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.
Scott is 30; Johnny is 25.
Scott and Jemimah stepped down off the boardwalk and headed for their horses. Scott smiled to himself as he stowed the package in his saddlebags. All the way from San Francisco, he had waited over a month for this little box to arrive in Green River and now, with it safely here at last, he couldn't wait to present it to the lady in question. But everything had to be right - dinner, candlelight, wine and, afterwards, maybe a stroll together in the moonlight...
Jemimah sat watching her big brother from atop her pony, Amiga. She squinted across at him, her head cocked to one side as she considered the faraway expression on his face and the secret delight which danced in his blue eyes. Flicking her long braid over her shoulder, she thumbed back her hat in amusement. Scott was mooning again; it had to have something to do with Zee. She seemed to be all he could think about nowadays. Of course, he'd always been sweet on her, everyone knew that but, ever since last winter when the two of them had been accidentally snowed in for two days at the cabin up on Mannock Ridge, their relationship seemed to have taken a more serious turn; Scott was showing a marked preference for the feisty brunette. All his other lady friends had fallen by the wayside and speculation was rife within the family that the oldest Lancer son would not be single for much longer.
Jemimah had no objection to the idea of Zee joining the family if that was what Scott wanted. Zee was fun and she'd never held it against Jemimah that she had once set the widow's store on fire with her inside it. It had been an accident and, after all, Zee had almost gotten Scott labelled as a woman-molester and nearly got him shot too... when they first met. Since she had been living and working with the Widow Hargis, Zee's tempestuous nature had been soothed down somewhat, that was true, but she had spirit and Scott seemed to like that. No insipid society miss for him! It didn't matter to her big brother that Zee had never been to the opera or was clueless when it came to choosing the right fork for her salad!
Thinking on such nonsense brought a scowl to Jemimah's elfin features.
No - it didn't matter a jot to Scott or Zee but she, Jemimah, was still having such trivialities rammed down her throat every afternoon in an effort to turn her into a lady. And had anyone actually asked her if she wanted to be a lady? Of course not! When did they ever ask her anything about what she wanted?
She slumped in the saddle, swinging her leg up over the pommel and scratching her back where the sun beat down on her pale green shirt. The side of her boot was smeared with dry mud and she picked morosely at it with her fingernail.
Her joy at being allowed to finish at the school in Spanish Wells had been very short-lived. Murdoch had announced almost immediately that she would be starting daily classes with a tutor, a well-to-do widow lady called Mrs Appleby, who would instruct her in needlepoint, elocution, dancing, French and other such pursuits necessary for the advancement of a young woman of Jemimah's station. No amount of pleading, cajoling, grumbling or arguing could dissuade Murdoch from this decision; he was determined that his daughter should learn a little of what it meant to be a lady. Jemimah had argued endlessly that he had not thought such nonsense necessary for Teresa and that she didn't even wish to be a lady but her father had put his foot down; she would attend these classes for at least six months. He wanted to see her showing a little feminine grace before he would allow her to quit. He was tired, he said, of watching her chase around dressed like a scruffy little cowboy and maybe some lessons in deportment and manners would put paid to the scrapes and shenanigans she still managed to get into!
That had been two months ago so she still had another four months of these ridiculous classes to go. Mrs Appleby was a crashing bore and a snob to boot. She spent most of her time looking down her long nose at Jemimah and had a permanent grimace of distaste on her snooty face as though the young girl smelled nasty.
Jemimah huffed out a sigh as they rode along the street. She hated those afternoon sessions with a passion; they were a hundred times worse than going to the little school - at least there she had actually learned something though whether it had all been relevant in Jemimah's eyes was debatable. Bloody lessons in deportment! And what was Johnny up to while she was wasting her time learning to be a lady? He was riding around, meeting girls from all over the neighbourhood and taking them on picnics and buggy rides and lord only knew what else! Dang- it was enough to make her blood boil! He was currently sniffing around Kate Quinn, the sister of the Spanish Wells schoolmaster, who had recently set up house with her brother on the outskirts of town.
Kate was pretty, dimpled and pleasant enough, but was in no way good enough for Johnny - to Jemimah's way of thinking. (Then again, who was?) The girl, only four years older than Jemimah herself, didn't seem to have an original thought in her pretty blonde head and made up for her lack of brains by smiling incessantly or giggling daintily at everything and everybody. Johnny was wasting his time on the female; there was no way she was right for him. Even Scott had mildly agreed with Jemimah that he could not quite envisage Kate with Johnny. And Lulu, Jemimah's new friend, loyally called her 'Miss Droopy Drawers'!
Jemimah stifled a snort of laughter at this thought. Lulu was a scream! No-one in the family knew about their friendship; Jemimah had been careful to guard that particular piece of information, knowing very well that Murdoch would not approve. Lulu, only a year older at seventeen, was one of the girls at the Dove & Garter, the new dance hall on the road out of Spanish Wells, and she was a wonder. She knew everything about everything; originally from Abilene, she had been to so many places and, boy, was she worldly-wise. She was like a young Trudy. Of course, Jemimah knew very well that Lulu had to allow men to dance with her to earn her living and there was more to it than that too - she wasn't naive enough to think that's all there was. She realised perfectly well that Lulu probably earned a little extra by allowing the odd kiss and stray hand pinching her bustle or accidentally-on-purpose lingering near her cleavage, but she was sure the older girl was always in control and what she permitted was up to her... if the men were daft enough to pay for it.
There was something else the family were unaware of too... she and Lulu had cleverly hatched a plan to get her out of some of her afternoon classes. Lulu, dressed in borrowed finery, had visited Mrs Appleby, pretending to be linked to the family, and had brought a note 'from Murdoch' asking that Jemimah be excused from lessons Thursdays and Fridays. Murdoch was most apologetic but the girl would be needed at Lancer, helping to refurbish the rooms in the west wing of the house which, it had been decided, were in dire need of repair. Now that it looked like Scott might take them over as a private apartment of his own, due to his impending nuptials, there was some sense of urgency to this endeavour.
Jemimah was still uneasy about this story; she worried it might get around and gossip about Scott would be rife but, then again, the reason had to be something pressing for Murdoch to cancel her classes two days a week. Ever since the lie had been told, she was always careful to steer her father away from Mrs Appleby on Sundays after church (an easy task it turned out as the woman was invariably ensconced in a throng of wittering females - something Murdoch was sure to avoid like the plague!) Jemimah herself carried the envelope containing Mrs Appleby's fee every Monday afternoon and, in this way, never the twain did meet.
Jemimah was thinking on all of this and was so engrossed in her thoughts that, for a moment, she did not realise Scott had stopped his horse and was touching the brim of his hat in greeting to a lady on the boardwalk outside the draper's shop.
"It certainly is - very warm," he was saying pleasantly.
Jemimah also halted and looked back over her shoulder to see who he was addressing. Her lips firmed into a sullen line when she realised the lady was none other than Kate Quinn. She nudged Amiga and came up alongside Charley, Scott's sorrel horse.
"Yes, I'll say hello to everyone for you, of course," Scott was smiling politely. He glanced at Jemimah and a flicker of annoyance crossed his face at her disagreeable frown and the rude manner in which she was staring pointedly in the opposite direction. "Well, good afternoon, Miss Quinn. We hope to see you at Lancer again soon." He raised his hat briefly in respect and threw an expectant look at the girl by his side.
Jemimah caught his pointed glance but resolutely ignored it.
"Jemimah, don't you have something to say?"
The young girl stubbornly scowled at him and, somewhat foolishly, ignored the raised brow and the steely glint in his eye. "Nope!"
Scott's face flamed with embarrassment. If there was one thing he could not tolerate, it was deliberate rudeness. He grit his teeth together and endeavoured to refrain from clouting the uncouth little imp around the ear. "Jemimah, you are surely out of sorts today. Where are your manners?"
"Don't need manners for her! If you think I'm puttin' on airs an' graces for that empty-headed, little..."
Jemimah got no further. Scott's hand swept off his hat and, in one fluid stroke, knocked the girl square in the face with it. She tumbled backwards, head over heels, rolling over the pony's rump and landing with a resounding thump on her rear end. A patch of soft mud broke her fall and liberally coated her jeans.
As though he had merely swatted away a pesky fly, Scott replaced his hat and, with a smile for Miss Quinn, he again addressed the lady. "Excuse the child, ma'am, a flaw in her upbringing to which I will attend personally! Good afternoon." With that, he urged his horse into a walk, leaving Jemimah gasping in the dirt and Kate Quinn hiding a smirk behind her neat gloved hand.
"You ever behave that way in front of a stranger again, my girl..." Scott began when Jemimah had caught up with him.
"She ain't no stranger!"
Scott's steely blue eyes bored into Jemimah and she had enough sense to be silent. "You know exactly what I mean; that was uncalled for and I'd better not hear you speak that way to Miss Quinn again. Johnny wouldn't like to hear of it either and I would be very unhappy, understand? Very unhappy."
Jemimah's bottom lip stuck out as she sulked. "Just so's you know, I misplaced my hairbrush!" she muttered.
Scott bit back a smile. "I'm sure Teresa wouldn't mind lending hers in such a good cause so I would advise you to remember your manners... and quickly!"
Jemimah was no fool; she closed her mouth and did not speak again all the way home. When they rode into the yard, she swung her leg over Amiga's neck and jumped down from the saddle, scraps of dried mud showering from her as she stomped for the house.
"Hey, what about Amiga?" Scott called after her and fumed when she completely ignored him. He slid gently down from his own horse and gathered the pony's reins, reaching out to rub her fondly behind the ear.
Murdoch and Johnny approached from the barn and were in time to see a filthy Jemimah storm into the house. Scott saw his father's questioning glance and ruefully shook his head.
"I don't know what's going on but I'm about ready to whomp that girl! Her attitude over the last few weeks leaves a lot to be desired."
Murdoch's eyes were trained on the open door through which his daughter had just disappeared. "What's she done now?" he sighed.
The three men turned away and headed for the barn, Scott ahead and leading the two horses. "She seems to have forgotten the most rudimentary basics of social etiquette," he huffed.
"Huh?" Johnny wrinkled his nose in confusion.
"I'm saying that the girl has the manners of a saddle tramp. It's like we've gone back in time to when she first arrived here from England. She acts like she doesn't care what impression she creates and we all know for sure that she can behave better than this... when she chooses."
Scott led the little pony to her stall and left her to Mateo who was waiting there. He began to unsaddle Charley himself. Murdoch sat down on a nearby stack of hay bales while Johnny leaned his rear-end on the low partition wall between the two stalls and, ankles crossed, selected a strand of straw to chew on while he listened.
Murdoch was shaking his head. "I thought taking her out of school and putting her under the tutelage of Miz Appleby would be just what she needed to plane the rough edges, shall we say? She'd learned all she could from the school and you know how she was chafing to be free of the classroom."
Scott dumped his saddle onto the stand. "I'm not sure 'planing' is what she needs, Murdoch... more like 'paddling'. She seems determined to behave as badly as possible." He crossed the straw, swiping a gloved hand across his brow and tucking in his dark blue shirt. "I'd say she's pushing you to see how much you'll take and what you'll do."
Johnny chewed on his straw and gave a lazy smile, his arms folded. "I know what I'd do..."
Murdoch glanced across at his younger son. "Now, you two," he began. "Jemimah is nearly sixteen years old. You know that I'm handling her... 'errors of judgement' a little differently these days."
"You are her father, Murdoch," Scott pointed out.
"Yes and, as her father, I intend to continue treating her as the young adult she very nearly is. What I don't intend is to regress to using childhood punishments and be turning her over my knee every time she steps out of line; the time for that is past. Yes, it may be very gratifying for me but I don't think it's necessarily the best way to handle Jemimah."
Scott and Johnny both exchanged a look that clearly told Murdoch they did not share this sentiment and thought he'd taken leave of his senses but were not about to voice this opinion to their old man. Murdoch smiled in understanding.
"She has to understand that her actions have more lasting and far-reaching consequences than just a sore behind. Until recently, we seemed to be getting somewhere; her behaviour has been much improved. I think we all recognise that, don't we? And, if we continue to show her we have grown-up expectations of her, we may yet find we have a grown-up Jemimah in our midst." Murdoch stood wearily, a hand to the small of his aching back. "At least... that's the theory."
Johnny stood too and slowly stretched, his leanly-muscled arms above his dark head and his faded red shirt almost coming un-tucked at one side. He turned away and spat out the straw, a soft smile curving his lips. "Well, I hope it works out for you, Murdoch... I really do." His face told Murdoch that he had serious doubts.
Scott gave Charley a final pat and straightened. "The way I see it, that girl has always responded best to a firm hand. After all, it's what she's been used to all her life - even from Andrew before she came to us. She understands it and she respects it."
"Y'know, Jemimah's ornery enough to take your patience as a sign of weakness, Murdoch. You could be makin' one helluva rod for your own back. But... you're her pa." Johnny shrugged good-naturedly, acknowledging that his father had the right to decide how he would handle Jemimah's sudden downturn in attitude.
"In the meantime," Scott crossed to join Johnny by the barn door. "Just don't ask us to supervise, will you? I don't know if I can summon up the required forbearance to prevent me from wearing out the seat of her pants next time she chooses to play the petulant brat in public."
Johnny grinned. Scott might use a string of long words but they sure saw eye to eye on all-things-Jemimah in general. Both men wandered out into the bright sunshine, leaving their father to stare after them from the shadows of the barn.
Murdoch shook his head, watching their retreating figures sauntering over to the house. "I'm beginning to think I need the patience of a saint to deal with all my children," he muttered to himself.
Scott was having great difficulty keeping his mind on the conversation. He kept glancing out of the window and craning his neck to see down the lane. As it was, he was perched on the edge of his father's big desk and not sitting easily like the others.
Johnny unsuccessfully tried to hide a smile. He chewed his lip, his eyes full of merriment. He had a good idea what ailed his big brother.
"I said, 'What do you think, son?' Hmm?"
Scott and Johnny both turned sharply at Murdoch's pointed question. In all honesty, neither young man had been paying any attention and both were a little shamefaced to be so caught out.
Murdoch was directing his disapproval at Scott. Relieved, Johnny took in deep breath and he too turned his attention on Scott, with a raised brow and a teasing smirk.
"Yes, Scott, tell us... what do you think?"
If looks could kill... Scott directed a quelling glare at Johnny as he apologised. "I'm sorry, Murdoch. I didn't hear the question."
Aggie Conway sipped her coffee and smiled. She had never seen the tall young man quite so distracted and she too had a pretty fair inkling as to the cause of his inattention. As a close family friend, it would have been impossible to be ignorant of Scott's increasing preference for a certain young woman. Indeed, the whole neighbourhood was buzzing with talk - expectations were that, very soon; any day now in fact, Scott would be engaged. Some folks said that it was high time too; that it was indecent for such a highly eligible bachelor as Scott Garrett Lancer to persist in remaining unmarried at his age. After all, he was thirty now. Prime marrying age. Girls had been flocking round him for years and he had resolutely avoided attaching himself to any of them. Many a local matron had paraded her daughter under the handsome young man's nose only to be bitterly disappointed in the long run. Yes, it was about time Scott took the plunge and put them all out of their misery.
Aggie's eyes softened as she looked him over. He was a very attractive man; a heck of a catch in all honesty. Educated, charming, caring and sensible... she had, at times, thought him too sensible. That had been her one reservation when her niece, Helen had showed an interest in him. Their fancy for each other had not withstood the many miles which now separated them. When Helen had gone back east, the couple had seemingly both moved on. Helen was now engaged to the son of a banker - and very happily by all accounts. And Scott...
It could not be more obvious that Scott Lancer was head over heels in love; as smitten as it was possible for a body to be! And with a more unlikely girl Aggie could not imagine. Yet there was something so very right about them too. You would have had to be blind, deaf and daft to boot to miss the way he lit up when he was around her. There was so much that was deliciously un-sensible about Scott nowadays; indeed, he was positively playful. And the lady?
Zee Cooper (she had long ago dropped any pretence of being a Mangrim)was so terribly in love with Scott; had always been so. No-one who saw her could believe otherwise. The girl actually blossomed in his presence. For all her independent spirit, Zee came alive when she was on Scott's arm and never seemed more whole than when she was with him. She wasn't beyond teasing the upright Boston gentleman and it did him good. Theirs was a partnership that had real potential.
Aggie glanced at the other Lancer men. Murdoch feigned an irritation at his eldest's inattention but she could see the proud light shining in the father's eyes, the gentle smile which lurked behind the admonishing frown. And Johnny? There was, as always, no side to Johnny. What you saw was what you got and what Aggie Conway saw was a handsome face, sporting a mischievous teasing grin and blue eyes twinkling with merriment and more - a deep affection for the brother who meant so much to him.
