Disclaimer: These characters, apart from Jemimah Day, are not mine though,
if they were, I would certainly show them more love, respect and gratitude
than Fox do.
Scott is 27; Johnny is 22
Johnny Lancer leaned nonchalantly against the window, aimlessly tossing the dollar in his hand.
"Y'know, I think our father meant for you to spend that on a haircut," Scott called across to him as he vacated the barber's chair, brushing at the stray hairs which had collected on his blue shirt front. Zeke, the little bustling barber, hovered solicitously behind the tall young man, wafting the towel at his shoulders to remove any stubborn hairs.
Johnny turned to his brother. "Well now, Scott, I can't hardly be blamed for Zeke here bein' full of folks on a Friday afternoon, can I?"
Scott surveyed the empty barber shop and quirked an eyebrow at his grinning younger brother. Fully understanding his look, Johnny shrugged smilingly.
"Besides, school let out ten minutes ago," he explained. "I thought we'd look out for the kids and ride back together."
Scott retrieved his hat from the stand, giving Johnny a nudge as he passed.
"Murdoch will not be impressed. You know that, don't you?"
Another shrug and a boyish grin were Johnny's only reply then, something clearly having caught his eye, he turned back to the window, reaching out to urgently tug Scott's shirt sleeve.
"Hey! Look at this!" he exclaimed. "What in the world are those two doin' now?"
Scott joined Johnny at the glass and they both peered out beyond the painted lettering.
Down the street near the Widow Hargis' store, Jemimah Day, Murdoch's little English goddaughter, was crouching down behind a pair of tethered horses at the water trough. At her side was Enrique, their Segundo's thirteen year old son. The two were virtually inseparable these days and, when there was mischief in the air, they were usually in the thick of it.
They were obviously hiding from someone but kept bobbing up to peek over the trough across to the store, grinning from ear to ear.
"Now, what do you suppose...?" Scott mused.
The brothers did not have long to wait for their answer.
Suddenly the quiet afternoon was rent with a series of unexpected, rapid cracks and resounding bangs outside the store front. One or two ladies, who had been ambling past, screamed and ran for cover, holding their skirts above their knees in their haste. The widow herself, who had been sweeping a tatty broom over the boards in front of her doorway, shrieked as if the very hounds of hell were on her bony heels. She jumped into the air and clutched wildly at her heart. Onlookers would later claim that her feet cleared the ground by a good eighteen inches!
Safely behind the water trough on the opposite side of the street, the two miscreants thought themselves in the clear and were laughing fit to bust at the widow's antics. Jemimah gave her partner in crime a shove and they both again creased up laughing.
The firecrackers, for that is indeed what had caused the uproar, were still popping and banging deafeningly and the widow seemed to have lost all reason. Instead of fleeing the scene, she was tripping from one side of the storefront to the other, the broom swiping uselessly at unseen devils which were coming to attack her.
The two brothers in the barbershop took all this in and eyed the real 'devils' grimly. The kids were still rolling around behind the horse trough, beside themselves with mirth. Enrique risked another gleeful gander over the edge of the trough, only to witness the sacks of flour underneath the store window suddenly catch alight. The flames licked greedily over the dry sacking as if it were tinder. Enrique grasped his friend's shoulder and pulled her up so that she could see.
Jemimah's merry grin faded as she took in the sight before her. The widow was still shrieking hysterically and flapping around like an old hen but she was now trying to beat out the flames with the broom.
The fire was spreading voraciously. Bright orange flames, about three feet high, were curling insidious fingers around the sacks and rickety wooden crates which were stacked beneath the big window. Then, with a shocking crash, the Widow's wildly waving broom hit the glass which shattered and the fire probed its long scarlet tendrils inside the open gap.
As if from nowhere, men were suddenly surrounding the store. Someone grabbed the howling Widow Hargis and carried her away bodily, still waving the blackened broom. Another group of men was hefting buckets and trying to stem the spread of the fire.
The two children were open-mouthed with shock and frozen to the spot.
"Come on!" Scott slapped Johnny's shoulder and they both raced out into the street.
Scott headed across to the store but, when Johnny tried to follow, he turned and pointed at the children who could just be glimpsed in their hiding place.
"Get those two out of here before Gabe shows up and catches them!" Scott called over the din. "It won't take him long to put two and two together."
Johnny looked back over his shoulder at the white-faced children. "Right! I'll come back and give you a hand!"
Scott shook his head. "No, there's enough folks out here now. And besides, I'm sure you can put your hand to a better use!"
Johnny frowned grimly, glancing back at the two pairs of eyes peeking over the water trough. "Yeah, and I know just where to apply it too!"
Scott grinned at his brother and dived off to join the men fighting back the flames which, in just a few minutes, had almost entirely destroyed the shop front and had turned the neatly stacked goods at the edge of the boardwalk into a pile of charred rubble.
Johnny took off running down the side of Zeke's shop, making a swift left turn at the end of the alley and creeping up silently behind the children who were watching in horror as their prank went sour on them.
When they felt a firm hand grab them by the collar and hoist them up until they were dancing on their tiptoes, both kids squealed in fright and would have dashed off into the street had they not been held in place. Squirming until they could see who had hold of them, they stopped shrieking but the expression on Johnny's face was such that they didn't relax any as he dragged them back down the alley and across to the school house. He guided them to where their ponies were tied to the hitching rail and, checking both sides of the street to make sure no-one was watching, hoisted first Jemimah and then Enrique into their saddles. He held on to their reins and, his voice low and ominous, spoke quickly to the two scamps.
"You two git on home right now!" He turned his furious glare on Enrique who shrank back visibly. "Boy, you go straight there; don't stop at our place. An' I think you'd best tell your Pa what's happened. Don't you?"
Enrique paled. "Señor Lancer, mi Papa..." The boy gulped. "He will be very angry."
Johnny cocked his head as if he were considering something. "Maybe you'd prefer it if I told him?"
The boy's horror-struck face told Johnny that this idea did not entirely meet with approval either. Johnny fought to maintain a serious expression though it was a struggle to stop his smile from showing.
"No, no, that would be worse - much worse!" Enrique stammered.
Johnny nodded sternly. "Uh-huh, so you better do it before I have to! Y'hear?"
Enrique hung his head and nodded in silent defeat. There had been too many instances recently where he and Jemimah had managed to get themselves into some scrape or other. He had been warned and now... he knew exactly what to expect from his father.
"And as for you, missy," Johnny turned his attention to Jemimah. She was gripping the horn of her saddle and her eyes looked like they were about to pop out of her head. "Straight home. Go on up to your room an' stay there. I'll be following so don't neither of you take any detours." Johnny wagged a warning finger at the two villains then passed them their reins.
The children nudged their ponies and were just rounding the corner when Johnny's piercing whistle stopped them in their tracks. He waved at them to take the back streets and, as they reeled round and passed by him, he called out.
The girl turned her green eyes reluctantly on him, already knowing what he was going to say.
"When I get back, you an' me are gonna have words. An' that's a promise, y'hear?"
Johnny's steely blue glare forced a squeak from Jemimah's throat and she slumped in the saddle dejectedly. Satisfied that both kids would now go straight home, Johnny turned on his heel and sprinted back to help his brother and the other men fight the fire.
They rode along in silence for a while, their ponies walking sedately and, knowing what awaited them, neither kid was in any tearing hurry to get home.
Jemimah sighed. From experience, she knew precisely what it meant when Johnny threatened to 'have words' with her. His 'words' were usually directed at the back of her head while his strong right hand beat out a painful rhythm on the seat of her drawers!
"Madre de Dios!" Enrique suddenly exclaimed morosely. "Mi Papa..." words failed him and he shook his head.
Jemimah felt a sudden surge of scorn; he wasn't the only one in trouble. Why was he behaving as though he were going to his doom? She had plenty to dread once Johnny got back too!
"Pfft!" she scoffed. "Dunno what you're worrying about! Johnny's goin' ter blister me so's I don't sit down for a week!"
Enrique's mirthless smile was one of pity for her delusion. "Mi Papa, he is way stronger than Señor Juanito!" He reached forwards and patted his pony's neck fondly. "I will not be riding for a while."
Jemimah's mouth set in a thin line and she turned up her little chin defiantly.
"Betcha my whippin's worse!"
Enrique shook his head sagely which infuriated her. "No, not possible."
Enrique regarded her calmly, his brown eyes certain of his superiority. "Will Señor Juanito use his belt?"
Jemimah hesitated. Though Johnny had paddled her several times since she had come to stay at Lancer (the very first time being within an hour of meeting her off the stage!) he had never used anything but his hand. And she fervently hoped he never would. In her view, this was more than sufficient but she did not wish to lose credibility with Enrique.
"No... but he has really hard hands!" she declared.
Enrique sniffed to show his derision. "Huh! That's nothing! My Papa will use his belt."
Jemimah faltered. Cip was a big man, like Murdoch. That did sound worse.
"Oh. Well, if it were Scott - he uses a hairbrush!"
This wasn't exactly a lie. Scott had indeed used her own hairbrush on her behind... once. She had made the unfortunate mistake of pasting the pages of one of his books together as a joke. Unhappily for her, Scott had failed to see the funny side. How was she supposed to know it had been a first edition, whatever that was?! The impression he had made on her had been such that she had refrained from playing tricks on him since then but could safely assume that his weapon of choice for any future misdemeanours would again be a hairbrush.
