Disclaimer: 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 'cos I
love them... and I know I'm not alone in this.
Scott is 33; Johnny is 28
The game of marbles was rapidly descending into chaos.
"That one was mine, Sammy!" the smaller boy accused. "You know it was."
"Finders keepers, Marco Torres!" Sam shook his sandy blond head and held the large green glass marble high, out of the other boy's reach.
"Come an' get it!"
"I'm gonna pound you if you don't hand it over... gimme it right now!"Marco raised his fists threateningly, dipping his head as though about to charge.
Sam sneered. "You want it? Here, catch!"
"What in god's name...?"
Murdoch Lancer cursed and almost jumped out of his skin at the sudden crash which shattered the silence of the great room.
He instantly rose from his chair to investigate, gritting his teeth in annoyance at the blotted disaster which, only moments before, had been neat columns of figures across the page of the ledger. His pen finally rolled to a stop and lay there, dripping its nib-load of black ink and effectively obliterating his last hour's work.
Murdoch hastened past the bright green bumboozer (or so the children in his Scottish hometown had named any particularly large marble in their collection), now residing underneath the table, and followed the trail of broken glass which crunched under his boots as he stomped to the French windows. The jagged fragments in the door frame were further testament to what had jolted him from his morning's labours. Sweeping the door open, he caught sight of two white-faced little boys as they raced away from the scene of the crime.
"Marco Torres! Sam Wallace!" Murdoch bellowed. "Get back here this instant! Do you hear..."
Not surprisingly, the boys had fled. Murdoch grunted in anger, smacking his palm against his leg and wishing it were the wriggling behind of either young scallywag.
And just what were they doing out of school anyway? He glanced over his shoulder at the clock. Only five to ten; it wasn't even time for morning recess.
Murdoch peered out and was further mystified to see the wagon pulling into the yard, still fully-laden with excited children. Young Tadeo, at fifteen, now had the duty of driving the ranch children into Spanish Wells each morning and Murdoch, waving to the boy, headed over for some answers.
"So, Dan's already gone?" Teresa asked as she knelt to sweep the glass fragments from the carpet.
"No, they leave in the morning but the school at Spanish Wells is closed until he returns from Spring Branch."
Jemimah held the pail for Teresa to deposit the broken shards. She wrinkled her nose in puzzlement at Murdoch's information. "From where? Never heard of it."
"It's a small settlement in Utah where his aunt and uncle have their farm. The Harris family have quite a spread out there, I understand, and they've offered his sister, Kate a home with them," Murdoch explained. "Naturally, Dan wanted to accompany his sister on the journey so he's had to close the school."
"He's tryin' to get her married off I bet," Jemimah chortled wickedly. She had never quite forgiven Kate Quinn for the brief interest Johnny had shown in her. "Ol' Quinny didn't have no luck hereabouts fixin' her up with a husband. She weren't bad to look at but I always thought she wasn't quite the full shilling as we used to say." She crossed her eyes and twiddled her finger near her head in a gesture which indicated her mistrust of Kate Quinn's mental capabilities.
Murdoch pretended to aim a smack at her ear as he passed with the cardboard to patch the window pane.
Jemimah grinned and ducked, noting her father's smile but refraining from any further observations on Kate's marital status or intelligence.
"And there was no-one else available to teach in his stead?" Teresa asked.
"Well, Dan tried but apparently not. The school in Green River is already overcrowded; they couldn't take any more. And Miss Hardcastle, who filled in for him during that bout of chicken pox, is about to be married." Murdoch sighed and began to tap the tacks into place to hold the temporary card cover. "It seems our youngsters will have an unexpected vacation until Dan gets back and that won't be for a few weeks."
"Huh, don't know why he never thought to ship her off to his uncle's while I was still at school," Jemimah griped, moving carefully out of Murdoch's reach lest he decide to deliver an actual clip to her ear. "I could've done with a few weeks off from geometry and all of them dead presidents!"
"As I recall, you took plenty of time off whenever you felt so inclined," Teresa smirked.
Jemimah noticed the sharp way her father turned to scrutinise her and could happily have booted Teresa in the bustle as she bent to sweep up the last of the glass.
"Eh?" Her face quickly rearranged itself into an expression of utter bewilderment. "What you on about?"
"All the times you played hook..."
"Reckon I'll have a scout around, Murdoch," Jemimah interrupted hastily. "See if'n I can't find Marco an' Sammy for you!"
Dodging niftily under her father's arm and thankful that he was too busy holding the cardboard to waylay her, Jemimah made her escape. She tucked the green marble into the pocket of her jeans and skipped quickly away.
"Wait! It wasn't me, I swear! I didn't do it!"
The burly figure of Cipriano had Sam Wallace by the ear and was paying no heed to the young tearaway's strident protestations of innocence as he marched him over to the corral fence. There, he planted his left boot onto the lowest rail and hoisted the squalling lad unceremoniously up across his thigh. Five loud smacks rang out, each followed by Sammy's wounded howls.
"Es un estorbo! (You're a nuisance!)" Cip growled as he lowered the boy to the ground. "Go home! Now! And if I catch you again, I will take off my belt!"
Sammy scurried away and the few hands who had paused to watch Cip's most efficient brand of justice wandered back to their work.
At the window, Murdoch chewed at the inside of his lip and emitted a sharp sigh. Things were clearly getting out of hand and it was time something was done. The Lancer small fry, at a loose end since the school had closed, were causing such mischief around the ranch that, if allowed to continue, someone would end up getting hurt - and not simply a tanned backside.
Murdoch turned back to the fireside and sipped thoughtfully at his pre-dinner whisky. An idea had been floating around his brain over the last week and watching Cip lose his temper with young Wallace had decided him.
He checked the clock. A quarter to six. Good. They would all be in soon and he would ask them over dinner.
"A school? Here at Lancer?" Johnny put down his fork and studied his father. "But where would you put them all?" He smiled at the memory of the last time Murdoch had attempted such an endeavour. "Remember the state of the place when you had the Indian school here? I don't think Maria would take too kindly to goin' through all that again."
Murdoch smiled too and shook his head at his younger son. "No, I was thinking of the old guard house. It wouldn't take too much to lick it into shape."
Scott took a mouthful of wine before grinning across at his brother. "I'd hold on to the cell if I were you. It may come in handy!"
Jemimah and Zee laughed.
"Yeah - for Marco an' Sammy!" Jemimah chuckled. "You goin' to play teacher, Murdoch?"
The big man paused, eyeing each of them in turn until the laughter had subsided.
"Well... I'd hoped I could persuade Scott to stand in."
Murdoch spread his hands eloquently. "You can't deny you have the required level of education to teach these children, son."
Johnny was grinning now. "Yeah Scott, that handsome head of yours is chock-full of fancy Boston learning. It's wasted on all them cows. If you ask me, you'd make a real fine teacher."
Johnny was only relieved that he hadn't been asked to step into the breach. Once had been quite enough for him and he had no wish to enter the classroom again in any capacity. However, Scott was pushing his chicken dumplings awkwardly around his plate and looking decidedly uncomfortable. He winced regretfully.
"That'd be alright if I didn't have to oversee that beef shipment for the army at the end of this month, sir. And, of course..." He reached for his wife's hand. "There's Zee to consider."
Murdoch grunted. But he could hardly deny that Scott had a whole host of responsibilities to deal with. Zee was six months along and he couldn't blame Scott for wanting to put his wife and their long-awaited unborn child before a makeshift school for the Lancer children.
Murdoch turned his probing blue gaze on Johnny.
"What about you, John? At least you have had some experience of running a school."
Johnny had jerked back in his chair and was looking for all the world like a little boy caught in some act of mischief. He fairly squirmed under his father's penetrating eye.
"I'd scarce call it experience, Murdoch," he hedged with a tiny self-deprecating smile. "I didn't have much more learning than those kids back then; it was mostly Catha tellin' me what to say and then me bluffin' my way through."
"You still have your school master shirt though," Jemimah piped up, enjoying her husband's discomfort.
Johnny nudged her foot sharply with the toe of his boot and shook his dark head.
"Sure, I have the shirt... but that's about all. I can't remember any of the lessons an' I wouldn't know where to start planning out what each grade should do. That's the hardest part an' I don't know how to do that."
"You're just frightened of Marco Torres!" Jemimah laughed.
They all smirked. Marco was Sofia's ten year old cousin; as badly-behaved as she was mild and amenable. Everyone said it was hard to believe they came from the same stock. Indeed, anyone who tried to teach young Marco would have their hands full.
"Yeh, I am!" Johnny agreed, laughing. "I don't reckon I could swing a paddle hard enough to deal with that young devil!"
Murdoch observed Johnny for a moment more and, reading the silent plea in those blue eyes, finally nodded and straightened in his chair as though he had come to a decision.
"You're right, boys; you have enough to cope with." He glanced at Scott. "Running the herd..." His gaze transferred to Johnny. "And the Lancer stables. Not to mention the fact that you're both about to become fathers."
Scott and Johnny sagged in relief but still watched their father warily.
"Then, who do you suggest for the teacher?" Scott enquired at last.
Murdoch raised his chin and smiled.
Jemimah lay back against the cool fat pillows and gave herself up to the nightly pleasure of watching Johnny undress for bed. He had turned the lamp down low but the soft glow on his tanned skin was now playing havoc with her pulse rate... as usual.
"Well, at least we know that Murdoch can dish out a bugger of a walloping if them kids play him up," she continued their conversation.
Johnny smirked. "You know, y'mean! Murdoch's never walloped me!"
He laughed at her scowl and laid his red shirt carefully over the bed post, ready for the morning.
Jemimah was now admiring the thatch of dark hair across his firm torso and the way those lean muscles bunched and stretched as he reached up to fully close the curtains, shutting out the chink of moonlight which spilled across the floor.
"He would've done if you'd grown up here too," she pointed out. "You know what sort of a daddy he is; don't believe in sparin' the rod an' he's a mite too keen on laying down rules. You'd have come a cropper, no question!"
Johnny grinned down at her and his hands moved to the buckle of his belt. Her green eyes followed his every move.
"Yeah, I guess so. He sure likes to call the tune... but he's fair an' I'd say he's mellowed some since you've been here."
"What about you, Johnny?"
"What about me?"
"Well... with our kids." Jemimah stroked her palm tenderly over her abdomen, as yet showing no sign of the baby she carried. "You won't ever wallop our little one, will you?"
Johnny was now shucking off his pants and turning away to lay them on the chair by the dresser, thereby presenting her with a fine view of his taut buttocks bathed in the soft golden glow. So taken by this sight was she that, when he replied, she had some difficulty dragging her mind back to the thread of their conversation. Reluctantly, she forced herself to cease pondering on how her husband had to be the owner of the most delectable male bottom in the whole San Joaquin.
"Well honey," he said softly. "I hate to disillusion you but I'd be crazy to swear I'd never whomp our children. I reckon young 'uns need the occasional warm behind to help guide them. Didn't do me any harm... or you, come to that."
"I'm not so sure about that!"
He slipped into the bed beside her and reached out to resolutely relieve her of the long cotton nightgown. Johnny had never understood why she bothered to don it every night until she had admitted the thrill it gave her to have him remove it. Breathing in the sweet scent of her favourite lily soap in her hair, he wrapped his arms about her and trailed an exploring fingertip down over the smooth curve of her hip.
"Alright, I can promise that spanking won't ever be my first resort but, if they need it, I'll do what has to be done," he said as she twined her legs with his. "It's what papas do, right?"
She frowned and might have huffily moved away if she hadn't been so enjoying the sensation of his meandering touch or the delicious feel of his hard body against hers. When she could finally produce a coherent word, she opted for sulkily assuring him that, no matter what he chose to do, she would never physically chastise their offspring or any child, come to that.
"And I have to say..." She caught her breath as his mouth claimed the hardened peak of her breast while his fingertips trailed up the silken skin of her inner thigh. "I'm a mite disappointed that you would even think to hit our baby!"
Johnny raised his head and paused incredulously.
"Hit our baby? I hope you know me better than that." He then lowered his lips to nibble at her earlobe. "I'd never hit any child. I never hit you, did I? Did I ever give you anythin' that you didn't have comin'? Did any of us?"
She blushed and shook her head. Johnny smiled.
"But, if this little one is anything like his mama, he'll spend more time over my knee than bein' dandled on it!" he chuckled.
Jemimah would have protested but, keen to end the argument and with far more interesting things in mind, Johnny silenced her with his kiss.