Throughout her visit, it had been evident that Scott was distracted. He showed all the signs of being on the lookout for something or someone. Clearly, he was expecting something to happen and, from the way he persistently checked his pocket watch, Aggie guessed that the time was imminent.
She smiled once more and drained her cup.
"Well, gentlemen, I think I really must be going. I had vaguely promised to drop in on Mavis Halburton this afternoon and, if I'm going to be home for suppertime, I'd best be making tracks."
Murdoch was already on his feet, entreating his friend to stay and have supper with them. Scott, realising with some chagrin that he had been a little rude during Aggie's impromptu visit, also rose and warmly added his voice to Murdoch's invitation.
"The Halburtons have already claimed Teresa for a visit today. Surely, you wouldn't deprive us of all female society?"
Johnny chuckled at his brother's flowery politeness but he too added his attempt to persuade Aggie to stay. Murdoch was always so much more affable when Aggie Conway was around; it never failed to tickle Johnny how puppy-like the big man could be.
"Yeah, you should stay for supper," he pressed good-naturedly. "Teresa's over having dinner with the Halburtons and won't be back 'til late. They'll be busy makin' a fuss of her."
"Ah, yes." Aggie watched her friend closely. His expression softened still more.
Teresa's romance and subsequent engagement to Mike Halburton had greatly pleased both families. Mike was a fine young man; a chip off the old block. His father, Jeff had been a friend of Murdoch's for ten years or more and, moreover, had been close to Teresa's own father, Paul O' Brien. Murdoch and Jeff were vastly contented with the match, knowing in their hearts that Paul would have approved too. The wedding was not to be for another couple of years; Mike was working hard to build up the small ranch that his father had given to him on his engagement and the young people were happy to wait this time, working earnestly together to build their dream.
"And how is the happy couple?" Aggie smiled. "Any news of an actual wedding date on the horizon?"
Johnny rubbed his palms down the sides of his pants and smiled. "Teresa's busy sewin' an' crocheting while Mike's out workin'. They're sure goin' to have a pretty place once it's done but I reckon..." His mischievous blue eyes flicked over to his brother who was once again leaning back to peer out of the window. "... Scott here will be hitched long afore Teresa and Mike trip down the aisle!"
Hearing his name, Scott came to. "What's that?"
Johnny laughed. "I was just sayin, brother, how Zee will be waltzing you up to that altar before long!"
Scott blushed a self-conscious scarlet, much to the amusement of his wicked brother who laughed even harder and neatly ducked in time to avoid a soft parental cuff round the ear from Murdoch. In all this laughter and mild ribbing, Aggie asked, "And what of the other lady of the house? Where's Jemimah today?"
"She should be back anytime," Murdoch said.
Scott again checked his watch. "Should've been back a half hour ago."
"So, Aggie," Murdoch beamed down at her. "Can we persuade you to stay? I believe Maria has a particularly succulent joint of beef roasting in the oven."
It was hard to resist Murdoch when he smiled in that expectant way; Aggie had always found his charm to be very persuasive. She threw up her hands in defeat and sat down again in the blue armchair.
As Murdoch, smiling broadly, reached to pour her another cup of coffee, there came the sound of the front door opening and they all turned curiously.
Jemimah trotted in, tossing her hat onto the stand in the hallway as she passed, her long braids swinging about her shoulders. Murdoch's smile faded.
The girl was positively filthy! Dirt was smudged liberally across her impish face and her clothes... aside from the fact that she was not wearing a dress, (which, Murdoch realised, more than likely meant that she had not attended her afternoon class with Mrs Appleby) her shirt and overalls were caked with mud, her knees (both skinned and now smeared with dried blood) showed through where the denim had torn, one braid had lost its ribbon and was coming unravelled and her knuckles were bruised. In spite of all this, Jemimah grinned toothily, her green eyes glinting with well-being.
She approached the gathering undaunted. "Hi! You'll never guess what?!"
Murdoch took a deep breath in an effort to remain calm. "Young lady, what on earth happened to you?"
Jemimah's grin widened. "Guess!"
Aggie hid her chuckle behind her hastily lifted coffee cup. Murdoch, however, was struggling to find his sense of humour.
"I don't want to guess; I want you to tell me right now how you ended up in this state... and it had better be good!"
"It is good; it's more than good!"
The young girl swiped her long bangs out of her eyes and twinkled at her family. She seemed to notice Mrs Conway for the first time and turned to her. "Oh, hello, Miz Conway!"
Aggie's greeting was drowned out by Johnny's sudden whoop. As Jemimah turned, she had presented him with an entirely surprising view of her back and he was now in fits of laughter.
"What is it?" Murdoch craned to see what had caused his son's mirth.
Jemimah twisted. She too was at a loss to understand what had so amused Johnny. "Oh blimey!" she gasped.
As she turned, it was easy to see why Johnny was laughing - the back pocket of her overalls had been torn clean off but had, unfortunately, taken with it much of the faded denim seat and now Jemimah's drawers were displayed in all their glory. She grasped at the shredded fabric and belatedly tried to cover her under things.
Murdoch's voice was a strangled growl. "Young lady... have you been fighting?"
"Yes, but I..."
"And am I to understand you did not go to your lesson with Mrs Appleby today?"
"Well, no but y'see..."
"Jemimah Rose Day, you are the most aggravating..."
"Yes but if you'll just listen..."
Murdoch was reaching for a thick, much-used tome which had taken up permanent residence on his desk. Jemimah's face fell in dismay. She recognised this particular volume - The Ladies' Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness - once owned by Teresa but now in her father's possession and, sadly for Jemimah, something which she was beginning to know off by heart.
He was already grimly flicking through the book, seeking a suitable chapter for her to copy out.
"Daddy, please, won't you listen?" she pleaded. "Sheriff Gabe says I'm a heroine an' the Widow Hargis wants to have a medal struck for me!"
"The widow?" Scott asked.
Jemimah, all gleeful pride now ebbing away, turned to explain. "Yes. There was a thief at the store an' I saw him take the money box from behind the counter while the widow an' Zee was busy with customers an' I jumped him as he was makin' off with it an'..."
"You what?" Johnny's arm was around her shoulders and he was leading her to a chair. "Are you alright? You're not hurt? Who was this thief?"
Jemimah stuttered at his concern. "N,no, I'm fine, really, I think... I just grazed my knees an'..."
"My dear girl!" Aggie crouched at her side. "Here, sit down. Someone get her some water. Goodness gracious!"
Murdoch passed a tumbler of water, his face now etched with concern. "Darling, what happened?"
Jemimah blinked up at the wall of worried faces and shook her head. "I'm fine. Really I am." She took a steadying breath. "I was at the widow's on an errand for Scott..."
Everyone turned briefly to look at the tall young man.
"Like I said, I spotted this lad grab the money box. No-one else had seen him an' I could see he was goin' to get away so I did the only thing I could - I tackled him to the ground as he ran out. The money box smashed on the floor an' all the cash went everywhere but folks picked all that up an' the widow herself made sure it was all give back." She took a swig of her water. "He weren't in no way keen to be caught an' put up a good struggle but I wasn't lettin' go that easy. I gave him a good thump in the nose; you should've seen it! There was blood all over him!" She cackled in relish at the memory and Johnny couldn't help joining in her laughter, even Aggie chuckled. "After that, it were easy to keep him down but I gave him a few more good thumps just to be on the safe side an' I sat on him 'til the Sheriff got there. Zee offered to help me but she was wearin' a dress so I said she shouldn't risk gettin' covered with blood."
At this news, Scott interrupted. "She wasn't hurt, was she?"
Jemimah gave him a look filled with scorn. "Of course not, I just told you it was me sat on him. Zee was helpin' to calm the widow an' wafting smelling salts under her nose. Though, once the ol' biddy saw that the cash was all safe again, she perked up right quick!"
"And the thief?" Johnny asked as he perched at her side, his arm still around her shoulders.
"It was that Horace Gibson - you know him; left school about a year ago. Never was the sharpest tool in the shed. Wasn't much of a fighter neither - I punched his lights out a coupla times before when..." She stopped suddenly, realising she was possibly about to dive into deeper water. Confessing to previous fights of which Murdoch had no knowledge was not a wise move to make.
"Well, it seems you've had an exciting afternoon, my girl," Murdoch smiled, pride sparkling in his eyes as he beheld the scruffy urchin who was his daughter. "Though, I still would like to know why you were at the widow's store and not at Mrs Appleby's where you should have been."
"I'm afraid that's my fault, Murdoch," Scott spoke up though he refrained from explaining that Jemimah had, in fact, told him that her lesson today had been cancelled due to Mrs Appleby's sister having broken her leg! He eyed his little sister beadily, intending to discuss her blatant fib later. "I entrusted Jemimah with an errand today after she kindly agreed to help me."
"Yes, I wanted something delivered to Miss Cooper and Jemimah offered to take it for me."
"Well, I wish you had discussed this with me, Scott. Jemimah's lessons are important and..."
Jemimah snorted. "Huh! What's so important? I don't think one afternoon off from needlepoint an' table settings is goin' to make any difference!"
Johnny sniggered and mussed the girl's already-dishevelled hair. "So, what were you delivering to Zee?"
Scott did not like the wary look that suddenly came over Jemimah's face. She was avoiding his eye and he could not prevent the uneasy cold sensation that settled in the pit of his stomach.
"It was an envelope containing a letter, inviting her to dinner and also there was a..." Scott's face was stricken. "A rather exquisite brooch in the shape of a dragonfly."
"You... did deliver it to her... didn't you?" Scott could barely form the words.
Jemimah gulped. The room became hushed. After what seemed like an eternity of silence, her green gaze timidly lifted until she looked Scott in the eye.
"I think... I mean, I suppose... that is... I must've dropped it in the scuffle outside the store."
Scott's voice was strangled. "Didn't you go back and look for it?"
"I weren't thinkin' straight. I forgot!"
Scott closed his eyes and sat down with a thud on the edge of the big desk, his hand to his brow.
"I'm sorry, Scott! It's just, with all the excitement and Sheriff Gabe calling me a heroine..."
Johnny hugged the girl a little closer; she was genuinely distraught. Aggie patted her knee while Murdoch placed a comforting hand on his son's shoulder.
"Now, now... I'm sure Scott doesn't blame you," he tried to soothe both his children.
Scott looked up and Jemimah flinched.
"No. I'm proud that you helped the widow and caught the thief," he agreed then his mouth firmed. "But I could dust your behind for losing that brooch!" Scott knew he sounded unfair, even churlish, but he couldn't help it.
Jemimah jumped up, tears shimmering in her eyes. "Jeez, Scott! There's no pleasing you! Maybe you should deliver your own gifts to your lady friends in future instead of badgering me to do it when I'm meant to be at my classes!"
Scott also jumped to his feet. "Badgering you! Why, you little devil... you offered to take that brooch and I never asked you to skip your..."
Jemimah slammed her glass down so hard that Murdoch expected to hear it smash to pieces. "Don't you try to wheedle your way out of it in front of Murdoch! Scott Lancer, I'm surprised at you!"
"Wheedle my...?" Scott bellowed incredulously.
Johnny watched the scene and knew instinctively who was telling the truth.
Scott shook a warning finger. "You little... I've a good mind to blister your..."
But Jemimah was already marching out in high dudgeon, heading for the stairs with her nose in the air and doing her damnedest to play the injured party.
"Oh dear, you seem to have your hands full. Are you sure I'm still invited to dinner, Murdoch?" Aggie contrived to keep her face as straight as possible but her old friend recognised the twitching of her lips, the way her eyes shone and the tell-tale shaking of her shoulders. She was loving every second. He sighed. Sassy females seemed to be his lot in life!
Jemimah lazed in Murdoch's big leather chair, her bare feet up on his desk. Her tatty jeans were turned up to her knees, skinny legs tanned from her many rides and rambles across the sun-drenched countryside. Much like Johnny, she slumped with her hat partially over her face and a single straw protruding from her mouth. She was smiling to herself, enjoying the rare peace and quiet of a totally empty house and the illicit thrill of a prank well-played - another Thursday afternoon session escaped and nobody was any the wiser!
"Comfortable, young lady?"
Jemimah gave a shrill cry and almost slid off the chair smack bang onto her rump when the deep voice sounded by her ear. Scrabbling frantically to lurch into an upright position but caught off-balance, her feet tangled up in themselves on the desk and strong hands reached out to grab her before her behind slipped entirely off the seat. Her hat went spinning to the carpet and she noisily spat the straw out, choking and gabbling half-formed excuses which made no sense.
"M, Murdoch!" Once he had set her on her feet, she took a few faltering steps backwards, subconsciously placing the desk squarely between them. "You... you're back... early!"
Heart hammering against her ribs, she was not sure where to put her hands, trying them first on her hips then folded and, finally, clasped behind her back.
Murdoch glowered down at the fidgeting girl and took a glimmer of satisfaction from her very evident nervousness. "So I am." Unlike Jemimah, he exuded calm. The only thing which warned her of his impending eruption was the vein which pulsed at his temple. This was Murdoch's 'tell'; the way that all his children judged how angry the big man actually was and Jemimah swallowed audibly to see it now.
"What... what you doing back here?"
In truth, Jemimah didn't give a damn why her father had come home so early. Her brain was in a panic, desperately trying to figure out an excuse for her own presence at the hacienda. Sadly, no such excuse sprang instantly to mind.
"I have a far more intriguing question," Murdoch said, almost conversationally. "What are you doing here? You are meant to be with Mrs Appleby, are you not?" Jemimah nodded. "Then, I'd be most interested to learn why I find you here instead."
As Jemimah started to stutter the beginning of her hastily concocted lie, Murdoch leaned closer, his blue eyes pinning her down. "And, knowing how I feel about lying, I would think hard before you give me your answer."
Jemimah released a shuddering sigh. What was the point? The game was up. Face flushing beet red, she looked up at her irate father through her thick black lashes and prayed for a merciful end.
"Hmm, lost your tongue, eh?" He paced around the end of the desk, his eyes never leaving Jemimah. Damn, but he was big! "Then, perhaps, I should do the talking? It seems that, due to my elder son's impending marriage, you are required to stay home two afternoons a week to work on the refurbishment of the west wing. It is critical that I have your assistance; it appears I cannot do without you and, what is more, you have been doing this work every Thursday and Friday for the last three weeks." He fished a small wad of bills from his vest pocket. "Mrs Appleby returned the payment for the six days you missed. She said she could not possibly accept money for lessons she had not taught." He glowered down at the girl. "I think it is high time I taught a lesson of my own!"
He stilled, giving Jemimah a ferocious glare that set the butterflies in her stomach fluttering sickeningly. She winced. Darn, she should have thought of that! She could have put the money for the two days aside or slipped it back into his wallet. Now he would go for it.
And go for it he did!
Murdoch's voice rose in volume to a steady bellow as he listed her many transgressions, the deceit, the disobedience, the disdain she showed for the rules he had set her, the disrespect (Jemimah's ears were burning)and, finally, the most dreaded word of all - the consequences she had earned.
Though not seriously frightened, (it was nearly a year since anyone had actually whomped her) Jemimah cringed in apprehension, waiting to hear what he would decree. She was fairly sure a licking wouldn't be on the cards but Murdoch liked to dish out lists of unpleasant chores too.
Jemimah knew perfectly well that she had been pushing her father lately and not just Murdoch; she had antagonised just about everyone on the ranch with her don't-care attitude. She almost wished she could stop being this way but, somehow, everything got under her skin; everyone bugged her. And Johnny - he bugged her most of all. She was fed up to the back teeth of being a well-behaved polite little girl for everyone. What was the point if Johnny couldn't see what was under his very nose; couldn't see her for what she really was? Why bother dancing to their tune? What good did it do her? She might as well suit herself and take whatever chores Murdoch threw at her in penance and she was certain there would be a very long list.
However, she'd rather take that than any more of this learn to be a lady stuff. So, when she saw him snatch up the detested volume of 'Etiquette and Politeness', something inside snapped. She was grown; full grown. When were they going to see that? When were they ever going to ask her what she wanted to do with her life? Jemimah had no intention of becoming a lady - one of those prissy, stuck-up, useless articles whose sole purpose in life was to be decorative and whose vapid pointless existences made her want to retch. That Murdoch could actually desire this for her made her angry - angry... and reckless.
"Don't know why you're looking in that! Just ask me anything; I can quote the whole bloody thing off by heart! An' I ain't copying any more of it out." Her lips were firmed into a furious line and she could feel her whole body trembling, her composure completely lost. Jemimah did not raise her voice; she was not that foolhardy, but her words were spoken with absolute determination. "The woman who wrote it has to be the most tight-laced, prim an' proper, stick up her arse, spinster that ever was! If you want me to be like that, then you should've picked a different orphan. I'd rather die! There's no way on earth that she was married to a real live man! Bet she's never been within ten yards of a bloke, let alone married. Prob'ly started wearin' corsets when she was a kid an' never had 'em off for the last forty year!" She lifted her chin defiantly. "I ain't aimin' to be owt like that an' you won't make me. I don't care what you say!"