Enrique waved aside her argument. "But it is not Señor Scott, is it? Señor Juanito will let you off easy... 'cos you're a girl!" The young boy put as much of a sneer into the word 'girl' as he could. This game of one-upmanship was something they had fallen into within hours of their first meeting.
Jemimah felt her temper flare. "No, he won't! Besides it was my idea. I'll tell him that!"
Enrique paused, his eyes scrunched up in thought. Then, like a light dawning, his expression became hopeful.
"You're right! It was your idea and they were your firecrackers! I'll tell my Papa that it was all your fault really!"
"Hey!" Jemimah scowled crossly. The traitor! Hell, this didn't sound good, not good at all! As it was she already had to watch out for Murdoch, Scott and Johnny; Maria wasn't averse to letting fly with that damned wooden spoon - she surely didn't want to add Cipriano to the list of adults who were allowed to dust her behind if the mood took them!
Enrique slumped again. "It will make no difference. We will both catch it."
Their argument fizzled out in the light of this certainty. Both children stared ahead. They had come to a fork in the road and knew this was where they parted. Cipriano's house was down the lane to the left though he would not be there for at least another hour. Enrique would have to wait in trepidation for his punishment. The two friends eyed each other in uneasy silence, neither willing to speak of the prank that had gone so horribly wrong and knowing they were both going to be called to account for it.
"Well, see you later, Enrique," Jemimah was the first to make a move.
"Si," the young man nodded and they turned their mounts off onto their respective paths home.
"Hey, amigo!" Jemimah suddenly called back to him. "If you can get away tomorrow afternoon, d'you want to go swimming at the waterhole?"
"Are you loco?" Enrique's face showed very clearly that he thought Jemimah had lost her mind. "You know what will happen if our fathers find out!"
She smiled slyly. "Murdoch's away until tomorrow night. What he doesn't know won't hurt him."
The young Mexican boy blew out an exasperated breath.
"My Papa is not away!" he ground out. "If he catches me..."
Jemimah lazily licked her rosy lips and trained her green gaze onto the boy, watching him boldly from beneath thick black lashes. Enrique felt his mouth go dry and somehow he couldn't tear his eyes away from the girl.
"You chicken?" she whispered, a little smile teasing him.
Enrique watched that little pink tongue toy with the corner of her smile and felt suddenly hotter. He eased his stiff collar away from his neck. Dios! He couldn't be dared by a girl and back down! "You know I'm not," he was annoyed at the wobble in his voice. He sat up in his saddle and answered her decisively, "If I can sneak out, I'll be there!"
"Don't let me down now," she grinned at him and he knew he would manage to get away. Wild horses could not have prevented him!
Jemimah's fingers felt clumsy and stiff as she removed Amiga's bridle and hung it up in its place. She took a deep breath but could still feel that horrible nervous fluttering in her stomach. Behind her, Jelly wandered into the barn, a sack of grain on his shoulder causing him to stoop. He hefted it down and eased the crick in his neck. Spying the kid in the pony's stall, he ambled over.
"Hey there! If you're done with that pampered pony o' yourn', y'oughta git y'self over to the kitchen," he began. "Maria's bin bakin' all afternoon an' you flash her them pearly whites an' I betcha she'd fix ya' a plate o' them cookies I bin a' smellin'."
The girl clutched at a sudden idea. Maybe Jelly could be her salvation! Pasting a sad look on her impish face, she turned, shoulders slumped, and regarded the straw-strewn floor miserably.
"I can't, Jelly. I've got to go to my room."
Hanging her head like someone facing the gallows, she made towards the half-open barn door. She had only taken three steps when she felt the old handyman's touch on her shoulder and a wicked gleam lit her eye. Turning, though, she hid it with a heavy sigh.
"Well now, the way you're lookin' I'd say it seemed more like you was on your way to your own funeral!" Jelly managed to make his kindly concern sound like a grumpy criticism but Jemimah knew he was hooked. She began to reel him in.
"Might as well be, Jelly," she sighed and again turned to go, making sure she did not move fast enough to get out of the barn before he stopped her.
"Now you jest hold it right there," Jelly's hand patted the child's shoulder and he eyed her, his gruff voice trying to disguise his concern. "What in tarnation's got you so blue?"
Jemimah bit back the smirk and heaved another monster of a sigh.
"Oh, nothing... just Johnny's really mad at me." She went over to Amiga and patted the pony's neck morosely as though deriving no comfort from her pet. "I don't think I'll be seeing much of this old girl for a week or so... maybe longer." She hung her head, grinning inwardly at the way the old man frowned worriedly at her, hovering by her side. "Wouldn't be able to sit my saddle anyway, more than likely, even if I did," she laid it on thick.
Jelly smoothed his whiskers and looked at the sad little girl. It just about broke his sentimental old heart to see her so down; she was usually such a chirrupy little soul.
"That right?" he asked. "You mean Johnny's fixin' to cut hisself a switch?"
"Probably more like two or three, Jelly. He was really mad. I just don't know what I did..." Jemimah allowed her voice to break a little and she pretended to wipe away a tear.
Jelly drew himself up in affronted outrage. "You mean ter tell me he ain't even telled ya' why he's so danged fired-up?"
"Nope. I think he'd lost a poker game in town," the devious girl lied expertly. "I'd just come out of school with Enrique when Johnny came up and grabbed me. He threw me onto Amiga and then he told me to ride on home and wait in my room for him." Jemimah risked a sly peek at the old man and was rewarded by the shocked expression on his face. This was too easy! "I daren't disobey him, Jelly. He'd whip the skin off of me!" Shaking her head in defeat, she sloped towards the door but didn't have to go far before she felt his gentle hand on her shoulder once more.
"You jest hold it there, little missy! Now, that Johnny Lancer ain't the big boss around here, y'know. I know his pappy's away but maybe we should jest have us a chat with Scott when he gets back; set him straight on a few things around here..."
Scott? No, no... she didn't want to involve Scott! Memories of the sturdy wooden hairbrush drifted nastily into her mind. Alarmed, Jemimah grasped Jelly's hand and pleaded. "Oh no, Jelly. I... don't want to cause any kind of fuss. I mean... the last thing Murdoch wants to come back to is a big argument, don't you think? P'raps if I could just hide out somewhere for a while and let things cool down, hmm? Then maybe..."
They both turned at the sound of a horse jogging into the yard and, seconds later, Johnny's vivid red shirt could be seen in the sunlight at the doorway. He stepped inside, surprised to find Jemimah still there. Sweeping sooty patches off his shirt and calzoneras, he eyed her grimly and was gratified to see her green eyes look away quickly, a blush staining her cheeks.
"Well, Miss Jemimah," his voice was soft but she was under no illusion that he had forgotten his promise to her. "I thought I told you..."
Jemimah stumbled then as Jelly scooped her behind him and stood protectively in front, puffing out his chest.
"Jest wait one minute here, Mister Lancer!"
"Jelly! What the...?"
The old man prodded Johnny none-too-gently in the chest with an accusing finger. "You the big boss man now, are ya'? Goin' ter start in on me too, eh?"
Johnny took a surprised step back and tried to interrupt. Jelly followed him in full flow.
"Not content with brow-beatin' this here poor little tyke..." he prodded at Johnny's red shirtfront again.
"Poor little tyke? Jelly..." Johnny's voice rose angrily and he glared round the old man at Jemimah's cheeky face as she grinned under Jelly's elbow at her 'adversary'. "What in God's name are you...?"
Another prod. Dios! If he don't cut that out...! Johnny ground his teeth and tried to remain calm. It wasn't easy, especially when he heard that little devil stifling a snort of laughter. Hands now on hips in exasperation, Johnny stood his ground.
"Ain't her fault you had some bad luck with the cards. Cain't hardly blame her if'n you're too hot-headed to keep a decent poker face an' I sure wouldn't count myself no kinda friend if I were to let ya' take out your temper on an innocent child...."
"Innocent child?!" Johnny all but roared.
Jelly's bushy eyebrows darted upwards in surprise but he hadn't finished his tirade. He wagged his bony finger in Johnny's very unamused face.
"You'll be cuttin' no switches fer this one while I'm around!" he blustered, clutching Jemimah to his back as though to protect her from a marauding beast.
Johnny had had enough.
"Jelly!" he yelled.
His old friend stopped, flabbergasted. Johnny reached behind the man and firmly drew Jemimah out by the arm. She swallowed and tried to avoid catching his eye but the way the hair was prickling at the back of her neck told her that Johnny was watching her intently... and he was not pleased. Her face flamed and she wished that he wasn't standing slap-bang in between her and the open doorway.
"Jemimah," Johnny's voice was silky-soft but somehow it made her mouth go dry and she hung her head. "Would you care to explain to me just what kind of malarkey..." (he was getting louder now) "..you been feedin' Jelly?"
"Well, I..." she clasped her hands behind her back and bit her lip. "I told him that you were mad at me and that... you grabbed me in town and... sent me home."
Johnny nodded, his eyes never leaving the squirming kid in front of him.
"Uh-huh. You tell him why?"
She risked a glance at him. Oh... not good, not good! His eyes had that narrowed sort of hard, icy thing going on that Mateo, Enrique's older brother, called his 'Madrid look'. She gulped.
Jelly rounded on the kid, looking first at her then back to Johnny.
"I thought you lost a poker game?"
Johnny shook his head. "Jelly, I haven't been in a poker game; I haven't even been in the saloon!" He eyed the girl again. "I don't suppose Miss Jemimah, here, happened to mention settin' fire to Widow Hargis's store?" Johnny's temper was smouldering as hot as the fire they had just put out. He drew in a deep breath and tried to cool down. Remembering the total devastation of the widow's stock and the fact that it had been touch and go as to whether they kept the fire from reaching the rest of the store had him on the verge of reaching out for the little brat and tanning her raw.
