Disclaimer: Some of these characters (well, the Lancers) are not mine
though, if they were, I would certainly show them more love, respect and
gratitude than Fox currently do.
This is a story that takes place shortly after the events in 'Firecrackers'. Scott is 27; Johnny is 22.
Jemimah spotted a figure up ahead. He was waving at her. Enrique. She hurried up the track towards him as best she could, wincing at the residual sting to her rear end. Dang! That darned interfering old bugger, Cap - he walloped nearly as hard as Murdoch!
"What happened? Did you get something?" Enrique could barely hold back his excitement. He had waited along the way home to find out how the dare had gone and now he wanted to hear every little detail.
"I got somethin' alright!" Jemimah groused, tugging on her pony's reins. "But it weren't what I was hopin' for."
"Well, what happened? What did you take? Was it the widow in the store or Miss Zee?" Enrique was fairly dancing on the spot in his impatience to hear the whole story. "Show me what you got."
"Show you what I got?" Jemimah's mouth quirked in a wry humourless smile. "I don't think I'd better do that. It wouldn't be proper."
Enrique's nose wrinkled in confusion. "Eh? What do you mean? Jemimah, por amor de Dios, spill it!"
She sighed heavily and began to relate the whole sorry tale. Being a founder member of the Daredevils' Club was beginning to take its toll.
It had been alright at first; in fact, it was fun. The dares had been simple - ride home sitting backwards on your pony; steal and hide the flag from the corner of the schoolroom; do a somersault off've the low roof of the outhouse round the back of the school. All that was tame and she had done every dare easily. But now, some of the kids were getting a little too inventive in their ideas. The dares were increasing in danger level.
The last one - run across the corral by the livery with Dave Torvall's bull in it - she'd been able to manage it but came mighty close to being pranged by those vicious-looking horns. Of course, in return, she had thought up a particularly juicy dare for her opponent - put the dead rat they found under the steps that morning into Mr Quinn's desk. Toby McAllister had been paddled for that but then he shouldn't have got caught, should he? It was the risk you took to be a member of the club. And woe betide anyone who tattled or let on about the group to a non-member; that was forbidden. If you failed or you were caught, you took the consequences but you never snitched on the other members. They had all sworn a solemn oath of utmost secrecy on the stiffened corpse of Harvey Malone's dead cat.
Jemimah's latest dare - steal something from Widow Hargis' store - had been her most dangerous yet and she had come a cropper well and truly!
Jemimah scowled at the memory.
She had been so close; another few seconds and she would have been the undefeated champion of the club. If it hadn't been for that mutt yapping its head off in the middle of the street and making the widow turn around so sudden-like, all would have been well. Her hand was just about closing around that silver belt buckle when the old girl let out a shriek loud enough to wake the dead.
Jemimah grasped hold of the buckle (why, oh why had she done that? She should've left it where it was! But her honour was at stake) and was darting out of the store within a heartbeat. She would have made it too if it hadn't been for Zee reaching out with that darned broom and tripping her up. Jemimah went flying onto the dusty boards and lay there, winded and wheezing.
She soon became aware of a pair of brown boots by her nose. As she lifted her head and squinted into the bright sunlight, she noted that the boots were attached to a pair of blue pants. There was a white shirt and a grey vest too and, above all of this, was the unsmiling face of Sheriff Gabe. Jemimah swallowed.
She counted to three then sprang to her feet, ready to make her escape but the Sheriff was no slowpoke; his burly arm whipped out and blocked her path. Eyes narrowed, he glared down at her and, saying nothing, held out his hand for the buckle.
Jemimah, head hung down in the penitent pose of the guilty, gave up her prize and submitted to being marched across the street to the jail while Zee chuckled at her daring and the widow nodded self-righteously at her shame.
Jemimah wasn't exactly scared to find herself in the jail but she did begin to tremble at the thought of her father or Scott and Johnny coming to collect her. That idea wasn't in any way appealing; the notion of spending a week or two in a cell sounded a darn sight more palatable. Her family would be distinctly unimpressed and she had been in enough strife lately with everyone. So Sheriff Gabe's growled threat to send word to the ranch for someone to come get her went down like a tablespoon of Maria's favourite cure-all.
"You just set there, young lady and don't you move a muscle, understand?"
Jemimah sat sullenly, arms folded and as mean a scowl on her little face as she could muster. She huffed her long fringe out of her eyes and narrowed them at Gabe, who wagged a finger warningly in her direction.
It was at this point that the door had opened to admit old Cap, the Sheriff's deputy. He actually had long ago declared himself the deputy but it was an unofficial and unpaid position. Cap got to assist Gabe in the more mundane duties and, in return, Gabe allowed him to live in the jail.
Cap - so named as his surname was Capstan (no-one had the remotest idea what his Christian name was; he had always been known as just 'Cap') - was a cantankerous, grizzled old fellow with a pronounced limp which belied his amazing ability to move as fast as a striking rattler should the need arise. He had a squint and, under his long ruddy nose, sported a truly impressive white moustache which gave him the look of a rather gnarled old beaver. When he spoke, which was seldom, it was in a nasal southern twang which made him sound like he had a cold. He spoke now.
"Ain't that the girlie ol' Murdoch Lancer has took in?" He pointed at Jemimah.
