Disclaimer: Some of these characters (i.e. the Lancers) are not mine though
I certainly show them more love, respect and gratitude than Fox.
Scott is 31; Johnny is 25, about to be 26.
The firelight flickered across the room, throwing a comforting glow over the shoulders of the girl, bent fervently to her task. Her pen flowed swiftly across the paper and dipped into the ink frequently. The tip of her tongue peeked from the corner of her lips, a sign of her deep concentration. This was clearly a most serious letter and, watching her friend from the other side of the room, Ellie Steiner was becoming increasingly concerned.
Jemimah had swabbed several times at her eyes with her handkerchief and, when Ellie heard the strident sniff, she could be still no longer. She set aside her book and moved quickly to her friend's side, lying a comforting arm around her shoulders and tucking the shawl back into place with an almost maternal gesture.
One glance at Jemimah's face told Ellie that something was very wrong. It could not be home-sickness; she hadn't suffered from that since the first weeks she arrived in Boston and had lately become quite the life and soul of their set. She was very popular with all who knew her. No... she must have had some disturbing news from home. Ellie, though a well brought-up young lady who had been taught not to pry, felt the circumstances necessitated some gentle questioning.
"My dear Jemimah," she began softly, her sweet voice laden with worry for her friend. "Something is very amiss. You are indeed distressed. Come, sit by the fire and take some refreshment, I entreat you."
Jemimah shook her head, never ceasing her urgent scrawl. She sniffed again and swiped impatiently at a fat tear which threatened to drip onto her paper.
"Can't," she said. "I've got to take this to the post office today."
"The post office? My dear, be sensible! Look at the snow. Why, we must have had a good three inches since last night. You cannot walk to the post office in this weather."
"Of course I can! S'just a bit of snow. It won't kill me... an' this letter's got to get home before... it's urgent!" Jemimah bit her lip and dipped her pen once more into the ink pot.
Ellie sighed and clasped her hands together in anguish. There must be something she could do! Making up her mind that she would have to be very impolite, she leaned closer and pressed, "Oh my dear, have you had bad news from home? Is there anything at all that I can do for you?"
"No, it's summat I've got to do... got to make sure that he..." Jemimah stopped and changed what she had been about to say. "Just need to get this to my friend who comes to stay at the ranch for Christmas. She'll be able to sort it all."
Ellie was not much wiser but could not bear to see her usually ebullient friend in such misery. If the letter had to reach California by Christmas then there was indeed a sense of urgency. She would do all she could to assist.
"You are not to worry, I will help you," she said decisively. "Make haste and finish your letter. I will call Jessop and have her ready to take it to the post office for you the second it is sealed!"
Jemimah resisted smiling. Ellie's offer of help was typical of the girl; she would not think to trudge through the snow herself but was more than willing to offer for one of the servants to do so. Jemimah could not blame her for this; to be brought up in such wealth and luxury, with a multitude of servants dancing attendance on you, was bound to make you think little of volunteering them on your behalf, no matter how much discomfort it may actually cause them. "No, we're going to take it. I want to be sure it goes."
Ellie gasped. "You mean, you and I... we... are to venture out in this blizzard?"
Jemimah chuckled. "Blizzard! It's a few flakes an' it'll be fun. You'll see!"
Ellie gaped at Jemimah and couldn't help peering with dread through the window at the snow which still fell steadily. To be sure, she could see little enjoyment to be had from traipsing through the cold soggy stuff. But Jemimah seemed sure and she was often right about what constituted as 'fun'. Perhaps, Ellie should trust her judgement; it was something she was doing increasingly and hadn't been steered wrong yet.
"Very well. I'll ring for Jessop and ask her to get our things ready." Ellie crossed to tug on the bell with a growing sense of adventure. "I hope your letter and your friend can solve whatever is troubling you."
Jemimah blew her nose and nodded. "If anyone can do it, it's Pony!"
"Pony?" Ellie's eyebrows almost shot up into her fine golden hair. "Such a... an... unusual name."
Jemimah chuckled. "Unusual girl. I know I can rely on Pony to put a stop to all this nonsense."
"Nonsense?" Ellie itched to know what it was all about but good manners prevented her from asking outright.
Jemimah turned, the completed letter in her hand. She gave it a little shake.
"A wedding?" Ellie parroted. "And this is a bad thing?"
"This one is!"
'...Teresa writes that he seems real partial to her and with me being stuck here at school 'til near enough July, I got to rely on you, Pony. I wished I were there to spend Christmas with you like we always does and I want you to know that I'll miss you all and all the fun we have. But you've got to help me out here! You know what Johnny's like when it comes to a likely looking filly and Teresa's making out that this one is all set to become Mrs Lancer byNew Year!
Help me, Pony, please. I knows you can do it. I trust you. Get rid of her and write to let me know what happens. Please, my friend, you're my only hope.
Kind regards from your friend,
Jemimah Rose Day x
PS. Don't get caught.'
Pony folded the letter and tucked it carefully into her little drawstring purse, sighing as she did so. This would be the first Christmas in years that she hadn't had Jemimah's company during her visit to Lancer. The family had been as welcoming as always when she and Miss Florida had arrived and there was a goodly number of excursions and diversions planned during their stay. But Pony was already missing her friend and the unique schemes she concocted. It would be a sedate Christmas indeed without the crazy shenanigans they cooked up together.
The whole family had laughed when Murdoch expressed his relief that he would not be called upon to administer what had become a solemn tradition of a Lancer festive season - a whomping for the two girls for whatever mischief they had thought up. And, while Pony too was relieved she would not be spending any time nose to corner with her rear end afire, she was sorely missing Jemimah's lively company. Boston was so far away. She knew Jemimah was staying with a school friend, a girl from a good family; most well to do and known to Scott who had urged Murdoch to approve the invitation for his daughter. It all sounded very la-di-dah, not Jemimah's cup of tea at all, and a small part of Pony hoped that her friend would be having a dull enough time to be missing her too.
In any case, the news that Johnny was embroiled with some undeserving conniving female had the loyal Pony quite irate. She darn well would get rid of the girl! Jemimah could count on her! Johnny was much like any other man - blinded by a pretty face and a good figure but completely naive when it came to tricky, sneaky, conniving females. Pony cared too much about him to see him snared by such a... a... what had Jemimah called her? Oh yes - an interloper!
It didn't take her long to find out who the lady in question was.
Johnny introduced his latest fling to her that afternoon at a small gathering hosted by Aggie Conway. Her name was Jenny McQueen. She was just twenty, red-headed and very pretty in an exuberant, farm girl sort of way. She laughed a lot and, from studying her surreptitiously, Pony deduced that this gaiety was to throw everyone off the scent - Jenny seemed a bit dim and, more than likely, only understood three words in ten. She was the oldest daughter of a well-respected farmer in Redemption- a small community about ten miles away and the relationship appeared to have become serious very quickly.
Teresa was convinced that Johnny was quite smitten with her and, judging by the way the rest of the family had begun to watch the girl keenly, had communicated her thoughts and misgivings about the match. Jenny was winsome and so appreciative of everything he did for her; too appreciative at times. Pony squirmed at her endless 'oohs' and 'aahs' as she admired everything in sight; the brainless girl was definitely fawning and it set her teeth on edge. She could see that it gave Johnny pleasure to spoil Jenny and, indeed, he had confided to Scott and Zee that, because she'd had so little in the past and what little she had was shared with her four younger sisters, he felt it only right that he make a fuss of her... but Pony was sure he could not really be in love with her; not for keeps... not Johnny.