Zee, the widow's attractive assistant, had been in the back of the store and Johnny shuddered to think how close she had come to being hurt. Even now, Scott was probably still glued to her side. They shared a special bond and Johnny had left his brother to make sure Zee was safe and none the worse for her experience. The kid sure was lucky Scott wasn't here now instead of him; he'd been livid and, if he'd got his hands on her, he'd have skinned her alive then handed over what was left to the Sheriff.
Jelly was now gaping at Johnny with his mouth open like an old catfish. He started to splutter in an embarrassed way but Johnny interrupted.
"I got her and Enrique away from town before Gabe could catch 'em. Wouldn't have taken him long to figure out what happened and I didn't think Murdoch would appreciate comin' home to find his goddaughter in a jail cell," Johnny folded his leanly muscled arms and Jemimah eyed them warily. He still looked as strong as ever. Damn it! That didn't bode well.
Jelly now turned and shook the girl by the shoulder, offended that she would lie to him and make him appear foolish.
"I don't suppose you're about to cut no switches neither!" he snapped at Johnny.
There was a lengthy pause and the kid's head jerked up, her wide green eyes searching Johnny's face.
"Oh, I don't know about that," he drawled lazily, well aware that he was putting the fear of god into the girl. "Sounds like a good idea to me!"
Jemimah regarded him in horror. What had she got herself into? Right about then, she was praying Enrique was still going to win the argument about whose punishment would be the worst. Switches? She had no experience of such an implement of torture and she definitely had no desire to sample it either.
His displeasure now directed at the quaking girl by his side, Jelly huffed, "Well, you jest make sure to save me one. I've a mighty good use fer it when you're done!"
Johnny noticed that all trace of merriment and mischief had left Jemimah's face and, in fact, the kid looked like she was feeling kinda poorly. Bueno! That wasn't all she would be feeling when he finished with her!
"Er, Jelly... you mind giving us a moment?" Johnny decided now was as good a time as any. "I need to have words with Jemimah here."
The girl froze, her heart thumping way up into her throat. There it was again - that phrase! 'Have words'. Why did he always say that when what he really meant was 'I'm going to spank this kid 'til she can't sit down'?
Jelly, her now rapidly-fading hope, nodded in satisfaction and marched self-righteously out of the barn, leaving her alone with one angry, singed-around-the-edges Lancer. Jemimah dipped her head and wrapped her arms around herself in an unconscious mimic of Johnny's own nervous gesture. She stared down blindly at the toe of her dusty black boot. It was only then that she realised she had a hole in her stocking.
"Were the firecrackers yours?"
Jemimah concentrated hard on the hole in the black material where her shin showed through. She nodded.
"Look at me." Johnny's voice was calm but brooked no disobedience.
Though her stomach flipped, she forced herself to be brave and meet his eye.
"I asked you a question."
"Yes sir," she muttered. As a last ditch attempt to get out of what she surely knew was coming, she gazed sorrowfully up at him, from under her thick black lashes. Her 'puppy dog' eyes.
Johnny chuckled and shook his head.
"Save it, chica," he smiled. "That ain't gonna work!" He swept off his dusty hat and tossed it onto a nearby pile of harness. "Well, we're in as good a place as any." He moved purposefully over to a couple of stacked hay bales and sat down.
Jemimah's knees set to shaking then when he turned his deep blue eyes on her and beckoned her to him.
"Come here, kid."
Jemimah was rooted to the spot. It wasn't that she was deliberately disobeying him but, now that the actual moment was here, she couldn't make her feet move in that direction. Not that, truth be told, she fancied going in that direction at all. No sir, not one little bit.
"Come over here!" Johnny's voice was more insistent and not a little incredulous at her refusal to do as she was told. He snapped his fingers and pointed to the floor in front of him.
The sudden noise startled her into action and she found herself walking very slowly over to him, dragging her feet on the straw-covered ground. He had his shirtsleeves rolled up, she noticed, and his thighs looked hard and strong as he sat there waiting on her. She gulped, feeling light-headed and remembering exactly how hard they would soon feel beneath her belly and ribs.
Johnny watched the kid as she approached and felt kind of sorry for her but the ordeal of making her own way voluntarily across the barn to him was the hardest part, he figured. It took a level of courage to face up to being in the wrong and deliver yourself up to be 'chastised', as Scott would put it. He made up his mind that, if she bent over his knee as she was told, with no fuss, he would get it all over and done with as quickly as possible. His eyes softened as he took in her pinched expression and gritted teeth. Though he knew she had it coming, he didn't relish whomping her.
Her journey across to him was achingly slow and he was about to stand up and reach for her when, only a couple of feet away, she suddenly changed direction, darting off to the left; making a bid for freedom.
Jemimah was as shocked at her own sudden flight as Johnny. She had not thought this through at all and knew only that she definitely did not want to be alone with Johnny Lancer in that barn! Unsure of where her pounding feet were taking her, she hurtled towards the half-open doorway, hopes of being able to shin up a tree perhaps, or even make it to her own room, where she could lock the door, giving wings to her heels.
So it was with a sob of dismay that she felt a warm hand firmly grasp her shoulder and an arm with a strength like steel snaked around her waist, lifting her off the ground. She squeaked and kicked her booted feet to no avail, watching the straw sail by beneath her as she was hefted back into the gloomy barn under Johnny's arm.
"Y'know, I was gonna go easy on ya'," Johnny huffed, pacing deliberately back to his chosen seat on the hay bales. "I figured the firecrackers were a dumb idea but you didn't mean to set the store on fire. But now..."
Jemimah cringed and fought to get loose.
Johnny re-seated himself, depositing the wriggling kid over his lap. Jemimah found herself staring at his left spur and the bottom few silver conchos on his pants. She squirmed but was held in place firmly.
"You lie to Jelly..." Johnny was still lecturing relentlessly.
Jemimah sucked in a sharp breath when she felt him reach for the hem of her dress and sweep it, and the two layers of petticoats, up over her back. She didn't know why she felt so mortified; Johnny always said he wasn't going to waste his energy whomping a load of padding. She screwed her eyes shut tight, more embarrassed that he was now seeing her white cotton drawers than afraid of what was coming.
"...an' then you try to run away?" Johnny bit out. He took a breath. "Honey, I am gonna wear you out!"
Jemimah tensed in readiness. There was a brief pause then Johnny's hard palm descended and cracked determinedly against her unprotected rump. With nothing to hold onto, the kid wriggled and kicked out furiously, finally clamping a hand around his left ankle to steady herself.
"Hold still, will ya'?!" Johnny ground out.
"Johnny, don't!" she squeaked. "You... you're hurting me!"
"That means I'm doin' it right! A spankin's supposed to hurt, kid... wouldn't do much good if it didn't!"
Jemimah wrinkled up her nose and tried to remain as quiet as possible until it was over. Her rear end was flaming like one of the Widow's recently incinerated flour bags and, by the time Johnny let her up again (after what felt like a very long time to the girl), she had resolved not to play with fireworks - ever again!
His warm left hand firmly on her shoulder, Johnny guided the sniffling girl (now swiping surreptitiously at an escaping tear) out of the barn (past Amiga who seemed to shuffle towards her in sympathy) and across to the house. It was a slow walk and, from experience, he knew each step was highly uncomfortable.
Once inside, he paused at the foot of the stairs and lifted her chin with a gentle finger. His eyes were not angry or unkind.
Huh! With her rear end stinging like the very fires of hell, Jemimah could find little to be thankful for in his sudden softness.
"Don't make me do that again," he requested quietly, leaning down to her. Jemimah could see his blue eyes were twinkling once more and, despite the burning of her behind, she felt a tentative smile lift the corners of her mouth. "At least, not for a while, huh?"
Johnny tapped her on the tip of her pert little nose and nodded at the stairs. Jemimah released a heavy sigh. She knew full well she would be staying in her room and eating from a tray, probably standing up at the dresser, tonight.
"Go on," he urged firmly and, before he could swing back his arm to send her on her way with another swat, Jemimah scooted up the stairs two at a time.
Sadly for Jemimah, she didn't manage to make it down to breakfast before Scott or Johnny the next morning. She had hoped to secrete a cushion onto her chair before anyone could see but that idea had gone out the window now; there was no way either Lancer would allow it.
"You earn it, you wear it!"
How many times had she heard that one before?
Scott caught her eye as she sat down gingerly and she could tell right away that she was in for a lecture. Quickly forking in a mouthful of bacon, she did not even have the chance to swallow before he started, his voice stern.
"You may be relieved to know that we managed to put the fire out before it could get too far inside the store."
Jemimah risked a furtive glance at Scott and confirmed that he was pretty angry with her. Johnny, in comparison, was a lot more relaxed. But then Scott had not arrived home the night before until way after she had gone to sleep so had not had the opportunity to give her a piece of his mind.
"The Widow and Zee were both unhurt," Scott continued. "No thanks to you and Enrique."
Johnny swiped another biscuit from the plate and watched the girl sink down into her seat.
"Now Scott, I had words with Jemimah here. You know that. She was awful sorry, weren't you, kid?"
Jemimah looked sheepishly up at Scott from under her sooty black lashes and nodded sadly. Smirking, Johnny recognised the 'puppy dog eyes' and kept from chuckling by hastily chomping into the biscuit. Scott cleared his throat.
