Times That Try The Soul
by  Anne

 

Disclaimer: A few of these characters (i.e. the Lancers and a handful who appeared in the tv show) are not mine though they ought to be because I certainly show them more love, respect and gratitude than Fox ever has... and I visit with them more too.
Scott is 32; Johnny is 27

 

"What you doin' here, doc?" Jemimah spluttered and followed up with a rasping cough. "You examined me last month an' you already confirmed I was pregnant. You can't take it back now."

Sam Jenkins smiled as he set down his usual black bag at the end of the bed and opened it. She eyed it warily and hoped the doctor didn't notice as she inched away.

"My dear, as much as it scares the living daylights out of me to imagine the day when the offspring of Jemimah and John Lancer is rampaging around the valley, you are quite correct. I did indeed confirm your condition - much to the delight of all, not the least of which was your husband if you recall - and, no, I am not here to take it back."

She had been perched on the edge of their big cherub bed, still wearing her nightgown with her shawl around her shoulders and feeling very uncomfortable. It was bad enough that Johnny had insisted she stay in bed and had made his own breakfast but to sneakily arrange for the doc to call... she was not happy; not happy at all.

She slid her feet into her slippers and made to stand up, a comical look of surprise on her face when her legs wobbled feebly, necessitating a sudden flop back onto the high mattress.

Sam was by her side in an instant and calling down to Johnny and Maria.

"Now, see what I mean, young lady," he admonished. "You've been overdoing it and that cold you've had has gone to your chest as you well know. You're always prone to coughs and bronchial congestion."

"Aw doc, I'll be alright," she wheezed. "Wish everyone would stop fussin' over me like I'm some sort of invalid. Women have babies every day an' I'm young and healthy."

"Young and argumentative you certainly are but healthy? Not until this cold is gone. And that's not likely unless you get the necessary rest. And if I have to hogtie you to that bed, young lady, I will!"

"Why doc," Jemimah fluttered her eyelashes and smirked cheekily. "I'm a married woman! Such talk ain't fittin'."

Sam Jenkins shook a stern finger at his patient but his grey eyes sparkled.

Johnny appeared in the doorway with Maria hot on his heels.

"What is it, doc? She alright?"

"Well, there's nothing wrong with that sassy attitude of hers, that's for sure. I haven't examined her yet, Johnny." He eyed Jemimah beadily. "But I will... just as soon as she gets it into her head that when I say 'rest', I mean exactly that! Sneaking out to ride her horse through the snow and ice has done her cold no favours. It's settled on her chest now."

Johnny stood, hands on his hips and his head tilted on one side, studying her. He took in her militant expression and clucked his tongue, shaking his head at her, and trying not to smile.

"Can't exactly blame it for that, doc," he smirked. "Can't think of a nicer place to settle!"

Jemimah smirked back and slumped against the fat pillows that Maria had arranged behind her. It was a lot comfier, she had to admit, but it irked her no end to have Maria there. Johnny had 'tattled' on her to Murdoch who, in turn, had informed the little housekeeper of her illness... Jemimah bristled again at the thought of everyone making such a silly fuss. She was fine. Now that Maria was installed at Randall House for the next few days, it certainly meant Jemimah would get some rest but the woman wouldn't let her move freely around her own home. And, what's more, she was bringing Johnny round to her way of thinking. It was infuriating.

He had even suggested they move to Lancer until the baby was born. Jemimah had squashed that idea immediately; she intended for their son to be born in their own home. And Johnny, happy as a kid, indulged her whim.

"Now, we'll have you out of that nightdress, please," Sam was saying as he washed his hands in the bowl.

Jemimah gasped then coughed again. "What, with everyone lookin' at me? Not on your life!"

"Johnny is going downstairs to make me some coffee, aren't you, son?"

Jemimah scowled. It wasn't Johnny's absence she craved; he saw her in the buff every day.

Johnny quit grinning at his wife's outrage long enough to answer. "Oh, sure. Don't let her give you any arguments, doc."

Sam did not even look up from fishing in his bag. "Why do you think I've asked Maria up here? If Jemimah gets too ornery, I'll have Maria hold her down."

Johnny laughed and exited rapidly to avoid the slipper Jemimah hurled at his head.

****

Sam eased himself into one of the tapestried armchairs in the sitting room, sipping at the hot coffee that Johnny had passed to him at the bottom of the stairs.

"So, it's just a cold, doc?"

"Yes, nothing to worry about." Sam smiled reassuringly. "The only reason I'm concerned is that it's on her chest now and that's a nasty cough. She should stay in bed for a few days and get plenty of rest. Milky drinks and puddings might be an idea; build her up a little. She's always been such a scrawny little thing."

Johnny took exception to the term scrawny. He liked to think of Jemimah as naturally slender. But the rest of Sam's advice made sense and Maria would make sure she had the milky puddings. He was very glad to have the motherly little Mexican woman to back him up. Perhaps, Sam would be able to reinforce another sanction that had been on his mind.

"Hey, you think you can you tell her no more riding, doc? At least 'til after the baby comes?"

"Oh, I don't think that will do her any real harm this early on... well, as soon as her cold clears up. Not until then though."

Johnny sat astride the arm of the other chair and his fingers tapped edgily on the polished wood.

"I guess not. I just don't feel easy seein' her atop a horse in her condition - she is expectin', y'know."

Sam smiled wryly. "Yes, I was aware of that."

Johnny blushed and smiled. "You know what I mean, doc. She won't listen to me. Being in the family way has made her more stubborn than ever. Never known a more mule-headed woman; thinks she knows best about everythin'; like she's had dozens of babies instead of this bein' her first."

Sam chortled. More stubborn? Was that even possible?

"Perhaps, you need to be more forceful, Johnny. You're her husband... and you're a Lancer! You mean to tell me you've not inherited Murdoch's iron will? Put your foot down, my boy."

There was a snort from the doorway and Maria sailed in with Jemimah's nightgown wadded up in her hands.

"Hmph," she muttered disapprovingly. "That will be the day! That child has our Juanito wrapped around her finger, I think!" She pointedly twiddled her little finger at the young man.

Johnny squirmed self-consciously but he made no attempt to deny it. As Maria headed for the kitchen, she glanced back over her shoulder.

"Si es necesario, debe nalguearla! Es su marido." (If you need to, you should spank her! You're her husband.)

Johnny rolled his eyes and grinned. "Mamacita, she's pregnant." He refrained from also saying that, as her husband, he had no intention of doing any such thing.

"Sólo le duelen sus nalgas, no la del bebé!" (It'll only hurt her bottom, not the baby's!)

****

The evening sun was slipping wearily behind the trees on the hillside, casting its last rosy glow over the house, when Johnny drew the curtains in their bedroom and made himself comfortable, stretched out on his stomach by Jemimah's side on the big cherub bed.

"Where's Maria?" she whispered.

"Sitting by the fire but she keeps gettin' up to go stir whatever she's making for tomorrow. Smells good whatever it is. An' she's sewing something."

"Sewing?"

"Yeah, looks like a little frilly dress. I reckon she's sure it's a girl; as sure as you are that it's a boy."

Jemimah laughed. "Boy or girl, the baby will spend quite a while wearin' little nighties like that. He can't wear pants when he'll need his nappy changing a dozen times a day."

Johnny's head jerked up, his face aghast. "No son of mine is goin' to wear frilly dresses!"

"But he'll look so sweet..."

"Honey, no!"

There was such pained anguish in his voice that she again cracked up laughing. This glee soon turned into a hacking cough that shook her whole body.

Johnny rolled quickly to his knees at her side, holding her helplessly until the coughing subsided. He reached for the glass of milk he had brought up and held it to her lips but she averted her head with a grimace.

"Lord, no more milk, for goodness' sake! I'll be looking like Jessamie soon!"

"Drink it," he ordered gently.

"Johnny..."

He smiled at the sulky whine in her voice but held the glass persistently. "Go on. The day you start to moo, I'll cut back on it. 'Til then, it's Sam's orders."

"Hmph!" Jemimah pouted but took a few sips of the milk, glad of the cool soothing sensation on her sore throat. "Like you always follow his orders. What about the last time when you wrenched your knee hoppin' over the fence to get clear of that horse? There wasn't no-one could make you stay off your feet like the doc had told you."

Johnny grinned and contrived to look proud of himself. "Yeah well... I didn't have anyone to dust my britches if I disobeyed orders. You do!"

Jemimah's dark eyebrows rose up underneath her long dark bangs. "I do?"

He pointed a finger at his own chest. "Yeah... me! Sam an' Maria say I need to put my foot down..."

"Oh, they do, do they?"

"Yep an' there's nothin' wrong with my knee now that I wouldn't be able to turn you over it if I get any more backtalk!"

She folded her slim arms, fixing him with a challenging look. "That so?"

Johnny copied her, grinning. "Yeh, that's so! Cantankerous little varmint..." He bent forward and kissed her suddenly. When he leaned back, she was smiling and, once more, reaching for her glass of milk. "I sure hope John Junior takes after me; inherits my sweet, amiable disposition."

Jemimah suddenly snorted into the glass, managing to spurt a huge mouthful of milk out all over the quilt.

Johnny laughed at her expression as he mopped at the damp patch with the tail end of his blue shirt.

"Will you look at that! Oh, Maria's goin' to scold... you're gonna get it!"

She joined in his laughter, covering her mouth when she began to wheeze.

"Well, something around here needed messing up," she croaked hoarsely as she tried not to laugh. "It's so clean I hardly know the place! Me an' all - I've been scrubbed to within an inch of my life!" The chuckles died down and she scowled at the memory. "I swear that woman thinks I'm still ten years old. She took my nightie an' wouldn't get me another 'til she'd sloshed that soapy washcloth everywhere! I didn't know where to look, I tell you!"

Johnny's blue eyes twinkled down at her. "I'm sorry I missed it. I'd have known exactly where to look."

He rolled back onto his belly, planting a kiss on the end of her nose as she gasped at his remark and smacked his shoulder.

"So, still John Junior?"

She nodded.

"Not changed it to Andrew... for your daddy?"

"Nah... we couldn't do that, Johnny. We'd have to have Murdoch too and, as much as I love him, I just can't call a dear little baby Murdoch. Dunno what your grandparents were thinkin' of!"

"Then, he's John. Just John?"

She wrinkled her nose in thought, sipping at her glass. "No, I think he needs another name too. I wondered about Joseph. What do you think of that?"

He shrugged and narrowed his eyes, mouthing the name and testing the feel of it.

"What if it is a girl after all?"

She shook her head. "S'not a girl. I keep tellin' you. I know it."

He chuckled at her obstinate face. "But, just in case your mysterious maternal instinct gets it wrong?"

"I dunno. Hadn't given it much thought; didn't seem no point when it's a boy."

****

Though still only mid-morning, it was already baking hot in the kitchen. Teresa and Maria were cooking up a storm for Jemimah's surprise birthday party. The finishing touches were being put to the two tier cake, Teresa poking her tongue out in concentration as she carefully placed walnut halves strategically around the chocolate frosting.

Naturally, much of the talk that morning (and many of the days preceding it) had been of the imminent addition to the Lancer family. Jemimah was now doing well, having recovered at last from that bout of mild bronchitis. Sam Jenkins still bemoaned the fact that the girl couldn't seem to put on any weight but she was thriving and, if the size of the bump beneath her loose blouses was anything to go by, the baby was set to be a real bruiser - according to Grandpa Murdoch!

Little John Joseph Lancer, or JJ as he was now being referred to, was as yet still innocent of the stir he was creating in the household. There was a permanent frisson of excitement in the air and, though Jemimah had stuck to her guns of having the birth at Randall House, the entire hacienda was at sixes and sevens in preparation for his arrival.

"I can hardly believe there's only two more months until he arrives," Teresa was saying. "It's flown by."

"You're so sure it's going to be a 'he' then?" Zee said, not looking up from the dough she was pounding. "As far as I know, there's no sure-fire way of tellin'. It's all old wives' tales if'n you ask me."

"The nińa is most certain. She will not even think of a name for a girl." Maria clucked her tongue and shook her head with a smile. She could not have been happier; the youngest of her brood and her darling Juanito were so happy, so in love and now to be expecting this added joy - it was all wonderful. "There are times a mother knows."

"Jemimah don't know," Zee huffed. "She's just convinced all of you that she does."

Teresa and Maria fell silent, both wondering at Zee's surliness. Neither were too surprised when she set the bread to rise and muttered an excuse about needing some air, marching out to the kitchen garden.

