Disclaimer: These characters, apart
from Jemimah Day, are not mine though, if they were, I would certainly show
them more love, respect and gratitude than Fox do.
Scott is turning 28; Johnny is 22 and about to be 23.
Jemimah gave the edge of the barn door an especially hard kick with her boot as she wandered in to see her pony, Amiga. She approached the little Pinto who was already excitedly tossing her head and careering about her stall in anticipation of her treat. Jemimah was in no mood to play 'hunt the apple' and simply held it out to her pal.
"Boys!" she fumed. "Thank the Lord you ain't no stupid boy!"
She leaned against Amiga and petted her morosely.
Enrique, their Segundo's youngest son and usually her best friend, was the problem. Since turning 14 at the start of the month, he had been behaving as though he was suddenly a grown-up and she was a mere infant in comparison. Why, sometimes he acted as sanctimonious as a preacher on Sundays! It made her want to spit! And when he wasn't being all prissy like an old woman, he was mooning at her or trying to hold her hand as they rambled round the ranch! He suddenly suggested going for walks or just sitting under a tree together. What could be duller than that? She'd said they could climb trees that afternoon only to have Enrique turn around and accuse her of being too rough. He'd dared to advise she ought to be acting more ladylike! She'd given him ladylike with a swift kick in the pants! Then she'd run off fast as she could 'cos he didn't look too appreciative of her advice. Jemimah sighed.
"That's a heartfelt sigh if ever I heard one," Murdoch remarked, leading his big Bay horse into the barn and starting to remove his saddle. "Want to talk about it?"
Murdoch smiled to himself. He sensed his girl meandering over to stand nearby and he waited.
"It's Enrique," she began. Murdoch suppressed a smile and glanced over. "I think he's turning into Teresa!"
This wasn't at all what Murdoch had expected and his expression could not have been more surprised.
"I don't mean literal-like," the girl frowned. "God forbid, one of her's enough..."
"Jemimah," his warning was given though he had trouble stifling the chuckle.
"I mean, she's always naggin' at me to be more ladylike and act more demure an' stuff," Jemimah scuffed the straw with the toe of her boot while her father hefted his saddle and carried it over to the stand. "Demure my arse!" she griped sullenly.
This time, as he passed on his way back to his horse, Murdoch's warning was a well-aimed smack to her jean-clad rear with his huge hand which lifted her a good six inches off the ground.
Murdoch ignored both her exclamation and subsequent furious rubbing, proceeding to give the big, sedate horse a well-earned brushing.
"So, what has Enrique actually done?"
Jemimah threw him a filthy look that suggested he ranked only marginally higher than Enrique right at that moment but she was so het up about her friend's attitude that she needed to pour it out to someone.
"He's acting all superior now that he's 14. When I said we could go to the waterhole today, you shoulda' seen his face - he nearly swooned! An' when I told him he was a ... er... well, never mind about that part!"
Murdoch eyed his 'daughter' beadily and wagged a stern finger.
"You'd better not be thinking of going swimming, Jemimah - not without an adult. Remember last time!" He paused until, from the blush that suffused her cheeks, he could see that she remembered very well.
"No, I wouldn't, honest!" she vowed. "I was meaning to go fishing or just to skip stones!"
Murdoch grunted. "Good. Besides it's far too cold now to swim. You'd end up with pneumonia!"
"Cold? I thought you was from Scotland - you, of all people, ought to know what real cold is!"
Murdoch chuckled but the stern finger waved again. "You just mind me, young lady."
Jemimah heaved another heavy sigh and headed out of the barn.
"Young lady... huh!"
In the cosy kitchen, Teresa and Maria were busy preparing dinner when Jemimah ambled moodily in. She snatched a piece of chopped apple and headed to the table to join Johnny and Scott.
Johnny was leaning his chair back on two legs, finally feeling some warmth ebbing back into his bones. It had been a long week. He and Scott had finally finished repairing and restocking the line shacks, the last of which had been the furthest away, up in the hills where there had been a smattering of snow. Snow - yeuch! - Johnny hated the stuff! He shivered involuntarily and cupped his hands around the mug of steaming black coffee. For once, his sleeves were rolled all the way down and the cuffs of his pink shirt were buttoned.
Seeing his little compadre stroll in, his lips quirked into a wide smile and he waved her over.
"Hey kid, come sit by me," he beckoned her and, when she trotted obediently over, plonking herself into the chair at his side, he draped his arm around her shoulder and drew her in close. "Keep me warm, huh?"
She giggled, throwing her arms around his waist and hugging him. Mmm... he smelled lovely - that mix of man-smell and horses and leather and fresh air. Johnny always smelled wonderful... well, except when he'd been out riding the range all day, chasing after stupid cows, and needed a bath!
Johnny noticed her sniffing him and chuckled, peering down at her and scuffing her dark hair.
"What?" he laughed. "You saying I could use a bath, chica?"
"No! You smell lovely; all 'Johnny'ish'." She nuzzled closer to him like a puppy wriggling in to its mother.
Johnny laughed and patted her shoulder. Hey - the kid was finally filling out a little! She didn't seem as scrawny as usual. Good! They'd been trying to feed her up for the last five months. He offered her a sip of his coffee, knowing how much she liked it. The kid nearly grabbed his hand off and greedily guzzled the dark brew.
Scott watched his brother from across the table, indicating with a laconic lift of one brow that she had drunk enough. Johnny rolled his eyes and nabbed the mug back, "Before you can chug it all!"
"So, Jemimah, you had a falling out with your little friend?" Teresa smirked across the kitchen.
Jemimah scowled. Teresa could say the simplest things and make them sound as patronising as could be; it was a skill she had. Checking to ensure neither Scott nor Johnny were looking at her, Jemimah stuck her tongue out at the older girl, crossing her eyes for good measure.
"Aw, he's just being a tosser!" A bit like you!
"I'm not sure what that is but it sounds a most unladylike thing to say," Teresa sniffed, more than tempted to return the girl's rude gesture with one of her own.
"What's he done?" Johnny was sipping his coffee again and absent-mindedly stroking her hair as she sat snuggled into his side.
"He's thinks he's so much better than me just 'cos he's 14 now an' I'm not. He's started calling me 'chica' like he thinks he's Johnny or somebody an' it's really getting my goat. Half the time all he wants to do is hold my hand... blugh!" She gave a horrified shudder and Johnny laughed out loud.
However, Maria, Scott and Teresa merely smiled knowingly.
"What?" Johnny asked, perplexed as he took in their enigmatic smirking.
" Él quiere ser tu novio," Maria smiled, refilling both mugs with more coffee.
"He wants what?" Jemimah's Spanish was getting better all the time but this was a new word for her. "Novio? What's that?"
"Sweetheart," Teresa grinned, knowing how mortified Jemimah would be. "He wants you to be his girl."
Jemimah sat up straight in horror. "His girl?" she squeaked. "I'm not his girl; I'm... erm..."
Scott cocked his head on one side. "You're... what?"
"I'm... his friend!" Jemimah was blushing furiously and Scott had the strangest feeling she had been about to say something very different but had changed her mind. He smiled behind his coffee mug, his blue-grey eyes watching her closely.
Jemimah shifted in her chair, her thick black lashes lowered and green eyes fixed on the grain of the wooden table top.
"Can't think why he'd want to be with me anyway," she muttered. "He's always sayin' I have the manners of una burra an' I know that means 'donkey'!"
As if to prove Enrique's point, she leaned back in her chair like Johnny and burped loudly. Immediately, both she and Johnny burst into fits of laughter, made all the more hysterical by Teresa's exclamation of affronted disapproval.
"Because, niña, you make all the other girls look insipido, ordinary; you have spirit and fire. Is that not right, Juanito?" Maria grinned.
Johnny tipped his chair back onto all its four legs. He propped his chin on his hand, smiling and shaking his head at the silliness of the whole conversation.
"Well, I guess she has plenty of spirit," he drawled. "But I'd say the 'fire' is probably just her rear-end burnin' from the ol' man's strong right hand whacking it!"
He turned to grin at Jemimah. She blushed violently, especially as she remembered Murdoch had just done exactly that.
Johnny, as though he could read her mind, cracked up laughing again and Jemimah, who had now had her fill of being the centre of the conversation - especially this particular conversation - put her pert little nose in the air and flounced off, contriving to elbow Johnny sharply in the back of the head as she passed.
"Hey!" he shouted after her, rubbing his head but still grinning.
Scott placed his empty mug on the table. He eyed his younger brother while he chose his words carefully.
"Y'know, you can't blame Enrique for feeling so strongly about her," he broached the subject and, when Johnny turned his blue eyes on him, he glanced across to Maria for support. Johnny could be touchy about their little girl and was very protective of her. "He's getting to be a young man now..."
"Scott, he's 14 an I know exactly what all 'young men' that age think about girls! So do you if you can think back that far. He just better watch it, that's all."
"No, Johnny, it's not like that," Scott's voice was firm. "Enrique thinks far too highly of Jemimah. She's different from the other girls, like Maria said; she's full of life..."
"Full of trouble, y'mean," Johnny interrupted with the quirk of an eyebrow. "That kid can find trouble where there ain't none then she gets in there an' jus' rolls around in it!"
Scott was not going to be sidetracked. "Yes but Enrique's not interested in the good little girls who bat their eyes at him or dress in frills and ribbons..."
Johnny cut him off with a wave of his hand. "Alright, I know what you're sayin', Scott but Jemimah's too young for all that stuff; she's still a kid."
Johnny's good humour had evaporated. He drained his mug and directed his gaze resentfully at his brother, his arms wrapped tightly around himself and his chin dropped onto his chest. Why was Scott determined to make out that the kid was all grown up all of a sudden? It was only the other week he was whomping on her for playin' that trick on him an' gluing his book together!
"She's going to be 14 next, Johnny," Scott went on. "In some parts, girls are married by that age and raising a family..."
"Crazy hillbillies in the mountains maybe, where they keep their women barefoot in rags an' pregnant all the time so they're old before they're 20!" Johnny spat with disgust. "Jeez, Scott... is that the sort of life you want for her?"
Scott shook his head. "Of course not."
Johnny was mollified a little by Scott's smile. His big brother hadn't really thought this through.
"Besides," Johnny began. "I don't know whether ol' Harlan taught you much about the birds an' the bees, brother but Jemimah... she hasn't... I mean, she isn't..." Johnny drew a breath. How in hell did he get drawn into such a dreadful topic of conversation anyway - female stuff an' lovesick teenagers! He scowled, feeling thoroughly discomfited. "I mean... babies an' all that..."
Scott smirked. His little brother was full of surprises. If anyone had told him that a talk about a young girl, and what happens to her as she matures, would cause Johnny such fierce embarrassment and confusion, he would never have believed it. He was usually so down to earth and could be outrageously blunt. But then, Scott had noticed Johnny's reluctance to believe that Jemimah would ever be anything but a little girl.
"Yes, I know what you mean," Scott said softly, watching the blush staining his brother's cheeks.
There was a lengthy pause then while Scott mused over his thoughts and Johnny watched Teresa surreptitiously from under his dark lashes. Privately, he was very glad that there wasn't yet another female in the house to go loco every month, moodily snapping at him for every little thing imaginable.
After breakfast next morning, Jemimah was perched in her usual spot - on the top rail of the corral fence. Today, she was mesmerised by the latest addition - a sleek chestnut mustang that had only been brought in the evening before. Johnny had described the horse as a 'bronc' and Jemimah could see exactly what that meant without having it explained to her. Johnny had warned her to stay away from the animal until he gave her the nod which wouldn't be for a while.
Right now it was skittishly swerving around the corral; prancing at every little noise and movement. Though undeniably beautiful, it had a wild look in its eye as though it were searching for someone or something to punish for being brought to this new place. Jemimah didn't need to be warned to keep her distance; she would no more have approached that horse than she would have cussed in Murdoch's face. Some things were just plain foolhardy! Maybe later, when it settled down a bit...