Murdoch sniffed the air. That damp mustiness was gone at least. The pungent smell of the whitewash, though strong, was fresh and clean after the dank atmosphere of only two days ago. Arnie and Mateo had worked hard.
He wandered slowly down the centre aisle, running his fingers across the surface of each desk top. Desks? Well... hardly. The benches and tables had been gleaned from the spare rooms, attics and sheds of the entire neighbourhood. Aggie had marshalled her troop of ladies to seek out what was needed and, if they didn't match and, in some cases, were a little rickety, they were clean and would certainly suffice for a few weeks. The lads had done a good job of sanding them down too. Murdoch smiled to himself. There would be no sore behinds from stray splinters at least.
His smile faltered as he recalled Scott's joking at breakfast. Murdoch didn't intend for there to be sore behinds for any reason; the children would enjoy this, he was sure, and even young Marco Torres would soon see that both school and Mr. Murdoch Lancer could be fun.
Murdoch took a deep breath. He was looking forward to this. With Scott more or less taking over the running of the cattle side of the ranch and Johnny fully immersed in establishing the stables, the Lancer patriarch, though he still maintained that he called the tune, was apt to feel somewhat superfluous of late. He had been greatly looking forward to the arrival of his two grandchildren and, indeed, it wouldn't be long before Scott's first would be making an appearance. Running this school would be Murdoch's chance to get in some practice!
Hearing a sound by the open door, he turned with a ready smile. Tiny Paloma Martinez, now seven and only recently started school, was waiting timidly, slate in hand.
"Paloma, welcome dear."
She smiled shyly up at him from underneath the glossy black curls and ribbons.
"Now, seeing as you're the very first student of the new Lancer school, you have earned the honour of ringing the bell today. Do you think you can do that?"
He passed the old hand bell to the little girl who was grinning from ear to ear and nodding enthusiastically. Murdoch returned the grin. He was going to enjoy this, he was sure.
Everyone wished they knew the right thing to say. Indeed, the silence had gone from strained to unpleasantly awkward before they had even taken their seats at the table. During the soup course, it had teetered on downright uncomfortable and now, as they all munched edgily at the beef, it was so heavy their skins prickled.
Zee glanced furtively up the table to her father-in-law then bit her lip, regretting her mistake. Much like Johnny, she did not dare open her mouth in case the laughter she was trying to suppress made it out ahead of her expressions of sympathy. She turned her attention back to her plate but not before she had accidentally caught Jemimah's eye.
Jemimah thought it was monstrously unfair that she should be placed opposite Zee and at the side of Johnny. If she had only been sitting closer to Scott and Teresa, she felt sure she could keep a straight face more easily. As it was, the bubble of wild mirth was rising ever higher with each strangled breath she took and it was almost a physical pain to keep it squashed down. She didn't dare glance to her left. If she caught Johnny's eye, she knew they would both be goners!
"Pass the mustard, please," Murdoch addressed Scott on his left.
Scott, jerked out of his reverie, swiftly complied, handing the pot and tiny spoon to his father. He made the fatal error of looking up as he did so and was startled anew by the vivid blue of Murdoch's usually silver hair.
Scott's 'Here you are, sir' came out as, "Hee.. nmph... gnnnucks!" as he stifled the sudden mad urge to laugh.
Murdoch stiffened and his eyes narrowed at his eldest but the young man was carving into his roast beef with the concentration of a surgeon. The dark blue shirt was shaking at the shoulders though and Murdoch firmed his lips into a grim line.
But it was too late.
Scott's (unexpected) weakness had sounded the death knell for the rest of the family. Each head was bowed low over their respective plates but there was a strange tight tremor to every pair of shoulders.
Jemimah had her eyes clenched shut as though in terrific pain and Johnny had begun rubbing his nose and was seemingly unable to lift his head.
At that moment, Rosita came in from the kitchen and deposited a small dish of horseradish sauce in the centre of the table. She gaped in awe at the odd sight of the patron's lilac-blue hair and backed all the way out of the room. Even before the door had swung shut behind her, the loud guffaw of laughter rang out clearly.
"Alright, let's get it over with."
Murdoch sat back and waited.
Having held it in for so long, they each exploded into helpless giggles which almost drowned out the sound of Maria and Rosita who were chortling hysterically in the kitchen. However, there was something about being granted permission to laugh which took the edge off the humour and, after the initial wild splutters and tears of mirth, Scott was the first to regain control of himself, quickly followed by the others.
"How on earth did it happen, Murdoch?" Teresa asked.
"More to the point, can you not wash it out?" Scott shook his head in confusion. Surely, Murdoch would have at least attempted to rid himself of the blue tinge before having to face the entire family.
"Believe me, I've tried," Murdoch assured them. "I must have used half a cake of carbolic since I dismissed the class early today. I was afraid that, if I washed it once more, I'd take off most of my scalp too."
Teresa was still incredulous. "But what happened?"
Murdoch's brows beetled together in a steely glare as he thought back to the events of that afternoon.
"One of my young charges has a most devious mind. I have to give them top marks for ingenuity, I'll say that!"
Zee smirked. "Betcha you'd rather give 'em bottom marks though, eh?"
Murdoch eyed his daughter-in-law stonily and waited until her sniggering had subsided.
"So..." Johnny urged him. "Tell us. How'd you come to end up... blue?"
Murdoch actually squirmed at the word 'blue' and Johnny realised how embarrassed the big man was. He stopped smiling and chewed at his lower lip. If he could have got his hands on the little devil who had done this, he would have made sure the kid understood that Murdoch Lancer was not to be ridiculed.
"Oh, this is nothing to what it was," Murdoch admitted ruefully. "It seems our prankster took great pains with his planning, even raiding someone's medicine chest for just the right herbs."
Jemimah frowned in puzzlement. "Herbs did that? What... did you eat them?" She glanced suspiciously at her half-consumed dinner.
"No, it looks like they stole a good handful of indigofera."
Johnny's nose wrinkled up as it always did when he didn't follow what was being said. "Indi-what?"
Scott stepped in to help explain. "Indigofera. It's a leafy herb used as an analgesic or anti-inflammatory."
Johnny looked none the wiser.
"To reduce the swelling of insect stings, snakebites and such like. It's also good for toothache I believe."
"That's right," Murdoch agreed with Scott's definition. "But the plant can also be crushed to make a rather potent dark blue dye. And it seems the little..." He cleared his throat and glanced hastily at the ladies. "Er... the little culprit did exactly that and, just to make sure, added a substantial quantity of blue ink."
"You got all that from an ink pellet?" Johnny was incredulous.
"Nothing so mundane. The concoction was carefully stuck to the ceiling above my desk inside a... tortilla."
Despite his sympathy for his father, Johnny couldn't help the wide grin though one look at the unamused glower on his parent's stony countenance quickly wiped it away.
"Yes Johnny, a tortilla. Lord knows how he stuck it up there or when. But it must have peeled gradually away from the plaster."
Jemimah was imagining it. "What goes up..."
Zee finished for her. "Must come down."
The big man nodded sternly. "Quite."
Scott was shaking his head. "But the prankster couldn't be certain that you would be sitting there at just the right moment."
"No, I suppose they just hit lucky," Murdoch agreed morosely. "Their idea was surely to create havoc and ruin any papers which might have been on the desk. And they certainly did both. Catching me was a... bonus."
There was silence for a moment while each of them returned to their food, all deep in thought. Then Jemimah voiced what they had all been thinking.
"Will this indigo stuff wash out?"
Murdoch cleared his throat and shuffled uneasily. His family realised how mortified he was and ceased to find anything remotely funny in it. He had been a good sport, taking their laughter more or less on the chin but it was obvious that the day had not gone well despite all his hopes and good intentions.
Johnny chewed his lip and glanced across the table at his brother. Scott was frowning. It irked them both that one of the children had so gleefully humiliated Murdoch. He deserved more respect than that and, moreover, he deserved a chance. This kid had given him neither.
"Maria says she can probably do the trick with a solution of soap and baking soda," Murdoch grimaced. "Then, a final rinse with some lemon juice should see me back to normal." He pushed his mashed potatoes around his plate then self-consciously wiped his mouth with his napkin and set his cutlery down.
Even Zee and Jemimah were beginning to feel indignant on Murdoch's behalf now. The poor man was blushing horribly.
"Little varmint!" Jemimah snapped suddenly. "Bet it was Marco. You oughtta catch him an' give him what for!"
Murdoch was shaking his head. "Hold on, we can't go jumping to conclusions. I didn't see who did it and, by all accounts, nor did anyone else."
Johnny sat back and regarded her furious face with amusement. "Anyway, what happened to your principals?"
"What was it... I'll never physically chastise my child or any other child you said."
Jemimah flushed and scowled at having her words thrown back at her.
"Didn't say I would do it; I said Murdoch should!"
Jemimah handed Johnny his cup of coffee and settled herself on the rug before the fire, leaning back against the edge of the sofa between his knees.
"There you go - made with milk just as you like it."
Johnny had already taken a sip of the hot milky drink and he now smacked his lips in satisfaction. With his free hand, he untied her ribbon, gently combing his fingers through her dark glossy hair and enjoying the feel of the silken mass as it slipped from his hand.
Jemimah was silent for a moment, revelling in his soft touch, then, cradling her own cup, she opened her mouth to carry on their previous conversation.
"Look..." Johnny pre-empted her, knowing full-well what she was going to say. "I'm going to be the daddy. The way I see it, it's my responsibility to hand out any... discipline."
"Honey, wasn't I always fair with you when you were growin' up? I'm not plannin' on beating our kids but I'm not goin' to let them ride rough-shod over us neither. And if I can do that with a sharp word or extra chores or... I don't know... sendin' 'em to bed early, I will. You know that."
She would have protested further; maybe tried to extract a promise, Johnny knew. She suddenly had a real bee in her bonnet over this. He set aside his half-empty cup and turned her, lifting her chin with a gentle finger.
"Look, I've been on the receiving end of both kinds of father," he said softly. "I've taken whippings from men who thought bein' bigger and stronger gave them the right to use their belts and even their fists or boots on me."
She took his hand in hers and kissed it.
"There were those who'd look for a reason to beat on me... or make one up. I couldn't do nothin' about it back then but I sure hated 'em. Hated with everything that was in me. They weren't real daddies... not like yours an' not like mine... an' not like the daddy I want to be."
Johnny took a deep sighing breath as if to cleanse himself of the bad memories. Then he resumed stroking her hair; it gave him a sense of peace.
"Your daddy... Andrew... he'd take you in hand when you needed it. Right?"
Jemimah nodded. "You know he did."
"And did you hate him for it?"
"No. Never. I didn't like it but I never hated him for it."
"That's because you knew you deserved it. I guess you even expected it, right?"
She shrugged and nodded, thinking back.
Johnny leaned back into the cushion, his fingers still caressing her dark hair. "I know what that's like."
Jemimah rested her head on his knee and watched him, the orange glow of the dying fire flickering on his face as he smiled down at her.
"It wasn't all bad, growin' up with my mama. I had me two step-fathers who were real good to me."
"You had to have someone like that," she observed. "There's no way you'd have grown up so nice otherwise."
Johnny smiled and took a thick lock of her hair, beginning to braid it softly.
"First one was when I was around five or so. He was a gringo an', lookin' back, he couldn't have been much more than about twenty-one, twenty-two but, to me, he was a man."
Jemimah was listening carefully and wondering if this was the same man she had often suspected. "What was he like?"
"Oh, tall, dark-haired, always seemed to have a beard half-grown. Always used to scratch at me when he was huggin' me."
"He hugged you?"
"Sure. He was... real caring; a real papa, y'know what I mean?"
She glanced up at him. He was staring into the dwindling flames, a faraway look in his blue eyes and a gentle smile playing about his lips. It was clear that Johnny felt a great fondness for this man; perhaps the first time in his life that he remembered a true father's love. He suddenly grinned.
"But, boy, he had a strong right arm. That man, that young man, had a real clear idea of right an' wrong. He was big on respect. He always said that disrespectin' your parents and your elders was a shameful thing; showed you up as ignorant and, worse than that, it told everyone around you that you had nobody to care for you."
"Because, if you had, they'd have taught you better."
"Right. I remember this one time... I must've been about six. The village where we were living was having a fiesta for Dia de Muertos..."
Jemimah sat up, eager to show her knowledge. "Day of the Dead? That's in November, ain't it? Just before Guy Fawkes night back home. That's like our fourth of July - fireworks an' bonfires an' everything!"
He laughed and gathered another section of her hair to add to the long braid in his fingers.
