Disclaimer: A few of these characters (i.e. the Lancers and a handful who
appeared in the tv show) are not mine though they ought to be because I
certainly show them more love, respect and gratitude than Fox ever has...
and I visit with them more too.
Scott is 29; Johnny is 24
After another request to return to a younger Jemimah, I decided to expand on something that has previously only been mentioned in passing - Helen Farmer (Scott's lady friend and Aggie Conway's niece) and the incident at her leaving party.
Murdoch settled back into his wicker chair on the porch and smiled at his companion. Abruptly, Teresa bumped into the chair as she passed, almost causing him to spill his lemonade into his lap. He frowned at the brunette when she danced off through the French windows into the great room. Instead of the polite apology he would normally have expected from his ward, Murdoch heard her giggle loudly then instruct Helen not to be so greedy and to save some punch for her. Murdoch squinted into the room but could only make out a flash of yellow silk as Teresa skipped away. He was puzzled. This kind of giddiness from the girl was most unusual.
His thoughts were distracted when Aggie placed her hand gently on his arm. She was smiling though he could read a little sadness in her eyes too.
"Thank you for the party, Murdoch. It was good to see Helen having so much fun with everyone she has met here. She's made some good friends over the last three months. I think I'm right in saying she'll be missed."
"That she will. She's a fine girl, Aggie and you should be proud." Murdoch watched his old friend blush a little. "And there's no need to thank me; this was all Scott's doing. I'd venture to say that there may have been more than friendship behind all his preparations for today."
"I think you may be right and I'd have to say that Helen has confided something - she wishes she could stay longer. She's going to miss that boy of yours, Murdoch."
"He'll miss her too; we all will. She's a fine lass."
It was more than could be said for her brother. Murdoch's eyes strayed tellingly to the surly-looking youth who was now slumped against the fence near the corral. Aggie followed his flinty gaze and her mouth tightened when she saw the boy hurl a large stone hard against the barn door. It bounced off with a dull thud and, though there was no harm done, Aggie could not help flashing Murdoch an apologetic look before quickly sipping at her lemonade.
"I can read your mind, Murdoch Lancer," Aggie said quietly.
She turned to him. "You're thinking it would be better for all concerned if Charles were the one returning to Connecticut and Helen were staying on here."
Fixed with her knowing look, Murdoch shuffled in his chair and took a hasty swig from his glass.
"Now Aggie, I said nothing of the kind."
"You were thinking it though."
Murdoch did not bother trying to deny it.
Helen and Charles Farmer were the children of Aggie's only sister who had died in childbirth much as his own sweet Catherine many years before. This left their father and his maiden aunt to raise the two children. Murdoch recalled that Aggie and Henry had offered to take them both, having no children of their own, but their father could not part with them. He doted on them, especially the boy who, at seven years Helen's junior, had been cosseted and indulged. The result was a spoiled, prickly youth who thought the world and everyone in it revolved around him. Already, Helen had reached the end of her visit with Aggie. She was accepted by all and spoken of with delight whereas no-one had taken to sullen Charles and he was generally considered to be a most disagreeable child; someone to avoid. Certainly, the Lancer small fry steered clear of him for, as well as being petulant and rude, he was a bully.
"His father wants him to stay a little longer." Aggie startled Murdoch from his reverie. "He thinks it will be good for the boy."
Murdoch gave a noncommittal grunt. Wanted a few more weeks' peace and quiet more like! Privately, he thought the best thing for young Charles would be a short walk to the woodshed and a darn good hiding but he refrained from saying such to Aggie. She wanted so much for her nephew to be accepted and everyone could see she was doing her level best for him. The boy simply had to meet her halfway... and therein lay the problem.
Singing in the great room made them both turn around in surprise. Amid great hilarity, Helen and Teresa were harmonising (or trying to) in a raucous rendition of My Bonnie lies over the ocean.
Aggie laughed. "At least she's enjoying herself. She seemed very blue yesterday. This has been just the best thing for her, Murdoch."
He smiled and patted her hand which, he was very much aware, still rested on his forearm.
At that moment, Scott rounded the corner. He was puffing and obviously had been running hard and he looked far from pleased. Practically dangling from his fist and held at arm's length as though he dreaded some kind of contamination, was Jemimah. Scott had a tight grip on the collar of her dress or it was fairly certain she would have struggled free. She was kicking wildly, dancing on her toes and spluttering angrily.
Murdoch rose to his feet. "What on earth...?"
Scott gave the little scoundrel a vigorous shake, bringing forth an indignant yowl of protest.
"Leggo, will you? You'll damage me!"
As he held her, leaves and small fragments of twig scattered the floor around her kicking feet. Murdoch firmed his lips to note that, despite so many warnings that he had lost count, she was barefoot yet again.
"Where are your shoes, young lady?"
"Had to take 'em off!"
"Can't climb trees in them shoes!" She struggled to turn in Scott's grip. "Scott, let go! You're throttlin' me!"
Aggie, chuckling surreptitiously behind her hand, smiled calmly up at the harassed young man. "Scott, I think you could release the child now. She's not going anywhere."
Scott appeared far from convinced of this but, ever the gentleman, did not argue with Aggie and instantly complied though he cast a narrow-eyed glare at Jemimah in warning.
Murdoch had folded his arms sternly. "So, aside from climbing trees in your new dress..." He eyed the child beadily. "... and without your shoes, what is this all about?" Seeing his adopted daughter stick out her bottom lip in a truculent pout, he turned to his son. "Scott?"
In explanation, Scott handed his father an empty brown glass bottle. Mystified, Murdoch flipped the cap and held it under his nose for a cautious sniff. He squinted and sniffed again, unable to place the faint odour.
Scott supplied the answer. "Vodka. Or it was."
Quailing under the big man's sudden glare, Jemimah sprang to her own defense.
"I didn't have none! Well, only a tiny sip - tinier than tiny. And it weren't nice so I didn't have no more!"
"Was this a full bottle?"
At her eventual nod, Murdoch gritted his teeth. Lord, what next? "Where did you get it?"
Jemimah was twisting her fingers around the soiled folds of her skirt, revealing a rather large rent in her petticoat and a torn bedraggled tail of lace-trim hanging down from the leg of her drawers. Putting aside all thoughts of Maria's certain wrath when she witnessed the state of the child's clothing, Murdoch waited for an answer. Again, it was supplied by Scott.
"It seems that Jan has a small sideline. He's been brewing this stuff from potatoes, carrots and such back in the woods. There's some kind of contraption - a still of a most primitive sort. I think the usual term for the end product is moonshine?"
Murdoch scowled and recapped the small brown bottle.
Jan Lubowski. He was a good hand, a hard worker and had an easy manner; only been with them a few months but he had proved his worth... until now. Bad enough that he had an illicit still secreted away in the woods but to be plying children with hard liquor was far from acceptable to Murdoch Lancer and the young Pole's future at the ranch now looked bleak.
"And Jan gave you this?" Murdoch growled.
Jemimah avoided his eye but a dark flush was creeping up her neck. "We'ell, not exactly," she hedged shiftily. "I don't suppose you could say he actually gave it me."
Murdoch huffed out a sharp snort, putting Jemimah in mind of an angry bull about to charge. He smacked the bottle against his palm and she gulped.
"Young lady, do you mean to tell me you stole this from...?"
"Stole? Oh, that's a harsh way of puttin' it, Murdoch! I was investigatin', you might say and, in the interest of solvin' the mystery of what ol' Jan's been doin' up there, I only sort of borrowed..."
Scott waded in. "Borrowed? I never saw such a furtive guilty manner! I caught her with the empty bottle and, when I asked her what it was, she hared off and scurried up a tree to hide."
"I weren't hiding!"
"Not very competently, no," Scott agreed. "I could see you easily. But you certainly didn't come down when I asked you."
Aggie had been following all this with great amusement and now a funny thought struck her.
"So Scott, do you mean to say that you also climbed up the tree to... er... persuade Jemimah to come down?"
Scott flushed. "Not exactly, no." He scowled at the little girl. "I couldn't get close enough as I was being pelted with acorns!" He turned his head to display a livid red blotch high on his cheek and another on his temple.
"Well, you hurt me too!" Jemimah counter-accused. "Didn't half scrape me when you yanked me down like that."
Aggie stifled another snort of laughter as the girl rubbed at her hind-quarters.
"That's not all I'm going to do, you little..."
Murdoch interrupted the argument. "The thing that concerns me more is what has become of the contents of this bottle. If it was empty when you found her, Scott... what happened to the rest of it?"
Under the weight of her father's heavy glare, Jemimah shuffled nervously but made no reply.
Scott took a firm hold of her wrist, his mouth curving into a wicked smile and a glint in his eye. "Perhaps the confession will flow more freely once you're across my knee!"
A sudden loud crash in the great room brought the reprieve Jemimah prayed for. Everyone froze.
"What the...?" Murdoch exclaimed.
Jemimah swallowed. "Y'know that vodka stuff? Well, I..."
The big Scot swung around and pinned her with a stony look. "What. Did. You. Do?"
"I sort of... well... I mean, I kind of... poured it away."
"Where?" The single word was more of a snarl.
Jemimah's reply, in comparison, was a squeak. "The punch bowl."
"The punch bowl?" Aggie parroted. "Oh, good lord..."
Johnny suddenly appeared in the doorway. He was holding a half-devoured chicken drumstick in his hand and wearing a highly amused grin on his face.
"Thought the party was over," he laughed. "Oh boy, you gotta see this!"
Chuckling, he turned and darted back inside.
Wincing at the unmistakable sound of breaking glass, Murdoch followed. The sight that met his eyes did nothing to soothe his flaring temper.
Teresa and Helen were... it was hard to define exactly what they thought they were doing... chasing each other around the great room by means of clambering from one poor piece of furniture to the next.
Aggie gaped. "Helen, come down here this instant!"
Helen took not a blind bit of notice of her aunt. "Can't!" she yelled back. "Not allowed to touch the floor or Teresa wins. You come up!"
She hiked her skirts above her knees, thereby displaying a goodly portion of her lacy drawers and both blue beribboned garters. Johnny whooped around his mouthful of fried chicken and everyone held their breath as she gave a wild war cry and threw herself from atop Murdoch's big polished desk to the nearby blue armchair.
"I did it!"
Helen spun around and rudely stuck out her tongue at Teresa who grinned in reply and boasted, "Well, that's nothing! Watch this! Can't catch me!"
Lifting her skirts over her shoulders rather like a cape, Teresa focused on the sideboard, narrowing her eyes and her tongue peeping from the corner of her mouth in concentration. She wiggled her behind in preparation for the leap across the gap.
"I'll do more than catch you, young lady!" Murdoch boomed.
Fearing for the safety of his fine model sailing ship, he charged forwards. But it was too late. The frothy frills of Teresa's petticoats and drawers suddenly launched into the air, colliding with Murdoch's bulk.
He staggered and almost fell into the model himself, just managing to remain upright as he juggled Teresa to the floor where she proceeded to stamp her foot and complain bitterly.
"Oh, s'not fair! You got in the way, Murdoch! This isn't how you play Tiggi Off Ground - ask Jemimah! Where is she anyway? Hey Jemimah, wanna play?"
Helen was now dancing on the cushion of the armchair, waving away her aunt's coaxing hands. "I did it! I win!"
Chuckling in the corner, Johnny and Jemimah surveyed the whole bizarre scene with glee.
"Boy, this is great!" he laughed. "Don't know what's got into them but..."
"About half a quart of moonshine vodka, I'd say." Scott joined Aggie in trying to persuade Helen to vacate the chair. "Helen sweetheart, come down here. You'll be happier on the floor. Come on."
Jemimah almost fell on the floor laughing when Helen hopped delightedly into Scott's arms, only to catch her heel on the hem of her frock and miss him entirely, rolling to the carpet in a heap and cackling madly.
"You're right, Scott. It's nice down here!"
As for Teresa, she was now trying to coax a very disgruntled Murdoch into an impromptu waltz, her voluminous skirts still over her shoulders.
Aggie bent to retrieve her niece while Murdoch, grinding his teeth, managed to deposit his ward on the sofa, smoothing down her yellow dress in a belated effort to restore her dignity.
Jemimah was bent double by now, slapping her knees and elbowing Johnny as she guffawed most heartily. Johnny couldn't help but laugh. Then, catching sight of the expression on his brother's face, he gave her a sharp nudge.
"Hey kid, I'd make yourself scarce if I were you. Something tells me this is your doin' and Scott don't seem too happy about it."
Murdoch's face was a dull red when he straightened. "Happy? Happy? Son, I have my hands full over here..." He had to lean over Teresa to press her back into the cushions of the sofa once more whereupon she giggled, hiccupped and promptly slithered to the hearth rug, as limp as a wet lettuce. "Scott ... you had the right idea. She's all yours!"
Seeing that Helen was now safely being herded to the sofa by Aggie, Scott turned his attention to Jemimah. The little girl was not at all keen on the determined set of his jaw or the menacing way he was advancing on her.
"Aw c'mon Scott, you got to admit it was bloody funny!" She snorted again at the memory. "Teresa with her skirts up over her head an' flashin' her bloomers with her legs in the air..." Another snort. "... an' Helen fallin' arse over tit when..."
"Let's see if you are still as amused when you're 'flashing your own bloomers', my girl!"
Jemimah blinked, her nose wrinkled in puzzlement. "Eh? As if I'd be likely to... " Scott's meaning suddenly dawned on her. "Oh..."
She gripped Johnny and scooted behind him.
"Johnny, keep him off've me!"
Scott was still striding towards them.
"Now, hold on there, Scott," Johnny smiled, his voice soothing and his hands held up to fend off the angry man. "What exactly are your intentions?"
