Disclaimer: These characters, apart from Jemimah Day, 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
There was the kid - back from school and she didn't look any brighter than when she'd left that morning. Jelly watched the girl slide slowly down from her pony and turn to lead it into the barn. Amiga nudged her young mistress' shoulder playfully with her velvety nose and Jelly quirked a bushy eyebrow when the child did not even turn to respond. Something was up, sure enough! The crabby old man felt sure he knew what it was - young 'un needed a holiday; a break from having her nose pressed between the pages of them fool books! T'weren't good for a person to pore over writing so much - she was forgetting how to live! Girl needed a good feed as well; she was a mite too scrawny for his liking. If they asked him, and nobody ever did - more fool them, she was simply plum wore out! He clicked his tongue and ambled off.
Jemimah meandered into the kitchen and plonked herself down at the table with a heavy sigh. She unfastened the strap which held her school books and slate together then methodically spread them out in front of her as she always did. Murdoch had been pleased to note that it was her habit to do her homework as soon as she arrived home. Jemimah liked to get it over and done with so she could forget about it and enjoy her little bit of free time before she was back at school again.
But today, the books were left waiting. She leaned her chin on her hand and sighed, staring off into the distance as though she carried the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Maria frowned with concern. Perhaps the niña was sickening for something? She bustled across the kitchen and lifted the girl's fringe, feeling her forehead with a brisk hand. Hmm... she was a little warm. Maria nodded her head, knowing exactly what to give her and returned to her cupboards, ferreting about on the shelves and fishing out a couple of spice pots. She then set the kettle to boil.
Teresa was ironing at the other side of the room.
"You not feeling well, Jemimah?" she asked. "Hope you're not shamming or you know Maria will get out the castor oil!"
Teresa's brows came together in a perplexed frown too. The girl hardly even raised her head. This was indeed serious! Usually, the threat of a dose of castor oil would shift Jemimah out of any pretended illness; her rapid recovery a medical miracle and very funny to behold. But not today.
Teresa stood the smoothing iron down on its cast iron trivet and came over to Jemimah, perching on the edge of the table facing her.
"Do you feel alright, honey?" she asked softly, her hand tenderly stroking the little girl's dark shiny head.
Jemimah did not look up. Her thick black lashes hid her eyes but Teresa could see she had been crying. She was fairly sure she knew the cause of it and, indeed, had suspected for some time. Poor Jemimah - she was in love!
Teresa swelled with the importance of her task; as the 'big sister' it was her place to be the female influence in this child's life. She would do her duty and ease Jemimah onto the path to womanhood.
"Is it Enrique?" Teresa inquired gently.
Jemimah slowly shook her head but kept her red-rimmed eyes glued to the scrubbed top of the kitchen table. Teresa tried again.
"Is it Mateo then?"
Once more, Jemimah shook her head morosely. Teresa was puzzled. Who could it be then? Surely not José; he was nearly twenty and... Teresa blushed, far too grown-up and manly to be the subject of this child's affections. Teresa herself could frequently be found dazedly dragging the clean washing along the dirty ground while she ogled José across the yard and had to be careful to play down her interest for fear her 'brothers' would tease the life out of her.
She valiantly tried again. "Oh Jemimah, there's nothing to be ashamed of; being in love can be a wonderful thing and..."
"In love?" the child exclaimed. "You think I'm in love? With Enrique?"
It was perfectly clear from her derisive expression that the whole idea was entirely repugnant. Teresa floundered.
Jemimah stood up and leaned across the table at the older girl, her green eyes scathing.
"Enrique is a child!" she hissed, completely disregarding the fact that the boy was actually six months older than her. "And Mateo's not much better!"
Teresa also stood, feeling rebuffed and more than a little angry that her good intentions had been thrown back in her face.
"Mateo is sixteen! He's only a year younger than I am!"
Jemimah's lip curled in a sneer which spoke volumes. "Precisely," she snapped, sweeping her scornful gaze over Teresa from top to toe.
Teresa drew in an affronted gasp. The saucy little...! Firming her lips into a thin disapproving line, she lifted her chin and flounced back over to her ironing. Let the little baggage stew in her own juices! What did she care?
