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
Never had Jemimah been so glad to be excluded from a grown-up event.
She had wheedled, mithered, sulked and begged - all to no avail, finally slumping into a disgruntled sulk when Murdoch growled that, if he heard one more word about the blessed Thanksgiving Dance and how unfair it was that she wasn't going, she would be going somewhere alright - straight up to bed!
However, when Johnny had announced his intention to remain home instead of attending with the rest of the family, her sulk had turned to a wide smile. Johnny had mussed her hair fondly (she hadn't even minded that)and said that he felt sure they would find something better to do than stand around at some silly old dance.
Truth be told, he wasn't much for these social fandangos. Sure, he liked to have a dance or two with a pretty girl in his arms and the notion of Annabel Johnson's undeniably splendid bosom being pressed up against his shirt front had been the main draw of the evening. But, now that he was definitely denied access, however innocent and fleeting, to her impressive curves, the whole event had lost its appeal.
Their evening had been a great success - firstly, a huge wedge of the sticky spicy cake Jemimah had taught Maria to make earlier that day, followed by a few games of checkers. Jemimah had begged Johnny to teach her to play poker; she was sick to death of Enrique and Mateo playing it in the barn and not being able to join in. It also was a huge bone of contention that Enrique would not teach her, saying scathingly that girls couldn't play poker!
Johnny had shaken his head with a rueful smile, also refusing point blank to teach her, reasoning that he rather fancied keeping his hide and would be hard put to hang onto it if the ol' man found out. However, he did set the smirk back on her face by promising to kick Mateo's butt if he saw him loafing around playing cards instead of getting on with his work!
Not for the first time, Johnny was impressed with the kid's conversation. She was a real bright little thing; she knew nearly as much about books and plays as Scott and, when she regaled him with descriptions and stories of England and Yorkshire, the county of her birth, the young man found himself captivated. She had started to read him a little of one of her favourite novels, Jane Eyre which was set in that part of England. Young as she was, her voice was lilting and melodic; as he listened, he could visualise everything.
It was with a sense of disbelief that the two of them heard the front door open and Teresa wafted in, removing her shawl. Johnny sprawled contentedly on the sofa while Jemimah sat hugging her knees by the fire. It was incredible that over five hours had passed. She glanced at the grandfather clock, stifling a yawn.
"Alright, young lady, I saw that," Murdoch followed Teresa into the room, pausing by the fire to warm his hands. "Come on now, up to bed. It's way past your time!"
He smiled down at the child as she obediently scrambled to her feet and gave him a spontaneous hug round the middle.
Johnny, grinning widely, sat up and swatted the child's rump playfully.
"Hey kid," he said. "I'll give you a piggy-back upstairs..."
He faltered in surprise when her smile turned to a frosty glare, nose haughtily raised in the air.
"No thank you," she declined his offer decisively. "I'm not a child, y'know."
Johnny quirked an eyebrow, at a loss for words, and watched her smooth down her skirts before primly bidding goodnight to Murdoch, Scott and Teresa, pointedly ignoring him.
She reached the doorway and, as quickly as it had appeared, the character of the prim young miss was cast away. She turned, a glint of devilment in her green eyes and rudely stuck out her tongue at Johnny then shrieked wildly as he leaped up from the sofa and chased her upstairs, laughingly threatening dire retribution all the way.
Murdoch sank down into the comfort of his armchair and held out his hand for the tumbler of best single malt that his eldest son passed to him. They both glanced warily at the ceiling when a loud thump and more shrieks of laughter were heard from the room above.
"I sometimes think Johnny acts more like a kid than she does," Scott observed drily and looked over at his father when he chuckled.
"Well, I can hardly blame him for that," Murdoch smiled softly.
Both men were quiet then. No words were necessary to know that they were both thinking the same thing - that Johnny had effectively been robbed of a proper childhood and that the laughter and mischief Jemimah had brought into their lives had been a blessing, especially for him. Though their antics could be wild, it was often a relief to see the young man let go and be that kid he should have had the chance to be long ago.