Scott paused incredulously and glared at the little monkey from where she peeped out at him. He eyed her hungrily like she was his next meal. "My intentions? I'll tell you, brother... right now, my intentions are to turn this little monster across my knee and administer a darn good spanking!"
This was no real surprise to Jemimah but she still gasped loudly. Johnny chewed his lip and glanced back at her over his shoulder, just about managing to suppress his laughter which was more than Aggie was able. At her sudden snort, Murdoch cast her a disapproving frown and, with difficulty, she schooled her face into a suitably serious expression.
Johnny cocked his head on one side and appeared to consider his brother's plan. "Nope, I just can't let you do that, Scott."
Scott's expression transformed from grim determination to utter disbelief while Jemimah preened, snuggling up to her champion, arms around his waist and peeking out from behind him to throw a dirty look at her 'big brother'.
"What? And may I ask why?"
Johnny gestured to Scott's outfit. "Well, look at you! You're all gussied up." He shrugged as though the solution should be obvious. "Lose the fancy jacket first. You don't want to end up all wrinkled, do you?"
Light dawning, Scott smiled and slipped off the jacket and then quickly removed his string tie for good measure, turning up his white shirt sleeves. Johnny spared an apologetic glance over his shoulder at the condemned, shrugged then moved off, whistling jauntily through his teeth and leaving Jemimah totally unprotected, a bereft look of dismay on her little face. Too late, she thought about escape.
"Oh no, you don't!"
Scott grabbed for her as she tried to dive past him and suddenly she was airborne and watching the rug sail by beneath her as he headed for the study with her neatly tucked under his arm.
"Just hold still, my girl. You have asked for this and now you are surely going to get it!"
Perhaps Scott could not actually manage to close the study door with a writhing Jemimah in his grasp or maybe he judged it only fair that Helen and Teresa should overhear the delivery of her comeuppance. They could at least think back on it with righteous satisfaction while nursing the hangovers they were sure to suffer the next day.
"I'll stand in the corner... or... or you could send me to bed early! I'll do extra chores and... and... I'll go without supper!"
"The time for all that is well past. You had your chance now come over here!"
There came sounds of a tussle and then an anguished shriek.
"Lemme go! Don't you touch me! Where's your sense of humour?"
"Where's yours? I don't hear you laughing any more. Or isn't it as funny from this angle?"
On the sofa, Teresa smirked foolishly to hear the first loud whap and Jemimah's answering squeal. She sat lop-sidedly on the sofa and slowly keeled over, ending up with her face in the cushions, still tittering drunkenly while Helen leaned on Aggie's shoulder and burped loudly. Aggie smothered a chuckle at Murdoch's dark look while he rolled his eyes, trying again to prop Teresa upright and, at the same time, ladling strong black coffee down her throat.
Johnny, understanding the kid was most deserving of Scott's firm right hand but having no wish to linger to listen to it, had headed straight back to the kitchen in search of more fried chicken. So, the only person remaining who dared to laugh outright at the scene, with no apparent concern for Mr. Lancer's ire, was Charles Farmer. He leaned on the big desk now, smirking at both his intoxicated sister and the howls emanating from the study. It was a rarity to see the boy smile, let alone laugh, but he was surely chortling away now. He folded his arms and cocked his head on one side.
Maybe that skinny dark-haired girl would be worth a few more laughs.
Jemimah was surprised the next day to discover Charles lurking somewhere nearby wherever she happened to be. Of course, as their visitors, Aggie and Charles had attended services with the family. And Jemimah was seething over the way he had smirked at her all through the Reverend's interminable sermon. Sitting on those hard pews was uncomfortable at the best of times but that morning it had been purgatory! She was sure he was trying to goad her.
Charles had been somewhere within sight ever since they got back. As she scattered the feed for the chickens, there he was leaning casually against the trellis and smirking at her. When she collected kindling to refill the wood box, she spied him by the peach tree and he was watching her, she knew. The final straw was seeing him lingering on the veranda as she collected the eggs.
She huffed and went straight back inside, thinking she would be glad when Aggie returned home and took the strange youth with her.
Neither of the tipsy young ladies had attended church services that morning. Helen was feeling very delicate and had yet to emerge from her room. Teresa was in much the same predicament - hence the extra chores for Jemimah. The young girl wasn't feeling too chipper herself after Scott's ministrations but, she pouted, nobody seemed to feel too sorry for her - even Johnny had merely grinned at her mournful and obvious attempts to garner sympathy as she stood at the kitchen counter to eat her breakfast.
Aggie had gently patted her hand when Jemimah delivered her apology and the girl had known from the twinkle in that good lady's eye that she at least had been able to see the funny side of the whole episode. Scott, when she flicked a wary glance at him, was no longer giving her the dead eye either. In fact, (she brightened) he had given her a tiny smile.
That was one of the good things about the Lancers - they didn't hold a grudge. When a girl had paid her dues, the slate was clean. Jemimah's spirits lifted until she caught sight of that annoying Charles Farmer again, spying on her from the veranda.
She firmed her lips and hopped down from the corral fence. Marching over, she decided she would find out exactly what that boy was up to.
"Oy! You got nowt better to do than gawp at me all day?" Jemimah strutted crossly towards Charles, flicking her long braids over her shoulders and squashing her hat firmly down so that the brim shaded her eyes. She reckoned she cut a menacing figure which would seriously put the wind up the nosey lad.
Charles still lounged in the chair and, from the look on his face, her displeasure did nothing but entertain him. "Gawp? Nowt better?" he laughed insolently.
She stopped before him, hands on her hips and green eyes flashing. "Who d'you think you're laughin' at?"
"You! You're funny."
"Cheeky git!" she exclaimed. "An' give over starin' at me. You been spyin' on me all day."
Charles tilted his head on one side to study her. "I'd hardly call it spying but, yes, I'll admit to observing you. I find you rather amusing."
"Rather amusing eh?" Jemimah was seriously irked. "Well, I don't find you amusin', you daft pillock an' you can stick that in your pipe an' smoke it!"
Charles immediately began to chuckle. "You're such a strange girl, I must say... but you intrigue me."
"Oh, do I? Well, you can go..."
"And I thought your prank with the liquor in the punch was hilarious."
At this, Jemimah subsided, slightly mollified. "Yeah? Well, I wish Scott an' Murdoch had thought so too."
Charles successfully hid a smirk at the memory of her howls of protest to which he had so gleefully listened. "I agree. I thought it was very unsporting to punish you so harshly," he lied smoothly. "I felt most aggrieved for you and I told Mr. Lancer so."
"You didn't?" she gaped.
"I certainly did!"
Charles watched her closely and, realising she was swallowing his lie, quickly concocted his story.
"He was trying to sober up Miss Teresa at the time but I pointed out that you couldn't possibly be held accountable for the greed of my sister or her friend in helping themselves to so many glasses of punch. The way I see it, if they hadn't been such gluttons, they wouldn't have become intoxicated. Quite a lesson in moderation for them I would say. And I made no bones in pointing this out to your father. I think he was appreciative of my remarks as I don't believe he had actually considered it from your point of view."
"He never does."
"Indeed. Once he had understood my explanation, I was on the verge of marching into the study to insist that your brother unhand you when I heard you both coming back through." Charles paused to clear his throat. "I was sorry to be too late and sensed that the last thing you would wish for would be a stranger's presence at such a time so I slipped out... purely to spare you any further discomfort."
Charles refrained from mentioning that he had laughed so heartily at her misfortune that his aunt had, in the end, ordered him from the room before Jemimah came out.
"You do indeed have my most sincere commiserations, Miss Lancer," he said with a tiny bow.
Jemimah narrowed her eyes suspiciously but his flowery speech and dignified manner had gone a long way to smoothing her ruffled feathers. "Er... it's Miss Day actually. Murdoch's my godfather but I'm originally from England. Yorkshire in fact."
"You are? Of course, that explains the strange way you speak," Charles said bluntly.
"I don't speak strange!"
He chortled. "You most certainly do!"
Jemimah's feathers instantly re-ruffled themselves.
"No, I don't! Anyway, you got to be the most snooty, stuck-up boy I ever met!"
"Really?" Annoyingly, he seemed to find this highly entertaining. "I think you and I are going to be good friends. I'm sure we could have a lot of fun together."
Jemimah curled her lip. "I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you."
She stuck her pert little nose in the air and started to march away.
"Going so soon?" Charles lounged back into his chair and watched her go with distinct amusement.
"I'm going to help with the dinner for tonight. Teresa's still abed so there's all the vegetables to peel an' chop. Not that it's any of your business what I do!"
"Slave labour eh?" he called after her and was gratified to see her slow down. "I thought we fought to abolish that?"
Jemimah carried on but, at the corner, she turned and threw him a grin before disappearing.
Charles slung a lanky leg over the arm of the chair and smoothed his light brown hair, well satisfied with his progress. The girl would be easy to convince and he'd get a few laughs out of her. Lord knows, he had to find something to occupy him in this godforsaken armpit of the country.
His sharp grey eyes spotted Enrique wandering over from the barn. The tall Mexican boy was the same one he had seen from time to time with the girl and he felt a sudden fierce flare of jealousy dart through him. Straightening, he got up from his seat on the veranda to intercept Enrique as he headed towards the kitchen garden.
"You there! Boy!"
Enrique halted, looking round at Charles who was approaching with a frown. "Me?"
"Yes, I'm speaking to you. Where do you think you're going?" Charles demanded loftily, smoothing down his string tie.
This was Señora Conway's nephew that he had heard so much about; the one who had kicked little Tadeo and given him a bruise the size of a dinner plate. Then he had shoved tiny Paloma into that muddy puddle the other day. The little girl was hardly more than an infant and all the kids had been incensed though none had been brave enough to risk their fathers' anger if they had tried to do anything about it.
Enrique narrowed his dark eyes in dislike, looking the stranger over. He was almost as tall as Enrique but not as heavy; his frame was much more slight - like a girl's. Enrique knew he could take him easily in a fight but he was not about to do anything so foolish. His father would be most unhappy to learn that he had pounded Señora Conway's nephew - a visitor to the ranch. The Cipriano boys well knew how seriously their father regarded his position as Lancer Segundo and continually stated that the actions of his sons reflected on him.
Enrique decided therefore to answer respectfully but to let this eastern greenhorn know that he held a respected position himself, being Jemimah's good friend. The Patron didn't mind him going into the hacienda (as long as he made sure to wipe his boots so that Señora Maria didn't find a speck of mud on her clean floors.)
"I'm going to the kitchen to speak with Jemimah and..."
"Indeed you are not!"
Enrique blinked, momentarily stunned into silence.
"You are the ranch hand's boy, isn't that so?" Charles pressed.
"My papa is Señor Cipriano. He is the..."
"I don't care what his name is. I don't care what your name is," Charles exclaimed in disgust. "I do not make a habit of conversing with servants, other than to give them my orders. I only wish to tell you that you will not follow Miss Day around the house. Furthermore, you will refrain from pestering her with your unwanted attention. She is one of the family, boy and you are a servant, understand? What on earth makes you think you have the right to invite yourself into her home?"
Enrique was so shocked and outraged that he struggled to find the right English words to respond.
"I... we are... amigos... friends. I can go..."
"Si. Jemimah and me..."
"You call her Miss Day, insolent dog! And never let me hear you refer to her in that familiar way again, do you hear?" Charles hissed, his voice low and the skin around his lips turning white with anger.
Enrique had taken about all he intended to take from this puñatero. He clenched his fists but, just in time, spied his father and Johnny approaching at a distance. Not wanting to create a scene, he gave Charles a last glare then stepped back, turning once more to head for the kitchen.
He had taken only a few steps when a loud crash halted him in his tracks and he looked back to see Charles sprawling on the ground, one of Maria's terracotta pots of azaleas smashed into pieces and strewn across the path.
To Enrique, it seemed a matter of mere seconds before his father and Señor Juanito were there, helping the boy to his feet and brushing him down, his father angrily demanding an explanation.
"Were you fighting?" Cip eyed his son with such a look that Enrique felt himself flush guiltily despite being innocent.
"No Papa, he..."
"I think it was an accident... perhaps. He pushed me backwards but I don't think he meant any harm." Charles was smiling and doing his best to appease the furious look in the big Mexican's eye. "It was my fault for tripping over the pot." He shrugged and held out his hand to Enrique. "Just a misunderstanding. No hard feelings eh?"
Enrique was frozen in horror at the boy's lies. So easily, so glibly, he had made Enrique out to be the one at fault whereas he, Charles, was the amenable chap who only wanted to be friends.
"You pushed him?" Cip scowled, his voice low.
"No Papa, I swear..."
"I want the truth."
Charles smiled benignly. "Oh please, let's not make more of it than it was. Just a little disagreement. I'm sure he meant no harm."
Cipriano glowered down at his son who fairly trembled under his father's dark look.
"Enrique, pido disculpas y estrechar su mano!" (Apologise and shake hands!)
"A la vez!"
Enrique, face flushed and chewing at his lip, moved forwards to shake Charles' hand. He stared rigidly at the floor and would not look at the boy.
"Now the apology!"
This time, he did look up - at his father's face and, realising no argument could sway him and would only land him in deeper trouble, he again lowered his head and mumbled, "Sorry," though the words were bitter on his tongue.
Cip planted a meaty hand on his son's shoulder. "If you have finished your chores here, I am sure your mother will be pleased to see you clean out the hen house."
"But Papa," Enrique pleaded. "I was going..."
It was futile to quibble, Enrique knew that very well. So, with as sullen and rebellious a look as he dared, he turned to slope away down the lane.
"Discutiremos esto más tarde! (We will discuss this later!)" Cip promised his youngest.
