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
Although it was yet only mid-morning, and the sun had still to reach its zenith, the air throbbed with an oven-like heat and the folks who passed by the small buckboard, where the young man lounged, were moving at a sedate pace. The ladies all wore sun bonnets and nodded politely with friendly smiles; the men touched the brim of their hats or gave him a wink as they sauntered by. But no-one was moving along the street too hurriedly; it was too darn hot.
Johnny Lancer sprawled on the seat of the buckboard, his hat tipped forwards so that his face was shaded from the bright July sun. His blue shirt was unbuttoned so far that some of the ladies may have raised an eyebrow at the almost indecent amount of flesh and dark hair exposed on his chest but, well, it was a mite warm today and... Johnny Lancer was pleasing to the eye to say the least. The people of Green River were by now used to him and his elaborate dress sense - the form-fitting suede calzoneras with their silver Mexican conchos down each leg no longer seemed out of the ordinary.
Johnny let out a slow breath and squinted at the height of the sun, guessing that he had now been sitting there for about an hour. The stage wasn't exactly late as there never seemed to be a set time for its arrival. The townsfolk of Green River knew that it would arrive on a Tuesday morning but, as to a specific schedule, it was expected when it arrived and set off again only when its driver was good and ready.
Johnny nonchalantly flicked his black fringe out of his eye and turned his shirt cuffs up a little more. He was still debating whether to be peeved that he had drawn 'chauffeur' duty and that his older brother, Scott would by now be seated at their father's big desk, sipping a tall glass of something cool while he went over the books. Then again, once his passenger arrived and they got going, it was a pretty drive through beautiful country and, truth be told, he would much rather be in the great outdoors than cooped up in the hacienda, poring over endless columns of figures. Nah - he reckoned he maybe had the best of it after all. And he got on well with kids so, once she got here, their little visitor would be a welcome distraction for him.
His thoughts turned again to the girl he had been sent to fetch from the Green River stage.
Jemimah. Just thirteen years old, all the way from England, the only child of Andrew Day, one of Murdoch's oldest friends. The whole Lancer household had followed the saga as Murdoch had corresponded first with Andrew and then, after Andrew's death four months ago, with the lawyers who had been given the responsibility of dealing with his estate and his young daughter. No-one at Lancer had demurred when Murdoch had asked them to consider his idea to fetch the child over from England and offer her a home with them; it had seemed the obvious and right thing to do.
The poor kid had no-one now and the Lancers had so much they could offer her. Besides, as his ward, Teresa had said, it would be good to have another girl on the place and Murdoch had set his heart on it. The child of his old friend and, though he had never set eyes on her, his godchild. A little girl. He could spoil her; be the 'daddy' to her that he had never had a chance to be to either of his boys. Each time he read out one of the letters, as the plans were put in place for her journey, they had all seen the keen anticipation on his face.
And now, after an arduous four week trek over first an ocean and then across country via train and stage, today was the big day. Johnny could not help but feel a little of the excitement himself. Murdoch's glee over the last few days had been infectious to say the least. Johnny smiled softly to himself. A kid at Lancer. Well, it would certainly liven the place up he supposed. And a little girl?
He thought back to Pony's brief stay and the visits he still made to see her and Miss Florida - visits that were not as frequent as he would wish - and his smile widened. Pony was only a few months younger than this girl. Yes, it sure would be nice to have another young 'un staying with them.
Johnny's musings were cut short as the sound of horses and wheels drew nearer and the dust cloud heralded the arrival of the stage. He sprang gracefully down from his seat on the buckboard and strolled over to where some of the weary passengers were already spilling out onto the street, milling about in a little crowd to retrieve their baggage as it was tossed down to them from the roof of the coach.
Johnny politely tipped his hat to an elderly lady and assisted her with her valise. Two men also passed him then a young couple. Johnny ducked his head and looked quizzically at the scruffy old driver who was clambering down from his perch.
"Son, you here fer the boy?" the old timer hollered down at him and eloquently spat a stream of dark tobacco juice from the corner of his mouth into the dirty road.
"Boy?" Johnny grinned back at old Hank and watched him as he descended to the street rather like a wizened old monkey. "Nah, old timer... here to collect a young lady. All the way from England. S'posed to be on this stage."
At this, Hank jerked up his head and cocked it to one side, making him appear even more like a stringy little monkey. Johnny couldn't help but grin.
"Lady? No sir, ain't got no lady, young nor t'otherwise!" Hank shook his head. "Jest the boy. An' if'n you're here fer him let me give ya' fair warning... he's an ornery cuss!" Hank spat again into the road as if to reinforce his displeasure. "Nearly skipped out on us twice when we stopped to water the hosses. That there lawyer fella done telled me ter keep a sharp eye on him an' so I did but I were real close to leatherin' his hide an' I don't think the angel Gabriel hisself would'a blamed me none! Full a' piss an' vinegar he is, an' no mistake!"
The old man carried on his tirade oblivious to whether anyone was listening or not. Johnny chuckled to himself. Hank sure liked to moan; never happier than when he had something to gripe about.
"Well Hank, it's a girl that I've come for, not a boy. A Miss Day. You're sure she wasn't on the stage?"
Old Hank turned round to glare at Johnny, unhappy at being questioned.
"Course I'm sure!" he grumped. "There was jest him!"
He pointed at a young boy who was only just descending the steps of the carriage. The kid froze as he realised he was the subject of their scrutiny.
He was a scrawny little tyke dressed in oversized men's clothes - a pair of truly filthy work pants which may have once been blue but were now a nondescript grey; a stained and much-patched undershirt and, over the whole ensemble, an old brown jacket. The cuffs were turned over a few times but still hung over his hands which now clutched a beaten up carpet bag protectively to his skinny chest. The kid scowled up at Johnny from under the brim of his equally battered old hat. His long dark fringe almost hid the eyes that raked Johnny in a glare of such vivid animosity that he was momentarily taken aback.
Boy, this kid had eyelashes that any girl would kill for! Thick, long and black. And his eyes. Though they were narrowed now as he stared rudely at the man before him, Johnny had seen that they were a stunning shade of green.
Johnny couldn't imagine how this mite had upset old Hank so badly. He also thought the boy could use some fattening-up! Stepping towards him, he smiled down at the skinny little lad.
"Hey boy," he smiled softly. "I'm looking for a Miss Day. You wouldn't know if she travelled with you on the stage? She's about 12 or 13..."
"I'm 13, mister! An' I'm not a boy! You blind or something?!"
Both Johnny and Hank stopped in surprise but the old timer was quicker to recover. Stomping over to the kid he grabbed at the weather-beaten hat and tugged it from his head. Two thick dark pigtails fell down and swung about the scrawny frame as the youngster snatched the hat away from the driver. The girl (well, she certainly was a girl!) rammed the hat back in place and scowled furiously at Hank.
"Well, I'll be... he IS a girl!" the old man gaped.
Johnny was astonished too and almost forgot his manners in his surprise.
"Miss Day? Miss Jemimah Day?" he queried uncertainly.
"You don't see anyone else here, do yer?" the child snapped, regarding Johnny now as though he were some kind of simpleton.
Johnny shook himself and stepped forward again, smiling once more.
"Jemimah, I'm Johnny - Johnny Lancer. My father, Murdoch Lancer, sent me to fetch you. I've got a buckboard over yonder." He nodded towards the wagon and horses standing nearby. "Where's your luggage?"
Hank now seemed bored with the whole episode and stumped past on his path to retrieve his own belongings from the stage.
"This here bag's all he had... er... she had!"
"This is it?" Johnny looked to the child. Surely she hadn't trekked all the way from England with just one measly old carpet bag?
"You leave it be! It's mine!" she hissed and hugged the bag even more tightly to herself.
Johnny threw up his hands in mock- surrender, still smiling to put her at ease. Jeez, this was a touchy one!
"Whoa, kid! No need to get excited. I was only goin' to carry it for ya!"
A cackle came from behind the horses, announcing the reappearance of Hank, now fully loaded with his tatty coat and pack. Stumbling off in the direction of the saloon, he tossed a last bit of advice at Johnny.
"I warned ya'! A real little spittin' wildcat she is. If'n I were you I'd give her a few good licks of a strap; learn her how to act respectful afore she gits back ter your place!" He cackled again and disdainfully spat another stream of the tobacco juice out of the corner of his mouth. A gleeful grin split his whiskered face as he enjoyed a new thought. "Then again, ol' Murdoch'll sort her out, boy - he surely will, hee hee!"
Johnny didn't like the picture Hank was painting of Jemimah's reception at Lancer and her future family and stepped in quickly to change the subject. There was no need to scare the kid before she even got there. Though, as Johnny himself knew only too well, Murdoch would call the tune - even with the daughter of his oldest friend.
"Come on, Jemimah. We've an hour's drive ahead of us and then you'll be home."
"Home?" The scowl had slipped now from her face and suddenly, to Johnny, there was a world of sorrow in her eyes. It was hidden as quickly as it had appeared and she was once again glaring back at him.
"Lancer. Everyone's waiting there to welcome you."
Johnny gestured towards the buckboard, indicating that they should get going.
"Oh... er... just a minute!" Jemimah gave a little smile of apology. "I'm so sorry, I've left my book under the seat. I'll just get it!" She smiled again and gave a tiny shrug as if to say how silly she'd been then she nimbly hopped back into the carriage.
Johnny eyed the open door suspiciously.
"Won't be a moment!" the kid was calling out to him from inside the coach.
The door on the opposite side opened quietly and the scruffy urchin began to back out, still calling out to Johnny that she wouldn't be long. She eased the door shut and, grinning to herself, hoisted the carpet bag into her arms and turned.
A gasp escaped her as she was confronted with the blue flowered shirt front of Mr Johnny Lancer. Tilting her head to look up at him, the girl was relieved to see a genuinely amused grin on his face.
"Where you goin' kid?" Johnny thumbed back the brim of his hat and his laughing blue eyes looked down into green eyes which narrowed as the scowl reappeared. Years of being able to read a man's intent in his eyes a mere fraction of a second before he drew his gun stood Johnny in good stead now as he recognised the instant she decided to flee.
Jemimah darted off to the right but didn't reckon on the lightning reflexes of Johnny Madrid Lancer. His strong arm reached out to grab hold of her collar and she found herself virtually dancing on tiptoe as he marched to the buckboard, taking her with him.
Chuckling to himself, he launched her up onto the seat.
"Now just where do you think you were runnin' off to? Suppose you behave yourself, like a nice little girl, and..."
"I'm not a 'nice little girl'!" the kid spat back, attempting to spring down from the wooden seat.
"Well, you might dress like a boy and you might try to ape one but, honey..." Johnny's voice was full of amusement. He easily held her in place as he hopped up beside her and took hold of the lines. "You're still a little girl to me. And I don't know much about England but, over here, little girls do as they're told!"
Jemimah set her mouth in a firm line of fury. Johnny glanced at the rigid set of the skinny little imp and shook his head, grinning to himself. Hank was right - she was ornery!
A click of the reins set the pair of horses trotting along the road. Slowing a little to allow Widow Henderson to finish crossing the street, they had barely passed the hotel when the kid upped and leaped from the wagon, tucking and rolling like a street-fighter then bounding up again to hare down the sidewalk, back the way they had come.
Johnny hollered at her to stop, knowing as he did so that he would be wasting his breath.
"Damn that kid!"
He stopped the team and pulled on the brake, springing down lightly and tearing back along the street in hot pursuit. Ahead of him he could see the little pixie-like figure darting and dodging its way through the morning bustle of townspeople. She was getting away from him! Smaller by far and able to nimbly dart through the gaps, she was rapidly streaking away when Johnny had a lucky break.
Up ahead the Sheriff of Green River had just meandered out of the jail and was now stretching and yawning and treating himself to a mid-morning scratch.
"Val!" Johnny yelled. "Stop that kid!"
Val Crawford may have looked like some kind of slovenly layabout but he was sharp as a tack and quick-witted. He recognised the voice shouting at him and, twisting swiftly on the spot, whipped out an arm to catch the runaway around the waist. Snarling and spitting abuse at her captor but completely unable to wriggle free from his vice-like grip, Jemimah watched with dismay as that dark man in the blue shirt drew nearer and stopped, hands on hips and panting after his chase, in front of them. His vivid blue eyes were no longer filled with amusement. In fact, Jemimah had to shrug off the feeling that she might just have made a serious error of judgement. However, she lifted her little chin and stared back mutinously.
"Y'alright kid?" Johnny's voice was soft. She might be well enough now but, if she did that again, so help him...
The girl lifted her booted feet and tried hard to swing her heels back against Val's unprotected shins.
"Let go of me you rotten, pissing, filthy, maggot-eating..."
Val gave the kid a shake.
"Hey! That's enough!" he growled. "What kind of talk is that?" He eyed Johnny. "You want I should step inside and cut you a sliver of soap for that mouth, Johnny-boy? I got a nice big bar of carbolic that'd do the job right!"
The two men noticed that Val's threat instantly calmed the girl though her eyes still shot daggers at both of them. For now, she clamped her mouth shut and kept any further expletives to herself.
"Not right now, Val... but why don't you hang onto it, just in case," Johnny said ruefully.
Val eased his grip on the girl and lowered her feet to the floor carefully.
"So, who we got here?"
"Val," Johnny smiled and waved an expressive hand in introduction. "This here is Miss Jemimah Day - all the way from Yorkshire, England." He smiled. "Miss Day, meet Sheriff Crawford."
"Jemimah? You mean this is a GIRL?" Val guffawed and Johnny winced. "This here's the girl Murdoch's brung over to stay at Lancer?"
He bent down closer to the little elf, meaning to joke with her. "Nah, this can't be no girl... this here's a b..."
Jemimah's sudden sharp kick to Val's shin put an end to his joking. Her face like thunder, she immediately tried to dive off again only to feel Johnny's strong right hand grasp her shoulder and haul her to him whereupon he wrapped both arms around her and she was once again lifted off her feet, kicking and screaming. As for Val, he was now hopping on his good leg, cussing up a blue streak despite the disapproving glances being sent his way by a few of the good ladies of the town.
"Jemimah, settle down!" Johnny bit out. This was fast becoming very unfunny. Damn - the ledgers and book-keeping had started to look real appealing in the face of trying to ride herd on this little varmint!
He sensed the kid's teeth being lowered towards his hand and he shook her sharply.
"You bite me, kid an' you're gonna feel my hand across your behind! Now be still!"
The skinny body in his arms stilled at his threat though he could feel her ribs pumping as she fought to get her breath back. He put her back on her feet in front of him and frowned down at her obstinate face.
"Say you're sorry to the Sheriff! Go on!"
Jemimah turned calmly to Val, the very picture of childlike contrition but, instead of complying, she suddenly jumped forward putting all of her weight onto the boot that landed directly on his toe. Then the little ragamuffin hurtled off in the opposite direction, back along the street the way she had just come.
Johnny only had time to call an apology over his shoulder at his poor friend who was now hopping and cussing louder than ever. Johnny had just about had enough of this and, reaching to catch hold of one long fat pigtail, he finally stopped the little minx as she drew level with the buckboard where the whole fiasco had begun. He gritted his teeth, promising himself some kind of retribution, and hauled her into the wagon. He was hot, sweaty and thoroughly at the end of his rope. That girl was walking a fine line now. She'd better behave or his seriously frayed temper was going to be unleashed... and he could guarantee she would not like it a bit!
Where was the cute, dimpled, innocent little angel they had all imagined? This filthy, biting, scratching varmint was the nightmare version of their dreams!
Johnny grabbed the girl's bag and stowed it in the back of the wagon with the supplies he had already packed there earlier.
"Now," his voice as he sat beside her was eerily calm. "I don't know what you got in there that's so all-fired important but the way you've been clutching it I'm guessing you're not gonna leave it behind?"
The child glanced beseechingly over her shoulder at the old carpet bag and Johnny nodded as she confirmed his suspicions.
"You'll get it back when we reach the ranch, kid. I ain't taking it from you. I just don't want any more detours before we get home. You done tired me out!"
The child slumped back against the seat and stared forlornly ahead. When she spoke, her voice was subdued.
"This isn't my home."
Johnny clicked the horses into motion again and glanced at her, dismayed to see unshed tears glistening in her eyes. His anger fizzled out quickly and he shifted uneasily beside her. Dang - the last thing he wanted was to make her cry!
"Alright kid," he soothed. "I know it's not your home... but... it could be, if you give it a chance. I didn't always live here either but, now, I wouldn't be anywhere else."
They reached the last building of the town and turned along the road out to the open country leading to Lancer. After they had rolled along in silence for a while, Johnny tried again to draw her out. The girl had slumped morosely in the seat as if defeated somehow and it was making him feel bad. She was such a little thing and - he eyed her surreptitiously - probably quite a pretty kid once you scrubbed all that dirt off her face.
"So Jemimah," he began. "I guess you ain't none too thrilled to be here." He looked across at her but got no response. "I mean, you may not think it now but... well..." He straightened a little and smiled at the scenery around him. It sure was real pretty country. "The sun's always shinin'... well... nearly always. I heard it rains much of the time over in your country, that right?"
The girl remained resolutely silent but she shifted imperceptibly and her eyes narrowed.
"And Lancer is a great ranch; you'll like it there. It's like a big farm. You ain't seen nothing like it!"
Jemimah darted a quick scowl at her jailer. Did he think she didn't know what a farm was like? Bloody hell - the whole of Yorkshire was littered with farms! What did he know anyway? Why did everyone in this dry, dusty country think that they were so much better?
Alright, it was bigger, she'd grant him that... but not better... never better! That horrible snooty lawyer in New York had bragged on and on about how much bigger everything was over here - the hotels, the factories, the hospitals! She would bet their 'nuthouses' were a darn sight bigger too! Everyone knew Americans were all barmy! It wasn't like home; it would never be like home. She swallowed a lump that suddenly formed in her throat and made up her mind to ignore the man at her side.
"We got horses, pigs, chickens, cows - more cows than you can count! We've even got a goose and a dog! You like dogs?" Johnny tried valiantly to bring her around but fell back into disappointed silence at her blank stare.
A little further on he tried again.
"How about horses? You ride, kid?" he nudged her.
Johnny's smile slipped and wavered a little. This was tough going.
"Oh, well, I could teach you if you'd like? Near everyone knows how to ride out here. Kinda difficult to avoid horses when you live on a ranch."
"You talk too much! Why don't you shut up? You're giving me a headache!" she blurted sulkily.
As quick as he had started feeling sorry for her, his temper flared and he could see how she'd managed to rile old Hank so easily. Reining his anger in, Johnny bit out, "Just making conversation is all. You don't have to be so rude, kid."
He eyed her with obvious disapproval and was rewarded when she had the grace to squirm a little.
"You always like this or is it just for me?"
She shrugged but Johnny didn't feel like letting her get away with it this time.
"I asked you a question." His voice was soft still... but firm.
"I didn't ask to be dragged out here!" she flung at him. "Nobody asked me anything! You all just decided it for me like I didn't have no say in the matter. What do I know? I'm just a girl! Nobody cares what I want. Well, I'll tell you something - I didn't want to come here and you all act like I should be grateful because you hauled me thousands of miles around the world! I bleedin' hate grown-ups!" She was getting herself worked up now. "Now I don't know you and I'm sorry you drew the short straw and had to come fetch me... but don't you get all arsey with me just because I don't bend over and kiss the pissing ground you walk on! You got it?!" She was gasping for breath now and shouting all her pent up anger at him.
Johnny's face was grim and his voice quiet as he slowed the team and turned to face her.
"I got it, chica... and you carry on like this and you're gonna get it from me! An' you won't be bending over to kiss the ground!" He calmed his breathing. "Didn't your folks teach you any manners?"
Jemimah stared at him for a moment. How dare he! How dare he criticise her parents! How could he? He didn't know... he didn't know they were....
With a strangled cry, she jumped up in fury and spun around, trying to clamber over the seat to get to her bag. Her thin little hand gabbed the handle but, before she could jump down, Johnny yanked her back in place, a hand on her collar and another on the baggy seat of her trousers. He dumped her none too gently onto the board.
"Kid, this is getting mighty old!" he waved a warning finger at her.
"Don't you point at me! Didn't your folks teach YOU any manners?" she flung his reproof back at him.
Johnny blinked then shook his head with a rueful smile as he saw the funny side. Dios! Crazy kid, she was a hell of a handful but... damn... he kinda liked her. She had fire; she'd be real entertaining... especially once she started digging her heels in with the old man. Oh yes, there'd be fireworks alright!
"Alright, I get it," Johnny sighed. "You don't wanna be here. But, miel, here is where you are and, until I hear different, I'm doing like I was told and takin' you back to Lancer with me." He saw her roll her eyes in frustration. "You might as well make your mind up to it, kid 'cos I'm through chasing ya'. You try to get down off this buckboard one more time before I say so..." Johnny's deep blue gaze caught her clear green eyes and held them. "And you and me are gonna have words! You understand me?"
She nodded reluctantly.
"I said d'you understand me?" Johnny pressed his point firmly.
"Yes," her reply was short and sullen.
"Yes sir!" Jemimah contrived to inject as much sarcasm as she could on the 'sir', being as insolent as she dared with this big man. It wasn't lost on Johnny but he let it slide... for now.
Johnny flicked the reins and they started rolling along again. The kid had gone silent once more and, this time, Johnny decided to leave her to her thoughts. He guessed he knew what it felt like to have so many things to mull over that it seemed you might burst and she sure looked like she was ready to go pop! Poor kid - all this must be one hell of a change for her. But he would try to make her see that 'different' didn't necessarily mean 'bad'.
She hadn't moved much for the last couple of miles and Johnny ducked to risk a peek under the brim of her ancient hat. No - she wasn't sleeping but she was very still and pale. Maybe the heat was getting to her? He was relieved to see that they were approaching the waterhole. The trees that lined the pool were just up ahead. Maybe they should stop in the shade for a while; she could wet her whistle and get her breath back. Hell - they both could!
Johnny started suddenly as the girl lurched forward on the seat. She was gasping and trembling, clutching a bony little hand to her chest. He dragged the horses to a halt and gripped her scrawny shoulders, turning her to see what was the matter.
She turned those two bright green pools desperately on him, wheezing and panting for air.
"Oh god... oh god... mister, please..."
Her face was scrunched up with the effort to speak. It was clear she was in pain and Johnny's heart thudded alarmingly against his chest.
"Kid, what is it? What...?"
Her eyes were half-closed now and she was limp in his arms.
"C, can't breathe... can't... breathe!" she rasped hoarsely. "Medicine... in my bag! Please.. please, mister!"
Truly alarmed now, Johnny hauled on the brake and leaped off his side of the wagon, racing around to her side to grab the bag and fumble it open. Mierda! No wonder she'd been so desperate to keep hold of it - she knew she might have some kind of attack at any moment and the medicine that might save her life was in it! Johnny mentally kicked himself. If she didn't get it in time... would she...? He thrust the thought out of his mind as he rummaged frantically inside the bag.
"What is it, kid? Pills? Where...?"
He checked back over his shoulder to see how she was doing. Then he froze.
Seconds ago she had been at death's door, sprawling like a rag-doll across the seat of the buckboard, pale and almost lifeless. Now... she was standing cool and calm, perfectly straight, and pointing his rifle right between his eyes!
Johnny's first reaction was complete bewilderment.
"What... what you doin', kid?"
Damn it if she didn't actually smile then! A real, honest-to-goodness smile that told him as eloquently as any words that she'd played him for a fool and, what's more, was thoroughly enjoying it.
Johnny Lancer's second reaction was anger - a wave of seething rage that boiled up and washed over him but, to his credit, he held it in check until he could use it.
"Just toss the bag up here onto the seat, mister," the girl was fairly grinning at him now. He was sure she'd be laughing in a moment. Little devil!
"An' don't do anything stupid. This gun's pointed right at your head!" she added unnecessarily.
"You even know how to fire a gun, girl?" Johnny's voice was silkily soft and, though he smiled, his eyes were ice-cold.
A little shiver of uncertainty danced up her spine but she shook it off.
"Want to try me, mister?" she goaded saucily. "The pointy end's the dangerous bit, ain't it? And it's aiming the right way."
Johnny slowly dumped the bag on the seat next to her and backed off a step, his hands on his hips, watching her. The kid allowed herself a satisfied smirk and became a bit bolder.
"Well, well," she sniggered. "This is the first time I've seen you quiet since I met you, Mr Lancer! I like you better this way!" A merry grin lit her elfin face.
Johnny dipped his head and seemed to study the toe of his boot then, raising his eyes to look at her, he smiled too. Jemimah saw the smile but, somehow, it unnerved her. It was a smile that promised retribution, no doubt about it.
"Honey," Johnny drawled softly. "There's something you need to know about me. If you point a gun at me, you'd better be ready to pull the trigger or..."