"You have to get down from there, chica!"
Jemimah looked down at Enrique who had wandered over. He was surveying her with a disapproving frown and instantly Jemimah seethed.
"I don't have to do what you say!" she sneered.
Enrique grinned pityingly and shook his head as if to say what a foolish niña she was. He jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "How about my Papa?"
She glanced beyond Enrique to see Cipriano watching her. He had his hands planted firmly on his hips and looked far from pleased. As she watched, he motioned for her to get down from the fence.
Stubbornly, and somewhat foolishly, Jemimah feigned indifference and remained where she was. However, Cip had only taken half a dozen menacing steps towards her when she came to her senses and scrambled hastily down to the ground by Enrique's side. She checked to make sure that Cip was no longer heading their way and breathed a sigh of relief when he changed direction, walking over to speak with the Patron and the 'boys'.
A glance at Enrique told her he was grinning at her discomfort and this incensed her even further.
"Bet you daren't squeeze under the fence an' run across the corral!" she said, her green eyes glinting with mischief.
This would be good! Enrique could never resist a dare, especially from Jemimah; it was a sort of badge of honour that he never turned one down. A delicious little thrill of anticipation ran down her spine.
But he was shaking his head. "Do not be foolish!" he chided. "I would be loco to go in there with that horse."
Jemimah was a little put-out but she called on the sure-fire way to make him accept her dare.
Now he would do it!
But, infuriatingly, Enrique was rolling his eyes as if to tell her how infantile he considered her behaviour to be. Jemimah felt her cheeks burn hot. She couldn't stand his new-found superiority one more second.
She narrowed her emerald eyes, her sweet mouth pursed into a thin furious line.
"Well, if you're not goin' to do it, if'n you're too scared... I'm goin' in!"
Enrique glared at her, brown eyes flashing. "No you ain't!"
"I am an' you can't stop me!"
Enrique leaned over her, using his extra seven inches of height to overwhelm the girl. "If you try it, I'll... I'll spank you!"
"You'll what?" Jemimah's breath whooshed out and her voice was shrill with anger.
Enrique glared furiously down at his friend and repeated, "I'll spank you!" Then, as menacingly as he could, he added, "So hard you won't sit down for a week!" It was a threat used many a time by his oldest brother, José and it had always put the fear of God into Enrique... well, almost always.
That was it! That was the goddamned final bastard straw!
With a squeal like a wildcat, Jemimah launched herself at the boy, knocking him flat on his back in the dust and landing right on top of him. Momentarily winded, Enrique took a vicious right hook to the jaw which split his lip against his teeth so that he tasted blood. Before he could gather himself, she had followed that up with a solid slap that set his right ear ringing while her knees were scuffing into his thighs and nudging closer and closer to that precious tender area between his legs, making the boy curl up defensively.
Jemimah was shrieking as she threw punch after punch, cussing wildly - a mixture of Yorkshire and Spanish. "You fuckin' pendejo wanker!"
Her breath was coming in sharp gusts, almost sobs, as she bit, kicked, thumped and scratched at him. Then, suddenly, she sensed him push back against her; fighting back as manically as she was. She felt his fist connect with the side of her head and, for a moment, she saw stars. Dizzy, she flopped sideways and he used the chance to throw her aside, flipping her so that the situation was reversed and he was scrabbling on top this time.
"You're loco!" he cried, landing a flat-handed slap to her cheek.
Jemimah yowled. It hurt but, damn it, he was fighting back; he was fighting back. They were back on the same level again. She felt him giving as good as he got, using all his strength, and she was thrilled because it meant they were equals once more.
Jemimah felt his body raise up enough for her to lift her knee and she grinned as she attempted to smash it into his groin. Hah! That'd be the end of that and he'd see she was no weak and helpless little female when he was rolling in the dirt, clutching his balls and groaning.
Gleefully, Jemimah jerked upwards with her knee... only to find that Enrique had disappeared. Through eyes screwed half-shut, she saw that he was standing a few feet away.
"You cowardly, yellow, piece of sh...!" her scream was cut off suddenly as huge strong hands grabbed her upper arms, hauling her into the air so that she was dancing on her tiptoes. She could see that Enrique was also held in the firm wrathful grip of his father, Cipriano. From the size of the huge paws seizing her arms, she knew it was Murdoch who now restrained her. Rashly, she tried to kick out at Enrique, still mad enough to spit.
"Pendejo bastard!" she growled, wriggling in Murdoch's tight grasp.
Then she yowled loud enough to wake the dead as one of those huge hands clipped her smartly round the ear. "Lemme go! Oww!"
Movement off to her side made her realise that she had an audience. Both Scott and Johnny had obviously rushed over with the old man but, in the distance, a group of the hands had stopped work and were watching the excitement avidly, grinning and gesturing.
"Patron," Cipriano's voice was a low growl as he addressed Murdoch. "I will take the boy home; let his mama see to his bruises... then I will see to his behind!"
Enrique was aghast. "But Papa... she started it! I was only..."
He was cut off then when his burly parent gave him a shake hard enough to rattle his teeth and, a hand clamped round the back of his neck, the bedraggled youth was marched smartly away.
"As for you, young lady..." Jemimah recoiled at the anger in the booming voice above her. "Inside!"
In the kitchen, Jemimah still had her audience. Standing by the sink, she was wincing and wriggling in Maria's grip while the woman scolded her in a never-ending stream of Spanish while wiping with an efficiency born of experience at her cuts and bruises.
Jemimah noted with unease that Murdoch was ensconced behind her, arms folded and glowering. It was not a situation to give her any comfort and, truth be told, her backside quivered nervously at his proximity to it. Both Johnny and Scott had joined them as Murdoch herded her inside. Johnny was now perched on the table, munching an apple and grinning at each 'ow' and 'ouch'.
If Enrique were being treated even half as roughly as she was, he would be suffering enough!
"I still haven't had an explanation," Murdoch continued. "I know you were fighting; the whole ranch could see you were fighting. What I want to know is why."
"It was his fault!" she mumbled.
"How so?" Scott asked from his seat at the table.
Jemimah flinched as Maria dabbed at her eye. "He's still behavin' like he's Johnny... or... or my father or somethin'," she grumbled. "He said..." Jemimah paused. She really didn't want to tell them what Enrique had said because they would then want to know why he'd said it and no discussion about what she had threatened to do with the horse would bode well for the safety of her behind.
But it was too late.
"He said... what?" Murdoch pressed her for an answer. She was stalling and, by God, he'd have an explanation quick or she would know about it!
Jemimah scowled, wincing at the pain of her left eye. "He said he'd spank me," she mumbled.
"He'd what?" Johnny asked loudly.
"That's not a bad idea but spank you for what?" the old man's growl made the hairs on the back of the girl's neck stand up. She wasn't sure if his ire was aimed at Enrique or at herself but it was surely something she wanted to avoid.
She lowered her head, Maria at last being finished with her ministrations, and muttered a reply.
Murdoch leaned forward, his big beefy arms on the counter either side of the trembling girl. "Would you care to repeat that?"
Would she? Jemimah thought she really would prefer not to say it again. Murdoch, on the other hand, was beginning to resemble an irate bull.
"I dared him to do something but he wouldn't so I said I was going to do it instead."
"What. Did. You. Dare. Him. To. Do?"
Jemimah swallowed. Her throat felt all prickly and dry. She avoided making eye-contact with anyone. "Run across the corral."
Johnny was off his perch on the table in a trice. "What? With that horse in there? I thought I told you..." His blue eyes were flashing and Jemimah didn't like the look of the way he planted his hands angrily on his lean hips.
"I was only joking though!" she gabbled.
Scanning their faces, the kid was dismayed to find that no-one seemed to find her joke terribly amusing. If anything, all four adults looked pretty sore.
"I said to stay away from that horse, kid," Johnny's voice was soft but scary. "He's dangerous, you understand?" She nodded. "But I'm way more dangerous so you better not even think about going in that corral!"
Jemimah took note of Johnny's 'Madrid stare'. She was used to seeing it from time to time; usually when he was upset with her and intending to take it out of her hide. She gulped a small 'yessir' to appease him.
Murdoch folded his arms and looked at Maria. "Anything we need to fetch Sam over for?"
Maria pursed her lips and shook her head, putting away her iodine.
"So," Murdoch wanted to be sure. "She's uninjured?"
Maria was rinsing the cloth under the pump. "Si, Patron."
Jemimah squeaked then as the big man descended on her. He gripped her little hand in his huge paw and, scooping up the bar of carbolic soap from beside the sink as he passed, he dragged the child out of the kitchen and up the back stairs.
Scott sighed, shaking his head. "I don't think her uninjured state is going to last for long."
Johnny sat back down on the table, resting his forearms on his knees then he reached out to cuff his brother's neat blond hair.
"An' you were trying' to tell me she was growin' up? Hell, that kid can't make it through a whole week without getting a lickin'!"
However, Johnny was wrong; Jemimah did not get a licking... exactly. What she did get was infinitely more horrible and something she would never, ever forget.
Dragged to her room, and fully expecting to end up pitched over Murdoch's knee for a sound walloping, Jemimah instead found herself chewing on a lump of soap which he cut from the large cake of carbolic. The grim Lancer patriarch made her swill that damned piece of soap around her mouth thoroughly until it had coated her teeth, lips and tongue, the vile taste and burning making her want to retch. And all the time, he lectured sternly about the use of such abominable and disgraceful language and that he never expected to hear another swear word, either in English or Spanish, pass her lips. She was going to be a lady one day if it killed her... or him into the bargain!
When she was finally allowed to spit and rinse out her mouth with a swig of fresh water, Jemimah was a very sorry spectacle indeed. The evil gloop had run down her throat, making her feel horribly sick and her tongue was still burning. Her eyes were red from the tears (the reaction to the soap and, it must be said, of genuine self-pity)and she wished to high heaven Murdoch had just whomped her instead.
The final blow was to be told she would spend the next two days (the whole weekend!) in her room until she learned how to behave herself. That would mean missing Scott's birthday and all the fun that was planned but, when she voiced this with a whine (and far too much argument for Murdoch's liking), the ol' man decided maybe he was being too lax. So, Jemimah was 'treated' to a couple of mighty whacks to the rear-end for good measure and this, at least, taught her to quit while she was ahead and hold her tongue.
Later that evening, as dusk was descending, Jemimah sat by her window and looked out over the peaceful yard. The chestnut horse still wandered about the corral but he had settled as the day had drawn in. Jemimah thought he looked sad, as sad as she felt, but she resisted the impulse to steal downstairs to watch him.
As she slipped into her long white nightgown, the sun hid itself behind the distant hills which undulated like the swells of the sea on the coast where she had been born, far away.
She could just slip down there to say goodnight to the horse. It was all alone and friendless. So was she. There would be no harm in that surely?
She looked out sadly, knowing she would not dare. With one last look at the darkening corral, she left the window, crossed to the bed and sat down. A lone tear escaped. Jemimah was feeling very sorry for herself.
A light tap at the door made her turn her head, her long dark hair now free from its braids and swishing like a curtain down to her waist. When Johnny poked his head around the door, all he could glimpse in the gloom was the startling white of her nightie.
He eased himself around the door, reluctant to disturb the girl. He knew she was bound to be feeling tearful and a quick glance at her red eyes confirmed this. He crossed the room to her dresser where the tray still sat untouched. Lighting the lamp, he turned to look at her.
"You not hungry, honey?" When she shook her head, her lashes lowered, he frowned and chewed thoughtfully on his lower lip. Uh-oh, the old man must've really worn her out! Johnny hoped he hadn't overdone it; he had been really riled. He sat down on the bed beside her and gently stroked his fingers through her long sleek hair.
"Murdoch whupped you pretty hard, huh?" his voice was quiet and gentle.
