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

"Look who's awake, my beautiful princess, the loveliest girl in all Rock Creek," Lou cooed her daughter as she picked her up from the crib. It had been three months since she gave birth to little Virginia, and the baby was growing up bigger and bigger with each passing day. Louise already missed the time when Virginia had been just a little newborn baby and the special bond that joined a child and its mother almost in a sacred way. And a week ago she had started having problems with her breasts, and the doctor had advised her to stop nursing her baby. So much to her chagrin she had to cut another element in that bond. Unfortunately, time went by too fast, and like her other children, Virginia would stop being a baby before she or anybody would realize it.

Out of the corner of her eye, Lou noticed Jane, who was looking at her with a serious expression. Louise smiled and as she approached her eldest child, she said, "Janey, you aren't jealous, are you? You know you're also my very special girl."

"Ma…" Janey protested. "I'm not jealous." She came closer to her mother, and caressed her sister's soft face with the back of her index finger. "Ginnie and I are already good friends. I was a bit tired of so many men around."

Louise smiled, and turned to the stove where milk was boiling. "You hungry, my love?" she asked as she removed the pot from the hob with her free hand.

"Ma, can I give Ginnie her bottle?" the young girl asked.

"All right," agreed Lou, as she passed the baby to her eldest daughter's arms. "Hold her head as I told you to," she instructed. "Go and sit on the chair in the corner and away from the draft." Louise paused, and then added, "I wonder when on earth your father is going to repair the kitchen door." Ten days ago Kid had removed the door from its hinges because it did not close properly, and since then it rested untouched in his shed.

Jane obeyed her mother, and Lou prepared the milk for her baby, two parts of water and one of milk. Once the girl was feeding her sister, Lou started to clean the fish Kid and the boys had caught yesterday and they would have for lunch today. She was so intent on the task that she never heard steps behind her, and when a couple of hands wrapped around her waist, she gasped, startled. "Good morning," Kid whispered in her ear, and his lips automatically found hers as he kissed her. Lou was fully aware of Jane's presence in the room, and pushed her husband away. "Kid!!!"

"Honey, you know I can't start the day without a proper good-morning kiss from my wife," he said softly. Since it was foaling time, he and Buck took turns seeing to the mares in labor, and he had left his bed very early this morning to relieve his friend. Kid tried to kiss her again, but she stopped him once again by pressing her hand against his chest.

"Kid, please, we ain't alone!" Lou hissed.

Before he could say anything, Jane's voice sounded from the other end of the kitchen. "Morning, Pa."

Kid turned round, blushing hotly as soon as he saw his daughter, who he had not noticed when he had first stepped into the kitchen. "Uh… hello, honey," he greeted her, and smiled sweetly on beholding the sweet image of his eldest child feeding his youngest. "And how are my girls today?"

"We're fine… is everything all right at the stables?" Jane asked. "We have a beautiful new filly," Kid explained, smiling proudly as if he was talking about a child of his own. "I've told the boys they can come and see it. Would you like to tag along?"

"No, thanks, Pa. Maybe later."

Kid smiled sadly, sharing a look with Lou, which only she could understand. His little girl was really growing up in all senses, and she was changing too quickly, something that saddened him. As a child, Janey was always eager to see the colts and fillies born in the season, but apparently, she had other interests now. "Well, my ladies, time to go back to work. See you later." He gave a peck to his wife on the cheek, and walked out of the kitchen.

Louise approached her daughters, and picked up Virginia, who she rested against her shoulder and patted on her young back to help her burp. "Your father sometimes acts as if he were still a teenager," Lou said.

Jane giggled. "I think it's very romantic. You and Pa look so good together even after so many years." Louise smiled as she placed the baby back in the crib. "Ma, can I ask you something?"

Louise turned around to her daughter. "Sure. What is it?"

Janey sat at the table in the middle of the kitchen, and, taking a cookie out of a china jar, she started to nibble at it. "Ma, how old were you when Pa started courting you?"

"Around seventeen… why?"

"Just curious," Janey said, and asked again, "And did you like him straightaway?"

"I guess," Lou replied without much enthusiasm, but noticing her daughter's eyes on her, she added, "Yes... he caught my eye quite soon."

"And when did he first kiss you… I mean, for the very first time?"

Louise frowned, staring at her daughter and wondering where this sudden interest came from. "Young lady, I think that's none of your business," Lou said in a light tone.

"Please, Ma!" the girl begged, looking with an expression that made Louise relent.

Louise sighed, as she sat down on a chair across from her daughter, and said, "Well, I kind of prompted him to kiss me."

The girl's curiosity was instantly perked up by the comment. "How come?"

Lou smiled as she remembered the scene as if it had happened just yesterday. "You know back in the old days when your father and I met, I had to make everybody believe I was a boy."

"So that you could work for the Pony Express…" Janey filled in for her mother. She knew the whole story about how her mother had become a brave Pony Express rider, competing with men skillfully. Jane had always been so proud of her mother, who was the most courageous and special woman she knew.

"Your father accidentally found out, and when he promised he wouldn't tell, I wanted to thank him. I timidly gave him a peck on his cheek, but well… I kind of lingered there too long. I guess he took it as a sign. And then he turned his face, and kissed me. It was strange and unexpected but I … I liked it."

"It's romantic," Janey said. "So you were a couple from then on?"

"No… well… kind of… but not completely," Lou stammered her answer in such a confused way that Janey stared at her in confusion. It was difficult to explain. She and Kid had not been a real couple then. However, there was a certain understanding among their friends about their close relationship, as if Kid had staked his claim, and she kind of 'belonged' to him. "It's complicated, honey. These things are often confusing. Not everything in love is beautiful and perfect as books say," Lou added, and after a pause, she continued, "And… young lady, I think you're still too young to worry about these things."

Jane frowned unhappily. She hated it when her mother cut off their friendly conversation, and reversed to her strict role as a mother. Janey felt she was too old to be treated like a child, and her ma should start seeing her like an equal. Pretty soon she would become a woman for real, and it was high time her ma and also her father realized her life was different now.

"Honey, could you keep an eye on Ginnie for me?" Lou asked. "I need to check and make sure your brothers aren't giving your father a hard time at the stables. You know they can be a handful."

Jane nodded, morosely thinking that for her mother she was too young to have an interest in certain things, but she was old enough to look after a baby. Her family definitely did not understand her, and maybe she needed to show them she was not a baby anymore.

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

There were dozens of people in town when the two wagons bringing in the Cross's and the Mcclouds arrived in town. Like every year in September, Rock Creek celebrated its particular Founders' Day. The atmosphere was clearly jovial and light in the streets, and everybody was eager to stop their responsibilities for just a few hours, and enjoy the day with their families.

When the two families left the wagons, they started to stroll leisurely, admiring the beautiful decorations that had been placed on the buildings. Since this was Virginia's first visit to town, their stroll was interrupted every few steps as their neighbors and acquaintances stopped them to meet the new addition to the family. Janey and Billy exchanged looks of total boredom, as they heard the same conversations and comments from everybody. When the girl saw her friend Daisy appear, she saw her as a chance to escape. "Pa, can I go with Daisy?"

"All right, but be careful."

"Of course," Janey replied, irritated by the unnecessary remark coming from her father.

"I'll go with you girls, too. I'm going to meet the boys in a while," Billy offered as he flashed his smile to the girls.

"Of course, Billy," Daisy promptly replied, her big mouth grinning happily and her eyes sparkling behind her spectacles. Jane did not say anything, and simply hooked her arm around her friends, and both girls started walking away with Billy following at a safe distance. "Every time I see your cousin, he looks more handsome," Daisy whispered.

"Billy?" Jane asked unenthusiastically, but secretly not liking the way Daisy always acted around the boy or talked about him. When Daisy nodded, Janey added, "I told you many times before. He's not my cousin. We don't share any blood."

Daisy gave her a strange look. "You seem very worried to make it clear that he's not really related to you. Do you like him?"

"Oh, Daisy, don't be ridiculous."

"I'm not. He's quite a catch," Daisy simply said as they kept going.

At her friend's comment, Jane could not resist to look behind her. Billy met her curious stare, and grinned, tipping his hat to her in an exaggerated fashion. The gesture made her blush, and she looked away quickly.

Billy beamed as his eyes stared at the girls walking before him, or rather at one particular girl. His mind was full of fantasies about that girl when he realized that he was framed by two little figures. "What are you two doing here?" he asked in obvious annoyance.

"We're going with you," Ike informed his brother. "Ma let us."

Billy made an unhappy face. "Why don't you two go with people your own age and leave us alone?" Billy exclaimed, and as he noticed Matt staring at him with a strange expression, he added, "And what are you looking at?

Mattie grinned slowly, and pointing a finger to him, he said, "You're sweet on my sister!"

"What?" Billy exclaimed, blushing at being caught by his small friend, and irritated by the whole notion, he said, "Shut up!"

"You're sweet on her! You're sweet on her!" Matt continued in a sing-song tone, jumping in some kind of particular dance of his, which soon was joined by Ike. Billy was angry, and scared that the girls could get wind of what the children were saying, so his hands reached to grab the two jokers and show them nobody messed with him. Yet, the children were faster and ran away from him. "If I catch you, you're going to be sorry!!! Go and get lost, and leave me alone!!!" Billy cried angrily.

Matt and Ike simply laughed, so hard that they almost stumbled in their hurry to escape a very furious Billy. Hearing the ruckus behind her, the girls glanced back with curiosity and when Jane noticed the fight between Billy and the two boys, she said, "Can't you see it, Daisy? He's nothing but a child."

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

"Why do we always end up being the nanny of these two? This one ain't even your brother," whined Roger, Billy's best friend. He was a lanky, young man, just a year older than Billy, and always ready for a good laugh. He had left school last summer, and now worked on his father's farm. He and Billy enjoyed each other's company in their free time, and because of their long friendship they practically knew each other's secrets without either of them opening their mouths to speak.

The two younger boys looked at Roger in clear disagreement, and Mattie said, "My name's Matt, and I don't like you."

Roger scoffed. "Why, boy, you broke my heart just now," he replied, pressing his hand against his chest in an exaggerated fashion.

"Leave them alone," Billy said. Roger was right; it was a bit of a pain to put up with this usual unwanted company. They had been doing so for a couple of hours already, but deep down having Ike and Matt along did not bother Billy so much. Actually, they could sometimes be fun even though he sometimes complained about them, but to be fair, they had not bothered them too much today.

A bit further ahead there was a group of people gathered around a juggler who was doing some kind of performance with a bear. The animal spun a couple of rings around his front legs while the man was tossing balls around. Billy spotted Jane and her friend Daisy among the spectators.

"Let's go watch that!" Billy suggested, pointing at the group with his finger.

"Yes!!!" Ike and Matt exclaimed and without waiting for any indication, both boys shot towards the people.

"Oh Bill, I'm not in the mood of standing and watching some idiot fooling around with a poor animal," Roger protested.

"Oh please, Roger… it'll be fun."

Roger soon realized why his friend was so eager to join the crowd of spectators. "Oh look who's there… I can now understand your interest."

Billy felt uncomfortable at his friend's comment, but tried to cover his own awkwardness. "And Daisy…"

"Bah…" Roger replied in an indifferent tone.

"You told me you liked her."

"No… I told you she was passable… she has a good landscape when you look at her from behind… that's all."