The family was all trying not to show how unnerved they all were over his sudden attachment to Jenny. She was just so... it was hard to pinpoint exactly why she did not fit but Zee came close that evening when Johnny had left to drive Jenny home.
"He gives her a simple flower an' it sets her off all... well, you know." Zee did a remarkable, and very amusing, impersonation of Jenny in a virtual swoon, simpering madly and exclaiming with delight over her imaginary flower.
"Now, now," Scott admonished her. "So what if she isn't the sharpest tool in the shed? It appears Johnny isn't worried about her education... or lack of it." He sipped at his coffee but eyed his fiancée over the rim of the cup.
"Education!" Zee scoffed, ignoring his pointed look. "What does that have to do with it? I ain't got all the book learnin' that you have neither but I don't set folks' teeth to itchin'." She freshened Murdoch's cup and continued. "There's more to it. Scott, that girl is downright dumb and, what's more, she's a flighty piece! Why, I've heard stories about her in town what'd make you..."
Scott drained his cup and rose quickly to his feet, snatching hold of her hand and firmly encouraging her from her seat at the kitchen table. "If you will excuse us, I'll be taking Zee home now." He smiled grimly and draped Zee's shawl hastily around her shoulders as she shrugged at his sudden hurry. "And maybe we will have a little talk on the way about appropriate conversation and avoiding idle gossip?"
Zee looked up at him in surprise. "Why, gosh-amighty, what have I said now?"
Murdoch smiled behind his coffee cup as his older son ushered out his bride-to-be before she could say any more. Zee was hardly the demure young lady they had all imagined Scott would be drawn to so why couldn't they all accept that Johnny wasn't interested in the smart polished type either?
Jemimah. That was why. Murdoch sighed. If she were here, Jemimah would kick Jenny to the kerb and laugh in Johnny's face for wasting his time with her. Murdoch said nothing, knowing there was nothing he could say. Johnny must choose his own path but, as he retired to bed, his heart was heavy. His hopes, long held dear, seemed about to be dashed.
Five miles down the road, driving the buggy back to Lancer, Johnny was looking at the moon, his thoughts far away... thousands of miles away... on the other side of the country in a place he had never seen but which held a piece of his heart just the same. That same moon would be shining its silvery light down on her. He dipped his fingertips into his jacket pocket, reassured when they touched the scrap of paper which was neatly folded and tucked there. The words he knew off by heart, having read and re-read them so many times. Christmas nearly, four months gone... not even halfway and the time stretched before him like a jail sentence. He sighed and the sound seemed to come from the depths of his soul. He shook his head, annoyed with himself.
"Goodnight, honey," he whispered to the stars and then he gave the reins a shake, urging the horses homewards. He was glad Pony had come; there would be some fun now even if one of their number was still missing.
Johnny had specifically requested that his birthday celebrations be kept low key this year. Murdoch and Maria had visibly perked up when he had said, rather gloomily, that it didn't seem right to throw a big party without Jemimah. And so, a family dinner had been put together with just a few close friends; Maria, Cip and his family, Aggie, Sam and his wife Caroline, Val and, of course, Jenny, invited to join them.
It was strange but Johnny found Jemimah's name cropping up constantly in conversation. It was almost as if his family were trying to remind him of the kid... as if he needed reminding; she was constantly in his thoughts these days and he didn't need their reminiscing to remind him how much he missed his little chica. He had just listened to his father and Scott tell the tale of how she had set the bathroom curtains afire and then hidden under Johnny's bed while he changed his clothes for dinner, never knowing that, all the while, she lurked under his bed. Truth to tell, Johnny was feeling a little down. He sure wished she could be there to play one of her tricks and get them all laughing or chasing after her. He sighed. Even Pony wasn't her usual sassy self.
He meandered over to the sideboard to help himself to a drink. Murdoch was already stationed there.
"Johnny, how are you enjoying your birthday, son?"
Johnny gave his father a sidelong glance and his blue eyes twinkled mischievously. He knew perfectly well what Teresa had been muttering to the others behind his back and, taking a sly pleasure in tormenting the girl, he had deliberately encouraged her conviction that he was serious about Jenny McQueen. Johnny grinned wickedly into his glass. Alright - Jemimah couldn't be here to play her customary pranks and, without her, Pony seemed reluctant to step into the breach. They were in serious danger of becoming thoroughly boring and Jemimah would never have permitted that. Maybe, this year, he would have to do the honours.
Johnny raised his glass to Miss McQueen as she skipped by. "I'm enjoying it fine, Murdoch," he smiled, still watching Jenny. "Especially with Jenny here."
"Ah yes, Miss McQueen," Murdoch mused and glanced across to where Aggie and Caroline were trying to draw the girl into their conversation. Jenny smiled good-naturedly but it was obvious from her gauche manner that she was ill at ease with the older ladies.
"Y'know Murdoch," Johnny clapped a hand on his father's shoulder and grinned. "I'm beginning to think she might be the one!"
At Murdoch's startled look of horror, Johnny carried on quickly lest he crack up laughing. "Anyway, I'm willing to see if she fits into life here as well as I think she's goin' to!"
Murdoch took a hasty swig of his whisky and murmured some bewildered congratulations; he hardly knew what. Johnny waited, sensing there would be more to come. He was not disappointed when Murdoch suddenly said, "Johnny, is this to be some kind of trial then?"
"Oh, sure Murdoch. Gotta see if we fit... y'know."
"I think that's wise, son. It's a good thing not to be too impulsive. Your track record..."
"What do you mean?"
Murdoch hesitated, not wanting to upset the young man. "Well, remember Laura? You did fall pretty headlong into that one and... well... it's wise that you not be overly... shall we say eager? Be sure, son. I know we've teased your brother but he hasn't rushed into anything..."
Johnny snorted. "That's for damn sure!"
Murdoch smiled but his eyes were worried. "All I'm saying is that you don't want a lifetime to regret the choice you make now."
"Regret? What's the matter? Don't you like Jenny?"
"I like her well enough; she's a... sweet girl."
"But?" Johnny pressed, a glint in his blue eyes.
Murdoch paused to consider how he should phrase his next words. The last thing he intended was to carelessly antagonise his son or accidentally goad him into some hasty decision. "But... I want you to be absolutely certain. It hardly matters what I think; you'll be the one who's married to her. Just remember, son, it's not enough to like the look of someone. Jenny's a pretty girl but the bloom of youth fades in time and a man needs to have respect and a deep affection for his life-partner."
Johnny pretended to consider Murdoch's little speech with a troubled frown. He sipped at his liquor and let out a sharp sigh, eyes fixed on the toe of his boot and his fingers twisting anxiously at a silver concho at his hip. "I know all of that, Murdoch. I'm not a child but... well... I guess I'll not say anything to Jenny until after New Years at least. I don't want to rush into anything either! I'd figured we needed to spend a lot more time together to be absolutely sure." He paused to chew on the inside of his lower lip. The relief on Murdoch's face was so comical, Johnny almost gave the game away. "You an' I will be off to Sacramento in a few days. Jenny can spend time with the rest of the family and see how she likes Lancer. I hope everyone will give her a chance and see if they like her in return?"