Murdoch sipped his whisky appreciatively and called through to Teresa as she headed for the kitchen. "See if those two have left any of that Parkin for us, will you, darling?"
Having passed such a vastly agreeable evening together, Jemimah was somewhat dazed and more than a little miffed to discover, two days later, that Johnny had yet another insipid female in tow. This new one was a slight acquaintance of Teresa's named Rachael Fassbender, was new in the area and would be staying with her aunt and uncle at their farm some ten miles distant. They had a small spread out beyond the Johnson place and the girl had apparently been sent out to experience the wholesome California climate. Of course, her mother and aunt also had decided that, while in pursuit of this healthy living, if the girl could be put in the way of an eligible bachelor or two, all the better.
Having been introduced to Teresa at the Thanksgiving Social and her ears pricking up at the mention of two more than eligible brothers, Mrs Fassbender had wasted no time parading her pretty niece rather tantalisingly (and somewhat shamefully) in front of the first Lancer brother who had come into town with Teresa - namely Johnny.
Shiny auburn curls, brown eyes and a pleasing sprinkle of freckles had beguiled Johnny well enough to ensure an invitation to visit the next afternoon and so they would be now on their way over. Mrs Fassbender was to take tea with Miss O' Brien but Johnny had far more interesting plans for his afternoon with the niece and tea did not enter into them.
Jemimah listened to Teresa prattle on about which cake and preserves to set out on the best china and that she hoped Johnny would not take too long on his errand over in Spanish Wells; she wanted him to be here to greet Miss Fassbender when she and her aunt arrived.
"Fassbender?" Jemimah spat scornfully. "What kind of a name is Fassbender? Bet she looks like a box of frogs!"
"If you're going to sit there sulking and making crude comments all afternoon, I suggest you go out and play with your little friend... and keep out of the way of the grown-ups," Teresa said cuttingly.
Jemimah narrowed her eyes, watching the older girl fiddling with a small spray of pretty foliage from the garden. 'Go out and play', hmm? Very well, she would! She donned her thick cardigan and tied the crocheted kerchief under her chin so that her dark shining hair was covered then she skipped through the great room and out of the French windows. Once out in the courtyard, however, she stopped skipping and raced through the gateway and down the lane where she would be sure to be the first to greet the visitors when they arrived.
Which, no more than fifteen minutes later, they did.
Jemimah rubbed her hands together, cupping them around her mouth to blow on them. About time they got here - she was getting a mite chilly! She pasted a polite welcoming smile on her elfin face and stepped out onto the path so they would be bound to see her and stop.
Sure enough, the buggy slowed and the two ladies within called a 'good afternoon' to the cheery little girl who bobbed a well-mannered curtsey back at them.
"Good afternoon, ma'am," Jemimah piped up. "You must be Mrs Fassbender?" When the good lady affirmed pleasantly that she was indeed Mrs Fassbender, Jemimah turned to the young woman beside her. "And you must be Miss Betty! Johnny's talked about you non-stop!" The girl bobbed a second curtsey with a wicked glint in her green eyes.
The girl gasped a little and blurted, "Betty? Why, no... I'm..."
Jemimah's eyes grew wide with alarm at her 'mistake'. "Oh, I'm so sorry," she rushed on. "Well, if you're not Betty then, of course, you must be the one he's taking to the Christmas Fayre; Amy, that's it, right?"
One glance at the countenances of both Mrs and Miss Fassbender told Jemimah she had made yet another 'faux-pas'.
Her face dropped. "Erm... not Amy?"
"No!" Rachael Fassbender's teeth were clamped together so that the single word was ground out from between them.
Jemimah made one more valiant effort.
"Oh, I know who you are then," she hooted, snapping her fingers as she remembered the name. "Are you that Annie-Lou that Johnny got trapped at the line-shack with overnight when there was that bad storm?" Jemimah ignored the scandalised faces of both ladies and pushed gleefully. "Hoo-whee, there was some wild talk after that little trip, I can tell you! That Johnny!" She slapped her knee with mirth. "He's a right one for the fillies, ain't he?"
"Aunt Josie, please turn around... at once!" Rachael snapped.
