A few of these characters (i.e. the Lancers and a handful who appeared in
the TV show) are not mine though I feel like they are as I while away many a
happy hour in their company... and I know I'm not alone in this.
Scott is 33; Johnny is 28
Another big thank you to Barb (Ms Muse) for the storyline idea. I may well be back so get your thinking cap on!
Jemimah's eyelids fluttered. She blinked and gradually came back to reality at the sound of hooves thudding up to the hitching post. She shuffled in the wicker chair, taking in a deep lungful of reviving fresh air as she came fully awake. Her knitting had slipped from her lap while she dozed and she retrieved it now, straightening slowly and indulging in a luxurious stretch.
Johnny was sliding down from Barranca's back and giving her a little wave, his teeth white in his tanned face as he grinned across at her.
"You sleepin'?" he called. "Did I wake you? Sorry."
She shook her head, stifling a huge yawn. "No... I'd just nodded off. I didn't mean to. Maria will be cursin' me for not helpin' out with dinner. I just can't seem to keep my eyes open in the afternoons."
He had reached the veranda now and leaned in for a kiss which she willingly bestowed. When the kiss deepened and she reached to slip her arms around his neck, he stepped back reluctantly.
"I'm awful sweaty an' dusty."
She smiled broadly and stood on tiptoe, her eager arms paying him no heed.
"You don't mind? Alright... lay it on me, honey!"
They were still embracing and laughing together when Teresa came out onto the porch with two tall glasses of lemonade.
"Here, I thought you could both use this. It's real dry and dusty today," she smiled.
Jemimah took her glass gratefully.
"Aw, I was gonna help more today," she said with an embarrassed wince. "You should've called me."
"No, you need your rest. You do plenty around here and Maria and I can manage."
Jemimah touched Teresa's arm briefly.
"Thanks but I keep tellin' you all - I'm not an invalid. I just get sleepy around three. Don't know why."
"Because your body's workin' hard on growin' my baby," Johnny said, one strong arm around her and his hand resting gently on her stomach - still flat as a board. "When you feel tired, you should rest like Teresa says."
The older brunette smiled and headed back to the kitchen, leaving them alone. Johnny put both arms around his little wife, hugging her in close and dipping his head to softly brush her lips with his own.
"Pay some attention to what your body's telling you, girl. If you feel like you want to sleep... then sleep."
Jemimah smirked, her green eyes gleaming naughtily up at him.
"I wouldn't mind any if you felt like payin' some attention to my body."
He sniggered and gently tweaked the end of her pert nose, tossing his head to flick the long black hair from his eyes. "Think I need a bath first."
She snuggled into him. "Mmm, now there's a thought."
"What - you gonna come scrub my back for me?"
"Was thinking more of joining you in the tub."
Johnny grinned, scooping her into his warm body, his hands trailing down her spine, moulding her to him and coming to rest on the rounded curve of her backside.
"Sounds like a good idea to me. You collect some clean duds an' I'll draw the bath."
Hand in hand, the couple headed towards their apartment.
Scott plunked his hat onto a peg on the hall stand and, as he stepped down into the great room, patted at his shirt and pants, blowing away the dust as it puthered about him. He smiled to see his very pregnant wife relaxing with Murdoch and Teresa.
She was the picture of rosy rude health; 'positively glowing' the Widow Hargis had remarked on her last visit. The smile she flashed him now lit her whole face and he made a beeline for her, relishing her enthusiastic kiss as he sat beside her.
"Well, it's alright for some," he said, looking pointedly at each face.
"It certainly is!" Murdoch's smile was smug. He raised his glass of cool lemonade in a toast to his oldest son who chuckled and sank his aching body back into the cushiony sofa.
"Where's Jemimah?" he asked.
Teresa and Zee exchanged smirks.
"Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies!" Zee giggled from behind the rim of her glass.
"What does that mean?"
Zee's dark eyes were twinkling mischievously.
"Last we saw of her, she an' your brother was headed to the bath house... together... an' there's only one tub in there!"
Murdoch had dipped his head and was concentrating on brushing away a non-existent speck of lint from his trouser leg. However, Scott thought he detected an amused quirk to the corners of his father's mouth.
"Seems to me..." Zee went on. "There's some mighty sneaky goings-on in there."
Scott cleared his throat.
"The only reason I ask is that I have a letter for her. I picked it up in town." He scrutinised the envelope. "From Grayson County, California."
"Grayson County?" Murdoch lifted his head. "Who would she know from Grayson?"
"And why do I know that name?" Scott added.
"What is it, honey?"
Johnny moved closer to Jemimah. Her face, as she quickly perused the letter, had clouded over and now she was scowling as she read the final paragraph.
The others watched her with concern, glancing anxiously at each other when she slapped the paper down on her lap.
"God, not her!" she exclaimed. "I never thought to hear from that old battleaxe again!"
"Who?" Even Murdoch was becoming worried.
Jemimah curled her lip in distaste. "Nora Sheehy," she almost spat the name and instantly took a swig of her lemonade as if to cleanse her mouth of some foulness. "She says she's in Grayson with my cousin, Flora and they'd like to visit me."
"Flora? And Nora Sheehy, did you say?" Murdoch asked.
She nodded sullenly, relinquishing the letter to Johnny who had reached for it.
"I vaguely recall a Mrs. Sheehy. She would be Betsy's aunt, am I right?"
"Betsy?" Scott was as intrigued as his brother.
It was Murdoch who explained.
"Andrew, Jemimah's father, had an older brother, Robert. He married a local lassie named Betsy and Flora would be their only surviving child." He looked to Jemimah for verification but she had moved over to the window and was gazing out with her back to them all. "If I remember right, poor Betsy and Robert lost their other three bairns in infancy."
"Lawdy," Zee breathed. "Poor woman."
Scott slipped his arm around her as though fending off any bad luck from Murdoch's words. Jemimah turned at last.
"All I remember of Flora is a whining, snotty-nosed brat, always trailing after me an' hiking up her drawers. Mrs. Sheehy brought her to visit us the once an' stayed a few days. I'm sure it would've been longer but the ol' bat soon realised we was as poor as church mice an' there was nowt worth hangin' about for - certainly nowt she could get her greedy mitts on! Didn't stop her tryin' though. I reckon she'd have took the brass off've the collection plate if nobody had been lookin'."
"Now, Jemimah..." Murdoch admonished gently.
"You didn't know her," she insisted. "She was a right grasper and you never met a bigger scold of a woman! Y'know, she once pinched me in the middle of us havin' our tea! I think she was tryin' to get me sent out so she could work on wangling some money out of Daddy but all I did was jump so sudden-like that I upset my plate of bangers n' mash!" She began to laugh at the memory. "Eeh, the gravy went all down her skirt an' I nearly wet meself laughin'!"
Johnny had finished reading the letter and now was laughing too. Zee smirked openly while Scott was rolling his eyes heavenwards.
"Still," Johnny pointed out. "She has your cousin with her and... I mean, with the baby on the way... family's important, ain't it? It'll be good to have them around you now?"
Jemimah regarded him incredulously as though he had grown an extra head.
"You barmy or something? If anything's goin' to make me feel poorly, it's havin' that vulture hoverin' round me!"
Murdoch hushed her. "Come now, you haven't seen the lady..."
"Lady?" she scoffed.
"Since you were about eleven years old..."
"And little Flora must be eight or nine now? They're so close, it would be churlish not to invite them for at least a brief visit."
"You can invite 'em if you want, Murdoch but I'm havin' nowt to do with it!"
"Young lady, I expect you to show the manners you have been taught and be gracious to any visitor at Lancer. You may find that time has wrought a change in them; it's certainly rubbed a few rough edges off you!"
"I've got it!" Scott suddenly exclaimed, snapping his fingers and startling everyone.
"Got what?" Zee was giving him a hard stare.
"The reason why Grayson County sounded so familiar to me. I couldn't think why; after all, I don't know anyone from there and I haven't visited the place myself."
"Well, tell us," Zee urged him.
"A few years ago, there was a report that an ape-like creature had been sighted in Grayson. Much larger than a man but walking on two legs, covered in hair like a gorilla but most definitely not an ape. It was spotted in the hills and, as the witness watched, it was joined by another creature - this one most assuredly female in appearance. Then, as quickly as they had appeared, both apparently vanished from sight and haven't been seen since."
"Ah yes," Murdoch nodded, eyes narrowed as he recalled the reports. "The sasquatch."
Johnny's nose wrinkled in puzzlement. "Sas-what?"
"Sasquatch, Johnny," Scott explained. "Believed to be an ancient primitive type of human..."
"Or mythical creature," Murdoch put in.
"Very mysterious and shrouded in legend."
"Eh? Some nasty not-quite-human female beast, you say?" Jemimah asked with a naughty twinkle. "Yeh, that sounds like Mrs. Sheehy to me!"
So, Murdoch sent an invitation to Nora Sheehy, proposing that she and Flora make arrangements to travel on to Lancer as soon as was practical. Johnny had suggested their visit last until the baby arrived in October but Jemimah, arguing that it was yet only May and aghast at such a lengthy exposure to the woman, immediately made a counter-proposal - that the visit last until Zee had her baby.
"But, Honey," Johnny had chuckled at her sour expression. "That's only next month."
"Pony, I still can't get over how perfect she is. You sure she's yours?"
Jemimah leaned over the tiny sleeping infant in her arms, unconsciously rocking her body to soothe the baby. "This little 'un ain't been kissed by the 'ugly fairy'."
Both girls laughed, remembering the first time they met and the witty jibes they had hurled at each other. Pony repositioned herself on her pillows and craned her head to see her daughter's face.
"Well, she better be mine after all I went through for her to get here!"
"Pfft! That weren't nuthin'! Maria said it were only seven hours from start to finish. You had it easy!"
Pony smirked like a self-satisfied pussycat and watched Jemimah as she gently stroked the downy cheek, almost completely hidden by the frilled bonnet. The baby cooed softly in her sleep but did not wake.
"She's a good baby, ain't she?" Jemimah said.
"Of course she is! Takes after her mama."
The two friends grinned at each other and Pony again settled back into the plump pillows, shrugging her shawl from her shoulders and rearranging her long braid of silvery blonde hair.
"I can't wait 'til you have yours, Jem. We can take 'em out together; show 'em off in town. And Zee can bring hers too. They'll get to grow up together just like we shoulda done."
Jemimah nodded, still avidly studying the baby.
"And like Johnny an' Scott. I know the boys both feel that too... and Murdoch."
"But my California will be the oldest... an' the prettiest!"
Jemimah rolled her eyes but flashed a smile at Pony's doting expression. California... little Callie. Pony and Enrique had chosen to continue the tradition started by Miss Florida's parents, naming their daughter after the state. Though privately, Enrique had confided that he had only agreed to it to avoid naming the child Xalbadora after his maternal grandmother.
Pony yawned and blinked, her eyelids heavy.
"So, when does your little cousin an' the auntie arrive?"
Jemimah stiffened at the change of subject. "Not sure. I s'pose it'll be sometime next week. Mrs. Sheehy said in her last letter that they'd be takin' the stage on Saturday and would probably break their journey overnight somewhere."
Pony watched her friend. "Don't fret none. Murdoch and Johnny won't let her bully you."
"Huh! I won't let her bully me either! I ain't twelve years old no more - somthin' old Ma Sheehy will find out if she sets a toe out of line. I don't care what Murdoch says; I'll have my eye on that ol' harpy. You see if I don't!"
Maybe the tone of Jemimah's voice permeated tiny California's slumber for the infant stretched out her arms suddenly, the delicate little fingers snatching at the air in alarm. Jemimah chuckled and rocked her.
"She's dreamin', look! What's the matter, baby?" she crooned.
"Aww. I could do with catchin' forty winks myself. I'm plum tuckered out with all this nursin' through the night."
"Well, you lie back an' have a snooze. I'll look after California," Jemimah urged.
Pony frowned, obviously unsure.
"We'ell, I don't know if I..."
"Oh, go on with you! I can take care of her for an hour or so. She'll be fine with me. You just settle back and rest."
Jemimah bent to lay the still-sleeping baby in her pram - a wicker cradle set on three tall wheels. Jelly had constructed it after seeing similar contraptions in one of Scott's foreign magazines. Apparently, they were all the rage in Europe and the fashion for taking your baby out for a stroll was now the trend for stylish young mothers. His handiwork had been so admired (to Jelly's everlasting pride and gratification) that both Zee and Jemimah had put in requests for their own prams, each adding minor modifications to the original design.
Jemimah was strolling up the track which led to the dirt road at the top of the slope. Little California had stirred at first but the trundling of the wheels and the gentle sway of the basket had lulled her back to sleep. Jemimah lifted her face to the sun and smiled, breathing in the warm spring morning.
Pony was right. She could imagine the three of them, wheeling their babies around the ranch; maybe the occasional trip into town to shop for ribbons and lace, yarn for the tiny bonnets and shawls she intended to make.
The sound of approaching wheels roused her from the happy daydreams and, shielding her eyes from the sun, she squinted along the road to see who was coming. At first, seeing a black buggy and chestnut horse, she thought it was Doc Jenkins and she raised a hand in greeting. He was perhaps coming to check on Pony again or maybe he was at a loose end and fancied a game of chess with Murdoch.
Jemimah's ready smile faded, however, as the buggy drew closer. It didn't appear to be the doc after all. It was a hired rig from the livery in Green River and she could just make out a woman inside, wearing a hat festooned with such a huge plume of feathers that a peacock would have been sick with envy.
Jemimah stepped back from the road and turned the pram to protect the baby from the cloud of dust as the horse and buggy pulled up.
"Well now," a tart calculating voice came from inside the buggy. "I'd know you anywhere, Jemimah Day. There's not many lassies with such a wealth of glossy hair as that. I told your dear father, I did, he'd have been better to sell it to the wigmaker. He would've snatched his hand off for such a mane as that, I can tell you!"
Well, you would know about that, Jemimah thought, Reckon you're bald as a coot under your fancy hats and tresses!
Mrs. Sheehy (for so it was she) was still talking.
"Then, maybe he'd have been able to put some meat on the table for his visitors instead of skimpy fish an' sausages that was nought but gristle!"
"Don't recall you turnin' your nose up!" Jemimah muttered resentfully. "Ate us out of house and home."
Nora Sheehy paused and leaned from the buggy to give Jemimah a closer look, her mean little eyes glinting with something that Jemimah could not name. Squaring her shoulders, she stared back just as brazenly, appraising the older woman.
Nora Sheehy was a good deal fatter; had obviously been living well and she was dressed in ostentatious finery, totally inappropriate for travelling along such dry dusty trails. Her suit was of a rich claret taffeta, stretched tight across her thick middle and bosom. The pudgy hands wore new grey gloves and that hat, literally dripping with pink feathers, almost (but not quite) covered her hair which instantly fascinated Jemimah. It was elaborately curled and of a virulent orange shade, the like of which had never grown naturally on any human head and could only be out of a bottle. She wore rouge on her thin lips and, Jemimah recoiled in distaste, reeked of a pungent cologne.
Probably to hide the smell of gin, Jemimah thought uncharitably.
It was at this point that California decided it was high time she was returned to her mother. She began to yell lustily, causing Jemimah to lift her from the basket and Mrs. Sheehy to jerk back as though bitten.
"This yours?" she snapped. "Thought you weren't due for a few months yet."
The woman actually looked alarmed.
For a moment, Jemimah toyed with the idea of lying and claiming California as her own. Mrs. Sheehy seemed to be put-out at the notion and maybe she would cut short her visit if so. But the baby was squealing to be fed and, best will in the world, there wasn't a deal Jemimah could do about that.