"Honey, our young 'uns are sure going to have a mix of customs and stories to learn! English, American, Mexican, Scottish - sounds like there'll be a party most every week! Anyway... that night, I wanted to go see the villagers dressed up in their costumes an' dancing down in the square by the cantina. But it was late an' I was put to bed. That didn't sit too well with me, I'm sure you can imagine... so, bein' an ornery little cuss, I snuck out."
Jemimah feigned shock. "Without telling anyone where you were going? Tsk... John Lancer!"
"That is sorta what snuck means! And yes, I did it too; I was as much a varmint as you were! Didn't take him too long to find me; he knew where I'd be. And, truth to tell, I was glad he came 'cos those folks were all dressed like skeletons and demons, dancin' round the fire like mi peor pesadilla (my worst nightmare). Boy, was I scared an' wishin' I'd stayed put in my bed."
Jemimah beamed up at him. He rarely told any stories of his childhood and she remained silent lest she put him off.
"Then, suddenly, I was lifted into someone's arms. I fair jumped outta my skin, thinkin' some ghost or goblin had got ahold of me." Johnny chuckled, recalling how he had been so terrified that he almost wet himself. "But then, I felt that half-beard scratchin' at my cheek and that soft, deep voice he had and... I was so glad he'd come for me. I felt... safe again."
He looked at Jemimah, returning to the present with an almost bashful little smile.
"Sure, I knew I was goin' to get it but it didn't seem to matter none."
"And did you?"
Johnny puffed out a breath which wafted his long dark hair out of his eyes and he grinned at the memory.
"Oh... he waited 'til I was back in my nightshirt and I'd kneeled by the bed to say my prayers an' particularly ask God to forgive me for bein' such a disobedient little wretch... then, he spanked my bare behind so hard I figured I'd never sit down again."
"But did it work?"
Johnny wrinkled his nose in puzzlement.
"Did you ever sneak out again?"
He shook his head firmly. "Not with... not while we were with him, no. And it was more than a sore rear end that stopped me. I knew that night he'd been scared for me; worried. I knew it 'cos, when he carried me home, he held me real tight like he never wanted to let me go again and his heart was beating fierce against my ear. I didn't want to scare him that way again."
"And what of the second man?"
"Oh, that was later on when I was about ten. Cesar took us in an' cared for us both. He was a lot older and whomped me with a strap when I showed any disrespect to him or my mama."
Johnny narrowed his eyes and tilted his handsome head on one side as he thought back.
"It sounds that way but...nah. He at least wanted to teach me some manners and he wouldn't have done that unless he cared about me bein' a better person. He was a good man; took the time with me; taught me a lot. They both did. Just as Murdoch would've done if I'd grown up here."
Johnny sat forwards now, releasing the two long braids that he had made from her hair.
"You and Scott wish you'd grown up here together, don't you?" She asked.
He pursed his lips and nodded.
"No good wishin' for what can never be but, yeah, it should've happened that way. We've talked about it some."
He stretched and stood up, reaching down to lift her to her feet. Those firmly-muscled arms curved tenderly around her and he tilted her chin up so that he could gaze down into clear green eyes. Lowering his head, he kissed her, a strong hand at the base of her spine, moulding her to him.
Jemimah felt herself becoming limp in his embrace and, the next moment, he had dipped to sweep her up across his body and was carrying her away from the fireside, heading to their bedroom. It appeared that he had done enough talking and, as she breathed in that very particular Johnny smell - something lemony, leather, a hint of horses and fresh air, a very masculine scent - she knew he had something else in mind. And she wasn't about to argue.
Jemimah slipped her arms into her robe and tried not to shiver as she padded across the boards as quietly as she could. She twitched the curtains open a touch and peered out.
It was still barely even light; only just dawn and the yard outside was utterly tranquil but for the birds in the nearby trees. Their chirping had roused her and she smiled out at them, admiring their song as they hopped from branch to branch.
The last week of March and already the buds on the boughs were becoming leaves. Spring was coming early it seemed.
She stretched and turned, careful to close the curtain again so that the watery light did not wake Johnny.
At the foot of their bed, she leaned to admire him.
The quilt had slipped down during the night so that his upper body was bare and he now lay on his stomach, his head turned to one side. The black fronds of his hair hung over one eye and his mouth was slightly open in sleep.
Jemimah smiled. He looked like a little boy. Those long eyelashes were fanned out on his cheek. But there was a bluish tinge to his jaw where his new beard was showing through.
Suddenly, she straightened and darted a glance over her shoulder at the mirror. Biting her lip, she crept over to the dresser and stood on tiptoe to reach up to the frame. Easy does it... Her bare midriff brushed against the drawer front and she hissed in a breath. Dang - that brass handle was cold! Cautiously, she stretched up and, with her very fingertips, contrived to scoop down the wooden spoon. Then, easing back, she was about to slip it into her pocket when a sound made her spin around in surprise.
"Put it back, honey."
Johnny hadn't moved but one blue eye was open and it was fixed on her.
She slumped, caught in the act.
"Can't. I can't reach."
"Leave it on the dresser then. I'll put it back when I get up."
Thwarted, Jemimah plunked down the spoon with a petulant smack. When she looked back to the bed, he had rolled over and was sitting up, beckoning her to him.
Slowly, she crossed the floor as he eyed her, shaking his head and trying not to laugh.
"Eres tan traviesa, chica," (You're so bad, girl) he murmured as his warm hands slid inside her robe, scooping her towards him and claiming her lips for a kiss. A kiss which so enthralled her that she was hardly aware of him skimming the robe from her shoulders or letting it slip to the floor. HIs strong hands cupped her derriere and she was lifted up.
Jemimah gasped when he lowered her carefully into position astride his lap, his eyes twinkling wickedly. Then, arms wrapped around her, gathering her close to his warm body, he bent his head so that his lips could claim the firm bud of her breast.
"Well..." she purred. "I don't mind this kind of punishment."
"Hey Scott, c'mon! Kitchen! We need you!"
Scott, caught unawares by Johnny's yell and subsequent disappearance as he darted back inside, had barely a chance to touch the ground. His horse, startled by his master's impromptu jump, made a sudden sideways skip and Scott, whose left boot was still in the stirrup, had to hop along with him or risk falling.
"Whoa boy. Steady now." Scott soothed Charley easily then passed the reins to Mateo who stood nearby. He normally tended to his own horse but Johnny had sounded pretty insistent and had him worried. He only hoped it wasn't Zee - she still had three months to go.
Scott's first reaction on his arrival in the kitchen was one of relief. Zee stood next to Maria and was, he realised at a glance, quite well. Murdoch, on the other hand, was not well at all. He had been in this predicament before. Scott well remembered each episode and his heart sank.
Johnny gave his brother a light slap on the arm. "C'mon Scott, you take his right shoulder and lean your weight against it. I'll get his leg."
Well-practised at this manoeuvre, they got into position.
Murdoch meanwhile, stripped to the waist, was face-down on the long kitchen table, ashen with pain and gritting his teeth. Shiny beads of sweat were dotted on his forehead beneath the silver hair which still had a very faint tint of blue.
"You ready, sir?" Scott asked as he placed the heel of his hand under his father's right shoulder. Johnny had gripped Murdoch's lower left leg.
Murdoch did not reply but he gave a tight jerky nod and seemed to suddenly inflate as he held his breath. Scott eyed Johnny and watched as he mouthed the countdown. On 'three', he smartly pushed back Murdoch's shoulder so that it was lifted from the surface of the table. At the same time, Johnny raised the left leg, causing Murdoch to curve upwards, contorted unnaturally in an effort to jerk the offending section of his spine back into place.
There was an audible click like the hammer of a gun being eased back and Murdoch emitted a loud grunt followed by a hiss, rigid and white-faced.
Scott leaned near his father, gently releasing his shoulder. "Is that it? How does it feel?"
Murdoch's whole body suddenly became heavy and loose. Obviously, the treatment had been successful again but Scott wondered how many more times such primitive methods would work. He helped the big man, now trembling in shock, to roll onto his side so that he could ease himself into a sitting position.
Johnny came round the end of the table and joined them, his worried face hopeful. "Well?"
"Much better," Murdoch breathed. "Thank you, boys."
Jemimah joined Johnny who hugged her to his side. "Daddy, you still look awful. I think you should use that ice Maria mentioned."
Murdoch swiped the back of his hand across his oily brow. "That sounds perfectly horrible, darling... but, yes, you're right."
Scott and Johnny exchanged a look of surprise. That Murdoch would give in so easily to Maria's ministrations meant that he must still be in some pain. Johnny held his shirt for him to slip his arms into and became even more alarmed when the big man was unable to straighten properly.
"Scott, do you think you and Johnny could get me to my bed?" Murdoch panted, blinking at the pain of being upright again. "I'd rather not have Maria bullying me in front of the whole family! I'd prefer to hang on to the few shreds of dignity I have left."
The little lady stepped forwards briskly, shaking her finger at her patron as though to a naughty child. "Bully? I will not need to bully if you do as you are told for once!" She clicked her tongue and ushered them forwards, her bossiness masking her concern.
With his sons either side of him and needing their support rather more than he cared to admit, Murdoch limped off to his room with Maria following.
With Murdoch ensconced in his room, ice-pack in place and dosed up with Maria's bitter herbal tea, it seemed wrong to eat dinner at the big table in the great room so the rest of the family (minus Teresa who was out with Mike and so had missed all the drama) opted for the less formal atmosphere of the kitchen.
"If I get my hands on the little devil responsible..." Scott seethed, attacking a roast potato with venom.
Zee shook her head. "Murdoch said he didn't know who was to blame and that it was more likely to have been an accident. Some of them old sticks of furniture are past their prime. Could be that chair just gave out."
"Nah..." Johnny chewed a mouthful of steak, shaking his head. "Couldn't be. Walt said he checked the chair an' the leg was near sawed through. It was deliberate alright. My guess it was the same prankster who did the blue tortilla."
Scott took in Johnny's words then firmed his mouth grimly. "I repeat... if I get my hands on him..."
"Marco. It's bound to be him," Jemimah interrupted. "Even Sofia an' Pony think so. But, same as yesterday, no witnesses an' no proof. The little sod won't admit it either. Sofia pressed him but he swore blind it weren't him."
Scott rose to fetch the bread over to the table and fixed Jemimah with a look.
"Honey, I know you won't like this but... I can think of a sure-fire way to get our little sinner to confess."
Johnny sniggered and, at her sharp glance, dipped his head to concentrate on his food, still smirking.
Jemimah turned to Scott. "I know what you're thinkin', but you can't go beatin' on the lad. He says he didn't do it. If you go whompin' on him, his daddy will be pretty steamed. You know how Ernesto is - he dotes on that boy; thinks the sun shines out of his bum..."
"Jemimah really!" Scott exclaimed.
Zee was laughing. "She's right though. That's their only child and his folks have always treated him like a gift from heaven. He cain't do no wrong in their eyes."
"Explains a lot." Scott resumed eating his meal.
"In the meantime, Murdoch's gonna be laid up for a week or so," Jemimah said what they were all thinking. "What happens to the Lancer school now?"
Scott pulled out the chair for Zee to sit down, stooping to plant a loving peck on her cheek.
Jemimah watched enviously and glanced across the kitchen table at her own husband. Johnny was tucking in to ham and eggs as though famished. It was a wonder to her that he could eat after the argument they had just had. But then, thinking back over the terse words, she realised she had done most of the arguing while Johnny had smiled softly and delivered a firm no at the end.
He reached for the biscuits and caught her eye, instantly giving her a cheeky wink. Still decidedly ruffled, Jemimah looked away with her nose in the air. She was further annoyed to hear his amused chuckle. Really! Men could be so... so... aggravating!
Scott had quickly picked up on the somewhat strained atmosphere and now glanced from Johnny to Jemimah with a questioning arch to his eyebrow.
"Do I dare ask or is this a private war?"
Jemimah sniffed snootily. "Ask your brother!"
Johnny grinned. "No war. It's just that Jemimah don't like being told no."
"She never did," Scott agreed. "No to what?"
"She has this crazy notion..."
"I said I could take over the school for a while," Jemimah cut in. "Either 'til Quinny gets back or Murdoch gets better, whichever happens soonest."
Johnny smiled and spoke softly. "Honey, you're expectin' a baby..."
"In October. It's only March. Don't you think for one minute that I'm goin' to sit here, wrapped in cotton for the best part of the year!"
"I don't think that. It's just..."
"I'm fine - fit and healthy. I don't feel sick or tired. I'm eating well. Sam has no complaints about how I'm getting along. Teaching a handful of little kids..."