"Or what?" she leered daringly.
A deafening noise rent the air and Johnny ducked instinctively, hearing the girl scream. Something had whizzed past his ear; he had felt it as it skimmed by mere inches from his head.
As he slowly stood up again, he saw her staring at the rifle as though it had bitten her. They both froze in shock.
Unfortunately for Jemimah, Johnny's shock wore off quicker and he dashed forward to calm the horses which were skittishly stamping and bumping each other in fright at the gun shot. Luckily, they were a docile pair and not spooked enough to be too much for him to hold. Once they were calm again, he turned to her and approached grimly.
Johnny took the rifle from her trembling fingers and checked it, only taking his eyes off her for a second as he stowed it in the back of the wagon. Then he slowly walked back to her and announced sternly, "Girl, I think it's time we had them 'words'!"
He had been the image of calm (which, to be honest, had surprised her somewhat, seeing as she'd just shot him - accidentally of course!)but, suddenly, Jemimah was wincing and struggling as his right hand closed about her wrist and yanked her down to the ground at his side. His grip was firm and strong. Try as she might - and she surely tried - the girl could not free herself and she was tugged in his wake as he marched purposefully over to the trees. Stumbling and trotting to keep up with him, Jemimah's stomach felt like it was full of very alarmed butterflies and she heard herself give a little sob of helpless dismay.
She was just about out of breath when he stopped suddenly and turned to look down at her.
"Wha...?" she whimpered.
His smile had gone and now he looked exactly what he was - a man who had been pushed too far and was about to let her know exactly what happened to little girls who stepped over the line with Johnny Lancer! His whole being radiated a carefully controlled anger.
Jemimah caught the full effect of the dangerous blue fire in his glare and the butterflies became a horrible, clawing fear deep inside her. It wasn't as if she'd never been in this predicament before - hardly - but knowing what was about to happen was no comfort whatsoever. And she surely knew; her nine lives were all used up!
She would have turned to flee but had no time to attempt the escape as Johnny sat down on an old tree stump and hauled her unceremoniously over his knee. He swiped off his hat and dumped it on the ground by his boot then, eyeing the target area, raised his arm and started to smack her upturned rump decisively with his hand.
Jemimah squealed and wriggled furiously. His thighs felt hard and solid beneath her ribs and stomach and the fire his hand was stoking on her behind was none too pleasant either!
"I didn't get down from the wagon! I didn't!" she shrieked. "You said if I got down and I didn't get down! Yoww!"
Despite her frantic struggles, Johnny's left arm, like a band of steel, pinned her easily in place and he proceeded to deliver her come-uppance in a no-nonsense fashion. Feeling that the situation called for some mighty stern lecturing, he punctuated his spanking with a few choice words.
"I don't know how it is in England but, over here, children are taught to show respect to their elders. And that means not shooting at 'em with their own guns!"
"I didn't mean to! It just went off!" the kid yelled in anguish, kicking her feet in the air.
Johnny delivered another round of stinging smacks.
"An' that's another thing... you don't ever pick up a gun again, y'hear? EVER! Guns ain't toys. You stick to dollies from now on!"
The kid had quit wailing and was now ineffectually trying to launch herself forwards off his knee. If only her toes could reach the ground...
"Oww! Shit! You bastard!" she spat.
Johnny paused. "We might as well deal with that little slip as well while we're at it. Consider this your first lesson in manners... Lancer-style!"
The paddling recommenced.
Jemimah was rapidly developing a powerfully healthy respect for this man. Nobody but her daddy had ever done this to her before and, she realised now with dismay, her parent had always held something back. This Johnny Lancer wasn't holding back... no sir - he was being really thorough.
When he finally figured his hand was smarting like hell and so her bottom was undoubtedly faring similarly, Johnny hefted her up and, grasping her by the collar, he scooped up his hat and marched her back to where the horses waited patiently.
He could see she was swiping at tears and sniffling.
"Put your hat on, kid," he said gruffly. "It's hot out here and you've already got one end burning." Jemimah caught the strings of her scruffy Stetson and tugged it back on as Johnny lifted her up onto the buckboard. "Now you just settle on there!"
The kid eyed the wooden seat miserably. "Don't want to."
Johnny smirked. "You earned it, you wear it! Do like I tell you."
He saw the obvious flinch as her rear-end came into contact with the hard board, heard the sharp hissed intake of breath, and then he climbed up beside her.
"Time we got moving. They'll be sending out a search party for us."
As the wagon trundled bumpily on, Jemimah bit her lip. She just bet he was steering them over the roughest part of the road on purpose!
Johnny allowed himself a steady sigh of satisfaction at a job well done. The little brat had asked for every sizzling swat and he had willingly obliged her! He watched her now. She didn't look half so uppity any more but nor was she grizzling or pouting either. He liked that about her. Given half a chance he reckoned they could be friends. Hell... he didn't enjoy whomping any kid but this one had pushed and pushed. If there was one thing he couldn't abide, it was a disrespectful young 'un. She'd not given him a choice.
"Murdoch Lancer," the child said softly.
"He's your daddy?"
"That's right. Well, he's my Pa."
"He was my daddy's friend. He's my godfather too."
Johnny glanced across at her. He could see she was worrying about something and had decided to trust him with her burden.
"I know. Murdoch's been telling us all stories of the things he and your daddy got up to when they were kids in Scotland," Johnny smiled.
Silence fell again and Johnny waited for her to mull over what was on her mind.
"Are you going to tell on me?" she piped up.
"Are you going to tell him," she glanced uncertainly at the man beside her. "About what I did... y'know, with the Sheriff... and... the gun... and that you..." She paused blushing pink.
Johnny smiled to himself. So that's what was worrying her!
"You mean, am I goin' to tell him that you've behaved like a complete brat right from the get-go, and that I had to spank you?" Johnny's voice was laced with amusement.
She shifted uncomfortably and glared at the horses tails in front of her. Johnny chuckled at her squirming.
"Well... are you going to tell him?" Her voice was a wee bit more uncertain now and she waited for his answer.
"I guess not... if you behave yourself all the rest of the way." He didn't exactly like the way she relaxed and smirked to herself. "Then again, you test me, chica, and I might just have to explain all about this morning's little adventures!"
"What's he like?"
At her nod, Johnny grinned. "Big man. Tough. Biggest hands I ever saw - way bigger and harder than mine!" he teased and laughed when her smile vanished.
"Would he... would he ever... y'know - like you did?"
"Take it easy, kid," Johnny soothed smilingly. "You behave and Murdoch'll have no call to do that. He's looking forward to having you here; we all are." He paused and looked at her. "We're all kinda hopin' you'll be part of the family."
They lapsed into quiet thought over the last half a mile and finally were passing under the archway to the ranch and stopping in front of the house.
Johnny jumped down and came round to her side to lift her to the ground. She stood gazing in awe at the grand fascia of the white hacienda, absentmindedly rubbing her abused behind while she gaped with her mouth open. Johnny nudged her.
"I won't need to tell him anything, kid. You're doing that all by yourself!"
Blushing, Jemimah realised what she had been doing and dropped her hand. Suddenly very unsure, she stood back nervously and allowed Johnny to lie a reassuring arm around her shoulders to lead her up the steps to the front door.
Before they had time to reach the top, the door swung open and the welcoming committee grinned down at her. Johnny smiled to see his father eagerly reaching out to the youngster. Blinking at the bevy of new faces, the girl allowed Murdoch and Teresa to usher her inside while Johnny hung back with his older brother.
"That's Murdoch's god-daughter? They certainly have a queer idea of how to dress little girls in England these days," Scott's tone indicated his astonishment."So how was the trip, Johnny?" he was intrigued.
Johnny ducked his head and went back to the wagon to unload some of the supplies. Scott joined him and also reached for some of the packages.
"Oh, interesting," Johnny smiled. "Real interesting."
"Yes, I thought I saw..."
Both men turned at Murdoch's hail from inside the house. They were being urged to hurry.
They grabbed the supplies and went together towards the entrance.
"I'm sensing a story here, little brother. Tell me later, alright?" Scott said as he allowed Johnny to go in front of him.
"Won't need to, Scott," he grinned in reply. "You'll see for yourself before long, I guarantee it. Boy, am I bushed! She's sure goin' to be entertainin'!"
Laughing, they both went inside and closed the door.
Jemimah eyed everyone nervously in turn, obstinately tilting up her little pointed chin as though daring them to find fault.
She hadn't really taken much notice of the girl - she was quite a bit older than Jemimah and seemed nice, smiling and friendly, foisting lemonade on her and pressing her to dig in to the strange biscuity things. 'Cookies' she'd called them. Odd name for biscuits. But Jemimah couldn't face eating anything right now; her stomach was tied in knots.
Johnny was leaning against the desk and smiling at her. The man they'd introduced as his brother... Scott, was it?... was standing at his side. They didn't look much like brothers to her. This Scott was a lot like her daddy - same height anyway and blonde but not as stocky and his eyes weren't green. He'd kept looking at her strangely and he'd better give over quick or he'd know about it!
To be honest, it was her godfather, Murdoch, that had her so quiet. Blimey, he was big! She'd thought Johnny had been teasing her when he'd said 'big and tough' but... he was like a mountain! Jemimah didn't think even Daddy had been that tall and not just tall - big with it. He didn't sound anything like Daddy either; he didn't sound Scottish in the least.
She eyed him warily from under the tattered brim of her hat, swinging her legs nervously as she perched on the edge of the big blue armchair.
He was smiling so that was something at least and Johnny had said he wouldn't tell him about the fracas with the Sheriff and what happened with the gun... and afterwards. She shifted uncomfortably on the cushion and clutched her drink, still watching Murdoch shiftily.
Lost in her thoughts, she didn't hear what was being said so when Johnny reached over and lifted off her old Stetson, she turned on him angrily.
The two long braids dropped to hang down to her waist and she heard them laugh and voice their approval the way that grown-ups do when they want you to think you've pleased them.
"Oh, that's much better!" Murdoch grinned. "But I guess you'd feel even more comfortable after you've had a chance to clean up and change. Teresa, would you see to Jemimah's bath?" He smiled at the child, clearly thinking he was going to please her. "I'm sure you want to be rid of those... er... travelling clothes and perhaps have a nap before dinner."
"A nap? I'm not a baby!"
"Well, no, of course not," Murdoch was surprised at the sullen tone of the child. "But you've had quite a journey. You're bound to be tired."
"I sure am," Johnny muttered to his brother.
"Yes, a little rest and get you out of those clothes and then we'll sit down together," Murdoch beamed.
"You want me to have a bath? It's nowhere near Sunday!" the girl snapped sarcastically, her face a picture of disdain. "I'm not having a bath - and I'm not getting undressed in front of you lot!"
"In front of us?" Scott asked.
"You put the bath by the hearth, don't you? Well, I'm not doing it an' you can't make me!"
"By the hearth?" Scott was surprised.
"It's the way a lot of families bathe back home," Murdoch tried to explain Jemimah's statement. "Many English cottages only have one room downstairs. One tub placed by the fireside. It's usually only the wealthy who have more space than that."
Jemimah eyed him suspiciously, not sure if he was putting her down.
"No, sweetie, you can have your own bath in your own room," Teresa reassured their little visitor. "You'll feel so much better afterwards."
"No I won't because I'm not doing it!"
She slammed the glass of untouched lemonade down onto the side table and jumped to her feet, holding the carpet bag like a shield in front of her.
Johnny was on his feet too, placating her.
"It's alright, kid. There's nothing to worry about. It's just water an' you'll feel better bein' clean again..."
"You tryin' to say I'm mucky?" the kid shrilled, scowling first at Johnny then at each of them in turn. "Well, sod you!"
She darted from the armchair and ran the length of the room to the dining table whereupon she hid behind it.
"Jemimah, come on now," Johnny's voice was weary. Surely she wasn't going to start that all over again, not quite so soon. He didn't relish chasing her all over the house just to get her into a bath.
"You can sod off too!"
Johnny set his drink down and blew out an exasperated breath. Damn, that kid had a real short memory! Not even an hour ago she'd been kicking and wailing over his knee while he gave her a sound walloping. It was kinda demoralising to think that his efforts had worn off so quickly.
He approached the table but the kid was already darting in the opposite direction, making sure she kept the solid piece of furniture between them. Whichever way Johnny went, she sprang the other way and he was fast losing his cool. It didn't help matters that he could hear Scott chuckling at their antics from across the room.
The oversized jacket was her undoing. Johnny lurched suddenly across the width of the table and managed to grasp the excess material at the back of her shoulder blades, hauling her across it and holding her wiggling under his arm.
The only thing was, now that he'd got her, he wasn't at all sure what he wanted to do with her. The thought of maybe having to administer another spanking, as much as she richly needed it, made him feel weak. Dios, couldn't someone else take a turn?
His father came to his rescue.
Murdoch paced over to them. He was keeping a stern face but Johnny discerned a twinkle in his father's eye. He motioned to his son to put the struggling bundle down then he calmly, but firmly, took hold of the child's shoulders and perched on the arm of the sofa so that he was more on her eye-level.
She stilled instantly, staring at the big man with awe. Inside she was berating herself; she should've gone along with their peculiar notions. Now this mountain of a man was cross with her and that couldn't be good.
"Jemimah," he began, holding her gaze with a severe eye. "I would like you to go upstairs with Teresa right now and take a bath before dinner. After that, you can rest in your room and maybe, when you come downstairs again, you'll feel ready to apologise to Johnny for your behaviour."
The kid flicked a glance at Johnny and bit her lip. She hadn't meant to lose her temper with him, after all, he was sort of nice really and it had taken an awful lot for him to do what he did. Daddy would have walloped her after the first time she'd run off. And if she'd actually shot at him she was sure she'd never have been able to sit down again!
But, heck, a bath? On a Tuesday? She wasn't having that!
Her mouth set in a thin obstinate line, she narrowed her green eyes and shook her head slowly. She heard Teresa let out a shocked sigh and knew they'd all be thinking how terrible she was and how badly behaved. Well, let them! She WANTED to behave badly! And she WAS terrible! It was their own fault and, if they didn't like it, they'd just have to let her go home again, wouldn't they? And the worse she acted, the sooner they'd realise it.
Murdoch's voice, when he spoke, was also terrible. It made Jemimah's knees tremble. He spoke low and quiet but somehow it was all the more scary because of that. She almost wished he'd get angry and shout.
"Jemimah Rose Day, you will go upstairs with Teresa." Murdoch carried on quickly seeing the girl begin to stubbornly shake her head again. "You will go upstairs or... I will carry you up, undress you and put you in that bath myself!" Murdoch steeled himself not to burst out laughing at the expression of affronted shock on the child's face. "What's more, young lady, you won't be sitting comfortably to eat your dinner. I've not skelped a child for a few years..." his glance darted to Teresa who looked decidedly uneasy. "But I'm sure I can remember how."
Skelped?! He did talk like Daddy after all! Jemimah was rooted to the spot. She didn't want to comply; that would make them think they'd won. But... her rear end was still smarting something awful from what Johnny had dished out. Did she really want this giant to wear it out some more?
Murdoch stood up sighing dramatically, deep disappointment in every movement, and, hand on her shoulder, made as though to lift her up into his arms. Jemimah squeaked and virtually raced to Teresa's side.
"I'll go up!"
"Good girl," Murdoch nodded his approval while Johnny and Scott exchanged a grin at how effortlessly their father had helped the kid to see the light. It was a revelation to see Murdoch in the role of 'Daddy'. If this was anything to go by, he was actually a natural.
Teresa ushered the child upstairs before she could change her mind.
Murdoch turned back to his sons with a chuckle, shaking his head.
"I'd forgotten how hard it can be to get a youngster into the bath," he grinned, settling himself in his favourite armchair. "Jemimah looks like she may end up being quite a handful."
"You have no idea," Johnny breathed, smiling ruefully.
He plonked himself on the sofa with the air of a man who has put in a morning's hard labour and gratefully accepted his glass from Scott who came over to join them.
"Trouble, Johnny?" Murdoch enquired anxiously.
"Aw, no," Johnny waved away the query and rubbed the palm of his right hand soothingly against the soft suede of his pants leg. "Nothin' I couldn't handle."
"Speaking of trouble, Murdoch," Scott joined the conversation. "You've not 'skelped' a child for a few years, eh? Who would that be? Johnny?"
"Skelp? What's that?" Johnny wrinkled his nose in puzzlement at the obscure word.
Murdoch grinned. "Skelping, Johnny my boy, is an old Scottish term and one with which my father frequently threatened my brothers and me when we were boys and up to no good which, I'm sorry to say, was most of the time."
"The practice of 'warming' a child's behind to teach them the error of their ways, little brother," Scott grinned. "I was guessing that you must have been the child to which Murdoch was referring."
Johnny grinned. "Me? Nah - not me! I'm sure I was a perfect angel."
Murdoch chuckled softly, remembering his younger son as a boisterous two year old, full of mischief and stubborn as they come.
"Hardly, Johnny," their father smiled. "I'm afraid I had to 'skelp' you on the odd occasion."
Murdoch was silent then, sipping his whisky. He was painfully aware of the fact that Johnny's childhood, after he had been taken from Lancer, had been abusive and harsh; he had been cruelly thrashed by several of his 'step-fathers'. He hesitated now to pursue this topic, not wanting to dredge up unhappy memories for his boy. Of course, there was a world of difference between thrashing a child and a loving parent applying a few solid smacks to the rear end in guidance but Murdoch knew this could be a slippery path to take his son down.
He need not have worried though. Johnny was grinning delightedly, keen to hear more of Murdoch's memories, especially accounts of his escapades as a youngster.
"You did?" he laughed softly. "What did I do?"
"Oh, you had a penchant for disappearing without letting anyone know where you were going," Murdoch recalled. "One particular time half the vaqueros on the ranch had been out looking for you the whole afternoon. You scared us all half to death. We finally found you fast asleep in the hay loft though how you climbed up there I can't imagine."
"And what happened?" Johnny leaned forward, a bashful smile on his face.
Murdoch sipped his drink and smiled at the memory.
"Well, let's just say you went straight to bed... with a sore behind!"
"See," Scott smirked. "I knew it'd be you Murdoch was talking about. Trouble with a capital T!"
"Ah well, no," Murdoch interrupted Scott's teasing. "Actually, my 'parenting skills' were put to the test much more recently than that."
Murdoch held his heavy crystal whisky glass up to the light as though to study the amber fluid... and waited.
"Oh? And are you going to enlighten us?" Scott raised an eyebrow at his father.
"Hmm?" Murdoch feigned disinterest as though he had already lost the thread of the conversation. He gave his sons an exaggerated look of confusion. "What's that?"
"Aw, come on, Murdoch," Johnny pushed. "You can't just lay that on us and expect us to leave it there. Who was it?"
"Who was what?" Murdoch frowned though he struggled to keep the smile from his face.
"Who did you whup? Come on, Murdoch, we're dyin' here!" Johnny laughed and nudged at his father to tell all.
"How long ago was this?" Scott's eyes were narrowed as his own suspicions formed.
Murdoch chuckled and capitulated at last.
"Ah, it was about two or three years ago," he affirmed. "And you're not to go saying anything about this. I don't want Teresa embarrassed..."
"Teresa!" Johnny let out a whoop of glee. "Little Miss Perfect?"
"Now, Johnny..." Murdoch admonished.
Johnny held up his hands in submission.
"I won't say a word to her, Murdoch. I swear it."
Murdoch eyed his youngest with suspicion. Maybe he should have kept quiet about this. There was no way Johnny would be able to resist teasing his young ward.
"Go on, sir," Scott hushed his jubilant little brother with a soft backhanded slap to his middle. "You may as well let the cat out of the bag now. You know Johnny won't rest until he's inveigled it out of you."
"Inveigled? Jeez, Scott... I just wanna know how our perfect little 'sister'..."
"... incurred Murdoch's wrath?" Scott jumped in quickly in case his brother had been going to choose a more colourful way of putting it.
"Yeah, something like that!" Johnny was laughing, gearing himself up for a juicy story.
"Well, Teresa went through a phase for a time of wanting to experiment..." Murdoch watched both young men becoming more and more intrigued. "..with smoking."
"Smoking? But she's always sayin' what a nasty habit it is!" Johnny was incredulous.
"Yes, well, I suppose her memories of that particular day have coloured her judgement, you could say," Murdoch continued. "Paul had read her the riot act already when he found a secret little stash of cigars in her room that she'd taken from his desk. She swore blind that she'd taken them, intending to try it but hadn't yet had the chance."
Scott clicked his tongue in mock disapproval and shook his head sorrowfully at this tale of woe. Johnny gave him a shove and urged his father on to finish the story.
"Teresa , as you know, is a tenacious young lady," Murdoch grinned. "Not to be put off from her 'experiment', she kept hold of one cigar and actually tried it out. I don't think she particularly enjoyed it and I'm sure that would have been the end of it except for the fact that... she chose the barn as her hideout and damn near burned the whole thing down!"
"You're joking?" Scott nearly choked on his whisky as Johnny leaned back against the cushions and chortled deliciously.
"Was anyone hurt?" Scott asked.
"You mean, apart from Teresa's rear end?" Johnny sniggered. He was thoroughly enjoying this story.
"No, no-one was hurt; no stock or horses lost. Just a little damage to one wall and some tack but, well, something had to be done and Paul was away on a drive. It fell to me," Murdoch paused in recollection. "It wasn't the first time I'd put Teresa across my knee ... but I'm pretty sure now that it'll be the last."
"Not the first...? Murdoch, come on!" Johnny beseeched, desperate to hear more.
"No, now that's enough!" Murdoch sharply drew the line, hearing footsteps on the stairs. "And you don't say a word, y'hear me?" He pointed at Johnny in particular and wagged a stern finger as he downed his whisky and stood to greet Teresa. "Well, darling, is our young visitor all settled?"
Teresa wandered wearily over to join them, flopping down in the spare armchair. Her skirt was decidedly damp. In fact, she looked for all the world as though she had attempted to take a bath herself - fully clothed!
"Well, she's in the tub now," she admitted. "But it wasn't easy."
Johnny sniggered again. No - he'd just bet it hadn't been easy! That kid didn't do 'easy'; wasn't in her nature!
"Murdoch, she has no other clothes at all."
"What?" the big man turned, thinking he had misheard Teresa. "You mean those rags are all she has?"
"That's right. Her other valise was stolen at Castle Gardens in New York when she got off the boat. The lawyer you hired to see her through the immigration process there got her the clothes she's wearing now. I think they were a few old bits and pieces he managed to borrow from what Jemimah said."
Murdoch's jaw set in grim displeasure. That smarmy little clerk, Edwards! He hadn't much liked the wording of the wire the man had sent to inform him that Jemimah had set off on the first leg of her train journey from New York. It was clear that the man had no time for children and he certainly hadn't spent any of the exorbitant fee Murdoch had paid for his services - not if those flea-bitten rags were anything to go by!
Johnny was also soberly processing his own dark thoughts. His arms wrapped around himself as he so often did when mulling something over, he had just realised why the kid had clamped that old bag so tightly to herself and been so distraught when he took it from her. It was all she had left of her belongings and, as it didn't contain any other clothing, probably held her personal possessions. He let out a deep sigh of regret. Poor kid!
"Jemimah said that a gang of street kids took the other bag and that Mr Edwards didn't even fetch a constable!" Teresa was outraged. "She punched one of the boys and knocked out a tooth though! That's how she held on to this one!"
"She did?" Johnny grinned. "Good for her! I'd have given money to see that."
"She doesn't seem too bothered though. I don't think dresses and ribbons are too high on Jemimah's list of priorities," Teresa shrugged.
"Not to worry, Teresa, we can take her into town tomorrow and get her all she needs. In the meantime, ask Maria to scout her out something just for tonight. I'm sure one of the women will have some spare children's clothes to lend her," Murdoch said. "Oh, and, burn those rags she came in."
Teresa heaved a deep sigh.
"Alright, just let me get my breath back."
Scott was suddenly solicitous. Coming forward he plumped the cushion at Teresa's side and moved her gently to ease it in behind her back.
"Are you alright?"
"Oh Scott, I'm fine!"
Johnny sprang forward too, not to be outdone.
"You're sure, honey?" he gallantly inquired. "I can't get you a whisky?"
Teresa's eyebrows shot up. "No thank you, Johnny."
"A brandy?" Scott was practically bowing at her side like an obsequious waiter.
The girl was flummoxed. "No, really..."
Murdoch had a nasty idea where this was leading. "Boys..." he warned quietly.
"No drink?... well, how about a cigar then?" Johnny bit the inside of his lip to keep the grin from his face as he offered her the open box of Cuban cigars with a flourish, brilliantly mimicking a pompous maitre d'.
"A cig...!" Teresa's face flushed a vivid crimson and she darted an accusing glare at Murdoch, lurking by the mantelpiece. "Murdoch! You... you... how could you?!"