"No, she's my friend's baby... from Randall House down there." Jemimah pointed to the neat farm house beyond the trees.
"You mean yonder house ain't Lancer?"
"Lancer? No, hardly! Lancer's a darn sight bigger than that."
"Is it indeed?"
"The estancia is another half hour along the road that way," Jemimah laughed. "If you wait, I suppose I can show you. I've got a buckboard down there so you can follow me if you like."
She headed back down the path to the house after returning the hungry baby to her pram.
"Most kind, I'm sure," Mrs. Sheehy called. "But don't keep us too long, dearie. This hot sun ain't good for my complexion!"
"Nah, a burlap sack's the best thing for a complexion like that!" Jemimah muttered sarcastically.
Pulling up by the front steps, Jemimah hopped quickly down and approached the hired buggy. Nora Sheehy was just stepping down, emerging from the shadow of the black covering, and Jemimah stopped in her tracks, gaping in amazement.
An astonishing change had overcome Mrs. Sheehy during the last half an hour. Jemimah noticed first that the lip rouge had been wiped away and the large drooping ear bobs swapped for neat pearly drops.
"Lord, where's your hat gone... an' your hair?"
Mrs. Sheehy arched an elegant brow. "The hat? Oh, I've worn that monstrosity all the way from Grayson and it was scratching at me every mile of the way. But my hair? Why dearie, what do you mean? You've seen my hair before."
"Yes, but it was red a moment ago and now..."
"Red?" The woman threw up her gloved hands in amused surprise and chuckled. She patted at the demure bun beneath the simple black hat, her hair now a soft light brown, streaked with the occasional glint of silver. She looked for all the world like someone's sweet maiden aunt, homey and warm. "I think you were looking at the feathers, dearie. It was a very colourful bonnet, wasn't it? But... a mite too fancy for such an occasion, don't you think? I don't want to look out of place, do I?"
Jemimah narrowed her eyes shrewdly, understanding now. Nora Sheehy was a clever woman and, while she may not give a hoot about trying to impress Jemimah, she undoubtedly intended to create a favourable impression on the owner of such a large estancia. Yes, it was all becoming clear. She hadn't expected to meet anyone from the family on the road and had planned all along to change to a more pleasing outfit before arriving at the ranch. Jemimah suspected that the sedate bun was also a wig. It was clear that Mrs. Sheehy's plan, whatever it may be, depended greatly on this first meeting.
Jemimah opened her mouth to make some sarcastic remark but Mrs. Sheehy was already turning away.
"Flora dear," she addressed the furthest corner of the buggy. "Come on now. Don't be shy. Come meet your cousin, Jemimah."
Very slowly, a shuffling figure inched out from behind the stack of bags and hat boxes. Jemimah watched as first a skinny leg emerged, clad in white stockings and ending in a high buttoned boot of soft white kid. This was followed by a skirt, full, much-frilled and starched until it stood out like an umbrella, and, finally, the timid face of a girl, maybe eight or nine years old.
She carefully took Mrs. Sheehy's hand to step down from the buggy and stood, pigeon-toed and awkward, before Jemimah.
"Say hello, Flora!" Mrs. Sheehy nudged the child sharply.
She child dipped her head and spoke in almost a whisper. "Pleased to meet you," she lisped, bobbing a brief curtsey and then returning to her awkward stance, her head hung sheepishly.
There was something not right here and Jemimah felt sorry for the child; she was clearly most ill at ease and it was more than mere shyness, she knew. The Flora she remembered had been loud, constantly whining. Also, she recalled an abundance of curling ginger-blonde hair and many freckles on the pudgy little face.
This Flora, though dressed to the nines, had lank hair of an indeterminate mousey brown. Her grey eyes were huge and doe-like in her pale face. Something in them tugged at Jemimah's heart and she reached out to take the little girl by the hand.
"Nice to see you again, Flora," she smiled warmly. "Come on, you must be dyin' of thirst after such a long trip. I'm betting Maria has some cool sweet lemonade. This way."
Leading Flora by the hand, Jemimah took them to the front door and showed them in.
By the time the grandfather clock chimed six, the family were gathered around the sofa in the great room, all awaiting Mrs. Sheehy who was still freshening up.
They had been entertaining little Flora who, despite being exceptionally polite and amenable, placid and quiet, troubled Jemimah greatly. Certainly, the years between two and eight would bring about considerable changes but it was not the mere physical differences that bothered her. The little girl seemed... haunted, afraid, constantly on edge as though dreading... Jemimah hardly knew what. Each creak on the stair made the child stiffen, her huge grey eyes fixed on the doorway as though expecting something terrible to appear. It had taken all of Johnny's natural charm to coax a few words from the girl who, in the main, preferred to answer any questions with either a shake or nod of her head, the enormous ribbon atop her dowdy hair wobbling each time. Her few responses had been monosyllabic and whispered. She was undoubtedly scared.
"Flora has been telling us about your journey," Scott smiled at Mrs. Sheehy when she finally entered the room at quarter past the hour.
"That so?" Nora returned the smile but Jemimah caught the hard fleeting glance she threw the little girl.
"Hardly," Jemimah disagreed. "It's almost like she's too frit to speak!" She ignored the disapproving frown from her father and ploughed on. "Not much like she was as a little 'un, is she? She never shut up then."
Mrs. Sheehy shook her head, a look of tragedy on her face. "Ah, the poor wee lassie. She suffered terrible, losing her folks that way. I'm afraid it had an awful effect on her. I'm just about the only one she'll talk to now; sees me as her Ma, she does."
Mrs. Sheehy had changed into a fresh white blouse and simple dark blue skirt, a plain brooch at her throat. She was looking more and more respectable and, if his smiles were anything to go by, Murdoch certainly found her eminently acceptable as auntie to little Flora and Jemimah. He stood now and offered Mrs. Sheehy his arm to escort her to the table.
"I believe Teresa has been cooking up a storm ever since you arrived so I hope you'll enjoy the dinner. What is it you're treating us to tonight, darling?"
Teresa blushed prettily. "I'm afraid it's only a beef pie but..." She turned to Zee who was still on the sofa and struggling to lift her bulk from the soft cushions. "There's Zee's rum cake for dessert too."
Scott was helping his wife to stand, a worried expression on his face.
"Have you been standing baking today? Are you sure that's wise, dear? We don't want you overtiring yourself, do we?"
Zee rolled her eyes with good humour and leaned into him.
"I feel just dandy." She grinned over at the others. "Lawdy, to hear my husband talk, you'd think I was the first woman to ever have a baby."
"No, but you're the first to have my baby."
"I should hope so!"
Scott blushed and caught little Flora's eye as he crossed the room with Zee. The child smiled shyly and, much to his own surprise, Scott found himself giving her a sneaky wink.
The family having grown to now include three ladies, there was always plenty of chatter during dinner and that evening was no exception. There was, naturally, much interest in their visitors and Murdoch started by asking about their trip over from Grayson. Jemimah, though she remained taciturn for much of the meal, listened keenly and was as amazed as everyone else to learn that Mrs. Sheehy and Flora had been in America for three years, living in New York.
"Ah yes, we were sad to leave. We had so many good friends there who'd taken us under their wing when we first arrived. Flora barely remembers the old home land now; she's like a Yankee born and bred!"
"Were you staying with friends?" Teresa enquired politely.
"At first, yes, but I managed to find us a small house in an area called Upper Manhattan. Quite up and coming it seems and, while it's only a modest little place, it's plenty big enough for the two of us and has two spare guest rooms for visitors. We love it there - hardly like being in the city at all. Dear Flora needs the fresh country air and it's far more pleasant to see trees and birds from your window than brick walls and pavements. Do you not agree, Mr. Lancer?"
Murdoch smiled and said that indeed he did agree. His smile slipped, however, when Jemimah snidely remarked,
"A house, eh? You sure it's wise to leave it standing empty so long? Hadn't you best be thinkin' of hurryin' back to see nobody's broke in and made off with the silver?"
Nora Sheehy's smile was honey-sweet though the hard glint in her dark little eyes told a different tale.
"No need to worry yourself, dearie," she cooed. "I have a friend who is looking after my place for me." She turned again to Murdoch. "She's the sister of my darling Ernest."
"Ernest?" Scott asked.
Mrs. Sheehy dimpled coquettishly. "My intended."
Jemimah's voice held such a note of utter disbelief that Johnny cringed beside her. She could thank her lucky stars he sat between her and Murdoch or he was sure she'd be rubbing at a sore ear by now.
Jemimah, either unaware of her father's disapproving frown or determined to ignore it, ploughed on.
"Well, ain't that even more reason to hurry back home?"
Murdoch cleared his throat ominously and Johnny attempted to save his wife by kicking her ankle under the table while hiding a smirk behind his napkin.
Mrs. Sheehy was now fishing a lace-trimmed handkerchief from her pocket and dabbing at her eyes.
"Ah, darling Ernest died three months ago in a carriage accident," she sniffled.
While the others expressed their deep sympathy and attempted to soothe the lady, Jemimah studied her. Her eyes were dry and, though she acted much affected by the loss of darling Ernest, Jemimah was sure it was only a ploy to garner sympathy. It was becoming clear why Nora Sheehy had landed on them - she was surely chasing a meal ticket. Then again, a house in New York was nothing to be sniffed at. Property in the right location was worth a pretty penny. Jemimah knew that from the time she had stayed with the Steiners in Boston. Upper Manhattan, if she remembered correctly, was quite posh. If Mrs. Sheehy could afford a place there, no matter how modest, she couldn't be that hard-up.
Jemimah glanced across at Scott, thinking that she would try to get him alone to discuss it. Scott would know; he was smart. She watched him now and was intrigued to find that he continually glanced up the table to young Flora.
The child was eating politely, remaining silent but watching everyone with her huge grey eyes. Scott would like that. He always joked with Jemimah that she had no table manners as a child and the old adage - children should be seen and not heard - was a sound philosophy they would have been wise to enforce. Little wonder he seemed so taken with Flora.
The child caught Scott beaming down at her and gave him a tiny answering smile which showed the gap between her front teeth. Scott was charmed and, now that Mrs. Sheehy had calmed herself, he turned to her.
"How long is it that you've been looking after Flora, Mrs. Sheehy?"
"Looking after her? Why, bless you, boy," Mrs. Sheehy flashed him a smile and sighed. "We look after each other. Devoted we are. I took her in when dear Betsy and Robert were sick with the fever. I nursed them both as best I could but the Lord took them. Flora was about three then and she's been with me ever since, the sweet child. I'm her legal guardian, y'know."
Jemimah set aside her suspicions for a moment and began to feel heartily sorry for the little girl.
"I knew my uncle and aunt had died. Daddy had a letter from some lawyer in Inverness but he was too sick by then to travel up to Scotland for the funeral. I always thought they'd all three perished. I wish... I wish I'd known I still had kin left. I don't like to think of her all alone at such a young age."
"She wasn't alone; she had me." Mrs. Sheehy's voice was sharp but she quickly softened again. "It's my life-long sorrow that I was too late to hear of your father's passing. If I had only known, I would have taken you in too. We could have given comfort to each other. Family should cling to one another when tragedy strikes. After all, hard times come to us all and where would we be without the kindness of family? Do you not think so, Mr. Lancer?"
"Bloody hell!" Jemimah exclaimed with a grimace as she bent over to unlace her boots.
Johnny, whose hands had stilled on the buttons of his shirt, had been concentrating on the delectable curve of her rear end as she leaned over the chair. He was just admiring the way the fabric of her flimsy, lace-trimmed drawers afforded him such a fine view of the smooth skin beneath. He could even make out the tiny tattooed rose high on her right cheek.
She was straightening now and, with a rueful sigh, he carried on unbuttoning the shirt and discarded it. He began to fiddle with the buckle of his belt but, once more, his fingers stilled as he watched Jemimah.
Oblivious of his scrutiny and warming to her subject, she continued to malign her 'aunt'.
"Sorry she was too late to come down for Daddy's funeral?" she fumed. "Huh, the only reason she's sorry is 'cos she missed out on picking over what was left in the cottage. If she thought there was a chance to grab owt she could, she'd have flown down... on her broomstick. Bloody old witch!"
Johnny laughed but felt he should also rein her in a little; she was getting carried away and Murdoch was already unhappy with her attitude to their guests.
"Aw, come on now, chica. She's not done anything wrong here. In fact, it looks like she's been takin' real good care of your little cousin. It's not like you to be so mean."
"Mean? I'm not bein' mean!"
Jemimah flushed. She wasn't being mean at all... was she? No. Johnny just didn't understand the old bat as well as she did. She finished undoing the front of her camisole and slipped it off her shoulders.
"I don't get you," she grumbled, turning to drop the undergarment into the linen basket.
Johnny again had stopped listening. He had been in the middle of unbuckling his belt but had paused to admire the golden lamplight glowing softly on her breasts. Though her stomach remained as trim and flat as ever, her pregnancy had already wrought some changes. The twin curves were heavier, fuller. He remembered the last time. Though Jemimah had hated her shape, especially in the last two months, Johnny had found the ripeness of her belly and the new added fullness to her curves to be beautiful. He had remarked at the time that, if a man could do anything half as amazing with his body as a woman could do with hers, he'd be bragging about it and wanting to show everyone!
"You're usually so good at reading other folk an' workin' out when they're tryin' to fool you," she accused, so het up that she was unaware of his steady gaze. "Can't you see what a conniver ol' Ma Sheehy is?"
He shrugged and smiled.
"Oh sure, she wants to give a good account of herself; create a good impression, I guess," he said mildly. "She's a little fussy but that ain't a crime. There's no shame in wanting folks to see the best in you. Seems you don't remember all the times you bent over backwards to get into our good books?"
"That was just when I was tryin' to avoid a lickin'," she grinned cheekily up at him, plucking off her garters and rolling down her black stockings. They joined the camisole in the basket.
Johnny laughed and closed the distance between them, slipping his arms around her and pulling her in close. "Or after, when you was makin' amends for whatever you did to earn one!" he smiled, enjoying the sensation of those two soft warm swells pressed against his ribs. He dipped his head to brush his lips across hers and then sighed again as she moved away, leaving his arms empty.
"And I ain't too sure about that kid," Jemimah ranted on, now releasing the bow at her waist. "She's practically a mute. Looks terrified of us all. I bet she doesn't dare speak up in case ol' Ma Sheehy pinches her black and blue."
Johnny followed her again and took over the final stage of her undressing by dipping his fingers gently into her waistband and easing the garment down over her slim hips.
He was chuckling at her furious expression and, suddenly realising his intention and how remiss she was being, she smiled up into his laughing blue eyes.
"You done now?" he grinned. "You gonna settle down and be nice?"
"I'm always nice."
With a sudden dip of his broad shoulders, he lifted her up and placed her atop the plump quilt on their bed.
"You sure are. Real nice."
"Young lady, that's enough! Murdoch shook a warning finger in Jemimah's direction, his brows beetling together into a thunderous frown. "If you have nothing pleasant to say then I'd rather you said nothing at all."
Jemimah scuffed her bare toe across the rug and shoved her hands sulkily into the pockets of her overalls. Daring to glance up, she saw that he was still glaring across the room at her.
"All I said was we ought to search Mrs. Sheehy's room first..."
"I know what you said!" her father growled, not impressed that she was repeating it. "And you heard what I said and you know what I meant by it. The watch will turn up. I probably laid it down somewhere and it slipped my mind."
"But it couldn't hurt to..."
"Jemimah Rose, not one more word." Murdoch looked ready to explode. The telltale vein was ticking at his temple and his face had turned a dark red. "Dust off some of those manners you were taught... before I dust your britches!"
