Disclaimer: These characters (well, the Lancers) are not mine though, if
they were, I would certainly show them more love, respect and gratitude than
Scott is 28; Johnny is 23.
I was asked to revisit Jemimah's younger days and have her join forces with Johnny to play a prank together, specifically to see how Murdoch would react. The idea intrigued me and this is the result... this takes place not long after Pony's visit in 'Partners in Crime'.
Jemimah froze with the warm buttered roll halfway to her open mouth and gaped in dismay at the black specks which were scattered across the tiles of the kitchen floor.
She hastily stuffed the bread into her mouth and chewed morosely. Teresa would make a real song and dance about her forgetting to set the traps again. It was one of her chores; that, and disposing of any unfortunate rodents who were greedy enough to venture into them. And Teresa would be in at any moment.
Jemimah's green eyes glinted suddenly with a wicked twinkle and she smiled around the huge bite of fresh bread. She nimbly hopped onto the counter to reach up to one of the higher shelves. Grasping a handful from one of the jars she found there, she smirked and jumped down again, slipping her find into her apron pocket.
"Buenos días, pequeña. Es un día hermoso. Has hecho tus tareas?" (Good morning, little one. It is a beautiful day. Have you done your chores?) Maria patted her cheek as she bustled in, trying to don her apron one-handed.
"Er..." Though her Spanish was improving day by day and she had understood most of the little housekeeper's greeting, Jemimah was stumbling over the last part when Teresa swept in through the door, frowning as her sharp eyes spotted the scattering of mouse droppings littering the clean tiles.
"No, she has not!" Teresa snapped, waving an irritated hand at the evidence of the younger girl's negligence. "Jemimah, you forgot to set the traps again!" she accused.
Jemimah's lips firmed into a thin militant line and she was just about to launch her argument when the kitchen door opened and Johnny ambled in, seeking out the coffee pot. Scott was right behind him, politely covering his mouth to stifle a yawn.
Johnny poured a cup of the dark brew and passed it to his brother then, reaching for his own cup, he looked over to the ladies. "Mornin'! What's goin' on?"
It was more than obvious that Teresa was unhappy and, from the look on the child's obstinate little face, the object of her disapproval was Jemimah who seemed about to launch a counter-attack.
"Jemimah's slacking at her chores... again!" the older girl huffed, hands on her hips. "The floor is covered with mouse-droppings because she didn't set the traps last night. I don't know why we bother, Maria; we may as well leave all the food out after dinner and invite every rodent on the ranch to come in for their supper!"
Jemimah scowled and risked a glance at Johnny and Scott. Both were smiling and Scott flashed her a subtle wink. Jemimah smiled back then returned her attention to Teresa, still mid-rant. She rolled her eyes to heaven then straightened her features hastily when Maria waved her wooden spoon warningly at the child's disrespect.
There came a lull in Teresa's scolding and Jemimah leapt in. "Mice droppings? Nah, don't think so, Teresa," she mused, crouching to study the black specks. "I think these are rats."
"Rats?!" Teresa's face showed her revulsion.
"Crees que son los excrementos de rata?" (You think these are rat-droppings?) Maria clutched her throat in alarm.
"Yep. They're too big to be mice and settin' the traps wouldn't have made no difference anyway; they're too small for rats to get in."
Maria exclaimed in disgust. Everyone knew how she hated rats.
"You're just trying to wriggle your way out of..." Teresa began then halted in horror.
Jemimah had just picked up a particularly large dropping and was sniffing it curiously. Teresa was about to sharply tell her to put it down at once when the child popped it into her mouth and chewed it thoughtfully.
"Yep. Definitely rat. No doubt about it."
She licked her lips and gazed up innocently as the others all reacted with utter amazement, repugnant expressions on their faces.
Teresa gagged and clapped a hand over her mouth, going somewhat green. She hastened from the room in the direction of the bathroom along the corridor.
"Jemimah, what on earth...?" Scott was aghast while Maria was stunned into silence. Only Johnny seemed to suspect and his lips were twitching into a wide smile.