As he closed the front door behind him, Johnny took off his hat and shook his head, running a hand through his damp hair. Boy, it was hot out! He plopped the hat down on the hall stand and took a step towards the great room. He would deposit the documents he had collected from their lawyers in town then indulge in a long relaxing soak in the tub. Thinking on this, a smile curved his lips and he plucked the fabric of his blue shirt, shaking it away from his chest in an attempt to fan some cool air onto his skin. Murdoch's angry growl stopped him in his tracks and, suddenly wary, the young man side-stepped to the bottom of the stairs where he eased down silently to listen. If he wasn't mistaken, that was one of his father's tirades in full flow.
"You keep your nose to that wall!" Murdoch's stern voice grimly ordered. "Don't move and you will stay right there until you're ready to apologise for your outrageous behaviour!"
"Well, don't hold your breath 'cos I ain't sorry an' I ain't gonna lie an' say that I am!"
Johnny's eyebrows lifted in surprise, his mouth open. That was the sound of Jemimah in a temper alright! Dios! Hadn't that girl any sense at all? She'd thrown all caution to the wind. Jeez, you just didn't speak to the ol' man like that... not if you wanted to keep your hide! He leaned his forearms on his knees and swiped a hand carelessly through his hair, shaking his handsome head in disbelief. She'd lived here long enough; she ought to know better.
"Come on in, Johnny!"
Murdoch's call made Johnny start in surprise; he hadn't realised his presence had been noticed. He was not sure he wanted to go in. Of course, he was curious to find out what had happened but really didn't fancy getting embroiled in the fracas. But Murdoch knew he was there; he had called him in. To remain in the hallway, lurking at the bottom of the stairs, was no longer an option so Johnny heaved himself up and sauntered slowly through.
His eyes darted immediately to the corner behind his father's desk where the figure of Jemimah faced the wall, ramrod straight and clearly seething in silence. Johnny raised a brow questioningly at Murdoch who also glanced across at her. The big man passed Johnny on his way over to the sideboard where he helped himself to a glass of single malt. It was an indication of the level of Murdoch's frustration that he omitted to pour one for his son. Johnny stood awkwardly to one side, chewing his lower lip and reluctant to open his mouth. Not that he needed to ask - he could see Jemimah was struggling to keep a lid on her temper like a little Billy can boiling on a campfire.
"Jemimah may very well be almost grown up but, when she behaves like a recalcitrant ten year old, she will be treated as one," Murdoch suddenly fumed, crossing the room to his desk where Johnny waited. He flicked a furious glare over at the young girl's back which seemed to quiver indignantly. "Do you have the papers from Mercer?"
Johnny handed them over, glancing all the time at the kid who hadn't once tried to turn her head. He knew very well that she was struggling with a stew of emotions; embarrassment at being witnessed in such a humiliating position, irritation over whatever the argument had been about and, probably more than anything else, anger at herself for not keeping a rein on her temper.
Murdoch, now seated in his big leather chair at his desk to flick through the papers Johnny had brought, chewed at the inside of his lip and finally turned to the young girl. "Alright, you can come out now."
Johnny watched her closely as she turned. Her mouth was set in an angry line, her green eyes narrowed in a scowl of such ferocity that she looked like she might suddenly let loose with an actual snarl. She unfolded her arms and let them hang loose by her sides though her hands were clenched into furious little fists. Johnny could make out her whole frame trembling and he knew that she was absolutely livid. He sighed. When Jemimah lost her temper, she was her own worst enemy.
Murdoch was momentarily engrossed in the documents spread out before him so Johnny took his chance to intervene. Silently, he tried in vain to communicate with the girl but she was far too busy scowling at Murdoch to pay him any mind. The rage rolled off her in waves and, finally slumping against the blue chair, Johnny wrapped his arms around himself in the way he often did when deep in thought or feeling uneasy.
Murdoch's big hands scooped the sheaf of papers back together again and he slipped them into a drawer. He turned to Johnny. "We can all three sign these later before dinner."
Johnny nodded, his thoughts on the girl and not the documents.
"And now, young lady," Murdoch's voice was deep and gravelly, almost a growl. "I'm ready for that apology."
If it were possible, Jemimah's stance became even more rigid; her shoulders looked so tense Johnny wouldn't have been surprised to hear her snap like a dry twig. The air was heavy with an expectant stillness that prickled Johnny's skin and made him want to scratch. The only sound in the room was the sombre ticking of the grandfather clock which seemed to goad them all, highlighting the stubborn girl's refusal to speak.
"I'm waiting," Murdoch pressed.
Johnny caught the defiance glinting in Jemimah's sea-green eyes and knew beyond any doubt that the ol' man could wait until judgement day; there was no way that girl would be handing out any apologies. Of course, at one time that would have meant the ol' man would hand out something of his own that Jemimah wouldn't like but, for the past few months, Murdoch had taken a different path.
"I haven't done anything wrong. I'm too old to be having lessons of any kind - Enrique finished a year ago and he's now working on the ranch, being treated like a man while I'm still being treated like a kid!" Jemimah spat suddenly. "When I first came to Lancer, Teresa was only just seventeen and she'd finished her schooling two years afore that! I'm too old to be... to be treated like this and it's about time you all started seeing me as a woman and not as a little girl! Needle-point, how to serve a cup of tea to a gentleman! Pah! What friggin' use is that? None of you even drink tea so what's the point knowing how to serve it if no bugger's goin' to drink it?" She strutted to the desk and wagged her irate finger under her father's nose. "Murdoch, it's high time you realised that all I want is to learn about runnin' a ranch; not actin' like some namby-pamby, starched-shift lady with a nasty smell under her nose. If I'm goin' to get married one day, I can't go through life actin' like a brainless, blushing virgin. Get it into your head - I'm not a kid any longer; I'm full grown!"
Murdoch looked like he was about to explode. Even Johnny was taken aback at the vehemence of her speech. Murdoch rose slowly from his chair and approached Jemimah, his flinty eyes never leaving her face.
"You lay a finger on me," she snarled. "An' I'll bite the bastard off!"
"Hey!" Johnny was not standing for that. He too hadn't laid a hand on her since before her last birthday almost a year ago but there was no way she was getting away with that kind of disrespect in front of him. He had always detested rudeness from young 'uns.
Murdoch grasped her hand and Johnny took a pace backwards to watch the fireworks incredulously.
Neither Lancer could believe it when Jeminah attempted to lower her teeth to bite the hand that gripped hers. Suddenly she was yanked towards the door to the hall with such determined force she all but flew across the room and had no chance to come anywhere near to Murdoch's hand with those deadly little pearly whites. He marched her to the stairs, growling all the way that she would stay in her room without supper until she could apologise like a lady.
"I don't want to be a fuckin' lady!"
This was the final straw. Johnny watched his father pause. Murdoch must have sorely needed some of that gratification he had mentioned because he leaned the wiggling girl against his hip and, for the first time in months, gave her rump a trio of hearty smacks to send her on her way. Johnny winced. Jemimah squealed. She bolted up the stairs, cursing all the while. They heard her stomp into her room and the door slammed with a resounding thud.
The sonorous ticking of the clock once more filled the room. Johnny and Murdoch had both frozen in disbelief. At last, Johnny sighed and shook his head in wonder at the kid's stupidity. When she lost her temper she didn't act in her own best interests!
Johnny was sitting thoughtfully at the kitchen table, downing a cup of strong coffee, when Scott strolled in. He meandered to a chair opposite his brother and slumped into it, tired out. He too was feeling the heat. His beige shirt clung to his lean frame and his fair hair was dark with sweat and plastered to his brow. Johnny wordlessly passed him the coffee pot but he shook his head and wearily rose to pump a tall glass of cool water instead.
"It's quiet. Jemimah still at her class with Sour Apple?" When Murdoch wasn't around to hear and disapprove, the boys and Jemimah had taken to using the nickname for the prim little woman.
Johnny pointed to the ceiling then sipped again at his coffee. " Amazed she ain't gettin' blistered! She sure asked for it!"
Scott raised a brow and he too glanced at the kitchen ceiling as though he expected to see through it to the room above. "Murdoch's back early then?"
"What did she do this time?"
"Not sure what she did to rile him first off but he sent her to her room for trying to bite him."
"The ol' man nearly snapped an' broke his 'no spankin' rule' - never seen him so close to leatherin' her an' then not do it! He gave her a coupla' swats but, boy, I don't know how he held it back. Mind, if he hadn't done it, I would have. I can't abide that kinda talk comin' outta her mouth! The kid's crazy - she don't know when to back off and shut the hell up!"
Johnny felt downright unsettled. On the one hand, he didn't like to think of his little chica up there alone... and no supper? Dang! That would sure make her miserable; that kid loved to eat as much as he did. On the other hand... he sure thought a few more good swats from her pa would do her a world of good. The way he saw it, the kid was getting spoiled and she was pushing it. He had felt his own temper smouldering at her outburst and cussing. If he'd had her alone for two minutes, he didn't think she would have been able to sit down to eat any supper anyway!
"Passionate girl, Johnny, passionate!" Scott leaned back in his chair, sipping his water. "Always has been. And, now she's growing up... or thinks she is... well, lord knows I love the little devil..." Scott couldn't prevent the grin which appeared as he considered his adoptive sister, "... but she would try the patience of a saint!" He eyed his little brother contemplatively. "The brave man that marries her is going to have his work cut out for him. I think Murdoch should have a supply of stout switches laid aside as part of her dowry!"
The brothers both looked up then as their father trudged in from the back stairway. His face was grim and he leaned wearily on the counter, seemingly deep in thought. Johnny quickly poured a fresh cup of coffee and passed it across to him.
Murdoch's mouth thinned into a firm disapproving line and he took a hefty swig from his cup before he replied. "Upstairs and she'll stay there without any supper." He sighed. "I don't know what to do with that girl."
"You let her off pretty easy, Murdoch; that ain't like you," Johnny pointed out.
The big Scot nodded sternly. "I'm trying a different approach; corporal punishment doesn't seem to produce any kind of lasting effect and I figured it was time to try a different tack."
Johnny blinked in confusion and repeated, "Corporal punishment? I know she can rile you, Murdoch but don't you think hanging is a mite too harsh?"
Scott rolled his eyes and sniggered. "Corporal punishment, Johnny, not capital punishment. Murdoch means he's trying to avoid dusting her britches, not sending her to the gallows!"
Murdoch and Scott both began to chuckle while Johnny smiled sheepishly and said that, if they asked his opinion, she was just testing them and looking for attention.
Scott's smile disappeared. "Well, if this is her way of getting attention, Murdoch should give her some she won't like!"
Murdoch's expression once again became serious and he sighed.
A brief discussion about the day's work ensued but it was clear Murdoch's thoughts were still on his daughter. Both brothers could see the worry etched in the lines on his face and the tired slump of his shoulders. At length, in an effort to shake himself of his anxiety, Murdoch straightened and tried to smile. "Scott, will you be here for dinner tonight?"
Scott's gaze suddenly became fixed on the scrubbed wooden table top."I'm afraid not, sir. I'm... dining out this evening." In answer to their curious looks, he explained. "Zee and the widow have invited me to supper."
"Well, son, this must be serious - it's the second time in as many weeks, isn't it?"
Scott merely smiled.
"And Teresa is out to dinner with Mike so it looks like it's just you and me, Johnny."
Johnny smiled and drained his coffee cup. "Looks that way," he muttered as he stood up. "I'm gonna go get some fresh duds an' take me a bath. Reckon you'll be relieved to hear that, Murdoch."
He headed up the back stairs and along the cool, shadowy landing. Pausing at Jemimah's room, he had an urge to talk to the girl and tapped lightly on the door. There was no reply and Johnny figured she was probably sulking or had fallen asleep. Gently, he pushed the door ajar and peered around it.
At first, not seeing her on the bed where he expected to find her, he thought the room empty. Then, a movement by the cheval mirror caught his eye. She was there, with her back to him and twisting before the glass, clad only in her lacy camisole and drawers. He was surprised to find her half-undressed and, for a moment, all he could do was stare at her.
The sunlight from the window streamed across her shoulders, giving her smooth skin an ethereal sheen. Her arms were tanned a golden brown and lifted so that they could hold up her dark tumbling tresses. Her lace-trimmed undergarments were snowy white, bleached in the sunlight that bathed her tiny figure and hundreds of silvery dust motes danced in the air around her. She was curvier now; there was a real womanly swell to her hips and Johnny was alarmed to find he was not breathing properly; in fact, he felt inexplicably choked up.
Her legs were bare but both knees were marred with the dark dried scabs of where she had recently skinned them during the fight at the store. Above her knees was the innocent lace trim of her drawers which were no longer cotton but of some sort of sheer material through which he could make out the blush of her skin where Murdoch's hand had smacked her. Through them, her thighs were defined as clearly as if she were naked and yet the slender half-hidden limbs were more entrancing than bare flesh.
Johnny felt his throat constrict, almost as if he could not breathe and, as he stood riveted, she suddenly snagged down the back of her waistband and he found himself gaping briefly at her tight round buttocks - a redness staining both smooth cheeks. She was twisting before the mirror to afford herself a view of Murdoch's slaps and still had not noticed him. As she turned, Johnny spied the twin rose-tinted shadows, plainly visible through the thin fabric of her camisole. He stared so hard that he felt his eyes start to sting.
The girl released an exasperated huff and the sound acted like a slap to the young man's face. He came to and realised, with huge relief, that she was still unaware of his presence. He swiftly ducked back out onto the landing while she sorted her clothing and he hurriedly did the same, his britches feeling suddenly too tight. Leaning against the cool plaster wall, Johnny fought to control himself, his face ablaze with shame at having caught her in such an unguarded moment, guilt washing over him and forcibly aware of his arousal. He swore at himself, aching more from embarrassment and self-reproach than from his swift erection. Dios! What was he thinking?! Johnny had never needed a belt of Tequila more in his life! He was not sure how long he leaned there; it was probably no more than a minute but, at last, he heard her flounce over to the bed and throw herself upon it.
Johnny wondered whether he should just march on to his own room, collect his gear and make for the bath house as originally planned... hell, he knew damn well he should... but he didn't. He shook himself mentally and knocked again at the door. This time, a voice bade him enter and he tentatively turned the handle.
She was there, lying on her stomach across the bed, still clad in only her underwear and with her chocolatey hair streaming over her shoulders and down her back. Johnny crossed the soft patterned rug to sit on the edge of the bed beside her. For an awkward moment, neither spoke. Johnny could see from the pout of her bottom lip that she was still sulking. He flicked a long lock of satiny hair over her shoulder so that the end wafted in her face but, instead of raising a smile, all this produced was a surly toss of her head, her green eyes gleaming with temper. The young man chewed at the inside of his lip and sighed, leaning forward to rest his forearms on his knees - and facing away from that pert backside that he was sorely tempted to whack!
"Guess I shouldn't be here. Murdoch wouldn't approve."
"Stuff Murdoch!" she sourly huffed like a petulant child.
Johnny sighed again and reached out to stroke his hand across her head and down her shining hair. "You gonna give me some straight talk?" he asked and, at her enquiring glance, went on, "What's the matter with you these days? You stomp around here like you're mad at everything and everybody. Nuthin' anyone does for you is good enough; you bite all our heads off, you're tellin' lies... in short, you're actin' like that little brat I picked up from the stage three years ago."
With a wounded expression, Jemimah lifted her head from her pillow and started to argue. "It's Murdoch..."
"Nah, it ain't Murdoch; it's you!"
"He's tryin' to..."
Johnny's voice was gentle but firm. "He's tryin' to raise you right; show you how to be a lady."
The girl thumped her pillow peevishly, unhappy that he was giving her some unpalatable home-truths. "Don't wanna be no lady!"
Johnny smiled. She sounded just like that little ragamuffin they all fell in love with so long ago. He fingered a silken strand of her hair. "Sure you do. You can't go climbin' trees an' fightin' boys forever." She resolutely ignored him so he tried a different path. "Murdoch loves you. You can't deny that."
At this she turned, her eyes glinting with resentment. "You're goin' to take his side! I knew it. Just 'cos you're a man and you..."
"Hey, I ain't takin' any side; I'm talkin' true an' you know it."
She worried her lip with her pearly little teeth and subsided once more onto the battered pillow. "I'm fed up of bein' treated like a little kid."
Johnny shook his head. "You got off pretty easy, honey. If you'd cussed at me like that... well... I don't think you would've liked my answer!" Vivid green eyes met deep blue and, eventually, he saw her admit that she had been wrong. She didn't say it but her whole body slumped in undeniable acceptance of his words. "You asked for it, chica - and more besides; you know you did. Come on, admit it."