Jemimah straightened indignantly. She knew it was just an idle threat and Murdoch would never carry it through but she didn't much like the way he had reduced her to a recalcitrant child in just a few words. Why wouldn't he listen to her when she knew more about that Sheehy woman than he did? She knew she was irking him with her attitude towards their visitor but she couldn't help it; she didn't trust her - not even as far as she could kick her! Murdoch's reaction was a measure of his disapproval.
"Alright. I'll shut up then!" she huffed.
"Good. And while we're on the subject of britches - those things aren't fit to be seen. There are more patches now than actual pants. It's fortunate that you won't be able to wear them much longer."
"Perhaps you'd be happier to see me all frills and flounces; starched up to the eyeballs and no use to nobody?"
Murdoch knew full well that she was referring to the overly fussy outfits Mrs. Sheehy persisted in putting on little Flora. The poor child did indeed look very uncomfortable in the multitudes of frills and ribbons; most impractical for a ranch and for a child. The girl couldn't run about and play as she should for fear of spoiling her precious clothes.
Murdoch smiled at Jemimah's sour expression and the girl instantly brightened.
"No, I wouldn't be happier. In fact, I was going to ask you if you had any little dresses left that you might lend to Flora. I feel for the wee thing so trussed up in her finery."
"I don't have anything... but Maria might have saved a few odds and ends. If not, I bet me an' Teresa could sort something out for her."
Murdoch flashed his daughter a smile as she trotted off to the kitchen. Her sulks and surliness never lasted for long... thank goodness. She would throw herself into finding something more suitable for Flora. She had warmed to the child but, Murdoch sighed, it seemed there was little chance of her warming to Nora Sheehy.
Johnny and Jemimah were frequently the last to arrive in the great room for dinner though they took care to never be late. That evening, when they strolled in arm in arm, they happened upon a highly unusual scene.
Everyone was laughing; smiling and it was clear that something important had just occurred. By the look of things, little Flora was at the centre of it all.
For once, the child was grinning from ear to ear; actually giggling as she was hoisted high onto Scott's shoulder and petted and praised by all.
Johnny stepped forward. "What's happening here?" he laughed, accepting the drink Murdoch had just poured for him.
Scott jostled the little girl, pretending to be about to drop her, and she squealed - half in fear and half in glee.
"Johnny, our young visitor has saved the day!"
Johnny laughed at Flora as she sailed by, clinging to Scott's arm.
"She has? What did she do?"
Teresa was all smiles too.
"Flora found Murdoch's watch, Johnny. It was down the back of the seat cushion on his armchair."
Johnny laughed and caught hold of Flora's tiny white hand to gallantly plant a kiss on it as he bowed and winked at her. Scott carried her in state once more around the living area before settling himself on the sofa beside Zee. He plunked Flora on his lap and sank back into the cushions, puffing as though severely winded and making the little girl giggle again.
"I could have sworn I'd looked there myself..." Murdoch shrugged.
Jemimah had been watching Mrs. Sheehy but turned now to look at her father, her eyes crinkled in puzzlement. "You did."
Murdoch shook his head. "No matter. I suppose Flora's slim little hand could reach where mine could not." He raised his glass in salute to the child who beamed back at him.
"Well ma'am," Johnny bowed again to Flora. "Looks like your horsey's out of breath. I'd be honoured to escort you to the table." Grinning, he pretended to politely raise an imaginary hat.
Scott wrapped his arms possessively around Flora.
"Oh no, you don't! You can find your own girlfriend, brother!"
Flora tipped her head to look at Scott's smiling face, her eyes shining.
Rosita came in from the kitchen with a platter for the table and, merriment over, Scott gently set Flora on her feet and rose to assist Zee while Murdoch and Teresa sauntered across to the table. Johnny was swiftly downing his drink but Jemimah saw it; she was the only one who did.
As Mrs. Sheehy rose to follow the others, she nodded approvingly at Flora, her little black eyes gleaming shrewdly.
Flora had frozen, smiles and laughter gone and the same haunted look in those pale eyes as though the happiness had just been leeched from her.
"Come on, honey." Johnny took the little girl by the hand. "Looks like I get to escort you after all."
Jemimah was the last, watching Nora Sheehy closely. She had no proof and knew Murdoch would erupt should she voice her suspicions but she was sure there was more to this latest episode than met the eye.
For everyone else at Lancer, Nora Sheehy was proving to be a delightful guest. Murdoch enjoyed chatting to another Scot, especially someone closer to his own age and, while she was indeed a little fussy as Johnny had rightly said, she was perfectly affable and could even speak the old language - something that warmed Murdoch's soul, having been far from the land of his birth for so many years.
Both Teresa and Maria were gratified to discover that Nora held no truck with being waited on hand and foot; rather, she pestered for some chores to perform and was not happy until they relented, finally asking her to strip the beds of the soiled linen so they could be made afresh.
"Lunch will be ready soon," Maria announced, pumping water into the kettle to brew fresh coffee. "Where is Mrs. Sheehy?"
"Still upstairs. I think she's doing Murdoch's room now," Teresa replied, folding the last of the freshly laundered napkins. "I like her. I can't see why Jemimah is so against her."
Maria rolled her eyes and muttered tersely to herself. "The niña remembers a different time. Her papa was sick. The lady and the child hold bad memories." She shrugged. "She will soften."
"Soften? Jemimah?" Teresa raised her eyebrows. "I doubt it. All I know is she needs to watch herself. One more snide remark at the dinner table and Murdoch is likely to pitch a fit!"
Maria sighed. "Si, sometimes I think she never will learn. Juanito will..."
A clamorous clattering and thudding noise came from the hall, making both women jump and exclaim aloud. There was a shriek and then a few seconds' silence followed by a long groan.
Teresa raced from the kitchen with Maria puffing close behind her. They arrived at the bottom of the stairs at the same time as Murdoch who had obviously hurtled through from the great room. He was blinking owlishly having been rudely awoken from an impromptu nap.
Lying in an undignified heap and half buried under a tangle of sheets and pillow cases lay Nora Sheehy. She was breathing heavily, mouth agape and her head wobbling around as though she might swoon at any moment.
Teresa crouched by her side. "Mrs. Sheehy, are you alright?"
"Dear lady, what happened?" Murdoch pressed. "Are you hurt?"
Mrs. Sheehy swallowed hard. "I... I don't rightly know. I tripped... I think... on the sheet."
"Water! I will fetch it!" Maria made for the kitchen but Nora called her back.
"No, no, please don't fuss. I'll be quite well... if I can just get up off the floor."
"Of course, here - let me help you."
Murdoch eased the woman to standing, no mean feat as Nora wasn't exactly skinny, but she gasped and almost fell into his arms.
"My ankle! It's my ankle!" she winced.
"Lean on me."
With much groaning on Nora's part and panting on Murdoch's, they managed to get her to the sofa where she virtually collapsed. Murdoch mopped at his brow and straightened with a grimace, his hand at the small of his aching back.
"Maria, perhaps that water, if you would... and I'll have a whisky."
Maria headed for the kitchen but again was called back.
"Water? Oh, don't bother. If Mr. Lancer is having a whisky, perhaps I should have one too. For medicinal purposes, of course."
After another awkward evening, Johnny knew he simply had to convince Jemimah to settle down. The strained atmosphere at the table due to her constant testy comments had jarred everyone's nerves, leaving Johnny feeling twitchy.
He sat in the wicker chair in their bedroom and watched her removing her dress and petticoats. The last thing he wanted was to be scolding her but, if he didn't, Murdoch was likely to burst a blood vessel. Even Johnny thought she was being downright rude; she was making no attempt to disguise it. Of course, everyone knew that pregnant ladies were prone to abrupt changes of mood... Johnny smiled wryly and shook his head. There was no way this was a mood brought on by her pregnancy; he knew Jemimah too well. She intended they all, Murdoch especially, should understand her disapproval and dislike of Nora Sheehy and she would continue to make her barbed remarks until their father snapped.
"Look honey," he began softly. "We have some real good times comin' to us, what with the baby an' the way the stables are doing now... you don't want to keep gnawin' that bone an' pickin' at Nora like..."
Jemimah turned sharply, her expression incredulous.
"Nora, is it? You that familiar with her now?"
Johnny sighed, shaking his head and rubbing self-consciously at his ear.
"Nah, I'm not familiar with her but... you ridin' her the way you are... you're riling the ol' man and he's not far from bitin' back." He fixed her with a look, his blue eyes twinkling, wanting her to understand and not fly off the handle in her usual reckless manner. "You know as well as I do that's never pretty."
Jemimah pouted, stepping out of her second petticoat and starting to fold it.
"Why won't he listen to me?"
"Well... maybe if you talked to him; told him why you don't trust her instead of..."
"Being a brat?"
Johnny shrugged. He smiled up at her but, she noticed, he wasn't disagreeing with her. Maybe she had gone a bit too far tonight.
He leaned forward now, resting his forearms on his knees, his head cocked to one side as he watched her.
"Look, let's give it a wrangle," he said softly. "You try to be a little... sweeter to Miz Sheehy and I'll talk to Murdoch. Hmm?"
"Sweet? You want me to be sweet... to that harpy? Johnny, I wouldn't piss on her if'n she was on fire!"
"Hey!" Johnny was out of his chair and giving her his look. "There ain't no call for talk like that."
He didn't raise his voice but she easily read the disapproval in his tone and was instantly ashamed of herself... which only rankled more.
"Girl, you just can't allow anyone any frailties, can you? What did she do back then to turn you so... bitter?"
Jemimah was stung. "Bitter? That's some accusation. It ain't bitterness to see a person for what they truly are and I might've been just a kid at the time but I could read her from the moment she set foot in our cottage. She was on the take, no matter that we had little enough as it was. Daddy was just the parson of a small fishing village. Nobody had much and we was the same but she'd have snaffled it all if she could." Jemimah was scowling at the memory. "It were only after she'd gone that we found my mother's wedding ring was missing. Daddy didn't have much left to remember her by; that was about it... but she took it anyway."
Johnny subsided. "You know it was her?" he asked quietly.
"Got no proof..." She lifted her chin defiantly. "But I know."
He sighed and unbuttoned the placket and cuffs of his green shirt, seemingly concentrating on the pattern of the rug.
"You done it in the past, Johnny. Why not now?"
"I know all the stories off by heart. Absalom Weir tryin' to grab Silas' farm out from under him an' that sneaky Criswell fella who nearly ran Val outta his sheriff's job. You saw what they were. You read 'em like they were open books. What's changed? Why can't you see through Mrs. Sheehy?" Jemimah's eyes hardened as she thought of the woman and her tone became brittle. "She's skulkin' round here, scheming and plotting like the ol' witch she is. She's up to summat and I wouldn't put anything past her." She gestured suddenly to the headboard of the bed. "I don't know but we oughtta take down that rabbit's foot and hang a warty toad in its place to fend off evil!"
Johnny, in spite of how fed up he was of all this suspicion and bad feeling, couldn't help but smile. When his young wife was irked or worried, her accent became more pronounced and her speech peppered with the Yorkshire slang of her childhood. He tugged off his boots and passed them to her.
"All I'm askin' is that you rein it in at dinner. I expected Murdoch to blow up at any second; made me so edgy, I've got indigestion."
Jemimah bent to stand his boots under the dresser.
"Huh! I've felt like that ever since the ol' bat showed up here and now she's fakin' a sprained ankle, there'll be twice as much work to do, waiting on her hand and foot and..."
With a grin, Johnny swung back his arm and planted a resounding smack on the seat of her drawers.
Jemimah straightened with a hop and a loud squeak, her hand to her rump. She turned furiously on him but, laughing, he had already danced out of reach and was rolling across the bed to safety.
"There weren't no call for that!"
"Well, I've done you a favour. It stopped you thinkin' on Mrs. Sheehy."
She rubbed her rear end with a wounded tragic air. "T'aint bad enough with her here but you have to go wallopin' me as well!"
"Walloping? It was just a pat," he chuckled, peeling his shirt over his head and tossing it towards the basket. It missed by a few feet and, with a martyred air, she stooped to retrieve it.
"Wasn't," she sniffed. "Won't be able to sleep now."
His blue eyes twinkled at her and he opened his arms.
"Wasn't figurin' on going to sleep right away anyhow," he smiled softly, a naughty quirk to his lips. "Come on over here, querida. I'll kiss it better for you."
Jemimah's prediction was correct. Nora's sprained ankle did indeed result in more work... for Flora.
All the next day, the child fetched and carried. Now dressed in a simple cotton frock - and old one of Jemimah's which Maria had shortened for her - she stayed indoors. She brought tea and pastries to Mrs. Sheehy and carried in the heavy lunch tray. At the woman's beck and call, she adjusted the cushions at her back, fetched her book, located a footstool for her to rest her ankle, opened a window when it was too warm and closed it when Nora complained of a draught on her neck.
Teresa and Maria were not happy to see the youngster working in this way when she should be playing outdoors in the fresh air. Dusting, polishing and sweeping were not tasks for any guest at Lancer, especially an eight year old child as frail and drawn as Flora. But, when she was discovered changing the bedding in Nora's room, the line was drawn.
"Mrs. Sheehy," Teresa began tentatively. "I think Flora's too small to be doing such work. Stripping that high bed - it's just too much for her. Besides, she hasn't been out of the house all day and she looks worn out. Don't you think she should rest for a while?"
Nora looked pained. "I do, dearie, I do. I've told her that I'm perfectly fine here and to sit a spell but she will insist. Ah, she's always like my little nursemaid. At home, I never dare to be ailing for fear the poor wee lass will work herself to a bone! I've been telling her but, maybe, you can accomplish it where I cannot, dearie. She does look pale, the wee love."
Teresa called the girl in from the kitchen and sat her down. Then, gently, she tried to persuade her to rest and perhaps eat a few of the cookies Maria had baked that morning.
Flora remained silent throughout Teresa's kindly speech but she glanced frequently at Mrs. Sheehy. The woman said nothing but the glint in her black eyes was enough. When Teresa had finished, Flora stood solemnly.
"No, thank you, Miss. I prefer keeping busy," she whispered.
Nora Sheehy threw up her hands helplessly. "There! You see? She's a proper little worrier and no mistake. Knows her own mind too, does that one. Ah dearie..." She smiled kindly up at Teresa's anxious face. "I find it best to let her have her way. She'll rest when she's ready."
"I suppose so."
"And, if there are still any of those cookies you mentioned begging for a taker, I'd be happy to try one or two?"
"Oh, of course. I'll fetch you some."
"No, don't bother yourself. Flora will do it, won't you, my sweet?"
There was little more that Teresa could say. She watched Flora obediently scurry off to the kitchen for Mrs. Sheehy's treats and reminded her that a plate of cookies would be waiting when she was ready.
The plate still sat, untouched, on the kitchen table when Scott returned home at four.
"Hey, these look good!" Scott leaned over the cookies and inhaled the sweet aroma of chocolate and vanilla like a man starved. "You shouldn't have."
"We didn't! That is, of course, help yourself if you want one. I just wish I could persuade Flora to have one too."
Scott straightened with a puzzled quirk to his brow and took in Teresa's dejected expression.
"Flora? A child who doesn't like cookies? A Day child, come to that! I never saw Jemimah turn her nose up at any of Maria's baking."
He bit into one of the crumbly treats and closed his eyes blissfully.
"Mmm, food for the gods! You've outdone yourself, Maria."
The little Mexican lady beamed up at him.
"I don't think it's that she doesn't like them," Teresa was saying. "But she hasn't stopped working long enough all day to sit still and eat anything."
"Nothing at all? She's had no lunch?"
