Disclaimer: These characters, apart from Jemimah Day, are not mine though,
if they were, I would certainly show them more love, respect and gratitude
than Fox do.
Scott is 28; Johnny is 22 and imminently about to be 23.
"There she is!" Murdoch's warm hail greeted Jemimah as she was carried into the great room in Johnny's arms. "Here, Johnny... put her right here!"
He patted his lap and Jemimah found herself, ensconced happily in the big armchair by the fireside, cuddled in Murdoch's strong embrace. Teresa busied herself by first smoothing Jemimah's long white nightgown carefully around her skinny legs then she passed her a large cookie and a glass of milk. The kid beamed round at everyone.
"And here's someone I'd like you to meet!"
Johnny tugged someone forward from the shadows, plonking her onto his knee on the sofa and giving her a ferocious tickle.
The kid laughed then straightened, watching Jemimah warily.
"Jemimah, I'd like you to meet Pony," Johnny introduced the girl. "Pony, this is Jemimah."
Jemimah's eyes narrowed as she stared out this newcomer. Who did she think she was, sitting on Johnny's knee like that? A bit presumptuous, wasn't she - uppity little mare! Jemimah conveniently ignored the fact that Johnny himself had put her there. Her lips firmed into a thin line when the kid snuggled back against him, getting comfy and knowing that it was irking her adversary.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," Pony smirked.
"Likewise I'm sure," Jemimah seethed.
"And this is Miss Florida," Murdoch gestured to the smiling lady who was sitting in the other armchair. "She takes care of Alice."
Miss Florida beamed but Johnny caught the wariness in her eyes as she watched Pony and Jemimah. She had sensed the animosity too. These two would stand watching!
"Oh, I don't know about that," Florida chuckled. "I think Alice here takes care of me!"
Pony grinned and, when Johnny mussed her hair, shot a victorious glance in Jemimah's direction.
Jemimah fumed, itching to reach out and pop her on the nose but, instead, she continued to stare at the blonde while munching away on her cookie. The adults bantered contentedly, happy to see old friends and keen to catch up on news but, all the while, the two girls glared at one another, saying nothing.
Eventually, Maria appeared to announce that dinner was ready and, this time, Scott was the one who offered to carry Jemimah back up to her room. She protested instantly, and loudly, that she could walk up unaided but Murdoch insisted and so, watching Pony jealously and helpless to do anything about it, Jemimah was carted away and tucked back into bed. Incensed even further by the bowl of chicken broth which awaited her, she pouted silently and refused to crack a smile at her 'big brother' who, laughing, tapped the tip of her pert little nose and admonished her to be good.
Jemimah was certain she would never be able to sleep but, once the dish of broth had been devoured, found her eyelids drooping and, while the rest of the family enjoyed an amicable and lengthy dinner together, she drifted into a deep and restorative sleep.
Early the next morning, Jemimah had taken about all she could of playing the invalid. Slipping from her bed while the sun was still deciding what to do with itself, she shrugged out of her nightgown and saw to her ablutions as best she could. It was far from easy with only one hand and several times she cussed aloud at being so hampered. Eventually though, she managed to don fresh underwear, shirt and her overalls.
It was while attempting to fasten the buckles on the suspenders that her temper got the better of her. The strap kept slipping out of her grasp before she could twiddle the buckle over the button.
"Shit!" she hissed when it flew back over her shoulder for the fourth time.
"Need some help?"
Jemimah spun around to see Pony grinning at her from the doorway. Even as she watched, the blonde girl waltzed in.
"You always enter a lady's room without knocking?" Jemimah scowled.
Pony snorted with mirth. "Lady?" she mimicked. "Don't give y'self airs! I could hear ya' cussin' all the way down the hall! Sure never heard no lady speak like that."
As she talked, Pony deftly fastened the strap in place and dealt efficiently with its partner. Jemimah eyed her.
"Thanks," she muttered ungraciously.
"Don't mention it," Pony quipped back.
Jemimah reached for her hairbrush and tried to smooth her long locks as best she could with the bandage in place and only one hand. She had hardly passed it through her hair twice before Pony snatched it from her and took over the task. If she hadn't been so surprised, Jemimah may have protested but, before she could say anything, the job was done.
They stared at each other in the mirror on the dresser, Pony standing slightly behind Jemimah.
Both wearing overalls and with exceedingly long hair, that was where the similarities ended.
Pony was slightly taller, maybe a couple of inches. Her hair was a startling white-blonde where Jemimah's was like rich dark chocolate. Pony's eyebrows and lashes were fair, her eyes an intelligent blue. Jemimah again was darker - thick black lashes and emerald green eyes which studied the other girl carefully.
"You talk funny," Pony announced.
"So do you, kid."
"Kid yourself, you ain't any older'n me!" Pony smirked.
"I'm 13, I'll be 14 next June!"
"I was 13 in October an', besides, I'm bigger'n you!"
They paused, the one-upmanship momentarily petering out. Then Pony stuck her tongue out at Jemimah's reflection. "It's a real shame; looks like the ugly fairy kissed ya'... on both cheeks!"
Jemimah gasped then her eyes twinkled and she crossed them, snubbing up her nose like a pig at Pony in the mirror. "Well, mirrors don't talk and it's lucky for you they don't laugh either!"
Both girls stared at each other hard then they grinned and began to giggle. Kindred spirits. Laughing still, Pony expertly tied Jemimah's hair back in a long braid and they tramped noisily down the stairs together, buddies already.
At the breakfast table, Jemimah slid into her usual seat beside Johnny, giving him a one-armed birthday hug and a kiss, while Pony chose the chair next to Scott, facing her new chum. Murdoch was glad to see both girls getting along and there was a generally pleasant feeling of bonhomie in the dining room. It was Johnny's birthday, the day after would be Christmas Eve and he was sipping a generous mug of Miss Florida's fine coffee (a small nip of whisky in it to ward off the cold).
Without having to say anything, Jemimah eyed Teresa when she brought in the basket of warm rolls, winking at Pony who nodded in reply.
Instantly, both girls propped their elbows on the table and began to chew their ham and eggs with open mouths, making a rather revolting slurping sound.
Teresa blinked at them and, before she left to fetch more coffee, wagged a stern finger.
"Manner, ladies!" she frowned. "Elbows off the table please and, for pity's sake, close your mouths when you eat. You look like a couple of heifers chewing the cud."
Pony crammed an enormous forkful of ham into her mouth and turned to the older girl. "Sorry, ma'am!"
"Yep, sorry, Teresa!" Jemimah mumbled through a mouth overflowing with scrambled eggs.
Teresa threw her hands up to heaven. "And don't talk with your mouths full!" With that, she returned to the kitchen, shaking her head in despair at the youngsters.
Jemimah and Pony snorted but carried on eating their breakfasts. Both Scott and Johnny eyed them with great suspicion but remained silent.
Johnny watched Jemimah out of the corner of his eye. Little devil! What was she up to now? That kid just hopped from one piece of mischief to another! He hid a smile behind his coffee cup, waiting for the kid's next move. There was a definite buzz coming from both of the girls and Johnny had picked up on it.
Teresa returned with a fresh pot of Miss Florida's excellent coffee.
"Fill 'er up!" Jemimah ordered rudely, holding her empty cup aloft. Pony followed suit.
"I most certainly will not!" Teresa gasped. "Even if you had asked more politely. Now drink your milk!"
Johnny bit back a chuckle. Those two little varmints! If they weren't careful, the ol' man would have their hides. He spotted Jemimah wink at Pony but was too far away to stop the skinny blonde from nudging Teresa as she placed the pot in the centre of the table.
The coffee slopped over the top of the pot, the dark ugly stain rapidly spreading over the white cloth. Teresa exclaimed loudly and darted an accusing glare at Pony.
"Oops! Clumsy!" Jemimah sang.
Teresa turned to Murdoch, planting her hands on her hips and gesturing to the two miscreants who were suddenly looking as though butter wouldn't melt in their mouths.
"Murdoch! That was deliberate!" she snapped angrily through clenched teeth. "Speak to them!"
Murdoch's feeling of peace and goodwill to all men was slipping away rapidly and he was reluctant to let it go. Holding up a placating hand, he attempted to calm the young woman while Pony and Jemimah sat open-mouthed with 'surprise' at her mean accusation. Johnny and Scott, meanwhile, sat back to enjoy the floor show.
"Now, now, Teresa... I'm sure Pony didn't mean..."
"She most certainly did...
"I never - my elbow slipped 'cos you wouldn't let me put it on the table!"
Jemimah swallowed a giggle, producing a most unladylike snort which had Johnny chuckling into his coffee. Even Scott was biting back a grin.
"And as for you..." Teresa wagged her finger at Jemimah.
"Aw shush!" Jemimah waved her away. "You can be such a prissy old nag!"
Silence descended over the room and the girls swallowed nervously. Risking a glance at the head of the table, they saw that Murdoch was now glaring down at them and had a very flinty gleam in his eyes. His voice, when he spoke, was quiet but the hairs stood up on the back of his children's necks - all his children - even Johnny and Scott experienced a momentary shiver and were heartily glad that they were not in the firing line.
"Jemimah Rose," Murdoch took great satisfaction from the way the girl gulped. "You will apologise to Teresa right now."
But Miss Day was nothing if not daring. She lifted her chin obstinately and stared back at the big man. "What for?"
Scott's eyebrows nearly disappeared into his blond hair. Teresa gaped at the saucy kid and even Pony's mouth dropped open at her new friend's boldness. Johnny was shaking his head. That kid did beat all but she sure was reckless! She was on a sure and certain road to a sore rear-end if she kept this up, Christmas or not! Even Jemimah herself was inwardly debating the common sense of her remark.
Murdoch shifted forwards in his seat, his gaze never leaving the young girl.
