. They could feel each other's raw pain, and the fear shook them terribly. The moment they had both been dreading and putting off had arrived unexpectedly, falling over them like a ton of bricks. This was so wrong, and Billy had learned the terrible truth in the most cruel way. The pain they had wanted to save Billy from had hit him five times more powerfully, and now what?

Ellen shifted her eyes and noticed Jane was still there, under the threshold of the kitchen door. Uncomfortable, the girl stretched her lips in a strange smile, and after sharing a sad look with the woman, she finally turned in her heel, and left.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"That smells delicious, honey," Kid said as Louise brought a platter with the family dinner to the table. Pleased by his praise, Lou sent him a smile. When she had first got married, she had been very insecure about her cooking qualities, but Kid had always encouraged her in his own personal way. She knew she had improved notably over the years, but his praising words still comforted her.

"I hope you are hungry," Lou told her family, as she started to serve the meat and potatoes she had cooked today.

"I'm starving!" Matt exclaimed, licking his upper lip meaningfully as he eyed the food his mother was transferring from the platter to the plates.

"Me too!!!" Jed chorused his brother's words, drumming on the table with a spoon and a fork he held in his hands.

Louise smiled. "That's good, boys," she said, and when she finished serving, she took her usual seat at the table. Almost in unison, everybody joined their hands in prayer when, like every day at meal times, Kid said grace, thanking God for the food at the table and each member of the family. After a chorused amen, the silence was broken by the clanking of forks against the china plates as they ate. Like usual, the meal was accompanied by some conversation, especially as Matt told his parents about his day at school, giving details of everything and everybody.

"How was your day, Kid?" Lou addressed her husband when Mattie finally stopped his account. "Did you get to go to the bank?" she asked. When Kid had to go to town, he always let her know, but today even though she knew those were his plans, he had not said a word about it.

"I didn't go. I had unexpected extra work today," Kid explained.

"What extra work?" Lou asked again.

"Well, I had to do Buck's share in the afternoon. Apparently, he had a situation at home, and stayed in the rest of the day."

"What situation? Are Ellen and the boys all right?"

"I think so, but Buck didn't tell me much, and I didn't want to pry. He was acting a bit strange," Kid said, finishing off the last bite on his plate.

"I wonder what that might be," Lou muttered thoughtfully. Jane listened to the conversation with rapt attention. She was aware of what the problem was in their neighbors' household, and wished she could know how Billy was. Learning something so huge in such an unexpected way was surely devastating, and if something similar had happened to her, she would have reacted in a similar way.

Lou noticed her daughter's staring eyes and her serious countenance, and said, "Honey, is there anything wrong? You are very quiet tonight, and you have hardly touched your food."

"I… I'm fine, Ma," the girl replied, quickly shifting her eyes to the plate and the food before her.

Lou did not insist when Jane started eating, and at that very moment there was a knock at the door. "Come in!" she called in a loud voice, and when the door opened, Ellen appeared. Louise smiled and the woman walked inside with a strange expression on her face. "Hi, Ellen. Anything I can do for you?"

Ellen ignored Louise completely, and turned her whole attention to Kid. "I came to thank you for being such a good friend, and not giving a damn about my family," the woman said sarcastically.

"Wh… what?" Kid let out in confusion.

"What are you talking about?" Lou asked, surprised that someone as good-mannered as Ellen could use that coarse language in front of the children.

"Matt heard our conversation about marriage, and told Billy," Jane muttered in a low voice, keeping her eyes directed to the plate. "And he found out something else."

Kid and Lou shared a shocked look, interrupted by Ellen's voice. "That's right! He found out so much more!!! I thought you were a good friend, and not the kind who chitchats about other people's matters behind their backs!!"

Lou realized that Ellen was logically too nervous and upset, so before she could say something unsuitable before the children, she said, "Janey, Matt, go to your rooms, and take Jed with you."

Even though they had not finished their dinner, the children knew this was not the time to protest, and in silence they rose and left the kitchen. When they were gone, Kid said, "I'm really sorry, Ellen. I didn't mean any harm. It was just a slip of the tongue. Gosh, I wasn't even talking about you!"

"Is that supposed to erase what your big mouth did? My son is locked up in his bedroom, and won't talk to me, and Buck looks as if the whole world had fallen over him," Ellen said in an excited tone, feeling bitter and powerless at the same time. "I didn't expect this from you at all! But I guess that even though you look like a fool, you can also bite like a snake!"

"Ellen!" Lou exclaimed, unable to keep quiet any longer. "I know you're upset, but that's not reason to insult anybody. Kid already told you. It was an accident, Billy wasn't around, and what's more, he didn't say anything."

Ellen shifted her eyes back to Louise. "Of course, Louise McCloud had to stand up for poor Kid!" Ellen said in a mocking voice. "Nobody can say anything against her perfect husband, her perfect children, her perfect house, and of course about her perfect self."

"Look, Ellen. I won't take your words into account because I know you're just distraught," Lou replied. "But instead of wasting your time with us, why don't you go home and try to talk to your son… sort out your problems?"

The comment did not sit well with the other woman at all, and her face showed her indignation and fury, shining brightly as if it was about to explode. "And don't you think I've been trying to do just that all this time?" Ellen barked, loudly thumping her fist against the table. "Who do you think you are to give me lessons? Do you think you can boss everybody around like stupid minions? Bad news, missy. You can't order me around. Not me! Keep your opinions to yourself and rule your own home! And don't think I don't know this matter gives you some strange kind of satisfaction."

"Wh…what?"

"I'm very well aware that you are full of yourself, thinking that you were right, and I was wrong… that I should've told Billy… you're happy for my failures, my mistakes, my miseries."

"That's not true!!!"

"Of course it is… I know you, and I'm well aware that you look down on us, on my family… on my cracked family!"

Louise shook her head in disbelief, and looking straight into Ellen's eyes, she said, "Maybe it's you who look down on yourself. Stop comparing yourself with the rest of the world, and enjoy what you have at home."

Ellen humphed furiously, glared at Louise, and turning on her heel, she stormed out without a single word. After Ellen's tempestuous visit, Lou and Kid remained in silence for a few minutes, and then he said, "I feel so bad about all this, Lou."

"It isn't your fault," Louise replied in a very serious tone.

"Yes, but I understand Ellen's mood. Things might be more than tense at home, and she needed to let out some steam."

Lou just stared at him, without twitching a muscle, and then she added, "She better find another place next time."

"Lou…"

Louise did not want to discuss Ellen and what she had said. Her words had hurt her, and even though she sympathized with Buck and her, Lou felt very angry. "Please, could you remove the dinner tables while I call the children? We still need to eat desert."

"Sure," Kid replied promptly, not making the least attempt to mention anything about Ellen. He knew that when Lou was upset and irritated, it was better to leave the whole matter rest. She would come round eventually, and he really hoped the situation with Billy and his parents would soon settle down, and things would return to normal again.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

"Ready to sleep, boys?" Lou asked as she stepped into her sons' bedroom. The boys were already in bed, and at his mother's question, Jed responded with an excited 'Yes, Ma!" Lou approached the bed, and smoothed the bedding, tucking him in. "Do you want me to read you a tale, honey?"