Gabe affirmed that indeed it was Murdoch's adopted daughter.
"What's she doin' here?"
"Waiting for someone to collect her."
"Collect her? Damn it, I asked why she was here; what's she done?"
Gabe surveyed Jemimah with a twinkle in his eye. "This here is a desperate criminal, Cap."
"Yes, she tried to rob the Widow's store," Gabe gestured to the shining belt buckle on his desk. "She nearly made a quick getaway but was felled by a broom."
Cap grunted and glared at Jemimah who scowled back rudely. "We gonna lock 'er up 'til her pa gets here?"
Jemimah's scowl disappeared and she blinked in surprise. Locked up? In a cell?
"Lock her up? You really want to explain to Murdoch Lancer why you locked his little girl in a jail cell, Cap?" Gabe shook his head.
The door suddenly burst open and a man stumbled into the room. He gaped around in an agitated manner, looking for Gabe. "Sheriff, you got to come quick! Ol' Marmaduke is drunk again!"
Gabe raised his eyes to heaven. "Larry, Marmaduke is permanently drunk! You know that..."
"Yes sir," the man agreed. "But he's holdin' a couple o' gals at the saloon!"
"Got a knife, sheriff! Says he's Jim Bowie an' they's injuns on a raid! Them gals is wearin' feathers, y'see!"
"Lord! What now?" Gabe snatched up his rifle from the rack behind the desk and dashed around to follow the panicking Larry.
Cap waylaid him at the door. "Wait a damn minute here! What you want to do about her? Cain't leave her here alone!"
Gabe hesitated for a second. "No, she'd skedaddle quick enough. You stay with her, Cap."
The old man's face was testament to how little he thought of this idea. "Me stay? I ain't no damned nurse maid to be mindin' young 'uns! Whatcha take me fer?"
Cap threw Jemimah a surly glance and almost swallowed his fine moustache when she put her tongue out at him. "Well, what you want me to do with her then?"
Gabe paused then, twinkling at the kid, he grinned. "Spank her!"
Cap gaped. He could not have been more surprised if the Sheriff had instructed him to cook her in a stewpot and serve her up for supper. "On the bottom?"
Gabe threw him a wink as he went out. "Where else?"
The sheriff had gone. Cap turned to Jemimah who regarded him warily. He didn't look that speedy but she knew she still had to get past him and he was slap bang in front of the door, blocking her escape route. Old Cap chewed thoughtfully at the inside of his lip then shrugged and reached for her but Jemimah moved like lightning, darting nimbly past his scrawny frame and skirting around the chair to dive for the door. Suddenly, a hand with an amazing grip seized her by the collar and she was hauled off her feet.
"Oh no, you don't, missy! Sheriff says to me I'm to spank yer bottom an' that's what I aim to do! An' you can squeal an' holler all you wants; won't matter none to me! Now c'mere!"
Jemimah duly yelled her lungs out in protest as he plopped down into the chair and slung her over his knee. He scissored a leg over hers to still her kicking and made short work of scuffing her dress and petticoats out of his way so that he could smack the seat of her drawers - Cap was obviously an old hand at dishing out a sound walloping.
Jemimah firmed her lips in anger at the memory and was even more annoyed when Enrique guffawed at her tale of woe. "You got whomped by old Cap?"
"Ain't funny, you bastard! It bloody hurt; old git's stronger than he looks!"
Enrique sobered. "Sorry. You reckon Sheriff Gabe will tell your papa?"
Jemimah heaved a heavy sigh. "I dunno. S'not fair if he does; I already paid a high enough price as it is."
Enrique slung his arm around his amiga's skinny shoulders. "There's another thing... you lost your ranking in the club. That's one fail now."
Jemimah shrugged him off. "Jeez! You think I don't know that? Thanks for tryin' to cheer me up!"
Jemimah lurked upstairs in her room, taking her sweet time to hang her dress up and wash. She had lingered for as long as possible in the barn with Amiga. The walk home had taken longer than her usual ride; Johnny and Scott were still out working but, Jemimah worried her lip, the old man was home.
She didn't know why she was avoiding him exactly. After all, he didn't know about the store or Sheriff Gabe but... she still had no wish to run into him. No, it was better that she stay out of his way; at least until supper time.
Male voices downstairs caught her attention and she opened her door quietly, stealing out onto the gloomy landing and creeping barefoot to the top of the stairs. She hesitated there in her drawers and camisole like a little ghost. She knew that voice. Goosebumps rose up on her bare arms and her stomach churned uneasily.
She got the shock of her life when Murdoch abruptly appeared at the foot of the stairs as though he had been aware of her presence all along. He was clearly looking for her and, when he spotted her hiding in the shadows, grimly beckoned her down. Jemimah gulped and wished the floor could open and swallow her but traipsed reluctantly down to him. A warm heavy hand on her trembling shoulder propelled her into the great room where a visitor awaited.
"Daddy!" Jemimah tried to back up but was inexorably pushed forwards. "I ain't dressed! It ain't decent for company to..."
"I think the Sheriff will overlook your attire this once," Murdoch stated.
Jemimah gasped. Sheriff Gabe was sitting on the sofa with a whiskey in his hand like any other caller. As they approached, he set down his glass and rose to his feet. Jemimah found herself stationed in between the two men and darted fearful little glances at both, trying to weigh up her chances. If the stony silence and the grim faces were anything to go by... she was doomed. Murdoch obviously had been given the whole story.
