( A WHN which takes place after 'Found')
Disclaimer: Some of these characters (well, the Lancers) are not mine
though, if they were, I would certainly show them more love, respect and
gratitude than Fox do.
Scott is 27; Johnny is 22
Bloody hell! I don't think I'd ever run so fast in all my born days! There's nowt so terrifying as that feeling you get that you're goin' to be caught before you make it to safety. All the way across the yard, I'd felt like Murdoch's big hand was goin' to clamp onto my shoulder an' I expected to hear him roarin' at me to get my sorry behind back in the house an' where did I think I was harin' off to... but, as I flew into the barn, my heart in my mouth, I took a shufty round the edge of the door and, thank the lord, he was nowhere in sight.
Still, it were no use just standin' there like a lemon; I had to get me a hiding place and quick. I knew Murdoch an' there was no doubt he'd be on the warpath now an' proper determined to catch up with me. I was gasping for breath and looking round wildly for somewhere to hide when a voice came from further into the barn and near enough made me jump out of my skin.
"Maria said that Murdoch is looking for you."
It were Scott. I peered into the shadows an' I could make out him an' Johnny settin' on the hay bales all relaxed-like.
"I know that! Why'd you think I'm hiding?" Honest, for an educated fella, Scott can be a mite slow on the uptake sometimes.
I trotted up to them, still lookin' for a good place to stash myself while Murdoch was searchin'.
Scott was givin' me the eye. "Jemimah, what have you done now? And why are you so filthy? Good grief girl, your feet are bright blue! What's going on?" He said it with that warning voice that he always employs when he's about to dish out a good telling-off and I knew I'd better try an' placate him some or he'd be draggin' me back over to the ol' man, probably by the ear!
"Nothin'!" I did my best to look surprised at his question though I have to admit my heart wasn't in it; I were far too pre-occupied in choosing my hidey-hole.
Just then, Murdoch's unmistakable yell sounded from across the yard, calling my name. Jeez, even from all the way over at the house, he were loud enough to shatter glass!
Johnny smirked. "Don't sound like nuthin'."
"Alright, but it was an accident. Honest! Don't snitch on me... pleeeeease!" I clasped my hands together in a proper contrite manner so I'd seem as pathetic as I could but Scott was having none of it.
"If it was an accident, whatever 'it' may be, then why don't you simply explain that to Murdoch?"
That hair-raisin' yell came again and, this time, it was closer.
"Would you fancy explainin' to that?" Boy, I could feel the sweat poppin' out of my head now. "I will though, I will. I just want to wait a bit 'til he's cooled off. Please?" I flashed them both my best puppy dog eyes an' decided that, if they didn't help me, I'd run out the back way.
Next second, we all whipped round at the sound of heavy footsteps stomping up to the barn door. Quick as lightnin', Johnny were up an' he scooped me into his arms and chucked me into the straw in the stall next to Amiga's. Then he dropped a horse blanket over me. I didn't have time to enjoy being picked up by him like I normally would 'cos he was squashing me down and leaning on the wall at the side so I was hid. I couldn't see much from behind Johnny's legs and there was the blanket almost covering my eyes but I noticed that Scott had picked up a piece of old harness and was pretending to be mending it. I felt right thankful that he was playing a part in aiding and abetting me. He can be a good bloke too!
I heard the ol' man storm in. Even his footsteps were furious! He came right up to the fellas and was puffin' and blowin'. "Have either of you seen Jemimah?"
There was a bit of a pause and I screwed my eyes up tight an' crossed my fingers. Then I heard Scott speak up. "Yes... she was in here a while ago. She said she'd had an accident?"
"An accident?" Murdoch fairly growled like a bulldog and I couldn't help but quake in my boots or I would've done if I'd not been barefoot. That was another accident - I'd forgot my boots an' the ol' man has very specific views on not tramping around outside without decent footwear. Truth to tell, the whole chuffing day had been one accident after another. Anything that could go wrong had gone wrong. It had been a real Jonah day as my Grandma used to call them.
It had all started that morning at school.
That flamin' Stinky Pickford! He was the bane of my existence an' seemed to live just to irritate the hell out of me. Of course, it weren't just me who couldn't stand the useless article; most everyone in the Spanish Wells school hated the very sight of him! But, of late, it seemed that I was always his target. Not that I was afraid of Jeremiah Pickford (that was his real name; we all called him Stinky on account of the odiferous gases he produced after every meal!) Nah, I knew I could paste him right easy. He knew it too so he always made sure to linger close to teacher after he'd riled me.
Well, he'd spent his energy that morning pokin' me in the back of the neck with his ruler or yanking my braids. He was a sneaky little bastard though an' was careful to watch Mr Quinn so that he only did it when his back was turned. Whereas, I was gettin' so mad that I was twisting in my seat to glare at him and teacher had already told me off three times about concentratin' and not distractin the other students. Distractin' them? Stinky was plaguing my life out and there I was gettin' the scoldin' that should've been his! Sometimes grown-ups haven't a clue about justice!
I decided at recess (that's what they call playtime in America) that I'd dish out some justice of my own. I knew I couldn't hammer Stinky as he was sticking close to Mr Quinn while he patrolled round the school yard but I did manage to slip back inside and put a nice thick coat of gooey glue all across the bench that Stinky sat on. I knew it weren't anywhere near strong enough to stick him to the seat but it'd be fun anyway and plenty yucky enough for him to be sorry for the rest of the day.
Now, I know there was nowt accidental about me doing that; it was downright intentional - no other way of lookin' at it. But the accident occurred when we all trooped back in for the second half of the morning.
How was I to know that Stinky had been complainin' to Mr Quinn about a wobbly leg on his chair? I sat there next to Enrique and we were waiting for Stinky to take his seat, all gleeful-like at the thought of him plopping his rump smack down into that slimy paste. You could have knocked me down with a feather when, instead of Stinky, teacher was the one to approach the bench and, in an effort to ascertain what ailed the leg, lowered his backside into the seat. Lord, I almost wished I was Teresa so I could pull off a convincing swoon! It wasn't to be. All I could do was sit there, horrified, as teacher not only sat in the gloop but proceeded to wriggle himself backwards and forwards so that he could test the leg of the bench... and the seat of his trousers soaked up every drop.