The boy shook his head. "I'm tired," he replied, exaggeratedly yawning at the same time.

Louise smiled, and when she turned her head to the other end of the room where Matt lay down in his bed, she wondered why he was so quiet. She approached, and asked, "Is everything all right, honey?"

Matt stared at her with his big blue eyes, and said, "I'm really sorry for saying the wrong thing to Billy. I didn't know it would make Aunt Ellen so angry."

Louise sat down on the edge of the bed, her hand moved to caress her son's concerned expression. "Don't worry, honey. Forget about that, but, Mattie, you should learn to keep quiet about what you overhear from other people's conversations."

"I didn't know it was a secret."

"Yes, I know," Lou replied in a soft voice.

"Aunt Ellen was very angry," the boy said again.

"Yes, but not with you, honey. You needn't worry," Louise added.

Matt nodded. "She was angry with you and Pa," he whispered, and when his mother did not attempt to say anything else, he added, "Will Aunt Ellen stop being friends with you and Pa?"

Lou smiled at the innocent ways of her son, and opening her arms towards him, she said, "Come here, and give me a hug." The boy scooted closer on the bed, and let his mother hold him against her chest while she said, "I love you, my boy."

"I love you too, Ma."

Louise pulled away slightly, and looking straight into his eyes, she added, "And everything's going to be fine. Aunt Ellen has a few problems now, but it's nobody's fault, understood? Promise you won't worry about it, all right?"

"Yes, Ma."

"That's my boy, and now sleep time," Lou announced, and as the sound of deep intakes of air reached her ears, she turned to see her youngest son fast asleep, like usual his thumb had found its way in his mouth. Lou smiled, and whispered, "You see? Jed's sleeping already. Good night, honey."

"Good night, Ma," the boy replied, lying down and pulling the quilt up to cover his body.

Louise placed a soft kiss on his forehead, and put out the lamp on the dresser. Before leaving the bedroom, she stood at the door, looking inside. She loved this time of the day when the night fell, peacefulness reigned in her home, her children were in bed, and her husband was back from the stables. It was now she could look back at the events of the day, and laugh, cry, or worry about everything that had happened, but over all, she always felt proud of having reached the end of the day with both her failures and small successes, overcoming obstacles, and fighting problems.

It was some kind of routine she had started when she had first got married. The unknown future had scared her back then at a time when everything was uncertain, and her confidence in her abilities as a wife was more than weak. She had lived in a real torture in those days, fretting over what would happen the following week, or the other, and the next one. But then, she had realized that by worrying so much about what was not even there yet was making her miss out too much of what she was actually living. So she had learned to take a day at a time, and be thankful for the good and even bad things in her life. And when the children started arriving, she took every single day as a challenge, and a fresh opportunity to enjoy life, love and family.

Right now Lou found herself thinking about Ellen's angry words, and hurtful comments. She couldn't understand why her friend could have such a low opinion of her. She wasn't perfect, that was clear, and neither was her husband nor her children. Yet, Ellen could not expect her to feel anything but pride and satisfaction for those she loved. Her family was her life, and it was logical that her whole body and soul wordlessly cried that love because they actually were perfect for her. She wouldn't have them any other way, with all their faults and imperfections. This was how all mothers felt, and Lou was no different. It saddened her terribly to realize how Ellen regarded her, and felt bitterly disappointed in her because in her opinion Lou considered she had been a good friend to Ellen all these years.

Louise remembered when Ellen first arrived as if it had been yesterday. After a couple of years' absence, Buck had suddenly appeared in Rock Creek with her, and a two-year-old Billy, and without a single cent in his pockets. The whole family had welcomed them warmly, never questioning them, and acting as if the couple and the child had been around all the time. Back then the ranch was starting to take off, so Kid had given Buck a job, and helped him build a house in the property. From then on, the two families had grown close, a friendship that bloomed and strengthened with the years. Lou and Ellen had become friends, and confidantes, helping each other in their daily routing, and confiding their fears, worries and darkest secrets.

Everybody in the family had soon learned that Billy wasn't Buck's blood son, a secret protected from the busybodies in town. In fact, nobody outside the family circle had ever suspected the truth because Billy had inherited Ellen's traits. She had dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin, and naturally the differences between Buck and Billy were not too evident for the onlooker. Despite the common knowledge in the family about Billy's origin, only Lou and Kid knew the whole story in full detail. The matter was not discussed or mentioned, and nobody had judged Ellen. They had all been lying for her all these years. So how could Ellen now believe the worst of her?

Louise closed the door of the boys' bedroom, and continued down the corridor. She could see light coming out of Jane's room, and after knocking, she opened the door. Jane was propped up against the pillows, reading a book. "Honey, don't stay up reading too late. You need your rest."

"I won't, Ma."

Lou nodded. "Good night," she said, and was about to turn around and leave when Jane's voice stopped her.

"Ma? Can I ask you a question?"

"Sure," Louise said, walking inside and stopping just next to the bed. "What is it?"

Jane lowered her eyes, and whispered, "I'm worried about Billy. He was very upset."

"Yes, I can well imagine so."

Jane lifted her gaze to her mother again, and asked, "You wouldn't do that to me, would you, Ma? You wouldn't lie to me about something like that."

Lou smiled sadly, and lowered her body to sit on the bed next to her body. "Honey, your pa is your only pa. Gosh, you look so much like him!" Lou said, brushing her hand over Jane's long, sandy hair. "One might think I have nothing to do with you… just the sixteen hours' labor I went through when you were born."

Jane smiled. "I know that, Ma," the girl replied. "But if I were in the same situation as Billy, would you have told me?"

Lou kept thoughtful for a second. "I guess I would, but it's a difficult decision to make, honey. It's easy to speak freely when you're not involved, but when your decisions affect those you love, it's so complicated."

Jane nodded in understanding. "Ma, do you know Billy's real father?"

"I know your uncle Buck," Louise replied, and at her daughter's frowning stare, she added, "A father is more than the person that starts a baby. In my opinion, Buck's Billy's pa… but if you want me to answer your question, no, I don't know Billy's real father."

"But what happened? Why isn't he around?"

Lou understood her daughter's curiosity, but it was not right to talk about her friends' matters, especially after what had happened with Ellen today. "Honey, this is a private matter, and it's not my place to tell, especially when apparently Billy doesn't know everything yet. It wouldn't be fair for him. He should be the first one to learn the truth, don't you think?"

"Yes, you're right," Jane admitted. "Thanks, Ma. Love you."

"I love you too," Lou replied as she rose from the bed. "Good night. And remember, don't stay up too long."