Jemimah gave a plaintive sniff, shaking her head. "No. Just two."
"Just two? Boy, I thought he was gonna skin you alive; he sure looked mad enough. That big ol' vein was poppin' in the side of his head fit to bust!"
Johnny dipped his head, watching her face closely. Two big fat tears were trembling on the very brim, about to fall. She was sure upset about something and if it wasn't a spanking, what was it? Johnny edged closer, his hand resting lightly on her back.
"Come on, kid," he prompted softly. "What is it?"
"He made me EAT SOAP," she wailed, the tears falling at last. "And it was really, really HORRIBLE and then he said I have to stay up here for TWO WHOLE DAYS so I'll miss Scott's birthday and then he wouldn't LISTEN and then he WHACKED me really HARD and now I've got NO FRIENDS and Enrique won't TALK to me and NOBODY LOVES ME and..."
It all came out in a terrible rush of childlike tragedy. Johnny edged back, momentarily at a loss. He was a firm believer in a young 'un paying their dues and then the slate was clean but there should be no coddling or sulking afterwards. But this was a Jemimah he had not encountered before; why, she was behaving as irrational as any other female. How could she jump from being punished for fighting and cussing to nobody loving her...?
She was sobbing now, her little white shoulders shaking with genuine sorrow. She looked so forlorn that Johnny melted. Scooping her up onto his lap, he wrapped his strong arms around her and planted a gentle kiss on the top of her head. It was a good thing she could not see his face for he was smiling at her foolishness, his blue eyes twinkling.
He held her until the storm of tears and sobbing abated, murmuring soothing Spanish endearments all the while. At last, she drew a shuddering breath and slid down from his knee.
He dipped his head, a shy, almost bashful smile on his handsome face.
"At least you can sit down... that's gotta be a good thing."
Jemimah scuffed the back of her hand wetly across her nose, making Johnny grimace, and rose to go over to her dresser. She fished in the top drawer and turned, clutching something small and blue in her hand. She held it out to him.
"Scott's present," she miserably answered his unspoken question. "I can't come down tomorrow so will you give it to him for me? It's a string tie."
Johnny took the tissue-wrapped gift and smiled down at it. He would see if he could change Murdoch's mind about not letting her out of her room; she was sorry and he didn't like to think of her sitting up there, all alone and breaking her heart just because of some dumb fight with that boy. Besides, it sure looked to him like she'd been winning, before they were pulled apart, so maybe that'd be worth something with the old man - though he doubted it.
He stuffed the packet into his shirt then rose to retrieve the tray. Depositing another kiss on her dark hair, he wished her a goodnight and went down to tackle Murdoch.
Murdoch was unshakable; that girl needed to learn to behave herself, she was getting far too big to act like some kind of rampaging ruffian and her language would make a miner blush! He said two days and two days was exactly what she would serve and, what's more, if he heard any more argument she would serve it with a sore behind!
Johnny raised an eyebrow and slowly whistled out a breath. He figured he'd better quit while the kid was ahead; he didn't want to be responsible for getting her whupped into the bargain! Hands raised in mock surrender, he backed away from the fireside and left the old man to his pipe and whisky.
Scott placed Jemimah's breakfast tray on the top of the dresser and, in answer to her question, shook his head regretfully.
"Sorry, but Murdoch won't budge," he shrugged. "Johnny tried last night. I'm afraid the sentence still stands."
Jemimah had been fastening the straps of her overalls hopefully but now she slumped against the window ledge. Scott gave her an encouraging smile.
"It's only two days; it'll soon pass."
"Might as well be two years," she huffed. "I'm goin' to miss all the fun an' the party an' everything! And I had that new frock that Maria and Teresa made for me - won't get to wear it now."
Scott patted her arm. "Tell you what - I'll come up later with some cake when Murdoch isn't looking. Would you like that?"
She shrugged miserably, refusing to be cheered up.
"And I'm sure Johnny will see you later too; maybe bring the checkers for a game if he can sneak them up."
Again, his attempts fell on deaf ears. He sighed and gestured to the tray.
"Well, your breakfast is there. You eat up while it's still hot."
Jemimah gave the plate of food an uninterested glance then turned to gaze out of the window again. Scott gave up and headed for the door.
At her call, he paused and looked back. She was still staring out at the yard.
"Thank you, Jemimah."
Feeling anything but happy, Scott left her.
Jemimah brushed her long dark hair then sat, braiding it silently and staring down at the horse. The yard was deserted, the chestnut horse alone - just as she was alone. No-one was paying it any attention. She nibbled at the biscuit on her plate while she tied her two braids with thin ribbons. Poor creature. They'd brought it out here and penned it up in the corral and, since then, no-one had paid it any mind at all - not even a kind word. She wondered whether it had even been given some breakfast.
Jemimah's green eyes darted watchfully around the yard and barn area. There was no-one about. The hands, Jelly, the family would all be having breakfast still; it was early. She could... steal down quickly; nobody would know. She could take the poor horse an apple at least and then come right back up; she wouldn't linger. It wouldn't be like she was really disobeying Murdoch - just a couple of minutes to do a good turn; show the animal some kindness and let it know that it was among friends. Then it wouldn't be so nervous when Johnny came to train it later; it would know they meant it no harm.
And, if she was quick about it, no-one would be any the wiser!
Jemimah tossed her braid, now neatly tied, over her shoulder and raced to the door. It opened silently. She peered out onto the dim landing then, like a little ghost, crept out and down the back stairs. She waited at the door to the kitchen until she was sure Maria had gone into the dining room then, as fast as lightning, she raced to the outer door, grabbing an apple from the barrel on her way.
Her heart was in her mouth all the way across the yard for fear that she might be spotted from the house but her luck held out and, within seconds, she was standing at the gate to the corral. Jemimah clicked her tongue at the horse and it raised its noble head, watching her carefully with wary brown eyes. Another click and it nodded to her, its sleek shining coat catching the early morning light as its muscles bunched and flexed in agitation.
"Come on, boy," she softly crooned. "A nice apple for you. Here, have some breakfast."
The horse skipped forwards a few yards but then turned and trotted back in a circle, watching her. Jemimah felt that it wanted to approach but it was nervous of the little stranger. Achingly slowly, she ducked down, easing one leg through the bars of the fence. Never breaking eye contact and continuing to croon soothingly to the quivering creature, she squeezed herself through and straightened. Then, holding out her hand with the tempting treat, she took two halting paces towards the horse.
They eyed each other in silence. Jemimah hardly dared breathe. The large chestnut mustang had stopped its prancing. It was still. Its breath coming in short puzzled snorts as it sniffed the air, trying to decide what this intruder wanted.
Then, warily, it took a tiny step towards her, its handsome head lowered. All was quiet and still.
Jemimah smiled. "That's it, boy," she encouraged.
At the sound of her voice, the horse pricked up its ears and tossed its head with alarm. Deciding it did not like this newcomer, the wild horse lurched back and reared up, lashing out with its hooves to turn the interloper away. Shrieking in fury, it surged towards the child, kicking with enormous lethal power.
Jemimah screamed and fell backwards, realising too late that she had made a hideous mistake. She lifted her arms, to cover her head, knowing with absolute clarity as she did so that it would make no difference. It was going to kill her.
Something hard grabbed hold of her collar and she screamed again when she felt herself lifted through the air, falling backwards to land on her side with a thud so hard that her breath was knocked out of her with a whoosh. An arm dragged her until she was sitting up, gasping for air, heart hammering against her ribs.
Through the rails of the fence she could see the horse now rampaging violently about the empty corral, occasionally rearing up and wind milling its hooves at the air. She turned when a voice rasped in her ear.
Panting as though she had run a race, Jemimah turned to see that it was Cipriano who held her and they were both sprawled on the ground. She heard running boots thudding closer and abruptly more hands gripped her and a cloud of dust flew up around, making her cough and blink her eyes owlishly.
"Madre de Dios!"
Johnny threw his arms around the trembling girl, hauling her to him, clutching her wildly. If it hadn't been for Cip, he would've been too late; she would have been... The acid bile of fear coated the back of his throat, the image of the horse's hooves flailing at her still haunting him. He felt sick and found that he was shaking.
Cipriano was already on his feet, surprisingly agile for such a big man. He held out a strong arm to Johnny who, working to steady his breathing, gripped it and found he was glad of the extra help to make it up again.
Jemimah tipped her head back to dazedly look at Johnny. He was leaning against Cipriano and panting, doubled-over as though someone had punched him hard in the middle. He looked grey and she thought he might throw up.
Cip was eyeing her and growling something in Spanish to Johnny but she couldn't take it in; she could barely register how she came to be there, sitting on the dusty ground. She heard the stomping of hooves beside her. Turning her head, she flinched when the chestnut horse danced past the fence, snorting angrily.
The horse. Now she remembered. She had been in there with the horse. And Cipriano must have pulled her out. Without question, he had saved her life.
She turned to look up at Cip; to say something to him but found she had no voice.
"Si no la azota, lo haré!" Cip ground out.
The two men were looking at her with fierce expressions on their faces. Johnny nodded and took a deep cleansing gasp of air, his right hand squeezing the big Mexican's shoulder. His face was taut. His blue eyes glinted with an icy fire.
"Johnny, I..." Jemimah whispered.
Immediately, as though the sound of her speaking his name had roused him, Johnny reached out and grabbed the girl by the arm, yanking her to her feet. He said nothing but spun around and stalked towards the barn, hauling her along behind him. He felt her stumble a couple of times but his anger was such that he did not slow down or even look back. If necessary, he felt he would have dragged her bodily along the ground.
When he reached the doorway of the barn, he grasped the straps of her overalls with both hands and virtually carried her inside like a sack of grain. She was crying now, frightened by him, he knew. But he did not care; this time he had to make her mind. This time her reckless disobedience had almost cost her life. Enough was enough. He remembered again that terrible moment when he saw her underneath the mustang's vicious hooves; remembered his horror that he was too far away and knew with utter helplessness that he would not get to her in time.
Jaw clenched so hard that it hurt, Johnny flung her ahead of him. She skidded in the straw and gaped back, green eyes wide, as she regained her balance.
She had never seen Johnny like this and it scared her more than the horse had done. He still had said nothing. He was glaring at her and his breath was coming hard and fast. What was it he had said? 'That horse is dangerous... but I'm way more dangerous!'
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," she sobbed, backing away.
She saw him reach over and snatch up a length of harness, looping the thin leather strap in one hand. Jemimah watched him with disbelief. She knew she had frightened him; that she could have been killed and he was furious and frightened still. His anger was palpable; fearsome like some wild force of nature and, if she could have done, she would have run from it.
Johnny firmed his lips into a thin line and reached for her. He lifted her over to the stacked bales of hay and immediately she found herself face down over them. Pinning her there, Johnny began to whip the seat of her britches as hard as he could.
Jemimah was crying before it even began - more from fear and regret that she had hurt him so. He had never used anything but his hand before and it was a measure of his shock and anger that he was now giving her exactly what she deserved - a real whipping.
When at last he pulled her up, Johnny tossed aside the strap with disgust. He was silent and would not look at her, his hands on his hips and his head bowed as though exhausted.
Jemimah reached her hands round to carefully cup her flaming rear-end, tears dripping off her chin and the pain taking her breath away. She felt ashamed and scared but, most of all, devastated because she feared she had lost him. She was sorry - so very sorry; sorry that she had been so foolish, that she had nearly been hurt but, mostly, sorry that she had made him do this.
"Johnny," she croaked falteringly.
"Get inside!" he still would not look at her and his voice was hard. "Go to your room and, this time, stay there!"
Jemimah turned and ran for the house.
In the silence, Johnny slumped onto the hay bales and leaned forwards, his arms resting on his knees. He found he was trembling and a droplet of sweat ran down into his eye. Strange that he should be sweating; he felt cold - very cold. A wave of nausea hit his stomach and he gulped hard to keep from vomiting.