The door swung open once more as Murdoch strolled in. Catching sight of Teresa hurtling down the corridor and noticing how the rest of the family seemed to be frozen in place, he glanced anxiously around. "What's wrong?"
Jemimah shrugged as she straightened, licking her fingers. "Dunno. I had no idea Teresa disliked raisins so much!"
She moved to the table and cheekily helped herself to a large gulp from Johnny's coffee cup, chuckling when he swiped playfully at her rump.
"Girl, you do beat all!" he grinned at her wicked expression and, slinging an arm around her, mussed her dark hair.
Scott was laughing now and Maria, gradually getting over her shock, was shaking her head and waving the wooden spoon at the girl.
"Is someone going to let me in on the joke?" Murdoch asked, his eyes twinkling.
The family, even Murdoch, was still smiling over Jemimah's raisin trick when Teresa returned to the table. Though she said no more about the traps, she was obviously far from happy about being the butt of Jemimah's latest joke and declined any breakfast, sipping at her coffee as though it were bitter lemon juice and glaring at the child across the table
Murdoch noticed the animosity between the two girls and sighed. It was true - Teresa was a little too fond of playing the bossy card and he intended to speak with her about that. But Jemimah's tricks and shenanigans were becoming almost as legendary as Johnny's and it was high time he put his foot down before she took it too far.
"I think it's safe to say that we all have a sense of humour," he began. "The occasional joke is part of being a family. Why, my brothers and I used to rag the life out of each other." He paused, stirring his coffee and chuckling at the memory.
His sons smiled; it was hard to imagine their father as a boy. Even harder to imagine him playing any kind of prank though they knew from his stories that he had been a young devil in his time.
Murdoch now eyed the little girl beadily. "But I expect you to be on your best behaviour in school, young lady." There was no mistaking the warning in his tone. "Understand me?"
"Of course, Daddy." Green eyes wide with innocence, Jemimah looked for all the world as though butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.
"Hmm." Murdoch was not entirely convinced. He watched as the girl hopped from the table and collected her books and little straw hat from the dresser where she had dumped them earlier. She was as cute as a button and Murdoch had difficulty maintaining his stern expression.
"Gotta go, Enrique's waitin'!" Jemimah donned her hat and planted an exuberant kiss on Murdoch's cheek as she skipped to the door, pausing only to wave at Scott and Johnny as they called their goodbyes to her.
"That girl..." Murdoch smiled indulgently.
Teresa plunked down her cup and scowled at the door, huffing out an aggrieved sigh.
"Alright! I know you told me not to," Jemimah groused petulantly, thumbing back her hat and flinging one leg across the pommel of her saddle as they rode home. "But, well... I thought it was worth a try."
"Yes, but you should've known Quinny wouldn't fall for it," Enrique persisted.
"I s'pose not," she sighed. "It was a long shot but I had to give him some excuse, didn't I?"
"You'd have been better off to just do the homework," the boy insisted. "The rest of us did it."
Jemimah raised her eyes to heaven. "I already told you... I forgot! I woulda' done it. Weren't my fault... not really."
"So, what are you going to do now?"
She clutched the folded paper in her hand and eyed it miserably. This was not the first time she had been given a note to take home and Murdoch had told her most emphatically that she should not try to hide such things from him. Yes, he took a very dim view of that kind of deception. Well, any kind of deception actually!
"You ain't goin' to try to burn it like last time, are you?"
Jemimah scowled. "'Course not!"
"Well, you did before!"
"Enrique, that was when I was just a child..." she scoffed.
"Huh! Wasn't that long ago..."
"Well, I'm not goin' to burn it this time so just belt up about it!"
They rode along in silence. Jemimah brooded over the note while Enrique watched her sympathetically from the corner of his eye. As they approached the Lancer arch and drew nearer to the hacienda, he tried again.
"So?" he asked softly.
She sighed. "Nowt I can do, is there?" She looked sorrowfully at her friend. "Gotta give it him."