The two women shook their heads sorrowfully and Scott glanced at the door to the great room with a frown.
"And she's working, you say?"
Maria answered this time, glaring at someone beyond the closed door. "Si, trabaja como un pequeña esclava! (yes, she's working like a little slave!) It is not right, Scott, for such a little one."
He chewed thoughtfully at the rest of the cookie. "And what does Mrs. Sheehy have to say about this?"
Teresa shrugged helplessly. "She just says it's Flora's way."
"Flora's way, eh?" He picked up a large handful of cookies and smiled at the two ladies. "Maybe we will have to work on changing her ways while she's with us, hmm?"
With that, he gave them a self-assured wink and headed into the great room.
The scene that met Scott, when he quietly turned the corner, sent a chill down his spine.
The little girl was indeed working hard. Crouched on her knees at Mrs. Sheehy's feet, she was sweeping the ash from the fireplace into the dustpan. Engrossed in her task, she was oblivious to him watching her. She was also heedless of Mrs. Sheehy and, for this, Scott was thankful. He began to understand the child's constant haunted expression and he swallowed hard.
Nora Sheehy, as yet unaware of Scott's presence, was studying Flora too. The woman's mouth was twisted into a nasty sneer, her face hard and hateful; spiteful as she watched the child toil. But it was her eyes that chilled Scott.
On only a few occasions in his life, had he encountered a person so inherently wicked; so bereft of any spark of human kindness and compassion that he had known with absolute clarity this person would stop at nothing to get what they desired. Any heinous act, even murder; nothing would stand in their way. The blackness of their souls was glimpsed in their eyes. Something so chilling; so devastating that there could be no doubt. They were evil. Completely and utterly. Such were Nora Sheehy's eyes at that moment as she studied the innocent child at her feet.
Scott realised he had been holding his breath. Pasting a grin on his face, he stepped purposefully into the room and swooped down upon Flora, snatching her up under one arm and twirling about so that she squealed and laughed.
He capered around the sofa with her until he felt sure he had composed himself. The realisation had rocked him to the core. When he finally came to a breathless halt and looked at the woman, she was smiling broadly like the benevolent auntie she wished him to see.
"Ma'am." He swept her an extravagant bow, thankful for the chance to look away from her. As he straightened again, he turned to Flora who was perched on his hip. He cheekily inserted one of the cookies into her grinning mouth and, concentrating on the delighted face of the little girl, made his announcement.
"It is positively indecent to find any child wasting away indoors on such a beautiful day. I'm sure you agree?"
Scott did not wait to hear her opinion.
"And, since I hear that Flora has practically cleaned this entire house from top to bottom today, I'm taking her out now for some well-deserved sunshine and fresh air. What do you say to that, milady?"
He addressed Flora, not even sparing a glance for Mrs. Sheehy.
"Shall we see what Johnny is up to at the stables? Would you like that?"
Flora's eyes lit up and, though her mouth was stuffed with cookie still, she nodded enthusiastically and clung to him.
"Then, with no further ado, we will away! Come, milady!"
He pushed the remaining cookies into her tiny fists, hoisted her more firmly into place and trotted horsey-fashion to the French windows, calling back over his shoulder.
"We'll be back in time for dinner!"
"Flora will need time to change her dress and she should really..." Nora shouted after them.
But they were gone.
Scott kept an arm about the girl as she perched like a little queen on the top rail of the fence, watching Johnny working with a horse in the corral. She had happily munched her way through all the cookies and Scott, studying her with increasing delight, wished he had brought more. Flora needed fattening up; she may be well-dressed and coiffed but she was skin and bones. At least, that panicked look had disappeared from her eyes, thank goodness, and he promised himself to do all in his power to ensure it did not return. Tomorrow, he would begin his investigations and, in the meantime, he would be joining Jemimah in keeping a close eye on Nora Sheehy. Scott sighed heavily.
Jemimah had been on the right track. He should have given her more credit and listened to her warnings. After all, she had experienced the woman's behaviour before and it was rare for his adopted sister to take so vehemently against anyone. Jemimah generally had a warm trusting soul. Nora Sheehy must have done something to turn the girl against her.
Scott had been deep in thought and, when he looked up again, Flora was watching him closely, an anxious crease to her smooth brow. He summoned up a bright smile.
"You like the horses, Flora?"
"Oh yes, they're beautiful."
"Would you like to ride one?"
Flora's smile wobbled and she suddenly looked uncertain. Scott astutely guessed that she had never ridden before.
"They're... they're very big, aren't they?" she hesitated.
"Well, they're not all as big as that one. You see, he's a knight's horse; what we call a steed. But a young delicate lady such as yourself requires a different kind of horse - a gentle girl pony. And I think we have just the right one."
He gave a shrill whistle, catching Johnny's attention, and patted Flora's arm reassuringly. Johnny passed the rope to José and ambled over, scuffing the back of his hand across his brow and tucking in his shirt.
"Scott... Flora," Johnny grinned, squinting against the sun. "He's lookin' well, ain't he?"
"He's a beauty, alright," Scott agreed. "Johnny, we were wondering something."
"Do you think Jemimah would mind if Flora took Amiga out tomorrow? Just in the corral at first. She'd like to learn to ride but we need..."
"One who can gentle her?" Johnny was already nodding his agreement. "Sure, Amiga would be perfect. Real clever an' sweet, she is. Jemimah learned to ride on her an' I know she'd be happy to loan her."
"There you are!"
Flora's face lit up and she threw her skinny arms tightly around Scott's neck, planting an enthusiastic kiss on his cheek. Johnny laughed and Scott, though startled, found himself moved by the child's spontaneous gesture of affection, a tightness to his throat. Johnny, smiling at the little girl, was reaching up to gently pat her hair.
"You're gettin' to be more like your cousin every day, honey," he remarked approvingly.
"Yes, these Day ladies are regular charmers, brother!"
Flora blushed and turned away. Johnny, chuckling, headed back to his work but Scott remained still, his arm around Flora's waist. He pretended to watch Johnny with the horse but he was deep in thought.
Flora had seemed embarrassed; unused to flattery maybe but was there more to her reaction? Scott was sure he had glimpsed something in the depths of those grey eyes as she turned away. Sorrow? Fear? Whatever it may be, he intended to dig until he found some answers.
Half-hidden by the heavy red curtains, Nora Sheehy watched the blond Lancer with the child. A smirk spread slowly across her features, replacing the nasty sneer, and she turned to walk back to her armchair. The cane Murdoch had lent her lay propped against the cushions of the sofa but, as she had no trace of a limp, she did not require it. She sniggered softly to herself.
If the brat can beguile the Lancer boy, all the better. Seems I've misjudged the little slut. She's inherited her mother's way with the men folk and you can turn that to your advantage, Nora. Oh yes.
Everyone felt nervy and ill at ease. Teresa glanced up the table to Murdoch, a beseeching look in her dark eyes. Murdoch understood well enough. She wanted him to ask again. He squirmed in his chair and concentrated on his steak. After all, he had already asked once and Nora had assured them that she was quite well. If he pressed her, the woman could become even more agitated. Murdoch quailed inwardly. Female stuff; it set his teeth on edge. If she said all was well, surely he should leave well enough alone.
Her red-rimmed eyes and constant sniffling into her handkerchief told another tale and Murdoch knew perfectly well that something was amiss. He only hoped Jemimah hadn't said anything to upset her aunt. He flicked the girl a beady frown but she was studiously avoiding his eye, Hmm. He would speak to her straight after dinner... if they ever got through the meal. At this rate, they would all have indigestion before dessert was served.
Murdoch stabbed moodily at a chunk of beef but, before he could bite into it, Nora gave another strident sniff, muffling a sob with that darn lace hanky again. Murdoch's fork descended onto his plate with a clatter, making everyone jump.
"My dear lady," he began. "The last thing I wish to do is pry but it's more than obvious that something..." Here, he paused to glower down the table at Jemimah. "Or someone has upset you. Are you sure there's nothing we can do?"
"A trouble shared is a trouble halved they say," Teresa smiled encouragingly.
Nora dabbed genteelly at her eyes and bravely attempted to smile.
"Yes, yes, you're quite right. I suppose I should tell you. Who knows, maybe you could actually advise me, Mr. Lancer."
Murdoch waited with an expectant lift to his eyebrow. Everyone at the table was listening keenly.
"I've had a letter from my solicitor in New York," she began, glancing at each face in turn. "It seems the money willed to me by my darling Ernest is being usurped."
"Usurped?" Johnny was crinkling up his nose as he usually did when puzzled.
"His sister is contesting the will. She's claiming I pressured Ernest into naming me as the beneficiary to his estate."
"And did you?" Jemimah asked.
Mrs. Sheehy smothered a gasp with her hanky and Murdoch glared at Jemimah, pointing a stern finger down the table at her. She understood well enough without him saying a word and she instantly fell silent.
Mrs. Sheehy was now telling them all about the sister and how jealous she was of the romance between her and darling Ernest but Jemimah was hardly listening. A thought had struck her. When had the letter arrived? She didn't recall seeing Bill who usually delivered any telegrams or urgent mail and no-one had brought any letters home from town over the last day or two. If this missive from New York had just arrived, how on earth had Mrs. Sheehy received it?
"She'll stop at nothing to see me penniless, it seems. Even the welfare of little Flora cannot move her. She is heartless," Nora was now saying.
Jemimah smiled, seizing on the opportunity to oust Mrs. Sheehy from their midst.
"This sounds serious, alright," she mused, feigning concern. "P'raps you oughtta think about getting on home where you can fight your corner. Can't do much stuck out here, can you? And, if you don't look sharp, you might leave it too late and find Ernie's sister has diddled you out of the lot!"
She flinched then as Johnny's hand tapped smartly at the side of her thigh under the table. He was facing straight ahead but his eyes were twinkling.
Mrs. Sheehy sighed dramatically. "I'm hoping that won't be necessary. I wanted to expose Flora to some of the California sunshine... the child's health, y'know."
"I think you're being very wise," Scott said, causing Nora to blink in surprise. "And it does you credit that you put Flora's needs before your own."
Nora preened and pretended to be embarrassed. "Tis nothing, the dear wee lass always comes first in my heart. I wouldn't have it any other way."
"In that case," Scott went on. "I'm sure I speak for all of us when I say that Flora would be more than welcome to stay on here if you really do need to travel back east. Rest assured, her health is a priority with us too and we would be glad to have her for as long as it takes you to sort out your affairs."
The others were nodding their agreement, murmurs of consent sounding around the table. Jemimah's grin stretched from ear to ear. Scott glimpsed Flora's face. Her eyes were alight with hope though she watched Mrs. Sheehy for her reaction.
Nora Sheehy looked startled at first; alarmed but quickly rearranged her features to a sorrowful expression of regret. She shook her head and addressed Murdoch, not Scott who had made the offer.
"There's much sense in what you all say, I know but... I couldn't possibly leave the dear child. She's like my own flesh and blood and she'd just pine away without me. Yes indeed - I'm her legal guardian and, if I go, she must go with me."
"I don't actually see a necessity for either of you to go," Murdoch mused. "Why shouldn't you conduct your business from here, via my own lawyers in Green River should you wish. And it's easy enough to send a wire from town these days. It's not quite the back of beyond I came to thirty-five years ago."
"Exactly. You mustn't worry," Teresa soothed gently. "I'm sure it will all be well."
Nora sniffled again into her handkerchief, flashing Scott a narrow-eyed glance from behind the damp lace.
"You're all too kind, too kind. It does my heart good to know that I won't have to leave dear Jemimah so soon. After such a time apart, it's meant the world to be reunited with her again. I'm sure you understand, Mr. Lancer." Nora smiled sweetly. "After all, blood is thicker than water."
Murdoch was on the point of politely agreeing and suggesting they get on with dinner before it all became too cold to eat. However, Jemimah's sudden derisive snort cut him short.
"Eh?" Jemimah was flabbergasted. "Dear Jemimah? I only ever saw you once an' you spent most of that time tryin' to shove me outta the house so you could rifle through it for anything you could get! Blood thicker than...? You're no kin of mine." She rolled her eyes in a rude manner and muttered loud enough to be heard by all, "God forbid!"
Johnny's hand had landed on her knee and was squeezing it in a vain attempt to shut her up. Too late by far. He glanced at Murdoch and recognised that all hell was about to be unleashed. That dark red hue was staining his neck and cheeks, the vein ticking away at his temple. Added to that, the furious glare he was directing at Jemimah convinced Johnny he would do well to get his wife out of there with all haste.
Nora ducked back behind her hanky with a wild sob and Murdoch erupted.
"Apologise this instant, young lady or I'll..."
Johnny pushed back his chair. "No need, Murdoch. We're goin'. I'll take Jemimah in the kitchen and..."
"No, you won't! I ain't no child to be sent out in disgrace!"
Johnny tried to placate her. "Look, honey, let's just give everyone a chance to cool..."
"Please, no-one must leave on my account," Nora waved Johnny to sit down again which, reluctantly, he did. "Don't upset yourselves. Dear Jemimah hasn't really hurt me. She's always been outspoken. Andrew allowed her far too much freedom as a child and, I'm sad to say, she ran a little wild."
Jemimah opened her mouth to protest but Johnny's hand closed over hers and he leaned in to whisper in her ear.
"Hush." One word but said quietly and with such a tone that, with some effort, she subsided.
"And, whether she sees me as kin or not, there's no getting away from the fact that Flora is kin. It breaks my heart to think she might turn her only cousin away so easily."
Another dab at her eyes clinched the deal - everyone at the table, bar Scott, was pinning Jemimah with an accusing look.
Scott attempted to rescue his little sister.
"Mrs. Sheehy, what of your house? Had you given any thought to perhaps selling it? Even if this sister of Ernest's were to contest the will, surely the proceeds of the house would enable you to buy a substantial property here? That way, you and Flora could be close to Jemimah and the warmer climate would be better for the child." He smiled, sensing astutely that this was far from what Nora Sheehy had in mind. "Not that you're unwelcome here, of course! But then, even if your inheritance is held up for some time, you'll still be comfortable."
Nora's lip had been curling as her annoyance grew. This blond Lancer boy was going to be trouble, that was clear. She would have to be careful with him. Taking a breath, she pasted a sad smile on her face and began her tale.
"Ah, if only that could be! Sadly, my letter contained more news and none of it good." She paused for effect. "I hadn't known it but it seems Ernest mortgaged my house to raise the capital for a business venture. I'm such a dunce about these matters and he always seemed to know what was what but... well... it's gone. It's all gone. My home... everything. Flora and I... we're at your mercy, Mr. Lancer."
Johnny had released Jemimah's hand while listening to the story and, before he could prevent it, she had emitted another rude snort.
Nora covered her face with the lace hanky and began to cry pitifully which was too much for Murdoch.
He leapt to his feet and leaned towards his daughter. For one very worrying moment, she imagined he would snatch her up by the scruff as he had done so many times before. Even Johnny must have feared this as he held up a hand ready to fend his father off. But Murdoch merely glowered at her.
"Young lady, if you weren't pregnant, I'd..." He swallowed and made a Herculean attempt to calm down. "If you can't be civil to your guest, you can leave us and eat in the kitchen!"
Jemimah snatched up her plate in high dudgeon (which would have been far more impressive had there been any food left on it) and stood, knocking her chair back so that it smacked into the bookcase behind her.
"Fine by me!"
She was halfway across the room when she heard Johnny quietly excuse himself and sensed that he was following. Hearing the door swing softly closed behind them, she plunked the plate down on the table and folded her arms, head down.
"What are you thinkin', chica?" Johnny kept his voice down but was obviously exasperated.
"What?" Her reply was sullen.