For some time he stayed like that - one hand over his eyes which were squeezed shut. Eventually, he straightened and, wearily wiping his face, he headed for the house.
Jemimah shed her overalls the instant she got up to her room. It didn't help much and, in the end, she shucked all her clothes and opted to stay in her nightgown; it was about all she could stand next to her welted skin.
She didn't see Johnny again. Maria brought up her trays at meal times and Teresa removed them later but neither woman said much to her. It was obvious that everyone knew what she had done and that she was in deep disgrace. Jemimah both feared and wished that Murdoch would storm in and take her to task though the pain in her rear-end was so excruciating she didn't know how she would endure it if he did. But he did not come; no-one did.
That evening, she lay on her stomach listening to the sounds of guests arriving. Aggie would be there and she heard Doc Jenkins' distinctive voice. The celebrations were in full swing downstairs. But Jemimah was not tempted to sneak out for a peek. She listened as the room grew dim. The sun hid its face behind the distant fingers of the trees but she did not light the lamp, preferring to wallow in the gloom, her mood as low as the dipping sun.
She wandered over to the window, each step reawakening the hurt.
Looking down, she somehow knew before she saw him that Johnny was out there. He had his back to her and was leaning, his chin on his arms, on the top rail of the corral fence. He was watching the chestnut mustang perform its restless circuit of the perimeter. By the slump of his broad shoulders and the way he scuffed the toe of his boot in the dust, Johnny looked as miserable as she felt.
As if by some sixth sense, he turned, staring straight up at her. Their eyes locked. Jemimah flushed guiltily and hung her head. When she dared to glance up again, he had turned away to resume his solitary vigil by the fence.
He sighed and straightened, realising it was time he showed his face back at the party. When he glanced up at the window again the little white figure had gone.
Scott ambled into the kitchen and leaned his backside on the edge of the counter, taking in the sight of his little brother.
Johnny was not enjoying the party, not one bit. He had been morose and quiet most of the evening. Understandably so. Scott watched him finger the Colt in his right hand, the light glinting on the grey metal as he turned it.
Johnny kept his head down and waited for Scott to speak as he knew he would. Scott took his duties as older and wiser brother to heart; there was no way he wouldn't have some pearls of wisdom to bestow.
"She deserved it, Johnny. And you know it."
Johnny sighed. "Yeah." Somehow, the single word sounded more like a question than an agreement.
"This was different, Johnny," Scott pressed.
Dios! He didn't need his brother to tell him that; he had whipped her for Christ's sake! She was just a... girl! Johnny released a shuddering breath. He had never done that before. He sensed Scott drawing nearer and gloomily placed the gun down on the table where he sat cross-legged.
"This wasn't just mere mischief. Jemimah wasn't being naughty or misbehaving," Scott insisted gently. "She could have been killed!" More than anything, he had to make Johnny see that his reaction had been justified or... he knew his brother well - he'd wallow in guilt until it ate away at all of them.
"Johnny, you can't blame yourself; it was an understandable reaction to seeing her putting her life at risk. Any of us would have done the same."
Johnny stared resolutely at the silver conchos on his pants.
"I know. It's just I ain't never..." he sighed again. "I really let her have it, Scott. I... maybe I should've waited 'til I cooled down."
Scott patted his brother's arm. "She got the message. She won't pull a fool stunt like that again."
Johnny nodded but Scott could tell he was still determined to shoulder the blame. He patted the younger man's shoulder once more, trying to put as much comfort and reassurance into the contact as he could. Then, he left him to his thoughts.
"Johnny, won't you join me?" The guests all gone and Scott and Teresa retired for the night, Murdoch was standing by the sideboard, the whisky decanter in his hand. He gestured to the liquor.
Johnny hugged his arms tightly around himself, his head dipped awkwardly. He didn't know if he could handle a lecture from his father.
"Oh, I dunno, Murdoch," he mumbled. "I'm pretty tired. I was gonna..." he gestured a lack-lustre hand towards the stairs.
"Humour me," his father smiled, proffering the tumbler of amber fluid. He turned away as though the matter had been settled and he knew that his son would stay.
And it had. As Murdoch seated himself in his favourite armchair with a contented sigh, Johnny meandered over and took the whisky, perching edgily on the sofa in front of the fire. The big Scot watched his boy quietly.
"If you hadn't done it, I would have."
Johnny rolled the crystal tumbler between his hands, studying the way the glass caught the firelight.
"Cip said the same; said if I didn't thrash her, he would," Johnny hoped it didn't sound like he was trying to justify his actions.
Murdoch leaned towards his boy. "He's right. Johnny, I know how you feel. It's never easy to discipline a child; no parent enjoys it. You're not a cruel man. What you did, you did out of love."
Johnny laughed mirthlessly and took a sip of the drink. "I wasn't feelin' all that loving at the time. I was... scared to death!"
Murdoch smiled. "Exactly, Johnny. Jemimah knows that. But she's paid for her foolishness and now she needs you to forgive her - but first you need to forgive yourself. Son, this is hardly the first time you've taken her to task." Murdoch paused, studying the dark haired young man who was refusing to meet his eye. "But... this is a little different, eh?"
Johnny flicked a glance at his father then stared back at the whisky. Murdoch intuitively guessed what was really weighing on his son's mind. He rose from his chair and crossed the rug to stand at his son's side. Tentatively, he reached out a hand and softly squeezed the back of Johnny's neck, trying to convey the depth of his understanding in that simple touch.
"Son, this is nothing like those men who... mistreated you when you were a boy." Murdoch's voice was soft; his hand on his son's neck gentle. "What they did was wrong, Johnny; they were weak and callous. They hurt you because it made them feel powerful... and because they knew you couldn't fight back. Today, you acted out of a need to protect and love. Believe me, Johnny - you are nothing like those..." Murdoch paused. He hesitated to call them 'men'. "You're nothing like them. You never could be."
He trailed his hand across Johnny's shoulders, ending in a pat on his arm just as Scott had done earlier. Draining his glass, Murdoch gave Johnny a last look of concern, daring to ruffle his thick black hair, then bid him goodnight. When he reached the first stair, he swore he heard Johnny's soft murmur, "Thanks, Pa."
Finally, on the Monday morning, Jemimah's punishment was over and she was once more allowed out of her room. She had seen no-one at all apart from the two ladies of the house and, as she slipped into her seat at the breakfast table, her stomach grinched nervously.
Almost immediately, Johnny, who had been sitting at her side, stood up sharply. He wiped his mouth on his napkin and tossed it briskly onto the table.
"I'm done. I'll see you outside, Scott."
With that, he collected his hat and gun belt from the stand in the hall then was gone.
Jemimah swallowed and turned her attention back to the table and her dish of oatmeal.
Scott caught her eye and gave her a half smile. He too vacated his seat and, bidding goodbye to Murdoch and Teresa, he followed his brother out.
Jemimah was finding it hard to swallow the mushy oatmeal. It was far from being her favourite but that wasn't the problem; she knew that Johnny just couldn't stand to be around her.
Murdoch watched the youngster. She seemed to shrink visibly, her dark head bowed. His large hand reached out and patted hers.
"Now, young lady," his gruffness hid his concern. "As well as your own chores, I think you'll find that Maria and Jelly have plenty to keep you out of mischief today. Let's see if you can get yourself back into everyone's good books, eh?"
Jemimah scooped up a spoonful of the gloopy porridge and, eyeing it with distaste, mumbled a subdued 'yessir' before shovelling it down with a shudder. Murdoch's mouth twitched and he took a healthy chomp of biscuit to cover his smile.
Much later in the day, Jemimah swiped a hand across her sweaty forehead and straightened up, kneading a hand in the small of her aching back. She had worked through all her usual chores and then assisted Maria in cleaning the kitchen thoroughly until the tiles on the floor and the scrubbed table top gleamed. Since then, she had been hard at work in the barn, mucking out the stalls, spreading fresh straw, filling the grain bins and sorting through oddments of tack.
She grasped the handles of the wheelbarrow full of dirty straw and headed wearily for the door, only to come face to face with Johnny, leading Barranca in. Their eyes locked for mere seconds before she flushed and backed out of his way.
Johnny led his Palomino to his stall and set about unsaddling him. Jemimah was glued to the spot, torn with indecision. She could not remember a time when she had not wanted to be around Johnny. But that was before. Now, when she looked into his eyes, she only saw disappointment and dismissal and it made her heart sink down to her boots. Several times, she had made him cross with her or had caused him to reign her in when her temper got the better of her but afterwards they had always been alright; she had been forgiven, the slate wiped clean. Above all, she knew he cared; they shared something special - 'kindred spirits' Scott had said. Jemimah hung her head. She didn't think Johnny wanted to be her kindred anything anymore.
Scott then appeared with his own horse. He could hardly fail to sense the atmosphere and his eyes darted from the young girl slouched nervously near the doorway to his brother whose back, ramrod straight as he dealt with his horse, was to her; pointedly ignoring her. Scott quirked an eyebrow and waded in.
"You're doing a good job in here, Jemimah!" he spoke up heartily. "Isn't she, Johnny?"
Johnny turned around, scanning the barn critically. His usual ready smile was nowhere to be seen, his eyes were distant.
"I need a bath," he muttered. "See you at dinner."
Spurs ringing, he strolled out without a backwards glance.
Jemimah watched him stride across the yard to the hacienda. With each step he took, she seemed to deflate a little more. By the time she saw him enter the house, her head was bowed.
She felt a warm hand gently squeeze her shoulder.
"Just give him time."
She did not look up but simply nodded miserably. Scott sighed and also headed for the house.
At least the barn was finished. Jemimah arched her aching back, propping the pitchfork back against the wall. A noise at the doorway made her spin round.
Green eyes met brown as she stared at Enrique. She felt herself blush when his mouth firmed into a thin line and his thick black brows drew together in a scowl. He would have marched straight out again but Jemimah called after him.
"Enrique! Don't go please. I... I'm sorry... for the fight an' everything."
When he turned, he saw her outstretched hand but he made no move to take it.
"You gave me a fat lip," he objected.
Jemimah studied him. It was true; his lip was split on the left side, sporting a crusty black scab. She turned her head to the right to display the yellow'ish bruising.
"You gave me a black eye," she countered, still holding out her hand.
Enrique was silent for a moment but Jemimah thought she detected a satisfied gleam in his eyes.
"I got whomped too!" he accused. She wasn't off the hook yet.
"So did I," she admitted and, when he seemed sceptical, she reached around to rub at the soreness which still plagued her. "Johnny did it. And he used a strap." Her little elfin face gazed hopefully at the boy.
Enrique was amazed and very obviously pleased about this turn of events. Señor Juanito actually used a strap for once eh? About time too! It wasn't fair how she got off so easy all the time.
"Are we... alright now? I mean, can we be friends again?"
The pause seemed to stretch out longer and longer. She waited for his decision. When it seemed he would say nothing, Jemimah drew a shaky breath and lowered her thick black lashes. Suddenly, Enrique's hand shot out to give her a comradely shove. When she looked up again, he was grinning at her.
"Sure we're friends," he smiled.
Jemimah's breath whooshed out and it was only then that she realised she had been holding it. She reached up and slung an arm around his shoulder and he did likewise then they crossed the yard and parted with a wave at the top of the lane as though the argument had never taken place. Jemimah had made it over one bridge; if only it would be that easy to cross over to Johnny.
However, at dinner Johnny had barely said two words to the rest of the family and, no matter how hard his father and brother tried to draw him out, he remained withdrawn and clearly on edge. He left the table as soon as he had cleared his plate and announced he was going out. They had not seen him for the rest of the evening.
Now it looked like breakfast was going to be a repeat performance. Johnny was taciturn and subdued, slowly working his way through the food on his plate but showing no evidence of actually tasting let alone enjoying any of it.
