Gloria Potter was worried
In the last four months, since her son Matthew and his best friend Ezra Tanner had nearly lost their lives in Sullivan Creek, a lot of things had changed.
Predominantly, the numbers had changed. Where there had once been merely Matthew and the Tanner boy, now her Elizabeth usually joined them. Or the Collins boy. Or the Moseley boy -- sometimes with his little sister in tow. Or the blacksmith's son. Or that little Indian boy.
Or any of the various combinations. And the seven of them -- eight if the little Moseley girl was around -- seemed to have formed a tight-knit little group.
Perhaps too tightly knit. They rarely spoke to other youngsters outside of their own little --- pack. It just wasn't natural.
Gloria was especially worried for Elizabeth. Both her children had become more serious and more athletic since they'd nearly lost Matthew. She was very proud of the focus that her once-drifting son had achieved.
Her daughter had the same focus, though. And Gloria wasn't so sure that kind of focus and drive was healthy for a young lady. She'd witnessed the changes to Elizabeth with growing alarm.
First, Elizabeth had stopped wearing her hair loose. She had braided it in a crown around her head -- and then last week, she'd come home with short hair. She'd cut it off, she said, so it would fit under a hat better.
Elizabeth now spent as much time on horseback as off. She'd begun to wear dungarees and she and Matthew conversed in hushed tones about shooting and patrols and all kinds of things that no lady should concern herself with.
This was not how a proper young lady should behave.
Fearing her sudden tight-knit pack of friends' influence was getting too strong, Gloria took action. She increased Elizabeth's chores to a level that should have kept her busy for most of the afternoon. And it worked -- for two days.
Then Matthew and Ezra -- seemingly without a word of discussion -- were suddenly working with her. The old proverb "Many hands make light work" was proven true and Elizabeth was soon back with that little knot of children.
Gloria then gave Elizabeth what she felt would be a very difficult task. She set Elizabeth the task of watching the store and restocking the shelves. And she forbade Matthew and Ezra to help her.
That fell apart when Gloria returned from an errand to find Elizabeth taking care of a customer -- with the Collins boy helping her with the math (and exposing the ruffian's trying to cheat her) -- and the blacksmith's son and the Indian boy happily stocking the shelves.
The Indian boy was even singing!
That convinced Gloria to take the action she was embarking on now.
Elizabeth walked into the kitchen. "You wanted to see me, Mother?"
"Yes. I'm sending you to your Aunt Mercy in St. Louis." She looked into Elizabeth's widening eyes. "You leave on Thursday's stage. Be ready."
"No!" Elizabeth gasped. "Mother -- why?"
"You've fallen under some bad influences. You've forgotten how a young lady should comport herself. Aunt Mercy will help you remember."
"No!" Elizabeth wailed. "No! Mother, you can't do this!"
"I'm sorry, Elizabeth. But this is for your own good."
Ezra reeled back like she had hauled off and slapped him in the face. "She can't be serious!"
"Oh, she's serious, all right," Lizzie snarled. "She means every word."
"She does," Matt confirmed glumly. "Once Ma's made up her mind, hardly a thing can change it."
Lizzie sighed and leaned against the tree she was sitting beside. "The stage is leaving Thursday noon for St Louis. I'm to be on it."
Chanu left off his silent perusal of a pair of arguing birds and crouched in front of Lizzie. "But why is she sending you and your brother away from us?"
"Not Matt," Lizzie said, smiling sadly at him. "Just me."
That made him frown deeper. "But that makes even less sense! Why only send you away?"
Lizzie blew the air out of her cheeks. "Because, according to my mother, I have forgotten how a lady should behave, and Aunt Mercy is going to see to it that I learn how."
Chanu's eyes narrowed. "A 'lady'?"
Ezra chimed in -- simultaneously with Brian. "How women are supposed to behave."
Chanu released a rather inelegant snort and sat fully down, sliding a knife and wood from his pouch and beginning to whittle. "I have seen these 'lady' women. They are too pale, too fragile. Too full of their own selves." He gestured with the knife at Lizzie. "She is fine as she is."