With an indignant 'humph', she jumped up from the armchair and flounced furiously into the kitchen leaving them to stare after her. It had to be said that, while the two younger men were by now beside themselves with helpless laughter, the oldest of the three could hardly be accused of possessing a 'straight-face' either!
Murdoch and his sons sipped at their drinks as they waited at the table. Becoming fidgety, Murdoch released a sigh which spoke volumes. Dinner was always at six sharp; a house rule and everyone knew it. Having to wait for ten minutes beyond that time would normally have had the old man bellowing up the stairs at the culprit who was daring to delay them. However, both Scott and Johnny knew that, this time, he would cut the transgressor some slack - no matter how hard he drummed his fingers on the tablecloth or checked the old Grandfather clock. This time they were waiting for their young visitor and Murdoch was prepared to give a little.
Footsteps were heard on the stairs and all three men rose from the table as Teresa led Jemimah into the dining room. When all were seated once more, Murdoch smiled.
"Well, well, you're looking better, Jemimah," he complimented the youngster, privately thinking that any change could only have been an improvement on the state of the child when she'd first arrived.
They all glanced her way appreciatively.
Johnny's guess had been right - she was a pretty girl. With the smears of grime removed from her elfin face, a clear soft complexion was revealed. Her skin would darken a little in the sun; they would put some 'roses' in her cheeks. To be sure, she was way too thin but, again, a few solid meals could put paid to that. Freshly washed and now tied back with a blue ribbon, her hair was a lustrous dark chocolate brown; smooth and shining and amazingly long. It reached down to her skinny little waist. But, as before, it was the eyes that caught the attention.
Though lowered now, as she stared from beneath sooty black lashes at the white tablecloth, they were a startling sea-green.
Maria had managed to find her some clean clothing though it was far from what Teresa considered appropriate. The child had seemed happy enough with the offering however; there had been no tantrums or argument when she was presented with the cast-offs. She sat demurely now, clothed in a boy's old undershirt. Though somewhat worn and very obviously mended, it was still snowy white and Maria had turned the cuffs over a few times so that the sleeves were not too long. Over this, she wore a pair of very faded, much patched but scrupulously clean denim overalls - again with the hems turned up on the legs.
Jemimah had balked at putting her old boots back on as she complained that her feet were tired and too hot for the laced-up footwear. Luckily, as Murdoch had been so keen to start the meal, he had not yet noticed this so the kid was now swinging her little bare feet to and fro under the table.
Maria set a large tureen of steaming beef stew in the centre of the table and Murdoch, noticing with amusement how the girl instantly perked up and sniffed the aromatic air, offered to ladle some onto her plate first.
"Help yourself to potatoes, Jemimah," he invited graciously. "We don't stand on ceremony here so just you dig in."
The girl eyed him warily but hunger won out so that she decided to take him at his word and reached for the various dishes, heaping first potatoes then vegetables onto her plate with alacrity.
"I like to see a nice, hearty appetite," Murdoch approved.
"At least we won't have to play 'hide the vegetables' like we do with you, Johnny!" Teresa teased the young man who was watching the kid shovelling her way through a mound of mashed potatoes so high it looked like a small anthill.
His family laughed. It was well-known that, though Johnny liked to eat, he avoided most vegetables and could be as sneaky as a faddy kid at hiding them or disposing of them in order to 'earn' his dessert.
"Well, now I know who I can pass 'em on to!" Johnny grinned, following Jemimah's example and tucking in to the tasty stew.
The atmosphere in the room was relaxed and Murdoch breathed a sigh. He had been concerned that his god-daughter might still be prepared to test him when she came downstairs again. It was a welcome relief to see her looking more presentable and obviously appreciating Maria's cooking. Added to that, both boys had clearly decided to leave off tormenting Teresa about the cigar episode. It seemed he could actually enjoy his dinner in peace!
Dessert was equally as successful. Having cleared her plate, Jemimah eagerly accepted the dish of fruit pie and cream, polishing it off in just a few enormous bites and leaving the others goggling at her with open mouths.
"What's up?" she narrowed her green eyes at them, swiping the back of her hand across her mouth to remove any vestiges of cream, fully prepared to tackle anyone who tried to put her down.
"Absolutely nothing," Scott reassured her. "More?"
He passed the rest of the pie over to Jemimah and eased another huge slice into her waiting dish. Teresa poured over a generous dollop of cream and, with amusement, they all watched her devour it.
At the end of the meal, the kid sat back in her chair with a shadow of a sly smile on her face and burped loudly. Scott instantly had to use his napkin to cover his smile whereas Johnny openly grinned at her.
Darn it! She had hoped her bad table manners would shock them. It had taken some effort to gobble her dinner like that but they didn't seem bothered by it at all. Some of the ladies in the church committee at home would have swooned dead away if she'd burped like that in front of them. Hmm... maybe she should fart too? That would surely do the trick? A wicked glint lit her eyes and she managed to squash down the giggle which bubbled inside her.
Murdoch was rising from the table now, heading for the silver tray on the sideboard and the crystal decanter which reposed there. He poured three brandies and turned to Teresa as well.
"No thank you, Murdoch," she replied. "I think I'll bring through some coffee."
"I'll have a coffee!" Jemimah sang out and threw herself down onto the sofa, cuddling a cushion to her full belly.
"A coffee?" Scott wandered over to the mantelpiece with his brandy. Staring down at the girl with fresh amusement, he asked, "You drink coffee?"
"Of course! Why not?" the kid snapped, a scowl once more settling itself on her impish face.
"I think what Scott means is that the taste of coffee is too strong for most children to take," Murdoch explained.
"I'm not 'most children'!"
"You sure ain't!" Johnny flopped down beside her, smiling. "I never seen no kid eat their way through supper like that before!" He tousled her hair with a playful hand and Jemimah tried to be affronted. But somehow she could feel the corners of her mouth tugging upwards in an unexpected grin. Stop that! You can't like them! You can't get close! You're not going to stay here and you know it! In a Herculean effort, she forced the grin into a glare, her green eyes spitting daggers at the man beside her. Annoyingly, he appeared far from fazed - in fact, she didn't think he'd even noticed.
"All we drank on the ship was coffee," she said. "In the tea, you could taste how nasty the water was. It was really rank! But you couldn't taste it in the coffee 'cos it was so strong." She shrugged. "A lot of people got sick though if they drank too much of it. You could see it all running down the sides of the ship from when they were throwing up over the rails! Bleeuuugh!" She mimicked a seasick passenger vomiting.
Johnny again grinned but the others were looking appalled.
"How long was the voyage exactly?" Scott winced at the thought.
"Thirteen days, I think," she answered innocently. "It should've been twelve but we had some rough seas that slowed us down. That's another reason why the ship was covered in puke!
I shared my cabin with the Brampton family - there was five of them and me. Their three kids were all younger than me and I had to share a bunk with the girl, Maisie but Mr and Mrs Brampton had a bigger bed so they could be together."
Teresa raised her eyebrows and they all wondered what on earth the child had actually witnessed during her journey.
Jemimah seemed garrulous this evening and eased herself back into the soft upholstery of the large sofa with a sly smirk.
"The Bramptons were from Liverpool so it was a bit hard to understand what they said until I got used to 'em!"
Murdoch sipped his brandy to obscure the smile he suddenly felt. People from Liverpool harder to understand than this wee one's Yorkshire burr? Despite the rough edges, he was drawn to the child; she reminded him strongly, not of Andrew but, of Rosie, her mother.
The girl tucked her feet under herself, sitting cross-legged, and gabbled on.
"Sometimes, in the night, you could hear Mr and Mrs Brampton talking and laughing together. They were a very 'touchy-feely' pair, I s'pose you could say. Probably why they had three sprogs and another on the way." She looked from face to face, wide-eyed with innocence.
The members of her audience now eyed each other warily, not entirely at ease with the direction this little tale was taking. Scott downed his brandy and also took his father's glass with him on the way to the sideboard for a refill.
Johnny shook his head. He wasn't at all shocked by Jemimah's story or worried about the social etiquette of her repeating it in front of them. He did, however, see a small child who had lost much and then been dragged halfway across the world, exposed to strangers and all the worrying hardships and indignities of a long, lonely journey. He felt no shock; he felt pity.
"Mrs Brampton always said the next morning that the fleas were giving her jip and Mr Brampton had been scratching her back for her," the kid piped up. "But I think they was just shagging! Wouldn't you say so?"
Scott instantly choked on his drink, the fiery liquid bringing tears to his eyes as Murdoch busied himself by pounding his older son so vigorously on the back that he almost rattled his teeth.
Teresa was blinking hard and pretending to be engrossed in pouring another cup of coffee, most of which slopped over the edge in her agitation. Only Johnny remained unperturbed.
He was studying the silver conchos on the leg of his pants, a soft smile playing about his lips. He knew exactly what the little minx was up to but she would find him much harder to shock than the rest of his family. He slowly lifted his head and looked directly at her. Their eyes locked and, for the first time in months, Jemimah found her resolve wavering fractionally.
Those sapphire blue eyes promised much - understanding, caring and a kinship she thought had been lost to her forever when Daddy died. She could feel tears welling and that lump was back in her throat but still he looked, like he was looking into her very soul.
She started from her reverie when she felt his fingertips gently touching her cheek. She sprang up from the sofa, knocking the cushion to the rug and darted to the stairs. They could hear her bare feet pattering on each stair followed by the slam of a bedroom door.
"Jemimah!" Murdoch called after her.
"Leave her be a while, Murdoch," Johnny said softly.
Safe in her own room, Jemimah dragged the carpet bag from under the valance of the bed and angrily swiped away a tear. Don't be an idiot! The girl mentally kicked herself. She dug into the bag and pulled out the two most precious items she possessed.
Her fingers caressing the worn leather, she opened the old family bible at the first page. She didn't really need to see what was written there; she knew the ancient script by heart.
Rose Mary Jenkins, born 5th August 1829, died 9th October 1857
Andrew David Day, born 26th November 1823, died 4th March 1870
There were other names there - her grandparents and great-grandparents. And her own name was right at the top - Jemimah Rose Day, born 11th June 1857...
Jemimah set the bible aside and turned to the other, smaller item. It was a framed daguerreotype of a young couple. Dressed in their Sunday best, the woman was seated and the man stood beside her. They held rigid, stiff poses and neither smiled but the otherwise austere effect was softened by the way he lovingly draped his arm gently across his wife's shoulders and they way the fingers of her left hand entwined with his.
The child placed the frame with the utmost care on her pillow and gently laid her head at its side, reaching up to stroke the faces that stared mutely back at her. Only then did she give in to the silent tears which ran unchecked down her cheeks, soaking the white cotton of the pillowcase.
Breakfast was an uneventful affair and Murdoch wasn't the only one to breathe a surreptitious sigh of relief.
This girl, this little whirlwind... she was a bubbling pot of emotions! One moment silent and sullen, the next chatty and sassy - up then down. If truth be told there wasn't one of them who hadn't been somewhat relieved when Teresa had come down from peeking into Jemimah's room the night before and announced she was fast asleep.
Johnny's relief stemmed from guessing how tightly wound the child was and that sleep, if untroubled by dreams, was the best thing for her. He stood on the terrace now looking over to where she was perched on the top rail of the corral fence, absorbed in watching the horses.
He noticed that she was still barefoot and frowned. She'd have to stop that; there were too many burrs and sharp stones that she could easily hurt herself on. He knew she'd complained that it was simply too hot to wear boots but they were the most practical footwear. Mind you, not that he was a coward or anything but, maybe he'd let Murdoch call the tune on that one!
Right then, his father appeared at his side.
"Ah, there she is. We're about ready to get off now. Teresa's just getting her hat."
Johnny rolled his eyes. Why did females have to take so long just to go into town? If he and Scott took this long each time they had to ride in for supplies, nothing would ever get done around here!
"Fetch Jemimah in will you, Johnny?" Murdoch asked and headed off to chase up his ward. "And tell her to put something on her feet!"
Johnny strolled across to the fence and joined the kid watching the horses. He slouched at her side, his arms folded on the top rail and his chin resting on his wrists. For a while he didn't speak though he could feel her watching him from the corner of her eye - fascinated but determined not to let him know.
"What?" he drawled lazily and turned his head to squint up at her. "Have I got eggs on my shirt?"
She shook her head and looked away quickly.
"Well... butter on my nose then?" he wiped at the non-existent smear.
She didn't look at him this time but he thought he saw her mouth twitch.
"Alright... gravy on my chin?"
This time she did look at him and, though she retained a perfectly po-faced expression, he detected a suppressed giggle when she spoke.
"You didn't have any gravy for breakfast, silly!"
"Oh yeah, that's right!" he smiled. "Well, you were lookin' at me so hard I guessed there must be somethin' funny about me today."
"No funnier than yesterday!"
Johnny grinned. He knew she was trying to sass him but it was only half-hearted today; the venom had gone out of her bite.
"Murdoch and Teresa are ready to take you into town for your shoppin' trip," he nudged her. "Just need you to get some boots on. I know it's hot..." he pre-empted her protest. "But the last thing you wanna do is go steppin' on a cactus or a rattle snake, do ya'?"
"I wouldn't worry too much about them though," Johnny frowned as though drawing on his vast knowledge of the creatures. "They don't tend to like dress shops too much. Well, not in summer anyway. They prefer the saloon so's they can get a beer."
The child giggled and he looked at her with surprise. It was a delicious melodious sound that bubbled up from inside her like a little piece of music. It somehow made his heart lift.
Quick as a flash, and just as he expected, she clamped down on the feeling and painted the sullen frown back onto her face. Johnny wasn't going to let her see that he'd noticed. He reached up to hold her by the waist and, lifting and twirling, he spun her giddily before plopping her over his shoulder to carry her back to the house.
This time the laughter that spilled from the kid was delighted and spontaneous. As he cantered them back to the terrace, she squealed with glee and was still panting and laughing when he put her down.
"There you are!" Murdoch beamed at the sight of the youngster. It was good to hear her laugh. He looked at his son and, not for the first time, remarked on how at ease he was with children. They trusted him. Maybe they saw a kindred spirit in the young man whose own childhood had not been the joyous, carefree beginning it should have been. He was thankful his boy was making some headway with this troubled child. "Ready to go?"
"Boots!" Johnny nudged Jemimah gently and, amazingly, she moved off to the stairs to obey.
"Don't know what we're bothering going buying clothes for though," she stated as she went. "I'm alright as I am in these!"
"Well, they'll do for roaming around the ranch, maybe," Murdoch chuckled. "But you'll need a coat for when winter comes and a nightgown..." (she had slept last night in the old undershirt apparently and not much else!) "... and some dresses for school and church..."
"School? Church?" The girl looked horrified.
"Yes, of course," Murdoch was surprised at her dismay. After all, Andrew, her father, had been a minister; she was more immersed in the church and all its functions than they were.
"I have to go to school?"
"Yes, you'll ride in to Spanish Wells each day with some of the other children whose fathers work here at the ranch."
Her ears perked up.
"There are other kids here?"
"Well, not living here at the house but there are some cottages a couple of miles away that belong to some of our men and their families. You'll perhaps have a chance to meet them all in the next few days."
Jemimah silently took all of this in. Then she lifted her chin with that same obstinate expression that dared them to contradict her.
"But I'm not going to church!"
"Oh?" Murdoch was keen to avoid a confrontation. "Why's that?"
"Because God's an old bugger, that's why!"
Murdoch's face must have shown the shock he felt because the girl nodded with grim satisfaction and hared off up the stairs to fetch her boots.
"What do you make of that, Johnny?" Murdoch wasn't sure whether to laugh or chase her upstairs to reprimand her.
"Aw, she's just tryin' to shock you, that's all." Johnny shook his head. "Don't pay her no mind, Murdoch."
"So... ignore it and it'll go away, eh?" His father looked unsure, unable to shake the feeling that Andrew would have expected more from him.
"She's just seeing how far she can push."
"Yes, Scott told me she found your limit yesterday."
Johnny ducked his head shyly and dragged the heel of his boot along the paving, his spurs jingling.
"Well, I ..." He wasn't sure exactly how much of the whole story Scott had divulged and wanted to keep the part to himself about being shot by the kid with his own rifle. Not just for his own sake (though he'd told Scott and had already received a few witty cracks this morning, he could only imagine the ribbing the entire family would give him if they all knew) but for the kid's as well. He astutely figured that Murdoch's sense of outrage would demand some kind of reckoning even though Johnny had more than adequately dealt with her.
"Oh, don't worry, son," Murdoch smiled. "I don't think she holds it against you. A paddling can give a child a sense of security; tells them that you care about them and how they behave. She knows she was out of line and that she was called to account for it. Maybe she'll think twice before she runs off again."
Johnny smiled to himself. Thanks Scott! Murdoch obviously was blissfully ignorant of the altercation with Val and the shooting.
He lingered to watch Murdoch and Teresa hustle the youngster (now booted!) into the wagon and grinned at the tiny self-conscious wave she gave him when he called that he'd see her later.
As Scott and Johnny dismounted and led their horses into the stable, each was thinking of the tub of hot water that they knew Teresa would soon have ready for them in their rooms. It was always good, after a hot day like this, to relax for a while before dinner but it would be especially welcome today.
They had spent hours, knee-deep in one of the narrow creeks beyond the south pasture, clearing the undergrowth that threatened to clog the steady flow of water. It was a filthy job and, even with two other hands and the whole day's slog, they had finally packed up knowing full well that at least another couple of days' work would be required before it was done. They were bone-tired. A bath and a good dinner was the order of the day.
As they saw to their horses, Dewdrop, Jelly's goose, waddled quietly past.
"Did you just see what I just saw?" Scott plonked his saddle down and leaned to one side to look out of the open door.
Both men moved to stand where they could see the goose, now making it's ponderous way over to the house.
It was wearing a red ribbon tied around its neck.
"Jelly's getting far too attached to his pets!" Scott rolled his eyes at the bizarre sight
"Yeah," Johnny leaned nearer to his brother so that he could still see the dignified gander waddling off into the distance. Then he shook himself. Clapping his hands together, he plastered a blissful smile on his handsome face. "Boy, I tell ya'! I am gonna slip into a nice hot tub and soak until dinnertime!"
"Good idea," Scott wrinkled his nose and shoved his brother away from him. "Ask Teresa if you can borrow some of that lavender soap while you're at it!"
"You don't exactly smell like a rose yourself, brother!"
This friendly banter usually led to a bout of mock-wrestling but, for once, Scott held up his hand, still peering out into the yard.
"It appears someone else has the same idea. Look at this!"
Johnny again joined his brother at the door to see what he was pointing at.
At the water trough by the hitching rail, Jemimah, dressed only in her camisole and drawers, was clambering over the side and slowly lowering herself in. A huge grin split her cheeky face and she leaned back so that her long loose hair was completely submerged.
"I guess that's one way to cool off!" Scott shook his head and they both laughed. "But I don't think Teresa will approve."
"Nah... doubt it. Come on."
They both strolled over to the trough and its occupant, who saw them coming, sat up, grinning toothily and squinting in the bright sunshine.
She studied them as they stood looking down at her. Both young men were trying to appear stern and disapproving; Scott with arms folded, Johnny with hands on hips. But she could tell that neither of them was really mad.
"Want to join me? You look like you could do with a bath; you're both a right pair of scruffs!" she quipped saucily.
"Young lady," began Scott, with a sardonic lift of one eyebrow. "Am I right in assuming that those are some of your new clothes?"
"Yep!" the kid raised a hand to block the sun's glare so that she could look Scott right in the eye. "Bought 'em this morning - four camisoles, seven pairs of drawers, stockings..."
Johnny lowered his head to hide his sudden smirk. The little imp was being deliberately provocative; trying to see if she could make Scott angry.
"I don't think Teresa will be too happy if she sees you sitting in that trough in your underwear," Scott carried on determinedly.
Jemimah's expression was one of extreme puzzlement. "Why? D'you think she'll be cross she didn't get here first?"
Scott sighed and threw a disapproving frown at his brother who had just snorted and was now trying valiantly to control his laughter and maintain a stern expression.
"I think you know perfectly well what I mean."
"Uh-oh, speak of the devil..." Johnny murmured, looking beyond the kid wallowing in the trough to where Teresa was rounding the corner, her hand held aloft. The red ribbon waved from her fingers.
"Jemimah Day!" she launched into her lecture. "I have just removed this hair ribbon from Dewdrop's neck and..." Only now did Teresa actually take in the sight before her. She gasped, her cheeks turning pink. "Where's your dress?"
The kid, far from appearing guilty, looked to be thoroughly bemused by the other girl's reaction and was grinning in surprise at the pronounced blush staining Teresa's cheeks. She jerked a thumb over her shoulder to indicate the dress in a little heap by the hitching rail.
"I hung it on there but it must've fallen off! I put that petticoat thing with it too."
"You mean, you're only wearing...?" Teresa looked as if she had apoplexy.
"I've got me drawers on; I'm decent!" the kid shrugged annoyingly. "Don't get your knickers in a twist!"
Teresa's feminine sensibilities had heard enough.
"Out!" she ordered. "Kitchen!" The affronted teen pointed the way to her young charge.
Jemimah rudely threw her eyes to heaven as though imploring the Almighty for a little of His forbearance and lifted herself from the water. Long hair now hanging in dripping rats' tails, she clambered out and followed Teresa into the house, impudently mimicking her.
Johnny and Scott were not going to miss Teresa in full sail and ran after them to the kitchen, Johnny swiping up the forgotten dress and chemise en-route.
When they arrived in the kitchen doorway, Teresa was already in full flow, wagging a wooden spoon and chastising the younger girl for her outrageous behaviour and for spoiling her new clothes. Jemimah, for her part, stood in a rapidly spreading pool of water, looking for all the world as if she could not care less and occasionally rolling her eyes in disdain - the image of audacious insolence.
"Don't you roll your eyes at me, missy!" Teresa was doing her best imitation of Maria and gave the child a half-hearted swat with the spoon. She'd many a time taken a swipe at Johnny's rapidly retreating rear end and had always aimed to sting but this time the swat didn't ring true.
Though it hadn't hurt at all really, Jemimah's bored expression was gone in a second. Her eyes blazed with anger and her nostrils flared. How dare she hit her? She'd show her what she thought of that!
The girl whipped out her hand and seized a cup from the table at her side. As she flung it hard at Teresa, she felt a thrill of wicked satisfaction to see it rebound and smash to the tiles with a loud crash. The pieces of china scattered across the floor and the three grown-ups gasped in shock. This was nothing, however, to the anger they felt when they heard the kid screech.
"Don't you ever hit me, you snooty, stuck-up bitch!"
Two voices rang out. Jemimah whizzed round to see Scott and Johnny both standing in the doorway. They were no longer feigning anger; they were livid! She dared to dart a glance at Johnny, her stomach swooping at the cold disappointment in his icy blue glare. She had the grace then to flush guiltily and lower her eyes, her temper cooling as rapidly as it had soared. Unfortunately, this belated repentance was not going to save her.
Scott was by her side in three furious strides. Grasping her arm firmly, he twisted her around and planted four solid smacks on her wet behind. Jemimah did the age-old dance in the opposite direction, trying to twist away from his hand, but Scott was not about to let her go. The thin cotton would have done little to protect her from his ire but, soaked and sticking to her skin as it was, she may as well have been bare-bottomed!
"I have never encountered such outright naughtiness!" Scott's voice rumbled disapprovingly down at the wriggling youngster, his mouth set in an angry line. "Don't you ever let me catch you speaking like that to Teresa again. Go to your room and stay there until you're ready to apologise!"
Jemimah froze. She didn't like the way he'd put that! Naughtiness? That straight away reduced her to being just a little kid and she wasn't a little kid. If they couldn't see why she was doing all this... oh, what was the point?! She turned and fled away up the back stairs to her room.
Johnny strode after her. On reaching her door, he didn't bother to knock. Marching in, he saw the girl lying face-down on the bed. There was a distinctly pink blush to the skin showing through the seat of the sodden cotton drawers but Johnny felt no sympathy. It was time for some plain talking.
He crossed over to her bedside and tossed the dress and chemise down on the quilt. Glancing up at him, she pressed her lips stubbornly together in a thin line and narrowed her green eyes fiercely.
"Nah, that's not gonna work on me, kid," Johnny's smile was grim and he gave her shoulder a sharp tap. "Come on, sit up!"
He waited impatiently for her to comply, crossing his leanly muscled arms in the dirt-spattered red work shirt he was still wearing. Damn the kid! He should've been wallowing in his bath by now with maybe one of Murdoch's good Cuban cigars clamped between his teeth!
"Alright, Jemimah... I know what you're up to an' it's not gonna happen!" Johnny's usual soft drawl was unrecognisable in his angry accusation.
"Don't know what you're on about," she mumbled sulkily, avoiding his pointed glare.