"Well, that's as may be. You know the only reason you're not upstairs across my knee, having your behind reacquainted with that hairbrush right now, is because Johnny already took care of it? And I know that he'll have done a thorough job."
The girl's face flamed and she lowered her head so that she could hide Scott's angry glare behind her long dark fringe. However, she had the sense to nod and utter a penitent, "Yes sir."
Bloody hell! Was she supposed to sit through another lecture?
Scott was droning on again; this was no lecture, he was all set to preach a bloody sermon! - something about having half a mind (yeah, that was true!) to tell the Widow who was responsible for all the damage and that, if it weren't for the fact that he didn't want Murdoch to come home to find her in jail for arson (Arson? They'd set fire to the store, they'd not done anything rude like that! Jeez, Scott!) he'd be happy for Gabe to arrest them both.
Jemimah munched slowly through her breakfast, allowing Scott's rant to flow in through one ear and out of the other.
WHACK! Jemimah nearly choked on a mouthful of eggs when Maria's wooden spoon suddenly rapped the back of her hand, causing her to drop her fork with a loud clatter.
"What the he'... heck?" she yelped, rubbing the place where the spoon had smacked her.
Maria wagged her finger at the girl and let loose with a torrent of Spanish. Jemimah could decipher the odd word here and there - 'niña traviesa'... 'te buena'... (naughty girl.. be good.. ) but her Spanish was nowhere near good enough yet to follow the rapid stream of angry words.
When Maria had bustled back into the kitchen, Jemimah scowled at the closed door and said, "What was that all about?"
Johnny smirked behind his hand. Maria treated all of them as her extended family and had no qualms about delivering a stinging smack here and there along with a waspish telling-off.
"She says to pay attention to your big brother, that you're a bad little girl (Jemimah scowled fiercely at this!) and you oughta' behave if you don't want to find yourself standing up to eat your dinner tonight!" Johnny smirked, his blue eyes twinkling. It was kinda nice to not be the one in trouble all the time!
"Sound advice," Scott intoned and glared down at Jemimah when she put out her tongue at the closed kitchen door. "You are grounded, young lady. I'm sure Maria can find plenty of chores to occupy you today. And you ever put your tongue out at Maria again..."
At this, Johnny looked up sharply. Jemimah was suddenly alert. She knew that Maria was important to the family, especially Johnny, and that they demanded she be treated with respect.
".. and you'll be running upstairs to fetch that hairbrush for me!"
"That goes double!" Johnny added sternly. "You stay out of trouble today, y'hear?"
Jemimah scraped the cold congealed eggs around her plate miserably.
"Can't I even go out to see Amiga?" she whined plaintively. They were so harsh!
"Yes but you don't saddle her up. Understand me?" Scott wagged his finger warningly as both he and Johnny rose from the table, watching her beadily.
Her green eyes followed the two men as they strolled into the hall and collected their hats and gun belts from the stand at the bottom of the stairs. With a last pointed look at her, they left. Jemimah swigged down her glass of milk. Alone in the quiet room, her eyes narrowed in thought and then a wicked grin lit her impish face. She scooted back her chair and rearranged her countenance in a suitably sorrowful expression. Hands clasped in front of her, she bowed her head and went through to the kitchen - the image of childish contrition.
After scoffing down her lunch, Jemimah watched Maria carefully. She had spent the whole morning being a dutifully repentant little girl, as instructed. She had washed and dried the breakfast dishes, helped Teresa to hang out a basket full of washing, swept the terrace and mopped the kitchen floor. Before Maria had slipped the sandwich in front of her and told her to eat up, Jemimah had been working on her plan to escape for the afternoon. Satisfied she had it all worked out, she approached Maria.
"I was thinking, Maria," she began. "Maybe I should polish Scott's and Johnny's boots? Y'know, show I really am sorry for what happened yesterday? Maybe I could do Murdoch's as well?"
Maria regarded the child then, seeing only an earnest desire to atone in her vivid green eyes, she patted her cheek gently and beamed down at her.
"Si," she agreed. "This would be good. Your brothers and your Papa will be most pleased."
She despatched Jemimah to fetch the boots. Scott typically had two spare pairs but the girl only retrieved one of these along with Johnny's best boots and a pair that were lurking in the bottom of Murdoch's wardrobe. She didn't remember Murdoch ever wearing them but who cared? She had no intention of actually cleaning them anyway.
Sitting on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor, Jemimah smeared Scott's best boots with polish from a tin she had found in the cupboard. The boots were a beautiful ebony shade but Jemimah paid no heed to this. The only tin of polish she had bothered to fetch was ancient and a sort of brick-brown shade. The label had long-since faded so she could not even read the wording on the lid. She could have dug deeper to find the tin they usually used but what the heck! Polish was polish! They would still shine, wouldn't they? She started to rub the polish into the leather, ignoring the way the ugly brown substance spread across the black boots.
Maria was humming to herself as she cut up vegetables for the evening meal. Jemimah decided that the time was right for the next part of her plan.
She rose from the floor and stumbled over to Maria.
"Maria," she faltered. "Could I have some water, please? I don't feel very well."
Maria, the proverbial mother hen, turned and placed a hand on the girl's forehead, peering closely at her.
"Oh, I'm alright really," Jemimah brushed off the woman's concern. "Honestly, if I just have a drink of water I'll be fine."
"Are you sure, niña?" the kindly lady pushed. "You have worked hard this morning and yesterday..." she did not like to remind the child of her punishment but she knew she would still be suffering.
"No, really," Jemimah insisted. "It's just a headache. I'm sure it'll go away soon. I just feel a bit dizzy, that's all." She courageously insisted that she could carry on, knowing that the more she pretended to be brave, the more Maria would be likely to take pity on her.
Taken in completely by the devious child, Maria instantly waved her upstairs to her room for a ' little siesta'. Jemimah finally acquiesced to Maria's insistent concern and, dumping the pile of boots into the pantry, left the kitchen but, instead of going straight upstairs to her room as she was urged, she skipped happily out to the barn.
Slipping a halter onto Amiga, her green eyes gleamed with mischief.
"Scott said I shouldn't saddle you up, girl," Jemimah giggled. "So it looks like I'll have to ride you bare-back!"
She used an upturned bucket to help her mount up onto Amiga then, peering out through the barn door to ensure that no-one was in sight to catch her, she dug her heels into the pony's side and they trotted out into the yard and quickly turned up over the hill, soon to be hidden among the trees.
Cipriano had just sent a team out to work on the dilapidated bridge on the far side of the south pasture when he caught sight of the big bay approaching the homestead. The patron was home early! The boys had not expected him until this evening. Cip grinned. He knew Murdoch well. His friend never stayed away from his beloved ranch any longer than necessary.
Cip thumbed back his hat and swiped at the sweat on his brow, watching Murdoch ride in and slide stiffly down from his horse. He wandered over to greet him with a hearty handshake.
"A good trip, Patron?" he enquired.
Murdoch brushed at the trail dust on his clothes and grinned back, shaking Cip's proffered hand.
"A very good trip, old friend," he agreed. "I signed the contract for the army cattle yesterday. Just what we needed." He clapped Cipriano wearily on the back. "Everything alright here?"
The Segundo glanced sharply at Murdoch and knew instantly that he had heard about the trouble in Spanish Wells. He chuckled.
"Ah, Patron, you have spies everywhere!" Cip smiled. "You have heard about the fire, yes?"
Murdoch was no longer smiling.
"I've heard," Murdoch looked grim. "I ran into José and he let the cat out of the bag."
Cipriano nodded sagely. He had never expected to keep such an event secret from Murdoch. Only his sons would be so naive as to try this. José, Cip's eldest boy, had done no more than he himself would have done. The patron should know of the girl's misbehaviour; he was her father now.
"Si," Cip shook his head. "The two niños were very foolish but they have been taught the error of their ways."
"Si, Juanito was muy concienzudo with the girl, I believe. As for Enrique..."
Murdoch patted his old friend on the shoulder. It went without saying that Cipriano would not allow any of his children to misbehave without receiving just punishment for their crimes.
"Johnny, eh?" Murdoch mused.
He smiled grimly at the big Mexican and headed off towards the house. Cipriano watched him. He knew that Murdoch would also take the girl to task. Hmm... it was no bad thing. The child was growing wild and needed a sharp reminder. Enrique would be thinking twice about following her into more mischief after the licking his father had given him. There had been no sparing of the rod in Cipriano's household last night!
Strolling into the kitchen, Murdoch encountered his ward, Teresa. She was putting the clean crockery into the cupboard over the counter and looked up in surprise.
"Murdoch!" she beamed and embraced him. "You're home early! Did it go well?"
His serious expression was replaced with a genuine smile of affection for the young woman and he hugged her in return.
"Yes, yes, the contract's signed."
"Oh, that is good news!" Teresa reached for another plate and glanced back at him. "You don't look too happy about it?"
Murdoch's thoughts had drifted once more to his little goddaughter and the trouble she was in.
"Hmm? What's that?" he said. "No, I'm fine, darling; I was just thinking about Jemimah."
Teresa suddenly became cagey. She turned away and concentrated very hard on putting the dishes and cups onto the lower shelf.
"Jemimah?" she asked casually, too casually. "Oh, she's around somewhere, I think."
Murdoch's senses were suddenly on the alert. Teresa was obviously nervous but why?
"Teresa," he began, gently turning the girl to him. "Is Jemimah in trouble?"