Through all of this exchange, Johnny had remained silent, watching the two boys. He stood to one side now, a soft smile on his face and seemingly unperturbed by the whole event. Only his eyes indicated his true feelings; they were trained on young Charles Farmer, watching him carefully, and shrewdly caught the satisfied smirk which lit his face for a mere fleeting second and then to be hidden again behind an amiable smile.
Johnny guessed that the only disagreement had been between the flowerpot and the toe of young Farmer's boot, despite the boy's explanation. He thumbed back the brim of his hat and continued to study Charles, his smile broadening when the lad felt his scrutiny and bristled uneasily.
"I think I'll go inside now," Charles announced somewhat stiffly. "See what's for lunch."
Johnny nodded, still smiling. "Yeah, you do that," he agreed softly.
He didn't move and kept his steady blue gaze firmly trained on him as the boy made his way back onto the veranda. When Charles darted a furtive glance back over his shoulder, he was alarmed to discover that Johnny still watched him with that same knowing smile.
The youth kicked petulantly at the leg of a dining chair as he mooched past. He had the very unpleasant feeling that Johnny Lancer was not fooled by his act. Not one bit. He flopped down by the fire and deliberately jarred the small table so that some of the chessmen in the ongoing game toppled over.
There! That'll teach you, Johnny Lancer! The man was nothing but a Mex himself. He was bound to side with the other dirty peasants. Shouldn't be allowed to mix with decent folk! Charles smirked and reached out to sweep the rest of the pieces to the floor. Then, with a nasty leer, he shoved his hands in his pockets and sauntered away.
Out in the small yard at the side of the house, Maria was now hanging a load of freshly laundered sheets and pillow slips with the assistance of her little helper. Jemimah handed over each item from the wicker basket and dipped into her apron pocket for the clothes pegs.
Johnny nodded to Cip and, eager to put Charles Farmer out of his mind for the time-being, wandered over with a grin. He leaned casually on the low wall, brushing dust from his pants. When Jemimah looked across, he flashed her his best white-tooth smile and even gave her a wink.
Sticking her nose immediately into the air, Jemimah tried to present an attitude of complete disdain and was therefore annoyed to hear him laugh. His boots crunched on the gravel behind her as he moved closer.
"You mad at me, chica?"
Her only reply was a haughty sniff. Johnny chuckled and tried again.
"Hey, what did I do?"
"Maria, will you tell this person that I am busy an' I ain't got time to chat with him... even if he weren't a dirty traitor!"
"Whoa!" Johnny was really laughing now. "I'm a traitor? What did I do?"
"You know what you did... or rather, what you didn't do."
She slapped his hand away when it sneaked playfully around to tweak her pert little nose. As huffily as she could, she firmly put her back to him once more.
"Mamacita, es una buena chica? (Little Mama, is she being a good girl?)" he teased.
Maria smiled and shook out another snowy white pillow sham. "Si Juanito, una buena chica. Me está ayudando. (Yes, she is good. She is helping me.)"
Jemimah pulled a rude face at him, hiding her grin at his delighted laugh.
"Realmente? Creo que es demasiado picante! (Really? I think she's too sassy!)"
"No, I'm not!" Jemimah planted her hands on her hips and turned crossly.
Johnny raised a dark eyebrow at how easily she had followed their rapid conversation. Her Spanish was becoming quite good. He darted out a hand to gently tug her braid, this time eliciting a grudging smile which hovered around her lips until she could no longer hide it. Maria grinned too and flapped Johnny away.
"Go! We are busy here. Have you no work to do?"
"I'm goin', I'm goin'! Walt's waiting on me to help fix that hole in the bunkhouse roof." He gave them a little wave as he backed away, smiling. "See you later. You be good, chica!"
Jemimah stuck her tongue out at him. "Hope you roll off an' land on your backside! Then you'll know how it feels!"
Johnny sat astride the ridge pole of the bunkhouse roof, removing the cracked tiles one by one and letting them slide down to Walt who deftly fielded then dropped them carefully to the ground below. Johnny paused to scuff his dark hair out of his eyes; it may only be March but the sun was warm and he could already feel his blue shirt sticking to his spine.
"How d'you think this happened anyway?" he slid another broken tile down to Walt, squinting against the bright sunlight.
Walt gave him a knowing look. "Yeah, pretty big hole. Would have to be somethin' heavy to do that kinda damage."
Johnny raised his eyes to the branches above him, scanning for signs of broken limbs. "No missing branches. No wind last night to speak of. "
"Looks more like something heavy was tossed down from one of those trees. Or somebody jumped down."
"I was thinkin' the same."
Johnny shook his head. "Lucky no-one was sleepin' underneath."
"Mighty lucky," Walt grinned. "But then, it bein' a Saturday night, most everyone who wasn't workin' was in town."
"Convenient. No witnesses."
"I was thinkin' that too," Walt agreed.
They shared a smile.
"One of the kids, you reckon?" Johnny asked.
"I'm guessin' so. A little devilment I'd say. Just hope nobody got hurt."
"They'll get hurt plenty if Murdoch finds out," Johnny chuckled. "He ain't too big on devilment."
Walt laughed then gave Johnny a questioning look. "You thinkin' what I'm thinkin'?"
Walt tipped his hat back to scratch at his dark wavy hair then he shrugged. "She was in that Daredevils' Club. So was Enrique. Got up to some crazy stunts, both of 'em."
"Nah, she was in no state to go climbing around any roof last night." He grinned. "Scott took exception to somethin' she did and had words with her after the party. Besides, she promised no more dares way back when the ol' man found out about the club."
Walt squinted up at Johnny. "Promised?"
"She wouldn't break her word."
"If you're sure. You just..."
Walt's head jerked back suddenly and, at the same time, Johnny heard a sharp crack. One minute, Walt was sitting quietly, smiling up at him; the next, his whole body seemed to spasm and his eyes clenched tight shut in pain. With a loud grunt, he flailed back, arms windmilling, and toppled over the edge.
Johnny watched in disbelief as the man disappeared from view.
He had heard a muffled thud and knew Walt had hit the ground. Clambering down the side of the roof, Johnny nimbly swung himself over to land lightly at the side of his friend. Kneeling among the discarded tiles, he grasped him.
"Y'alright? What the hell happened?"
Walt had lost his hat in his tumble over the tiles. He was trying to sit up and would have attempted to stand had Johnny not pushed him gently back. His eyes were unfocused and he was breathing heavily, still wincing with pain.
"Just winded, that's all. M'fine," he mumbled.
"You're not fine," Johnny argued. "Be still. Take it easy." He glanced back at the roof, wondering if part of it had given way beneath Walt but no, it was all intact. "You slip off?"
"Huh? No, something hit me." He gingerly reached back to finger the back of his scalp, hissing in a sharp breath when he encountered the exact spot.
Johnny removed his hand and gaped. "I'll say something hit you. There's a lump back here big as a goose egg!"
"Only a goose?" Walt groaned. "Feels like a buffalo laid this one."
Johnny smiled. "I think it rattled some of your brains loose, Walt. Buffalo don't lay eggs. Stay still, will you?"
The older man subsided. "I'm alright really. It's more my pride... well... an' my rear end."
Johnny's sharp eyes were still taking in the extent of Walt's injuries and now he noticed the large rip in the man's shirt sleeve. Beneath, there was a nasty gash on his forearm. "That's not all. We'd better have Maria take a look at this. We might need to take you to see Sam. This could need stitches."
"Stitches?" Walt paled even more. "S'just a scratch."
"Will you quit being such a hero? If you're right then all she'll do is slick it up with some of her salve." He helped Walt to his feet, the taller man leaning heavily on him for support. "But you're still going over for her to take a look at you."
Johnny firmed his lips into a hard line as they staggered across the yard to the hacienda.
"I sure didn't see that one comin'," Walt attempted a rueful laugh. "Felt like a rock whacked me." He glanced at Johnny out of the corner of his eye. "Some more of that devilment you reckon?"
Johnny sighed, his face grim. "I got an idea who's behind this," he said softly. "And they're going to need some of that salve too when I'm done with them."
Walt gave a wobbly grin. "Not on their arms though, eh?" he gasped.
Johnny shook his head. "Nope."
Jemimah squatted in the herb garden, deftly plucking out any weeds from between the fresh thick clumps of basil, sage and parsley which were now sprouting up. She concentrated on carefully pinching away any flowers and dead stems as Maria had taught her; that way, the herbs would bush out and grow faster. Her little crop was thriving and Jemimah was permitting herself a proud smile when the pounding of running boots made her look up in surprise.
Panting and chuckling away to himself, Charles Farmer rounded the corner just as Jemimah was standing up.
He came to a halt, as surprised to encounter her there as she was to see him arrive in such haste. He craned his neck to peer back around the corner. Then, straightening his tie and smoothing down his hair, he stepped over to her in a much more stately manner. The gleeful grin disappeared to be replaced by a sorrowful expression which he hoped would do the trick.
"Mind my herbs, you great clodhopper!" Jemimah yelled as the lad walked straight through the bed of tarragon.
Charles peered down at the leafy green clumps beneath his boots. His initial reaction was annoyance at her tone and he even considered grinding them into the dirt. That would teach the little snippet to speak to him like that! But then, another notion flashed into his devious brain and he hopped onto the path, stammering his profuse apologies.
"How clumsy of me! I didn't realise. Miss Day, you must think me a lumbering oaf. I do hope the plants are not irrevocably damaged?"
Jemimah scowled. "Well, it hasn't done 'em much good, has it? Shoo, why don't you!"
Charles itched to reach out and slap her impertinent face but, instead, he cast a glance over his shoulder and smirked. He must be quick but there was still a little time.
"My sincere apologies again," he gushed with a repeat of the formal gentlemanly bow. "Here, I must make amends."
He produced a sturdy slingshot from his back pocket and offered it to her.
"I'd be honoured if you would accept this. I know it can hardly make up for my clumsiness but... it is my best one. Please say you'll accept and forgive my stupidity." There, now let those fools try to pin anything on me. This should be fun.
Jemimah, stunned into silence, took the catapult with gleaming eyes. It was a darn good one and she could hardly believe that Charles was willing to part with it. Still, she tossed her head and sniffed, it wouldn't do to let him think he was completely off the hook. She shrugged with indifference.
"I s'pose I could accept it. Murdoch's always tellin' me to act more forgiving... even of great clumsy clods like you! Cheers!"
Charles smiled. "I'm so glad you have it now." Oh yes - I surely am. "I had better go in to see if I can be of any help to Aunt Agatha but... I trust this means we're going to be friends now?"
Jemimah raised her eyebrows and shrugged again. "Well, as to that, I dunno. Jury's still out on that one." She tested the strength of the slingshot, screwing one eye shut as she made her aim. "This morning, you was just some snooty yahoo as far as I was concerned. Don't know yet if you're worthwhile friend material. We'll have to see."
Charles nodded. "Alright, I can be patient. You give it some thought, Miss Day."
Hands clasped neatly behind his back, he set off to the kitchen, leaving Jemimah to test out her new slingshot.
As Johnny headed down past the trellis and ducked beneath the trailing foliage there, his fingers tapped edgily on his silver conchos and his usual easy smile was nowhere to be seen. Even his walk was different - this was a Johnny with a purpose. The memory of poor Walt... half-unconscious and staggering into the great room and then his obvious desperation to avoid the visit to Sam's for the inevitable stitches which Johnny had predicted... he grit his teeth together. Jelly was now driving Walt into town and Johnny had a mission of his own. This was one prank that was far from funny.
I hope you roll off and land on your backside, she had said.
He blew out a sharp breath and slapped his hat against his thigh as he marched down the path towards the peach tree at the edge of the garden. Eyeing the bench there, he recalled another incident, some time ago, when he had been called upon to teach a different lesson. His blue eyes narrowed. Different lesson; same consequences, he decided, and damned if he wouldn't enjoy it this time!
Rounding the corner, Johnny was just in time to see Jemimah making her first practice aim with the new slingshot. He pitched his hat onto the bench and planted his hands firmly onto his hips. When he spoke, his voice was low, his face grim.
"Thought you'd have more sense than to go flaunting it after what you just done, chica."
Jemimah lowered the weapon and blinked at him. Johnny looked cross but about what she had no idea.
He didn't like that innocent face she was putting on. He pointed at the path right in front of him.
"C'mere," he smouldered.
Jemimah, though she knew she had no reason to worry unduly, having been hard at work since returning from church, still experienced a nasty flipping sensation in her stomach at his tone. He hadn't shouted or raised his voice; Johnny rarely ever did but there was a curt command in there nonetheless.
She approached him warily; guiltily Johnny judged and he shook his head in disbelief. When she was at last standing before him, he held out his hand.
Jemimah knew perfectly well what that meant and she reluctantly deposited her newest acquisition into his expectant palm.
He didn't move; didn't say anything at all for a long moment as he studied her. The girl was shuffling uneasily by now, rubbing self-consciously at first her nose and then the back of her neck; darting surreptitious little looks up at him and then averting her eyes under the weight of his glare.
Johnny tossed the slingshot onto the bench with his hat and folded his arms.
"This is getting to be too much of a habit, girl. When are you goin' to learn to behave and act more ladylike?" he said sternly.
Jemimah realised he was not just angry about something; he was disappointed in her too... and she felt crushed.
"What's wrong? What did I do?"
He clamped his lips together and seized her hand. That she would try to bluff her way out of it was the last straw.
"You know darn well how I feel - I'll let a lot slide but if there's one thing I demand from a young 'un it's respect for their elders. And it ain't showing any kind of respect to shoot at 'em with a slingshot. Now, you might've thought it was real funny an' maybe you were aimin' at me but Walt's hurt - pretty bad."
Throughout this he had been moving over to the bench and Jemimah felt the first real stirrings of alarm. Walt hurt? With a slingshot? And she had just been caught with one! But...
"He wasn't laughin' and neither am I!" Johnny growled.