"Oh, sure you do! This game you're playin' - tryin' to get us to send you back..."
"Jemimah! Truth now... you're pushin' us away so hard, you're not even giving yourself the chance to see if this could be home to you!" Johnny's temper was distinctly fraying.
"It's not! It's not my home!" the girl yelled vehemently up at him.
Johnny knew he had to put some distance between him and the kid, right then and there, or he'd likely turn her upside down and carry on where Scott left off. He paced stormily across to the window, pushing up his sleeves in agitation then turned to her, trying to cool down. Dios, but she knew how to make him so mad...
"Well, it could be!" he all but yelled back at her. "You gonna work your way through all of us? Me, Teresa and now Scott?" Johnny's hands were on his hips again, practically tapping his foot in frustration.
"Eh? What are you on about?"
"You must like gettin' whupped... only Murdoch left - oh, and Jelly, I guess! You keep pushin', honey, and sooner or later we're all gonna bite. And let me tell ya', the one who'll come off worst is you. But you'll still be here!"
Jemimah studied the rug in sullen silence and Johnny took a cleansing breath, watching the water drip from the ropes of hair half-hiding her face from view. How could he get her to try; to meet them halfway? Damn, but she was stubborn! She could have been born a Lancer! He shook his head and smiled. When he spoke, his tone was softer.
"Don't you get it, chica? All we wanna do is love you; we don't want to be mad at you. You want us to be mad at you. This is all your choice."
Jemimah stole a tiny glance over at the man who stood watching her and felt tears prick her eyes. She dipped her head and blinked them back again. For a long time, neither spoke or moved and she ached for him to leave because all her lonely little heart wanted was to run over to him, throw her arms around his neck and never let go. Please go! The voice in her head chanted over and over again. Please go! Please.
"Get outta them wet things and put your dress back on before Murdoch catches you. You really don't want to make him 'number four', believe me!" Johnny warned and she heard his fancy silver spurs jingle as he left the room.
Dinner that evening was a thoroughly miserable affair. Usually, conversation flowed; some general talk about the ranch and the day's work, sometimes some news from friends or from town but, nowadays, invariably easy and pleasant.
Tonight's meal had Murdoch thinking he had relaxed too soon.
Little Jemimah, though neat as a new pin in a fetching rose-pink sprigged cotton dress and with her long hair in two shining braids pinned up at each side into loops, was sullenly silent and avoiding eye contact with everyone. She ate her dinner but it was as though she were not there with them.
When she joined them at the table, Scott had pointedly asked her if she had anything to say which had prompted a mumbled, "sorry Teresa", though the child never raised her head. Her thick black lashes were lowered so that no-one could see her eyes.
Scott himself seemed far from appeased. Murdoch could see he kept glancing over to the girl and his look was far from happy. Johnny, too, was watching her seriously. And Teresa - if he didn't know her better, Murdoch would have sworn she was pouting almost as much as the kid.
Yes, it had been a hot heavy day and the night was shaping up to be equally likely to give him indigestion. Murdoch sighed. Being a father could be a wondrous, joyous thing. Clearly that was not the case today!
After dinner, they all wandered over to the sofa and armchairs by the empty fireplace as usual. Only Jemimah hung back, hesitating to intrude where she thought her presence was not wanted. Murdoch waved her over and suddenly beamed, fishing in his vest pocket for his spectacles and reaching up to the mantelpiece to retrieve a fat buff envelope.
He was getting a tad desperate and this could be just the thing to lift the mood. He sat again and put his untouched whisky on the side table.
"I'd forgotten this came today. Picked it up when I was in town," he smiled round at them all.
"What is it, sir?" Scott swallowed a sip of his drink. "It looks official."
"It's the final bill from Edwards and Peabody, the law firm I hired to bring Jemimah across country to us but they've also been kind enough to include quite a detailed report of each leg of the journey. Mr Edwards says he wants to account for any additional expenses and one or two delays on the way."
"Each leg of the journey?" Teresa looked up from her darning. "What's that mean?"
Scott explained, "On such a long trip, the law firm Murdoch hired also sub-contracted to other firms of solicitors for each section; a type of relay, if you like. It made more sense that way than to have New York lawyers travelling all the way out to California. So, Mr Edwards put Jemimah on the train and she was met by...?"
"Er... a Mr Iain Douglas, ah, a good Scottish name," Murdoch scanned the document and nodded his approval. "Well then, let's see what they have to say."
Scott nudged Johnny who was lolled against the cushions on the sofa by his side. He inclined his head towards the youngster perched on the ottoman in the dimly lit corner. She was sitting bolt upright. A slightly panicked 'rabbit facing down a fox' expression and the way she had begun picking at the hem of her dress told them she was anything but thrilled to be sharing the saga of her journey across America.
Johnny gave a tiny nod to his brother and kept his eye on the girl.
"Now, what's this?" Murdoch perused the letter closely, holding it up so that the light from the oil lamp at his side could wash over it. It was not yet fully dark but the dusk was settling.
"Mr Douglas writes that, on the first evening of the journey the train conductor, a Mr Samuel Young, was killed in a drunken brawl over a billiard game."
"Good heavens, I hope you didn't see that, Jemimah," Teresa was concerned but the girl's vehement head shaking quieted her again.
"It seems a dispute rose up; he was accused of cheating on a shot and his opponent broke a half bottle of bourbon over his head, killing him outright. The train was held up because the opponent was the driver! This delay cost them a whole day."
"You can't blame me for that!" the kid's voice piped up stridently from the corner.
Murdoch smiled in surprise. "Of course not, sweetheart. No-one's blaming you."
'Yet,' thought Scott and Johnny simultaneously.
"Now, where were we?" Murdoch turned to the next sheet. "Ah, next Jemimah passed into the care of Mr Jonathan Holt from Chicago."
"That was the last time I saw rain," she remembered then blushed as she realised she had actually spoken the words aloud. Her expression darkened into a stubborn scowl to cover her sense of embarrassment. "It's been hot as Hades ever since!"
"Jemimah," Murdoch admonished softly.
"What? I didn't say 'hell'!" But she changed the subject quickly. "We saw a bird in Chicago called a Parrot. A man called Mr Metcalf had it in a cage at the hotel. Strangest thing I ever saw... yellow breast, a mass of black feathers round its neck - black as coal they were - but its face was white as snow. It had these black stripes all round its eyes. The rest of it was all dark blue. Like it couldn't make up its mind what colour it wanted to be. All the way from a country called Brazil the man said it were! Beats any bird I ever saw before. It didn't look right happy being stuck in that cage!"
She gave a crafty little smirk.
"It got out though. I don't know how. An' then it attacked all the feathers in them ladies' hats!"
The girl rocked back and guffawed loudly at the memory.
"Broke up the sewing circle for a spell!"
Johnny ducked his head, chuckling and twiddling with one of the silver conchos on his calzoneras. Scott and Murdoch both suddenly found it necessary to swig their drinks. Privately, Murdoch congratulated himself on his idea to read this report. It was working.
Perhaps, though, he should have read through the next paragraph before he made his premature self-congratulations.
"Yes... Mr Holt says the man who owned the parrot thought he saw you nearby when the cage was tampered with and has billed him for the cost of the bird as he never managed to recapture it. He also writes that you 'went missing' for a time during the confusion. It says here that he was very worried about you until he caught up with you in the general store. He says you missed your train and had to wait for another day, necessitating an overnight stay in a boarding house and the cost of two rooms."
Jemimah was silent and Murdoch, who fully understood the value of a dollar, eyed her suspiciously. The brief moment of hilarity passed.
"At the next stop, in Wyoming, there was a fire at an old pickle factory. You, it says here, again went missing in the crowd."
"Yes, it were right busy. I was scared," Jemimah faltered.
"Mr Holt says that you kicked him and that he had to lock you in your room at the hotel."
"And the fire?" Scott queried.
"A suspected case of arson."
Everyone's eyes were now on the young girl. Murdoch was starting to think that his plan to inject some light relief had totally backfired on him. He had never felt more uneasy.
"A fireman, a Mr Joseph Anderson, died in the blaze." Murdoch's face was terrible. "Jemimah," he spoke quietly but with utter determination. "I want you to promise me you had nothing to do with this!"
"Murdoch," Johnny's protest was immediate. His father ignored him, concentrating on his young god-daughter.
"I didn't! I swear! I would never!" she was white-faced with shock that he could think it. Certainly, she had used the opportunity to make another escape attempt but... set a fire? Never!
Murdoch shook the papers and eventually lowered his eyes to the report once more.
"Now... Nebraska. What's this?"
Jemimah had begun squirming on the ottoman.
"Apparently, you raised the fire alarm which stopped the train and everyone had to get off for it to be investigated. A Mr Marsh here writes that you then disappeared for the whole morning until you were found..." Murdoch's voice and his temper were rising steadily. "...in the basement of the Eldred Boarding House!" He glared at Jemimah.
"I had to! That Mr Marsh said I was wicked and he was going to whip me!"
"Why?" Scott asked.
"Er... because I said he was a bald, fat, old coot!" Jemimah gabbled in panic.
Why had those smarmy old codgers felt the need to write all this stuff down? They'd been paid for their trouble, hadn't they? Why had they bothered sending this stupid report to Murdoch? Wincing, the kid answered her own question - revenge! She had made their task almost impossible and they were bound and determined to ensure she got her come-uppance.
One look at Murdoch's irate face told her that said come-uppance was surely about to be delivered!
She glanced over desperately at Johnny who understood her mute appeal but was not sure how much success he would have at calming his father.
"So yet another delay!" Murdoch snapped. "What do you have to say for yourself, young lady?"
Jemimah eyed Murdoch owlishly but she said nothing.
"I think maybe the time for that skelping has come!"
Jemimah's heart was pounding like a runaway train and she could feel her cheeks burning. She jumped up suddenly.
"Don't you touch me!" she yelled, her green eyes blazing. "Why'd you even want me to come here? I'm not good enough for you with your fine, big, fancy house. You don't even like the way I look!"
"Jemimah!" Murdoch's shout was more one of shock than to chastise.
"It's true!" she blundered on. "You've trussed me up in all these layers of frillies an' a dress... and... and... I'm being boiled alive!"
Suddenly, as though she could stand it no more, she flounced her dress to show the layers of lacy petticoats underneath. With raging disgust, she dragged her shoes off and, with total disregard for the way her fingers spiked through, making instant holes, she peeled the black stockings off and hurled them into the fire. The fact that it was not lit on this warm night only made her feel even more defeated and a wild cry forced its way past the lump in her throat.
Teresa had leaped up and was trying to put a comforting arm around the child's skinny, heaving shoulders but, now in sudden floods of noisy tears, she was impossible to calm.
"Why'd you want me if all you want me to do is become someone else? Why'd you want me in the first place?" she sobbed hysterically. "You don't even know me! And I want to be me, not some prissy, tarted-up, bloody stupid... I want to be the me that had Daddy."
She paused in abject misery, staring blindly down at the pattern of the rug. Each rasping breath brought a fresh flood of tears cascading down her red cheeks.
"I don't want to change. I don't want it to be different. I want to be me again. Please just let me go back! Oh God, why? Why can't I go back? Why can't he be here with me, like before? I want to go back to before."
Murdoch was on his feet, striding grimly over to the child. She could not even bring herself to care what happened to her now. Why had God left her alone? Why hadn't he taken her too? He should have taken her too; she so wanted him to.
And then she felt herself being lifted. Held against a warm vest front. Strong arms folding around her as she trembled and sobbed her bitter anguish into the soft stuff of his shirt. He pulled her comfortingly into his reassuring warmth and let her curl up to him, the storm of tears exhausting her.
She could smell that familiar beloved scent of pipe tobacco, just like Daddy had smelled, and the deep soothing rumble of his voice quieted her as he crooned endearments in the old language. She caught her breath. Just like Daddy! Oh Daddy!
The tears still fell but the anguish of her despair had abated.
And then she heard his deep steady voice start to tell the story... about how he and Daddy had found the dead rat and hidden it in the school master's desk. She knew the story well. Daddy had told it many a time; she had begged him to tell it and had always laughed when he got to the part about how he and her godfather, Murdoch, had been dragged out to the shed behind the school house and had their britches tanned for their mischief.
By the time the story ended, the tears had dried but Jemimah felt more tired than she had ever been in her whole young life.
She was vaguely aware of being carried up the stairs to her room and of strong gentle hands unbuttoning and removing her dress before tucking the soft clean sheets and blanket over her. She was sure she did not imagine the kiss on her forehead but she remembered with absolute clarity the last thought which drifted through her mind as sleep crept up to claim her.
Johnny had said this could be her home. But, no, he was wrong; Daddy wasn't here. And she had made a vow. She had to go back.
Johnny studied the kid as she sat quietly on the hard seat of the buckboard. He felt sorry for her. The day was another scorcher and, just as she had complained after breakfast, she was well and truly 'gussied up' in all her finery. He knew the layers of petticoats, dress and white pinafore were the usual attire for little girls going to school but he could imagine how all that starched material would be making her feel in this unforgiving heat.
Her hair was braided and the heavy rope coiled and pinned around her head like a crown. A neat little straw hat topped it off. She had managed to avoid the bolero style jacket that Teresa tried to foist on her by insisting she would faint if she were to put on anything else and Murdoch, seeing a battle of wills about to commence between the child and the older girl, had waved Jemimah outside to sit and wait for him.
The girl tapped the toes of her black boots together sullenly and scratched at her leg through the thick black stockings.
"Lookin' forward to goin' to school?" Johnny asked, though he already knew the answer.
Jemimah threw him a scornful glance which told him she clearly thought he'd lost his senses.
Johnny tried again. "I'll be ridin' in with you this morning."
Jemimah turned her green gaze on him and narrowed her eyes.
"Murdoch asked me to. We've got a little business to take care of after we drop you off." he explained pleasantly.
That was not the whole story; Murdoch had asked his son to accompany them, thinking that Jemimah might feel more at ease with Johnny there. They could all see that she was more comfortable with the young man.
And so it was that, when the buckboard trundled into Spanish Wells that morning, Murdoch sat at one side of the young girl and Johnny rode at the other.
Jemimah inspected the town, gleaning instantly that, though smaller and less well to do than Green River, it had a cafe, a saloon, mercantile, livery and lumber yard as well as a church, school house and jail. It had been a much shorter journey as well, only about an hour, and she guessed that Spanish Wells was no more than five or six miles from the ranch.
The women meandering along the dusty street wore calico sun bonnets and some still wore plain cloth aprons whereas, in Green River, Jemimah guessed the ladies would not set foot in town while still wearing kitchen clothes. No-one was taking much notice of their arrival unlike Green River, where Johnny had drawn nods and greetings as they drove away from the stage. However, there was no stage from here and no telegraph office. Jemimah took note of all this.
At the far end of the main street was the little school house. It was a clap board one storey building painted a light grey. One door on the left at the front and three small windows. Murdoch wheeled the buckboard in a small arc so that they were right outside the door. Then he turned to Jemimah with an encouraging smile.
"Come on, sweetheart," he gave her a hand to hop down from the wagon. "You coming, Johnny?"
His son dismounted but shook his head.
"Nah, I'll wait here for you, Murdoch. Me an' school... well... let's just say I did my time, on both sides of that front desk!" Johnny smiled shyly and gestured to the front steps where he sat down, thumbing back the brim of his hat to wipe the back of his hand across his brow. "I'll see ya' later, kid!"
Jemimah looked back over her shoulder at Johnny then allowed Murdoch to lead her into the school house.
Many other children, on entering a new school filled with strange children (and moreover in an alien land) would have hung back in fear. Not Jemimah. She walked the length of the aisle to the teacher's desk with her head held high and proud. After all, what had she to fear among children? She had fought the most powerful enemy of her life and now nothing could defeat her again...because she thought she had nothing left worth losing.
The young, sandy-haired man sitting at the front desk stood up respectfully when Murdoch approached him.
"Ah, Mr Lancer," he smiled, holding out his hand in greeting. "And this must be Jemimah?"
"That's right," Murdoch looked to Jemimah and was momentarily thrown when she showed not the slightest interest or recognition. Her gaze was fixed out of the window... on Johnny.
"Jemimah," Murdoch nudged her. "This will be your teacher, Mr Quinn."
With no evident sign of having heard Murdoch, Jemimah continued to stare out of the window, ignoring Mr Quinn's outstretched hand. Murdoch cleared his throat to cover his embarrassment.
"And what grade are you, Jemimah?" the young school master pressed.
Though she still did not look at him, the girl replied softly, "I was grade 8 at home but lord knows what you would say I am here. I know how to add up pounds, shillings and pence and I read well. To be honest, I probably read better than you!" There was no animosity in her speech; merely a statement of fact.
The young man grinned at her impudence while Murdoch did not know where to look, he was so taken aback.
"So, what are you reading right now?" Daniel Quinn inquired of his new pupil.
"Right now? Nothing. But I was working my way through Shakespeare's collected works."
Murdoch wished the ground would open up to swallow him... and Jemimah too! Dan Quinn was having difficulties keeping a sceptical look off his face.
"Which in particular?"
"The Merchant of Venice."
Dan smiled again. "That's one of my favourites. Have you a favourite part in it?"
Now Jemimah turned her huge green eyes onto the young man and studied him from beneath her sooty lashes with a casual nonchalance.
"You don't believe me, do you?" she recognised astutely. "You think I'm lying."
Mr Quinn began to splutter that he had meant no such thing; Murdoch began to apologise profusely for the child's manners, deliberating whether a trip to the barn on their return to Lancer might be the order of the day.
"The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath:
It is twice blest, it blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest:
It becomes the throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty, wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;"
The teacher, Murdoch and, by now, the entire school room had stopped, spellbound, to listen to the softly spoken poetry that flowed from this girl. With so little effort she held them entranced.
"But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the heart of kings, it is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's when mercy seasons justice."
Her speech was done. She turned her head and, once more, stared out of the window as if she had never spoken.
For the longest moment, no-one moved or spoke for fear of breaking the spell which bound them all. Then Mr Quinn shook his head.
"My apologies. That was truly..." he stuttered. "You do indeed know Shakespeare."
"Why, Jemimah, that was beautiful," Murdoch whispered, a puzzled look on his face. "I had no idea you knew..."
Jemimah's gaze was pitying, scornful when she looked at him and Murdoch blushed fiercely, knowing exactly what it meant. Of course he did not know; what did he know of her at all?
He swallowed and managed to mutter something about hoping she would study hard and that they would collect her at the end of the day. Then he marched, as quickly as he could, from the building.
"You should have heard her, Johnny," Murdoch could not get over how enthralling the brief recitation had been and how it had touched him deeply. "I don't mind admitting that I found it very ...moving. That girl could have a career on the stage!"
Johnny smiled and eased back against the seat of the buckboard, Barranca now tied to the wagon and walking behind. His father glanced across at him.
"You don't seem surprised."
Johnny shook his head with a soft smile. "I'm not."
"Oh? Care to enlighten me?"
Johnny paused before answering. "Murdoch, you must'a noticed," he began. "That kid ain't stopped acting since I picked her up from the stage two days ago."
At Murdoch's frown, Johnny elaborated.
"We ain't seen the real Jemimah yet... well, maybe a little bit of her last night. I spotted it once or twice but she's playing a part; trying to keep us all at arm's length. She aint' about to let us in that easy." He thumbed back his hat to flick his long fringe out of his eye. "She's behavin' as troublesome and ornery as she can."
"Why would she do that? You already showed her that crossing the line brings its own consequences."
"Because she ain't exactly afraid of any consequences. She's already suffered the cruellest punishment she figures life can dish out to her."
"I suppose she has had a lot to take in these last few weeks."
"A lot? Murdoch, everything she had, everything she loved is gone!" Johnny tried to make him see how tightly-wound the girl really was. "You saw her last night - I think that was the first time she's truly let any of it out. If you ask me, she's been bottlin' all this pain up inside her ever since her Pa died. She's had nobody to open up to; nobody to hold her and just let her cry. A body can't hold on to all that hurt without something 's gotta give!"
Murdoch was silent for a moment then spoke quietly. "You think she really has turned her back on God... because of losing her father. She blames Him?"
"Hard not to," Johnny looked down at his hands and fiddled with a rough fingernail. His eyes were faraway when he spoke again. "What kind of a loving God would take away the one person in your life that meant anything to you then leave you all alone with nothing? She's just a child, Murdoch. How's she s'posed to feel?"
Murdoch watched his son intently. His head was bowed and his deep blue gaze riveted to the broken nail. His words were deeply felt and his father, with a rush of understanding, knew that Johnny had found his own faith tested in much the same way; was probably putting his own past hurts into words for Jemimah.
"Jemimah's thinkin' that, if she's too much bother, we'll send her back," Johnny said without looking up.
Murdoch placed his left hand gently on the back of his son's neck and squeezed very softly. Johnny allowed it, the brief contact from his father warming him inside.
"I can't allow that. After all, she has nothing, no-one to go back to," Murdoch stated quietly. "No, if you're right, Johnny, and I'm sure you are..." Johnny raised his head and looked at his father, "... we have our work cut out letting her know we want her to stay and be a part of our family. We've got to make her forget this nonsense and quit playing her game. She'll never be able to settle here until she forgets any plan to go back."
Johnny nodded and squinted ahead to where the Lancer archway was just visible through the trees. Home. It was his home now, he knew it. And he would help her to see that it could also be hers.
"I have a responsibility to Andrew and to Rose to care for their daughter," Murdoch went on. "But it's more than that, Johnny. I remember how I felt when you were born. How thrilled I was to have another child and a chance to be a father; grow with that child... you."
Their eyes met and both knew the infinite gratitude they owed to whatever power had given them their second chance to be father and son.
"I missed so much, son; have so many regrets. I'd dearly like the chance to get it right this time... with Jemimah. "
If Murdoch had expected to find jealousy or recrimination in Johnny's eyes, he did not. Johnny patted an understanding hand on his father's shoulder and smiled.
"You will, Murdoch. You will."
Johnny pulled the team up outside the school house at 3.15 that afternoon. He had been hoping to find Jemimah sitting out on the front steps waiting for him but she was nowhere in sight. Damn! He would have to go inside.
Johnny had never had much of an affinity with schools. It was no reflection on his ability or desire to learn. He just had some tough memories of his time at the mission schools and the priests who had taught the boys there.
He stepped down from the buckboard and, removing his hat in a subconscious gesture of respect, he went into the building. He peeked around the doorway, hoping to catch the kid surreptitiously and beat a hasty retreat but it was not to be and his heart sank.
At the front of the class, Jemimah was at the large blackboard, hard at work. Her flowing script covered two-thirds of the board and she was still going.
'Life be not so short but that there is always time for courtesy.'
This quotation was repeated again and again - quite obviously a punishment.
The young teacher was seated at his desk writing but, as Johnny walked hesitantly up the aisle, he put down his pen and rose from his chair, smiling apologetically.
Johnny recognised the man's unease and immediately understood why - he felt awkward that the person who had come to fetch the young miscreant was none other than Johnny Lancer - Johnny Madrid Lancer.
Johnny stopped at the dais and glanced meaningfully over to Jemimah. She caught his eye and blushed, focusing on her task again.
"Mr Lancer, I was expecting your father to collect..."
"Oh, he couldn't make it today. Meeting with the Cattle Growers," Johnny explained pleasantly.
He looked over at the kid again, his eyes steely and impatient. Dan Quinn watched her too.
"Life be not..." Johnny read out.
"Emerson!" Dan interrupted, smiling.
Johnny was surprised. Good old Emerson again! He looked at the young man.
Mistaking his glance for an enquiry, Dan explained, "Ralph..."
"Yeh, I know."
Daniel Quinn was surprised but, endeavouring not to appear rude, he tried not to show it.
"Ah, you know Emerson then?"
Johnny laughed softly and shook his head. "Nah, not really. It's my brother, Scott - he keeps quoting him at me. Some of it stuck, I guess."
Both men smiled. Johnny's smile then became strained.
"Jemimah in trouble, huh?"
The teacher glanced warily at him but nodded.
"I'm afraid so. Jemimah is new here. I suppose she needs time to adjust to our standards," he explained courteously. "But, new or not, I think it's not asking too much to expect my students to show respect and speak politely - to me and to each other. Do you, Mr Lancer?"
It was as close to a challenge as Dan Quinn could get but he was going to get no argument from Johnny. He eyed the girl darkly and did not fail to recognise the way she ducked her head as she continued to write. She knew he was studying her.
"No sir, I don't think that's asking too much," Johnny agreed. "She got much more to do? I can wait outside."
Dan was relieved and gratified that he did not have an irate family member on his hands. It wouldn't have been the first time he had kept a youngster after class only to be threatened by the child's father for daring to chastise their unruly offspring. It was pleasing to note that the Lancers, as well as being the biggest landowners in the state, believed in good manners and discipline.