"I agree," Junior said, nodding firmly. "We don't need another 'lady' around here." He managed to make it sound as if the word left a bad taste in his mouth. "We do need Lizzie."
Rafe nodded, looking at her with wide eyes. "I like you as you are, Lizzie!"
Brian nodded. "While I agree with your mother to a small degree -- you should not have cut your hair -- I feel she's over-reacting."
Lizzie chuckled. "Thanks, guys."
Ezra shook his head. "This is wrong, Lizzie. It's just...."
Matt nodded. "Yeah. This is wrong. You're ours. She's got no business sending you away. Not like this."
"Matt's right," Ezra said. "You're ours, Lizzie."
"She can do this," Lizzie said with a sad sigh "And she will. And we can't stop this."
"Maybe not," Ezra said with a slow grin. "But who says we have to lay down and let the wagon roll over us?"
And all eyes were on him as his smile grew.
Thursday morning found Lizzie and Matt up hours before dawn. They filled a pair of saddlebags with some of Lizzie's clothes and necessaries. Then they loaded a second pair with Matt's.
While Matt ran the saddlebags to the livery and hid them in the hayloft, Lizzie filled a flat trunk with the rest of his clothing, then shoved it under Matt's bed.
She then dressed in a lady's clothing and filled two steamer trunks with junk, carefully arranging her girl's clothing – her "frippery", she called it – over the tops before closing them.
Then, there was nothing to do but wait.
Brian frowned as Ezra lifted yet another box of cufflinks from the bed. "I need--"
"No, you don't," Ezra interrupted.
Brian glared at him. "You dress as I do – you of all people should--"
"I dress this way for impact. You've seen how I dress most of the time. You know I dress for practicality as well."
Huffing, Brian had to agree. "So...?"
With a smile, Ezra said, "We fill two saddlebags. Your wagon stays here for now. If we have need of it, one of us will get it."
Brian nodded. Then he frowned again, his mouth opening.
Laughing, Ezra anticipated the question. "Yes, Brian. I'll help you. Come on."
Junior carried out his preparations in characteristic solitude. It was he who went to Gloria Potter's store and bought enough supplies to aid one large teenager on at least a three week ride.
Or seven teenagers for several days.
Loading the saddlebags with his bought provisions, Junior added his own clothing to the pair of saddlebags hidden in the hayloft, and split the leftover provisions among them as well.
Then he set to work making certain the horses would be ready to go.
Seamstress Lucy Allen was quite startled to open her door and find the Moseley children there. "Well, hello! What can I do for you?"
Rafe ran a hand over his six-year-old sister's hair. "Miss Allen, can you care for Claire for a few days?"
"Certainly, Rafe – what's going on?"
"I have an errand to run, out of town."
"For your father?"
"No, my brother." It wasn't technically a lie – he thought of them all as his brothers and sister.
Miss Allen frowned. "I wasn't aware you had a brother."
"He's older than me – and he doesn't live with us." Again, not technically a lie. Both statements were true of the other boys.
She nodded. "When will you be back?"
"Few days. Thank you, Miss Allen." He crouched down and hugged Claire. "Be good for Miss Allen, okay? I don't wanna come back and find you've been puttin' tadpoles in Jeremy McAllister's water again."
"Okay," Claire said, hugging him tight. "I love you."
"You too, squirt."
"Hug 'em for me?" she whispered in his ear.
"Sure thing," he whispered back, standing and touseling her hair before releasing her and walking away.
He blamed the stinging in his eyes on the dusty road.
Kojay frowned deeply as he saw the provisions his son was loading onto two horses. Lashed to the back of one was a travois that held what looked suspiciously like a broken-down tipi. "Chanu."
The boy turned to face him. "Father."
"You appear to be going on a long journey."
Chanu nodded, but did not cease his work.
"Chanu." When he had his son's eyes on him, Kojay said, "I forbid this. Your tribe has need of you. You can not leave."
Chanu regarded him for a long moment, then swung lithely onto the back of the horse with the travois, taking the reins in his hands. "I can not stay," he said calmly. "My tribe has need of me." He clicked his tongue and the horses trotted away.