Billy laughed. "Roger… I shouldn't laugh, because that's almost rude."

"All right, my friend, you win. Let's go to see that nonsense…but I don't understand that interest in being closer to her when you almost live under the same roof," Roger said as they headed for the group.

'That's the problem,' Billy thought. It was too complicated. He did not know when he had started to think of Janey like something more than a cousin. He had even tried to ignore the very loud voice in his mind, but in the end he had to admit his fondness of Jane was very deep and real. What he wanted to do with these feelings now, he was not so sure. He could not even imagine what his parents would say, what her parents would say, or what Jane herself would say. And living so close was the worst problem. How could he talk to a girl about love when he had known her all his life and when they were always surrounded by family?

Roger and Billy approached the standing crowd, and placed themselves behind the girls with just a couple of people separating them. The girls had not noticed their presence, and kept watching the show. After a few moments Daisy tilted her head to her friend and whispered in her ear, "Have you seen the handsome man opposite us?"

Jane frowned, and instantly shifted her eyes from the bear, and noticed the person Daisy was referring to. She was right. He was very handsome: quite tall, and slender, with fine brown hair, very deep black eyes and olive complexion. Janey looked away when she noticed his eyes were on her. "Who is he? I'd never seen him before," she said.

"No idea," Daisy whispered back. "But he's been eyeing you the entire time we've been here."

"Really?" asked Jane as a smile danced in her lips and her heart strangely started thumping in her chest. She timidly lifted her eyes to find his gaze on her again, just like Daisy had said, a gaze so intense that she could even feel it on her skin. The idea that a handsome stranger was eyeing him fascinated her, and after a few shy, discreet looks, Janey gradually became bolder and met his eyes decisively. They stared at each other in the distance, the show of the bear and the juggler long forgotten. After a few minutes of indiscreet staring, Jane dared to smile without averting her eyes from his, and her gesture was responded by an impish grin, and a wink. And then to her utter surprise he walked away.

Jane and Daisy exchanged a look, and without stopping to think, Janey took hold of her friend's hand, and said, "Let's follow him." Daisy did not even reply and just let herself be pulled from the crowd. They could see the young man walking ahead of them, leaving the swarming part of the city, and moving to deserted streets. "I'm just curious to know who he is," Janey whispered, almost justifying her actions to herself rather than her friend.

As they crossed an alley and came out onto a wider street, they looked up and down, but could not see anybody. They had lost him, and strangely, Jane felt a deep sense of disappointment. Then all of a sudden, she gasped startled as she noticed a hand on her shoulder and a voice resounded behind her. "Did you ladies want something from me?"

As she turned round, she saw the young man they had been following. He smiled, tilted his head politely to them as he said, "Forgive me if I startled you. It wasn't my intention."

Jane smiled to cover her shyness because she did not know what else she could say. There was no excuse for her behavior, and now she was feeling totally awkward. So after a few seconds that felt like long minutes, she finally managed to say the first thing that came to her mind. "My… my name's Jane McCloud, and this is Daisy."

The man took a step closer to Jane, and taking her hand, he brought it to his lips. As he planted a kiss on her hand, he locked eyes with the girl, and said, "Like the French say, enchanté, Miss." Jane blushed, clearly pleased by his courteous display, and when he let go of her, she hid both her hands in her dress pockets shyly. "And I'm Mike."

"My name's Daisy," the other girl stepped in, realizing she was blatantly ignored in the introduction.

Without shifting his eyes from Jane, he said, "Could you do me a favor, Daisy?" He slid his hand into his pocket and took a few coins out of it. "Go to the store, and get me some tobacco."

"What?" Daisy exclaimed in a tone that clearly expressed that she would not heed him.

"Or get lost wherever you want to. Be a dear and let Jane and me have a few minutes in private. There's something very important I need to discuss with her."

Daisy looked at the man as if he had lost his head. She did not intend to be ordered around by some stranger. However, to her utter surprise Janey turned her head to her, and said, "Daisy, do it. Please leave us alone."

The girl gave her friend a look that showed her discontent and disagreement, but did not say anything. So turning onto her heel, she walked away, grunting between gritted teeth.

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

"Damn…"

The curse came from a few feet further up the street, a voice that neither Jane nor Mike heard. Unbeknown to the girls, Billy and Roger had followed them, and of course the two eight-year-olds have also joined them. Billy was fuming as he witnessed the weird play taking place between Janey and this stranger. And now that Daisy was leaving her alone with the man, he was overcome by sheer fear.

From where he and the other three boys were positioned, they could not see what Jane was doing, especially as she and the man moved towards the alley. Billy needed to know, and had a sudden idea, so he turned to his surrogate cousin, whose small size made him perfect for his plan. "Matt, go closer to them and find out what they're saying."

"No, I'm not doing any of that!!!" Matt protested. "What if that oaf licks me?"

"He won't even know you're there," Billy insisted.

It took Billy more than a few words to convince Mattie, but finally the eight-year-old relented and stealthily came to stand just behind a corner closer where his sister and the man were.

"Bill, my friend, this is daft; I can't waste my time watching a silly girl flirting with a fella," Roger grumbled. This stupid game his friend was playing felt too childish, and Roger had better things to do than spying on a daft girl, especially one who apparently did not care about Billy at all.

"Go then," Billy mumbled without shifting his eyes from the end of the street even though he could not see very much at all. Roger silently went away, but Billy remained there, glued to the place, more afraid of what his own imagination told him was happening than what was really taking place.

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

"So what's the something so important you have to discuss with me?" Jane asked as she leaned her back against the wooden wall in the alley. The sun shone brightly above them, and she had moved to the alley to find some relief in the shade the narrow street offered.

Mike drew closer to her, his own shadow falling over her body. "Has anybody told you how beautiful you are?" he blurted out.

Janey blushed pleased. "Well, it's not the first time… at least today," she replied in a playful way. Her parents were continuously saying she was pretty, so that was not a total lie after all.

Mike smiled. "Oh what a disappointment! Here poor me thinking I was the only one," he added, playing along. "And tell me, how old are you, sweet Jane?"

The girl stopped. She was aware that he was older… much older, and she could not bring herself to tell him that just a couple of weeks ago she had just turned fourteen. Her young age could spook him away, thinking she was just a little girl. "How old do you think I am?"

"Hmmm, let me think," he said, coming even closer to her. "Sixteen?"

Janey smiled. "Very clever… Mike."

"Lovely age. Sweet sixteen. Just the way I like girls… young and sweet."

"How about you? Let me guess. Eighteen? Nineteen?"

Mike shook his head. "Twenty-one." He paused to study her reaction, and added, "Disappointed? Too old for you?"

Jane felt a tug in her heart at his comment. 'Too old for me?' she repeated mentally. A nice-looking, young man had said he liked her, and was laying his heart to her like in the novels she read. Jane was totally charmed, bewitched by this handsome, sweet-talking stranger. "You're perfect," she blurted out without thinking, and when she realized what she had said, she blushed hotly. "I mean your age is perfect."

"Sweet Jane," Mike cut her off, taking another step closer, almost his bigger build hovering over hers. "Would you do this poor man a favor?"

"Get you some tobacco?" she said with a grin, teasingly repeating his previous words to Daisy.

Mike smiled, shaking his head. "What would you say to you and me getting to know each other a bit better?"

"What?"

"Meet me tomorrow for a picnic… do you know the Holm Oak?" Mike asked, and Jane nodded. "Will you meet me then?" Jane hesitated. Her parents would not let her go alone with a stranger that was years older than her. Almost as if guessing her thoughts, Mike added, "I guess you won't be one of those girls who expect men to ask for pa and ma's permission? It's silly to involve parents for just an innocent picnic, don't you think?"

"Uh… yeah," Jane replied awkwardly.

"So will you meet me tomorrow, Sweet Jane?"

Janey finally nodded. "Yes."

As soon as she accepted her invitation, she heard her name being called in a loud voice. As she looked up the street, she noticed Billy waving at her, and just a few feet behind him, she saw her family coming down the street. Jane got alarmed, and turned to Mike, "I have to go now."

"See you tomorrow? At six… in front of the hotel."

"I'll be there," she said quickly, and ran out of the place. In panic she did not even see her own brother who had been listening to the conversation, as she dashed up the street. She reached Billy and as they started towards their parents together, he asked, "What were you doing there with that fella?"

The stern tone in his voice and his evident curiosity did not sit well with her, and turning her annoyed eyes to him, she said, "That's none of your business."

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

A sigh escaped her rosy lips as she stood before the mirror. Jane was on pins and needles as she finished getting dressed. She was meeting Mike in an hour. The idea was enough to make her dizzy, and through the day she had considered forgetting about the matter. However, as soon as the idea got into her mind, she discarded it. She wanted to do this. Maybe she did not know much about Mike, but as he had said, she also wanted to get to know him. He was a fascinating man, and she liked him. Last night after the celebration in town, she had been unable to stop thinking about Mike. Mike and his beautiful smile. Mike and his deep eyes. Mike and his handsome face. Mike and his charm. Everything was about him, and today in school she had hardly concentrated.

After trying on three of her dresses, Jane decided to wear a very simple skirt and blouse. She wanted to look pretty, and elegant, but not in excess or otherwise, her mother would want to know where she was going. Her eyes traveled through the reflection of her figure in the mirror, and she felt quite satisfied. It was a shame she still looked too childish. Her gaze fell on her almost flat chest, and she scowled. Daisy was three months younger than her, and nature was far more generous in her case. Janey hoped she would not take after her mother in that sense, and if she could not have the voluptuous body of her Aunt Rachel, at least, she wanted to inherit her Aunt Theresa's elegant, curvy body. Jane smiled and blushed when she realized what she was doing. Almost unaware, she had pinched and pulled the material of her blouse, trying to imagine how she would look if she was fuller. It was definitely nice, and who knew… maybe one day…

After smoothing her blouse again, and tucking it into her skirt, she had another look at the mirror. Her long hair fell on her shoulders; she thought she could let it down like she had worn it yesterday instead of her usual simple plait. Her hands reached and twisted her tresses into a bun similar to the way her mother usually did her hair. Janey let out a peal of laughter, letting her mane drop again. This would not do. She wanted to look older, but not like a married woman. Another look at the mirror told her she was good enough, and it was time to leave.

Jane briskly made her way down the stairs, and when she approached the kitchen, her steps slowed down. She now had to face her main problem: her mother. If she had to deal with her father, it would be easier. She knew what strings to pull to get her way with him, but it was different with her ma. Sometimes Jane thought her mother had a sixth sense because it was almost impossible to deceive her.

Louise looked up from the bowl of peas she was shelling when she heard steps. She smiled when she saw the girl, who continued to the counter and poured herself a glass of water. "It's a beautiful day," Jane remarked casually as she looked out the window. "Daisy says the prairie is full of flowers, and I really want to see them."

Louise rose from the chair, and asked, "Are you going now?"

"I… I thought I could go for a walk. Is there a problem, Ma?" Janey asked wearily.

Lou shook her head. "No,… it's just that I thought you could stay with Virginia while I drop by Mrs. Allen's. Since her husband died, I've wanted to go and see her… but never mind, I'll go tomorrow. You go and have fun," Lou said. Janey helped her at home with her youngest children too much, and now Lou did not have the heart to thwart her stroll with Daisy.