"I will take you upstairs and give you 'what for' in a moment, young lady. Now apologise to Teresa."
Jemimah felt Johnny's boot connect with her leg under the table and sighed. Alright... if she had to do it... her green eyes glinted with devilment.
" Teresa..." Jemimah turned her suddenly contrite countenance on the older girl. "I'm sorry if I offended you when I called you a prissy old nag in front of everyone... I had no idea you thought it was a secret!"
Jemimah grinned mischievously then as she watched Johnny choke on his coffee, her comment and the subsequent laugh taking him by surprise so that he spat most of it across the table towards his brother who lurched backwards in shock. Pony dipped her head but could not contain the giggles whereas Teresa was looking like she was about to lay an egg!
Before she knew what was happening, Jemimah felt herself lifted from her chair and, feet barely touching the floor, marched into the kitchen, Murdoch's big hand on the back of her neck propelling her along. While Johnny wiped the tears from his eyes and Scott wiped the splattered coffee from his shirtsleeves, Teresa sat down beside a still-giggling Pony and glared around the rest of the table. Murdoch's voice could easily be heard as he berated his daughter for her shocking manners, decreeing that she eat her breakfast in the kitchen until she could behave properly.
By the time Murdoch resumed his seat at the breakfast table, Johnny had just about managed to control himself and the arrival of Miss Florida coming in from the kitchen meant that Pony, too, became instantly more sedate.
"More coffee, Murdoch?" Scott passed the pot over.
"I believe I will," Murdoch took a deep breath and tried to smile. "Florida, you make excellent coffee."
Later that morning, Johnny and Scott discussed the little girls while they wandered over to the barn to see to the horses.
"It's just as we feared, Johnny," Scott shook his neat blond head and sighed dramatically. "Jemimah and Pony are joining forces and I'm not sure Murdoch is up to the challenge."
"Murdoch?" Johnny asked disbelievingly, wrinkling his nose to show his puzzlement. "You're worried about the ol' man? Don't you think you've got that about-face?"
Scott shook his head uncertainly and leaned his backside against the side of Barranca's stall, watching Johnny slip in beside the golden horse, patting his neck affectionately.
"I don't know, boy," he went on. "Those two little monkeys... they're a pretty formidable combination and what with it being the season of peace..."
"Scott, those two keep winding up the ol' man an' you know what they're gonna get a piece of!" Johnny stated with a twinkle in his blue eyes, his hand all the time stroking the smooth coat of his Palomino.
Scott watched him with a smile. He was an excellent horseman himself but freely admitted that Johnny had an uncanny affinity with the animals. He never tired of watching his little brother work with horses. Even now, the young man was subconsciously trailing a soothing hand over Barranca's mane - something he did often as if he needed the reassuring contact as much as the horse did.
"All I'm saying is that Jemimah doesn't need any assistance coming up with pranks," Scott stated. "She has far too many ideas of her own!"
Johnny grinned, thinking back to the shenanigans at breakfast. "Oh, I think we'll be alright," he smiled, fishing a cube of sugar from where he had tucked it into his belt and offering it to his eager friend. "Florida seems to have Pony managed pretty well and I reckon we can sort out two little girls between the five of us."
"Little girls? Little demons more like!" Scott exclaimed. "And who are the five?"
" Murdoch, you, me, Miss Florida and don't forget Maria; she's lethal with that wooden spoon!"
"Well, you'd know more about that than I would, brother!" Scott laughed. "What about Teresa?"
Johnny grinned, raising an eloquent eyebrow. Scott folded his arms and dipped his head, chuckling at the memory of Teresa, flapping like an irate hen over the kids' behaviour.
"No, you're right," Scott sniggered. "She hasn't got a prayer; they'd eat her for breakfast!"
Murdoch poured the final glass of champagne and placed it onto the tray which Teresa then passed around to each guest in turn except for the three youngsters who were already armed with tall tumblers of lemonade.
Murdoch turned to look pointedly at his youngest son, a ready smile of paternal pride lighting up his face. The boisterous toddler he had cherished, taken so cruelly from him, had grown into a man - this handsome, warm and wonderful man before him. Murdoch swallowed. His boy was undeniably the image of Maria but, thank God, had become more Lancer with all the inherent stubbornness to boot!
Murdoch never ceased to be amazed at his incredible good fortune though, for all of the long, lonely years he had spent without them, he knew he had not considered himself fortunate in the least. He had suffered - by God, he had suffered! The loss of both his children - even now the mere thought of it made his knees weak... but they were home again. And, above all else, they were his sons in the truest sense of the word. A closeness he had hardly dared to hope for had grown little by little over the last two years or more. Murdoch felt himself getting misty-eyed, a lump in his throat.
He shook himself, realising that all faces had turned expectantly to him. Clearing his throat gruffly, he smiled at his dark-haired boy and raised his glass.
"Johnny," he began and blushed at the tremor in his voice.
Johnny looked up and their eyes met with a warmth that fortified Murdoch like a belt of best single malt.
"Another year here at Lancer..."
Johnny grinned and dipped his head somewhat bashfully, suddenly seeming to pay rapt attention to his polished boots.
"I'll never stop thanking Providence for your return home... both of you..." Murdoch shared the warmth of his smile with his older son. "And here, before all our friends and family..." the big man glanced around the familiar faces - Jelly; Pony and Miss Florida; Sam Jenkins and his wife; Aggie; Cipriano with his whole family; Maria, the little housekeeper dubbed affectionately as 'Mamacita' by Johnny and, lurking in the corner, Val Crawford, the sheriff of Green River and a long-standing friend of his son's from years back (Murdoch would one day get to the bottom of that history, he vowed) "I'd like to propose a toast to you, Johnny - may this coming year bring you closer to your dreams; may good health and happiness smile down on you..."
"Particularly the health!" Doc Jenkins interrupted, eliciting much laughter from the gathering.
"Happy birthday, son."
Everyone followed Murdoch's lead, raising their gasses high and echoing 'happy birthday' around the great room. Johnny blushed again and took a hasty swig from his own glass, Scott's arm slung around his shoulders.
Again Murdoch called for quiet. "Oh, and one more thing... when are you two going to get around to giving me those grandchildren?"
Scott and Johnny's expressions of horror reduced the assembly to further fits of laughter and suddenly everybody seemed to be talking at once.
"Haven't you got enough on your plate with this little one, Murdoch?" Sam chuckled, tugging teasingly at Jemimah's pink hair ribbon.
At this comment, Murdoch's attention was drawn to the girl as she skipped across the room with Pony and Enrique to ogle at the mound of presents on the sideboard.
She looked very pretty this evening. Her arm was, of course, still in a sling but she had been scrubbed and brushed so that, for once, she was as pretty as a chocolate box. Her long hair, loose for a change, swung in a chocolate ripple down her back and Murdoch noticed she was wearing the candy-striped seersucker dress that he'd seen her working on with Maria and Teresa over the last few weeks. If only she wanted to dress up like this more often instead of rambling around like some boy in those blessed overalls! Murdoch chuckled. "My little girl," he marvelled. "Thank you for entrusting her to me, Andrew."
And there was another reason for his good mood - after the shaky start, both girls had behaved impeccably all day and had pitched in with the tidying and food preparation for the party. In fact, they had been so good that, when they requested to be allowed to share Jemimah's room together, he had relented. After all, the bed in her room was sizeable; there would be plenty of room for two little girls. Murdoch just hoped that the 'entente' remained 'cordiale'!
It was a lovely evening.
When the gifts had been opened and exclaimed over, Johnny blushing time and again over the unexpected generosity of his family and friends, Walt joined them to provide some music on his guitar. With him came the new hand, Alfie; only 19 but he turned out to be valuable for another reason besides his skill with a rope - he was a first-class fiddle player! The resulting melodies enticed everyone to step out and, in no time, the great room was filled with dancing couples, twirling around in each other's arms.
Pony was dancing with Johnny but, Jemimah noticed with satisfaction, spent most of it twisting to glance over her shoulder at Enrique to make sure he was watching - which he most certainly was! Jemimah tried hard not to feel jealous of her new friend but it wasn't easy, especially when she knew that she would not be able to dance with Johnny herself.
Johnny gulped down his beer and looked around him. This was his kind of evening - people he knew well and felt comfortable with; all was easy and relaxed. He swiped the back of his hand across his brow, feeling a mite warm, and grinned at the sight of Pony and Enrique twirling boisterously across the carpet. He wondered where the other young 'un was...
Scanning the busy room, he spied her sitting in the armchair by the fire. She was alone and, though smiling at Murdoch dancing with Aggie, didn't seem to be having much fun. It was only then that he realised for the first time that he hadn't seen her dance at all. He crossed the room, grinning good-naturedly at Val who toasted him with what had to be his fourth beer, and arrived at her side.
She looked up and he noticed something else for the first time that night - little Jemimah looked... different. Maybe it was because that mass of dark hair was all loose and waving around her shoulders; maybe it was that new dress 'cos it sure seemed to fit her well - made her seem somehow less skinny than usual (he'd have to tell Teresa what a good job she'd made of it) or maybe it was just the light from the fire and all the candles shining in her eyes... Johnny smiled. She looked real pretty.
He bowed. "May I have the honour of the next dance, Miss Day?" he intoned seriously.
The girl hesitated and Johnny was concerned to see that, far from being her usual cheery self, she looked subdued; kinda flat.
"I can't, Johnny."
"Why not? Has Murdoch...?"
She shook her head. "No, it's just..." she seemed almost embarrassed. "My legs have gone all wobbly, Johnny. I don't know why. I s'pose I'm not all better yet from the fall."
"Tuckered out, y'mean?" He tilted his head sympathetically to one side, his voice soft.
She looked down sadly and nodded.