"You know what. Murdoch was about ready to blister you... and, the way you're carrying on, I'm feelin' pretty near the same!" Her wounded accusing look brought him up short and he slumped, shaking his head with a sigh. "I don't mean that; you know I don't. But, after all we talked about, couldn't you have just tried to be..."
"I don't trust her, Johnny. Never have and I never will. She's a vulture on the lookout for her next meal an' the last thing I want is to find out we're it an' she's..."
"What? You scared she's going to hurt you somehow? Honey, you know I'd not let anyone hurt you. I'm here."
He put his arms around her and pulled her in close. Jemimah allowed herself to relax in his hold, the warmth and security of his closeness calming her as always.
"Not me. I don't want her to get her claws into Murdoch."
Johnny tipped her chin up so he could see her face. He studied her; the way those long sooty lashes framed the clear green of her eyes - eyes that were filled with worry. She wasn't just angry; this wasn't merely Jemimah in a strop and he smoothed a gentle hand over her hair.
"Murdoch? You think she's goin' to make a play for him?"
She shrugged. "Maybe. Or for Lancer... or some part of it. Johnny, I just don't feel easy with her here. She's trouble. Believe me. And she's up to something. That letter... an' the way her story changes to suit whatever she's schemin'... it's too glib, too convenient and I don't swallow any of it!"
He held her close, his hand slipping beneath the long tresses to caress her neck as he planted a soft kiss on the crown of her head.
"You're not mad at me then?"
She felt the breath inflate his lungs as he sighed and once again enfolded her in his embrace.
"Mad? Nah, honey. I'm not mad. Worried maybe. What worries you, worries me and... I ain't Murdoch."
She burrowed into him, resting her cheek against the firm muscle of his chest.
"Yes, he was cross, wasn't he? Reckon I'm in for an ear-blistering tomorrow?"
The tremor of Johnny's chuckle shook her and, despite her worry, she smiled with him.
"They'll have finished dinner soon," he said. "I reckon we should slip by Scott's; have a talk with him."
"No, I didn't say you were wrong," Johnny denied softly, his fingers busily picking at a concho on his pants. "I just think you're being a little unfair, that's all. Nora may be silly an' kinda affected but, so far, I've not seen her do anything bad."
Johnny and Jemimah had wandered over to the west wing of the hacienda and were comfortably installed on the tiny patio area outside Scott and Zee's sitting room. The sunsets from that particular part of the house were invariably magnificent and that evening was no exception. Their conversation, as they sat comfortably with coffee or a glass of something stronger, had naturally been dominated by the subject of Mrs. Sheehy.
Scott stretched out his long legs, crossing them at the ankle, and regarded his brother thoughtfully.
"I don't imagine you will see her do anything untoward, Johnny. But, in this instance, I'm inclined to heed Jemimah's feelings on the matter."
Jemimah gaped. "You are?"
"Don't be so surprised," he chuckled. "I do listen to you... on occasion."
"Seems you're about the only one then," Jemimah huffed, slumping back into her chair, rearranging her skirts and plunking her bare feet into her husband's lap. "Murdoch's about ready to strangle me. I dread to think what he'll say at breakfast." She pulled a face. "Think I'll slip out with Diablo an' give him chance to forget about me."
Johnny had been gently caressing her slim ankles but now his head lifted.
"Uh-uh, no riding, honey. You promised."
"You can come over to the stables with me. I'll hide you out there."
"Hmm... maybe. But I ain't sweeping no stalls."
Johnny grinned then and turned his attention back to Scott who was staring out at the rose-tinted ribbons which streaked the dusky sky. It was quiet. The only sound was the occasional snort of a distant horse and the hypnotic thrum of the cicadas in the trees.
"Scott?" Johnny prodded his brother from his reverie. "You really think Nora's bad news?"
Scott was silent for a moment, his blond head dipped. Then, he drained his glass and set it aside. When he spoke, it was quietly but with absolute conviction.
"I do. Of what manner I don't know. Not yet. She's after more than free room and board though - of that we may be certain."
Zee poured fresh coffee for herself and Jemimah.
"That Flora's a little doll though, ain't she? We've had us a few little talks. Reminds me of my little sister, Daisy. Sweet kid; real obliging."
"Yes, she is." Scott reached out to twine his fingers with those of his wife, his blue-grey eyes shining.
"But, haven't you noticed anything about her?" Jemimah asked. "It's like she's..."
"Terrified," Scott finished her sentence.
"Yes! Exactly. She hardly dares open her mouth or even move without lookin' at... that ol' bat!"
Johnny softly shook the foot he had been massaging. "Aw, come on, honey. She's just shy. Not all kids are like you were, y'know. Just because you were a little varmint that plagued our lives out don't mean your cousin has to be the same!"
Scott sniggered, releasing Zee's hand to top up Johnny's tequila glass.
"Why, yes Johnny. I suppose it is rather pleasant to meet a child from the Day clan who doesn't merit spanking on a daily basis."
Both brothers laughed when Jemimah shot them a withering look. Despite their teasing, she was somewhat appeased when Scott added,
"I think Jemimah is right though. On the few occasions I have managed to prise Flora away from Mrs. Sheehy, she's blossomed. The transformation is remarkable. Then, when she returns... it's as though all the life in her simply seeps away. She turns back into a little ghost."
Both Jemimah and Zee were nodding in agreement.
"Yes, Jemimah may well be right," Scott decided. "Now, we need to find out what's behind all this."
Jemimah rushed from the kitchen, wishing she had listened to Johnny and followed him out to the stables straight after her hasty breakfast instead of lingering for a second cup of coffee. Too late, she heard the door swing open behind her and that familiar firm voice rang out.
"Just hold on there, young lady. I'd like a word with you."
She froze, keeping her back to Murdoch so that he would not catch her rolling her eyes heavenwards. Then, realising that left her open to an assault from the rear, she quickly spun on her heel to face him.
"Oh... er... mornin', Daddy. I can't stop; goin' to help Johnny at the stables."
Murdoch pinned her with a stony look, his brows swooping together in a grim frown which, as always, gave her stomach the collywobbles. He came to a halt in front of her, his height making it necessary for her to tilt her head back to look at him as he spoke sternly.
"Johnny can spare you for a few minutes, I'm sure. What I have to say won't take long but..." He shook a peremptory finger at her in warning. "Will be heeded and obeyed."
Jemimah squirmed, feeling no older than little Flora at that moment.
"Now," he began, voice low but producing a tiny tremble in his daughter nonetheless. "There will be a change in attitude from today, won't there?"
"Attitude. Or, to be more precise, your attitude... towards Mrs. Sheehy."
"I can't just force myself to like her. It's not that simple and..."
"I don't ask that you like her," he interrupted. "I do, however, demand that you behave with respect and restraint in her presence. She is a guest at Lancer and, while she is here, you will treat her accordingly. You were taught good manners, young lady, and I expect you to use them... before I deem it necessary for further lessons to refresh your memory. Understand me?"
Jemimah gulped, understanding very well.
His huge meaty paw reached out and softly cuffed her ear, blue eyes now twinkling with warmth despite his stony countenance.
"Y'know, I still have that book on etiquette..."
She held up her hands in surrender.
"No need, Daddy. I copied it out so many times, every word is ingrained on my memory."
Murdoch smiled fondly. "Then use it!" He turned away to his desk by the window. "Go on with you."
Relieved it had not been worse, Jemimah made good her escape, racing for her hat on the hall stand and diving through the front door before he could think of anything else to impede her.
He had only just settled down into his leather chair when faltering footsteps heralded the arrival of Mrs. Sheehy. She was leaning heavily on the walking cane and looking very downcast.
"Mrs. Sheehy. Good morning."
"It is that, Mr. Lancer. It is that... though I'm finding it hard to be glad about it today."
"Oh?" Murdoch set aside his ledger and regarded his guest. She did indeed look as if she carried a world of woes upon her shoulders. "Is your ankle troubling you? We can send for the doctor if..."
She shook her head sadly. "If it were only that, I wouldn't mind so much."
Murdoch had risen to guide her to one of the blue armchairs and was now pouring her a cup of coffee.
"Anything I can help with?" he asked.
"I... I feel that Flora and I cannot impose upon your hospitality any longer," Nora sighed. "I had hoped to get closer to... but no matter."
"Get closer to Jemimah?" Murdoch frowned as he sipped at his own cup.
Nora nodded sadly. "Tis plain to see what a bad humour she is in. It gets worse every day. She wants us gone from here, you know it as well as I."
Murdoch clamped his lips together in a firm uncompromising line.
"Jemimah may be a Lancer now but this is still my house and she will do as she's told. I've had a talk with her this morning and she understands that."
"I'm grateful to you. You have been so kind to us in our time of need." Nora was delving into the cuff of her blouse to fish out her lace hanky. She dabbed at her eyes and bravely tried to smile. "But I don't want to be the cause of a rift between you and the child."
"No, I really think we should move on. Not far though; I still want little Flora to get to know her cousin again and maybe, without me, that will be possible." She wiped at her moist eyes, watching Murdoch carefully over the lace trim. "I reckon I could scrape a wee bit of money together - enough to maybe rent a room in Morro Coyo. Or perhaps you'd know of a kindly farmer hereabouts who wouldn't mind us bedding down in his hayloft?"
"Hayloft?" Murdoch blinked and rose again. Hesitating, he reached out to awkwardly pat the woman on the arm, hoping to reassure her. "That's out of the question. Don't even think such a thing. I'd no more turn you and Flora out to some hayloft than I'd expect Jemimah to move into the smoke house!"
"You'll stay here as long as you wish and that's final."
"But the girl..."
"You're not to even think about it anymore. If you're really determined to look for a place of your own nearby, we can let you have one of our cottages. There are two or three standing empty on the ranch right now. Not far away; certainly close enough for Flora to see Jemimah anytime she wants."
Nora put down her cup with a trembling hand and managed a watery smile.
"Sir... I don't know how I can repay you."
"I don't ask for any payment. And please... it's Murdoch," he smiled kindly.
"Don't talk such drivel, Teresa!" Jemimah snapped.
Teresa looked up from her ironing in surprise. Then a knowing look came over her features.
"You wouldn't be jealous, would you?"
"Of what, for goodness' sake?"
Teresa's lips curved into a soft smile and she set the smoothing iron onto its trivet.
"That Murdoch is getting closer to Nora."
Jemimah scowled, green eyes flashing. She spat the stone from the cherry she had been chewing into her hand then, surreptitiously in case Maria was looking, shook it to the floor.
"They're not close. He's just bein' polite, that's all," she muttered sullenly.
Teresa's sudden frown matched Jemimah's own. "Well, it's a good thing somebody is! You're being so rude to Nora, you'd think the poor woman would have left a long time ago."
"What do you think I been tryin' to do?" Jemimah smirked and tossed another cherry stone under the table."Anyway, Murdoch ain't close to her. He's got more taste than that. He'd hardly be likely to pass over a real lady... like Aggie... for that... that... ol' harpy!"
Teresa picked up the iron again, shaking her head in disgust.
"Jemimah Day Lancer, you're a hard girl."
Jemimah paused, an angry retort withering on her lips. Hard? Was she hard? What was hard about wanting to protect your family and your home from someone you knew to be a wrong 'un?
"I'd rather be hard than a gullible idiot. You'll see."
"Boy, it's sure been a hot one out there today!"
Johnny swiped the sleeve of his dirty blue shirt across his brow and shook his head like a puppy so that dust showered from him. He felt as though he had most of the trail plastered to his damp skin, scratchy and irritating, and he wrinkled his nose in displeasure, pinching the fabric away from his chest to allow some cooling air inside.
Scott slung his saddle over the stand and fanned at himself with his hat.
"Yes, I feel for Zee in this heat. She's just about at the end of her rope."
"Sure looks like she's about to pop!"
"Charming way of expressing it," Scott shot his brother a despairing glance. "But... I hope she doesn't have to wait too much longer."
Johnny sagged onto the low wall between the two stalls and allowed Barranca to nibble affectionately at his shoulder.
"Well, it's June now. Pony was sayin' only yesterday how good it'll be to have a little buddy for California..."
"Buddy?" Scott interrupted with a wide smile. "I think it'll be a fair while before the baby is grown enough to be a playmate."
"Aw, I guess she just meant how it'd be nice to have another mama to talk to. You know how these girls like to gossip the day away. Hey, maybe you should fix up one of them baby carriage doo-dads for Zee! I've seen Pony pushin' that basket thing Jelly made all over Lancer. The kid seems to like it too; sends her right off to sleep every time." He squinted up at Scott while scratching his sweat-soaked hair. "Y'know, I can just see you strollin' down the street in Green River of a Sunday, pushin' little Scott Junior an' tippin' your hat to the ladies."
Scott refused to be goaded.
"I believe Zee gave her order to Jelly a few weeks ago and I know he's been acting very secretively ever since. Perhaps he's constructing a baby carriage for John Junior as well?"
Johnny's mischievous grin did not waver. As much as he was teasing his big brother, he couldn't deny that the thought of parading his own baby through town held a definite appeal.
"You reckon that ol' buzzard's goin' into business?" he laughed.
His horse finally settled with some fresh oats and water, Scott slumped on the opposite wall.
"If he is, he'll do a roaring trade around here!"
"Yeah, place'll be knee-deep in young 'uns pretty soon, won't it?" Johnny snatched up a piece of straw and began to chew it self-consciously. "Scott..."
"You lookin' forward to seein' Murdoch playin' Grandpa?"
"He'll be a natural. You've seen what a good father he turned out to be with Jemimah."
Johnny smiled. "Yeah, but it'll be... well... like..."
"Like us and how it could have been?"
Johnny lifted his dark head and his blue eyes were shining. "Do you think so too?"
"Yes, I do, Johnny. Murdoch's changed a good deal since we came home that day. Mellowed. I think we're about to see a little of what he would have been like with us, especially if the babies are both boys."
"Remember him back in the beginning? Boy, he sure could be a bear!"
Scott rose to retrieve his hat from atop the hay bales. "He still can... or maybe you didn't overhear him speaking to your wife this morning?"
"To Jemimah?" Johnny's smile slipped and faded away. "He was mad? What about? Oh wait, let me guess." He tossed the half-chewed straw to the floor of Charley's stall. "He threaten to blister her again?"
"She's gonna catch it soon! An' if the ol' man don't take steps, I might just..."
"Johnny, it is far too hot to contemplate such exertion," Scott chuckled, keen to placate his little brother. "Take a nice soothing bath and cool down. That's my advice."
"I guess I will too." Johnny sighed and, stretching his aching body, he plunked on his hat so that it nearly covered his eyes. Peering playfully from beneath the brim, he waved a weary hand. "See you at dinner!"
Scott followed him to the barn door and watched him stroll across to the house. Then, he leaned there for a moment, surveying the bright geraniums in Maria's terracotta pots and, beyond the white walls of the hacienda, the sky - so blue that it almost hurt to look at it. Home. His home and Johnny's. Home. A beautiful word for a beautiful place. This would be his child's home too and he or she would grow up with Johnny's children. Together. Scott swallowed hard and felt moisture prick at his eyes.
"Ah... since all this loveliness cannot be heaven, I know in my heart it is June," he quoted softly, a gentle smile playing about his lips.
Behind him, his horse picked up on his mood and snorted, edging forwards for attention. Scott turned, reaching out to pat the gleaming chestnut hide.
"Don't you agree, boy?"
Charley tossed his head until Scott stroked his hand down the length of the velvety nose.
"Abba Woolson said that, y'know," Scott informed the handsome animal. "A wise lady and a pioneer of ladies' dress reform... and that, my friend, is more important than it sounds. It's thanks to her that Zee can now..."