"Walt's hurt? Johnny, I wouldn't... I never..."
"I don't want to hear any excuses." They had arrived at the bench under the tree and he turned to her with a frown. "We've been here before, haven't we? C'mon, let's get this over with."
At that, Johnny tried to sit and tip her over his knee but, filled with righteous indignation at being so falsely accused, Jemimah put up a struggle, digging her heels in to pull against his grip and yowling like a scalded cat. Johnny found that his attempts to upend her were getting them nowhere and, with a muttered curse, stood up again, opting to plant his foot firmly on the bench to make a knee. He hoisted her up and clamped her tightly under his left arm so that her feet were lifted high off the ground and the target area was at last exposed.
He had just raised his right arm when Maria trotted across the garden, calling out for him to stop at once.
"Juanito, no!" Maria was already panting from the exertion but she waved her hands at him, urging him to release the little girl. "What are you doing? Put the niña down!"
Johnny chewed at his lip. "Look, I don't like this any more than you do but you saw Walt, Mamacita. An' she can't get away with..."
Maria fairly jumped on the spot in her agitation. "No! It was not the little one. She has been a good girl. She works hard all day, asking me for chores. I watched her... all day!"
Jemimah craned her neck, clasping hold of Johnny's thigh in an effort to turn herself. God bless Maria! "See! I told you it weren't me!"
She scrambled to get down but, still uncertain, Johnny gave her a tiny shake and kept tight hold.
"She's been here with you?"
Maria nodded vehemently. "Si. All day. She has done nothing but work - even on a Sunday. She is such a good girl today, very good."
Johnny's lips moved in his puzzlement but, for a moment, no words actually came out. Then he sighed and shook his head.
"Wait, I just caught her in the act."
"What act?" Jemimah's voice came from underneath his arm and he twisted to look down at her. "What did I do wrong?"
At this, he lowered her to her feet and she wriggled about, tucking her shirt back in and hiking up her jeans. Angrily, she stooped to snatch up her hat and ram it back into place.
"Somebody shot a rock at Walt... caught him right in the head and near enough cracked his skull open. He slipped and fell off the roof, cut his arm real bad. You tryin' to tell me it wasn't you?"
"Yes, I bloody well am!" Jemimah's face was flushed as she puffed her long dark bangs out of her eyes which flashed indignantly up at Johnny now.
"Do not swear!" Maria scolded then put her arm around her girl. "But she is telling the truth, Juanito. She was here in the garden when you two were on the roof. I saw."
Johnny still eyed her sceptically, hands on hips. "Then, if it wasn't you, who...?"
"That's the question you should've been askin' instead of manhandlin' me without even givin' me chance to know what I'm meant to have done!" She tried to prevent the pout but could feel her lower lip quivering. "Even Dick Turpin was innocent 'til proved guilty, weren't he?"
Johnny's nose wrinkled. "Dick who?"
Jemimah stamped her foot and he was dismayed to see her eyes sparkle with tears.
"Turpin!" she yelled, as angry with herself for being such a baby as she was with him for his lack of trust in her. "English highwayman! Famous robber! It don't matter - you know what I mean!"
"Yeah." Johnny scratched his ear, acutely embarrassed and rather ashamed of himself. "Aw kid, c'mere." He opened his arms.
"No. Don't want to."
Maria clucked her tongue when Jemimah batted his hands away.
"Hey, I'm sorry, honey. I'm real sorry," he said softly and, this time, she allowed him to reach out and pull her to him.
Determined not to cry, she buried her face in his warm shirt front and didn't even look up when he pushed off her hat to gently stroke her dark hair, his fingers warm on her neck and that soothing Johnny smell enveloping her.
"It wasn't me." Her voice was small, muffled.
He smiled down at her and she felt him take a slow, deep breath before his strong arms lifted her and suddenly she was sitting on his lap, wrapped tight to him.
"I know it. I'm sorry, honey. I should've known all along." His chin rested on the top of her head. "I was mad and I didn't think it through. Forgive me?"
She gave a strident sniff. "I suppose."
He released her so that she could sit up properly though he kept his arm around her waist.
"Hey, what can I do to make it right?" he asked softly, dipping his head to peer under her long untidy bangs.
She was fiddling with a rough fingernail and did not reply. Johnny glanced at Maria who gave him a sympathetic look before smiling at her niña, her hands anxiously wringing her bright yellow apron.
"Well, I guess there's one thing..." Jemimah said.
"Yeah? You just name it." Johnny was relieved to hear of anything he could do to make it up to the kid.
"Gimme back my catapult."
Jemimah made a beeline for Charles, nudging him across the great room until they were at the far end of the table, away from the adults who were gathered around the fireplace, still discussing the chess board. That someone had wrecked the game Johnny and Scott had been playing over the last few days had them all asking questions. Murdoch had turned gravely to Jemimah but Johnny had leapt in to back her up when she denied any knowledge of it.
Charles was reluctant to leave the vicinity of his aunt and sister but could hardly refuse to speak with the girl without causing a scene. She was most determined and he noted the dangerous glint in her green eyes despite her sugary sweet smile. She may be a tiny thing but she was as fierce as his father's pet bulldog and Charles knew he had to convince her that he was blameless if he were to have any more fun at her expense.
It had been excessively entertaining to watch that Johnny person wrangling with the girl earlier. It was just a pity that the whole scene had fizzled out so soon and, once they all started embracing, Charles had lost interest entirely.
"You did it deliberate!" Jemimah now hissed.
"I swear I didn't. You say a man was injured? But... that's impossible," Charles lied smoothly.
Jemimah's lips were pursed in fury. "He was, I tell you. A great big knot on his head and the doc had to stitch his arm from when he fell." She lowered her voice and glanced warily over to see what her father was doing. He was still busy talking to Aggie, thank goodness. "Walt's nice an' you got no call to be shooting stones at him!"
"But I promise you I didn't or certainly didn't intend to," Charles whispered, his face a picture of puzzlement. "I'll admit I shot at a bird."
"A bird?" Jemimah looked round again and gave a shaky little smile to discover Murdoch watching her beadily. She pasted a pleasant expression back onto her face. Yes, she intended to deal with Charles but she was no tattle-tale.
"Yes... a bird," Charles continued. "It was high in a tree and it was a long shot. I know I missed..."
"You hit Walt, you great twit!"
"I can't have!" Charles gave her an anguished look, actually biting his lip. "I promise you, Jemimah... I had no idea. I don't even recall seeing a man out there at the time. Surely, I would have known if I'd actually hit him? But... you say he's hurt? I feel terrible." He squared his shoulders as if he had come to a decision which pained him. "I'll own up straight away. It'll mean being sent away for sure this time but I can't let you take the blame for my mistake." He looked down into her eyes. "And that's what it was - a mistake."
"Sent away? What do you mean?"
Charles sighed and gently drew her over to the big window behind Murdoch's desk, further removed from the gathering by the fireside.
"My father... he... he has never... we are not close. Helen says he blames me for mother. I don't know." He hung his head.
"But how can he? That weren't your fault! You didn't ask to be born."
"I don't think Father sees it that way. You must understand as I have tried - he had lost his wife and, in return, was left with a squalling infant. I don't blame him but I just wish..." Charles trailed off, looking sorrowful and Jemimah laid a hand gently on his sleeve, all her anger forgotten.
"But what do you mean he'll send you away?"
The boy straightened, his eyes fixed bravely on the distant rolling horizon and the soft rosy-pink of the setting sun.
"He said one more mistake and I'd be packed off to West Point."
"It's a military academy in New York."
Her dark eyebrows shot up into her hair. "Military? You mean he's threatened to put you in the army?"
Charles gave a short humourless laugh. "I think he'd send me anywhere to get rid of me. He sent me here, didn't he?"
His face twisted with real bitterness. The boy was clearly furious with his father for sending him out to his aunt's in California. As Jemimah swallowed this terrible revelation, he eyed her craftily.
"That's not the half of it," he added.
Charles perched on the edge of the desk to begin his saga.
"He... he beats me. He always has; as long as I can remember," he lied.
"Well, all kids get walloped now an' then. Nowt unusual in that." Jemimah glanced over at Scott who was smiling down at Helen as he passed her a cup of coffee. Her eyes strayed to Johnny, standing nearby and on to Murdoch, still chatting with Aggie. All three Lancers could not claim to be against occasionally enforcing their rules with a firm hand but they loved her, she knew that, loved her dearly.
"Walloped? How quaint. No Jemimah, he beats me... with a horse whip." Charles was really laying it on thick. "The last time, they had to send for the physician."
"What? But that's barbaric! What had you done?"
Thinking on his feet and enjoying her horror at his story, Charles gave an actual incident his own particular twist.
"I accidentally broke a vase which had belonged to my grandmother. It was smashed beyond repair and Father was terribly vexed."
He remembered the incident vividly - he had been seven and caught using the vase as target practice with his father's pistol - a forbidden item. In reality, his only punishment had been to stay in his room for the rest of the day.
"I had to stay in bed for a week to recover after that beating," he sighed. "But I'm no coward. I'll own up. It was a mistake, I vow, but I'll admit to it."
He started to move away with what he hoped was a courageous expression but Jemimah pulled him back.
"No Charles, don't. You didn't mean to hurt Walt, I see that now. And I won't have you packed off to the army for an honest mistake. I haven't told on you and I won't, I promise."
"Are you sure? Oh Jemimah, that's very good of you. I would so hate West Point. The very thought of it makes me feel ill."
He clasped her hand, smiling down gratefully as she grinned back. What a gullible little idiot! It was so easy, it almost took the fun out of it... but not quite.
Johnny watched from the fireside. He felt pretty sure now of who had shot Walt and, more than likely, who was responsible for demolishing the chess game. There had been other incidents too which now he began to understand. He sipped at his drink and said nothing. He could bide his time; a character like young Charles Farmer would go too far eventually... and hang himself.
Cipriano frowned with concern, running his hat brim through his fingers and watching the patron. When Murdoch turned at last, his own expression was grim as Cip had expected.
"So, we have a thief at Lancer, do we?" The big Scot ran his fingertips across the glossy surface of his desk, deep in thought.
"There is no other explanation, Patron." Cip snapped his hat against his knee in disgust and worry.
"No, you're right. If it were just one or two of the men... but not five. Any ideas?" He glanced sharply around the room at each man.
Cip was shaking his head. "All we can say for sure is that it happened on Saturday night."
"During the party?"
Cip shook his head and smoothed his moustache. "Arnie remembers his knife was there before he went into town with the other boys. It was gone the next morning."
"Could this be connected to the damaged bunkhouse roof?" Scott posed the question they were all thinking.
"It's a likely explanation, I'd say," Murdoch agreed and perched on the edge of the desk.
Johnny moved across from the window where he had been standing quietly. "Would have to be someone pretty skinny to shimmy down through that little hole. None of the men would fit."
They eyed each other.
When Murdoch spoke, it was with reluctance. "Johnny, you know where Jemimah is? She's late home."
"No, I haven't seen... Aw now, hold on there. Murdoch, you don't think it was her?"
His father said nothing but he looked uneasy. Cipriano stepped in.
"Enrique was home Saturday and he would not dare. Not after that club..."
Scott agreed. "Murdoch, she promised you. No more dares."
"An' she wouldn't break her word!" Johnny told their father the same thing he had told Walt.
At length, Murdoch sighed. "No, I know she wouldn't. You're right, all of you."
"Besides," Scott pointed out with a smile. "I don't think she was in any mood to go hopping about the rooftops on Saturday night. The last I saw of her, she was asleep on her bed."
"On her belly. Right?" Johnny shared a smirk with his brother and, as they looked across to their father, caught him hiding a smile too.
"Alright, but this isn't getting us any closer to finding our cat-burglar." Murdoch's face was worried again.
Johnny leaned casually on the sideboard, his legs crossed at the ankle. "Well, think about it," he said softly. "Someone skinny but had to be strong enough to lower himself down from the roof. Someone who's cold enough to take from those who ain't got much to begin with. Kinda sneaky, mean..."
Scott was puzzled. Johnny's description didn't fit anyone he knew. "Who do you...?"
But Murdoch had caught on. "Johnny, do you have any proof of this?" he growled.
"Who?" Scott pressed.
Johnny shook his dark head and smiled. "Not yet but I figure he'll trip up before long."
Murdoch nodded sagely.
"Will you two let me in on...?"
Murdoch took pity on his eldest. "It's Charles."
"Helen's little brother? Why on earth would you think...?"
Scott flinched in surprise when Johnny clapped an amused hand on his shoulder.
"Scott, you been so wrapped up in the niece, you haven't studied the nephew. That boy's bad news."
"He seems perfectly harmless. And why would he steal anyway? He has..."
"Why would he shoot a rock at Walt? Or let the horses out of the corral? Or push the little kids around?" Johnny shrugged. "He's mean, Scott; plain mean... an' sneaky too."
"And you're sure he's the thief?"
Johnny grinned and shook his head again. "Nah, I've no proof if that's what you mean." He looked up at Scott, his face now serious. "But I am sure."
Scott subsided, all argument vanishing. He knew what an excellent judge of character Johnny was; it had been proved time and again. "So, what's to be done? We can hardly ride over to Aggie's with our accusations."
"No." Murdoch rose and crossed to them. "I'd never insult her like that."
"Of course not. None of us would. I suppose all we can do is wait," Scott agreed.
Johnny nodded. "And watch him."
"I'm going to have to get back," Jemimah scrambled up from where she had been sprawled on the grass by the stream.
Charles looked disappointed. "What's the hurry? If you stay, I can get Carmelita to give us some ice-cream."
She was already scooping up the reins and patting Amiga's velvety nose. "No, I can't. I'm supposed to go straight home from school. It's one of Murdoch's rules an' I'll catch it if I'm late."
