( A WHN for the end of Jemimah Day)
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
"Can I? Please?"
I hated that hitch I sometimes still got in my voice, usually after a really good blubber, and I scowled impatiently at myself. I guess Murdoch must've thought it was sweet though because he gave me a huge grin and his answer was to lift me up in his arms and head towards the door.
"You want to see Scott? I think we can manage that."
It was nice being carried by him; it felt like Daddy. I thought of him and wondered if he would mind that I'd just told Murdoch I wanted him to be my daddy now. But, the second I'd had the thought, I knew he wouldn't mind. In fact, I reckoned he'd be pleased. After all, he'd arranged for me to be brought over here after he... Murdoch was his oldest friend and I knew he trusted him like no-one else in the whole world.
As he carried me along the dimly lit landing to Scott's room, I snuggled into him, inhaling that particular smell Murdoch had - soap and pipe tobacco. I can't explain it but somebody ought to be able to bottle that smell so you could take a really big whiff whenever you felt scared or unhappy - it gave you a real comforting feeling, like being wrapped in a thick quilt on the big sofa, before a roaring fire. Maybe with a plate of them sugary pastry things that Maria makes too.
Murdoch dipped down and contrived to turn the doorknob then pushed it open with his foot. Then he sidled around the door into Scott's room. I straightaway got another lump in my throat and I knew my eyes were all swelled up an' red. I was surprised an' more than a little discomfited to find that Johnny was there too, sitting in the wicker chair at the bedside. What I had to say I really didn't fancy having an audience for; I was already brickin' it!
Murdoch lowered me down and sat me on the side of the bed. Before I could say anything, I caught Johnny giving Murdoch a look with his eyebrows all lifted up and this sort of smirk. I knew what he meant by it too - he was guessing right that Murdoch hadn't given me a lickin' after all.
Scott was really pale and his face was all shiny-looking like he'd got a bit of a fever. I supposed he might be in some pain, what with his broken ribs and arm. Doc Jenkins had put him a sling on and he wasn't wearing a nightshirt. He wasn't exactly bare-chested either though 'cos there were all these bandages wrapped round his middle. I knew I was staring an' that it's rude to stare but I couldn't help it! Here was Scott, usually all tall and upright like a soldier... his hair always seemed to be combed neat as a pin but now it was.. well, there's no two ways about it; it was ruffled up and sort of messy. To tell the truth, I kinda liked it that way; it suited him an' made him look more like a boy than he usually did.
He was staring right back at me an' I could see he had this little half a smile. He wasn't cross with me after all. I let out my breath in a big whoosh 'cos I know I'd been expecting a right ear-bashing for running off in the first place. Scott hadn't seen me yet since we'd been home because he'd been stuck in his bed too so it was a right relief to finally find out that he wasn't set to give me a lecture for my escapade. Scott was a right one for telling you off; he had a lot of rules an' it was way too easy to break 'em without even trying.
I lowered my eyes to look hard at the quilt and I did my very best sad, sorry look so's he'd know I was rightly ashamed of myself. I heard Johnny give this little snort and, if I'd not been so hell-bent on impressing Scott with the sincerity of my apology, I'd have given him a bit of a kick in the knee - accidental-like, of course.
"Scott, it's all my fault that you're hurt an' I'm ever so sorry. I wished I hadn't run off like that but some bad stuff happened to me too an' I think that's God's way of punishing me so nobody here at Lancer has to." I got it all out and, even though I say so myself, I managed to put a lovely little quiver into my voice an' I sounded dead sorry. So, when Johnny did another one of those snorty laughs, I wasn't best pleased an' I had to shoot him a quick daggers-look to shut him up.
Scott reached out and took hold of my hand with his good one. He wasn't laughing at me.
"It may look bad but I've been hurt worse than this before now," he said an' his voice was right soft, like Johnny's often is. It's funny but, now I came to notice it an' with his hair all messy, Scott was more like Johnny that night than I'd ever seen him. "You watch me - I'll be back to roping steers in no time. I'm just thankful you're back home and in one piece."
"Well, I've got a bit of an injury too!" I announced and I scuffed up my nightie to show them all my knee that Doc Jenkins had strapped up.
This time, Johnny cracked up laughing good an' proper and I could swear I heard Murdoch chuckling too. I didn't know what was so amusing about a poorly leg though. Scott smoothed my nightie down again to cover me up an' I was glad really cos' it was a tad chilly that evening... or maybe I was just feeling a bit weedy after all that medicine and the storm an' all. Scott looked like he was blushing but I dunno what about. Then he muttered something about a lady never showing her legs... I don't get it - he doesn't half have some weird ideas!
"I still feel awful," I went on. "There's no way any of you can pretend that this isn't my fault. You know it is! If I hadn't gone off like I did..." There! That should do it! I don't want to make out that I wasn't sorry because I really, really was but I'd given it my best shot an' I reckoned I'd been fairly convincing too.
"Well, if you really want to atone for your mistake, I can think of a way," Scott said.
I watched him carefully. I didn't like the sound of this but he wasn't mad; in fact, he had that same twinkle in his eyes that Johnny gets when he's teasing me.
"You can read to us. I've recently acquired a rather fine copy of Wuthering Heights and have yet to start it."
Wuthering Heights? Emily Bronte? I'd already read that one, of course, but damn - it was a great read! "Oh, I love the Bronte's," I was proper churned up at the idea of reading that smashing story again. "Jane Eyre is my favourite though."
Scott grinned and eased back against his pillows. "Then it's all settled. I shall rely on you to be our evening entertainment. After all, I can't possibly hold such a heavy book with just one hand. You can read to us after dinner every day."