Once outside, Zee flounced over to the bench beneath the old peach tree, shading her moist eyes from the hot July sun. She knew she was being unreasonable and, as much as she berated herself for it, she also could not help it. The first tear leaked from her eye and snaked steadily down her nose, dripping at last onto her apron. She did not even bother to wipe it away. What was the point? Two more were already joining it.

"What's wrong, honey?"

Scott had quietly approached her from the path at the side of the house; the same path they often used to get to their own apartment.

He laid his work gloves and hat on the end of the bench and gently sat beside his wife, concern etched across his worried face.

Zee sniffed and hastily daubed at her face with her apron.

"Wrong? Nuthin's wrong. I'm just covered in flour is all." She gave a shaky little laugh. "I must look a sight. You know I ain't much of a baker."

Scott edged closer, peering at her face. "You aren't much of a liar either. I saw a few tears mixed in with that flour. Now, what is it, honey?"

When she remained silent, he tried again, gently brushing a long lock of hair from her cheek.

"Can't you tell me?"

Scott knew something was very wrong and he had a good idea what it might be. Leaning towards her, he softly kissed her dark hair. It was her undoing.

Bursting into tears, Zee turned her face into his shoulder and clung to him, weeping stormily. His arms were instantly about her, soothing her, rocking her as though she were a child and, all the while, he crooned words of endearment to her.

"I know this is what crazy females do, Scott but I cain't help it!"

"Tell me."

"You're gonna hate me."

Scott chuckled softly. "I very much doubt that. Come here." He took her onto his lap, wrapping his arms around her so that she rested her head against his. "What's upset you like this? It isn't like you to cry." He held her hand. "Is it the baby?"

Zee screwed up her eyes, hating herself, and nodded. Scott's eyes closed too. It was clear that JJ's imminent arrival was affecting them both.

"I thought so," Scott said kindly. "Has Jemimah been teasing because, if she has, I'll..."

"No." Zee sat up, still on his knee. "Oh, it ain't Jemimah; she's done nuthin' wrong. It's just..."

"I know. It reminds you every day that they're going to have what we want. I know. But we'll have our own baby, honey. We will."

She turned her tearful eyes to him. "But when? We've been tryin' forever now an' every month it's the same. What if there's somethin' wrong..."

"There isn't." Scott's voice was certain. "You know what Sam said - it'll happen and probably when we're not expecting it. Honey, you have to stop thinking so hard about it and then..."

Zee waved an angry hand at the kitchen. "An' how do I do that when it's all the folks around here can talk about? An' Jemimah's waddlin' about lookin' like Dewdrop... all fat an' happy!"

"I know, I know."

She sighed, a fresh tear escaping. "Oh Scott, you're gonna think I'm an awful kinda girl but there are time when I wish..."

"No, you don't. Not really."

She looked at him, guilt in her dark eyes. "You don't know what I was goin' to say."

Scott chewed at his lip. "Yes, I do. Because there have been moments when I've thought it too - why do Johnny and Jemimah get to have this amazing gift of happiness while we're still... waiting." He looked down for a moment and swallowed then turned his clear blue eyes on her with certainty. "And then, I remember that neither of them have had it easy; Johnny's childhood was far from the carefree indulgent existence I knew. And Jemimah had her share of pain, losing her only parent so suddenly. I can have no cause to begrudge them this happiness. Besides, I already have the most wonderful treasure a man ever possessed... right here in my arms."

Zee smiled hesitantly and wiped her face with her apron again, managing to smear a fresh daub of flour across her nose.

"And even with red eyes and her nose all smothered with flour, she's still the most beautiful, most amazing, most unique woman I've ever met. How fortunate am I to be able to call her my wife and kiss her like this..." He leaned towards her and their lips met in a soft kiss. "And carry her away in my arms..."

"What? I can't! I have to..."

Zee squeaked and clung to him as he rose with her in his embrace, heading down the side path to their apartment and paying no heed whatsoever to her protestations.

"Right now, all you have to do, my dear, is smile."

Zee grinned in answer.

"And tell your husband that you love him."

"Look where you're goin'! I don't want to get dropped on my rump!"

Scott's expression was insulted. "As if I would!"

He marched on, seeming to carry her as though she were a feather.

"Scott?" She purred into his ear, arms around his neck.

"Yes?" He spared a glance at her face then concentrated on ducking beneath the trailing roses by the trellis.

"I do love you."

He flashed her a wide smile. "Naturally! I'm a very lovable guy."

****

It was during a similar hot early morning in late August, when the wind was merely a desultory warm puff of air which did nothing to cool the baking valley, that found Murdoch and Maria driving hastily over to Randall House to discover Sam Jenkins had just arrived before them.

Minutes later, Maria and Sam had disappeared up the stairs leaving Murdoch to watch over his younger son. Not an easy task as he was pacing the kitchen floor like a caged animal. The door to the hallway was ajar and he could see the foot of the stairs, tempting him.

"Murdoch, maybe I should go up there. See how she's doin'."

Murdoch clasped Johnny's shoulder and smiled. "Leave it to Sam and Maria, son. Jemimah's in good hands."

He nudged a mug of coffee across the table and then poured one for himself with a hand that trembled. If Johnny noticed the quivering fingers, he was kind enough to keep it to himself.

Hearing the occasional moan or grunt of effort coming from the room upstairs, they sat in silence for the most part, sipping at the strong dark brew and waiting.

"She's been at it a while now, y'know. It must've been a couple of hours before she'd even let me go for Sam an' send Enrique over to you."

"I'm glad you agreed to let the boy stay over. Cip said Alice was going demented thinking there'd be no-one to send word to Lancer," Murdoch smiled.

"Yeah, he's turned out to be a real nice young man."

Murdoch hid a smile at Johnny's words. Now that he was about to be a father, he seemed to be taking on the guise of a wise old timer.

They both paused and looked at the stairs as another low moan came from above.

"She ain't hollerin' like I hear a lot of women do," Johnny swallowed. "You reckon that's a good sign, Pa?"

Murdoch blinked at the way the name slipped out so easily. He was about to remark that each birth was different when there came a loud agonised cry. Johnny jumped to his feet, knocking over his chair with a clatter but, before he could race to the stairs, Murdoch was holding his arm and easing him back. Setting his chair upright again, he pressed him gently but firmly into it and, once more, put the coffee mug into his hand.

"I've heard women say that the more noise, the sooner the baby comes," he grinned. "Sounds like things are getting close." Murdoch eyed Johnny carefully, glad to finally see him subside back into the chair. "Everyone at Lancer will be glad to hear it too. As we drove away, all the lamps were lit in the entire house. It looked like Enrique had woken the bunkhouse too and even some of the cottages down the lane were showing lights at the windows." He smiled at Johnny who raised fearful eyes to his father. "No-one is sleeping, son. They're all waiting up with you."

Another loud cry made them both jump and Murdoch hurried on.

"I remember that wait too well, even though it was over twenty-seven years ago."

Johnny looked up and gave a weak smile.

"Boy, I thought I'd go crazy waiting for you to arrive. Took your own sweet time... some things never change."

They grinned at each other.

"But... that moment when I held you in my arms... you'll have to imagine it, Johnny because no words of mine could ever do it justice. I don't think I'd ever felt so... proud, happy and something more... like I'd been waiting all my life, without ever knowing it, for that very second. My own little black haired boy, snuffling and curling up his little fists, in my arms." Murdoch focused watery eyes on his grown boy. "No feeling in the world like it, son. You'll see."

"I wish..."

"Yes, John?"

"I wish you'd had that same moment with Scott too."

"So do I, son. More than anything, so do I. Maybe, I'll get to have it with his child."

Upstairs, in her painful struggle, Jemimah screamed out and Johnny's hand reached across the table to grasp his father's.

All that day and through the long night, Jemimah worked and Johnny waited. And, as morning neared again, Maria made another trip downstairs to fetch clean cloths and a pitcher of ice-water for the young mother. It was already so hot and the sun was not yet up.

"Mamacita?"

"She is doing well, Juanito. It is not an easy thing and she has worked a long time. She is tired, that is all."

But Murdoch saw her face as she headed back to the stairs. She looked very worried. He tried gamely to distract Johnny by asking for more coffee but knew his ruse had failed when the young man ran a hand distractedly through his untidy black hair and hung his head.

"Things ain't going well, are they?"

"Sam knows what he's doing, Johnny. She'll be fine... god willing."

"God?" Johnny's face, when he lifted it to his father, was stark and raw with his unspoken fear. "I can't rely on God, Murdoch. He's taken others that I loved. I'll just set my store in the doc, if that's alright."

It was almost nine when, after repeated trips downstairs for hot water, rags, needle and thread, Maria appeared halfway down the stairs and, this time, called softly to Johnny. He lifted his head from the table top where he had been slumped as though in a stupor and bounded up the stairs, two at a time.

Murdoch stood, watching Maria descend slowly. She moved like an old, old woman and her face...

"Jemimah?"

Maria's brown eyes swam with tears. "The doctor...  there was much blood but... he saved her."

Murdoch felt his heart start beating again. Ashen, he did not need to ask the question but he could not help himself.

"And the child?"

Maria covered her mouth to hold back the sobs and, for once, permitted the man for whom she had worked for so many years to put his arms around her in comfort.

 

When Johnny hesitantly pushed open the door, he found Jemimah, pale and haggard, her dark hair damp and strewn across the pillow. There were violet circles like bruises under her eyes but she was smiling; she was alive and... she held a tiny blanketed bundle in her arms.

Johnny approached very slowly as though he were nearing a tiny wild creature who might take flight should he scare it.

"It's a girl, Johnny." Jemimah beamed up at him, pale and worn from her hours of agony. "I was wrong; it's a girl."

"A girl?"

The two young parents, tenderly cradling their newborn child and lost in that first wonder at the little life they had created, could not be expected to take notice of Maria who sadly gathered the soiled bedding or of the elderly doctor who kept his face averted as he packed away his instruments.

Jemimah sighed and weakly lifted a hand to touch Johnny's face as he carefully settled on the bed beside her, kissing her fingertips and his gaze fixed on the tiny pair of dark blue eyes which stared seriously up at him. He held out his finger to the baby and grinned at his wife with pride when the little white fist clutched at it.

"Girls are better than boys anyway, honey," he whispered. "I'm so proud of you."

They lay together, admiring their little girl and allowing the miracle of it all to sink in now that the dreadful night was over and the shadows had been banished by a new day. Talk now moved on to happier things - what would they call her? With smiles and much giggling, like a pair of children themselves, they eventually arrived at...

"Rosa," Johnny smiled tenderly down at his daughter. "I like it but I hope it doesn't remind everyone of your tattoo!"

Jemimah was too weak to laugh but she smiled. "No, 'course not. Murdoch'll love it; it's so near to Rose, it'll make him think of mother every time he sees her."

"Murdoch!" Johnny exclaimed. "I oughtta get him up here. The proud Grandpa's been waiting all night too!"

Though loath to leave the tiny bundle, Johnny practically danced all the way down the stairs to fetch his father who hung back almost nervously before finally crossing the room to peek at the little lady. He laid his huge paw gently on Jemimah's head and had to swallow a few times before he could find his voice.

"Darling, she's beautiful. You... should sleep now. Talk more when you feel stronger."

Jemimah shook her head.

"There's plenty of time for sleep, Daddy. All I want is to look at Rosa. Isn't she the most perfect thing you ever saw?"

Murdoch seemed to pause and she looked up at him.

"She is that; the most adorable wee bairn in the world."

Satisfied with his suitably doting answer, Jemimah went back to gazing down fondly upon her child. She was far too happy to see anything might be amiss but Johnny, suddenly feeling cold in the stifling room, saw the bleak expression on Murdoch's face and seemed to realise for the first time that Maria and Sam were not there; not beaming with congratulations. A cold hand of fear clutched icily at his heart and he followed Murdoch down to the kitchen.

Sam Jenkins rose from his chair as Johnny came in.

"So, my boy..."

"Doc, tell me."

Sam clamped his lips together, knowing he was about to shatter their happy dreams. "Here, Johnny, sit down."

It was proof that Johnny was now weak with dread; he allowed himself to be guided to Sam's chair and found that he was sitting at the table, surrounded by worried faces. Why were they all so miserable when something so joyous had just happened? They should be laughing, they should be dancing...

Johnny's blue eyes were swimming with unshed tears as he listened to Sam. He felt a strong hand on his shoulder and knew for sure that Murdoch was close. He could hear muffled weeping and realised that Maria was there too. But he could not believe; would not believe...

 

When Johnny came back into the room, he stood with his back to his wife and daughter, staring out of the open window at the bright sunny morning and the world going about its business as though nothing had changed.