The next moment, she squeaked with surprise when his hands seized her by the waist and she was borne up from the chair and into his arms, depositing her on his hip, his left hand under her rump to support her and his other hand grasping hers so that they were ready to dance with the rest of them.
Grinning, his blue eyes twinkled merrily at her. "Ready?"
Shining emerald eyes gazed back into blue. She beamed and nodded eagerly, delicious laughter bubbling up as he spun them into the centre of the throng.
By the time the tune ended, Jemimah was breathless and flushed as though lit from within. She didn't think she would ever forget the song they had danced to - Down by the Glenside (so beautiful!) - nor the way he had smiled down into her eyes for the whole wonderful time he had swayed and spun them around the room. He sat her once more in the armchair and bowed over her, gallantly raising her hand to brush his lips across it then he straightened and grinned wickedly at the beer Val thrust into his hand.
Jemimah sighed with rapture and watched her hero being dragged away by Val and José.
Over by the table, Sam nudged Murdoch and glanced across at the child. "She's looking a mite flushed, Murdoch," Sam pointed out with concern. "I think she may need to get some rest. Could be that arm is paining her some; might need something to settle her."
Murdoch regarded the child. Sam was right; she did look flushed. It was late anyway - about time both girls were going upstairs for the night.
Someone else was watching her too. "I don't think you have the cure for this particular malady, Doc," Scott murmured quietly under his breath.
But Scott's observation was not uttered as quietly as he had supposed. Murdoch turned his head sharply to look at his tall son who, totally unaware, crossed to Miss Florida, having noticed that she was without a partner and completely unable to forget his gentlemanly upbringing. He left his father feeling very thoughtful but with a distant smile in his eyes.
The two girls were bustled off to bed shortly afterwards, complaining all the way up the stairs as Maria chivvied them along and Johnny leaned (somewhat worse for wear it must be said!) against Scott and Val (also swaying), waving goodnight to them in the hall.
Perched in their nighties on the big bed minutes later, both girls were sullen and feeling very poorly treated. After all, if Enrique was still up, why were they carted off to bed this early? The injustice of it! Boys got away with everything; so unfair!
"I aint' tired at all!" Pony huffed as she brushed her hair. "You?"
Jemimah stifled a yawn and shook her head. In all honesty, she was feeling a bit weedy now, the excitement of the day having taken its toll, but she would have died rather than admit this to Pony. Instead, a wicked gleam lit her eye.
"Hey, Pony, d'you know what an apple pie bed is?"
Pony sensed mischief afoot and grinned. "Nah, but I'm a quick study!"
In bed at last and snuggled up comfy and warm together, the two girls listened to the sounds of guests making their farewells and some buggy wheels drifting away into the night. Of course, some of the guests would be staying - Aggie was in the downstairs guest room and Doc Jenkins and his wife were in one of the annexe rooms but Maria and Cip with his family were making their way home.
Soon all was quiet except for the murmur of voices downstairs and the occasional chink of china being stacked in the kitchen. It was not too long before footsteps were heard on the stairs and they recognised the light tripping tread of Teresa's dance slippers. These were followed minutes later by a series of thuds and thumps, muffled curses and drunken giggling which told them that Scott and Val were attempting to steer Johnny to his room - the blind leading the blind as it were. Finally a much more sedate heavy tread came up the stairs and passed their door - Murdoch.
The light around the doorway was suddenly extinguished; someone had put out the lamp. The two girls held their breath, dying to laugh and visualising their victims trying to get into the short-sheeted beds then puzzling over why it was impossible. The silence was suddenly broken by Scott's voice, ringing out angrily, "What the dickens...?" Jemimah and Pony sniggered and a light showed around the outline of the door.
"What in God's name is going on here?" Murdoch's roar made Pony jump and both girls exploded into giggles.
There was the sudden shocking sound of sheets ripping and Val's angry voice slurred into the darkness. "Jesus H. Christ, what the fuck...?"
Jemimah and Pony clutched each other, tears rolling down their faces.
The thudding of feet sounded on the landing. Teresa could be heard asking what on earth was the matter. The children tried valiantly to control their mirth, scrabbling back under the bedclothes in a passable imitation of deep sleep, just in time as their door opened suddenly.
Had they been 'awake', they would have been able to see Murdoch, Scott and Val jostling to see into the room. The men were attired in long nightshirts except for Val who was wearing faded pink all-in-one long underwear - much-patched and in need of a good wash.
Before any of the irate gentlemen could rouse the two children from their angelic slumber, Johnny's guffaw rang out and he shouted along the landing.
"Thanks for one helluva birthday, ladies! Don't know when I've laughed so hard!"
Val turned, stomping back towards his friend's room on stockinged feet. "Yeah? Is that right? We'll just see if you're still laughin' after I whup your ass, boy!"
Scott rolled his eyes and took off after Val to rescue his little brother from the sheriff's interpretation of a 'birthday spanking'.
Murdoch regarded the still-sleeping little darlings with a grim glint in his eye but... he was tired, it was late... they would wait until morning. As he closed the door and the room was once again plunged into darkness, the sniggering girls heard his weary voice asking Teresa for a fresh sheet for Sheriff Crawford please.
Both girls found themselves banished to the kitchen for breakfast the next morning though, it has to be said, Murdoch's punishment entirely missed its mark - the kitchen was cosier by far and the youngsters were able to eat without observing any kind of restrictive table manners.
On leaving the kitchen, however, their faces dropped dramatically to see writing tablets and pencils laid out on Murdoch's big desk awaiting them. The old man himself loitered threateningly by said desk and the two mischief-makers sobered instantly at his grim expression. He crooked a finger to beckon them over.
"Now you two, just sit down here and set to work," he ordered. "I expect to see letters of heartfelt apology for everyone whose bed was sabotaged last night. And they had better be sincere... or else!"
Jemimah smirked as Pony obediently sat herself in the chair indicated by the big man and reached for her writing tablet with a deep sigh.
"You too, young lady!" Murdoch eyed his daughter beadily.
Jemimah shrugged and pointed to her arm, still in the sling. "I can't write, Murdoch. Looks like Pony will have to do it for the both of us." Jemimah certainly did not seem unhappy about this whereas Pony's glare spoke volumes.
Murdoch straightened, realising his error, but quickly recovering. "In that case, you will go to each person in turn and offer to do any little job they might need doing. And be sure to include Teresa in that list; her sleep was disrupted too!"
Jemimah again looked very apologetic as she shook her head. "I can't!"
Murdoch gritted his teeth, his hand itching to mete out some very necessary attitude-adjustment. Pony was what Jemimah would have described as 'gobsmacked'; she could almost see the steam coming out of Mr Lancer's ears!
Through his teeth, Murdoch ground out, "And why not, young lady?"
"Sheriff Crawford has already gone back to Green River."
Murdoch leaned over the sassy girl. "Teresa, Scott and I are still here and, if I hear any further argument or flimsy excuses from you, I've a mind to turn you over my knee and spank the brat out of you, broken arm or no broken arm! Now... SCOOT!"
Jemimah knew that tone too well to risk any further shilly-shallying. She scooted.
Maria's churros were a favourite treat and a plateful for elevenses was just the ticket!
Jemimah and Pony were perched on the top rail of the fence, munching their way through a small mountain of the delicious pastries and bemoaning the fact that all adults seemed to lose their natural sense of humour. Surely they couldn't be expected to behave like prissy old biddies all the time? They were young for crying out loud!
"Gotta have some fun now and again, ain't we?" Jemimah griped. "After all, you're a long time dead!"
"Yeah," Pony's hand was still feeling a mite achy from all that writing and she was most aggrieved. "It ain't true that life is one damn thing after another - it's the same damn thing over an' over!"
"Yeah." Jemimah licked the sugar from her fingers then wiped her hand down her jeans. "So... who's next?"
At that moment, Cipriano came out of the barn. He eyed them suspiciously then moved off in the direction of the bunkhouse. Pony lifted a questioning eyebrow but Jemimah was quick to squash the idea.
"Nope," she stated emphatically. "Cip's no fool. He's got seven kids so he'd easily twig what was happening even before we'd done it! An' if he did..." Her low whistle was graphic enough to provoke images of the horrible consequences.
Suddenly, their eyes were drawn to a lone figure ambling from the courtyard to the house. Jelly. Both girls grinned. Their next 'victim' was lined up.
Scott and Johnny were just leaving the barn, having settled their horses and now looking forward to some lunch (they had heard mention of fried chicken and their mouths were watering at the prospect), when they witnessed the two kids shaking hands as though they had just struck a deal. Scott grabbed his brother's arm to forestall him, ducking behind a convenient wagon to watch the duo unobserved.
"What's up?" Johnny complained. "I wanna get inside. It's freezin' out here an' I'm hungry!"
"Will you stop thinking of your stomach for once?" Scott hissed, crouching behind the wagon and yanking Johnny from view. "Look over there!"
Johnny popped his head up over the edge of the wagon to spy on the little girls. "Oh yeah, " he grinned. "You reckon those two could spare a couple of them churros?"
Scott rolled his eyes and gave his brother a backhanded slap to the middle.
"Hey!" Johnny objected.
"I wasn't referring to the churros - look at them!"
"I was, " Johnny grumbled.
Through clenched teeth, Scott spelled it out as though to an imbecile. "Not the churros - the kids!"
Again, Johnny raised his head to peek surreptitiously over the wagon. "So?"
Scott sighed at Johnny's dull-wittedness. "So.. they look pretty pleased with themselves, wouldn't you say?"
"I guess. You think we should see what's cookin'?... an' I meant the kids!"
Leaving their hiding place, the brothers wandered over to the fence and both were somewhat alarmed at the way both youngsters suddenly slapped innocent smiles onto their devious little faces.