I hesitated, not too sure I really liked the notion of reading out loud in front of everyone. But... Wuthering Heights! That was too good to pass up and I did want to show Scott that I was sorry. So, even though I could feel my face was warm from the way they were all watching me, I smiled an' nodded to say I'd do it.
Then, I felt Murdoch's hand touch my shoulder, all warm and steady. "Just so long as you're in bed by half past seven, young lady."
"Half seven?" I suppose I must've given him a right frown 'cos he got this real determined glint in his eye. "That's not my bedtime! I usually..." I wasn't having that!
"You are having an early bedtime for the rest of the month. Maybe that will make you think twice about riding off alone without asking permission in future!" There was no mistaking that tone in Murdoch's voice an' I pulled up sharpish. I'd gotten away with it pretty well so far so I was disinclined to push it in case my new Daddy decided to get all 'retributional' on me.
I blushed and focused hard on the patchwork quilt on Scott's bed.
"An' if it don't..." Johnny spoke up in a proper stern way.
I looked up. Johnny's eyes weren't angry but he certainly was giving me his 'look' - the one that meant business and that I'd better mind what he had to say. It set me to squirming a bit an' I felt downright uneasy.
He was even wagging a finger at me an' all! "I catch you ridin' off alone anywhere, kid an' I'm likely to paddle your bottom, y'hear?"
Urghh! My tummy did that nasty swoopy thing again. I hated that! An' I was starting to feel right hot when only moments ago it had been cool in the room. Johnny held my eyes so I couldn't look away an' I knew darn well he meant every word; it weren't no idle threat. Especially when he lifted up one of those black eyebrows in what I realised was a prompt for me to reply.
Flushing, I spoke up and I tried to sound as meek as I could. "Yes."
"Yes... what?" he pressed me.
Bloody hell! Why do American blokes want you to call them 'sir'? I'd never called Daddy 'sir'; he didn't ask it of me. Only the school inspector and the owner at Brentford's mill and Constable Wilson, the local bobby at home got called 'sir' by us kids. I wasn't in the bloomin' army either or apprenticed to him! But... he was still waiting and I thought I'd better oblige him before he decided I'd been let off too lightly over all of my shenanigans.
"Yes sir." I really put everything I could into sounding ashamed of myself and, actually, it wasn't hard at all. When I looked up again, Johnny was smiling all soft at me an' his blue eyes were all twinkly again. Scott was smiling too and, when I risked a glance up at Murdoch, even he had a grin on his face.
"So, Murdoch," Johnny's voice sounded like he was trying not to laugh. "Did you wear our little wanderer out?"
Murdoch chortled and said not this time; he was too worn out himself to try.
"Thought she was bein' mighty quiet," Johnny sniggered. "When I whomped her, she was hollerin' fit to bust! Val said they could hear her back at Green River!"
Bloody fibber! "He did not! You never even told him!" I wasn't having that. Then I had a nasty thought. "You didn't, did you?"
That set everyone laughing an' we seemed to all be talkin' an' laughin' so much that it got to be right pleasant and I would've stayed a bit longer but, next thing I knew, Murdoch was scooping me up from the bed again and saying how I needed to get some rest and Scott too an' that Doc Jenkins would have his hide if he knew how the two of us invalids were chattering an' making so much noise an' being out of bed (he meant me, not Scott).
Next day, I was still confined to my bed and, to be honest, I was glad of it. I started to feel a bit perkier around lunch time but, after I'd had some of that tea that Maria had prepared, I went all woozy again. I'd never felt so tired; even my bones were weary and so heavy I could barely lift myself out of bed to use the guzzunder an' Maria had to hold me up like a chuffing baby!
I reckon I must've slept the day away, me in my room all peaceful an' Scott in his along the landing and, when I finally came to properly it was to see Maria bustling in with a towel and fresh warm water. I was all snug and really didn't feel like being disturbed an' so I told her thank you very much but I didn't believe I'd bother today after all. I even said 'gracias' so's she'd know I was being extra grateful and polite.
I was a mite put-out therefore to be grabbed and hoisted up the bed. I'd hardly had time to ask her what she thought she was about before she'd got my nightie off've me an' I was bloody starkers. She was soaping up this flannel and scrubbing me all over - a lot rougher than needs be if you ask me! I didn't know where to look. I kept my eyes fixed on that picture at the side of the wardrobe and I studied that little golden haired girl crying in the corner an' her pup crouchin' at her skirts. The little plate at the bottom said it was called In Disgrace and was painted by a Charles Burton Barber. I was getting real fond of that little girl; she looked like she'd been up to some right trouble an' I felt like her an' me would've got along. Anyway, I stared right hard at it all the time Maria was washing me an' I've never known owt so mortifying in all my born days!
She said I'd got nowt she hadn't seen before but I reasoned that it still didn't mean I should go around showin' it off to all and sundry, did it? Maria was laughing at that and she assured me that the patron (that meant Murdoch; patron is Spanish for 'boss') would have plenty to say about it if I did! I had to smile a bit too then 'cos I was put in mind of the day I sat in the water trough in my drawers an' Teresa (who's ever so prim an' proper when she wants to be) nearly had a seizure! Lord, that were a right laugh! But I'd never go around showin' off in the altogether. The very idea! Did she think I was some kind of tart or what?
At long last, I reckon I must've been shiny as a new pin 'cos she decided she'd done. I only know when she slipped a clean nightie over my head I couldn't get into it fast enough. I would've felt a darn sight safer with a pair of drawers on too... and a bloody key in that lock on the door! I made a note to ask Teresa where it was and keep it handy. I had an idea I might need it one day.