"No, Mr Lancer," he shook his head. "It's fine. She's done." He turned to the girl. "Jemimah, finish that line and you may collect your things."
She did not turn to acknowledge her teacher but, instead, wrote the last word with a defiant curly flourish. Replacing the chalk, she turned, nose in the air, and headed down the aisle past Johnny, who stared hard at her. She would have stalked out without a word but Johnny found himself whipping out a hand to catch hold of her arm, effectively pinning her to the spot. When he spoke, his voice was quiet but tinged with anger.
"You've written it over and over. You must'a taken in what it says." He looked down at the girl and his blue eyes were icy and hard. She ducked her head, a flush of shame creeping over her face, and avoided looking at him. "I think you need to say somethin' to your teacher, don't you?"
There was a long pause during which no-one spoke or moved. Jemimah deliberated whether to blatantly disobey but, even though she knew it would be another step towards her goal, she suddenly could not bring herself be that rude in front of Johnny.
"I'm sorry, Mr Quinn. It won't happen again."
Johnny released his hold on her arm but she stayed rooted to his side.
"Apology accepted, Jemimah," Dan nodded. "We'll start with a clean slate tomorrow, shall we?"
Johnny nodded to the teacher and prodded Jemimah's shoulder to indicate that she should precede him down the aisle. He watched her as they exited the school house. Her little walk was jaunty as though she were pleased with herself. As for Johnny, he was feeling far from pleased. One thing he always demanded of a youngster was respect for their elders and it was high time Miss Jemimah acquired some! He slapped his hat back on and strode round the buckboard, taking his seat quickly and grasping the lines hard in his strong hands... Jemimah had the feeling that he'd rather be wringing her neck!
She squinted up at him and narrowed her green eyes when he studiously ignored her.
"You alright?" she pushed saucily.
Johnny still did not dare to look at her; he was so exasperated with her he was gritting his teeth to keep from exploding then and there.
"Get up here" he gritted out and, as soon as she had taken her seat beside him, he slapped the reins and drove the buckboard out of town and away from the school as smartly as he could.
They were in open country once more before he slowed and Jemimah felt safe to speak to him.
"You mad at me?"
She asked the question in a voice that was as truculent as she could make it. Johnny heard the tone and knew that she was trying to sound as though she didn't give a damn. But it was all bravado; just another one of her little games.
"What do you think?"
"I think you look mad," she shrugged and tossed her head to tell him how little she cared for his opinion of her behaviour. "Your eyes are all scrunched up!"
Though she feigned indifference, she could not keep from darting little glances at Johnny. He really did look cross; there was a little muscle jumping at the side of his jaw as though he might be grinding his teeth. And he still wouldn't look at her. Jemimah felt her shoulders droop. Johnny was truly disappointed in her. She knew she ought to be jubilant - this was, after all, the whole idea. But, somehow, it didn't feel like a victory; she felt like she'd lost... something.
Memories of that first day driving across country to the ranch assailed her and, along with the strange empty feeling, she felt her stomach churn with worry. She folded her bare arms stubbornly and scowled at him.
"Am I going to get another spanking?"
Dios! The little devil says it like she's daring me! Johnny gritted his teeth, staring straight ahead. He did not reply straight away then answered her question with one of his own.
"Were you hopin' Murdoch would be fetching you? Was that little show in there meant to be for him?"
The kid clicked her tongue disdainfully and looked away, shrugging her reply, "Dunno what you mean!"
Johnny kept a rein on his temper, determined not to play into her hands. Behave like a complete brat so they would call her on it and then she could justify balking against her new home and 'family'. He just bet that, if they humoured her and allowed her shenanigans to go unchecked, she would still despise them for being too weak. The little varmint! There was no way of winning her crazy game.
As they drove on in silence both could feel the tension building.
Jemimah kept glancing furtively at the man beside her. She felt all twisted up inside. But she couldn't soften now; she had to carry on being this way. The bigger pest she was, the sooner they would all have had enough and would send her back to England. It was a pity about Johnny though... he was nice and he had lovely blue eyes that went all twinkly when he smiled. And he smiled a lot of the time. Not now of course! Now he looked like he was ready to spit tacks!
Jemimah glanced at his hands gripping the lines. Strong brown hands. She worried her lower lip and remembered that strong hand connecting repeatedly with her rump. A little tremor ran up her spine and she felt goose bumps break out on her arms despite the sweltering heat of the summer day.
"Well," she scowled. "Am I?"
"Going to get a spanking?" She pouted as though she knew it was already a foregone conclusion.
Johnny halted the team and hauled on the brake. Dios! Enough was enough! He was through dancing around her. From now on he was going to call the tune!
"Is that what you want, kid?" he snapped. "That part of the plan?"
Jemimah was shocked at the anger in Johnny's blue eyes and she recoiled, shifting along the seat to move as far from him as she could.
"Alright! Let's take care of business!" Johnny patted his thighs meaningfully, eyeing the kid. "You climb on over my knee right now and I'll oblige you! I'm sure runnin' outta patience so maybe it'll make me feel better."
He was gratified to see the scowl melt away to be replaced by surprise and not a little panic.
"But you just remember one thing - this is all part of your whole crazy scheme. Don't you go painting us as the bad guys in this story so you can swan about feelin' all righteous about how you're behavin'. I'll only be doing what you want me to do... that right?"
Johnny waited but the girl seemed to have suddenly lost her desire to push him into it. He raised his eyebrows meaningfully and patted his lap once more. He was doing the pushing now; let her see if she truly wanted to stick to her plan.
"Well, come on! What you waitin' for?" he snapped.
Shoving his sleeves up above his elbows, he reached for her hand, pretending to tug her to him.
"Kid, I ain't got all day! My patience is all wore out..."
"No, damn it! Let me go!" she squealed, wriggling like a worm on a hook to escape his grasp.
Johnny held on to her for a moment more then released her hand. He watched her. She was swallowing and breathing hard. Johnny had called her bluff and won this round.
His voice was softer now. "Changed your mind, chica? So, you're sayin' you've decided to behave in school from now on." It was not a question but a statement.
Jemimah eyed him warily. She could still feel his strong grip on her hand and knew with absolute certainty that she had no desire to push Johnny into a repeat of that first trip over his knee. She gulped and, finding she had no voice, nodded her answer.
"Good. That teacher seemed like a nice guy. He don't deserve to be part of this nonsense you're hell-bent on ."
Johnny frowned at the kid again and threw off the brake. The rest of the drive to the ranch passed in silence.
Jemimah didn't want to say anything that might make him change his mind and stop the wagon again. She knew she was being cowardly. She had decided the day the lawyer locked up the house in the bay and took her to the station that she would do whatever it took to get home again.
She had no urgent wish to end up nose to the floor over his lap - no sir, none at all - but the disappointment in Johnny's eyes had stung and hurt far more than any paddling could. She was in no hurry to see that cold look again.
They pulled into the yard by the barn and, before Johnny could move, she leaped down and took off running towards the house.
"Jemimah!" His shout halted her escape and she turned hesitantly.
Johnny was already unhitching the team but he paused to look over at her.
"Get changed outta that dress and come straight back here. I'll be waiting in the barn so don't make me come fetch you."
With that, he turned away to deal with the horses, leaving Jemimah to slope into the house, dragging her heels dejectedly.
Fifteen minutes later, Jemimah was again loitering across the yard to the barn. She had not dared to push her luck by actually disobeying Johnny but she surely had not rushed either. She had changed into her boys' undershirt and faded overalls, considering padding the denim seat somehow. But, in the end, she knew Johnny would be able to tell; he was no fool.
She could see the door to the barn was ajar and, heaving a tremulous sigh, she hesitantly peered around it.
When her eyes had adjusted to the gloom, she could make out that Johnny was inside as he said he would be. She could see the vivid red of his shirt. He had finished putting the horses into their stalls and was just leaning against Barranca, allowing the powerful animal to nuzzle its head lovingly against him. Johnny didn't need to look round to know that she was there; his horse had sensed her approach long before she even appeared at the door.
"Took your time, kid," Johnny turned to her.
She looked very small standing there. She clearly thought she was in trouble. Hanging her head, her eyes were riveted to the straw covered floor and she had her hands clasped behind her back. Johnny could not help a small smile at her attitude. She sure looked sorry but he could tell it was more a 'sorry for getting caught'.
"Well, let's get to it."
At his brisk words, Jemimah lifted her head. She watched him saunter towards the back of the barn and had to steel herself to make her trembling legs follow him. He stopped by a stall and eyed her expectantly.
She eventually stood beside him, still looking at the ground, dreading the next few minutes.
"What do you think, kid? Her name's 'Amiga'."
What? What was he...?
Jemimah raised her head to look at him. His blue eyes were twinkling again and his teeth were white in his wide smile. He didn't look angry, not anymore, and he was gesturing to the stall. She followed his pointed look and saw a small horse staring back at her.
She looked at the horse, then back at Johnny, then at the horse again. What was this about? So, he wasn't going to... she wasn't in trouble?
"You like her?" Johnny was still grinning at the confused expression on Jemimah's face. "She's all yours! Aren't you going to say hello?"
Jemimah's breath whooshed out in relief.
"Mine?" she squeaked. "But I can't ride... I don't know anything about horses!"
"Then it's time you did. You're gonna need a pony to get to and from school every day. I can't be driving you backwards and forwards; you're too big for that an' I got work to do."
His voice was amused as he watched the girl still gaping in awe at the pony in front of her.
"Well, come over and pet her. She won't bite. She's a real gentle little thing."
Jemimah darted a worried glance at Johnny then slowly approached the pony, shying back a little when it nodded its head suddenly, snuffling the air at the strange new scent of its visitor. The girl reached out a timid hand and was alarmed when Johnny grasped it briskly and moved it to the pony's neck, teaching her how to pat and stroke the silky-smooth hide.
"A horse can always tell your mood. Be calm, relaxed with her and she'll be fine. Talk to her, go on - like you would to a dog or a kitten. "
"Amiga?" Jemimah breathed in awe. "Hello, girl. Hello, you beautiful girl."
Johnny smiled. The little pony was anything but beautiful. A little patched brown and white Pinto with a dark mane and tail, she was a game little thing but the splotches of colour on her face gave her an almost racoon look. However, Johnny could appreciate how pretty the huge doe eyes were with their impossibly long lashes.
"Here, give her this."
Johnny placed an apple in Jemimah's hand and taught her to offer it to the pony, keeping her hand very flat so she wouldn't accidentally be nibbled.
Jemimah was grinning from ear to ear and her vivid green eyes, when she turned to Johnny, were shining.
"You had enough schoolin' for one day?" Johnny smiled down at her. "Or are you feeling up to your first ridin' lesson?"
The youngster's enthusiastic whoop of glee was answer enough and Johnny joined in her spontaneous laughter, thrilled at sharing the first real happiness she had shown since coming to Lancer.
As for Jemimah - her heart was beating fit to burst. She didn't know where to look first. Johnny was smiling at her, showing her how to first place the soft green blanket on Amiga's back to pad the saddle. Then explaining how to tighten the cinch underneath the pony so that it wouldn't slip.
And Amiga, her good little horse, was standing there, behaving herself so well and waiting patiently to be ridden, casting a keen eye over at her new mistress as if to say, 'Come on, what are you waiting for?'
It all flew by in a blur: Johnny instructed her how to hold onto the pommel with one hand and the reins with the other so that she could slip her foot into the stirrup and hop up, her right leg skimming the pony's back, before she plopped easily into the saddle.
Then he carefully led them into the empty corral, showing Jemimah how to sit easily and surely so that she was relaxed.
"Don't dig your heels in so hard, honey," he cautioned her. "If Amiga can feel a fly lighting onto her back, she don't need to be kicked to tell her when to move. Let her feel what you want her to do. You just relax your elbows; don't pull back on her mouth an' she'll do the rest."
"Roll with it. Don't tense up like that; she can feel it."
And, when Johnny got her to make the pony jog, she thought she would fall off for sure... but he was right there, soothing her fears and helping her to keep her head until she suddenly realised with amazement that she was riding - she was actually riding!
There was no feeling like it! It was like flying, like soaring. Up so high and the wind ruffling her hair, the feel of Amiga's strong body beneath her, her sturdy muscles moving easily. Jemimah found that she was laughing out loud.
When Johnny said that they would stop and it was time for dinner, Jemimah's soul crashed down to earth but she thrilled to feel his hands around her waist as he lifted and swung her down. She turned to her pony and leaned her face against its warmth, slipping her slender little arms about her neck. The pony turned to brush her nose against the young girl; the two of them already besotted with each other.
Johnny watched and swallowed the lump that rose unbidden to his throat. The child's simple heartfelt gesture touched him deeply.
"Come on, kid," he said softly. "If we're late, Murdoch will have both our hides." Seeing her hesitate and glance at the horse in concern, he went on, "Don't worry about Amiga, Jose will take care of her an' you'll see her again tomorrow. You'll be ridin' her to school in the morning."
He slid an arm around the girl's skinny shoulders and, instead of feeling her tense up or shy away from him, she leaned into his side and tilted her head to grin jubilantly up into his eyes.
"I loved it! I really loved it! And I wasn't scared really at all," she beamed. "Amiga's so clever isn't she? She knew exactly what to do."
"She sure is!" Johnny agreed and silently thanked providence for the hardy little Pinto. Maybe she could achieve what they all seemed to be failing miserably to do - give this youngster the love and reassurance she'd lost when her father passed away. And do it before she was lost to them irrevocably. Johnny knew what it was like to be alone and to trust no-one. He fervently hoped that Amiga could help this lonely little girl to trust again.
The Calm Before...
All Jemimah could talk about during dinner that evening was Amiga. Wasn't Amiga beautiful? How clever she was! What deep brown eyes she had! Didn't that pattern across her face make her look daring, like a bandit?
The others found themselves smiling along with her excited chatter and, when Johnny told them what a natural she was; how quickly she learned - her proud grin spread from ear to ear, making Murdoch laugh out loud.
But the best part had to be the way she ran to each of them in turn for a breathless goodnight hug before obediently trotting off upstairs.
The three Lancer men stared at each other in delighted surprise, hardly daring to believe they may have turned a corner at last.
"A horse, Johnny?" Scott raised his glass to his younger brother. "I commend you. It appears to have worked."
"Yes indeed, I think you may have hit on the one thing that's going to persuade her to give it a chance out here," Murdoch agreed.
Johnny grinned bashfully and ducked his head. He still found praise from his family somewhat embarrassing. It sure was better than being chewed out though. He studied the toe of his boot as he perched on the arm of the sofa.
"Aw, she just needed something to love, is all," he murmured softly. "That little pony will take all the love she can give and give it right back, with no conditions. She's a nice little thing."
"The pony or Jemimah?" Scott quipped.
Johnny laughed. "Both!"
"Well, if that girl can stay out of trouble for more than two days in a row I'd say your idea has worked, Johnny, my boy!" Murdoch said, reaching for his pipe and resting back into his armchair.
The two days passed without incident and Murdoch admitted willingly that Johnny had found the very thing to ease the prickly youngster into their family life.
Jemimah rode her pony to school on the Friday morning with Johnny on Barranca at her side. Amiga spent the day at the livery in Spanish Wells and then Johnny was there again to ride back with her to Lancer.
Once home, and changed into her overalls, Jemimah raced back to the corral for her next lesson. This time, as well as jogging, Johnny taught her to urge Amiga into a lope - much more scary than before. Johnny could see the girl tensing up in fear.
"I don't want to fall," she gabbled, hanging on for dear life.
"You're going to fall off sooner or later, we've all done it," Johnny explained patiently. "And it may hurt some but you'll just get back up and keep tryin'. Amiga will help you."
By the time six o' clock rolled around, Jemimah and Amiga were cantering round the corral and the eager girl had learned how to signal the changes from lope to jog to walk and back again by using her legs and making clicking or kissing noises to the game little pony.
Johnny had to virtually drag Jemimah from her new friend and turned away to hide a smile when she planted an affectionate kiss on Amiga's velvety nose.
Come Sunday morning, however, the mood dipped dramatically. When Jemimah appeared at the breakfast table, wearing her overalls and announcing to the family that she would be going riding with Johnny, Murdoch put an end to her plans by firmly putting his foot down.
"I'm afraid not, Jemimah," he decreed. "We will all be going to church as usual this morning."
The girl raised her head in surprise and swallowed the huge mouthful of scrambled eggs that she had been devouring.
"But I already told you - I'm not going!"
Murdoch paused before he went on. "Yes, I remember. But the whole family goes to church every Sunday and..."
"Johnny doesn't! He said so!" the child piped up.
Johnny dipped his head and avoided his father's eye as he continued to eat his breakfast. Murdoch watched his younger son and wondered how to get around the child's reasoning. True - Johnny didn't attend church with them but she would be going; he was sure it would be something that her father would want. He cleared his throat.
"No, Johnny doesn't go to our church, that's true. But that's only because he was brought up as a Catholic and there is no church near here that he can attend."
That was not strictly true; there was a chapel in Morro Coyo where many of the Mexicans worshipped but, to Murdoch's knowledge, Johnny had never been there. It was a sore point with his father that Johnny did not seem to visit any church at all but he was a grown man; it was his choice to make. This youngster, however, was another matter - she was in his care; she was brought up to attend worship every week and she would be going with them.
"You will be attending our church with us. Now run along upstairs and get changed into something suitable," Murdoch called the tune.
The others stopped eating and warily watched Murdoch. He put down his coffee cup and took a deep breath before turning his flinty gaze upon the child. She was already staring at him with narrowed eyes, her chin raised obstinately, clearly ready for a fight.
"I beg your pardon?" Murdoch queried. His soft tone belied the storm brewing.
"I said no."
"Maybe you didn't understand me. I said that you will be going to church," Murdoch's voice was not loud but it held all the authority that his sons and Teresa had come to recognise. He meant to be obeyed.
"I understood you perfectly," Jemimah's own voice was steady and fearless. "And I'm not going."
"You will do as you're told or..."
"I don't care what you do to me!" she interrupted, jumping up from her chair so suddenly that it nearly tipped backwards. "I won't go and, if you make me, I'll... I'll... not go in. You'll have to drag me in by the hair and I'll scream an' swear all the way through the service so's you have to carry me out again!"
Murdoch's face was murderous. Scott and Johnny both regarded the kid with something akin to awe. She sure had some guts to face down their old man like this but, boy, she was foolhardy.
"Young lady, you will go upstairs right now and..."
The child ran from the room, hurtling like something possessed up the stairs and slamming her door shut. Murdoch grit his teeth. Wiping his mouth on his napkin and tossing it down angrily, he rose from his chair and purposefully marched up after her.
"That kid," Johnny breathed. "She's got more nerve than a fox in a henhouse!"
Scott raised an eyebrow. "Rather her than me! Those wooden pews are going to be more than a tad unpleasant to sit on when Murdoch is done with her."
They all tried to resume eating breakfast but with an ear cocked for any sounds from the room above. There were none.
"I don't think she's getting a lickin'," Johnny was surprised but relieved.
"Maybe Murdoch is discussing it sensibly with her?" Teresa ventured hopefully.
Johnny snorted. "You know Murdoch's 'discussions'! You can usually hear 'em out at the south line shack!"
"Johnny's right - something's going on," Scott frowned.
The sound of footsteps had them all tucking into their breakfasts, pretending they had not been listening. Murdoch appeared at the door and cleared his throat.
"Ahem... I've decided Jemimah will not be going to church with us today. She's going to stay here so let's all finish up and get going."
He swigged down his coffee and plonked the cup back into its saucer with a clatter.
"Teresa, could you ask Maria to go up to see to Jemimah please?"
They all turned to Murdoch.
"See to Jemimah?" Teresa asked.
Murdoch did not look at her but went through into the hall to retrieve his hat.
"That's what I said."
With that, he slapped on his hat and, muttering something about seeing them outside, he opened the door and left.
"Now what do you suppose that was all about?" Scott asked.
The brothers watched Teresa go through to the kitchen.
"I guess I'll find out. Have fun in church!" Johnny grinned, forking another mound of eggs into his mouth.
Scott scowled at his little brother and rose to follow Murdoch.
Johnny sensed her presence behind him as he brushed Barranca. The straw rustled and the golden horse tensed as she approached. Johnny did not turn. He carried on with his task.
"So," he smiled. "You want to tell me how you 'persuaded' Murdoch to let you stay home from church?"
From the corner of his eye he spotted the impish little face as she sidled up to him. He glanced down at her. She was pressing her lips together to keep from laughing out loud. Miss Jemimah was obviously highly amused at her own ingenuity! Johnny sighed in resignation. It was clear that she wasn't going to enlighten him until she had his full attention. He put down the curry brush and turned to her, leaning against Barranca and casually stroking his neck.
"Go on then," he prompted.
Her glee was contagious and Johnny felt a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth.
Jemimah smirked and fluttered her thick black eyelashes coquettishly. Boy, but she was sassy! Johnny squashed down the chuckle that welled up inside and tried to remain outwardly stern.
"Oh, it was easy really," she feigned innocence but the naughty twinkle in her eye betrayed her - there was a story to be told. "I got so upset..."
"Yeah?" Johnny prompted. Little devil! What had she done? "Murdoch didn't whup you, did he?"
She shook her head, now grinning. "No, no, he was ever so sorry for me really."
"Sorry for you?"
Jemimah smirked and watched him from beneath her lashes, her green eyes laughing.
"Well, yes. I was so upset that... well..." she hung her head.
What on earth had she done? Johnny nudged her. "Spit it out!"
"I had a little accident and Murdoch was really quite embarrassed."
"Yes," she was nearly bursting with laughter. "I... I'm afraid I... I peed meself!"
Johnny gaped at her and, unable to hold back any longer, the girl leaned back against the wall and squealed with laughter until tears ran down her cheeks.
"You actually...? Just to get out of goin' to church?" Johnny was aghast.
Jemimah was, by this time, doubled over and wheezing to catch her breath.
"Of course I bloody didn't!" she panted and a fresh bout of giggling began when she looked up at Johnny's expression of horror. "It was... it was..."
Johnny picked her up and marched her over to the nearest hay bale, promptly depositing her on it. At that moment he was unsure whether to lecture her for her outrageous behaviour or to fall on the bale beside her and give way to the laughter which threatened to bubble over any second. When she still continued to shriek and guffaw, he took hold of her shoulders and, grinning despite himself, he half-heartedly shook the little scamp.
"Jemimah!" he tried to inject a severe tone into his voice. "What. Did. You. Do?"
She finally managed to control herself enough to stop laughing and, through eyes wet with tears of mirth, she grinned at him.
"I poured water from the jug all over meself so it'd look like..." a fresh peal of laughter broke free and Jemimah was again helpless in the throes of her glee.
Johnny felt his lips twitch as he sat down beside the shrieking child. He knew he ought to do something; play the outraged adult, at least scold her some. If Scott were here he would make sure she never dared... Johnny chuckled. And that was his undoing.
Jemimah turned to him, her eyes full of surprised delight to hear him laughing with her. She leaned towards him and squealed again when he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her to him in a comradely hug.
If anyone else had walked into the barn at that moment, they would have scratched their heads and wondered what on earth was the matter with Johnny and the kid. Both rolled helplessly on the hay bales, beside themselves with impish laughter. Barranca snorted in concern and swerved skittishly around his stall.
When Johnny at last controlled himself, the vision of Murdoch's affronted anger swiftly changing to awkward embarrassment still dancing in his head, he lay back on the straw and sighed. His ribs actually ached! Jemimah lay at his side, her head on his outstretched arm. She turned her face to him and they grinned at each other.
Jemimah felt her heart contract sharply as she looked at Johnny's smiling face. His eyes were impossibly blue, locked onto hers and a black frond of hair had fallen forwards across his brow. He had a mischievous look on his tanned face and, when he reached across to tap her on the nose, she felt thrilled to her very fingertips so she almost forgot to breathe.
"Aw kid," he rolled wearily to sit up again and she followed suit, still wanting to be near him. "You do beat all!"
He stood up, brushing his hands against his suede pants and blue shirt to remove the stray bits of straw. Jemimah did the same to her jeans, still beaming up at him.
She cocked her head to one side and watched him. He was adjusting that belt of his - the one with the amazing silver decorations and then he was shaking his head to loosen any pieces of straw. She gave a lop-sided grin - he looked just like a puppy scratching.
"What you smilin' at?" his voice was full of laughter when he looked at her and Jemimah beamed.
His laugh had a strange effect on her - like a cloud had moved aside and allowed a beam of sunlight to hit her full in the face; it warmed her right through.
Johnny thought the kid looked different somehow, like she had unlocked something deep inside and it was lighting her up. It made him glad. He reached out and ruffled her hair, tweaking her long plait.
"Come on, why don't we get them two horses saddled up?"