As if to confirm her suspicions, Gabe handed Murdoch the silver buckle. "This is what she was after and it's only thanks to Miss Zee that she didn't get away with it," he watched Jemimah turn very pale as the buckle was examined by her father before being handed back. "I guess I could've put her in a cell 'til you came for her, Murdoch but I had other business to attend to and I thought you'd condone my decision. At least, this way you didn't have to ride all the way into town to bail her out." Jemimah could swear there was a hint of a smile on Sheriff Gabe's face but she couldn't think what there was to smile about.
Murdoch was nodding sternly and regarding her something like a wolf does a poor little fawn before it pounces and devours it with gnashing teeth. Jemimah was, for once, truly frightened - all her bravado vanished. She had never been in such trouble before and she knew it. Getting into fights, playing pranks and disobeying the odd rule was one thing; being caught thieving by the law... that was an entirely different kettle of fish.
Gabe retrieved his hat from the sofa and drained his glass. "Thank you, Murdoch. I know I can leave this in your capable hands."
Murdoch's capable hand shook Gabe's and led him to the door. "Thank you, Gabe. Yes, you can rest assured I will deal with this. My daughter will be made to realise the error of her ways."
It was an indication of how scared Jemimah was that she was still rooted to the very same spot when Murdoch turned around and regarded her with an ominous glint in his eye. She swallowed as he moved purposefully over to her; he was awfully big and made a daunting sight. She felt suddenly feverishly hot as she took in the size of those capable hands and remembered just how hard they could spank. The girl had only one weapon left in her arsenal and now was the time to use it. Her throat dry, she gazed sorrowfully up at the big man and turned on her best puppy dog look, thick black lashes fluttering and her mouth in a tragic little pout. However, she found she couldn't maintain it when Murdoch eyed her beadily then started unbuttoning and rolling up his cuff.
In the kitchen, Maria and Jelly sat companionably at the table, enjoying a quiet cup of coffee. The sound of Jemimah's squeal made them both turn in surprise.
"Que pasa?" Maria wondered, about to rise to investigate.
The unmistakable sound of hearty smacks being delivered to a scantily-clad rear end drifted through and, nodding in understanding, Maria settled in her chair once more and lifted her cup for a refill. Jelly rolled his eyes and shook his whiskered head despairingly.
"It's the boss I feel sorry for," he muttered. "He's gonna be plum wore out long afore that little varmint is!"
An hour before dinner, Johnny led Barranca into his stall beside Amiga. The sturdy little pony reached her nose towards the golden horse in greeting and Johnny fondly rubbed her behind the ear. He scuffed the back of his hand across his brow and, tossing his dusty hat onto the hay bales, indulged in a good scratch to his thick black hair, leaving it standing up in shaggy clumps. He was desperately in need of a bath before six o' clock; his blue shirt was streaked with dirt and patches of sweat. He knew he'd have to get a move on to make it before the ol' man started bellowing for everyone to be at the table and so he hurried to settle Barranca and make sure his friend had his own dinner. The horse had worked hard too.
Johnny gave the animal a last loving pat and was turning to head for the house when a noise made him pause. It sounded for all the world like crying. He looked around then, realising it was coming from the hayloft, climbed up to investigate.
Jemimah was lying on her stomach by the open hatch, looking out. Johnny cocked his head on one side. She must have heard him because she was silent now. He debated whether to leave her alone; she might not welcome his intrusion but then he thought better of it and crossed to her, sitting in the open hatch with his legs swinging out into space. One glance told him that she was really upset; her eyes were rimmed with red and her pert little nose was swollen up. He gently stroked her dark head and she burst into more noisy tears, burying her head in her arms.
"What's wrong, honey?" he asked softly.
Jemimah neither answered nor raised her head.
"Are you hurt?"
Again no words but her head nodded vehemently.
Johnny was alarmed. "Where? Honey, where's it hurt? Can you show me?"
She reached a hand behind her and tentatively rubbed her jean-clad rear end. Johnny' eyes opened wide in surprise but then he bit back a chuckle, careful to train his mouth into seriousness lest she look up and catch him smiling at her.
"You get throwed?" he asked when he was sure he could speak without betraying himself.
She shook her head.
Johnny raised a single brow. "Can only be one other thing then. Murdoch?"
She sniffled and nodded again, head still down. Johnny knew now why she was crying - Murdoch had hard hands.
"Hurts bad, huh?"
She sniffled again and repeated the nod.
He scratched at his ear lobe and sighed. "What did you do?"
Jemimah stilled. She had brought it all on herself; she knew darn well she had been in the wrong... it's just that she hadn't ever expected to get caught. She suspected that Johnny would have very little sympathy with her if he knew what she did; in fact, there was a very real chance he would be mad so she opted not tell him just yet. She was enjoying having him on her side for the moment.
"Jimmy McPartlin dared me to do sumthin' an' I had to or..." She paused. The prime rule of the Daredevils' Club was that you must never tell about it to a non-member or you would be cast out in dishonour and everlasting shame. "... or he'd have won my horsehair braid hatband that I made."
Johnny considered this. "Well, that'd be a serious loss, that's for sure. What was the dare?"
Jemimah remained silent.