"I won't," Jane promised. Yet, she still picked up her book but the written words did not get to register in her mind since all she could think of was Billy, and how he might be in this very moment.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Half an hour had gone since she had put down her book and put out the lamp, but she still lay on the bed awake. Jane felt unable to fall asleep. She kept tossing and turning, unable to shush the concerns and images from her mind. She had heard his parents' soft voices as they went past her bedroom towards theirs, and then the house had turned into complete silence, only interrupted by the soft chirping of the crickets or the howling of a wolf in the distance. Suddenly, another sound sneaked into the peaceful night. Jane first did not think much about it, but when it became more insistent, she realized that the knocking came from her window.

Jane jumped out of bed, and wearily approached the window. The knocking did not stop, and she reached for the curtain, which she pulled open. Thinking that the disturbing noise was made by a twig from the creeper growing all over the side of the house next to her window, Jane almost jumped out of her skin when she found a face behind the glass pane. "Billy!" she exclaimed in a whispering tone, and quickly opened the window. Billy was dangling outside, and Jane helped him into the bedroom. "What the heck are you doing here?"

"I need to talk to you," Billy explained.

"Now?" Jane replied in obvious surprise. "Do you know what time it is?"

"Please, Janey. It's important."

Jane nodded. "Keep your voice down then. Everybody's sleeping, and I don't think my parents would be too happy to find you here," she said as she put on her dressing gown, and sat down on the bed. Billy stood there and looked around the room, suddenly feeling shy and self-conscious on finding himself alone with Jane. "Sit down, won't you?" Jane said, tapping the space next to her on the bed. Billy hesitated for a second, but then sank down next to the girl, making sure there was a wide gap between them. "How are you, Billy?" Jane asked when he did not seem eager to talk.

Billy shrugged his shoulders. "It's been the most horrible day of my life. Everything I believed is a lie, and I don't even know who I am," he complained bitterly.

"You're the same person. I understand how you must feel, but don't doubt yourself, please."

Billy nodded ruefully, and after keeping thoughtful for a moment, he said, "Janey, you have to promise me that you won't repeat to anybody what I'm going to tell you now."

"Of course."

"Swear it," Billy insisted.

"I swear on my life that I won't say a word," Jane said in an impatient tone. "What is it? You sound very mysterious."

"I… I'm gonna run away from home," Billy finally blurted out.

"What???" Jane exclaimed loudly, forgetting completely that she should keep her voice down. When she realized it, she held her breath, sharing a troubled look with Billy and expecting to hear movement outside her bedroom as one of her parents came to check on her, but when a minute had passed and the house remained in dead silence, she whispered, "What is that crazy idea?"

"It's not a crazy idea. I'm going to find my father," Billy stated with clear determination.

"But… but you can't," Jane stammered, stumbling on her words as she tried to come up with something that could dissuade her friend from his intention. "This is your home… your family's here… and you know nothing about that man. Have you talked to your mother?"

"I don't have to. I know enough. I plan on heading for St. Louis. I'm pretty sure he's from there… I was born there, and I'll ask Grandfather Frederick. He must know everything. Now I understand so many things. I remember that those times my grandpa visited, he made comments and had a strange attitude that didn't mean anything to me then, but now all of that makes sense. Once he even talked to me aside about how I should be brave, and that my family's mistakes weren't my fault."

"But Billy, as far as you know, your real father might well be dead. Your mother is probably a widow, and then she married Uncle Buck," Jane tried.

"Then why did she have to lie to me? I don't think that's true."

"But there must be a reason why she didn't tell you," Jane insisted. "Maybe he didn't treat you or her well, or … maybe he abandoned you."

Billy shook his head. "Or maybe my mother cheated on him, and eloped with… with… with Buck," he replied. "I thought my mother could do no harm, but she's proved to me that she's not the person I thought she was. I don't want to talk to her… I just want to find my father."

Jane feared Billy might be hurt even more if he insisted on his intentions. "Why? He never looked for you, why should you?"

"We don't know that, Janey."

Jane sighed in frustration, and dared to reach for his hand, which she squeezed in hers. "Billy, why don't you let the matter rest? My mother says a parent is more than the person who starts a baby. Your father… Uncle Buck is a good parent to you… I know you love him, and he loves you. That's what matters, isn't it?"

Billy remained silent for a while, still holding Jane's hand and entangling his fingers between hers. "Janey, answer me. Do you love your father?"

"Of course."

"Think of everything you and your father have lived together since you were born. And now imagine how you would feel if your mother had stolen all those moments from you… every single one of them. How would you feel? Tell me, Janey. How would you feel?"

"Sad, upset, disappointed, angry…"

"That's exactly how I feel," Billy replied. "And I don't want to miss any more moments. I'm not a fool, and I'm aware of the possibilities I might find. I just want to know, and see him with my own eyes. I think I have a right to know where I really come from."

Jane could not find any other words, because he was right. She might probably feel the same, and even though she did not think leaving was the best way to tackle the matter, she knew Billy had made up his mind, and nothing she could say would convince him otherwise. "Your parents will track you down and go after you, you know that. And you can't stay out there without money."

"I've thought about everything. Don't worry."

Jane nodded sadly. "And are you leaving just now?"

"No, tomorrow. I still have something to do," he said, rising to his feet. Jane followed suit and in a sudden impulse she hugged him, and placed a quick kiss on his cheek.

"I'm gonna miss you, Billy," she whispered when she pulled away.

"Jane, can you do something for me?" Billy asked.

"What?"

Billy cleared his throat uncomfortable, and then said, "Can you give me a kiss?"

Janey furrowed her brow in confusion. "I already did."

"I mean a real kiss… the kind of kiss a man and a woman share," Billy explained, blushing at the same time. He noticed Jane's cheeks flame in awkwardness, and at her obvious reticence, he added, "Please Jane."

The girl did not reply at once, but after a few seconds, she lowered her eyes in embarrassment and whispered, "All… all right, but please, close your eyes."

No sooner had Jane uttered her condition than Billy shut his big, brown eyes, ready to receive the kiss from the girl he was in love with. It would not be his first kiss. When he was twelve, and his curiosity for girls was starting to wake up, he had kissed the daughter of a friend of his mother's, both of whom had stayed in his house for a spell. Billy did not even remember the girl's name, or liked the few kisses they had shared, but he was glad not to be a novice in this.

Jane hesitated for a brief moment, biting her lower lip nervously. She then took a step closer, and shut her own eyes before leaning her body towards Billy. She brought her lips to Billy, almost touching his awaiting mouth but for an inch. Her breath caressed his face, and Billy trembled from head to toe on feeling her so close. Her mouth finally made a slight contact with his, hesitatingly, and fearfully. At her touch, Billy could not control his profound longing for her any longer, and his hands came to cup her face, bringing Jane closer. The boy kissed her fully, completely, opening his lips and moving them in a soft rhythm to caress her sweet mouth.