We didn't start reading Wuthering Heights that evening because Scott and I were still not allowed downstairs to join the others for supper. I got to eat mine with him though - I had a tray on my lap an' I sat in the wicker bedside chair with two huge cushions from one of the downstairs guest rooms to lean back on. (They have so many rooms in this house that there's tons of furniture to spare). It felt like a throne an' it was really comfy. I was a tad nervous of eating alone with Scott though. He's alright but he can be awfully picky about table manners. I just thanked my lucky stars it was beef pie an' not soup 'cos it's the devil's own job not to make that slurpy sound he hates. As it was, I somehow managed to get gravy down my front but I'd thought ahead and tucked my napkin into my nightie so it was alright.
Scott was having real difficulties cutting up his pie and it ended up he was sort of glad I was there 'cos I did it for him. We muddled through together and, all the way through, we discussed books we'd read and our favourite of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. Scott liked all the tragic gloomy ones like Hamlet and King Lear. We both liked Macbeth though because it has some right gory bits in it with lots of blood and battles and madness. That Lady Macbeth is full of wickedness.
Scott must be quite clever and he could quote great big chunks of all the plays. I know some bits too but not as many as him. I reckoned he should've been a teacher instead of a rancher but he said he wasn't sure he would like spending every day with a bunch of young 'uns. I bet that he'd enjoy it when he recalled that he could whack 'em all if they disobeyed an' I was about to remind him of this but then I thought he might start asking awkward questions so I left off right quick like.
It was the next night that we started reading Wuthering Heights after supper in front of the fire. Scott and me was downstairs at last but Scott had to be propped up on a mound of cushions due to his sore ribs. He was coping though just like we all knew he would; he ain't one to make any kind of a fuss. Truth to tell, I was more than a bit leery of reading with everyone listening but I knew I'd only got half an hour before I had to be in bed. It must be that Miss Bronte's such a good writer but I couldn't believe it'd been all of that half an hour when Murdoch looked at the old clock and called time. We were already at the part where Heathcliff wrenches open the window and cries out to Cathy to come to him an', all the time, Lockwood is watching him an' thinkin' him a right loon.
Everybody said how much they'd enjoyed it. Teresa was all twitchy because she was frit of ghosts an' ghoulies but it was Scott who said that my reading made it even more special "due to my Yorkshire accent." I think I might have blushed some; I'm not used to him saying such nice things to me but I've no idea what he meant about an accent. It ain't me who speaks funny. I reckon they've never listened to themselves.
Things went more or less back to normal for me over the next week or so. It took me a little while to get where's I could hop around the house using just a stick as support. My bad knee was a bit fatter than the other one still an' got to aching like a bugger if I tried to walk around too much but I could still collect the kindling for the wood box in the kitchen and help with the breakfast pots. The only chores I hadn't got to do yet was sweeping the porch and helping to muck out the stalls in the barn.
The scratches on my face and my cut lip were healing up well too an' I was vastly happy about that because Jeremiah Pickford had been tormenting me something chronic.
He was a right bully. Nobody at school liked him. Hardly surprisin' really - he had a face like a pig an' he smelled like one too. Dunno what his ma packed him up for his lunch but Jeremiah could clear the bloody schoolhouse every afternoon. It were right evil! Like a rat had crawled up his arse an' died! I told Enrique though, one day when we was riding back home.
Enrique was Cipriano's lad and only a wee bit older than me. We were getting to be good mates an', when he found out about Stinky Pickford havin' a go at me, he waited for him after school and gave him a damn good pasting! Stinky left me alone after that and Enrique an' me were even better friends than before - not that I'd need a boy to fight for me normally but... what with my knee an' all.
I told Johnny all about it when he got home from his work out on the ranch. He laughed like crazy an' said that, even though Enrique shouldn't be fighting at school, he was glad Stinky had been cut down to size; saved him havin' to ride in to Spanish Wells to give the boy a justified whupping. That's what I always like about Johnny - he's as much a mate as Enrique is an' can be proper playful but, 'cos he's really a man (an' can be downright scary when he wants to be), he can dish out the sort of grown-up lickings that a daddy can. It's a wonderful mixture, let me tell you. Well... it is when he's on your side. It's another story altogether an' bloody dire when it's you he's after!
At school, we were doing all the usual stuff and I'd been doing quite well. I always came top in spelling an' I was put on the highest reader that teacher had. Geometry and arithmetic were alright too but the lesson I didn't like was American History. I didn't know all that much an' even the little first graders had a head-start on me.
We were studying the American Presidents and, of course, I knew the first one was George Washington and the one we had right then was Ulysses S. Grant but I was having a tough time remembering who was a democrat and who was a republican. Not that I understood the difference either way.
I'd come to the conclusion that politics and me didn't get along. They were all the same; too many policies, laws and prattle. Great at speechifying but they never seemed to do everything that they promised to do - the poor was still poor and, as far as I could see, the rich had a bloody marvellous life an', somehow, every one of those Presidents mixed with those rich folks and joined in that marvellous life. There weren't any poor ones livin' in shacks and scrubbin' for their daily bread!
Lincoln was kind of interesting though being the one who fought to abolish slavery and got himself shot at the theatre. But we were still only on the third bloke - Jefferson and I didn't know owt about him other than him being long dead and having summat to do with the declaration of independence when the Americans decided not to have anything to do with our King no more.
I couldn't understand why Mr Quinn made such a fuss about them all. I mean, they were just men, voted for by other men. Oh yes - an' that was another thing that I didn't agree with! Women didn't get to pick the President 'cos the men think we're too stupid to know who'd be the right choice. Charming! The way I figured it, if I couldn't have my say in who got picked, what was the good of me learning about them all an' what they stood for?
Really, it was with this in mind that I had a thought when I was ridin' Amiga in to school one morning with Enrique on his pony, Rana by my side. I knew we were in for another tedious afternoon of Jefferson and I just couldn't face it.