Teresa raised shocked eyebrows and gave a breathless little laugh, unconsciously removing herself from her guardian's grasp.
"Trouble? Why, no, I don't think so. What would make you think that?"
Murdoch hid his smile and decided Teresa wasn't too old to be reminded that he didn't like being lied to, whatever the reason.
"Oh, it's probably nothing," he said softly. "Just that I remember how you used to avoid looking me in the eye when you were growing up and it usually meant I wasn't getting the whole story." His voice had taken on that warning tone that Teresa recognised. "And I'm sure you can remember how I used to deal with..."
Teresa did indeed remember and she hastened to put as much distance between herself and Murdoch as possible. Crossing to the table to retrieve the coffee pot, she glanced over to him and brushed back her hair in a flustered way.
"Teresa," Murdoch's voice told her she had better come clean.
Her shoulders slumped. "You know, don't you? About the fire?"
Murdoch nodded grimly. "Yes, I know. I ran into José in town. He told me. Now why..."
"I wasn't trying to lie to you, Murdoch!"
"No, I would never! Johnny told me not to say anything!"
Murdoch was surprised. "Johnny did?"
Teresa dumped the coffee pot in the sink and rested her trembling hand on the water pump. She regarded the big man in front of her warily.
"I... I think he didn't want you to be angry with Jemimah. He thought you might feel the need to... punish her." Teresa shrugged.
Murdoch nodded and turned to go. Teresa couldn't be sure but she thought she heard him mutter something about Johnny being right for once.
Murdoch tramped upstairs and tapped on Jemimah's door. When he received no answer, he pushed it open and quickly scanned inside. He felt nettled as he realised she was not in the house and he was going to have to hunt her down. He was tired, fed up and exasperated. Just for once it'd be nice to come back to a peaceful home filled with happy, well-behaved children!
On his way across the yard, he spotted Jelly carrying his gander, Dewdrop and waved him over.
"You're home early, boss!" Jelly made the greeting sound like an accusation.
Murdoch wiped his brow with his handkerchief and patted his hat back on. "Yes, Jelly..."
"Good trip, was it?" Jelly interrupted, transferring the wiggling goose from under one arm to the other.
"Er... yes, it was fine," Murdoch was getting tired of repeating this to everyone he met. "Jelly, have you seen Jemimah?"
"Not fer a while," the older man confessed, dumping the struggling goose at his feet. "Maria's had her tied up with chores all mornin', keepin' her outta trouble!"
Murdoch looked sharply at Jelly and wondered whether the old man was going to try to lie about Jemimah's escapade as well.
"Yep!" Jelly shook his head in disgust. "She might be in the barn with that there pony of hers. It's as close as she's gonna get fer a time - won't feel like settin' a saddle right now, I reckon."
"Why's that?" Murdoch feigned ignorance.
Jelly squinted up at the big man and raised his chin self-righteously.
"Johnny done dusted her britches yesterday, good an' proper! Good thing too if'n you ask me. Gettin' a mite too uppity fer her own good; told me a real whopper she did an' I know you can't abide lyin'!"
"Is that so?" Murdoch narrowed his eyes and stared off at the barn. "You're right there, Jelly. And if Jemimah's getting into the habit of telling stories then I'm just going to have to cure her of it! In the barn, you say?" Murdoch's mouth was set in a hard line and his blue eyes were flinty. "Well, it's not exactly a woodshed but it'll do fine!"
Jelly watched Murdoch march off across the yard and haul open the barn door. Shaking his whiskered head, he almost felt sorry for the little minx; Murdoch was a different kettle of fish from young Johnny and Jemimah was going to find that out the hard way!
Jelly's mouth dropped open in surprise, however, when almost immediately Murdoch exited the barn, looking even more irate. He trotted over to the big man.
"Amiga's gone," Murdoch ground out.
"She's lit out... alone?" Jelly was incredulous.
"She may not be alone," Murdoch spied Cipriano talking to a small group of men near the gate. He called out to him and waved him over. Cipriano sent the men off to their work and approached, his face showing his concern at Murdoch's evident angry frown.
"Cip, you seen anything of Enrique this afternoon?" Murdoch asked. In answer to his Segundo's unspoken question, he elaborated, "Jemimah's missing. Her pony's gone."
Cipriano shook his head. "No Patron. She did not tell anyone where she was going?"
"She did not! And no-one seems to have seen her ride out."
Cipriano muttered an oath in angry Spanish.
"Alright. It's a process of elimination then!" Murdoch paused, his breathing heavy as though he were about to erupt. "Cip, can you think of anywhere that Enrique particularly favours right now?"
The Mexican nodded savagely, ashamed to think that his youngest boy might be involved in further trouble.
"Si, there are one or two places he goes," he confirmed. "One more than the others, I would guess."
The two big men looked at each other and spoke in unison. "The waterhole!"
"Jemimah knows she's not allowed to swim there without an adult to look out for her. When I find that young lady... Jelly, you stay here in case she comes back before us!"
Murdoch set off across the yard to his horse. Gone were his hopes for a leisurely soak in a hot soothing bath. He ground his teeth and somehow kept the lid on his simmering temper. Cipriano was at his side. His expression was also fierce.
"I had told Enrique to stay home. The chicken coop was to be swept. When I find him I will give to him something he will not like!"
They had reached their horses and mounted up quickly, fears for the safety of their youngsters unspoken but acknowledged by both.
" They'd better only be fishing!" Murdoch bit out.
His sore back was protesting at him being back in the saddle so soon. Pushing his hat firmly on, he nudged his horse into a ground-eating lope and they headed towards the waterhole.
The water felt deliciously cool and silky against her skin and Jemimah grinned. She raised her face to the sun, squinting at the bright beams of light as they dappled through the branches of the trees above them. Her long dark hair swirled around her bare shoulders like an inky cloud.
Enrique was mesmerised by her. He would not have missed this for the world. Thoughts of the chicken coop and how displeased his father would be when he saw the job only half done were pushed to the back of the boy's mind. At that moment, all his besotted brain could cope with was the image of this glorious little creature slipping sinuously by him like some exotic fish. As she passed, she flashed him a knowing smile, her emerald eyes framed by thick black lashes, made spiky by the water.
Enrique gulped and again tried to see her through the darkness of the water. His heart beat hard against his ribs as he glimpsed the startling white of her buttocks and legs as she kicked strongly out to where it was deeper.
Jemimah had been the one to suggest they swim naked and, at first, he had been shocked. His stammered refusal had elicited further accusations of being 'chicken' and she had declared that she fully intended to shuck all her clothes whether he did so or not.
Enrique had been angry then but not so angry that he had not tried to catch a glimpse of her as she undressed behind the bushes. Her sudden sprint and dive into the pool had afforded him only the most blurred split-second image of her body before it was hidden again by the deep water. He had felt even angrier but he was not sure why. The girl's splashing and taunting had been insufferable too. Why, it was more than a man could stand!
"De acuerdo!" he had finally snapped. "You turn around until I get in!"
Jemimah, smirking, had complied, her patience rewarded when she heard a loud splash and Enrique surfaced a few feet away from her.
They were initially shy, keeping their distance but, before long, the sheer pleasure of being in the cool water overcame their reticence and they splashed each other, shrieking wildly and laughing. This was stolen fun and that made it even more enjoyable. Apart from anything else, they both felt the relief on their worn-out behinds!
Jemimah was getting tired. She was a fairly strong swimmer but she had been treading water for several minutes and felt her chin dip under. She swam a few strokes to where it was more shallow but Enrique had noticed and reached her first. Somewhat taller, he was just able to stand on tiptoe and he graciously offered a supporting arm to his companion.
Jemimah took it, grinning at him. This was the closest they had been since they got into the pool. She noticed the smoothness of the skin on his shoulders and the way his ears curved neatly against his head. His jet black hair was slicked back so that his eyes were more noticeable. They were not blue like Johnny's eyes; they were a deep soulful brown with long dark lashes. They didn't give her a thrill like Johnny's eyes always did but she supposed they were still quite striking.
Enrique could not tear his eyes from her face. It held him entranced and, not for the first time, he wondered why. She was not exactly beautiful. Every boy agreed that the most beautiful girl in school was Emily Travis - she had long golden curls that boinged up when you tweaked them and her eyes were a stunning shade of light blue in her rosy-cheeked face. She even had bosoms and, if you gave her a peppermint stick, she would let you press up against her so you could feel them against your shirtfront while you hugged her.
But Jemimah was... different; like no other girl he had ever met. She had spirit. She talked funny and she was brave like a boy, not simpering and coquettish like other girls their age. Her eyes were astonishingly green and they reminded him of the pictures of the ocean he had seen in books - a vivid blue-green. She had a pretty little nose and her skin, though more suntanned than when she first came, was much whiter than his own. She had no curls; her hair was very long and very straight but its colour... Enrique reached out to let a silky length slide through his fingers. It wasn't black, it wasn't brown - it was like rich chocolate... and he loved it.
Jemimah smiled up at him when she felt his fingers touch her hair. She wondered what it would feel like to kiss him.
Murdoch and Cipriano saw the two ponies tied by the big willow tree and dismounted quietly. At least they had found them! They approached the water stealthily and, for two such big men, made hardly a sound. They could hear laughter coming from the pool, along with the noise of splashing and knew the children were swimming though it had been expressly forbidden.
Murdoch peered over the edge of the rocks, looking down over the pool.
There, right in the middle, he could plainly see the two miscreants in the water. They sure were swimming and... Murdoch squinted in the murky green light cast by the branches of the trees above.