Jemimah plopped back down into her chair with a weariness that alarmed Maria. The kindly woman never liked to see one of her brood ailing and took great pride in keeping all the Lancer 'youngsters' thriving and healthy. She poured her remedy into a cup and brought it over to the girl.
"Beba esto!" she instructed firmly, wafting the cup in front of Jemimah's face, fully prepared to hold her nose and pour the mixture down her throat if necessary - it would not be the first time she had done this. Maria had tended most of the children in the neighbourhood in her time at Lancer and could be a force to be reckoned with.
Jemimah obediently took the cup and, still with the air of gloom about her, dutifully swigged down the medicine. It was an infusion of cinnamon and honey which Maria had great faith in; it would cure whatever ailed the child.
"Buena niña," Maria smiled maternally down at the child, smoothing down her long dark fringe and fiddling with the ribbons at the end of each shiny braid.
Jemimah attempted a wobbly smile in return but it was a half-hearted effort at best. She thanked Maria quietly then stood up, leaving her books where they lay strewn across the table. Then she wandered up the back stairs to her room.
Maria watched the skinny little figure. This was not like Jemimah! She was never ill and to take the medicine with so little fuss and bother! Something was definitely amiss. She would speak with the patron.
As Jemimah shuffled silently past Scott's open door, he spied her and, alerted by her glum face and the way she dragged her feet, called out to her.
Her face appeared in the doorway. Scott rolled over on his bed, where he had been immersed in his latest acquisition - The Moonstone, a British novel by an author called Wilkie Collins. It was purported to be the first of its kind - a detective story and Scott was hooked. However, here was a mystery on his very doorstep, so to speak. He sat up, studying the child closely.
The first thing that had piqued his curiosity was the fact that she had walked past his room instead of running or skipping as she usually did. Moreover, she had walked slowly with a droop to her shoulders and her head bowed. This was not normal - not for Jemimah.
He beckoned her in. When she was close enough, he reached out to her and gently drew her to stand between his knees, holding both her hands and examining her slumped carriage and wan little face.
Oh... he guessed the problem instantly and, biting back a smile, he lifted her chin with gentle fingers. She looked tearful. Scott chewed his bottom lip in thought then, biting the bullet, he broached the subject.
"Johnny found out , has he?"
She did not reply.
"Oh come on," he cajoled softly. "It's not that bad, surely? Has... er... has Johnny 'had words' with you about it?"
The whole family knew what Johnny meant when he stated he needed to 'have words' with her; Jemimah also knew very well that Johnny's actual words were few and to the point but that, afterwards, she would not be sitting comfortably for a few days at least.
However, she was shaking her head in denial, eyes fixed on the geometric pattern of the rug.
"Has he seen his saddle yet?" Scott pressed. "Has he said... what he's going to do?"
Scott knew Jemimah was responsible for the deep gouge in Johnny's saddle because Mateo had told José who, in turn, had told Scott. Of course, it had been an accident but Scott knew Johnny would be pretty sore about it which meant, in all likelihood, Jemimah's rear end would soon be pretty sore too! That saddle had been the first birthday gift he'd ever received from Murdoch - well, the first he ever remembered. It was one of the finest things he'd ever owned and meant a great deal to him.
"He knows," she sighed. "I told him I'd done it and I explained." Her voice was lifeless.
Scott frowned. "You did?"
"Yes. He said he was glad I'd owned up and that, if it'd been him, he'd probably have kept quiet about it. He said he was impressed with my honesty." She seemed anything but happy about this.
Scott arched an eyebrow in surprise - firstly, at Johnny's calm acceptance of her apology and secondly, at Jemimah owning up in the first place. The world seemed to have shifted on its axis; nothing was normal today. So, if she wasn't worrying about Johnny then... Scott's eyes shot open in alarm.
"You haven't got anything to own up to me about, have you Jemimah?" he asked sternly.
She shook her dark head.
"No books pasted together? No boots ruined?" he pressed frantically.
Scott narrowed his eyes and, releasing her hands, he strode purposefully over to the wardrobe. It wouldn't hurt to check; he knew what that little madam was like!
Jemimah silently watched him rooting around the clothes and boots inside the closet. Then, buttoning up her sweater, she made her ponderous way down the landing and the stairs and out of the door.