"You don't wanna tell me?"
Still with her head down, she shook it decisively.
He smiled to himself; that could mean only one thing. "Hmm. You worried I won't approve?" Johnny watched for her reaction, pretty sure he already knew the answer.
A pause then her head nodded.
He chewed at the inside of his lip. "Will I think you got what you deserved?" Johnny nodded in answer to his own question and grinned when she did the same. "Uh-oh, that don't sound good, chica. You'd better not tell me then; I'm tired an' you're sore an' I might just feel like I should... carry on where Murdoch left off. You think?"
She lifted her head and risked a sideways glance at him. He was trying to look stern but actually felt pretty sorry for her; he had no intention of adding to her discomfort.
Jemimah was feeling pretty darn sorry for herself too. She burst into tears again and buried her head in her arms once more.
Johnny's heart melted."Aw honey, c'mere."
He lifted and cradled her in his strong arms so that she was half lying in his lap. He knew he shouldn't be comforting her if she had done wrong and been punished for it; Murdoch wouldn't approve. But he had never seen her cry like this after a spanking and he couldn't help feeling sorry for her.
"Hey listen, did Murdoch ever tell you about the time he and your pa stole the goat from that crotchety ol' farmer that always used to chase 'em off his land... an' then they shut it in the school house an' it ate up the map from the wall an' the teacher's books. And, hoo-whee, the mess it made..."
Enrique was now the undefeated champion of the club, having successfully completed all of his dares. No-one else had such an unblemished record. His challenges had been many and varied, ranging from riding his pony, Rana through Spanish Wells while standing on its back (people on both sides of the street had applauded him that day)to running across the back yard of the watch maker's store. (This may have sounded simple enough but everyone knew that Mr Feeney, the owner, had a particularly fierce watchdog stationed there, lying in wait for any potential robber foolhardy enough to try his luck.) Enrique's mad dash across the yard and the leap up the fence on the far side almost resulted in him losing a goodly portion of his rear end! As it was, his mother was most unhappy that her youngest managed to rip the entire seat out of his pants.
Enrique, as the leader of the Daredevils, had been charged with witnessing Jemimah's completion of her latest challenge as it would have to take place on Lancer. The dare, issued by Michael Little, was to shoot and score a hit on Dewdrop with her catapult. The boys all knew about Jelly's pet goose and most liked to ridicule the elderly gentleman's choice of pet.
Jemimah had complained that this wasn't a fair dare; the goose could be seriously hurt or even killed if she shot at it. She argued that they should choose a better target, after all, she was a good shot so they could challenge her skills. She had even suggested some alternatives - the church bell, old Cap's hat (Jemimah had still not forgiven the old buzzard for his more than thorough whomping!) but Michael, grinning at her, had delighted in thwarting her schemes and insisted she stick to the dare or lose further points.
She really didn't want to do it; she was fond of Dewdrop and knew Jelly would be heartbroken if he was hurt. But... rules were rules. Jemimah finally agreed to the challenge and Enrique was charged with the task of witnessing the shot.
So it was that Thursday evening found Jemimah perched in the hatch of the hayloft again and aiming her slingshot at Dewdrop as he ambled innocently across the barnyard. She had already missed half a dozen good opportunities but couldn't bring herself to make the shot. It was easy enough but she knew darn well that she needed to hit the creature in the tail feathers to ensure there was no lasting damage.
Enrique, perched on the top rail of the fence, squinted up at her and hissed, "Come on, what you waiting for? Get it done before somebody sees!"
Jemimah drew in a deep breath and held it, closing one eye and concentrating intently on the white waddling tail of the bird. She held her arm steady and, releasing the breath, let go.
Scrambling up to get a better view over the edge of the hatch, her mouth dropped open in astonishment and she gasped. Instead of seeing the goose flapping away into the distance, honking indignantly and maybe the odd feather or two drifting in the air, she saw... Scott. He was clutching his rump and was dancing on the spot. An empty pail, which he had obviously been carrying as he had strolled into the path of Jemimah's missile, sailed through the air and thudded back down, bouncing across the dusty ground and coming to a stop near the fence where Enrique sat, his hand over his mouth and a mixture of horror and hilarity in his eyes.
Scott swung around, his blue eyes blazing, and headed for the boy who threw up his hands to show that they were empty. Still rubbing madly at his stinging behind and wincing with pain, he then scanned the yard for the culprit just as Johnny rode in on Barranca.
"What's wrong, brother?" Johnny laughed. "You got a case of the rheumatism?"
"No, I haven't!" Scott bit back, far from amused as he limped over to Johnny.
Johnny, attempting to smother his sniggering, asked if he had been a bad boy and had Murdoch warmed his britches.
"No but somebody is going to have their britches warmed in a minute!"
"Whoa, big brother! You don't want to get all rumpled do ya'?"
"Not you! I'm referring to whoever took a shot at my... at me!"
Johnny dismounted with an easy grace and, shaking his head in disbelief, grinned at Scott's pained expression. "What? You been shot?" He chuckled and craned his neck to see the injury.
Scott was finding his little brother's mirth most unfunny, adding insult to said injury. "Not with a bullet, no, though it certainly hurts enough. I'm guessing it was a pebble in somebody's slingshot - somebody who, when I get my hands on them, is going to feel my wrath and in much the same portion of their anatomy!"