I gaped at Enrique and he gaped back an' he had this look in his eye as if to say that he was sorry but I was on my own! I supposed I didn't blame him really; I'd be the same if the tables were turned.
Mr Quinn was still none the wiser and, mumbling something about not being able to find anything wrong with the bench, he got up and started to walk back down the room to his own desk at the front. The back of his pants was all dark and shiny with the smearing of glue. One by one, the kids all began to snigger but not me. I were so mortified that my throat had gone as dry as a bone. By the time Mr Quinn reached the little platform where his desk sat, the whole school room was in uproar. The kids were all laughing fit to bust! Well, all except me and I just wanted the floor to open up and swallow me. It was right about then that the nasty wet cold sensation of the glue must've finally struck Mr Quinn's nether regions because his face took on this kinda scrunched-up expression like he'd just chewed on a bug and he tweaked the cloth of his pants away from his behind with a peculiar little wiggly dance. The kids were shriekin' with laughter by now. Even Enrique, at my side, was lookin' like he was goin' to choke. I glanced back at Stinky an' he was giving me this sidelong look, all smug so I would know that he had outwitted me in my little scheme. Oh, but he was gonna pay!
Before that time though, Mr Quinn intended to make someone pay for his predicament.
Now, I like my teacher; he's smart as a whip and, unusually for a school master, he seems to like children. It don't always pay to have such a keen teacher though - he'd already spied that I was the only one in the room who was trying to hide under their chair instead of laughing my head off and he was fast bearing down on me with a murderous glint in his eye. When he got a hold of my collar, I swear my feet never touched the ground once all the way to the front of the class!
By the time I was excused to go for my lunch with the others, I had written 'Respect for others guides our manners' one hundred and fourteen times across the blackboard down the side of the room and my arm ached so much I really struggled to punch Stinky in the nose! Or, at least, it hampered me getting up a good enough swing to really let him have it. So his nose was bleeding a bit and he was goin' to have a decent shiner but it wasn't a pasting up to my usual standards - hardly worth the hour I had to spend nose to corner behind Mr Quinn's chair.
That was another accident too... I'd thought teacher would take far longer to trot off to his boarding house to change his pants. I figured I'd have plenty of time to deal with Stinky before he came back but it seemed I miscalculated an' so I hadn't even had chance to take a bite of lunch before teacher was draggin' me by the scruff into the school house and plantin' me in that corner.
It were turning out to be a real wretched sort of a day. If I'd have known how much more wretched it was going to become, I reckon I'd have quit while I was ahead an' just let the rest of the day play out. But, as Scott says, there's nowt so pointless and irksome as hindsight when you can't do nothin' about it (only, being that he's a well-mannered gent, he says it far more refined than that!)
Once I was allowed back to my seat, I was right determined to just keep my eyes on my lesson and not even give Stinky one of my withering glares. He was sitting across the aisle from me and just slightly back a ways so I thought I'd have no problem ignorin' the scrawny twerp. I suppose he'd had way too much fun all day, seein' me drop for all the scoldin' an' punishments that should've been his, and he was getting somewhat above himself. There was no way he was goin' to let it go, I could tell. Even Enrique hissing at him that he was goin' to pulverise him if he didn't jack it in - that didn't have the subduing effect that it ought to.
I'd barely even started on my spellings when the fool commenced to chuck little spitballs at me. Now, he weren't much of an aim but that wasn't what irked me. It was the fact that he was still needling and goading at me that I couldn't abide. My temper was boiling. There was nothin' else for it; I was going to have to get even. I know, I know... hindsight.
It weren't too long after that, teacher called on him to write out his spellings on the board. So, off Stinky trooped and installed himself at the board to make a complete cods of his lesson - he never learned it properly. Mr Quinn was meandering around the class and was bending near to one of the little second graders while Stinky scrawled across the board.
I thought about the puny spitballs that he'd been launching at me and, all at once, this marvellous idea just boinged into my head. I'd whack him one with a spitball but... it'd be a spitball with a difference!
Quiet as I could, I tore a page from my jotter and scrunched it up. Enrique watched, fascinated, as I chewed it 'til it was good an' soggy and I could form it into a decent wodgy pellet. Then, I flipped the cap on our inkwell and dunked the pellet into the black ink so that it was coated well and truly. My fingers got a fair smearing of ink too but I wasn't bothered none about that; they'd wash.
There's nowt so thrilling as that tingly feeling you get when you're about to get your own back. So, as I positioned the inkball on my ruler, all that excitement was zinging through me so I could hardly keep from giggling like a loon. Enrique was fairly trembling at my side and I knew he couldn't wait to see that big fat black pellet smack Stinky right in the back of the head!
I lifted myself a little ways off the bench and took careful aim. I was a good shot but I wanted to be sure it hit with a good hard slap. What I really needed was Scott there to remind me about that hindsight. No, what am I sayin'?... having Scott there at that moment wouldn't have bode well for the security of my hide.
I let the pellet fly... just as Stinky bent down (to pick up the chalk which he'd just snapped by pressing too hard on the board) and Mr Quinn straightened up, having finished helping the little second grader with his lesson.
My lovely fat inky-black pellet flew straight and true - smacking with a resounding thwack into the middle of teacher's back and splattering his waistcoat with an enormous, ugly splodge! The fat pancake that had been my pellet remained stuck like bird poop to his back.
For a moment, I truly thought I might expire on the spot. I couldn't seem to take a breath and the same word was running through my head over and over... shit, shit, shit! I heard Enrique gasp at my side and he was sayin' it too only in Spanish. "Mierda!"
Another flamin' accident!
As slow as molasses in January, Mr Quinn turned around, his face all red except for around his mouth which was all pinched up an' his nostrils which were flared like a bull about to charge. He looked for all the world like steam should've been coming from his ears. And, when he reached a hand up his back and it came away all wet and black and caked with the remains of the sodden inkball, I thought his eyes were set to bug out of their sockets.
He was making his way down the aisle again to me so I slipped my ruler down under the desk. There weren't no way, however, that I could hide my fingers and, bein' all coated with ink, it were a dead giveaway as to who the culprit was. Teresa would've been proud of me 'cos I very nearly did swoon dead away. Sadly, before I could slide gracefully to the floor, Mr Quinn's inky hand closed about my collar again with a determined yank and he marched me all the way to the front of the room. (I would later pay for the ruination of my dress with all that ink around the collar - thanks for that!)
