Disclaimer: These characters (i.e. the Lancers) are not mine though I
certainly show them more love, respect and gratitude than Fox.
Scott is 31; Johnny is 26
Jemimah sighed and idly scanned the room, occasionally passing a pin down to Teresa as she knelt nearby, hemming Zee's dress.
It was a very pleasant room and typical of the understated style that Scott Lancer preferred though, here and there, little splashes of bright colour - a scarlet cushion, an Indian blanket used as a throw rug or a vase of fresh flowers and ferns - showed how Zee had made her mark upon their suite of rooms.
This drawing room was probably the nicest of their whole apartment. The bedroom, Jemimah had only seen once and it was perfectly acceptable but nothing special. They certainly didn't possess anything as unique as her own cherub bed or the portrait of Trudy which resided over the mantel in the sitting room of their own homey little nest. Scott's small study was much like any man's study and Jemimah was none too keen on such rooms; they held a lot of bad memories for her! She was heartily glad that Johnny didn't have a study at Randall House. The smaller second bedroom was still empty and basically used for storage. Jemimah knew that Scott was hoping to soon turn it into a nursery for their first-born but they were yet to make any joyful announcements despite being married for nearly three months.
Jemimah looked up at Zee who was rotating slowly on the footstool so that Teresa could pin the hem of her new dress. She still looked as trim as ever; no tell-tale bump or roundness to her stomach.
Jemimah passed another pin to Teresa and, stuffing her hand into the pocket of her jeans, she turned her attention to the scenery beyond the large window and heaved another sigh.
"You sound bored," Zee twisted a little to look over her shoulder. "Married life not everything you expected?"
Jemimah straightened quickly. "Nah, nothing like that. Bein' married to Johnny is... well, it's wonderful. It's all I ever dreamed of." She noticed the twinkle in Zee's dark eyes. "It's just..."
"I know what you mean, sweetie. I had a helluva time the last few years, livin' with the widow an' tryin' ter learn how to be a lady." She turned around further so that Teresa could reach the next section of her dress. "I surely missed out on a lot of fun while I was developin' the necessary refinement to suit Scott. Had to show him how he'd be mad as a bedbug to let me go, didn't I? Thing is, he seems to expect me to carry on behavin' like a lady all the time when all I wants to do is..." She paused, tilting her head on one side as though fixing on the exact words to sum up her feelings. "I want to get out an'... stir things up a little. Enjoy a few moments of craziness, y'know?"
Teresa suddenly clicked her tongue in reproof and the two girls grinned across at each other over her head.
"I don't know about craziness but it really irks me that Johnny an' Scott can still act like bachelors whenever the mood takes 'em while I'm expected to sit in the rocker, knitting or mending shirts or reading some darn book 'til I hear him trot into the yard on Barranca, An' then, if it's late, I have to dive up to bed an' pretend I've been there all the time an' wasn't clock-watching. He don't like clock-watching. Or, if it's early, I have to make out like I've been hard at the chores instead an' hadn't even noticed the time. An' where has he been?"
Zee nodded, understanding completely. "In the saloon."
"Yep! The bloody saloon!" Jemimah chose to ignore Teresa's squeak of protest at her cussing. "Tossin' back beers or tequila an' playin' cards while them floozies prance around him half-naked and wigglin' all they've got in his face!"
"Well, you'd know all about that, Jemimah," Teresa pointed out. "Remember your experience as a dance hall girl?"
The younger girl scowled and firmed her lips into an obstinate glare while Zee, out of Teresa's line of sight, rolled her eyes to heaven.
"The point is," Zee added before an argument could ensue. "Scott an' Johnny are married now. They're just as married as we are. They shouldn't be settin' foot in them places. An' I know they allus say it's in the line of business but I ain't as green as Scott Lancer seems to think!"
"Line of business??" Jemimah snorted, warming to her theme and mentally listing her grievances. "You don't catch Murdoch in the saloon every time he goes into town. They must think we're a right gormless pair."
Zee agreed. "I reckon Scott wouldn't like it one bit if I went in a saloon."
"Johnny would skin me alive."
"Hmph! And quite right too!" Teresa huffed up at them.
"Aw Teresa girl, I ain't plannin' on committin' no crime. All I'm talkin' about is stirrin' things up a little." Zee smiled and it seemed she was already plotting an adventure in her devious mind.
Jemimah recognised that expression. She had worn it often enough herself and felt she should point out the dangers of any potential shenanigans. Lancer men folk were not renowned for their forbearance when it came to pranks and scheming. "Yes well, I've done my share of stirring up since I came to live at Lancer an' you need to know there's always a price to pay. Murdoch likes to call it consequences."
Zee sniggered. "I heard all about that. Scott's told me some hair-raisin' stories about you, child. You's lucky you're still alive to tell the tale, I reckon." She peered down at the hem of her gown to check Teresa's progress. "I still figure we need some fun around here. The boys visit the saloon for theirs but we cain't go there. Nah, we're too delicate an' refined for that den of wickedness." Zee's smile indicated how little she agreed with that statement. "Well, I say, if we cain't go in the saloon, then they shouldn't be in there neither! Why is it one rule for us an' another entire different rule for them? They spoke their vows same as us."
Teresa had finished pinning the gown and she now straightened, a disapproving frown on her face as she collected her jar of pins from Jemimah. "Why would you even want to go to the saloon? Nasty, dirty, smelly places and filled with the sort of people... well, let's just say you never see any of them in church on a Sunday morning."
"'Cos they've had too wild of a time on Saturday night!" Zee grinned at Teresa's outrage.
"All I'll say is watch yourselves," Teresa was shaking a warning finger at them now. "If Scott or Johnny find either of you in the saloon... I wouldn't want to be in your shoes."
Jemimah shook her head. As much as she was enjoying having a little gripe, there was no way she was going to any saloon or dance hall. She had learned her lesson as far as that went and had no desire to be carted out of such an establishment over her husband's shoulder... or worse; the illicit thrill wasn't worth the public humiliation. "We ain't goin' to the saloon, Teresa. Don't get your knickers in a twist!"
"You better not or I'll tell Murdoch."
Teresa primly flounced out and Zee gazed after her.
"You reckon she would?"
"Oh yeah!" Jemimah scuffed her bare toe sullenly across the rug. "Sometimes Miss Teresa's corset strings are a bit too tightly knotted! Murdoch would only lecture on for a bit though. The days of bein' dragged to his study for a lickin' are long gone... I think."
Jemimah crossed to the green velvet sofa and flopped down onto it. "Johnny ain't had words with me since long before I went off to college... an' I aim to keep it that way."
Zee stepped down from the stool and faced away so that Jemimah could unbutton the back of her dress. "So you ain't game for some fun then?"
Jemimah's fingers stilled and Zee spun around, slipping the dress off her smooth shoulders and grinning like a kid. Jemimah herself looked more wary though there was a definite gleam in her green eyes.
"What you got in mind?"
"Aw Zee, I'm not sure about this."
Zee peered at Jemimah over the neck of her horse and paused impatiently. She smoothed her hand over the silky hide then stooped to check the cinch.
"I told you... when I first met Scott, I was ridin' with a coupla other fellas from Chico. They was cowpokes off've the Bidwell ranch - real big spread - but they'd gotten tired of that an' robbed themselves the liquor store on Second Street. Well, we teamed up an' robbed a few more places - just small-like; they wasn't keen on the idea of banks at that time. We slept out on the trail, stole some chickens or eggs from an obliging farm here an' there... They were real nice boys; real respectful. Didn't try nothin' with me. Good times."
"Until you got caught," Jemimah pointed out.
Zee's blissful smile slipped but she nodded. "Yep. Scott's not a man to let go of his principles. He was bound and determined to see justice prevail." She slipped her hands into her gloves and grinned. "Lord, I tried awful hard to persuade that man to look the other way but I guess I'm kinda glad now that he's such a righteous type."
"Huh! I hope you're still singin' that song when we get caught an' he's actin' judge, jury an' executioner in one!"
Zee smirked. "You fret too much, sweetie. It's only a little bit of bamboozling; teach our men folk a lesson."
"As long as we don't end up bein' the ones who get taught!"
Grinning confidently, Zee swung into the saddle and Jemimah followed suit. As they headed out of the barn, the younger girl turned to her companion again.
"And what if they don't stop by the saloon on the way to Seņor Vicente's place? I know Johnny's real eager to get them mares over there so's that stallion can get to work."