"You two better not be up to any more shenanigans," Johnny warned smilingly. "The ol' man's only just holding onto his cool as it is; any more nonsense an' he's likely to bust something - probably you! Don't you forget Santa's comin' tonight; you don't wanna wake up in the morning to find them stockings full of coal an' switches!"
Scott added his two pennies-worth, "To quote from your favourite book Jemimah..."
" Which book's that?" Johnny asked.
" Jane Eyre. Don't interrupt."
" There is no sight so sad as a naughty child, especially a naughty little girl," Scott wiggled his eyebrows.
Jemimah smirked at her 'big brother's' expression of triumph. Straightening her back and looking down from her high perch with superiority, she quipped back, "But a good girl is just a naughty girl who hasn't been caught yet!"
Johnny reached up to lift her down then swung Pony down too. "Well, you just make sure you two are good girls. Remember Santa..."
The boys headed for the house, and their lunch, Johnny wagging his finger in warning and grinning at them.
" I got a better idea, Pony... let's be bad an' save Santa the trip!"
Pony grinned and they skipped off arm in arm.
Murdoch supposed he would never tire of Christmas with his family. He could hardly remember what the festive season had been like for all those years without Scott and Johnny; the invitations he had declined, unable to face being the outsider among real celebrating family life - not when he knew his own boys could not be with him. Of course, there had been Teresa and Paul and other good friends such as Aggie and Sam but it had not been enough.
He eased his aching back into the plump cushion on his armchair, revelling with delight in the sight of his two boys decorating the tree. The laughter rang around the great room. Both such fine young men now, though Johnny was behaving like a naughty ten year old, snitching popcorn from the bowl before it could be strung and either cramming it into his mouth or pelting his older brother with it then ducking out of reach before Scott could retaliate. There was more corn on the rug than on the tree and Murdoch chuckled when Teresa took a leaf out of Maria's book, whacking Johnny with a spoon on his firm rear-end. His subsequent yelp and undignified hop across the room brought forth gales of laughter from the children and Murdoch could not help joining them when his dark-haired son wrangled the spoon from Teresa and gave chase.
The big man shook his head. He didn't want to but it rather looked like he may have to vacate the comfort of his armchair to intervene. By the glint in his eye, if Johnny caught her, he wouldn't put it past him... ah good, Jelly saved the day. Calm resumed.
The spoon now wrested from him, Johnny turned to his father.
"Hey, Murdoch, are you goin' to tell us about some of this stuff we're puttin' on the tree?"
Teresa rolled her eyes. "You ask that every year, Johnny."
"Every year? This is only the third Christmas I've had here!"
"Actually, it's your sixth," Murdoch corrected him. "But I don't mind. After all, it's becoming something of a family tradition. Besides, Jemimah has never heard the stories and I have something in particular to tell her too."
Jemimah sat up straighter on her cushion. Scott and Johnny both settled by the box of decorations and reached inside for their particular favourite.
"Do Scott's first," Johnny grinned at his big brother who held a small conical basket.
It was made of delicate antique lace, carefully stretched over a wire frame and the handle was made from two scarlet ribbons.
Murdoch smiled and, when he spoke, his voice was soft.
"The first time I met your mother, Scott, was at a dinner party held at the home of a mutual acquaintance. I was pretty much fresh off the boat from Scotland and feeling like the proverbial fish out of water among the height of Boston society. I'm sure you can imagine how well I fit in!" His mouth quirked in a wry smile. "But then, a friend introduced me to this... lady. Ah, she was a beauty and, out of nowhere, I suddenly heard myself asking her to dance with me." Murdoch's eyes were distant, lost in the recollection. Then he shook himself. "Of course, she was a perfect lady; refrained from remarking on the fact that this clodhopper was stomping all over her feet!"
Everyone smiled but there was an especially warm glint in Scott's eyes.
"She was always so gracious," Murdoch paused, remembering. "By the end of that dance, we were in love." He gestured to the tiny basket. "All the ladies were given an identical basket that evening. It was filled with rose petals. Catherine said she would treasure it always... to remind her of the night we met."
Scott stood up and carefully hung the delicate little treasure on the tree in its usual place.
"Mine next, Murdoch!" Johnny eagerly held up the little carved horse and his father grinned.
"Ah, Hossy!" he chuckled.
"Hossy?" Pony giggled and then sobered when she felt Miss Florida give her a gentle nudge.
"This was your very first toy, Johnny," Murdoch began the story. "I carved this for you before you were even born - you might guess we were sure you would be a boy - and I placed him in your crib that first Christmas. You can see poor old Hossy has lost most of his paint and nearly all his mane is gone now..."
It was true; the little horse had seen better days. Much of his paint was cracked and chipped away. His black mane was now merely a few tufts and he had a sad stringy mockery of a tail.
"Worn away from too much love," Murdoch smiled. "You carried him everywhere and, when you started to talk, you called him 'Hossy'. He and I spent many a Christmas waiting for..." Murdoch swallowed hard and felt himself blush.
Giving his father a moment to collect himself, Johnny stood and reached up to place Hossy on the tree in his usual place. When he turned to sit back down again, his warm blue gaze locked onto Murdoch's misty eyes and, in that brief moment, they both understood what was in the other's heart though it remained unspoken.
"So, what is it you want to tell me?" Jemimah piped up.
"Ah yes, come over here," Murdoch beckoned her. "I have something for you."
"Ain't a switch is it?" Jelly teased, his whiskers twitching.
Murdoch smiled. "No, it's not a switch. We'll leave that up to Santa!"
He reached for the girl and hugged her onto his lap, fishing in his vest pocket for something.
"A long time ago, before I left for America, I knew this young girl. You might say we grew up together. We were neighbours. My brothers and I used to roam all over the countryside with her and her brothers. Our poor parents..." Murdoch grinned ruefully and coughed. "Well, that's another story. This girl, you remind me very much of her in a lot of ways. Oh, she was ... she was wild. We'd tramp across the banks of the loch and she would gather up the heather and wild flowers, sometimes she'd weave them through her hair..."
"I do that!" Jemimah exclaimed.
"Yes, your hair is very like hers; she had the longest, softest..." Murdoch traced a gentle hand down Jemimah's long thick braid. "And you're as mischievous as she was too!" He shook his girl in mock reproof. "My own father said she had the devil in her! She used to drag me into more scrapes and shenanigans than I care to remember. Many's the licking I've had from my Dad because of following her instead of minding his rules. But... I wouldn't have changed a thing. We were but children then and I often thought... well, when I chose to come to America, she decided to stay. She said her place was with her kin and the land of her birth." He paused, gazing intently at the child who so resembled her mother. " Rose."
Murdoch's tale petered out. There was silence in the room.
"Ah, it was all long ago. But I still have this memento. She gave this to me the day I left and I think she would like you to have it now."
Murdoch opened his hand and the child lifted the precious thing up. It was small, the size of a locket and hung on a ribbon. Jemimah held it up to the light. It was a small glass circle and, embedded within it, was a pressed purple thistle flower. The rim of the glass was enhanced with exquisite filigree silver work and the ribbon threaded through it was emerald green velvet.
Jemimah felt a single tear trace its meandering track down her cheek and, perhaps truly for the first time, felt that she belonged wholeheartedly to the Lancer family. It could not be clearer that Murdoch had loved her mother, Rose - long before Catherine or Maria - and, if chance had taken them all down a different path, he could have been her real father. Jemimah felt no scorn; it did not lessen her love for her parents. Rather, she edged in closer to Murdoch, the bond between them stronger than ever.
At length, she slipped down from his lap and, crossing to the tree, hung the glass with the thistle in between the horse and the lace basket. Scott reached up to softly squeeze her shoulder and Johnny mussed her hair before she could dodge out of the way.
"Are we gonna hang up the rest of this stuff?" Pony asked irreverently.
Everyone chuckled and, though Jelly, Teresa and Florida all wiped away a surreptitious tear, the moment passed into Lancer history and they roused themselves, carrying on with the decorating. Once more, the room filled with laughter and chat.
Some of the family's warnings about Santa and switches in their stockings must have hit home because both Pony and Jemimah behaved impeccably for the rest of the day. Much later, after everyone had gone to bed, Murdoch and his sons sat up for a while, drinking a last whisky (or, in Johnny's case, Tequila) and talking comfortably by the fireside.
"I do hope we won't find any more apple-pie beds when we get upstairs," Scott raised an anxious eyebrow.
Murdoch grunted. "If those two have been up to mischief, I will make sure Santa leaves some stout switches and, in the morning, my first order of business will be to try them out!" he vowed.
Johnny sniggered and looked up through his lashes. "It won't be Christmas carols those two are singin' if you do!"
He pushed himself up from the sofa and, stretching, wished his father and brother a good night, making his way through to the hallway. Scott followed suit and Murdoch grinned at the sound of his boys' boots on the stairs. It was a sound that inexplicably made his heart glad. He put out the lamp then followed them up to bed.
Christmas morning dawned bright and crisp. The sun endeavoured to shine, streaming in through the windows and adding to the cheery atmosphere around the noisy, busy table. Breakfast, courtesy of Teresa and Miss Florida (Maria, for once, having the day off to spend it with her own brood), was delicious and devoured with alacrity by the appreciative recipients.
Next came the present opening. The children's stockings were fat and lumpy and proved to contain no coal or switches. It appeared that Santa, full of the joys of the season, had decided to overlook their recent misdemeanours!
Jemimah's knitted gifts were received with grateful surprise and much praise for her intricate work. Johnny unwrapped the new hatband and was touched at the thoughtfulness of her gift - 'how did she know it was the one he'd been eyeing up for quite a while?' His spontaneous hug and kiss, Jemimah felt, were the best gift so far!