Kojay watched with a deep frown and worried eyes. His "tribe", Chanu had said.
It was perhaps time to inform Vin Tanner of this. If Chanu was involved in something, Vin's Ezra might be as well.
Gloria stood, flanked by her children, and watched the stagecoach arrive. As the passengers departed, Elizabeth said softly, "Please, Mother. Don't do this."
Gloria looked at her and drew a breath. "I have to. You have to learn how to be a lady."
The bags were all unloaded, and as the porter loaded her pair of steamer trunks, Matthew and Ezra held Elizabeth. Then Elizabeth waved, and in the small crowd, four other arms waved back.
Then, with one final heartbroken glance at her mother, Elizabeth stepped onto the stage.
As it drove out of town, Gloria looked at Matthew. "I will see you at home."
"Yes, Mother," he said flatly, his tone devoid of emotion.
Gloria shivered as she turned away to return to her shop.
It took all of their self-control not to race to the livery and thunder out after her.
Instead, they retreated one or two at a time. They staggered the times they removed their horses from the livery.
Then they met the waiting Indian boy on the hills overlooking town – and waited till they were all there together.
Only then did they ride out.
Gloria returned to her home and was startled by the silence. "Matthew?"
She moved into the kitchen. "Matthew?"
Her eyes were arrested by the sight of a knife driven deep into the table – pinning a note to the wooden slats.
Gloria pulled the note off and felt her knees buckle as she read it.
"....Matthew," she breathed, stumbling to her feet and tripping way to his bedroom.
The closet was standing open – empty. His treasured hat was gone. His wallet – the last gift from his father before his murder – was gone.
Gloria sank to her knees. "Matthew...." she sobbed, and it slowly rose to a wordless scream as it finally sank in.
In sending one away-- she'd lost them both.
Chris happened to be at Vin's when the lone Indian rode up. "You got company."
"Hm?" Vin came to the doorway. "Kojay." Smiling, he walked outside. "What brings you here?" he asked kindly.
"I must speak with you," Kojay said as he dismounted. "It concerns our sons."
"Come in," Vin said. "And talk to me."
It was a sombre seven Regulators – the Six plus Kojay – who rode out following the stagecoach's trail.
They arrived in Eagle Bend, to find that the stagecoach had departed three hours earlier. So they grabbed a quick meal and rested their horses, and then took off again.
The stagecoach rode into Howard's Fork – with the Regulators right behind.
With the driver's permission, they searched the stage. They found Lizzie's steamer trunks.
But absolutely no sign of Lizzie at all.
"Were you stopped at any time?" Chris asked the driver.
"Nope. We made our run to Eagle Bend, let the passengers off to rest, re-loaded and came straight here."
Vin nodded. "So she got off at Eagle Bend."
"What's this about?" the driver asked. "Am I in trouble?"
And Chris smiled. "No, sir – you're not the one in trouble here."
It was nearly dusk when Kojay pointed. "Smoke."
"It's pretty skinny," JD commented. "Fire must be very small."
"C'mon," Vin said, spurring Peso forward.
They topped the rise to find a tiny camp set up near and underneath an overhang. To the side of the overhang was a single tipi.
"That is the one Chanu took," Kojay said.
"We found them," Vin nodded.
The seven men rode into the small campsite and dismounted, calling for Ezra, Lizzie, Matt and Kojay.
They were brought up short by the sound of three guns cocking.
Shock froze them to the spot as they saw Junior, Ezra and Matt standing in a semi-circle, each with a gun trained on them.
"Ezra?" Vin asked, startled and stunned.
"Ride away, Pa," Ezra said, his voice trembling. "Please – just ride away."
"We can't do that, son," Chris said.
"You ain't takin' her!" Matt growled.
Vin spread his empty hands. "Boys --- please. We just want to talk."
Matt shook his head. "I'm not believing you!"
Ezra studied his father's face. "I do." But he still held the gun.
"Boys!" Lizzie came out of the tipi. "Put them away!"
"They're tryin' to take you!" Matt snarled.
Lizzie reached over and lay her hand over Matt's. Gently, she forced his hand to lower until the gun was pointing at the ground. She uncocked the hammer.