Her mouth was a perfect 'oh' of rapture. "You mean it?"
"Sure," he smiled softly. "We'll do our prayin' under God's blue skies today, huh?"
As Jemimah ran to fetch the blanket and saddle for Amiga she realised she had not felt this alive for months.
Time, they always say, is the great healer and, as the end of Jemimah's first month at Lancer approached, there was not a person on that ranch who could imagine life there without her.
Shedding her stand-offish prickliness, she had blossomed. The scrawny, dirty, foul-mouthed kid who had sloped warily down out of that stage on the very first day was unrecognisable; gone for good. In her place was a bright-eyed, skipping, prancing elf of a girl who ran rather than walked (despite Murdoch's rule of no running in the house), sang rather than talked and seemed to be constantly on the move.
She had even captured Jelly's heart and, though he grumbled incessantly about 'pesky kids being underfoot and hindrin' a man's work', he would rather have hacked off his own toes than set about his morning chores without her hopping along beside him. She kept up a constant stream of prattle as she followed him and easily saw through his gruff complaints.
Scott was teaching her to play chess and, though he began the exercise as an experiment never dreaming she'd stick to it, he was finding her an adept pupil and was thoroughly enjoying their lessons each evening. That was, of course, when Murdoch relinquished the little girl for most often after dinner she could be found perched on his knee, listening in rapt attention to tales of the faerie folk of the highlands, the age-old legends of the spirits and magic of Scotland; of the brave fighting men who suffered untold hardships in their battles against the English who would oppress them. These were the stories she had urged her own father to tell and that Murdoch could also regale them with the ancient tales was a source of immeasurable comfort to her.
But the one who had her complete allegiance, whom she followed like a dutiful pup, was Johnny. Once she had ridden Amiga home from school and had settled her in her stall with a good supply of fresh oats and, if time allowed, a brush of her coat, Jemimah would scurry across to the house to change out of her good clothes and then across to the corral fence. There she would climb to the highest bar and perch in wait for Johnny to come home.
Sometimes she might pick some of the wild flowers that grew in clumps about the ranch and weave them into a chain to wear about her neck or in her hair. And Johnny, smiling down at her, never failed to notice. He always said something nice to make her feel special, might ruffle her hair, share a joke with her. And she felt that his blue eyes twinkled just for her. She had heard some of the men who worked at the ranch refer to her as Johnny's 'little shadow' but she didn't care. What did they know? She knew she was special to him and he... he meant everything to her. Her girlish little heart beat faster every time she heard his soft voice speak to her.
And, as yet, Murdoch still had not pressed her again to attend church with the rest of the family so she and Johnny did their 'praying' as they had that first Sunday - under the wide open blue California skies as they rode together over the meadows, talking and laughing like they had done this all their lives. He was teaching her a little Spanish and Jemimah was instructing him in Yorkshire slang.
The summer heat continued with not a sign of rain and it almost felt like time was standing still and would never move on; that things would always stay this way. The plan? She had forgotten its very existence.
Sunday again rolled around with the promise of yet another hot day filled with sunshine. The sky had never seemed so blue to the girl as she rode her game little pony up the hillside as though she were trying to reach the azure heavens above. Johnny grinned as he followed on Barranca. This was truly the way to thank God for all His blessings; out here among the long sweet grasses, riding a swift horse and listening to the sigh of the wind rustling the leaves on the trees.
For all he did not often attend church, Johnny still had his beliefs and a deep faith. He had simply never understood why religion made everything so formal and constricting; the sky was so blue it almost hurt to look at it. This should be the dome of his own cathedral. This, after all, was what he was thankful for - his home here at Lancer, and his family.
He raised his head at the sound of his name being called. Jemimah was laughing down at him, her long dark hair streaming out behind her and her vivid green eyes dancing with merriment. The change in the child was astounding. Johnny grinned back up at her and urged Barranca up the hillside.
The two of them were already back at the ranch and sitting sipping cool lemonade when the others returned from church. Jemimah raced to the buggy and hopped impatiently at the side of it, looking for all the world like an agitated sparrow.
"Come on, come on," she urged. "Let's hurry! It's time for the picnic!"
Scott dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching rail in front of the house. He grinned good-naturedly down at the girl as she skipped at his side.
"Well, you won't mind if we just change out of our Sunday best, will you?" he smiled, removing his hat and pausing in a welcome patch of shade. It certainly was a scorcher again today!
"No," Jemimah allowed. "But hurry!"
Johnny laughed and decided to give his family a break. He scooped the kid up and over his shoulder, dancing off with her towards the barn where Jelly was already preparing things.
"We'll be loading up the wagon," he called out over his shoulder, trying to drown out the girl's delighted shrieks as he playfully swatted her wriggling rump. "You better hurry though. I don't know how much longer this one can wait! She's about fit to burst right now!"
It had been the family picnic to end all picnics!
Maria and Teresa had packed a veritable feast for the family - fried chicken, potato salad (something Jemimah had never heard of before!), tarts and pies, hard-boiled eggs (Johnny had swooped on those like something possessed!), an extremely smelly and quite off-putting slab of blue cheese reserved entirely for Murdoch, fresh rolls... the basket had been crammed with goodies! Maria had made sure Johnny would not have to go without his Mexican favourites; there had been a selection of spicy tamales and cold salsa as well and, in deference to their little English guest, a squat little savoury pastry delicacy called a pork pie which Jemimah had leapt upon, squealing with glee.
After dessert, a chocolate cake with three layers and so much thick sweet frosting everyone (except Johnny) could only cope with one slice, the group had sat back on the blankets, quite exhausted, to allow their food to settle.
After less than half an hour, Jemimah had again been champing at the bit, paddling in the cool water and prancing from one person to the other in the hopes of enticing them to play a game. Eventually her wheedling and cajoling had worked and the adults had been persuaded to join in with some of her favourites including 'Tiggi Off-ground' (the usual game of 'tag' but with the added bonus of being untouchable if you managed to make it to a perch 'off the ground' before the person who was 'it' could tag you) and '1, 2, 3, Done' Ya' (much like Hide and Seek but, when spotted, you had to chase back to a designated point before the one who was seeker could also reach the place to call you out by shouting '1, 2, 3, Done Ya').
Jemimah was not the only one to enjoy these games. Though both Jelly and Murdoch joined in at first, surprisingly enough they were soon called 'out' and could retire gracefully. However, it became a badge of honour to defeat the others and triumph so Jemimah was delighted to find Johnny, Scott and Teresa more than willing participants. In fact, during one round of 'Tiggi Off-ground', there was much arguing and scuffling when Johnny (who at this point was 'it') was called to account for deliberately pushing Teresa when she attempted to hop onto the fallen log. When he then tigged her by slapping energetically at her skirted behind while she lay sprawled on the grass, she had retaliated by booting him (none too gently it must be said) in the rear end. Murdoch had to finally be called upon to declare whether she were truly out or not and there was a great deal of muttering and shouts of 'unfair' from both Lancer brothers when it was decided she was still safe.
It needn't have mattered though - Johnny was determined to catch her and easily tackled her once she left the safety of her perch. Her grumpy refusal to carry on playing had them all chuckling.
Pretty soon after that, the adults called it a day and were content to sit or sprawl lazily back while Jemimah waded quietly at the edge of the pond, her faded overalls turned up high above her skinny knees. Jelly's soft snores could soon be heard. It was an idyllic afternoon.
Jemimah paddled out so that the cold water reached her knees and then turned her head to look back at her companions.
Jelly lay flat out on a blanket in the shade, his mouth wide open as he slumbered contentedly, his hat pulled down low over his eyes. Murdoch was sitting with his back up against the fallen log. He was chatting quietly with Scott who lay on his stomach at his father's side. Teresa too was sitting daintily close to them, listening to their conversation and casually wrapping the left-over food in napkins and returning it to the basket.
Jemimah scanned the scene for Johnny and found him lying at the foot of the large willow tree. He was stretched out on a blanket, his hands behind his head. She grinned and waded silently in. She passed Jelly and the others, intent on reaching her goal without waking him and smiled down at him. As silently as she could, she lay on her belly at his side, watching his handsome face intently.
He was fast asleep, the wild antics of the games and the amount of food he had put away finally tiring him out. Jemimah edged closer to him.
His eyelashes were incredibly black and long against his tanned cheeks, reminding her of a fawn she had once seen. He was clean-shaven but there was the faintest shadow on his jaw and she wondered whether it would feel rough if she were to dare to touch it. She caught up a long wisp of her own hair and moved to tickle his nose with it, stopping herself before it touched him. She smiled. She would not wake him. Mesmerised, she studied this man, this young, beautiful man who had suddenly come to mean so much to her. Edging closer still, she hardly dared to breathe for fear of disturbing him and breaking the spell. She could not see his eyes, of course, but she knew they were the most startling sky-blue. There was no-one else in the world with eyes like Johnny's. You could almost believe that God still existed when you saw the smile dancing in Johnny's eyes.
His lips were soft in sleep and slightly parted so that she could just glimpse his white teeth. Jemimah gazed upon him and her young heart swelled with love. Oh so gently, she slid closer and, her right hand now on his chest, she lowered her face, her lips softly brushing his.
They were warm and dry. Time stood still and all sound ceased. Unable to stop herself, she again kissed him but, this time, with a more insistent pressure. She felt the fluttering of her heart against her ribs. Oh, how she loved him!
That flutter became a slightly panicked thud when, suddenly, she felt his mouth press upwards against hers, searching and kissing her in return. His hand was at the back of her head, pressing her to him, fingers entwining in her hair, and his tongue... Jemimah's eyes shot open! In the same instant, she found herself staring into confused azure blue!
They would neither of them ever forget what happened next.
Focusing on the face in front of him and, within seconds, realising what was happening; that he was not only being kissed by Jemimah but that he was responding to the kiss - hell! He could feel himself getting hard! He sat up, pushing her away fiercely and leaping to his feet in one fluid motion. Damn, he wasn't just kissing her back; he was... Johnny prayed that no-one else could see the tell-tale signs.
Shock and an overpowering sense of shame washed over him. Cristos! She was a kid, only thirteen years old! What the hell was she playing at? He swiped guiltily at his mouth as if to wipe away any trace of her lips.
"Madre de Dios!" he croaked, then more loudly, "What the fuck you doin', kid?"
Jemimah flinched as though he had slapped her. She had heard Johnny displeased and mad at her before but this was nothing like that. This was... he was acting like he was revolted by her. She backed away uncertainly, searching the dear face for some kind of forgiveness, acceptance. But all she found there was rejection and her own face burned with humiliation and shame. Johnny still faced her wildly but she could not recognise the shock and self-loathing, so full of misery as she was. With a wild sob, she turned and fled to Amiga, flying onto her back and kicking her manically. She had to get away; she could not bear to see the disgust in his eyes again.
Before Johnny, or Scott who was, by now, on his feet and racing towards them, could stop her, she thundered off under the tree and away from the mortifying horror of that moment.
"Jemimah! Wait!" Johnny shouted after her, swiping wildly to catch hold of the bridle but finding himself clutching at fresh air.
Scott was at his side.
"Johnny, what happened?"
"Scott..." his brother's face was distraught. Scott grabbed hold of him. He was trembling, his eyes screwed up as though he was in pain. "She kissed me!"
"She.. what? She kissed you?"
Johnny ran a distracted hand through his black hair. "And I... kissed her back!"
At his brother's startled look, he hurried on. "I didn't mean to... I was asleep, didn't realise who I was kissin' til I came to."
Johnny shook his head and cursed softly in Spanish.
"Oh, Jesus, I pushed her away! I cussed at her! She's just a kid."
Scott grimaced at Johnny's despairing exclamation. "Yes, I heard that part. Johnny, you can't blame yourself," he tried to reassure his brother. "You must realise that. You were out of it."
Johnny shook his head.
"I... I've really hurt her, Scott; scared her. You didn't see her face!"
Scott grasped his younger brother by the elbow and gently shook him.
"We can sort this out, Johnny; it's not as bad as it seems. We'll talk to her. She's just a child!"
Johnny shivered at these words, a tremor of self-revulsion washing over him as he remembered his body's reaction to the little girl's chaste kiss.
"You think I don't know that?" he snapped, more harshly than he had intended.
He glanced across at movement to his left, realising that Murdoch and Teresa were scrambling towards them. Eyes shut with dread at the thought of explaining this to his father, he allowed Scott to turn to them. He heard the questions begin and his brother's calm voice responding but all he could do was think of the girl, the pain she was feeling and how it was his fault.
When they rode into the yard, they spotted Amiga munching happily on the geraniums in Maria's planters by the main door which stood open. Johnny breathed a sigh of relief - at least she was here! He sprang down from the saddle and was halfway towards the house when his father called out to him.
He turned back as the big man approached him, his hand reaching out and gently squeezing his son's shoulder. He knew the boy was blaming himself but that it was not his fault. Given time, this would be something they would all smile about... one day. Right now though...
"Let me go up to her, son."
"Murdoch," Johnny began agitatedly. "I just want her to know I..."
"I know, Johnny," Murdoch's voice was surprisingly gentle. "You didn't mean this to happen."
The big Scot looked down at his son whose handsome face was twisted with doubt, his blue eyes anxiously avoiding his father's gaze. He had wrapped his own arms around himself, the fingers of both hands kneading the flesh above his elbows - an unconscious gesture that he regularly made when uncertain or deep in thought.
"Johnny, I don't blame you for this," Murdoch reiterated. "Nor do I blame Jemimah. It's just an unfortunate mistake. I'll talk to her. Don't worry."
Johnny watched his father stride into the house and head to the stairs. He turned back miserably as both Scott and Teresa came up to him.
"Come on, Johnny," Scott said. "It's not the end of the world. It's just a silly misunderstanding."
Johnny sighed. They hadn't seen the look on her face. She'd been terrified. And crushed. He knew very well that he'd hurt her - maybe irrevocably.
As if able to read his thoughts, Scott carried on gently, draping his arm around his younger brother's shoulders. "Murdoch will explain, you'll see."
Murdoch tapped softly on Jemimah's door. There was no answer so he pushed it open and peered into the room.
The child was sitting on the bed. She had already changed into her nightgown though it was still early evening and not yet her bedtime. Somehow the white cotton gown made her appear even younger, smaller. She was brushing her long loose hair and staring fixedly down at the rug.
Murdoch's tread was soft as he approached her and then sat on the quilt at her side. She did not pause to look at him.
His gentle deep voice broke the dam and, with a stifled sob, she threw herself into his arms, burying her face into his shirt front. Murdoch's strong arms gathered her to him, pulling her onto his lap and stroking her hair as he rocked her.
"Oh darling," he crooned to her. "It's going to be alright." He felt the child shake her head. "Yes, yes, it will be. You'll see."
"He... he hates me!" the stammered words were filled with anguish and Murdoch smiled. Only the very young can leap from ideas of love to hate so instantly.
"No, honey, Johnny could never hate you," he soothed, cuddling her closer when she denied this with a fresh burst of heart-rending sobs. "Jemimah, listen to me. Johnny doesn't hate you. He's downstairs now, worried about you and blaming himself for you being so upset."
Murdoch eased the weeping child away from him so that he could look at her.
"Johnny's afraid that he scared you. He was fast asleep and you surprised him, that's all." Murdoch decided to avoid the issue of her kiss. "You startled him and... he wasn't sure who it was. You know something of Johnny's past, honey..."
Jemimah regarded Murdoch solemnly. She had been told snippets of Johnny's history as a famous gunfighter in Mexico by Enrique and some of the other children whose families lived on the estate. Johnny himself had admitted he used to be known as Johnny Madrid.
"Well, we've all learned that we don't sneak up on Johnny; it's not a wise thing to do," Murdoch went on. "And to surprise him when he's asleep... even I wouldn't do that!" He smiled down at her. "Johnny had the kind of life where he had to rely on his reactions; had to be razor-sharp, quick."
"He's not Johnny Madrid anymore," her voice was a whisper.
Murdoch shook his head. "No, he's not; he's Johnny Lancer again and that life is behind him. But sometimes, I think," he paused, lost for a moment in his own reflections. "I think it kind of sneaks up on him when he's not expecting it. And it's then that it can scare him almost as much as it scares us. That's why we try not to sneak up on him or take him by surprise. You've heard Scott whistle before he goes into the barn?"
The girl narrowed her eyes and nodded.
"That's when he knows Johnny's in there. He wants to make sure Johnny hears him coming so he doesn't surprise him."
The girl was no longer crying though her eyes were still puffy and red. Murdoch stroked her hair again with his big, work-roughened hand, now so gentle and caring.
"No, darling," he soothed. "Johnny doesn't hate you. In fact, he's hoping you don't hate him! Do you see?"
Jemimah looked into the big man's kindly face and nodded her lie. She knew what she had seen. She had felt the venom in Johnny's angry rejection; had known the horror and misery of the love she felt for him being trampled in front of her eyes.
"That's my girl," Murdoch smiled, relieved that he had been able to smooth it all over. "I'll get Maria to bring you up a glass of milk and some cookies. Would you like that?"
Jemimah slid down off his knee and slowly eased back the covers to get into bed.
Murdoch smoothed the quilt up over the child and leaned over to plant a soft kiss on her forehead.
They both froze instantly. Murdoch hardly dared to believe he had heard her correctly. She had called him 'daddy'. He felt a huge rush of warmth inside his chest and smiled down at her, his eyes glistening with emotion.
Jemimah too was holding her breath, aghast at her hideous mistake and even more mortified at herself than before. She did not move until he had left the room then she curled into a ball, screwing her eyes shut tight and wishing with all her heart that she could take everything back - every horrible sickening thing that had happened.
Suddenly, she sprang from the bed and dragged the old carpet bag out from underneath it. The bible and the framed picture were still there. She quickly stuffed socks, underwear, her hairbrush into it too then rammed it back under the bed.
She crossed to her window and looked out over the yard. Scott and Johnny were just coming out of the barn with Jelly close behind. Scott had his arm around Johnny and they were talking in low voices as they approached the house. Jemimah moved back so that she was in the shadow of the curtain.
It was still light outside though the sun had lost its warmth and the intense blue of the sky had faded as evening drew in. The day had lost all lustre and nothing seemed right anymore.
Jemimah knew she had to go. She may have said the words but Murdoch wasn't her daddy; that was a silly mistake. She knew Daddy was dead but he was still there in the little churchyard in Robin Hood's Bay, high on the hill overlooking the fishing village which was her true home. She should never have let them take her from there. She belonged there - where the air was sharp and clear, not sultry and throbbing with dusty heat like it was here. There you could hear the cries of the gulls as they soared overhead and feel the refreshing rain on your face as you ran across the windswept moors.
Jemimah heard a light tread on the stairs and dived back into bed in case it might be Maria with her suppertime snack. She knew the past three weeks had been a silly dream; she had been foolish to forget her vow to get away from here, to get back home. And Johnny? She swallowed hard and forced herself to admit the truth. Johnny didn't care about her; she was just a kid to him and he had been humouring her to get her to behave. No... he didn't love her and she didn't belong here.
The silence hanging over the family seated at the breakfast table was palpable. Scott darted a glance at his father and gave a brief nod in Johnny's direction. Both men watched him.
His head was down so that his eyes were hidden behind a drooping lock of jet black hair. He was rearranging a half-eaten, now cold egg on his plate, scraping his fork listlessly backwards and forwards. Since joining them, he had barely uttered a word. Indeed, the only lively thing about him was his choice of shirt - a vibrant red with typically Spanish decorative embroidery on the front.
The wind had picked up and a small twig blew against the big window behind them. All four turned towards the noise. Then, Johnny went back to studying his inedible breakfast once more. Somehow, the interruption roused Murdoch into a decision. He had had enough of this maudlin behaviour; it smacked of self-pity and it was time he shook his son out of it.
"Teresa," he began. "Would you mind going upstairs and telling Jemimah to put a spurt on? If she doesn't hurry, she'll be late for school."
Johnny raised his head again as Teresa went up to rouse the girl. He caught his father's eye and sighed.
"You think she's feelin' up to goin' to school today, Murdoch?" he asked.
"She'll be fine, Johnny. She's certainly not ill."
Johnny opened his mouth to argue but Murdoch waved away his concerns.
"This foolishness is not going to disrupt the whole ranch. Now, I explained things to Jemimah last night. She understood."
Johnny bowed his head again, remembering the awful look of fear and disappointment on the little girl's face when he had pushed her away. If only he had the chance to take it back; to explain his reaction...
Murdoch seemed to read his thoughts.
"She's too late to join the other children riding into Spanish Wells. I was thinking that maybe you ought to ride in with her today, Johnny."
Johnny's head shot up, his blue eyes surprised and wary. While he wished he could explain to Jemimah, he didn't relish the actual delivery of the explanation. Words weren't his strong point. He glanced across at his brother.
"Just tell her what you told me, Johnny. Jemimah's not stupid; she'll listen - especially to you," Scott coaxed.
Johnny smiled mirthlessly. "Especially to me, eh Scott? I don't think, after yesterday, she's all that keen on me no more."
Footsteps were heard descending the stairs quickly.
"At last!" Murdoch grumbled.
Teresa almost ran into the room. She looked distressed. Before she could speak, however, the French windows suddenly opened and Jelly burst in, puffing dramatically.
"I think y'all better come look at this!" he panted, waving them to the windows. "C'mon! Ain't no time to be settin' there. C'mon!" He flapped out again, this time with Scott and Johnny hot on his heels. Murdoch and Teresa brought up the rear.
Jelly led them to the courtyard where a curious rope was waving in the cool breeze. As they drew closer, they could make out that it was made from sheets and blankets knotted end to end and it was hanging out of Jemimah's bedroom window.
"What on earth...?" Murdoch exclaimed, reaching out to grip the 'rope' when Scott caught it. The breeze was stronger now, and cold, trying to whip the sheets out of his hand. "What's that girl up to now?"
"I not had chance to tell ya' yet, boss," Jelly announced. "Amiga's gone. She must'a lit out jest after sun up!"
The others looked at each other, worry clear in their eyes.
"She couldn't have got far," Scott watched his father and brother carefully. Both were breathing hard.
Teresa stepped forwards, a scrap of paper in her outstretched hand.
"And there's this... it was on her pillow!"
Murdoch took the note and unfolded it. He scanned it quickly then, glancing at Johnny, he read it aloud.
I'm sorry to have been such a nuisance to you all. Johnny was right - I was hoping you would get fed up of me and send me back but now I know you're too nice to tell me to go. You were daddy's best friend and I know you don't want to let him down. So I think I'll make it easy for you and take myself off so you don't have to bother about me anymore. I know that you all tried but don't worry about not loving me. People at home always said I was hard work. Tell everyone they're better off without me, especially Johnny, and don't worry. I can look after myself. Johnny knows I can shoot a gun!
"Shoot a gun? What's this?" Murdoch asked.
"Long story, sir. No time to tell it right now," Scott was watching his little brother. He looked as though he had been slapped, his expression dumbstruck.
Eventually, he looked up. "Especially Johnny?" he repeated her words. "Why me? Why will I be better off without her?"
Murdoch regarded his son kindly and laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
"Johnny, you must have noticed..."
"The way she follows you around, tries to get you to notice her," Scott said. "The way she takes an instant dislike to any girl you favour."
Seeing that Johnny still remained blank, Murdoch smiled softly. How could he not know that Jemimah was totally smitten with him; the whole ranch knew it. But he obviously had no idea.
"Jemimah has what must be her first-ever crush... on you! She thinks she's in love," Murdoch spelled it out for his son who laughed harshly at the assertion at first then sobered up quickly as things started to slot into place.
It was strange that Johnny knew his powers of attraction and shamelessly used them to his advantage when pursuing the ladies yet he had been completely oblivious of the girl's infatuation.
"Then, yesterday, you pushed her away; you treated her like a little girl," Scott ventured a reason for her to run away.
Johnny was suddenly angry - with Scott for pointing it out, with the kid for her stupid stunts and worrying them sick, but mostly with himself for being so obtuse as to not recognise what everyone else could see; what was staring him in the face. He shook himself free from his father's kindly grasp.
"She is a little girl!" he snapped. "And if you were to wake up and find her... well, you'd push her away too, Scott!"
"No-one's blaming you, Johnny," Teresa put a tentative hand on his arm and he swung round to her, a ragged sigh escaping as he tried to calm down.
Where'd that damn kid gone to? She could be anywhere!
"No time for blame," Scott patted Johnny's other arm and spoke urgently. "We've got to find her."
"Yes," Murdoch agreed. His expression was distant as he went over in his mind what needed to be done. "Saddle up. Jelly, get Walt to head over by the south line shack. That's the nearest and she's ridden out there with us a few times. If we're lucky, she's just waiting there 'til she thinks it's safe to come back."
The old handyman shuffled off, muttering to himself about 'no-good kids needing to be given what for' but his bluff rant didn't fool anyone; he was as anxious as the rest of them to find Jemimah and fetch her home.