Jemimah was bewildered at first then, with a growing alarm that crept up her spine and into her soul, dared to speak.

"Johnny? Rosa... she is alright, isn't she?"

No answer.

"Just look at her! Her eyes are open an' she's holdin' my finger... it's a real firm grip for such a little 'un. She's fine, ain't she?"

Johnny did not turn to her for the longest time; not until she shouted at him with all the strength she could muster.

"What is it? Damn it, tell me what's wrong!"

And then he turned and she almost wished he had not. There were tears on his face as he crossed to take her hand and, her heart clenched painfully, he could not look at Rosa. This was not right; not right at all.

 

Downstairs, the others heard the desperate heartbroken cry.

Murdoch turned to stare blindly out of the window while Sam slumped into a chair and, sighing, removed his spectacles and pinched the bridge of his nose. Maria stumbled through to the parlour, apron held to her quivering lips.

"Sam?" Murdoch's voice was hoarse, gravelly. "There's no hope?"

"How I wish there were, my friend. No, no hope, just a little time."

"Rosa." Murdoch's hands were deep in his pockets and his shoulders slouched. He was very still. "I never saw a newborn like that. Her eyes were open and she looked so seriously at me. Like she was so much older than just a few hours. A few hours..."

His voice broke and Sam heard the door open and close.

The only sound in the unhappy house was that of the young mother's broken sobs.

 

By the time the sun had set, the wondrous new light that had briefly shone on Johnny and Jemimah had been extinguished.

Maria carefully took the pale wee babe and dressed her in the same frilled gown she had sewn in happier moments and had embroidered with such love. Then, she placed her in the waiting arms of the poor, crushed young mother who, blinded by her tears, could hardly make out her own sweet baby's face.

Johnny took his wife in his arms and the two of them sat together in silence with the little girl who lay as if she slept. So, Maria left them alone with their child and their grief.

****

The following morning, the first cloudy day the San Joaquin had known for over two months, tiny Rosa Lancer was laid in her casket which was lined with soft pink and white rose petals, gathered and reverently placed there by Teresa.

Maria and Zee tucked away all the sweet little embroidered garments, crocheted shawls and knitted bootees and bonnets in a wooden chest in the attic.

Before the sad trek to the small private graveyard, the family gathered in the great room, awaiting Johnny's arrival.

"Hard to believe, ain't it?" Jelly, wearing his one good suit of clothes; the same suit he had been tricked into buying by the young parents so long ago, morosely stared at the carpet and shook his whiskery head. "A day so long dreamed of... an' now..."

Murdoch released a deep shuddering sigh, his hand gently on Teresa's shoulder.

"I just thank god that Jemimah survived. We could have lost them both." He closed his eyes briefly, remembering the long hours in the night when she had cried out in pain.

"Poor Jemimah," Teresa breathed, a handkerchief to her streaming eyes. "And poor Johnny. They'll need each other more than ever now."

"Yes, darling. They have each other."

Zee rose suddenly from her seat by the fireside and strode almost angrily to the kitchen door where she turned.

"I don't pity Jemimah; I envy her!" she cried. "She got to be a mother and to feel that life kicking inside of her. She held her baby even if it was only for one day." She swiped at the tears which were dripping from her chin. "I'd give anything to know that kind of joy."

Suddenly, Scott's hands were on her shoulders, steering her firmly out of the room and away from the shocked faces which stared at her with open mouths. In the silent kitchen, she turned and threw herself into his arms, weeping bitterly.

"Scott, did I... did I do this?"

His hand was on her hair, smoothing down its shiny length as he whispered to her. "No, honey. No."

"I was so jealous. I wished it was me an' you..."

"But you never wished them harm. You never wished for this!" He was holding her face in his hands now, willing her to believe him.

"Didn't I? Ever since Sam came and told us... about little Rosa, I've wondered - did I ask for this? Was I so bitter and twisted up with jealousy that I could've asked for this?"

Scott was shaking his head. "No. Ask yourself now - if you could do something to change it, would you?"

She blinked, seeming to come to her senses. Shaking her head, she gasped, "Anythin'. I'd do anythin', even if it meant we never had a baby of our own; I'd do anythin' if they could have her back!"

Scott clasped her to him hard, closing his eyes and feeling his own tears fall.

"So would I. Hush now, hush. Johnny will be here soon and he's going to need our strength, not our tears."

****

Johnny came alone that day, Jemimah being far too weak to make even the half-hour trip to Lancer. Scott and Murdoch met him on the front steps and both agreed later that he seemed a different man. Murdoch thought he had never seen him look so lost, so alone. He stayed only for the funeral, a heart wrenching ceremony.

It is never easy to stand and watch the coffin of a loved one being prayed over but the sight of the tragic wee casket made it doubly hard for all.

Johnny had placed a single pink rose on the top and he remained silent all through the priest's seemingly interminable intonations. The rain dripped steadily from his drenched black hair as he stood with head bowed, hat in his fingers which, unusually for Johnny, were still.

Scott watched him closely. It was hard to tell in the rain but he was fairly certain that no tears fell and, as soon as the priest uttered the final amen, Johnny put his hat back on and walked silently from the grave, pausing only to kiss his fingertips and trail them lightly over the polished wood of the tiny casket - a heartbreaking gesture which brought forth fresh tears from Jelly and all of the ladies.

Murdoch had called after his son but he did not look back or slow his steps. When he was mounted on Barranca's back, they heard him speak quietly.

"Goin' back. Jemimah needs me."

Then, he nudged his golden horse down the hillside and the crowd, made up of friends, neighbours, Lancer workers and their families, parted respectfully to allow him through.

****

By the middle of September, Sam Jenkins said that Jemimah could go downstairs and, if she felt up to it, sit out on the front porch.

He was gravely worried about the girl; she was not doing as well as he would like. Though her body was healing and there was no physical reason for her not to recover, she had lost all heart; the old Jemimah had gone and she showed no desire to find her again. In this mood, she would struggle to get well. As it was, she was slipping from them a little at a time.

The family visited, regaling her with funny stories, bringing sweet baked treats and trying to coax even a spark of the vivacious laughing girl from this empty shell she had become. But it seemed hopeless. Maria tried scolding, Murdoch attempted to make her feel guilty - Johnny was worried, desperately so, and she should think of him. He needed her too.

Jemimah had turned reproachful green eyes on her father.

"Yes, I know he's worried," she said softly. "But he won't have to worry too much longer."

"Why, what do you mean?"

Her answer had been to gaze over the treetops in the direction, Murdoch knew, of the little hillside cemetery. She had never visited Rosa's grave but she spent every waking thought and most of her dreams wandering there with her lost baby.

 

A few days later, Pony sat out on the porch with her friend, attentively tucking the blanket around her or smoothing the cushion at her back. She had been dismayed to see that Johnny had to carry her to the rocking chair; Jemimah was so thin and frail that she could walk only a few faltering steps.

Pony watched her from the corner of her eye and decided against revealing her news. She knew in her heart that, rather than lifting her spirits, it would be a cruel blow that could only wound her more deeply.

Instead, she endeavoured to provoke a single smile - that would be her task and she was determined to succeed, plying her with carefree banter until Jemimah sighed and held up her pale trembling hand.

"Please, Pony. Don't."

Pony had blinked and fallen into an embarrassed silence. At last, Jemimah spoke and it was as though she were talking to herself.

"I'm glad for this weather."

Pony frowned. Ever since the funeral, it had been dull; even if it were not raining, it was overcast. Folks bemoaned the early onset of a misty Fall and the loss of the beautiful dry summer but, it seemed, it was one of the few things which soothed her friend.

"I don't think I could've taken it if the sun had still shone an' the sky had been blue. Not when my little Rosa..." Jemimah swallowed hard. "But then, I can't stand to think of her all alone on that hillside, all cold an' without me to hold her..."

Pony's heart ached at the utter despair in her voice. "She ain't there, Jem. She's with the angels now. She's... with your daddy an' mama an' maybe she's laughin' an' smilin' down on you..."

Green gaze trained on the distant trees, Jemimah replied, "No, I don't think so."

A lone tear spilled from her eye though she did not seem to notice it.

"Jem, oh please don't cry!"

"Was I cryin'? I didn't know I was. Can't seem to stop myself. Everythin' hurts. It'll always hurt. For the rest of my life, it'll hurt." Her voice was weary, dull.

Pony cast about for something to ease her pain and drew on the old platitudes.

"Time heals all wounds."

"It ain't fair!" Jemimah feebly banged her clenched fist on the arm of her chair, making Pony start in surprise. "Folks have babies every day - babies they don't even want an' they don't love 'em! They neglect them or beat them an' starve them." She turned angry, incredulous eyes on Pony who was astounded at her sudden fierce speech. "I wanted my baby. I'd have loved her, cared for her. It ain't fair!"

Pony rose to pat the blanket back in place. "Oh Jem, don't take on so. You'll make yourself sick again."

It was as if a flame had been lit and Jemimah could not extinguish it. Her voice was aggressive as she smacked Pony's hands away. "I don't care!"

"But... you gotta get well. For Johnny's sake too. He's so scared that you're..."

"Goin' to die? He'd be better off; better off if I'd never come here in the first place."

Pony wrung her hands in misery. "Don't say that!"

Suddenly, the fight went out of Jemimah and she sagged limply back against the cushion. Her breathing ragged as though she had run a great distance, she lifted her eyes to the treetops once more.

"Pony... go away, will you? You don't understand... my heart's already buried over there on that hill... an' I don't think it'll be too long before my body joins it. It's what I want, don't you see? Go on, go away."

Blue eyes swimming, Pony turned with a sob and left her.

 

"No, anger like this could be a good thing," Sam Jenkins said.

"You didn't hear her; she said she wanted to die!"

Pony saw Johnny flinch and could have cut out her own tongue. She laid her hand on his sleeve and turned to the doctor again.

"How can it be a good thing, doc?"

"The grieving process is hard to fathom and has different stages. Jemimah, though still entrenched in her despair and the loss of the baby..."

"Rosa."

Sam paused and inwardly berated himself. Johnny's quiet reminder made him choose his next words more carefully.

"The loss of little Rosa is still more than she can bear, Johnny. And we need to be watchful. If she is to regain her strength, she will need our constant support."

"What else can I do, doc?" His voice, though soft, was strained and desperate. "Tell me. What more?"

"My boy, none of us expects you to do this alone. And we all know very well that this is doubly hard for you." He too patted Johnny's shoulder and watched the young man lift his head. "Be encouraged though; that she can show anger - that's another step closer to seeing the old Jemimah."

His blue eyes were moist, an almost boyish look of hope on his drawn face. "Is it really?"

"I'm certain of it."

Murdoch rose from the fire he had been tending and bade Johnny sit down on the sofa to get warm.

"Here, son, have some hot coffee before you head home. Maria's already set off so she'll be there to serve up dinner for you."

Johnny simply nodded and, head down as usual, he lowered himself onto the sofa and reached for the mug.

Murdoch watched his son staring into the flames, lost and scared, and his heart ached.

 

"You can have another dream, later on down the line, young 'un."

Jelly wrinkled his nose to watch Jemimah picking the petals off the daisies he had brought for her. One by one, she shredded the flowers, seemingly unaware of what her fingers were doing, eyes trained on the hills.

"Dream? What would be the point of that?" she snapped.

Jelly wasn't sure how he had got himself embroiled in this conversation. He had only sat down with her for a few minutes until Maria got back. Pony had left a mite too quick for his liking and he was beginning to understand her hasty retreat. The child was biting his head off every word he spoke.

"Aw, c'mon now," he cajoled. "I reckon I have an inkling of how you're feelin'..."

Jemimah's fierce green eyes raked over him and Jelly moved back, alarmed.

"If'n you could jest lift your heart up to dare that dream again," he hurried on. "Happiness would smile down on you like beams of sunshine. I'm sure of it."

"No!" She tossed the ruined flowers to the floor and brushed the scattered petals off her knee.

"Why, sweet girl, you'll see your little Rosa again one day..."

"But I have to go to her now! Don't you see?"

Jelly didn't like the way the girl was becoming so agitated; she might do herself a harm in this state.

"If I don't go soon, she won't be my little Rosa, will she? She'll be a stranger to me and I to her. Why doesn't anyone understand that?"

Jelly winced. "Well now, I don't believe the Almighty would make such a poor job o' things as all that," he tried to soothe. "You'll know each other, you surely will."

Jemimah turned away suddenly with an anguished sob, burying her face in the heavy shawl around her shoulders, and Jelly wandered sadly back into the house to pour himself a comforting mug of coffee and await Maria's return.