Jemimah stared in surprise at the ladies. Both had their mouths set in thin hard lines with vivid spots of high colour on their cheeks.
"You're not coming to tea then?"
"Give our apologies to Miss O' Brien," Mrs Fassbender snapped primly. "And as for Mr Lancer..."
Words failed the matronly woman but the glare on her face spoke volumes of what she would like to do to poor Johnny.
"Oh, alright then," Jemimah shrugged. "I'll tell 'em!"
Jemimah watched the buggy turn in a loop and head back along the track to the road. She waved cheerily until they were out of sight then, laughing delightedly at the success of her endeavours, she trotted back to the house, concocting her story all the way so that, by the time she arrived in the kitchen, she had it all word-perfect for the bitterly disappointed Teresa.
Much later, Johnny, though mildly annoyed that Rachael Fassbender had chosen to visit with someone else instead of honour their arrangement, found he enjoyed riding out along the east fence line with Jemimah just as much, if not more. The kid was lively company and he had forgotten Miss Fassbender in no time.
It is said that fortune favours the brave and this indeed turned out to be the case. Jemimah 's little ploy could well have backfired on her should Teresa, Johnny or Murdoch have encountered any of the Fassbender clan over the next week or two. Had it come to light how Johnny's reputation with the ladies was so maligned by his little pal that day, her next foray into mischief might well have been 'discouraged'. That, or she would probably have been shut up in her room for so long that she would have had no opportunity to push her luck a second time.
As it was, when the girl discovered that Johnny and Scott had been introduced by Mrs Conway to a young friend of hers - a Miss Alison Ross, and that Johnny had asked to escort Miss Ross to the Advent Fayre in Green River, a batch of fresh schemes to 'get rid' of the young lady was soon hatched.
Jemimah had actually met Miss Ross when she was brought over to Lancer by Aggie to share supper one evening. If it weren't for her designs on Johnny, the child would have quite liked her... perhaps.
She was very pretty with long dark hair much like Jemimah's own. Her eyes were a sparkly blue, her complexion clear. But, more than her looks, Alison listened well. She was interesting and interested - an appealing combination. And she was very ladylike. Hmm, it would almost be a shame to have to get rid of her! But, 'needs must when the devil drives' Jemimah decided firmly.
To Jemimah's chagrin, Johnny asked Miss Ross to go riding with him up to the south pasture where the nearest line shack was. It was a pretty route and Jemimah knew it well; it was her favourite ride with Johnny. Oh, this woman had to pay! The opportunity arrived unexpectedly the next day.
Jemimah was trailing back over to the house from the barn where she had been mucking out Amiga's stall and laying fresh straw. Having already cleared the other stalls that morning, the girl's overalls were far from pristine and in all honesty she smelled a bit ripe.
It was back-breaking work but she had offered to do it to earn a little money for Christmas. Knitting presents was all very well and she had mufflers already finished for Murdoch and Scott; a pair of white lacy stitch mittens for Teresa and what she termed a Wee Willie Winkie hat for Jelly. She was still working her way through an embroidered handkerchief for Maria, under Teresa's tutelage. But she had seen a fancy hat band in Baldemeros that she had set her heart on for Johnny. She knew it would suit him down to the ground and, having spoken to Murdoch, had been doing extra chores to earn enough to pay for it. It would be worth it. The girl beamed as she approached the house and scuffed her dirty hands over the bib-front of her spattered overalls.
It was then that she caught sight of a rider approaching and, at first thinking it was Johnny returning from Aggie's, she waved. As the rider came nearer, however, Jemimah's smile faded and she realised it was Miss Alison.
The woman was wearing a blue shirt (which was why Jemimah had instantly thought it may be Johnny) with a dark brown riding skirt and boots. Her thick hair was pulled into a sleek chignon at the back of her neck and her blue eyes twinkled underneath the brim of her hat. She looked very pretty. Jemimah scowled.
Miss Alison smiled pleasantly down at the girl and called to her. "Afternoon, Jemimah! You look like you've been working hard!"