Enrique reached out to pat her shoulder in support then, as she slid down from Amiga's back, he nodded to her and carried on down the lane.
"She's in bed? Already?" Scott glanced across at the grandfather clock to check the time. It wasn't yet half past five.
"I doubt she's actually in bed but she is in her room," Murdoch confirmed. "An early bedtime for the rest of the month; homework, dinner, then straight up to bed."
"What did she do this time?" Johnny glanced at the ceiling as though he could see through it to the little girl.
Murdoch lowered himself into a chair by the fireside and sipped his whisky. Now that his lecture had been delivered, he was beginning to see the funny side. He actually sniggered.
"What? What did she do?" Johnny sat down and leaned eagerly towards his father.
Scott joined them, sensing a funny story in the offing. "Out with it, Murdoch!"
The big Scot straightened his mouth into a disapproving frown but it was difficult; the smile insisted on coming back no matter how hard he tried to tamp it down.
"It must've been a good one!" Johnny was already grinning in anticipation. "Hey..." A thought struck him. "You didn't whomp her, did you?"
Murdoch shook his head. "No, though I probably should." He finally grinned and let out the chuckle that had been brewing. "Jemimah brought home a note today."
Johnny and Scott glanced at each other, remembering the aftermath of the last note the girl had brought home.
"No Johnny, no attempts at forgery or arson this time!" Murdoch quipped. "She gave me the note as soon as she came in. I think that's why I decided to go easy on her."
"And the crime?" Scott asked.
"It seems that she forgot to complete her homework assignment and, when her teacher called her on it, she..." Murdoch chortled once more, causing both boys to grin and urge him to continue. "She claimed that it was against her religion to put ink to paper after four o' clock during the month of February!"
"What?" Scott laughed and shook his head while Johnny guffawed.
"Yes - against her religion. Apparently the Church of England frowns upon such things. It is an ancient custom dating back to the pagan rites of the druids!"
"Druids? What's that?" Johnny was still laughing and now his nose wrinkled up in bafflement.
"Well, at least you can see the funny side, sir," Scott said, reaching for the decanter to refill his father's glass.
"Yes, however I think, from his letter, that young Dan Quinn was far from amused. And, of course, I gave that young lady a suitably stern lecture that seemed to do the trick. She certainly sloped off to bed with her tail between her legs!"
Johnny sprawled back on the sofa, tossing a cushion into the air and catching it. "It's a good thing February is such a short month," he mused.
"Johnny, that's exactly what Jemimah said!"
Allowed downstairs to eat her dinner with the rest of the family, Jemimah sat with her head bowed and only glanced furtively up at her father now and again. She had escaped a licking and was still fearful that Murdoch may change his mind at the last minute. He caught her eye now as he eased back in his chair, wincing at the persistent ache in his lower back.
Murdoch's blue-grey gaze narrowed and, as the girl hastily looked back at her plate, he stifled a chuckle.
"Your back playing up again, sir?" Scott spoke from the other side of the table.
"When is it not?" Murdoch griped and reached back to press on the place where the pain knifed at him.
"You must have overdone it when you were paddling Jemimah earlier," Scott quipped and grinned at the little girl's outraged expression.
"Didn't get paddled!" she retorted crossly, throwing a disdainful look at her 'big brother'. "Goin' to bed at seven every night is a harsh enough sentence."
"You just eat up," Johnny prodded her and smiled at his father and brother as the girl obediently shoveled a forkful of beef stew into her mouth.
Johnny watched her and a thought drifted into his head.
Jemimah trudged up the stairs very slowly, making sure her boots stomped loudly on every step so that Murdoch would understand her (not so silent) protest.
"Jemimah! Would you like me to assist you up the stairs?" Murdoch's voice carried through from the great room.
She paused and considered, worrying at her lower lip. Would she like her father's assistance? No, she definitely would not! She made her way much more quietly up the last five stairs and shuffled truculently along the dim landing to her room.
"Hey, kid!" There came a sharp whisper from her open door and Johnny's head peered round, beckoning her eagerly. "C'mere!"