Johnny sighed loudly and set down his fork. "Scott, will you talk some sense into her? She won't listen to me; I'm only her husband. Got her stubborn head on!" He directed an exasperated look at his young wife.
Scott was calmly buttering a biscuit and now shrugged. "Well... I don't know, Johnny. I don't think it's such a bad idea."
Teresa set down her coffee cup with a clatter and regarded Scott as though he had lost his senses.
"Excuse me? Have you forgotten what Jemimah was like at school? Do you really want to put her in charge of a dozen innocent children?"
Jemimah, stung by this, checked Teresa's face to see if she was joking. Realising the girl was in earnest, she snapped back, "Oy! Who rattled your cage?"
Johnny laughed and swallowed his bite of honey-smeared biscuit. "Yeah, by the end of the week, they'll be getting straight A's in forgery, playin' hookey, firing ink pellets..."
Zee joined in. "Stealin' buckles, shootin' spitballs..."
"Setting off fireworks, playing even worse pranks, the only girl to ever be punished with..." Teresa added.
"Alright, alright," Scott did his best to hide his smile from Jemimah who looked most aggrieved. "We know our Jemimah was... er... let us say lively during her school days. But think about it - she already knows all their tricks before they even think about playing them. They won't be able to pull the wool over her eyes so easily."
She beamed gratefully at her 'big brother'. "Exactly!"
Johnny stopped smiling. He still looked unhappy with the idea. "I don't know. You ain't much older than a couple of those kids..."
"But that works in my favour too, don't you see? It'll be like I'm one of them instead of some stuffy old codger who festered in college for years and is..." She paused at Scott's expression. "Oh, I don't mean you, Scott. You're not stuffy and old... or festering. But, what I mean is, to them, someone like Murdoch is... well, he's older than their own parents in most cases. They must've thought he'd be easy to prank."
"I don't want to find out they've dropped that indigo stuff on you or sawed the leg off've your chair," Johnny was still emphatic. "You're having a baby..."
"Not yet, I'm not!" Jemimah sprang up from her chair and hopped around the table to perch on his knee and put her arms around his neck. "Please Johnny, let me try. Please with sugar on top."
Scott distracted his brother from Jemimah's frantic eyelash fluttering. "It could be just the thing for the children, Johnny. At least give it a try."
Johnny dipped his dark head, knowing he was already beaten but he still had a few conditions.
"Alright." He laughed aloud at her sudden exuberant hug. "One day's trial to start. I expect you to be honest with me though an' tell me if you're feelin' tired. Make sure you get some rest at lunch times and no grading papers 'til late at night. And if I come home and find you laid out on the kitchen table here..." He gently stroked her long bangs from her eyes. "Or with blue hair... Marco Torres better start running!"
He chuckled as she swung her bare feet in excitement like a little girl and bit into the biscuit he held.
Speaking with her mouth full and displaying absolutely no schoolmarm-type decorum whatsoever (much to Teresa's dismay), she slid down from Johnny's lap and skipped back to her own seat.
"I'd better get cracking then. Spread the word! School opens tomorrow bright and early! And, you watch, I won't need to wallop them kids to get 'em on my side! There'll be no paddle hanging behind my desk!"
By the end of the week, even Teresa was forced to admit that Jemimah was faring well. The Lancer youngsters had really taken to her cheery and enthusiastic approach. Unlike any teacher they had encountered before, Miz Lancer was prepared to whisk them outside for some fresh air if she saw that they were flagging and had even continued the lesson with them seated on the grassy bank behind the guard house on a couple of occasions. Unorthodox perhaps but the children had been alert and listening well.
At morning and afternoon recess, she organised and joined in with games of Rounders (much like baseball it transpired), Follow the Leader, Leapfrog and many more. With Murdoch's permission, she split the boys into two teams to use the old iron peg for battles of Horseshoes while she taught the girls some amusing rhymes to sing as they turned a piece of old rope for each other to jump.
Above all, the children loved her sense of fun. It bordered on the mischievous which struck a chord and endeared her to them from the first day.
Johnny and Walt overheard her singing a particularly unsuitable music hall ditty for the class as they took in a nature ramble one afternoon. The two men laughed as heartily as the children though they knew well enough that the prim and proper members of the Green River school board would definitely not have approved. Johnny, who had been watching her progress carefully and with a good deal of pride, decided he would have a little fun with his sassy wife.
Scott leaned on the mantel and smiled down on his father.
"So Murdoch, how are you feeling now? I must say it's good to see you up and about again."
Murdoch was back in his usual armchair with a plump cushion at the small of his back. His old walking cane leaned at his side and he was sipping appreciatively at a pre-dinner whisky.
"Yeah," Johnny chimed in. "No more ice packs, eh? And it looks like that best single malt is hitting the spot?"
Their father smacked his lips, holding his crystal tumbler up to the light to enjoy the warm amber glow of his favourite liquor. "Ah, yes indeed!"
Johnny smirked. "Indeed! Beats Maria's herbal tea, huh?"
"Indeed!" Scott echoed.
All three chortled.
"It is good to have you back with us, Murdoch." Teresa carried the tray of lemonade in for the ladies and beamed at her guardian. "This is the first time we've had dinner in here for a week. We should have done something to celebrate."
"I made a rum cake earlier!" Zee announced.
"My dear, that sounds perfect. What more could I ask for my first night back among the living?"
Johnny snapped his fingers as though a thought had suddenly struck him.
"Hey, I know! How about a little before-dinner entertainment?"
"Entertainment? What did you have in mind, son?"
"You taken up juggling, brother?"
Johnny flashed them his typical white-toothed grin. "Not me. Jemimah!" He turned to his wife who was wide-eyed with surprise. "I heard her singing to the kids today - something from the old country, I think it was."
Murdoch was intrigued. "Oh really? Now that would be good. What was the song, dear?"
Jemimah had gone very quiet and her cheeks were flushed a bright scarlet. Dropped right in it, she eyed Johnny who lifted a naughty brow at her , grinning from ear to ear.
"Did the children enjoy it?" Murdoch asked.
"Oh yeh, they were laughin' fit to bust," Johnny answered for her.
"Laughing? What song was it, dear?"
Teresa set her lemonade down. She narrowed her eyes at Jemimah who was stuttering awkwardly.
"Why don't you give us a verse or two, Jemimah?" she urged. "We're all ears."
"Well... I... my throat's a bit sore this evening..." the poor girl squirmed, pleating the material of her skirts with nervous fingers.
Murdoch was getting suspicious. When Jemimah eschewed the limelight, something was afoot.
"Darling, what exactly was the name of this song?"
Jemimah wriggled uncomfortably, feeling rather warm under Murdoch's beady gaze. "Er... it's about a girl and... erm... her mother is a right good cook and she... she kills a pig to make these special puddings for her daughter..."
"Indeed?" Murdoch's voice was stony, his blue eyes disapproving as he regarded his daughter.
"Indeed!" Even Scott was enjoying teasing the little minx.
"Wasn't there something about the mother feeding the girl these puddings every night?" Johnny managed to add, chewing at his lip to keep from laughing. His little wife didn't look so gleeful anymore. She was fiddling with a strand of hair and looking increasingly unsettled.
"Ye'es... for her supper."
By now, Murdoch was fairly certain he knew the precise song Johnny was referring to and he was more than a little shocked that Jemimah even knew it, let alone had sung it to the children! It wasn't as bad as some he had heard but it certainly was vulgar and the final verse was decidedly risqué.
"And then?" he pressed.
Jemimah gulped. "She... er... she meets a fella who..."
"Sing a verse!" Zee suggested. "This sounds like fun. I want to learn it!"
"No, you don't," Scott said firmly.
"Really, I don't think I can," Jemimah coughed.
Murdoch grasped his cane and, wincing slightly at the tightness in his back, stood up. He made a very imposing and impressive figure to Jemimah, especially when he glowered down at her from his great height.
"Hmm, Lumps of Pudding. Am I right?"
Stunned that Murdoch knew the song, she nodded while Johnny chortled into his glass and Scott turned away to hide his smirk.
"I would suggest, young lady, that this is hardly a suitable song for young impressionable minds. Do you not agree?"
"Yes sir," she whispered, wishing the ground could swallow her whole. She darted an accusing glance at Johnny who was sniggering still.
"And I don't think you should be teaching those children any other music hall nonsense. Agreed? In fact, I'd rather hope that a well brought-up young lady such as yourself wouldn't be singing such tripe at all. Now, dinner, I think."
As Murdoch moved off to the table, the clock began to strike the hour and Johnny stepped forward to take her arm. He leaned in close so that he could whisper in her ear.
"The man in your song had the right idea though."
She elbowed him and stifled a giggle. "Shush! You'll get me into some right strife, you will. I'll get you back!"
He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively at her. "I can't wait!"
Pressing a hand to her warm cheeks, she clicked her tongue. "Tsk! At least I didn't sing them Charlotte the Harlot!"
Scott dropped into his chair at the kitchen table and reached eagerly for a biscuit.
"So, did you pick a poem for today, Jemimah?"
She glanced up at him and hesitated.
Their after-dinner conversation the previous evening had been interesting; she shared Scott's love of poetry and quite agreed that you were never too young to begin to appreciate words, discovering how they could lift your heart with their simple beauty. She had always been fond of Shakespeare, having listened to the melodious lilt of her own father's Scottish brogue, reciting to her as she fell asleep at night.
However, she was certain Scott had meant for her to introduce the class to the more famous of his sonnets or the lyrical romance of Shelley, Keats and Byron. Jemimah had a rather different view and was sure he would not approve. Hence, she had done her homework; she was prepared to convince him.
"Not a poem as such," she began. "Though I do agree that the children should see the merit of verse and start to read and even write it themselves."
Scott was buttering his biscuit and beaming. "Good! What did you have in mind? I'd go for something simple; not too wordy... whet their appetites. Daffodils maybe?"
"An' steer clear of all those long fancy words," Johnny added. "Make my head spin! I'll never know why these poet fellas can't just say what they mean. Use ten words where one'll do."
Zee was nodding. "Yeah, that daffodil one... boy, that fella ran on an' on about 'em dancin' and laughin'. Now, y'all know a daffodil cain't dance! Why didn't he just say they was pretty?"
Scott scooped up her hand to kiss it, flashing her a smile. "I think Wordsworth was trying to say exactly that, my dear."
Jemimah coiled a tendril of her dark hair around her finger and her face took on a dreamy expression.
vacant or in pensive mood, They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude
And then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils."
Johnny was watching her, smiling softly at her shining eyes. "So, which one did you choose?"
She eyed Scott who had paused to listen. "I... er... not a known poem exactly. I want to excite them about poetry." She gestured to her sister-in-law. "Zee said it all; some of the romantic speech can be a bit too flowery for a lot of folks out here. No reason why a poem can't be... amusing too. If I can get the children to find the fun in their poems, I can lead on to more serious stuff. Daffodils would be good - no high-falutin' words in that one, Johnny."
"A humorous poem then?" Scott was frowning as he tried to think of one.
"We'ell, more like a... limerick."
"Limerick?" It was plain to see that Scott was indeed unimpressed. "Jemimah, limericks are not poems. In fact, they are to poetry what sarcasm is to wit - the lowest form."
He resumed eating his biscuit with a wounded air.
"They have a definite structure and, just because they're short, doesn't mean they're not clever!" Jemimah argued calmly. "They're certainly entertaining."
"Entertaining! Bawdy nonsense, you mean."
"Scott Lancer, don't be such a snob!" she laughed, ignoring his gasp. "Limericks have rules and a rhythm or they don't work. For instance, the first and last lines have to have an identical ending. There are four or five lines to each verse..."
"Jemimah, please." Scott rolled his eyes in disdain.
But she was not to be put off.
"Each verse consists of three syllables, the third being longer or more accentuated than the first two. For example -
There was an old man of the coast
Who placidly sat on a post
But when it was cold, he relinquished his hold
And called for some hot buttered toast."
Zee and Johnny laughed and applauded. Scott smiled and realised that she had researched her subject but still seemed disappointed. Gathering herself, Jemimah ploughed doggedly on.
"I've read that there are only three kinds of limerick - those that are suitable to recite in the presence of ladies... like that last one; those you can recite in the absence of ladies but still acceptable to the clergy... or, in our case maybe - Murdoch."
Johnny laughed and winked at his brother who gave him a tiny grudging smile.
"And finally, real limericks!"
He was shaking his blond head at her. "And I strongly suspect I know which variety will appeal to you, my girl."
Jemimah preened, taking on a most proper spinsterly attitude.