Jemimah's green gaze swept over the trim figure of the woman on the horse beside her and felt heat suffuse her cheeks. Typical! She had turned up, looking like a McCall's magazine cover, while Jemimah resembled one of Jelly's piglets that had rolled around in mud all morning! It was not hard to guess which of them Johnny would choose if he were to see them now. Bloody mud! Mud? A mischievous emerald gleam lit her eye.
"I certainly have, Miss Alison," she smiled back. "Everyone's hard at it today though. I'm afraid there's nobody here right now except me."
Alison quirked an elegant brow. "You mean they've left a little girl like you all alone?" Her expression told Jemimah she found that hard to believe.
"Oh no, I'm not alone exactly," Jemimah shook her head and removed her hat to scoop her overly long fringe from her eyes. Little girl? Huh! "Jelly's over at the pig sty and Maria's baking up a storm in the kitchen. Afraid you've missed Teresa though; she's gone to Green River to see a friend."
Alison smiled softly. "And Johnny? And Mr Lancer and Scott?"
Jemimah lowered her thick sooty-black lashes, glancing slyly up at the young woman.
"Oh, they should be on their way back about now," she replied. "They've been over to Mrs Conway's to take a look at a bull she's thinking of selling."
Alison raised her pretty head, staring over the meadows in the distance in the direction of the Conway ranch. "The Conway place, you say?"
"Yes miss," Jemimah confirmed. Then, as though the idea had just struck her, she added, "Say, why don't you ride over there and meet them coming back? They can't be more than a couple of miles away by now."
Alison's smile showed her even pearly teeth. "Yes, I think I might," she agreed readily.
"Oh, just one thing, Miss Alison," Jemimah remembered. "Be sure to take the skinny bridge when you get up to the creek. Scott was saying that the rain we've had lately has made the ground around there quite boggy so the bridge is the bestest way."
A little frown wrinkled up Miss Alison's perky little nose. Darn her! Even when she frowned she looked beautiful!
"The skinny bridge? I don't think I know it."
"Not to worry," Jemimah assured her. "I'll just grab a piece of notepaper from Murdoch's desk. I can draw you a map and point the way!"
Jemimah scurried off into the house leaving Alison to smile after her. What a thoroughly delightful child she was! No wonder Johnny was so fond of her. He had talked of her at length the other evening. In fact, Alison had begun to tire just a little of his stories of her rather wild antics but now, having met her, she could see how he could be so beguiled by her. She was utterly charming.
Jemimah reappeared with a scrap of paper and a stubby pencil in her hand. With a quick explanation and the map tucked into her pocket, Alison was sure of which way to go. "Why is it called the 'skinny' bridge?" she thought to ask.
"Oh, that's right, you won't know," Jemimah's hand smacked her own head at her stupidity. "It's really narrow so you'll have to lead your horse over it instead of ride him. But, don't worry, it's by far the quickest way and, like Scott said, you'll avoid all that yucky mud."
"Well, I surely do thank you, Jemimah. You've been very helpful."
"Don't mention it, miss. I'm just glad I was here."
Alison nudged her horse into a steady jog and headed off in the direction of the bridge. Jemimah stared after her, a delighted grin on her dirty face.
Oh yes, very glad I was here!
The barn was sorted, the porch had been swept and the firewood box by the kitchen door refilled. Jemimah rolled her shoulders to ease the ache and slid back on her perch on the wall to enjoy the sandwich Maria had given her. She knew she had earned it. She had worked hard. Mouth crammed with tasty smoked ham and crusty bread, the girl squinted in the bright sunshine, one leg swinging idly as she surveyed the three riders coming in from over the hill. She didn't need to see their faces; she had spotted them a mile before they reached the Lancer arch and knew instantly that it was Murdoch, Scott and Johnny. There were only three riders; Miss Ross was not with them but then, Jemimah smirked around her huge bite of sandwich, she had hardly expected her to be.
The men rode into the yard and dismounted, all still deep in conversation about the bull they had just been to check over. They did not notice the child on the wall. However, when they exited the barn some minutes later, they had noticed the very thorough job she had done inside it.