Jane was surprised by Billy's vehemence, and initially kept frozen while she was overwhelmed by the sensations she was experiencing from his kisses, which were transporting her to an unknown world for her. After a while, and almost unaware of her own motions, she followed his lead, moving her lips alongside him, and meeting his very obvious passion. When an involuntary moan escaped her, she opened her mouth and, encouraged by her apparent willingness, his tongue silently requested permission to show her any possible way how he felt. Jane did not protest, and let him take the lead and do whatever he wanted. She felt she was under a spell, and wanted to feel everything, and let her soul in this newly-discovered universe of sensations.

After a few minutes, they pulled away breathlessly. "You're wonderful, Janey… No girl can be compared to you," Billy whispered in ragged breaths. He wanted to tell her that he loved her, but he did not dare to do so. That would probably scare her. "And I promise this kiss won't be our last. We will see each other again, and I'll court you then."

After their kiss, Jane was too stunned to say a word. Her entire body was trembling, and she had an urge to laugh and cry at the same time. She had to admit that there were times she had thought of Billy as more than a friend or a cousin, but she had not really taken it seriously. His request had surprised her, and after the kiss she could state that there was something special in him. She really wanted to see where this led, but then she realized he was leaving. He would not be around as from tomorrow, and he would not kiss her again any sooner. She felt the urge to reach for him, to beg him to stay, to do anything for him to stay. Yet, Billy had already walked to the window, ready to leave. She followed him as if hypnotized. The boy carefully moved to the other side of the window, and once outside he stopped a second, blew Jane a kiss and then vanished.

Jane stood before the window, watching him climb down the house, and then disappear in the dark night towards his house. She could not see him anymore, but still remained there as the tears appeared in her eyes, and trickled down her face, feeling her heart break into a million pieces.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

The house was silent, deadly silent, with the kind of silence that one could almost touch, that crept into your soul, suffocating everything on its way, reverberating stridently in the emptiness of a crowd. That morning at breakfast, Ike see sawed his curious eyes between his parents, who flanked him at the table. Buck kept picking at the scrambled eggs on his plate with a subdued expression whereas Ellen just sat motionless, her arms folded, and her gaze lost ahead of her. Ike was not really sure what was going on with his parents and Billy. His brother had locked himself up in his bedroom, and even though his mother had begged him to open and talk to her for hours, nothing had happened. Ike did not like this situation; he had never seen his parents look so sad, and the idea that Billy was the reason for their misery made Ike resent his brother.

There was a knock coming from the front door. "I'll get that," Ellen said, rising to her feet. For the first time that morning, Buck lifted his eyes from the plate and shared a look with his wife. Ellen just stopped for a second, smiled sadly, and then walked out of the kitchen to the hall.

As she crossed the living room, her eyes automatically shifted up the stairs. Ellen sighed when silence responded her wishes, and then she continued towards the hall. When she opened the door, Matt appeared in front of her. "Hi, Aunt Ellen."

"You're awfully early this morning, Mattie. Ike's still having his breakfast."

"I came to see you, Aunt Ellen," Matt said in a solemn way.

"What?"

At Ellen's exclamation of surprise, Matt produced a bunch of daisies he had kept hidden behind his back. "These are for you," the boy said, stretching the flowers to Ellen. The woman took them wearily, wondering what this was about. These were the daisies Lou had in her back garden, and before Ellen could express her thanks or curiosity, Matt added, "I wanted to apologize for what I told Billy. I never meant trouble."

Ellen smiled, and softly caressed the boy's hair. "Honey, that's sweet, but you don't have to apologize."

Matt's face suddenly lit up. "That means you're not angry anymore, and you and Ma will be friends again."

Ellen hesitated, and when she was about to reply, noises coming from behind drew her attention suddenly. Steps resounded in the staircase, and her heart started pounding in her chest when she saw her son dashing down the stairs. "Billy…" she let out in a whisper, her eyes following him eagerly. The youth did not even acknowledge her even when Ellen repeated his name more loudly. He simply kept his eyes down, and once he had came down the stairs, he dashed for the door. "Billy, please, talk to me," Ellen begged, grabbing him by the elbow to make him stop. "Please."

Billy lifted his hurt eyes to his mother, and said, "You had many years to speak up, and now it's too late." And disengaging her hand from his elbow, he went past his mother, and started running off.

"Billy! Billy!" Ellen kept crying after him, but the boy never stopped. He just kept running, and when Ellen could not see him anymore, she shifted her eyes back to Matt. "Thank you, honey," she muttered in a trembling voice, and went back into her house, closing the door behind as the tears started flowing from her eyes once again.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Billy kept running wildly as if a pack of coyotes were chasing him. He was panting breathlessly, and sweating when he reached town. He slowed down, and started walking along the main street resolutely. With a confident gait he finally went into the jailhouse. He needed to talk to Teaspoon, but when he looked around the office, he only spotted the deputy, sitting back at a chair, his legs spread out before him. "The old man is at the back," the deputy said straightaway.

Billy just nodded and walked to the far end of the room. Apart from the deputy, the place was deserted, the cells empty, like usual. Despite its tumultuous past, Rock Creek was now a peaceful town with just petty problems from time to time. Teaspoon had been its marshal for many years, and even though he had gone past his retirement age, he was still reluctant to hang his guns. In fact, the job was not half as strenuous as it was a decade ago, and he hardly ever found himself in the middle of trouble. He stayed in the office most of the time, and sent his deputies to do the dangerous jobs.

Billy opened the door at the end of the room, and stepped out. A few years ago Teaspoon had built himself a couple of rooms as an extension to the jailhouse. That had become his home, which looked cozier than his old run-down lodgings, and even had a lovely garden. It was exactly there where Billy found him. With a clothespin in his mouth, Teaspoon was struggling to hang his wash on the line. When he saw Billy, he faltered and the wet shirt slipped through his fingers, and fell to the ground. "Damn," he muttered as he picked up the garment, which was now smeared in mud, and left it dangling carelessly on the line.

"Hey, Teaspoon," Billy greeted him when he reached him.

"What brings you here so early, son?" the marshal asked. "School won't start for another hour, will it?"

"Can we talk?" Billy simply said.

Teaspoon eyed him curiously, feeling that there was something going on. Billy kept a serious countenance that did not let anything on, and Teaspoon said, "Sure we can. Have you had breakfast yet?" The boy shook his head. "Let's have some grub inside then," Teaspoon exclaimed, tapping Billy on his shoulder as he smiled.

Later Teaspoon watched curiously how Billy cleaned his plate a second time. "You sure were starvin'," the marshal remarked casually.

Billy just shrugged the shoulders. He had not eaten a bite since lunch the day before, and even though he had not had much of an appetite, he realized how hungry he was as soon as he had started eating. After downing his third cup of milk, he remained quiet and looking deadly serious.

"So, tell me, what is that you wanna talk about?" Teaspoon asked.

Billy nodded. He hesitated for a few seconds, but then he started. His voice was a whisper as he explained his story but the tone gradually increased in intensity as he carried on, expressing his anger, frustration, and pain at the same time. When he finished the account of his shocking discovery, Billy simply said, "You knew about this, didn't you?"