"Teresa," Murdoch continued. "Can you find Cip - tell him to send a couple of men into Spanish Wells and talk to the other kids. I don't think they'll know anything but it's worth a try. Send two more into Green River and Morro Coyo. She could have gone either way too."
Teresa nodded and ran off but her face, before she left, echoed what they all felt - that Murdoch was clutching at straws and had no real idea where the girl might have gone. It was a big country out there and they could not begin to guess which road she had taken.
"I'll go get us some supplies," Murdoch's mouth was set in a grim line as he passed his boys and marched inside. They followed him.
"Where are we headed, sir?" Scott asked.
Murdoch paused in the doorway and shook his head vaguely.
"I don't know, Scott. You know as well as I do that, if we find her, it's down to Providence - more dumb luck than sound planning." They could not fail to catch the hint of desperation in his deep voice and knew that he too was afraid for her.
"We could take the ocean road," Scott offered. "She's ridden part of that trail before and she knew, if she went far enough, she'd reach the sea."
"That'd take days!" Johnny scoffed.
"I know, but she lived all her life by the sea... maybe..." Scott's voice trailed off. He hung his head and admitted he too was clutching for those same straws.
"No, it's a good idea, son," Murdoch affirmed. "If Jemimah's thinking of trying to get back to England, she may well head for the ocean - she knows she needs to get a ship to cross the sea. Get your things and wrap up warm. I don't like the look of that weather out there!"
Murdoch strode off into the kitchen to gather supplies. Scott turned to his little brother, worried to see him in his usual nervous pose - arms wrapped around himself and head bowed.
"Johnny?" he said softly. "You look a little dazed. Are you alright?"
Johnny looked up, a ghost of a smile on his handsome face. Scott could see that, beneath his tan, Johnny was pale and he felt deep sympathy for him. He knew full well that his brother would now be blaming himself even more.
Johnny nodded as though he did not trust himself to speak. He reached for his gun belt and started to buckle it on.
"Not easy being someone's hero, is it" Scott smiled gently.
Johnny bit the inside of his lip and looked grim. His blue eyes were suddenly determined.
"Hero? She won't be thinkin' me no hero when I catch up to her!" he promised fiercely. "Miss Jemimah is gonna get it good, brother, an' that's a promise. This time the lesson's gonna take even if I have to wear out my arm on her. Then we'll see if she thinks I'm a 'hero'!"
Scott watched Johnny snatch his hat angrily from the stand in the hall. If it was easier for him to tackle this by being angry then Scott could understand it. He knew Johnny was scared and it was his way of dealing with the fear. More than that, he was not used to feeling this weight of responsibility for someone else. Jemimah thought she was in love with Johnny but he was a grown man; he didn't feel the same. How could he? And, because of that, he'd hurt her. He was bound to be carrying a sense of guilt for that.
"Then you'd best make sure Murdoch has packed that hairbrush of hers as well," Scott said, joining Johnny in the hall. "If you're dishing out lessons, brother, you may have to stand in line!"
Scott put on his hat and headed out to saddle his horse. Johnny paused for a moment, deep in thought then, grabbing both jackets, he followed.
The wind had a bite to it as it swept the dust into Jemimah's narrowed eyes. She tightened the strings of her battered old hat and tugged her collar up.
It was a dismal September day - the sort of day when, in shock, you suddenly realise that summer will not last forever, when the cold wind against your cheeks makes you remember that there still is such a thing as winter and that it has come back to surprise you.
The turn in the weather matched the girl's mood now. It had been baking hot and sunny for so long that she had forgotten her promise made long ago. Now, everything had changed and she realised sadly what she had to do. Just as if the wind had remembered her too, it was now blustering and icy - she could almost imagine it was the moorland wind from Yorkshire, come to press her home. She shivered more from the effect of her fanciful notions than from the cold.
It was so irksome, though, that now she was leaving to go back home, all she had thought about that morning was Lancer and its inhabitants. Even now, she pictured it in her head and hungered for it like a starving child pressed up against a baker's window. Why was that? And Johnny? Again, she felt the crushing despair threaten to overwhelm her. Her Johnny... or so she had come to think of him - that was a joke, a joke on her! The girl grimaced but then her face softened as she pictured him. He was so tall, and the way his dark hair caught the sunlight, and his blue, blue eyes...
Jemimah shook herself, yanked her coat more firmly around herself and nudged her sweet Amiga on along the trail.
Her faded old overalls were an ideal disguise and she had pinned her long plaits up around her head so that they would be hidden well by the hat. For once, she thanked her stars that she was still skinny, small and boy-shaped with no hint of any feminine curves to give her away.
An hour ago she had started to feel a bit sorry for herself. The enormity of her solitary journey had hit her and she had sniffled a little, casting the occasional look behind to see if anyone was following. But no-one was to be seen.
She rode on into a patch of dense wood. The light here was dank and tinted green. In the distance she could hear the sound of a stream and she urged Amiga towards it. The pony could drink her fill and she could replenish her canteen. The sun only managed to break through weakly now and then. All was still. There was not even the sound of birdsong to keep her company. The only sound was that crosspatch wind rattling the leaves in the branches overhead and the water in the distance, bounding and gushing over the rocks. It felt like she was the only one left in the world.
Johnny stood by Barranca's side as the powerful horse lowered his head and drank from the stream. His eyes were far away, lost in thought.
"Well, we know we're on the right track at least," Scott said. "Good thing you picked up her trail, Johnny." The ground was so dry after all these weeks with no rain. Scott realised it had taken a keen and skilful eye to spot her trail.
"Weren't hard. A ten year old could've done it," Johnny was in no mood to accept praise.
Murdoch watched him, wondering what was going on in his head. He suspected that Johnny was shouldering all the blame and hated to think of how he would be punishing himself for Jemimah's disappearance.
"I don't like the look of those clouds, boys," he squinted up at the dark gathering mass ahead of them. "We'll get moving again when the horses have rested. If she's up on those hills when the storm breaks..."
Murdoch needed to say no more. All three men searched the sky bleakly. She had a three hour head start and would be miles ahead.
The jagged hills above her looked like green cockscombs. The pale wash of the sunset had sucked all vibrant colour from the landscape and now the ominous stew of cloud broiled above her, tinted with flashes of deep unnatural rose. As the watery sun dipped lower, the greens of the hills and woods became an eggshell blue and finally all colour faded away.
In the far distance came the vague rumble of thunder but it felt as though the storm was waiting, not ready to make its appearance. The air fizzed with electricity but, otherwise, all was still and silent... and dark.
Jemimah made camp in a small clearing where the grass was thick and there was a jutting overhang of rocks. If it did start to rain, she would be able to shelter a little.
She built a fire, as Scott and Johnny had shown her, within a little circle of rocks. The twigs and kindling she collected was so dry that her very first match caught and soon the flames were warming her, their bright light providing some comfort against the night. She used the knife in her boot to puncture two holes in a tin of beans and set it by the fire to heat up. Then she brewed up a pot of coffee and poured herself a cup. In the meantime, she settled her back against her saddle, her aching rear end padded on Amiga's blanket.
The pony was munching contentedly at the sweet grass, tethered to a nearby wizened tree. Jemimah was glad of her company. She opened the can of beans and used a spoon to start scooping out the contents.
As she sat there, she raised her face to the sky. There were no stars to be seen. The wind had dropped. It was as though the world were waiting for something - something momentous to happen.
On her blanket, Jemimah blinked and, for the first time in many months, she found herself praying. Hesitantly. Self-consciously. But, as she whispered the familiar words, memories came flooding back, both happy and sad.
She thought at length of her father; of him standing in the pulpit of the little church on the hillside which overlooked the bay, his resounding baritone reaching out as his smile always did, to touch everyone there; she remembered the villagers, simple, honest Yorkshire folk who scratched a living from the land and sea that could be so harsh and unforgiving at times yet so plentiful and rich at others.
And finally, she thought of Lancer again. The beautiful rolling hills which surrounded the ranch and the friendly, warm people who lived and worked there. And they were her friends, she knew it. But, more than that, she had felt like they were her family. And she wanted them to be. Desperately.
She didn't know how long she sat there, staring into the inky blackness of the sky; it seemed like hours. She knew she had made a decision; had changed her mind. She wanted to go home, yes, but not to England; she wanted to go home to Lancer.
Somehow she would make them forgive her for being so troublesome and perhaps they would let her stay on, not as part of the family, of course, but maybe she could offer to work for them. She could not expect more than that after throwing their kindness back in their faces and running away like this. And Johnny? It would be hard being around him knowing he did not feel anything for her but, even being one of the servants like Maria and Juanita, and being able to just see him, would be better than never setting eyes on him again. She imagined herself serving the family their dinner and cleaning the house. It would be something, far better than to leave forever.
Suddenly a shadow fell across the ground and she looked up in alarm, jerked back to reality with a gasp of shock. Jemimah clutched the rifle she had stolen from Murdoch's gun case with trembling fingers.
"Howdy, boy, mind if we share your fire?"
Jemimah clambered warily to her feet, hoping that her quivering knees did not show through her patched overalls. She aimed the rifle at the figure and scowled fiercely down the barrel, trying to sound as mean as possible.
"Step over there, mister!" she bit out. "So I can see ya'."
The man raised his arms and side-stepped to the right. Another man loomed out of the shadows to join him and they stood watching the kid.
"It's gettin' real cold out there, ain't it?" the same man who had spoken before ducked his head and smiled ingratiatingly, his black eyes keen and never leaving the gun. His teeth were somewhat prominent and he had a weasely pinched look about him.
Although unarmed, something about him made Jemimah sense danger and she shivered. He was tall but very lean, his shabby coat hanging limply on his spare frame. His Adam's apple stuck out on his stubble-covered neck and, from beneath his hat, Jemimah's lip curled in distaste at his lank greasy hair.
The other man lurked behind him and was silent, watching her. Similarly dressed, he was stockier and had a bunch of front teeth missing.
"You mind if we have a share of that coffee, boy? Smells real good," Weasel grinned affably, inclining his head towards the pot on the fire.
At Jemimah's wary nod, both men lowered themselves to the ground and poured coffee from the pot into buckled old tin mugs they dug out of their saddle bags. Jemimah backed off a few steps and sat once more on her blanket. The gun, though she lowered it onto her lap, she kept trained on both visitors. She wished with all her heart that they would drink their coffee and be on their way. This seemed a vain hope when she saw Weasel settle comfortably and reach out his hands to the warmth of her fire.
"Got any grub to spare?" Gaptooth asked.
Jemimah nodded again and used one hand to toss over a hunk of Maria's fresh cornbread. Gaptooth caught it one-handed and sank his remaining yellow choppers into it after tearing off a bigger bit for Weasel.
"Much obliged, real neighbourly of you, boy," Gaptooth muttered through a mouthful of bread. "But you're a quiet one. Don't say much, do ya'?"
Weasel wasn't eating. He was eyeing their host, a nasty smile playing about his mouth.
"This all you got? I mean this'd hardly feed a bird," Weasel drawled softly. This kid had grub and maybe even money. He was small but he looked well fed and they had watched him for some time. They knew he was alone. They had been right to pick this trail. They'd get at least one good meal out of the kid before they took his horse and gun in the morning.
Jemimah swallowed and did her best to make her voice even and steady.
"There's some cheese and apples in my saddle bags over there," she glanced across to the bags near Amiga. "You can have a share if you want." She did not mention the fried chicken she had taken and wrapped in a cloth or the huge wedge of blueberry pie. She wasn't giving everything away to these scruffy layabouts! Hopefully, the cheese and fruit would keep them sweet and they would then be on their way.
The two drifters exchanged looks of delight and their attitudes changed. Lounging back in comfort, Weasel stretched and again warmed his hands by the fire. He grinned at his partner. They would let the kid wait on them, eat him out of house and home so to speak, then grab as much of his stuff as they could before they rode on. The pony and that rifle would do for starters! And if the little varmint should get uppity with them, well, they might just have to teach him some manners.
"Well now, boy," Weasel frowned, pretending to be slighted. "Don't you even know how to treat your guests?" He shared another evil grin with Gaptooth. "Git up off your rump and go get it for us!"
"And anythin' else you got there too!" Gaptooth added in a gravelly voice.
The men chuckled and ploughed into the cornbread. When Jemimah did not move, they stopped munching and exchanged fake looks of surprise.
Weasel shook his head sadly, disappointment dripping from every word. "Aw, Harv, this boy here ain't got no manners! Y'know, it's shameful the way kids are raised these days - no respect for their elders at all."
Gaptooth (or Harv) leered. Jemimah narrowed her green eyes and stayed very still. She knew they meant trouble; they were going to try to hurt her. She would have to fight. She gripped the rifle tightly and forced herself to stare into the man's eyes.
Weasel did not like this. The boy ought to be quaking in his boots right about now, not staring him down. He also didn't like the way the kid's lip curled as he watched him, like he was looking down on them, like they disgusted him. Little bastard! Who did he think he was? He leaned closer and smiled nastily.
"Y'know boy, when I was disrespectful to my daddy, he'd cut him a switch an' stripe my britches." He paused for his meaning to sink in.
Jemimah still did not move - mainly because she was now too scared to stand.
"S'too dark right now to find me a decent switch," Weasel drawled lazily, enjoying the feeling of power over the boy. "But I reckon my belt'd do the job well enough."
Both men shared a glance and sniggered. Jemimah watched them silently.
"This is your last chance, boy. You jest git them vittles and remember your manners... or I'm gonna have to teach you a lesson. An' don't you be lookin' at me like that!" Weasel's lips pinched together over his buck teeth and his nostrils flared.
Jemimah rose slowly to her feet. Harv had devoured his lump of bread and now grinned, picking at his stained molars with a blackened fingernail. Smirking, they watched, expecting their little 'servant' to fetch them their supper. Their faces dropped right quickly when, instead of moving over to the saddle bags, the kid levelled the gun at them and cocked it, those green eyes steady and sure.
Jemimah prayed with all her soul that she looked like she was mean enough to do it. She felt anything but!
"You're not teaching me anything!" she vowed, trying to speak soft and low like Johnny did when he was displeased with her. It always made the hair stand up on the back of her neck.
The one called Harv scrambled up to his knees, holding his dirty hands up. "No call to be hasty, boy!" he gabbled.
But Weasel remained calm. He was sure the kid wouldn't have the nerve to shoot; it was only a bluff. If anything, he looked even more disappointed. He shook his head sadly. "Aw boy, why'd you have to behave so ornery? You done left me no choice! I'm gonna have to..."
"The only thing you're going to do, mister, is GIT!" Jemimah spat. "Go on, on your way!"
Jemimah remembered well how loud a gunshot was and so was ready for the deafening bang when she shot the first bullet into the ground at Weasel's boots. It kicked up a tuft of grass and a small puther of dirt, making both men jump instantly to their feet, exclaiming loudly.
"Next one's going to hit something more important," she raised the gun so that it was aiming at Weasel's crotch.
"Sure, boy, sure," he prattled, holding his hands up in oily surrender. "No harm meant. We was just funnin' ya', wasn't we, Harv?"
Harv was backing away, nodding in agreement.
"Go on, get on your horses and get out of here!" Something in Jemimah's furious little mouth must have convinced them she meant business because both men turned and, gathering up their hats and bags, they sauntered to the edge of the firelight and mounted up.
"You ain't heard the last of this, boy, not by a long shot!" Weasel spat, pointing his grubby long finger threateningly.
Jemimah raised the gun again and the two men wheeled their horses around, heading off into the night. She listened carefully to hear the hooves disappearing off into the distance.
Jemimah suddenly realised she had been holding her breath. As she lowered the rifle, she gasped and her bottom hit the grass with a painful thump when her shaking legs finally gave way. She heard a noise and wondered for a moment what it was. It was only when the tears cascaded down her face and dripped onto her trembling hands that she realised she was sobbing.
They had heard the gun shot. It seemed to bounce up to the hills that surrounded them and resound back, shattering the ominous stillness of the night for a second then disappearing, leaving the darkness more silent and oppressive than before.
"Jemimah!" Murdoch gasped.
Johnny was on his feet in seconds, staring out into the blackness in the direction of the shot. In a moment, Scott was by his side.
"There's nothing we can do right now," he knew the words were unnecessary even as he said them.
Johnny didn't waste his breath uttering inane comments. He continued to stare out at the night, as silent as the darkness.
He had spoken very little on their trek so far and Scott worried for him. He was as close to being Madrid again as he had seen him for some time. The mask was descending over his face, his eyes losing their warmth, focusing only on what he had to do. Scott had seen it a few times before but it never failed to unnerve him. His brother was a warm, caring man but this persona he could take on like a mantel was as far removed from Johnny Lancer as you could ever imagine. There was little wonder the name of Johnny Madrid had cast fear into the hearts of lesser men.
Scott would have liked to reach out a hand to Johnny right then; shake his boyish little brother back into existence... but something told him to hold back and leave him be.
"Come on, let's get back to the fire."
He turned away but Johnny kept his silent vigil for a few minutes more.
They lay in silence in their bedrolls, the light from the fire illuminating each face in their quiet anxious little group. Eventually, both Scott and Murdoch had succumbed to sleep, exhausted by the worry of the day. Only Johnny remained awake for some time after he heard their deep regular breathing.
He listened to the distant thunder and it echoed his mood. His fingers restlessly fiddled with the blanket wrapped around him and he thought of the girl. Dios! Please let me find her! Don't let anything...
Over the next hill and down in the bottom of the narrow valley, Jemimah sat against her saddle, wrapped in her blanket. It was cold now and she ached from holding herself so stiffly. A few times she felt her eyelids droop and she had to shake herself awake, her stiff fingers clumsy around the rifle.
"They might come back! Don't go to sleep!" It had become a mantra that she chanted over and over. She did not dare relax. When it was light, she would pack up quickly and retrace her steps, go back to Lancer, back home. Jemimah felt a solitary tear weave its way down her cheek. How she wished that she had never left. God! I'm sorry I've been so wicked! Please help me get back. Don't let anything...
They were packed up and already mounted at first light. The wind had picked up and they all knew it would come today. The storm. Murdoch rode along behind Johnny with Scott at his side. He scanned the distant hills in stony silence.
Andrew's child had been out alone now for over twenty-four hours. A whole day. Murdoch tipped his head to study his gloved hands holding the reins. His mouth was dry.
"We'll find her, Murdoch," Scott said. "Johnny's on the trail and she can't be that far ahead. Amiga can't cover the ground like we can."
Murdoch breathed heavily through his nose, gritting his teeth but he said nothing; he just gave a single nod.
"It isn't that I don't think Johnny will find her. It's that I'm afraid of what we may find. That shot last night... God, it could have been anything... or anyone! Maybe she fired at something. Or did someone fire at her?" Murdoch's thoughts wandered from one scenario to another and none of them gave him comfort.
She had been so wrong; he hadn't taken her in out of duty to his old friend. He had sent for her because he knew he needed her as much as he hoped she needed him. And through the first difficult days and all the weeks since, he had come to love the girl; to see her as his own. Last night, when she had called him 'daddy' - he had thought his heart might overflow with happiness, such a feeling that he had not had since his son, Johnny had been small, before Maria had taken him that terrible day.
They had to find her, bring her home again. They had to.
Murdoch squinted into the trees on the hillside ahead and felt the first heavy drop of rain splash against his cheek.
Jemimah stiffly saddled Amiga and stowed the last of her apples in the bag. She used the coffee dregs to put out what was left of the smouldering fire. The wind suddenly caught at her and she almost fell. Scowling up at the heavy sky, she dragged her aching little body onto her pony and, for the first time since she had started her foolhardy journey, she smiled. She turned Amiga back the way she had come - back to Lancer - and nudged her into a gentle trot.
Watching the trees and bushes on either side, she headed for home. It was then that she felt the first heavy drop of rain splash onto her hand.
It was just a few sporadic drops at first. Jemimah tilted her face to the heavens and grinned when two fat droplets smacked into her. Rain! She had not felt it for so many weeks, not since that brief time in Chicago on the trip over. She thrilled to the sound of it; the heavy drops sounding like so many little drums in the leaves all around her.
Suddenly the air was split with another sound - a terrific crash of thunder, as loud and frightening as a cannon in the lonely valley. It seemed to shake the air. Amiga skittered and the girl had to cling on tightly with her legs, calling out soothing endearments to the prancing animal.
The wind decided to join in the fray. It whistled in wildly from over the mountains and assaulted the treetops which thrashed and tried to bend away. It whipped up the dried leaves and grasses from the ground on their path, filling the air with dust. Jemimah urged her pony on, screwing her eyes up against the dust and the rain which was being sent sideways into her face.
Within seconds, it was stinging her cheeks like hail, drowning the woodland and seeming to turn the very air she breathed into water. The path was now awash. The dry earth could not drain the water away quickly enough so that the sloping trail was swamped.
As the thunder added its booming voice, Jemimah flinched at the cacophony of sound. She could barely see. Amiga slid several times in the soggy undergrowth. The game little pony was becoming frightened Jemimah realised. She did not blame her! She was frightened too. And she was freezing. The sheets of rain beat against her back and she shivered violently. Her face was very pale and the green of her eyes more vivid than ever.
She knew they were going to have to find shelter - and quickly. A rising panic threatened to overwhelm the young girl when she realised that she might not be able to do so. She should have stayed at the camp; at least she could have sheltered under the rocks and she could have lit a fire there to keep warm. But here? She squinted into the sodden forest ahead. How would she even be able to see a suitable place; it was so dark now.
Maybe God had forgiven her, maybe he had been listening to her prayers... for, at that moment, a single flash of lightning lit the darkness as brightly as the sun. Jemimah peered ahead and cried out in disbelief. Prodding Amiga with her booted heels, she urged her on.
Please let it be true! Was it really there?
Jemimah sobbed with relief when they reached the end of the valley. She slid down from the pony's back and, grasping the reins firmly in her frozen little hand, she pulled the reluctant animal to their makeshift shelter.
It was another rocky outcrop, almost entirely hidden by the dripping foliage, but big enough to sit under and keep out of the rain. Even Amiga could get under. The rocks behind her provided a windbreak too. Jemimah felt encouraged; things would all be well after all.
She stumbled over the slippery stones, catching her knee on a sharp rock, and her hand let go of the reins. Another deafening clap of thunder took her breath away and, in the weird silver tint of the lightning flash, she saw Amiga rear up and take off in a terrified gallop.
"No!" she shouted, but the sound did not carry to the frightened pony. In a moment, she was gone and, with her, the matches, food, blanket and, most important of all, the rifle.
"Here, Johnny," Scott had to shout over the din of the storm to be heard.
His brother turned from his position at the mouth of the cave and saw that Scott was holding out a mug of steaming coffee to him. He took it, raising it in a brief salute, then turned back once more to stare out at the teeming rain.
Scott sighed. Johnny was stretched taut like a bow string. Being forced to stay put like this while they all worried about Jemimah was hard but, for Johnny, it was nigh on impossible. The fingers of his left hand were never still and he had not spoken for hours.
Scott walked back over the rough ground to his father who sat near the fire deep in thought. When Scott took a seat beside him, Murdoch raised his head. He looked tired, bone tired, but his mouth was set in a determined line. Scott marvelled for a moment at how his father and brother were so alike - not in looks - in mannerisms.
Scott said nothing; there was nothing to say.
Once more, Murdoch was frantically chasing after a missing child. The last time had been over twenty years ago when Johnny was only a toddler and Maria had cruelly left without a word, taking their son with her. Before that, he had 'lost' Scott, his first-born, to his far more powerful and wealthy father-in-law. And now, Jemimah - the godchild he had come to regard as his own little girl, was gone. She was out there somewhere, alone, frightened and, until the storm eased, they were powerless to help her.
Scott sipped at his hot coffee and stared into the fire. The waiting was unbearable. He thought about Jemimah.
Scott was not comfortable with children as his brother was. He liked them but did not find it easy to relate to them on their level. He had found this particular child doubly hard to relate to. She was wilful, mischievous, could be downright vulgar and Scott, with his entirely proper Boston upbringing, often itched to reach out and smack her backside whereas Johnny would be in tucks at her comical antics. Scott had always thought children, especially little girls, should be decorative and sweet and, other than that, not intrude on his life very much at all.
Jemimah intruded... boy, did she intrude! She ran and skipped everywhere. There never seemed to be a quiet place in the hacienda anymore. Her table manners left a lot to be desired and the arguments and sulks she had when told to do something she didn't like - Scott knew his grandfather would have thrashed him raw if he had behaved even half as badly.
But something about her got under their skin. Life at Lancer without the girl now felt unimaginable. She had been there so short a time but the void she would leave would be vast and empty.
Scott stood and wandered over to stand near his brother, staring out at the rain.