Zee flashed Jemimah an exasperated look. "They allus stop by the Holy Moses, you know that. You backin' out? Is that what you're sayin'?"
"Didn't say that."
"Never thought of you as fragile, girl."
Jemimah scowled. "I ain't fragile! An' I ain't backin' out. I just..." She shrugged and squirmed a little in her saddle. She couldn't fail to recognise this very situation but, usually, she had been the one spurring Enrique or Pony into some scheme or other. For once, Jemimah herself was hesitant. "It's just that I'm a wife now an' I can't be actin' like some pesky kid forever. I have to show some responsibility."
Zee chortled and shook her head in disbelief. "You the same girl who set the widow's store afire an' nearly made off with a silver buckle just for a dare? This ain't you; them's Murdoch's words talkin'!"
Jemimah flushed and stared straight ahead. When Zee asked if she had brought a bandana, she fished it out of her pocket. It was a peach-coloured, tatty thing; one of Johnny's old ones. Zee gestured for her to tie it about her neck in readiness. Jemimah did so and then, a little of her old devilment rising within her at the prospect of a good trick, she pulled it up over the lower part of her face. Zee laughed.
"Hey, you make a helluva cute bandit!"
Removing the bandana, Jemimah smirked and they urged their horses into an easy lope, heading for Redemption.
Scott crossed the saloon, heading for the back table where Johnny sat, facing the batwing doors as was his habit. Plunking the two tall glasses of beer down, he slid into the chair his brother pulled out for him.
"There you are. As Jemimah would say, 'get yourself on the outside of that'!"
Johnny grinned and reached for the glass, taking a deep draught and then wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.
"She wouldn't be too pleased if she knew I was in here."
Scott eyed him as he leaned back in his chair. "Ah, so you've been on the receiving end of your wife's ill temper, have you? Join the club."
"You too? You figure they've had their heads together? I find it hard to believe that Zee disapproves of saloons."
"No, I don't think she disapproves in theory. At least, not in the same way that Teresa does."
Johnny smirked and took another hearty swig of beer.
"No, it's just that my darling wife disapproves of my visits to such establishments or so she leads me to believe. I think it's more a case of not wanting me to come here alone."
"You ain't alone, brother; you're with me!"
Scott lifted his glass in salute. "No offence, Johnny but I don't think that will suffice for Zee."
Johnny shifted in his hard wooden chair and tipped it so that he was balancing on the two back legs. "No point comin' in here if we have to bring the ladies too. I mean, it's our way of... well... lettin' off some steam; shucking off the dust of the day for a while."
Scott nodded in agreement. "So we can then return home to our beloveds as attentive and devoted husbands instead of surly, cantankerous louts. Yes, I know but you try explaining that to the women folk."
Johnny shrugged. "But we don't do nothin' in a saloon except play cards, have a coupla beers, talk. It's not like we ever... y'know, go upstairs anymore."
Scott's face took on an expression of outrage. "Heaven forbid!"
"Alright," Johnny chuckled. "So we both indulged in the past but not now. I couldn't; don't want to. You?"
"No. I've no desire to venture upstairs with anyone other than Mrs. Lancer - my Mrs. Lancer, that is."
"Same here - with mine. So, why can't they see that? Jemimah's convinced herself that there's somethin' sinful goin' on. Says she can't think why I'd bother if not. I tell you, Scott... I didn't like that. It sounded like she didn't trust me an' I've never given her cause to doubt or worry. I came awful close to..." Johnny huffed out a sharp sigh. "Don't want to lose my temper with her. We ain't had a cross word since we were married and I'd like to keep it that way."
Scott copied his brother and emitted a heavy sigh. "I agree. You work hard. This is simply a brief respite to gather yourself for the next task."
Johnny eyed Scott over the rim of his glass. "Er... respite. Yeah. I'm puttin' in the hours with the horses. I just need a little time to myself now an' then. Besides, I only really come in this place to see Maudie."
Scott drained his glass and leaned forward on the table. "Exactly. Wonder where she is. Might be out taking a walk I suppose. One for the road?"
"Scott, you took the words out of my mouth."
At that precise moment, two riders were approaching the 'Holy Moses' saloon.
Cupitt Creek could hardly be termed a town. It was, in fact, little more than a bump in the road to Redemption, consisting of the small dilapidated saloon, the livery, a pitiful excuse for a general store and a dozen log cabins. But it was quiet and the inhabitants were friendly in the main.
Now, at nearly two in the afternoon, the main street (the only street) was deserted or it was certain that these two riders would have caused some consternation.
The men were unremarkable but for one thing - their faces were covered by bandanas and their eyes were shadowed by their hats, pulled down low. They both wore shapeless bulky jackets which were surely too heavy for the mild October weather.
Pointing their mounts towards the saloon, they drew up at the hitching rail but, rather than step down to enter the building, both riders moved to the string of horses which was tethered there, sandwiching them between their own animals.
They ignored the palomino and the sorrel but gathered up the reins of the five mares and, glancing furtively about them, moved off. All this took place with no fuss, no word and would, in all likelihood, have gone unnoticed by anyone but for three young boys who happened to choose that very moment to exit one of the cabins. Racing across the street to the store, they looked up and were instantly agog.
To see two strangers in Cupitt Creek was unusual enough but two such men could not fail to draw attention.
"Hey! Look - bandits!" The tallest of the children yelled out, pointing his finger at the riders who instantly spurred their horses into action, galloping out of town with the string of mares tearing along behind.
By the time the store keeper had bustled out to check on what on earth had the Timpson kids so excited, all that could be seen of the bandits and their ill-gotten gains was a dust cloud which drifted across the two remaining horses and in at the door of the Holy Moses saloon.
"No sir, couldn't make out their faces but they was definitely bandits!"
"Desperadoes, weren't they, Tommy?"
"S'right. Wore bandanas across their faces like real bank robbers."
"Tommy, there ain't no bank," the middle child said scornfully. "They just robbed the horses from outside the Holy Moses."
Scott rolled his eyes and flashed an impatient look at Johnny. This was worse than useless. Having exited the saloon to find that the mares were missing, they had been attempting to get the story and hopefully a description from these three boys for about half an hour and were still none the wiser. It was obvious that the two men had taken the horses; you didn't have to be a Pinkerton man to work that out.
"Alright," Johnny tried again. "We know you couldn't see their faces but can you describe them in any other way? Were they big men? Did you see their hands? Were they white, Mexican?"
The tow-headed one called Tommy, who was surely the oldest and therefore the spokesman, screwed up his freckled face in thought.
"We'ell... didn't see their skin an' I'm pretty sure they was wearin' gloves."
Johnny chewed his lip in frustration.
"But they weren't big men. Not as big as you two, mister."
"Nope, they was boys!" the middle child piped up, his arm around the youngest who was steadfastly sucking his thumb and staring at Scott.
"Boys?" Scott stepped forward. "Are you sure?"
"Yeh, can't have been much older than our cousin Toby an' he's near sixteen. The little one looked more like thirteen to me; kinda scrawny even though they wore those jackets. Yep - the little one weren't that much bigger'n me!"
"Horses were a black an' a chestnut," middle child spoke again, adding his two cents' worth.
Johnny straightened from where he had been crouching and held out his hand to Scott. "Give the kids somethin' for their trouble. They've been a big help."
Grins lit up their faces when Scott, with a frown at his brother, pressed a coin into each sticky little fist.
Leaving the kids to race into the store for liquorice whips and barley sugar, Johnny and Scott sauntered moodily down the street to their remaining horses.
"Two kids!" Johnny spat. "Probably don't even realise what they got away with - some of the best horseflesh..."
"They can't have gone far. There's only one road out of here and it leads to Redemption. We'll head for Seņor Vicente's place as we planned. Maybe you can track them down. Either way, we need to let him know what's happened." Scott mounted his horse, already squinting into the distance as though he might catch a glimpse of their quarry.
"What I need..." Johnny hopped nimbly onto Barranca and wheeled him around angrily. "Is to get a hold of those two young devils an' take a layer of hide off've them! Poco bastardos! (Little bastards!)"
"If we catch them, you can. In fact, I'll take one while you handle the other. Then we can dish up what's left to Val. Come on!"
Johnny easily spotted their tracks and they trailed them along the road until they broke off at a tangent into the rougher terrain of the hills and valleys beyond.
Johnny was all set to follow. He was taking the theft of his horses personally. He had slogged and planned for weeks and the mares were a key part of the success of the horse-breeding business, still in its infancy and a long-cherished dream of Johnny's. He wanted them back.