Let me tell you, there ain't nothin' so mortifying as bein' stood up there with every single eye fixed on you like you was some kind of sideshow freak. Nobody likes bein' hauled up in front of the class but you can't help but be fascinated when it occurs with somebody else. And it was definitely occurring now!
Mr Quinn was more than angry; that I knew beyond any doubt. He wasn't saying anything at all but he was fixing me with the kind of look that Johnny, Scott and Murdoch sometimes get and that's when you do your best to make yourself scarce. I knew I was in real strife but I surely wasn't expecting what happened next or I tend to think I might have bolted. Bloody hindsight again.
Teacher turned away from me (presenting me with an up-close view of my handiwork across his back) and stomped across to his desk. When he came back, he was carrying the paddle and I wasn't too keen on the gleam in his eye or the way he was smacking it threateningly against his hand. Even then, though, I didn't believe he'd really do it. Y'see, at our school in Spanish Wells, only boys get paddled. Girls get to write lines or stand in the corner or are made to move seats so they sit next to a boy (I already did that an' never could see what was so bad about it). But no girl had ever been paddled at school; our bottoms were far too delicate, it was a well-known fact!
So I could hardly believe it when teacher grabbed me an' put me over the desk. I heard one of the little girls at the front start to cry and there was a sort of collective gasp. That was quickly followed by a loud whack which was Mr Quinn commencing to paddle me!
This is where I shall be forever thankful that Teresa is as prissy and proper as she is. She always makes me wear a petticoat and chemise under my dress and both of them have a goodly amount of starch in them. Mr Quinn delivered three whacks with that paddle in all but he's clearly had no experience at walloping girls 'cos, aside from a bit of a thump, I hardly felt a thing. Now, if Johnny had been there he would've instructed teacher in the best way to remove all of that hindering padding but, as it was, when I straightened up I had quite a job to hide my relief. My pride was dented, however, and I was rather glad at being put back into the corner so I could hide my mortification. I knew this story would be all round the town in no time. Church on Sunday would be a doozy!
I also knew I would have the devil's own job of keeping this a secret from Murdoch but, to be extra sure, Mr Quinn announced that he was writing a letter for Mr Lancer, detailing all of my misdemeanours, and that he expected to receive a written reply from said gentleman first thing on Monday morning. I was to take the note home with me... thus sealing my fate as he knew darn well that Murdoch would be sufficiently aggravated to wallop me to within an inch of my life! Murdoch liked to remind us all that gettin' whacked by the master in school when he was a boy meant another, far more thorough thrashing from his dad once he got home an' I feared that this particular apple hadn't fallen far from the tree.
I rode home with Enrique as always. The other Lancer kids go in a wagon together mostly; driven by Mateo as it's his job to fetch the younger ones. So we was alone and able to talk about what I should do an' any devious plan we could concoct to get me out of my impending doom.
I opened the note that was meant for Murdoch so I could be sure of what Mr Quinn had decided to say. It weren't pretty. My teacher had listed, in quite some detail, every single transgression from that day including a few I didn't even think were transgressions like tapping my pen on my teeth so that I distracted the other kids (didn't even know I did that!)and dropping my books on the floor on purpose to disrupt him. (That wasn't the case at all! Well, I had dropped them and they made a right clatter but it wasn't a-purpose. Y'see, accidents; all day - accidents.)
"There's nuthin' you can do, Jemimah." Enrique fixed me with a sad look in his big brown eyes and I felt right touched because there was a world of sympathy in that look. "You just gotta face up to it - give Señor Lancer the note an' take the licking. It'll hurt but it won't last."
I knew Murdoch would intend to give me a licking; Enrique was right about that and it wasn't that I was afraid... not exactly, though I knew I wouldn't be enjoyin' it either! It was just that he hadn't laid a hand on me yet since I came to live at Lancer. He'd threatened it once or twice but I didn't want him to have to carry out that threat. Sure, Johnny had given me what for! In fact, the last time he'd had words with me had only been the week previous for wagging it in Morro Coyo by myself. And Scott had whacked my rear end one time a while ago for losing my rag with Teresa. She'd tried to copy Maria, who dishes out plenty of smacks with that darn spoon of hers to all of us, but she hadn't hurt me none - it were pretty feeble, truth to tell. But I surely had no desire to catch it from the ol' man! I was bound and determined to wiggle my way out of it if I could an' I was sure, if I set my mind to it, I could come up with a viable scheme. Schemin' was summat I was specially good at!
I chewed on it for a while and, by the time we spied the hacienda through the trees, I'd decided on my course of action.
"Murdoch won't be home 'til suppertime." Enrique gave me a look when I announced this. His eyes went all narrow an' I guessed he was still stickin' to the idea of me facin' the music.
"So... that gives me over two hours to forge a letter in reply to Mr Quinn what'll keep him sweet an' to destroy this letter so Murdoch don't ever see it, dummy!"
Enrique mulled this over. Then he posed another question real sarky-like - just 'cos he was irked that I'd called him 'dummy'. "An' what about church on Sunday? You can bet the reverend will have somethin' to say in his sermon; everyone says he always goes after the kids on account of bein' a mean, self-righteous old pedo de cerdo (pig's fart)... you know that! And Señor Lancer will hear all about it an' he'll be madder than ever."
I slumped back into my saddle and pondered some more.
"Well, that might happen and it might not," I argued. "I can always stay home with a belly ache or somethin' and then keep a watch out for Murdoch to see what frame of mind he's in when he gets back. If he's mad... well, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it."
Enrique shook his head sadly like he was the saintly one and a-feared for my soul. I gave him a shove so he nearly slipped sideways off Rana and it was so funny that, even in this dire predicament, we laughed 'til I got the hiccups!
I did my very best to avoid Maria when I got back as I knew she'd near kill me for the state of my dress. Mr Quinn had left ink stains all around the collar and it was pale blue so the only way to save it would be to dye it some dark shade - meaning more toil for Maria that she didn't need. So, thinkin' on all of this, I went up to my room straight off and changed out of the dress an' petticoats. I'd right changed my opinion about all them frills and flounces; I didn't think I'd ever gripe about havin' to wear so many layers again but it was still real pleasant to shed them too.