As soon as Jemimah slid into her chair by his side, he put down his fork with a clatter and left the table, again calling back over his shoulder that he'd see his brother outside.
Murdoch watched the child at the table droop and he grit his teeth. For two pins, he'd take them both out to the barn and knock some sense into them! His boy was behaving as much like a sulking child as Jemimah ever had and, if it weren't that the very idea exhausted him, he'd happily dust his britches until he came to his senses!
Instead, Murdoch raised his voice so that his words would carry to his son in the hall.
"Well, Jemimah, how would you like a really important job today? You could take Enrique with you if Cip says it's alright."
"Sounds intriguing," Scott entered into the spirit, as he finished his eggs.
Murdoch was aware that Johnny was still in the hall and was quietly listening.
"I need someone to ride up to the north line shack with a few supplies. Now, it's the furthest away from here..." Murdoch felt Johnny move to stand in the doorway. "Do you think you can manage such a long ride?"
Scott smiled at his father. It was a long ride but not a dangerous one. However, the way he was presenting it to the youngster would make her feel she was earning back their trust. He glanced at his younger brother, lurking by the door. Their father was telling Johnny too, in no uncertain terms, that he intended to give Jemimah a chance to redeem herself and, by association, he should be doing the same.
"I thought Scott and I had restocked all the line shacks?" Johnny's quiet voice questioned.
Murdoch looked up pleasantly. "Yes, but there were a few items we'd run out of. I sent Jelly into town to fetch them and now I need Jemimah to make sure they get taken to the shack."
Johnny stepped further into the room, his arms wrapped tightly around himself and his head dipped down. Despite this, his eyes met Murdoch's and he shook his head as though not keen to accede the point to his father.
"What items?" he pushed.
Scott wiped his mouth with his napkin and rose from the table.
"Well, I hope you have an enjoyable trip, Jemimah," he smiled, eager to get himself and Johnny out of the house before his little brother riled the big man.
But Johnny was suddenly reluctant to leave. "We'll be workin' down at the creek near the pasture on the north side," he insisted. "I can go when we're done."
"No need. Jemimah can do it," Murdoch insisted.
Johnny planted his hands on his hips, his head tilted to one side. The look on his face said it all - are you sure, ol' man? It could not have been clearer that he didn't trust the child at all.
Jemimah sat up a little straighter, her chin lifting defiantly and her green eyes narrowed. Why, he wasn't even giving her a chance to make amends! Well, she'd show him!
"I can do it!" she ground out and, for the first time in days, stared him right in the eye.
Johnny's eyebrow quirked and there was the vaguest hint of a surprised smile in his blue eyes. Then, as if he couldn't care less, he shrugged and turned, striding past Scott and out of the house.
"We'll be back by lunchtime," Scott said. "Want to be ready in time for our visitors."
He donned his jacket and hat then followed his brother.
"Visitors?" Jemimah asked, helping herself to a biscuit and slathering it with butter. She was studiously ignoring the dish containing the generous helping of oatmeal. Come on - enough was enough! She'd eaten it with no complaints yesterday but that was when she was trying extra hard to be good. Today... well, couldn't they cut her some slack?
"Yes, have you forgotten?" Murdoch explained as he accepted the coffee Teresa passed to him. "Miss Florida and Alice will be arriving before dinner. You know they're coming for Johnny's birthday and Christmas?"
Jemimah swallowed the huge bite of buttery biscuit. With all the hoo-hah over the horse and Johnny and then being stuck in her room all weekend, she had forgotten about the impending visit. She had been looking forward to having another young girl around the place for a week or so. From what she'd heard, Pony was no prissy-miss like Teresa wanted her to be; she sounded like a lot of fun.
Now, however, Jemimah wasn't sure. She knew Johnny thought a lot of Pony. And right now, it seemed, he thought a damn sight less of her. Jemimah didn't know if she could stomach another girl being lauded as Johnny's favourite while she was shut out in the cold. Suddenly, this visitor could not have been less welcome!
She perked up her ears. Murdoch was saying something about making sure she was back by lunchtime.
"Maria will have all our hides if everything and everybody isn't spic and span for their arrival."
Hastily casting aside any pretence at good manners, she reached out to grab a handful of biscuits and began to wrap them in her napkin. "Best make a start then if I'm to be back in time!" she mumbled through a mouthful of biscuit.
Murdoch's huge hand landed on her shoulder and eased her back into her chair. He pointed to the forgotten dish of oatmeal.
"Erm... just you finish your breakfast, young lady," he decreed. "You're going nowhere until that dish is empty!"
Jemimah's face was the epitome of mute appeal but her father was firm.
"Now, missy... or maybe you'd like me to feed it to you?"
Jemimah was aghast. Scowling across at Teresa, who was unsuccessfully smothering her mirth with a cup of coffee, she reached for the sugar bowl, heaping four large spoonfuls onto the rapidly-congealing gloop before she took a deep breath and bit the bullet.
Seemingly unconcerned, Murdoch sipped his coffee too and smiled.
Murdoch was still smiling when he watched Jemimah ride away on her pony. The girl was scowling fiercely and refusing to even look at her companion, muttering under her breath that he, "could damn well stop grinning and bloody mooning at her like a love-sick heifer!" The young lad was indeed looking like all his birthdays had come at once; the prospect of a lengthy ride up into the hills with his favourite girl putting a smile on his face that he simply couldn't hide.
As Murdoch turned to go back inside, he almost tripped over the furry blur which whizzed past him.
"Olly!" he shouted. "Olly, get back here!"
But the mongrel sped after his young mistress, determined not to be left behind. Once the dog caught up with her, he slowed to a joyful trot and kept 'to heel' at her side.
"So, what's so important that we have to ride all the way out here?" Enrique asked some time later.
Jemimah shrugged. "Aw, it's just a few candles, matches, sugar, flour an' stuff."
The girl knew full well that her packages held nothing crucial and that Murdoch was just giving her a chance to make things right. Yes, she knew it but she would deliver the goods to the shack and do the job she'd been asked to do - and this time she would not mess it up.
They urged their ponies up the steep hillside, the little hound panting beside them, his tongue lolling out of his mouth. As the grassy track flattened out, they paused to look back over the valley below. In the distance, they could make out figures moving about near the bridge. It was too far away to see properly but they knew it was Scott, Walt and Johnny doing the repairs on the bridge which had been damaged earlier in the month.
"Why are they doing the bridge repairs now when it's winter?" she wondered. "Surely it'd make more sense to wait 'til the spring."
"No," Enrique was eager to show off his experience and knowledge. "By spring time, the water down there will be high. It comes down from the mountains. See? There is snow up there." He waved a hand at the craggy distant peaks above them. Indeed the tips were crested with white. It was hard to imagine snow could ever fall in this hot, dusty country. Jemimah gazed up at the peaks then turned back to look at the far away men. She could pick out a golden blob which had to be Barranca next to two other darker blobs - Scott and Walt's horses, but she could not make out which figure was Johnny.
Just thinking of him made her face flame and she firmed her mouth into a thin determined line. She'd show him! She turned Amiga back onto the path for the line shack and nudged her into a walk. It was looking like rain. The sky was a dismal gunmetal grey and the air was cool. Jemimah turned up the collar of her jacket and scrunched up her eyes against the wind, hoping against hope that there wouldn't be a storm. She vividly recalled the last storm - a monumental and terrifying performance of nature and all its power unleashed. Jemimah did not like to remember the events of that day too often and, in an effort to distract herself from the disturbing recollections, she spurred Amiga into a gallop, shouting back over her shoulder.
"Hey, Enrique, race you to the shack!"
"No fair!" the boy yelled back. "You're cheating!"
The two youngsters hurtled over the frosted grass, the dog bounding along and yelping with excitement.
Although it was only mid-morning, both kids were ready to take a break and investigate what Maria had packed in the tempting bundle for them. They had unloaded all the supplies and stacked them carefully in the shack and now, sitting side by side on the front steps, they eagerly unravelled the package.
Grinning in delight, they devoured the succulent treats - bread dipped in egg and milk then fried in butter and coated with brown sugar. Maria knew how the young 'uns loved her sweet concoctions and that included Johnny and Scott. Even the Patron himself was not averse to sneaking one from the tray when he thought she was not looking. Delicious!
As they ate, they chatted amicably and took it in turns to throw a stick for Olly to fetch. It seemed that the young dog was far from tired after his long trek and still had the energy to chase hither and thither like a thing possessed.
"Crazy mutt!" Enrique shook his head at the animal's antics.
Jemimah laughed. Enrique watched her. There was no 'side' to Jemimah; what you saw was what you got. She was easy to read, he thought. Yes, she could be blunt to the point of being embarrassing at times and he'd never heard another girl cuss like she could (she really ought to be curbing that - especially if she wanted to avoid another taste of carbolic!) but she was honest and true. Once you won her friendship, you had it unquestioningly; an unstinting faithful loyalty. She didn't try to lead a man on; there were no silly games like that. Not like with Emily Travis at school; she pretended to like a person just so she could get him to spend all his hard-earned money on her. A quick hug and a kiss or two then she was on to the next boy to spend his allowance too!
Enrique smiled at Jemimah. She would never be so shallow; would never use her feminine wiles to get what she wanted.
"I'm glad we're friends again, Jemimah," he shyly said.
She threw the stick again for Olly, hurling it a good distance away and laughing as the dog hared after it. "Yeh, me too."
She stiffened as she felt Enrique shuffle closer to her on the step.
"You have sugar on your cheek," he murmured, leaning closer. His fingertips gently stroked her face to brush away the grains of sweetness. Jemimah's skin felt scorched where he touched her and , though she tried to look away, she found her eyes locked onto his soft brown gaze. He seemed to be looking right inside her.
All at once, he was too close. Those fingers were now in her hair at the back of her neck and his soft mouth was moving closer... closer...
Jemimah sprang up in panic, jerking the boy backwards in surprise.
"Olly!" she gabbled hastily. "Where's Olly?"
Enrique swiped up his hat and, scowling, slapped it against his jeans. "He's probably found a rat or somethin'. Come and sit back down..."
Jemimah glanced back at him and decided she needed to put some distance between them.
"Nah. I'm goin' to look for him."
She jogged off around the side of the shack. Enrique watched her go then sullenly rose to follow her, scuffing the dirt moodily from the seat of his pants. "Dumb dog!"
They searched all around the shack and in the clump of trees nearby but there was no sign of the excitable mutt. Then both youngsters froze. Carried on the gusting wind was the unmistakable sound of canine whimpering.
"Listen!" Jemimah cried. They both turned towards the sound and headed for it.
Breaking through the trees, they came to the edge of the hillside. It was rockier here; the earth was hard-packed and dry. There was a small break in the fence line, not large enough for a cow to wander through but Olly was no cow; he could easily have gone through the gap. The whimpering and yapping was louder still and, dropping to their bellies at the very edge, they looked down.
About thirty feet vertically below them, on a tiny rocky ledge, the little dog was huddled, half scared out of its wits - not that it had many in the first place.
"It's really crumbly here," Jemimah observed. "Careful! Olly must've been standing at the edge when it gave way."
"Dumb dog!" Enrique grumbled again, realising they were going to have to rescue it and, in all probability, he would be the one doing the hard climbing.
He stared sulkily at his friend who was watching him intently, her green eyes beseeching, thick black eyelashes fluttering. Enrique swallowed and sighed.
"I'll get the rope. You stay here and keep away from the edge, will ya'! It's not safe," the boy scrambled to his feet and, chuntering under his breath about stupid dogs and pesky women, he marched off for the horses.
However, minutes later, it became apparent that Olly's ordeal was not yet over. The rope Enrique had brought and attached to his pony, intending to lower himself down to the cowering animal, was at least ten feet too short.