It was Scott who pointed out the hour. If they were to make it to Seņor Vicente's place and back before dark, they would have to leave the trail for now and head out again afresh the next day, maybe with Val and Cipriano.
Reluctantly, Johnny agreed.
They were halfway back to Lancer when Johnny cursed aloud and angrily smacked his hand against his thigh.
"Mierde! She was right; they both were!"
Scott had been morosely dwelling on what their father would have to say about all of this but now he looked up in puzzlement. "Who was right about what?"
"Jemimah an' Zee - they said we shouldn't be goin' in the saloon an' they were right," Johnny bit out. "If we'd gone straight to Vicente's an' done what we were supposed to be doin', this would never have happened."
Scott didn't reply. He knew Johnny was right; there was no need to say it and, besides, it only made him feel guiltier.
"Know something else?" Johnny asked.
"That's exactly what the ol' man is goin' to say too."
"It was just downright irresponsible and you know it!"
Murdoch paced furiously back and forth in front of the fire. Scott was reminded of a hungry lion he had once seen in the zoo. He and Johnny took the haranguing that was their due, heads bowed like two little boys caught out in some act of mischief.
Johnny's arms were wrapped around himself in his usual nervous pose, fingers busily picking at the seams of his blue shirt. Scott was slowly rotating his hat in his hands, eyes riveted to it as though it were the most intriguing object he had ever seen.
"The loss of those horses is significant to the horse-breeding branch of Lancer. It's a real blow to our plans. I don't need to explain that to you, Johnny, surely?"
Johnny shook his head and avoided his parent's glare. "Nah Murdoch, but I guess you're goin' to anyway," he muttered resentfully.
Murdoch grunted, his eyes narrowed at his younger son.
Scott flashed a tiny half-smile at Johnny who had to quickly brush at his nose to hide the smirk which tugged at the corners of his mouth. It was only nerves, they both knew that, but were certain Murdoch would not appreciate it if they cracked up laughing at this point. He was still ranting.
"... Going drinking when you should be getting the job done. Like a pair of recalcitrant teenagers! If you were younger, you'd already be on your way to my study so we could finish this conversation as you deserve."
"No need for that, Murdoch. We already put ourselves over our own knees," Johnny attempted to lighten the mood but one quick glance at his father's face and he clamped his mouth shut once more, wishing he hadn't even tried.
Murdoch eyed them both beadily and, it has to be said, both young men shuffled uneasily.
"When are you going to grow up and understand that running a ranch this size and getting a new venture off the ground means business before pleasure?"
Murdoch was now standing, hands planted on his hips, glaring down at both his sons.
Shamefaced, Scott eventually spoke up quietly. "Believe me, sir, there's nothing you can say that Johnny and I haven't already said to ourselves. We're under no illusion over who is to blame for this mess."
"Yeah Murdoch," Johnny rushed to agree. "We're goin' to speak to Val first thing in the morning. We followed their tracks an' it shouldn't be too hard to find 'em again."
Murdoch was shaking his head. "Even if you can, by tomorrow there's a good chance those horses will be long gone."
Scott and Johnny bowed their heads again, knowing he was right. Murdoch sighed heavily and turned away from his boys to stare into the dancing flames before him.
"However, if you mean to go after them, it'll mean an early start. I suggest you get off home, Johnny. Jemimah will be waiting supper for you. Scott, we will eat at the usual time. I'll expect you and Zee at six."
Raising a brow at the curt dismissal, Johnny nodded to Scott and headed for the door. Scott lingered, studying the stiff angry back of his father. He wondered if he should say more; attempt to apologise again but decided against it. Turning, he headed for the west wing.
"All the horses? All five?"
Zee stepped into her dress and turned, lifting her long dark hair so that Scott could button it up for her.
She was glad to have an excuse to face away from her husband. Otherwise, she felt sure he would catch the gleam in her eyes and the way she had to keep biting her lip to prevent the smirk which hovered there.
"Yes, all five," Scott replied gloomily.
"An' it was just two kids, you say?"
Scott had finished fastening her dress and turned to the closet for a fresh shirt. Slipping his arms into the sleeves, he watched her adjust her ribboned garters and smooth her stockings before sliding her neat little feet into her shoes. If it weren't for the fact that it would merely irk his father even more, Scott would have dispensed with dinner and found something far more entertaining to do, starting with relieving his pretty young wife of the gown he had just buttoned her into.
"Yes, it seems so. Aged about sixteen and thirteen according to the witnesses."
"So, two grown men bested by a coupla' kids. What have I been tellin' you, Scott Lancer? If you hadn't been in the saloon..."
"Enough Zee! I've had my ears blistered off by Murdoch. I don't need to hear it from you as well."
She regarded him, hands on her curvy hips and her head cocked on one side. "S'true though, ain't it? I keep tellin' you..."
"Yes thank you very much. That'll be all, Mrs. Lancer." Standing with her hands on her hips like that, Zee's bosom was pressed forward against the low neckline of her bodice, the gentle curves very enticing. Scott's temper was rising at the thought of spending a whole hour or more with the rest of the family when they could be far more pleasantly occupied. He impatiently held open the door and gestured for her to precede him. "After you." As she passed, he suddenly frowned. "Zee?"
"How did you know there were five horses? I never mentioned that."
Smoothly and without missing a beat, she answered, "Jemimah told me this morning. Said Johnny had five mares ready for Vicente's stallion."
Fortunately for Zee, Scott turned down the lamp as they moved into the corridor. She released a shaky breath, thankful that he could not see the blush staining her cheeks.
Johnny had barely touched his supper even though Jemimah had rushed home to prepare one of his favourites. And now, he was slumped in the armchair in front of the fire, his legs stretched out towards the flames. Since telling the tale, he had barely spoken.
"So... you're goin' out tomorrow to see if you can find the trail and get them back?"
He did not look away from the fire as he replied. "Yes. Shouldn't be too hard to find the tracks but..."
"What?" Jemimah blew out the lamp so that the only light in the sitting room came from the fire.
She knelt at his feet and began to ease off his dusty boots, all the time watching him. He looked sad and she suspected it had less to do with the loss of the horses than the fact that Murdoch was disappointed in him.
"Murdoch's right. Even if we can follow their trail, those mares will be gone by morning."
"You don't know that for sure. The boys could've hid 'em somewhere an' be comin' back for them. Or maybe... maybe it was just a bit of devilment. You know how kids are."
"Yeah an' maybe they had a buyer waitin' for five of my finest...
Johnny cursed under his breath, his handsome head leaning morosely on the heel of his hand. Jemimah watched in dismay, feeling a guilty pang. She knew how rocky her husband's relationship with his father had been in the beginning and, though he didn't say as much, how he constantly sought the big man's approval, especially in this horse-breeding plan. It had been an ambition; a sweet dream that he had cherished for a long time - as long as Jemimah had been at Lancer, for sure - and now he obviously felt that he had failed before he had even begun.
Johnny spoke softly, startling her from her thoughts. "You were right, y'know. I'm not afraid to admit it."
"Yeah. Wastin' my time in a saloon... I should'a known better. I'm no wet-behind-the-ears kid!"
Jemimah could feel her cheeks going red. She manoeuvred herself between his legs so that she could lean in to kiss him softly while her fingers deftly unbuttoned his shirt front. Johnny's breath caught in his throat but he made no move to stop her.
She drew back, noticing how his blue eyes reflected the warmth of the firelight as they traced her face. He smiled.
"Don't think about it anymore, Johnny," she whispered. "Don't think about anything."
She leaned towards him again, kissing him deeply as her fingertips traced a meandering path across the hair on his chest. Her lips followed the line of crisp curls as they trailed down over his ribs and his taut stomach.
Johnny heard the soft chink of his belt being unbuckled; felt the gentle tug of the leather as it was released. Then, with a long sigh, he let his head fall back against the cushions and he closed his eyes, giving himself up to the sweet sensations.
"Lord, girl," he breathed. "You're so good for me." He emitted a tiny gasp. "If you're tryin' to take my mind off my troubles... you're doin' a damn fine job."
Breakfast was hardly over when Scott and Johnny rode out to Green River the next morning to speak with Val. Yes, this meant a slight delay but they knew his assistance would be invaluable. Furthermore, should the hunt go on longer than two days or should they have to return to the ranch, Val would continue the search for the stolen horses and the two thieves. He would not settle until he had his man... or, in this case, boys.