"Are you sure, Ma?"

"Of course, honey. Enjoy the beautiful afternoon with your friend," Lou assured her.

"See you later then," Jane replied, smiling triumphant as she quickly made her way to the door before her mother could change her mind. As she was about to walk out, Lou called her, and the girl stopped and looked at her questioningly.

"If you see your brother, tell him to come home immediately. He went to do I-don't-know-what with Ike and Billy, and that was an hour ago."

"If he's with Billy, I don't think he'll let the boys get into trouble," Jane replied.

"I guess… but he needs to do his school homework. He's still way behind in his lessons, but he doesn't seem to care," Lou complained. "I don't know what I'm going to do with him. He only cares about playing and finding new ways for mischief."

Jane grinned, but she was hardly listening. Lying to her mother did not feel right for her, but on second thought, she told herself she had not lied in a true sense. She had never said she intended to meet Daisy or go for a walk with her. If her mother had understood that, it was not her problem. Yet, deep down she knew she had not been sincere, and she could not keep a straight face while pretending with her mother. "I need to go, Ma."

"Yeah, sorry, honey. Have fun and see you later."

Jane did not reply, and dashed towards the front door eagerly as if the house was on fire. When she was already out, she could finally breathe out relieved. Her mouth stretched in a insecure smile, and with a proud gait she started walking, leaving the house, her home behind, feeling a strange sense of pride, as if in just one day she had grown much older.

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

"There he is," Matt exclaimed, pointing at the approaching wagon. Billy and Ike followed the direction of their friend's finger, and saw the fella Jane had been talking to yesterday driving a buckboard along the main street. The boys were concealed behind a stack of boxes, belonging to the seed store, which gave them a perfect view of the hotel.

Mike pulled over, and left the wagon. Checking the time in his pocket watch, he realized it was a bit early, so he could use the time to have some refreshment. "Look!" Ike exclaimed. "Janey's boyfriend's heading for the saloon…."

Billy looked at his brother annoyed. "He's not her boyfriend… he's … he's …. he's nothing." Seeing that they had a few minutes before the stranger re-emerged from the saloon, Billy asked, "Ike, did you bring Ed and Edna with you as I told you?" Ike nodded, and his brother added, "Let's go… I have an idea."

The three boys came closer to the wagon. There was a hamper at the back, and checking that there was nobody around, Billy dared to lift the lid, and see its contents. He took out a bottle of red wine, while Mattie got hold of a food box. "What the heck does this fella intend? Get Janey drunk?"

"And look at this… cherry cake!" Mattie exclaimed as he rummaged inside the box.

Billy kept thoughtful for a few seconds. "Ike, put Ed and Edna in the box."

"Why?" asked Ike, reluctant to part from his very dear pets. He loved animals, especial wild ones. Ed and Edna were two small snakes he had found in the forest months ago, and he kept them hidden in his bedroom, because if his mother ever found them, she would force him to get rid of them.

"We want to teach this fella a lesson..."

"But we've already planted that trap at Holm Oak!" Ike protested.

"But it's not enough, and it might fail," Billy replied. "Please, Ike. Ed and Edna will be fine."

Ike finally relented, and moved his pets from his own cardboard box to the one in the basket, and each of the boys took a big piece of cherry cake, which they ate in a few bites. "And now the final touch," Billy said, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve.

"What are you going to do?" Mattie asked with a smile. He liked the way Billy was trying to spook this man away. Matt did not want his sister to hang out with this fella, and when he had spied Janey and Mike together, he had not liked how this man talked to her.

"You'll see," Billy replied, grinning mischievously. Coming closer to the horse, Billy took hold of his penknife and cut off part of the leather straps joining the horses to the wagon. Ike and Mattie laughed, realizing what the older boy intended to do.

"Quick! Jane's coming!" Ike exclaimed as he spotted her coming from the end of the street. Quickly they replaced the wine and the box in the hamper, and ran to hide behind the stack of boxes, patiently waiting for their plans to unfold.

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

Jane timidly approached the spot where she had agreed to meet Mike. Yesterday she had been so nervous and excited that she had not realized that if anybody saw her with Mike, her parents might get wind of it. Janey believed she was not doing anything wrong, but she also knew they would not see it that way. So the less her parents knew about this, the better.

To Jane's relief, she realized that at this time of the day people were on their way home, and the town was almost empty, getting ready to rest until the next day. There were just a couple of people around as she made her way up the street. Her heart suddenly started to pound when she saw Mike appear from among the shadows of the wooden walkway and wave at her.

"Hi," Janey greeted Mike sheepishly when she finally reached him.

The young man removed his hat and, like the day before, he took her hand and pressed it against his lips. "I wondered if you would actually show up."

"Why? I told you I'd be here," replied Jane in a low voice, not intending to reveal that she had had the same doubts herself.

Mike smiled. "To tell you the truth, Sweet Jane, I wasn't sure it was you when you approached."

"Wh… why?" asked the girl in a sullen voice. She wondered if something in her looks had made him guess that she was younger than he thought. Maybe yesterday she had looked older in her new dress or perhaps the shadows of the alley had hidden the truth about her tender age.

"Because you look even more beautiful than you did yesterday," he blurted out, looking her up and down appreciatively.

Jane blushed, pleased by his flattery, but still aware that they were in a public place where any acquaintance could see her, so she wanted to leave as soon as possible. "Shall we go?" she said.

Mike helped the girl onto the wagon, and then placed himself next to her on the seat. He spurred the horse, whipping the reins against its back, and the wagon started moving. Billy and the two other boys ran, trying to keep up with the buckboard, hidden in the shadows and among the buildings. The wagon was reaching the limit of the city at a leisurely pace, and Billy cursed himself, seeing how his first plan had failed. He should have made a deeper cut in the straps to make sure that idiot Jane found so fascinating could not move the wagon from its place for a while. And now he feared that the straps might split at the wrong time, and Jane might get hurt.

However, Billy did not need to be so pessimistic because almost at the same time as the thought crossed his mind, a loud crack resounded, followed by a yelp and a scream. The three boys stopped behind the last building of the city and watched the whole episode. The harness had split, sending Mike off the seat onto the ground, and since the horse did not stop, the man, holding the reins, was dangerously dragged for a few feet until his hands let go of the leather straps. Jane had also been thrown onto the dusty ground when the wagon had stopped so suddenly, but she was fine since the horse had been trotting at a slow pace. For a minute both Jane and Mike lay on the ground, just a few feet away from each other whereas behind the bushes the boys were laughing their heads off. Yet, not wanting to be discovered, Billy motioned Ike and Matt to move, and they ran off, knowing that their little trick would only delay the pair.

Jane finally rose to her feet, shaking the dust off her skirt. "Are you all right?" she asked as she approached Mike, who was rubbing his sore face. The man just nodded, and walked to the horse which had stopped just a few feet from them. Jane followed him, and when Mike examined the straps, he said, "Somebody has been messing with these."

"Why would someone do something like that?"

"I don't know, and I don't care, but if I catch the prankster, he'll wish he was dead!!!" Mike exclaimed, but when he turned his eyes to the girl, who was watching him curiously, he softened, and smiled. "I'm sorry this happened. I hope this incident won't mean the end of our picnic."

"But how...?

"I'll patch it up," Mike replied confidently. So taking the reins again, he steered the horse towards the wagon. From under the seat of the wagon, he took some leather, string, and a metal wire, and skillfully he managed to join the segmented straps. "This will hold on for a while… at least hopefully, we'll manage to get to Holm Oak and back. Trust me."

Janey simply smiled, and let him help her back onto the wagon seat. Mike spurred the horse again, and this time he managed to drive the wagon safely to the spot. The place was a beautiful, green prairie, and the only tree reigning like a majestic king was a big holm oak. "Do you know this place?" asked Mike as they walked towards the tree.

"I've heard of it, but I've never been here myself," Jane replied.

"You'll like it. It's very peaceful, and you can spend hours and hours here, and won't see a single soul appear.."

When they reached the tree, Mike left the hamper on the ground, and sat against the trunk. "Come on. Sit down," he urged Janey, tapping the place next to him.

Janey started to feel self-conscious. Here they were, alone, and now she feared how this innocent picnic, as Mike had called it, would turn out to be. Jane was not naïve, and from the conversations she and Daisy had overheard from the latter's older sisters, she knew what men wanted when they were alone with girls. The idea that Mike might want to kiss her as couples kissed would not be a surprise. In fact, she had even thought that she was ready to have her first real kiss, and Mike was a good candidate for that. Yet, now that she was here for real, fear was starting to creep into her soul, and she was getting nervous.

"Are you from Rock Creek, Sweet Jane?" asked Mike.

"Yes… I've lived here all my life. You're new in town, aren't you?"

"I'm from New York, but I wasn't happy there, and felt like seeing new sights, and breathing fresh air. I work for Mr. Benson, do you know him?" Jane nodded. Mr. Benson owned an enormous cattle ranch, and every year he usually hired dozens of men to help him with the new animals. "I like the job… I'm good with animals. One day I'll have my own business, and it will be me who will have employees. I haven't really been born to be commanded. I'd rather dictate orders myself."

The conversation progressed between the pair, and neither of them ever realized that they were being watched at quite a close range. There was a group of bushes just a few feet away, behind which Billy, Matt and Ike hid and kept watch. Their eyes were not so focused on the couple, but on the clay vessel dangling from the tree over Mike's and Janey's heads. Unbeknownst to his mother, Billy had nicked the old, unused container from home, and then he had dropped by an area in the lake, which was rather a swamp. Once he had managed to fill the vessel with muddy, filthy water, he and his young helpers had carried it to their destination. Thankfully, Holm Oak was quite close, but in any case it had been a considerable feat to manage to hang the vessel from the tree branches. They had wrapped some rope round its long neck, and then tied the ends to the boughs. The boys had sweated blood as they had worked together, and Billy had wondered if after all their efforts, this would not work the way it should after all. At least, as he had foreseen, the pair had settled in the right place, just directly below the vessel.

"Ike, give me the gun your friend Stu has lent you," Billy whispered.

His soft voice apparently had reached Janey's ears because they heard her say. "What's that?"

"What?" Mike asked.

"A voice… I heard a voice."

Mike looked at her as if she had suddenly lost her mind. "There's nobody here."

"But I heard something," she insisted as she rose to her feet, and even took a few steps nearer the bushes. The boys, hidden behind the shrubbery, stiffened, and tried not to move a muscle. They could hear Jane's steps coming closer, and they looked at each other, clueless at what they could do, but then almost without thinking, Matt let out a meow.

"It's a cat!" Janey exclaimed, stopping dead. Billy and Ike discreetly chuckled while Matt continued meowing. "It sounds like a baby cat!"

"Come back here, please" Mike asked.

Jane turned her head to him. "I know quite a lot about cats. My cat Betsy had a litter last year, and I looked after all of them. This one sounds hungry. Maybe it's lost, or wounded."

Behind the bush, Matt stopped meowing at once when he noticed Billy's glare. The eight-year-old shrugged his shoulders in apology, realizing that he should have done a dog's bark because Jane was afraid of dogs.

"Forget about the cat," Mike said. "We can't waste our time chasing after some poor animal! And I'm allergic to cats! They make me sneeze."