"Yes," Teaspoon admitted. "Your parents considered it was better to wait before they told ya, and nobody else had a right to question that."

"My par… my mother and Buck lied to me for years and years, and I'm sure they didn't have plans to change that. Do you think that's right?" Billy asked.

"Well, boy, I can't tell you if they were right or wrong. That's a personal matter between you and your parents," Teaspoon replied, emphasizing the word parents pointedly. "I can't meddle in this, Billy. Givin' you my opinion wouldn't be right. All I can say is that they love you and have cared for you all your life. But, Billy-boy, this matter is somethin' you need to sort out with them alone. Right now you three are sufferin', you and your parents, and now that this is in the open, you need to air everythin' else."

"They keep going on and on about honesty, righteousness, and sincerity… and now I discover they are nothing but a couple of hypocrites!!!"

Teaspoon rose from his chair, and came to stand near the boy. Putting a hand on Billy's shoulder affectionately, the marshal said, "Billy, you need to know that one of the most difficult things for a parent is to make things right. And when children grow up, it's even more difficult. Many parents don't want to realize that their puppies ain't so young and small anymore. Their main aim is to protect their litter from everythin' that might harm them."

Teaspoon's words did not manage to soften Billy's attitude. He held his head proudly with a set jaw, and his hands balled up into fists. "They're gonna realize I'm not a stupid child now whether they want it or not."

Teaspoon frowned, worried, because for some reason there was something in the boy's speech that told him that things were worse than he might think. He cupped Billy's chin and made him meet his eyes. "What are you up to, Billy? Somethin' is brewing in you, right?"

"Teaspoon, what I'm going to tell you can't leave these four walls. Nobody can know, especially my parents," Billy said, rising to his feet. "I know you're a man of honor, and will never betray my trust."

"What is it, son?"

"I'm going to run away… I'm going to find my father… my real father," Billy repeated what he had already told Janey the night before.

Teaspoon did not change his expression, and kept silent for a few seconds, trying to digest what the boy had revealed. "That's a very serious decision. It might be a wild goose chase, and many people will definitely be hurt if you do that."

"You know who my father is?"

"No, but…"

"Then I'll find out on my own. I'm going to do it, and nothing you say will change my mind," Billy stated firmly. "I can't stay… I can't be happy here anymore."

Teaspoon threw his hands to the sky in frustration. "Don't you realize what you're doin'? This ain't right and you're getting' me into a fix. I can't approve of that."

"You don't need to," Billy replied. "I've made up my mind, and it's my business."

Teaspoon shook his head. "Then what do you want from me? I doubt you came here just to talk to me when you already made your decision."

Billy did not speak straightaway, and lowered his eyes. "I… I need money, and I thought you could…"

"What?"

"I don't really want you to give me the money. I just want to borrow some from you… enough to keep me going for a while until I get to Saint Louis. I plan to start off right now. I will need some clothes and a mount. I couldn't risk taking anything and being discovered before leaving. I promise I will pay you back, Teaspoon."

"But, Billy, don't you realize what you're askin' from me? You know how I feel for your parents… And if you leave, they will surely come and ask me for help to find you… if not as a friend, as the marshal. How could I look at them in the eye if I'm the one who helped their son to leave? I would have to lie … to my friends, to my family."

"I'm also your friend."

"Billy, you're now askin' me to do just exactly what you accuse your parents of doing. I don't like lyin', you know that."

"Tell them the truth then. I don't care," Billy said, and paused for a second. "Teaspoon, if you were in my shoes, wouldn't you like to find out the truth about your roots… your origins? I think I have a right to know, everybody has a right to know where they come from."

"Talk to your folks then," Teaspoon replied in an increasingly loud tone.

"I can't," Billy retorted. "They might lie to me again. I can't trust them. I need to find out the truth myself. You're always saying that a man has to do what he has to do. I have to do that."

Teaspoon shook his head, but despite everything, he could not help but smile. "You're a very clever boy, Billy. You trapped me with my own words."

The boy lowered his eyes, and said, "Don't worry, Teaspoon. Forgive me for disturbing you. I'll manage. Thanks anyway."

Billy took a step towards the door, but the marshal stopped him by grabbing him from an arm. "Not so fast." Teaspoon knew that Billy was stubborn, and he would do what he intended with his help or without it. Billy would surely venture to the world without a single cent in his pocket, even if he had to walk all the way to St. Louis.

Billy looked at Teaspoon questioningly as the marshal walked to his sideboard and took some dollars from a china vase. The marshal walked back to the boy, and held the dollars up. "Come with me, Billy," Teaspoon said. Billy followed him to the garden and then the marshal addressed the boy again. "I have $40 here, but I ain't gonna give or lend you this money. But it can be you. You can earn it."

"How?"

"With effort and honestly."

"What do I have to do?" Billy asked again.

"You need to test your patience… that's all."

"I don't understand, Teaspoon."

"It's very simple. This money," Teaspoon said, raising his hand with the dollars "is going to stay here." The marshal crouched and placed the money under a rock. "You know where it is, and can take it whenever you want to. Of course first you need to earn it."

"I told you. I'll do whatever it takes."

"I know that it'd be hard for you to go back to your place today, but that's what you're gonna do if you want the money."

"No," Billy stated, shaking his head energetically at the same time.

"Only tonight. That way you could think things through, see your parents, talk to them, and if tomorrow you still think you want to go, you just need to come here and take the money," Teaspoon explained, and after a pause, he added, "But if you take this money before the crack of dawn, you'll be stealin' it. Go back home tonight, and that way you can earn it honestly."

"I can't go back home… I can't and I don't want to."

"Then steal the money. Rob me… it's easy," Teaspoon exclaimed angrily as he turned on his heel and went back into his house.

Billy stood there, staring at the rock under which the money was hidden. He crouched, lifted it, and even touched the money. For a few minutes, he remained in that position, caressing the old dollar bills, and considering taking the money. Like Teaspoon had said, it was easy. Yet, he finally put the money back, raised to his feet, and run off, unsure how he was going to resist the temptation, or if he was going to set foot in his home ever again.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Billy decided not to go to school that day. He was in the mood for anything and least of all, for keeping still while listening to Mrs. Dunne's lessons. All he wanted was to run and run until there was no ground under his feet. The pain within his heart was too strong, and he would even sell his soul to the devil if he could make it disappear. Even though his intentions to leave and find his father were genuine, deep down he wished things could remain the same. This was a bad dream, and he really wanted his family to be just as they had always been. He loved Buck, and could not imagine calling somebody else Pa. He could easily forget that paper that had unburied a terrible truth, and turned his world upside down. Yet, he could not do that. It would not be right. There was a man out there whose blood was the same as his, a man who should have seen him grow up, and witness every step he took, a man who was his father. Yet, he was nothing but a stranger to Billy, a shadow, a ghost. All the boy knew was his name, a name on an old, yellowish paper.