Seizing their chance, Zee and Jemimah met up on the Lancer border where Aggie Conway's land met the east fence line. Heading north and riding hard, they were at the narrow gully within an hour and able to collect the five mares which were thankfully still safely tethered.
The girls led them to the creek, only half a mile away, and, while the horses drank and chomped contentedly at the lush grass, they dismounted and sat by the water to talk.
"Boy, Scott was spittin' feathers! I tell ya, Jemimah, those fellas don't like admittin' when they're in the wrong. I hear their pa tore a strip off've both those boys... an' not before time."
She chortled and leaned back on her elbows, squinting into the sun and chewing nonchalantly on a long grass stalk. Jemimah was less easy.
"Johnny apologised to me," she said in a small voice.
"He did?" Zee nudged her in delight. "Man, he must've felt guilty."
"I guess. Well, he admitted I was right an' said he shouldn't have been wastin' time in the saloon and leavin' such prime horse flesh to be snatched away." She sighed and gazed off at the gently swaying leaves of the trees.
Zee watched her. "You don't look too happy about it," she observed. "Come on... smile! Ain't too often you get a man to own up to bein' wrong. It's agin their religion."
"I s'pose." Jemimah tore up a fistful of grass and tossed it into the rippling stream, watching as it was swept away in the current. "It's just... he was so miserable. Murdoch really lectured him an' I know he hates bein' at odds with the ol' man. Flippin' 'eck Zee, I feel real bad about all of this. We should take the horses back today."
Zee sat up in dismay. "No! Not yet. We stick to the plan. Tomorrow we said. We'll leave 'em on Aggie's land like we planned. Her vaqueros will find 'em and fetch 'em back."
Jemimah was shaking her head uneasily. "I dunno..."
"Aw, come on. It's alright for you; your man might've crawled to you but..."
"Johnny would never crawl! You take that back!"
Zee raised her hands and attempted to backtrack, appeasing her sister-in-law. "What I meant was Johnny might be sorry now an' he's makin' all the right noises but I ain't heard no remorse from his big brother. Give it one more day; he'll see the light."
"Zee, don't you love Scott?"
"Why, 'course I love him, sweetie. That's why I'm doin' this. Scott is an educated man an' this is just a little more instructin' that he missed out on. It's for his own good!"
Jemimah slumped back down into the grass. "Alright," she agreed unhappily. "But you just remember, the longer you draw this out, the better the odds that someone will catch us. And I promise you this - you think Scott is spittin' feathers now... you wait an' see what he does if he finds out. It won't be pretty. Believe me, I know!"
"Aw, Scott has a sense of humour. Besides, y'ain't never too old to learn, he can appreciate that."
Jemimah regarded the older girl with narrowed eyes. Did she actually know Scott Lancer at all? Well, she had done her best to warn her. All they could do now was hope that they stayed one step ahead of their husbands.
While Scott and Johnny were cursing at their bad luck in discovering they had missed Val by a couple of hours, the sheriff was sprawled on a hilltop, hidden in the brush and peering through his binoculars at something down by the creek.
He grinned, his dark eyes shining, and swiped off his dirty hat to mop at his brow with a stained bandana.
"Just as I figured," he chuckled. "There's your horse thieves, boys. Sixteen an' thirteen, my ass!"
He lowered the binoculars. Even at this distance, he could easily make out the identity of the two figures as they mounted up and gathered the string of horses, leading them off along the sparkling ribbon of water.
Val came up onto his knees with a grunt then stood, brushing the dust from the front of his scruffy coat - a futile gesture as the ancient garment was beyond filthy. Swinging up into the saddle, he reached back to stow the binoculars and, as he urged his horse towards Lancer, he chewed on a cigar from his pocket and hummed to himself. He would follow at a distance to see exactly where they hid the animals. Now and again, he laughed and shook his head.
Moving at a steady trot, Val reflected on Murdoch's probable reaction to his news. He sure wouldn't want to be either of those two ladies. Val almost felt a mite sorry for them... but he knew that would pass.
Murdoch was more than a little surprised to discover Val Crawford on his doorstep when he went to answer the loud knocking.
"Come on in, sheriff." He gestured to the great room and followed Val. "I thought you'd be hot on the trail with Scott and Johnny. Coffee?"
"Thanks." Val accepted the mug of steaming coffee eagerly, sipping at it as he perched on the arm of the sofa. "Oh, I been on the trail, alright, Mr. Lancer but I ain't seen the boys. Should I have?"
Murdoch moved to stand by the fire, resting an arm on the mantelpiece. He was feeling the chill this morning and was keen to stay by the hearth. "They set out for Green River first thing. I'm afraid we've suffered a real loss - five mares stolen yesterday in Cupitt Creek."
Val swirled his coffee in the mug and reached to the tray to add a couple of heaped spoons of sugar. "Stolen?" He looked sceptical. "You sure about that?"
"Yes. The boys were..." Murdoch cleared his throat, still irked by the thought of their carelessness. "... Taking some refreshment..."
"The Holy Moses?"
Murdoch shifted uncomfortably. "Er... yes. Two youths made off with the mares while they were inside."
Val hooked his ankle across his knee and nodded thoughtfully before swigging down the last of his coffee. "That right? Discernin' youngsters, weren't they?"
"I'm not sure I follow you."
"Only took the mares. Left Barranca an' Charley. That right?"
Murdoch's mouth worked but nothing came out. He appeared thunderstruck. Val blithely continued.
"Or maybe, these kids were just bein' considerate. Didn't want Scott an' Johnny to wear out any shoe leather. Hmm?"
Murdoch fixed Val with a look. "Alright Val, out with it. You know more about this than you're saying."
At that moment, the front door opened and Scott and Johnny came in. Their despondent expressions changed instantly to shock at the sight of Val, sitting comfortably on the sofa arm with a coffee cup in his hand.
"What you doin' here?" Johnny came over, depositing his hat on the table en-route. "We've just ridden all the way to Green River to see you."
"Oh? What about?"
Scott joined them. "A couple of bandits... well, they were kids actually, they made off with a string of our horses yesterday..."
"While you were busy pickin' wild flowers an' chasin' butterflies?" Val interrupted, his face a picture of innocence.
"No, we were..." Johnny paused and glanced at Murdoch, not wishing to open that can of worms all over again.
"In the saloon. I know," Val finished for him.
"Val has just pointed out something that none of us has even considered," Murdoch said.
Scott and Johnny waited, studying Val in all his unassuming glory. Val savoured the moment, a mischievous glint in his eye.
"Well, you gonna let us in on it?" Johnny was the first to lose patience.
"How come the thieves left your horses?" It was Murdoch who posed the question. "Why didn't they take all seven?"
There was a moment of silence while they digested this then Scott asked, "You think these two boys did this under instruction? They had a dealer waiting for the mares?"
Val got up from his perch, chortling and shaking his head. He helped himself to another cup of coffee, this time adding three spoons of sugar Murdoch noted.
"Instruction? Nah, I don't think that, Scott. An' I know exactly where your horses are." He was enjoying the amazement his revelation had produced. "I watched those two young desperadoes waterin' those mares down by the creek bright an' early this mornin' while you must've been on your way to see me. I have to say, hearin' the whole yarn from Isidro last night, I kinda had my suspicions right off." He smiled, his teeth surprisingly white in his tanned face. "Two boys, one pretty small? Bandanas over their faces? An' they whisk them horses away while you're both in the saloon? Right from under your noses." He chuckled.
Murdoch took a step forward, his brows beetling together in a dark glare. "Do you mean to tell me...?"
Val nodded, still grinning.
"What?" Johnny was confused.
"Who was it? Tell us." Scott seemed equally perplexed.
Val nearly choked on a gulp of coffee as he fought to control his mirth. "Boy, Scott. You're more trustin' than I gave you credit for. Thought you'd recognise your own wife's hand in all this."
Johnny gaped. "Zee? And who? ... Jemimah!"
"Perfect payback wouldn't you say?" Val sniggered. "Them two have been on your backs about your trips to the saloon ever since you tied the knot. This is their way of handin' out some justice, I'd say... to their way of thinkin'."
"Justice?" Scott ground out from between clenched teeth. "Wasting ranch time and money like this? And giving all of us a sleepless night? It's just plain irresponsible! If she wants to hand out justice, she had better be prepared to receive some in return!"
While his brother seethed, it was clear that Johnny was not angry. Having overcome his surprise, he was shaking his head in wonder at his little wife's daring, a soft smile curving his lips.