****

September became October; summer moved into fall. Jemimah, as removed from all around her as though she had already said her goodbyes and left them all behind, remained thin, sickly, silent for the most part and remote.

Johnny loved her all the more but it was as if she were a stranger. He tried to think of a way to snap her out of this black depression; to turn her gaze away from that line of distant trees and that hillside, but she resisted his every attempt. Afraid he was losing her, he threw himself into his work while Jemimah withdrew into silence.

Sam made no bones about it - if they could not bring her back from this dark abyss, they would indeed lose her. Her body was able to recover, of that he had no doubt, but her mind was another matter entirely.

In a final desperate bid and with Johnny's consent, Murdoch moved both of them back to Lancer, setting men to work on preparing rooms in the east wing of the hacienda. No expense was spared ; anything that could be done which might coax a smile from the girl. The whole family, distraught at the dramatic change in her, danced attendance... but, sadly, there was no change.

It was with heavy hearts that those who loved her, now watched her decline steadily. There seemed no hope.

****

Johnny and Scott sat on the small terrace outside the sitting room of Scott's apartment. It was a pleasant tranquil part of the hacienda with an unparalleled view of the sunset. This evening, the strands of soft aqua blue blended with golds and pinks across the never-ending sky, an epic panorama that humbled Scott and made him feel as small and insignificant as a single leaf on a mighty oak tree.

He glanced over at his brother who sat silently on the low stone wall, his back to the smooth plaster and his right boot tucked casually beneath him. He wasn't watching the magnificence of the setting sun; he was concentrating on a loose thread on the embroidery around one of the conchos on his pants, worrying at it, head down.

Scott sighed and sipped at his as yet untouched brandy. Johnny with his head down - it had become the norm. His jaunty spirit had left him the day baby Rosa was buried. Perhaps forever.

Scott shook himself and, realising Johnny's tequila glass was empty, he offered another, easing back into his wicker chair when his brother declined. Scott was at least thankful that Johnny had not turned to the bottle for comfort as a lesser man may.

"How are you liking living back at the old homestead?" he smiled.

In the gathering dusk, Scott had to peer to be able to make out Johnny's brief tight smile. He never raised his head and continued to pick at the loose thread.

"Oh, it's fine."

"Maria's cooking, eh? Knew it'd lure you back one day!"

Scott blushed then at his own glib words. They both knew perfectly well why Johnny was back and it had nothing to do with food.

"And the apartment?" he ploughed doggedly on.

"Oh, it's fine. Real nice."

"I'll tell the ladies. Teresa and Zee worked hard on the rooms, so hard I began to worry she was thinking of moving in there with you!"

Johnny nodded with a forced smile but Scott could tell he wasn't truly paying attention. His busy fingers tugged at the loose thread, eyes far away. Scott sighed and sipped at his brandy. He swirled the fiery flavour around his mouth and studied the sunset, no longer absorbed by its loveliness. He was about to make some benign remark (he hadn't yet decided what) when Johnny spoke.

"When she came back from Boston... when I realised how I'd missed her an' how it had all changed; what I really wanted... I swore I'd never let her go so far away from me again."

Scott watched but Johnny didn't raise his head; he just continued to play with the thread.

"An' now, she's further away from me than she's ever been. But it ain't distance in miles that separates us. That'd be easier to deal with. Y'know, I lie next to her every night. I hold her in my arms... but she ain't there. Not really. She's... she's on that hill."

"Johnny..." Scott reached a hand out to gently touch his shoulder.

"It was... a hard thing to lose Rosa." He swallowed. "She was my little girl too, Scott. Don't know if anyone remembers that..."

"Johnny, of course we..."

"I know it took me a long time to see it; to see Jemimah as a woman grown and to understand how I really felt about her. I can't explain it. Don't even understand it myself. All I know clearly; more clear than anything in my life... is that I love her. I need her... like air to breathe. Without her... I couldn't take it. I wouldn't want to... go on. She's my everything, Scott, d'you see? And if I lose her too... I don't think I could bear that. Not her."

Scott watched as something silvery fell into Johnny's lap and he realised with a start that it had been a tear. Yes, there was another sneaking down his cheek and, what's more, he was doing nothing to hide it or brush it away. Johnny was weeping, openly, unashamedly and from the heart.

"I want her back. God please... bring her back to me," he was whispering, rocking himself gently. "Please."

Scott felt a tightening in his own throat and the tears pricked at his eyes. He stood to lose his adopted sister, a girl more dear to him than he could say; dear to all the family. But he knew that his own fears and sorrow were as nothing compared to his brother's pain. Johnny sensed his whole existence teetering on a rocky precipice - it was crumbling away and he felt utterly powerless to prevent it.

Scott put an arm around his brother's trembling shoulders and, blond head touching dark, remained close as Johnny wept.

****

October drew to a close on a cold blustery night with all the promise of a bad winter to come.

The family had observed the traditions dictated by that particular month - leaving suitable things out on the porch for the children of their workers to 'steal' on Mischief Night and making sticky sweet treats or candy-coated apples on tall sticks to hand out to the excited hoards on Hallowe'en.

For the first time, Jemimah was oblivious to all this mischief and highjinkery. Mildly feverish with yet another cold which had easily attacked her weakened system, she lay quietly in bed, ignoring the laughter and jollity from outside. And, patient and attentive as ever, Johnny stayed with her.

With November, came plans for Thanksgiving. Baking, the preparation of jams, jellies and chutneys, spicy mustards, pickling fruits in succulent syrups laced with rich spices, wines and brandy. The ladies of Lancer pitched in with gusto... all save one.

Jemimah, too frail to join in, was carefully tucked up on the sofa during the day, a book (usually untouched) by her side and Murdoch at his big desk by the window casting his watchful eye over her.

Maria would step through to the great room every so often to keep the child informed; tell her what might be next on the menu or even to tempt her with some tasty treat. All to no avail. Jemimah stared listlessly ahead as though determined to take no further part in the life she had once loved.

And, at the end of each working day as he tramped from the barn, bone-weary and head bowed, Johnny would steel himself for the sight of the little stranger she had become.

Scott watched him one such evening as he settled Barranca in his stall, murmuring to his faithful friend and patting his strong brown hands down the warm hide. These quiet times at the end of the day were precious to him, Scott knew, and he drew comfort from being close to that powerful golden creature. Johnny's blue eyes were now dull, his face a mask of pain as he headed to the house. But Scott knew he would manage it again; he had watched him do it so many times before. He would find the strength from somewhere.

Sure enough, as Johnny approached the French windows and leaned there to knock the mud from his boots on the iron scraper, he squared his shoulders, the expression on his face transforming from one of defeat to a cheery smile. And if the smile didn't quite reach those sad eyes, Scott could not blame him.

He watched his brother cross the room immediately to Jemimah, crouch down by her side to take her hand and kiss her and proceed to regale her with silly, funny stories of the things that had happened on the ranch that day - the animals, the people, anything to amuse her.

Scott, a painful lump in his throat, lingered outside in the dusk. He had never admired or respected Johnny more than at that moment.

****

It was with Thanksgiving preparations in mind that Teresa brought her new friend, Elizabeth Dooley into their midst and the entire household took to her immediately.

Such a cheery, unassuming sort of girl; no silly affectations or airs and graces - she pitched in enthusiastically, unconcerned over which task she was allotted; merely pleased to be asked. Elizabeth seemingly had no qualms about washing dishes or taking the peelings out to the pigs. She even had a few recipes which Maria approved (a great honour) and her tiny twists of sugared lemon peel which she added to the afternoon cups of tea had all the Lancer ladies a-twitter.

Elizabeth won Murdoch over quite early. Delivering his morning coffee one day as he worked at his big desk in the great room, she beamed at him and paused on her way back to the kitchen to retrieve Jemimah's shawl which had slipped to the rug. He watched as she gently tucked it around the invalid's bony shoulders, saying nothing but with a tender smile in her brown eyes. Murdoch swallowed, touched by the kind gesture.

She was attractive too, he decided; of that, there could be no doubt. All those strawberry blonde curls and such a charming sprinkling of freckles on that pert little nose. Not a bad shape either. Yes, Elizabeth was a breath of fresh air... and couldn't they use some of that around the place, right enough!

Little by little, it was becoming impossible to imagine Lancer without Miss Dooley's brand of sunshine to warm them. Life, which had seemed too bleak for too long, was so much brighter in her wholesome presence. She was a breath of fresh air, it was universally decided, and Murdoch agreed with alacrity when Teresa asked if she might be allowed to invite her friend to stay for a time.

"Until Christmas?" she suggested hopefully.

"Why not New Year?" Murdoch beamed. "We don't want her to miss out on some of the best parties!"

****

One evening in early November, the family was seated around the fire, safe and snug away from the winter chill. It had been a busy day for all and now, after a good dinner, it was pleasant to sit in the cosy warmth and enjoy the friendly chat and relaxing evening pastimes. Even Johnny seemed more relaxed and, though he kept casting an anxious eye over his wife (who was tucked under a blanket in her armchair and dozing peacefully), he had given in to Scott's relentless requests for a game of chess.

Scott, it seemed, was in fine form and was winning, thwarting Johnny's every move.

"Now little brother, keep your mind on the game. Jemimah's fine. She's asleep so stop using her as an excuse," he smiled.

Nearby, Elizabeth was meant to be holding a skein of yarn for Teresa to wind into balls but she would keep craning her neck to watch the game. Eventually, Teresa laughed and told her to leave the wool; she would ask Zee to help her. Elizabeth should go and watch the game if she was so intrigued.

"Oh Teresa, are you sure? It does look fascinating."

Elizabeth moved closer to sit on the sofa near Johnny who, cross-legged on the hearth rug, was poring over his next move. He smiled up at her.

"You play, Miss Dooley?"

"Oh, do call me Elizabeth," she smiled. "No, I'm afraid not. It always seemed too complicated to me. I'm sure I'd be worse than useless."

"You couldn't be any worse than Johnny right now," Scott teased.

"Ha ha, very funny. You wait, I've got something up my sleeve!"

Johnny lifted the white bishop and made to move it but Elizabeth darted out a hand to touch his forearm gently. He looked up at her in surprise and, blushing, she withdrew her hand.

"Forgive me... but don't move it there. Won't that give Scott the upper hand again?"

Johnny studied the board more closely and realised she was right.

"I thought you didn't play?"

Elizabeth shrugged. "I don't but... well... I've been watching you all evening..."

Scott raised an eyebrow, impressed. "You're quick."

"Yeah," his brother agreed with a smile. "Y'know, with a couple of pointers, you could be playin' instead of me."

"Oh, would you teach me, Johnny?"

Scott smirked. "I think it would be more beneficial if you were to give those pointers to Johnny!"

Johnny joined in their laughter and Murdoch, seemingly engrossed in his book, watched. He smiled to hear his younger son laughing again and slipping back into the friendly banter and teasing. Elizabeth had worked her charm once more - this was the most animated Johnny had been in weeks.

At last, thoroughly trounced, Johnny bowed to the inevitable and proclaimed Scott the victor. The tall blond stretched, easing the crick in his neck, and claimed the right to another brandy before he retired for the night. Zee was now assisting Teresa with her yarn so perhaps Johnny should have a game with Elizabeth?

Johnny glanced over at Jemimah, hesitating. "I oughtta put Jemimah to bed. She's tuckered out."

"Oh yes, of course." Elizabeth's face fell but she tried not to show it.

Johnny rose and easily lifted his slumbering wife into his arms. A little ache in his heart as always at how light and frail she had become, he carried her towards the hall.

"But perhaps..." Elizabeth said hopefully. "When she is settled in bed, you might come back for a while?"

"Well, I don't know..."

She blushed at her boldness. "Forgive me. Naturally, you'll want to stay with her. It was presumptuous of me."

Johnny considered it, feeling awkward at the embarrassment on the young woman's face. "No, she'll be fine. She's sleeping sound. I could come back for one game."

"You would? Oh, that'd be marvellous!"

Elizabeth beamed and immediately asked for Scott's help to set the pieces up again, exclaiming over her excitement at being taught to play at last.

The one game turned into two, Elizabeth almost beating Johnny the second time and certainly giving him a run for his money. When he finally announced 'check', the rest of the family burst into spontaneous laughter and applause.

"Thought you almost had me there!" he admitted with a grin, rising to his feet and tucking in his shirt.

Elizabeth laughed. "Beginner's luck, I think."

"Nah." He was looking at her, appraising her and smiling. "You're smart!"