Charles was curious. "Mr. Lancer would beat you?"
"Eh?" Jemimah threw him a puzzled look as she mounted up, smoothing her dress down when he seemed far too interested in the view of her petticoats. "No, no... but he'll rant on for a good spell an' I've only just got back into his good books. Not every father is like yours, Charles."
"Oh, I see." He seemed almost disappointed, Jemimah noticed. He was suddenly absorbed with something he had fished from his pocket. She looked closer and saw that he was fiddling with a small knife.
"Hey, you got a knife like Arnie's!"
Charles jerked self-consciously and snapped the blade shut, hurriedly slipping the knife back into his pocket. "Arnie? Who the devil is Arnie?"
"He's one of our hands. He's real nice an' he can play the fiddle too. He's got a knife just like that with a mother of pearl handle."
"Indeed?" Charles seemed very prickly all of a sudden. Maybe he was a little jealous.
"Yeh," she prattled on. "But it's got a big nick on the blade and..."
"Well, mine hasn't. This is my knife, not your Arnie's."
Jemimah blinked at his sharp tone. "Ooh alright!" She wheeled Amiga around. "No need to get your knickers in a twist!"
Charles kicked at a loose stone and shoved his hands sullenly into his pockets. "You can be very coarse, you know that?"
"That right? Oh well, if I'm so coarse, I won't bother you no more!"
She nudged Amiga to a walk and moved away down the slope. Charles huffed then called after her.
"Will I see you tomorrow?"
She grinned over her shoulder. "I'll be by after school if I can!"
With a wave, she kicked her pony into a trot.
When Jemimah turned onto the trail for home, she was surprised to see another rider ahead. Enrique was sitting on his pony, Rana and evidently he had been waiting for her. She skirted Amiga round him and grinned when he moved to walk alongside.
"Thought you weren't speakin' to me," she said, casting him a sly glance.
Enrique looked very glum and avoided looking at her by pretending to adjust his stirrup. "You got that twisted about, ain't you? It's you doesn't want to talk to me. After all, I'm just the son of a ranch hand."
She gaped at him. "Eh? Where'd you get that stupid idea?"
He didn't reply for a moment then, still scowling, he sneered, "Been to see your new boyfriend? The rich New York kid?"
"He's not my boyfriend."
"Perhaps you should tell him that."
"Perhaps I will!" Boys! They could be so babyish at times. "What's brought this on anyway?"
Enrique chewed at his lower lip and sniffed truculently.
"Well? You goin' to tell me or do I have to pound it outta you?"
A reluctant smile curved his mouth. "That should be interesting. You could try."
"He told me I was getting ideas above my station. I am a servant and not fit to wipe your boots. I am a dog and you are the lady of the house."
Jemimah snorted in disbelief. "Lady? Me? Yeah right! That's really what he said?"
"That and more."
Enrique sighed at the memory and again experienced a burning need to hammer Charles Farmer's smug face. "He said that I pushed him. Papa was furious and I nearly got whomped. In the end, I had to clean out the hen house even though it was Mateo's turn." His dark eyes narrowed and Jemimah saw his fists clench around the leather of his reins. "That puñatero - he better stay away from me if he knows what is good for him!"
Jemimah laughed. He didn't know that she had finally found out the meaning of that word. Enrique looked up sharply and was still irked enough to take her reaction the wrong way.
"But you seem to like him well enough," he accused. "You met him by the stream instead of riding home with me."
Jemimah blinked then hooted with laughter, much to Enrique's annoyance.
"Well, don't that beat all!" she snorted.
"You! You're jealous!"
"Don't you go accusin' me of playin' favourites, Enrique Cipriano," she warned. "That's just crazy... I don't like neither of you that much!"
With that, she kicked Amiga into a lope and grinned when he urged Rana to race after her.
The next day after school, Jemimah waited for Charles in the same spot by the stream. She was already vexed with him for what he had said to Enrique. No boy was going to pick and choose her friends for her; even Murdoch, Scott and Johnny didn't try that! She had thought long and hard about what she would say and had a little speech all worked out.
Now, after waiting for him for nearly an hour, the speech had been amended somewhat to include some choice put-downs and cutting comments that should leave Charles Farmer in no doubt of her contempt for him.
Jemimah squinted up at the sky. Murdoch was going to give her a right telling-off for being so late home. She might have to make something up about stopping behind to help teacher. Though, she bit her lip, that was dangerous as Murdoch tended to check on these things and was never very forgiving of fibs - even such small insignificant ones.
She puffed out an angry breath and was on the point of turning Amiga for home when she heard a rider approaching. Or was it riders?
Sure enough, Charles came around the bend in the path, leaning on his horse's neck to dip below the leafy fronds of the willow. He was riding the same chestnut gelding he had used the day before but, Jemimah gaped, he was also leading a tall Buckskin stallion.
Her eyes widened as she realised she had seen and lusted after this horse once before.
"What you doin' with him?" she gasped.
Charles was beaming, clearly having difficulty trying not to laugh out loud. "You should see your face! I knew you'd be surprised."
"Surprised?" She was aghast. How could he do such a stupid thing? "Do you know whose horse that is?"
"Of course I do. It's that Mexican chap's - the one he hires out to stud."
" Señor Vicente. That's his prize stallion; that's Torbellino!"
Jemimah gaped now at the stately Quarter Horse who, it was said, was descended from the original 'Steel Dust'. She had never seen another like him. Johnny had told her he was a Buckskin but she had argued that he looked more like butterscotch toffee with long dark brown boots on. Johnny had laughed at her description but both had agreed he was an absolute beauty. His long mane and tail were of a brown so dark that they were virtually black yet his hooves, at the ends of those long dark 'socks' were almost white. The stallion turned its intelligent soulful dark eyes on her now as if seeking her help.
Charles, meanwhile, regarded her as though she were demented. "I know that. Why do you think I took him?" When she continued to gape uncomprehendingly at him, he sighed and realised he would have to spell it out. "Think of the fuss there'll be when they find him missing. The old boy will have conniptions! When Aunt Agatha took us over there today, it was sickening how he fawned over the beast." Charles chuckled. "I think he treats the horse better than his own children. It'll be hilarious to see them sending out a search party to look for it."
Jemimah was dumb-struck. How could he be so daft?
"You got to take him back! Now!"
"I'll do no such thing!"
"You have to!"
Charles gave her a stubborn frown. He was most annoyed that she hadn't immediately fallen in with his plan or congratulated him on his cleverness.
"I'm not going back there. It's miles away." He thought quickly and schooled his face into a sorrowful expression. "Besides, if I'm caught, it'll be West Point. You know that!"
"But... you can't leave him here. That horse is worth a fortune. What if he gets hurt... or lost... or... Charles, you just can't leave him alone. I won't let you!"
"He'll be fine. They'll set out looking for him soon. Someone will find him."
"Yes... and on Conway land!" she spat angrily. "Had you thought of that?"
He shrugged. "So what?"
"Everyone knows Aggie is a great judge of horses. She an' Murdoch are always tryin' to outbid each other for the best ones at the auctions. What if they think she took him? If she drove you out there today to see him, they might think she'd planned to steal him all along. She could get in terrible trouble!"
Charles laughed scornfully. "Oh come now, I hardly think..."
"No, you don't think! That's the problem! Only one thing for it... I'll have to take him back!"
"Don't be so foolish. What if you're caught?"
Jemimah had dismounted and was now approaching Torbellino carefully, crooning softly to him as she had seen Johnny do many a time. The big muscular stallion stood calmly and merely shivered a little, twitching his neat ears as she gently stroked her hand over his silky gleaming hide.
"I won't be caught," she said quietly, concentrating on the horse. "I'll ride round the side of the stables and leave him near the big paddock at the back. He'll be fine there."
Charles was regarding her with amusement. "And what excuse will you give when you're home so late?"
Jemimah faltered. "I... I dunno. I'll have to think on that."
"Won't your father be angry?" He was trying not to smile now.
"Yes, he'll be boiling mad... an' worried. He don't let me go out alone after dark."
Charles shrugged nonchalantly. "So... don't take the horse. No-one's making you do it. Leave the animal here as I said before."
She spun on him now. "No! You might not give a damn about him but I do!"
His lips stuck out in a sulky pout. "You're going to tell, aren't you?"
Jemimah swung herself up into the saddle and wheeled Amiga around. A soft pull on the rope brought the stallion meekly in alongside. She was relieved the powerful horse had such a gentle nature. But then, he was an intelligent creature; perhaps he understood that she was taking him home.
"No, I ain't goin' to tell. I'm no snitch." She narrowed her green eyes at him.
"Yes, I promise. But you just stay away from me from now on. If I catch you on Lancer land, I'll shove that through your ugly mug!"
She shook her tight little fist at the boy threateningly and felt a glimmer of satisfaction at the way he jerked back in alarm. Then, she nudged her heels into Amiga's side and set off on the long trek to Vicente's.
Every excuse and scenario Jemimah thought up always ended the same way - with Murdoch blistering her ears off and, more than likely, dragging her off to the study to blister her rear end too. She well knew that he had strict rules regarding riding off alone and she was definitely breaking them now. The last time she had disobeyed him and left the ranch without leaving word of her whereabouts, he had threatened truly dire consequences which she was now most eager to avoid. True, she hadn't left the ranch exactly; she had been to school and was returning home... via a very roundabout route. But, somehow, she didn't think Murdoch would appreciate the distinction.
Jemimah took a swig of warm water from her small canteen. It eased her dry throat a little but still she grimaced, wondering whether she should sneak back into the barn on her way back from Vicente's. She could sleep in Amiga's stall. But no... that would only delay the inevitable and probably make matters worse. If she stayed out all night, they would be even more worried. She shuddered. No, that wasn't the way.
So absorbed in her own dilemma, she did not even notice a lone figure on the hillside above her. She didn't hear the rider approaching or cutting through the adjacent brush so, when they emerged on the track in front of her, she was so startled that she gave a shriek and nearly fell off her pony.
"Johnny! Shit, you scared the pants off've me!"
He glowered at her. "And while the pants are down, I ought to do more than scare you, you crazy kid. What the hell are you playin' at?"
She was lost for words and merely watched him fling his right leg over Barranca's neck so that he could drop down neatly from the saddle. His spurs jingled as he walked straight to the stallion, muttering calming Spanish words to him and reaching up with a gentle hand to stroke the noble head.
"At least he ain't hurt."
"Of course not," she bristled.
Johnny shot her a dark look, his blue eyes glinting dangerously. "Wish I could say the same for you when Murdoch gets a hold of you."
She swallowed, knowing the answer to her question even before she asked it. "Is he worrying?"
"Yep. And he ain't the only one. Maria's pretty upset."
Jemimah hung her head but darted a tiny glance at him. Johnny would be especially irked that Maria had been affected by her disappearance. Yes, he was giving her his look.
His next words confirmed her fears. "You been puttin' us to a lot of trouble, girl. And this ain't the first time. Is it?"
She shook her head.
"I can't hear you." Johnny was obviously most unhappy with her. He wasn't about to let her off that easily.
"No sir," she mumbled.
He decided to put a little space between them before he did something he might regret. Taking the rope from her, he transferred it to his saddle and led Torbellino away from her.
"Johnny, is Murdoch really cross?"
"Well now, what do you think?" He concentrated on securing the rope.
"Am I goin' to get a lickin'?"
This time he turned on her angrily. "You take a valuable animal that don't belong to you, run off to lord knows where so everyone's out of their minds worryin' about you. Causing all this trouble. You tell me!" He paused and studied her wan little face. He didn't like it that she was in such hot water but, hell, the crazy little varmint seemed to jump from one disaster to another. "You've gone too far this time. What the heck were you thinking, girl?"
"Well, I never meant for all this fuss! It was just... a joke."
Johnny shook his head incredulously. "A joke, huh? You could try telling that to Murdoch if you're feelin' brave."
"Think he'll see the funny side?"
Johnny hopped nimbly back up into the saddle and pointed Barranca towards home. "Maybe. If he can hear you over all the yelling he's gonna be doing... he might. But, seeing as you're likely to be doin' plenty of yelling yourself before he's done with you, I wouldn't count on it."
Jemimah slumped and moved to follow. "He's gonna kill me, ain't he?"
He didn't respond but the look on his face said it all - yes and that she would deserve it too.
They rode on for a few minutes in silence and then, in a small voice, she spoke up hopefully. "Johnny... you could always tell him that... you gave me a lickin'."
He threw her a look, eyes narrowed into blue slits beneath the brim of his hat. "Don't tempt me, chica. The way I'm feeling, I just might!" He sighed. "And you're sticking to your story? You took the stallion for a joke?"
"It ain't a story."
"Uh-huh." His face said he did not swallow her nonsense.
"It isn't," she protested. "Why would I make up something like that?"
"I don't know. Why would you?"
Jemimah's mouth firmed stubbornly. "Well... I wouldn't, would I? Takin' someone else's punishment would be just plain dumb."
"You said it, chica."
By the time they rode into the yard, the sun was kissing the tips of the distant trees and the pale aqua of the sky was tinged with the first rosy hints of the gathering dusk. Suppertime had been and gone but the unpleasant sensation in Jemimah's stomach had nothing to do with hunger.
Johnny dismounted first and tied Barranca to the hitching post. He turned to the girl and raised his arms to lift her down.
"C'mon. It's no use sittin' up there. May as well face the music an' get it over with."
She was just beginning to realise that there were other people there - two buggies were standing in front of the main steps to the hacienda - when Murdoch strode out of the French windows, light spilling out behind him and somehow contriving to make him seem bigger than usual. In comparison, Jemimah felt very small indeed as Johnny lowered her to the ground and, a warm hand on her shoulder, walked her towards the Lancer patriarch.