"Cip!" he ground out quietly and beckoned his friend.
The big Mexican knelt down and looked out to where Murdoch was pointing.
"Madre de Dios!" he hissed.
The two kids were entwined, still treading water, and were as naked as the day they were born. When Jemimah leaned towards the young boy and gave him a little kiss, Murdoch nearly burst a blood vessel.
He got up as quickly as his aching back would allow and tapped Cipriano's shoulder.
"You might say they've been caught with their pants down," he growled.
"Si... perfect for a papa to express his displeasure on a niño desobediente!"
Murdoch nodded with alacrity. "Quite!"
They turned and clambered rapidly down the rocks, collecting the two sheets that the youngsters had brought as towels and holding them out rather in the manner of two matadors. Then, approaching the water's edge, they eyed the miscreants angrily.
Jemimah had just ducked an astonished Enrique under the water and was shrieking with laughter as he surfaced, spluttering. He shook his head to fling his long fringe out of his eyes and caught sight of something white on the bank. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. The desire to sink under the cold depths was almost undeniable as he regarded the wrath on his father's face. Señor Lancer was there too! Mierda! Enrique felt dizzy and had to put his feet down on the slippery rocks to remain above the surface.
Jemimah swam to him and draped herself on his shoulder, still laughing.
"What' s the matter with you?" she urged the silent boy.
As though in a trance, his only answer was an almost imperceptible nod at the water's edge. Jemimah, grinning, turned to see and felt the smile slide off her face.
"Oh, shit!" she breathed.
Murdoch felt a tiny twinge of satisfaction at his goddaughter's expression of horror.
"Out! Both of you! Right now!" Murdoch did not yell but was all the more scary for his steely control.
The two youngsters gaped at their fathers then at each other, then back again at the irate adults waiting for them.
"NOW!" Murdoch bellowed.
"I can't!" Jemimah wailed. "Murdoch, I'm not wearing..." She belatedly wrapped her arms around herself even though she was hidden by the deep water.
"I think we've all noticed that, young lady!" Murdoch seethed. "Get out of that water right now!"
Unwisely, Jemimah argued.
"But, Murdoch... I can't... not in front of..." her eyes darted imploringly to Cipriano who stood holding the sheet expectantly for his son.
"Child!" Cip was not amused that neither of them had yet obeyed. "If you think I will be shocked by your scrawny behind, think again! I have four daughters of my own." He eyed Enrique menacingly. "Enrique, vengo ahora!"
The boy glanced regretfully at Jemimah by his side and let go of her hand. He knew he had no choice; had known it the second he saw the wrath on his parent's face. He started to swim to the bank. Cipriano waded in to meet him and, when the boy stood up, he wrapped the sheet around him to save his dignity a little. Yes, he was very angry with his son but, in truth, he blamed the girl far more; she was the instigator of all their misdeeds. He clamped his heavy hand on his son's shoulder and walked the trembling boy over to the trees.
"Jemimah!" Murdoch's insistent growl made her jump and she bit back a sob. Heartless git!
Almost in tears of mortification, she swam slowly to the bank then, when she knew she was in the shallows, she faced away from Murdoch and stood up on trembling legs. Murdoch glanced briefly at her 'scrawny behind' before enveloping her in the voluminous sheet. His big, warm hand on the small of her back guided her across the grass to where the horses stood minding their own business.
Jemimah realised with shock that Cipriano had already seated himself on a rock and was draping a compliant Enrique over his solid knee. She blushed furiously at the sudden realisation that they were both going to be dealt with there and then, in front of each other.
Murdoch walked the quivering girl over to the fallen tree where they had sat on several picnics. He settled down and, with no further ado, pitched her over his lap. Her long hair hung in dripping tendrils around her face but her arms were trapped securely in the sheet so she could not brush them away. Moreover she could barely move! Murdoch smiled ruthlessly. He had not intended it this way but the sheet came in mighty handy! He and Cipriano glanced across at each other then 'unwapped' the two wriggling packages to reveal damp bare bottoms which they instantly proceeded to paddle vigorously.
Shocked at how rapidly their afternoon of illicit fun had turned on them, both kids were stunned into virtual silence and, therefore, the only sound emanating from the waterhole for the next few minutes (apart from the occasional squeak and whimper) was the slapping of big, work-hardened hands against wet flesh... and the horses munching unconcernedly in the rich sweet grass.
Jemimah glanced across at Enrique and the sight of her compadre, bravely taking his medicine brought a lump to her throat. Seeing him suffering too made it even worse somehow. She squeezed her eyes tight shut and resolved to make it up to him. Whatever faults she may have, Jemimah was honest with herself and she knew that he was in trouble now because of her scheming.
When at last the ringing smacks ceased and she felt Murdoch wrap the sheet around her lower half once more, Jemimah's face was shiny with tears of remorse and her rear end was hurting like the very devil. She looked across to her friend but he was hanging his head, refusing to meet her eye.
Their fathers pushed them off behind separate bushes to dress then, tying the ponies behind, plonked them both onto their own horses, mounting up behind them as though they were infants. Jemimah gasped when her behind made contact with Murdoch's saddle but she couldn't fidget much as he held her in place. Too sorry for themselves and too sore to share more than a quick guilty glance, the children were on their way back home, fervently wishing they had never left in the first place.
No-one had spoken for the whole of the ride back to Lancer though Jemimah didn't know how she had managed not to swear out loud on several occasions when the big bay horse had jogged her hard against the tough leather of the saddle. Sonofabitch! Jemimah savoured the cuss word in her head. She had heard Mateo say it once when he had taken a tumble from his horse and it fit her emotions perfectly!
They stopped in the yard in front of the hacienda and Murdoch looked across to his Segundo whose arms were wrapped securely around his subdued son.
"We will be going on home, Patron," Cipriano confirmed. "I think Enrique's mama will be wondering why the chicken coop has not been swept as he promised."
The boy winced, knowing he was in for more lecturing and undoubtedly a long list of extra chores to atone for his afternoon jaunt. He glanced furtively up at Jemimah and spoke quietly.
"Adios, Jemimah. Maybe, if my papa lets me live, I will be allowed out to see you again... someday."
His morose expression told them all that he did not hold out much hope for this. He would be grounded until the end of his days! His father cuffed his ear fondly.
"Basta ya!" he chided. "I think you have 'seen' quite enough of each other for a while!"
Murdoch's eyes twinkled as he looked across at his old friend. Certainly, they had to punish the two scamps but their overriding feelings were of thanks that they were safe and home with them once more.
"Cipriano," Jemimah's voice was very small. "Please don't be angry with Enrique. It was all my idea... and I dared him to! I mean, really, dared by a girl... what was he supposed to do?!"
Jemimah did her utmost best to appear sorry and sad, fluttering her eyelashes as she had never fluttered before!
Cipriano bit his lip to keep from grinning at her antics. That girl! Ay, ay, ay!
"Chica, Enrique should be more mindful of his papa than of you" he admonished. "This is something he will learn today, I think."
Enrique squirmed on his father's saddle and gave Jemimah a sad little salute as they turned away.
The boy turned at her shout and was shocked to see her blatant grin and the sassy wink. She was so bold! He could not help but smile back. Then his father clicked the reins and they walked off down the lane.
Murdoch cuffed the back of her head. "Young lady, you are shameless!" he ground out, trying valiantly to disguise his fond smile behind a stern frown. She reminded him of Johnny or, at least, the way he imagined a Johnny, brought up at Lancer, to have been at thirteen - wilful, spirited but impossible to stay angry with and all too easy to love. "Inside!"
Jemimah slid down speedily and raced into the house ahead of Murdoch, keen to keep out of reach of that hard right hand! When she peeped around the door, both Scott and Johnny were sitting talking near the unlit fireplace. Jemimah had hoped to find the room deserted and would have hared off up the stairs to her room. Murdoch, however, was hot on her heels, moving swiftly for such a big man. He strode in through the front door and called out to the errant young miss.
"Hold it right there, young lady! You get yourself in here."
He indicated that she should precede him into the great room. Shoulders slumped, she sloped in, a decidedly miffed scowl on her face.
"Sit down please," Murdoch told her, gesturing to the seat beside Johnny.
Jemimah regarded the sofa with distaste and hesitated. "I'd rather not..."
Murdoch caught the surprised glance that passed between his sons. "Sit! Now!" he pressed.
The young girl lowered her denim-clad behind hesitantly onto the cushion with a sharp hiss. Her backside was really smarting now and all she wanted to do was drag off her overalls and lie face down on her bed. Feeling very conspicuous and knowing all eyes were focused on her, she stared down at the faded denim at her knees. It was wearing thin and she fiddled nervously with the fraying threads.
"What's goin' on?" Johnny asked.
Scott chuckled and reached for his glass of whisky. "I think someone's in trouble."
"Again?" Johnny's voice was louder and disbelieving. "Girl, can't you behave for two days in a row?"
Hearing her mutter something and managing to catch the words, "Mind your own business!", Johnny sat forwards, his eyebrows raised.
Murdoch also leaned towards the girl.
"I would suggest, young lady," his tone was severe. "The tally now standing at two lickings, it would behove you to hold your tongue and avoid a third!"
Jemimah's face was like thunder. She folded her arms and pouted, glaring down and avoiding everyone's eye.
Murdoch crossed to the decanter and poured himself a generous whisky, feeling the need of its fortifying warmth.