Elizabeth blushed under his scrutiny, winding a stray curl around her finger and shrugging self-consciously.

Murdoch set his book aside. "Well, it being nigh on ten o' clock, I believe I should call 'time' on all this jollity. We still have a ranch to run in the morning, boys."

Johnny smiled down at Elizabeth, his blue eyes warm. "Maybe you can get your own back tomorrow night?"

She was a little breathless when she replied. "I'll look forward to it."

Johnny turned to pack the chess pieces away in their box but she stepped in.

"Oh no, please let me. I've kept you long enough."

Johnny allowed her to ease him aside and, with a smile, said goodnight.

Everyone began to meander off to bed. Teresa lingered but Elizabeth waved her away, saying that she would turn out the lamps when she had put all the chessmen away. When at last the room was deserted, Elizabeth looked around and smiled, hugging herself.

Moving to the chess board, she picked up the black queen and replaced it on a different square.

"Checkmate."

Extending a finger, she delicately tipped over the white piece with which Johnny had won the game. Then, laughing softly to herself, she turned out the lamps and went to bed.

In the shadows by the stairs, Zee frowned and watched the girl disappear into her room.

****

 

"I'm tellin' you, Scott - that girl knows how to play chess! There ain't no way anyone can get that good after just two games."

Zee brushed her hair in long sweeping strokes, a stubborn scowl on her face. She stood to twist it up into a loose coil and flashed an exasperated glance at her husband.

"Well, she said she'd been watching all night." Scott sighed at Zee's snort of disdain. He slipped his arms into his dark blue shirt and began to fasten the buttons. "And she's probably watched other games. She said it was something she's wanted to learn for a long time. Why is that so hard to believe?"

"Because there's somethin' about her that don't ring true!"

"Oh Zee..." Scott was tucking in his shirt and buttoning up his pants.

"Checkmate! She moved that last piece an' said checkmate!" Zee pointed the brush at her husband accusingly. "How'd she know how to do that, huh?"

"Who knows? Maybe she was just playing around and pretending to win; maybe she simply moved any piece on the board and decided to say 'checkmate'. Is it important?"

"Why, Scott Lancer, you just can't see it, can you?"

"See what?"

"That girl is a conniver. She's deceitful!"

"Now, Zee..."

"She has designs!"

"Designs?"

"Yep!"

"On what, may I ask?"

Zee put her hands on her hips and flashed him a look of pity. Why were men so dense?

"On your brother! On Johnny!"

"What? Darling, that is preposterous!"

"It sure is!"

"No, I mean that to jump to that conclusion from simply seeing Elizabeth shine at a game of chess..." Scott could not help laughing, something which irked Zee sufficiently that she tossed the pillow she had been straightening at his head.

He very nearly dodged it but it swiped his ear as he ducked. Narrowing his eyes, Scott straightened then frowned at her childish display, smoothing his blond hair back to its usual neatness.

"If you don't like Elizabeth, that's one thing," he began. "But until she does something to cause concern, you just..."

Zee turned back to making the bed with a toss of her head. "She's concernin' me!"

Scott placed his hands on his hips, eyes fixed on his wife's back which was haughtily turned to him as she bent to smooth the quilt.

"Zee, don't you go saying anything about this to her," he warned.

"Wasn't goin' to. Forewarned is fore-armed they say! You think I'm goin' to let her know I'm onto her tricks?"

"Or to anyone else! I don't need you upsetting the household with any of your imaginings."

She snorted and ignored him.

 Scott clamped his lips together firmly. "I mean it!" He planted his hand hard on her behind as she stooped nearby to plump the pillows on his side of the bed.

Zee straightened with a yelp and glared up at him, clutching her skirts where he had smacked them.

"What the hell was that for?"

Scott raised his eyebrows in surprise at her anger. "What? It was only a simple swat..."

"A simple swat? Don't you ever do that again, Scott Lancer!"

"Now, you listen here, my girl..."

"I ain't no child! Ain't nobody's whupped me since I was ten years old an' you just get any notion..."

"Whupped you?" Scott's eyes nearly popped out of his head. "I'd hardly call a gentle little pat..."

Zee rubbed at her rear end, the outrage plain on her face. "Weren't nuthin' gentle about it an' you know it! That was you tryin' to put me in my place!"

"You'll see exactly where I'll put you in a minute if you don't douse that temper of yours and stop pointing your finger at me!" Scott failed to realise that he was doing plenty of pointing of his own!

Zee slammed his pillow down in a huff and started to march from the room. Scott sighed, hands on hips and a glint in his eye.

"Zee! Zee, I mean it - don't go saying anything about this to anyone, especially Jemimah!"

She turned with scorn before opening the door.

"As if I would! The poor lamb!"

Scott lowered his hand which had been in the process of shaking a warning finger at her. He felt slightly more mollified and even a little guilty for jumping to conclusions when he ought to have given her more credit. "Well... alright then. This family has enough to worry about; we don't need any more trouble brewing."

Zee firmed her lips and left the room. Once out in the corridor, she paused.

"Only trouble round here is gonna be what Miss Dooley catches! You can be sure of that!"

She headed to the kitchen where Maria was already busy preparing breakfast.

"Maria, why can't men see what's right in front of their noses?"

Maria's expression indicated how strongly she agreed with this statement. "Obtuso!" (Obtuse!)

Zee nodded and reached for her apron, vowing to herself that she would keep a sharp eye on sweet Miss Elizabeth Dooley.

****

Aggie Conway had been away on an extended visit to her sister's in Connecticut. Murdoch had missed her terribly, especially during the weeks since little Rosa's funeral. With her return home, he felt he truly had something to give thanks for and, though it was still early November, he announced that there would be a Thanksgiving party in her honour - nothing too flamboyant (or costly, his sons knew) but sufficient to show how glad they all were to have her back.

A delicious buffet supper with music and dancing was thus arranged with invitations going out to all of Murdoch and Aggie's mutual friends. The weather behaved itself and, though certainly not warm, the evening was dry with only a slight breeze to set the many Chinese lanterns a-swaying in the branches.

Johnny managed to persuade Jemimah to forego her usual white nightgown and helped her into a dress for the occasion. Though, looking across the great room at her, sitting dejectedly in the armchair by the fireside, he began to wish he hadn't.

The voluminous nightgowns had disguised her thin frame but the pink dress (the same she had worn not even a year before for Pony's wedding) hung off her. The bodice looked almost empty like a little girl playing dress up in her mama's clothes. Remembering, months ago, how he had anticipated unbuttoning this very dress to make love to her, Johnny could hardly credit that she was the same girl.

In comparison, Elizabeth, who was crossing the room towards him, was dimpled, pretty and full of life. She was holding out both hands to him in invitation.

"I don't seem to have a partner. Would you dance with me, Johnny?"

"I... er... I don't know." He looked back over his shoulder at Jemimah who was scowling. "I should stay with Jemimah."

Elizabeth leaned close to the frail girl, taking a firm hold of Johnny's hand.

"Oh sweetie, you won't mind if I borrow him for a while, will you? See Johnny, she's fine! She's well wrapped up and I know she doesn't expect you to stand here all night while the music's playing. Come on, Johnny - just one dance to celebrate?"

Johnny didn't really want to dance and couldn't for the life of him think what the hell there was to celebrate but he kinda liked the fiery flare in Jemimah's eyes as she watched Elizabeth Dooley holding his hand. Yes... she was firming those lips into a line like she was about to let rip with one of her good old temper tantrums. Now, wouldn't that be something to see? Maybe one dance would be just the thing.

He smiled at Elizabeth and put down his glass. "Anything to keep you happy."

Elizabeth beamed like all her birthdays had come at once and merrily led Johnny away. Deserted, Jemimah angrily pushed the blanket off her knee and half rose from her chair only to slump back when her weakened legs would not carry her. She kicked out petulantly at the blanket and watched her husband dancing with Elizabeth.

They made a handsome couple, she thought bitterly. But, now she came to study them, Johnny didn't really seem all that attached to her. That was a polite smile on his face; but there was no spark in those beautiful blue eyes. She looked hard... no, no spark... thank goodness! But her! There was no doubting what she was after - the trollop! Elizabeth Dooley was surely on the hunt for a good-looking, rich man and had set her cap at Johnny Lancer!

Jemimah gripped the arms of her chair so hard that her knuckles showed white through her pale dry skin. She couldn't have him! If smarmy Miss Elizabeth Dooley wanted a man, she could just go and find one of her own!

Zee had wandered over and now passed a glass of red wine to Jemimah.

"Tell me I ain't imagining it, Zee."

"You ain't. About time you woke up, girl!"

Jemimah glanced up at her and seethed that she had been so blind for so long.

Zee sipped at her own glass, watching the dancing couple. "So, what you gonna do about it?"

"I'll bloody kill her!"

Zee grinned. "Appealin' thought but a mite drastic, don't you think?"

"I've got to stop her."

"That'll be a neat trick from an armchair."

Jemimah looked up at her, hurt welling in those green eyes. Surely, Zee was on her side? Wasn't she?

"Take a look at y'self, honey. An' then take a look at her." Zee had no wish to be cruel but it was high time Jemimah woke up and took her life back. If she wanted it. "How's a scrawny little bit of a thing goin' to compete with the likes of Elizabeth Dooley?"

Jemimah narrowed her eyes into slits and again turned to watch Johnny twirling the woman around the floor. Elizabeth was pretty and vivacious, using all her charms and flirting...

"Gonna need all your strength, girl," Zee coaxed. "If'n you think he's worth fightin for, that is."

Jemimah pointed to the long table covered in its white cloth and ribbons.

"Get me a chicken leg, will you? An' some bread... an potato salad.. Are there any jam tarts too? An' get rid of this wine. I need a big glass of milk!"

Zee moved away to follow her orders, a wide grin on her face. "Take it easy, take it easy!" she murmured. "A little at a time... we'll make it!"

****

Maria was more puzzled than annoyed. She had been ready to tear a strip off Juanito but he swore to her that he had not eaten the sugar buns she had prepared for breakfast. She knew it could not be the Patron; he hadn't much of a sweet tooth. Scott was not due back from his trip for another two or three days. Who on earth had taken them?

And this was only one in a long line of thefts. All manner of foodstuffs had been disappearing for nearly three weeks. The moment she had baked fresh bread, it was half-eaten. If she put away a batch of a dozen churros, you could guarantee four would be missing by lunchtime and the butter and milk were sadly depleted. Everything! It was as though they had a hungry burglar in their midst!

Neither Teresa nor Zee could explain it either and the latter had offered to keep an eye on the kitchen in the evenings when Maria had gone home.

****

On the day before Thanksgiving, Jemimah was awake at the crack of dawn. She slipped as silently as she could from their bed and hastily slung a shawl around her shoulders to stay warm.

Johnny murmured in his sleep and she looked back at him from the door. His black hair was covering one eye but she could see the long dark lashes fanned out on his other cheek. She smiled as he nuzzled the pillow and sighed, obviously sensing that the girl who slept beside him was suddenly missing. How beautiful he was... and he was hers!

She was under no illusion; she knew that she had come perilously close to tossing away all she had - her home, her family, her very life... and this man, this dear man. Well, with Zee's help, she would make sure that didn't happen.

Jemimah shivered in the early morning chill. She was putting on weight now but still had a way to go and easily became cold or tired. She must hurry if she were to prepare Johnny's tray before he woke up.

The kitchen tiles were icy on her bare feet and Jemimah wished she had taken the time to put her slippers on. No matter; the coffee was almost ready.

She eased a plate from the rack above her head without making any sound. The rolls were warming in the oven. It was all she could manage - coffee, rolls with fresh butter and raspberry preserves - but wouldn't he be surprised when she carried it in? Jemimah frowned, biting her lip. She only hoped she could cope with the tray. She knew that she was still very weak; already, she could feel her knees trembling from the exertion.

A sound from the door to the great room made her swing around suddenly. There, watching her with utter disbelief, her hands frozen on the ties of her apron, stood Elizabeth.

"Jemimah?"

Elizabeth eyed the younger girl with suspicion then, a displeased look on her face, she moved towards her.

Another noise from the great room made them both turn. The door swung open once more and Johnny came in, followed closely by Maria.

"Honey? What are you doing up? Are you walking?"

"Dios tenga misericordia! Es un milagro!" (Lord have mercy! It's a miracle!) Maria crossed herself and kissed the crucifix she wore constantly around her neck.

Johnny was by his wife's side in an instant. It was clear that he had dressed in a hurry; his red shirt was untucked and the buttons were fastened awry, his hair standing up in tufts and the dark shadow of his beard still on his jaw. He put his arms around Jemimah, a disbelieving smile spreading across his face.