"Oh? I may surprise you, sir. Listen to this.
A limerick packs laughs anatomical
into space that is quite economical;
The good ones I've seen
Are seldom too clean,
While the clean ones are seldom so comical."
Zee slumped, looking bewildered, while Scott clapped in approval.
Jemimah was grinning. "I'd like to say that is one of mine but I can't claim credit for it, I'm afraid. I read it on a blackboard when a bunch of us visited Andover Seminary."
Zee slurped her coffee rudely, a look of disgust on her face. "Thought you said these limerick things had to be funny though? That one was all fancy talk."
"It was actually quite witty, I thought," Scott contradicted her.
Zee now looked even more disgruntled. Jemimah considered, her head cocked on one side.
"Alright then, how about this?
I once met a boy from the south
Whose manner was somewhat uncouth..."
"That don't rhyme for a start!" Zee griped.
"Shush, will you?" Jemimah admonished and carried on regardless. "He'd constantly swear, Driving decent folks spare, 'Til soap was applied to his mouth."
"That's better!" Zee crowed. "That's funny!"
Sniggering, Johnny rose from the table to tuck his green shirt tail into his calzoneras, holding his half-eaten biscuit between his teeth. Tidy at last, he leaned over to plant a gentle kiss on her lips.
"I hope you have a good day anyway, honey. If you can get kids like Marco and Sam to take a shine to poetry an' books, I guess the 'how' of it don't matter much. Limericks or Shakespeare... as long as they're learning. Eh Scott?"
Her face fell. "Marco? He don't seem to like anything I do. Still can't get him on side. He thinks all a woman is good for is stayin' at home, mothering babies and cooking for the men folk. We can't be good teachers in that lad's eyes."
Scott was leaving too. He wiped his mouth on his napkin and kissed Zee before turning to his sister.
"Alright, you've convinced me but remember - keep these limericks clean. Think over what Murdoch said last night. You're a lady!"
Jemimah waited until they had gone then she stood up to collect her books, smoothing down her skirts and grinning wickedly.
"Hey Zee, listen to this one...
'Tis normal for boys adolescent
To be troubled by urges incessant;
In bed every night
When they blow out the light,
They do things they find rather pleasant!"
Zee guffawed heartily and Jemimah joined in, backing to the door and pushing it open with her behind.
Suddenly, Zee frowned in puzzlement at the younger girl.
She had tensed and seemed to freeze in horror, eyes wide and hardly breathing. A heavy hand had descended on her shoulder and, holding her breath, she turned, sagging in relief to discover Scott and Johnny standing there and not Murdoch as she had feared.
"Blimey, you nearly give me a heart attack!"
They were both laughing though Johnny narrowed his blue eyes and shook a warning finger at her as he leaned in for a second goodbye kiss.
"Keep 'em clean, you little devil," he chuckled, reaching behind her to plant a swift playful smack on her bustle.
"I will, I will."
Jemimah ate her sandwiches at her desk that lunchtime, reading through the children's limericks and wiping away tears of laughter.
As expected, the whole class, bar one child, had welcomed the chance to write something amusing and were vying with each other to produce the best one - the author would have the honour of reading it out to the rest of the class.
Jemimah chortled. Some were silly, a couple of them made no sense at all but there were a small handful that were promising and had really tickled her fancy. One in particular stood out from the rest.
Johnny stuck his head round the door and sidled in, hat in hand.
"Miz Lancer, ma'am, you wanted to see me?"
She looked up, still chuckling. "Oh, yes. Come here, Johnny."
He approached warily, hands clasped behind his back and looking decidedly sheepish. She also noticed that he was scanning the wall behind her.
"What's the matter with you?" she queried.
"Just checkin' to see if that paddle's hangin' back there. Am I in trouble, teacher?"
She laughed and he grinned in reply. "You barm pot! Here, have a look at this."
She proffered a paper covered in an untidy scrawl. Johnny squinted at it then began to laugh.
"Hey, this is good!
Our dear Miss T is a San Joaquin queen,
As pretty a critter as you've ever seen.
But she is so dumb that no matter how she tries
When she opens her mouth, she puts her foot right inside."
"It's Bobby's. Not strictly a limerick but I think it's the best of the lot."
He perched his rear end on the front desk and cocked his head on one side, still considering the poem with a smile.
"Miss T? Teresa?"
"I dunno. Maybe."
"Not very complimentary. You'd better not let her see this."
Jemimah's green eyes lit up with a gleam of naughtiness. "Of course not."
"Jemimah," he warned.
"I won't. Honest!"
At the end of the day, when the bell had been rung and Sammy Wallace, who had been standing in the corner for dipping Camilla's pigtail in his ink, had swept the guard house, Jemimah lingered a while. Bobby's excellent poem had inspired her to be creative and she had already roughed out a few more verses of her own. Sniggering to herself, she slipped the sheet of paper into her notebook and shuffled all her papers into one neat pile on the desk. Then she sauntered over to the house. If she had known that the mystery prankster was about to strike again, she would not have been smirking quite so much.
Johnny and Jemimah were deep in conversation, laughing over something Zee had said at breakfast, as they walked over to the guard house the next morning.
"Hey, what's goin' on?"
Johnny came to a halt and, passing Jemimah's books back to her, trotted over to where the children were huddled near the barn. Jemimah joined him quickly.
"What is it? Why are you all waiting here? You should be lined up by the..."
"We can't, Miz Lancer!" Sammy piped up gleefully. "There's a critter in there!"
"A critter? What... ?"
"I'll find out. Wait here." Johnny darted off to the guard house but was met at the door by Arnie.
"Don't come too close, Johnny," Arnie waved him away. He was carrying a large box and holding it gingerly as though it might explode at any second. "Skunk! It's only a baby an' it's fast asleep. Don't want to disturb it."
Arnie shook his head. "Nah, this was one trick that didn't work out. Whoever thunk this one up made the mistake of providin' a real comfy bed for this little one. He's snug an' snorin'."
Johnny nodded, relieved that things hadn't been worse. If the skunk had sprayed in there, the guard house would have been out of action for a few days.
"Take the box out back into the woods, will you? Far enough away that he don't head back here."
Arnie tramped off with his find and Johnny returned to Jemimah and the children.
"A skunk? Has it... ?"
He shook his head to reassure her then he looked at each child in turn, a glint in his blue eyes despite the soft voice and smile.
"Seems somebody thought it'd be funny to leave the skunk in there. Anyone know who did it?"
Wide-eyed, the children looked at each other but no-one seemed to have anything to say.
Johnny nodded. He hadn't expected the culprit to actually own up. Hands planted on his lean hips, he eyed the youngsters. When he spoke, it was gently; he had no wish to frighten the little ones.
"Y'know, that skunk was only a baby. Guess we should be thankful for that or things would be pretty ripe in there about now."
One or two of the older children giggled and he joined in their chuckles.
"I guess a few days off school would've been worth it, hmm? But... well... I feel kinda sorry for that little critter. I think he got so scared, he just hid in that box and didn't dare come out. Probably missin' his mama."
Johnny noticed that some of the younger ones were looking very miserable; little Paloma's dark eyes were brimming with tears.
"Will it find the mama?" a little boy at the front asked.
Johnny thought quickly. He could tell them a comforting fairy story or he could turn this to his advantage - and tell the truth.
Squatting down so that he was eye to eye with the boy, he shrugged. "I don't know, Chris. It's a big wood back there and he's pretty small. I'm not sure he'll be able to find her." He lifted his head to scan their faces. Every face was subdued... until he came to Marco Torres.
A handsome stocky little boy, he was sullenly staring back at Johnny, almost in challenge. Marco was undoubtedly responsible, that was obvious. Johnny smiled softly but his blue gaze never left Marco's mutinous glare. Straightening, Johnny shook his head.
"I think whoever put that little fella in there must be feelin' mighty low right about now. It might've seemed like a funny trick to play but..." He shot Marco a narrow-eyed frown. "They've sure put that little baby in a whole mess of trouble. I'd say they need to think hard about playin' any more pranks. I know I, for one, wouldn't take too kindly to it. Might have to have a few words with them. Y'understand me?"
He was greeted with a host of vehement nods and one or two of the older children muttered a nervous yessir.
"Go on inside," Jemimah instructed the class. "I'll be right there."
When they had trooped in, she turned to Johnny with an impressed smile.
"Well done! I think you're going to be a perfect daddy," she smirked, standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. "See - you didn't need to wallop anyone; they all got the message."
"Yeh, but it was Marco who did it and he didn't come clean."
"Huh, little sod! He'll just be vexed his nasty plan didn't work!"
Johnny agreed. "Yeah, he looked unhappy. That boy's hell bent on stirrin' up more trouble. You just be careful..."
She gave him a quick hug. "I'll be fine. I've got one eye on Marco Torres all the time, you'll see. He won't get anything over on me!"
Marco and Sammy, his usual partner in crime, had been the first two out of the door at the end of the day, almost sending Paloma flying in their haste to be gone. Jemimah called after them but they had not heard her or, more likely, had chosen to become deaf. Strange - they were chasing off in the direction of the kitchen garden.
Jemimah puzzled over this as she tidied her makeshift classroom and gathered her things. All in all, the school was going well. It must be - Murdoch was almost fully fit again but hadn't remotely suggested resuming running the class. He had to be satisfied with her efforts thus far.
Jemimah smiled gaily to herself, swinging her basket of books, as she crossed the yard.
When she entered the house, she collided with Teresa in the hallway. The older girl had evidently just left Murdoch's study and looked most distressed.
"Hello Teresa, something smells good. What you been baking?"
"It's a chocolate cake, not that you'll be getting any!"
Jemimah gaped. "Eh? What did I do?"
Jemimah could see at a glance that Teresa was not only angry but her dark eyes shimmered with unshed tears and there were two spots of vivid pink on her cheeks.
"Jemimah Day Lancer, this time you've gone too far!" Teresa's voice trembled. "How could you?"
Jemimah was now becoming a little annoyed herself. She hadn't the faintest idea what she was being accused of or how she could have so upset Teresa but it was plain... she was very miffed over something.
"How could I what? Tell me what I'm supposed to have done, will you?"
"Don't you dare come the innocent with me!" Teresa was only just holding on to her control. "I know we haven't always seen eye to eye. You have your ways and I have mine but..." She swallowed hard. "I always thought we at least respected each other. That you could do this... I guess I know now what you really think of me!"
With this, Teresa covered her face and, emitting a choked sob, hastened away in the direction of her room, leaving Jemimah to stare after her in utter bewilderment.
"What the bloody hell... ?"
Murdoch's call had a startling effect on her; she dropped her basket and actually jumped into the air in fright. His voice had come from the study.
"Come in here please."
Ugh... Jemimah loathed that sick swooping feeling in her stomach; a sensation that ominous tone in Murdoch's voice never failed to produce. For a split second, she thought of running away but then told herself not to be ridiculous. She hadn't done anything wrong and, besides, she was grown up, married and pregnant; what on earth did she think Murdoch was going to do to her? Still... venturing into that study made her very soul quake.
He was sitting behind his desk and, when she timidly entered, he gestured to the vacant chair. Jemimah noticed he was perusing a single sheet of notepaper which, at length, he lowered to eye her grimly.
"Teresa found this on the kitchen table. Naturally, she is quite upset by it."
"Oh? What is... ?"
She had tilted her head on one side to try to read the neat cursive script. As she made out the first line, she gasped, her throat suddenly dry and her cheeks staining red.
"Do you deny it's yours?"
How could she? Everyone knew her handwriting and, more than that, it was written in the same vermillion ink that she favoured. She shook her head and lowered her eyes guiltily.
"I see. Remind me, daughter... did we not discuss the propriety of this kind of... rhyme? Especially in front of the children?"
"And yet you still deemed it appropriate to read this..." He indicated the paper with a terse wave of his huge hand. "Rubbish to them?"
"Oh, I didn't! I wouldn't! I wrote this, it's true, but just for my own amusement."
Murdoch's brows lifted sardonically and she hurried on.
"The kids were writing funny poems an' I took one of their ideas and sorta ran with it. I never even thought of it bein' about Teresa!" Jemimah prayed that he would not be able to read the lie in her eyes. "But I'd never show the class, Murdoch. Honest I wouldn't!"
"Hmm. Yet you considered it wise to show Teresa? Didn't you realise how she would feel?" Murdoch leaned forward on the desk, his imposing figure making Jemimah shrink back. His brows had swooped together once more and those blue eyes were stormy with disapproval. "Jemimah, what you did was utterly unforgivable and, believe me young lady, were you not a mother-to-be, I'd be sorely tempted to turn you over my knee... married or not!"