Jane reluctantly returned next to Mike, and sat back down. The young man had opened the hamper, and took out the bottle of wine. "Let's have a toast," Mike said as he poured the red wine juice into a couple of tin cups, and then gave one to Jane.

The girl looked at the cup in her hand warily. "I've never had wine before," she said.

"You'll like it. Come on, drink," Mike urged her.

Jane nodded, and then took a sip. "You're right; it's nice," the girl said, taking another more generous sip from her cup.

"Hold on there," Mike exclaimed, gently placing his hand on her arm, and removing the cup from her lips. "Not so fast, Sweet Jane. I don't want you to turn up half-drunk when you go back home. Let's fill our stomachs first. I've brought some cake along."

As Mike rummaged in the hamper, Billy got ready. The bomb was about to explode, and he was ready to go along with his plan until the last consequence. He pressed the gun against his shoulder, aimed at the vessel, and his finger stroked the trigger. Soon he would get his sign to shoot, and he did not have to wait long.

An ear-piercing, terrified scream filled the silent air, sounding alongside a loud 'what the heck'. That was the sign, and Billy did not hesitate, and shot. The bullet hit the vessel, which broke into several pieces, and the filthy water poured over Jane and Mike, who were still petrified and shocked by the discovery of the two snakes in the box. When the wet touch and putrid stink of the water hit them, a chorus of grunts and deep-throated yelps came from the pair. "What the hell is all this?" Mike exclaimed angrily, rising to his feet, kicking the hamper with the two snakes which coiled out of it, and trying to shake the water from his body.

On watching the pathetic show of the pair, and realizing their plans had worked, Matt and Ike could not help but laugh, cheer and jump out of their hideout. Billy could not stop them, and when Jane saw her brother, and realized who was behind all these pranks, fire burned in her eyes, and fury started boiling in her soul. The filthy water dripped from her hair and clothes as she marched towards the bush, pointing with an accusing finger to Billy. "How dare you! How dare you! Who do you think you are, moron? Go away before I do something I regret!"

"This is a free country, and we have the same right to be here as you," Billy just said.

Jane glared at him, and shifted her eyes to her brother. "And you! You've gone too far this time, and I… I…"

"What? Are you gonna tell Ma… or maybe Pa?" Matt challenged her, and when she realized he had the winning hand, she let out a frustrated grunt, turned on her heel, and marched back to Mike, who was glowering at the boys while motioned her to get on the wagon. Jane quickly climbed onto the wagon, and then they rode away, still hearing the reverberation of the boys' laughter in the background.

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

Janey hardly said a word during dinner that night. She had a headache, and felt angry and totally miserable. Her first outing with an attractive man, and it had to be ruined in such an embarrassing way. Logically, Mike had been furious afterwards, but thank goodness, when they had parted, he had mentioned he wanted to see her again, which had lessened her disappointment and misery.

After her ruined picnic with Mike, Jane had been able to sneak into her house without being noticed. She had washed up, and changed, and hopefully, she would manage to clean her stinky clothes without her mother learning about it. And if that might happen, she could always make up a story about her falling into the lake when she and Daisy were having their stroll. Yet, that was not her worst problem. Knowing her brother Matt, Jane suspected that he would probably let the cat out of the bag, and would babble about her encounter with Mike. Mattie was the worst tattle-tale she knew, and Janey had got into trouble a few times for his big mouth. He was a pain, and very often Janey wished with all her heart she was an only child.

Tonight just her family was dining on their own, since their neighbors and friends had some guests at home. Louise was serving dessert to her husband and children, when Jane's worst fear became true as Matt said, "Today Janey went for a drive with some old boy."

Janey took a deep breath while Kid and Lou exchanged a concerned look. "Is that true?" asked Kid.

Jane knew that it did not make sense to deny it, so she nodded slowly. Even without looking at her, the girl could sense her mother was already annoyed, and Lou's words confirmed her suspicions. "And you told me you were meeting Daisy!!!" Lou said in an accusing tone.

"I never said I was going with Daisy," Jane said in a low voice, knowing that her explanation, which had sounded so right to her ears, now seemed very weak and stupid.

"And who's that boy?" Lou continued her questioning.

"A friend."

"A friend from school?" Louise asked again.

"Not from school," Matt replied for Jane.

" Keep quiet, Matt. Your sister can speak perfectly," Kid intervened, but before he could even finish his sentence, Lou went on.

"And how do you know him?"

"Somebody introduced him to me," Jane replied, feeling worse and worse by the moment.

"And this new acquaintance of yours …. How old is he?" Lou finally asked Jane her most dreaded question.

Janey hesitated. She felt tempted to lie, but what good would that make? Her father knew Mr. Benson, Mike's boss, and would find out easily about Mike. Besides, if she wanted things to progress with him, she needed to be sincere with her parents, or she would get in deeper trouble in the long run. She would not be the first girl to be courted by a much older suitor. It was not such a big deal, after all. Of course, Mike was not actually courting her, or was her suitor, but with time he might be. "Twenty-one," Jane finally whispered, lowering her eyes to her hands on the table.

"Twenty-one!!!" Lou exclaimed in a loud tone, startling her two sons.

"Matt, take Jed with you, and go to your bedroom. Get ready for bed," Kid said. Even though Mattie did not want to go, he knew he better not protest. So taking Jed's young hand in his, he led him towards the staircase after bidding their parents goodbye.

"Twenty-one!!! I can't believe it!!!" Lou exclaimed again when the boys were gone. "You just turned fourteen, Janey. What were you thinking? Going with a stranger like that, and alone!!"

"Please, Lou. Let's calm down," Kid said, trying to soothe his wife. He was not much happier with his daughter's behavior, but he knew that barging against Jane was not the most reasonable way to deal with the matter. Kid turned to Jane, and said, "Honey, your mother and I think you're too young to go with boys… let alone men. You already have friends, and you have fun with them. So there's no need for you to meet strangers in this way."

"He's not a stranger. His name's Mike," Jane replied stubbornly.

"But we don't know him," Kid replied. "We don't know his family."

"He's working for Mr. Benson. He's from New York."

"He can be from Patagonia for all I care," Lou said in the same angered tone, and her irritation could not let her stay put any longer. "But how can you be so foolish? Going with a stranger!!! And where did you go?"

"Nowhere in particular," Janey replied. "I don't think I did anything wrong."

"It's not a question of rights and wrongs, honey," Kid continued. "It's simply imprudence. It's not normal to go, unchaperoned, with a much older boy, who we don't know anything about."

"But I do know him. He has ambitions, and plans to own his own cattle ranch one day," Jane explained enthusiastically.

"And he's afraid of snakes," Matt's voice sounded from behind as he stepped back into the room.

"Shut up, stupid!" Jane ordered angrily.

Mattie ignored his sister, and said, "Ma, I can't find Jed's nightshirt."

"Take a fresh one from the wardrobe," Lou said curtly without shifting her eyes from her daughter. Matt left again, and Louise said, "Look Jane, this is over. You won't see that boy alone again. Is it clear?"

"But why?"

"Because I say so! You're just a naïve, silly girl who can't think of the consequences of her own acts. This business is over… finished. Understood, Jane?" Janey kept quiet, and Lou repeated, "Is it understood, Jane?"

The answer she got was a sob as Jane ran up the stairs towards her bedroom. She slammed the door shut as she threw herself onto the bed and started crying bitterly. A few seconds later the door creaked open again, and without even turning her head, she knew it was her father. "Leave me alone! I need to be alone!" she cried among tears, burying her head under the pillow. Kid did not say a word, and simply closed the door again.

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

Later that night when Kid pushed the door of his bedroom open, Lou was already in her nightgown, and sitting before her dresser, energetically brushing her long hair. As she heard Kid's steps behind her, she stopped her motions to look at him. "All the children are asleep… even Janey," he said, looking down at the sleeping figure of young Virginia in her cot.

Louise resumed her strong strokes with the brush, and Kid approached. "Lou, if you continue using the brush with so much strength, you'll end up losing your beautiful hair," he joked, fully aware that she was very upset and worried.

At his words, she put the brush down, rested her elbows on the dresser, and pressed her forehead against her right palm. Kid stooped, and placed a soft kiss on top of her head. "Lou, we need to calm down, and stop worrying more than necessary." He started to massage her shoulders, noticing them tense, and leaning over, he nuzzled her neck, trying to do his best to make her relax. His hand traveled down her front, and sneaked under the material of her nightgown.

Louise impassively looked at her image in the mirror as her husband kissed and touched her. Any other day his caresses would burn up her very soul, but tonight she could not feel anything. "Whenever I think of Jane with that man alone, I feel like crying!" she exclaimed. Her comment was enough to make Kid stop, totally deflated, and he looked at her through the mirror. "Oh Kid, imagine what he could've done to her."

Kid brushed his hand up and down her right arm. "We can't go down that road, honey. We already told her what we think, and Janey is a good girl… and clever too."

"This is what I've dreaded since the moment Jane was born… I fear somebody might hurt her…"

"Like you were hurt?"

Lou turned round on her seat to look into her eyes, and nodded. Sighing, she rose to her feet, and walked to the bed. "Lou," Kid continued, as he sat down next to her and took her hand in his, "you can't live tortured by that idea. What happened to you was just monstrous, but Jane's circumstances are different... "

"It's not only about Wicks," Lou replied, her stomach revolting at the mere mention of the man who had stolen her innocence. "I know this matter with Jane ain't over. She's like me, and she won't let us tell her what to do without a fight. She'll go against us… I know."

"And what else can we do? If she wants to see that man, she will."

"And seeing we are so against it, she'll persist in it even more," Lou added.

Kid nodded. "Lou, I don't like this at all. Jane is still a child… but she's growing up fast. Maybe the way we've dealt with this matter ain't right… and if we bark, all we'll manage was having her bark back."

Lou sighed for the umpteenth time. "I know I got carried away, but this matter makes my blood boil," she said. "All this reminds me of that stupid thing I had with Tyler Dewitt, remember?" Kid nodded, and Lou carried on, "He was older, fascinating… and I was stupid. After what happened with Wicks, I should've been more careful. See how all that turned out."

Kid listened to her with a serious expression. "The idea that a twenty-one-year-old man can be interested in a young girl like our Janey doesn't show him in a very good light. Yet, for all we know this Mike could be an honest person."

They remained in silence for a few minutes, and Lou broke the silence. "What are you thinking about?"

He was so absorbed in his own thoughts that Lou's voice almost startled him. "I… I was thinking about the past."

"The past?" Lou echoed in bewilderment.

"Lou, can I ask you a question?"

"Sure," she replied, wondering what he was up to.

"If Dewitt hadn't been a crook, what would have happened between you and him?"

"What?" Lou exclaimed, taken aback by the question.

"Would you have let him court you properly?"

"Kid, that was ages ago!!!" she exclaimed, not understanding his sudden interest in something that had been forgotten long ago.

"I can't help but wonder. I never said a word, but it hurt… very much."

Any other time Lou would have laughed at his silly question, but she was already annoyed and worried about Jane, and the least thing was enough to make her explode. She was not in her best mood, and her anger soared with Kid's question. "I can't believe what you're saying!" she exclaimed, jumping to her feet and starting to pace up and down. "We weren't even together back then, so you had no right to feel hurt because I didn't do anything wrong." She paused, and stopping before Kid, she pointed her index finger at him as she added, "And let me remind you, Mister, that I wasn't the one who almost got himself killed, playing the national hero for a woman he had just met… only ten days after breaking up with his girlfriend, who incidentally was me!!!"