I wanted to get busy with my letter 'from Murdoch' so I just grabbed my union suit (we call 'em all-in-one long johns back home in England) and a pair of jeans. These were some hand-me-downs from one of Maria's older nephews and were a wee bit baggy on me. I really needed a belt or summat to hike them up but my wardrobe was such a tip that I couldn't find one for love nor money. I had to go without. I couldn't seem to see my boots either but they'd turn up. I was only traipsing around the house so it didn't matter a jot that I was barefoot any road.
Now, to my mind, the best place to carry out my letter-writing task would be somewhere no-one was going to need to venture. Teresa's always barging in uninvited so my own room was out of the question and the great room was way too public. The ideal, I thought, would be the bathroom - it's through the kitchen and along the corridor, right at the end. There's a big wooden tub in there as well as a couple of chairs and a long cabinet that houses stacks of towels and a few bars of soap. There's a little dainty table in there too with an oil lamp an' I've always wondered, being as this is Murdoch's house, what the hell does he need with all this twee feminine stuff when he's starkers in the tub? A mite peculiar if you ask me! I mean, how many people want someone sittin' on a chair across from them while they're performin' their ablutions? They don't half have some crackpot notions out here to my mind. But then, I will admit it's better than an old metal tub in front of the fire with everyone there in the same room with you - that's what we had back home.
Anyway, it weren't cold enough yet for the bathroom to be in use; the whole family used the bath house until at least November. Teresa kept angling for indoor pipes and running water on tap - hot and cold - and I had to admit it sounded right posh.
So, I crept down the stairs and made for the study where I knew I'd find a goodly stash of Murdoch's notepaper and a pen and ink. I knew the ol' man's style of penmanship - all loopy and slanted - an' I was fairly certain I'd do a passable job of emulating it. Now, to get my bits and bobs to the bathroom without being waylaid by Maria or Teresa. I headed for the kitchen and my luck was in - both ladies were out in the garden, picking herbs and vegetables for that night's supper. I was able to slip silently through the kitchen and on to the bathroom without being seen.
The letter, even if I say so myself, was an absolute masterpiece! Not only did it look totally grown-up and sophisticated (no blots, not a one!) but I'd taken great care with the wording.
I had assured Mr Quinn that Jemimah had been soundly thrashed so that she would be thinking twice about any further bad behaviour in school (I didn't like sayin' it, believe me, but I knew it was what my teacher would be expectin' and what Murdoch would have done if I'd given him the note) and she had been confined to the house for the whole weekend. I also said that, as the news of Jemimah's disgraceful behaviour had so upset the whole family, I would be grateful if the entire matter was not mentioned any more, if he would be so kind. Clever eh? That way, even if the ol' man bumped into Mr Quinn in town, he'd not be likely to bring up the topic and so Murdoch would be no wiser. I had to say I was right proud of myself for that little touch. In hindsight, perhaps it weren't the best idea I'd ever had... but hindsight's like that as we know!
I took Mr Quinn's letter over to the little table along with the ink, pen and 'Murdoch's' letter. Now I had to get rid of the first letter to Murdoch. There's always a small pot of matches next to the lamp so I struck one of these and set light to the corner of the paper. I made sure to hold it well away from the letter I'd just written. It was all going swimmingly!
I watched teacher's letter shrivel up as it burned and it was then that another of those bothersome accidents occurred. Somehow, as I went to put the stopper on the ink pot, I nudged it and upset the whole bloody thing all over the frilly white tablecloth. It were only a tiny pot but that blue ink sure went a long way - the once snowy cloth was now a deep indigo blue and it was pooling across the tiled floor too.
I whisked my forgery out of the way so it wouldn't be damaged and I put it on top of the towel cabinet for safety. Blow me down if yet another of them friggin' accidents didn't take me unawares! I was so keen to stash my letter in a safe place that I wasn't exactly payin' the best of attention to the burning letter in my left hand - it was kind of just out there in the air one moment and, the next, it was brushin' up against the net curtains. I don't have a clue what cloth they were made of but they sure went up with a whoosh - so sudden-like that I shrieked out loud.
For a second or two, I just stood frozen to the spot and I couldn't think what to do. My heart was hammerin' in my chest like a gallopin' horse; it was somewhat unexpected you might say! The flames was lickin' fiercely up the windows and the pretty ladylike curtains with their frilly little ribbon ties that Teresa made were getting kinda singed and sooty black. I know I was in a bathroom but there wasn't no running water there so I just made a grab for the first wet thing I could - the inky tablecloth!
I dumped the lamp onto the cabinet and snatched up the cloth. Then, I began to beat at the flames with it. At first, I didn't seem to be making any headway and those pretty pink curtains was black as ash but, as I whacked away at them, the flames started to die down and fizzle out. The ink had splotched all across the window and most of the white wall so it looked like devil's spittle spattered everywhere. There were still a few stubborn little flames and I kept beating at them but next thing I knew, Maria was pushing me to one side and she had a pail of water which she lobbed at the window. Teresa was right behind her, carrying a big porcelain bowl of water. That was chucked at the last few flames too and finally spelled the end of the fire.
All three of us stood panting in the ruined bathroom. Lord, you never saw such a mess!
The wall was smeary black and specked with darkest blue. The once dainty curtains were scraps of grey rag, hanging limply on the pole which had come adrift from the wall so it slanted down at one side. The floor (and my feet) was awash with indigo stains. The air was pungent with the acrid stink of burnt cloth and all you could hear was the steady drip, drip of the mucky water from the drenched curtains. What a bloody catastrophe!
Ever so slowly, Maria and Teresa turned to me with a look of complete disbelief.
"Usted niña mala! Qué crees que haces? (You bad girl, what do you think you're doing?)"
Maria certainly didn't look very happy and I have to admit I clocked her apron pocket swiftly for that wooden spoon.
" Ve a tu habitación y quédate ahí! (Go to your room and stay there!)"
I didn't need to be told twice; I shot out of the bathroom and along the corridor to the kitchen. I was almost at the door to the great room when I heard Murdoch's voice and he was heading my way. Chuff me! You ain't never seen anyone about-face as quick as I did! I just made it out of the door to the garden as the ol' man sauntered in. I hid myself behind that big solid oak door and hardly dared to breathe.