It was a lovely day, warm and bright and there was no wind. I thought about being stuck in the school house with its tiny narrow windows and teacher droning on about the dead President. Add to that the prospect of Stinky Pickford's windy contribution and I knew there was no way I was going to spend another minute in that purgatory. Bunking off was the only course of action. The very idea of illicit fun thrilled me to my fingertips!
"Hey, Enrique, fancy wagging it?"
Enrique is a really good pal but, at times, he can be a mite slow on the uptake. He'd got a gormless look on his face an' I could see the wheels turning and kept quiet, waiting for the inevitable.
"What's 'wagging it' mean?"
I rolled my eyes with disdain. It amazed me that the people over here actually claimed to speak English an' got all narky when you pointed out their mistake an' that they most definitely didn't.
"Wagging it is when you're s'posed to go to school but, instead, you take off an' have fun somewhere else!"
He looked like he'd finally twigged it. "Ohh, you mean playing hooky," he realised. Then his face got all troubled and he looked shifty. "I can't. Not today anyway. My papa is coming to see Mr Quinn later after school because of that note I had to take home yesterday because I pummelled Stinky for you. He's already goin' to blister me; if I'm not there... Dios! He might just decide to kill me too!"
That put a damper on my plans! Bunking off didn't sound half so appealing on your own. So we rode on a bit further but, when we got to where the road forks off to Green River, I knew I simply couldn't go on in to school. It was too late - that first thought of a day of freedom had planted its seed in my brain. I stopped Amiga an' made up my mind.
I couldn't go in to Green River 'cos Sheriff Crawford would spot me for sure an' he was bound to drag me into school then tell Johnny all about it. They were pretty good buddies it seemed. No... that way spelled disaster.
Then I had an even better idea. I'd only been to Morro Coyo a couple of times with Murdoch and Teresa when we went to Baldemero's store for all my new clothes and primer and slate and stuff. It had struck me as a really interestin' place - a lot more Mexican than either of the other towns. I hadn't had a chance to explore it and, even though it was in the opposite direction, I could have a good time wandering around, maybe stop somewhere nice an' quiet to eat my lunch an' have a little snooze, then skirt back round the back of the hacienda so that, when I rode in later, it'd seem like I was comin' back from school. If Cip was coming to see Mr Quinn then Enrique wouldn't be riding back with me at the end of the day anyway so it wouldn't appear strange for me to arrive home on my own.
The way I saw it, my plan sounded nigh on perfect to me. But, if I'd known that Cip was goin' to change his plans, I would've chose to do it all the next day instead. That's the trouble with grown-ups; they don't always do what's expected of them.
So, I turned Amiga around while letting Enrique know what I was going to do. He had this face on him like he was half-torn and wishing he could go with me an' half-glad that he was being a goody-two shoes an' headin' off to school as he should. I asked him to tell teacher that I'd stayed abed with a belly-ache and then I nudged Amiga off back the way we'd come.
A glorious day to myself an' no President Jefferson or ciphering or Stinky Pickford to come. 'Course, if I'd known what was to come I wouldn't have listened to that enticin' voice in my ear leadin' me so astray.
As I rode along, I wished I'd thought to bring my overalls to change into. My dress, pinafore and stockings were all very proper for sitting at a desk in the school room but they weren't ideal for exploring and rambling around out of doors. Teresa had twisted my braid up into a circlet on the back of my head like she often does so, removing my hat, that was the first thing I remedied. I felt stacks better once I'd chucked out all the pins and that braid was just hanging free. I would've rolled off my stockings too but I couldn't wear my short black boots without 'em so they had to stay. But the jacket went next - I folded it up an' stuffed it in front of my saddle. Finally, I rolled up my cuffs like Johnny does on a hot day. Teresa always said I shouldn't 'cos ladies didn't want to be all brown and suntanned as it was coarse. But I didn't want to be a lady anyway, not if it meant bein' smothered in all these frilly doo-dads so... sucks to her!
When I neared the hacienda I had to admit to a feeling of trepidation and decided, if I was spotted, I'd say I had come back because my knee had begun to pain me. But I skirted around the back way and it ended up I didn't see anyone which was gratifying because it also meant that my plan to return that way was a smart one.
Once I was clear of the house and back on the road to Morro Coyo, I sat back to enjoy the fine day. I hooked my sore knee over the saddle horn (it did actually get to feeling a tad achey when I rode a long way) and I was singing Early One Morning to myself and to all the grass, hills, trees an' birds. It were the most pleasant sensation an' I was full of joy at the fun to come in town. I planned to have a good scout round; maybe amble into the stores. I let a big grin settle on my face. What a day indeed!
There were a few folks milling around Morro Coyo when I rode in and tied Amiga to the hitching post near the chapel. Some ladies were sitting around the well an' having a nice chat there in the shade, across from the cantina. As I passed them I made sure to bob a little curtsey and give them a big smile. I couldn't see a young 'un being of much interest to them but it always pays to be nice I think in case you need folks on your side. They smiled back an' carried on with their discourse. That was good. I tipped back my hat and carried on down the street towards the row of little stores.
There were only three stores: Baldemero's that pretty much sold everything you could think of and what they didn't have in the store you could order from a big catalogue with yellow pages and hundreds of drawings in. Teresa said they were a dry goods store but I wasn't sure what that meant 'cos I'd noticed they sold some bottles of scent and that's wet. I sometimes think Teresa makes stuff up if she doesn't know the real facts. I think Murdoch ought to have a talk with her about it.
Next door was a store where they sold foodstuffs an' big jars of pickling vinegar and cans of fruit and meat. Outside was a stand with shiny green pots of different tobacco on it. They had all different names painted on the sides in brown lettering and I fixed it in my mind for Murdoch's birthday.