Billy shuddered at the idea of leaving everything behind, and facing the man who had fathered him. That was the right thing to do, though. He did not know what the whole story was, but he suspected that his mother had not done right by his real father. Why did she then have to lie? Why the secrecy? Billy had concocted an explanation to those why's, and even though he still had a few unresolved questions, his main theory was that his mother and Buck had met, cheated on his father, and then left. Billy believed there was no other reason to lie, and his father might be as clueless about his whereabouts as Billy was about the man's. So he had the moral duty to find him, and restore what his mother had broken.

After hours of walking and thinking, he found himself on his way to his place. It was a very hot day, and he was tired, actually, exhausted. He had not been able to sleep a wink the night before, and today he had been walking restlessly since the morning. The idea of going home did not appeal to him at all, but he would go straight to his room, and remain there all day like yesterday, and there was no danger of running into his parents. His mother would be busy in the kitchen, and Buck in the stables.

Billy discreetly walked into his house, and was surprised to hear some voices coming from the kitchen. His parents were there, and as he came closer on his way to the staircase, he could make out the words. The sound of his name drew his attention, and, moved by curiosity, instead of climbing the stairs he approached and leaned against the door frame while trying to overhear what was being inside behind the door.

"I know this is my fault," said Ellen. "I should have talked to Billy."

"Ellen, this is nobody's fault, and blaming yourself won't solve anything," Buck replied in a sullen tone. "We're together in this, and I'm as much to blame as you. We avoided the matter for too long."

"But how could I possibly talk to my son about something like this? He already knows, and I don't know how I'll explain the rest!!!" Ellen exclaimed, balling up her hands into fists.

Buck nodded, fully understanding what she meant. "I love him, Ellen… I love my son," he said in a serious tone, looking into her eyes.

"I know, honey," Ellen said softly, resting her hand over his.

"And… and…most of the time I forget he doesn't belong to me completely. He's my son in the same way as Ike is. I don't feel any difference… it doesn't matter I didn't create him… All these years mean more to me than anything else."

"To me you're his real father, nobody else."

"I still remember the first time I saw him… such a lovely baby… laughing cheerfully despite the alien place. I was taken to him at once," Buck said in a nostalgic tone.

Ellen smiled. "You fell for him way before you did for me."

"Well, he wasn't as hostile and cold to me as you were," Buck added with a crooked smile as they remembered old times. He paused, and in a more serious tone he said, "I don't want to lose my son. He's my life, and I'll feel like dying if I lose him. I'm scared… terrified, actually."

"I'm scared too," Ellen admitted.

Outside the kitchen, Billy was listening attentively, and feeling more confused than ever. The conversation between his parents had got to him. Teaspoon was right; he was not the only one suffering here. Right now he was divided into two, broken by conflict: he still thought he wanted to find his father, but he didn't want to hurt Buck and his mother. What should he do now? He did not know. A strange pressure was squeezing his chest and he felt like crying.

The door then swung open, and he found his parents before him, silently looking at him. Billy dared to lift his eyes to them, and simply said, "I want to know the truth… all the truth… the whole truth."

Ellen and Buck shared a brief look, and shifting her eyes to her son, Ellen nodded while saying, "Very well. Let's talk."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

They settled in the living room. Ellen and Billy sat on the sofa whereas Buck took a seat across from them. He wanted to give them some privacy. After all, this matter mainly concerned the two of them, but at the same time he also wanted to be close enough. Bill looked at his mother expectantly, but she did not rush to talk. Her mind was trying to find the words, and the best way to tell her son, but soon she realized there was not a best way. The truth could not be disguised, and nothing could tone it down, so she started after that beat. "I was working for Mr. Fraser, the store keeper, when I met your… when I met William Capland. He was new in town, and told me he worked for a rancher on the outskirts of St. Louis. He seemed to be very nice. We courted for a few months, and then he asked your grandfather for my hand in marriage. I… I loved him. He was tall and handsome, warm and friendly, and we got on very well. Everybody liked him." Ellen paused. This was the easiest part. Billy was listening to her unblinkingly, and Ellen was afraid of hurting him when she continued her account. "We got married, and moved to live in a cottage on his employer's property. Things were fine at the beginning, but a few weeks after our marriage everything changed."

"Changed?" Billy echoed.

Ellen nodded. "I… I… it was then that I really got to know the man I had married. He… he… he didn't treat me well," she whispered in obvious shame.

Billy stared at her mother with big eyes. "Did he … did he hit you?"

Ellen's eyes filled with unshed tears as she looked back at her son. "Everything… anything made him explode with rage. He wasn't the man I thought I had married. He was a stranger to me, and I couldn't understand why. This wasn't the life I wanted. It wasn't the fairy tale story I believed I was going to live when William and I got married. I tried to ask my parents for help, but you know what your Grandpa Frederick is like. This was my life now. I'd made my bed, and I had to lie in it, was all he said," Ellen said bitterly. "Soon I found out I was expecting you. I was so happy, and I secretly hoped a baby would change William. Actually, things got better, he left me alone during my pregnancy, but… but… in the meanwhile I found out something else."

"You found out what?" Billy asked.

"He was also involved in some murky business with his boss. Please, honey, let's not go into detail about this," Ellen begged. She did not want her son to know the kind of activities his father was involved in because it would only bring about shame. When Billy nodded, she added, "I was miserable, and the only thing that made me happy was you. When you were born, I was in total bliss despite everything. You were the most beautiful baby, and I never thought I could love somebody so much. William was a proud father… I could tell you as much. Yet, shortly afterwards he returned to his old habits. I made peace with myself, and I knew this was my fate, and there was nothing else to consider. Coming to terms with the situation made everything easier."

"I'm sorry, Ma," Billy muttered, taking her hand in his in a comforting gesture.

Ellen smiled. "But then one day when you were crying desperately like all babies do, he hurt you! He turned against you, something I had feared since the moment you were born! I couldn't allow that! My son was untouchable, sacred, and then and there I knew I had to escape, and keep you safe from that heartless monster! I made my decision while Dr. Smith was seeing to the bump that beast had caused you! Fortunately, you were fine, and among tears I told the kind doctor about my situation. I begged him to let us stay at his surgery just that night. He was aware of my situation at home from other times he had treated my injuries, and he had suspicions I had something up my sleeve, but he didn't pry."

Ellen stopped to breathe out, overwhelmed by the memories which she had tried to forget over the years. "Funnily, William was waiting outside the doctor's office. Like usual, all the way from home to town he had kept apologizing and promising that he wouldn't do it anymore. Dr. Smith told him that you should stay at his place overnight because he wanted to make sure everything was fine. William didn't protest, and of course I stayed with you."

At this point Ellen kept quiet, and Billy urged her, "What else, Ma?"