"Now, you listen and listen well," he instructed sharply. "When we're done here, you will go up to your room where you will stay for the rest of the day. Maria will send your supper up on a tray."
He paused to sip his drink. Jemimah knew he was deciding on all the other additions to her endless list of punishments. If it were possible, her pout increased and she refused to look up. Both brothers were also listening closely to see what their father would decree.
"Maria will also compile a list of chores for you so that, every day when you get home from school, you'll be kept busy until dinner. After we've eaten you'll go straight up to bed."
At this, Jemimah did look up, her green eyes gaping at her father.
"What? But that's way too early!"
Murdoch shook his head. "If it'll keep you out of mischief..."
"And anyway, I can't!" the girl's expression was smug.
Scott and Johnny looked at each other, hardly able to believe her saucy attitude. She was asking for it! Could she not see that telltale vein starting to throb at Murdoch's temple? The kid was either crazy or a glutton for punishment.
"Oh, and why, may I ask, is that? Enlighten me," Murdoch requested, his flinty eyes belying the silkiness of his voice.
"What about my homework? You wouldn't want me to neglect my studies, would you?"
Scott quickly drained his glass while Johnny hid his smirk behind his hand. Murdoch appeared to be gritting his teeth. When he spoke, it was calmly and quietly.
"You will do your homework... and then YOU WILL GO TO BED!"
Everyone flinched as his voice rose to a bellow. Jemimah shuffled on the cushion and winced.
"And how long am I supposed to do this for?" she sulked.
"Until I decide otherwise, missy! Oh and another thing..." Murdoch crossed to stand in front of her. "If you ever leave this ranch without letting someone know where you're going..."
Johnny and Scott both sat up straighter and frowned at the girl. Now they would find out what she'd done!
"...if you ever go swimming without an adult..."
"What!" Scott glared at her while Johnny merely looked incredulous.
"... or if you EVER go skinny-dipping again..." Murdoch leaned over the white-faced girl. "... I will spank you so hard you won't sit down for a month! You understand me?" Murdoch's face was terrible and Jemimah paled, her heart pounding.
"Skinny-dipping?" she heard the hard edge in Johnny's question and decided she could only deal with one angry Lancer at a time. Facing Murdoch, she nodded and mumbled a tiny 'Yessir.'
Murdoch straightened slowly up again. His back was really paining him now. That bath was beckoning.
"Upstairs... and you'd better be in your nightgown when I come up to check. Now scoot!"
Jemimah knew when she'd had enough. She sprang up from the sofa and scooted as she was told.
Scott crossed to the whisky decanter and poured himself another. He glanced over at his younger brother who was chewing his lower lip and tapping his fingers edgily on the knee of his dusty pants.
Suddenly he surged up out of his seat and paced over to the big desk.
"Skinny-dipping?" he repeated. "Who in hell was she skinny-dipping with?"
"Now, Johnny," Murdoch placated his son. "Cip and I took care of it, I assure you."
Johnny turned and it was obvious he was far from happy. "I just wanna' know, that's all!"
"I think it'd be safe to assume that it was her usual partner in crime... Enrique?" Scott asked calmly.
Murdoch nodded and gestured for Scott to refill his glass too. Johnny's fingers tapped energetically at the silver conchos on the side of his calzoneras. Then he turned on his heel and headed purposefully to the door.
"I need to have a word with that boy!" he ground out.
"John, wait!" Murdoch called, halting his son in his tracks. Murdoch paused then went over to Johnny, placing a hand soothingly on his shoulder and leading him back to the sofa.
"Cipriano and I have already scorched a pair of bare backsides and I'm willing to bet that José will be following in his Pa's footsteps too - you know how he acts like a second father to his younger brothers and sisters when Cip's away. I'd say Enrique is bound to be one sore and sorry young man before the end of the day."
Johnny still was not happy. "Well, that may be, Murdoch but..."
His father pre-empted his protest. "And it may interest you to know that today's escapade was all Jemimah's idea. She admitted it. Just as I suspect the fireworks at the Widow's store were her idea too?"
The tall rancher watched his youngest closely and bit back a smile at his sudden shiftiness.
"Fireworks?" Johnny feigned ignorance and subconsciously put some distance between himself and his old man.
Murdoch raised an ironic eyebrow. "Son, I just dusted the behind of one youngster for lying. Don't you start too!" He chuckled at Johnny's blush and the way the young man bashfully dipped his head to concentrate on his dusty boots. "I know you dealt with Jemimah yesterday for the fire. Jelly told me."
Johnny had the grace to grin and muttered, "Might'a known - big mouth!"
Murdoch eased himself down into his usual armchair and studied his two boys.
"Beats me how any of you think you can keep me in the dark around here. Teresa's just as bad. Do I have to take all of my children out to the barn to impress on you the importance of telling your father the truth? Hmm?"
Scott smiled and swirled the liquor in his glass. "For my part, sir, I think I can safely say that I learned that lesson some years ago."
"Me too," Johnny smirked. At the old man's pointed look, he held up his hands in mock surrender, grinning. "Honest! Besides, Murdoch, I think I'd be too big to fit over your knee!"
There was a glint of humour in Murdoch's blue-grey eyes as he watched his handsome boy. "Just don't try me, son... that's all," he warned.
Johnny crossed over to his brother, accepting the drink he had poured for him. "No, I sure won't," he agreed.
Murdoch twinkled at his boy. "Is that so? Er... Johnny, I happen to know that Zeke's shop was just about deserted on Friday but your hair doesn't look any shorter. Hmm?"
Johnny opened his mouth to tell his pre-rehearsed story but Scott, mindful of Murdoch's warning not to lie, coughed theatrically and stepped in.
"So... the kids were really skinny-dipping, eh?"
Murdoch nodded and chuckled. Scott joined in. Only Johnny's face held a scowl.
"I don't see what's funny." Johnny still had half a mind to give the boy a whupping he'd never forget.
"Oh... I was just imagining Murdoch and Cip, both whacking away in tandem at two wriggling bare behinds," Scott smirked.
"Well, it certainly made things easier," Murdoch mused.
"Easier? How'd you mean??" Johnny was grinning again.
Murdoch remembered the scene and chortled.
"I could tell when I'd made the right impression by the particular shade of red I was aiming for!"
His two sons looked enquiringly at him.
"Firecracker!" Murdoch raised his glass and grinned at them.
A quiet and repentant Jemimah sat at the breakfast table the next morning, dutifully decked out in her Sunday best - a cream calico dress sprigged with tiny pink rosebuds, a freshly pressed white pinafore and her shining dark hair in a sleek ponytail. If she squirmed a little on her chair nobody let on that they noticed.
For once she made no fuss about downing the dish of porridge - something she usually kicked up a huge palaver about. The grimace told Murdoch that each spoonful was a torment but she swallowed it silently. The big man caught the eye of his son sitting beside him.
"Where's Scott?" he asked. "We need to get going if we don't want to be late for services."
"Mmm? Oh, he said something about not being able to find his boots," Johnny replied through a large mouthful of scrambled eggs. "He's already eaten."
"Excuse me a moment, I forgot my hair ribbon!" Jemimah blurted and, without waiting for permission to leave the table, she leaped up and ran into the kitchen.
"Well, what on earth is it doing in the kitchen?" Teresa wondered aloud.
Jemimah was thankful that Maria did not work on Sundays. The kitchen was deserted. Nonetheless, she felt the need to tiptoe as she pushed open the door to the pantry. Squeezing all the way to the back, she scrabbled around under the huge sack of potatoes and the two crates of preserves. When her fingers felt the leather of the boots, she smiled and sighed with relief. They were still here! She pulled them out.
Johnny's boots were still dusty and in need of a good going over; Murdoch's had not been that dirty in the first place. They were a little scuffed now though. One of the heavy crates must have had a jagged edge and there was a substantial gouge across one toe. Blimey! She glanced over her shoulder, biting her lip. She'd have to slip these back quickly before someone saw her. Now... Scott's boots... typical that he would want to wear this particular pair for church today.
But, as Jemimah heaved out the boots, her jaw dropped.
The once lustrous ebony black leather was now a hideous mottled grey, smeared with patches of streaky white and a sort of peachy-pink that resembled mould. There was no sheen to them anymore; they looked for all the world as if they had been dragged through a swamp then left out to dry for a whole summer. Stroking a disbelieving fingertip over the surface told her that the smooth butter-soft finish was gone forever; in its place was a coarse roughness like old sandpaper. They were unrecognisable! Even the ancient battered things sported by Jelly looked better than these wrecks.
Jemimah gasped, her hand to her mouth and her green eyes wide.
"Oh shit!" she breathed.
Stuffing all three pairs into a sack which had previously contained flour, she froze at the bottom of the back stairs, listening to Scott coming down the main staircase. Once she was sure he was in the dining room with the others, she flew up like a demon to put the boots back where she had found them.
The deed now done, the girl smoothed down her pinafore and sedately made her way down again, her pleasant smile hiding the inner jitters.
Church was particularly unpleasant for Jemimah who had to be tapped on the knee three times by Murdoch for fidgeting. The sermon seemed interminable for a person so recently whomped - twice in one weekend! And the hard wooden pew was like an instrument of torture to her. The reverend droned on and on about the fire at the Widow's store and how reprehensible the culprits were. At that point he had paused and eyed all the children in the congregation beadily, his gaze raking over them and lingering for an uncomfortably long few seconds on Jemimah. Cheeks blazing, she lowered her eyes guiltily and the good reverend's beetle-like brows had come together in a terrible frown. His preaching from that point seemed to be delivered entirely to the Lancer pew and Jemimah was not the only one to feel hot under the collar.