Puzzled out of her disgruntlement, she hurried to her room where Johnny ushered her in and closed the door behind her.
He was already making his way to the wicker chair at her bedside. "You don't look too happy to be sent to bed at this hour."
She pouted and flopped down on the bed. "Huh! T'ain't even dark yet! Would you be?"
"I guess not." He grinned down at her and, within seconds, she was laughing at herself. "Could've been worse though. It sure was funny... you come up with some wild ideas, chica."
Jemimah basked in his praise. "I s'pose so but you're the best prankster, Johnny," she gushed.
He smirked and was silent for a moment, blue eyes intently fixed on the beads around his wrist which he now fiddled with almost shyly.
"Can you imagine what we might pull off if we joined up together?" His voice was very soft.
"You mean a prank?" She sat forward, the lamp light sparkling in her eyes.
"Ooh, what you got in mind?" Jemimah had already forgotten Murdoch's lengthy lecture about toeing the line. Johnny's suggestion had sent her imagination whizzing wildly off in all directions.
"Well, I don't know yet... but it could be somethin' good." Johnny looked up and tilted his head as he smiled at her. "You game?"
"Am I? 'Course I am! It'll be the best yet!"
He laughed, mussing her hair, and rose from the chair, heading for the door. "Alright. I'll let you know when I get an idea worked out," he grinned boyishly. "Here!"
He tossed her white nightgown at her suddenly so that she missed it and it landed over her head. Laughing, she tugged it off and watched him as he stood at the door, looking back at her.
"You better get to bed, honey. If the ol' man gets a notion to check on you, he won't be very happy to find you still up... and I can't be losin' my partner 'cos she's banished to her room 'til spring!"
He winked at her and went out.
Partner! Jemimah speedily got out of her clothes and wiggled into the nightgown, a wide smile on her face and all thoughts of her ill-treatment at being sent to bed dwindling away into nothingness in the dawn of this new delight.
The next morning, Murdoch's back was worse and, by that evening when the boys had returned from their day's labours and Jemimah was home from school, the pain was so bad that he could not straighten properly and was hobbling about the great room, hunched over and grimacing.
Teresa had been trying for most of the day to convince him to take to his bed and was so exasperated she had more or less washed her hands of him. Jelly had been wafting in and out, doing very little other than irritate the invalid who, by dinner time, was ready to throttle the old timer.
"I told you, boss," Jelly began again, oblivious of the way Murdoch ground his teeth and raised his eyes to heaven as if to implore the forbearance of the Almighty. "You cain't do no better than my liniment rub. Some of that will cure what ails ya' quicker than you can say Jack Robinson! Never been known to fail, you can depend on it!"
"Whether it can actually cure lumbago is disputable, Jelly but the smell is certainly powerful enough to knock you out at a hundred paces," Scott shuddered, remembering the last time Jelly had persuaded a desperate Murdoch to try the homemade remedy.
"Yeah, I found a dead cat under the porch this summer," Johnny pulled a face. "An' it smelled like a rose at the side of that grease you smeared all over Murdoch. Maria had to burn all the sheets off his bed."
"I will not be using any liniment... and that is final!" Murdoch barked then winced at the stab of pain his bad temper induced.
Greatly offended, Jelly clamped his mouth shut, his lower lip protruding like a sulking child. "Well, that's the last time I offer my know-how, you can be sure of that! I won't bother you no more." He hiked up his baggy pants and turned to stalk from the room in high dudgeon.
"Jelly, I'd take it easy on those trousers if I were you," Scott smirked. "One more yank like that and we're going to see far more of you than either you... or we... would wish."
Johnny was tilting his head and studying the ragged clothing with an incredulous expression on his handsome face. "Yeah, how long you had those pants, Jelly? I think it's only the dirt that's holdin' them together." He sniggered and hopped out of reach as the old man took a swipe at his rear end.
"Plenty o' wear in these yet. Good, serviceable material..."
"That might well have been the case when you bought them, Jelly. When was that?" Scott pushed.