"What are you doing, honey? You'll freeze down here in just your nightgown!" He kissed her long loose hair, his arms about her protectively. "Girl, your feet... are you tryin' to catch pneumonia?"

At last he caught sight of the tray.

"What's this?"

"Oh Johnny, you've spoiled our surprise! You weren't supposed to get up before we could bring the tray," Elizabeth stamped her foot and grinned, pretending to be cross with him.

"Surprise? This was for me?"

Jemimah glared at Elizabeth. No way was she going to take all the credit! It wasn't her idea; she had bugger all to do with it!

"It was my idea!" Jemimah snapped and heard how petulant she sounded.

Elizabeth held up her hands in surrender and gave her an indulgent smile as she would a truculent toddler. "Yes, yes sweetie, we know. It was all your idea and you've been a really big help." She contrived to wink at Johnny as if asking him to play along with the child's charade. "Though, I must say I think you've helped me quite enough. You'll be exhausted all day now." She clasped her hands together in grave concern and appealed to Johnny. "She's looking so pale, Johnny. I shouldn't have allowed her to set the tray really but, when I suggested this little plan, she wanted to join in to surprise you. Of course, I would have carried it through to you; there's no way she could manage it. I was just so elated that my suggestion seemed to fire her up like this!"

Johnny couldn't have cared less about spoiling any surprise; he simply could not have been more delighted. Jemimah wanted to do something; she had actually got out of bed to do something... and, what was more, it was for him! She still loved him. She wanted him. Johnny was so happy, he could have woken the whole house just so that they could see her standing there. Standing! It was a miracle, Maria was right!

"Johnny, are you listening to me?" Elizabeth asked.

Johnny looked at Elizabeth. She was smiling. There was nothing unusual in that, he supposed; the girl was always smiling and, at least, there was something worth smiling about now!

"What?" he asked, dazed.

"I said I think you should take Jemimah back to bed now and let her get some rest. The poor child looks like she's had enough excitement for one day. You settle her down and, by the time you come back, I'll have your real breakfast waiting for you."

He studied his wife. She did look pale... and angry! He could have kicked himself. If he had only known about her plan, he would never have disturbed her and ruined it. But Elizabeth was right - he could see that Jemimah was actually trembling.

He lifted her into his arms, planting a kiss on her pouting mouth.

Jemimah tried to kick at him in fury. "What the hell...? Put me down. I'm not a little girl to be sent to bed!"

"You sure are acting like one." Johnny grinned. This was getting better and better. She was in a rare old temper. Oh, it was wonderful!

Jemimah wriggled feebly. "Damn it! Bloody well let me down!"

 "Hey, you carry on like this and I might have to find some soap for that mouth!"

He grinned at Maria who was beaming and hugging herself, also pleased beyond measure to see some of the old sass and spirit in her darling girl. Jemimah wriggled in his hold again but, truly tired now, it was a feeble effort compared to the some of the struggles she had put up as a feisty kid and Johnny knew it. He covered his dismay with what he thought was a joke.

"Easy now! Will I need to put you over my knee before I put you to bed?"

He was only fooling; he couldn't have been more pleased that, at last, she was showing a bit of temper and fight like the old Jemimah. But his little wife fumed, beet red with embarrassment, as she caught sight of Elizabeth's smug face.

"Oh Johnny, don't be so mean!" the older girl admonished. "Why, I won't let you even think of spanking the dear child. She's just over-tired. She doesn't mean to be so bad tempered, do you sweetie?"

Johnny smiled warmly down at Jemimah and planted another kiss on the end of her nose. "We'ell, I guess I'll save it 'til she really needs it."

 

Jemimah had furiously grumped and cussed all the way back to their apartment, working herself into a proper stew, and, when Johnny bent to lay her gently in the bed, she contrived to twist so that she could land a solid kick at his rump and a swift right hook to his jaw.

Momentarily shocked and gulping to clear the ringing from his ears as she attempted to deliver another clout to his head, he impulsively landed his own flat-handed smack to her poorly-protected rear-end.

He hadn't really hurt her but Jemimah yowled indignantly like a cat whose tail had encountered a careless boot. "Bastard! You'd hit a poor defenceless woman?"

"Defenceless?" Johnny grinned and rubbed his jaw. "An' me hit you? What about this?" He gestured to his face where a red mark was already blooming. "You simmer down now, y'hear? Or maybe I'll set about turnin' that tattoo of yours a little rosier!"

He grinned at her scowl and, despite the throbbing jaw (boy, that girl could still pack a wallop!), was so delighted at the unexpected return of her feisty spirit that he wanted to whoop for joy and turn cartwheels around the room! She was pouting now; a good old Jemimah Day Lancer sulk and he could not have been happier to see it!

He sat down suddenly and pulled her into his arms, kissing her thoroughly. Jemimah tried to resist at first but, as his arms tightened determinedly around her, she felt herself melting into him, her lips parting to allow his tongue to explore her mouth.

It was the first kiss for months to even hint at passion and, when they at last drew apart, both were breathless, eyes shining.

"Well, that was sure nice," he said softly.

Jemimah's answering smile was shaky. It had been more than nice. She had almost forgotten what it felt like to kiss his soft lips and feel herself swept up into his strong yet tender embrace. Swallowing down the lump that had risen in her throat, she leaned in again for a repeat performance but Johnny, mindful of the way she seemed to be trembling and worried that he might get far more carried away than was good for her, eased her back against the pillows and proceeded to tuck the quilt around her.

"What you doin'?"

"Honey, you're shaking," he soothed.

"Of course I'm shaking! I'm in bed with my husband... or I was 'til he started to treat me like a little kid again!"

"Just take a nap and I'll..."

"A nap? And you're goin' to do what? Run off to get your breakfast? Oh yes, we wouldn't want to keep darling Elizabeth waitin' now, would we?"

"Darling Elizabeth?" Johnny chuckled. She was jealous? What a day! What a wonderful day!

"Oh, go on... go and eat! Don't want to keep you from your lady-love!"

Sniggering, Johnny planted a hand either side of her and dived in quickly for another kiss. Then, before she had the chance to catch her breath for more grumbling, he gathered his gun belt and, still laughing, made for the door.

"Get that nap, Sleepin' Beauty! I'll be back in a little while to wake you with a kiss."

"Huh, you ain't no Prince Charming!" she called grumpily after him, finding that she really was feeling shakier than she had thought. Perhaps a quick catnap would be the best thing. She needed her strength for later when Zee came by.

****

Jemimah was still sleeping half an hour later when Johnny peeped in at her.

He smiled down at her as she slumbered peacefully. There were 'roses' in her cheeks again and her dark chocolate hair, spread across the pillow, had a rich sheen to it. It made his heart sing and he dared to hope that a corner had been turned.

Leaving the apartment, he encountered Zee with a breakfast tray for Jemimah. Johnny sneaked a peek under the cover and grimaced.

"Oatmeal? Good luck with that! She's feelin' feisty today an' you know how she hates that stuff."

Zee hid her smile. Hate it or not, Jemimah had specifically requested oatmeal for breakfast every day since the party, knowing she needed to build up her strength. And feisty? He could get ready! Johnny Lancer hadn't a notion of what was in store.

"I'll get it down her, feisty or not," Zee assured him breezily.

Suddenly, he gripped her exuberantly by the elbows, chuckling gleefully as he twirled her around, very nearly unsettling the tray.

"Feisty! Oh boy, Zee... I ain't much of a hand at praying but... this has been too long comin'. Look what she just did to me!"

He turned his head to display his jaw with pride as though being socked in the mouth by your wife was something only a lucky man could aspire to.

"Jemimah hit you?" she gaped.

"Yep!"

"What did you do?"

He faltered, somewhat shame-faced. "Oh well... er... I... I think I gave her a little swat... but not hard. I couldn't get real mad at her."

"No, I meant why did she hit you?"

"Oh." Johnny's face split into a wide grin and he laughed at the memory. "I was putting her to bed an' she wanted to stay up. Can you believe it? Wanted to stay up! I gotta tell Scott!"

"He won't be back 'til tonight." Zee called him back.

Johnny paused, momentarily disappointed. Then he brightened and began to back away. "Then I'll find Murdoch! Gotta tell somebody!"

But he never encountered Murdoch. Before he reached the kitchen, Johnny ran into Elizabeth who, knowing he was headed to Green River, begged a ride to take care of some errands.

Johnny was friends with the whole world that morning and, naturally, saw no harm in the girl coming along. He intended to finish his business in town and get back to his wife before lunch time and, as Elizabeth already had her cape and bonnet on, he suggested they set off immediately.

 

Jemimah swallowed the last of the porridge with a shudder.

"Blugh! I'll be glad to quit eatin' this muck but, I got to admit, it's helping." She glanced over her shoulder at Zee who sat in the wicker chair by the bed. "Don't tell Murdoch I said that though!"

Jemimah leaned suddenly closer to the window, craning to see something which had caught her eye.

"What the hell...?"

Zee joined her. "What is it?"

They watched as Johnny and Elizabeth drove past. Jemimah firmed her lips, her little fists clenched. It was bad enough that the underhanded lying little trollop had schemed to be alone with Johnny but...

"They're drivin' my buggy an' team!"

She had seen the two dove grey horses quite clearly and a pang of longing twisted through her. She hadn't ridden in her wedding present buggy for so long; hadn't even seen Claudio and Hero for weeks. She stomped over to the bed and deposited her rump onto the quilt with a sulky sob.

"Cain't blame her for that, girl, an' you know it!" Zee pointed out, passing the mug of sweet coffee over. "That's all your own doin'."

Jemimah took a sip of the hot brew, grimacing at the amount of sugar Zee had added, and slumped morosely, knowing she was right. She had neglected everyone and everything, the worst of which being Johnny. She had slunk away to wallow in her own self-pity and had never even spared a thought for him or how he might be feeling. A husband and wife should pull together in times of trial and she had turned from him to lick her wounds alone. Among the many emotions she now felt, was a hearty helping of shame.

"Yeh, well, that's goin' to change as of now. Get me my overalls, will you? I'm goin' to visit."

"You can visit but you ain't ridin', honey so get that into your head. Your daddy would skin me alive... an' you too!" Zee crossed to the closet and began to ferret about for the requested garment.

Jemimah started to unbutton her night gown. "I won't try to ride; I'll just show my face." She smiled at the thought of seeing Diablo and Amiga again. "An' then we need to make a start. You got everythin' we need?"

Zee tossed the overalls to her with a saucy wink. "Yep. We're all set."

****

The two girls sat on the bench under the peach tree, their breath hanging like little clouds in the frosty air. Jemimah had truly enjoyed seeing all the horses again and was beyond thrilled to discover that her Jersey cow, Jessamie had also been brought over to Lancer. Now, however, she glanced around with unease.

"Never did like this spot."

Zee patted Jemimah's denim-clad leg. "Well, you need to sit still 'til you get your breath back. Why don't you like it here anyhow? I allus thought it was a kinda romantic place."

She and Scott had spent many a happy moment sitting together on this bench... and not just sitting either. Zee smirked to herself.

Jemimah shuffled, her own memories of the garden bench far from pleasant. "Johnny once... that is, when I was a kid, he once... he gave me... oh, never mind. I just never much liked this bench here, that's all."

Zee grinned and gave her friend's leg a light slap. "You ready then? Reckon you can make it to my sittin' room?"

"Of course I can!" Jemimah smiled. "Best place too... with Scott away, nobody will catch us there."

 

"The whole family's been taken in by her. Even Scott." Zee removed Jemimah's empty coffee cup and then sat back down beside her on the sofa. "I tried to tell him the other day but he reckons I'm imaginin' things."

"Men!" they said in unison.

"They're so naive. Just 'cos a girl has a pretty face..." Jemimah said scornfully.

"An' a few curves..."

"They think they're all sweetness and light."

"S'right!" Zee leaned over the letter that Jemimah was scrutinising. "You finished it yet?"

Jemimah lifted the sheet of paper and gently blew on the ink before passing it to Zee who held it up to read it carefully.

"Dearest Elizabeth,
I have tried not to give in to my heart but I am sure you must know my true feelings for you.

My marriage is over."

She paused and looked at Jemimah who remained quiet and grave. "Oh honey..." Zee clutched her hand then turned once again to the letter.

"I can no longer pretend that all is well between my wife and me. Jemimah has thrown away all that we once had and cannot now blame me for finding love with another. You will surely realise that the other I speak of is you.