Enrique stood near the edge coiling up the rope expertly and shaking his head. "It's no good, Jemimah; We'll just have to leave him there and fetch help. If the ledge was bigger and not so weak I'd perhaps try jumping that last bit or climbing down to him but, there's no way it'd take my weight. It'd be suicide - just look at that drop!"
Jemimah was aghast. "You mean you're just going to leave him there? What if he falls?"
"No, I'm not goin' to leave him," Enrique explained patronisingly, as though to a petulant infant, "I'm goin' to fetch help. The men are working down in the valley. They will help us."
Irritated by his tone and the idea of blithely riding off while her dog sat cowering on a dangerously crumbling ledge, Jemimah planted her hands on her hips and narrowed her green eyes. When he scowled and wagged his finger sternly at her, she nearly exploded, only just managing to restrain herself from popping him one right between the eyes!
"Don't even think of doing anything stupid, chica," he commanded. "We'll ride down there and the dog will be fine until we get back."
Enrique fastened his rope back in place and moved to mount up, glancing back over his shoulder at Jemimah. His brows shot up into his hair when he found she had disappeared.
Half in the saddle, he hopped back down, calling out her name. He sped to the edge and flattened himself to peer over.
"Mierde!" he cursed.
Already out of reach, Jemimah was nimbly scrambling down the rocks, as sure-footed as a mountain goat.
"Jemimah, are you loco?" he yelled with a wobble in his voice. "Come back, the rocks - they are too loose!"
Jemimah tipped her chin to look up at him. Angry green eyes met horrified brown. She opened her mouth to yell back some obscenity - the gutless coward! But, before the words could form on her tongue, she felt the rock in her grip give a tiny shudder and free itself. She drew in a terrified breath and, as she fell backwards, plummeting away from him, her scream echoed mockingly all around.
She seemed to fall slowly, forever. Jemimah was aware of tiny things like clumps of grass, an old bird's nest jammed in a narrow crevice and Enrique's open mouth... but there was no sound. Her elbow struck a jutting out rock painfully, jarring her, and she ricocheted off at a tangent to the left.
The next thing she knew, she was lying on her left side. She could hear a voice calling her name and the voice sounded worried but it was very far away. She tried to answer that she was alright but could not make the words come out. She realised that she hurt. Her arm was throbbing with a white-hot burning pain and she ached all over. She tried to sit up but her head swam and she gave up the attempt instantly.
Something was moving at her back, trying to get on top of her and, blinking, she realised it was Olly. The dog laid with its front paws on her and lowered its head to give her an anxious lick.
Jemimah tried to move again. This time, instead of trying to sit up, which she knew would probably make her pass out, she tried to roll onto her back. But the simple movement caused the ledge on which she lay to shudder and she could hear tiny fragments of stone chip away from the edge and tumble down into the distance. Hell! She wouldn't be doing that again in a hurry!
"Don't move, Jemimah!" she dimly heard Enrique's screech from high above her.
"Absolutely I won't move!" she thought. "I'm goin' nowhere, mate!"
Enrique could see that she was conscious but hurt. He ached with indecision. The ledge was unstable and it had been bad enough that the dog had been trapped down there. Now, with Jemimah as well, it would not hold for long. But his rope was too short. Even if he threw it down to her, she was in no shape to climb the stretch of rock face to reach it.
He knew what he had to do but the thought of leaving her there, alone and in such danger, made the boy feel sick and ashamed. Why had he not insisted she go to her pony first; he should have kept his eye on her - he knew how crazy and impetuous his girl could be! His girl! Enrique's breath caught in his throat and he berated himself for lying there dithering when he needed to act.
"Jemimah, I will go get help! Don't move. Be still. I will be back very soon, I promise!"
She did not reply but he swore he could see her smile... or was it a grimace of pain? Terrified that she may faint and roll off the edge, he leaped onto his horse and, slapping at its rump with his hat, he raced off down the trail, his heart pounding in rhythm with the thundering hooves.
As Jemimah lay on her side, the rough stones digging into her cheek and Olly still lying protectively across her lower body, she felt a dull ache begin inside. It was a throbbing pain which gnawed at her and she screwed her eyes tight shut. Rain had started to spit down on her. Tears loomed and she sternly chided herself for her foolishness. Blubbing wouldn't help! It never did. But, somehow, she couldn't stop herself.
Scott leaned his back against the wagon wheel and took a deep swig from his canteen. Johnny, a few feet away was still quiet. Scott sighed.
His little brother raised his dark head in surprise as though his thoughts had been miles away.
"You know," Scott answered. "Why won't you give Jemimah a chance?" Johnny looked away again and studied his sandwich as though engrossed. "Are you really still that angry with her?"
Scott watched as Johnny seemed to chew over the question. Eventually he shook his head.
"More angry with myself," he admitted softly, a half-smile on his lips.
Scott rolled his eyes heavenwards in exasperation.
"You did nothing wrong, brother! I would have whipped her too; Murdoch would have! You've got to..."
Johnny smiled, holding up a hand to belay Scott's lecture. "I know, I know an' Cip was about to do it if I hadn't." Johnny paused, again studying his food.
Scott waited, allowing him to take the time to put his feelings into words and Johnny was grateful that he knew enough not to press him. They now had an easiness between them; an understanding that, more often than not, went beyond mere words and Johnny never ceased to be both amazed and thankful for his older brother.
"It ain't that, Scott," Johnny began. "It ain't the first time I've given a young 'un a lickin' - remember Andy? An' he weren't the first neither!" Johnny paused and, for a moment, seemed far away. " It's not the first time I've had words with Jemimah either. It ain't about that!"
Johnny was silent for so long that Scott thought he was not going to answer. Then, raising his eyes to look at his brother, Johnny continued and now there was a kind of desperation about him; a need to be understood as though he truly did not understand fully himself.
"Every time I look at her, I see her lying under that damn horse's hooves an' I feel," Johnny winced, "I feel like... I can't breathe 'cos I know I won't make it to her in time. If Cip hadn't run out of the barn when he did; if he hadn't been close..." Johnny closed his eyes.
Scott nodded in understanding. "But he was. And she's fine."
"It's just... I see it in my head an' I get to shakin'. I ain't had too many folks in my life that I worried about before, Scott. For a long time there was just my mama... an' I wasn't able to... I was too..." His words petered out and, once more, Johnny focused hard on the sandwich.
Scott took a deep breath as the full implication of Johnny's admission hit him. He hadn't even considered that his brother may be likening what nearly happened to Jemimah to the way his mother died but, now that he realised it, it was all completely logical.
Johnny had been too young and incapable of tackling the man who had beaten his mother to death that night. In his eyes, he had somehow failed to save her; he had let her down and so she had been lost to him. The other morning, he had come close to losing someone else who was now dear to him and, again, he had been a helpless witness, unable to step in to keep her safe. For someone like Johnny, who had fought and struggled to become strong and to take control of every facet of his life, this indescribable impotence was intolerable.
"I don't think it ever hit me before how much..." Johnny's words were so soft that Scott leaned forward to hear him.
"How much you care?"
The young man nodded his bowed head then glanced up almost apologetically. His expression was sheepish. "I know she aint' blood like you an' Murdoch but..." he shrugged. "She sure feels like she is. I ain't ready for her to leave just yet. Can't imagine life without the little tyke now."
Scott marvelled at him; only Johnny could possibly feel that he should defend his love for the little girl. Did he not realise that they all felt the same and that she had become an integral part of their family?
Scott shook his head and grinned. "Awakened some paternal feelings there, has she, brother?"
Johnny looked thunderstruck. "Paternal? You mean, do I feel like her Pa?" The grimace on his face made Scott chuckle openly. "Nah, I'll leave all that to the ol' man; he's turnin' out to be a pretty good daddy, ain't he? Makes me wonder..."
"What it would've been like for us - to grow up here with him?"
Johnny smiled shyly. "Yeah," he agreed.
Both were silent for another moment, contemplating the 'what ifs' and 'maybes' of their lives. Then Johnny rose up to squat by his saddle bags, reaching for his brother's canteen.
"All I'm meanin' is I'm happy the kid's in my life... our lives, y'know? An' she very nearly wasn't no more."
As Johnny washed down his last bite of sandwich with a hearty belt of water, Scott studied him.
It was easy to see that the bond between Johnny and Jemimah was strong; there was a real depth of feeling there. The girl had filled a hole in the young man's soul that no-one else could. Far from feeling any kind of jealousy, Scott was eternally grateful for the knowledge.
"Then how about you cut her some slack, Johnny?" he suggested. "Let her put things right. You know, right now she thinks you hate her."
Johnny's handsome head jerked up at this, his expression alarmed and incredulous.
"Hate her?" he snapped. "How could I hate her? Every time she looks at me, I see how I nearly failed her; nearly lost her... all for a dumb horse!"
Scott allowed his impatience to show. "I'd say the two of you need your heads knocking together!" he bit out. "If you only sat down and talked, you'd see that you're each of you waiting for the other to make the first move. It's like a lovers' spat!"
"Lovers!?" Johnny's disgusted face showed how much the very suggestion repelled him. "Scott!"
"You know what I mean. Stop dancing around her, boy," he shook a stern finger in, what has to be said, a somewhat paternal manner that Johnny found to be disturbingly reminiscent of Murdoch. "And put things right before tonight!"
"Tonight? Why tonight?" Johnny asked warily, wondering what on earth Scott was going to imply next!
Scott astutely realised that Jemimah would not be looking forward to Pony's impending arrival, not with all this bad feeling between her and Johnny. "If Pony arrives while there's any of this awkwardness between you two, Jemimah is bound to feel left out. She won't give Pony a chance and we will have nothing but fights and bickering all Christmas!"
From the look on Johnny's face, it was clear that this had not occurred to him. "Yeah, you're right; those two will kill each other."
"And Murdoch will..."
"...Kill me!" Johnny nodded emphatically. "I'll sort it out."
"Of course, we might want to rethink that," Scott smiled, one eyebrow quirked. "Can you imagine the mischief we'll have to suffer if Jemimah and Pony join forces? I'd better hide all my books and keep my room locked!"
Scott shuddered with mock fear and Johnny laughed. As his little brother rose to speak to Walt, who was just returning from a solitary walk to a distant mass of obliging bushes, Scott breathed a sigh of relief. Johnny's step seemed lighter already and his eyes less clouded with worry.
Scott rose slowly, stretching his back and shoulders. As he turned, he spotted the rider tearing down the track towards them. He squinted against the drizzling rain then, realising who it was, he called to Johnny in alarm.
"Johnny! It's Enrique! Look!"
Johnny paced quickly over, Walt hot on his heels.
The boy galloped to the end of the track and eased his panting pony over the scrub until he reached the wagon. Scott, the first to reach him, grasped the bridle.
"What is it, boy?" he demanded urgently, knowing at a glance that something bad had happened.
Enrique was gasping for breath, having ridden like the wind. He was trying to gabble it all out in Spanish and Scott turned to Johnny helplessly.
"I can't make out what he's saying!"
Johnny lifted the boy down, urging him to repeat his story but more slowly this time. Walt offered the canteen to the lad but he waved it away impatiently.
"There's no time," he panted. "Must get back... quick!" Enrique coughed painfully, his throat burning.
Johnny gripped his shoulders hard in his rising panic. "Jemimah?" he ground out. "Where is she? Is she alright?"
Enrique shook his head and the three men darted worried glances at each other.
"The dog... fell over the cliff... stuck on a ledge. Jemimah climbed down. I told her not to but... she fell!" Enrique was already half scared out of his skin but the look in Señor Juanito's eyes was enough to make him quake visibly. "I could not reach her, señor," he insisted, tears filling his eyes. "My rope... too short!"
Johnny shook the boy. "Is she hurt?" He dreaded the answer.
Enrique nodded miserably. "I do not know how bad but... si, there was blood..."
Enrique had hardly finished speaking when Johnny raced to Barranca. He was mounted and tearing up the track before the others had time to draw breath.
Scott turned to Walt but he too had already sprung into action.