Jelly stuttered and smoothed at his beard self-consciously. "Well now..."
"Must've been before the war," Johnny laughed.
"Which one?" Scott quipped back.
"Jelly, you look worse than the old scarecrow at Hackett's farm!" Johnny was enjoying teasing his friend.
"You young whippersnapper..." Jelly blustered, turning from one brother to the other. "I cain't hardly credit you would even speak o' that... that there... effigy of evil! (He pronounced it 'eff-ee-gee' at which Scott snorted) An' here with your poor pa ailin' so. Why, t'ain't lucky. You want him to get better, don't ya'?"
Everyone turned then as Maria came in, carrying a warm stone wrapped in a piece of old flannel. She fussed about, placing it just so at Murdoch's back while he ineffectually tried to bat her hands away.
Finally, clicking her tongue disapprovingly, she straightened and sternly admonished the big man. "Si sólo tiene que escuchar y resto correctamente, se recuperan." (If you would only listen and rest properly, you would soon get well.) This said, she sniffed and marched back to the kitchen, muttering about fools of men and how they deserved to suffer.
Scott and Johnny regarded their father with sympathy. It was obvious he was in great discomfort; his face had a greyish tinge and his short temper was only due to the pain he was attempting to combat.
"I done telled ya' - my liniment's the only thing..."
Scott decided to spare his poor father any more of Jelly's inane prattle. "I think Sam might disagree with that, Jelly."
"Hmph, doctors! All they do is hand out a hefty bill. Pushin' their little pills, pokin' an' proddin'... wouldn't never let no doctor get his paws on me!"
"I wouldn't worry too much, Jelly," Scott smiled at the old man's huffing and puffing. "I think the only thing Sam could prescribe for you is a new pair of pants!"
Johnny grinned and perched on the arm of the sofa, blue eyes contemplatively fixed on Jelly and a grain of an idea forming in his agile mind.
Sam neatly replaced his instruments in his usual black bag and thanked Maria for the bowl of water. Washing his hands, he looked back over his shoulder at his old friend who was gasping and leaning heavily on Scott's arm as he tried to sit up.
"You ought to be in bed, flat on your back with a warm stone to ease those muscles. You know they've gone into spasm as well as I do. As long as you keep trying to move around, they'll have no chance to rest and the swelling will get worse."
Sam turned, drying his hands on the towel and shaking his head.
"No, don't even bother, Murdoch. Obstinacy, thy name is Lancer!" He glared at his patient who glared right back. "Alright, have it your own way but you will rest. Maria will make up a bed of sorts for you on the sofa. No arguments and..." The doctor went back to his bag and produced a brown canvas contraption which he proceeded to unravel. "I'd like you to give this a try for me."
"What is it, doc?" Johnny fingered the odd thing. "Looks kinda like..."
"Like the girdle the widow Hargis wears!" Scott hooted.
"Oh yeah? Zee been telling her secrets?" Johnny laughed.
Scott blushed and pointed out that he had been the one to untie the poor widow on the night of Zee's escape attempt that night. "I tried to be a gentleman and avert my eyes. Lord, did I try!"
"The salesman from Hervey and Morgan left this with me a week ago. The minute I saw it, I thought of you!" Sam's eyes gleamed at Murdoch's expression of horror. "The Amazing Lumbar Harness! It's a supportive girdle, or belt, which is wrapped and buckled around the lower back. Promises to generate new life and vigor; cure debility, sleeplessness, rheumatism, sciatica, lumbago, torpid liver and kindred ailments. You'll see there are two pockets in the back into which these stones are placed after heating in the stove. The young man claimed it would aid restful sleep and ease muscle soreness associated with back conditions. Well, I think it's a pretty wild claim but... can't hurt to try it."
Murdoch gritted his teeth at the way both his sons avoided his eye. Johnny was stroking his nose, his head dipped down and a decided smirk playing about his lips, whereas Scott had suddenly taken to squinting out of the window, apparently absorbed in the way the clouds were scudding across the evening sky.