Unable to hold it much longer, Johnny slapped his father on the back and strode off into the kitchen where, once alone, he fell about laughing, wondering how long he could keep up the pretence. As he wiped his eyes, Johnny felt a tad guilty; it was one thing to tease his busybody 'sister' and the rest of the family but he sure didn't want to give Jenny any false hopes. They were friends, nothing more, and he hoped he had made that abundantly clear. But then, the more he thought on it, the more he found that he was not sorry - it would be nice for Jenny to be spoiled for a while; to be treated as a special guest and it would teach his family not to poke their noses into his private affairs.
Standing a few feet away, Pony had overheard Murdoch and Johnny's conversation. Utterly aghast, she threw on a warm shawl and slipped out to the barn where she knew Enrique would be waiting as arranged. They embraced and she pulled him urgently into the safety of the shadows. A while later, sitting comfortably on his knee and permitting him to trail his fingertips softly through her silvery-blonde locks, she whispered, "Jeez, we got to do somethin'!"
Enrique was far away; he had his sweet Pony on his lap and she was looking extremely pretty in her soft ruffled lilac gown. He murmured against her hair, his lips pressing unhurried kisses to the smooth silkiness. "Why do we? What's it got to do with us anyway?"
Pony clicked her tongue in exasperation and shuffled away from him a little. "That Jenny's not right for Johnny and you don't want her movin' in at Lancer, do ya?"
Enrique was flummoxed. He shrugged with perfect indifference. "Why not? She seems alright to me; a little slow maybe but not bad as girls go."
Pony huffed and hopped down off his knee to march away and flounce over to the barn door. She went no further but stood indignantly, with her back turned on him to show her displeasure. "Then maybe you ain't the right man for me after all if'n you can't see how wrong that girl is for Johnny. I thought you had more brains between your ears. I don't want to tie myself to no dumb cowpoke!"
Enrique was immediately contrite. He rushed to Pony's side, and, grasping her hand, pressed a fervent kiss to the crown of her shimmering hair. "I am the right man for you, Pony," he reassured her. "I thought we were promised? It's all decided, ain't it?" He was somewhat soothed when she squeezed his hand and reached up to softly stroke his cheek. "But, querida, there ain't no way I'm goin' to interfere in Señor Juanito's love life. It's... more than my life is worth! If my papa were to find out... or Señor Juanito... Dios!" Enrique grimaced at the thought of what would befall him should either man discover him even discussing such a topic. "And you had better not do anything either!"
Pony shrugged, her intelligent blue eyes wide with innocence. "Of course I won't interfere; how could you think such a thing?"
Enrique knew that wide blue-eyed look too well and was not convinced. He turned her gently to face him, suddenly alert and knowing perfectly well that she was up to something, and shook a warning finger.
"No little sneaky tricks now, Pony!"
She rolled her eyes heavenwards. "As if I would!"
"Come on, this is me you're talking to. I know the stuff you an' Jemimah get up to every Christmas... the hell hound in Jelly's bed..." The tall young man gave a wry smile.
Pony gaped in mock-indignation. "That was you! You put the pig in there!" She crossed her arms and flounced away from him.
Enrique followed, pressing his point. "Because you asked me to! An' my papa wore out his new belt me an' my brothers bought for him on my behind..."
"Then there was the frog in the Christmas soup... sawin' the legs on Señor Scott's bed so it collapsed on him... an' the time you girls hid the turkey an' the whole family had to have cold ham for Christmas dinner..." He wondered how his little darling had the gall to act the innocent with him; he knew her better than anyone - she and Jemimah had been his playmates long before there had been any hint of romance.
Pony turned on him, arguing, "That would have been alright if that crazy dog hadn't found it an' dragged it across the yard..."
Enrique bit back his laughter and tapped her gently on the tip of her pert little nose."I know you well, my sweet Pony but, this time, if I find you are up to your old tricks, I'll..."
She planted her hands on her slender hips and narrowed her eyes. "You'll what?" she challenged.
Enrique smiled but there was something most unnerving about the wolfish grin. "I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll take a leaf out of the Patron's book - it seems to be a Christmas tradition here now... but, this time, it'll be me doin' the whompin'!
Pony gasped in outrage. "You wouldn't!"
Enrique quirked a dark eyebrow.
He narrowed his brown eyes and fixed his little sweetheart with the same kind of look his father and older brother had used so eloquently to quell him in the past. "If we are to be married soon..." Pony hushed him and glanced around furtively to be sure nobody was passing by to overhear. "It is well you learn early on who will wear the pants in our home and there will be NO tricks. You mind me now."
Though irked beyond measure at being spoken to in such a manner by her intended, Pony smiled prettily and Enrique quickly kissed her on the cheek, glad it had been so easy to talk sense to her. He went back to the house to fetch them both some punch and cake, leaving Pony to meander back across the yard. Some of the guests were on the veranda, chatting and eating Maria's excellent chocolate cake. Johnny had just fetched an enormous wedge of the three-tier confection for Jenny and, as was her way, the girl was exclaiming over it in rapturous delight. Pony paused by the hitching post, hugging her shawl around her shoulders against the chill and watching Jenny with a devious smirk.
After the hectic few days of Johnny's birthday and Christmas were done, life at Lancer settled back into its usual routine with one difference - Jenny McQueen. Johnny had invited the girl to stay for a couple of weeks and had 'gone to town' making everything nice for her. The way he personally oversaw the primping of her room and asked Maria to prepare several special dishes for her only served to fuel the ever-growing impression that he had indeed fallen hard. With a feeling of helpless doom, Murdoch watched his son greet Jenny on the front steps with a small posy of white Christmas roses and ivy. Her four sisters, who were hanging out of the back of the wagon with their mouths open, stared as he offered his hand to assist her down from the front seat. From their excited nudging and the sudden burst of heated whispering behind their hands, the sisters also thought their Jenny had struck the jackpot.
A little later, Johnny went out to the barn to see to Barranca. He left Jenny talking to Teresa, Miss Florida and Pony in the kitchen where they were preparing lunch. Pony watched Jenny carefully with a scornful eye. She was as giddy as a kipper over the flowers and the kindnesses shown to her on her arrival. A simple farm girl, she had never experienced such attention before and, having been raised in a family of five daughters, it was a real rarity to be around men especially ones who made such a gentlemanly fuss of her.
"Sure is pleasant to have a man take notice of you, ain't it?" she drawled as she stuffed one of Maria's churros into her mouth, her large white teeth chomping away at the pastry. She licked the sugar from her fingers and grinned. "Just makes me tingle all over. I swear, when a boy talks all moony to me I just go weak and kittenish all over! Ain't it a hoot?" She giggled behind her hand like a little girl.
The ladies looked at each other, privately thinking that Jenny was indeed a bit flighty and silly but good manners prevented them from commenting. Pony smirked but, catching Florida's warning glance, she remained silent. Now she had an idea what she could do!
Instead, she painted an innocent friendly expression on her little face and asked, "Ain't you had no other boyfriends before, Miss McQueen?"
Jenny helped herself to another pastry, cramming it into her mouth whole and attempting to speak at the same time. "Not as you could call a real bona-fidey boyfriend, no. My pa has allus kept a close eye on me an' my sisters... being as we's all so desirable an' temptin'. He says that the others all have to wait 'til I gets hitched afore they can start courtin' so they all been pressin' me somethin' awful to git myself wed for fear that they wind up old maids." She chortled merrily, gulped down the mouthful of pastry and wiped her sticky hands down her skirt.