Johnny squinted up at the hatch and Scott followed his gaze just in time to see a little white face duck down behind a hay bale. Wild-eyed, Scott pushed up his sleeves and marched towards the barn. "Right!"
As he stormed inside after Jemimah, she swung down the rope and dropped nimbly to the ground, racing over to Johnny and gazing up at him with pleading eyes.
"It were an accident Johnny, honest! I was aimin' at... well... somethin' else! I didn't mean to. Don't let him get me!"
Johnny grinned and, thumbing back his hat, tilted his head on one side to study her face. She was worried, that much was obvious and, with Scott on her tail, who could blame her? But he knew her well enough to see that she was telling the truth; it was an unfortunate accident and, once his brother had cooled off, he would be more able to accept her apology and let her make amends. Johnny chewed his lip thoughtfully while she hopped about in anguish then, taking pity on her, hurried her along. "Well, what you waitin' for, kid? Go on! Run!"
She set off, racing for the house while Johnny laughed, clapping his hands on his knees and doubled over. Life sure was never dull with the kid around!
Jemimah was learning. On entering the house, she sought out Murdoch and confessed the whole sorry story. At least, the part about accidentally shooting Scott in the backside. Murdoch, though he presented a suitably grave countenance to his daughter, found he had to swiftly cross the room to gaze out of the window in order to hide his smile. When he was certain that he had his laughter under control, he turned back to her and kindly suggested that she apologise sincerely to Scott and offer to perform some small service for him to compensate for his discomfort.
So, when Scott came in minutes later (followed closely by Johnny who was still sniggering at his brother's pronounced limp) and promptly attempted to seize the little girl while threatening dire retribution, Murdoch came to her aid.
"Now Scott" he soothed his oldest, as he tried to draw the girl out from where she hid behind his legs. "Why don't you hear her out? Jemimah has told me the whole story and I have to say I believe her."
Scott glared flintily down at the girl. She was poised to flee, just in case Murdoch's intervention should fail to appease her big brother. But she nodded eagerly.
"I'm sorry, Scott. Honest, I am!" she vowed. "It were an accident. I was aimin' at somethin' else an' then, all of a sudden, you walked right in front of me. I never meant to hit you, I swear!"
Scott breathed, narrowing his blue eyes suspiciously. "All the same, you shouldn't be using such a dangerous..."
She immediately showed her contrition by offering up her slingshot. "Here! It's my best catapult but you can have it to show how sorry I am!"
"Do you have any idea how much it hurts..."
"Well, I saw you dancin' and rubbin' at your bum so I guessed I'd got you a good one! I can't tell you how rotten I felt!"
"Not as rotten as Scott," Johnny murmured, fresh sniggering causing him to turn away from his brother's angry glare.
"I'll do owt you say, Scott just to show you I really didn't mean you no harm. I'd never ever shoot you on purpose and I'll do any chore you say as punishment."
Scott gently took the proffered catapult, much of his previous anger dissipating. "Well, I'll have to think on that," he regarded her and smiled gently.
"Shall I polish your boots?" she grinned wickedly.
"No!" All three Lancers answered as one.
Jemimah's ranking in the Daredevils therefore took another battering. She had failed another challenge and Michael Little, buoyed up with his own cleverness, became unbearable; acting like he was undefeated which, she pointed out, he most assuredly was not. In retaliation, Jemimah hit upon an appropriate counter-challenge for him, as was the rule.
Michael's mother had great plans for her only son and, somewhat misguidedly, held musical aspirations for him. Much to Michael's chagrin, his mother insisted on weekly piano lessons. He often bemoaned this torture session, long and loud, to whoever would listen and had many a time begged for ideas to help him avoid the weekly ordeal.
Jemimah's cunning rose to the occasion; she dared the kid to hide a sack of horse manure in their piano before his lesson. She somehow managed to deliver her challenge with a straight face though the other members, also tired of Michael's crowing, guffawed most heartily at his scowl. Jemimah insisted that he accept her dare, pointing out that even if the smell didn't put paid to the lesson, the weight of the sack on the strings might make his playing sound sweeter!
Jemimah and the others in the club were delighted, it has to be said, when Monday morning produced a noticeably more subdued Michael who, when pressed, had to admit that he had been caught out by his pa and summarily dragged to the woodshed. Jemimah and Michael were now both at level pegging and she couldn't have been happier.
Jemimah and her fellows would not have been quite so gleeful if they had known exactly what had transpired in that woodshed about three seconds after Michael had taken the first lick of his father's belt to his quivering rump. All thoughts of loyalty and honour had fled and Michael had tearfully blabbed - all about the Daredevils' Club, about the members and every last little detail of all the dares completed thus far. Needless to say, Mr Little was not impressed and made up his mind then and there to have a word or two with some of the other fathers. This, he affirmed, would be nipped in the bud! Sadly for Michael, his perfidy did not save him and his pa still delivered a sound thrashing to his treacherous son.
That day after school, as the children trooped out and gathered in the shade of the trees by the church for the usual club meeting, there was a tangible excitement among some of the boys. They settled quickly and called the meeting to order, not wanting to linger too long and arouse undue suspicion.