Scott froze, suddenly alert. His eyes scanned the barn, searching the dimly-lit corners for whoever had made the sound.
It came again - someone crying.
Scott looked up to the hay loft, aware of a faint rustling noise. Patting Charley, he moved almost silently to the ladder. When he reached the top, he was not surprised to discover Flora, curled up in the fresh hay and weeping quietly.
"Honey, what is it?"
Scott had been about to ask if she was hurt or felt ill but the child turned a tear-stained face and, with a burst of almost hysterical sobbing, threw herself into his arms.
"There now," he soothed. "Hey, whatever is the matter? Shh. Come on, milady, come on now."
Scott rocked the distraught little girl, recognising that he would get no sense out of her until she calmed down. She was already hiccupping and gasping in her extreme distress. Her skinny body, clad these days in the far simpler cotton smock dresses stitched by the ladies, was shaking as she clung to him as though he were her lifeline.
He gently stroked her mousey hair, easing her up onto his lap and patiently waiting for the storm to abate.
"Do you have a handkerchief?"
Flora shook her head, sniffing loudly. Scott gave a rueful smile.
"And I can't lend you mine all caked with dirt." He clicked his tongue and shrugged, hoping to make the girl smile at last. But no smile was forthcoming.
"Can you tell me what's troubling you?"
Flora again shook her head which rested on his shoulder.
"Sure? I might be able to help."
Her voice was croaky and tight. "I just... don't want to go."
"Go? Go where?"
"Aw sweetheart," Scott smiled and hugged her close. Children's tragedies were always easily sorted, thank goodness. "The cottage isn't far away - only down the lane where Cip lives and then over the next bump in the road. You'll be able to come here every day and..."
He realised that, far from solving her problems, he seemed to be making matters worse. Her huge grey eyes had again filled with tears, despair plain on her face and in the miserable defeated slump of her shoulders.
"Not the same, eh?" he mused, chewing at the inside of his lip.
"No. I want to stay with you!" Flora suddenly clutched fiercely at his shirt and Scott winced as her tiny fingernails dug into his skin. "Don't let her take me! Please don't let her take me!"
With that, the child dissolved once more into grief-stricken weeping. Scott sighed and lifted her up, somehow contriving to descend the ladder with Flora clinging limpet-like to him. Barranca and Charley approached them, whickering with concern, as they passed.
"It's alright, boys. Just going to take this little one home; see if we can't find a big piece of cake for her."
He hefted Flora more securely in his arms and, kissing the hot tearful cheek, carried the little girl across to the house.
"You look serious," Jemimah said warily as Scott indicated the empty chair and asked her to sit down. "Listen, if you're goin' to start lecturin' me too, you needn't bother. I've had it from Murdoch an' Johnny both and I'm just about sick to the back teeth of it. If you lot don't want to listen to my side of it then you deserve all you get, if you ask me and..."
Scott held up a hand to forestall her. "No, I'm not going to lecture you. Quite the opposite - I want to hear your thoughts."
Jemimah gaped, mouth open in astonishment. She had never expected Scott of all people to be remotely interested in her views. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"Yeah? This ain't some trick, is it?"
"Yes... I tell you what I think about the ol' harridan an' then you rat on me to Murdoch so I get my ear chewed off and..."
"Jemimah!" Scott was looking most annoyed. "I have not asked you here to lure you into some kind of trap. Believe it or not, I have better things to do with my time."
She subsided, rather shamefaced. "Oh well, alright..."
"And," he added with an indignant glare. "I do not rat!"
"Alright, alright. I'm sorry. Get on with it, will you?"
Scott bristled as though smoothing invisible feathers and sat back more comfortably in his desk chair. Jemimah had only been into his small study once before. It was a pleasant enough room, she supposed, very male and tastefully decorated, filled with books as you would expect from Scott, but she had never been overly fond of studies and all the painful associations therein. Thank goodness Johnny hadn't wanted one in their suite of rooms.
Scott had picked up a cigar from the box on his desk and now was rolling it thoughtfully in his long tapered fingers.
"What do you really think Mrs. Sheehy's motives for coming here may be?"
"Can't really say for sure but nothin' good, you can place bets on that." Jemimah sighed, absent-mindedly stroking her hand over her middle. "Scott, she's a money-grabber. Always was. I told Johnny an' now I'll tell you - she stole my mother's wedding ring. Weren't worth much except for sentiment but that didn't bother her none. Happen it fetched a few quid an' that's all she were thinkin' of."
"Did your father know it was Mrs. Sheehy?"
"Aye, 'course he did. Mentioned her in his next sermon an' said how he hoped she'd regret her error of judgement and that the Lord would guide her to a repentance of her sin. Didn't shame her by giving her name though... not like I would have. Didn't matter in the end though 'cos she'd already done a runner by then."
"And now she's here."
"Not keen to go home neither, is she? If you ask me, there's no house in New York nor a fiancé left a fortune to her."
Scott remained silent though he had thought much the same himself.
"Stands to reason, don't it?" Jemimah was continuing. "If she had money, property, anything at all... she'd never have trekked all this way just to see me."
She grinned, twinkling naughtily.
"I know I'm bloody marvellous an' you all simply dote on me..."
Scott chuckled at her impish expression.
"But she never had no love for me. Helluva long way to come to see a lass you don't care nothing about, ain't it?"
Scott rested his chin on the heel of his hand, blue-grey eyes meandering over Jemimah with unhidden respect.
"Summat else too... I always believed little Flora had passed on with her folks. Now, I can understand six years spent with that ol' bat would change the kid..." Jemimah rolled her eyes with a shudder. "Blimey, worse than doin' hard labour, if you ask me! But..."
She leaned forward and paused. Then, lifting her clear green eyes to Scott, she shook her head in disbelief, sadness and worry etched on her face.
"To change from bein' freckled an' red-headed? Green eyes to grey? That's a bleedin' miracle, don't you think?"
With Johnny's encouragement (and ability to read his wife's mood thus steering her away from further confrontations), dinner times resumed a more settled atmosphere. Jemimah, while she could hardly be accused of actual good humour or courtesy towards Mrs. Sheehy, contrived to hold her tongue in that lady's presence.
So, it was with a sense of utter bewilderment that Murdoch discovered Nora weeping alone beneath the peach tree in the kitchen garden. He had intended to be the bearer of good news and decided not to wait until supper to deliver it. To discover the lady in copious tears distressed him greatly and he almost turned tail and ran. Too late, she spotted him and dabbed delicately at her eyes.
"Oh Murdoch, forgive me. You must think me a foolish old woman."
Murdoch cleared his throat nervously and lowered himself onto the bench at her side.
"I'd hardly imagine so, Nora but something's obviously upsetting you. May I ask what it is?"
She hesitated, eyeing him from behind the handkerchief. "It's... it's Jemimah."
"Jemimah?" Murdoch gritted his teeth. "Now look, I have already told her..."
"No, Murdoch. Jemimah is a Lancer now and her feelings must be taken into account; far more than my own. You know that."
"Perhaps, but my feelings matter too," he said decisively. "I was on my way to tell you that the cottage is ready. The roof has been fixed and it's yours, yours and Flora's, if you still want it."
She was already shaking her head. "No, no. We must be off. Jemimah thinks I'm a thief and..."
"What?" Murdoch's voice was an incensed growl. "A thief? She actually said that?"
"Well no... but as good as. I won't have my character maligned, not even by Jemimah. I know I wanted to be reconciled with her but..."
"Then please," Murdoch gently patted Nora's elbow, feeling most ill at ease and wishing Teresa were there to take over the job of comforter. "Take the cottage. It's standing empty now. You and Flora can live there and still come by to the main house anytime you want. In time... not too long a time if I have anything to do with it... Jemimah will be brought to realise that she's mistaken. Whatever her reasons, there is no excuse for making such an accusation. I can hardly believe it of her. It's unpardonable."
Nora was still shaking her head though with less vehemence. "I really don't want to be the cause of further trouble. Jemimah Day has always been a stubborn lassie."
"Ah, but she's a Lancer now, as you pointed out. Johnny is her husband and he has a way with her. He'll make her see sense."
"Yes, he understands the situation better than you might think and, between you and me, he's already spoken to her more than once. Things have been better these last two weeks, haven't they?"
"Until today, yes. I don't know what to say. I never expected Johnny to plead my case."
Nora sniffed into her hanky again to disguise the gleam in her dark eyes. This was exactly what she had hoped. If she could get the half-breed son on side, he would soon knock the Day chit into shape. She'd have no choice but to obey a husband and father... especially the powerful Lancers.
"He's a fair man," Murdoch was saying. "He'll speak to Jemimah and we'll settle this once and for all."
Nora gripped his sleeve in anguish. "You really think he can bring her to heel?"
Murdoch faltered. He liked neither the urgent glint in Nora's eyes nor the term bring her to heel. As if sensing his confusion, she removed her hand and smiled timidly.
"Well, he'll certainly talk to her. As I said, he's a very fair man and he has a way of getting through to Jemimah."
"She'll obey him?"
Again, Murdoch paused, an unease making him hesitate. Obey? Johnny and Jemimah were partners, husband and wife. Theirs was no stentorian marriage where he was the master and she the subdued little woman.
"She usually listens," was all he could think to answer.
"She called you a thief?" Johnny asked quietly, his dark brows drawn together. "Really?"
"It's inexcusable, Johnny," Murdoch snapped.
Johnny nodded, hands fisted on his lean hips and his dusty hat dangling from two fingers.
"Well yeah, I know," he agreed softly. "It would be if..." He gave Mrs. Sheehy a searching look. "She actually used that word? You're sure?"
Nora Sheehy nodded, the ever-present lace-trimmed handkerchief to her nose.
"Yes, that word, that word exactly! I don't mind telling you I was shocked!"
Johnny's eyes darkened and he released a slow breath. He had hoped, with Mrs. Sheehy's imminent removal from the house, Jemimah would be able to back off and simply do her best to avoid any contact with the silly woman. Yet, here she was snivelling into her hanky again because Jemimah couldn't keep that temper under control.
Smacking his hat against his thigh in frustration, Johnny turned away towards the big window behind Murdoch's desk. He stared out at the distant hills without really seeing them.
What was he going to do? It was clear his father was livid and expected him to do something... but what? Jemimah wasn't a child anymore. The days were gone when she could be paddled and packed off to bed without supper to make her mind. Johnny dipped his head, his arms wrapped tightly around himself as he pictured the scene in his mind. The very idea made his lips twitch into a tiny smile which he hid immediately lest Murdoch think he wasn't taking the whole thing seriously enough.
He knew well enough how strong was her dislike and mistrust of Nora Sheehy and he had to admit he didn't exactly take to the woman either. The way she conveniently allowed Murdoch to find her weeping - it somehow didn't ring true with Johnny. But, he acknowledged, it had sure produced the effect she needed.
Murdoch was also feeling the first real stirrings of genuine doubt and it gave him a queasy sensation in the pit of his stomach. 'As good as'. That was what Nora had said when he quizzed her on Jemimah's actual words. Yet, here she had just affirmed with absolute certainty that the girl called her a thief. The way her story weaved and changed to suit - it did not sit well with Murdoch.
"So, what do you intend to do about her?" Nora asked, a shrewish shrill to her voice. Seeing Johnny's surprised reaction and realising she may have overstepped the mark, she made an effort to appear more the victim. "If you don't mind my asking," she added hastily.
It was almost as though the woman was trying to get him and Murdoch to take sides against Jemimah! Johnny made up his mind. No, he didn't like Mrs. Sheehy. Not one bit. What's more, he would be a fool to take her word over his wife's. Jemimah could be reckless and she sure had a temper when she got herself all riled up but she didn't make up stories and she had a loving heart. To turn totally against Nora... he should have backed her more, he realised with a sudden flush of guilt. He was about to excuse himself to seek out his wife and beg her forgiveness if necessary when in she walked with Scott and Zee.
Murdoch was instantly on his feet. Despite his new-found mistrust of Nora Sheehy, he still intended to give his daughter a well-deserved dressing-down.
"Young lady, you have some explaining to do!"
Johnny threw his father an exasperated glance. He had not raised his voice but the tell-tale vein was ticking at his left temple as always when he was angry.
"Me?" Jemimah halted in her tracks. "I've only just come in. What did I do?"
She caught the smug smirk on Nora's face and nodded.
"Oh wait, don't tell me... something to do with her, ain't it? What crime am I accused of this time?"
"No crime," Murdoch glowered down at her. "And I hear it's you who's been throwing around the accusations, my girl." He clamped his lips together into a disapproving line as he studied her. "It's just as well we didn't show the same meanness of spirit five years ago or you would have remained in England to shift for yourself... alone!"
Nora gripped the arm of her chair in anguish.
"Oh Murdoch, no! I would never have allowed that! The minute I found out about Andrew, I made enquiries after Jemimah and, had she not already sailed for America at your invitation, I would have taken her in myself."
Jemimah gaped at Mrs. Sheehy's false maiden aunt simper and her lip curled in disgust. The very idea was a fate worse than death! And now, to be defended by her in front of everyone... she would not have that!
"I'd sooner have slept rough under the hedgerow than let you get your grabbing hands on me!" she exclaimed. "You'd have had my hair lopped off for the wigmaker an' I'd have been up a chimney somewhere... or... or picking dog mess off've the streets for the leather tanners or..."
Johnny stepped forwards. "Honey, don't. Come on, let's..."
Jemimah ignored him, turning again to her father. "Why can't you see it, Murdoch? You ain't in love with her so what's your excuse for bein' so blind?"
Whether Jemimah had intended to be insolent or not, Murdoch certainly took exception to her words.
"Jemimah Rose, you will apologise this..."
"Look at Flora, for heaven's sake!" she implored, almost on the verge of tears. "Why do you think the poor mite's so quiet? She's terrified of her!" She gestured wildly to Nora who was once more sniffling into the handkerchief. "Lawd, she's evil, Murdoch. Can't you see it? Even her name - it means 'wicked', don't it? Had you not thought of that?"
On the point of ordering Jemimah from the room, Murdoch froze and, blinking in sudden realisation, fell silent. Jemimah was right; in the old language 'Sheehy' did indeed mean evil, wicked.
Perhaps, Nora thought a strategic withdrawal at this juncture would be in her favour or maybe she considered the sight of a lone woman limping pathetically from the room to be her ace in the hole. Whatever the reason, she rose from the blue armchair, weeping into her scrap of lace, and began to hobble past them all towards the hall.
"I won't stay where I'm not wanted. I'll go up and pack so we can leave immediately, Murdoch," she quavered in a trembling voice.
"No need for Flora to go," Jemimah muttered. "She can stay but you're welcome to depart as quick as you can!"
Both Murdoch and Johnny spoke in unison; the former furiously and the latter desperate to whisk her away before the Lancer patriarch could erupt.
Mrs. Sheehy passed Jemimah with a muffled sob, a truly pitiful picture, but, before anyone could detain her (as she hoped)or Murdoch could reach for his daughter to begin throttling her, Scott turned to the woman and, his head quizzically canted to one side, broke the heavy silence.
"Mrs. Sheehy, I do believe you're limping on the wrong foot!"
Zee, on her husband's arm, screwed up her pert nose in puzzlement then grinned.
"You're right! She's favourin' her left when all this time it's been her right!"
Five pairs of eyes trained incredulously on Nora Sheehy, pinning her to the spot and making her suddenly so confused that she dared not take another step, no longer sure in her own mind of which foot she had injured the day she staged her accident on the stairs.
Her previously pale cheeks were now livid with bright spots of colour and, for a long moment, she could find no words. Then...