"Maria!" Murdoch was calling for her; he'd probably be wanting some coffee. I spied at him through the crack at the door jamb and could see he was peering at the floor with great puzzlement. I couldn't think what he was looking at until I looked at my feet - they were blue! And, everywhere I went, I was leavin' blue footprints in my wake. Dear God! I clutched at my heart and had all on not to scream. My hand clamped to my mouth, I prayed like I hadn't prayed in a long time that Murdoch's desire for hot coffee would outweigh his need to investigate the blue footprints across the kitchen floor. Maria was my salvation; just when it seemed God had forsaken me and Murdoch was about to follow my trail out to the garden, Maria called to him from the bathroom and there was something in her voice that the ol' man clearly thought required more urgent investigation than some odd markings on the tiles.
I let out a shaky breath and had to steady myself on the door. My knees were trembling like a baby foal about to stand for the first time. I had to gather my wits about me though; once Murdoch made it into the bathroom and saw the state it was in, he'd be following those footprints like a Pinkerton man on the trail of a bank robber! I scooted as fast as I could round the garden, past the peach tree (shuddering at the memory of the last time I had been there), around the side of the house and all the way across the yard to the barn. All the way, I was hopin' that Murdoch would be too flabbergasted by the inky-sooty-sodden bathroom to take a glance out of the window an' see me makin' my escape.
That was it - there was no way I was goin' to get away with it now. Letter or no bastard letter, I was goin' to pay - big style. I hared into the barn and desperately tried to think of a really good hiding place.
So... now you know how I ended up hiding behind Johnny in that stall in the barn and why Murdoch was so all-fired bent on locating me.
"Accident?" Murdoch's voice rumbled across to me as I quaked under the blanket. "Well, that's one way of putting it! She set fire to the curtains in the bathroom."
"Fire?" Johnny asked.
"Was there much damage?" This came from Scott over on his hay bale.
"Enough... though Miss Jemimah's rear end is going to be far more damaged when I catch up with her!"
"What was she doin' lightin' fires in the bathroom? Was she smokin'?" There was an edge to Johnny's voice that warned me my accomplice might be switching allegiance any minute.
I heard Murdoch sigh heavy-like and my face burned hot with what I knew was my guilty conscience. "I don't think so, no. I believe she was trying to destroy the evidence."
"Evidence?" Scott sounded annoyed.
Murdoch went on an' I was just wishin' they'd have their little tete a tete elsewhere. "It seems Jemimah has been in a little trouble at school today. I found this."
I heard a rustling noise and sensed Johnny move away from me. Risking a sneaky peek, I saw that he an' Scott had moved over to join Murdoch a little ways further down the barn where it was light enough to read. It was now or never. I eased myself out from under the blanket as stealthy as it were possible to do without raising the alarm. I knew without even lookin' that Murdoch had found the letter I'd forged; like an absolute gormless wassock, I'd left it lying there on the cabinet in the bathroom. Lord, I'd never make a master criminal! Right then though, all I was worried about was makin' it out of that barn in one piece.
All three of their heads were bent over the letter so, quick and quiet as I could, I hopped over the wall to the next stall and round the side where I was obscured by Charlie, Scott's horse. After that, I edged along until I was by the back door to the barn. It was just a question of squeezing through the narrow gap without having to open it any further so there was no squeak of a hinge to attract attention. Lucky I'm small an' skinny, ain't it?
Blimey! Once outside, I sucked in a gulp of good fresh air 'cos I felt like I'd been holding my breath forever. I had no time to lose and darted to the side of the bunkhouse, around the back and across to the big tree. From there, I hurtled down to the side of the house by the lane. There's a big trellis there for the roses to trail up and, right at the top, is Teresa's window. It weren't any kind of difficulty to shimmy up that trellis and slide in at the open window though my baggy jeans were a tad hampering and I was having to pause now an' then to hike them up. I kept glancing over my shoulder an' neither Murdoch nor the boys were in pursuit. I allowed myself a tiny gleeful cackle when I figured they'd be thinkin' of me still under that blanket in the stall - all ready to be caught an' suitably chastised as Scott would say. But I weren't; I was on the landing an' wonderin' where my next hiding place should be.
Not my room; that was no use - first place they'd look. I tiptoed along the cool bare boards and halted... right outside Johnny's room. Oh yes, sweet! They'd never think of looking for me in there! I checked my feet, relieved that I was no longer leaving any inky marks as I walked along. I was more than a mite scruffy but needs must when the devil drives (my Grandma used to say that too!). I let myself into Johnny's room an' looked around for a suitable place to hide. Of course, there was the wardrobe but I figured that he might want to change his shirt for supper and then I'd be discovered. Turns out, I was quite right and... hey - didn't need no hindsight for that one!
I finally plumped for under the bed. It was comfortable enough though I had to shove away a pair of smelly old socks that the scruffy Herbert had kicked under there. Eww! I settled on my stomach and rested my chin on my hands, mulling over all the nasty accidents that had befallen me that day. It wasn't fair; it really wasn't... I hadn't intended for any of this to happen.
I had not been in my hiding place under Johnny's bed for long when the door opened and I could make out two pairs of boots. Johnny's boots crossed the room and the bed creaked and sagged above me as he sat down.
"Well, she's still one step ahead of the ol' man! She's sure got some nerve, I'll give her that one." Johnny's voice was full of laughter.
"That may be, Johnny but you saw that bathroom. Aside from everything else; the trouble at school and the forged letter, she could have been hurt... badly. It's only mere chance that she wasn't. Are you trying to say you don't think she deserves a spanking?"
I waited, holding my breath.
Johnny gave a sigh and the bed went up again as he rose and crossed to the window. "Nah, I guess Murdoch's goin' to blister her an' I can't say I wouldn't do the same if it was down to me."
I lowered my chin onto my hands again, any good mood whisked clean away. I was under no illusion now; both Scott and Johnny thought I should get walloped so there was no way I could turn to either of them. I was on my own.
Scott was saying something about changing for dinner and Johnny told him to clear off so he could do the same. My ears pricked up at that. Johnny was goin' to be takin' his togs off? Right then and there? With me in the room? Interesting.
Scott had gone and we were alone. I could only see Johnny's legs from the shin down but I watched him approach the bed again and drop down onto it. He was removing his boots and the heels of his white socks were right at the side of me; so close that I could've reached out with my hand and tickled his foot. The idea of his surprise made me grin and I had to squash down a giggle that wanted to escape. The socks then moved away, crossing the rug to the wardrobe. I heard the door squeak as he opened it and I could imagine everything.