"Aw, come on, Scott. They've been no more irresponsible than we were. Admit it, we were beatin' ourselves up last night over how dumb it was to leave the horses where anyone could just ride off with them. They sure showed us!"
Murdoch too was sporting a tiny smile. "Very true. The ladies have given you a short, sharp shock. And it has been most beneficial, I think?" He looked in particular to his older son and smiled broadly when Scott finally gave a sheepish grin. "You have to admire their spunk. However, Scott is correct; time and money was wasted."
Johnny refrained from rolling his eyes. It was well known how their father could not stand to see good money wasted.
"Not to mention inconveniencing Seņor Vicente into the bargain," Murdoch continued. "I don't know how you plan to do it but I would suggest you two need to pull your wives back into line, so to speak?" He raised a quizzical brow at his sons.
"Oh I know that, Murdoch an' I'll have somethin' to say to young Mrs. Lancer once those mares are delivered to Vicente's," Johnny grinned, hands on his lean hips.
Scott nodded grimly. "Same here. In fact, I can visualise the discussion right now."
"Payback you said, right? I might just have an idea," Johnny said thoughtfully, a familiar twinkle coming to his blue eyes. "Val, where exactly are those horses now?"
Watching Zee and Jemimah ride into the yard, it was all Scott could do not to haul his wife from her horse and cart her off to the privacy of their apartment for a good talking-to. Instead, he smiled and handed her down from the saddle with the display of gallant good manners all at Lancer had come to associate with him.
"Honey!" Johnny called to Jemimah as she sprang down from Diablo's back. "You mind stickin' around here 'til we get back? I'm sure Maria and Teresa can find somethin' for you to do. We won't be long."
"Glad to," she replied. "Where you goin'?"
She and Zee had taken the horses back to the same gully and had tried not to leave any obvious trail as they headed home. However, Jemimah knew her husband was an excellent tracker. Their inexperienced efforts to disguise any trail would probably not fool Johnny. She bit her lip. Then again, if the men found the mares, it would mean that all this nonsense could be over and nobody would be any the wiser. There was surely no-one to link them to the theft.
Johnny was still speaking as young Tadeo led Barranca over to him. "Val says he has another witness from Cupitt Creek could shed some light on who the bandits were. We're just riding out there to see what they have to say."
"A...another witness?" Jemimah stammered.
He smiled and leaned in for a kiss, patting her rump as he moved to mount up. Jemimah flinched as she hopped back, watching him sharply. He was grinning down at her but her skin prickled; maybe it was only her guilty conscience but it looked like a real dark glint in his eyes and that had been no love-pat. It was more heavy-handed than affectionate.
Val led them straight to the narrow gully where the girls had secreted their prize. The mares were perfectly content and no worse for their brief camp-out. Even so, Johnny breathed a sigh of relief when they handed them over to Seņor Vicente.
The little man insisted they stay for some refreshment and, it being lunch time, they sat out in the shade, being waited on by his oldest daughters and enjoying the sight of so much fine horse flesh as it pranced by them in the corral.
"So, you caught your bandidos?" Vicente asked.
Johnny shook his head. "Bandidas, Seņor and, yes, they're well an' truly caught."
Vicente's snowy brows shot up in surprise. "Women? Ay, what is this world coming to when a woman would behave in such a disgraceful manner?"
He addressed this remark mostly to Val who nodded sagely. "Yep. Hard to believe there's some men out there cain't control their women enough to keep 'em home an' out of trouble. Makes my heart sore to think on what kind of henpecked, lily-livered mongrels owns these two varmints."
Scott's hand tightened around the glass he was holding but Johnny merely dipped his head, a soft smile curving his mouth and his blue eyes crinkling good-naturedly.
"It is the fathers I blame," the seņor was saying. "My daughters do not leave the ranch without a chaperona of my choosing." He shook his head sorrowfully at the immense idiocy of the fathers and husbands of the bandidas. "If ever they even thought to do such a dreadful thing... que le ganaria hasta que no podria montar un caballo nuevo! (I would beat them so that they could not sit a horse again!)"
The meal was over, the formalities had been observed and one look at Scott's tight face told Johnny that it was time they said their farewells.
"We better be getting back. Muchas gracias, Seņor. I'll be back out to check on the progress in a day or two like we said."
On the ride back, Scott became increasingly irate. This was evident from his silence and the firm line of his lips; his rigid back. Everything about him screamed displeased. Of course, Val's continual jokes had him nettled and that incessant chortling did nothing to soothe his nerves.
"Scott? You alright?" Johnny asked quietly.
The tall blond threw him an impatient glance. "I just can't believe she would do this. She let us suffer all night. Murdoch ranting away about responsibility... Teresa giving me the cold shoulder all through dinner... even Maria felt it necessary to scold me! And all to teach me a lesson!" His blue-grey eyes narrowed into determined slits. "She can get ready. I'm about to do a little educating myself."
Johnny laughed. "Aw, come on, brother. We can smile about it now, can't we? No real harm done an' those two got their point across. We admitted we'd been stupid, didn't we?"
"You sure were," Val added unnecessarily.
"Val! You ain't helping."
Scott sighed. "You mean to tell me you're not planning to have some very specific words with Jemimah tonight?"
"No. I'm gonna worry her some; give her the same restless sleep that she gave me. Then... well, I don't know yet."
"I still can't get over the fact that Zee would let us suffer like this. Let me suffer."
Johnny clicked his tongue at his brother's attitude. "You haven't picked any refined Boston-bred lady for a wife, Scott. You picked Zee." He chuckled and shook his head, thinking of his own audacious young bride. "You gotta love a sassy woman - that's the fun of it. Never know what they're gonna do next." Johnny eyed Scott who was listening intently and seemed to be taking everything on board. "Of course, you have to watch them; keep them in line sometimes... but that's kinda fun too. Tiring... but fun." He winked at Scott who smiled grudgingly at first then, having thought on his brother's words and maybe pictured the scene when he got hold of his feisty hellion, laughed out loud.
"Keep them in line eh? I think I'm up to that particular challenge, Johnny."
Val declined the offer of a drink. He figured he had needled Scott enough for one day and, as they neared the hacienda, he took the left fork, heading for Green River.
Scott and Johnny took care of their horses in the barn then wandered across to the house. Zee was nowhere to be seen but Jemimah was sitting in the shade on the porch, a large dish on her knee into which she was snapping beans for Maria. Johnny headed straight for her with a sly smile.
"I'll be in in a minute, Scott."
Scott studied him and nodded. "Alright, Johnny. We didn't find the horses. I won't spoil the surprise." He flashed his brother a wink and strolled off into the house. Johnny, meanwhile, made a beeline for his little chica, wondering if he could get her to come clean voluntarily.
"What did the witness say?" she asked as he drew nearer.
"He wasn't there. Val's goin' back later. I don't hold out much hope though. I reckon those two kids are miles from here by now."
Johnny rested his behind on the hitching post, his legs stretched out and crossed casually at the ankle, his head cocked on one side as he watched her. She never slowed in her movements but, he noted with delight, her nimble fingers shook a little and she was avoiding his eye - all tell-tale signs that she was hiding something.
"Val seems to think someone gave those kids inside knowledge of our plans. It'd have to be someone from Lancer. Not a pleasant thought; that anyone here would be involved."
"What makes him say that?"
Her cheeks had gone a fiery red. Johnny bit back a smirk.
"How else would they have known where we would be? How did they know we always stop at the saloon in Cupitt Creek on the way to Redemption? No, I guess he's right. It just burns me up inside that we have someone as low as that right here on the ranch. Can't think who would be that disloyal."
Jemimah flicked a tiny glance at him. He surely was watching her closely and his arms were folded in the same attitude he used to employ when he'd caught her out in some misdeed. She swallowed hard.
"I didn't have owt to do with it, Johnny... honest!" she blurted then instantly wished she could bite off her own tongue. What a stupid thing to say! If he wasn't thinking that she was involved before, he surely would be thinking of it now. And having Johnny begin to put two and two together did not bode well for her hide.
"Well, I know that, honey," he laughed and left the hitching post to come over to her. He leaned so that his hands were placed either side of her on the arms of her chair. She was effectively pinned. Smiling at her silliness, he kissed her briefly and reassuringly. "Why, look at you, sittin' here pretty as a picture." He planted another kiss on her lips, eyes twinkling at the growing alarm on her face. "Now, you know if I thought you were mixed up in this; if this was one of your little tricks, you wouldn't be sittin' anywhere!"