Jemimah pouted and Johnny bit back a smile. She looked so adorable.
"I surely got it then, didn't I?" she sulked, reaching a hand back to rub her rear-end. "You saw... didn't you?" She turned on her side and gazed up at him. "When I was standing by the mirror - you saw me. Didn't you?" she pressed, a strange intensity in her green eyes.
Johnny straightened, surprised. She knew. He felt heat suffuse his cheeks. Even though he hadn't meant to see her, he knew perfectly well he should have left immediately but he had somehow been unable to tear his eyes away from her. She was still regarding him with that steady green gaze, scrutinising him as a cat would with a mouse. Johnny felt downright uneasy and rose from the bed, hastily moving away from her. Blushing, he nodded, feeling like a naughty kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He concentrated on the toe of his dusty boot, arms wrapped around himself and his fingers picking at the seams of his shirt.
At length, from over by the windows, he looked at her. She had a cleavage now and there was a soft curve to her hip, her waist really tiny and slender as she reclined smugly on the patchwork quilt. His eyes followed the graceful line of her smooth throat and he was alarmed to see her smile... wickedly. As she swung her long coltish legs off the bed and moved to delve in her bedside drawer, he took an involuntary pace backwards.
"Here!" She held out a soiled envelope to him. "It's Scott's letter for Zee an' the brooch is still inside. I checked."
Johnny took the envelope, his face questioning.
"I went back to look for it today. Had to squeeze under the boardwalk in all the dust to get it but I reckon Scott won't care about a bit of dirt." She grinned and folded her arms under her firm young breasts. This had the effect of pushing them up so that they strained against the thin fabric of her camisole.
Johnny suddenly felt like he needed to get out - and fast. He was standing there in a young lady's bedroom. The young lady in question was in her drawers and he had just seen her unclothed - well, part of her. And real pretty it was too. Dios! This was crazy! What the hell was he doing? He knew it was only Jemimah and they'd all seen her skipping about in her under clothes plenty of times but, today; now, somehow it just wasn't fitting anymore! Striding eagerly for the door, he averted his eyes and muttered something about trying to smuggle some food up to her later... and to get some clothes on, for pity's sake!
Three hours later, after supper at a lonely table where both he and Murdoch acutely missed the company of the other family members, Johnny was in the deserted kitchen, making a rough sandwich of cold chicken and sweet pickle for the kid. He knew his father was comfortably ensconced in his favourite chair with a glass of whisky and a good book so would not venture through to catch him. He poured a tall glass of milk too and quietly sneaked up the back stairs.
Pausing outside her room, Johnny swallowed. He was nervous. This was ridiculous; it was just the kid. But, all the same, he hesitated, dreading and, at the same time, anticipating her being in the same state of undress as before.
So, when he knocked and was asked to come in, his overriding feeling was relief when he saw her now wearing her faded old overalls. Even so, there was a part of him that felt strangely disappointed and that alone annoyed the hell out of him. Hence, as he plunked down the plate and glass on the dresser and turned to regard her as she lounged on the bed, his words came out with a sarcastic sting he had not intended.
"Good to see you in your finery again. Can't imagine why the ol' man thinks you need lessons in how to be a lady!"
Jemimah scowled, narrowing her eyes and snapping her book shut. She had still not recovered sufficiently from her mood to let the remark bounce off her. Feathers distinctly ruffled, she bit back, "Well, I reckon I could've put my nightie on but I didn't think it'd be proper for Mr Johnny Lancer to see me dishabille!" She fanned her face coquettishly in a comic parody of a high-society lady, fluttering her eyelashes and rising from the bed to mince across to the dresser. "After all, if I'm going to be a fine lady, I can't be entertaining gentlemen in my bedroom..." She pretended to be thoroughly shocked at the very notion of such a thing. "... and me with only a mere whisper of cotton covering everything that God gave me. Can I?" She smiled sweetly then took a huge chomp out of the sandwich, her mouth crammed and chewing in a manner that could not be less ladylike.
Normally, Johnny would have laughed at her antics but, for once, he could understand how she managed to rile Scott so easily. Annoyed with her, and with himself, he headed for the door.
"I wouldn't worry none about ever bein' a lady. Until you get y'self some female doo-dads, it don't matter what God gave you - ain't no-one ever goin' to take the trouble to find out when it's wrapped in a pair of boy's coveralls!"
"Where you goin'?" she called crossly through a mouthful of chicken.
Johnny didn't look back. "Out!"
He was already on the landing. "Go to bed, kid!"
Johnny tramped down the stairs and wandered into the great room. He was about to fling himself full-length onto the sofa but changed his mind and sauntered over to the windows behind the desk. It was still light; the sun had not yet dipped behind the treetops and it was warm. The air was sultry and close. Johnny huffed out a sigh and tapped agitatedly at the conchos down the side of his pants.
Murdoch raised an eyebrow but did not look up from his book. Even when his son meandered back to the empty fireplace and began to tap his fingers on the mantelpiece, Murdoch concentrated on his novel. However, he did pointedly clear his throat.
Johnny sighed again. Dang - this was pointless! Unable to settle somehow and feeling the need for some female company, he crossed to the hall stand and gathered up his hat and gun belt.
"I'll see you later, Murdoch!" he called over his shoulder as he hurried out of the door. Even before he made it to the barn to saddle Barranca, Johnny knew where he was headed - the new dance hall on the outskirts of Spanish Wells. He fancied a few good shots of Tequila and a pretty young thing sitting on his knee while he played a few hands of poker. And, maybe later, if she was sweet enough and curved in all the right places, he might indulge in a little horizontal two-step with the young lady.
Despite all his boyish playfulness, Johnny was a passionate, virile man with the same needs as any other. Like Scott, he knew very well that any visits to establishments of this nature were to be kept discreet. Murdoch was apt to disapprove and sure didn't want Jemimah or Teresa to hear of them. It was a while since Johnny had made a special trip into Green River to find himself an appealing filly and he had yet to visit the new dance hall in Spanish Wells. His face split with a grin as he rode along. Yes, this could be just what the doctor ordered!
Lying in bed in the lonely darkness, Jemimah couldn't sleep and was far from happy. Her feelings would not be quietened - rather they tormented her.
Right now, Johnny could be in bed with some woman; some whore, his arm draped over her naked form. She knew perfectly well that he had probably gone to the saloon in Green River and she also knew well enough what a man went there for. What an idiot she had been; she had lounged about in her drawers in front of him and permitted him to see her half-naked - she had stoked the fire then sent him off to quench the flame with another woman! Jemimah had allowed herself to believe that she should be that woman one day; that his love would belong to her alone. And now she ached to think that he was giving all that could be hers to someone who didn't even know him.
Her misery gradually morphed into a sullen anger and she mulled over something Lulu had said to her that day.
"You're too soft," she had teased Jemimah. "Sure, you think you're growed up but you ain't got the first notion of what it takes. Honey child, you would never last five minutes at the Dove an' Garter; it takes a woman of experience to handle herself in a place like that! A woman... with a certain jerno say quaa."
Then Johnny's remark drifted back, "Until you get y'self some female doo-dads, it don't matter what God gave you - ain't no-one ever goin' to take the trouble to find out when it's wrapped in a pair of boy's coveralls!"
Jemimah glared at the darkness. "Right Johnny Lancer! I'll show you I can be feminine; you'll see!"
Teresa was humming happily to herself as she set the table. The jingle of Johnny's spurs announced his arrival and she looked up with a ready smile.
"Oh good, you're here. I put fresh towels in the bath house ready and there's plenty of hot water. You'd better get going," she instructed.
Johnny strolled casually in and immediately began to fiddle with the nearest knife lying on the snowy white tablecloth.
"What's the hurry? I told you I'd be back an' there's over an hour before supper." He breathed on the blade of the knife and then polished it on the dusty leg of his pants.
Teresa clicked her tongue impatiently and snatched the cutlery from his fingers. "I want everything to be perfect, you know that! Scott said he wanted this to be a real special occasion and it's going to be. Now, go on with you!" She shooed him out into the hall, wafting her apron at him.
"Alright, alright, I'm goin'! I ain't one of your chickens, y'know!" Johnny's wide smile belied his injured tone.
He had only just turned the corner, heading towards the kitchen, when she called him back. His handsome head peeked around the doorway.
"Johnny, I put a big, new cake of soap in there too," she began. "Be sure to use it!" Teresa wrinkled her nose with a pointed grimace and then sniggered at his wounded expression.
Teresa and Maria's work on this special evening had plunged the whole Lancer household into a state of semi-chaos over the last two days but, as the family sat down at the table, they all had to agree it had been worth the upheaval.
Teresa's efforts on the table and centrepiece (a wide dish of lilies and tiny squat candles floating in rosewater) were most impressive and were duly exclaimed over. Mike, her fiancÚ, gave her hand a little congratulatory squeeze as he drew back her chair for her.
Jemimah had gone some way to putting herself back into Murdoch's good graces by making neat little place cards and, in the main, staying out of trouble while the preparations were in full swing.
And now, Zee and the Widow Hargis were seated with the family - guests of honour - and everyone had eaten their fill of Maria's excellent meal. There was an expectant buzz in the air so, when Scott rose from his chair and tapped delicately at his wine glass, they instantly fell silent.
Scott seemed uncharacteristically nervous. The sudden hush and every eye fixed upon him was, for a moment, overwhelming. Then he glanced down at the young woman by his side.
Zee was smiling up at him with undisguised admiration. Her long dark hair was pinned elegantly up and her gown, a rich peacock blue, showed off her smooth shoulders and soft skin to perfection. The tiny gold dragonfly brooch was pinned over her heart. She looked every inch a lady but the tall young man at her side wasn't fooled. As if to confirm his thoughts, a stray curl slipped from its pin and kinked over her neat little ear. He smiled. She had changed a lot; grown up he supposed but she still had a wilful, headstrong streak and, in truth, it was this which drew him to her.
She winked naughtily up at him and he couldn't help but grin. No, life with Zee Cooper would never be dull.
He reached out to take hold of her hand and then faced his family who still waited.
"I guess it's no secret how this beautiful lady and I feel about each other. I know speculation has been rife for the last few weeks... well, maybe months would be more accurate..."
"Try years, son," Murdoch said softly and flashed his oldest a warm smile.
Scott's laughter echoed that of the people sitting around the table. "Yes, alright, Murdoch - I don't suppose we can be accused of rushing in where angels fear to tread," he agreed. "But... we wanted you all here tonight... you all should know that... that is to say... well..." He was becoming tongue-tied again.
"Scott Lancer, will you spit it out!" the Widow suddenly piped up. "At this rate, the poor girl will be as grey as I am before she makes it down the aisle!"
Amid much laughter, Scott drew Zee to her feet and placed his arm around her waist. "I want you all to be the first to know - four nights ago, I asked Zee to marry me..." He turned to her, blue eyes shimmering with the strength of his feeling for her. As if from nowhere, he suddenly produced a ring and, taking her left hand gently in his, slipped it onto her third finger. "And I am the luckiest man alive because she said yes."
In the whooping, clapping and cheering that followed, Scott and Zee heard hardly one word. They were wrapped in each other's arms, unashamedly absorbed in a kiss that delighted the entire family.
In no time, Champagne had been produced and Maria had joined them from where she had been watching at the door. Teresa was brushing away happy tears and embracing Zee, already prattling about antique lace, flowers and wedding gowns. The Widow, who couldn't have been prouder if she had been the real mother of the bride, sniffled happily into her handkerchief and planted kisses on anyone fool enough to venture too close. Jelly, after being so honoured, managed to escape and, thereafter, kept out of her reach. Johnny slapped his big brother on the back and exuberantly lifted Jemimah into his arms to twirl her giddily as she shrieked with glee.
And, amidst all this wild elation, Murdoch approached his son and, clasping his hand in his, found he was too choked up to offer the congratulations and good wishes which filled his heart. Instead, father and son smiled self-consciously, eyes suspiciously damp, then spontaneously threw their arms around each other, hugging for all they were worth.
If the gathering found this at all unusual, they refrained from commenting however there were a few misty eyes conspicuous when the two men drew apart.
Murdoch moved to Zee's side. "Welcome to the family, my dear. I... I just couldn't be happier."
Zee grinned and followed the widow's example, kissing Murdoch soundly on the cheek and linking her arm through his. "I just hope you can still say that after the wedding," she laughed. "I've heard these shindigs can prove kinda trying; so much to do an' plan... you might all be sorry Scott popped the question once the work starts!"
Scott's arm scooped her towards him. "Not likely. Here at Lancer, we're old hands at organising these kind of fandangos, aren't we, Johnny?"
"Sure we are. We can deck out the barn with some of them Chinese lanterns an' ribbons an' fancies!" He laughed at Teresa and the Widow who were looking positively scandalised. "An' Jelly's got a goose we can cook up... have us a fine ol' time!"
"Ain't nobody cooking up Dewdrop so you can jest forget that idea! Why, I never heard of such a hare-brained..." Jelly chuntered indignantly.
"An' what about me?" Jemimah asked. "What am I going to do?" The girl had visions of a long flowing gown and sprinklings of Baby's Breath in her hair, piled high in elaborate ringlets as she followed Zee down the aisle in her role as bridesmaid... with Johnny as Best Man, waiting for her at the altar.
They had by now congregated by the fireplace and the widow patted the vacant cushion at her side on the sofa. "My dear, you will make the perfect flower girl."
"Flower girl?" Jemimah was distracted for a moment. She was attempting to help herself to one of the glasses of Champagne which Maria was handing around but, each time, Murdoch had determinedly steered her away from the tray. "What's a flower girl? What do they do?"
"Oh, they have a most important job," the widow wittered on and Jemimah got the impression she was being patronised. "They get all dressed up in ribbons and lace and they walk ahead of the bride, scattering petals down the aisle to sweeten her path." She patted Jemimah's dark head.
"Hmph! Well, I ain't doin' that! Sounds like a baby thing to me!"
"Jemimah, be nice." Murdoch's voice was low but there was no mistaking the warning note and the girl subsided.
"We were hopin' you might be persuaded to sing at the wedding, Jemimah," Zee jumped in quickly. "Scott says you have a lovely voice."
Jemimah blushed. "I'm alright I s'pose."
An arm swooped around her shoulders and, next thing, Jemimah found herself tugged onto Johnny's lap and he was pinning her so that she couldn't wriggle away - not that she had any notion of such a thing! "Better than alright! You'd never believe it to look at her, would you, ma'am? But this little tyke has the voice of an angel." He tickled Jemimah around the waist and, though she knew she was too old to be acting like this with company present, she collapsed against him in helpless giggles.
The widow looked somewhat perturbed by the boisterous play but spoke out. "Is that so? Voice of an angel, eh? Child, if that's so, you ought to be in the church choir!"
"Choir?" Jemimah stopped giggling long enough to look askance at the old lady, her expression ably telling everyone that the thought of joining the group was as appealing as haemorrhoids! "Ain't joining any damn... ouch!"
She jumped and rubbed furiously at her ear which Johnny, now smiling serenely, had just neatly boxed for her. "Why don't you give the widow a song, honey?" His voice held a warning note too and he leaned close to whisper in her other ear. "Play nice, y'hear?"
A defiant glint sparked in the young girl's eye.
"Yes, Jemimah," Scott smiled down at her. "Please do. I've been boasting about you to Zee for weeks."
The others added their voices to the entreaty and Jemimah, green eyes gleaming wickedly, stood up and moved in front of the empty fireplace. She clasped her hands neatly before her, the very image of innocence.
Murdoch's eyes narrowed warily.
"Alright. I don't know if you lot will know this one. It was right popular back home when I was there an' I reckon it's fitting for an engagement party 'cos it's all about a man who gets married." She looked at the expectant faces. "It's got a really easy chorus so, when I've sung it once, you can all join in if you like." She cleared her throat ceremoniously and smoothed down her skirts.
"What is the name of the piece, child?" the widow asked.
Jemimah glanced at her father. "It's called It's a Shame!"
With no further ado, she opened her mouth and, in a clear sweet voice, started to sing.
I've lost my pal, he's the best in all the town,
But don't you think him dead because he ain't.
But, since he's wed he's had to knuckle down
It's enough to wax the temper of a saint!
He's a brewer's drayman with a leg o' mutton fist
An' as strong as a bullock or an 'orse
Yet in her hands he's like a little kid -
Oh, I wish as I could get him a divorce.
It's a great big shame an' if she belonged to me
I'd let her know who's who.
Nagging at a fella what is six foot three
An' her not four foot two!
Oh, they hadn't been married not a month or more
When underneath her thumb goes Jim -
Isn't it a pity as the likes of her
Should put upon the likes of him?
By now, the widow had her handkerchief clasped to her mouth in shock. Johnny was leaning his chin on his hand and staring fixedly at the rug. He was sure, if he looked up and caught anyone's eye, he'd bust a gut laughing. Jemimah too was smirking as she carried on with her performance.