They came to a halt in front of Murdoch. Jemimah hung her head and was just opening her mouth to begin her explanation, though she still hardly knew what she could say, when his huge hand landed and took a firm grasp of her collar. Instantly, she was marched inside.
Jemimah had no chance to say anything at all in the end. She had a fleeting glimpse of Aggie in one of the blue armchairs and a wiry, dapper little Mexican man that she presumed was Señor Vicente in the other.
Murdoch was livid; his face a dull red and the vein ticking at his left temple.
"Upstairs, young lady and get yourself ready for bed," he rumbled.
Flushing a burning scarlet, Jemimah dithered, realising there were others in the room that she had not noticed before. Scott and Helen were by the fire with Teresa sitting on the sofa. Johnny, of course, was over near the windows; arms wrapped around himself in his usual uneasy posture. But it was the figure who perched on the edge of the big desk that astounded her - Charles Farmer and she thought she caught a glimpse of him grinning.
It seemed she had loitered too long as, without warning, she was suddenly wedged tightly under Murdoch's arm, pressed against his hip, staring at his left heel and her feet no longer able to find the floor.
She squeaked as three heavy smacks landed before she was suddenly jerked upright again, dazed and unsteady on her feet but, more than that, utterly mortified. Her skirts had prevented Murdoch's hand from making too painful an impression but Jemimah didn't think she would ever recover from the humiliation.
"I'll be up directly and I expect you to be in bed."
Jemimah had frozen, somehow unable to move. That everyone had witnessed what just happened was almost more than she could bear and she felt positively ill.
Murdoch took a step towards her. "Do as you're told."
"Scott, you think you can finish up here without me?"
Johnny tugged off his gloves and stomped across the rough ground to his canteen, taking a hearty belt of the water before pouring some of it over his head.
Scott watched him shake the droplets out of his black hair like a puppy and he grinned.
"I daresay we could manage that, Johnny. Why? Is there somewhere you have to be?"
"You could say that." Johnny pushed the stopper back onto his canteen and stowed it on his saddle. Then, he mounted up, moving Barranca over to Scott who reached up to pet the silky blond mane.
"Care to enlighten me?" Scott asked.
Johnny was smiling, his blue eyes sparkling. "I thought I might take a ride over to Aggie's."
"Aggie's? What for? What do you have in mind, brother?"
Johnny leaned casually on the saddle horn and nonchalantly rubbed his nose. "Oh, I thought I'd take young Charles for a little ride; see if he's still sticking to his story."
Scott watched him, his own eyes twinkling. "I see. You don't believe him then?"
"That's strange. Neither do I. And it might interest you to know that Helen doesn't swallow the tale either."
"No. She said pretty much the same as you - that his version of events doesn't add up." Scott moved around to Barranca's side so that the sun was no longer in his eyes when he looked up at Johnny. "He claims Jemimah told him of her plan to take the horse as a prank and that he found her with it by the stream on the Conway ranch? Some nonsense about trying to implicate Aggie in the theft? And, protecting his aunt's good name, he was the hero who persuaded her to take the stallion back?"
Scott paused when Johnny gave an angry derisive grunt.
"But, surely, Jemimah would be at school? She wouldn't have enough time to ride out to Vicente's from Spanish Wells and then make it back to Aggie's in... what? An hour? You found her when?"
"After five, I guess, just past Cupitt Creek." Johnny narrowed his eyes as he squinted across the hills towards the Conway ranch. "Nah, it don't add up."
"But then, why would she admit to it? Why claim she'd taken the horse? Does she not realise the trouble she's in?"
Johnny firmed his lips and shook his head, brushing impatiently at a few droplets of water which were running down the side of his jaw. "I dunno. Misplaced loyalty; some crazy sense of honour. Maybe she gave her word?"
Scott nodded and moved back. "She can drive me to distraction at times but I hate to see her wrongly accused. Helen is sure Charles is lying... and so am I."
"He thinks he's saving his own skin."
"I sense you have other ideas, Johnny."
In answer, Johnny touched the brim of his hat with a smile. "See you at suppertime!"
Scott raised a hand in salute and stood back to allow the big palomino to ride away.
Aggie was at home and, though surprised at first to see Johnny, she smiled as she showed him into the parlour and said that she suspected she knew the reason for his visit.
"Is Charles around?" he asked pleasantly. "Thought he and I could take a little ride."
Aggie gave him a knowing smile and called for Rosita, her maid. "Yes, somehow I thought you might ask that." The quiet Mexican girl stepped in and Aggie turned to her. "Rosita, would you ask my nephew to step in here please?"
When they were alone again, Aggie returned to her task of arranging a vase of fresh flowers on the centre table. "So... a ride? Anywhere particular in mind?"
"Oh, it doesn't matter really. I thought maybe the stream." Johnny's fingers were edgily tapping against his conchos as he watched her calmly snip each flower stem before she placed it into the tall vase. "That's pretty," he remarked politely.
Aggie smiled but did not turn around. "Yes, isn't it? It's not my usual vase. I used to have the crystal one that Henry bought me for our tenth anniversary; that always stood here."
"Oh yeah, I remember that one. You decided on a change?"
Now Aggie turned and, though she smiled, there was something in her eyes that made Johnny pause. She shook her head. "Not exactly. I'm afraid the crystal was smashed."
They exchanged a look then Aggie turned back to her flowers. "The stream? Really? You want to go that far? I was thinking you might walk across the yard, over to the left before you reach the stables."
"Across the yard?" Johnny wrinkled his nose in puzzlement, trying to visualise the place she referred to.
Aggie's lips twitched in amusement. "Ideal spot, I would've thought." She slipped a tall blue iris into the vase behind the yellow and pink freesias. "Hardly ever used now but it's still sound."
Johnny placed his hat on the table and peered at her with a baffled grin. She was clearly enjoying her little game but he was utterly lost. "Used? Aggie, what are you... ?"
"The woodshed, Johnny," she smiled.
His blue eyes widened as he took in her meaning then, dipping his head and smiling, he folded his arms around himself. Aggie patted his sleeve.
"I can assure you, you won't be disturbed."
Footsteps behind them made them both turn.
Charles stood in the doorway and, if his expression was anything to go by, their visitor could not have been less welcome.
"Aunt Agatha, you wished to see me?" the boy said formally.
"Ah Charles." Aggie turned with a beaming smile. "Yes, you have a visitor."
The boy's eyes flicked nervously at Johnny who flashed him a smile in return.
"I have? What... ?"
"Yes." She inclined her head to Johnny though there could surely be no doubt who his visitor was.
Charles forced a smile. "Mr. Lancer, you've come to see me, sir?"
"That's right, Charles." Johnny's voice was soft and he rotated his hat slowly in his hands as he spoke. "There's something that's been playin' on my mind and I kinda thought you might be the right person to help me."
"Thrash it out... so to speak," Aggie added.
Both adults took immense pleasure in watching the sick look slither over Charles' face. He swallowed and was wiping his sweating palms down his pants, his eyes darting from Johnny to his aunt and back again.
"Oh, I see," he mumbled. "Well... naturally, if I can be of any assistance..."
"Naturally." Aggie was beaming. "Charles, ask Barney to kindly saddle up a horse for you. You may choose whichever you like."
The boy looked alarmed. "A horse? Where are we going?"
"Thought we'd ride out to the stream; see where Jemimah tried to hide Torbellino." Johnny enjoyed the panicked look of guilt which washed over the lad's face at the mention of Jemimah and the stallion. He turned back to Aggie. "We might stop by that other place you mentioned on the way back... if we need to."
"Charles," Aggie prompted.
He jumped, startled from his thoughts. "Yes?"
"Be quick. Don't keep Mr. Lancer waiting."
Jerkily and very obviously wishing to avoid the excursion, Charles nodded and turned to go.
"I'll meet you outside, Charles," Johnny's voice was soft, unthreatening but the boy was left in no doubt; if he had any ideas of making an escape or trying to hide, that man would come after him.
When the boy had gone, Johnny turned back to Aggie.
"I'll bring him back in one piece, Aggie," he smiled as he backed out.
"No hurry, Johnny," she grinned. "Take all the time you need. If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well, I always say."
She selected a slender white lily and carefully snipped the end of the stem, now humming contentedly to herself.
Both remained silent on the short ride but Johnny's keen eyes had already spotted the tracks of two horses which approached the stream across Conway land. One horse and a completely different rider, which he knew had to be Amiga due to a familiar nick in her shoe, had then headed away, taking the usual road to Lancer. He now knew for sure that Charles had been the one to steal the stallion.
The boy wore a surly frown and was avoiding Johnny's eye.
When they stopped by the stream, Johnny dismounted and wandered to the water's edge to allow Barranca to drink. He crouched there and picked up a handful of smooth stones. Standing, he expertly skimmed one out over the glittering surface, grinning when it bounced four times before plopping into the cool depths. He then turned back to Charles who was still atop his horse and watching Johnny carefully, trying not to look impressed.
"Real pretty scenery out here," Johnny smiled, gesturing to the rolling green hills.
Charles sniffed. What did this man want with him? If all he intended was to prattle on about the view, they may as well get back. Charles had no wish to fraternise with the likes of Johnny Lancer.
"You don't think so?" Johnny pressed him pleasantly.
Charles rudely stifled a yawn. "Hills and trees... they all look alike."
"Still pretty though."
"I can't see what's so exciting about living here," the boy griped. "Everything is so... rustic. Give me the city any day. I can't imagine what Father was thinking."
"He was probably trying to do you some good, kid. Then again, I reckon what would've done you the most good could've been delivered back in Hartford." Johnny grinned. "They do have woodsheds there too, don't they?"
Charles bristled. "I don't know what you mean."
"Oh, I think you do." Johnny's blue eyes pinned him. "I'm talking about your papa dishin' out a well-deserved whupping. That's what fathers usually do when their kids tell lies, ain't it?"
"Lies? Who's telling lies?"
Johnny stood casually and sorted through the stones in his hand, a soft smile curving his lips but a dangerous icy glint in those eyes which raked over Charles until the boy shivered despite the hot sun on his jacket.
"You. You've told one lie after another ever since you arrived."
Charles chewed at the inside of his lip and shuffled in his saddle, unable to tear his eyes from Johnny.
"Y'know, even your own sister don't believe you."
"Helen?" the boy scoffed. " She's always been jealous of me! She wouldn't back me up if I paid her!"
"There's one who backed you up though. Someone told a pack of lies to save your worthless hide, didn't they?"
Johnny flung the stones back into the stream and wiped his hands roughly down his pants, all the time staring the kid down. Charles, he saw, had gone a pasty shade of grey.
"Now, I don't know why but Jemimah took a licking for you, boy!"
"She's as dim as the rest of them. Stupid girl... that's her look out. Nobody asked her to!"
Johnny grit his teeth and decided that his need to wallop the kid was too urgent to wait for the use of Aggie's woodshed. He glanced around and, spotting an obliging clump of suitable leafy sticks sprouting up from the base of a nearby tree, ragged at one until it broke free. He turned to Charles while roughly stripping away the remaining few leaves then swished it through the air once with a grim look of satisfaction at its pliant whippiness. Menacingly, he moved in, switch in hand but had only taken three furious strides before he pulled up short, hardly able to believe what he was seeing.
Charles Farmer was gripping a gun in his trembling fist and it was pointed right at Johnny. A derringer. Johnny realised it must be Aggie's. The boy had obviously gone through his aunt's things and come across the 'muff pistol,' as it was known. He had no way of knowing whether the gun was loaded or not. Sure, it had only two shots and was renowned for being slow but, at that range, even one of the large calibre bullets could kill.
Johnny knew he could easily disarm the lad with a single shot but had no intention of firing at Aggie's nephew, even if only to wing him. He froze and waited. The boy looked more frightened than deadly but, even so, a sudden move could startle him into pulling the trigger.
"That's it, you just stay down there, Mr. Lancer," Charles gulped. "And don't make any sudden moves. I've fired a gun before."
"I believe you."
The boy sneered. "So, I'm supposed to care about your little orphan girl, am I? Well, I don't. Yes, she was fun for a while but she soon became a bore just like everything else. If she wants to play the martyr and take a whipping for me, I have no issue with that. Let her get on with it, I say." He managed a shaky smile. "Why should I take the blame?"
"Because she did nothing wrong. And she was trying to be your friend, boy... just like your aunt. How do you think she'd feel to know..."
"Aunt Agatha?" Charles snorted. "Another soft-hearted fool..."
Johnny glared up at the boy and took another menacing stride towards him but was halted in his tracks when Charles straightened and aimed the tiny gun at him with two hands.
"Don't take another step! I've heard all about you. You just take that gun off and throw it away!"
Johnny was tempted to rebel and knock the little bastard into the mud. He gripped the switch in his hand but a tiny wave of the derringer convinced him to comply. A lazy smile spreading across his face, Johnny unbuckled his gun belt and tossed it to the ground a few feet away.
"Th... that's better," Charles stammered. Oddly, he seemed more nervous now that Johnny had been disarmed. It was clear that the youth had not thought this through and now had no idea of his next move.
"So boy, what now? You think I'm going to let you just ride on back to your aunt's after you've held a gun on me?"
Charles blinked. Fresh out of devious little plans, he certainly hadn't thought that far ahead. "No... no... I know you'll be coming after me..."
Johnny didn't confirm or deny this but, Charles noticed, he still gripped the long switch in his hand and looked as though he would like nothing better than to put it to work.
"But I've got a head start, haven't I?"
With that, Charles kicked his horse into flight and took off over the slope , heading back to the Conway ranch. Johnny tossed away the switch and sauntered over to pick up his gun, checking to make sure it was undamaged. Then he gathered up Barranca's reins and stared at the retreating figure of the boy in the distance.