Jelly tried on his Wee Willie Winkie hat to much resounding laughter but this was followed, in an attempt to smooth his ruffled feathers, by reassurances that he looked a 'proper gent' in it and that they were all the rage in Europe.
Pony had made cookies and molasses taffy for everyone, wrapped in coloured paper and decorated with curling ribbon so that each box looked almost too good to unwrap. She sat blushing proudly while Florida told everyone that she was a great little cook and would, no doubt, take over the cafe before too long.
The first cloud on the horizon that morning, as far as Jemimah and Pony were concerned, was the decree that they would attend the church services in Green River with the rest of the family. Jemimah still tried to avoid church whenever possible and to have to be dragged there when there was good candy to be eaten and presents to inspect was too painful a prospect! She voiced this long and loud but decided to hold her tongue when Murdoch announced that he could think of a prospect far more painful and would not hesitate to administer it should she continue to whine!
So, dressed in their Sunday best but with much ungracious mumbling, both girls piled into the back of the wagon. Slouched there sulkily, they saw Cipriano's wagon draw up with the entire family on board. Enrique was there and, when he spotted them looking, gave both girls a bold wink. Jemimah grinned back but Pony blushed furiously and pretended not to notice him, smoothing back her hair. She was grateful for the distraction of Johnny leading Barranca from the barn and mounting up. He manoeuvred the horse so that he stood alongside Cip's wagon and it was only then that Murdoch realised he intended to go with them to the chapel.
Murdoch couldn't help the grin that lit his face but he said nothing to his son who was studiously avoiding his eye and muttering something about 'having something worth saying thank you for' by way of explanation.
Inside the church at Green River, Scott became instantly concerned by the way the two youngsters hopped into the pew so that they were at the far end, as distant from Murdoch and his restraining influence as possible. Scott would sooner have had them closer so that he could keep an eye on them. Jelly ambled in next to them, then Teresa, and Scott sighed with foreboding.
The congregation settled themselves in for what they knew would be a lengthy service. The Reverend Carmichaels liked nothing better than a captive audience and Christmas Day was the highlight of his calendar - his chance to impress upon his flock the need to atone for their sins and, irrespective of how many of the good ladies there were impatiently waiting to get back to their kitchens to get to work on the Christmas fare, he set about doing just that. Twenty minutes in, even Murdoch was stifling a yawn. Scott had taken to counting the feathers on Mrs Pillsbury's hat and Jelly had actually started to snore softly.
It was just as the Reverend began to read from the book of psalms that he seemed to develop a twitch. His right eye suddenly clenched shut, his bushy brow beetling down and the side of his mouth quirking up in a horrible sort of half leering rictus that was quite grotesque. Valiantly, he carried on though the twitch was becoming more pronounced and frequent with each passing moment. One or two members of the congregation tittered sneakily and there were several half-hidden smirks. Along every pew, shoulders were shaking with suppressed mirth. Nobody knew what ailed the good reverend but it surely livened up an otherwise dull-as-dishwater sermon.
Eventually, Scott stood up and leaned across Teresa and along the pew past Jelly who still slumbered peacefully. When he sat down again he was holding a long hollow straw. Murdoch mouthed silently at him, "Jemimah?" to which he mouthed back, "Pony!" Miss Florida pursed her lips and nodded grimly at Murdoch.
On the journey back, both girls were somewhat subdued, Murdoch having given them an ear-blistering with a promise to warm their backsides if they gave him any more nonsense.
After a light luncheon of tasty beef and vegetable soup with warm crusty rolls, everyone settled themselves in the great room. Scott pored over a new book while Johnny cleaned his colt at his father's big desk. Murdoch dozed in his usual armchair and Jelly did likewise at one end of the sofa. Both of the ladies were busy in the kitchen, cooking up a storm ready for the evening meal. And the two girls sprawled on the hearth rug by the fire to play checkers.
At length, finding themselves evenly matched, Pony and Jemimah looked around the room for something else to do. In front of them, Jelly snored contentedly, as did Murdoch. Pony whispered to her chum and both girls grinned wickedly.
Seconds later, they had contrived to wedge a match in the instep of Jelly's boot. After much nudging and suppressed giggling, they decided to add a second then they lit them and scooted over to Johnny's side, feigning a sudden interest in his cleaning task, though their eyes kept darting to the slumbering old man by the fireside.
All at once, the peace of the afternoon was shattered when Jelly gave a whoop like the whistle of a steam engine. Everyone jerked in shock as he stomped around the room, flapping his arms like his goose, Dewdrop and honking just as loudly. It soon became apparent that Jelly was on fire but the only ones capable of assisting him were Murdoch and Scott as both the little villains were clutching their stomachs and falling over while shrieking loudly with laughter. Johnny, too, was beside himself and, though he initially jumped to his feet and sprang out from behind the desk in alarm, once he realised what was happening he doubled up, tears of mirth in his eyes.
When Murdoch had put out the blaze and Scott had poured a large whisky for the stuttering and still-jittery Jelly, the two miscreants were brought forth by the scruff of the neck. Johnny, though still smiling, captured the pair in a vice-like grip and delivered them to a far from amused Lancer patriarch. Suffice to say, Murdoch felt compelled to keep his promise, be it Christmas Day or no, so two minutes later the great room rang with squeals and yells to rival any of Jelly's prior squawking while said be-whiskered gentleman looked on in righteous approval.
Only when the two imps, now suitably chastened, were standing in opposite corners, noses to the wall, did everyone settle once more to their peaceful afternoon pastimes.
Dinner that evening was a great and grand affair. The table was lit with gleaming candles and both Teresa and Miss Florida were hailed as marvels for their sumptuous feast. Permitted to have cushions on their chairs for once, the children managed to enjoy their supper as much as the rest of the family though they had to be told more than once to stop squirming and be still.
After the meal, everyone adjourned to the fireside where there was much jovial talk and, finally, some of the candles and lamps were put out while Murdoch was persuaded to tell a ghost story - a tale from his homeland that thrilled his audience into an eerie silence. When, at last, the family (all tired out from the busy day and the excellence of the enormous dinner) retired to bed, Jelly was somewhat leery and skittish at the notion of crossing the moonlit courtyard to his annexe room. Obviously, his superstitious nature was more affected by Murdoch's tale than he liked to admit. The two youngsters took note of this and, smiling slyly, they made their way to their room, fresh plans formulating.
The next day, Pony and Jemimah decided they needed to put themselves back in Murdoch's good graces and so were up before the rest of the household. In no time, they had refilled the firewood box in the kitchen, swept the porch and put away the dishes from the night before. Pony, following Miss Florida's recipe, mixed up a batch of pancake batter and had fresh coffee brewing. With her arm still splinted, Jemimah was of little use to her so she busied herself by setting the table. By the time everyone came down for breakfast, the delicious aroma of pancakes and fresh coffee had permeated through the whole house.
Murdoch pushed away his plate, having managed to down three of Pony's pancakes. He eyed both girls for a moment then smiled. "Go on," he relented. "Off you go! But no more mischief!"
Johnny raised his eyes to heaven and Scott sighed. No mischief? He may as well tell them they weren't allowed to breathe!
The children hared off before Murdoch could change his mind. Donning jackets, they ran out of the door and, in no time, had located Jelly. As sorrowfully as possible, both girls begged his forgiveness for their mean trick. Hanging their heads and even managing to squeeze out a few crocodile tears, they easily convinced the soft-hearted old man that they were completely sorry for their misdeeds and, though he gruffly threatened to cut a switch should they play any more pranks on him, he was persuaded that they had never meant to set him afire in the first place.
"I just thank the Lord, Mr Jelly," Pony's blue eyes were filled with earnest concern. "That you made it back to your room safe an' sound. If'n you had met with... it, especially after the fire an' all, well... I just don't know what we would've done."
"Ooh yes," Jemimah's face mirrored her friend's worried countenance. "Promise us you'll take a lantern with you tonight, Jelly. If it finds you out there all alone and in the dark..."
"It? Now what in tarnation are you two blatherin' about? It?"
The girls gaped at each other.
"Why, we thought for sure you'd know, Jelly," Jemimah was incredulous. "I mean, you know everything that goes on in these parts."
Jelly wasn't sure whether to take that as a compliment or not. "Well, I keeps an ear to the ground, ya' might say," he preened. "T'allus pays ter know what's what, I say!"
"Then you'll know all about the hound," Pony allowed her shoulders to slump in relief.
"Hound? Watcha mean hound? Ya' mean Olly? He been diggin' up Maria's herb garden again?"
"No, no, not Olly!" Jemimah stopped in alarm, her hand grasping Jelly's wrist. "You mean you don't know?"
Jelly began to feel the first stirrings of alarm. The young'uns were very obviously agitated. Something had wound 'em up good an' proper!
"Know what?" he gruffed.
"Jelly - the Hell Hound!" Pony stated as though that explained everything.
"Hell Hound?" The old man wasn't keen on the sound of that.
"Yes," Jemimah gripped his hand in both of hers. "I heard tell from Enrique that it appears hereabouts around the time of the old year leaving and the new one coming in. It is said that, whosoever sees the hound, bad luck will follow them for the rest of the year!" This was all told with the utmost awe.
Jelly was momentarily gripped then he rolled his eyes and waved the whole nonsense away. "Aw, that boy's jest joshin' ya'."
"No, Jelly," Pony insisted gravely. "It was Enrique's Grandmother that told him an' she's a real spiritual woman; she wouldn't lie. She said his Granpappy saw the hound and the next year was when he was thrown from his horse during that stampede!"
Jelly paused, mulling it over. It was well known that Cip's father had been so badly hurt in a stampede on a cattle drive that he had lost the use of his right arm. But... a hound from hell?
"Aw, stuff an' nonsense!" Jelly huffed. "T'weren't 'cos of no Hell Hound; ol' José jest slipped off've his horse, that's all! Probly had one too many nips from a jug!"