I lingered uncertainly on the doorstep of Baldemero's, keen to go in to check out the collection of wool so that I could start on some knitting. But then, if I arrived home with balls of yarn, it'd be like a clear giveaway that I'd not been to school so I knew I'd have to shelve that idea for now.
The lady behind the counter was young'ish like Teresa. She looked Spanish so I reckoned it might be Seņor Baldemero's daughter, Luisa. She noticed me peeking in at the door so, like before, I dropped her a curtsey an' smiled my most politest. She looked ever so pleased and beckoned me in.
When I got to the counter, she took the lid off a thick glass jar an' offered me a stick of this shiny twisted brown stuff. I wasn't at all sure what it might be but I guessed it was a sweetie of some kind so I took one and thanked her in my best Spanish.
"De nada, niņa."
On my way down the street, I gave the twisty stick an experimental lick and found it tasted something like barley sugar. It was real fine an' I was right enjoyin' it as I strolled along when something hit me high up in my back an', the next thing I knew, I was sprawlin' on my hands an' knees in the dusty road.
I could see a pair of filthy boots near my nose and I found they was attached to a pair of scrawny legs in tatty trousers.
I scrambled up to my feet, fighting-mad, and saw the skinny legs belonged to a lad, not much older'n me an' the cheeky sod was holdin' my hat in his dirty mitts. My sugar-stick was lyin' in the dirt an' I was fuming at the waste of it. Skinny-legs kept grinnin' his fool head off an' I've never had a more powerful urge than the one I had right then to plant my fist into his stupid leering mug. Instead, I glared at him.
"Gimme my hat back!"
Skinny-legs just kept grinnin' an' spinnin' my hat on his finger. I figured he was either dense or had a death-wish but I thought I'd give the fool one last chance before I pulverised him.
"Give it me back... NOW!"
"Hoo-whee! Jefferson, Miss High an' Mighty wants her hat back. Shall we give it to her?"
I spun around to see... Jefferson, an overweight podgy lump of a kid with a pasty skin an' what looked like ringworm splotches across his bleary face. He was standing there, smirking at me an' his mean piggy little eyes was all glinty like I was his next meal. I was starting to lose my rag with this pair and they'd soon know about it!
Jefferson spoke up in a reedy high voice. "Yeah, give the little girl her pretty bonnet back, Thomas."
Thomas? An' Jefferson? Nah... no way! I couldn't believe it! I'd gone out of my way to avoid that name today an' here it was rammed right in my face in the most unpleasant manner.
Thomas held out my hat to me but, just as I was about to take it, he tossed it over my head to fatty Jefferson. I clamped my lips together while they capered around, guffawing like a couple of braying donkeys. Now, I may be small for my age an' I know I presented the image of bein' no threat to these two pillocks, but I can fight as hard as any boy. All I need is to get my dander up an', boy... was it ever!
While Jefferson was mincing about like a porky girl, holdin' my hat out of reach, I let out a wild savage yell and threw myself on him, making sure my knuckles collided with his nose an' my knees landed with my full weight on his wobbling belly.
Fatboy Jeff made a noise sounding like all the air being squeezed out of a set of bagpipes. I was right gratified to see blood trickling down into his goofy teeth from his nose which was now all squashed against his white face. He'd long since let go of my hat and it must've got kicked behind the barrels stacked at the side of the building 'cos I couldn't see it anywhere. Teresa wouldn't be too pleased. But I had no time to think about that; I still had to deal with Thomas.
I bounded up off fatboy and spun round to the skinny twerp behind me. Blimey - Jefferson needed to get himself a new partner; this bony effort had just frozen so he was rooted to the spot an' he was standin' there with his arms all limp and his gob hangin' open like a landed halibut. Great lummox didn't even know enough to raise up his fists to fend me off; it'd almost be a waste of my energy to paste him but I felt the lesson would be worth the effort.
So, I ran at Thomas, while callin' his parentage into question in no uncertain terms, and I landed a flying kick at one of his knobbly knees. The howl he emitted was something like the way a steam train whistles when it's good to go. But this boy wasn't goin' nowhere! As he bent down to clasp his knee with both hands, I got underneath his jutting-out chin an' gave him a sharp right upper-cut that clicked his teeth together with a snap like a branch breaking. He got this dazed expression on his mush. That was before he sort of fell back onto his rump - all slowly like a great tall tree toppling over. I had a sudden wild urge to yell 'timber' but I was too busy grinning to bother.
Both lads were rolling around in the dirt, groanin' and spittin' out blood an' teeth. As for me, I had to admit I felt bloody marvellous! Sure, it wasn't much of a challenge but I'd not had a good fight since I'd got off the boat in New York all those weeks ago and I would've downed more of them too only there was six of them against one of me!
I made sure I took my time dustin' off my pinafore and dress before I smiled and walked back the way I'd come. It was a show really 'cos the dirt and blood spattered all over me wouldn't have come off if I'd stood there brushin' at it for the rest of the day. I was goin' to have to make up a story about takin' a spill from Amiga to explain it to Maria an' Murdoch. The blood I'd have to say was a bit of a nose bleed from my tumble.
Hmm. I was right irritated that I'd have to concoct and deliver an outright lie. It was far easier to get home an' just not say anything at all and everyone to assume I'd been to school like normal.
As I ambled back towards the well to wash up I chewed it over in my mind. Murdoch hadn't walloped me yet but I knew darn well he'd give me what for if he found out about this little excursion. An' Johnny... he'd already given me a warning not to go off anywhere on my own. I surely didn't relish the thought of getting it from him again. Once was enough for me, thank you very much; he was a mite too thorough for my liking.
Damn that Thomas an' Jefferson! Everything had been going fine before they butted in!