"No, you're mistaken, young man," she addressed Scott with the manner of a woman somewhat insulted by his rude contradiction. "I hurt my left ankle. It surely was. See... I... er... in any case, it's much improved these days. Hardly any bother at all now... probably don't even need this cane, come to think of it." She realised how ridiculous that statement was after her pitiful hobbling of only moments ago. "Though, of course, it still pains me from time to time. I..."
Her panicked stuttering caused the bubble of suspicion in Murdoch's belly to swell so that his insides roiled with increasing unease. Scott, still smiling politely at Nora, was seldom wrong and he seemed quite cool and certain.
"No, it wasn't!" Zee interrupted Nora's stammering excuses. "It was the right. Scott's got it - she's switched feet!"
Nora banged the cane on the floor in her agitation. "I haven't! You're mistaken, I tell you!"
Scott had fished a letter from his back pocket and, still wearing the polite smile, addressed the angry woman.
"I have just been into Green River at the request of our lawyer." He glanced at Murdoch in explanation. "He sent word to say that he had information for me. Mrs. Sheehy, this concerns you. Would you like to hear what he's found out?"
"Me? Found out?" Her expression told them all that she had an idea of what might be contained in the letter and the last thing she wanted to do was listen to any solicitor's report.
"Yes, I had him make some enquiries on my behalf. Won't you sit down?" Scott indicated the armchair but Nora did not move.
Her mouth hung open but no sound came out. Only her eyes seemed alive. Hard and beady, they darted from face to face like a cornered animal.
"I'd like to hear it," Johnny said.
"So would I." Murdoch's face was grim.
"Mrs. Sheehy, won't you please sit down?" Scott again urged her but she remained frozen in place, watching them all. "Very well. Where to start... Firstly, the matter of darling Ernest, your fiancé? The man whose ill-judged business venture has robbed you of your home? He died in... a carriage accident, am I right?"
Scott paused for Nora to confirm this but she would not answer. Her lips had curled slightly in the beginnings of a sneer.
"It's strange," Scott went on. "But Mr. Dobbs could find no fiancé; no Ernest. However, he did find record of a man..." Scott checked the letter. "Yes, here it is - an Albert Barker? But you weren't engaged, were you? Though it seems you lived as man and wife for over two years until he died last winter, not in a carriage accident but in a drunken dockside brawl. There was some talk of gambling debts..." Scott sighed and looked Mrs. Sheehy in the eye. "There is no sister contesting his will, no legacy, no house. Is there?"
He turned to look at his family. His polite smile was gone, replaced with a grimace of distaste as though the task of revealing the truth made him sick to his stomach.
"So, Jemimah was right?" Johnny took his wife's hand as he moved to her side. "She came here lookin' for a hand-out?"
Scott was nodding. "Most assuredly. No money, no house. But that isn't all." He faced Nora again. "Is it, Mrs. Sheehy?"
"Why don't you tell me, boy?" she hissed.
"As you wish. There may not have been any house with a white picket fence but what there was... I suppose a polite term would be bordello though, by all accounts, such a den of filth and depravity hardly merits the name. Raided on an almost weekly basis and a haunt of the most vile scum known in the city."
"Good God!" Murdoch's huge hand gently touched Jemimah's shoulder.
"It appears Nora's speciality is preying on young destitute women - very young. She lures them in with a kindly word; the offer of food and a bed for the night. Then she turns them into drunken... workers, beaten, terrorised, little more than captives. She convinces them they are in her debt or holds them with threats, blackmail and, too weak or too ignorant to fight, they can't break free. It seems the police wish to question her with regard to a spate of kidnappings too."
"Kidnapping?" Murdoch was incredulous.
Jemimah gave a start. "Flora?"
But Scott was shaking his head. "Perhaps you'd like to tell us about Flora, Mrs. Sheehy?"
Caught in her own web of deceit, Nora Sheehy had undergone an incredible transformation. Her kindly benevolent smile twisted into a sneer of loathing, she regarded Scott through black beetle eyes which glittered with hatred.
"You can go to the devil!" she hissed, her harsh rasping voice a mere travesty of the previous mellow tones. "You think you're so smart - the high an' mighty Lancers with your fancy lawyers..." She gripped the walking cane so hard that the white bones of her knuckles looked as though they might pierce her papery skin. "I'm leaving and Flora comes with me!" She gave Jemimah a nasty smile. "You'll not see your precious cousin again, Jemimah Day!"
Scott had manoeuvred himself carefully in front of Zee. "Oh, I think not. You see, the child you brought here isn't Flora Day. Is she?"
Johnny sensed his wife trembling and put his arm protectively around her. Murdoch, too, moved closer.
"Would you care to explain who she is?" Scott pressed, his blue eyes blazing angrily.
Nora Sheehy paled under his fierce contempt but she merely cast him a leer and made a kind of choked snarling sound. Zee, at Scott's side, gripped his shirtsleeve and scowled at the woman.
Murdoch moved to her. "I must insist."
He recoiled then as she turned and viciously spat at him, suddenly almost feral and utterly repugnant.
"You keep your hands off've me, Lancer!" she cried. "Lancer." She sneered, screwing up her face as though the very name tasted foul in her mouth. "You're nothin' special. Actin' so full of y'self. You come from the same life as me; family of nine huddled in the same type o' shack, scavenging for every sup an' grateful for a crust 'ere an' there! The great Murdoch Lancer - that's a joke! His society bitch dies..." She threw Scott a scathing sneer. "Then he takes a Mex whore an' gets this one on her..." She gestured rudely to Johnny. "A half-breed gun hawk! You must be so proud! An' you thinks you're better'n me? You was just lucky, that's all. Everythin' fell into your lap, didn't it? That's the only difference!"
"You will be silent!" Scott took another step to her but jerked back when she brandished the cane, a wild glint in her mean little eyes.
"No boy, I will be gone. You won't stop me. Keep the brat for all I care!"
She turned and darted across to the hall.
Johnny lurched at once to follow her. "Scott, come on! We..."
Scott seized his brother's arm, shaking his head. "No, Johnny! Wait!"
Nora had wrenched the door open but, instead of making her escape, she gave a strangled cry and fell back, the cane clattering to the tiles.
A figure stepped calmly in, gun drawn and teeth white in his swarthy face. Seeming to fill the doorway, he paused before Nora until, panting, she subsided. Then, he touched his hat politely to the family.
Johnny straightened in Scott's grip. "Val! What you doin' here? How did you...?"
"Murdoch." Val nodded respectfully to the Lancer patriarch and, though his smile never wavered, his dark eyes were trained keenly on the cowering woman before him. "Guess I'll just remove this trash from your doorstep, shall I?"
He grabbed Nora's wrist and, when she tried to writhe free, bent close to speak so only she could hear.
"Now lady, an' I use that term lightly, you can either walk to the wagon an' set quiet on our drive into town..." His smile grew wider as if to show which option he would prefer. "Or I can knock you around the head with this..." He playfully waved the gun. "Tie you up like a hog an' toss you in the back. I know which'd suit me best but I'll leave the choice to you."
Nora gave a half-hearted wriggle but Val's threat had obviously sunk in. Cursing him under her breath, she sagged and was pushed to the door. Val touched his hat once more in farewell and Nora Sheehy left Lancer for good.
After the heated words and astounding revelations of only moments before, the great room felt as though it had been plunged into water so that all sound was muted and seemed to come from far away.
While Jemimah turned into Johnny's embrace, throwing herself into his arms with relief, Scott solicitously led Zee to the sofa and helped her lower herself to the cushions. Murdoch, meanwhile, mopping Nora's spittle from his cheek, stumbled to the sideboard to pour five generous measures of whisky. Never one to flap in any kind of commotion, he welcomed the distraction of pouring the drinks; it gave him the much-needed time to take it all in.
Johnny moved to the sofa too and perched on the arm at Jemimah's side.
"How come Val was here?" he asked.
"I asked him to follow us back." Scott took his glass from Murdoch with a grateful nod. "I had an idea that Nora would try to bolt once the truth was out. He'll make sure she's taken back to New York to stand trial."
They lapsed into silence again as Murdoch handed out the rest of the whiskies. Each was trying to come to terms with all they had learned.
"Boy, that was some detective work, Scott," Johnny beamed. "You oughtta join the Pinks!"
"I had little to do with it really."
"I can't believe that."
"No, it was mostly down to Mr. Dobbs."
Murdoch made for his usual armchair and lowered himself wearily into it. He paused to take a deep drink from his crystal tumbler.
"Scott, have you told us everything?" he finally asked.
Scott took a breath and, more to occupy his hands than from any real need to re-read it, unfolded the letter again.
"Nora ran the brothel almost from the day she got off the boat in New York. Dobbs thinks she'd already had... experience of this line of work. For some time, the police had suspected that she and Barker, her accomplice, were trafficking in young girls, often held against their will."
"I knew she was bad but..." Jemimah shook her head in disbelief.
"They chose homeless girls but, last year, they became reckless. It's thought that Barker grabbed two children from the nearby orphanage. The authorities organised a search which led them to the brothel..."
Murdoch straightened. "And Nora."
Zee struggled into a more comfortable position but finally gave up. "So... who is Flora? She's not Jemimah's cousin, is she?"
Scott shook his head sadly and gave Jemimah a sympathetic glance.
"No, I suspect the child is just an innocent who was unlucky enough to come to Nora's attention. She was the right age so she fitted the bill. Nora could drag her here and claim to be connected to Jemimah - all in the hope of wheedling money from her."
Jemimah found her eyes were wet with tears. Johnny reached for her hand and she clung to him gratefully. "And the real Flora?"
"We don't have all the facts yet, honey." Scott stared down into his whisky. "But we think the little girl did die from the fever at the same time as your uncle and aunt, just as you originally thought. Investigations are underway and Dobbs has promised any news the minute he hears."
Zee handed her untouched glass back to Scott with a grimace.
"You don't want it?"
"Nah, feelin'a little woozy. Must be all the excitement. I reckon I'll go make some coffee." Scott hovered over her, keen to help, but she waved him away. "I'm fine. Don't fuss."
Then, a hand to the small of her back, she waddled slowly into the kitchen.
Jemimah rose too and meandered over to the French windows. There, she turned, head cocked on one side in puzzlement.
"But what I don't get is why Nora would think I had any money. What on earth made her traipse halfway across the country to see me?"
Murdoch leaned forward, his forearms on his knees. He was looking rather uncomfortable.
"I think I can shed some light on that," Scott said. "Dobbs seems to think that Nora had a chance meeting with the same lawyer who handled Trudy's affairs. I'm guessing she couldn't believe her luck when she discovered that property had been willed to a certain Jemimah Day. Surely, there couldn't be more than one person of that name?"
Johnny reached out a hand to Jemimah, his blue eyes twinkling. "Nope. One of a kind."
Scott went on, "I'd say the lawyer looked into it and discovered Andrew's child, now living in California with a family called Lancer. I'm only guessing again but I suspect the lawyer may have had a hand in concocting all this charade but that's still being investigated."
"Blimey, we knew Trudy's lawyer fella was a bugger. Caused us a bit of bother, didn't he? But... all this carry-on to get a piece of Mannock Ridge? Hardly seems worth it."
Jemimah flopped onto the sofa and lay back against Johnny while his hand softly smoothed her hair.
Murdoch cleared his throat.
"Darling..." he began hesitantly. "There's something I need to tell you. Would you come into the study with me?"
Jemimah sat bolt upright in alarm.
"The study? What for?"
"It's quite alright; I just have something to say."
"Well, can't you say it here, Murdoch?"
The big man sighed, chewing at the inside of his lip but he finally nodded and rose from his chair.
"I'll be back in a minute."
When he returned, they noticed that he carried some documents.
"What you got there?" Johnny frowned. He wasn't keen on all this intrigue; it was unsettling for Jemimah. He didn't like the way she had been trembling ever since Nora's outburst.
Murdoch took a seat in his chair and gestured to the sofa.
"Johnny, sit with Jemimah, will you?"
"I am sittin' with her."
"Not perched on the arm there. Sit properly."
"I'm fine here. No need to..."
"Johnny, will you just sit down, please?" Scott interrupted. "It looks like Murdoch has something important to say."
Huffing like a stroppy teen, Johnny moved to the sofa as he was bade.
"So, what is it? Bad news?"
"No, no, not bad news but..." Murdoch eyed the papers in his hand as he fumbled to put on his spectacles. "I think you should be sitting together to hear this."
Jemimah was studying Murdoch and, swallowing hard, she reached for Johnny's hand.
"When I read you the letter from Mrs Mac three years ago, you found out that she had considered both of you in her will."
"Yes, she left Johnny her horses, Torcall, Samson and Delilah," Jemimah nodded.
"An' the Ridge to Jemimah." Johnny slipped his arm around his wife's shoulders. "Murdoch, what is it? You got me worried."
"Lancer has been renting the Ridge from Jemimah ever since," Scott said, referring to the token annual payment they had set up at Jemimah's request. "It's all legal. Surely, there's no quibble with our arrangement?"
Murdoch held up a hand to wave away their concern.
"No, nothing like that. Besides, now that Johnny and Jemimah are married, the Ridge and the cabin essentially come under his control."
Johnny frowned. "Aw hell, Murdoch. You know we don't work like that."
"Yes, I know. I was merely trying to reassure you that there is nothing illegal about the arrangement. But... your marriage does change things. Or rather... the baby does."
"The baby?" Jemimah whispered.
"What?" Johnny was becoming exasperated.
"Trudy's lawyer enclosed a second letter, the contents of which I was to keep to myself until Jemimah married and became a mother. I would have shared this with you when Rosa was born but..." Murdoch released a slow breath. "With all that happened... the time was not right. Anyway, it now seems fairly obvious that her lawyer may have expected me to keep silent about it but couldn't manage that himself. He must have told Nora about the will. Certainly, that better explains her travelling here. You were right - Mannock Ridge and the cabin wouldn't be enough of an enticement but..."
Murdoch tapped the heavy ivory paper.
Scott rose from his chair. "Perhaps you should read it, Murdoch. I'll go and help Zee with that coffee. It sounds like we may need it."
"Scott, I'd rather you stayed... if it's alright with Jemimah?" Johnny looked down into her face and smiled when she nodded. She was pale and her hand had closed tightly around his fingers.
Scott sat down again but remained silent.
"Alright, Murdoch," Johnny clasped his other hand around Jemimah's. "Let 'er buck!"
"I'll simply read Trudy's words. She left a letter for you and asked me to save it. I know your baby isn't due for another four months but..."
He was unfolding a single sheet of the same ivory paper. Clearing his throat, he adjusted his spectacles and began.
"My dear lass,
I am no hand at clever words or showy legal phrasing. In any case, such was never the way between us and my time is short so I will say what has to be said, simply and from my heart.
If the big man is reading this to you now, you are a married woman and know the sweetness of becoming a mother. I am sure of the man you have chosen to share this with you. I am not often wrong as you know!"
Johnny chuckled softly and leaned to kiss Jemimah's hair.
"If, by some odd chance, I am mistaken, I know you will have chose a good lad. You have sense and, though it be hard enough to find a decent man in this life (God knows as well as I), I believe the man beside you is one of that rare breed.
You know I have spent my life, wandering the world to savour its adventures but life's greatest adventure was not to be mine until I came to its end. The gift of motherhood is a divine treasure beyond any wealth I had and you gifted it to me in these last days - days which I have come to recognise as the best I have ever known - with you and John Lancer. You gave me the honour and joy of being a mother at last; that same joy you now know with your own bairn. It has been a precious thing to me, no matter how short a time.
It is fitting now that I give you something in return..."