"Not according to Enrique's Grandmother!" Jemimah pressed. "She swears blind it was down to the hound; said that her husband was scared to go outside for days after, swore that he could hear its enormous paws padding along behind him and its raspy panting, its breath as rank as the stench from Satan's bowels..."
Jemimah was getting into her 'part' so much that Pony had to cough to cover her laughter. Jelly, meanwhile, could feel the hairs standing up on the back of his neck. Eventually, he pulled himself together, lifting his chin obstinately.
"Hogwash!" he declared. "Jest a load of rhubarb thought up by some ol' biddy with nothin' ter do but flap her gums!"
Pony shook her head. "Well, I hope you're right, Jelly. I, for one, aim to be safe inside the house when night falls. Don't wanna catch them red eyes starin' at me!"
"Red eyes, huh?" Jelly attempted a derisive chuckle but it was weak at best.
He wandered off but the girls noted that he clutched his waistcoat tightly around himself and darted uneasy glances here and there as he went.
A great deal of thought went into the next step of the plan. If only Murdoch and Florida had known how diligently the two girls could apply their minds to a task they may have come to expect higher grades on their end of year school report cards!
Before dinner, as the sky was being painted a hazy peach by the sun's fading rays, Pony held a squirming Olly close to Jelly's door. Throwing back her head, she emitted a shrill howl. The dog, his ears pricking up at the sound, raised his muzzle to the setting sun and joined in while Pony grinned and scratched furiously at the door with a 4 inch nail. Then she raced off through the gateway with a frenzied Olly chasing after her, keen to play whatever game this was.
The door opened quickly and Jelly appeared from the gloom within, a lantern held aloft in his shaky hand. He peered closely at the deep gouges on his paintwork and swallowed hard, casting fearful glances over his shoulders at the empty courtyard.
Pony (having entered the house via the kitchen and walked sedately through the great room so not to arouse suspicion) joined Jemimah at the French windows where they clutched each other and tiptoed towards the old man. When Jelly turned to find the two kids standing behind him, Jemimah swore he jumped a whopping two feet into the air!
"Doggone it!" he panted testily. "Don't be standin' behind a man like that! It's a good thing I ain't carryin' no gun; I coulda plugged ya' full o' holes like one o' them Swiss cheeses!"
"Sorry, Jelly," said Pony, still clutching her friend. "But we was scared. We heard it - we heard the Hound!"
Jelly's eyes bugged out but he wrinkled his nose jeeringly. "Hound!" he scoffed. "Ain't no hound around here. Ya' probably jest saw a 'coon after snitching some o' the pig swill."
Jemimah shook her head vehemently. "No, Jelly! We heard it howlin' and those massive paws were scratchin' an' diggin' around here."
Jelly, at the mention of howling and scratching, swallowed nervously and gripped the lantern to him like an old friend. Pony, meanwhile, wandered over to the flowerbed (which the two had prepared earlier) and pointed.
"Look, you two! It was here!"
Sure enough, when they loomed over the soft ground and raised the lantern, huge 'paw prints' were visible in the earth. Jelly straightened quickly, blanching.
"Ooh, Jelly," Jemimah hugged her good arm around his middle. "You don't suppose... it's after you, do you? Oh, I couldn't bear it if anything happened to you!"
Jelly patted her head, privately thinking that he couldn't bear it either!
"Now, now, honey," he soothed. "I'm gonna be jest fine. No Hell Hound is gonna get the better of Jellifer P. Hoskins!"
"There is a way to keep it away. Didn't you say you knew of somethin', Jemimah?" Pony prompted.
The dark-haired imp feigned uncertainty. "We'ell, I ain't never done it myself but, back home when there was talk of bad spirits keepin' away the fish, the men would whitewash the sign of the cross on all the doors an' windows in the village. It warded 'em off, like. Daddy was a reverend but even he said that some of these old wives' tales had a grain of truth in 'em and that there are stranger things twixt heaven and hell."
Jelly was greatly perturbed by the knowledge that Jemimah's father, a God-fearing righteous man if ever there was, believed in all this. "Whitewash? Aw, that's jest plum crazy!"
"No, it's not, Jelly - if it keeps the hound away from you, it's worth it. Please, Jelly!" She hung her head and sniffled. "I don't want it to get you."
Pony joined in, throwing her arms dramatically around the jittery old man. "Me neither!"
Jelly was touched. "Cain't say I'm too keen on the prospect myself!"
"We'll help you wash it all off again after New Years, won't we?" Pony added
"'Course we will!" Jemimah nodded enthusiastically.
"Well..." This whitewashing thing was sounding more and more appealing by the second; anything to keep that demon away! "Jest to keep you kids happy... I'll set to work on it in the morning."
Jelly patted the little darlings on the shoulder but, had he seen the conniving smirks instead of staring watchfully into the gathering dusk, his aim would have been considerably lower and much more forceful.
Johnny stuck his handsome head round the door and whistled sharply to his father and brother who were still seated at the breakfast table, finishing a last cup of Miss Florida's famous coffee and discussing the new bull they had purchased from Aggie.
"Hey, come take a look at this!" Johnny called, grinning from ear to ear. He disappeared out into the courtyard again and, curiosity piqued, Scott and Murdoch followed.
"What's that boy up to now?" Murdoch chuntered under his breath.
Once outside, however, it was plain to see that the excitement was not down to Johnny. He was leaning casually against the tree, his arms folded and a grin of delight lighting up his face as he watched Jelly.
The elderly handyman was perched on a ladder outside his annexe room and was daubing symbols in thick whitewash over each window pane. The door was already similarly adorned, a multitude of crosses in various sizes now drying in the morning sunshine.
"Jelly, what in heck you doin'?" Johnny piped up, squinting into the sunlight. He looked at Murdoch and Scott when they joined him and shrugged.
Jelly threw a derisive glance at his 'audience' and carried on undeterred. "This here's insurance, boy, that's what!" he announced gruffly. "I aim to be safe not sorry come New Years."
Arms wrapped around himself, Johnny dipped his head and gave a snort of laughter but Jelly didn't even flinch.
"You can laugh, Mister Smart-Aleck!" he said. "But there's no demon dog from hell is gonna be fixin' me with its red eyes nor passin' its bad luck this-a-way!"
"Demon dog?" Scott mouthed to his brother who wrinkled up his nose and shook his head, as much in the dark as they were.
"You know anything about this, Murdoch?" Scott inquired.
"I'm afraid not."
"I bet I know who does though," Johnny smiled and quirked an eloquent brow.
It didn't take Johnny and Scott long to locate the girls. They were in their favourite spot, perched on the top rail of the corral fence and chattering away like two magpies.
"Hey, you two, what have you been doin' to Jelly, huh?" Johnny cut straight to the chase.
He strode up to them, his hands planted firmly on his lean hips and an impatient glint in his blue eyes. Thumbing back his hat, he regarded each girl stonily, none too pleased.
"Doin' to him?" Pony's mouth dropped open in surprise. "We ain't done nuthin', Johnny. Honest!"
Johnny watched Pony flutter her eyelashes, playing the innocent. Little devil!
"Now, Pony," he warned softly. "You know that don't work on me." When she pouted and turned away huffily, Johnny took her by the waist and gave her a little shake. "Come on - spill it!"
"What makes you think we've done anything?" Jemimah smirked wickedly.
Johnny turned his attention on little minx number two and, though he smiled, Jemimah felt a shiver dance up her spine at the intensity of his gaze.
"Because, Miss Smarty-Pants, right about now he's halfway up a ladder, smearing crosses all over the doors an' windows of his room!" Johnny's voice was getting louder. "Darn place looks like some gypsy fortune-teller's caravan!"
Both youngsters cracked up laughing, slapping their knees with glee.
"You're kiddin'?" Pony chortled. "He fell for it?"
"How green can you get?" Jemimah nudged her friend and, again, they cackled raucously.
Sadly, both girls failed to notice that, far from joining in their merriment, both young men wore somewhat severe expressions, their boots tapping on the dusty ground with undisguised impatience.
"So, it is one of your pranks?" Scott directed his question to Jemimah. "Don't you think this is a tad unfair? Two against one. It smacks of ganging up on him. Do you think Jelly deserves that?"
Pony and Jemimah ceased laughing and experienced a twinge of discomfort. However, there is nothing like being made to feel guilty to rile a person and, right about then, Jemimah was building up on a darn good 'mad' with big 'brother' Scott.
"I just love how you two are allowed to play tricks on Jelly but, when we do it, it's unfair and we're in trouble! A bit bloody hypocritical of you, ain't it, Scott?" Jemimah snapped, her green eyes flashing.
Scott frowned at her saucy tone and planted his hands firmly on the rail either side of her so that she could not avoid looking in his eye as he spoke. "You watch yourself, my girl."
But Jemimah was becoming pretty worked up. Her temper did not often rear its ugly head but her eyes had narrowed as she stared back at Scott and her mouth was pressed into a thin line of fury in her elfin face.
Johnny, by Pony's side, recognised that look and shook his head at her. Jemimah blithely ignored his warning. She was clenching her fist against the rail and debating whether to plant it right in Scott's interfering nose. She figured, if it was just him, she could get away before he recovered but Johnny was another matter; he'd have her by the scruff before she could get down from the fence! She hesitated too long; Scott was preaching again.
"Your behaviour these last few days has been sadly lacking... both of you. I would have expected it to be better, bearing in mind the festive season." Scott shook his head with disappointment, making Jemimah seethe. "I'm sorry to say that, after watching that poor man back there..." He pointed over to the courtyard and both girls coloured up. "...I feel ashamed of you!"