There was the sound of buckles being unfastened then a rustling noise and suddenly Johnny's pants dropped to the floor right at my side. I gaped as he stepped out of them. Oh lord, but it were so hard not to shuffle forwards so I could get a proper look.
I'd always wondered whether Johnny wore drawers of any kind. I'd more or less come to the conclusion that he didn't because his pants are too tight to get any on underneath. I'd said as much to Teresa once and the daft mare had got all flustered and told me I was a shameless hussy and if she heard me mention any such thing again she'd tell Maria on me. I could see she'd only got on her high horse 'cos it was summat she'd thought about aplenty an' she didn't want me to know.
I heard Scott say once that a thing of beauty is a joy to behold. I actually thought that Keats had said it first but, either way, they were both right. And Johnny was a thing of beauty so surely there could be no sin in beholding him... in all his glory as it were. I'd have given owt to do some beholding right then but, if I had, Johnny would have been able to behold me too and that meant Murdoch would be beholding my rear end at somewhat uncomfortable close quarters... so I stayed well hid under the bed.
Johnny commenced singing next as he washed at the basin. Jeez, that urge to giggle was so strong I almost gave myself away. When you know you mustn't, that urge just gets stronger an' stronger until it's like a pain inside. Still singin', he crossed the rug again and stepped into clean pants. The scruff left his dirty pink shirt and pants on the floor! If I did that, Maria would have let fly with that bloody spoon. Oh shite! I nearly gasped out loud as I realised I had left my clothes all over the floor, including my inky dress. Damn it! That was another accident that I'd be payin' for I bet. This whole bloody day needed a damn good dose of hindsight!
I heard Johnny belch but, somehow, it weren't funny no more. That mad urge to laugh had subsided and, as I watched his feet slip into his boots again and the boots went out the door, I huffed into a more comfy position. He was goin' down to supper whereas I was stuck under the chuffing bed. I'd not had any lunch and my stomach was growling like my throat had been cut! I was going to have to miss supper, that was obvious. I decided I'd wait it out until everyone was in bed and then I'd creep out and go down to the kitchen for something. Maybe I would let myself into one of the downstairs guest rooms to sleep the night. It was Saturday the next morning so there'd be no school.
I wasn't kidding myself; I knew I was goin' to catch it eventually but maybe, if I played for time, I could think up a way out of this sorry mess - though I couldn't for the life of me imagine what.
I felt right tired; bone tired and I just laid my head down on my arms for a while. (With the benefit of hindsight again, that turned out to be a bloody silly thing to do but I didn't know it at the time).
The next thing I knew, I was swooshing across the floorboards! I gave a shriek and felt myself leave my dark safe hidey-hole. There was something hard gripping my ankle and I felt my heart lurch in my chest, wondering what the hell was happening. It felt for all the world like the room had tipped, spilling me out into the brightness of day, and something or someone had me snagged so I couldn't scrabble back no matter how I tried.
I was rolled onto my back and blinked up at my captor. Johnny stared down at me, crouching by my side, wagging a warning finger but grinning his white teeth grin all the same. He shook his head while I tried to steady my breathing and squish my heart back down into my chest from where it had lodged in my throat.
Scott suddenly moved into my view and he was shaking his head too. "Well, my girl, you have led us a merry dance."
"We'd still be searchin' the ranch for you if I hadn't come up for a jacket," Johnny was saying. "Guess we can call off that search party now."
Search party? Oh no... if there'd actually been a search party organised to find me, Murdoch would never let me live through this. I was dead meat. Johnny chuckled at my horror and I think I realised he was teasin' me. I sat up a bit so's I was leaning on my elbows.
"How'd you find me anyway?"
"Could hear ya snorin' halfway up the stairs!"
Oh. That was accident number... well, I'd lost count by then but what the hell did it matter? This was it, I knew. I sighed real heavy. "What time is it?"
"Time to pay the piper," Scott quipped. He held out his hand to help me up. "Come on, up you get. I think Murdoch would like a word with you."
I started to get to my feet but my knees seemed to give out on me. You know that dizzy feelin' you get when you try to stand up too quick sometimes? Johnny and Scott both moved swift to set me upright again and they were lookin' at me real concerned.
"Hey kid, y'alright? You ain't fakin', are you?"
I rubbed my head. "Nah, just stood up too quick." It could've had summat to do with not having eaten since breakfast too.
I looked at Johnny and Scott. They were both glancing at each other with these uneasy looks on their faces. I weren't right sure what they were thinkin' but at least they weren't mad at me. Scott was even layin' a gentle hand on my shoulder and leanin' in close to me.
"Now honey," his voice was right soft. "Don't be afraid. It won't be as bad as you fear... it won't be pleasant but..."
Damn! He thought I was so scared I couldn't stand up? What kind of a sissy weakling did he take me for? Bloody cheek! I wasn't relishing the notion of getting whupped but there was no-one goin' to make out that I were so frit that I couldn't stand up straight!
"I ain't scared! As if! Maybe your old grandad was too feeble to tan your arse when you were growin' up so's the very idea of a lickin' scares the pants off've you but..."
Johnny gave me a swift cuff round the back of the head and told me to hush. He was smirking though whereas Scott was eyein' me right beadily like I might not make it downstairs to Murdoch before my lickin' commenced. I reckoned I'd best get down and get it over with. Johnny must've reckoned the same 'cos he took hold of my hand and proceeded to lead me onto the landing and down the stairs.
Once we made it into the kitchen, Maria immediately bustled over and she was huggin' me and pettin' my hair and plantin' little butterfly kisses all over my cheeks. I spied Teresa over by the table. She didn't look too happy to see I had been restored to the bosom of my loving family so I winked at her. Her mouth went all thin and narrow like she wanted to say something real unladylike but she restrained herself.
Maria had got over her delight at seein' me again and now she was tryin' to land a whack with her damn spoon just about anywhere on my person that she could. I rubbed at the sore spot on my thigh where she'd popped me one and tried to fend her off but, in the end, a voice from the doorway made us all go still.
"Just where have you been, young lady?"
I didn't need to look at Murdoch to know that he was not a happy bunny; his voice fair boomed across the kitchen so that even Johnny flinched and I swear my feet left the tiles by a good few inches.