Suddenly, Johnny cast aside the cup and was gone. Scott darted to the mouth of the cave, the water drenching him in an instant. He shouted Johnny's name but could not hear his own voice. The thunder and the howl of the wind and rain drowned out all other sound. He stumbled across the slimy mud. Where was Johnny? This was madness! Scott lurched forward, blinded so that he could see nothing and choking in the rain. Murdoch's strong arms dragged him back so that he slid to his knees, panting and gasping as though he had swum across a raging torrent. Murdoch's face asked the question but Scott could only shake his head, blinking the water out of his eyes.
What felt like hours but was actually mere minutes later, a bedraggled and mud-splattered Johnny collapsed at the cave mouth. Scott and Murdoch ran to him, dragging him over to the fire. Murdoch was gently wiping the mud from his son's face and running his hands expertly over his limbs to check for injury.
"Johnny, what possessed you?"
The young man's red shirt was ripped open to the waist, clinging to his wet torso. The drenched suede jacket was coated in great splashes of mud. He had managed to keep his hat by virtue of the storm strings and it now hung slanted across his shoulders, also caked in mud. His black hair was plastered to his head, small leaves and bits of twig stuck in it.
Scott held a canteen to Johnny's lips so he could drink but he waved it away, gasping painfully. He sat up, his face stricken and could only point a shaking finger.
Murdoch and Scott turned to see what he was showing them.
Tethered with the other horses on the right of the cave mouth was Jemimah's pony, Amiga.
"God, no," Murdoch breathed.
The storm eased sometime during the night. The thunder and lightning ceased and the rain which fell was lighter, calmer. However, the devastation left by the vicious attack of nature would be remembered for many a year in the San Joaquin valley.
When dawn finally broke, the watery sun spilled feebly through dismal clouds but, at least, the wind had dropped so that the drizzle no longer spat into Jemimah's eyes.
The girl was bone-tired and ached with the cold that had seeped into her bones during her enforced camp under the rocks. Her knee had stopped bleeding but felt bruised and throbbed when she tried to put her weight on it. She dragged herself to her feet. She knew she had miles to cover. It had taken her nearly a full day's ride to reach this point so, on foot and limping, she would be lucky to reach Lancer before tomorrow afternoon. The ground was tough going, slippery with slimy mud and branches ripped from the trees by the cruel fingers of the storm. There was nothing else for it. Amiga was gone; she had to walk. She was cold, tired, wet, hungry and scared but, most of all, she was sorry. She could not pretend that anyone else was to blame for her predicament. She just hoped Amiga was alright.
Murdoch was the last to mount up. His sons watched him settle into his saddle with a grimace. His back was undoubtedly paining him. He looked at them and straightened.
"Let's go," he growled. "We've got to make it over that hill. There's a long, narrow valley on the other side. Keep a sharp lookout for her."
With that, he clicked his tongue at his big bay horse and they headed off, all three Lancers very aware of the little patched Pinto tied at the rear.
They reached the foothills around mid-morning and paused there, scanning the terrain for the best route. There had been a decent track but the storm had washed down a lot of debris; mud and rocks now made the going treacherous and the track had become a thin ribbon of rough ground. They would have to go in single file.
Johnny took the lead, Scott in the middle and Murdoch bringing up the rear. The pony they left tied to a thorn bush. They would collect her on the way back - hopefully with Jemimah, God-willing.
They had perhaps zig-zagged halfway up when Scott's mount stepped in a pothole and tipped him sideways. Scott was an excellent rider. A lesser horseman would have gone right over the edge and probably have broken his neck falling over the jutting rocks. He clung on gamely but his horse was skittish on the uneven track and threw him. It was only a simple tumble but, typically at a time when they could ill-afford the delay, he landed badly and collided with a large jagged boulder as he slithered over the sodden undergrowth.
Johnny and Murdoch cried out in alarm and scrambled down the bank to him. What met them was not pretty. Though dazed, Scott was still conscious but his left arm was twisted at an unnatural angle, obviously broken. He was gasping for breath and wheezing and there was a long gash just above his right eye. The blood was running copiously down his face which had the effect of making the injury seem more grisly than it was. However, it was the arm and the possibly damaged ribs that worried his father and brother. There was no way he could ride on but they couldn't just leave him there either.
"I'll stay with him," Murdoch cradled his eldest against his knee and looked at Johnny. "You go on ahead. He can't ride like this. You're the one who has to go on, Johnny. You can find her; I know it!"
Johnny was hesitating but the urgency in his father's voice shook him and he nodded briefly.
"Take care of him. I'll fire a shot if... when I find her. I'll be back."
With that, he clambered back up the hillside and swung himself up onto Barranca once more. Murdoch watched the powerful golden horse carry his boy higher up the hill track until they were hidden by the trees.
Jemimah limped towards the thickly wooded hillside. Her left knee was paining her even more. It felt swollen now and was really slowing her down. Damn! She winced and sucked in a sharp breath . The ground was rockier here. Loose stones were strewn across the slimy surface. Several times she stumbled so badly that she almost fell.
The girl was growing weaker, she knew it. She felt light-headed and her eyes felt hot. She wondered in a detached way if she had a fever and realised she probably did.
Leaning her chilled hands on the rough boulders that loomed out of the trees and brush as she passed, Jemimah sought to steady herself. Maybe she should look out for a strong stick that she could use as a walking cane. She was ruminating on this when something hit the back of her neck and dragged her heavily to the ground. She landed hard on her hip and cried out at the jarring pain. Whatever it was that had hit her, now grasped her coat and turned her so that she was on her back, squinting up through eyes swimming with fear and agony.
Through her tears, she could make out the blurry shape of a face - a leering, grinning face and she shrieked when its owner backhanded her brutally, sending her hat skidding into the mud. She felt hands close around her jacket so that she was lifted and brought closer to the face. A sickening stench of whisky and stale sour sweat assaulted her nostrils and she wriggled in the effort to evade the evil pungent stink.
"Well, would you look at this," the owner of the face crooned. "We done found ourselves a girl! You're a sneaky one, little missy, ain't ya'?"
Jemimah's head snapped up again. She knew that voice.
"You wearing those duds and shootin' that gun at us like that... why, we thought you was a boy! You sure fooled old Jeb, dint ya'? Lookee here, Harv," Jemimah felt his hands pull her long braid which had come unpinned and fallen down. "She sure is a pretty little thing, aint she?"
"Right pretty, true enough, Jeb."
Jemimah's heart race and she bucked suddenly in an effort to free herself but Jeb held her fast. As an extra precaution he motioned for his partner to hold her arms while he straddled her legs to keep her from kicking out at him.
"Now, girl," he warned benignly, as though to a naughty child. "You jest behave yourself an' you won't get hurt." A thought struck him. "Where's your little pony at?"
At the mention of Amiga, Jemimah could have burst into tears but she bit her lip and narrowed her eyes in loathing instead.
The man was enjoying this. It was payback time. The little bitch had dared look down her nose at him and, by heaven, she was still doing it! Time he taught her some manners.
"What you doin' all the way out here on your ownsome anyway, honey?" he taunted her, delighted when his question induced a fresh bout of feeble struggling. "Your daddy know you're out here? I bet he's waitin' on you at home with a switch!"
Jeb chortled and grinned at Harv. Both men were thoroughly enjoying themselves now. Jeb licked his thin leering lips, raking his gaze down over her. His eyes were mean, black little beads of vicious depravity. Jemimah recoiled, her own eyes wide with fear, reading his intent as though it were emblazoned across his ugly face. He leaned closer to her, too close.
"Don't you touch me, you ugly fuckin' weasel!" she hissed.
They feigned shock and then laughed at her.
"There you go again! Why, you've got no manners at all. A girlie ought'ta be more soft n' sweet; more polite. I really should lesson ya' myself, seein' as your daddy ain't here to do it." The grin faded. He dipped his head lower and she turned away in disgust. "Aw, come on now, girlie - you jest be sweet for a while; give ol' Jeb a little kiss, eh?"
Jemimah sobbed in revulsion. As he edged nearer to her face, she did the only thing she could - gathered the spittle in her mouth and hurled it into his face!
Jeb sat up sharply, pawing his dirt-streaked face, the lascivious grin wiped away with her spit. He pursed his lips over his buck teeth, angry as hell, his eyes wild with fury.
"Alright, honey," he whispered. "Now you done pushed me too far. There was no call for ya' to do that!" He hauled off the drawstring pack that he wore slung across his body, tossing it aside. Then he unbuttoned his coat.
"Watcha' gonna do, Jeb?"
"You jest hold her; you'll see!"
His dirty hands began to tug at her coat and, with his friend's assistance, they peeled it from her so that she felt the cold wet mud on her back. Struggling, Jemimah tried to twist free but was pinned. Her breath was coming now in ragged sobs, her fingers clawed to scratch any bit of flesh she could reach.
The fastenings of her overalls slowed him down and, angry at the delay in reaching his prize, the man cruelly backhanded her again. Dazed, she tasted the coppery tang of blood where her lip had been crushed against her teeth and stars danced in front of her eyes. It was only with a huge effort that she remained conscious. She had to fight them; she had to stop them. She felt her overalls being tugged down her body until they were bunched around her knees. Her shirt was soon ripped open, the buttons flying off in all directions.
Jeb paused to feast his eyes on her innocent childish underclothes. An evil thrill danced up his spine. He had never had anything so pure. The only women he had ever bedded were whores and more than willing as long as he had money in his pocket. It would be a novel experience to have himself a sweet little flower like this one! He chuckled at the girl's manic wriggling. If anything, it only excited him more.
"That's right, baby-girl," he crooned breathlessly. "You fight. You fight as hard as you can; it'll make the taking all the sweeter."
Jemimah screamed when he gripped the front of her camisole and tore it from neck to hem. She was still screaming when he lowered his head to slaver over her with his dirty mouth. When he raised his head again, she was sobbing, her voice painfully hoarse. Jemimah didn't think she could make another sound but, when he ripped the waistband of her drawers and dragged them down her legs, her throat would not open wide enough for the scream she emitted. Desperation gave her a little strength and she twisted as hard as she could, managing to turn from him onto her belly.
Harv pressed her painfully into the sodden earth so she had to turn her head to breathe, choking on the mud which oozed into her nose and mouth. They were laughing. She felt Jeb's filthy hands stroke over the quivering skin of her bottom and thighs. She shuddered and the contents of her stomach rose to the back of her throat.
"Honey, I don't mind which view you give me. This one'll do fine!"
Jemimah was panting for breath and sobbing when she felt the full weight of the man's body on top of her, squashing her flat to the ground. She shrieked and tried to shuck him off but he was too heavy, a dead weight. It took her a moment to realise that she'd heard a shot. Instantly, there came the loud report of another and she sensed Harv slither away.
Jeb was still lying on top of her. He was not moving. Jemimah felt warmth trickling down her neck and smelled the metallic scent of blood. She could hear someone screaming and screaming and realised it was herself.
Then, magically, Jeb was gone. Strong arms were lifting her up and holding her tightly. She struggled as though her life depended on it. Through her frenzied tears, she heard Johnny's soft voice crooning and whispering to her in Spanish, soothing her, calming her. She opened her eyes and found herself wrapped in his arms, cradled against him. Dimly, she felt him gently rearrange her ragged clothing around her to cover her body then she was lifted onto his lap and rocked like she was a baby. His deep blue eyes looked down into hers. They were shining with unshed tears and his hand held her head close so that he could press a kiss to her forehead.
Jemimah felt her whole body become heavy and she slumped against him, suddenly shaking with sobs that wracked her slender frame. He whispered softly to her and carried on rocking, holding her tightly and safe - cocooned within his warm strong embrace.
"I've got you, miel. I've got you now and I'm never lettin' you go," Johnny Lancer hushed her and lay his cheek against her head, a deep shuddering sigh escaping as he let go of his fear at last.
Jemimah could never quite remember the journey back to Lancer. She recalled riding in front of Johnny on Barranca, sitting sideways on the saddle and nursed safely in his arms, his jacket wrapped around her. She had felt warm, weary and must have slept for, the next thing she knew, she was being carried to a blanket and laid down on its softness with the utmost care. When she looked up, the face she saw this time was Murdoch's and he was watching her intently. There was anger there and, for a moment, she recoiled until he stroked her cheek, murmuring that she was safe and should rest. Again, she must have slept.
She was not sure if she dreamed it but snatches of images returned to her later - looking at the gushing waters of the swollen stream while Johnny bent to fill his canteen. Murdoch holding it to her lips and entreating her to sip slowly, Johnny looking on, eyes filled with concern. Waking from a numb sleep to feel Murdoch's strong arms around her and the rocking motion of the horse lulling her into slumber once more.
The next time she awoke, she was lying in her own bed at Lancer, crisp fresh sheets pulled up to her chest and a soft pillow beneath her aching head. The curtains were drawn with only the faint light of evening filtering through. She was wearing a clean nightgown. Low voices across the room made her turn her head.
Murdoch stood with a man she did not recognise and they were discussing something quietly, probably so that they would not wake her she realised.
"The knee was badly sprained. I've strapped it up but she should keep her weight off it for a few days. It'll be fine. There's nothing more than superficial cuts and bruises. She had a lucky escape, Murdoch."
"And you're sure she's... they didn't... those bastards.." Murdoch's voice became a low growl.
The other man placed a reassuring hand on Murdoch's broad shoulder. "No, no, Johnny was right - he got there just in time it seems. She's fine though I daresay there may be some mental scars - she could be scared to be alone for a time; might be some repercussions, nightmares. Mighty traumatic thing for a young girl..."
Murdoch nodded and bowed his head, his hand over his eyes. He stood like that for the longest time. Both men were silent, contemplating the unthinkable. The smaller man chewed his lip and finally patted Murdoch's arm.
"She'll be fine, old friend. Looked a darn sight worse than it really was. That son of yours, however..."
"Johnny?" Jemimah's feeble croak made both men turn to her in surprise.
Murdoch crossed to her side quickly and perched on the bed, taking her little hand in his huge paw. He was smiling but his eyes were red.
"Is Johnny alright?" she whispered. Her throat felt raw and she found she had no voice.
"What are you doing awake?" Murdoch spoke softly. "You should be sleeping. There's nothing to worry about - Johnny's fine."
Jemimah glanced over Murdoch's shoulder at the man. "But he said..."
"Well, there's nothing wrong with your hearing, young lady," the man smiled and stepped closer, holding out his hand.
Jemimah took it uncertainly, looking to Murdoch.
"Jemimah, I'd like you to meet Doc Jenkins. He's an old friend and it's somewhat surprising that you haven't met before considering how long you've been here. Sam seems to spend most of his time patching up Lancer folk."
"Usually Johnny," Sam smirked. "Though, this time, it's Scott that needed my services."
"Now, don't you worry yourself," Murdoch patted her hand. "Scott took a tumble from his horse yesterday but he'll be fine." At Jemimah's continued agitation, he explained. "He has a broken arm and a couple of cracked ribs. He'll have to stay in bed for a while but he'll mend."
"He was... he was helping to... look for me, wasn't he?" Jemimah's raspy voice faltered.
Murdoch glanced back at Sam who stepped in. "Scott Lancer is a big strong man and he's going to be just fine. You need to make sure you rest so you can get yourself better too. Now, I've given you something to help you sleep. Just lie back and let the medicine do its job."
"But nothing," Sam pressed gently. "When there's doctoring needed, I'm in charge around here, not Murdoch, so you just mind me, young lady. Close those eyes now."
Jemimah laid back against her pillow and closed her eyes obediently but she knew she wouldn't sleep. She had caused so much trouble - Scott was hurt badly and they had taken two days to search for her! Murdoch must be ready to murder her! But... she did feel a little tired still. Maybe she could manage a little...
When Jemimah's eyes flickered open again, the room was dim, lit only by a single lamp burning low on the bedside table. A figure sat next to the bed. It leaned towards the dim light and stroked a soothing careful hand across her brow, brushing her long fringe out of her eyes.
"Now then, young lady," Murdoch's voice gentled her. "What's this? Awake again, are we? When are you going to start listening to orders and get some sleep?"
Jemimah eyed him but his face held no trace of anger; only worry. She quickly looked away. She didn't deserve to see concern on his face or to find him watching over her bedside. She'd behaved abominably, she knew it, and she'd caused his son to be hurt - hurt badly. Tears brimmed in her prickly eyes and threatened to spill over.
Suddenly, his strong arms swooped around her and she found herself lifted onto his ample lap. As Johnny had done earlier, he began to rock her, soothing her and letting her tears fall onto his shirt.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," she stuttered. "I know you all must hate me now an' I don't blame you but please don't send me away. Let me stay here? I can work, I can help Maria in the kitchen an'... an' sleep in the barn... I wouldn't eat much..." her sore throat gave out on her before she could say anything more.
She felt Murdoch's chest shake and he wrapped his strength about her as though he would never let her go. The sound of a deep chuckle echoed against her ear, pressed on his shirtfront.
"So... we hate you, do we? And you're going to make amends by working for your keep, sleeping out there with Amiga...?" At her sudden twist, he chuckled again. "Yes, Amiga is fine; she's safely tucked up in the barn, probably fast asleep. Which is just what you should be doing."
He lifted her easily into bed and tucked the covers up around her. In the soft light, his grey-blue eyes twinkled and he didn't look formidable at all. Jemimah thought he looked soft and... cuddly, like a friendly bear.
"Understand this, Jemimah," he said seriously. "You are home and home you will stay. We do not hate you, none of us; we LOVE you. Why do you think we trailed out there to find you? If we hated you, we would have thanked our stars that you'd gone and carried on with our lives. We couldn't do that, sweetheart, because you're part of our lives now. We want you to stay."
He smoothed away her tears with his gentle forefinger and returned to his chair.
"Now, enough talking. You do as I say and go back to sleep. I'll be here if you need anything."
With that, he eased himself into the cushion at his back and picked up the book he had been reading, effectively ending the conversation. Jemimah, warmed by his words, closed her eyes and was soon sound asleep.
All the next day, Jemimah chafed at the restrictions placed on her by Doc Jenkins who sternly forbade her to get out of bed, no matter how much she pleaded. She knew her knee was bandaged up but it wouldn't stop her from getting along; she could hop, couldn't she?
Sam's response had been to warn her in no uncertain terms that, should he discover her hopping anywhere, she'd be hopping over his knee while he applied a few firm smacks to her behind! Scowling at the threat, Jemimah had thrown herself back on the pillows in defeat. Sam could only chortle to himself. The girl was so much like Johnny when he was bed-ridden; it was amazing that there was no actual blood-tie between them!
The highlight of Jemimah's day was when there was a soft knock at the door and Johnny himself made an appearance. Though thrilled to see him, she had felt shy at first. She had thought much on what she could remember and realised that Johnny had saved her from a hideous fate; probably saved her life. And, to do it, he had killed two men. She knew of Johnny's reputation as a famous gunfighter but that persona couldn't be further away from the Johnny she knew. And now, because of her, he had been forced to kill again.
Her heartfelt apology and plea for forgiveness had bowled him over. He had been worrying over whether she had yet been able to forgive him, never thinking for a second that she might see things differently. He had held her hand and looked down at her softly, smiling just for her - or so it seemed to the young girl.
"Kid, you just work on getting well, y'hear? I'll ask Sam if you can come downstairs tomorrow an' maybe, if he says it's alright, we can go out to the barn - see how Amiga's doin'. She's missin' you as much as we are, I'd say."
Her thrilled smile was all the reassurance Johnny needed. She was going to be fine.
He stood up and made his way to the door. Turning, he caught the frown on her face. "What is it, miel?"
Jemimah was struggling with something, that much was obvious.
"If it's Scott, he's doin' fine. You'll be able to see him..."
"No, it's not Scott. I mean, I am worried about him but..."
Jemimah chewed her lip and came to a decision. "I want you to ask Murdoch something for me, Johnny, if you would?" Her voice was small and timid.
He came back to perch on the side of her bed, watching her with concern. This was clearly a momentous decision she'd made and he wondered what on earth was bothering her now. Wisely, he kept quiet, giving her the time to spit it out.
"Ask him... no, tell him that I ought to get a lickin'."
Johnny couldn't have been more surprised but she was deadly serious.
"You know I deserve it!" she scowled at his expression of shock and amusement. "Don't laugh at me!"
Johnny made a valiant effort to produce a suitably stern countenance. This was, to her, a serious matter - a grown-up matter, and deserved the due respect... though how he kept a straight face he did not know.
"You want Murdoch to give you a lickin'?"
"I don't want him to," the kid squirmed uncomfortably. "But, don't you see, I ain't left him no choice an' I don't want him feeling so sorry for me that he lets me get away with what I did."
Johnny arched a single eyebrow thoughtfully. "You don't think he'll feel you've been punished enough?" Johnny himself certainly felt that and was pretty sure Murdoch would feel the same.
Jemimah shook her head sadly. "Nope. I got it coming. If I'm goin' to stay here and be part of your family, then I've got to be treated the same as he would treat you or Scott or Teresa..."
"Now, hold on there... you think Murdoch whups us? Can you see Murdoch givin' me or Scott a lickin'?"
"No, not anymore - you're all grown-up... but he would've done if you were my age!"
Johnny scratched his head. He couldn't argue with that one. He'd realised long ago that the one good thing about growing up away from his father was that he hadn't had that strong right hand to contend with. He'd been an ornery wilful little cuss and there was no doubt Murdoch would have felt it necessary to drag him out to the barn for a 'discussion' or two - probably on a regular basis. On the other hand, it sure would have been great to have someone who cared enough to show him the error of his ways while he was a kid.
"You'll tell him for me, Johnny?"
The young man chewed his lip, considering her request. In the end, he shrugged. "Alright, if you're set on it, I'll tell him," he agreed.
He winked at her and rose to leave again, grinning when she smiled hesitantly.
Jemimah had disobeyed Sam's instructions to hop across the room and was peering out of the window when the door opened softly.
"And just what do you think you're doing out of bed, young lady?"
She turned to find the doorway filled with a very stern-looking Murdoch. Stomach fluttering nervously, she watched him saunter across to the bed and take a seat. He watched her darkly and she gulped. This was it; time to pay the piper!
Murdoch bit his lip. Indeed, he deserved a medal for keeping a straight face. He and Johnny had spent a good few minutes downstairs, chuckling over the child's request and he had needed a stiff whisky to fortify himself before coming upstairs. In truth, he had still been holding back laughter when he first came into the room but now, seeing her earnest little face, her eyes full of worry, he realised there was nothing funny about it. She was seriously trying to atone for her mistakes before she could move on. So he would be a father to her and help her.
She was still in her long white nightgown, her hair loose and falling down her back in a silky chocolate wave. Her bare arms and little feet made her seem very young and vulnerable. Murdoch's breath caught in his throat - how could those evil... they had almost... Even now, when they were dead, he struggled to control the fury and revulsion he felt for them.
Jemimah was watching him. So pale, her green eyes huge.
"Jemimah," he began. "You daddy was one of my oldest friends. Your mother too." He paused. The child had bowed her head at the mention of her parents. "For the longest time, I was alone here. My sons grew up without me and I... (he swallowed) I almost missed my chance to be a father to them. I have them here with me now, as you know, and there's never a day goes by that I don't thank the Lord for sending them home to me."
Jemimah looked up, searching his face.
"But, I never had a daughter..."
"You have Teresa," she ventured. Murdoch smiled.
"Yes, I have Teresa and she is like a daughter to me... but Teresa is almost grown; I never had a little girl - one I could spoil, sit on my knee and pet her, watch her grow and guide her when she made those missteps along the way."
Jemimah bowed her head again. She'd made so many missteps since she left Yorkshire.
"I hoped, when I brought you over to Lancer after your father passed, that I would have that chance... with you - to be a father to you, watch you grow," Murdoch grinned and tilted his head at her sheepish look. "...guide you over those missteps."
The girl took a deep breath and hopped towards him. She halted in front of him and he drew her closer to stand between his knees. From behind her back, she hesitantly produced her hairbrush and, eyes lowered, she offered it to him.
Murdoch's eyebrows lifted. He knew what this implied.
"That's a sturdy brush, Jemimah," he rolled the polished wood over in his big hands. Then he lifted her chin so he could look into her eyes. "Did your daddy used to spank you with this?"
Unable to speak for the lump in her throat, Jemimah nodded. The movement caused two fat tears to spill over and roll down her white little face.
"Do you want me to be your daddy now?"
Murdoch found he was holding his breath. With a tiny sob, Jemimah's face crumpled and she nodded vigorously. Murdoch sighed and a terrific warmth filled his chest.
"Then we don't need this, sweetheart," he whispered and tossed the brush aside on the quilt. "This is what your daddy needs to do right now."
With that, he swept the quivering child up onto his lap, loving her tears away, giving her the comfort she had craved for too long. And it felt right for both of them. She was home.
Anne Haslam February 2013