That did it! Scott's declaration pushed the girl over the edge. The more guilty he made her feel, the angrier she became. Suddenly pushing off from the rail so that he was forced to take a stumbling step backwards, she hopped to the ground, looking for all the world like an irate sparrow. Mimicking Scott's stance, with her hands on her hips, Jemimah glared up at the tall man.
"Jeez, Scott!" she spat. "You sure you wanna be a rancher? I think you'd do better as a parson with all the sermonising you do!"
Scott looked like he had swallowed a bug! "Is that so?" he growled. "Now, you listen here, my girl..."
Jemimah turned away from him, tugging Pony down from the fence and barging rudely past Johnny. The two kids headed for the barn, noses in the air, and Jemimah shouted back over her shoulder.
"I'd like to see things your way, Scott, I really would..."
Johnny sighed and patted a calming hand on Scott's arm.
"...But there's no fuckin' way I could get my head that far up my own arse!" Jemimah's shout made both Lancers gasp.
Seeing the shock on both of their faces, Jemimah was momentarily pleased with herself. That lasted all of three seconds - until she saw them start to give chase. She had thrown down the gauntlet and both Scott and Johnny had taken up the challenge!
Squealing like the Hell Hound of her imagination was on her tail, Jemimah hared off towards the barn with Pony hot on her heels. Risking a backwards glance over her shoulder, Jemimah yelped to see Johnny gaining on her and she put a spurt on, not putting it past him to make a flying tackle to bring her down! The kids bounded, shrieking, into the barn with mere seconds to spare and hurled themselves against the door, Pony managing to knock the bar down into place so that their pursuers were left thwarted on the outside.
"Jemimah! Pony!" Johnny yelled and smacked the palm of his hand on the door, wishing it was the wriggling behind of either girl. "Open this door right now, y'hear?!"
At the very rude noise which sounded from the inside, Johnny gritted his teeth. Those kids were beggin' for it! "Jemimah!"
Scott took Johnny's arm. "Come on, Johnny. They'll have to come out sooner or later." He raised his voice so the little hooligans on the inside could hear him. "And, when they do, we'll be waiting for them!"
Much later at dinner, Pony sat at the table, staring mournfully at her single chunk of bread. She was very subdued. Raising her blue eyes sufficiently to risk a glance across to the big desk by the window, she once again experienced a pang of whole-hearted sympathy for her friend.
Jemimah stood by Murdoch's desk, eyeing her own lump of bread miserably. She shuffled a little but the simple movement caused such a twinge of hurt that she stilled instantly. Maybe... they were all busy stuffing themselves with dinner; they'd never notice. She slowly reached a sneaky hand back to gently rub at the sting...
"Jemimah!" Murdoch's warning rumbled across the room and, immediately, the errant hand snapped back to her side. How did he know? He wasn't even looking in her direction! Damn it! Those pesky Lancers had eyes in the back of their heads!
Sam Jenkins chuckled. "It was very good of you to invite me to stay to dinner, Murdoch," he smiled. "I don't know when I've tasted a more delicious steak pie. Teresa, you've out-done yourself, my dear."
"Oh, I can't take the credit for this one, Doc," Teresa smiled warmly back. "This is all down to Miss Florida!"
"Well, whoever the chef is, it's delicious!"
Florida smiled graciously then frowned at Pony who piped up, "The secret's in the ale! Miss Florida allus adds a nip to the sauce!"
Johnny straightened and pinned the little blonde with an icy blue glare. "You just hush an' eat your... dinner!" he instructed.
Pony looked warily up the table to Johnny. He was very stern. His usual boyish grin was nowhere to be found. That afternoon, while Scott had been whomping Jemimah with that darn brush, Johnny had said that for two pins he'd give her a lickin' too! Pony surely didn't fancy that; Jemimah had informed her that his hand was hard. She hung her head and broke off a tiny lump of the bread.
They had thought the arrival of Doc Sam could be their salvation. He had come to check on Jemimah's arm and the stitches. Seeing an opportunity to wriggle out of the retribution Scott was itching to mete out, Jemimah had summoned her best woeful expression and nursed her broken arm, sighing with as much beleaguered suffering as she could. Sam, however, had announced to a lingering Murdoch that the arm was doing well and the stitches in her scalp were holding nicely. Proclaiming her 'fit for active duty', Sam passed her over to her father with a gleam in his eye.
"Now you can paddle her behind!"
Murdoch, in turn, delivered her into the hands of his jubilant older son who wasted no time in demonstrating what he considered to be some well-earned 'brotherly guidance'. Pony winced again in sympathy but then perked up when she realised the conversation had turned to the bizarre whitewashed etchings all over the exterior of Jelly's room.
"Nope, they're there and there they'll stay 'til New Years," Jelly was adamant. "Pays to be cautious, that's what I allus say!"
Pony smiled, risking another furtive glance across to Jemimah who was also grinning.
"So... will ya' do it?"
Pony smiled eagerly at Enrique. Jemimah, lurking in the background, hid her smirk by busying herself sweeping the porch with the old broom. Enrique pretended to consider Pony's request but Jemimah knew he would agree. It amused her to see the youth's transfer of allegiance; Pony had him hook, line and sinker!
Pony laughed and spat into her hand before holding it out to him. Enrique plunked down his bucket and, copying her, spat then they shook to seal the deal.
"You sure you don't want another of Murdoch's Cuban cigars for this, Enrique?" Jemimah teased, her green eyes glinting.
The boy scowled, remembering the aftermath of that particular bout of pranks. "Nope. I'm not gettin' caught with them things on me again!" he vowed. "Mi papa me azotará!"
"Alright, now remember, Enrique," Pony went over the plan again. "Just before dinner tonight! An' you gotta be real quiet gettin' her into the room, you got it?"
Enrique grinned. "Si, muy fácil."
Knowing that Murdoch always insisted on dinner at six sharp, the girls knocked on Jelly's whitewashed door at half-past five. The poor man answered their summons still in his undershirt and clearly only part-way through his pre-dinner ablutions
"Cain't a man git any peace around here?" he grumbled testily. "Watcha' want now?"
Pony rushed forward. "Jelly, there's someone in the barn. We heard 'em!"
"It'll only be that mutt o' yourn!" Jelly protested as they each took hold of a hand and started to drag him across the yard. "Or some critter..."
"No, I don't think so, Jelly," Pony disagreed. "It could be rustlers!"
"Rustlers!" Jelly's feet suddenly refused to take another step and he looked around hopefully for either Johnny or Scott. As both young men were currently in their rooms, getting cleaned up after a hard day's work, he was on his own.
Having arrived at the barn, the girls edged behind him and gave him a hefty shove through the door, where he loitered, reluctant to go any further into the gloom within.
Suddenly, he yelled in fear as a large white shape hurled itself at him from above. Shrieking, he danced, rather in the fashion of a terrified old rooster, around the barn as the shape gave chase, honking loudly. It took more than a few moments for both man and goose to calm themselves but, when Jelly finally realised his attacker had been Dewdrop hurling himself from the hay loft, he felt more than a mite foolish and turned his displeasure on the bird.
"Crazy critter!" he spat. "How'd you git y'self up there in the first place?" Pony and Jemimah exchanged a furtive look. "Go on back to the house afore I get you on a platter with some sage an' onion stuffin'!"
Strolling back to the house, the girls linked their arms through his and gazed up at him adoringly.
"That was so brave of you, Jelly," Jemimah praised. "After all, it could've been rustlers; you weren't to know it was only Dewdrop."
Jelly seemed to grow another inch in height. "Jest doin' my duty, is all," he preened. "I take my position here mighty serious. We all gotta play our part." Gruffly, he deflected their adulation though it undoubtedly added to his swagger nonetheless.
"An' it even could've been the Hound so that makes you double brave, Jelly!" Pony said, her blue eyes like saucers.
The old gentleman jerked to a halt as the horrible thought hit him. Until the child said that, he had not actually considered the possibility of it being the hound.
Reaching Jelly's door once more, the youngsters told him that they would go back to the house and let him finish getting ready for dinner. But, once his door closed behind him, the girls raced to the other side of the wall and crouched behind it.
"Mind my dress! You're standin' on it!" Pony hissed.
"Oh, stuff your dress! Bob down!" Jemimah whispered, finding it hard to contain her laughter. "And shush!"
"I sure hope Enrique has managed to..."
At that very moment, the door flew open and Jelly spilled out onto the floor in a tangle of limbs. He picked himself up then hurled himself across the courtyard and burst into the great room through the French windows, howling like a banshee.
Behind the wall, the two miscreants clapped hands to their mouths and shook with suppressed mirth.
"It's there! It's come for me!" Jelly wailed, a mad gleam in his eyes.
Murdoch jumped up from his desk as fast as his aching back would allow. "Jelly, what in blue blazes...?" He strode over to his quivering friend.
"It's in there!" was all Jelly could say.
By this time, Scott had run into the room from upstairs, Jelly's shrieks having carried through the whole house. Johnny was heard thumping down off the banister moments later then he barged into the back of his brother, his clean white shirt flapping open and his dark hair still damp and uncombed.
Tucking in his shirt, Johnny looked wildly around him to see what had caused the ruckus. "What's goin' on?"
"The Hound... the Hell Hound... it's here...!" Jelly gabbled.
"Where?" Scott scanned the room, thinking that Jelly must've had a nip or two at his jug.
"In my room!" the poor man hooted. "I done heard it - the hideous pantin' of a huge wolf-like beast, its eyes were blazin' at me... an' the most evil stench like the bowels of Satan comin' from its putrid breath!" He put his head in his hands in despair. "Jest like Jemimah telled me..."
Scott and Johnny exchanged glances then regarded the broken old man before them. Johnny reached out to pat his trembling shoulder and his face was grim. "Jemimah, huh?" he ground out.
"Come on!" Scott urged him.