"A good job, a very good job," Murdoch was saying. "Looks neat enough to eat supper in there."
"I hope she won't be offended if I choose to remain at the table," Scott quipped.
All three men smiled and Murdoch again praised her. "She's certainly no slacker; when that girl sets her mind to something, she gets it done! She's earned every penny of that fifty cents."
Johnny and Scott glanced at each other, smirking. Their father was a Scot who kept a tight grip on the purse-strings.
"I'd say she's done more like a dollar's worth, wouldn't you brother?" Johnny grinned, watching Murdoch from the corner of his eye.
The big Scot slowed. "Well, perhaps, seeing as your horses have also benefitted from Jemimah's toil today, you might like to make up the difference? Say twenty-five cents from each of you?" Murdoch headed on into the hacienda, a sly smile playing about his mouth.
Scott gave his younger brother a soft backhanded slap to his middle. "Now look what you've done!" he joked.
In retaliation, Johnny swiped Scott with his hat and, shoving each other boyishly, they followed their dignified parent inside.
Jemimah chuckled and carried on eating her sandwich, filled with well-being. She had done a hard day's work - as hard as any boy could manage. Murdoch had praised her and she would have another whole dollar for her Christmas money. She hunkered down in the late afternoon sunshine. It was a good day! She knew they would be sitting down now to enjoy a whisky by the fireside and to chew the fat over Aggie's bull and whether they should buy it. The decision had probably already been made but she knew they would enjoy jawing about it for at least another hour. Men couldn't half rattle on... and they were the ones that always said women talked! Rot!
Jemimah took another enormous chomp at her sandwich. Maria had told her to eat up then get herself into the tub before she made the house smell as bad as she did! Jemimah smirked. A good soak with some of Teresa's lavender soap and then she'd maybe see if Johnny or Scott fancied a game of checkers before supper.
The girl squinted at something in the distance. What the heck was that? As the something came closer, Jemimah nearly choked on her mouthful of ham. She slid down from the wall, removing her hat and ducking down out of sight so that only her eyes and the very top of her head could be seen peering over the wall at the apparition as it stumbled into the yard.
"Oh my," the kid breathed.
She had virtually forgotten about Miss Alison!
"Hey gents!" Jelly puffed into the room, hanging on the door jamb and gesticulating wildly for the three men to follow him. "Think you'd better come see this! Lord, this is gonna touch the match to the dynamite!"
Momentarily taken aback, Murdoch and his sons gaped first at the old handyman as he disappeared back outside then at each other. Johnny was the first to react. He drained his glass and set it on the table, springing nimbly up from the sofa arm where he had been perched.
"Wonder what's upsettin' the ol' buzzard now?" he mused aloud. One by one, they filed out in Jelly's wake.
When they trooped out into the yard, the sight which met them had them firstly confused then shocked then, unfortunately, biting their lips to keep from smiling.
Miss Alison Ross, usually so fresh; so pristine; so attractive... stood before them - a sorry, bedraggled, black mess of slimy, dripping mud. It was not spattered across her; rather she appeared to have actually tried to swim in it. Everything but her eyes was covered in the filthy ooze and, as she stumbled closer, it was not only disgusting to behold but it stunk!
Johnny reeled back a step, averting his head and wrinkling his nose - actions which did not go unnoticed by the woman. Already steaming from the trick which had resulted in her sorry state, this further slight was more than she could stand.
"Do I offend you, Johnny Lancer?" her voice was pitched a little higher than usual and it shook with anger.
She advanced upon the perplexed young man who had frozen to the spot. Her once pretty face was contorted with rage and she grasped her mud soaked hat in slimy fingers before throwing it in a puddle at his feet.
A great stillness had fallen over the yard. In her hiding place, Jemimah stared, chilled and, at the same time, almost unable to bite back the hysterical laughter which threatened to burst forth with the dreadful fascination of the scene playing out in front of her.
"Miss Ross?" Scott's question provoked a further exclamation from the sodden girl.