The vein in Murdoch's temple was doing that nasty little throbbing thing and Jemimah noticed that he kept clenching and unclenching his fists on his knee, occasionally darting a furious glance down at her as she sat miserably sinking lower and lower into the pew at his side.
When the reverend quoted from the book of proverbs -
"Whoever spares the rod hates his child, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him" and "Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it from him,"
Jemimah swore she could actually see Murdoch grinding his teeth when he looked down at her. The meek little smile she sent his way did nothing to reduce the grimace or the redness of his cheeks.
For once, Murdoch did not pause to allow other members of the congregation to vacate their seats before him. As soon as the final blessing was given, he rose and growled to his family that he would meet them outside. Scott and Teresa had not lingered to partake in the customary chit-chat with their friends and neighbours but had ushered Jemimah from the building, thankful to escape the enquiring glances being sent their way. It was more than obvious that the good reverend's pointed remarks had been addressed to them and speculation was now rife.
Only when they were again driving back to Lancer (Jemimah still fidgeting on the bouncing back seat of the surrey) did Murdoch seem to relax, his ruddy complexion slowly returning to normal.
"Well, thank the lord that's over!" he grumbled. "I could feel every eye in that church watching us." He threw a filthy look over his shoulder at Jemimah. "You ever make me sit through an ordeal like that again, young lady..."
He did not need to finish his threat. Jemimah understood perfectly well.
When they went back into the house, they found Johnny waiting for them in the great room. As usual, he had stayed home.
Teresa went straight to her room to change before serving up the lunch she had prepared earlier and Jemimah, eager to rid herself of the girlish frills, bounded up behind her.
Johnny handed his father and brother the whiskies he had poured for them.
"A little early in the day isn't it?" Scott said as he took the glass.
Johnny cocked his head to one side, thoughtfully regarding his older brother. "Take it, Scott," he smiled. "You may need it."
Scott raised his whisky in a puzzled silent toast but did not drink. Murdoch also took the proffered glass, his eyes wary.
"Alright, Johnny," he said. "I've taken about all I can for one day. Since I got back from Sacramento, there's been one catastrophe after another and I'm about at the end of my rope. What..."
"Oh no, Murdoch," Johnny held up a hand to stem his father's worried diatribe mid-flow. He turned to Scott and his eyes were full of laughter though he did not allow his face to smile. "This concerns Scott, not you." He jogged over to the kitchen door and called through it. "Maria!"
Scott and Murdoch were bewildered.
"Maria? What's she doing here on a Sunday?" Scott was flummoxed. "And what's it got to do with me?" He pulled distractedly at his string tie and unfastened the top button of his collar.
Johnny's only answer was to look pointedly at Maria as she came through from the kitchen. She was carrying something. Scott could not make out what it was though the shape was somewhat familiar.
As she drew nearer, she held out the thing - things - and Scott studied them. As he did so, his eyes grew wide and his jaw dropped open. He put down his glass with a hand that trembled like he was in a high fever and he appeared to be trying to speak though the only sound emitting from his throat was a kind of dry croak.
Johnny patted his brother sympathetically on the shoulder. "Y'alright there, brother?"
"My... boots!" finally words came out of Scott's mouth and he looked like he might cry. "How?"
Johnny ducked his head, wiping at his nose to hide the smile he was trying to bite back. "What did you say?" he tormented.
"How?" Scott croaked again, reaching out to gently take the ruined boots into his hands.
Their father, seeing Johnny's mirth building and aware that there could well be an eruption from his older son at any moment, stepped in.
"Now, Johnny..." he warned.
"Not this time, Murdoch," Johnny smiled the smile of the innocent. "I went looking for the missing boots while you were all at church an' I found these in your closet, Scott!"
Scott whirled round at this but Johnny continued quickly. "Yeah, I know you already looked there. Kinda strange that one minute they're gone an' the next they just reappear, don't you think?" He glanced at his father too. "Then again, it is Sunday. Maybe it's a miracle? Thing is..." he turned to give the ghastly boots another look of distaste, "those boots don't look like they been brought back from the dead; they still seem pretty damn deceased to me!"
"Maria," Murdoch wisely stepped in again before Scott could explode. "You know how this happened?"
"Si Patron," she nodded. "Juanito found the boots and came to see me at the chapel..."
Murdoch spun round to look at Johnny who smirked back.
"See, Murdoch... I do know where the chapel is!"
Murdoch harrumphed and turned back to his housekeeper.
"She was only trying to help; she was being a good girl - for once. She wanted to make amends," in answer to their unspoken question, Maria elaborated. "The niña!"
"Jemimah!" Scott's tone was both incredulous and disbelieving. "She did this? A $65 pair of hand-tooled boots... and she reduced them to... to..."
Maria's face beseeched him to listen.
"She took your boots, Juanito's and the Patron's..."
Johnny and Murdoch looked up in alarm - this was news to them!
"... but she did not polish any except Scott's. "
Johnny and Murdoch breathed a sigh of relief but Scott, when he turned to them, looked far from forgiving.
"That's it!" he ground out under his breath, heading for the hall. "Jemimah!"
He then disappeared up the stairs, two at a time, and could be heard banging a door open and calling for the girl again. He sounded far from pleased.
"But what did she do? How did she manage to..." Murdoch gazed down at the pitiful sight of the once-handsome boots. They lay pathetically on the rug where Scott had dropped them, a smattering of flour sprinkling the floor.
"This," Maria held up a flat tin with a faded yellowing label. "It is the polish we use for the plata - the silver." She shrugged, preferring to believe the child had made a mistake.
Murdoch didn't know what to think. The girl's pranks had truly caught up with her now. In a way, she had 'cried wolf' on too many occasions and now it was hard not to pronounce her guilty without a trial. Scott clearly believed that this was just another of her tricks.
He reappeared, somewhat out of breath from his unsuccessful child-hunt but now armed - a paddle-like wooden hairbrush was clutched in his right hand as he strode across the room towards the kitchen.
"Alright, where is she? She's not in her room!"
He paced through into the kitchen, looking around wildly. Johnny and Maria followed him.
"Scott, that kid is like smoke - you can't keep a hold of her!" Johnny grinned as he watched his irate older brother bending over to check underneath the table.
"I'll find her!" Scott growled, opening the pantry door and ducking his head inside to see if she was hidden there. "I'll find her, Johnny and when I do..." he gripped the hairbrush and waved it threateningly.
Johnny shrugged. Scott was too worked-up. There was no use arguing with him.
"Alright, I'd guess she's with her pony. You might try lookin' in the barn."
"Good idea!" Scott turned on his heel and stormed out into the kitchen garden.
Johnny watched Maria go back into the great room, shaking her head and chuntering away in Spanish. He leaned his backside against the edge of the sink and sighed, his arms folded casually, the heel of his right boot tapping on the tiles.
"Alright, you can come out now!"
Nothing happened for a few seconds then the curtain covering the cupboard space under the sink opened quietly and a dark head peeked out. Jemimah crawled out of her tiny hiding place and sat at Johnny's feet, staring up at him in mute appeal - her best 'puppy dog' expression.
Johnny shook his head and smiled. "You know you can't hide forever, miel," he chided, grinning. "Scott's gonna find you and when he does..." Johnny whistled warningly.
Jemimah scrambled stiffly to her bare feet, a sly grin now on her impish little face. She regarded Johnny as he stood, arms folded still, watching her. He wasn't mad at her she concluded; he thought it was all pretty funny, she could tell. Scott however...hmmm... Johnny was right; she'd better keep out of his way.
She snatched a handful of cookies from the plate on the table and smirked.
"Yeah, but if I can keep him looking 'til after dinner then maybe he'll be too tired to..."
"Don't bet on it!" a voice ground out from the kitchen doorway.
Both Johnny and Jemimah turned to see Scott glowering at her. He was leaning against the door frame and Jemimah didn't like the way he seemed to fill it. All at once he looked bigger than usual!
A split-second later, she squealed and tore off up the back stairs with Scott in hot pursuit. Johnny at last let out the laugh that had been bubbling inside him since he'd first found the ugly ruined boots lurking at the bottom of Scott's wardrobe.
In the great room, Murdoch looked up from his book and eyed the ceiling warily. Much thumping, shouting and howling could be heard above him; it sounded for all the world like a herd of buffalo were rampaging along the landing. More thumping heading his way and suddenly a screaming Jemimah streaked madly across the room and out of the French windows. A few seconds later, a fuming Scott raced after her, demanding she come back at once and not to dare go outside in her bare feet! Murdoch sighed and shook his head wearily.
"Well, Murdoch," Teresa carried in a plate of fresh rolls and bent over to place them in the centre of the dining table. "Aren't you glad you have at least one child who knows how to behave properly?"
Murdoch looked up from the page he was reading to smile at his ward when a blur of blue skipped past, whacking Teresa soundly on her rump on its way outside. Johnny's shirt and fancy calzoneras could just be glimpsed escaping but there was no mistaking his wicked laugh.
"Johnny Lancer, I'm gonna get you!" Teresa vowed and gave chase, her claim to propriety forgotten.
Left alone with only the distant shrieks and laughter to be heard, Murdoch looked up to heaven and gave a deep sigh. Then his face softened and his mouth curved into a smile which soon became a fully-fledged chuckle.
"I have so much to be thankful for," he thought. "Don't you ever let me forget it!"
Anne Haslam March 2013