Now Jim was class - he could sing a decent song
And at scrappin' he had won some great renown.
It took two coppers for to make him move along
And another six to hold the fella down.
But today when I asked would he come an' have a beer
To the doorstep on tip-toe he arrives,
'I daren't,' says he, 'Don't shout 'cos she'll hear
An' I've got to clean the windows an' the knives!'
Widow Hargis gasped audibly and Murdoch began to splutter a weak apology, privately thinking that he could do with a healthy dose of that instant gratification that only came from vigorously applying his hand to his errant daughter's rear-end.
The thing that saved Jemimah was Zee's own voice chiming in as she tried to sing along with the chorus.
It's a great big shame an' if she belonged to me
I'd let her know who's who.....
Everyone turned in surprise, including Jemimah. Zee was loving her song and, by the time the second chorus was done, Scott was laughing; Johnny was giggling helplessly and Teresa was making a very poor job of feigning disgust with Mike who had sung the last two lines with the ladies.
On a Sunday morn, with a dozen pals or more,
He'd play at pitch an' toss along the Lea;
But now she bullies him a scrubbin' at the floor -
Such a change I never did see.
With his apron on him, I twigged him on his knees -
A rubbin' up the old hearth stone
What with emptying the ashes and a shellin' of the peas,
I'm blowed if he can call his self his own!
The final chorus found everyone joining in, even Murdoch. The widow didn't sing but she removed her handkerchief from over her mouth and pretended to conduct them all for the last few lines.
In the initial silence, Jemimah searched her father's face for any sign that he might be angry but instead she glimpsed the twinkle in his eye as Zee swooped down on her, hugging her in a delighted and exuberant embrace.
"That was wonderful! I loved it!" she chortled. "Oh Scott, she should sing that at the wedding!"
Scott's smile slipped a little and he patted his bride-to-be on the shoulder. "We'ell, maybe we can find something a little more romantic," he hedged.
"What did you say to Jemimah?"
Johnny looked up from his breakfast in surprise. "When?"
Teresa poured another cup of coffee for him and then moved to fill Scott's cup as well. "Well, I don't know but it sure had an effect!"
Scott sipped at his coffee and reached to add a dash of cream. "Why? What is she doing?"
The three men looked at Teresa who was sitting down at the table, an amused smile lighting up her face.
"You should see her - last night she went to bed with her hair in rags and, this morning, she's putting it all up in fancy curls and ringlets." Teresa enjoyed the astonishment her announcement had caused. "Really! It looks amazing; very elegant but then she always has had beautiful hair."
Murdoch regarded his younger son. "Whatever you said, I'm glad to hear it's made that young lady think about tidying herself up some. About time she did something with her appearance. I was beginning to think we'd have to prise her out of those overalls."
"I think she's experimenting for the wedding," Teresa said.
"Well, she has plenty of time to perfect it, whatever she's trying... the wedding's not for a few months yet. We already talked about it and we decided to get the apartment finished and that contract signed with the army before we think about settling on a date. Then there's the Cattle Growers' conference in November." Scott wiped his mouth on his napkin and started to rise from his chair.
"You wanna watch you don't keep that gal of yours waitin' too long, Scott. She might change her mind!" Johnny also rose to his feet and, grinning, gave his brother a playful backhander to his middle.
"Don't rush me, don't rush me," Scott replied. "I've only just got engaged. Let me get used to the idea of losing my freedom before you carry me off to church!"
Murdoch chuckled. "Son, I don't think anyone could ever accuse you of rushing things."
"Zee's happy, Murdoch and that's what matters to me. She'll let me know if she thinks we're dragging our feet."
"That's for darn sure!" Johnny laughed and, tucking in his red shirt, headed for the hall to collect his hat and rig.
Upstairs in her room, Jemimah studied her reflection critically in the glass. Her arms ached after spending so long pinning up the elaborate curls and coils but the effect was stunning - that was for sure!
The dark mass was lifted from her face, coiled up at the back and the loose ends tumbled down in a cascade of springy ringlets. She looked most elegant and, Jemimah was pleased to note, much older.
There, Johnny Lancer! How's that for feminine?!
The girl rose from her stool, her thoughts returning instantly to the night before. She had entered the kitchen to find both Scott and Johnny, decked out in their 'finery' and obviously ready for an evening on the town.
"Teresa, you're a wonder!" Johnny exclaimed and twirled the young woman around. "I can't believe you managed to mend the rip in this shirt an' you know it's my favourite! I can't even see where it was torn no more."
He was grinning and showing the sleeve to Scott who agreed that the stitches were almost invisible.
Teresa pointed to Jemimah and smiled, "It isn't me you should be thanking, Johnny; this one was all Jemimah's work. She's getting to be quite the little seamstress!"
Johnny ceased dancing Teresa across the kitchen tiles and his brows lifted in surprise. "That right? You did this?"
Jemimah blushed. "Don't look so surprised! I have learned something useful y'know, besides how to position one's bustle an' hoops so that one can sit down at the table without showing one's bloomers."
Johnny had chuckled at her surly remark. The kid never missed a chance to complain about her classes with Sour Apple but Murdoch was calling the tune and there was no way she was getting out of them. He slung his arm around her and gave her an affectionate squeeze. "Well, I'm real grateful, honey. This is my lucky shirt. I wouldn't feel right hittin' town on a Friday night in anythin' else!"
"Yes, you've done a beautiful job there, sweetheart," Scott chimed in. "And I, for one, thank you from the bottom of my heart. At least now I don't have to listen to my brother complaining that he doesn't have his lucky red shirt!"
"Aw heck, I wasn't complainin'."
"Johnny, you know very well that you would have blamed your luck with the cards on the lack of the shirt and if the beer was too warm or the right girl wasn't available, that would have been the shirt's fault too!"
Johnny glanced meaningfully at Jemimah. "You mean, the girl who serves behind the bar, don't you?"
Scott took the hint. "Of course... Mabel, that's her name isn't it? Real pleasant girl. Very good at... pouring drinks."
Jemimah had rolled her eyes. Honestly, they were ridiculous! Did they actually think she didn't know what girls in a saloon did for their money? However, the realisation that this was where the boys were headed and that her work on the red shirt had enabled Johnny to more than likely end up canoodling with one of the hussies... Jemimah's scowl deepened. It was like adding insult to injury!
Johnny's fleeting kiss to the crown of her head did nothing to dispel the gloom either. As she watched the two men head out for their night with the ladies, Jemimah had determined to pay a call on Lulu regarding the little matter they had discussed. It was about time she proved, if only to her friend and to herself, that she could be feminine and attractive. If she had known that Johnny was also paying a call on Lulu later that very night, his second visit that week, she would have terminated the acquaintance forthwith and things may have played out rather differently.
Jemimah was starting to despair. Nearly a year had gone by since Trudy passed and she was beginning to lose hope that Johnny might ever see her as a woman grown. She knew in her heart that they could be so much more to each other. Over the last few months, their relationship had changed but not sufficiently for Jemimah. Sure, he no longer acted the big brother as Scott did and had ceased whomping her whenever she failed to dance to the Lancer tune but he still teased her like she was a baby and seemed to expect her to be a little girl in short skirts and pigtails forever.
Well, Johnny Lancer, all that was about to change! Today was the day! Covering her elaborate hairstyle with a flimsy shawl, Jemimah skipped downstairs and called through to the kitchen that she was going to see Sofia and ask her opinion. Maria did not look up from her cooking but waved absently.
Jemimah often rode down the lane to the cottage where the young Mexican girl lived with her parents and siblings. The two girls were regularly seen about the homestead together and Maria (though she said nothing) suspected it had been Sofia who had pierced Jemimah's ears the year before. They were as thick as thieves but this was no bad thing. Sofia was a good girl, who obeyed her parents implicitly, and could only be a positive influence on Jemimah.
Perhaps, had Jemimah truly been setting off to see her young friend, there would have been no problem but she was actually headed in entirely the opposite direction.
Jemimah mounted up onto Amiga and pointed the sturdy little pony towards Spanish Wells. A nagging doubt about the prudence of what she was contemplating pricked at her but she shrugged it away as though it were a mere pesky insect. Yes, she had told a lie and, yes, her family would be far from happy to find out her true intentions but Jemimah couldn't see how they would possibly discover her deception. She could be home before it was late and they would have no cause to doubt that she had stayed for supper with Sofia and her family; it was something she had done many a time before.
By the time she reached the town and hitched Amiga outside the jail, any lingering qualms Jemimah might have had faded away to be replaced with an escalating excitement. She slipped across the street and darted down the side of the widow's store. Then, trotting along the back streets, she quickly made her way to the alleyway which ran down the side of the dance hall. As arranged, the door at the top of the back stairs was ajar and, just as she started to run up the steps, Lulu's head poked around, grinning at the sight of her little friend.
She reached out to grasp her hand and, giggling, the two girls nipped inside. Lulu tugged Jemimah behind her, along the narrow corridor to her room.
"I thought you wasn't comin', honey," the blonde gasped breathlessly. "I wondered if you'd have the nerve to really go through with it. Guess I shoulda' known better."
Jemimah grinned, shedding her shawl to reveal her hair and laughing delightedly at Lulu's appreciative whistle. "What d'you think?"
"Oh, that's real pretty," she cooed, gently fingering the ringlets. "Those ol' boys are in fer a real treat. Why, they'll be lining up to dance with you." Lulu, settled her own thin robe more comfortably on her shoulders. Jemimah eyed it with not a little distaste; it was tatty and in need of laundering. Now that she came to look at her, Lulu herself looked like she could do with a bit of a scrub. Her eyes were smudged with dark make-up which she hadn't removed from the night before and her camisole and drawers had a distinctly greyish tinge. Following her gaze, Lulu blushed and gathered the robe more tightly about herself. "I ain't had time yet to attend to my toilette," she protested. "Unlike you, I have to work 'til late so I need my beauty sleep. I only got up a few minutes ago."
A few minutes ago? That was some beauty sleep; it was already close to two in the afternoon. Lulu's expression was offended and Jemimah cast aside the disloyal thoughts. Naturally, her friend wouldn't wish to get up at the crack of dawn as they did on the ranch. Besides, there was something positively decadent and sinful about lying abed so late in the day and Jemimah was disposed to be suitably impressed by anything the older girl did.
"Well now, let's get you outta them pants and dolly you up. You gotta look the part!"
Jemimah hesitantly began to shed her clothing and, once she was down to her underwear, paused uncertainly. Lulu smirked and shook her head.
"Oh honey, they won't do at all!" she tittered.
"What won't do?"
"Why, them drawers! They's far too... young for the Dove and Garter. You want the men folk to know you're only a baby?"
"I'm not a baby!"
"Course you ain't, honey but with your daddy still buying your clothes..."
"Murdoch does not buy my clothes; Teresa does."
Lulu sniffed derisively. "I shoulda' knowed. There's another one who thinks she's the Virgin Mary!" Both girls sniggered wickedly. "Nah, you have to dress a little more allurin' for the fellas who come here. Look, I got somethin' that'll do!"
With that, Lulu rummaged in a box at the foot of her bed, murmuring to herself and casting aside the things she didn't want into a jumbled heap. Craning to see, Jemimah curled her lip uncertainly. The garments inside were also far from snowy white and they were very wrinkled. Maria would never have permitted her clothes to be put away in that state. At last, Lulu turned triumphantly, some off-white under garments clutched in her hand. She winked at Jemimah. "Alright, honey, get 'em off!"
Some time later, Jemimah stared at herself in the cracked mirror. She barely recognised her own reflection.
The drawers she was wearing were very short, reaching a good four inches above her knees. The lace at the hem was deep but frayed. She had red stockings on - something which shocked even Jemimah with her sense of daring. Red stockings! She gulped. If Murdoch could see her now... An involuntary shiver ran down her spine. The ribboned garters had tiny black rosettes. But it was the camisole which truly worried the girl.
Unlike her usual demure underwear, it was of a sheer stuff that was at once exciting and downright disgraceful. Jemimah hardly dared look at the effect. Both her breasts were clearly visible through it; why, she may as well have gone naked from the waist up!
"Lulu...I... I don't think..." she stammered.
"Well I do!" The blonde turned Jemimah back to the mirror with a lascivious grin. "An' this is next!"
She commenced to encase the younger girl's ribcage in a satiny corset of a lilac hue. Only when she was satisfied that Jemimah's already slender waist was pinched in to its tiniest, did Lulu finally tie the laces that bound her.
Jemimah gaped. The corset had a dual effect; her waist had become so small that her hips seemed more rounded and her bottom more curved but it was the difference it made to her chest that astounded the girl. Her breasts were now somehow pushed together and lifted so that her cleavage was enhanced. She looked far more womanly than she had dreamed possible. If she could learn how to breathe in one of these torturous devices, she might just get into the habit of wearing one more often. Jemimah grinned. What would Johnny do if he could see her now?
"Yes, I thought you'd like it," Lulu smirked knowingly, leaning over Jemimah's shoulder to watch her green eyes lighting up. "Now, your face."
"My face? What's up with my face?"
Lulu clicked her tongue impatiently and beckoned her over to the dresser where a multitude of jars and boxes awaited. "You'll see."
Much later, Jemimah again checked her reflection in the glass and no longer knew herself. Her eyes were outlined in heavy black, smudged so that they had a smoky appearance. When she had demurred, Lulu had waved aside her protests and proceeded to powder her cheeks then apply rouge. She followed that with a peculiar-tasting red paste on her lips. There was no way any of her family would recognise her now, not that they were going to see her. Jemimah giggled. This was more fun than she had supposed.
Finally, Lulu opened the rickety battered old closet and swished out a rose-coloured dress of a sheeny taffeta. Like its counterparts underneath, it had seen better days but Jemimah was so giddy she hardly noticed the tiny rips and fraying hem. What she did notice, however, was its length and the fact that the bodice was virtually non-existent and left her shoulders bare. Tugging vainly to ease it down to mid-shin only resulted in the neckline dipping dangerously below her breasts.
"Blimey, Lulu! There ain't much to this dress, is there? I mean... it's got hardly any top to it an' the skirt's so short there's hardly any bottom to it. In fact, it's more like a belt than a dress! You sure this is what I'm supposed to wear? I don't want Sheriff Gabe to arrest me!"
Lulu sighed and carried on buttoning Jemimah into the tight bodice. The girl's bosom, thrust upwards by the corset and fairly straining against the flimsy filmy cloth of the camisole, was practically bursting out of the top of the dress. Jemimah gasped, both from the restriction of the corset and, her face burning, with embarrassment.
"So, let's go over it again... the dare is that I stay an hour? I have to dance and talk to the customers, right?"
Lulu nodded though her brown eyes were sly and she avoided Jemimah's questioning gaze. "That's right, honey. Barney, he's the barman, he's new here so won't know who you are. He'll just think you're one of the girls. He ain't met all of us yet so he'll never know any different."
Jemimah smiled. Encased in the tight dress, she marvelled at her transformation. Cop for that, Johnny Lancer; if you could only see me now, you'd swallow them words about who's feminine and who ain't!
Jemimah tried not to trip over her own feet as she made her way down the stairs. The buttoned boots that Lulu had fetched from one of the other girls were a couple of sizes too big and the heel was far higher than anything she had worn before. She felt like a little girl playing dress-up with her mother's clothes except for the fact that the dress was far too small. Jemimah's stomach was rolling but she assured herself that it was down to the restrictive stays and not the fact that, in only a few minutes, the doors would open and, for the next hour, she would be expected to smile, talk and dance with a bunch of strange men. She was glad of the nip of brandy that Lulu had foisted on her before they came down.
They wandered over to the corner. The other ladies, in on the dare, winked at Jemimah and whispered to each other. The burly barkeep, sullenly polishing glasses on the other side of the bar, eyed her silently before crossing to the double doors and unlocking them. Jemimah plastered a smile on her face and reminded herself to breathe.
She was losing track of time. Surely, she'd been here nearly an hour? But, when she glanced pointedly across to Lulu, the girl blithely ignored her pleading look and, draped over the man whose knee she was almost lying on, began to giggle. The evening had gone alright in the main. Jemimah was nervous and not in the least enjoying being leered at, pawed and breathed on by some of the sweaty cowboys. Lulu had said they would just expect her to dance and be sociable; she'd never said they would feel that they had the right to openly gape down her top or allow their wandering hands to fondle her legs or pinch her rump! There were one or two well-dressed men in the main room now though and Jemimah was surprised to recognise a couple of respectable community members among them (Mr Howard, the bank manager and Mr Dobbs, a partner in the law firm used by Murdoch). She had frozen in shock when they sauntered in and was worried they might recognise her but, of course, in her outrageous outfit and with her hair up and face painted, she had blended in.