Jemimah squirmed as he went on, hardly pausing for breath.
"I'm astounded at you. This isn't just thoughtless; it's downright mean!"
"I didn't put it out for Teresa, really I didn't." She felt herself welling up. "I'd not hurt her deliberate like that. I've only just got back from the school house. Somebody must've taken it from my papers and..." She stopped in sudden realisation, hand flying to her mouth. "Oh, those little horrors!"
"What's that? Horrors? Who... ?"
"Marco and Sammy! I saw them run off towards the kitchen when I dismissed the class an' I wondered where they was goin'. They must have rifled through my notebook and found it. Oh, I swear I'm goin' to..."
Murdoch's finger was shaking at her with all the grim authority he could muster.
"You are going to do nothing until you have apologised, my girl!"
"Those two wee limmers may have caused all this trouble but you were the one who wrote the... ahem... poems. And I have to say I was more than a tad shocked at how your mind works!"
Under his heavy glare, Jemimah seemed to shrink into her chair, her cheeks burning.
"Was only meant to be funny," she muttered sullenly.
"I am not laughing."
Explaining and apologising to Teresa had been a hard task. It embarrassed Jemimah no end, especially as she hadn't been the one to leave the poem where it could be so easily discovered.
At first (and understandably), Teresa had not been willing to listen to any of Jemimah's excuses. However, in the end Jemimah had to hand it to her, Teresa had been very gracious and forgiving - far more so than Jemimah herself would have been, she knew. She had accepted that the poem was based on Bobby's original verse and the mysterious Miss T was not actually her at all; nobody knew who it was meant to be, if indeed it was a real person.
Seriously, Jemimah had wheedled, when had Teresa ever attended any dance alone, invited a preacher to supper or entered fruit into the town fair? Why, there weren't even any pear trees in the garden! Teresa, convinced at last, had smiled and hunted up the last huge wedge of Zee's rum cake for them to share.
Johnny and Scott sauntered in just as the two girls were finishing the last few crumbs. Jemimah was careful to quickly secrete the sheet of notepaper in her pocket, receiving a grateful smile from Teresa.
She was just tramping back to the study, intending to explain that things had duly been smoothed over, when she slowed to listen. Murdoch was in there still and... he was singing.
The Lancer patriarch had a good voice - a deep rich baritone - and, though he didn't often entertain them with a solo, Jemimah liked to listen when he sang. It brought back strong memories of home and of her father, Andrew. Murdoch had the same repertoire - many Scottish ballads and folk songs but the melody of his current choice was unfamiliar to her. The lyrics too, though unmistakably Scottish in origin, were new.
She stood still and listened.
rede you beware o' the ripples, young man,
I rede you beware o' the ripples, young man,
Though the saddle be soft, you needna' ride oft
For fear that the girding beguile you, young man."
Jemimah clapped a hand over her mouth, her eyes wide, and for a moment, didn't know what to do. Then, a wicked grin on her face, she hastened back to the kitchen, stifling her sniggers and, as stealthily as she could, urged the others to follow her.
As they gathered by the stairs, clustered together like a whispering group of naughty children, Murdoch was already launching into his second verse.
"I rede you beware o' the ripples, young man,
I rede you beware o' the ripples, young man,
Though such music be pleasure, take music in measure
Or you may want wind in your whistle, young man."
"Rede?" Scott whispered hoarsely. "What does that mean?"
Jemimah hushed him sharply. "It means to advise or warn. Listen now!"
"An' what are 'ripples'? Water?" Johnny was confused too.
Jemimah shook her head, chortling. "No, ripples is back-ache! Now, shush. He'll hear us an' I want to listen to the rest."
"I rede you beware o' the ripples, young man,
I rede you beware o' the ripples, young man,
If you would be strong and wish to live long
Dance less with your arse to the kipples, young man."
"Arse to the kipples!! Murdoch!" Jemimah was laughing so hard she looked like she might choke.
Scott, completely innocent of the song's bawdy meaning, was even more confused. "What are kipples?"
She was doubled over now, barely able to get the words out and cackling dangerously loudly. "They're the rafters... y'know... the ceiling."
"Arse to the rafters?" Johnny was beginning to smile. "So, he's singin' about..."
Scott glanced pointedly at Teresa and nudged his brother. "Yes Johnny, I think we all know what the song is about."
As for Teresa, she too was hiding a decided smirk - much to Jemimah's delight.
"Well! Murdoch Lancer," she exclaimed with an attempt at prudish disapproval which she couldn't quite carry off convincingly. "I'm surprised at you!"
Johnny burst out laughing.
The ensuing rowdy merriment could not fail to carry through the closed door to the singer within and, presently, Murdoch's bewildered head poked out. Though puzzled at first, it was soon obvious from his blushes that he knew he had been overheard and was utterly mortified - something which Johnny, ever the mischievous imp, seized upon.
"Murdoch, I see now where she gets it from!" He gestured to Jemimah who was wiping away tears of mirth. "I'd be careful if I were you or the Widow Hargis will have you in the church choir... but you might have to change your choice of song or all of them fine ladies will be swoonin' dead away!"
The big man stuttered, mortified to have been caught out indulging in the same kind of vulgar lyric for which he had just berated Jemimah. "Well, I... er... that is..."
"So, it's you we should blame for her rustic manner, is it sir?" Scott too, could not resist teasing his father.
Jemimah, still chuckling, pushed through the group and strode over to hug Murdoch exuberantly around the waist, taking him somewhat by surprise but bringing a sheepish grin to his face at last.
"Who cares, eh Daddy?" she laughed. "We're proud to be rustic, ain't we? These Yankees wouldn't understand great poetry if the bard himself were spoutin' it!"
"Bard?" Murdoch smiled down into her shining green eyes, wrapping his grateful arms around her. "That was one of Rabbie Burns' best, I'll have you know! Now, there was a Scot with a rare sense of humour."
"And an unusual turn of phrase," Scott added with a twinkle.
"Murdoch, come and try some Plum Puffs," Teresa entreated him. "There's no more cake but Maria and I baked them this morning."
He faltered, still clearly embarrassed. "Er, no thank you, darling. I must finish my..."
"Oh, come on!"
Jemimah grasped his hand and heaved while Teresa and the boys surrounded him on all sides, pushing and cajoling until, with much laughter, they all jostled along the corridor to the treats which awaited them in the kitchen.
Jemimah gave another heavy sigh and idly fiddled with the flounce trim of her petticoat.
Johnny took a sip of his coffee and shuffled closer to her on the soft padded cushion which Zee had made for the low wall on their tiny patio. He and Jemimah had headed back to Scott and Zee's apartment to enjoy the spectacular sunset. It was something they often did but one glance at his young wife told Johnny that she wasn't in the usual raptures over its beauty. She was looking very discouraged.
"Aw honey," he said as he gathered her closely to him. "You can't blame yourself. If them two little varmints..."
"No, that's just it," she moped. "I know they played the trick and that doesn't bother me none; it's all over now and Teresa knows it weren't me."
"Then what is botherin' you?"
"Marco? You're lettin' Marco Torres give you the dreads?"
"I know what I'd like to give him!" Scott put in grimly.
Jemimah slumped against Johnny, her head on his shoulder and drawing much-needed comfort from the way his fingers gently smoothed her long hair.
"No, that's not the answer."
"It'd be my answer and a darn good one at that," Scott affirmed.
"But don't you see? All the other kids like me well enough... but nowt I do seems to get through to Marco. He's made up his mind that I'm 'just a woman'. I can't win with him. And I've tried real hard. I dunno... somehow gettin' Marco on side would be the best part of this whole teachin' thing. I'd really feel like I'd done summat worthwhile if I could've won him around, y'know?"
Zee came in with more hot coffee.
"Who you talkin' about? Marco? Aw honey, jest you ignore that ornery little pest. He ain't worth that long face." She handed a cup of steaming coffee to Jemimah then produced a crumpled sheet of paper from her pocket. "Here, let's read this. It'll make y'all bust a gut!"
Jemimah spotted the vermillion ink but was too late to swipe it from her sister-in-law's hand.
"Hey, where'd you get that?"
"Don't matter. I got it now so you just settle back an' listen!"
With that, Zee perched beside Scott and, a gleeful smirk pasted on her sassy face, began to read aloud... much to Jemimah's consternation.
"She invited the preacher to her house one day,
She said, it's a party, I'm 18 today.
I've made a new dress and a bonnet so cute,
So come round and see me in my birthday suit."
Johnny, she could tell, was trying not to laugh aloud but, it was no use, she could feel his body shaking against her.
Zee passed the paper to Scott who moved to the second verse.
"They say she went dancing one night on her own,
And she smiled at a young man who stood all alone
He remarked how he'd not had the pleasure before
And she answered, 'Come on then, let's get on the floor."
Johnny gave up the battle to keep a straight face and, chuckling, reached out to take the poem from Scott whose lips were twitching suspiciously.
"Here, let me read one...
One day she went into the Green River store,
And she said to Jake Winter who stood by the door,
I need me the fixings to make a new belt,
Perhaps you can tell me where I can get felt."
Zee snorted in a most unladylike manner and almost spat a mouthful of cookie over her husband. Both Scott and Johnny were laughing and Jemimah grinned, taking the sheet to read the final verse herself.
"A beautiful pear tree in her garden does grow,
She decided to enter the fruit in a show.
So she saw Widow Hargis and said in advance,
When the judges see my pear, you don't stand a chance."
It was some time before Jemimah could speak as the others were making so much noise. Johnny was clutching his middle and hooting in delight and Zee was heard to splutter that she thought such hilarity might not be good for her health.
"You missed your vocation, honey," Johnny grinned over his shoulder at her as he tugged off his boots, tossing them haphazardly under the chair. "Should've been a poet instead of a rancher's wife. Always said you were smart!"
He chuckled again as he thought back over the risqué verses she had penned. Looking in the mirror on the dresser, he could see her by the bed behind him. She was naked and was rapidly slipping the long white nightgown over her head. He grinned. It wouldn't be on for long. His grin was replaced by a regretful sigh when the floaty material covered the delightful curve of her rump and slid down to her ankles, shrouding her body from him. He turned, discarding his shirt and unbuckling his belt.
"But it sure was naughty." He looked up and smiled at her.
"I know, I was frit Murdoch was goin' to wallop me for sure!"
"Nah!" he laughed and winked at her. "That's my job... come October."
He chuckled and looked pointedly over at the wooden spoon which was back in its place atop the mirror on the dresser. In all honesty, he had no intention of doing any such thing but figured it didn't hurt to keep her guessing. After the trick she had played on him, he felt he was due a little of his own back.
Laying the discarded shirt and pants over the arm of the chair, he approached the bed where she was already tucked in. He was looking forward to slipping beneath that cosy quilt and snuggling up to his even cosier wife; that nightie would soon be in its usual heap on the rug.
But something was wrong. Jemimah wasn't gazing up at him with the customary eager twinkle. Johnny felt his anticipation wither a little as he took in her scowl.
She shuffled over and turned her back on him, bristling with indignation. Johnny's face fell and he had the sudden presentiment that the detested nightie might be staying put for a while. He slid into the bed at her side and dared to gently touch her shoulder which quivered and shook him off.
"I can't believe you still mean to use that... that... implement to..."
"That bloody spoon!" she snapped in pique.
"Oh." He smiled and eased back on the fat white pillows. "Well chica, you can't deny you did play a pretty sneaky trick..."
Her back wriggled resentfully but she remained silent. Johnny tucked his hands behind his head and watched her from the corner of his eye.
"And you said it yourself - I got a right to be mad at you..."
"That was weeks ago!"
"Three," he corrected her.
He waited a few seconds to hear what her 'but still' reasoning might be. When nothing was forthcoming, he smiled. Jemimah didn't have an excuse and she knew it but, as ever, she was still going to try to wriggle out of it.
"Still what?" he pressed, trying not to snigger.
She said nothing but her stiff back presented to him in that fashion spoke volumes. Johnny sighed, realising he may have teased her enough about the darn spoon. He wanted his loving little lady in his arms, had been looking forward to this moment all day, and certainly didn't intend to let the sun go down on an argument so petty. Dios, they ought to be getting all warm and frisky by now! Spooning up to her, he gently put his arm around her and dipped his head to lay a kiss on her neck, just below her ear. That never failed.
"Aw honey," he crooned.
Jemimah jerked her elbow sharply back, catching him hard in his ribs, effectively cooling his ardour. She smiled vindictively at the sudden way he lurched back.