"Sam, I don't think..." Murdoch started to refuse, a blush of acute embarrassment staining his pale face.
"Now Murdoch, it's only for two weeks; that's all I can give you anyway. By then the salesman will be back to find out whether I have an order for him or not. He'll expect to take the sample harness back with him if I don't buy it. What have we got to lose?"
Johnny quit grinning long enough to listen hard to the doctor's words. Then he smiled again.
Johnny followed Sam out to his buggy and, as they chatted, he scanned the yard for his quarry. Sure enough, Jelly ambled into view and lurked at the far end of the veranda, doing his best to pretend he wasn't listening. Johnny hid a smirk; he knew his old friend wouldn't be able to resist nosing into what the doctor had to say.
"If that harness thing works, can't he keep it?" Johnny asked quietly then, raising his voice so that Jelly would easily be able to hear, added, "You sure you can only give Murdoch so little time, doc?"
Sam shook his head resolutely. "I'm sorry, Johnny. Two weeks at the outside then his time is up, so to speak. I wish I could offer more but..."
"I understand, doc."
Johnny passed the black bag up to Sam and stepped back as the buggy moved off. Staring after it, the young man made sure to paste an unhappy look on his face, his shoulders sadly slumped. Sure enough, Jelly staggered over.
"What's he say? What was that about only giving the boss two weeks?"
Johnny heaved a heartfelt sigh. "That's right, Jelly. Hard to believe, ain't it? Two weeks." He stared despondently into the distance. "I sensed this time it was different. Murdoch... well... he must be sicker than we realised. Place won't be the same without him."
Jelly opened and closed his mouth like a landed catfish but, for once, could find no words. Johnny clapped an understanding hand on his scraggy old shoulder.
"I hope you're not going to disrespect your old friend now, at the end?"
Johnny gestured to the tatty pants and patched vest. "Surely, you'll be goin' to get measured for a new suit... for the funeral?"
"A... a suit?"
"Why, sure! For someone like Murdoch - your boss, your friend... who took you in and made you welcome..." Johnny's words were having a profound effect on Jelly who was looking somewhat ashamed of himself and deeply moved. "Made you one of the family... Jelly, I know you can see that a new suit will show the... depth of your respect."
Not wishing to appear a penny-pincher, Jelly still felt bound to point out the expense a new suit would incur.
Johnny hid a smile. Jelly was as tight with the purse-strings as the old man! "It's an investment!" he argued. "After the funeral, you can use it to go courtin' if you've a mind to!"
The shock showed plainly on Jelly's face. "Courtin'? T'ain't fittin' ter speak of such things in the same breath as your pa's funeral! What you thinkin' of, boy?"
Johnny shrugged. "Life must go on, Jelly."
"So, what do you think?"
"Oh Johnny, it's brilliant!" Jemimah chortled, rocking back and forth on her bed, her skinny knees drawn up almost under her chin. "And he really thinks Murdoch is dyin'?"
Johnny joined in her laughter, the memory of Jelly's face assailing him once more. He couldn't work out which had upset the old timer more - the news about Murdoch or the idea of shelling out for a new suit of clothes.
"Sure he does but we won't keep it up for long; just long enough for Jelly to make a trip to the tailor's. And I need you to back me up, turn on the tears, y'know. You're good at that!"
"What d'you mean?" Jemimah was indignant.
"Aw, you know very well. The last time Scott was about to dust you, you cried so hard I thought you might shrink his pants!"
Jemimah scowled. It was true; she had used tears to get out of Scott's imminent retribution, only to end up being walloped by Murdoch instead who claimed to have none of his son's sensibilities and wasn't fooled for a minute.
"Straight from the frying pan and into the fire!" Johnny sniggered. "The old man whomps way harder than Scott!"
Jemimah huffed and gave Johnny a shove before shuffling down in her bed and covering her head with the quilt, effectively putting an end to their conversation. She could still hear his merry laughter as he left the room and slid down the banister.