A young man in a dove grey suit, who she had noticed eyeing her up from the other side of the room, smilingly raised his glass in her direction. Jemimah nodded once in return then immediately regretted it when he sauntered over.
"Evening, lil' missy," he drawled softly, grey eyes drinking in her pretty face and pert little body tightly wrapped in the rose-coloured gown. "Would you permit me to buy you a drink?"
Jemimah fancied a tall, cool lemonade but knew there would be nothing of the kind available and so she merely smiled and allowed the man to offer his arm, leading her over to the bar. So what if he might expect a dance from her - that was nowt! She sipped at the beer which was plunked down before her. This was easy! She'd have a drink, smile a lot and not say much. Men didn't like gabby women anyway. Then surely by the time she'd had her dance with this one, the hour would be up and Lulu would help her get upstairs to change so that she could slip out the back way and ride home.
Thinking of Lulu, she turned to scan the room for the blonde. She frowned. Lulu was nowhere to be seen. Though, Jemimah smirked to herself, the girl had been knocking back the beers; maybe she'd been taken short and had to run to the privy. No, she was definitely no longer at the far table with the big man. Jemimah narrowed her green eyes, becoming worried. The customer Lulu had been with was nowhere to be seen either. Just as she turned to cast her eye over the other side of the room, peering through the cigar smoke, a group of men wandered in through the double doors. They were deep in conversation and smiling at some shared joke.
Jemimah spun around quickly, panic gripping her so that she almost knocked over her glass in her agitation. Scott, Johnny, Walt and JosÚ! What in god's name were they doing here? When they hit the town on a Saturday night, she thought they always went to the saloon in Green River. Oh, this just wasn't fair! She risked a sneaky peek over her shoulder and spotted them sitting at a table in the corner and ordering drinks.
Jemimah tried to breathe. Keeping her back to the Lancer group, she gulped at her beer and almost choked. Coughing and spluttering, the tears springing to her eyes, she endeavoured to choke as discreetly as possible. The result was that the young man she was with began to slap her on the back and create even more of a fuss.
"What's wrong, lil' missy? Beer go down the wrong way?" Her companion noticed her surreptitious glances over her shoulder and craned around to discover what she found so fascinating. "What you lookin' at?"
"Someone just came in that I'd like to avoid."
The young man grinned. "Well, you shoulda' said before! I know just the place - you can avoid everyone."
Seizing her enthusiastically by the hand, he tugged her across the room. On the way to the stairs, they had to pass the table where Scott and Johnny were now sitting. There was no way for Jemimah to avoid it but she averted her head and contrived to tuck herself in close to the man. Smiling from ear to ear, he slung an arm around her waist, his hand grasping a firm hold of her bustle. Jemimah squeaked; they were passing right behind Scott and she prayed that he wouldn't turn around.
The young man and the petite dark girl were almost halfway up the stairs when Scott paused and looked over his shoulder. "Johnny, that girl look familiar to you?"
"What? Which girl?"
Scott pointed up the stairs just in time to see the man leading the young girl into a room then the door was closed. They were only afforded a brief glimpse of the side of the girl's face, the mass of dark curls... but it was enough for both men to stiffen in shock.
Johnny and Scott looked at each other for a few seconds then leaped up from their table, telling a bewildered Walt and JosÚ that they would only be a minute. Suspicion and worry mounting, they headed up to the first floor.
"It wasn't... I mean, it couldn't have been..." Scott doubted his own eyes. "I am wrong, aren't I?"
Johnny's eyes were fixed on the closed door ahead. "I sure hope so."
Almost at the top of the staircase, their way was blocked by one of the girls. She was tittering drunkenly and quite obviously leading a well-satisfied customer back down. About to sidle past, Johnny was halted by the whore who stumbled against him, resting her hands on his chest.
"Why, if it ain't Johnny Lancer!" she purred, running her little pink tongue suggestively across her lips.
Johnny was so intent on his quest that he threw the girl an impatient glance and removed her from his path. "Lulu."
"I have to say I am highly flattered to see you back here again, sir and, if'n you can wait a while until I see my gentleman caller downstairs (she giggled daintily at her joke), I'd be pleased to accommodate you again... right gladly." Lulu ended her little speech with a drunken hiccup and a wobble which threw her against Johnny once more.
Johnny had more pressing things on his mind and was in no mood to repeat their liaison. Actually, in the light of day and without the benefit of any Tequila, he wondered what on earth he had found appealing in the girl. Her two front teeth were crooked, her plentiful make-up smudged and smeared on her skin and she had a general 'used' quality about her.
The man behind her looked far from amused at this interruption to his evening and was further irked when Scott grasped Lulu firmly by the elbow.
"Lulu, did my eyes deceive me or did I just see our little sister being led into that room by one of the customers?" Scott demanded urgently.
Lulu lowered her eyes but couldn't hold back the wicked snigger. Blue eyes bright with sudden anger, Scott gripped Lulu more firmly and gave her a little shake. Her companion did not take too kindly to this further interference and showed his displeasure by shoving Scott back with a large meaty hand.
Scott firmed his lips and attempted to explain. "Look friend, before you get all..."
"I ain't your friend, blondie!" the fellow countered with a leer. "Now, take your hands off've the lady before..."
Scott felt they had wasted enough time; if Jemimah was behind that door, alone with a man, they needed to get up there to help her. He drew back his arm and, fist clenched, aimed a punch at the belligerent cowboy. Sadly, it never connected or that could have been the finish of a legendary fight even before it had even begun. The beefy cowpoke raised an arm the size of a side of beef, effectively blocking Scott's punch and, at the same time, he landed a mean right hook to Scott's jaw, sending him toppling over the banister to crash down into the middle of the sedate poker game beneath.
With a wild roar, the man launched himself after his quarry, blood boiling and ready for a fight.
Johnny leaned over the remains of the wooden banister to check on his brother but, seeing him stagger to his feet, shake himself then launch a counter attack on the bigger opponent, he turned back to Lulu.
"Tell me, was it her?"
Lulu, worse for the drink, frowned and shook herself loose of his urgent grip. "You were a lot more of a gentleman last night, Johnny Lancer. I ain't sure..." She gasped as his hands gripped her hard and shook her.
"Was it Jemimah?" he ground out, a dangerous blue fire gleaming in his eyes.
"It was just a dare; she weren't meant to go upstairs with any of the gentlemen, dumb kid," Lulu wailed, frightened into rare honesty. Johnny was scaring her; she had never seen this side of the man before. "It was a joke, Johnny! That's all! I didn't think the kid would have the guts to show up here in the first place an' it was kinda funny watchin' her with the customers..."
Lulu whimpered and stumbled into the jagged banister as Johnny thrust her aside, charging up the stairs two at a time.
"You ain't no gentleman, Johnny Lancer!" she spat after him. Then, smoothing her crumpled dress, she flopped down onto the stair and dazedly grinned through the spindles at the pandemonium below, any thoughts of Jemimah already fading into insignificance.
Johnny burst through the door, sending it slamming back into the wall with a terrific bang. He stood on the threshold, eyes quickly taking in the scene before him and a turmoil of emotions warring inside.
The two occupants of the room had frozen and stood now like some kind of life-size diorama. To Johnny's immense relief, they were far apart; on opposite sides of the room, the big brass bed between them. As he took in more details, however, the back of his neck grew hot and, taking in Jemimah's state, a cold fury settled over him.
Her dress, such as it was, was now in a puddle on the bare boards. She stood, in only her corset, drawers and some practically non-existent kind of chemise. Johnny drew in a sharp breath. Her breasts were almost completely exposed. Her hair was in disarray as though she had been in a tussle but, perhaps most shocking of all was what she was holding in her hands. Blazing mad, her green eyes wild and panting as though she had recently been exerting herself, she was aiming a pistol at the young man who was clearly about to try to take it off her. How she had been deprived of her dress Johnny didn't know nor did he want to - his focus was on getting Jemimah safely out and back to Lancer.
"What you want, mister? This room's taken!" The man (not much more than a boy, Johnny reckoned, in his early twenties and probably a little under six foot, slim build but wiry) scowled at the intruder then turned his attention back to the girl... and the gun, cocked and pointed at him.
"I don't want no trouble; I've just come for the girl," Johnny's voice was soft, unthreatening.
"And you think you're just goin to take her, just like that?" the man laughed humourlessly and shook his head. "I saw her first! You can fuck off and find your own girl... I already paid for this little darlin' and I ain't in no hurry so we could be busy all night! Now, there's the door - close it behind you."
Jemimah gasped and saw the anger flare in Johnny's eyes.
"He's done nothing of the kind! He hasn't paid me anythin' an' I wouldn't have taken it anyway, Johnny, I swear!"
"I paid the guy downstairs an' I bought you a drink, didn't I?" the stranger argued.
Johnny glared at her and she swallowed.
" I only had a tiny sip, Johnny, honest!"
Johnny held out his hand to her. "We're leavin!"
Not at all happy with this idea, the man stepped forwards, perhaps intending to prevent the girl from joining the man she called Johnny. He opened his mouth to protest but, before he could utter a word, Johnny turned and drew his gun quicker than anything the young man had ever seen. He stumbled back, gaping at the second pistol to be aimed at him that night.
Johnny, his eyes calmly trained on the trembling boy, reached out and grasped Jemimah roughly by the arm, pulling her towards him and uttering a furious curse when her breast peeked out of her chemise at the simple movement. He scooped up the dress and shoved it at her in disgust.
"Give him back his gun!"
"He ain't gonna shoot me, are you, boy?" Johnny could tell that the man had seen enough and was more than eager to relinquish Jemimah. "He wants to get laid - he don't want to die! An' I got no problem with that long as he picks another girl." This was all said to the boy who gulped audibly and managed to nod his head in agreement, wiping his sweating palms down the legs of his pants.
Jemimah uncocked the gun and tossed it past the quivering man and onto the bed. Johnny manoeuvred her out onto the landing and slammed the door shut behind them. Keeping Jemimah close to his side, he progressed to the top of the stairs. The door behind them had stayed closed and so he put away his Colt.
The fight was now in full swing below them. Shouts and the din of furniture being thrown and smashed filled the air. The player piano was still plonking away merrily in the background despite being crashed into several times by some fellow who had been punched or shoved from the main body of the fight. Two whores were standing on a table in the middle of it all, shrieking gleefully and swiping with empty bottles at any bodies which came near enough. As they watched from above, one of the whores was grabbed around the legs and flung over the shoulder of a cowboy who she had tried to crown. They disappeared into the melee.
"Is that Scott?... an Walt?... an... "
Johnny answered grimly. "Yep! Boy, can you cause trouble!"
"Hang on! What's this got to do with me? I was..."
Before she could argue any more, Johnny nudged her down the stairs, past Lulu who was now completely unconscious, an empty bottle still in her hand, and towards the double doors.
In the midst of the madness, Scott saw them and tried to make his way across but couldn't get past the man he was fighting. The big cowboy was determined to see Blondie out cold and wasn't about to let him leave the party so soon.
Johnny and Jemimah made it to the door, dodging flying chair legs and the occasional fist or boot. They were about to leave when the surly barkeep stepped into their path.
"And just where do you think you're takin her?" he growled at Johnny. "Our girls don't do private dances, not unless you'd care to take her upstairs?" He ran his eyes lewdly over Jemimah from top to bottom, lingering hungrily on her breasts. "I wouldn't blame you none; already had quite a few of the regulars askin' about her! If you wanna dip your wick, cowboy, it'll be three dollars." The big man leered lasciviously and held out his hand for the cash. Johnny grit his teeth and let fly with his fist, belting him in the mouth. The barkeep had a good forty pounds on his opponent though and, when he threw an answering punch, Johnny sailed backwards into the crowd.
Jemimah screamed. Then, witnessing Johnny crawl to his knees and groggily stand ready to wade back in there, decided to get in on the action too. Launching herself onto the barkeep's back, she snatched an empty bottle from one of the whores who was waving it around aimlessly and smashed it on the back of the man's head. As though swatting away a pestiferous stinging bug, he flapped at her and she tumbled head over heels onto the floor, ending up in an untidy heap, red-stockinged legs in the air. Shaking herself, she emitted a wild battle cry and charged in once more.
Johnny lost sight of her but was far too busy trying to fend off the barkeep to conduct a search. Knocked onto his backside again, he was glad of a hand pulling him up. Swaying, he turned to thank his good Samaritan only to find himself face to face with his brother.
"How you doin', Scott?" he shouted over the noise.
Scott scuffed his blond hair out of his eyes and clapped a hand on Johnny's shoulder. If he didn't know better, Johnny would say that his Boston-bred brother was enjoying himself.
"I'm hanging in there! You?"
Johnny winced and rubbed his jaw. "We oughtta get the kid out of here. You see her anywhere?"
Scott had no chance to reply; a table was tipped up, knocking both of them off their feet. Before they could scramble up again, the sudden unmistakable sound of a gunshot ripped through the room. Everything stopped. No-one moved or spoke. In the silence, all eyes turned to the doorway.
There stood Murdoch, gun held aloft. He held a very worried-looking Jemimah by the hand.
"Gentlemen, sorry to spoil the ..er.. party but I came here looking for my sons."
Johnny and Scott both staggered to their feet.
Murdoch regarded their dishevelled appearance. Scott had the makings of a black eye and Johnny's lip was split and already swelling. "Boys, we have a problem. It seems your younger sister is missing from home and I'm going to need your help to find her. You too Walt... JosÚ."
All four men struggled through the debris, wiping jaws and bloody noses. Walt winced and spat out a tooth.
Mr Dobbs, Murdoch's lawyer, approached from his hiding place in the corner. "If there's anything I can do, Mr Lancer. The poor child... do you have any idea where she might be?"
Murdoch patted the fat little man on the shoulder. "Thanks, Arnold. Yes..." He eyed Jemimah as she shrank back and tried to hide behind him. "I have a good idea where to find her. Scott... Johnny...? We'd best be making tracks."
Murdoch, still clutching his daughter firmly by the hand, turned to the doors but, again, the barman called out to stop him. "What do you think you're doing with that girl, mister?"
Johnny sighed. The man was like a dog with a bone but he'd find Murdoch a more troublesome adversary.
The big Scot glanced down at Jemimah as though only just realising he had her by the hand. Then he smiled charmingly at the barkeep who wasn't in the mood to swallow any charm.
"Oh, the young lady was just asking what was going to happen to my daughter when she is found. She seemed very worried about her," Murdoch explained.
"Ain't that nice but you ain't takin her outta here. She's got work to do."
Murdoch appeared to consider this for a moment then he chuckled, shaking his head. Ignoring the bar man, he smiled easily down at Jemimah. "Y'know, you look an awful lot like my daughter except that... of course, she's usually dressed a little... differently."
Jemimah hung her head, her cheeks burning. She crossed her arms over her chest in a belated effort to cover up. As Murdoch watched her, there was a shuffling among the men. One or two seemed to have picked up on the fact that the whore by his side was actually the missing daughter. There were murmurs of, 'Hey - isn't that his kid? I've seen her around town' 'That's her; that's Jemimah'.
"Gentlemen, my little girl means the world to me and her brothers," Murdoch announced to the ragged crowd. "There isn't anything we won't do to have her home safe where she belongs... but do you know what I'm going to do when I find her?... I'll show you!"
Eyes glinting and his pleasant smile replaced with a grim determined frown, he turned to her. Jemimah recognised that look and cowered away from him, realising that he was angrier than he appeared. However, before she could flee, Murdoch darted out a burly arm and caught hold of her wrist, heaving her back towards him to the general amusement of the men gathered there. She wriggled like a worm on the end of a hook and squealed.
"Daddy, don't!" Jemimah had a horrible feeling she was about to find herself upended right there and then.
However, as she was tugged inexorably to him, he ducked down and tipped her neatly over his shoulder, giving her one almighty slap to her scantily-clad rear end. There was general laughter and one or two cries of, 'Go to it! Give her what for!' Murdoch carted her out and the four bruised and battered Lancer men trooped out after him.
Murdoch deposited Jemimah in the wagon at his side and regarded her flintily. One look was enough to silence any excuses she may have been about to offer. Wisely, the girl hunched down, ashamed of herself, and she dared not speak or move all the long ride home.
It was almost totally dark when they finally trudged into the great room. Jemimah, trailing meekly after her father, had Scott's jacket around her but there was still no covering up the fact that she was dressed like a tart and showing just about everything she'd got. Johnny, Scott and Murdoch gathered near the desk; all three regarding her angrily.
Jemimah seemed to shrink before their very eyes. For once, she couldn't summon up the nerve to attempt to wheedle out of it so she didn't even try. She knew she was in major trouble, possibly the worst she had ever been in. Opening her mouth to speak, she flinched when Murdoch took a step forwards, holding up a hand to silence her.
"Get on up to bed," he ground out. "It's late. And be sure to wash that paint off your face!"