When Johnny burst into the parlour, Aggie almost dropped her book into the fire in her surprise. She was instantly on her feet, alarmed by the grim look on his face.
"Is he here?"
"Charles? No. Why, what happened?"
"Never saw a kid so desperate to avoid a lickin'. He pulled a gun on me."
Aggie gaped. "What? Are you alright?"
"He didn't shoot. I don't think he could have pulled the trigger; he was too scared."
At that moment, Helen rushed in from the hall.
"Aunt Agatha, where's Charles going? What's happening?"
Aggie frowned. What now? "What do you mean?"
"He was upstairs a moment ago. I heard him banging about in his room and, when I went in, he said he was leaving and..."
Aggie and Johnny exchanged a look.
"I think he's taken a horse," Helen added.
Johnny was already halfway to the door. "Which direction did he go?"
"I... I'm not sure. Towards Green River I think," Helen faltered, looking to her aunt for reassurance.
"Johnny..." Aggie's worried eyes implored him. "I hate to ask..."
He shook his head. "It's alright. I'll go after him. And, if Val's around, we'll find him and bring him home safe."
"Send word to Lancer for me," he called back over his shoulder. "I don't want them to worry."
It was easy to follow Charles; his horse had left deep tracks in the soft earth around the meadow and down to the trail which led to Green River. All the way, Johnny thought about the boy. He had never come across a youngster like him - not one redeeming feature as far as he could see. He had met some spoiled and willful kids in his time, boys and girls, but Charles Farmer was something else.
Jemimah could be a trial at times, skipping from one bout of mischief to another and she sure led them all a merry dance. But there wasn't an unkind, mean-spirited bone in her body. It had been easy for the boy to hoodwink her, Johnny guessed. Some sob story to touch her gentle heart and she had been his willing dupe. That, more than anything else, burned at Johnny. He had never thought the boy would have the nerve to pull a gun though; that was the last straw.
Johnny rode on, a grim smile curving his mouth when he imagined what he would do to young Charles Farmer when he got his hands on him.
In town, Johnny headed straight to the telegraph office. The stage was waiting nearby and this seemed a likely place for the boy to be. A quick word with Jud Bacon, the telegraph operator, told him that no boy answering Charles' description had been seen. And if anyone would know, it would be Jud. Worse than any woman for gossip, the affable old gent never missed a trick.
Johnny exited with a sigh, intending to head up to the jail to find Val. Luckily, his friend must have seen him ride in and was already on his way down the street.
Val scratched at his scrubby beard, his dark eyes perusing the street and alleyways while Johnny explained the situation.
"He pulled a gun on you?" Val grinned, delighting in the discomfort that part of the tale caused Johnny. "You gettin' slow in your old age?"
"I wasn't expecting it, Val, I admit. A derringer."
"A little bitty purse gun, eh?"
"Aggie's. Had to be."
"So... if I find him... ?"
"Just take him to the jail, Val. But watch him - that kid's slippery as an eel. I'll head back there after I've had a good look around; talked to a few people."
Val grinned and touched the brim of his hat as Johnny mounted up and rode away.
In his dirty patched jacket and ill-fitting old pants, Val could easily be mistaken for some slovenly layabout with not an ounce of 'go' in him. But now, as he crossed the street, his dark eyes were keenly scanning the town for any sign of the youngster.
He strolled up the boardwalk on the opposite side to the stage and disappeared down a narrow alley. There, lurking behind a stack of rickety wooden crates, he watched and waited for his quarry. He didn't have long to wait. Less than ten minutes later, a movement in the shadows caught his sharp eye and he pressed himself flat against the rough boards.
Sure enough, a slim figure was furtively inching its way out of the alleyway at the side of the hotel. Intent on the stage coach and avoiding old Hank, the crotchety driver who was clambering up and down, stowing boxes and valises with an agility that belied his advanced age, Charles Farmer could not see the town sheriff and probably would not have given any credence to the man if he had.
Shallow souls like Charles expected the office of Sheriff to belong to someone of impressive stature; a man of influence who dressed accordingly. Hence, he paid no mind to the shabby individual who now edged out onto the street and ambled along, picking his teeth and wiping his fingers down his liberally stained shirt front.
Old Hank spat a stream of brown tobacco juice into the dirt and bent to gather up a trunk, straining and grumbling with the effort. The owner of the trunk stepped aside at a curt word from the grizzled old driver. Hank McCall was a figure of great respect and some trepidation, the captain of his coach, feared by timid passengers but capable of unexpected chivalry with all ladies. Cantankerous he may be but he was greatly admired by all the stable boys and a trusted agent of his employer, Wells Fargo. Few, it was said, could handle a team as well as old Hank.
Charles saw his chance. He darted out of his hiding place and made speedily for the leather 'boot' at the back of the coach. He unstrapped the cover of the large triangular-shaped box and, keeping an eye on Hank, slung his lanky leg up to climb in. A few more seconds and he would have been hidden away inside but, at that moment, he gasped to feel a strong hand seize hold of his shoulder and, with a stomach-swooping swirl through the air, found himself deposited on his rump in the dirt. A dishevelled man (who resembled the hobos Charles had seen from the safety of the carriage in their drives around Hartford) was grinning down at him, his teeth very white in his swarthy face.
"How... how dare you!"
The man chuckled and gave a shrill whistle. Within seconds, Hank was also squinting down at the boy.
"What we got here, Sheriff?"
Sheriff? This unkempt loafer was the sheriff? They had to be joking!
"Runaway, Hank," Val explained. "Just caught him trying to sneak into the box there while you wasn't lookin'."
"That right?" The white-haired bewhiskered old-timer fixed Charles with a flinty eye and chewed furiously away at the tobacco in his cheek. "Ya gonna arrest him?"
Charles gaped from one man to the other. He still sat in the dirt but didn't dare move.
Val gave a slow mocking smile. "Arrest Miz Conway's nephew? Why Hank, would I do such a thing?"
The old man gave a violent derisive snort. "I would! Watcha gonna do with him then? If'n he's causing strife fer Miz Conway, I'd leather the pants off've him!"
"I'm not a runaway!" Charles had at last found his tongue. "If you'll telegraph my father, he can send you the money for my fare."
Another stream of tobacco juice streaked past the boy, narrowly missing his ear.
"An' who's gonna pay fer the wire, boy? You?" Hank rasped.
Charles hesitated. He had grabbed a few things and thrown them into his pillow case but money had not been one of them.
"Come on, son. We're goin' over to the jail." Val hauled the lad to his feet. "We'll wait there for a friend of mine. And, unless you're keen on doin' that wait locked in a cell, I'd suggest you simmer down some," he added when Charles tried to wrestle free.
Val stowed the derringer in the narrow top drawer of his desk and placed his booted feet on the top, totally heedless of the paperwork which was strewn across its surface. Leaning back in his chair, he cast a sidelong glance at the nearest cell.
Charles sat resentfully on the bunk inside and, though the door was wide open, stayed put as he had been told. He was wary of this grinning tramp of a man. Though seemingly affable enough, he had a grip like steel and there was something in his dark eyes that unnerved the boy. He watched him now, digging into his makeshift sack and smiling wolfishly at each item. Charles shuffled, leaning forwards to see, and the sheriff's eyes darted a warning look.
"I don't need to lock that door, do I? You ain't no hardened criminal, eh?"
Val fished into the pillow case and pulled out a pocket knife with a shining mother of pearl handle. He opened it and ran his thumb gently down the blade, flicking another glance at Charles when it encountered a deep nick in the steel. The next item to be retrieved was an old medal, bronze with a faded red ribbon. Val studied the bas-relief rampant eagle and his smile disappeared.
"Know what this is, boy?" he asked.
Charles grimaced. "Yes, it's mine!"
"You was in the Indian wars then, were you?" He scowled at the youth as he flushed guiltily. "This here's a medal awarded to gallant men what's served the government. Don't you be tellin' me that it belongs to you!"
"It... it's my father's!"
"Ain't it about time you quit lyin'? I've seen this before. Only one man in these parts owns a medal like this an' he ain't your pappy!" Sheriff Crawford knew very well who the owner of the medal was and he seethed to think that this little liar had deprived him of it. Charles was very lucky he was in the cell; if he had been within arm's reach, Val would have made sure he was suffering.
The lad subsided, chewing his lip in growing agitation.
When Val's fingers pulled out the next object, he huffed out a sharp breath and held it up for Charles to see. It was a large and expensive-looking cameo brooch.
"You gonna tell me this is yours too?"
"It's... a gift for my sister!"
"No, it ain't!" Val barked. "It's Miz Conway's. I seen her wear it before." He pinned Charles with a glare. "Guess I was wrong; maybe you are a hardened criminal after all. Maybe we should wire your pa - get him to come out here an' bring a switch!"
Charles muttered something under his breath then jumped when Val demanded he speak up.
"I said... I said you'd better not contact my father. He's a busy man. I know he wouldn't appreciate listening to someone who talks so much but has nothing interesting to say."
"Watch your step, boy."
Val got up to cross to the open door, poking his head outside to check up and down the street. At length, he wandered back in. He was reaching up underneath his scruffy collar to scratch at the back of his neck when he noticed the look of undisguised revulsion on his prisoner's face.
"Hey, quit throwin' me that nasty look," he growled.
"I'm not throwing you any nasty look... you already have one of your own!" Charles snipped, somewhat amazed at his own daring.
Val firmed his lips into an angry line. "Y'know, somebody oughtta paddle your rump! An', if you keep on with that saucy line, it might just be me! So you take heed, boy."
"My father will have you thrown out of office if you do anything so foolish to..."
"You callin' me a fool, boy?"
Charles jumped to his feet. "To call you a fool would be an insult to stupid people! I demand you take me home. My aunt..."
"I know your auntie an' she'd thank me. Now, you want to wind up acrossed my knee with your britches down, you just keep on sassin' me!" The amused smile was gone and Val's eyes were almost black, glimmering with dislike. "I've whupped a few backsides in my time an' settin' fire to yours would be a pure pleasure!"
Charles gripped the door to his cell, tempted to tug it shut. His voice shook and was higher than usual when he stammered back, "Don't you dare lay a finger on me, you filthy old..."
"Too late." Val was taking decisive strides across the jail. "An' I plan to use more than a finger!"
"Wha... what?" Charles backed away, his thin shoulders thudding up against the solid brick wall behind him. "Look here, you can't touch me. You have no right. I'll tell my..."
Val moved in menacingly, his fingers deftly unbuckling his belt.
Johnny patted Barranca and, with a heavy sigh, slid down from the saddle and looped the reins over the hitching post outside the jail. As he stepped up onto the boards, he lifted his head in surprise.
From inside, came anguished yelps and pleading, interspersed with the unmistakable sound of leather meeting a most deserving behind.
Johnny thumbed back his hat and leaned on the hitching post to listen to the performance, his legs casually crossed at the ankle and his arms folded. It was music to his ears and the young man actually chuckled out loud at a particularly vociferous howl. The only thing missing was Jemimah; she ought to be there to witness justice being done. Johnny knew she had earned it and would have appreciated it too.
Val wasn't saying much; he was letting his strong right arm do his talking and, for once, Charles Farmer was not wriggling his way out of it.
When Johnny walked into the kitchen later that evening, he was still grinning. The boy he had delivered back to Aggie had borne almost no resemblance to the cocky impudent youth who had visited Lancer so many times over the last weeks. No... tearstained and moving gingerly, Charles was much chastened. For the first time in his over-indulged young life, he had been held accountable for his actions in a time-honoured fashion - a new experience for the lad - and, as Johnny handed him over to the care of his highly-amused aunt, the boy looked exactly what he was... whipped.
Johnny found he was starving but knew he had missed supper. However, he was not disappointed; Teresa had left a large plate of stew and dumplings in the oven to keep warm. He had hoped to find Jemimah somewhere about and was itching to tell her what had happened. She deserved to know. Sure, she had been foolish and had told some real whoppers to Murdoch which was never wise but it had all been with the best of intentions and, it couldn't be denied, she had paid for her poor judgment. But, it seemed, she was nowhere to be found. Instead, Johnny had to make do with telling his story to Murdoch, Scott and Teresa as they sat around the fireplace.
"So... it was Charles all along." Murdoch's face was grim as he leaned forward to place his pipe in the small cut-glass dish. "He stole the horse from Vicente's and let Jemimah take the blame for him. The sly young..."
"What a nasty little coward!" Teresa interrupted vehemently. "And poor Jemimah."
Murdoch looked decidedly uncomfortable at her pointed reproach. "But, why in heaven's name would she say that she took the horse?"
Scott hadn't said much until now. He eyed his father as he crossed his long legs and settled back into the cushions of the sofa, brandy snifter twirling slowly in his hand.
"I'm guessing Charles persuaded her to keep him out of it. Extracted a promise from her. Am I right?"
Johnny nodded. "Yeah, she promised him she wouldn't tell."
"Oh, how silly... but how noble of her!" Teresa exclaimed.
"Yes," Scott agreed, again looking at Murdoch. "You have to hand it to her - she keeps her word. No matter the personal cost."
Murdoch was also nodding. "I had a long talk with her," he began. "But it would appear I need another. Whatever her reasons, she still told me a lie."
Johnny was instantly on his feet. "Hasn't she had enough, Murdoch?"
He stalked across the room, heading for the stairs, evidently aggrieved at his father's apparent callousness.
"Johnny..." Scott called after him.
"Leave him." Murdoch retrieved his pipe and resumed lighting it, tamping down the tobacco with his thumb.
"Why didn't you tell him? Why let him think... ?"
"He's on his way up there to talk to her. He'll find out."
"That he's misjudged you?"
"Yes Scott. Just as I have misjudged Jemimah it would seem." Murdoch puffed on his pipe, a faraway look in his eye. "And as I misjudged your brother on more occasions than I care to remember."