Kid realized his mistake, and regretted opening a can of worms that should have remained hidden and untouched. "I already apologized to you for that… many times."

"Oh yes… you apologized and apologized and apologized. Good thing that fella didn't kill you in the duel… it would have been such a shame if I couldn't have heard your many apologies!!!" she said sarcastically

"You still sore at me for that?"

Lou ignored his question, and continued her personal rant. "You almost got yourself killed, and she dumped you!!! It wasn't your decision… she left you. I should be the one wondering if you'd rather be sharing your life with beautiful Samantha now instead of with me!!! Maybe I'm just a poor substitute!!!"

"That's what you think?" Kid asked, totally astonished by her reaction.

"Maybe I do!!! Didn't you want to stir up the past? Here it is… Don't come to me, sounding high and mighty, when you have your own sins to hide… maybe you're not as good a husband as you make us all believe!!!"

Kid shook his head, as he rose to his feet. "Lou, I can't understand how you turn everything inside out, always blaming me for everything!!! I do love you, but my patience also has a limit."

"Where are you going?" she demanded angrily as he crossed the room towards the door.

"Buck will be glad to be relieved from the night turn, and right now my mind needs some peace and I can't find it here," he retorted, and without waiting for her reply, he just walked away, slamming the door shut.

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

It had been a terrible night, one Lou would not wish for her worst enemy. She had not been able to sleep a wink. Since Virginia was born, Louise did not get much sleep as she had to wake up a couple of times a night to feed her baby. And last night after what had happened with Jane and later with Kid, she had not stopped thinking about them for a single second, and kept tossing and turning in bed when she was not feeding Ginnie.

Consequently, today she had a terrible headache, and her mood was not much better than yesterday. Kid had still not shown up since he had decided to spend the night in the stables, and Janey had not said a single word to her before leaving for school. Lou still did not understand how her daughter was already intrigued by romantic stuff, and even wanted to experience some of that herself. She was only a child. Lou would not mind if Jane was trifling with a boy her age… but a twenty-year-old man… a man with a certain experience, a man who might have his share of women, a man who might demand something Jane was too young for… Gosh, when Kid was twenty-one, they already had Jane, and Matt was on his way.

"Lou?"

On hearing the voice behind her, Lou turned round from the washing up, and kept a serious expression as she saw Kid at the door.

"Can we talk?"

Louise nodded, as she wiped her hands on a tea towel, and leaned her hips against the sink. Kid came closer, and stopped a few feet from her. "Kid, I…" Lou started, but hushed when Kid motioned her to do that by raising his hand.

"Please, Lou, let me," he said. "I've been thinking a lot about what we said last night."

"Kid, I…"

"Please Lou, this will be easier if you don't interrupt me," he said. Lou kept quiet, wondering what he wanted to say, especially when he took a scrap of paper out of his pocket. "I want to read something to you."

"I'm listening," Lou replied, folding her arms over her chest.

Kid cleared his throat and started. "16… 14…291…8,745…210,880…"

"Kid, what the heck is all that?" Lou asked, cutting him off.

"Our life."

"What?" she exclaimed with a frown.

"Our life in numbers."

"What?" Lou repeated, not understanding what he was saying.

"Just hear me out, please," Kid asked, and then restarted. "Length of time Mrs. Louise McCloud and yours truly have known each other: 16 years, five months and 3 days… that is, 197 months… 5913 days…141,912 hours. Length of time the aforementioned have been married: 15 years, one month and 23 days… that is, 181 months…5453 days… 130,872 hours… In that time there have been millions of kisses, hugs, smiles, laughter…we've made love hundreds of times… maybe even thousands, and four beautiful children have been born. Times this poor man has felt terribly happy in those sixteen years of marriage: every year, every month, every week, every day… every second. Times the aforementioned has regretted marrying his current wife Mrs Louise McCloud: none… none at all. Times this man has thought about other women during his marriage: six." At Lou's hurt frown, he added, "Roughly the number of times Mrs. McCloud has brought up one of the ladies' names in a conversation or argument with her husband."

"Kid…"

"I haven't finished, Lou," he said, and directed his eyes back to the paper in his hands. "Seemingly, Mrs. McCloud has doubts about her husband, and feels threatened by a certain lady by the name of Samantha Edgars, last seen in these parts fifteen years ago." Lou tried to protest, but Kid did not let her butt in. "Let's see what these numbers tell us. Time spent with the aforementioned lady… roughly about 6 hours and maybe some more minutes. Examples of intimate nature: None at all. Times Mr. McCloud brought to mind his now wife in the presence of Miss. Edgars: too many for the sake of propriety."

Kid finally stopped and looked at Lou. "I know I've been an idiot. I have no excuse. Forgive me."

"You were nervous… so was I. I shouldn't have asked you that impertinent question about Dewitt. It was uncalled for after so many years."

Lou smiled and came closer to him. "But I have to say there's a mistake in those numbers. You forgot something."

"Did I?" Louise nodded, as she said, "Yes… this kiss." And her lips pressed against his, kissing with all the passion they still felt after all these long years of marriage. When the kiss ended, they continued joined in a tight hug. "I love you, Kid… so much. You're the best husband ever."

"That's because I have the best wife. I'm the luckiest person I know."

Lou pulled away to look at his face. "I'm so scared for Jane. She wouldn't talk to me this morning."

"She'll come around. Don't worry."

"I don't know, Kid. I can't help thinking she might be with that man at this very moment. I know she's very responsible, but she's changing. She had never talked to us in the way she did last night. I fear she might want to skip her classes or I don't know. Maybe I should talk to Rachel."

"Lou, we can't act like two guards with her. We need to learn to trust her, and she needs to learn from her own mistakes. We have to accept she ain't a little girl anymore. I know it's hard, but it's the way life works."

"I guess you're right, but I'm still scared."

"Me too. And you look tired too."

"I couldn't get much sleep last night," Lou explained.

Kid nodded. "Where's Jed this morning? I haven't seen him."

"Ellen took him to town. He needs new shoes, and I wasn't in the mood to go to the store. Ellen was going anyway, and she offered to take him."

"And I imagine Ginnie is sleeping." Lou nodded, and Kid added, "I also need some sleep. Why don't you come to bed with me?"

"Now?"

"Just for a brief nap. We need to restore our strength, and you know I don't like sleeping on my own."

Lou smiled despite feeling a bit wretched. When she shrugged her shoulders in agreement, Kid took her hand, guiding her out of the kitchen, and just stopping briefly to pick up the bassinet with the baby before going to the bedroom.

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

Teaspoon yawned and rubbed his protuberant middle after finishing his lunch. Eating was one of the best pleasures he could enjoy. Dr. Maxwell was always telling him that he should cut down on his food, because at his age overweight could be harmful for his health, but Teaspoon ignored all that piffle. It was true that he might not be as agile now, but he did not feel any older. He still could ride fast, hold a gun with a steady hand, and his mind was as sharp as always. Maybe he was a bit pudgy, but that did not mean he was an old, worthless man. His town was a safe place to live in; everybody admired his achievements as a marshal, and he had no plans to hang his guns. What right had a young doctor to tell him what to eat and drink? He knew nothing… nothing at all.

Somebody clearing their voice interrupted his train of thought, and as Teaspoon directed his eyes to the door, he found Billy at the threshold. "What brings you here today, boy? Shouldn't you be at school?"

"We are at recess, and I wanted to ask you something," Billy explained as he came closer to the marshal and stood in front of him.

"Speak up then," Teaspoon said, resting his crossed arms on the surface of his desk.

Billy did not talk straightaway, and leaning his hips against the desk, he turned his body to the marshal. "Teaspoon… have you had many girlfriends?"

The marshal raised his eyebrows, surprised by the question, wondering if Billy was planning to bother him with questions of intimate nature like his brother and Matt had asked the marshal a few months ago. "You mean girlfriends or women?"

"What is a girlfriend for you?"

Teaspoon smiled as he poured himself a cup of coffee. "When you have a girlfriend, you watch her, you follow her, you respect her. You feel her even though she's far away. A girlfriend is almost yourself… a shadow that's with you at every moment… when you walk through life, when you fight, when the odds are against you. She's always there. Then a girlfriend usually becomes a wife, a faithful companion."

"How many girlfriends have you had?" Billy asked again.

"Too many… or maybe none at all. I sometimes wonder…"

"Wonder what?" the boy continued with obvious curiosity.

Teaspoon cleared his throat uncomfortable, feeling he had talked more than it should be considered appropriate. "Nothing. Billy, why don't you talk to your pa about this… or maybe your uncle Kid? Unlike me, they are men of a single woman."

Billy shook his head. "No… I can't talk to them." Just thinking about mentioning any of this to Jane's pa or his own father made him blush and shift uncomfortably. Teaspoon smiled, suspecting what was in the young'un's mind. "Has anybody ever stolen your girlfriend?" Billy kept asking him.

"Stolen?" echoed Teaspoon.

"Yeah. What can a man do if somebody else steals his girlfriend?"

"Well, son, first I'd make sure the girl really belongs to me… that she's the true one. And then I'd also have to be sure she has been stolen. Sometimes what we love ain't ours to keep."

"But I know she's the true one, Teaspoon!!!" Billy exclaimed.

"And does she know?" the marshal asked pointedly.

Billy slowly shook his head with a morose expression. "What can I do?"

"It's difficult to say," Teaspoon replied. "Show her she's important to you… that you respect her… there's nothing more important than respect for women."

"Respect…" Billy repeated thoughtfully. "So a girl would never want to be with a man who didn't respect her, would she?"

"Yeah… that's the theory."

Billy smiled as the wheels in his head were moving once again. "Thanks, Teaspoon. You've helped me a lot," he said as he started towards the door, sounding and looking visibly more cheerful than when he had first stepped in.

"Any time, Billy," the marshal replied, wondering what the boy had in his mind now. At his age, Billy was now more responsible and less naughty than he used to be as a child, but even so, one could never be sure what he was up to. Teaspoon had noticed the way the boy looked at Lou and Kid's eldest daughter. It would be a sweet thing if Janey shared that interest, but it was difficult to know with girls, and, apparently, her interests lay somewhere else. That was what Matt had told him that morning when he had explained to the marshal in detail about the big argument Janey and their parents had the day before. Teaspoon did not think this was a serious matter, but he knew that when a boy at Billy's age was smitten, he might be very dangerous indeed.

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

The children had all flocked outside the schoolhouse as soon as Rachel had announced the break for lunch. Jane had morosely followed behind the mob but once she was outside, she felt very lost and miserable. She stood at the door, watching the children play as if she was just seeing a painting, as if she did not belong there. The hours at school today dragged, and she could hardly concentrate. It was a day she had rather delete. It had started totally wrong after a horrible night. She had not been able to say a single word to her mother, which really itched in her conscience. Jane was convinced she had not done anything wrong, and her mother simply did not understand her. Maybe she had not acted right when she had not told her ma about her encounter with Mike beforehand, but she knew that if she had mentioned anything, she would not have been allowed to meet him. Deep down it saddened Jane to be at odds with her mother because she had always been able to talk to her ma about anything. Lou had always been her confidante, but this time she had surprised the girl. Jane would have expected her father to react badly to her new acquaintance, but not her mother.