Tell me that I do not dream in vain. Please meet me at Randall House tomorrow afternoon at two o' clock. If you are there, I will know that our future together is meant to be.

Yours in hope,

J. Lancer"

"You don't think it's too flowery, do you?" Jemimah asked anxiously.

Zee wrinkled her nose and frowned. "We'ell, Johnny don't talk like that."

Jemimah took the letter back. "No but this is a love letter an' she'll never know anyway."

"I sure hope this works. She strikes me as a fearful determined sorta gal."

Jemimah glared. "So am I. There ain't no way she's takin' what's mine! I've lost enough; I ain't losin' him too!"

Zee knew there was no danger of that happening and could have explained that Johnny was far too much in love with his wife to allow Elizabeth's scheming to influence him. But she kept this truth to herself. If this 'battle' was what Jemimah needed to be roused from the dark depression that had almost engulfed her, Zee was not going to take it from her. And, besides, it would kill two birds with one stone - the family would have their eyes opened and it sure would be fun to see that sneaky Miss Dooley get what was coming to her.

"Now for the next bit..." Jemimah grabbed a pair of frilly white drawers from the arm of the sofa and held them open. "Get the brush and the peppermint oil."

Zee carefully dipped the paintbrush into the small bottle and, amid much hysterical giggling, the two girls managed to coat the crotch of the drawers with the clear oil until they were thoroughly soaked.

"Pooh! Whiffs a bit, don't it?" Zee cackled.

"It'll wear off before tonight and, if she says owt, just tell her it's a new soap that Maria's tryin'."

Jemimah folded the drawers and gave them to Zee. "Here, you slip 'em back into her room an' make sure they're on the top of the pile." She guffawed, sounding more like the wicked old Jemimah than ever. "If she's hot for Johnny now, just wait 'til dinner tonight!"

Zee stumbled to the door, clutching her belly and laughing fit to bust. "Oh lawdy, I cain't wait!"

****

Murdoch, in his usual seat at the head of the table, gave a well satisfied smile as he surveyed his family - his entire family. His eyes rested upon Jemimah and he shook his head, momentarily lost for words.

"I know tomorrow is the rightful day for giving thanks," he began, his deep voice soft. "But I can't let this moment pass without telling you all how much I have to be thankful for." He smiled at Johnny and Scott on either side of him. "For the first time since you boys came home, I truly wondered this year... what could we possibly find to celebrate? So much has happened and there have been times that I'm sure we all... and now..."

His gaze turned to Jemimah, back in her usual chair at Johnny's side.  She was still far too thin for his liking but that shine was back in her green eyes; the perky tilt of her head - she was almost his little girl again and Murdoch offered up a silent prayer of thanks for this long-awaited blessing.

"I think you all share with me the immense gratitude and... relief, happiness... so many feelings. Jemimah is at our table with us once more and, I hope I am right in saying, on the road to recovery."

His voice wobbled and he found it necessary to clear his throat. Scott jumped in quickly, handing his father a glass of water and saying something about him probably falling foul of the cold that seemed to be doing the rounds at Lancer; many of the men were coming down with sore throats and it sounded very much like Murdoch would be joining them.

Murdoch flashed his son a grateful smile and sipped at his glass.

"As for me, I'm thankful to be home again," Scott announced. "And, apart from being reunited with my adoring wife and my loving family..." He grinned at them all then his smile became soft and the teasing left his blue eyes when he looked at Jemimah. "I too couldn't be happier to see you back at the table with us again. Honey, you've been sorely missed."

"Hear, hear," Murdoch said.

Jemimah blushed and smiled.

It was at this point that Elizabeth, who had been looking somewhat strained, her mouth pinched into an odd lopsided smirk, gave a very sudden and pronounced twitch and emitted a sort of muffled squeak.

Everyone looked at her. She coughed politely and eased herself back on her chair with a wince.

"Excuse me. I think I too may be suffering from this sore throat of which you spoke, Scott."

"I do hope not," he replied courteously. "I think this moment calls for a toast. Everyone has a glass?"

When everyone had raised their glass, Scott said, "To family!"

"Short an' sweet, brother," Johnny laughed. "To family!"

Everyone echoed the toast and Elizabeth used the opportunity to rise a little from her seat, performing a most peculiar kind of wiggle before gingerly easing back down onto her chair, her smile more of a panicked grimace.

Zee glanced at Jemimah who chewed her lip and looked away quickly.

The soup was brought in and served. By the time everyone had a bowl in front of them, Elizabeth was almost panting, eyes narrowed in extreme discomfort and  bewilderment. She was gripping her spoon so hard in her right hand that she could not manage to ladle any soup into it.

"Elizabeth dear, aren't you feeling well?" Teresa inquired.

The young woman's head snapped up and she swallowed, wild-eyed. "I.. yes, yes... I'm fine... I think," she stammered, clearly at a loss to explain the strange and most uncomfortable burning sensation in such a sensitive (and embarrassing) location. "I may have... twinged something earlier and I'm feeling just a little sore."

Zee snorted into her soup and set off coughing so violently that Scott had to pound her on the back with some force before she had recovered. Jemimah was shaking and staring fixedly into her bowl as though she dared not look up. Johnny, noticing his wife's odd behaviour, leaned close and asked if she was alright. Jemimah did not answer but she nodded.

By the main course, Elizabeth was wriggling constantly in her seat and giving sharp little gasps. Teresa leaned close and enquired again whether she indeed felt ill. When her friend shook her head unhappily, Teresa whispered, "Did I perhaps leave a pin in the skirt when I sewed it earlier?"

Elizabeth chugged down her entire glass of water. She was perspiring and her flushed face was now set in a ludicrous parody of a smile. "I'm fine, dear. Honestly."

Murdoch had barely carved the beef when Elizabeth's twitching became so obvious that he too asked whether she was feeling quite well. He was alarmed at her wide-eyed grin as she replied.

"Oh, I'm perfectly fine, Mr. Lancer. I'm just so... excited at the thought of Thanksgiving tomorrow and all the treats we've prepared that I'm fairly jumping in my seat!"

She gave a series of bizarre bounces then, seeming to think better of such violent movements, drew in a hissing breath like an old steam whistle.

Zee actually started to laugh but contrived to turn it into another hacking cough. Jemimah, on the other hand, was now crying with suppressed mirth and shaking visibly.

Teresa gaped around her. Had everyone gone mad? "Why, Jemimah... you're crying!"

She lifted her dark head. "Eh? Oh... I... yes... I'm just so... happy..." She saw Elizabeth give another violent spasm and an uncontrollable giggle rose so suddenly that she struggled to squash it down. Instead, she transformed it into a sob. "I'm sorry to be so emotional..." She wiped a tear away. "I just can't hold it in."

She covered her face with her hands when Elizabeth jerked sideways and emitted a gasp so loud that she had to pretend it had been a burp. Jemimah was actually chortling now, hoping it sounded as though she were crying. Zee could stand it no longer; she also put her head down on the table, shoulders heaving, and laughed/sobbed.

Leaping to her feet, a panicked sick expression on her face, Elizabeth excused herself, saying she did indeed feel unwell and must retire to her room.

The gentlemen, utterly bemused by the strange behaviour of the females, also rose to their feet. Scott, gallant as ever, offered to fetch her some water if that would help? His polite enquiry brought forth howls from Zee and Jemimah who, heads buried in their arms on the table, were now beside themselves. Johnny shrugged, shaking his head and both Scott and Murdoch were looking equally mystified.

They watched Elizabeth hurry away, moving in a most peculiar manner - a kind of waddling hopping limp.

Johnny and Scott turned their attention to their wives, trying to soothe and calm them. Murdoch and Teresa merely stared.

Hearing the commotion, Maria came in from the kitchen and, taking in the scene, asked why the girls were laughing.

"No Maria, they're crying," Scott said.

But, at the good lady's sceptical face, he narrowed his eyes at Zee, beginning to suspect that something was afoot. He would get to the bottom of it later, he promised himself. He flicked a suspicious glance at Jemimah. Yes, the little minx was indeed feeling better and up to her old tricks it seemed. Scott hid a smile. Some of Jemimah's mischief? He'd begun to believe he would never see the day. It was... marvellous. Who would ever have believed he'd miss her shenanigans?

"Honey, would you like me to take you back to our room?" Johnny asked gently, his arm around Jemimah's quivering shoulders.

She managed to control herself sufficiently to answer. "No, I'll stay. I'll be fine now."

And she was. So fine, in fact, that she polished off her entire plate of roast beef, mashed potatoes and vegetables. She even mopped up the last of the gravy with her bread and then, beaming at a bemused Murdoch, asked, "What's for dessert?"

****

Jemimah smoothed down her skirts and once again crossed the sitting room to the fireplace. She grinned to herself. Much steadier this time and she hadn't needed to reach out to touch the wall for support, not even once.

She looked around the empty room and felt a sharp pang of sorrow at its forlorn state. This had been their first home; it had echoed with their laughter and been filled with their love. It was sad to see dear Randall House abandoned like this. It seemed... ungrateful somehow.

On entering the house, Jemimah had been surprised at how calm she had felt. The idea of confronting Elizabeth here, on such familiar territory, had boosted her flagging confidence. But then, maybe the girl wouldn't even show up for her rendez-vous with Johnny. Jemimah fervently hoped the trick love letter would work. She had planned what she would say and rehearsed it in her head on the drive over. With any luck, Miss Dooley would be gone by Thanksgiving supper! And not before time either! The girl was starting to show her true colours.

Only that morning, Jemimah had overheard her caustic comments to Maria. Quite obviously, Elizabeth had blamed the hideous burning sensation she had experienced at the dinner table the previous evening on an unexpected sensitivity to some new soap product and no amount of the little housekeeper's denials could convince her otherwise.

Jemimah frowned. There was no call for Elizabeth to be so scathing with Maria. If Johnny had heard her, he would have torn a strip off the snooty mare! No-one showed Maria any disrespect in front of Johnny if they knew what was good for them.

Jemimah smoothed her skirts unnecessarily again. All at once, the butterflies stirred in her stomach and that feeling unexpectedly drove her little speech right out of her head. Yes indeed, her stomach was flipping over rather unpleasantly. Maybe it was more than the idea of talking to Elizabeth; maybe being back in her old home was affecting her more than she had anticipated. It was hard not to relive those bleak despairing days immediately following little Rosa's passing and it was with a bitter dose of shame that she recalled how she had wallowed in her own misery, completely disregarding Johnny's feelings and grief. She had a lot to make up for, she knew.

A light tread on the bare boards behind her made Jemimah spin around in surprise. She had almost forgotten the actual reason she had come over.

"Well, well. Jemimah." Elizabeth's eyes were wide and filled with puzzlement. "I didn't expect to find you here."

"I would imagine not. Just who were you expectin' then?"

Elizabeth did not answer; she merely smiled to herself but Jemimah was pleased to note that she was looking rattled. The taller girl kept darting nervous glances around the room and into the hallway behind her as if she still half-expected Johnny to put in an appearance. Then, eyes narrowing to suspicious slits, she faced Jemimah.

"I could spin you some yarn about being on the road back from Spanish Wells and, suddenly filled with burning curiosity, deciding to stop at Randall House to see the much-fabled place where Johnny and his first wife had lived..." Elizabeth shrugged and tossed her strawberry blonde curls beneath her fetching bonnet.

"His first wife?" Jemimah straightened to her full height, irked that she was still a good head shorter than Elizabeth.

"But I won't go to all that bother," Elizabeth continued smoothly. "I think we both know exactly why I'm here, sweetie. Don't we?" The venom in the look she flashed Jemimah twisted her usually cheery features into an ugly sneer.

Jemimah sauntered to the window and looked out at the frosty hill undulating away into the distance. Then, she turned and moved back to the middle of the room where the big braided rug had once lain. "We do," she smiled at her adversary. "You're here in answer to a letter I believe you received..."

"I was under the impression that the contents of letters were meant to be private!" Elizabeth snapped.

"...And I'm here because I wrote a letter." Jemimah's fake smile disappeared. "To a sneaky, two-faced, man-chasin' trollop. In other words - you!"

"You wrote...?"

"You ain't all that bright, are you, Miss Dooley? J. Lancer it said. That's me."

Elizabeth's lips curled in a humourless smile and she began to slowly clap her neat gloved hands. Jemimah recognised the sarcasm but, a cocky smirk on her face, she nonetheless dipped a dainty curtsey in thanks for the applause.

****

"What are we doing here, Scott?" Murdoch griped as he climbed down from the wagon at the top of the hill. "And why don't we drive all the way down to the house? What's all this cloak and dagger nonsense about?"