Teresa and Florida found their smiles slipping but Pony answered Jenny's cheerful guileless grin with her own delighted smirk. "Another churro?" she offered the plate with a dainty flourish.
Jenny needed no further urging. She seized the last pastry with a delighted smile. "Gee, you're all so nice here. Don't mind if I do!"
On the second of January, Murdoch and Johnny left for their trip to Sacramento, leaving Jenny safely ensconced at Lancer with the family. Jenny waved him off cheerfully and, everyone noticed, showed no particular upset at his departure. Indeed, her appetite was not affected at all; she ploughed her way through a whole plate of fried chicken that night at supper, followed by a hearty dish of pie and custard. If Scott noticed her lack of heartbreak at being parted from his brother, he did not mention it though he may have raised a quizzical brow when she held out her dish for seconds.
Washing the dishes after the meal, Pony asked Jenny if she would care to accompany her and Enrique to the Winter Fair in Spanish Wells. With Johnny gone on Cattle Growers' business and not due to return for a few days, Pony surmised that she may be feeling a little lost and lonely; it was down to the rest of the family to entertain her until Johnny came home.
"Besides," Pony pressed. "With us both bein' visitors here at Lancer, we should keep each other company, don't you think?"
Simple Jenny, lacking Pony's cunning nature, had agreed.
At the fair, Enrique introduced Jenny to his friend Ralph Lynd - the son of one of the small ranch owners nearby. Pony had asked him to arrange a gentleman friend to escort Miss McQueen as she worried the girl may feel left out and a little blue with Johnny still being out of town. Pony, much as she knew her man well and had the utmost confidence in her abilities to beguile him (or just plain 'bamboozle' the lad, as Miss Florida had phrased it), had worried that Enrique would not fall for her reasoning and might suspect scheming - which would not bode well at all. So, it was with a growing satisfaction that she now watched Jenny squirming delightedly as Ralph stooped to kiss her hand.
Ralph was twenty, a big strapping fellow with a shock of wavy blond hair and a toothsome smile but, luckily for Pony's plotting, not overly gifted with intelligence. Enrique had previously told his friend that Miss McQueen was very partial to flowers and candy and, mindful of making a good first impression, Ralph had brought her both a bunch of velvety winter pansies and a waxed paper packet of molasses taffy.
Ralph was on the lookout for a potential wife. His father had told him in no uncertain terms that it was high time he settled down and had offered him a small piece of land and lumber for a cabin if he could contrive to be married before Spring. Ralph was infinitely obliged to his good friend Enrique for introducing him to this girl. Why, not only was she pretty and red-headed (his favourite hair colour) but she was good-natured and appreciative and that, to Ralph, was a sure sign of the potential happiness she would bring to their union. If Enrique had been able to read the thoughts of his friend Ralph and his sweetheart Pony, he would have steered the former clear... and had stern words with the latter.
They had hardly finished the introductions when Jenny, so eager to see everything, expressed a desire to check out the jams and preserves stall and Ralph, ever a polite and amenable type of young man, offered to escort her over there. Pony grasped urgently at Enrique's arm as he made to tag along.
"Oh, it almost slipped my mind entirely... Miss Florida asked me to take a look at the stall where they're sellin' the ale and cider!"
"Cider? My goodness - Miss Florida didn't strike me as a drinkin' lady!" Jenny gasped. "She seems so refined."
Pony paused, struck anew by this girl's dim-wittedness. She hastily rearranged her features so no-one else would be able to see her utter disdain. "No," she explained slowly. "Florida uses the cider in her sauces and puddings at the cafe. She don't drink it." Boy, the girl really was dumb; she couldn't imagine what Johnny saw in her. She voiced this to Enrique who grinned, watching Jenny walk away with Ralph, her curvy hips swaying.
"Can't you? I sure can!"
The young man ducked with a laugh as Pony reached up to whack him round the back of the head.
That evening after supper, Pony and Jenny sat companionably in the barn, petting a litter of new kittens which were snuggled to their mother in the warmth of an old crate. Pony stifled a yawn as Jenny waffled on about what a gentleman Ralph Lynd was... and how considerate, holding her chair for her at luncheon, offering her his arm to escort her everywhere, ordering for her at the cafe. She sighed and dreamily rubbed the fur of a kitten against her flushed cheek.
"It's so nice to find a true gentleman... and how big and handsome he is. Didn't you think so?"
Pony smiled to herself.
"I got somethin' to ask you," Jenny confided at length. "Mr Lynd invited me to take family supper over at his place... with his ma an' pa an' his brothers... an' I was jest wonderin' if'n you thought I oughtta go? I mean, would it be proper to be a guest at the Lynds' when I'm already a guest here at Lancer?"
Pony could not have been happier but she pretended to muse over the idea for a while, taking her time while Jenny anxiously chewed at her lip. At last, after much deliberation, Pony said carefully, "I think you should take up the invitation, Miss Jenny. I don't think anyone here will mind. After all, Mr Murdoch an' Johnny are away an' that only leaves Scott an' Teresa... you can't count Miss Florida an' me 'cos we're only visitors ourselves. I reckon Johnny would be pleased for you to make more friends in the neighbourhood. Yep, all in all, I reckon you should go!"
Jenny beamed in relief. "Why, Alice honey, I'm so glad you said that 'cos, truth to tell, I did accept the invitation this very afternoon. I was thinkin' of sending word with your Enrique - such a nice young fella by the way; so handsome even if he is only a Mexican - sayin' I couldn't go but, now you said what you said, I reckon I'll stick to my decision."
Not at all impressed with Jenny's remarks about Enrique being 'only a Mexican', Pony struggled to hide her snarl and, instead, agreed wholeheartedly.
"After all," Jenny rambled on, doing her best to validate her decision. "Me and Johnny ain't engaged; we's jest friends. He ain't made his intentions known, if indeed he has any, and a girl has to look out for herself. I figure I was pretty wise to accept Mr Lynd's offer in the first place."
So it was that, the next afternoon, Jenny was collected by Ralph in the Lynd buckboard and transported to his house for family supper. Much later, when he dropped her back at Lancer, she was noticeably starry-eyed and dreamy. He gallantly kissed her hand and smiled down at her, saying that he would see her the next morning in church.
Simpering madly, Jenny went inside and Pony, perched on the top rail of the corral fence, grinned after her. In the twilight, Enrique sauntered over, looking most suspicious.
He stopped by the fence and leaned quietly on the rail by the little blonde's side. "Pony, querida?"
"What are you up to?"
She gaped down at him. "Up to? Why, what do you mean?"
Enrique's brown eyes narrowed. Her excessive innocence was enough to confirm his worst fears. "Why was Ralph driving Jenny and why did he just kiss her hand?"
Pony shrugged. "Well, how should I know? I suppose he was just bringing her home and he kissed her hand because he's a gentleman. Wouldn't hurt you none to learn some manners! Maybe Ralph Lynd could teach you a thing or two!"
He was silent for a moment and Pony chewed her lip nervously, avoiding his eye. "If I find out this is one of your tricks, my sweet Pony, and that are interfering between Jenny and Señor Juanito after I told you not to... I will be the one to do the teaching! And I promise I will not be a gentle man at all!"
With a sniff and a toss of her head (mainly because she couldn't think of anything plausible to say and had a sudden desire to be as far out of his reach as she could), Pony launched herself off the top rail and strutted inside.