"But she did!" Jemimah interrupted Murdoch's reading. Her cheeks were wet with tears which rolled down and dripped unheeded to her cotton dress. "She gave me her friendship an' she taught me... lots of stuff an' then she gave me the Ridge. We don't need any more than that!"
Johnny held her close, his own eyes sparkling with unshed tears. "Honey, let's hear what she wanted to say, hmm? Murdoch, would you...?"
"...that I give you something in return. A mother could do no less. The Ridge has the water rights so Lancer will be safe. My portrait, china and the furniture are yours. I now leave you what remains - the house in Boston was too big for me. I could never abide to dwell in such a mausoleum but it is yours to do with as you wish. The silver mine is gone now but the lands we owned are yours. You have the wisdom to use them well. You are not like me, lass. I ken you will not thrill to the pleasure of owning these things so sell them or pass them to your children (I hope there will be many). I care not what becomes of it all as long as your choice makes the two of you happy.
It is little enough thanks for the happiness you have given me. Love each other well. I pray the road will always rise up to meet you and the angels bless your footsteps.
Tha gaol agam oirbh.
Gertrude Morag McElvenney."
Murdoch took his time re-folding the letter and slipping it back into the envelope. Jemimah was weeping quietly in Johnny's arms. His boy, too, was more than a little misty-eyed.
"What did the words mean at the end, Murdoch?" he asked.
"I think you can guess, Johnny."
"Yeah." Johnny concentrated on the crest over the mantle and held Jemimah tightly.
Scott had crossed the room and now stood by the sideboard in a shaft of afternoon sunlight. The amber glow of the whisky reflected on the pale plaster wall as he refilled the glasses for Murdoch, Johnny and himself. Jemimah, at Johnny's gentle urging, was sipping from her untouched glass.
"I can't hardly believe it," she gasped, wiping the back of her hand wetly across her nose in the old childish gesture. "The house... an' all that land. It's a fortune!"
"Yes. Yes, it is. Trudy cared for you very much - both of you," Murdoch was smiling softly. The honesty of Trudy's words had deeply affected them all. "I think it would make her very happy to see you together now."
Johnny brushed a lone tear from Jemimah's cheek and gently kissed her.
Slightly calmer, Jemimah looked to Scott. "I still don't understand everything. Can't get it straight in my head. Why did Nora think she had a chance at my money? She knew there was no love lost between us."
Scott glanced to his father and brother before he spoke.
"I think Johnny and Murdoch would both agree with me here. Nora has been particularly attentive to both of you, hasn't she? Whereas, if you think back, she had very little time for me; didn't bother to court my good opinion."
"Very short-sighted of her, seeing as you were the one to bring about her downfall," Murdoch said.
"Thank you." Scott raised his glass, accepting his father's praise. "She hoped to sway Murdoch and persuade him or Johnny to apportion some of your inheritance to her... for Flora, of course."
Jemimah frowned. "Then, why didn't she work on me? It's my inheritance."
"True but, as we all know, right or wrong, it may be left to you but Johnny is your husband; he has the ultimate right to use your money as he sees fit." Scott could see that Johnny was shaking his head impatiently but he carried on. "By law, your money, possessions, property are his. If you were not married, they would come under your father's control."
"I'd never do that!" Johnny protested.
"No, you have too much honour, even for our antiquated legal system. But a person like Nora Sheehy couldn't comprehend honour. She judged you by her own mean standards so her plan would never have worked." Scott sighed and crossed to his chair. "We wouldn't have seen her homeless, especially with Flora to consider. But give away Trudy's legacy... against Jemimah's wishes?" He shook his head and smiled.
Murdoch added his thoughts, sounding tired to his children, perhaps even guilty. "She hoped that, by the time the baby arrived, I'd have decided to give her enough to disappear and start again - somewhere new where her crimes couldn't follow her. I hope you know, darling... I wouldn't have made a decision like that for you. The law can say what it likes; in this family, you and Teresa have the same rights as the rest of us."
He looked to Jemimah and was relieved when she smiled warmly back at him.
"I wonder what she had in mind for Flora?" Johnny said. "Can't see her takin' a kid along. More than likely, she'd have been dumped somewhere... or sold."
Jemimah gasped, wincing at the horrible idea.
"I've seen worse," was all Johnny said.
Scott drained his glass and moved determinedly to the door.
"If you'll excuse me, there's something I need to ask Zee."
"Scott?" Jemimah called after him so that he paused in the doorway, looking back. "Thank you."
Hand in hand, Scott and Zee were deep in conversation as they headed across to the barn.
"You reckon she's up there?" Zee eyed the hay loft with a worried frown, her hand to her swollen belly.
"She was the last time. It's worth a try."
She nodded, biting her lip. "I think this might be down to you, honey."
Scott gave her an anxious look but she grinned and gestured to her bump.
"Can you see me climbin' that ladder with this?" she smiled ruefully. "Cain't see my feet no more!"
He squeezed her hand. "No, you're right. Well, let's see if she's up there."
Before he could begin to climb, Zee reached up to plant a kiss on his cheek.
"No fancy words, mind," she advised. "Just tell her plain. Good luck!"
Scott climbed the ladder and peered into the shadowy mounds of hay. There was nothing to be seen and no sound. Disappointed, he was turning to go back down to Zee when a furtive rustling made him pause. It was coming from the far corner.
He moved slowly to the back wall but could still see nothing other than the heaped hay. Perhaps it had only been a rat but... Scott crouched and carefully swept back the top layer of loose straw with a gentle hand.
The dim light fell on the mousey hair and rumpled green cotton dress.
The girl had obviously been crying again and she hid her face from him.
"Flora, honey." Scott tried again, this time reaching for the skinny little body.
She felt rigid in his arms as he gently lifted her from her hiding place and sat her on his lap in the straw. Instantly, she turned her face into his neck and clung to him.
"Why are you crying, eh? Come now, can't you tell me?"
"She... she said... we have to go today."
"No, you don't have to go anywhere."
The child nodded. "Yes, I do. She'll take me."
"No, she won't."
"She will. You don't know her. She'll make me go!"
Flora sobbed in despair, her thin frame shuddering with each breath.
"You mean Mrs. Sheehy?" Scott felt her nodding against him. "She won't make you go anywhere, I promise."
"You can't stop her. I belong to her. I have to go with her."
"She's already gone."
Flora was too distressed to take it in. "She'll take me!" She was practically hysterical.
Scott held her firmly, easing her from his shoulder where she was huddled and putting her at arm's length so that she could see his face.
"Flora. Flora, listen to me. Stop crying now and listen to me," he calmly insisted. "I will never lie to you. Do you believe that?"
The little girl stared at him with her huge doe-like eyes.
"Do you?" Scott pressed.
Flora slowly nodded.
"Good girl. Now listen... Mrs. Sheehy has gone and she will never come back."
"Gone?" She couldn't take it in. "Where?"
"That's not important right now. All you need to know is that she is gone and I promise you will never have to see her again. I swear it." Scott solemnly made the childish sign of the cross over his heart. "Now, do you believe me?"
She studied Scott's eyes, serious and sincere. Then, her little face crumpling, she threw herself into his arms again, her pent-up grief and fear flooding from her.
"She took me! She took me when Mama went to heaven. I didn't want to leave Mama... but she took me! She hurt me!"
Scott rocked the girl close, his own eyes closed and his heart breaking for her suffering.
"I know, I know but she can't hurt you now. You're safe here."
He held her patiently; held her as she wept convulsively; held her until the storm of cleansing tears abated.
"Sweetheart, I know your mama is gone now but..." Scott wondered how exactly to phrase his next question. Just tell her plain Zee had said. "Do you have a father?"
She shook her head.
"No, it was just Mama and me at the House." Flora was looking down and twisting one of the buttons on her little dress.
"With the other ladies. Mama was one of the friends."
"Friends? What friends, honey?"
"You know. The ladies were all friends. The gentleman would come to see them and they'd be their friend; keep them company and be kind to them until they were all happy again and then they'd be a friend to another gentleman. Mama said it was good to be friends to people but I didn't like it there."
"You... you didn't?" Scott found he was shaking, hating to imagine her there.
"No. The ladies were all nice to me but I had to work in the kitchen and the laundry and I couldn't sleep in Mama's room or I'd be in the way so I slept under the stairs near the back door. It was cold there and there were roaches. Mama was always so tired. Even when her cough got real bad, Mrs. Sheehy didn't let her rest an' she was so sick. She coughed blood. She thought I didn't see it... but I did. When the angels came for her, I wanted to stay with the ladies but... she took me."
Scott swallowed hard. "And what did your mama call you? Not Flora, was it?"
The child shook her head warily as though afraid to admit her deceit.
"No," she admitted in a tiny voice. "Mrs. Sheehy said I had to be Flora from now on but... Mama called me Elspeth. Elspeth Owen."
Though he had never felt less like it, Scott smiled and offered his hand.
"Elspeth. I like that very much. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Owen."
She shook his hand then turned troubled eyes on him.
"Will I go to jail now for pretending to be Flora? Mrs. Sheehy said I would if ever I told."
"Then... will I go back to the House and be a friend? Margie was a friend and she was only two years older'n me. Mrs. Sheehy said the gentlemen would like me even more'n Mama. She said..."
Scott couldn't bear to hear any more.
"Elspeth, would you like to... stay here? Stay at Lancer?"
"You mean I could work here instead?" Her face lit up.
"No, not work, sweetheart." Scott brushed the lank hair from her flushed cheek with a trembling hand. "I mean... stay and be our little girl? Mine and Zee's?"
Her grey eyes were stunned. "You mean it? Honest?" she breathed.
"Honest. Would you?"
"What about Miss Zee? She's got her own baby coming soon. She might not have room for a little girl too."
Scott smiled and pointed to the ladder. "Well, why don't you ask her?"
Before the words were out of his mouth, the child was scrambling across the hay and tearing down the ladder. Zee, waiting at the bottom and able to hear every word, kneeled to snatch the quivering little body into her embrace, her own eyes shining with tears and her smile shaky.
"You better believe I have room, sweetie! Come on now, what do you say?"
"Yes!" Elspeth's voice was muffled in the folds of Zee's blouse. "Oh, yes please!"
"What a day, eh Murdoch?"
Johnny lounged back into the sofa cushions, his hands clasped behind his head and a beatific smile on his face.
"Betcha you didn't expect all this when you woke up this morning!"
Murdoch was puffing steadily at his pipe, savouring the new tobacco that his sons had fetched from Morro Coyo the week before.
"Hmm? All what?"
Johnny laughed in amazement. "All this!" He gestured at everything and nothing in particular.
Teasing his boy, Murdoch frowned in puzzlement.
"Murdoch!" Johnny could hardly believe his father could remain so calm. "Nora Sheehy arrested by Val and goin' back east to stand trial; you have a new granddaughter who, it turns out, isn't called Flora..."
"Yes, I suppose that will take some getting used to. Elspeth... nice name."
Johnny was incredulous. Surely, Murdoch had to be fooling?
"And Jemimah turns into some rich heiress - land and a mansion in Boston... all in one day!"
Murdoch puffed sedately at his pipe but had caught Scott's eye and they were both trying hard to suppress their smiles. "I suppose it was eventful," he finally acceded.
Johnny sat forwards in disbelief. "Eventful? Murdoch, it was like something outta one of them novels Scott's always reading us!"
"Oh, I don't know about that." Murdoch reached for his glass of single malt and took an appreciative sip. "Ever since you boys came home, I've learned the hard way to expect the unexpected. Now, I'd say I can take pretty much anything in my stride." He glanced at Scott with twinkling eyes.
Johnny was fairly bouncing on his seat cushion. "Murdoch, come on!"
"Johnny, our father is an old hand at this parenting business," Scott joined in the teasing. "You can't expect him to get overly excited by such trivialities."
"I wouldn't call that little girl a triviality, Scott," Johnny smiled.
"Nor would I," Murdoch agreed softly.
Scott didn't even try to tamp down the huge grin which lit his features.
"You sure you're up to bein' a papa to an eight year old?" Johnny nudged.
"I think so, yes."
At that moment, the door swung open and Zee entered with little Elspeth. The child was dressed for bed in her nightgown and shawl. All three Lancer men noticed the change in her; it was as though she was lit from within. Truly pretty for the first time now that her burden had been lifted. She would soon learn how to be an innocent child again... and to be loved.
Zee wearily leaned against the arm of the sofa while the little girl skipped daintily to Scott and clambered into his lap.
"I sure hope you're up to it because this is your first job, Papa," she grinned at Scott. "Elspeth's ready for bed but she says she can't sleep until she has a story."
"Oh?" Scott couldn't have been more delighted. "And what kind of story did you have in mind, Milady?"
The child wriggled in his arms, twiddling the top button of his dark blue shirt.
"A long one!"
Murdoch and Johnny laughed.
"You heard that, Papa?" Johnny teased. "A long one!"
"Well now..." Scott stood with Elspeth settled comfortably on his hip. "I think we can manage that."
He headed to the hall as the child's room was still temporarily upstairs. Tomorrow, they would start on one of the other empty rooms in the west wing; convert it into a sweet little sanctuary for his daughter. He turned to look back at the family. They were all watching him with huge smiles.
"Don't make it too long," Zee warned.
"But I won't be doing my fatherly duty if I can't tell a good story."
Zee shrugged and struggled to stand up again, one hand at the small of her back and the other stroking her belly.
"Whatever you think best," she sparkled. "I just thought your other child could be a mite put-out if you ain't there to greet it when it arrives."
Scott chuckled and turned to go. He had only taken three steps, however, when he froze and looked back at his wife in panic.
"You mean... ?"
Zee nodded, laughing. Scott instantly hurtled over to her, Elspeth still sitting on his hip and giggling as she was jostled along.
"Why are you even standing here? You should be in bed!"
"What for? I ain't sick."
"But... but the baby..."
"We got plenty of time yet. Maria knows. She's over there gettin' things ready with Teresa an' Jemimah."
Zee beamed up at him and reached to tenderly stroke his anxious face. Then, with a sudden wince, her eyes crinkled up and she bit her lip.
"Guess maybe I'd best be goin' back to our room." She waddled slowly through to the kitchen, already calling for Maria.
Scott was close behind, hovering at her back.
"Son, do you want me to take Elspeth to bed?" Murdoch had sat forward in his chair.
"Er..." Scott momentarily looked as though he didn't know which way was up. Then shaking himself, he hefted the little girl more comfortably on his hip and shook his head. "No, thanks anyway, Pa. We'll settle down on the sofa to wait. I sure hope it won't be a long wait."
"I think this little one will be asleep soon," Johnny observed. "I'll be along to wait with you."
"Yes, I'd like that," Scott nodded. "Both of you?"
If Scott's unconscious use of the word Pa were not enough, the warmth in the look he gave his father at that moment succeeded in bringing a lump to Murdoch's throat. Eventful? It had been a blessed day and looked to be one he would never forget.
When Scott had gone, Johnny and Murdoch sat back to finish their drinks. They would give the women folk time to settle Zee and begin what would turn out to be one of the shortest labours in Lancer history.
"You were right, Johnny... it's been a hell of a day. The past came calling and now... I'm going to meet my future. A new generation of Lancers."
They smiled across at each other.
"Yeah," Johnny said softly as he replaced his empty glass. "What was it Scott was sayin' the other day... that lady who writes about women's dresses said it?"
Murdoch drained his glass and smiled.
"Since all this loveliness cannot be heaven, I know in my heart it is June."
Anne Haslam May 2015
Abba Woolson was born in 1838. She was a teacher and an author of essays on women and literature. In 1874, she wrote a Dress Reform in which she derided the discomfort of women's clothing and offered examples of less constricting designs.