Of course, what I didn't know was that Cipriano had taken it into his head to take the wagon to Spanish Wells to pick up a load of feed and, decidin' to kill two birds with one stone, he'd called in to speak with Mr Quinn about Enrique's shenanigans... only to discover my shenanigans when he found that I was not there.
Now, Cipriano takes his duties as Lancer Segundo real serious. Not only that, but he has seven kids of his own so is well used to being a father an' he felt it incumbent upon him to drive back to the ranch an' speak with the patron forthwith.
Luckily for me, Murdoch was, at that precise moment, on his way to Green River to speak with his lawyer at Mercer, Mercer & Dobbs. Unluckily for me, Cip managed to find Johnny who was out with Walt near the south line shack. That's on the way to Morro Coyo so Johnny was heard to mutter something about heading off 'to find that brat' then mounting up onto Barranca and galloping away. He made it to town, apparently, just in time to glimpse me, at the far end of the street, givin' those two great yahoos a good hiding. Unfortunately, I think it must've given Johnny an idea about deliverin' a hiding of his own. Then again, he'd probably more or less decided on that the minute he set out to find me, more's the pity.
All the ladies who'd been perched on the side of the well for their conversation had now moved off somewhere else as it was in full sun. I was just splashing some of that cold water on my face and dipping my bruised knuckles into the pail when this lean-looking shadow fell across me. As I watched, it didn't move at all an' I knew plain as plain who it was.
I kept my head down an' my hand in the bucket of water but my nerves were fizzing like rain on a telegraph wire an' all the tiny hairs was standin' up on my arms even though the sun was beating down on me. I was toying with the notion of jumping down the well when he spoke.
I didn't really want to turn around but I knew it was expected of me an' so I took my chilled hand out of the bucket and turned ever so slow.
Johnny was standing with his hands low on his hips an' he was givin' me the 'look'. I couldn't hold his gaze so I ducked my head again real quick and pretended to study my hand. He must've seen the scrapes on my knuckles 'cos I heard him shoot out a sharp sigh.
It was then that I wondered about playing on my injuries but I dismissed that almost immediately. It'd never wash; I knew he'd see through the ruse straightaway an' then there'd be more hell to pay.
So I shook my head. He took hold of my hand gently and checked my knuckles for himself then, seeing I was telling the truth, he turned on his heel and started walking back towards the chapel to our horses. I knew he expected me to follow and I wasn't foolhardy enough to do anything else.
The same ladies who had smiled at me before were outside the cantina and they now grinned my way as I followed in Johnny's wake. Gone was my perky step. I felt like someone had put lead weights in my boots an', try as I might, I could hardly lift up my chin from the scruffy collar of my dress.
When we got to Amiga and Barranca, Johnny waited for me to trail up behind him and stood there holding my reins and watching. There was no trace of a smile at all and his eyes were smouldering down at me. Johnny usually has these lovely twinkly blue eyes that make you feel like he's never looked at anyone else the way he looks at you. But his eyes now... I wished to high heaven that that look could be aimed at someone else for it promised an awful lot and none of it good. I knew he was riled and that what riled him most wasn't that I'd bunked off or even that I'd got into a fight with those boys; he was riled that I'd disobeyed him an' done exactly what he'd warned me not to.
I knew how worried he and the whole family had been when I took off before the storm. Now, having done it again, Johnny was mightily irked about it and I knew for sure an' certain he was goin' to call me on my rule-breaking.
He was waiting patiently for me to mount up but he didn't say anything at all. When I was in the saddle, he hopped up onto Barranca too and I held out my hand for my reins. All he did was give me a 'think again' look an' he wheeled around. I didn't have no other choice than to hold onto the saddle horn and be led like a darn baby because there was no way he was lettin' me ride without me bein' attached to him.
We'd perhaps gone a couple of miles an' I'd been chewing over what I could say; thinkin' of a good apology an' makin' it sound as heartfelt as I could. I reckoned I'd definitely still get a whole list of extra chores but, if I made a convincing job of it, I might talk my way out of a hiding. Maybe. Perhaps. I could try anyway.
So, I took a breath to speak. Straight away, Johnny fixed me with a steely gaze - one that said clearly 'don't even think about it.' I snapped my teeth together and held my tongue, My apology would have to be delivered to Murdoch instead. I shivered.
At the thought of the ol' man, my stomach churned and I felt a sheen of cold sweat break out all along my bare arms. I hunkered down into my saddle and thought of how I should've gone to school in the first place. Old Thomas Jefferson was nowhere near as bad as the Thomas and Jefferson I'd come across or as scary as Johnny Lancer was bein' right then.
After a few more silent miles, we came upon Walt and I realised from the grin he gave me as we rode up that he knew Johnny had set off to find me and fetch me back. He took a break from the fence line he was stringing to wander into the shade where we had stopped. He was swigging thirstily from his canteen.
"I see you found what you was lookin' for, Johnny!" Walt passed up the canteen to him and he also took a deep drink.
I scowled across at Johnny an' he saw me. His eyes narrowed an' his eyebrows came down low in a pretty fierce glare so I looked away. This silent treatment was getting me angry. He was mad at me; that much was obvious. But he didn't need to go all Madrid'ish on me. It wasn't like I'd committed a crime.
Walt stepped over to me and offered the canteen. I suddenly realised how hot I was an' my throat was dry an' scratchy as a canary's cage so I too took a hefty swallow.
"Where's your hat, kid?"
I nervously glanced over at Johnny. "I lost it in the fight."
Walt's grin stretched from ear to ear and he chuckled as he twisted the stopper back onto the canteen. "Fightin'. Playin' hooky. You been a busy girl, Miss Jemimah."
I didn't say owt back 'cos I knew the name I wanted to call Walt would only get me into more strife and, as much as I would've relished spittin' that warm water back out right in his eye, I didn't get the chance 'cos Johnny nudged at his horse and started leadin' us off again.