Matt met her eyes. "Lizzie...."
"Let's hear them out," Lizzie said.
Ezra nodded and uncocked his gun. "Pa...."
Vin looked at him, and then opened his arms.
With a gasp, Ezra ran into them and Vin hugged him fiercely.
Junior smiled as he put his gun away. "Sorry, Mister Larabee."
Chris shook his head. "You were protecting a lady. I under--"
"No!" they all yelled, and Ezra looked up into Vin's face.
"We're not protecting a lady," he growled. "We're protecting Lizzie from being forced into that!"
At their frowns, Junior spoke up. "She's ours, Mister Tanner. She's not one of those simpering, selfish ladies. She's ours."
The seven men looked at each other, confusion clearly etched on their faces. Then Kojay said, "It is plain that we need to discuss this."
"Agreed," Chanu said from behind them. Seven adults froze and slowly turned – belatedly realising that Chanu, Rafe and Brian had encircled them, though the three held no guns on them.
Vin whistled soft and low, in clear appreciation of a very smart strategy. Then he smiled and shook his head as he looked back at his son. "Your idea?"
"No," Ezra grinned. "Chanu's, actually."
"Well, shoot," Buck grinned from ear to ear. "I am impressed!"
"Yeah, it don't take much," JD shot back, and Buck lunged at him. Once their antics and the laughter they caused had died down, Vin turned to the seven teens.
"Why don't we all sit down," he suggested, "and you start at the beginning. Tell us exactly what's going on here."
Lizzie nodded. "Fair enough."
Night was falling two days later when the knock sounded on Gloria Potter's door. She jerked it open and blinked to see Vin standing there. "Mister Tanner?"
"Need t'talk to you," he said, taking her arm and leading her inside, as her knees had begun to buckle.
"Please," she sobbed. "Please tell me you found them!"
"We found them," he said, seating her on the couch and sitting beside her. "And they're fine."
She sobbed in sheer relief.
Something in his tone made her look into his eyes. What she saw there chilled her to the bone. "B-But?" she whispered, clutching at his sleeve.
He held her eyes and covered he rhand with his. "But, they're not comin' home. At least--" He tilted his head toward the living room. "Not to here."
Gloria's shocked grief must have shown on her face, because Vin smiled sadly and spoke gently. But the words still stung like a slap to the face.
"Gloria – they don't trust you. Neither of them do. They'll always love you – but you tryin' to send Lizzie away---"
"I just – she needs to learn ---"
Vin shook his head. "No. She doesn't. That's not her path. She's part of something greater than any of them are alone – and so is Matt." He smiled fondly. "And so is Ezra."
Gloria swallowed. "She's not coming home?"
"They're returnin' to town," Vin said. "But they'll be livin' with me awhile, till they can build a place of their own."
She shook her head. "They're too young--"
"They're older'n you know," Vin said flatly. "They're more responsible than a lot of full-grown folks in this town."
"I've lost them."
Again, his voice was gentle. "Yeah, Gloria – you have. But that's the way of things – parents are supposed to see their children grow up and leave home." He smiled gently at her. "Yours just happened in a more – dramatic – way than most."
And then he held Gloria while she wept herself into an exhausted sleep. He laid her out on the sofa and covered her with a quilt, then rode out.
It was another four days before the Regulators and the seven teens returned to town – together.
Kojay pulled Chanu aside, and the pair had a brief conversation before Kojay rode away. Chanu rode up alongside Brian.
"Staying?" Brian asked.
"For awhile," Chanu said.
Matt and Lizzie glanced onto the boardwalk and there was Gloria standing there. Both of them tilted their heads to her, then rode on past.
Polite – like she was a mere acquaintance.
Gloria watched her children ride past, feeling her heart break all over again.
"Do you think we'll ever be able to forgive her?" Lizzie asked.
"One day, perhaps," Ezra answered.
"Perhaps," Matt agreed. "But in a way, I'm glad this happened."
Lizzie gaped at him. "You are?"
"Made me realise," Matt finished. "You're ours."
"We're all ours," Ezra said.
"Amen to that," Lizzie smiled as they rode on.
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