Enrique, as the current champion, hushed everyone and asked who the challenger was for the next dare. It was customary for a challenger to volunteer then throw down the gauntlet to their chosen opponent. If you failed to accept the challenge, you were immediately awarded a fail and, so far, nobody had turned down a challenge.
Jimmy McPartlin spoke up. "I got a dare!"
"An' who's it for?" Enrique observed the formalities.
"It's a group dare!" Jimmy grinned. "This is for everyone."
"Everyone?" Michael didn't sound too keen. He had just failed one challenge and his backside was mighty tender; he had hoped for a respite to recover. "You can't do that!"
"Says who? This is a big dare; it's gonna need careful plannin' an' a whole team of us to make sure it works or else whoever does it will get caught for sure," Jimmy said.
"Well, what you got in mind?" Enrique was intrigued.
"My cousin Stan has given me a huge rocket..."
"Rocket?" Michael interrupted. "You mean like a firework rocket on the fourth?"
Jimmy threw him a look of scorn. "You know of any other kind of rocket, dummy? What - your pa whomp all your brains out?" He rolled his eyes in contempt. "Yes, a firework rocket like on the fourth an' it's a real beauty!"
Jemimah was feeling worried. Her last brush with fireworks had resulted in a far from happy ending and Johnny had insisted on having words with her. She had since decided that playing with fireworks was far too dangerous... for her hide. "So, spit it out - what's the idea?"
Jimmy leaned forwards excitedly. "Next Sunday, we're gonna plant the rocket behind the organ in church. You all know how ol' Reverend Carmichaels will go on for half the morning an' then there's the widow plunkin' away on the organ an' the choir screechin' like a set of alley cats... well, how about this Sunday we cut short the service an' have us a firework display instead?"
"In church?" Jemimah gaped.
"Yeah! Two of us set a long fuse on the rocket behind the organ so that we can be back in our seats before the reverend starts. Won't nobody suspect any of us 'cos we'll all be sittin' with our folks when it goes up. Boy, it'll be a sermon to remember! What d'you say?" Jimmy looked eagerly round the group.
The others were nodding, some were already asking what they would need to do and if they could be one of the pair to set the rocket off. However, both Jemimah and Enrique were sitting back quietly, apart from the gang. Eventually, someone noticed their reticence and asked what was wrong.
"I can't have nowt to do with it, lads," Jemimah sorrowfully shook her head, knowing this was not going to go down well. "I promised I'd steer clear of fireworks when me an' Enrique set fire to the widow's store an' I ain't goin' back on my word."
"You're just chicken, Jemimah Day!" Michael sneered, glad to seize upon anything to avert attention away from himself. "Typical girl!"
Jemimah firmed her lips together and narrowed her green eyes fiercely at the boy. "You want me to knock some of them freckles off've your stupid nose, you great spawny-eyed wassock!"
Enrique laid a hand on her shoulder and jumped in before the fists started flying. "Jemimah ain't no coward; she ain't got a yellow bone in her body, you all know that. But she's right - fireworks can be real dangerous. And anyway, my papa will wear me out again if he hears of me havin' anything to do with this."
Jimmy hung back but his mutinous face said it all. If it had just been Jemimah offering dissent, he would have sided with Michael to treat her with the contempt girls usually deserved but Enrique was altogether different. It was hard to argue with the champion of the club; he had proved himself again and again. Then, Jimmy smirked nastily as an idea struck him. "Look Enrique, I know you ain't no coward but you got no real say in this anyhow..."
"How'd you figure that?" Enrique snarled, ready to do battle.
"Well, you couldn't be no part of this one anyways; your folks don't come to the church here. You always go to the chapel in Morro Coyo. Nobody's suggestin' you're yellow but we don't expect you to take part in this dare. You're Catholic an' it wouldn't be fittin'."
Enrique was momentarily stumped. He knew Jimmy was right but still didn't want to see his amiga singled out as the only member to turn down the challenge. "But it's still too dangerous..."
However, the dare had been issued and the majority of the club were keen as mustard to take it up. Before Enrique could think of his next argument, it had been agreed that Sunday would see the great rocket-in-the-organ challenge.
Jemimah rose to her feet. "I ain't doin' it. I won't break my word."
Jimmy and Michael both stood up and stepped threateningly towards her. The two boys had a good few inches on her but still would not have faced her had they been alone.
"You got to do it," Michael said.
"I'm not doin' it!" she insisted.
"Then you're out of the club!" Jimmy decreed triumphantly. He had never wanted a girl in the club in the first place.
"You can't do that!" Enrique made ready to fight. "That's not how it works!"
"This is different! This is the whole group and, if you're not with us, you're out!" Jimmy snapped. "You're alright, Enrique; we already said you can't be expected to take part."
"No, if Jemimah's out then I'm out too."
Enrique looked down at his friend and saw the admiration in her eyes. It gave him the strength he needed to pick up his books and slate and, with a withering glare thrown to the gathered boys, he held his head high and stepped back decisively.
"If that's the way you want it then, fine, I'll go," Jemimah scowled. "I'll take any dare but I ain't up for settin' fire to the church especially when it's full of our kin on a Sunday!"
She smoothed down her dress with dignity and collected up her books and lunch pail. As she turned to leave, Michael Little called out to her.