"Catch you later, Walt," he called back over his shoulder.
I didn't even bother thinkin' up any conversation on the rest of the ride back. It was ever so clear that Johnny wasn't in the mood for bein' sociable with me. He hardly even looked at me an', when he did, it was with a grim serious face. He wasn't bein' my Johnny at all. I knew perfectly well this was how you got treated when you'd transgressed but I wasn't enjoyin' it one little bit. That gulp of water hadn't helped my throat which was dry as a bone and, the closer we got to home, the more my innards were churnin'. I'd got the collywobbles just thinkin' about what would occur when Murdoch saw me bein' dragged back by Johnny.
These dreadful feelings got even stronger as we rode into the yard. Cip was over near the barn an' he walked up to us as I was just gettin' ready to hop down from Amiga. But Johnny fixed me with a look.
"Stay right there!"
I subsided back into my saddle but I wasn't happy at all. I'd got that key in my door at last an' I was just thinkin' that it'd be best all round for me to shut myself away up there for a while 'til everybody calmed down.
Johnny was muttering to Cip who then took his reins to hold onto Barranca. Johnny strode round to me and reached up to lift me down. When I was standin' in front of him, I kept my eyes straight ahead so I was studying his fancy belt and them toggle buttons he has on his red shirt. I didn't want to look up and see how angry his eyes were. I thought, if I did, I might make a show of myself an' bust out cryin'. That lump in my throat was getting too big to swallow away an' I didn't want to shame myself so I gave my excuses.
"I s'pose I'd best go to my room."
I made to ease around him but he put a hand on my shoulder an' tipped up my chin quite gently. Now I had to look him in the eye an' he was lookin' all serious an' disappointed in me.
"Not yet, kid. First, you an' me need to have words. Won't take long."
He grasped my left hand and walked me towards the house. I wiggled my hand a bit but he held on tight in a real determined way, veering off to the right and heading down the side past the big trellis. I knew this path took us to the kitchen garden an' I was surprised 'cos I thought he'd make for the study where he could lecture on for a bit.
We got near the peach tree an' Johnny stopped, chucking his hat onto the big bench there. Then he sat down so we was eye-to-eye and I guessed he was expecting my apology now. So I opened my mouth to say what I'd rehearsed on the ride home but it seemed I'd misjudged his intentions quite a bit.
Johnny scooped me forwards all of a sudden an' tipped me up so I was face-down lyin' over his knee. I know I squeaked 'cos it was a hell of a nasty shock. I even tried an experimental wriggle and kick but I knew before I did it that he had no immediate plans of lettin' me go. That arm was on my back, pinnin' me just like I remembered, an' I was goin' nowhere!
I cannot tell just how abominable it was to find myself in such a predicament, especially when I knew what was coming. All I could see was Johnny's left spur on his boot, the few silver conchos on the leg of his trousers an' a bit of scrubby grass. His rock-solid thighs was pressing into my middle an' all the blood was rushin' to my head.
If that weren't horrible enough, I felt him movin' above me, all sudden, an' realised he was pushing my dress and petticoats up over my back! I gave a right shriek!
"What're you doin'?"
"I ain't gonna waste my time whompin' a load of padding!"
He must've arrived at the final layer and I froze in mortification, panting for breath. "Don't you dare, Johnny Lancer!"
Mercifully, it seemed he wasn't goin' to bare me 'cos his shuffling stilled and I felt his warm hand settle on my behind. It was a downright dreadful feeling an' I wanted to die I was so embarrassed.
"You been told, kid... an' now I'm gonna lay down the law - on your rear-end!"
That warm hand disappeared but, all too soon, came back in a most sudden and excruciatin' manner. It was all horribly familiar. My backside was already burnin' like I'd sat on the stove an' he wasn't showin' any indication of bein' done yet.
I grit my teeth and did my utmost best to keep quiet, not wanting to alert anyone else on the ranch to the shaming fact that I was getting spanked. I vaguely thought about givin' his leg a bite or a good thump but, considerin' my situation and Johnny's probable response, I decided not to bother.
Johnny ain't that big of a man like Murdoch is but he's bloody strong and his right hand is hard as a board. My drawers were pretty thin so they didn't provide no protection... I knew I was goin' to start bawlin' and I didn't want to so a rush of panic an' dread gripped me an' I said summat I wished I hadn't.
Johnny stopped. I swallowed that big lump in my throat, waiting.
Next thing, he tipped me forwards. I thought he was goin' to dump me on my head so I scrabbled about a bit. But... no. Johnny went away at it again with a vengeance and aimin' every smack at that area where your behind joins the tops of your legs. Jeez! That has to be the most tenderest part of your bum for sure! It smarted like a bugger and I began crying. Now I felt like a right cry-baby as well an' it was more than obvious that Johnny didn't like me anymore. I knew he'd be thinking me a silly little girl and a right nuisance but I was too heartbroke to care. I stopped kicking an' wiggling an' I just let myself sob.
That was when I found I was standing up between Johnny's knees. My first instinct was to rub away that terrible sting but he held onto both my hands with his big strong ones. And he did it so gently that I couldn't help but set off skrikin' again. It was maddening!
"Ah-ah, you earned it, kid - you wear it!"
Then he reached into his belt and drew out his bandana an' started to wipe away all the tears and snot that I knew had got smeared on my face. I must've looked a right sorry spectacle because he gave me a smile so sweet an' gentle that I wondered if he perhaps did still like me a little bit.
Then he stood too an' walked me into the kitchen. Maria and Teresa were in there. I supposed they would've heard Johnny giving me what for but, right then, I was too sorry an' sore to care. We went right past them an' up the back stairs. He walked me all the way to my room and inside. Then he told me to stay put and he was going to have to have a long think about what he should tell Murdoch.