Johnny winked and gave her pert nose a gentle tweak. He kissed her again then, chuckling, walked away, whistling and tapping his hands on his thighs cheerily while she watched him go with narrowed eyes. What the hell...? He was in good spirits for someone who had lost five horses from his stables. She couldn't shake the nagging feeling that her husband had worked it out and, if he had, that was no idle threat!
Jemimah put both palms to her face, feeling the skin burning. She very nearly upset the basin of beans in her consternation.
"What do I have to go for? I was goin' to bake a syrup cake an' paint those flower pots Maria gave me. We haven't done much with the garden yet and it's such a pretty house, I don't want the garden to let it down."
Jemimah was in a tetchy mood having spent one of the most nerve-wracking nights of her life. Time and again, she had been sure that Johnny was about to work it all out. He dropped so many hints and made not-so-subtle guesses that he almost, but not quite, convinced her that the game was up. At any second, she had expected him to make the connection and chase her round the house, threatening dire retribution. But, each time, as she held her breath, he had shaken his head or cursed himself for his vivid imagination, talking himself out of his theories and admitting he should leave the job to Val.
She had hardly slept at all. Every time she turned over to move into her own space, Johnny had clamped a strong arm possessively around her and hauled her to him. Once or twice, a heavy warm hand had cupped her derriere as she held her breath and waited for the whack... which never came.
Lord, if this was what a guilty conscience did to you, Jemimah was heartily glad she had never suffered from one before.
Johnny nudged Barranca who had veered into Diablo's path and was pushing the other horse into the scrub. "I just don't want you to be alone all day, that's all," he explained for the umpteenth time. "You know the ol' man likes havin' you around now he's spendin' most every day at the house. And I know Maria an' Teresa appreciate your help in the kitchen."
"Hmph!" Jemimah snorted. "Maria might but I got chucked out yesterday to snap those beans as far away from Teresa as possible. Said she didn't like my singin'."
"Why? What were you singin'?"
She clamped her mouth shut, thinking back to the bawdy ditty she had entertained them with. Maria had been shocked and had scolded her at length. "Er... can't remember. Nowt special."
Johnny chuckled and reached across to playfully tug her long braid. "Aw honey. Well, Murdoch and Zee will be glad to see you. She'll be on her own too; Scott and I will be gone most of the day with Val. You can keep each other company, hmm?"
"Just don't get up to any... shenanigans, will you? I know what you two are like when you get your heads together."
Jemimah looked sharply at him but he was smiling pleasantly. Again, she couldn't shake the unsettling feeling that Johnny knew more than he was letting on.
As they came into the yard and Tadeo rushed forward to hold their horses, they could see Murdoch and Val standing on the front steps, talking and sipping at cups of steaming coffee.
There was a slight nip in the air and Jemimah's mouth watered at the thought of a mug of the strong brew.
Johnny hopped nimbly down from Barranca and reached up to take her by the waist as she slid from the saddle. Their eyes met and she experienced a familiar thrill from being held in his arms. The sensation was over far too soon as Val called across.
"Hey Johnny, ready to get this show on the road?"
Johnny's blue eyes never left hers as he answered, "Sure am!" Then his hand clamped suddenly on the back of her collar and, marching her ahead of him, he growled, "Come, my little bandida! You got some explainin' to do!"
Jemimah gave a strangled gasp and danced on her tiptoes as he propelled her firmly up the front steps, past Murdoch and Val (who were watching the scene with something suspiciously akin to glee) and on into the great room. There, Scott was waiting by the big desk and a noticeably subdued Zee sat unhappily in one of the blue chairs.
Before she could utter a word of protest, Jemimah found herself plunked into the other chair and, before them, four men faced them down like hanging judges at a murder trial.
"Well?" Murdoch was the first to break the silence.
Zee sat up, a perky expression on her face. "Well what? What's goin'...?"
Scott's voice was stern. "Zee, don't even try it."
Johnny was shaking his head, his gaze fixed on Jemimah who, as yet, had not said a word. Her green eyes were wide and her little face had gone very pale. "Might as well come clean. Game's up."
"What game?" Zee persisted.
Scott and Johnny instantly fished into pockets and belts to retrieve something and hold it aloft for all to see.
"Exhibit A, your Honour," Scott said drily.
Jemimah and Zee both gasped to see their bandanas being waved before them.
Zee swallowed but carried on gamely. "What's that? They your hankies for the wash? Better give 'em to Teresa," she smirked.
Murdoch stepped forward and even Zee's smile wobbled a little. "Not hankies, no. I think we all know perfectly well that these are the bandanas you two used to cover your faces when you... er... relocated the horses from outside the Holy Moses."
"What?" Zee crowed in disbelief.
"Zee!" Scott's patience was almost used up.
Val was smiling. He had to hand it to Miss Zee, she was as cool as a cucumber. "We got witnesses, Miz Lancer. You been placed at the scene of the robbery." He twinkled down at the girls. "Now, you know they hang horse thieves in these parts, don't you?"
"Hangin'? But you got it all wrong; we ain't done nuthin'!"
Jemimah was still watching Johnny and now she kicked out at Zee's shin with her boot and hissed at her to shush. Zee clamped her lips together angrily then, flashing Scott a come-hither smile, tried another tack.
"Honey," she used her best canoodling voice. "Why, surely you don't think..."
"I more than think it, my dear; I am one hundred per cent convinced of it!"
Zee's mouth hung open. "But..."
"Shut up, Zee!" Jemimah snapped, her face now blushing hotly. "Lyin' just digs you an even deeper grave. They know we did it. No point denyin' it now."
"I thought you were being kinda quiet. About time we heard from you, chica," Johnny said softly.
"Well, alright. Yes, we did it but the mares are safe. We took good care of them an' we were goin' to bring them back today anyhow."
Murdoch folded his burly arms and fixed his daughter with a dark look. "And what was the story going to be, young lady?"
Jemimah shrugged and squirmed uneasily. She didn't like Murdoch's use of the 'young lady' term at all; it made her feel she was thirteen again and in hot water. "Hardly seems like that matters now, Daddy."
Johnny tucked the bandana back into his belt and took a deep breath. "She's right. What matters is fetching those horses from wherever they're hid before some real rustlers come across 'em."
Jemimah hung her head and nodded. Any further talk was pointless. They were really going to cop for it no matter what they said. But Zee had other ideas.
"Don't you even want to know why we did it? Don't you care?"
She had never seen her husband look at her with such disappointment. "I think we can safely say we know why," he bit out.
"But you don't care, is that it? It's not important to you what we feel?"
"It's important, of course but there are ways to discuss any issues and this..."
"Discuss?" Zee was out of her chair and facing him angrily. "How many times have I tried to discuss your little visits to the saloon, Scott? It don't work. You never listen. Drinkin' an' gamblin' with them girls in feathers dancin' around you... that ain't the way for a married man to carry on. Least... not any man I care to be married to!"
"Zee!" Jemimah was aghast. She had thought the girl was simply fed up of being left behind and missing out on the fun but this went deeper, that much was obvious.
"No! He's gotta hear it. He's gonna listen this time." She fixed her gaze earnestly on her husband who seemed to be looking at her as though he no longer recognised her. "Scott Lancer, let me tell you about my life. What I came from. 'Cos you don't know, do you? Don't know the half of it. Y'see, my Pa was never there for my Ma an' us kids. I hardly knew him. When he did come home, he stank of booze an', if he weren't beatin' us, he was lyin' in his own filth, nursin' a bottle. I ain't sure he even knew our names. He was closer to the whores in the saloon than he was to his own flesh n' blood. He was away for weeks at a time an' we never had any money 'cos he drank it all. Why, I'm even named for his favourite whiskey!
In the end, he left. Don't know where he went; don't care either. He took what little money there was an' just walked out. He didn't even look back; I know 'cos Ma watched to see if he would. She always took in laundry an' did little jobs so's we could get by. Lot of mouths to feed with five children an' we didn't have anythin' like what you could call good neighbours who might've helped us out. We were... trash, y'see; poor miserable trash who didn't deserve no better. Anythin'; she did just about anythin' she could... an' for a poor uneducated woman... well... I don't have to spell it out for you, do I? By the time I was sixteen, Ma was old; scraggy an' old... and dyin'. Scott... she was only thirty." She shrugged helplessly. "I don't want that for me or any child of mine."
Scott was utterly floored. "Zee, I would never..."