"Yes! It's Miss Ross but I can hardly blame you not recognising me, Mr Lancer!" she shrieked. "I don't think my own mother would recognise me now! Christ Almighty!"
Their shock increased tenfold at the vulgar profanity. Behind the wall, Jemimah was biting hard on her fist, shaking with mirth.
"What on earth happened?" Murdoch stepped forward but retreated again when she turned her seething anger on him and the stench from the putrid muck assailed his nostrils.
"What happened?" she repeated, sounding deranged. "I'll tell you what happened! That...." she fought to find the appropriate term for the twisted villain who had done this to her. "...that... little.... monster happened, that's what!"
"Monster?" Scott asked.
"That... kid! Jemimah!" Miss Ross' voice was now a hysterical screech.
"Whoa, you're sayin' Jemimah did this?" Johnny looked dubious.
That he doubted her was the final slap in the face for Alison. She almost danced on the spot with rage.
"Yes, you imbecile! Your precious Jemimah! That evil, scheming, sneaky..."
"Miss Ross," Murdoch tried to soothe the savage beast. "What on earth did Jemimah do?"
She swung on the big man who, it has to be said, flinched in alarm. "That twisted little varmint," her breath was coming out in ragged rasps, so furious was she. "She told me to ride out to meet you. Told me to be sure to use the skinny bridge so that I could avoid the mud!" She gestured manically to her ruined clothing as though they may not have noticed its atrocious state. "Avoid it? Avoid it? I ended up lying in it!"
Johnny dipped his head, his hands on his hips, avidly studying his boots and chewing his lower lip. Scott avoided looking at his brother and took to squinting off into the distance. Only their father managed to produce a steady enough countenance to speak to the irate female.
"Miss Ross, that bridge is... er... very unstable and in dire need of repair. There's actually a better crossing a wee bit further down and..."
"I know that now!" she shrieked, hopping with rage. "I also know that your little darling..." she eyed Johnny malevolently. "... sent me there on purpose!"
Johnny at last looked up. "Why would she do that? She knows that bridge is busted and that the creek is mostly mud and ..." He got no further.
"Cow shit!" the woman snapped. "Yes, I know that too - now!"
"Are you sure Jemimah told you to use the bridge? I mean, she didn't tell you not to..." Johnny asked.
Alison shook her head. "I know what that little brat said and, if you don't believe me, here's the map she drew for me!"
The girl produced a dirty brown scrap of sodden paper and thrust it under Johnny's nose. With a grimace of distaste, he took the evidence and scanned it. Realising the truth of her claims, he planted his hands on his hips and emitted a sharp sigh. Scott took the paper so that he and Murdoch could also see it.
Murdoch's face, when he looked up again, was grim.
"Miss Ross, I can only apologise for Jemimah's actions. What she did was unforgivable. Not only that, it was downright dangerous; you could have been seriously hurt and this may have had far more desperate consequences than merely a muddy dress..."
"Muddy dress?" she howled. "Look at me!" She twirled around to display herself. Facing them again, she narrowed her eyes at their feeble attempts to remain unsmiling. "If that is the sort of child you're raising here; if this sort of behaviour is deemed 'amusing' then I'm not sure I want to be attending any festivities with a member of this family! I demand that... child... be whipped! Right here! Right now! The little bitch..."
Murdoch cut off her rant mid flow.
"I think that's enough," his voice was steady and firm. "Jelly, would you please make sure Miss Ross is able to find her way to Aggie's safely and that she meets with no further... accidents?" He addressed the man who stood gaping beside him but his stern blue-grey eyes never left the dishevelled young woman.
She stood quivering indignantly for a few more seconds then, with a squeal of anger, mounted her horse. Gathering up the shreds of her dignity, she stuck her nose in the air.
"That won't be necessary," she snapped shrewishly. "I can find my own way; I can do without any further Lancer assistance!" This last remark was flung at Johnny who, after her tirade, could not summon any regret at seeing the back of her.
"Boy, she was a scold!" Johnny still felt shaken up at the far from genteel language Alison had used. Cow shit? Since when did well brought-up young ladies say 'cow shit'? He was no prude but her previously demure appearance couldn't have been further from the truth! "Phew!"