At the bottom of the steps outside the Green River church the next morning, Ralph Lynd waited, hat in hand, for Jenny. His face lit up as he watched her waving from the wagon. Scott handed her down politely but there was no mistaking his frown of disapproval when Jenny instantly hopped across to the burly young man and, taking his arm with a giggle, allowed herself to be escorted to the pew where his mother, father and two younger brothers were waiting to greet her warmly. From their expressions, Teresa and Miss Florida were more than a little surprised and somewhat put out by this turn of events. They moved quietly to the Lancer pew, greeting friends and neighbours with the usual pleasantries but casting frequent glances across the little church at young Jenny, especially when her vociferous squeals and exclamations of delight carried across the room. Pony seemed to be the only one of the Lancer party who showed no surprise at Miss McQueen's desertion. Loudly, she huffed that it was disgraceful the way Jenny had sprung into another man's arms as soon as Johnny was out of the picture. Though Florida hushed her sharply, Pony could tell that the others shared her opinion.
After the service, Jenny skipped over with a beaming smile and announced that she had been invited to Sunday lunch with the Lynds and she hoped it wouldn't be too much of an inconvenience for them if she attended. Scott, by now becoming quite vexed with the silly, feckless girl, refrained from telling her how inappropriate he found her behaviour however he did remind her that she was actually Johnny's guest, not Ralph Lynd's. Cool and disapproving, Scott waited for her reply.
"I jest can't see what you're gettin' at, Mr Lancer," she tittered. "Johnny wouldn't mind. He said for me to have fun an' get to know folks around here. An' I'll be back later. If you're missin' me that bad, me an' you can spend time together this evening! Have us a real good talk, alright?"
Scott, his mouth hanging open in amazement, watched the giddy girl trot back to the Lynds and wave excitedly as they left the church. He shook his head as though dazed. "Missing her? I'd like to throw her..." Suddenly remembering where he was and that it was Sunday, Scott bit his lip though Pony had a feeling she knew exactly what he had been about to say and she grinned.
"I think Johnny would mind... very much!" Pony stated as she jumped into the back of the wagon.
"Well, all the more roast beef for us!" Florida said with a wry chuckle.
"Yeah, I never seen anyone put it away like she does!" Pony added grouchily. "She must have a tape worm or somethin'!"
Scott dipped his head suddenly and his shoulders seemed to shake. "Come on, the thought of that beef has set my mouth watering!" He flicked the lines and, with a jolt, the horses set off.
It was long after supper time when Ralph returned Jenny to Lancer. The moon was out, the animals all safely put away for the night and the family were settled around the fire. Despite her earlier assurances that she would spend some time with them, Jenny, pleading a headache from all the excitement, retired immediately to her room.
"I think I'll take some warm milk up to Miss Jenny. It might help her to sleep," Pony rose from the ottoman by the hearth and headed towards the kitchen.
Teresa looked up from her crochet. "That's thoughtful of you, Alice," she smiled.
"Yes. Isn't it?" Florida's shrewd eyes narrowed as she studied Pony's innocent expression.
Scott, too, was watching her from behind his book and Pony experienced an uneasy tremor dancing down her spine. Before he could say anything further, she moved swiftly to the kitchen and busied herself preparing the milk which she then carried up the back stairs to Jenny's room. When she knocked on her door, Jenny opened it cautiously and, seeing Pony, grasped her by the hand and tugged her inside.
"Oh, I'm so glad it's you!" she chortled, displaying very little evidence of any headache symptoms. "I'm fair burstin' to tell somebody! Come, sit by me... I gotta tell or I'm goin' to do myself a harm!"
Jenny, wearing a somewhat threadbare nightgown that was too short and had clearly seen repeated scrubbings on a washboard, threw herself with abandon onto the high bed and patted the quilt in invitation to Pony. Her long red curls bounced around her thin shoulders as she giggled gaily.
"Guess what's happened! Oh, you'll never guess!"
"If I'll never guess, it seems kinda dumb to ask me to try," Pony retorted as she sat down and endeavoured to keep her lip from curling impatiently.
Jenny seemed not to notice her companion's irritation. She chuckled merrily and took a hearty swig of milk from the cup, creating an instant white 'moustache' on her upper lip. "Ralph... I mean Mr Lynd... has done asked me to marry him! Yes, it's true! I knew you'd be surprised." She laughed with glee at Pony's shock. "Though I don't know why you should be; my Pa allus said I'm the prettiest gal in these parts. Ain't nobody out there holds a candle to me, he says. That's why he has to be so careful 'cos all the fellas are drawn to me like bees to honey!" She set the empty cup down with a clatter and flopped back against the pillows with a peal of laughter. "Ain't it fun? Ralph's takin' me into town tomorrow to buy my trow-so..."
"Trow-so? Oh, you mean trousseau?"
"Well, that's what I said, ain't it?" a flicker of annoyance creased Jenny's brow for a moment but then she was giggling once more, the excitement too much for her. "He's give me his Grandma's ring too! Of course, it's a mite big for my finger, what with her being such an ample woman, y'might say, but I'm so happy I jest couldn't bring myself to tell him so."
Jenny was in such high spirits that she had not noticed the anxious look on Pony's face. This hadn't been part of the plan at all. The best she had hoped for would have been Jenny being caught in some sort of compromising position with Ralph Lynd; enough to reveal her true character and for Johnny to cast her off. Pony was beginning to feel very uneasy. Johnny would be returning tomorrow and what was he going to think? He might be devastated and Pony hadn't wanted to hurt him. She chewed anxiously at her lip as another, more troubling thought struck her. What if he tried to shoot Ralph? It was all that boy-crazy Jenny McQueen's fault. This wasn't meant to happen.
Tentatively, she reminded Jenny of Johnny and the fact that he would be home soon.
The girl shrugged as though the idea of Johnny Lancer as any kind of prospective husband was now mere water off a duck's back. "Well, for sure, Johnny likes me fine; more'n likely he's head over heels in love with me too - I surely wouldn't blame him none but he never talked of marriage. I'm getting on in years... I'll be twenty next and I don't intend to be left on the shelf. It's time I started thinkin' of a home of my own... an' babies. Ralphie is goin' to have his own land and he and his pa are already to work on our cabin. Besides, when I'm wed, it means my next sister, Elsie can see about catching herself a man. Maybe even Ralph's brother, Isaac? I had thought about Johnny for her but I don't know... I guess he's too old for her an', if he ain't married yet, maybe there's somethin' wrong with him anyhow! Y'know, come to think of it, he ain't even tried to steal a kiss from me since I been here... you reckon he maybe don't like girls? I know there's those that prefer their own kind, if you get my meaning!"
Pony stood up abruptly and made her excuses. She needn't have bothered; Jenny was far too wrapped up in her own silly notions to even realise that she had caused any offence.
The very next morning, though it was the day Murdoch and Johnny were expected back and the ladies of Lancer, including Miss Florida, Pony and Zee, were hard at work preparing a welcome home dinner in their honour, Jenny McQueen was to be found snuggled up against Ralph Lynd on the seat of his buckboard, heading for Green River. As he had promised, Ralph was taking his betrothed into town to seek out a suitable wedding outfit for her. He dropped Jenny at the little dressmaker's shop with instructions to wait there for him. He had to see about some feed - an errand for his father - and would be back in no time.