The day had not improved when she had come to school. Daisy had quickly started pestering with all kinds of questions about her encounter with Mike. Embarrassed by the way the boys had ruined the picnic, Jane had been reluctant to tell her friend about that, and Daisy had taken it the wrong way, getting angry with her, and since the morning, she had not said another word to Jane.

From her position, Janey swept her eyes around. The younger children were playing raucously in the middle of the yard; Billy was walking away towards town, which made Jane wonder where, and finally she spotted her best friend sitting with some other girls. In the distance Daisy met Jane's eyes for a moment, but then she just looked away, and continued talking with her companions. Jane did not dare to go to her now; Daisy needed to cool down before Jane tried to approach and explain things. Her anger did not usually last long, but while it lasted, it was very uncomfortable. Jane did not look forward to finding herself in the school yard by herself. She really longed for some company, and somebody to talk to.

Turning on her heel, she went back inside the schoolhouse. The room was empty, and Jane crossed the length of it. She could see the door at the end open, and she knew her aunt Rachel was inside. Years ago the town had built an extension to the schoolhouse that could be used as lodgings for the teacher. Sometimes at lunch break Rachel went into her home, and while there she did some quick cooking, she kept an eye on the children from the window overlooking the yard.

When Jane reached the end of the room, she knocked at the half-open door as she said, "Aunt Rachel?"

"Come in, Jane," Rachel's voice could be heard from inside. Janey stepped into the place, closing the door. The teacher was in the kitchen, energetically stirring the contents of a bowl with a wooden spoon. Without stopping, the woman smiled, and Janey came closer till she stood before her. "What's up, honey?"

"Nothing."

Jane's face told Rachel that the girl's words were expressing the opposite of what she meant. "I see. You want to tell me something and don't know how, is that it?" Jane nodded, and Rachel added, "Does it have anything to do with a fella and a picnic?"

"How do you know?" Jane asked, but before Rachel could answer, she frowned as she exclaimed, "Matt and his big mouth!!! What have I done to deserve such a pain for a brother!!!"

Rachel laughed at the girl's reaction. "So what's with this boy?"

"My parents won't let me see him," Jane explained.

"Won't they?"

"They say he's too old for me, but they don't know anything about him."

"And what do you know about him?" Rachel asked.

"Uh… nothing, but…but we like each other. How can I know anything about him if I am not allowed to see him?"

Rachel nodded. "So you really like this young man?"

Jane shrugged her shoulders. "I guess I do. He's very handsome. He talks about interesting things… he knows quite a lot." Janey stopped briefly, and then exclaimed, "Aunt Rachel, I didn't do anything… but my mother seems to think I committed a terrible sin!!! This past week she told me she first kissed my father just days after meeting him. And she flies off the handle only because I went to talk to some nice man!!!"

"Honey, you make it sound as if your mother used to kiss every man she came across," Rachel said, trying to make the matter lighter. "Your father was special… you know, she ended up marrying him," she added, winking at her.

"Maybe Mike's also special for me!" Jane exclaimed, and when Rachel did not reply, she said, "Aunt Rachel, you won't be like my parents and tell me Mike is not right for me."

She knew Jane wanted to hear somebody support her and tell her she had behaved right. Rachel understood Lou's attitude, so she needed to choose the right words with the girl. "Honey, your mother's just worried about you."

"I… I know, but she could hear me out at least."

Rachel kept thoughtful for a second. "Do you know what I'm doing?" she asked, meaning the sauce she was mixing up in the bowl.

"Making mayonnaise," Jane replied. "It's not easy."

"Exactly, because if you don't mix the ingredients in the right way, it might curdle. So this part is very important. You need to do it patiently, cleanly… even with a bit of love… similarly the way people at your age should be treated. That's what your parents are doing… preparing the ingredients for the future dish that you'll be… and they want you to be the most beautiful, the most special, the most wonderful. That's why, when they think some ingredient might ruin or damage the mixture, they try to put it aside or remove it."

Jane nodded. "But that might not be fair… they might be wrong."

"Yes, of course, but their intentions are genuine, and come from their hearts."

Jane nodded. "I understand that."

"And apart from your parents, what do the others say?" Rachel asked.

"You mean the boys?" Jane asked, and at Rachel's nod, the girl said, "They don't like it… and Billy… Billy…"

"What?"

"He acts like a jealous boyfriend."

Rachel smiled. "That's logical."

"Why? This is my life, and he has no right to say anything. I make my own decisions about the people I want to see. I'm not his girlfriend… or anything at all."

"You know something, Jane?"

"Yes, Aunt Rachel?"

"You're starting to sound so much like your mother did when she was younger, and asked me for advice about your father," Rachel said, smiling as the memories unfolded, and she was brought fifteen years back in time. "Let me tell you just one thing, honey. Don't let anything blind your judgment because you might be missing the whole picture."

"What do you mean by that?"

"I guess you'll learn that with time," Rachel simply said.

Jane waited for the teacher to elaborate, but seeing this was all she would get from her Aunt Rachel, she said, "Thanks for hearing me out."

"My pleasure, honey."

Jane left the woman, and crossing the schoolhouse, she stepped back onto the yard. Soon the voices of somebody calling her name drew her attention, and she then saw Daisy running towards her. Jane smiled as she waited for her friend, and when Daisy breathlessly reached her, the girl blurted out, "I've talked to him."

"Who?"

"Your beau… Mike…he came to me, and asked me to tell you something. "

Jane panicked. "He knows I'm still at school!!!" she exclaimed, realizing that somehow he had found out that she had lied to him about her age. She was blushing furiously, as she imagined what he must be thinking about her, and what he had told Daisy.

"He said he wants you to meet him at the hall on Saturday to see the play … you know, the one that man was announcing in town this morning."

"Does he want to meet me again?" Jane asked almost to herself, surprised that after her lies and their disastrous encounter Mike actually wanted to see her. At the same time she was baffled by her doubts, some movement beyond the limits of the school yard attracted her attention, and then she saw him. Mike stood there, waving at her, and when he realized she was looking, he exaggeratedly blew her a kiss. Jane smiled, and a sigh escaped her lips. She turned her eyes to her friend, and said, "Daisy, please, can you go to him and tell him to wait for me on Saturday? I'll be there… Come rain or high water, I'll be there."

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

Daisy stood outside the social hall, waiting in line to pay the dollar for admission to see the play. She had not planned to attend the performance since, because of her low grades at school, her parents had made her cut down on her social activities. Yet, her mother's aunt was visiting, and, when she had heard of the play, she had wanted to come. Of course none of her three elder sisters had volunteered to put up with Aunt Petronilla's mood tonight, and Daisy had seen this as a golden chance for her to leave her seclusion, and see how things went between Jane and her suitor.

Once she had paid the money, Daisy was about to return to her great aunt's side, but stopped when she spotted Jane on a wagon driven by her father and sitting next to her brother Matt. Curious, Daisy kept watching until the wagon stopped just a few feet from where she stood. Jane and Matt eased off the carriage while their father said, loud enough for Daisy to hear. "I'll pick you up in an hour, all right?" The man slapped the reins on the horse's back and drove away.

Jane reached Daisy's side, and Matt exclaimed, "Janey, let me go and pay with the money pa gave you."

Without a word, the girl gave her brother the coins, and he shot off. When the girls were left alone, Jane smiled and said, "So you finally came."

"My parents let me come with my aunt," Daisy explained, tilting her head to a serious-looking grey-haired lady who was talking to Reverend Simpson. "And what are you doing with Matt?" Daisy exclaimed after a beat.

"My parents wouldn't have let me come alone," Jane replied.

"But you know Matt's a tattletale… he's gonna tell on you."

"So is any busybody who comes here today. Well, my mother said I couldn't see Mike alone… and now I'm not alone, so she can't say anything against it."

Daisy shook her head, fully aware that however logical that train of thought sounded, Mrs. McCloud would still be unhappy. The girl was about to comment on Jane's words, but she was interrupted by her aunt's voice who unkindly ordered her to stop chit-chatting and help her to get into the hall. When Daisy was gone, Matt came back, and Jane then saw Mike stopping his horse. She smiled at him, and he initially smiled back, but when he noticed the young boy next to the girl, he made a questioning face. Jane just shrugged her shoulders with resignation, wordlessly explaining the presence of her young brother.

Mike tethered his horse to a nearby post, and approached the girl. "Hi," Jane greeted him shyly.

"Hi," the young man greeted back, his eyes indiscreetly staring at the girl. He shifted his gaze momentarily, noticing that Matt was looking at him with curiosity. Mike's face turned into a frown as he said, "And I know you. You were one of the three fools who played those pranks on us the other day."

Matt winced, and spooked by Mike's angry face, he hid behind his sister as he said, "But I won't do it again. I promise."

"You better…" Mike said in a menacing tone.

"Daisy's also come with her aunt," Matt added, trying to steer the attention from himself.

"Who cares about Daisy and her aunt?" Mike exclaimed, and cheekily looking Jane up and down, he added, "What I want is to be with your sister."

"But my mother…"

"Mattie, why don't we get inside?" Jane cut in before her brother could say something about their parents, and the tremendous lecture she had received. Mike already knew she was younger than she had claimed to be, and she did not want to appear too childish in front of him.

Mike led the way inside the room. Jane could see Daisy, sitting next to her aunt in one of the first rows of seats, and when the spectacled girl saw her friend, she waved at her in greeting. Jane smiled, and noticed Mike get settled in the fifth row on the left of a central aisle. Matt followed, and was about to sit on the only seat on the man's left, but Jane stopped him by grabbing him by his right arm and made him sit between her and Mike. She did not know why, but it made her nervous to be so close to Mike. It was silly really since a few days ago she had been all alone with him, and sitting even closer, but she felt it was different. Her agreeing to see him a second time meant something more, and the fact that she had brought Matt as a chaperone showed her ideas in a clear light.

Jane smiled at Mike over Matt's head, and looking around, she said, "The hall looks strange. Those decorations are kind of weird."

"The company is performing a spooky tale… you know, about ghosts, witches and all that. But don't worry… it's suitable for everybody, even pretty young girls," Mike said, winking at her. Jane blushed, and lowered her eyes shyly. Matt shifted his eyes between the two people framing him without much enthusiasm, and when Mike noticed the boy looking, he added, "I ain't so sure if this thing might be a bit too much for children like you, boy. Maybe you should wait outside."

The comment did not sit well with Matt, and glaring at Mike, he shot back, "Maybe I'm a child, but you're a coward who boasts of courage in front of girls, but can mess your pants like a baby."

"Mattie!!!" Jane exclaimed, totally shocked by the comment and so embarrassed that she wanted the earth to open up and swallow her. "Apologize to Mike at this very moment!!!"

"I won't do it. He started it!!!"

"Boy, fortunately for you, your sister is here. Otherwise, your parents would have to have another baby to replace you."

"You see what he's saying???" Matt exclaimed so loudly that everybody started looking in their direction.

"Please, Matt. Keep quiet… you're embarrassing me!" Jane hissed among gritted teeth.

Angry, Matt folded his arms, and pouted unhappily. Mike and his sister started talking, ignoring the young boy completely. Matt was sulking as he was feeling totally bored. A few minutes later a familiar whistle drew his attention, and as he looked behind him, he saw Ike and Billy sitting in the last row of seats. Ike was waving and motioning to him to sit with them. Mattie did not think about it twice, and jumping to his feet, he exclaimed, "I'm going with Ike."