"She was upstairs under Johnny's bed!" Blimey, Teresa! Tell-tale! Just because she was narked that her bloody curtains had got toasted, mardy arse!
Murdoch was givin' me a dark ominous look and, when he crooked his finger to beckon me to him, I clung on tight to Johnny's hand. Alright Scott - so what if I was a wee bit leery of the ol' man? I was still standin' up, wasn't I?
"Come with me." Murdoch went into the great room. I hung back, not really wanting to follow, but Scott gave me a little encouragin' smack to the behind (huh! bastard!) and so we all trooped in after him. Murdoch was waiting by the mantel.
It's one of those strange things that a body simply can't explain but, when you're faced with your daddy an' he's as big as what the ol' man is an' he ain't best pleased with you, you suddenly can't hold your head up and this right sorry slump comes to your shoulders - like a pup that's peed where it knows it shouldn't. I did my best to slink in but stay as far away from Murdoch as I could. He was having none of that though and pointed to the sofa where he intended I should sit.
Once I was sitting in front of him, Murdoch beckoned Maria forward. She dutifully passed him this cloth thing. Her eyes were averted from me and I couldn't tell if it was because I was too shameful to look upon or if she felt a bit sorry for me. The ol' man was now dangling the cloth thing aloft from one finger an' I could see now that it was my dress. Lord, the inky stains round the collar were real frightful; a ruin of a dress! Even if we dyed it, they'd probably still show through.
"Perhaps you'd like to explain this first of all?"
I couldn't honestly say that I'd like to do anything of the kind but I knew it weren't a request an' I'd better start talkin'. I tried to speak but all that came out was this kinda strangled squeak. I saw Johnny look at me all sympathetic and then glance over to Scott. Scott was lookin' all sorry too an' that made me a little mad - I weren't havin' them thinkin' I were too frit to speak so I cleared my throat an' tried again.
"It's my dress from school today. But the ink on the collar wasn't off've me!"
"Then why are your fingers covered in ink - black ink?" Murdoch was determined to press me.
"Well, I was usin' the ink, that's true, but them marks aren't from my fingers; they're from Mr Quinn's. He got a hold of my collar."
There are times when you know you've said the wrong thing an' only made it worse for yourself... and this was one of those times. Murdoch's face went a sort of dull red and he gritted his teeth.
"Maybe you'd better start at the beginning... and don't leave anything out!"
I knew there weren't no way out of it but I also figured I didn't have to tell Murdoch everything; there was some parts I could leave out an' it wouldn't exactly be telling a lie and, besides, he'd never know which bits I'd omitted to tell him.
And so, feelin' about the size of a bug with Murdoch towering over me in all his silent rage, and Johnny, Scott, Teresa an' Maria there listenin' to every word like a blasted audience at a theatre show, I told. I told of how Stinky Pickford had been pressin' and goadin' me an' I'd finally snapped an' punched him in the eye for which I got an hour in the corner over the lunch break. I tried to inject a bit of sad here so that my listeners might feel sorry that I'd missed out on my lunch... but they didn't look none too sorry to me. I felt a wee bit more justified in not tellin' about the glue incident now that the hard hearted bastards couldn't show a little sympathy for me and my suffering.
So... I left that little transgression out of it, and the dropping of the books and the tapping my teeth with my pen (they weren't worth mentioning anyway). I toyed with the idea of omitting the inkball part too but Murdoch suddenly growled out, askin' how come teacher had got inky fingers all over my collar. Darn - so I had to tell that bit but I did try to make 'em all see that it were an accident and it'd been meant for Stinky really.
Johnny whistled real low. "Jeez kid, you're lucky you didn't get paddled! If I'd have done even half of all that, them priests at the mission school woulda' skinned me alive!"
Dammit! I swear I tried not to blush but I could feel that heat buildin' up in my cheeks. It were mortifying!
"You were paddled?" Scott gaped at me.
There seemed to come a monstrous gasp then, from everyone, an' it were so loud I could almost feel it hittin' me like a big wave. They was all staring at me like they was gobsmacked!
"It's alright! It didn't hurt hardly, thanks to Teresa!"
Murdoch's eye was a-twitchin'. "What?"
"I mean, she allus makes me wear all them layers of frillies so..."
Suddenly, it didn't seem such a good thing that I'd not felt Mr Quinn's paddling. Murdoch looked like he might be on the brink of actually explodin' like a bloody big stick of dynamite.
"And the letter?"
"Well daddy, I know I shouldn't have done it - burned the note to you an' then wrote that letter pretendin' to be you - but..." I hung my head right sheepish and looked up at Murdoch through my eyelashes, puttin' as much sad into it all as I most possibly could. I even ignored Teresa when she sniffed right derogatory. "I didn't want you to regret askin' me to stay here at Lancer and be part of the family and your little girl. I didn't want you to be so disappointed in me that you might wish you could send me away again."
I hardly dared even look up but I spied Scott and Johnny glancing at the ol' man when he cleared his throat with a gruff growly-type cough.
"And how did the fire come about?" Murdoch asked me.
So, I commenced to explain the whole accident with the ink and the burning letter and how I'd not meant for any of it to happen. I told them all that I were so shocked that I ran and hid under Johnny's bed straight away.
"Hey... hold it! You mean you were under there before dinner?" Johnny was up off his perch on the arm of the chair. He seemed vexed. "You were there when I came in and..." He let out a sharp breath, his usually smiley mouth in a firm line. "You were there all the time?"
I swallowed. "Yes, but I didn't see owt; I couldn't from under the bed - only your feet an' there's no harm in that is there? I didn't see owt... revealing!" (More's the pity, I thought but I didn't say so.)
Johnny raised his hand to point a stern finger at me but Murdoch stepped forward before he could say owt.
"If that's everything, I think you need to come with me, young lady; we have some business to take care of."
Next thing I knew, I was up off the sofa an' Murdoch had my hand gripped in his huge paw, right determined, and we was walkin' past everyone, headed to the study. I couldn't look at any of the others; I was too humiliated 'cos they all knew where we were goin' and what for. Murdoch figured it was the ideal place to administer my punishment; a real proper hiding place - so to speak! My face felt hot and my mouth was right dry. I felt kinda dizzy too - not from lack of food 'cos, truth be told, I couldn't have swallowed a single bite, not now - but from knowin' what was about to take place. My stomach was swoopin' like a trapped bird. It certainly was an awful feelin' but I knew I was about to feel summat way more awful.