Jenny lingered by the little window, waving to Ralph as he ambled up the street. Then, she gaped at the lace-trimmed fripperies on display - the sweet little beaded reticule, the sumptuous-looking Spanish parasol and the neat straw bonnet trimmed with pink satin roses. She couldn't contain a gleeful giggle at the image of herself decked out in such beribboned finery, floating angelically down the aisle to her big, strong husband-to-be... while her four sisters (waiting behind her and only bridesmaids) looked on, pea-green with envy! Lost in her delicious daydream, she had been about to enter the shop when she became aware of a person standing in the doorway of the mercantile next door.
This person was leaning cockily on the door jamb and there was no mistaking it; he was studying her - keenly. Jenny tossed her auburn curls and pretended to once again be absorbed by the display of gloves and bonnets in front of her but her eyes would keep darting to the side to throw him sly little glances. She made a fuss of rearranging her shawl about her shoulders so that she could surreptitiously peek at him.
He was young, probably only about seventeen or eighteen but, for all he was just a boy really, he was quite charming she supposed and kinda good-looking too. It couldn't do any real harm to give him a smile; after all, he was sure grinning at her! Jenny allowed her sweet mouth to curve in a winsome little smile and she dimpled prettily. Thus encouraged, the young man stepped over to her and nodded in polite greeting.
"Morning, ma'am," he began eagerly. "You going into Miz Baker's?"
"I was thinkin' on it," Jenny replied, regarding him from beneath her lashes in what she knew was her best flirting manner. "I'm shoppin' for my..." She stopped. She had been about to tell him that she was here for a wedding dress but, for some reason, she didn't want the young man to know she was engaged. He might politely leave her to her shopping and Jenny would be disappointed, she realised, to see him go. Ralphie would be a good few minutes yet and what harm could it do to while away those few minutes with this very pleasant young man here? "I'm shoppin' for a new outfit," she finally said.
"A new outfit? For a special occasion?"
Jenny contrived to blush and dipped her head shyly though she watched him carefully from the corner of her eye and was gratified to see he seemed more than intrigued. "Why, yes, I guess you could say it's a special occasion. I've got to look real pretty so I was lookin' for somethin' extra special."
"If you'll excuse me, ma'am, you don't need anything extra-special to look pretty. You're already the most beautiful girl I think I've ever seen here in town."
Jake Winter was the son of the mercantile owner and fancied himself as a budding ladies' man. He was earning a reputation for flowery speeches and sugar-coated compliments and, as he smugly adjusted his brocade waistcoat (most impractical for working in the store, his father had huffed), was pleased to see his words were having the required effect on this red-headed girl. She was far from being the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, that was just a fib to get her attention, but she was certainly the likeliest girl to pass by all morning. Jake was bored; working in his father's store was hardly taxing and this little lady looked like she might be game enough to brighten what was left of his morning. She was giving him the eye, inviting him in, and Jake was never one to turn down an invitation from an amenable lady. Watching the store for his straight-laced parent might just turn out to be fun after all.
"But, if you are looking for something a little out of the ordinary, I think I might have just the thing," he began. "If you'll allow me to say so, ma'am, you have particularly attractive hair - such colour... but it needs... hmm... a little something...and I believe I have the very thing!"
Jenny's smile slipped. Her hair? What was wrong with her hair? She patted it uncertainly with one gloved hand and allowed Jake to ostentatiously slip the other into the crook of his arm to lead her firmly away from the dressmaker's window and into his store.
In no time at all, he had slipped a pair of dainty ivory combs into either side of her thick tresses and was then leading her over to the display cabinet to show her the necklaces, chokers and ear bobs, all the while buttering her up and congratulating himself on his ability to charm a female. When Jenny gasped admiringly at a chain with a single teardrop pearl, Jake obligingly took it off the stand and stood behind her to fasten it.
Jenny lifted her weighty red locks so that he could slip the delicate chain around her neck. He was very near to her; so near, in fact, that she could feel the warmth of his breath upon the nape of her neck and it was giving her delicious little thrills so that she fairly wriggled with excitement like an overactive child on Christmas morning. Having finally managed to secure the clasp, Jake reached forwards and daringly smoothed down the fragile gold chain with his long elegant fingers, allowing them to linger on the single pearl which hovered just above the tantalising swell of her cleavage. At any moment, he expected the girl to slap his hands away but, with a growing delight, he found she did not. She seemed perfectly happy, in fact, he was sure she was rather enjoying it.
Just across the street, the stage had drawn up outside the hotel and, among the passengers wearily climbing down, Murdoch and Johnny were reaching for their bags and stretching aching muscles. Johnny had just caught his father's bag as it was tossed down by old Hank, the driver. He grinned and called out a cheery word of thanks to the wizened old man, joining Murdoch who was tramping across the street towards the store. As they neared the mercantile, Johnny spotted Jenny and was about to wave and call out to her when he saw her turn around in young Jake Winter's embrace, slipping her own slim arms about his waist to draw him closer and allowing him to smooth back her long red hair. It was a gesture so intimate that both Johnny and Murdoch stopped in surprise. They watched incredulously as Jenny rose up on her tiptoes and planted an enthusiastic kiss on the boy's lips.
Murdoch, sensing Johnny about to dart forward into the store, grasped his arm. "Johnny, don't be...!"
He got no further. Before either man could do or say anything, they were rudely shoved to one side by a burly young fellow who surged past them and fairly raced into the store, grabbing young Jake about the throat and lifting him off his feet like a chicken headed for the axe. Jake gave a strangled squawk, sounding exactly like a panicked hen being throttled, and made to wriggle free of the bigger man's iron grip. But Ralph Lynd was not about to let him go.
Jenny was jigging on the spot nearby, wringing her hands in anguish and gaping at Jake whose handsome face was now turning blue, his tongue lolling out and his eyes bugging from their sockets.
"Ralphie! Ralphie, let him go! He ain't done nuthin'!" she squealed, plucking uselessly at the big man's brawny shoulders.
Ralph turned his head to shoot her a disapproving glare of such ferocity that she fell back in a subdued silence. He then shoved the youth away so hard that he sent him flying across the store to land in an untidy heap on top of the counter of fabric bolts. Jenny was hastily removing the necklace and plucking the combs from her hair in an effort to belatedly hide the evidence of her indiscretions. Ralph, having dealt with the boy for now, turned on his betrothed, fixing her with a dark look, his beefy hands on his hips.
"If this is how you're gonna behave the minute you're outta my sight, I'll have to make sure I don't leave you alone for a second!" he began to berate her as she quivered before him. "This is what my ma would call a lack of dee-corum! Why, you done behaved like a jezebel! No other word fer it as far as I can see. An' if'n you intend to be my wife, I guess I'm goin' to have to learn you to be more refined!"
Ralph Lynd was a man of few words and, having said his piece, he grasped Jenny's hand and marched her outside towards the buckboard while she gasped and apologised every step of the way.
Utterly bewildered, Johnny finally shook himself and made towards the store but, again, Murdoch caught his arm.
"Wait a minute, son!"
Johnny stared up at him, his nose wrinkling up in puzzlement. "Wait? Can't you see...?"
"Yes... and I also heard him say that she was to be his wife! Let's just hold on and find out what's happening here."
Ralph stopped angrily by the small wagon and reached down to seize Jenny by the waist, intending to hoist her up onto the seat. However, before he could lift her, he noticed the surprise on her face and turned to see what she was staring at.
"Oh... Johnny... Mr Lancer..." Jenny was far too flustered to know what she could possibly say to explain herself.