"I didn't want to get the doctor or his wife in trouble. William could be very bad news. I would slip away in the night without telling anybody. So I did. The night was cold, and walking and carrying you was more exhausting than I had thought. I realized then what a fool I was. I just had a few coins in my pocket, and had no food or anything. I was so desperate that I hadn't given a single thought to how we would survive out there. Fortunately, you still nursed, which was a relief. I kept away from the roads because William must have found out about us by then, and would be looking for us. I shivered just thinking what he could do to me if he found us. I walked through forests and fields, drinking from streams, and feeding on wild berries. I was running out of energy, but my problems didn't stop there. As I was resting under a tree, a group of Indians appeared unexpectedly. I tried to hide, but you started wailing, and before I knew what was happening, the Indians came to us, and took us captive to their camp."

"Were they Kiowa?" Billy asked, his eyes shifting to Buck.

"That's right," Buck replied.

"I was so scared, Billy. I couldn't understand a word of what those people were saying. I was treated roughly, but after what I had gone through with William, that was nothing in comparison, especially when they brought me some food. I was ravenous, and even though I was still frightened, at the same time I felt safe. William wouldn't find us here. And even though I didn't know it at the time, being captured was the best thing that could ever happen to me."

"Because you met Pa?" Billy asked.

Buck and Ellen shared a smile, both relieved that for the first time since the revelation the boy had verbally acknowledged Buck's position in his life. "When I learned that there was a white woman and a baby in the camp, I approached you, and talked to your mother," Buck explained. "Logically, your ma wasn't the most amiable person under those circumstances. Actually, she was quite rude." Ellen couldn't help but chuckle, and Buck continued, "You did just the opposite to your mother, Billy. You were such a cute, lovely baby, and we really hit it off, if I can say that about a young baby."

"Buck came to see us every day. At first, I was stiff and cold to him, but then I warmed to him as well. After all, it was nice to have somebody to talk to. And well, you can imagine the rest, honey," Ellen explained, feeling shy on telling about her private matters to her son. Things between Buck and her had been really awkward at the beginning. When she started feeling attracted to him, she still refused to do anything. She was a married woman, and it was wrong to entertain certain thoughts about a man who was not her husband. Yet, she was as good as a widow because she would never return to William's side. And even if she could, she could not contact him for a divorce. William would never allow that, and would surely force her back to the same situation. Yet, one day Ellen could not control her growing feelings anymore, and she and Buck started what they couldn't stop from happening anymore.

"Did you contact my… William again?" Billy asked, and when Ellen shook her head, he frowned and added, "But didn't you sort out your matters with him." Ellen and Buck shared a tense look, and Billy could hear in his head what they were not saying. "So you… and you?" he exclaimed pointing from his mother to his father.

"Buck and I joined our lives in an Indian ceremony. Soon afterwards we decided to return to the white world, and came to Rock Creek. In my heart we were married, even though our wedding would never be accepted in this part of the world. Apart from the family, nobody knew. My real marriage was nothing but a lie. Marriage means love, respect, and trust, which I didn't have with William. My husband is Buck, your father, the man who loved and cared for us."

Billy stared at his mother with big eyes. This was too much to digest, and he would need more time to come to terms with all this. There was something he had to confess as well, so he said, "Ma, I need to tell you something." Ellen nodded, and Billy continued, "I was very angry yesterday, and I even thought of going to find, you know, him. I'm really sorry."

Ellen took her son's hands in hers. "Look, honey, what I want you to know is that what happened ain't your fault. Maybe I shouldn't have married William, but I don't regret it, because you're now part of my life." Ellen paused, and then added, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you before, but I was so scared. I feared you'd react the way you did. It's understandable you feel curious, and want to know about your roots, but you wouldn't have found William."

"Why?" Billy asked.

"He's dead. A few years ago he was involved in some ugly business. He murdered a young lady, and was sentenced to death," Ellen explained. She had learned about William's life from her father. Despite his dislike to Buck, and their situation, her father had never let off where she was. Ellen had contacted him when she started to live in Rock Creek, and even though the old man had almost had an attack to learn that his daughter was living in sin, he had kept her whereabouts a secret from everybody. Apparently, after their escapade William had been totally livid, and tried to find his wife and son for months, but when his attempts failed, he just let go, but Ellen's father knew that his daughter's life was in danger if William got wind of where she was.

Ellen sighed, and looking into her son's eyes, he said, "I love you, Billy."

"I love you too, Ma," the boy replied, and leaning over he hugged his mother with more intensity than he had ever done. When he pulled away, he looked at Buck, who had not moved from his seated position, and the boy added, "Thanks, Pa. Thanks for loving us, and keeping us safe. I love you."

Buck smiled, and lifting from his seat, he came up to his son and wife, and without a single word, the three of them joined in a warm, deep-felt embrace.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

It was very early in the morning when Teaspoon woke up. It had been a restless night as he had not been able to stop thinking about Billy, and his situation at home. He was not sure he had done the right thing. Maybe he should have refused to give the boy the money straightaway, but Teaspoon had the hunch that Billy would have eloped anyway, even without a single cent. All the marshal hoped was that the time at home had made the boy reconsider his intentions.

Once out of bed, Teaspoon walked to his small kitchen. He scratched his head as he threw a casual look out of the window, and to his surprise he saw Billy there. The boy was before the stone Teaspoon had hidden the money under, and after a few moments' hesitation, he lifted the rock, and took the money. Teaspoon panicked, fearing the worst, but for a moment his feet did not respond, and he found himself stuck to the spot. Then he saw Billy walk to his door, and after knocking, he opened it a crack, and said, "May I come in, Teaspoon?"

"Come on in, son," the marshal replied, gesturing at him with his hand. As the boy stepped inside, Teaspoon looked at him warily. The marshal offered him some coffee, but Billy refused politely. Teaspoon poured himself a cup, and as he sat down at his table, he asked, "What brings you here so early?"

"I came to give you this back," the boy replied, leaving the money on the table next to Teaspoon. "Thank you."

Teaspoon took a sip from his coffee as his eyes seesawed from the money to the boy. "So I gather you ain't leaving."

Billy shook his head as he sank down on one of the chairs. "I talked to my parents. I know everything now."

"And how do you feel?" Teaspoon questioned, studying the boy closely.

"I don't know, Teaspoon. I'm kind of overwhelmed by this matter. It's as if I have to rediscover myself now. "

"Son, you're the same person. You're a nice boy with a good heart. Your parents raised you right, and you just need to think you got a good family who loves you. A plant grows from its roots, that's true, but it's thanks to the extra care that it doesn't wilt. Remember when your ma brought a rosebush back to life? She watered it every day, added good soil to its pot, pruned its withered leaves, and one day the bush was one of the most beautiful in your garden. Do you understand what I mean?"

Billy nodded. "I love my parents, Teaspoon, and I now understand what they did for me. I was saved from a terrible destiny, and my father … I can't even express in words what my father, the only father I've ever had for real, means to me. Yet, I feel kind of weird. I need time to think everything through."

"It's logical, Billy."

Billy rose to his feet. "I better take off. Thank you for everything," the boy said, motioning to the money on the table with a nod of his head.