Scott sipped his brandy. "That was a long time ago now, sir but you're right - it seems to be a family trait. Perhaps one day, we'll learn to be more open with each other."
"Oh, I'd say you're typical of all men," Teresa announced, concentrating on her sewing but with a smile playing about her lips. "Put your boots firmly in your mouths and then engage your brains!"
Murdoch snorted. "I think we're getting there, darling... a little at a time. Thank goodness we have you ladies to keep us in check."
"Yes indeed," Scott smiled.
Johnny's tread was soft on the dimly-lit boards of the landing. He reached Jemimah's door and tapped lightly. A muffled voice bade him enter and, almost shyly, he peeked around into the room.
She was lying with the covers tucked up under her skinny arms, her long dark hair released from its braid and the plain white nightgown making her appear very young; very small in the big bed. She looked up as he came in but there was no smile of greeting. She seemed very morose.
"Hey kid," Johnny smiled softly and sat down on the edge of the bed. "You been up here long?"
She nodded. "Since I got home from school. Murdoch says I can't come down except to go to school an' I got to use the time to do some soul searchin' about what I did." She sighed heavily. "Only trouble is..."
"You didn't do it."
Jemimah shook her head sadly and hoisted herself up so that she could sit back against the plump pillows. Johnny glanced across to the dresser. Her dinner tray was still there and it looked to be untouched.
"No, I'll bet Charles isn't feeling much like sitting down to dinner either." He darted a look at her then continued. "Not that he'll be feelin' much like sitting anywhere right now. Val saw to that."
Jemimah gaped as his words sunk in.
Johnny was grinning again, eager to tell her his tale and put a smile on her wan little face. "Val don't take too kindly to lying or uppity young 'uns who don't show respect to their elders."
"Is that where you learned it from then?"
Johnny's reply was his special white-toothed smile.
"What? Did Val whomp you too when you was a boy, Johnny?" She narrowed her eyes and studied him.
Johnny's smile disappeared and, instead, was replaced with a look of utter amazement at her perception. She had guessed something that even Scott had never come close to. But Johnny was not about to reveal this particular tale... not tonight.
"Now, what would make you say something like that?" he hedged.
She shrugged. "Oh, I dunno... it's just you two seem to say a lot of the same things; have the same rules an' you don't like disrespectful kids neither."
Jemimah remained silent but she knew there was more to Johnny's relationship with Val than he ever let on. However, her thoughts strayed back to her own predicament and, suddenly tired, she slumped back against her pillows and sighed.
Johnny reached out a gentle hand to smooth back her over-long bangs from her eyes.
"What made you say you took Torbellino? You knew the trouble you'd be in. Surely, Charles Farmer wasn't worth all this?" He gestured to the lamp-lit room, the tray on the dresser - her own cushioned sanctuary, filled with girlish frills and fripperies, far from austere but, to all intents and purposes, her temporary prison cell.
"It's alright, Johnny; my eyes are wide open now. There ain't no way that ol' Charles is gonna fool me again. I know I was a right prat to take the blame for him. I think I always knew he was a lyin' no-good worm but I s'pose I knew it for certain when he showed up with Torbellino and didn't care about him at all. He was goin' to just leave him there on his own an', when I said I'd take him back, all he was bothered about was his own worthless skin. He knew I'd catch it... but he didn't care at all. An', when you took me back and they was all there; when Murdoch... walloped me... that rotten sod was laughin'. I saw him." She looked away now, avoiding his eye and fiddling with the ribbon trim on her cuff. "Oh Johnny... Murdoch... I thought he was gonna skin me. I ain't never seen him as mad," she whispered, he voice hushed with awe at the memory of her father's anger.
Johnny studied his fingernails, knowing very well that she was truly mortified to be recounting the incident and not wanting to embarrass her further.
"Oh Johnny, it were awful."
"The licking?" he asked softly.
"No. I didn't get a lickin'."
He was surprised. "You didn't? Jeez kid, you were lucky. I figured Murdoch had dusted you for sure. You talk your way out of it?"
"No. I thought he'd give me what for, good an' proper. But he hardly said owt at all... he just said he were... ashamed of me."
Johnny watched as she turned her eyes to the window, where the last fading rays of the sun cast a dim light through the curtains, and gave a wet sniff, struggling to get herself under control again. Johnny realised that Murdoch's words, whatever they had been, had hurt her far more than any physical punishment.
"He said my real daddy would've been ashamed of me too." Jemimah swallowed hard. "So, that's twice now that Charles has used me as his scapegoat... an' there bloody well ain't goin to be no third time. No sir!" She scuffed up her sleeves and eyed him fiercely. "I'm about grown up now an'... well... things are goin' to change around here."
"One of those things had best be your behaviour then. Start minding some of Murdoch's rules and quit actin' like such a little varmint, eh?"
He gently ruffled her hair with a smile and she nodded, her face serious.
The next morning, Jemimah was still sighing unhappily as she braided her hair and smoothed her pristine white apron over her freshly laundered blue dress. Another day of lessons lay ahead and then she would be back in her room, no doubt. She morosely wondered how long her banishment would last and when Murdoch would think she had been given enough time to ponder her many sins.
Her door opened suddenly, making her whirl around in surprise. Teresa stood beaming at her.
"Shake yourself, slowpoke! Breakfast is ready."
Jemimah merely slumped to the bed and began to tie the strap around her small pile of books.
"Not very hungry."
"But Maria's baked cinnamon rolls and... you'll be late for school if you don't get a move on!"
Jemimah shot the older girl a disdainful glance. "Huh! Don't care if I am late."
"You'll care when Murdoch gets another note from your teacher!"
Jemimah's eyes narrowed but she remained silent. It wasn't easy as she already had a few juicy retorts on the tip of her tongue. No, she would restrain herself. Today would be the first day of her new life. Everyone would see a different, grown-up and more sophisticated Jemimah. Another slanging match with Miss Bossy Boots would do nothing to convince Murdoch of her good intentions.
"There's some visitors downstairs too," Teresa coaxed.
When they had descended the back stairs and arrived in the kitchen, Teresa steered the little girl towards the great room, avoiding the table which, she noticed, was deserted but for Maria who was setting out the cutlery with a smile. As they pushed open the door, Murdoch looked up and beckoned them in.
At first, Jemimah did not move. Taking in the fact that Murdoch, Scott and Johnny were there and that they had been joined by Aggie Conway and Helen, the young girl was confused and not at all encouraged. What was going on now?
"Ah, there you are," Murdoch said. "Come over here."
Jemimah's eyes widened, studying her father's face and trying to rapidly discern his mood. He didn't seem angry and his voice was soft. Of course, that could just be to lull her into a false sense of security, she thought bitterly. While she dithered, Teresa laughed and pushed her forwards.
"Go on! He's not going to bite you!"
Hmm... bite? Maybe not but Murdoch could do worse than that, she knew.
As she neared the gathering, Murdoch reached for her and turned her to face Aggie, his huge hands heavy on her shoulders and making her skin prickle nervously.
Johnny read the worry in her eyes and gave her a reassuring wink.
"Aggie, you were saying?" Murdoch prompted.
"Ah yes. So... we searched through Charles' belongings and it would appear that he has been..." Aggie frowned with distaste. "... helping himself to a few things which don't belong to him. Some have already been returned to their rightful owners. The rest..." She gestured to the small heap of eclectic items on Murdoch's desk. "I'm trusting that you will be able to locate the right people, Murdoch?"
Jemimah watched Mrs. Conway for a long moment and felt sorry for her. She knew the hopes she had for her nephew and what a crushing blow it must be for her to have to admit his true character. Her eyes strayed to the mound of stolen items and, almost immediately, she spied the knife.
"Then it was Arnie's knife after all!"
"And the hole in the bunkhouse roof?" Scott asked. "That was Charles' handiwork too?"
Aggie sighed. "I'm ashamed to say that he refuses to own up to it but there seems little doubt that my nephew caused the damage and his motive for doing so cannot be in doubt. Sheriff Crawford had... a long talk with the boy."
Johnny and Aggie shared a telling glance.
"And he has at least admitted that these things are not his." She looked up at the big man who still held Jemimah close to him. "Murdoch, I will pay for the damage, of course..."
Helen leaned forwards suddenly. "No Aunt, that you will not. I will cover any damages."
"You will?" Scott frowned indignantly. "But why should you pay? It's the fault of that young rascal and..."
"Oh, don't worry, Scott," Helen smoothly cut him off, a slight smile playing about her lips and a glint in her eye. "Charles will be reimbursing me... with interest. Moreover, Father will be receiving a full account of my brother's actions when we return to Hartford."
"We? You mean Charles ain't stayin' on here?" Jemimah asked eagerly.
Aggie shook her head decisively. "No dear. I do not intend for the decent children of the neighbourhood to be any further tainted by his presence."
With a soft smile, she held out both hands to Jemimah who stepped forwards to take them. Aggie stroked her fingers fondly down the girl's dark braid.
"Jemimah, I must apologise especially to you. Charles took advantage of your trust, your honesty and your kindness and he used you to wriggle out of the consequences of his own reckless behaviour. I have made sure that a true version of events will reach Señor Vicente and I would also like to say how brave I think you were in trying to return the horse all alone." They shared a grin. "Somewhat foolhardy maybe..." Aggie's eyes crinkled up merrily as she smiled at the little girl. "But undoubtedly brave."
Aggie released Jemimah and she felt Murdoch's hand return gently to her shoulder. This time, its presence warmed her.
"I can't pretend to be a devout advocate of excessive physical punishment," Scott was saying.
Jemimah gaped at him and Aggie hid a smirk behind her coffee cup.
"But I can't help thinking that your father would do well to man up and give Charles a few of the hidings he has withheld over the years." Scott had the same stern expression that Jemimah knew well and it usually preceded him giving chase and threatening severe penalties, invariably aimed at her person. "In this case, I think he needs to be cruel to be kind."
For a change, the look he directed at the girl now was both admiring and warm.
"Jemimah has suffered more than anyone on Charles' behalf and I, for one, would like to say that I'm proud of her selflessness."
The girl flushed violently but could not help feeling hugely gratified to hear Scott say this. There were times that she believed he merely tolerated her so it warmed her heart to hear that he appreciated her too.
"I agree," Helen spoke up. "And none of you must worry. If Father still refuses to deal with my brother's horrible behaviour in future, I will see to it!"
"You?" Murdoch was not sure he had heard her correctly.
"Well, not me directly, you understand. But there is Porter, Father's manservant," Helen explained. "He's a very tall man; quite imposing and my little brother has always been suitably wary of him." She smiled with satisfaction at the thought. "I know he would be most willing to step into the breach... if necessary."
"Well, as long as somebody wallops the little bugger, I'll be happy!" Jemimah exclaimed bluntly.
"Jemimah!" Murdoch's reprimand was soft and there was laughter in his voice - laughter which was echoed by the others.
"Quite so!" Helen grinned.
The warm hand on Jemimah's shoulder tugged her in close to him and she tipped her head to look up into his eyes. They were twinkling again, kind and loving. She hugged him hard, inhaling that reassuring Murdoch smell - leather, soap, pipe tobacco.
"Now, now." He patted her arm. "You need to hurry or you'll be late for school. See, someone is waiting for you."
Murdoch pointed through the French windows and she looked to see Enrique lurking hopefully in the courtyard.
Dashing into the hall for her jacket and hat, Jemimah ran for the door and was grasped by Maria on the way. The motherly housekeeper pressed a lunch pail into her hand and foisted a napkin full of cinnamon rolls on her. Then, wriggling to squirm away from her embrace, Jemimah hared outside to her friend, calling a hasty goodbye over her shoulder.
They all watched her through the window and no-one's smile was broader than Murdoch's.
"Hey, did you see the rope swing we put up yet?" Enrique asked through a huge mouthful of cinnamon roll.
"Day before yesterday."
"I've not been allowed out."
"Oh. Will you be allowed out tonight?"
"I think so."
"You want to try it then?"
Jemimah nodded eagerly.
They were tramping across the yard now, heading for the barn though they were too late to saddle horses. They would have to ride in the wagon with the little kids.
"Hey Enrique, look what I got!"
She tugged the slingshot out of her apron pocket.
Murdoch frowned slightly. Those children! Why were they loitering about? If they didn't hurry, they would make everyone late. He crossed the room to the front door and opened it.
Still looking out at her, Johnny glimpsed the slingshot and realised Jemimah was taking aim.
"Uh-oh... kid, no!"
Jemimah let fly with the catapult, squinting into the distance.
A wild blood-curdling yell sounded from the barn and, the next moment, Jelly came limping out, blinking furiously and clutching his tattered backside.
"Gol-darnit!" he blustered, hopping about like an indignant old rooster. "What in tarnation...? What kinda sneaky varmint's a-shootin' off rocks at a feller? Yuh' young devils! Why, I'll whop the hide off've yuh'!"
Johnny was beside himself and, it must be said, Scott, Helen and even Aggie were struggling to control their laughter. They watched Jelly caper across the yard, dragging his injured leg stiffly behind him.
Enrique and Jemimah were frozen in shock, aghast at her hideous mistake.
"Jemimah Rose Day! Get yourself back in..." Murdoch yelled.
But Jemimah had fled. She and Enrique bounded off after the wagon and hopped neatly in as it trundled past, narrowly avoiding Jelly's grasping hands when he dived for them.
Once safe, they looked back and guffawed loudly at Jelly's incensed spluttering as he hopped about.
In the doorway, Murdoch's glare smoothed out and, shaking his head, he chuckled too and turned to go inside. Aggie, he knew, would be pouring him a fresh cup of coffee and there would be more of those delicious cinnamon rolls waiting.
Anne Haslam January 2015