When he'd gone and the door was closed, I threw myself face-down on my bed an' cried my eyes out. My behind was painin' me something cruel but, more than anything, I was very sorry that I had made Johnny so mad at me an' lost all the good feeling between us. I was right scared too of what Murdoch was going to say when he heard all about what I'd done. I didn't want another spanking.
I stayed like that, with my face in my arms, for ages and I think I slept for a good while too. When I woke up an' looked in the mirror, I knew I needed to tidy up. I looked like I'd been dragged through a hedge backwards! So I washed up an' brushed my hair, keeping it loose for no other reason than I couldn't be bothered re-braiding it. Then I set my dirty clothes aside and put on a fresh dress. I guessed I was being silly but thought maybe lookin' presentable might go a long way with Murdoch.
When I finally stepped hesitantly out onto the landing, I heard Scott's voice call me softly from his room. I wasn't all that sure I wanted to go in there to face him. Sure, with his broken arm there was no way he could wallop me too but Scott was a master at givin' a real ear-blisterin' lecture an' I was feeling more than a bit tired out. He called me again so, sighing real heavy-like, I went in.
Scott was sitting in his chair, propped up on another heap of cushions to keep his cracked ribs from sagging.
"Come over here."
He beckoned me to him and I crossed the carpet, dragging my feet all the way there.
"Are you alright?"
I was surprised at his question and the fact that he didn't appear cross with me.
"I suppose so. Johnny..."
"Yes, I know. He told me."
I blushed and Scott smiled then he tilted his head on one side, lookin' at me all considerin'-like.
"You know why Johnny punished you, don't you?"
I really didn't want to look into Scott's eyes anymore; they were too much like Johnny's - filled with disappointment. I shrugged. "Because he's cross with me."
"Cross with you? Well, yes... he's certainly that."
"An' because he doesn't like me very much anymore."
I don't know what I expected but it certainly wasn't to hear Scott crack up laughing. I looked up real sharpish an' he was chuckling an' shaking his head at me.
"You think Johnny doesn't like you?"
Then he took hold of my hand and pulled me close to stand between his knees - just like Johnny had done outside. Scott stroked his hand down the length of my hair an' smoothed my long fringe out of my eyes. I blinked in shock 'cos this was the most tender an' caring Scott had ever been with me. I'd always kind of thought that he wasn't too keen on me an' that he saw me as not much more than an annoying pesty brat. But that single soft touch was full of a true affection. It got to me so much that I felt my eyes fillin' up with tears again.
"Jemimah, you can't believe that. Johnny doesn't just like you - he loves you. We all do!"
I was so dumbfounded to hear Scott of all people say this that I must've stood there with my mouth hangin' open like I was catchin' flies!
"Let me tell you something about how love is..." Scott gathered me closer to him and we were eye-to-eye as I leaned on his leg. I wasn't daring enough yet to try sitting on his lap an' besides I was reluctant to sit just then. "We don't simply love you now and then; when you've brought home good grades or done your chores... or because you're looking extra pretty in that blue dress..." Scott gave my hand a tiny shake and I tried to smile past the new lump forming in my throat. "It's an every single day love, Jemimah. One which will be there on your good days and on your bad. We don't expect you to go through life without making a few mistakes. All we hope is that you'll learn from them. And remember, above everything else, we wouldn't even bother trying to correct those mistakes if we didn't love you."
Scott tipped up my chin and I studied the warmth in his blue-grey eyes. He was more like Johnny than I'd ever guessed an' right then, if his ribs hadn't been so strapped up an' sore, I would've hugged him. Instead, I leaned in and gave him a little kiss on his cheek. Scott looked ever so surprised but his smile said he was pleased too.
"How... er... how hard did Johnny spank you?"
I was a bit taken aback at his question but I reckoned he had a reason to ask it. "Very. He was awfully thorough."
Scott grinned. "Then he must love you very much, hmm? Poor Johnny."
"Why, yes. It must have hurt him a great deal to do it, loving you as much as he does."
I froze. I'd never thought that Johnny might be hurt by what he'd done; only that it had hurt me. All of a sudden, I could see that it wasn't me who was the one hard-done-to... but Johnny. It wasn't me needed sympathy; it was him. An' there was summat else he needed too.
"Thank you, Scott."
I turned and ran out of the room and all the way down the stairs. Running made my rear-end hurt but I reckoned I deserved that.
Johnny wasn't in the great room, nor was he in the kitchen when I popped my head round the door. I ran through to the garden, passing the peach tree with a little shudder. Down the side of the house, into the yard and across to the corral. As I suspected, Johnny was leaning on the fence, watching the horses. He had his back to me and, maybe I was imagining it but, there was a slump to his shoulders that made me sad.
I slowed, feeling suddenly unsure of myself. He might still be cross with me.
I stepped up to his side as quiet as I could and leaned on the fence too. He didn't say owt and neither did I but, as soft as soft can be, I slipped my hand in his. After a little while, I felt his fingers curl so that his strong gentle warm hand held mine. When I looked up at him, his eyes were as blue as ever an' he was smilin'. I smiled back an' I leaned into him.
That was the best apology I could make and I meant every word even though I didn't say anything. He knew it too an' accepted it.
Scott was right; the love I'd found at Lancer wasn't just for now and then. It was for always.
Anne Haslam August 2013
In Disgrace by Charles Burton Barber was painted in 1893 but, as he was a favourite of Queen Victoria, who was around at the time of the Lancers, I borrowed it for this little story. I was sure that Jemimah would feel a real empathy with the little girl in his picture.
owt - anything
nowt - nothing
summat - something
skriking - crying
twigged - realised
narky - irritated
frit - frightened
starkers - naked
guzzunder (goes under) - chamber pot