He sank down in shock, leaning his backside on the edge of Murdoch's desk. Scott poured three more whiskies and handed them round.
"You've had a narrow escape there, Johnny-boy," he patted the shoulder of his brother's vibrant red shirt. "It all goes to show - all that glisters is not gold!" He took a sip of his whisky, waiting for the inevitable puzzled frown. When it came, he explained, "Beauty is only skin-deep, brother."
Johnny nodded, his brows raised as he remembered the girl's foul language. "You can say that again. I thought she would never dry up!"
Scott chuckled behind his glass. Then they both watched Murdoch drain his and head towards the kitchen purposefully.
"Where you goin', Murdoch?" Johnny called.
"To find that young lady and give her a piece of my mind!"
"Nuh-uh!" Johnny swallowed his drink in one huge gulp and, shaking his head, straightened up and followed his father. As he passed him, he placed a gentle but firmly restraining hand on his shoulder and eloquently jerked a thumb at his own chest. It was clear that Johnny believed this particular task to be his alone.
Murdoch paused, watching Johnny stroll unhurriedly into the kitchen.
Maria was at the stove, stirring a huge pan of some aromatic sauce with a sturdy wooden spoon. Tilting his handsome head to one side and giving the casserole an appreciative sniff, Johnny beamed at Maria.
"Donde se esconde la niņa, mamacita?" he asked pleasantly.
At the word 'esconde' Maria blinked. The child was not hiding; she was taking a bath as she had been instructed. Today she had been a good girl; very good. She told Juanito this and asked him why he was looking for her. Johnny's answer was merely to smile and, popping a chunk of chopped pepper into his mouth, he ambled off towards the downstairs corridor where the room used for baths in the winter was found.
When he reached the closed door, Johnny hesitated. The distinctive sounds of splashing could be heard within. Jemimah must be in the tub already. He leaned close to the door and called her.
"Kid, you in there?"
"You'll have to wait; I'm havin' a bath!"
Johnny paused, hands on hips, his breath whistling out in a deep sigh. For two pins, he'd storm in there and tan her bare behind! He shook his head in exasperation; he knew full well he was going to do no such thing.
"You can't stay in there forever, chica!" he warned.
"I can try!" came the saucy response from inside, followed by more splashing and then a taunting giggle. Little devil! Johnny narrowed his deep blue eyes, thwarted in his need to get his hands on the little varmint and dish out some well-deserved retribution, as Scott would say.
"When the water starts to freeze your rear-end, I know just the thing to warm it up!" Johnny called through the door and gripped the handle at the very rude noise that emanated from within. "You little..."
Inside the bathroom, Jemimah knelt at the side of the tub, swishing her hand back and forth in the warm water. She was still wearing her camisole and drawers, having remained to watch the fun and games in the yard until she'd heard Miss Ross shrieking at Murdoch to whip her! Vindictive mardy cow! After that, she had made herself scarce, speeding through the house to the kitchen and on to the relative safety of the bath. Johnny was right though; she couldn't stay in here all night - for a start she'd miss supper!
Jemimah glanced around the room and her gaze alighted on the narrow window. She knew it opened onto the shrubs at the side of the house by the lane which ultimately led to Cipriano's cottage. She thought she could probably squeeze through it, drop down into the bushes then shimmy up the trellis to Teresa's window and get upstairs that way. At least she'd be able to make it unseen to her own room and lurk there until later. Then she could creep down to snaffle some food from the kitchen when everyone else was asleep. Perfect! 'Hiding in plain sight' Scott called it. He would be proud of her ingenuity.
Spurred on by her cleverness, Jemimah became bold.
"I wonder if Miss Alison is in the tub now?" she sang out then chortled with mischievous glee. "Blimey, she didn't half smell! What d'you reckon it was, Johnny - eau de cow sh...?"
"Jemimah!" Johnny was hard-pressed not to give in to the laughter which bubbled inside at her sassy taunt. That kid! Boy, she had a nerve! He bit back a grin, relieved that she could not see his face. It really wouldn't do for her to know how close he was to cracking up at her audacity. He shook his head ruefully at the peal of unladylike laughter that sounded through the door. "Kid, when I get in there..."