"You say that now an' I guess you mean it but... I have to be sure. I won't be like my Ma, I won't! Now, I've done a lot of changin' for you - took a whole heap of lessons in all manner of things so I could be a fittin' wife for you. And... I told you over an' over but... you didn't listen. Not 'til it affected the ranch. It didn't seem to matter that it affected me... your wife."
Her dark eyes were glistening with unshed tears and she looked away now lest they fall and she shame herself. Zee Lancer was a strong woman and she had just bared her soul. She would not weep in front of them too.
"Zee..." Scott's voice faltered. "I... I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
He reached out and pulled her fiercely into his embrace, her head buried in his shoulder and his arms tight about her.
The only sound in the room was the sonorous ticking of the old grandfather clock. Jemimah gaped at the couple as they clung to each other. Murdoch seemed rooted to the spot while Val shuffled edgily and Johnny stroked his nose, studying the pattern of the rug. No-one had the gall to break this moment.
At last, Murdoch moved.
"Well," he cleared his throat and addressed the group. "I think it's safe to say that you girls have given my sons some food for thought. Unpalatable though it may be, it is a dish they should have been served long before they chose to marry. If you have taught them something about responsibility and the consideration of others, then all this nonsense may have been worth it."
Zee stepped away from Scott and cast a grateful smile at her father-in-law.
"That's not to say I condone your methods," Murdoch shook a chiding finger at them but there was very little bite to his bark. "You still cost this ranch money we can ill afford."
"We need to go get them critters," Val announced. "Be lunch time soon an' I had breakfast hours ago."
Scott drew Johnny aside as they all headed for their horses.
"I can't do it, Johnny. Not now. Not after..."
His brother was incredulous. "Dios, Scott! Do you think I could? What do you take me for, brother?"
Val joined them and, studying his dirty boots, he whispered out of the corner of his mouth.
"Just cain't do it, boys. I know we planned to take 'em to the gully and scare 'em into thinkin' the horses had been taken but..." He smoothed down his untidy black moustache. "It wouldn't be right. That girl..." Val broke off and cleared his throat, obviously affected by Zee's story. "Nah, cain't do it to her."
Scott laid a hand on the sheriff's shoulder in thanks. "Johnny and I were saying the same thing. Don't worry, Val. We are taking them to see the horses and, on the way back, I'd like to take a little detour..."
"This ain't the way, Johnny!" Jemimah exclaimed as they continued on to Redemption. "Those mares are..."
"At Seņor Vicente's, snugglin' up to his prize stallion," Johnny smiled at her surprise. "They've been there since yesterday afternoon."
"Then you did know last night? I knew you'd worked it out!"
"These two didn't work anythin' out," Val interrupted. "Too trustin' for their own good. It was me told them an' I knew it was you two varmints the minute I heard!" He softened his caustic remark with a tiny smile and his dark eyes twinkled.
"Yes, Val, you're a master sleuth," Scott grinned.
"Hey! There ain't no need to insult me!"
"Seņor Vicente, may I introduce my wife, Zee?" Scott presented his good lady to the stately little Mexican who bowed and briefly brushed his lips to her hand, his brown eyes sweeping over her appreciatively.
"I am honoured, Seņora Lancer. You grace my home with your presence." He offered Zee his arm and drew her over to the corral, already boasting of his excellent horses. "Zee? I have never heard this name. Such a small name for one so beautiful."
Scott watched his wife as she walked with the seņor. He was smiling and his eyes shone. "Beautiful... yes. Inside and out."
"Hey, why didn't you introduce me to the seņor like that, Johnny?" Jemimah huffed.
"He's already met you, remember?"
She suddenly blushed to recall the incident.
"Though, come to think of it, you were upside down with Murdoch whompin' on you at the time so maybe he won't remember you after all. Here, if you lean over - he might recall that bottom!"
Jemimah gave him a mortified shove while Val guffawed loudly.
Johnny stooped to gather up Jemimah's reins, forcing her to relinquish control of Diablo and be led like a child.
"What you doin' that for?"
"Never know what a desperate bandida like you might do next and I have a duty to protect the poor townsfolk of Cupitt Creek from you."
Johnny chuckled at her scowl but did not hand the reins back even though she made a petulant grab for them..
"You just simmer down, chica. You're in enough trouble as it is."
Jemimah bit her lip then resorted to rudely putting her tongue out at him. Unluckily, he chose that very moment to glance back at her over his shoulder. He instantly brought Barranca to a halt.
Johnny's voice was low; silky soft as he leaned towards her.
"You might want to tuck that back behind your teeth, honey... or we'll let Scott an' Zee ride off ahead while I find a better use for it!"
She blushed and her mouth dropped open in surprise. Even so, a delicious little thrill fizzed through her and she felt that familiar hot flare low inside her body as she understood his meaning.
Up ahead, Scott and Zee had stopped and were getting down from their horses, tying them to the hitching rail.
"Where are we? What... ?"
She gaped at the building, a puzzled frown on her face. Johnny led her to the others.
"What are we stopping here for?"
"To show you once and for all..." Johnny reached up to lift her down from Diablo's back. He didn't have to, of course; she was perfectly able to dismount her own horse. But Jemimah rather liked it when he did that. "... that a saloon isn't the den of vice an' sin that you think it is."
"Well, if it isn't then why ain't I allowed in one on my own?"
Johnny cast her an amused look and shook a warning finger at her.
Scott was already holding open the batwing doors so that Zee could enter the Holy Moses. Johnny slung an arm around Jemimah's shoulders and ushered her through.
"Now, you tell me, honey... does this look like a... what did Teresa call it - a den of iniquity?"
The interior of the Holy Moses was decidedly shabby and dimly lit. The bare floorboards were in dire need of a good sweeping with a stiff broom and Jemimah shuddered to spy several cobwebs on the ceiling in which the dust of ages had settled. The place smelled strongly of beer and, for some unknown reason, fried sausages.
Scott led them to a table at the back as was their custom then he moved to the bar where an elderly man with a snowy-white goatee and overgrown moustache was wiping down the counter top. His shoulder-length hair was immaculately groomed and, as Scott approached, his smile revealed a shiny gold tooth.
"Four beers, Isaac."
While the ladies seated themselves in the rickety wooden chairs and glanced around the place, Johnny said, "This old place ain't much to look at, is it? In winter, it gets a mite draughty and cold. An' in the summer, the flies plague your life out. But it has two things in its favour..."
Scott returned with two beers which he placed in front of the ladies with a flourish. "They keep an excellent beer," he smiled.
"And, of course, there's Maudie." Johnny was grinning at his wife's alarmed expression.
"Maudie?" Zee's eyes had clouded with suspicion. She glanced at Jemimah. "An' just who is Maudie?"
"Maudie..." Scott plunked down two more beers, sloshing some over the rim of the glasses. He hiked his long leg over the back of the chair, his rear-end plopping down onto the hard wooden seat. "... is the... ah, here she comes now!"
Zee and Jemimah turned and peered through the gloom, expecting to see a woman decked out in satin and feathers descending the staircase with a smile just for their husbands. They saw no-one.
"Maudie!" Johnny turned and opened his arms. "Come over here, you little darlin'."
The girls were by now craning their necks to see who Johnny was addressing.
Suddenly, Zee shrieked as two shaggy grey paws landed on the table in front of her, nearly skittling her glass. A whiskery wet nose loomed into her face and, to her utter amazement, a long pink tongue daubed itself from her chin to her forehead.
"Bleeurrrgh!" she yelped, screwing up her face and trying to escape the enthusiastic licking.
"Darling," Scott was positively grinning. "I'd like for you to meet Maudie - the granddaughter of the original Moses and the biggest Irish Wolfhound in these parts." He sat back to watch the scene with delight. "I think she likes you."
"Blimey! She's as big as Amiga!" Jemimah gasped.
Both boys were laughing, especially when Maudie lurched forwards and helped herself to a huge sloppy slurp of Jemimah's beer. The girl chuckled and held out the glass for the dog to indulge.
Eyes shining, Johnny leaned back in his chair and asked, "Now, wouldn't you say it's worth stoppin' by when you're passin' through town... just to visit with Maudie?"
The laughter and hilarity they had enjoyed in the saloon while they fussed over Maudie had now faded. They had been riding for almost an hour and, gradually, each had turned to their own thoughts.
Scott continually flicked his gaze to Zee who, in turn, was steadfastly avoiding his eye. As they crested the hilltop which overlooked the hacienda, he reached out to take hold of her hand.
She turned to him and smiled. He was instantly dismayed to see that there were tear-tracks on her cheeks.