"Oof! Dang girl... come on now. There's no call to be..."
Clamping her lips together when she felt him again shuffle determinedly up to her, she threw back the elbow again but with rather more force this time. Her malicious glee at his muffled yelp was cut short when he retaliated with a light slap to the nightie-clad derriere she was presenting to him.
"Ow! You want that spankin' here an' now 'cos you're goin' the right way about it?" he grunted, clutching his middle and scooting away.
"Oh yes, that's right! Beat your poor defenceless wife!"
"Aw honey, I'm not goin' to..."
Johnny reached out to her and winced afresh at the ache to his ribs. That little girl didn't know her own strength.
She was gathering her pillow and clambering out of the bed, eyes blazing.
"Where are you... ?"
Swiping up her robe and marching across the room with her nose pointing haughtily into the air, she would not even look at him.
"I am going to sleep in my old room. I won't spend another minute in here with... with... that thing!" She pointed a finger at the spoon over the mirror. "Or with a man who'd even contemplate beating his wife!"
Johnny was throwing back the quilt now, aghast that she would walk out.
"Hey, come on... I was only fooling. You know I wasn't..."
But she was already out of the door and he could hear her angry footsteps marching all the way through the adjacent room. The door slammed.
Johnny slumped back onto the bed, scratching morosely at his thick black hair in puzzlement. What had happened? Two minutes ago, he had been about to make love to Jemimah and here she was, threatening to spend the night upstairs - away from him. He didn't like that idea; not one bit. They had spent every night together since they were married. The very thought of her sleeping alone in another distant part of the massive house made him miserable. But should he go after her?
He looked back at the rumpled empty bed behind him then rubbed at his ribs and grimaced. No, he thought perhaps he should leave her to cool down some.
Jemimah slept very little and spent most of those lonely hours sniffling into her pillow. The sun had roused her from a bleary doze and, head pounding from all the tears, she slumped across the room, feeling utterly wretched.
Johnny had not come after her.
At first, she had thought she may have gone too far and fervently hoped he wouldn't storm in, all angry and retributional. But no, that wasn't Johnny's way, she knew that well enough. He didn't often get mad; never without good cause and he certainly didn't rant or throw his weight about.
As the minutes ticked by, stretching into an hour, she then hoped he would come. Maybe, he was simply giving her the chance to simmer down; come to her senses (which she already had) and then he'd creep in and snuggle up to her.
With this idea in mind, she had smoothed her hair, unbuttoned the top of her nightgown to reveal a tempting glimpse of cleavage and eased back just so on the heap of pillows so that he would find her at her most alluring when he came in.
But he hadn't come.
The first hour became two, then three, and she realised through her tears of self-pity that he wasn't coming at all. That could only mean one of three things: he was too cross to join her or even to cart her back. She grimaced, not fancying that scenario at all.
Or he had fallen asleep! That brought a fresh storm of petulant sobs. If Johnny didn't care enough for her feelings that he could blithely turn over in their bed and go back to sleep... well, what manner of husband did that make him?
The third option was that he was expecting her to go back, maybe even apologise for leaving in the first place.
She had firmed her lips resolutely. Never! Swiping at angry tears now, she hurled one of the pillows across the room so hard that it knocked down a framed watercolour which resided there. She gloried in the loud thud it made as it hit the rug but was rather relieved it had not smashed. The last thing she needed was Murdoch bursting in to investigate the noise and finding out about all of this.
She knew he would likely suggest that she and Johnny needed their heads knocking together.
Truth to tell, Jemimah was feeling a tad guilty and more than a little foolish by that point. She admitted to herself that she might have behaved somewhat childishly. It was perhaps little wonder that Johnny had kept that bloody spoon over the mirror for the last few weeks.
Such thoughts, instead of finally persuading her to return to their apartment and face him, induced another bout of sorry weeping. Yes, it had been a long night.
Jemimah padded hesitantly into the bedroom. She knew from the light within that the curtains had been drawn but half-expected to find Johnny still there.
But he was gone.
As swiftly as she could, she splashed her face with water and hastened into clean clothes, choosing her prettiest biscuit-coloured dress with the tiny dark red leaf print. She knew how Johnny admired her in it. Brushed and shining with glossy warmth, her hair was twisted up into a loose knot which she efficiently pinned in place. Then, gathering her boots, she was rushing for the door when she halted in surprise.
It was gone. The spoon was gone.
She blinked in disbelief and felt warmth flood her cheeks. She had been a complete idiot, she knew. And, what was more, she owed Johnny an apology for her silliness.
Jemimah plunked her books onto the table and grabbed for a roll from the plate.
"Maria, where's Johnny?"
Maria turned in surprise and Murdoch looked up from his newspaper.
"He leaves early today." Maria flashed her a puzzled look which said that she didn't understand why the girl did not already know this.
"He's left?" Jemimah slumped into her chair in disappointment.
"Si. He and Cipriano, they go speak to Señor Vicente he says."
Murdoch cast her a suspicious glance and Jemimah blushed, busying herself by clarting a blob of honey onto the roll.
"Oh. Oh yes, that's right. I remember now."
Murdoch studied the girl and narrowed his eyes. Something was amiss. Johnny had eaten breakfast a good half hour before and had tried to secrete that wooden spoon back into Maria's pot of kitchen utensils without anyone noticing. Now Jemimah looked like she had been crying. Hmm, this could explain the bumping about he heard from her old bedroom during the night. Yes, there was more to this than met the eye.
Murdoch cleared his throat, sipped at his coffee and wisely retreated behind his paper once more. He had learned a lot about parenting since his sons came home seven years before. It was safer to observe from a distance sometimes. If those two wanted his advice they would ask for it.
By the time Jemimah strutted across the yard to the guard house, her mood was decidedly bleak.
At first disappointed to have missed her chance to make amends and set things right with Johnny, she then silently berated herself all through breakfast, stewing on her quick temper and spiteful nature. Now, she swung her basket like a lethal weapon, scowling at the damp chill which seeped through her dress and, seemingly, into her very bones. Really - what had possessed her to choose this thin cotton today? It was simply far too light for this time of year and, if she weren't so vain, she would have worn her blue. Such critical thoughts only succeeded in darkening her disposition.
Hmph! She firmed her lips into a thin disapproving line. There was no orderly line of children waiting patiently for her arrival. In fact, there was no-one in sight at all. Well, woe betide them if they were late. She would ring that bell until she woke the devil himself! The notion made her green eyes glint with a grim satisfaction and she stomped up to the half-open door of the guard house, thumping it open with the heel of her hand.
Jemimah had only the briefest glimpse of her students, seated obediently at their desks, before there was a clang, sounding nothing like the brass hand bell, and she yelped as something heavy hit her shoulder and the back of her head. The actual pain was dismissed though when she was instantly drenched in a cold clamminess which coated her from head to toe, or so it seemed. Her basket slipped forgotten to the floor and she sensed her shawl, suddenly heavy and slimy, slop down to land in a sodden heap.
"Ugh! What the hell... ?"
Squinting through one eye, the other screwed tight shut against the thick pungent liquid, she wiped back her dripping bangs. Her hand came away smeared with whitewash. Through the rushing in her ears, she could feel the heavy awed silence and heard herself make a wild sound, somewhere between a squeak and a growl. The initial horror and humiliation was rapidly transforming into a livid rage which swept over her like the hot dry wind which heralded a storm. Gritting her teeth, she finally looked up, knowing what a sorry spectacle she must be.
Before her fury, not a single child dared to flinch. No-one smirked. All were frozen... but one.
Marco, an insolent grin splitting his face, stared back at her in blatant challenge. She had to make a supreme effort to unclench her teeth before she could speak.
"Marco Torres," her voice was little more than a hoarse whisper. "Did you put that pail on top of the door?"
The little devil nodded proudly.
"Si. Parece muy tonto, señora!" (Yep. You look very silly, miss!) he sniggered.
Looking back over the events of that morning, Jemimah hardly remembered how she had ended up outside nor how she had contrived to drag young Marco, kicking and yelling all the way, around the back of the guard house, gripping his collar and totally unconcerned about whether she might actually throttle him.
She spied a clump of likely-looking supple twigs, sprouting up from the base of one of the trees, and marched the lad over to them.
"Pull one up!"
Marco gaped at her as though she had gone insane whereupon the hand gripping his shirt collar shook him so hard his teeth rattled.
"Now! Or I will pull up three!"
Obeying her for once, Marco heaved and ragged at one of the twigs until it broke free. Jemimah snatched it from him and, before she even knew what she was doing, she had draped the boy over the low wall and proceeded to wallop his rear end with gusto.
"No me toque! Diré a mi padre!" (Don't you touch me! I'll tell my father!) he squealed in shock.
The switch dipped six times in all and then, as if a veil was being lifted from her eyes, the red mists of her temper faded away and Jemimah saw herself. Aghast, the twig slipped from her numb fingers and she released her hold on the howling boy's collar.
Her mouth was dry and she was gasping for breath. Turning back to the guard house, she was horrified to find a sea of white little faces, watching her. Moreover, beyond the brush and scrubby hedgerow, several of the men had paused in their work, Cip among them.
A shaking hand to her face and a sick oiliness coating the back of her throat, Jemimah stumbled back inside. She hardly knew what to do next, so desperate was she to retreat from everyone and hide away. Never had she felt so ashamed of herself. She had given full rein to her hot temper and made a perfect idiot of herself in front of everybody. All the work she had put in with the children - it was all for nothing now. And Marco Torres would justly hate her... as she hated herself.
"Class is... class is dismissed," she managed to stutter before she felt the scalding tears spill down her face and, stifling a sob, she took to her heels, racing for the house.
Bursting in through the front door, Jemimah halted in the hallway, a dripping sobbing mess. Immediately, the study door opened and Murdoch emerged to investigate. The sight of the bedraggled girl had him rushing over.
"Darling, what on earth... ?"
She instantly dissolved, throwing herself into his arms and bawling like a child.
"There now," he soothed. "What happened?"
He called over his shoulder in the direction of the kitchen, asking Maria to fetch a blanket and towels. Then, arms around her and ignoring the way the whitewash was seeping through his shirtfront, he half-carried her to the fireside in the great room. While she stood shivering, he pressed his huge handkerchief on her, urging her to blow her nose and calm herself.
Maria trotted in and wrapped a blanket around Jemimah's ruined dress, gently easing her onto the sofa and patting at her white hair with a towel. Murdoch placed a tumbler of whisky into her hand.
"Now, you take a good belt of that, y'hear?" he advised. "Come on, it's my best single malt."
When she had swallowed a hefty mouthful, he smiled though his blue eyes were flinty.
"Now, do I need to ask what happened? This has the mark of our young prankster, am I right?"
Jemimah nodded and sobbed again. Murdoch's expression was grim and she was thankful his anger was not directed at her this time.
"It was... Marco," she sniffed. "He admitted it this time and... he was laughin'!"
Murdoch had been squatting at her side but now he straightened stiffly to his full height.
"Right, that's it! That young man has gone too far this time. He won't be laughing when I'm done with him!"
Murdoch turned at the soft deep voice behind him.
Cipriano and Isidro loitered in the hall by the open front door, hats held respectfully in their hands. They were eyeing the puddle of whitewash on the threshold, obviously mindful of spreading it any further into the house.
"Cip, Isidro... come in."
Cipriano stepped down into the room and nodded to Jemimah and Maria.
"Patron, we saw... that is, we came to ask after Miss Jemimah. She is alright, I hope?"
Murdoch shook his head. "No. No, she is not alright. Far from it. See for yourself."
Isidro ambled forward a little, addressing Jemimah. "We all saw what the Torres boy did, señora. Your answer was... muy eficaz. (very effective) The pequeño bribón (little rascal) will think before he next plays such a trick, si? Tiene nalgas doloridas por una semana (He will have a sore backside for a week)."
Far from soothing her, Isidro's congratulations had a strange effect on Jemimah whose face contorted with fresh grief and, wailing, she buried her head in the sodden hanky. Isidro, alarmed that he had upset her, cast a panicked look at Murdoch and turned beseechingly to Cipriano.
"Child, do not weep!" Cip was dismayed and confused by her reaction. "Such a licking she gave him, Patron. She should stand proud. I could not have done better myself!"
Jemimah's wails became even louder.
Murdoch was astonished. "Eh? What's that?" He gaped down at her. "Jemimah... you punished the boy?"
Cip was grinning from ear to ear. "Si Patron! Ah, it was just what the young devil has needed." He frowned in puzzlement. "But, why is she not pleased? The men... everyone... they were most impressed."