"I'll get the doc. You get the kid," Walt called over his shoulder and then he too was clambering onto his horse.
"If we can, we'll take her back to the house," Scott shouted after him. "Go by there first!"
Walt raised a hand in acknowledgement but did not slow down as he raced away.
"Alright, mount up, boy"
Enrique hopped back onto his pony as Scott swung himself up into his saddle, wheeling his sorrel around. Their eyes met.
"I... I'm sorry, señor," the boy looked deeply ashamed.
"Never mind that now. Come on."
At the top of the trail, Johnny leaped down from the saddle, ground tying his horse then racing towards the cliff edge, continually shouting out her name. There was no sound, no answer - nothing except the shrill whine of the wind and the pattering of falling raindrops on the leaves.
Johnny's heart was pounding like a runaway train. The boy had said she had fallen... Johnny approached the edge where the fencing was broken and immediately felt the dry stony earth begin to crumble beneath his boots. He steadied himself then lay down flat on his stomach, peering over the edge.
Jemimah lay on a tiny outcropping ledge of rock. Johnny gasped at the sight. She was so still, her face smeared with blood. It looked to be from a gash above her temple which was oozing down through her hair but, from that distance, it was difficult to be certain. Johnny could easily see, however, that her right arm was twisted at an impossible angle; it was obviously broken. Her eyes were closed and he muttered a silent prayer that she had merely passed out.
The dog watched him in mute appeal, still lying protectively over her lower body. Johnny could hear it panting as it waited. Madre de Dios! Please, let her be alright!
Johnny turned at a noise behind him and realised Barranca had yet again broken his ground tie to follow his master. He stood a few yards behind, cropping the grass but keeping a watchful eye on Johnny who scrambled up. He ran to his rope and began to untie it from his saddle.
The sound of rushing hooves told him that Scott and Enrique had made it to the shack and, within, seconds, they burst round the corner of the trees and ran to him.
"Where is she? Is she alright?" Scott's worried voice asked the same questions that Johnny had asked of Enrique.
"She's on the ledge about thirty feet down," Johnny was rapidly tying the rope around his waist, the other end secured to his horse. "I'm goin' down for her. Scott, you handle Barranca. I'll holler when I've got her."
Scott nodded, his eyes never leaving his brother's face. Johnny was all business; he was showing no emotion but Scott knew his nerves were jangling with terror for the girl.
Approaching the edge, mindful of the unstable ground, Johnny turned to face his brother, easing himself backwards over the drop.
"Be careful, boy," Scott warned, his heart in his mouth. "We don't want to end up with two of you stuck down there!"
Johnny knew full well that the minuscule ledge would not hold his weight too but he said nothing, nodding grimly. Then, Scott watched as his little brother disappeared slowly below the edge.
Johnny's climb was difficult even with the rope to take his weight. Every hand or foot hold seemed to splinter and break up as he put any pressure on it. Twice his foot slipped on a rock which broke away from the wall in front of him and he had to scrabble quickly for a new perch, scraping his knees and hands. When he looked down and realised he was almost there, he heard the dog again. This time, the crazy mutt was growling and one look told him it had bared its teeth threateningly.
"Olly, you dumb sonofabitch!" he ground out then his voice took on a more soothing tone. "S'alright, boy. Just let me take care of her too. You done your bit... now let me do mine!"
At the familiar voice, the little grey hound ceased its warning growl and licked its lips in anticipation of a friendly fuss and a pat. Its fluffy tail wagged delightedly and it blinked against the falling rain as it looked up at him.
Johnny rapidly assessed the girl's injuries. The head wound - it was hard to tell; they always looked bad and there was a lot of blood but he hoped it wasn't as severe as it seemed. The arm was certainly broken; it bent back the wrong way at the elbow and Johnny grimaced. There was no gentle way of lifting her up. It was fortunate she was out of it; at least he would not be hurting her.
Bracing his feet against the slippery wet rock face so that he did not put any weight on the ledge, Johnny leaned back against the security of the rope and reached down to her. He fleetingly thanked the lord that she was so small for her age; at that angle, there was no way he could have lifted Enrique. However, as he eased her up with his right arm, she was still a dead weight and he clenched his teeth at the strain in his arms and back as his muscles bunched, twisting and dragging her around so that he could hoist her over his shoulder.
He took a moment to steady himself, allowing his breathing to return to normal, then he shouted up to Scott that he had her. Instantly the rope heaved at him and he gripped her tightly as they ascended, inch by inch, the rope scraping on the lip at the top, causing minute stones to break away and cascade down over them.
When they at last reached the safety of solid ground, Johnny laid Jemimah carefully back on the scrubby grass and rolled, panting, at her side. Scott was there instantly; Enrique now stood by Barranca, holding him steady.
"Is she...?" Scott's eyes raked over the pale still form at Johnny's side.
"I think she's just fainted but she's hurt... her arm..." Johnny gasped out, raising himself weakly on one elbow.
Scott could see that the arm was definitely broken. He raced to Johnny's saddle bags and rummaged for a bandana or some kind of cloth to bind the arm in place against her. When he turned back, he could see Johnny disappearing once more over the edge.
"Johnny!" he shouted. "What are you doing?"
"The kid's dog is down there, Scott," Johnny gave a weak humourless grin and shook his long wet fringe out of his eyes. "Can you imagine the grief I'll get if I don't fetch him up for her? Besides, he watched over her while she was... I ain't gonna leave him there!"
Scott nodded in understanding. "Be careful."
"Don't need to keep tellin' me that!" Johnny grunted and, once more, began the fearful climb down the cliff face. It seemed, this time, that he reached the narrow ledge much quicker. The dog was standing waiting for him, clearly overjoyed to see a friend again. His little tail wagged and he hopped excitedly up at Johnny as he climbed down the last few feet.
"Hold still, you dumb dog!" Johnny grumbled, reaching out a hand to try to catch the prancing creature.
The little animal's sudden leap into his arms took Johnny by surprise so that he almost lost his footing. He shouted up once more and felt the rope lifting him back up to safety. A creaking noise made him look back and he cursed under his breath at the sight of more than half of the ledge cracking away and plummeting down the drop below.
"Just in time, boy" he whispered to the dog where it was burrowed into his jacket. As though it understood his relief, it licked at his face with an eager pink tongue and Johnny had to avert his head, crinkling up his nose at the smell of wet dog, so that he could still see to finish the climb. It was now that he felt the most frightened; now that it was almost all over but he still hung out over that yawning drop that seemed to pull at him greedily. The last few minutes of that dreadful ponderous climb were more terrible than ever. His muscles ached, protesting at the way he had to cling to the rocks. His hands were scraped raw and stinging. Johnny watched the rope disappear inch by inch over the edge as it drew nearer and nearer - slowly, far too slowly.
When, at long last, Scott's hand appeared in front of his weary eyes and he felt the strength of his brother's grip heaving him up onto the grass, Johnny whooshed out a thankful breath and lay, momentarily exhausted, face down with his head on his leaden arms.
When he at last raised his head, it was to see Scott's anxious face watching him. He felt a canteen pressed to his lips and his brother's strong hand gently lifted his head so that he could take a reviving gulp of water.
"Jemimah?" Johnny croaked.
Scott sat back on his heels so that Johnny could see her. She was lying very still, her arm now bound securely to the front of her body. Enrique was tenderly wiping the blood from her face with his kerchief.
Johnny, with fresh determination, heaved himself up, declining Scott's outstretched hand with an impatient shake of his head. He crossed the grass to the unconscious girl, Enrique scrambling out of his way almost guiltily.
Johnny was glad she was still out cold; it would make lifting her onto Barranca far easier and the journey back, were she awake, would be a nightmare of agony. He only hoped they would make it back before she came to.
As carefully as they could, the brothers managed to get Jemimah onto the horse so that she was sitting astride the saddle in front of Johnny, his arms around her as he clutched the reins. He slapped his hat back on and looked back over his shoulder at them.
"Let's get movin'," he said. "I don't want to be stuck out here if she wakes up. She's gonna need Sam!" Before he moved off, Johnny turned his attention to Enrique, his voice soft. "Thanks, kid. You did good."
With that, he dug his heels into Barranca and, in seconds, had disappeared around the trees, heading for the trail back down into the valley.
Scott watched Enrique from a distance. Johnny's words of thanks had a dual effect - the youngster's chin had lifted in surprise and he had squared his shoulders as though a weight had been lifted from them. Now, however, that small display of gratitude had released something inside the youth and he was trembling, his face pale. Scott instructed him to get onto his horse with him and reached down a hand to swing him into the saddle.
He gave his excuse that Enrique's pony was worn out and could not manage to carry him on the long ride back but, in truth, he recognised the shock setting in and wanted the boy safely behind him. One injured kid was enough; the last thing they needed was for Enrique to pass out and slide from his saddle on the way back.
Before the boy could insist that he was alright and could ride Amiga instead, Scott sharply told him to hang on then spurred his horse into a gentle lope, the two ponies tied behind and, bringing up the rear, Olly dancing along without a care in the world.
As they reached the trail, the golden blob that was Barranca racing off into the distance, Scott felt the child behind him shudder and he heard a quiet sob. Now that this part of Jemimah's ordeal was over, it was clear that it had taken its toll on Enrique. In his rush of relief, he was weeping.
Scott reached back and gently patted the boy's leg.
"Johnny's right, Enrique," he said. "Thank God you were there with her."
Scott felt him take a shuddering breath and his voice, when he spoke, was thick with tears.
"I left her!"
"No, boy. You saved her life," Scott turned his head to glance at Enrique out of the corner of his eye. "She owes a lot to your family - first your father... and now you. We're grateful; we'll never forget it."
Enrique blinked. Señor Scott was not an effusive man and he had often thought that perhaps he did not like children. But his voice was sincere and his thanks freely given. Enrique, feeling a little warmer, tightened his hold on Scott's waist.
For once, Johnny ignored his father's rule about not galloping in once you pass the Lancer arch. Dust flew up all around as he reined Barranca to a skidding halt outside the front door to the hacienda. Within seconds, Murdoch and Doc Jenkins raced out and down the front steps, reaching up to gently take the child from Johnny's arms. Maria lurked in the doorway, wringing her apron with worried hands and, as they carried Jemimah in, she nodded to the weary young man on the sweating Palomino.
Johnny crumpled down from the saddle, watching his father and Sam bearing the kid away. He leaned his forehead against his horse's side for a moment, dragging in a deep rasping breath. Blinking the rain and sweat from his eyes, he raised his head at last and realised the front of his saddle was smeared with blood. Johnny turned with a grimace of concern and, leaving Barranca for once in the capable hands of José, hurried into the house.
When Scott and Enrique barged into the great room, they found Johnny and Murdoch there, waiting anxiously for news. Johnny had waved aside the suggestion that he go upstairs to clean up and change; of what relevance was a clean shirt right then? He was leaning on the mantelpiece, the fingers of his right hand tapping out an agitated rhythm. Murdoch sat in his armchair close by, his face a mask of worry.
"Has she regained consciousness?" Scott asked, his eyes darting from Johnny to Murdoch who shook his head grimly.
"Sam and Maria are upstairs with her now," his voice was gravelly. "Sam said it was a good thing and that he would set the arm more easily."
"She should've come round by now though. What if..." Johnny bit his tongue, not daring to give voice to the concern they all shared.
Enrique was standing warily by the table, hesitating to join the three men. Noticing him, Murdoch stood and crossed to the boy, his big warm hand gently patting his shoulder.
"It seems I owe you my thanks, Enrique," Murdoch intoned, holding out his hand to the boy. When Enrique eventually took it, he smiled. "If it weren't for your quick thinking... well, I don't know what we would have done."
Enrique's eyes were wide and owlish with unease and worry. Murdoch, as much for his own benefit as for the boy, muttered something about finding a glass of Maria's lemonade in the kitchen and drew Enrique along with him. It was driving him crazy to sit doing nothing; at least he could take care of one youngster.