The young girl was wary and not sure whether to be relieved. She had been convinced she would be getting the licking of her life the minute they stepped in through the front door. Hesitantly, she turned away and went upstairs, darting a glance over her shoulder to check whether any of them was following.
Silent and grim, Murdoch crossed to the sideboard and poured them all a drink. Scott accepted his with an incredulous look, his eyes narrowed in disbelief.
"What is it, Scott?"
"You're not going up there too?"
"What for?" Murdoch studied his whiskey.
Astounded by his father's calm acceptance, Scott rose from his perch on the edge of the desk and pointed irately at the empty doorway through which Jemimah had just passed. "What for? Forgive me for pointing this out but I would say, at the very least, that girl would benefit from a damn good spanking!"
Murdoch shook his head and sat down wearily in one of the blue armchairs. He looked troubled and sad.
Suddenly, Johnny pushed up from where he was leaning against the bureau and strode off angrily towards the stairs.
"Johnny!"Murdoch shouted after him and Johnny turned.
"If you ain't gonna deal with her, Murdoch... then I will!"
"No, you won't."
Johnny paced back, furiously pointing to the stairs. "Didn't you see her? Didn't you see what she was wearing?"
"Almost wearing!" Scott put in.
"This ain't funny, Scott!"
"I'm not laughing!" Scott's expression was just as serious as his brother's. This different path of their father's was having a bad effect on the girl; it was time to revert to a short sharp shock! "Murdoch, she is getting out of control. Something like this may seem like just another of her pranks but you know as well as I that it could ruin her reputation; people talk! It may not matter to her now but, if she's going to have any chance of.... If you don't want to do it, sir, then Johnny and I will step in!"
"Reputation? That ain't all she nearly lost tonight! Murdoch, if we hadn't got her outta there... something's gotta be done!" Johnny's mind flicked back to the image of Jemimah, dressed in very little and holding a gun on a stranger hell-bent on depriving her of both the weapon... and her innocence. If he hadn't walked in when he did... Johnny blew out a sharp breath and smacked his hand angrily against his thigh. He didn't even want to think about what would have happened.
Murdoch sipped his drink, his calm quiet thoughtfulness irritating the hell out of his two sons. "Something is going to be done. Sit down, both of you. I have something I want to say."
Scott and Johnny looked at each other then sat down to listen.
It was long past breakfast the next morning when Jemimah finally dared to venture downstairs. She had spent a fairly sleepless night, worrying firstly that her father was going to knock on her door and haul her out of bed to tan her. Then, when it eventually became apparent that nobody was intending to take her to task that night, she couldn't sleep for thinking about the next morning. When she appeared in the doorway, dressed very demurely in a dark green skirt and white blouse, hair taken back at the sides with a girlish ribbon but hanging long and loose down her back, she looked nothing like she had the previous night.
Murdoch awaited her at his desk. Scott and Johnny were there too, Johnny looking very disgruntled with the whole thing. She wandered over slowly, afraid that now was the time when she would get it.
"Daddy?" her voice was unusually timid. "Please let me say how sorry I am about... it was a dare, just a stupid dare... but I shouldn't have... I'm really sorry. I know I embarrassed you, well, all of you..."She swallowed, glancing sheepishly at both younger men. She winced to see Scott's swollen black eye and Johnny's fat lip. "I know I deserve a lickin' but... it's not gonna be all three of you... is it?" she gulped.
Murdoch studied his daughter from behind fingers steepled together against his lips. "No, not this time Jemimah. As richly as you may deserve it, you won't be getting a licking. Punishing you like a child no longer seems to have any lasting effect. You're right - you're not a little girl anymore and, though it would undoubtedly make me feel a lot better, I need to deal with these escapades in a way that will cause you to think... and think hard."
From over by the bureau, Johnny let out a sharp protesting sigh but Murdoch, undeterred, went on.
"I mentioned a while ago that I might look into some more schooling for you. And I have." He reached for a document on his desk and held it out to her. "Mount Holyoke - it's a private ladies' seminary in Massachusetts. I received a telegram from the principal there two days ago and you have been accepted as a student. You will be starting there in the fall."
Jemimah glanced uncomprehendingly at the paper then set it down. For a moment, she couldn't speak but, as she slowly took it in, she raised fearful eyes to him. "You're sending me away?"
"To school, just for a year, yes."
"You don't want me? You don't want me because of... last night?" Her lip trembled and her voice was little more than a whisper. She was shaking.
Scott studied the ceiling and Johnny stared fixedly at his boots, clenching his jaw angrily.
"Not because of last night, no, and it's nothing to do with not wanting you, Jemimah." Murdoch shook his head and leaned forwards, resting his forearms on the desk. "You have learned all you can from us and from the little school in Spanish Wells and from your tutor over the last few weeks; you need more. You should get the opportunity to spread your wings; you don't want to settle for life here on the ranch until you know what else is out there. There's a whole world waiting for you and I want you to see some of it..."
"I have seen it! I travelled damn near halfway around the world to get here and I saw plenty of it!"
"Don't curse!" he admonished.
"What do I need to know that I don't know already? Please don't..." Jemimah wanted to start all over again; if she walked in again, they could begin the conversation afresh - it could all be different. But the paper still rested on the gleaming surface of the big desk between them.
"For one thing you need to know something I can't seem to teach you - how to act like a lady!" a hint of his anger sounded in Murdoch's voice.
"Murdoch!" Scott's quiet reminder made their father take a calming breath.
"Is that it? Because I cuss a little and I know how to shoot a rifle and ride...? You want me to learn fancy manners and put on airs and graces? What use are they when you're cleaning out a chicken coop? Do you think the horses care that I can reel off the American Presidents in the right order or what happened to Henry VIII's wives? When I'm peeling potatoes does it matter that I can work out the angles of a triangle? When I'm kneading the bread dough will it help that I can recite from Shakespeare? Well, I can already do all of that and let me tell you it don't really come in handy around here!" She was getting angry too but her eyes shimmered with unshed tears.
"There's much more to life than this ranch and you need to see that."
Jemimah's voice rose as she argued. "I don't want more. I want to stay here; I belong here. I want to marry..." She looked over at briefly at Johnny, something which did not go unnoticed by Murdoch or Scott. "...and have children of my own... here! I don't care about fancy frills and posh houses an' operas in languages nobody understands an' which knife and fork to use for my salad!"
Murdoch was resolute. "I want you to go and at least take the opportunity to see... have the experience before you say you don't want it."
"I don't want..."
"Then, after a year, if you decide Lancer is what you want you'll at least be able to say it with your hand on your heart."
The girl placed her hand across her heart and leaned towards her father. She had to make him understand; she had to! "It is what I want, you know it is. If I stay here, I'm not just settling for this life! I don't need to see..."
"Jemimah!" Murdoch's tone was weary.
"Don't you understand..."
"Jemimah! You will do this."
She darted around the desk and seized hold of his hand. "Daddy, please. Punish me another way! I know I'm bad sometimes; I know I'm always in trouble and I'm a trial to you. I won't blame you. Please! I won't blame you if'n you whip me proper! I know I got it comin'."
She backed away and then turned to look despairingly at Scott then Johnny. "Scott? Johnny.. you know I'm right! " Jemimah grasped him by the arm and pulled at him. "Look at all the trouble I caused last night. You sayin' I don't deserve a lickin'? I won't mind, really I won't - I won't blame you if you tan the skin off've me, truly!" Looking wildly from one closed, unhappy face to the other, she gabbled on. "I'll sit there after an' copy out the whole of that etiquette book too! I won't utter one word to complain. But please don't send me away! I don't want to go!" She was still pulling at Johnny's arm, trying to get him up from the bureau where he leaned in misery, unable to look into her anguished eyes.
"Murdoch... for god's sake!" Johnny urged his father to put an end to the agony.
Jemimah abandoned Johnny and darted back in front of Murdoch's desk, leaning on it to reach him. "Please Daddy!" Her voice was hoarse with tears that threatened to fall at any moment.
"No. This is not a punishment. I've thought long and hard about this and... it's the right thing to do." He said it with a firmness that put paid to any further argument.
Jemimah seemed to deflate. Recognising the note of finality in Murdoch's voice, she slumped, shaking her head in disbelief. "No... it's not. Not for me." With that, she dissolved into tears.
"You don't have to attend any more lessons with Ms Appleby if you don't want to but you will go to Massachusetts in the fall."
The silent seconds ticked by as she wept. At last, she straightened and, when she spoke, it was with a bitter accusation in every word. "I thought you loved me." She looked around wildly at Johnny and Scott. "I thought you all loved me!"
Murdoch rose quickly from his chair and, coming round the desk to stand by her side, he turned her to him. "Jemimah, I couldn't love you more if you were my own flesh and blood," he said softly. His big hands took her gently by the shoulders and lifted her chin. "The day you walked into this house, wearing those rags and clutching that old carpet bag like it was the crown jewels... you put a smile in my heart and I haven't stopped smiling since. You say you're bad? Girl, you've the truest, most loving and loyal soul I think I've ever known and, if you decide that Lancer is where your future really lies, then there will be no-one happier than I. At least then, we'll know... you'll know... that it's meant to be."
Jemimah looked up into his eyes through her tears and knew beyond any doubt that she wouldn't be able to change his mind... not yet. With a sob, she ran from the room and up the stairs.
Johnny started to stride after her but Murdoch called to him to leave her be. His back to his father and brother, he paused then, fuming, spun round. "Well done, Murdoch. You just lost another kid! Easy for you to just wave people out of your life, ain't it?"
Murdoch read the pain in his son's blue eyes and wished there could be another way. "I know you don't see it yet, son but she needs to find out for herself."
"Find out what? That you ain't got patience enough to get through to her; that it's easier to just cast her off? Make her someone else's problem? She don't mean enough to you to try!"
Scott attempted to calm his brother. "Johnny, you know that's not true."
"All I know is that little girl is hurtin; she thinks you don't want her. She don't understand... an' tell the truth... neither do I!"
He stomped out and the front door slammed.
Murdoch lowered himself into his chair with a heavy sigh. His elbow on the big desk, he idly fingered the paper from Mount Holyoke, sad eyes unseeing. He had alienated two of his children, was he really doing the right thing?
"Y'know, Scott, there are many things a parent has to do that are hard to take - discipline often hurts you more than the child. The times I've spanked that girl; Johnny too when he was very small and, much as I knew it needed to be done, I never enjoyed it. It's something that always brought a little ache to my heart but this... I don't think I've ever had to make a decision which cost me more. And yet..." He looked up at last, blue eyes filled with certainty. "I know it's for the best... for both of them."
Scott's head was tilted on one side as he studied his father. "Both?"
"Come on, you've seen it. You know as well as I do that Jemimah's in love with your brother. This year away from home will give her the chance to grow up some and, more importantly, do that growing away from Johnny. And if... when... she comes back I'm hoping he'll be able to see something in her that he can't see, or won't see, right now."
Scott sipped thoughtfully at his coffee, listening to Murdoch's view.
"Johnny will never look beyond the little girl who came here three years ago while ever she is here under his nose, the same as she always has been. But, maybe some distance and time between them... I believe it's what they both need..." Murdoch took a comforting swig from his own cup, needing its fortifying warmth. "I can't expect either of them to agree with me right now but they will, in time."
"I never pictured you in the role of Cupid, sir," Scott mused. "I hope you're right."
Dusk was falling but the evening air was warm when Jemimah hefted her saddle onto Amiga, giving the pony's ear a fond rub. She had changed into jeans and an old shirt, her long dark hair braided into a single thick rope which hung down her back from beneath her battered fawn hat. She secured her saddle bags and fleece-lined jacket onto the pony just as Johnny rounded the corner of the stall.
"Thought I'd find you here, kid."
Jemimah jumped in surprise; she had not heard him approach. Then, a surly and determined look on her face, she carried on packing her stuff onto her pony. She didn't look at him as she spoke. "I was goin' to take Torcall... but Trudy left him to you an' I ain't no thief! I'm goin, Johnny an I know you can stop me but, if you do, I'll just sneak out during the night. 'Course, you can always take it in turns to stand watch but I'll keep tryin until one day you won't be lookin and then I'll go!"
She faltered, her mouth in a thin firm line. "I'll go to Trudy's cabin. It's empty right now. I'll stay there."
Johnny chewed at his lower lip, stroking Amiga's velvety nose. "An' when Murdoch turns up to fetch you back? Well, you must have a plan, honey. You can't just light out an' sleep rough."
"Why not? You do it; you an' Scott have slept out on the trail plenty before!"
Johnny smiled but his blue eyes were sad for her. "Sure we have but if you think I'm goin' to let you wander around out there on your own, think again. You know darn well I'll be trailing after you if you try it. Yes, Scott and I have camped out plenty of times but, an I know you won't like me sayin' this but, we ain't female; we're grown men. It can be dangerous enough for a man out on the trail but for you? You remember what happened the last time you lit out on your own? There's some real low-lifes out there an' they won't care that you're just a little girl..."
Jemimah paused, her green eyes flashing. "I'm not a little girl!" she gritted out through her teeth and raised her eyes to heaven in extreme exasperation. "When in god's name are you going to see that?"
A little of Johnny's own frustration showed when he bit back. "Yeah, I guess we all saw that last night didn't we? Alright, you don't look like no little girl any more but having the body don't make you no woman neither."
She had the grace to blush crimson at being so reminded of the scanty revealing garments she had worn the previous night.
"Kid, if you go off alone, you could well run into another Jeb Dawson an' you know damn well what he had in mind for ya'! It ain't safe for a woman to be out there alone. You know it."
She slowed, thinking back to the day she was almost raped and knowing he was right. Her shoulders sagged in defeat, tears brimming.
"Then... what do I do, Johnny? I can't just sit around waitin' for the day when ... I get sent hundreds of miles away from... you an' Scott an'... Lancer. What do I do?"
Johnny looked at her. He didn't say anything because he didn't know what to say. All he could do was shake his head miserably. Hundreds of miles? It was more like thousands! Murdoch might just as well be sending her back to England again; she would be too far away to visit or come back for holidays and Christmas. When Murdoch said a year it would be exactly that. And... what if she decided Boston was more to her liking? What if she changed her mind and never came back? Johnny knew young girls were apt to sudden fancies and changing their minds; what if the life here that she vowed she loved paled in comparison and became one which no longer enticed her?
Suddenly, she threw herself into his arms and he clutched her to his chest, pushing back her old hat and stroking her hair as she cried. He was certain Murdoch wasn't going to change his mind and, truth be told, he was scared to death at the thought of her leaving.
"I don't know, honey." He rested his cheek against her silky hair. "I don't know."
"My finger may be small and dainty but I can still wrap Murdoch around it!"
So Jemimah had assured Sofia and Enrique when they discovered she was to leave on August 15th. They had no doubt she could wangle it somehow; after all, this was Jemimah!
Sadly though, she soon discovered that, for once, Murdoch was not to be swayed and, no matter how much she pleaded, begged, cajoled or berated him, he remained resolute. She would be going to school.
The extremes of emotion she had experienced when Murdoch first told her she would be leaving evened out and, despite living with constant nagging anticipation where any thought of being far from everything there that was so beloved triggered a wild panic, the shock waned. It was still draining her but the immediate agony had died away.
The summer days drifted by too swiftly. She was filled with a burning need to make the most of every single minute she had left there. At times, she would feel swept along on a joyous wave, where everything was normal, usual and day-to-day; the same mundane chores, riding Amiga over familiar trails and hills, eating breakfast in the usual seat she always took at Johnny's side. But then the moment of heady euphoria would pass and Jemimah crashed down to earth with a thump; dragged down with the heavy weight of reality which utterly ruined everything and made her contentment of a few moments before seem like an impossible fantasy.
Murdoch loved her. She knew that. So, he wanted what was best for her; she knew that too. The only problem was... this wasn't best; this was wrong - for her. Then any hope of recapturing her good mood would fade away and she would be unable to find any peace at all. In this way, the peaks and troughs of her mood soared and plunged violently as the days passed into weeks and the time of her departure drew nearer.
Two weeks away from the dreaded day, Jemimah made one last-ditch attempt to get her own way - she stopped eating. (Or at least publicly; as far as the other members of the family knew, Jemimah was on a hunger strike.) It was odd though that she still had plenty of energy and was far from fading away on them but she wasn't attending any meals until Murdoch took her to one side and delivered his ultimatum. Whether she chose to eat or not was entirely up to her, however she would be joining the family at mealtimes. Stubborn to the last, Jemimah complied - but only just, flouncing down the stairs ten minutes after dinner began. Murdoch made her sit there but would not allow her to partake of the meal which, she argued, suited her fine as she wasn't even hungry! Her father was getting annoyed and, as he left the table and headed to the sideboard to pour a much-needed whiskey, told her to be on time the next day.
Scott followed her outside after the rather strained supper and tried to persuade her to toe the line, listing the dangers of testing Murdoch.