Jemimah's face flamed and her little fists clenched at her sides. For two pins, she would have dived on him and given him a good pasting but, mindful of Murdoch's lecture the last time she was caught fighting, she opted to give him the sharp edge of her tongue instead. It was not hard; Michael was hardly a master of the sharp retort.
"Y'know something, Michael," she sneered. "If'n I could yawn with my mouth closed you'd have no idea how tiresome you really are!" With that, she pretended to stifle a huge yawn as she turned her back on the remaining boys and stalked away with Enrique
They were halfway home before either of them spoke.
"Thanks," Jemimah muttered quietly without actually looking at him. "You didn't have to do that.
"I guess." They rode another mile before Enrique went on, "I'm actually relieved."
"Me too," she agreed. "I've already been walloped twice over these damn dares an' they were gettin' bigger an' more dangerous every time!"
Enrique nodded his agreement. "Yeh, I've been lucky but, Dios! - it was just a matter of time an' if my papa caught me in any more trouble... after the firecrackers an' the lake... ay, he would not have been happy!"
"Bloody Michael Little..." Jemimah fumed, thinking back to the smug freckled face. "I just wanted to plant my fist in his gob!"
"Do not worry about him - Puñatero!" Enrique spat, also thinking back to the boy's superior crowing.
"Puñatero?" she repeated, jolting Enrique out of his thoughts and making him blush. "That's a new one. What does it mean?"
Enrique suddenly seemed very absorbed in his right stirrup. "Erm... one day I'll explain."
Jemimah was forlornly sitting on the hearth rug before the small fire that Maria had lit in the great room. She had changed into a clean pair of overalls and had her knees tucked up, her chin resting on them, green eyes sad and her rosy lips turned down in a morose little pout. When Johnny and Scott strolled in, they could hardly fail to notice that the little girl was unhappy.
"Hey kid," Johnny approached her then stopped short, taking in her expression. "Why so down? You ain't been whomped again, have you?" His face was wary. The kid had hopped from one prank to the next lately; in truth, he was getting kinda tired of all her shenanigans too. If she'd landed in any more trouble, he reckoned he might well dust her behind himself!
Jemimah took in Johnny's serious look and the way he stood with his hands impatiently on his hips. She shook her head. "No, I haven't, Johnny - honest!"
"You certainly don't look happy," Scott sat in the armchair beside her and smiled gently. "You want to talk about it? Two heads can be better than one and three heads? Well, I'm sure there's nothing we can't solve!"
Johnny sat too and the two brothers waited.
"I've been thrown out of the club..."
"Club? What club?" Scott asked.
"The Daredevils' Club."
"Daredevils?" Johnny wrinkled up his nose in puzzlement. "What's that? Ain't heard of that one."
"It's a club at school, me an' some of the boys," she explained impatiently. "I s'pose I can tell you now that they threw me out..."
"Why'd they throw you out?" Johnny was somewhat indignant for his little chica.
"You have to accept dares to be a member of the club an' they told me I can't be in it no more because I wouldn't do something they dared me to do."
"What was the dare?" Scott asked warily. There was not much that fazed the young girl; if she had refused to follow through with the dare, it had to be something pretty unpleasant.
"Jimmy... er... I mean, one of the boys has a rocket an' they were going to set it off."
Johnny's blue eyes pinned her and he leaned forwards on the sofa, wagging a stern finger at her. "You remember what happened last time you played around with fireworks?"
"An' you remember how I feel about that kind of foolishness?"
"Yes sir, I do an' that's why I refused... because I knew you'd disapprove."
Johnny smiled, his eyes soft and twinkling once more, and he tweaked her long braid. "That's good, chica. 'Cos, if I were to find out you've been messin' with any rocket or anythin' like that, you an' me would be havin' some real serious words, y'hear?"
Jemimah gulped. Johnny's words were something to be avoided at all costs! "I didn't, I swear. Me an' Enrique said we weren't havin' nothin' to do with it! I made a promise an' I won't break it."
"Alright, I believe you." He reached out and playfully mussed her hair, giving her a comradely little shove.
While they had been talking, Murdoch had been standing at the foot of the stairs. Walking in, he fixed his daughter with a stern look. "I'm glad to hear that, young lady, and I trust that means you are no longer a member of the Daredevils' Club?"
Jemimah spun around, her mouth hanging open. How on earth did Murdoch know about the club? Boy, these Lancers could be right sneaky buggers!
"I... I don't know what you mean, Daddy," she stammered. It was one thing confessing all to Johnny and Scott but quite another giving the old man a list of her escapades.
Murdoch cocked his head on one side to study Jemimah, giving her a flinty look and saying, "Lying will earn you an early bedtime with no supper, my girl."
She gasped and retorted that she had not done anything wrong and that she was being good for once by not taking part in the dare.
Murdoch leaned calmly on the mantelpiece, his long fingers idly turning the candlestick there. "Young lady, I know all about this club you belong to and I also know that you children have been playing pranks all over town in the name of the Daredevils. Am I right in assuming that the theft of the belt buckle was all in pursuit of some silly dare?"
She lowered her eyes to the rug and nodded.
"Hmm," Murdoch grunted. "Then you can see where this ridiculous nonsense has got you. But landing yourself in hot water and accepting the consequences is one thing; when these... dares put other people - innocent bystanders - in jeopardy then it is no longer a game." Murdoch's voice was low but Jemimah felt hot and cold all at once and the hair stood up on the back of her neck. Boy, the old man could be scary! "Now, I insist that you tell me what those boys intend to do with the rocket."