Murdoch shut the door behind us and left me standin' there as he crossed over and took out a chair which was set by the wall. Then he came back to collect me and took my hand again. We walked together to that chair, whereupon he sat down. I know I were expectin' it but, even so, it's a right horrid shock to find yourself being lifted off the ground and then, suddenly, you're lyin' over your daddy's knee with your rear-end completely at his mercy.
"I didn't mean none of it to happen, daddy! It was all an accident... well, lots of accidents! I swear!"
He didn't say owt; just a kind of grunt in that noncommittal way of his that says all your excuses are just a waste of breath and you might as well save it for all the yelling you're about to do.
And yell I did, right then. I felt Murdoch hook a couple of fingers into the back of the waistband of my jeans an' next he was raggin' 'em down to my knees. I guess he was makin' certain that he didn't commit the same error as teacher had about not removing the extra layers of padding. My jeans were baggy as I said, and I'm thin, so it weren't a difficult task... but... they snagged on the buttons which fasten the flap at the back of my all-in-ones and, next thing I knew, I could feel cool air across my backside.
Murdoch seemed to freeze, as did I. My heart was hammerin' away but the rest of me was as still as a rabbit faced down by a fox.
"Well daughter, it looks like you are not the only one to fall foul of accidents today." I didn't like the laugh I could hear in his voice. "However, in this instance, I think it has worked to my advantage."
I opened my mouth to say... something, don't know what, an' we'll never know 'cos that's when Murdoch commenced to wallop my exposed rear-end and, from that point, I don't think I said owt at all that was real proper words - just lots of yellin' and noise. Couldn't exactly help it, y'see.
Murdoch said plenty enough for both of us though.
"Spoiling a perfectly good dress..."
"Throwing ink at your teacher..."
"Playing pranks in school..."
"Getting paddled..." That one really seemed to irk Murdoch 'cos he followed it up with a right flurry of six or seven smacks with that big hand.
"Hiding a letter addressed to me..."
"Lying... forgery... destroying other people's property..."
"Setting fire to the house..."
"Entering Johnny's room without permission and not making yourself known when you knew darn well you should have..."
"Disobedience... dishonesty... downright disgraceful behaviour..."
"Don't you ever... blah blah blah di blah..."
I'd give up countin' when he got to twenty an' he were still goin' strong. I grit my teeth and clung onto his leg but it wasn't until I was really sniffling proper that he stopped and seemed to think he'd spanked me thorough enough. In my opinion, he could've stopped a good while sooner and I'd say I would've learned my lesson.
I set myself to rights as best I could though drawin' that flap and the pants back up over my burning rump again was the last thing I wanted to do. I scuffed at the tears with the back of my hand and stared hard at the rug. I wanted nowt more than to run off up to my room and drag my jeans and long johns off... and to hide. I was ashamed of myself. I surely couldn't stand the thought of lookin' up an' seeing his eyes all filled with disappointment in me.
Murdoch took hold of both my hands in his great work-hardened ones and drew me in to stand between his knees. He knew I was avoidin' his eye but he let me continue to study on that rug and I was right grateful.
"Accidents can happen to anyone, young lady, but, above all, you have to be honest. I will never be angry if you make a genuine mistake but I can't abide lying and... that forged letter was a lie as surely as if you had spoken it aloud to my face. If you own up to a mistake, you'll be more likely to avoid punishment than if you lie or hide away from the truth - as you did today. You know that your biggest mistake was compounding one error of judgement with another and then another?"
I wanted to tell him he was usin' Scott's hindsight an' that it was always easier to see the rightful path when you did so an' that, at thirteen, how was I to know a good decision from a mistake... but I kept my gob shut. I wasn't keen to have any more accidents that day.
"Now, young lady, your letter said that you had been soundly thrashed..." He paused here and, suddenly fearful that I might be in for more hiding (the painful kind - of Murdoch's variety), I looked up. His blue eyes was serious but not harsh. "... and confined to the house for the whole weekend. I think that is a suitable punishment. So, before you go on up to bed..."
It was about an hour before my bedtime but I remained quiet. I was learnin', y'see.
"You should understand one thing... you being here at Lancer is no accident! Your own father chose this place and this family for you. And... you're my little girl now. You need never be afraid that I might not want you or might wish I could send you back - no matter what you do or how many accidents you might have!"
So sudden that it took my breath away, he'd pulled me into his arms. I could smell that very particular Murdoch smell - soap, pipe tobacco and the freshness of the whole outdoors. He was warm and strong and his shirt was soft against my damp cheek. Bein' hugged like that; so close and lovin', after all the wretchedness that had took place... it set me off to sniffling again. My eyes was scrunched up and the fresh tears wet on my face. It had been such a Jonah day! Once more, I was suddenly lifted up and found myself sitting on his knee this time, his strong arms holding me tight until all the trembling and tears was gone. He set me onto my feet and then, he was holding me out at arm's length once more so he could look right beadily into my eyes.
"Now, scoot upstairs to bed. You have a full day of chores tomorrow, including dyeing that dress!"
As I made my way slowly up the stairs, I thought on what Murdoch had said. An endless list of chores stretched before me and there'd be no riding Amiga as I had hoped; I'd be lucky if I could manage that come Monday!
Once in my nightie, I stretched out under my quilt and tried to get comfy on my stomach - the only option that night. Hmmm... dyeing my dress? That could be interestin'; even fun! The more I thought on it though, the more I decided I'd use some aforesight instead ( no requirement for hindsight this time)and just stick to whatever Maria told me to do. No shenanigans for a while - I weren't in no shape to encounter any more of them darn accidents anytime soon.
Anne Haslam January 2014
nowt - nothing
owt - anything
summat - something
shufty - sneaky peek
jotter - notebook
like a lemon - uselessly; with no purpose
wodgy - squashy; moist
twee - feminine; sweet and old-maid'ish
bits and bobs - bits and pieces of possessions
hared - ran very fast
gobsmacked - shocked; thoroughly surprised
gormless - foolish
wassock - idiot; simple person
togs - clothes
allus - always
narked - annoyed; irritated
mardy - sulky; petulant
nightie - nightgown