Jelly reacted instantly, leaping to block the doorway, his hands held up against Scott's blue shirt front in an attempt to keep him back. "No, son!" he begged. "Don't you go too!" He turned a pleading face to Murdoch who was trying to push past and sorrowfully watched Johnny reach for his gun belt and start to buckle it on. "Ain't it enough that I seen it an' I'm cursed without you seein' it too?"
Murdoch ignored him and, though his back was giving him hell more than any hound could impart, he nodded to his boys and they processed out into the courtyard. With Jelly twitching like a scraggy old buzzard behind them, they marched to the door which gaped open. Slowing at the threshold, they eased themselves forwards, all three craning their necks to see the hound. Johnny had drawn his gun but, when he saw the beast that had so intimidated his friend, he rolled his eyes to heaven and re-holstered the weapon.
"Jelly," he said with exasperation. "Is this your hound?"
At the tone of his voice, Jelly felt the first stirrings of unease. All three Lancers were seemingly far from frightened, in fact, they were almost... smiling! Step by faltering step, he edged nearer, peering through the doorway but making sure Murdoch's bulk was shielding him. He screwed up his eyes to get a better look and saw... Margaret the sow, wallowing contentedly in his bed and wearing a gay kerchief around her head!
"Well, Jelly," Scott began. "She certainly does have a very particular aroma though I'm not sure I could liken it to the stench of Satan's... what was it again?"
Mortified beyond his imagining, Jelly stuttered and started to make his excuses - the light was too dim, a man never expected to find a pig in his bed; you could hardly blame him!
Murdoch's expression was dark. "Oh no, Jelly, I'm not blaming you!" The big man felt he had taken quite enough and, stepping back into the fresh evening air, (that pig really was odiferous!) he bellowed, "Jemimah! Alice!"
Moments later, the two villains stepped quietly out from behind the wall, hands clasped meekly before them, heads bowed suitably in shame. Murdoch's big hand indicated the spot right in front of him. "Come over here." They shuffled over warily, neither particularly wanting to be in such close proximity to him.
"This is the final straw," Murdoch ground out, his face becoming redder by the minute and that tell-tale vein twitching at his temple. "I think I've been pretty lenient with both of you this Christmas but..." his voice was getting louder "... this time you've gone too far! And, just how did you get that pig in there?"
"Enrique?" Scott suggested.
The girls smirked at each other.
A voice came from the French windows, "I saw that, Alice!" Miss Florida and Teresa were watching the whole scene with disapproval.
Murdoch was in full-flow again. "It's time you two learned that actions have consequences! If it weren't for my back playing up, I'd take both of you out to the barn and blister your bottoms!" Jelly nodded in righteous indignation. "As it is, you will go to bed without supper, right now!" Jelly hooked his thumbs into his suspenders and straightened virtuously. "As Jelly is the injured party, he can do the honours in the morning!"
Jelly's face dropped at this suggestion but, seeing Murdoch watching him, he drew himself up and gave a single determined nod. "There'll be a reckoning, don't you worry about that, boss!"
Pony and Jemimah exchanged a meaningful glance. Rather Jelly than the ol' man!
Johnny and Scott looked pityingly at their friend who, in front of Murdoch, was manning-up to the task ahead but, once the big man had led the children inside, slumped unhappily.
"I think Jelly may need a little assistance tomorrow, brother," Scott whispered.
"God, I'm so hungry, I could eat a nun's arse through the bars of the convent gate!" Jemimah griped, clutching her rumbling belly.
Pony paused in her efforts to stuff the folded towel down the back of her jeans and guffawed at the remark. Jemimah joined her and it was in a fit of mad giggling that Johnny found them when he poked his head around the bedroom door.
"You two sure don't seem very sorry for all the trouble you've caused," he observed and, though his voice was soft, both girls sobered at once. Johnny could be scary when he wanted to be... like now. His arms were folded, his red shirt sleeves rolled up to reveal the tanned skin underneath and he looked very serious, very serious indeed. "I hope you're ready to apologise real pretty an' sincere?"
They both hung their heads and nodded.
"Come on then."
With a heavy hand on the back of each neck, Johnny propelled the miscreants down the stairs and across the yard to the barn where, no doubt, Jelly awaited them.
It was as they thought. When Johnny marched them in, he paused at the doorway (blocking any potential escape attempt) and motioned for them to proceed alone. Jelly was lurking uneasily inside, looking for all the world like he would be the one trying to make the escape!
"Well?" Johnny prompted them.
The girls launched into their pre-rehearsed apology.
"Jelly, we're real sorry for the trick we played. It was mean an' sneaky an' we're justly ashamed of ourselves," Pony recited.
Jemimah nodded, her pale little face the image of heartbreak. "Yes, we know we shouldn't have made you look like such a foolish yahoo in front of everyone..."
Johnny bit the inside of his lip to keep from laughing aloud. That little varmint! "Jemimah!" he warned.
"But we know we deserve a whupping, Jelly," Jemimah went on hurriedly. "An' we won't blame you at all if you really feel like givin' us what we deserve... do you... Jelly?"
The old man gulped. Here, faced with the actual prospect of punishing the children, he was far from keen. "Well now... maybe you've learned your lesson..." he began but, catching sight of Johnny shaking his head resolutely by the doorway, he cleared his throat, "..ahem... but I reckon I oughtta take you in hand anyways."
Jelly looked so uneasy, it was as they suspected - though he threatened if often enough (even to Johnny at times!), he had obviously never physically disciplined a kid in his life.
Jemimah bit back a grin and, taking his hand, she led him over to the hay bales. Pony handed him a length of harness to use as a strap then both kids bent over the straw. Lower lip trembling tearfully ('Boy, that kid was a good actress,' Johnny marvelled), Jemimah called back over her shoulder to the frozen old man, "Please can you get it over an' done with, Jelly?"
Jelly looked so pained, eyes darting repeatedly from the strap in his hand to the derrieres facing him, that Johnny took pity on him and stepped forward. "Jelly, I think I just heard Murdoch calling you!"
"You did?" Jelly's eyes brightened with hope.
"Yep. You'd better run; he sounded like it could be urgent!"
Jelly grinned shakily at him, sincere thanks in his eyes though he covered his relief instantly. "Darn it! Well now," he turned to the little girls still prone across the hay. "Looks like you two've had a narrow escape an' no mistake! Tsk! Jest you watch yoursels in future!" Then, before Johnny could suggest that he perform the deed before attending to Murdoch's summons, Jelly scooted - quick!
Jemimah stood up, chuckling but her grin faded away when Johnny twirled his forefinger to motion her back to her place beside Pony.
"Just where d'you think you're goin?"
Jemimah's green eyes opened wide at the sound of Johnny's spurs jingling as they crossed the earth floor and came to a halt right behind her. Uh-oh, this was not good, not good at all! She flinched as she felt his fingers lift her long woollen cardigan up from her rump. Then both girls waited, holding their breath.
"Alright, chica, lose the padding!"
Pony and Jemimah gaped at each other. How did he know? Straightening with dismay, they delved into the back of their jeans and fished out the wad of towel they had both artfully stuffed into place. Mouths now feeling distinctly dry, they tried to flash him a cheeky smile but, as he seated himself on the hay bales, it was a poor effort at best.
Johnny chewed his lower lip as though considering his next move then, seeming to have reached a decision, he flicked his blue gaze onto Pony and beckoned her with an ominous finger. He was trying awfully hard not to smile but Pony's shocked look of dismay was almost his undoing. He was gratified, however, when she moved towards him and, catching hold of her hand, he turned his attention to the dark-haired little miss who was taking tiny sneaky steps backwards.
"Don't you move, young lady!"
"I feel really bad for ya', Pony," Jemimah said. "Johnny's hand is as hard as a board!"
Johnny raised an eyebrow. "Thanks kid... an' you just stay put!"
"I wasn't paying a compliment," she muttered and took another shuffle in the opposite direction, despite his warning. Unfortunately for her, she backed straight into Scott who, eyes gleaming with triumph, tweaked her ear painfully and marched her over to the hay bales opposite.
"You better not mind when I start hollerin' an' cussin! T'won't be my fault!" Pony piped up as Johnny tipped her over his knee.
He struggled not to laugh out loud. Little varmint! How'd he manage to find two ornery little cusses like these? Scott, mindful of Jemimah's arm, placed her just so across his lap then, with no further ado, both brothers proceeded to paddle the culprits good and proper, just as their father had requested.
Perched on ladders and armed with buckets of water and cleaning rags, Jemimah and Pony were still only halfway through their task - washing all the crosses off the windows and door of Jelly's room. Scott and Johnny lolled comfortably in the shade of the tree, a cup of Florida's excellent coffee warming them and a plate of Teresa's delicious chocolate brownies between them.
"Hey, you missed a bit!" Johnny called, grinning when Jemimah grit her teeth and reached up to go over the window pane she had just finished scrubbing.
Pony darted a forgetful hand back but was stopped before she could soothe away the fierce sting.
"Ah-ah! You earned it, you wear it!" Scott warned.
Pony and Jemimah glanced back over their shoulders at the grinning men and, if looks could have killed, Johnny and Scott would have been writhing on the ground. Heartless bastards! Turning back to the job at hand, the kids sighed heavily. Maybe Margaret the pig really was a demon from hell because their luck sure had changed and it wasn't even New Year!
Anne Haslam May 2013
'Down by the Glenside' (The Bold Fenian Men) was a song written around 1916 by Peadar Kearney about the freedom-fighters of the previous generation in Ireland. It was beautifully sung by Ken Curtis (Festus in Gunsmoke who was primarily a singer and also John Ford's son-in-law) in the 1950 film 'Rio Grande' which was supposed to take place around 1873. I thought, if John Ford could take liberties with the date the song was composed for his own purposes, then so could I.