Jemimah was horrified that he would ask her to tattle on them and, though she feared Murdoch might think of some most unpleasant way of persuading her to tell, she clamped her lips together stubbornly and remained silent.
Scott glanced from his father to the child and, coming to her rescue, waded in. "Fireworks are dangerous, honey, and how would you feel if someone got hurt when the rocket goes off? I mean, is that a possibility? Will it be in a public place?"
Jemimah still said nothing but the anguished look in her eyes told them all they needed to know.
"There may be children, babies and old people wherever those boys plant that rocket; what if someone gets badly burned and you could have prevented it?" Scott pressed her. He could see she was uncomfortable but went on, "This isn't a fair dare - the boys aren't risking anything themselves; they're risking other people."
Jemimah sighed. Scott was right, she knew, and Jimmy and the others were playing with fire - potentially for real!
"They're goin' to put it behind the organ in church on Sunday and they're fixing it with an extra long fuse so they can be safely in their seats when it goes off."
Murdoch looked grim as he straightened. "I hope this will be the end of any involvement with the Daredevils?"
Jemimah nodded, green eyes wide. Murdoch chewed at his lip thoughtfully then turned to leave.
"I have a few fathers to visit."
When he had gone, Jemimah slumped back against the sofa next to Johnny's leg, just as miserable as when they had first found her. Johnny asked her what was wrong though he had a good idea.
"I can't win," she sighed heavily. "Either I don't tell and Murdoch gives me another lickin' or I snitch on my friends an' they whale the tar out of me next time I go to school. Y'know, we all made a solemn vow not to tell an' now I've broken it."
"I'd sooner have a black eye than a wore-out bottom after the ol' man's done with it!" Johnny grinned and nudged her with his knee. "Besides, my money's on you against all o' them other kids."
After supper that evening, as the family gathered around the warmth of the fire, Murdoch took Jemimah to one side. His voice was low but there was no mistaking the fact that she was in for a severe talking-to. He began with how foolhardy and dangerous these dares were and, moreover, how irresponsible but...
"What about all the stuff you did with my daddy?" she piped up, halting Murdoch mid-rant.
"Yeh, Murdoch, you told us the story of the goat in the school house, remember?" Johnny was impishly gleeful, enjoying reminding his father of similar misdeeds he had committed in his youth.
Momentarily speechless, Murdoch hesitated, torn between embarrassment and irritation.
"And what about the mouse in the master's desk?" Scott added with a devilish gleam in his eye.
"And how about the time you and Andrew fetched the pony into the house out of the sleet and it ate up all the supper in the pantry?" Teresa giggled at the big man's face. He had gone a dull red. Jemimah was not sure if he was blushing or about to give them all what for.
Everyone was laughing by now but Murdoch, silent and grim, looked fit to bust. He stalked to the sideboard to pour himself a much-needed whiskey. The laughter slowly subsided and the family gradually grew silent, avoiding his eye and dreading the imminent eruption.
"You did? Blimey, tell me; I've not heard these ones!" Jemimah grinned, jumping in recklessly. Well, he would either laugh or lambast her for her sass; anything would be better than this strained silence.
They held their collective breath and then he too cracked a smile and chuckled into his crystal tumbler.
"Well, I suppose you must have inherited your father's love of pranks and dares," he laughed at the memory of the many tricks Andrew had played. "Your mother was a wee bit of a daredevil too!"
He sat down at last in his favourite armchair and pulled Jemimah onto his knee to tell them all the story of the time they made a 'body' and hung it from the lamp bracket outside the tavern so it looked like old McEwan, the village sot, had finally done himself in as he was always threatening.
"Actually, he was out cold round the back of his lodgings. He was too far gone to make it up the stairs," Murdoch chortled. "When he saw himself hanging, it scared him so much that he swore to become teetotal!" He laughed out loud, jiggling the delighted child on his lap and spilling some of his whiskey on his trousers. "Boy, that didn't please the landlord; he'd lost his best customer!"
"And what happened next?" Scott laughed at Murdoch's transformation.
"Andrew, Rose and I were found out and thrashed accordingly," Murdoch admitted with a rueful smile.
"How did they know it was you?" Johnny wondered.
Murdoch smiled enigmatically. "We never found out how our fathers knew but they always did." He took a thoughtful sip of his drink, savouring the memory. "It's an uncanny knack bestowed on all parents that you children would do well to remember." He glanced at each of them in turn. "All you children."
Come Sunday morning, Jemimah rose to her feet with the rest of the congregation, clutching her hymn sheet and waiting for the opening bars of the hymn to end. Then, she opened her mouth and sang sweetly. It was one of her favourites - Stand up, stand up for Jesus - a really rousing one that almost, but not quite, drowned out the sound of the whupping which emanated from the vestry. The widow at the organ, in high dudgeon, was doing her utmost to compete with the noise of leather belts whacking three very sinful behinds.
Jemimah tried not to giggle through the hymn; she truly did, but the image of Toby McAllister, Jimmy McPartlin and Michael Little being herded down the aisle (the rocket clutched in Mr McPartlin's meaty fist) was too much for her and she hoped, just this once, God might overlook it.
Anne Haslam March 2014