"Matt, no! Don't go!" said Jane, but it was too late and her brother was already reaching the boys, who received him with open arms.

"Leave him. He's such a pain," Mike said, quickly sitting on the chair next to Janey, which Matt had vacated. "Next time leave him at home."

Jane did not reply even though she did not like the way Mike was talking about her brother. She was the first one to admit that Matt was a total nuisance, and because of his big mouth, he had got her in trouble with her parents more than once. But this time Mattie had been in his best behavior, and it was Mike who had egged him on.

People from the theatrical company started to close the window shutters and put out the oil lamps scattered in the place. The room then was in darkness, except for the faint light coming from the makeshift stage, and the play began. The dark atmosphere daunted Jane, but it was not that the content of the play scared her because she hardly followed what was happening on the stage. Actually, what unnerved her was the young man sitting by her side. She was fully aware of his presence; his leg was touching hers, and his arm was casually stretched on the backrest of her chair. Jane knew it was silly to feel this apprehensive; she liked Mike, so what was there to be afraid of?

Meanwhile, in the last row the boys were having a little argument. "I don't want to do it!" Matt whispered. "It wasn't you who almost got licked by that bully."

"He won't notice a thing. You're small in size, and you can hide," Billy tried once again. Matt hesitated. It was true that Matt was a bit small for his age. Even though he had inherited his father's traits, he was petite like his mother. When he did not say anything, Billy added, "You don't want that idiot to keep bothering Janey, do you?"

"I don't think Janey thinks he's bothering her."

"Well, if it doesn't bother you, it's fine," Billy replied. "Soon he'll be courting Jane, you know, you'll have him around often, especially on Sundays, he'll become part of your family, and before you realize what's happening, he'll want to marry Jane and take her away."

The panorama that Billy described was totally grim for Matt, especially the idea of Jane going away. So despite himself, he found himself agreeing to Billy's plan. "All right." Without wasting time, Matt crept along the aisle towards his objective. The row behind Jane and Mike was empty and the boy crouched behind the seats, making sure not to be seen. Matt turned his face behind him to look at Billy, who exaggeratedly gestured him, touching his own shoulder. Matt shifted his eyes back to the oblivious pair in front of him. Mike still had his arm on Jane's backrest as both of them attentively looked at the play.

Without a further thought, Matt placed his hand on Jane's shoulder. As soon as the girl noticed the touch on her shoulder, she stiffened for a moment, but then she told herself not to be silly, and turning her face towards Mike, she smiled brightly while the young man grinned with a blank smile. Jane felt his fingers run up and down her shoulder blades, tickling her, and she giggled while looking at him. Mike stared at her with a clueless expression, and then removed his arm from the backrest. Mattie had to stop, and moved his hand from her sister's shoulder, and directed his eyes to the back row again, and Billy mimicked him to keep going.

Still ducked behind the chairs, Mattie crept closer and placed himself between the two chairs on which Mike and his sister were sitting. He noticed the pair's hands at their sides, so an idea hit him. Matt slid his little arm through the gap between the two chairs, and placed it on her sister's, massaging it softly. Janey smiled and kept looking at his companion. His touch sent a rush of sensations to her skin, and she liked it. Mike kept looking back at her with a strange expression, but Jane did not seem to notice anything strange.

After a while, seeing this was not making the desired effect, Matt thought of provoking the man, so he shifted his hand from her sister's to Mike's, and repeated the same procedure. Mike gave a jolt of surprise when he noticed the little hand caressing his, and gazed at Janey with a wide smile as she returned the look with a twinkle in her eyes. The young man was pleased by her obvious forwardness. From the very first, he had known she was younger than the age she had stated to have, but she had something that had attracted him. So because of how young she actually was, he knew he had to go slow with her, but maybe this young gazelle had more baggage than he had thought, something that excited him tremendously. Mike's hand reached to put his left palm on top of the one he thought was Janey's, sandwiching it between his. He tilted his head to one side and whispered, "Your hand is so soft and delicate. I love it."

Jane gave him a coy little smile. Meanwhile, Matt was cringing at having his hand squeezed by Mike's callused ones, and quickly removed it. The boy made a face and even rubbed his hand up and down his pants as if to clean it. Matt was starting to get tired of this matter; his legs cramped from being crouched for so long, so he ended up kneeling on the floor. He let out his breath, as he stared at the sight before him. Suddenly, his eyes got drawn to his sister's lap as he was struck by a naughty idea. Spreading his palm wide open, Matt slid his arm through the gap again, and without stopping to think, he landed his hand on his sister's right thigh, giving it a squeeze.

Jane's eyes shot open in surprise, and her face flushed. Very slowly, she turned her flabbergasted face towards Mike with a serious expression; the young man looked at her with a smile, and then unexpectedly, the girl lifted her hand and slapped him across the face hard. Feeling totally offended, Jane could not stay next to him any longer, and jumping to her feet, she quickly went to sit on the empty seat by Daisy. For a few seconds, Mike remained seated, bewildered, rubbing his sore face. He did not understand what had happened, and honestly, he did not want to waste his time with silly girls' games. There were more fish in the pond, and this one had already given him too many headaches. So he rose to his feet, placed his hat on his head and left the room.

From his hidden position, Matt's face dared to lift and look at his friends. Billy and Ike were grinning in amusement, and Matt just raised his thumb, feeling deep down that he had done a good deed, and he could feel proud of himself.

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

That night Louise pushed the bedroom door open, and stepped inside, carrying a tray. She smiled at her daughter, who lay on her bed. "I've brought you these cookies and a glass of warm milk," Lou said as she placed the tray on the bedside table. "These can't hurt."

"Ma, I don't want to eat anything. I told you," Jane protested as she sat up on the bed, the sheet covering her lower half.

Louise crossed her arms over her chest. "But where does it hurt?"

"I told you. My belly."

Lou shook her head. "That's because of all the candy you children eat. I'm not surprised." Jane did not reply, and Louise added, "Honey, I'm going to bed now. I'lI leave you the tray here. If you feel like eating, do. And if not, just leave it. And if you feel worse, call me, all right?"

Jane nodded. Lou stooped to give her daughter a kiss, and when she turned to leave, Janey called her. "Ma?"

"Yes?"

"I'm not going to see that boy anymore… the one working for Mr. Benson."

Louise smiled and said, "I'm so glad to hear that."

"Ma, how does a woman know?" Jane asked.

"Know what?"

"That a man is right for you…" Jane elaborated.

Louise approached the bed once again, and sat next to her daughter. "You never really know that. I guess experience teaches you some, but even after years and years, a woman is likely to misjudge a man… in both ways."

"How did you know Pa was the one for you?" Jane kept asking.

"Honey, I don't think there's a secret formula for that. As I told you, one never knows. When I agreed to marry your father, what I knew was that he was an honest man, sweet, romantic, sincere, and also with a few faults of his own…and of course and most importantly, I loved him terribly, and I knew he loved me. When we were young, we made many mistakes, and we learned from them. You know your father and I are quite different, but we love and respect each other. And when time passes, and you realize you can't imagine your life without that person in it, you then know that's the one."

Janey smiled. "When I grow up, I want to be like you and Pa."

Louise rubbed her daughter's back affectionately. "That's very sweet of you, honey. I know you're not a child, but you ain't a woman either. Don't be in such a hurry. Things take their time. Janey, when we are so eager to reach the destination, we sometimes miss the scenery during the trip, and you know, sooner or later we'll get to the destination. So why not enjoy the rest in the meantime?"

Janey nodded. "Ma, I'm sorry we argued the other day. I don't like when we fight. I missed you these days. You're my best friend."

"And your mother… especially, your mother. And all I want is the best for you and your siblings."

"I know," the girl admitted, and wrapped her arms around her mother's body. "I love you, Ma."

"I love you, honey."

"And I feel much better now," Jane said when they pulled away.

"Very well, Janey," Lou replied as she walked to the door. "Good night."

"Good night, Ma."

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

"Kid…" Lou's voice called, penetrating his still asleep mind, but he still kept his eyes shut. "Kid, come on, wake up."

"Lou, it's Sunday," he replied with closed eyes. "I think after a very hard week I deserve to sleep in this morning."

"We have to go to church."

Kid finally opened his eyes to find his wife in her robe, hovering over him. "Doesn't the Good Lord say in the Bible that Sunday is the day men can rest? I'm not getting much rest here."

"Don't whine, honey," Lou replied with a smile. "We have to go to church, you know, we need to talk to the minister about Ginnie's christening."

Kid stared at her. He loved the way she looked early in the morning; there was a special freshness that even after all these years he found totally irresistible. So without even being aware of his own movements, he raised his hands to her, wrapping them around her slender body and bringing her towards him. Lou gave a surprised yelp, but did not protest when Kid kissed her. She responded to his hot kisses with the same vehemence that he generously showered her with this morning. They rolled over the bed without stopping, and as his body hovered over hers, his hands quickly slid under her nightgown, caressing her thighs and in the process hitching the material up. When Lou felt his hands on her skin, she broke the kiss to say, "Kid, we don't have time for this now."

"Lou, just something quick. Lately we're so tired that we hardly get to dance," he said, using their old euphemism for their love-making. "I really miss you."

Louise did not need much persuasion to follow his husband's lead, and they spent the next minutes in a most intimate, pleasurable routine that was as intense and passionate as always even after long years. Like water, which did not lose its refreshing quality and was still a life-giving source, their love was renewed and strengthened with time.

Half an hour later they lay in each other's arms, panting and whispering old words of love, but the moment was broken by a loud wail, coming from the cot in the bedroom. Lou and Kid shared a smile, and as she slid out of the bed, she said, "Your daughter wants her breakfast." She paused to look at the tub she had got ready for Kid this morning. "I'm afraid your water has gone cold, Kid. I'll take Ginnie down, and I'll heat some more water."

"I can do that," Kid replied, rising from the bed and walking after her. "Just see to Ginnie's breakfast." Standing behind her, he wrapped his arms around her body and kissed her on the neck. "Thank you for getting my bath ready. You're the best wife a man can have."

Louise smiled, kissed him on the lips lightly and disengaging herself from his hold, she added, "Good try, Kid. But you won't get away from coming to church with me." They shared a laugh as Lou picked up her baby from the crib, and left the bedroom.

About half an hour later Lou climbed the stairs to wake up her boys. She opened the door to the bedroom that Mattie and Jed shared, and as she stepped inside, she walked to the window to open the curtains and said, "Matt, Jed, time to wake up."

As she turned to the beds, she noticed that Matt had hid his head under the pillow whereas Jed was wide awake, on his knees on the bed and smiling. "Mama!!!" he exclaimed.

"Good morning, my boy!" Lou said, stretching her arms to him. Jed eased off the bed and energetically jumped to his mother's arms, hugging her. Louise planted a big kiss on the boy's cheek and exclaimed, "I love you, my baby."

"I'm not baby… Ginnie's baby," Jed protested.

"Yes, you're right. You're all grown up now," Lou said with a tinge of sadness. All her children were growing up so fast that it scared her. She missed when Jed was a baby, or when Janey and Matt were two small children. But that was life. "And now, my big man, let's get you dressed." Lou lowered her son while she said, "Matt, wake up now."