"Sir, I'm not entirely sure."

"Then, let's get back," Johnny was still in the wagon. He was eyeing the house with a growing edginess on his face. "I'm in no mood for games... not here."

Murdoch understood his son's reticence. "Scott, I really think..."

"Will you both just listen?" Scott tried to keep his voice down despite his increasing exasperation. "Zee says it's important that we see or hear something inside and I think we should find out what's going on."

Johnny squinted back along the trail to Lancer, still obviously reluctant to go into the house. "Jemimah will be wondering where I am."

"No, Johnny. She's here; Jemimah is here," Zee whispered gleefully.

"She's what?"

Aggie spoke up with the calm voice of reason. "Alright, we're here now. Why don't we bide by Zee's wishes? It can't hurt to see what she wants to show us, can it?" She slipped her arm through Murdoch's and smiled winningly up at him.

Murdoch shrugged and Zee beamed as Johnny at last clambered down.

"Right, we'll go into the kitchen but y'all gotta be real quiet and, for mercy's sake, don't let that screen door slam shut. Then... just be still an' listen." Zee grabbed hold of Scott's hand and they headed down the hillside and around the back of the house.

Tiptoeing inside, they gathered as one by the door to the hallway. Voices were coming from the sitting room. Johnny moved forwards, straining to hear, his face wearing an expression of utter astonishment to hear his wife.

She was calling someone a...a man-chasing trollop! Who... ? Miss Dooley? Elizabeth? And now someone was clapping. What the hell?

Johnny's eyes searched Zee's grinning face but she merely put a finger to her lips.

****

"Bravo, my dear. Well played."

"Cheers! Glad you can appreciate it," Jemimah quipped.

"Who would have thought that an innocent child like you could be such a devious little witch?"

Jemimah, far from being stung by her words, rather enjoyed the accolade. Takes one to know one! "Innocent child? Me? Ooh, you don't know me too well, do you?"

"No, it does appear that I may have misjudged you, that's clear." Elizabeth smiled again, suddenly very sure of herself. "But letter or no letter, I'm sorry to have to tell you that you're too late. You've lost."

"Lost?"

"Lost it all or should I say thrown it all away? Your home, your man..."

Jemimah flinched. Those words were far too close to the truth for her liking. She knew better than anyone that she had come perilously close to giving up on everything she held dear. It was an unpalatable truth; a bitter pill to swallow.

Elizabeth read the pain and guilt in those green eyes and pressed her advantage.

"Johnny is a man like any other with a limited amount of patience. How long do you expect him to tie himself down to an invalid wife?" Elizabeth threw her a pitying look of scorn. "He has needs, dearie and, frankly, you haven't been attending to them."

Jemimah's small gloveless hands curled into hard fists in the folds of her skirts. "You don't have to tell me about my husband, you cheeky tart! I know he deserves better than..."

"And he has found better - me!"

Jemimah managed to force a scathing snigger. "You think so, do you?"

"Oh, I know so. It might interest you to know what happened yesterday on our little trip into town. You remember? While you were sulking in your room? Did it not strike you how eagerly he carried you back to bed... and left you there alone so that he could be with me? And we were gone a long time. Did you not wonder what we might be doing while you were tucked up like a good little girl?" Elizabeth preened, patting her curls into place.

Jemimah's eyes glinted dangerously but her voice was steady when she replied. "You say Johnny is a man like any other?" She shook her head emphatically. "You couldn't be more wrong. Johnny hasn't an underhanded bone in his body. So, if you're tryin' to claim that you an' he..."

"I do claim it."

"You're lying. He wouldn't an' anyone who knows him knows that."

"Oh, trust me, dearie..."

Jemimah gave a sudden hoot of laughter. "Trust you? That'll be the bloody day!" She took a few steps nearer, her green gaze never leaving Elizabeth's wary face. "No, I trust him. I always have and I always will."

 

In the kitchen, Johnny stood with head dipped and a sudden moisture swimming before his eyes. Scott's hand was warm and firm on his shoulder.

 

"It's all one-sided," Jemimah said. "Johnny don't care about you; it's all in your mind... and your drawers!"

She snorted suddenly and Elizabeth scowled.

"That was you too, wasn't it?" When the younger girl nodded gleefully, Elizabeth's rosy lip curled in a nasty sneer. "I might have known - just the kind of childish prank I should expect from a little..."

"What? You're so hot for Johnny... I just made you a bit hotter. That's all!"

"You're pathetic. Sad and pathetic." She cast about for something that would truly hurt Jemimah. "He told me all about the way you've treated him since the child died."

Jemimah paled.

Elizabeth gave rein to her venomous temper now, spittle flying from her mouth as she ranted furiously. "He's had enough of your selfishness... your incessant whining. You want to die? Go ahead - nobody needs you anymore. I've taken your place and it's about time you realised it. Johnny wants a child, a son. What use are you to him on that score?" She snorted with derision. "A girl, that's all you could give him, and a sickly one at that! Didn't even last the day I heard."

The deliberate poison of Elizabeth's barbs was like a slap to Jemimah's face and, momentarily weak at the memory of that terrible day, she stumbled and had to steady herself on the wall, biting back the sob that rose in her throat.

Elizabeth gloried in the defeat she read in Jemimah's eyes. "No wonder he wants to leave you!"

 

Scott gripped Johnny's shoulder and held him back. Murdoch stepped to his side, shaking his head. Johnny's blue eyes were ice cold with his anger.

"Let her do it," Zee whispered, imploring him to wait.

 

"Leave me? I don't think so, duckie. Y'know, I haven't pasted anyone for a long time 'cos Johnny told me I needed to start actin' like a lady now I'm married. But... stuff that! I ain't never wanted to be no fuckin' lady anyhow!"

Without warning, Jemimah hurled herself on the bigger girl and planted her hard little fist right on her smug nose. Though she had indeed lost a lot of weight, the momentum of her sudden leap was sufficient to send Elizabeth sprawling. Flailing her arms like a windmill, the older girl emitted a high-pitched shriek and toppled over backwards. Jemimah sailed down with her but with more control so that she contrived to land on top of her. Elizabeth's shrieking ceased instantly, replaced by a low moan - much like the noise Jessamie made when impatient to be milked. Crushed bonnet askew and blonde curls scraping across the dusty floorboards, Miss Dooley strained to find a way of scrabbling upright again. But Jemimah was having none of it! She was beginning to enjoy herself.

Fists flying keenly, she straddled the bigger girl, pinning her down between her knees. Elizabeth had enough breath to resume her shrieking and slapped ineffectually at the little dervish, desperately trying to avert her head.

It was useless. Jemimah was a woman possessed. She easily landed three hearty punches then, seeing the blood flowing from her opponent's nose and lip, she leaned forwards to pin her wrists either side of her straggly blonde curls.

 

 In the kitchen, the others, it has to be said, were fairly craning around the corner to see the action. Murdoch was about to intervene but Aggie held him back.

"Don't you dare, Murdoch Lancer!" she hissed.

As for Johnny, he was grinning and willing her on.

 

The fighting done, Jemimah rolled off Elizabeth and, panting, smoothed her dark hair from her eyes. She shook her head, throwing Elizabeth a look of pity.

"I ain't never goin' to give Johnny up. You hear me?"

All Miss Dooley could do was gasp, sitting upright at last and shakily touching her trembling fingers to her bloody nose.

"You don't know how it is for us," Jemimah tried to explain. "You could never understand." She paused to swallow away the dust from her throat. "I love him... more than life itself."

Elizabeth's voice was a hoarse croak. "You... you sound like some cheap romantic novel."

Jemimah grinned. "I reckon I do." She had to smile at herself. "I don't think I ever understood that phrase before but... I do now. Now I know exactly what it means. Y'see, we've got somethin' far deeper than you could possibly imagine."

Elizabeth rolled to her knees, her skirts filthy and wildly awry. "Like what?" she spat. "Your childless marriage?"

This time, Jemimah smiled. Seeing Elizabeth now for the sad, bitter girl she was, her vicious words no longer hit their mark.

"We'll have more babies... one day. I know it. Until then... we have each other and there's a million stars out there just waitin' for us."

This last part was said very quietly but, holding his breath in the next room, Johnny heard her and he swiped at his eyes with a trembling hand.

 

"Come on then," Zee urged with a grin. "I figure we've heard the best part, don't you?"

 

It was hard to decide which girl was the more astonished when the family streamed in from the hallway.

Johnny strode over the prone Miss Dooley, much to her outrage, and made a beeline for his rather dishevelled wife. He scooped her up into his arms and promptly kissed her, instantly silencing her stammered questions. When at last he drew back to smile down at her, she gaped at them all.

"What... what you all doin' here?"

Murdoch twinkled at her. For once, her fighting was not a cause for any displeasure; far from it. "Zee seemed to think there would be something we should hear..." He turned his flinty glare on Elizabeth, still kneeling on the floor and, even underneath the smeared blood and grime, her face flushed visibly. "... and I'm thankful she did! I would say that we have all had our eyes opened."

"So Mrs. Lancer," Johnny's mouth quirked into a wide, happy smile. "Is this how a lady behaves?"

"It's how your lady behaves... Mr Lancer!"

Still in his arms (Johnny simply would not put her down), Jemimah submitted willingly to his kisses and ardently returned them.

Scott stooped to extend a hand to Elizabeth.

"Miss Dooley?"

Scowling and sniffing, she swiped contemptuously at his hand and struggled slowly to her feet. Murdoch's huge hand was firmly on her elbow as he steered her to the door where Zee passed her the now totally mangled bonnet(the destruction of which had been eagerly assisted by the heel of her boot!)

"Goodbye Miss Dooley," Murdoch spoke politely but there was no mistaking his meaning. "Your things will be sent to town. We will not be seeing you again at Lancer."

With a squeak of outrage, her mouth tight and as pruney as a split lip would permit, Elizabeth stormed out.

****

"Johnny, I can walk, y'know!"

"Yeah, I know."

Yet again, with a swift tilt of his shoulders, he had swept her up across his body and was carrying her through their apartment, heading to the dining room for Thanksgiving supper. She twined her arms around his neck and nestled into him despite her protests. Johnny smiled.

"I fought off another girl today an' she was way bigger'n me."

"You sure did!"

She pulled a face. "Though, if I'm honest, it weren't much of a victory really. She fought like a girl."

He laughed.

"So... you goin' to let me walk then?"

"Nope. I don't want to let you go yet. Enjoyin' the feel of you in my arms, honey. It's been a long time."

Instead of putting her down, he compromised by sinking onto their sofa and settling her on his lap, arms still possessively around her. She hung her head at his words.

"I know it an'... I'm truly sorry. Honest I am. I hope you can forgive me but I don't know if I'll ever forgive myself."

Johnny sighed, taking in her guilty sorrowful look.

"Y'know, that letter you wrote, pretendin' to be me... it was so wrong."

"I know. I shouldn't have done it. But don't be cross with me for that." She placed the palm of her hand gently on his cheek. "If you're goin to be cross, there's loads of other things I've done that's far worse. Neglecting you after Rosa..."

Johnny kissed her to shut her up.

"I meant that there was one particular thing you wrote that was wrong."

She wrinkled her nose in puzzlement. "What?"

His blue eyes slowly roved over her face, his lips curving into a gentle smile.

"You said that our marriage was over. It's not. Never will be. Yes, Rosa is gone and we'll be sad for a long time, I reckon. But you were right when you said there'd be more babies... one day." He released a trembling breath and tightened his hold on her. "We just have to remember - tough times only make us stronger and, when trouble calls, we ain't alone; we have each other. There's nothing we can't face together, honey."

A single tear had spilled over and was now sliding down Jemimah's face. Johnny collected it on the back of a tender finger before bringing his soft lips down on hers in a gentle kiss. It was like coming home for both of them.

****

Over the next few weeks, life at Lancer returned to normal. Johnny and Jemimah were back to stay, their apartment in the east wing now fitted out to their taste. Murdoch, for one, was happy as a pig in muck (as Jemimah said gleefully)to have his entire family back under his watchful eye.

Johnny and Jemimah, almost like newly-weds again, discovered quite a few new stars together in that pretty new bedroom and their life rediscovered the sweetness it had lost for a time... so much so that, when Scott and Zee hesitantly (and fearing hurting them with their news) announced the expectation of a happy event sometime in May, both Johnny and Jemimah were so elated you might have been forgiven for thinking they were the parents-to-be. They had no reason to pine; their turn would come again. In time.

 

THE END 

Anne Haslam  December 2014

 

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