"You better not, Johnny Lancer!" she squeaked.
Johnny looked up to see his father walking towards him down the corridor.
"And why's that?" he asked the girl.
"Cos you can't come in here when I'm not wearing anything!" she teased. "I'm not coming out an' you daren't come in! Hee Hee!"
Murdoch arched an eyebrow as he and Johnny listened outside the door. Again the most unladylike noise erupted from within, deliberately provoking her pursuer. Clearly, the girl thought herself to be untouchable. Johnny watched his father's face turn red, the tell-tale vein pulsing at his temple. Oh boy! Watch out, kid!
Murdoch gripped the doorknob. "Johnny may be reluctant to come in but, luckily, I have no such scruples!" With that, he turned the handle and swung the door open.
Johnny himself was a little shocked but nothing like as astounded as Jemimah who practically fell headfirst into the tub with surprise.
"Just as I thought," Murdoch waved a hand at the youngster who had sprung to her feet. "Johnny - she's all yours!" He stepped back from the doorway, turned on his heel and smartly left his son gaping after him.
Johnny recovered quickly. He closed the door behind him. Jemimah was taking faltering steps backwards and he matched each step with a pace towards her.
Gone were the rude noises and taunting giggles. In fact, when Johnny crooked a finger, beckoning her to him, and said softly, "Kid, you an' me need to have words!" the strangled sound that emitted from Jemimah's throat could more easily be likened to a whimper.
Scott winced at one particularly loud howl which came from the end of the corridor. Even in the great room, the sounds of Jemimah's distress and Johnny's more than thorough revenge could easily be heard.
"Murdoch, you are going to have a tough time explaining to Jemimah's future husband," Scott mused, sipping his pre-dinner whisky.
Murdoch eased his back into the cushions of the armchair. "Oh? Explaining what?"
"I'm afraid that, by the time she's grown-up, if she ever makes it that is, her behind's going to be permanently blistered so it's a different colour from the rest of her."
Murdoch smiled but Teresa, who was wincing in sympathy with the sound of every solid smack, gave Scott a look of reproof.
"Scott!" she admonished then added, "I don't think Enrique will need any explanation."
"Oh? And you're certain she's going to marry Enrique, are you?" Scott smiled across at the girl.
Teresa shot a knowing smile back at him. "Actually, yes, I am. You don't think so?"
Scott glanced across at his father but Murdoch's face was giving nothing away. Whatever his opinion, he was not about to broadcast it.
"I think Jemimah may well have other ideas," Scott said.
"The pair of you - stop your matchmaking," Murdoch rumbled. "As we can all testify..." as if any proof were required, he inclined his head towards the sound of the distant spanking which still emanated from the bathroom. "...Jemimah is still a little girl and has a long way to go before she needs to worry about catching a husband!"
The squeals suddenly ceased and Scott rose to pour a whisky in readiness for his poor worn-out brother. "I think her husband will need to worry about catching her!" he muttered quietly to himself.
Johnny wandered into the room, tucking in his red shirt and swiping a hand through his over-long hair. Scott proffered the tumbler of whisky which Johnny took in his left hand, flexing the tingling fingers of his right.
"Jemimah?" Murdoch inquired.
"Still in there. I think the water's cooled down enough for her to find it useful," Johnny smiled softly, blue eyes twinkling at his brother.
"Oh, Johnny!" Teresa suddenly sat up. "I forgot to tell you, I have a friend who's just dying to meet you - her name's..."
Johnny held up a weary hand. "No thanks, Teresa!" he interrupted. "I'm gonna have me a girl-free Christmas. After this week, I've had a belly-full of crazy females!"
Along the corridor, Jemimah, despite the sizzling of her rear-end, heard Johnny's declaration and grinned.
Anne Haslam April 2013
Information: The McCalls Magazine was first known as The Queen until 1897 so I have taken a small liberty and changed its name for my purposes in 1870 instead.