"I'm tired," Matt's muffled voice protested.

"Yes… you're always tired," Lou replied. "Come on; get out of that bed right now."

"Ma!!!" Jane's voice sounded from outside the bedroom.

"Yes, honey?" Lou called back casually while she did up Jed's shirt buttons, and when she did not notice any movement in Matt's bed, she said, "Mattie, I'm not gonna repeat this any more. Get up!"

Mattie knew that he could not mess up with his mother, and he reluctantly slid off the bed, but remained seated on its edge.

"Ma!!!" Janey called again.

"One moment, Jane," Lou replied loudly as she was finishing with Jed, and looked at her other son with an unhappy expression. "Matt, please. Don't make me angry this morning. Get dressed right now."

"Ma!!!"

"Coming, honey," Lou replied to her daughter, as she walked to the door, and before stepping out, she turned to her eldest son, and said, "Matt, when I come back, I hope to find you ready, all right?"

"Yes, Ma."

When Lou went, Mattie reluctantly slid out of his night shirt and put on his pants. He sighed, and sat on the bed again. Jed let out a giggle, and Matt looked at him unenthusiastically. "What are you laughing at?" Jed did not say anything, but giggled again. "You hungry?" Matt asked, and when Jed nodded, the older boy added, "Me too. Let's go to the kitchen."

Matt took Jed's hand and steered him out of the door, but when he noticed their mother before her own bedroom, he stopped and remained hidden under the threshold. Lou was knocking while saying, "Kid, open up."

"One moment," Kid's voice was heard from inside. When he or Lou had a bath or something unsuitable for the children to witness, they usually locked the door since one day a few years ago Matt had walked in on them in a very compromising position. Fortunately, Matt had been too young to understand what he had seen back then, but from that moment on Lou and Kid had agreed to be more careful.

"Kid, please, open up," Lou insisted, knocking over and over again.

The door finally opened, and Kid appeared, his hair wet from his recent bath. "Lou, what's the hurry?"

Louise did not reply and simply said, "Please let me in." She gently shoved him to one side and walked into the room. Kid stepped out in the corridor, and noticed his two sons in front of their bedroom. "Hey, boys."

"Hi, Pa," Matt replied.

Louise came out of the bedroom in much the same hurry as she had gone in, but this time she stopped before her husband. "Kid…"

"What's going on?"

"Jane…"

"What about her?" Kid asked with a concerned frown.

"Jane… our Jane's become a woman," Lou whispered, her eyes bright as they stared at her husband's. Kid could hardly utter a single word. Louise smiled, gave him a squeeze on his arm, and then quickly headed for the girl's bedroom.

Kid remained in the corridor, feeling invaded by a myriad of emotions. His girl… his little girl. A woman. How had this happened so quickly? He had hardly noticed time go by, and it was just yesterday that Jane had climbed up to his lap and asked him to read a tale for her. He still remembered very clearly the day Lou had first told him she was expecting. He had lived those months intensely, fearful and excited. And the day Jane had been born, and Lou had presented him with their first baby had been one of the happiest moments in his life. Had that happened that long ago? Really? It did not feel that way, but the truth was that their children were growing up, and Lou and he were growing old.

Kid lifted his eyes and noticed Matt looking at him with a strange expression. He tried to compose himself, and said, "You boys want some breakfast?" Matt simply nodded, eyeing his father curiously. "Let's go downstairs then."

Kid lifted Jed in his arms, and Matt followed him down the stairs. When they reached the kitchen, they sat around the table. Kid kept quiet as he served the boys their milk, and the eggs that Lou had cooked. A few minutes later Lou appeared with Jane. The girl smiled at her father shyly, and said, "Good morning, Pa."

"Morning, honey."

Janey sat down at the table. Lou stood next to her, stroking her daughter's back affectionately, while she shared a look and a smile with her husband. From his position, Matt shifted his eyes from his sister to his parents, and back again. The way his parents looked at each other and Jane was strange, and he really wondered what was happening.

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

Later that Sunday after church, the McClouds returned home where they enjoyed lunch. Kid had promised the children to take them to the waterhole, and in the meantime Matt had gone to the yard to play with his marbles. Ike had soon joined him as well as Stuart, who had come to visit their friends after much insisting to his mother. Mattie lifted his eyes from the ground and directed them to his house. Janey was sitting on the swing in the porch while reading a book. He kept thinking about what had happened this morning and what he had heard his parents say, and since he was not one who kept things to himself for too long, he felt the urge to share his thoughts with his friends.

"Ike?"

The boy was crouched, and strategically maneuvered his little fingers to hit the marble, and get the best shoot. "What now?" Ike asked in a flat tone.

"Do you think Janey was a woman when she was born?"

Ike stopped to look at his friend with an expression showing that he thought Matt had actually lost his marbles. "What are you saying? Stop talking twaddle."

"I'm serious."

"Of course she was a woman, silly!!!" Ike exclaimed a bit miffed.

Matt kept thoughtful for a while, and then addressed his other friend. "And what about a year ago, Stuart?"

"A year ago what?" Stuart asked, lost at the meaning behind Matt's question as his concentration was on the game.

"Was my sister a woman a year ago?"

"Are you off your head?" Stuart exclaimed, tapping his right temple with a finger. "Of course she was!"

"And yesterday?" Matt insisted. "Was my sister a woman yesterday?"

Ike and Stuart shared a look. "What's wrong with him?" Ike asked, looking at Stuart. "He's gone crazy or what?"

"Tell me the truth, Ike. Was my sister a woman yesterday?"

Ike shook his head, getting tired of this conversation. "Of course! Are you trying to pull our legs or what?"

"You're both wrong!" Matt stated, rising to his feet. "My sister is just a woman today."

Both Ike and Stuart frowned. "What's all that nonsense?" Ike exclaimed.

"It's not nonsense. It's true. Janey is a woman today, and the rest before that doesn't count. My mother has told my father about it."

"The rest doesn't count?" Ike whispered in awe.

Matt shook his head. "No, what counts is from today."

Stuart and Ike exchanged another confused look. "Are you sure that's what your mother said?" Stuart asked.

"Yes, that's what she said."

The three children almost simultaneously turned to look at Jane, who kept reading her book a few feet from where they were. After Matt's information, they lost interest in the marbles, and Ike said, "Let's go and have a closer look… maybe there's something different."

They slowly approached the house, and positioned themselves just below the porch, watching Jane unblinkingly while trying to keep their presence hidden. Yet, after a few minutes Janey looked in their direction, and when she discovered three heads showing over the porch and staring at her, she exclaimed, "What on earth are you three doing?"

Ike and Stuart scurried away quickly, but Matt simply rose to his feet and came close to his sister. "Pa's taking us to the waterhole later. It's warm today for a good swim. Are you coming along?"

"Uh… no, I don't think so."

"Why not?"

"Because I have a cold," Jane simply said, and turned her attention back to her book.

Matt did not say anything, and slowly sauntered to where his friends were. As soon as he appeared, Stuart said, "I don't see anything different."

"She looks the same," Ike agreed, and then he spotted Daisy, who was coming down the path leading to the property. A couple of weeks ago Ike's mother had an accident; she fell down the stairs and as a consequence, she had sprained her ankle. The doctor had prescribed her to rest, so Ellen had arranged for Daisy to come around for a few hours every day to help her with the housework. "Look, Daisy. Maybe she knows something."

The three boys ran to meet the spectacled girl, and Matt suddenly blurted out, "Daisy, as from today Janey is a woman, and the rest doesn't count."

"What?" Daisy let out with a confused frown.

"Yes, my mother has told my father that Jane's become a woman."

The words finally dawned on the girl. A smile split her face as she shot towards her friend. The three boys curiously saw Daisy hug Jane, and started talking like they usually did when they were telling each other secrets. After a while, Daisy got up and left for the Cross's house, waving at her friend and casting a too bright smile in her direction. "I don't understand anything," Ike said after a while. "But something's going on for sure."

"What are you three up to?" The question sounded behind them, and the boys swirled around to find Billy.

"Hey, Billy!" Matt exclaimed, and lowering the voice, he said as if he was telling a secret, "Do you know something? As from today, Jane's a woman… that's what my mother said to my father."

Bill directed his eyes to where Janey was sitting. "Oh I see," he replied. "She must have gotten her monthly."

The children sent each other confused looks. "Her month?" Matt echoed

"What month? May?" Ike asked.

"No, not her month… her monthly, you know the period," Billy explained, but noticing the clueless expression on the children's faces, he added, "You know, the curse." The three friends kept looking at him blankly, and Billy grinned. "You don't know what the curse is?" The boys shook their heads in unison, expecting Billy to explain to them what they had been trying to find out all this time. "Well, the curse is something women have every month… they bleed…"

"They bleed?" Ike asked with a totally shocked expression.

"That's right."

"Every month?" asked Matt this time.

"Yes."

"Every month at the same time?" questioned Matt again.

Billy chuckled. "I don't really know. I guess."

"And why does that happen?" Ike continued.

"Because that's their nature. That means that they can have babies," Billy explained.

This new piece of information surprised Matt even more than what he had learned today. "So do you mean my sister could have a baby if she wanted to?"

"That's it."

Matt suddenly felt very sad even though he was not sure why. He shifted his eyes and kept staring at his sister with a sullen expression. Then he shot towards his house, and approached Jane with slow steps when he came closer. Jane lifted his eyes to him, wondering what on earth he wanted now, and to her utter surprise he gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.

"Mattie, what's with you today?"

"I know what's happening to you. You're in the month of women, and you're doomed," Matt said, confusing all the words that Billy had tried to explain patiently.

Jane could not help but burst out laughing. "Oh Matt!" she exclaimed as she ruffled her brother's sandy hair. She then noticed Billy standing just at the foot of the steps leading the porch, and she stiffly asked, "Anything I can do for you?"

Billy climbed the steps and when he was closer to her, he added, "Would you like to go for a walk with me?"

"Go for a walk? With you?"

"Yes, it's a beautiful day. And I can also be good company," Billy replied.

Jane did not reply straightaway; she stared at him as if carefully considering the idea, and finally she said, "All right."

Billy smiled, and then they walked off, leaving Matt behind. After a few seconds, the door opened, and Kid and Lou stepped onto the porch. The man gently tapped Matt on the shoulder as he asked, "Ready to go swimming?"

"Yes!!!" Mattie exclaimed enthusiastically, taking a little jump. "I'll tell Ike and Stuart!"

Before he ran away, since she could not see Jane anywhere, Lou asked him, "And where's your sister?"

"She's gone for a stroll with Billy. They've gone that way," Matt replied, pointing in the direction the two teenagers had taken off, and then scurried away to his friends.

From the porch Lou could see Jane and Bill in the close distance, walking side by side. Louise smiled as a sigh escaped her lips. "Oh Kid," she exclaimed, resting her head on his right shoulder. "I feel as if I was centuries old today. Why do they have to grow up?"

Kid wrapped his arm around her narrow waist, bringing her closer, and placed a soft kiss on her cheek. For once he had no words to tell his wife; he also felt old today, and shared the same feelings as Lou's. So they remained there, standing on the porch, watching their daughter in the distance and worrying about where her steps would lead her in the very near future.

The End

Author's Note: Thanks to Jessica for beta-reading this story, and the LJ girls for their constant encouragement.

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