Johnny stepped up onto the boards and gently took her arm, his wary gaze fixed on the beefy man who had suddenly released her but whose face remained far from friendly. "Jenny! What's happenin'? You know this man?" He eyed Ralph uncertainly. Big as he was, if this guy was accosting her, Johnny was ready to deal with him.
"Sir, I'll thank you to take your hand off my fiancée." Ralph squared up to this intruder, growing more irate and impatient by the second.
Johnny gaped. "Your fiancée?" He turned to Jenny whose face was rapidly turning red, right up to the roots of her vivid hair. "Jenny?"
"Johnny..." she endeavoured to smile sweetly. "It ain't what it looks like!" Impulsively, she threw herself at Johnny and tried to desperately hug him though Ralph exclaimed in outrage and Johnny instantly made haste to disentangle himself, intent on discovering what the hell had been going on while he had been away.
Ralph had taken about all he intended to take. First, he found her in the arms of the boy who worked in the mercantile and she didn't seem none too reluctant to him! And now, here she was trying to snuggle up to another one! "Jenny! What is this? Who is this man to you?" Ralph was just about ready to blow his top.
"This man is her... I'm her..." Johnny's angry retort petered out. He could hardly claim to be her significant other without telling an outright lie and yet he could feel his father's quizzical stare boring into the back of his neck. It looked like the game was up; he would have to come clean about the trick he had been playing on the family. He just hoped Murdoch could see the funny side. "Well, who are you?" Playing for time, Johnny niftily turned the tables on Ralph.
"I'm her husband... or at least I will be next month!"
"Her husband? Jenny... is this true?" Murdoch spoke for the first time.
"No! Well... that is to say... yes." Her eyes darted from one disapproving face to the other. Young Jenny McQueen usually enjoyed a little male attention but she was starting to feel decidedly hot under the collar. Mr Lancer was giving her the sort of look that her pa doled out all too often. She was feeling most aggrieved that her lovely day had been so spoiled. Darn that mercantile boy and his sweet talking ways!
Johnny grinned suddenly and shook his head. "Well, don't that beat all! Here, everyone's tryin' to push me away from you..." He glanced up at Murdoch here. "An' there ain't no need - you're already engaged to another fella!"
Jenny threw up her hands and howled. "Oh I don't know! You're so nice an' all an' you gave me those pretty flowers an' made the house all spruce an' special for me... I thought... " She gave a small hiccupping sob then turned to Ralph. "An' then Ralph ... well, he gave me molasses taffy an' talked all pretty... an' he even gave me his grandma's ring!" She twisted off her glove and held it up on her finger to show them. "An' then.. " She glanced back at the doorway of the store to the boy who was trying to straighten his collar and looking half scared to death. "He said my hair was like peach syrup an'..." She wriggled and simpered coquettishly at Jake, throwing him a cute little wave at which he darted back into the store, slamming the door shut. "... I just go all gooey when boys is nice to me; I cain't help it!" She shrugged and batted her eyes at them.
Johnny and Murdoch were, by now, regarding her with utter disbelief but Ralph captured her elbow and turned her to him.
"You mean to tell me that you were already engaged to him when you said you'd be my wife?" He pointed sternly to Johnny.
"No! We was never engaged!"
Ralph sagged in relief and, it must be said, both Murdoch and Johnny did likewise.
"But I was kinda hopin' he'd ask me." Jenny turned once more to Johnny and dimpled coyly at him, fiddling with the threadbare fringe on her shawl and swinging her skirts to and fro. "How about it? You want to, Johnny?" she asked coyly.
Johnny's mouth hung open incredulously. If he hadn't suspected it before, he knew now how silly and feckless she was. He had never had any real intentions regarding a romance with Jenny but it still smarted a little to find out she hadn't even waited more than a day to move on to someone else. He backed off, shaking his head and smiling at the way his prank had been unravelled.
Not expecting to be turned down, Jenny drooped at first but then hooked her arm through Ralph's and brightened instantly. At least she still had one man left.
However, Ralph scowled down at her little smile before looking seriously at Johnny. "Mister, I want you to know that, when I met Jenny, I didn't know nothing about a prior claim on her hand or I'd have never courted her in the first place. My pa said I should find me a wife before round-up an' so I done but, if'n you want her, I'll step back. You was there first."
Johnny could hardly take it all in. He actually felt like he was about to crack out laughing but he restrained himself. Murdoch was still scrutinising him closely, his beady eye watching every move. He smiled easily at Jenny and shook his head. "No... you go right ahead. You an' Jenny... you seem to fit better than I think we would've."
Jenny grinned but Ralph was still sombre. "Well sir, I'm sure we will... eventually but, right now, I think there's a lesson I need to learn my fiancée about how to behave in a gentleman's company. There's things that's proper and things that ain't an' I'm beginnin' to think she don't know the difference. It's up to any self-respectin' husband to learn his wife so, if you'll excuse us..."
Ralph touched his hat respectfully, nodding curtly to both Johnny and Murdoch and lifting a nonplussed Jenny into the buckboard. As they drove off, she hollered out, "Bye Johnny, I'll see ya'! I'll come by fer my things in the mornin'!"
Ralph growled back over his shoulder, "No, you mean I will! I ain't lettin' you outta my sight til we's wed!"
The buckboard whipped smartly past an incoming wagon, driven by Scott who noticed Jenny waving from the seat. Seeing his father and brother standing by, watching her depart with another man, Scott thumbed back his hat and scratched his head. His little brother's romances could be short-lived at times but, boy, this was the first time he'd seen the lady actually move on to another fellow right in front of him!
On the drive home, Scott became even more puzzled by the silence. Johnny was sprawled in the back and seemed to be deep in thought whereas Murdoch kept throwing dark suspicious looks over his shoulder at the young man. Scott was becoming increasingly concerned and was on the verge of saying something (though he hardly knew what) when, suddenly, both men turned at the sound of Johnny's laughter.
Stunned and burning for answers, Scott flicked his brother a searching glance. "Alright Johnny, spill! You don't look exactly heartbroken about Miss McQueen's transfer of allegiance."
"I suspect, son, that Johnny has been pulling the wool over our eyes. Isn't that right?" Murdoch said.
Johnny dipped his head and had the grace to look a little ashamed of himself. Even so, there was no mistaking the mischievous twinkle in his blue eyes.
"Well Murdoch, I guess I have to admit that I never had any real intentions where Jenny was concerned."
"I thought not."
"I reckon maybe I owe you all an apology? It only started 'cos I wanted to teach Teresa and Maria to quit stickin' their noses into my business but... well... I guess we were missin' out on any of the usual..." He hesitated, reluctant to say 'tricks' lest Murdoch be really irked and lose his temper. The big man already looked far from impressed at having been so thoroughly taken for a ride. "An' anyway, you two were askin' for it... you're both just as much like old mother hens as them ladies are." Johnny tried to defend himself but grinned sheepishly and swiftly carried on before either man could interrupt. "I realised from the first that Jenny would'a driven me crazy... too dumb to laugh at and boy-crazy... I'd have ended up chasin' her all across California. I figure I ain't ready for a wife yet anyhow. I'll leave that to you, Scott. I intend to just have fun for a while."
They trundled along past the waterhole, heading for the last rise from which they would be able to see Lancer. Johnny was still smiling to himself and sniggering occasionally.
"Y'know Scott," Murdoch began conversationally. There was something about his tone which made both his sons sit up and listen. "This year, I've missed our little Christmas traditions."