Maria wrapped her arms around her girl and, scowling starchily at both Cipriano and Isidro for upsetting Jemimah, announced that she was taking her for a bath. Jemimah allowed herself to be led away, still snivelling into Murdoch's hanky.
An hour later, Jemimah slumped in her overalls by the fire to dry her hair. All traces of the whitewash were now gone and she brushed the long damp locks with an air of tragedy.
She was feeling like an utter failure. That Marco had not taken to her as the other children she could cope with. Indeed, she had seen it as a challenge. And that he had played the trick on her she could also swallow, especially now that Maria had managed to soak all the whitewash out of her best dress. No, what had her so discouraged was that she felt she no longer knew herself.
When the chips were down, she had forgotten all her principles and had actually walloped a child. After all the lickings she had taken (all of them justly earned) as a kid, she had vowed that she would never inflict the indignity on another youngster. All her good intentions had flown the second that bucket had hit her. Her temper had again got the better of her and she was mortified. Oh, how Johnny would laugh at her now!
She sniffed morosely.
"Now, Jemimah." Murdoch sat on the sofa behind her and smiled kindly. "It's not the end of the world."
He chuckled. "No, of course not. I have been out, talking to some of the hands and it may surprise you to know what they're all saying..."
"That I'm a monster," her voice quavered. "A nasty bully who beats on poor defenceless children."
"Oh, stuff and nonsense! Monster indeed!" Murdoch scoffed, waving away her words. He leaned forwards. "And there is nothing remotely defenceless about Marco Torres. Darling, you gave that wee limmer something his father should have given him long before now. That is what everyone is saying, including his aunt."
Jemimah's ears perked up. Marco's aunt was Sofia's mother and generally regarded as a very wise woman in the community. If she thought Jemimah had done the right thing, maybe it was a mistake to feel so wretched?
"Yes," Murdoch went on. "She made a point of walking over to find me and said I should be sure to give you her thanks!"
"Not sure how I feel about bein' thanked for wallopin' someone smaller than me."
Her heart had lifted a little however and she dared to look sheepishly up at him.
Murdoch's smile was kind and his voice gentle.
"Darling, you have to remember the difference this time. This wasn't a school yard fight between you and a younger child. You're about to be a mother and you simply treated that boy like any outraged parent. He deserved a licking and that is exactly what you gave him."
Murdoch reached out to stroke her damp hair with a huge but caring hand.
"You, my dear, are going to be a wonderful mother. You have a tender loving heart... but it's nice to know you'll be able to deal with any trouble your bairns dish up for you!"
She shook her head firmly. "Oh no, I'm never doing that again! I won't wallop my own kids!"
"You'll change your mind when they're plaguing your life out."
"Nope. I won't. You'll see."
Smiling, Murdoch wisely fell silent. Oh, for the utter certainty of youth! At his age, he knew better; it was only the very young could be so sure. He had long ago realised that life was never that black and white.
"Well, I'm not saying Johnny will be over-zealous in dealing with your children but you know he'll do what he has to," Murdoch pointed out. "He doesn't hold with disrespectful youngsters. In fact, young Marco would be wise to steer clear of Johnny for a few days. He won't be too happy to hear about today's shenanigans. You could have been badly hurt."
"Huh!" Jemimah rolled her eyes with a small lop-sided grin. "You don't have to tell me that. Johnny walloped me enough when I was a nipper! I know what he's like!"
Murdoch chuckled. He refrained from pointing out that, to him, she was still a nipper! At eighteen, she thought she was all grown up and he recalled thinking the very same thing at that age. He watched her now, holding the length of her dark hair to the warmth of the fire as she sat cross-legged on the hearth rug, and he kept his own counsel. She was almost smiling again and it would probably only serve to upset her if she knew that he had paid a visit to Ernesto Torres who now knew exactly what his young son had been up to.
"He did what? Honey, are you alright?"
Johnny perched on the arm of the sofa by Jemimah's side and took her hand between his. His blue eyes, filled with worry and outrage on her behalf, searched her face. She was upset, he could tell that at a glance, and he frowned, firming his lips into a tight line. In seconds, he was up again and striding furiously across the room.
"If Ernesto ain't gonna keep that boy in line, maybe I should!"
He was halfway to the door, tapping edgily at the silver conchos down each leg of his pants, when Jemimah called him back.
He paused by the hall stand, reaching up for his hat.
She could feel her face getting hot already. This was not going to be fun.
"I... er... I got summat to tell you."
Johnny's fingers moved to the tiny pearl buttons down the front of Jemimah's nightgown. Expertly, he flicked each one undone and, with his customary unhurried but determined manner, she was divested of the long cotton garment which was deposited without ceremony on the floor.
He sensed her mood. She was still put-out - her body lay stiff and displeased as his arms gathered her to him.
"You want me to say I'm sorry again?"
She gave no reply but huffed out a sharp breath.
"Alright, I'll say it anyway. I'm sorry. I'm real sorry I laughed."
Johnny was glad he had turned out the lamp so she couldn't see his smile.
"I think it was in bad taste to toast me like that... and at the dinner table," she protested again.
"I know, I know."
"I didn't know where to put meself!"
"Honey, I'm a no-good varmint," he confessed. "And I don't deserve to hold such a fine woman in my arms... and do things like this."
"And kiss her here..."
His head dipped above her and she felt his lips trace a path along her neck.
The tiny butterfly kisses moved lower over her collar bone while his fingertips slid sneakily over her hip.
His lips trailed lower as his fingers stroked over the sensitive skin of her thigh. She released a long tremulous sigh.
Much later, with his wife lying contentedly in the warm circle of his arms, Johnny grinned.
"What you smilin' about?" she mumbled sleepily against his chest.
"How'd you know I'm smilin'?"
"I can feel you. You feel all smiley."
Johnny laughed and hugged her close, enjoying the sensation of her smooth bare flesh against him.
"I'm sorry, honey but I knew you'd come to it eventually, given time... and your temper."
"Did you now?" She waited patiently for his torso to stop shaking from the quiet sniggering. "I still feel rotten about it. All my good intentions..."
"I told you - the difference between theories and practice is a wide chasm, girl. It's easy to have these fine notions but you're as human as the rest of us an' you don't cotton to uppity young 'uns any more than I do. I can see what kind of a mama you're goin' to be - a damn good one!"
"I still say I won't whomp our own kids."
He laughed again.
"I mean it!"
"Well, I reckon you won't have to."
"Why? You think our little 'uns are goin' to be angels?"
"Nah, I doubt it. I'm sayin' it'll be my job. I'd call it a fair exchange."
She propped herself up, rolling onto him, and squinted in the semi-darkness. The moonlight fell over his shoulders and face and he smiled tenderly at her.
"Exchange? What exchange?"
His smile became a fully-fledged white-toothed grin. "I'll do all the bottom warming if you do all the bottom wiping!"
She joined in his laughter.
"So, all the nappies are mine? You're just chicken, Johnny Lancer! Alright then... deal!"
Jemimah dallied through breakfast, argued that she ought to be lingering to assist Maria and Teresa with the dishes, tarried unnecessarily in the hall and procrastinated over which shawl she should don to walk across to the guard house.
"Honey, it's only a few yards away," Johnny pointed out with an amused smile and glanced over at Scott who was chuckling. "I don't expect there's any danger of you catchin' pneumonia if you choose the green one."
She pulled a face. "I dunno. It's a mite thin for these chilly mornings we've been havin' and I gotta be mindful of..."
He had leaned in to kiss her nose. "You want me to carry you over there? I'll keep you warm."
"Johnny, I hardly think... hey, put me down!"
He was already striding through the door and down the front steps with her in his arms.
"Nope! Why don't you admit what's really got you in a pucker? You scared or somethin'?"
"Scared?" She stuck out her bottom lip belligerently. "I ain't scared."
"You could've fooled me."
"Please Johnny, put me down." She had begun to wriggle in his hold and was aware of a few of the hands grinning their way.
He obliged her but had fixed her with a knowing look that she couldn't avoid. Perching on the hitching post, she shrugged uneasily.
"It's just... I don't know if'n I can face 'em all. The kids, I mean."
"I failed 'em." She hung her head.
"No, you didn't."
"And Marco's goin' to be worse than ever now. He'll hate me."
Johnny spied something behind her and began to smile.
"Oh yeah? Turn around."
She did so and her mouth dropped open in surprise.
Marco and Sammy were approaching, both wearing big grins on their faces. Marco was clutching a single yellow flower which, as they paused at the bottom of the steps, he held out to her.
Jemimah gaped and shot a questioning glance at Johnny.
"A peace-offering, I'd say," he guessed. "Take it."
Little Marco swiped his straw hat off respectfully and gave Johnny a nervous look.
"Señor, may we speak with the señora, por favor?" he asked politely.
Johnny hid a smile at the kid's nervousness and nodded.
"Señora, this is for you." He gave the already-wilting flower to Jemimah with a tiny bow. "It is to say sorry for all the bad things I did to Señor Murdoch and to you." Marco hung his head, suitably ashamed. "Mi papa - he whupped me good for the whitewash but..." Now he raised his head and she recognised the respect in his merry brown eyes. "You whip even harder than him!"
"Yeah," Sammy piped up. "You're even better than ol' Quinny when you get your dander up, I reckon!"
"Oh. Er... thank you."
Bewildered, she glanced at Johnny who was suddenly rubbing at his nose and biting his lip to keep from laughing.
"Carry your basket, teacher?" Sammy offered.
"No, I will carry it. I was the one she whupped!" Marco argued.
"Hey, I got an idea," Johnny stepped in before war broke out. "Why don't you share it?"
This being acceptable to both boys, they each grabbed the handle and set off across the yard, swinging the basket and grinning. Jemimah shook her head in amazement, accepted Johnny's kiss and followed her little charges.
Scott joined his brother on the steps, watching the girl walking away with her two little gentlemen.
"Weren't you going to have a talk with the Torres boy?"
Johnny shrugged. "Didn't need to." He gestured at the trio as they rounded the corner and were hidden by the trees. "Jemimah's got it all in hand, it seems. I don't think they'll give her any more trouble."
On the last day of school, Dan Quinn having returned at last, lessons were set aside and, in the April sunshine, the little class held an impromptu picnic instead. Jemimah sat cross-legged among her students, looking more like a school kid herself than any schoolmarm Johnny had ever encountered.
Pausing in his work, he thumbed back his hat and leaned on the corral fence to watch their wild games and laughter from a distance. She had done well; won over every child and been taken to their hearts. He could not have been more proud of her.
They were giving her their little parting gifts and he knew there would be tears later at the closing of this brief chapter in Lancer history. But she could be content - she had done well and there was an even more momentous chapter yet to be written.
Her lap was full, he noticed with a smile - posies of wild flowers, marbles and other childish treasures given with great solemnity and love. Some of the older girls had even sewn tiny garments for the baby. Johnny saw her wipe surreptitiously at her eyes. Yep, the tears were starting already.
Marco was the last to present his gift, having loitered near the back of the group.
"For the crib, señora," he explained. "To bring good luck for the baby."
Jemimah cupped the soft grey rabbit's foot in her palm. The boy had threaded a length of leather through it so it could be hung up. She knew it was more than likely one of his own prized belongings. That he had given it to her touched her deeply.
"Thank you, Marco."
The young lad grinned up at her, a true camaraderie twinkling in those eyes.
That night, as Johnny and Jemimah slipped beneath the warmth of the quilt and moved into each other's arms, a thin shaft of moonlight fell across the carved cherubs cavorting on the headboard of their bed. One of the fat cheeky angels had a grey rabbit's foot dangling over his head.
Anne Haslam March 2015
I cannot take credit for any of the limericks and rhymes contained in this story - I'm afraid I am no poet. Nor can I actually give credit to the original writers as they were not named and I came across them when I was researching that form of poetry. However, the rhymes written by Jemimah about Miss T are stolen (and slightly changed) from a ditty called We Knew What She Meant by a much-loved British comedian called Ronnie Barker. I remembered this from my childhood and always laughed hysterically at it and all his other creations. I knew Jemimah would find it equally irresistible.
Murdoch's song is truly a bawdy Scottish poem by Robert Burns which, I believe, was set to music.
come a cropper
- have a mishap; get caught out
dandle - bounce an infant upon one's knee
not the full shilling - not right in the head
nipper - little child
bairn - child
limmer - rascal
nappies - diapers
rede - advise; warn
ripples - pains in the lower back
kipples - rafters; ceiling
frit - frightened; scared
barm pot - idiot; fool
summat - something