"Don't cry. It's all my fault. If I'd only known how you... no, that shouldn't have made any difference. I ought to have heeded your request. I'm so very..."
"No, don't say it. We're both to blame. I shoulda' trusted you more an' known you could never be anythin' but honourable. That's who you are an', if I hadn't been so wrapped up in myself, I'd have seen that. I've been an ornery fool, I know it!"
Scott glanced back to check where the others were. They were trailing a good fifty yards behind.
"Zinnia Magnolia Schenley Lancer... I adore you."
"It's just plain Zee, thanks. An' I reckon I love you too."
Johnny stared straight ahead. He could feel Jemimah watching him and knew she was worrying over what he was going to say to her. He sighed. The truth was he still hadn't made up his mind.
On reaching Randall House, Johnny led the horses off to the barn, calling over his shoulder to her.
"Can you fill a tub, honey? I'd like to wash off all this dust before supper."
Jemimah nodded and disappeared meekly into the house. Johnny settled Barranca and Diablo then fed and watered the other horses. Then he went out to the pasture to bring in the cow - a recent gift from Aggie. Jemimah had mentioned how nice it would be if they had fresh milk there instead of having to fetch it from Lancer. The result had been Jessamie.
Johnny studied the animal as he tipped a bucket of feed into her trough. She had the enormous soft brown eyes, typical of a Jersey. He chuckled. Jemimah was right - from his description of the woman, the cow really did resemble her. He had chided Jemimah for using the name but, like it or not, it had stuck now; the beast would forever more be Jessamie.
He straightened, easing a kink in his neck. That girl! She was just what he had told Scott - a sassy woman. But how he loved her. Now, he just had to put his money where his mouth was and do something about keeping her in line. Johnny huffed out a sharp sigh, wiping his brow on the back of his hand, and headed for the house.
As he reached the screen door, he heard the soft splash of water and paused on the top step, peering unnoticed into the kitchen.
Jemimah had dragged the tub in front of the stove and she was now sitting in it, her long locks pinned up on top of her head. As Johnny watched, tilting his head for a better view, she extended one long slim leg and ran the bar of soap along it, smoothing the lather the length of her creamy skin. Cupping the water in her hands, she tossed it onto her shoulders so that it ran in rivulets over the curve of her chest, tiny shimmering droplets falling from the rosy tips of her high round breasts.
Johnny swallowed hard, his throat suddenly dry, and he muttered an oath under his breath. Now was not the time to be having these thoughts. He had something to deal with first. He knew very well that she was expecting it and it was the least she deserved. Shaking his head, hardly able to credit that he was passing up the chance to share that tub with her, he opened the screen door.
Jemimah's head shot up at the sudden sound and she gave him a shaky little smile. Yes, she was worrying; that much was plain.
Johnny reached for the towel which she had placed over the back of the chair to warm before the stove. He held it open for her to step into and watched her stand, the sight of that slender young body, shiny from the water, fresh and clean and very naked, caused a hot spike of sensation low in his body. He shuffled a little to ease the sudden tightness of his britches and she stepped into his arms, the towel enveloping her - much to his regret.
Johnny grasped the collar of his green shirt and tugged it over his head in one sweeping movement. He turned his back on her as he shucked his dusty pants and Jemimah bent to retrieve them. If she noticed how moved he had been by the sight of her in the tub, she said nothing. Once he had slipped into the water, she spoke softly.
"Johnny, I'll just put a dress on then I'll get supper on the table. I made a hotpot earlier; I know how you like them. It's warming in the oven. There's no cake though. I told you I didn't have chance to bake today."
Johnny noticed that she didn't look at him once as she said all this. Her voice was quiet; subdued and she constantly fiddled with the conchos on his pants as though needing something to occupy her hands.
He hid a smile. She was nervous; anxious over his response to this latest prank. Nodding, he began to soap himself, glad that the water was still hot.
She disappeared upstairs and Johnny thought about the events of the last two days. Sure, if he had found out who was behind it all on the day the horses were taken, he would have been mighty sore at her. Scott had been boiling mad until they heard Zee's views and her reasons for the deception. Johnny knew he had stopped being angry a while back - probably the night of the robbery. He eased back in the tub and thought back to that evening in front of the fire. She had been sorry for her part in the trickery even then, he realised.
He rose reluctantly from the water, knowing what he had to do.
It was a strained supper, both eating in silence. Or, at least, Johnny ate. Jemimah picked at her plate, mostly pushing the food around and rearranging it instead of actually eating any.
"You alright?" He had watched her all through the meal, blue eyes filled with concern.
"Yes. I just haven't got much of an appetite. I s'pose I..." She finally looked up and met his eye. "I just don't like waiting."
Johnny chewed his last mouthful thoughtfully. She was right; it was no good drawing this out.
He rose, taking his plate to the sink. Jemimah began to clear the table but his hands gently took her shoulders and steered her to the door.
"No, leave those 'til morning. I've got something I need to say right now and I want you to listen."
As he walked her through to the sitting room, he sensed her shoulders trembling slightly and felt a rush of sympathy. Yes, it was high time he put her out of her misery.
Jemimah moved to the hearth while he crossed to the window, scanning the yard. The outline of the trees stood out against the rosy hues of the sunset. It would be a fine day tomorrow but first...
He turned, arms folded in the clean pink shirt.
"I oughtta put you over my knee," he said with a rueful shake of his head and his blue eyes fixing her with a look.
Jemimah hung her head. "I know."
Johnny could tell she was waiting on tenterhooks, holding her breath. But?
He smiled, shaking his head. "But... I won't. I reckon I'm as much to blame in all this as you are. Guess you told me how you felt about me goin' in the saloon and... well... I should've listened to you, taken your feelings into account. I'm real sorry that I didn't."
He held out a hand to her. When she rushed to his arms, he tipped up her chin and kissed her.
"So, I'll forgive you if you can forgive me?"
Her answer was to rise on her tiptoes and kiss him lovingly.
When they had paused for breath, Johnny smiled and gently brushed her hair back from her flushed cheek. "I reckon I'd be mighty sore at you if you went against something that bothered me so I don't blame you for playin' bandida... this time."
"There won't be a next time, Johnny. I promise." She made the childish crossing gesture over her heart.
"I'll hold you to that, honey," he grinned. "An' I promise you that I won't go to the saloon no more... except with Murdoch an' only for a beer even then."
She grinned up at him, her green eyes shining and he laughed. It was so good to hold her in his arms; it put other notions into his head. Kissing her quickly, he bade her get off up and warm the bed for him; he was just going to check on the horses and then he would join her.
Johnny unbuttoned his shirt as he climbed the stairs, releasing it from his pants. As he walked into the bedroom, he discovered Jemimah, naked and kneeling on the big cherub bed, her head obscured by her voluminous white nightgown which she was trying to struggle into. With her arms raised, her breasts were lifted temptingly - very enticing for a man.
Johnny whipped the gown out of her hands and speedily pulled her to him. He enjoyed the feel of her breasts pressed against his chest, her nipples grazing across the crisp curling hair on his torso. He grinned at her gasp and kissed her softly, his hands skimming down her back to cup her bottom. She blushed and quivered in delight like an excited puppy.
"An' I was worryin' next time you got your hands on my behind it'd be with me bent over your knee!"
Johnny laughed softly at her blushes. "Well... not that it isn't a mighty appealin' thought an' you know you deserve it..." His hands stroked down over her behind and he chuckled at her expression of mock outrage. "But, if you were, I guarantee I'd have something kinda different in mind. Here, let me show you..."
At Lancer, it would be safe to say that Zee and Scott had been equally pleasantly employed. Scott was rather fatigued, having spent a good deal of energy most earnestly and diligently endeavoring to convince his darling wife of his utter devotion. Now, they lay together, blissfully wrapped in each other's arms.
"Darling," Scott ventured.
"Do you think now you might believe that I am suitable husband material for you?"
He could feel her sniggering against his chest. "We'ell... I guess you'll do!"
"Thank you for that vote of confidence."
A minute passed then he said, "And, now that you have deemed me worthy..."
"Do you think we might..."
"I mean, you did say that you trusted me; that I was honourable and true and I can vouch that my intentions concerning you are... to love you and cherish you; to take care of you 'til my dying day. So..."
Zee rolled so that she was lying on top of him, gazing down into his smiling blue eyes. "What? What are you askin' me, Scott Lancer?"
"Do you think we might... turn that second bedroom into a nursery?"
Zee grinned and dipped her head to brush her lips across his. "We might."
Anne Haslam. September 2014