"You're playing with fire, Jemimah. Murdoch is trying to be patient," Scott began, leaning against the hitching rail where she perched, swinging her legs and looking mutinous. "He's hoping you'll use your head and see what he's offering you here. It's only a year and you should embrace the adventure; see it as an opportunity not many young girls are given. Now, you can continue testing him if you feel that will get you your own way, and I have to say I think you're barking up the wrong tree here, but just remember our father is not a naturally patient man. You keep pushing and eventually that bough is going to break; he will turn around and act like any father would. It might have been a while but I know you can recall what that feels like. Do you really want to go there?"
Jemimah said not a word but mulled over what Scott had said before going back inside with a devious smirk.
Next day, she was certainly on time but was dressed in a filthy undershirt and tatty jeans, smelling pretty ripe, and her hair was loose and messy. She looked for all the world as though she had been dragged through a hedge backwards! Murdoch fixed her with a beady look which she ignored. When he spoke her name in a low voice, she snapped back, "What now? I'm here on time ain't I? Jesus, ol' man, what's your problem?"
Calmly, Murdoch set down his knife and fork. "I cannot imagine for one second that I actually need to spell this out for you however I will do so. Your attire is wholly unsuitable at the dinner table and I would have thought you would have learned that by now."
Jemimah plunked down her own cutlery, a defiant glint in her eye, and made ready to do battle. "It's clearly a good thing I'm being sent off to that posh ladies college to learn how to behave, ain't it? Because you're making a piss-poor job of it!"
Teresa gasped. Scott raised his eyes heavenwards as though imploring the assistance of the almighty. Johnny sighed and put his head in his hands. As for Murdoch, he calmly wiped his mouth on his napkin, stood and moved unhurriedly around the table towards his daughter.
"No ladies' college is necessary for that; I think I can teach this particular lesson perfectly well. You have cast out the line and the fish is ready to bite." He eased her chair out and, holding her hand, led her from the table, heading for the stairs.
Johnny looked up in dismay. "Ain't it bad enough you're banishing her without beating her as well?"
"I have never and will never beat my daughter but, while ever she is under my roof, she will show me some respect and when she deliberately behaves like a bratty ten year old in an obvious attempt to goad me... well, for the first time in a long while I'm being completely selfish - this is going to make me feel a whole lot better!" Taking her firmly by the arm, Murdoch headed upstairs.
Some very painful minutes later, a sniffling Jemimah stood in her room, rubbing her bottom furiously. Murdoch, seated on her bedside chair, rolled his sleeve down again and fastened the cuff, flexing the fingers of his throbbing right hand.
He watched her and sighed when she averted her head, refusing to look at him. "I know you won't believe me but I didn't enjoy that at all... despite what I said downstairs."
She remained stubbornly silent and Murdoch, resigned to playing the villain of the piece, shook his head and sighed again. He missed her; he missed her laughter and her effusive loving nature. This sullen creature... this was not the girl he knew and loved and it broke his heart that she may leave without forgiving him.
"You'll stay here in your room," he instructed, wishing he didn't sound so stern. A single plaintive sob made him look up sharply. Jemimah was facing away from him but her thin shoulders shook with misery. Murdoch's heart ached for her.
"Please don't make me go," she whispered. Then, in the silence, she spat out, "I'll never forgive you and I wish I'd never come to Lancer. I'm glad I'm going an' you might as well know now that I'll never come back!"
Murdoch rose slowly to his feet and gently said, "I hope that isn't true; that one day you will see this as a gift - the chance to know beyond any doubt that your childhood fancies and dreams are truly what the grown woman wants." He paused, watching her wipe her runny nose on her sleeve. "Jemimah, I know you're in love with Johnny."
She flinched at this as though startled.
"And, if, when you return you can honestly say that your love is still strong, I will be the happiest man alive. And have you not thought, this year apart will be the test for Johnny too? I suspect that he may have feelings for you that differ greatly from those of a brother for a sister but, while you're here, he can only see the little girl you've always been. Some time and distance between you two may make my stubborn son realise you're no longer a child."
Jemimah turned from the corner, her mouth dropping open in shock, and rushed to Murdoch, disbelief on her face. "You know I love him?"
Murdoch smiled down at her hopeful expression. "I've known it almost from the first day."
"And you think Johnny might love me too?"
Less certain of this and not wanting to raise false hopes, he chewed at the inside of his lip as he searched for the right words and finally said, "I can read my son pretty well and there's no denying he is showing signs of a changing feeling towards you." In his heart, Murdoch reckoned Johnny had loved the girl for some time but needed to see her in a different light before he would admit it to himself.
Jemimah threw her arms around her father's waist, hugging him for all she was worth. "I understand now. I'll go to Boston and learn all I can to help me come back as a lady. I will, daddy, I promise!"
His big hand now caressing her hair softly, Murdoch chuckled at the complete turnabout in her attitude. "Don't change too much; remember, it's Johnny you're setting your cap at, not Scott - he's already taken!"
Hurriedly removing her grubby undershirt and unbuttoning her jeans, Jemimah felt so elated at this unexpected news that she didn't even notice Murdoch blinking in surprise and averting his gaze. "If I can quickly change, can I come down for dinner? I'm so sorry I've been behaving like such a little spoiled brat."
"If you can bear to sit on your chair, you're welcome to join us."
Jemimah's face dropped, knowing it was going to be very uncomfortable, but she firmed her lips and nodded. Murdoch smiled fondly and ruffled her untidy hair. Thank the lord, he had his girl back and it would all work out; he just knew it would. "And do something with this mop!" He headed for the door, leaving Jemimah already kicking off her jeans and running the brush through her locks while she moved to the washbasin.
Two days before Jemimah's fast-approaching departure date, the family organised a surprise dinner for her. It had a dual purpose, Murdoch told her, a belated celebration for her sixteenth birthday which she had refused to even acknowledge at the time and a farewell to wish her Godspeed and remind her to come home to them. It had been an evening of mixed emotions - laughter and tears; old stories and conversations about all the things she would see in Boston.
Mount Holyoke's prospectus listed church services, chapel talks, prayer meetings and Bible study groups as a large part of their curriculum. It was obvious religious education featured strongly and Jemimah had serious misgivings about this.
"Hope they don't think they got a prospective nun on their hands!" she joked.
"Well, Andover Seminary for boys has strong ties with Mount Holyoke," Scott had said. "Many of the graduates marry Mount Holyoke girls and become missionaries. As a Firstie, I'm sure you'll soon find out which classes you're expected to take."
Johnny had laughed out loud and given her a twinkling look when she responded with, "Missionary? Me? I think them heathens would take one look at me an' turn to Satan! Sure get a quieter life! Nope, ain't no way I'm about to get stuck with no pious preacher for a husband... can you see it, Scott? An' me an ex-dancer from the Dove an' Garter?"
Scott chuckled too and had to admit that indeed he could not. Murdoch had cleared his throat gruffly and admonished her to forget any ideas of dance halls.
After the meal, when everyone was settling around the fireplace and Teresa was handing round drinks, Jemimah wandered out onto the porch. It was twilight. The stars were just appearing in the vast canopy of velvety darkness overhead. She leaned against the cool plaster of a pillar and breathed in the soft fragrance of the warm air.
"Penny for them?" Scott's voice caused her to spin around in surprise.
"Oh, I was just thinking... I'm going to miss so much here. This is more home to me than I ever dreamed it would be, y'know." She gazed up at the stars and Scott came to stand by her side. "I loved England but all of that seems like a distant dream to me now. This is my home. I love the sound of the birds in the mornings, the way them hills sway and roll, the horses an' even the cattle. An' the people - this is my family." She tilted her head to look up at him. "I'll miss you as well, Scott. I hope you know that."
"I do. And I'll miss you too, honey. Be sure to come back to us, won't you?"
She smiled, a hint of tears in her green eyes. "Count on it!" She gave him a little comradely nudge with her elbow and sniggered. Then, once again, her mood quietened. "Lancer has so many claims on my heart, Scott. But there's one that I wonder if you know... ?"
"You mean the fact that you're in love with Johnny?" Scott smiled down at her surprise.
"You knew it too?! Does Johnny know?"
Scott chuckled and shook his head. "I'm pretty sure he doesn't. My little brother can be incredibly obtuse when it comes to matters of the heart."
Jemimah took Scott's hand and gazed earnestly up into his face. "I'd like to ask you somethin'... will you look after Johnny for me 'til I come back and, if you possibly can, keep him from falling for someone else. I know he can be a bit silly and romantic sometimes; fancying himself in love at the drop of a hat just because a girl might be pretty or have a few curves here an' there - he's very much a boy in that respect."
Scott smirked but tried valiantly to remain serious. His little sister was coming over as very worldly and it was hard to keep from chuckling. But he straightened and returned her look with an equally sombre one of his own. Actually, she was dead right about Johnny - he often fancied himself in love when his eye was caught by a pretty girl. She had summed it up very astutely. But Jemimah was just as guilty of romantic fancies and as smitten with Johnny as a girl could ever wish to be. Ever the gentleman, Scott refrained from pointing this out but gravely affirmed that he would do his best.
"Thanks." She slipped her arm through his and stood on tiptoe to plant a gently sincere kiss on his cheek. "I meant it - I will miss you. If ever a girl had a better big brother..." Here, she stopped, unable to say more as her voice cracked and she felt a large hot tear spill over and run down her face.
Scott said nothing. His strong arm slipped around her waist to pull her into his side and, in an easy silence, they leaned together for a moment, listening to the crickets and admiring the distant pinpoints of light above. At last, he felt her trembling cease as she brought her tears under control.
"Do you remember when you got me to read Wuthering Heights to the family?" she eventually sniffled.
"Indeed I do! Your reading still stands out in my mind."
Jemimah felt herself blush. "If everything in the world died and Heathcliff remained, life would still be full for me."
Scott knew what she was trying to say but he waited for her to carry on.
"That's how I feel about Johnny, d'you see?"
"I understand; it's how I think of Zee," Scott agreed. "Johnny is a very lucky man. I hope, one day, he will find out and realise it for himself."
"I hope so too," she whispered, a little shiver running down her spine.
Scott offered his arm in a comic display of gallantry which, as he had intended, made her grin. "It's turning chilly. Let's go inside to join everyone by the fire."
"Come in!" Jemimah answered the knock at her door but didn't look up from packing her valise. It would be Maria or Teresa; she hoped they had that other nightgown ironed so she could put it on the top. "I've nearly done if you've got that spare nightie for me?"
"Well, I'm fresh out of nighties. Sorry."
She turned at the soft masculine voice, surprised to see Johnny standing by the foot of her bed. "Uh-oh, Johnny Lancer, I don't think you should be in here!"
A soft smile curved his lips and his deep blue eyes twinkled at her. Jemimah's heart skipped a beat. "Why not? Am I in danger?"
"Only from Murdoch; he doesn't think it's right for a gentleman to be in a lady's bedroom."
Johnny smirked and teasingly raised a dark eyebrow. "Lady? I think I'm safe enough then!" He laughed and dodged the pillow she playfully tossed at his head. "I was goin to offer to carry down your bag but I can see you're not done yet. Always amazes me how many frills and doo-dads you 'ladies' need." He grinned down at her, his hands on his hips. "Anythin' else I can do for ya?"
Jemimah drank in the sight of him. He was wearing her favourite shirt - the blue sprigged with tiny flowers. He radiated good health from the dark shining hair on his head to the toes of his casually placed boots. There were so many little things that Jemimah loved about this man - he was handsome, there was no denying; she loved his hands - strong hands yet they could be infinitely gentle... and his shape! She felt heat suffuse her cheeks and, with a naughty gleam in her eye, she cocked her head on one side to study him. "Well, if you stay long enough, I'm sure I could think of something," she replied.
Johnny found himself blushing too and looked down to study the carpet.
"I can't hardly believe that I'm goin' off to college," she changed the subject neatly. "I keep wonderin' if Murdoch really knows what he's doing by sending me there for a year. He won't be around to keep me on the straight and narrow; can't ask me to dance to his tune when I'm all the way over in Boston. Never know what I might do!" She grinned with mischief. "I may start drinking brandy and whiskey... I might even learn to smoke!"
Johnny cocked his head and folded his arms in mock disapproval. "You know, kid, I have been in this room on more than one occasion if you think back... more than one painful occasion..." There was a world of meaning in his eyes.
Jemimah blushed, knowing full well he was referring to the times he had taken her to task for her misdemeanours. Flustered, she patted down the clothing in her valise.
Johnny grinned. "I can see you have a good memory, chica. You just keep them visits in mind when you feel tempted to smoke or drink whiskey!"
She grinned back and snapped her valise shut. Then she straightened, smoothing down her long skirt. "Well, I've never been away from home before... I mean, not from this home. I'm not sure what to say."
"An' I've never had to see you off before. Guess we're both new to this."
She smiled and shrugged awkwardly. "I reckon you should say goodbye an' that you'll see me soon."
"I guess so. Then what?"
She swallowed, unable to look away from his eyes. "Then... you kiss me." She could feel her cheeks burn scarlet and she held her breath.
Johnny walked over to her, his smile gone. He stopped in front of her and, seeing how the top of her head still only came level with his chin, marvelled at how such a small person could have such a huge impact on his life. Her slim arms lifted and draped softly about his neck as she rose up on her tiptoes. Their lips met in a soft warm kiss, her body melding into his in a way that a sister's never would. Before he could help himself, his arm encircled her slender waist, his hand exploring the supple arch of her back as she leaned into him.
All sound seemed to fade away, the very air around them became still so that it seemed they were the only two people left alive in the whole world.
Suddenly, he jerked back and stepped away and the spell was broken.
He was at the door before she had taken a breath but turned to stare at her with new eyes. Jemimah could see he was actually trembling. He tried to smile but it was a dazed, crooked effort at best.
Then he was gone. Jemimah sank down onto the bed, gasping for breath but with a blissful light in her eyes.
In her new travelling suit with its ladylike bustle and long skirt with the tight little jacket showing off her womanly shape, Jemimah at last looked like she had grown up. She would always be petite and had by now despaired of ever attaining that tall willowy figure she had dreamed of but there was no denying she looked every inch a young lady. Her little neat hat with the feathers and her dark silky hair up in a smooth coiled chignon, Murdoch was almost afraid to embrace her in case he rumpled her outfit. Jemimah put paid to his dithering by launching herself into his arms with boisterous abandon.
"Daddy," she whispered. "I love you and... I'll try, I promise."
Next to come forward to say goodbye was Teresa. She smoothed the shoulder of the pert little jacket she had helped to sew, tears glinting in her dark eyes. "I'll miss you at Christmas time. I won't have anyone to ice the faces on the gingerbread men this year," she smiled.
"Send some to me, alright?" Jemimah croaked. She couldn't imagine for the life of her why she was getting all teary over saying goodbye to Teresa! They usually snipped at each other unbearably.
Teresa hugged her warmly. "I will."
Jemimah turned to Scott. He stood patiently on the platform with Zee by his side. They made a very handsome couple. Zee beamed as Scott took Jemimah's hands in both of his and kissed her gently.
"Don't have the wedding 'til I get back, will you? Promise?"
Scott softly shook his blond head. "We wouldn't dream of it, honey."
Zee clasped Jemimah to her exuberantly. "Couldn't do it without you anyway, sweetie, you're goin' to be a bridesmaid! We're countin' on ya'! So you come back safe, y'hear!"
The whistle blew for a final time and, in a daze, Jemimah followed the boy carrying her valise on board. She watched her family through each window as she moved to the end carriage and came out again on the tiny platform at the end of the train.
This was it. Everyone had travelled with her to the train, making the trip into an extended celebration and send-off. Last night, in the hotel, had been a battle between hilarious laughter and heart-rending tears.
She leaned over the rail and reached out to the one person who had yet to say their goodbyes. "Johnny!"
He reached out to her too, clasping her small hands in his own. His blue eyes locked onto hers and the yearning she read there lifted her heart so that she could bear this parting. Both young people found they could not speak; there were no goodbyes to say for them.
The train lurched and then was moving away. Johnny walked with her as far as he could, until he could hold on to her hand no more. Instead, he stood still, watching her move away from him, waving and blowing kisses at him until she was just a speck in the distance. He was glad he was standing alone, removed from the others because, for the first time in years, he wanted to throw back his head and cry. His eyes were moist. As he lifted his hand to brush at them, he felt the paper she had tucked into his palm.
Unravelling it, he blinked and tried to read what she had written for him. It was some kind of poem; only two lines. Johnny studied it.
Watching Johnny becoming smaller and smaller until, at last, she could see him no more, Jemimah gripped the rail, tears streaming unashamedly down her cheeks. She was whispering something to herself.
"All days are nights to see 'til I see thee, And nights bright days when dreams do show thee me."
Anne Haslam February 2014