"Oh?" Realising their father was aiming his arrow at Johnny, Scott decided to play along. "I thought we'd pretty much honoured the usual Lancer customs."
"No, no. For the last three years, there's been a particular tradition that we have neglected to observe this year."
"A particular tradition? What did you have in mind, sir?"
Murdoch glanced over his shoulder at Johnny who was watching him closely. Gratified that he had his younger son's attention, Murdoch continued. "Well... let me just say that, with Jemimah away at school and Alice behaving like a perfect lady..."
Scott chuckled. "Ah, I think you must be referring to the tradition of the Christmas paddling? Usually reserved for the misguided individuals who delight in playing their pranks on the rest of us?" Scott risked a sidelong peek at his brother who was studiously avoiding his eye and had taken to self-consciously picking at the silver conchos down the leg of his dusty pants.
After a pause, during which Murdoch figured he would let his mischievous son squirm, he went on, "Yes, that's it." He threw Johnny a dark look filled with foreboding. "I thought, this year, I wouldn't be called upon to deliver a festive... skelping. However..."
"It ain't Christmas no more, Murdoch!" Johnny pointed out and shot his father a sassy grin.
Scott leaned back. "Ah, but the prank was played at Christmas!"
"And carried on into the New Year. That, surely, deserves something extra?" Though his face was grim, Scott discerned a twinkle in the old man's eye.
Johnny clearly could not see the twinkle. "Extra? Whoa... hold on now, Murdoch..."
"Yes, my boy?"
Johnny was laughing but an uneasy sensation insistently crept up his spine. He was not entirely sure the old man was in jest. "Well, I just... I mean it's just that..." He shrugged and smiled. "I ain't no kid."
"No indeed. But you are my son."
"Well, yeah. Sure. But..."
"And I am your father."
"Murdoch, I ain't denyin'..."
The big man turned at last and fixed Johnny with the look he usually reserved for Jemimah when he had caught her out in some transgression or other. "So, you acknowledge I have the right to call the tune, young man?"
"He's got you there, little brother," Scott sniggered.
Johnny bent his dark head and threw up his hands in defeat, chuckling. "Alright! You got me! If it was Jemimah an' Pony, I guess they'd be gettin' what for. I was the joker this year; I admit it. An' I'll stand in the corner if you want me to... or go to bed early?" he teased, tilting his head to one side and smiling bashfully. "But I don't reckon I'd fit over your knee, Murdoch!"
Murdoch and Scott both joined in his laughter at the thought.
"Well now, I'm sure I can think of some other suitable punishment for this year's prankster," Murdoch chuckled. "Johnny, you may be right and, besides, I haven't the energy to attempt to make an impression on your backside! Jemimah is another story altogether!"
When their laughter had died down, Johnny spoke softly to his father. "Murdoch, you still got her last letter? I ain't had the chance to read it yet, what with all the visitors arriving and the Sacramento trip."
Scott and Murdoch glanced back but Johnny was gazing at the distant trees surrounding the waterhole. He seemed far away as though wrapped in a memory from long ago. It must have been a sweet one as his handsome face wore a soft smile and his blue eyes shone. Turning back, they exchanged a look (was it contentment? relief?) and Murdoch muttered that he would look it out for him when they got home.
Over the next week, word spread quickly around the ranch that Miss McQueen had gone for good and, furthermore, was now due to marry Ralph Lynd at the end of the next month. The hands were, at first, very reluctant to upset Johnny by referring to the girl (she had not been particularly well thought-of by those who had encountered her) but, as soon as it became clear that he wasn't in the least concerned over the loss, her departure was no longer a taboo subject. As a result, Johnny received his fair share of ribbing from the men and from Scott but, figuring it was his due for encouraging the idea that Jenny was more than a friend, he took it all in good part. As the Christmas Prankster, he had got off pretty lightly.
Enrique knocked at the door after supper and, when Murdoch answered, he asked politely if he might have permission to escort Pony to the barn to see the new foal. Murdoch was somewhat puzzled as he knew full well that the horse-crazy girl had spent most of the afternoon gaping adoringly at the spindly, doe-eyed baby. However, seeing her eagerness to go with him, he gave his permission with a fond smile but added that Enrique shouldn't keep her out too long; he didn't want Alice to catch a cold in this evening chill.
Pony hastily slipped on a sweater, grinning up eagerly at the tall young man who awaited her at the door.
"Oh, don't worry, Patron," Enrique spoke respectfully to Murdoch but his dark eyes were fixed on the smiling blonde. "I have an excellent way, I think, to keep Miss Alice warm."
Pony's smile faltered and she appeared to hang back, all enthusiasm suddenly waning, but she was close enough for Enrique to take her hand and, so, could not avoid stepping out into the evening with him. Murdoch watched them go, his blue-grey eyes narrowing. But the night air was indeed cool. He shook his head and closed the door, heading for the fireside and his pipe.
At the big polished desk in the great room, Pony dipped her pen into the ink pot again and, squirming on Murdoch's leather chair despite the cushion she had placed there, she bit her lip and winced. She had never been much for writing letters and, though this one was for her dear friend, she would be mighty relieved when it was done.
I have good news and, boy, you shore do owe me one...'
The snow fell heavily, making the room dim so that Jemimah reached towards the lamp to turn up the wick. The warm glow lit her face so that Ellie, from the door, could see she was smiling. She was glad; her friend had been pensive and unsettled all through the festivities of Christmas and New Year and, now halfway through February, she had begun to despair of ever seeing her smile again. She had been inattentive in classes and her work was suffering. Ellie breathed a small sigh of relief. Whatever news was contained in that letter, Jemimah evidently appeared reassured by it. Maybe the party tonight would be a success after all now that the little English girl was in a better frame of mind.
Jemimah chuckled (music to Ellie's ears) and began to fold up the letter, slipping it into her dainty beaded purse. Ellie swooped up beside her and bent to plant a fond kiss to her dark shining hair.
"It is no good, my dear," she smiled. "Mother would scold me for my lack of manners but I simply cannot help it. I must ask why you are smiling so... not that I'm complaining! It's high time we saw the old Jemimah again!"
Jemimah stood, smoothing out her ruffled skirts and patting down the soft lace on her bodice. She caught sight of her reflection in the huge gilt mirror above the mantel. Dressed for the party in her new gown, a gift from the Steiners and made by the most sought-after seamstress in Boston, she looked for all the world like a true blue-blood lady. What a laugh! If only all those fine dandified people at the social tonight could know who she really was - little Jemimah Day from a cattle ranch in California. No... not a cattle ranch; the cattle ranch! Jemimah lifted her chin proudly, green eyes alight with happiness.
"Oh, it's nowt much really. I've just had some good news from home, that's all."
"Oh, pray do tell! Is it about Johnny or Scott... or is it Mr Murdoch... or Jelly? Has Teresa had her wedding yet?" Ellie loved to hear her stories of the much-fabled Lancers.
"Nope, she's not married yet. In fact, I reckon she'll not get hitched for a few years yet while they build up their place. No, I was smiling 'cos a wedding's been cancelled."
Ellie's pretty face was puzzled and she coiled her finger around one golden ringlet, deep in thought. "And that's good news?"
Jemimah grinned, patting the purse. "Yes, it's very good news! The best!"
Laughing at her friend's confusion, Jemimah took her arm and, telling her story from the beginning, bustled her out of the room and down the stairs to gather their cloaks and muffs for the outing.
Anne Haslam May 2014