Jemimah screwed up her eyes against the bite of the wind blowing in her face, heading across the yard to the barn to see Amiga. She hadn't paid much attention to her so she ought to make it up to her she supposed. It was only when she reached the barn door that she realised she had not brought an apple with her like she usually did. She hesitated. The walk back across the yard suddenly seemed so far; too far to bother just for an apple. She knew that she would normally race across in seconds but not today. Today her feet were made of lead; she couldn't run.
Hands thrust deep into her pockets, she sidled through the narrow opening and began the long walk to Amiga's stall.
Jemimah turned at the cheery hail. Johnny was with Barranca, treating the handsome animal to a thorough brushing. If horses could smile, the powerful Palomino would have been grinning blissfully.
Jemimah stopped and Johnny glanced over his shoulder at her. He paused in his brushing, instantly worried by the depressed look on her pale face. He could see that her eyes brimmed with unshed tears; something was very wrong.
He continued brushing but more slowly, his deep blue gaze on the girl.
"Murdoch mad at you?" he asked, making his first guess.
Jemimah kept her sea-green stare riveted on the Palomino's hooves. She shook her head.
Hmm... what else then? "Have you been in trouble at school again?"
The girl hesitated minutely then denied it. Johnny, however, hid a smile, shrewdly sensing a fib. He put down the curry brush and leaned on Barranca, idly stroking the horse's neck.
"You sure?" he pushed gently.
The girl sighed and looked away. "I had to stand in the corner this afternoon," she admitted in a small voice.
Johnny nodded. Thought so. "What for?"
Another sigh. "Not paying attention. Mr Quinn said he was tired of me daydreaming."
Johnny regarded the kid. That wasn't it; there was more to her current mood than an hour standing in the corner of the schoolroom. Jemimah would normally treat such a tame punishment with scorn. Johnny made another guess.
"The teacher paddle you?"
He knew from bitter experience that inattention at school could sometimes irk a school master more than behaving badly or playing hooky. And, when irked, a master wielding that stout implement of correction could startle any kid out of their daydreams!
As if to negate his assumptions, Jemimah sat down on a stack of hay bales, sighing as she did so. Johnny quirked an eyebrow and whistled out a breath.
"I guess not," he said as he joined her.
He slung his arm around her thin shoulders and pulled her to him, stroking his hand over her long fringe, smoothing it out of her eyes. He noticed that she stared resolutely at the floor; it was almost as though she couldn't allow herself to be comforted. He was worried.
"Something ain't right, miel," he soothed, tilting his head to peer at her. Her eyes were glistening with tears. "Hey, you wanna tell me what's on your mind?" Johnny's voice was so gentle and loving that she leaned against his soft blue shirt and the tears almost fell. Then...
"No. I've got chores to do."
When she stood, Johnny did likewise, smoothing his hand over her shoulders and pressing a worried kiss to the crown of her shining hair.
He returned to Barranca, his arm immediately around the animal's neck as though he were in need of comfort himself. She sure wasn't herself today!
Crossing the yard again, Jemimah pondered on her talk with Johnny. Any other day, a hug and a kiss from Johnny would make everything alright with the world. But not today. Today there was only one person who could make things seem right.
Unshed tears still brimming, she broke into a trot which became a run as she headed back to the house.
With a wild clatter, she burst into the hall and the door slammed shut behind her. She ran into the great room and halted in desperate relief. He was there.
Murdoch, sitting quietly on the sofa in front of the fire, looked up. Seeing the child, he set aside his book and, without a word, opened his arms to her. Jemimah gave a tiny sob and hurled herself the few yards across the room to him, feeling his strength enfold her.
"I wondered when you would come to find me," was all he said as he took her on his lap, rocking her gently as though she were a wee bairn.
Her tears, so long held in check, fell at last, streaming down her cheeks in shiny tracks that dripped to soak the soft material of his shirt front where her head rested. They both stared silently into the mesmerising flames, memories dancing in the orange glow. Finally, he spoke, his deep voice quiet and soothing.
"I've been thinking of him all day too. I always find the memories keenest on his birthday."
Jemimah nodded and hiccupped softly.
Murdoch smiled. "Now, did I ever tell you about the time your Daddy and I met the witch of the glen...?"
Murdoch began to tell the story, his soothing voice casting its spell of calm over the child. He held his girl close and, together, they, who had known and loved him so well, remembered her father, Andrew Day.
Anne Haslam March 2013