Scott crossed to the sideboard and poured two generous brandies for Johnny and himself. They stood, anxiously sipping the fiery liquid.
"It's not just the arm and her head, Scott," Johnny suddenly announced softly. He raised fearful blue eyes and swallowed another sip of the liquor. "She's hurt bad; there was blood all over the saddle."
"What has Sam said?"
Johnny shook his head, sighing deeply. "Nuthin' yet. He and Maria are still up there."
Johnny hung his head. What if... what if the worst happened... and he'd never got the chance to put it right between them? His stomach grinched him with dread and he was grateful for his brother's warm steadying hand on his shoulder.
In Jemimah's room, Sam and Maria worked swiftly to set the arm and splint it up. It was a bad break and, though unconscious, the girl had moaned softly when Sam's steady hands deftly re-aligned the bones. Maria, though holding her firmly as instructed, grimaced at the sickening scraping noise the arm made when Sam's manipulation set it right again.
They worked together, an experienced team, to clean the nasty head wound which Sam then stitched and bandaged.
"Get the child undressed, Maria," Sam instructed. "Then we can see where else she's injured."
Her filthy boots, jeans and socks were rapidly removed, followed by her camisole and drawers. Sam exclaimed at the blood staining her under things but, in seconds, Maria smiled wisely.
"I am surprised at you, doctor," Maria softly accused. "A man of your experience... do you not recognise a woman when you see one? This is no child."
Sam Jenkins frowned in confusion then gaped in surprise at the kindly Mexican lady, who was cradling Jemimah in her arms.
"This 'injury'," she explained as though to a simpleton. "This is nothing that women have not suffered before - since the very beginning." She smiled, her brown eyes twinkling.
Sam, the light finally dawning, had the grace to blush and stutter that he was heartily glad it was nothing severe. Maria clicked her tongue in reproof.
"Nothing severe? It is severe enough, señor. Only a man could make such a remark!"
She laid Jemimah back against the crisp white pillows, leaving Sam to stare ruefully after her. At the door, she turned, shaking her head. "I will fetch all that she will need. I think, for once, I can be more help than you, señor. Los hombres saben nada..."
Eyebrows raised, Sam watched her leave then set about folding a sling for Jemimah's arm so that, once she was cleaned up and in a fresh nightgown, it would be secured. He chuckled at his own stupidity, relieved that there was no horrible internal injury to worry over. This little Lancer would live to fight another day.
By the time Murdoch was allowed in to see his girl, she was lying back against the pillows, wearing a fresh white nightgown. Maria had insisted on staying and was perched at the foot of the bed, regarding her with a maternal glow.
While Maria had washed and dressed Jemimah, Sam had taken the opportunity to speak with his old friend, apprising him of everything and now the big Scot felt somewhat overwhelmed and unsure of the right thing to say. In truth, he was feeling a tad watery-eyed - not just because she was going to be alright but because his 'little girl' was growing up.
He sat in the chair by the bed, enfolding her slim hand in his own huge paw and sent up a silent prayer to Andrew... It was at that moment that Jemimah turned her pale little face towards him and opened her eyes.
"Well now," Murdoch smiled. "You gave us quite a scare, young lady."
Jemimah swallowed painfully. The laudanum was taking effect and her eyelids drooped drowsily. But, before she could sleep, she had something she needed to ask.
"What's my punishment going to be?"
Though she dreaded the answer, she needed to know before she could settle. Jemimah knew full well that the ride to the line shack had been a test to earn back some trust... and she had failed miserably. Enrique had warned her not to try to rescue Olly and she had stubbornly taken no notice - again! It didn't matter how many times she was told; her temper and obstinacy always got the better of her!
Murdoch's thick grey eyebrows lifted in surprise but one look at her pensive little face told him that she was worrying over the consequences of her actions.
"Well," he began. "I think, for a start, you need to train that darn dog to stay away from the edge of cliffs in future."
Behind him, Doc Jenkins smothered a snort and continued to pack away his supplies in the large black bag he always carried.
"As to your punishment..." Murdoch paused and Jemimah cringed. "I think you've brought that about yourself. There'll be no riding until that arm's healed."
Jemimah nodded sleepily. That meant she wouldn't get to ride Amiga again for weeks! How she was wishing she had listened to Enrique.
As if able to read her thoughts, Murdoch said, "You, young lady, are as stubborn as any natural-born Lancer! You might try listening to Enrique now and then; that young man has a good head on his shoulders!"
Jemimah blushed, squirming.
"Aw, Daddy, he's getting worse than Olly; just traipsing round after me all the time. Not like it used to be."
Murdoch smiled knowingly at Maria. "Well, my daughter," he explained softly, his big hand patting hers. "That's because he loves you."
"Can't think why. I'm nowt special."
"O wad some Power the giftie gie us, To see oursels as ithers see us!" Murdoch quoted with a grin. "Rabbie Burns - a man of great insight said that. Do you know what he meant by it?"
Jemimah shook her head slightly then winced as the simple movement made it feel like her brain would explode!
Sam lightly touched Murdoch's shoulder to indicate that he should leave her to rest.
"He meant..." the big man stood up, smiling down on his little girl (for so she was and would be for a few years yet). "... that we should all be lucky to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Enrique feels very deeply for you and, today, he and Johnny and Scott saved your life."
He leaned over her, brushing her cheek lightly with a kiss.
"You mean a great deal to all of us, Jemimah."
Her eyes were drooping closed now, almost asleep. "Even Johnny?" she murmured.
Murdoch straightened, regarding her quietly. She was fast asleep when he finally answered.
Jemimah lay propped up on her pillows. The curtains were still open but she could tell by the fading light that evening was drawing in. With her good hand she snagged the shawl which Maria had draped about her slender shoulders, snuggling into its soft warmth. Her mind was busy with so many thoughts.
He loved her, that was what Murdoch had said and she guessed it was probably so. But, try as she might, Jemimah could not see her amigo as anything other than that. He was great fun, of course... well, not so much lately. And he was kinda pretty to look at; his eyes were interesting and he could make a stone skim five times before it sank! That was pretty good going.
But love? That sort of girl and boy type of love?
Jemimah knew she couldn't summon that kind of feeling for him and it made her sad. Enrique was her friend and he deserved a girl who would want him and hang on his every word. All she would do is fight with him and make him unhappy; they just weren't suited. Young as she was, Jemimah knew full well she could not be what Enrique wished for. Her heart was set elsewhere...
And that led her to her second thought... Johnny.
She knew perfectly well that at only 13, she was merely a child to Johnny. But, then again, as today's miraculous turn of events had shown her, she would not be a child for ever. Teresa counted herself as grown up and she was 17 - only another four years to go. Jemimah could wait.
She no longer saw this wait as something endless to be endured. Rather, she felt empowered by it; Johnny was, she had decided, a prize that she was going to have to earn. He was something she could only receive when she was completely ready and deserving of him. Somehow, she felt that, when that time arrived, he would then be ready for her too.
Of course, there was a nine year age difference and, right then, it was a yawning chasm. He was a grown man, she was still a school kid! But, watch out, Johnny Lancer - Jemimah grinned to herself in the twilight - one day, perhaps not that far away, she would be a woman grown. And when that glorious day came, maybe he would have to prove himself worthy of her!
Jemimah smoothed back her long dark hair, fingering the bandage gently. She had heard it said, probably by Scott, that there is no hunter in nature more formidable and ruthless than man. But, she knew, there was no man as endlessly patient and resilient as a woman who has made up her mind!
Smiling, Jemimah drifted on to her third thought... Pony.
Maria had been up earlier to check on her, fussing like a mother hen over her 'pequeña mujer' (little woman) and had innocently announced that the visitors had arrived; they were taking refreshments downstairs and Juanito was muy excitado to see his little girlfriend again. Maria could have no way of knowing the surge of fear and jealousy her simple remark caused.
Jemimah knew Pony was special to Johnny and, of course, he would be glad to see her. But... how glad? Had he forgotten all about the fact that she was stuck in bed, alone and injured? It was almost supper time and, as yet, he had not even shown his face to check whether she was alright. He must still be mad at her. Maybe, he was angrier than before - after all, she'd now had to be rescued twice! Jemimah hung her head and moped. She supposed that Johnny saw her as a liability; a pest - he would be relieved to have that other kid there for a while instead.
Though she tried to stop them, Jemimah felt heavy tears prick at her eyes, threatening to spill over. She swiped at them angrily. Lord, she was turning into such a... a... female!
A light tapping at the door startled her and then she relaxed, realising it must be Maria with her supper tray.
"Come in," she called out.
The door opened but it was not Maria who stepped in from the landing.
"Hey, kid," Johnny's gentle smile and warm blue eyes were back. He stood, a little self-consciously, by the door as though nervous to approach her. His hands rubbed uncertainly down the sides of his calzoneras. Jemimah noted that he looked freshly scrubbed and was wearing his flowered blue shirt, her favourite. Of course, Maria would have chivvied everyone to make themselves presentable for their visitors. Well, she would not have to worry about that; she would be stuck up in her room for a few more days at least.
A hearty sigh escaped before she could squash it and Johnny moved closer, tilting his head on one side as he watched her.
"You feelin' poorly?" he asked, hooking his thumbs into his belt.
Strangely shy, Jemimah shook her head.
Johnny glanced down at his boots (clean for once) then his warm blue eyes caught hers and his wide smile was genuine.
"You think you might feel up to a trip downstairs then? I got someone who's itchin' to meet you."
"For real?" she gasped, her mouth a perfect 'o' of rapture. "I'm allowed to come down? But Doc Sam said..."
Johnny paced quickly over to her, placing his finger on her lips to hush her, darting furtive glances over his shoulders as though the doctor may leap out of the closet at any moment. Jemimah beamed, a giggle bubbling up inside her at his playfulness. He was back; her Johnny was back!
"Shhh! What Sam don't know won't hurt him!" he hushed her. "Besides, Pony's been pesterin' my life out. If I don't fetch you down, I'm only gonna have to get mad at her for sneakin' up here instead an' I'm too tired to be whompin' the both of you!"
As he spoke, Johnny was pulling back the quilt and sliding her little woollen slippers onto her feet. Jemimah was sitting up eagerly but, at the mention of 'whomping', her face fell. He noticed and became serious again.
"What is it?"
Jemimah lowered her lashes in shame. "Johnny, I need to apologise to you. I was really stupid about the horse an' then about Olly. Enrique warned me not to try to get him an' you could've been hurt an... I deserved everything I got. I deserved the whippin'. I don't blame you for being so cross with me and I suppose I deserved this too." She indicated her broken arm in its sling. "I wouldn't be surprised if you never talked to me again."
Throughout her little speech, Johnny had found himself getting more than a little choked up. The kid looked so forlorn. Scott was right; it was time he quit dancing around her.
"Aw, hush," he smiled softly, blue eyes twinkling. "Here, you just put your good arm around my neck..."
Jemimah obeyed and, in a trice, he had scooped her up into his arms like a knight in one of those tales of old. The girl nestled into him, breathing in that delicious 'Johnny smell' as he headed to the stairs.
"It's a good thing you're so scrawny," he twinkled down at her. "You don't weigh no more'n that pup of yours!"
Eyes shining, she laughed back at him and, for a moment, they looked steadily at each other and he paused.
"You're still my best girl, huh?"
Jemimah nodded, grinning back, her good left arm around his broad shoulders. He hefted her up suddenly, pretending to drop her, so that they both laughed out loud then he started down the stairs once more.
Jemimah's heart thrilled. She snuggled against him, revelling in the sensation of being carried in his strong arms.
"One day, I'll be a woman, Johnny," she smiled to herself. "An' then, I'm sorry, but the way I see it you're goin' to be stuck with me forever and ever."
Anne Haslam April 2013