Teaspoon also got up from his chair, and patting the boy on the back, he added, "Let me be honest with you, son. If you had run off with this money, I ain't sure how I'd get by for the rest of the month. I'd have had to borrow some money from your parents."

Billy chuckled. "Speaking of my parents, you should know you need to get ready to celebrate a wedding. They plan to get married for real very soon."

"That's good news. I'm glad for them."

"Me too," Billy agreed in a whisper. "Goodbye, Teaspoon, and thanks," he added before walking out of the door.

The marshal kept smiling, and Billy was already away when the old man said, "Ride safe, son. Ride safe."

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

Ellen smiled from ear to ear as she walked next to her eldest son along the small makeshift aisle in her back yard. After fifteen years of happy union, she was finally going to marry Buck for real. Apart from the births of her two sons, this was the happiest moment of her life. They had decided to hold the ceremony on the ranch, a private event with just the family. Even though right now she did not care what people would say about them, and their long-term 'illicit' relationship, she also knew that they still needed to keep up appearances. They were already a peculiar couple with their so different backgrounds, and Ellen was aware that some people looked down on them for that reason. She couldn't care less, but she had to think of her children. It wouldn't do them good to hear malicious comments about their parents in Rock Creek.

Ellen smiled at the familiar faces right and left as she walked on. She noticed Billy blush and grin when they went by Jane, and she smiled at him. Ellen knew that there was something going on between these two. Lately her son and Janey spent too much time in each other's company, going for long walks, getting together to work on their schoolwork, or just hanging out around the ranch. Billy had not told Ellen a word, but the woman had the hunch that her son was having his first experiences in romance. It had never been a secret for anyone that Billy was too fond of Janey, and fortunately for him, it seemed that the girl reciprocated his feelings. Ellen was glad for her son. Billy was still trying to come to terms with the truth he had discovered a couple of weeks ago, and it wasn't easy for him. So this new thrill in his life would help him to overcome his insecurities in a very complex moment in his life.

A soft wail at the front drew Ellen's attention, and to her glee she saw Lou with Ginnie on her lap, sitting next to her husband. Ellen had feared that Louise would not come to her wedding. After her unfortunate remarks a couple of weeks ago, Ellen had tried to approach Lou, and apologize, but Louise had not made it easy for her to do it. Whenever Ellen had knocked at the door, Kid or one of the McCloud children told her that Louise was busy, having a bath, taking a nap, or any excuse that prevented her from talking to Ellen. And if she saw her around the ranch, Louise just turned on her heel as soon as she saw Ellen coming to her. So Lou's presence here surely meant something even though she never turned her face to look at Ellen when she walked to the front.

Ellen locked eyes with Buck, who stood next to Teaspoon, both surrounded by the beautiful flowers that had grown in her small back yard that spring. When she reached them, she let go of Billy, as Buck took her hands in his, and whispered, "You look beautiful."

Ellen smiled sheepishly. She was not wearing anything special, just one of her best dresses, but Rachel had done her hair, embellishing it with small wild flowers. Her looks were not different, but she understood what Buck was saying. He was also wearing the same Sunday suit she had seen him in so many times, but he looked different, even more handsome.

Teaspoon cleared his throat, and then the wedding started. The couple kept sharing looks and smiles as the marshal conducted the ceremony in his very special way. Soon they were exchanging vows, and wedding rings. A spontaneous applause broke out behind them when Teaspoon declared them husband and wife, and they kissed. After their deeply-felt kiss, the family came to greet them. Teaspoon was the first one to congratulate them, and next came their children, who hugged and kissed them effusively. Ellen smiled at her youngest son. At his young age, Ike was of a fresh simplicity. She had struggled to explain the wedding and the reasons for it, and he had surprised her with his response. He had asked her many questions, but when his curiosity had been satisfied, he had accepted their special circumstances like with everything.

After receiving everybody's congratulations, Ellen held her breath when she saw Kid and Lou approach. Kid shook hands with Buck, and gave her a peck on her cheek. "Thanks, Kid," Ellen said smiling as she cast a look at Louise, who bore a very stern expression on her face. Lou shifted the young child on her hip, and leaned across to kiss Buck, and when she looked at Ellen, she stood still and in a curt tone she said, "Congratulations to both of you."

"Thank you, Lou," Buck replied.

Teaspoon's voice resounded in the place, announcing that they should start the celebration, and eating. A table had been set up in the yard, and they would enjoy a special wedding lunch in the open, enjoying the warm weather this spring.. At Teaspoon's announcement there was a ruckus as the younger children dashed to the table, and gathered noisily around Rachel, who was carrying a tray out of the house. Billy and Janey also followed, but walking slowly side by side, and when they reached the table, they purposely sat next to each other, and unbeknownst to everybody, Billy took her hand under the tablecloth as soon as they had taken their seats.

Buck chuckled at the energetic gang his younger child, and his cousins were, and said, "Let's go then, or there won't be a bite left for us."

"You'll have to excuse me, but I'm not staying," Lou announced, surprising the newlyweds.

Kid made an unhappy gesture while Buck asked, "Why?"

"Uh… Ginnie is getting a cough again… I don't want her to come down with a cold, so I'd rather stay indoors," Lou explained clumsily.

"But Lou, we can have our lunch inside," Ellen offered.

"Thanks, but don't bother yourself," Lou replied. "Thanks anyway." And before anybody else could say anything else, she had turned round and was walking away. Yet, Ellen shot after her, calling her name repeatedly. She couldn't let things between her and Lou remain so awkward. Ellen missed her friend, and she would do anything to restore their friendship.

"Lou! Lou! Lou!"

Louise stopped despite herself. She looked behind her, and saw Ellen, holding the edge of her dress in her hands, running towards her. When the woman reached her, Lou asked, "What do you want, Ellen?"

"Louise, I want to apologize, and…"

"There's no need," Lou cut her off, and turned to leave, but Ellen stopped her intentions by grabbing her by the shoulder.

"Please Lou, I'm really sorry for what I said about you and Kid. I was upset and I… I don't know what came over me. I didn't mean what I said to you… honestly," Ellen said in an emotional voice.

"I think you wouldn't have said that if there wasn't some truth behind your words," Lou replied in a curt tone.

"Please Lou, I was just too distraught, and…"

"Look, Ellen. I'm not angry with you, just very sad because I've realized that you ain't the person I thought you were. It's too bad you think so little of me. I came here today because Buck is my friend, and I'm really happy for you two. But don't ask me to be your friend, because I really can't… I just can't. Please if anything, respect my wishes."

Ellen nodded sadly, and this time Lou walked away towards her own house. A voice summoned the bride, and Ellen started back towards the table where all the family was already settled. This was her happy day, but also the moment she had lost a part of herself, her best friend, and despite her joy today she felt a bit lonelier.

The End

Author's Note: Thanks to Jessica for beta-reading this story, and the LJ girls for their constant encouragement. This is not the last story in the series. There is another one in the works, but I'm not sure when I'll be able to finish it. Thanks to everybody who has read this series, and to Tracy and Anita for their kind words.

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