The next day found poor Murdoch stiff as a board, jaw clenched in pain and clearly exhausted after a night of very little sleep and a great deal of discomfort. He had finally been persuaded to allow Scott to strap him into the harness contraption but, from his groans and muttered expletives, the family sensed he was far from impressed with the thing. He complained at length of the two flat hot stones digging into his back and he was sure that, far from aiding his recovery, the harness was an instrument of torture which would be more likely to make him worse and probably paralyze him into the bargain
While the others sat morosely at the kitchen table, listening to their father's distant moans, Jelly ambled through with a mug of strong black coffee for the patient.
"How you feelin' there, boss?"
"Sam's treatment is going to kill me quicker!" Murdoch snapped, not far from reaching the end of his rope.
Jelly hurried back into the kitchen, visibly shaken and reaffirming that all doctors were charlatans; thieving shysters who, despite all their new-fangled inventions, knew far less about healing than the old redskin medicine men!
Jemimah sped through her morning chores and, it being a Saturday, rushed to the window to make sure that Jelly was making his usual trip into town. Sure enough, he was hitching the team to the wagon. She retrieved the note from its hiding place in the bottom drawer of Murdoch's desk (he didn't often need to look in there and, besides, was in no fit state to be working at his desk anyhow) and, shoving it into her pocket and collecting her hat en route, raced to the door.
"Goin' into town with Jelly! See you later, Daddy!"
Skipping out of the front door, she suddenly remembered the reason she was joining the old man and instantly slowed to a subdued walk, head dipped down and a sorrowful expression on her face.
"Alright if I go with you, Jelly?" she asked softly. "Got an errand to run for Scott while he's out at Silver Creek today."
Jemimah nodded sadly as she climbed up onto the wagon. "Yep, he wants me to take this order in for Mr. Morley."
Jelly had finally joined her on the wagon seat and he cocked his head at the scrap of paper she produced from the pocket of her overalls. "What is it?" At a single glance, Jelly had realised he had no chance of deciphering the flowing cursive script. "Ain't got my spectacles with me or I'd read it fer myself."
Jemimah hid a smile and, as the wagon rolled out, began to explain. "It's the order for... for the headstone... for Daddy. Scott's put that he wants a white marble marker, real elegant with a reclining cherub."
"Reclining what?" Jelly looked alarmed as though she had just uttered a cuss word.
"Cherub. It's like a naked baby angel. You know."
"Course I know. I've seen 'em!"
Jemimah hid her smile while the man beside her chewed thoughtfully on his whiskers.
"It's got to be somethin' right special for Murdoch," she insisted.
"Why, I know that but..." Jelly's eyes wrinkled up in doubt. "Is Scott sure that... well... the boss would approve of having a nekkid baby cavortin' acrossed his eternal resting place?" Jelly knew his friend well and, to him, Murdoch Lancer and reclining cherubs didn't go together.
Jemimah looked suitably grave. "That's what he's written here and if anyone knows what's proper and what ain't, it's Scott."
Jelly could not argue with that so he clicked his tongue at the horses and snapped the lines against their backs to spur them on.
"Here, you want me to read the sentiment?" She looked almost excited and Jelly felt dazed. Why wasn't the girl beside herself with grief? Johnny was the same - talking about goin' courtin' and new suits. It was positively disrespectful. And he hadn't noticed any undue sorrow or mourning coming from anyone else in the house either.
Jemimah cleared her throat importantly and, flicking a tiny glance from the corner of her eye at her companion, she began to read. "Here lies Murdoch Iain Lancer... then that's where the dates will go... What lies behind him and what lies before is small matter compared to what lied within him." She paused at the pronounced twitch Jelly performed as he gaped at her. Then, schooling her face into a suitably serious expression, continued. "He always said his back was killing him but nobody believed it."
Jelly gasped. "You little varmint, it don't say no such thing! Why, you oughtta be whupped!"
He plucked the note from her hand and endeavored to make out the baffling loops and flourishes scrawled across the paper.
"It does say that, honest it does!" Jemimah insisted. "Scott wrote it an' I think it's beautiful. Scott knows the proprieties," she added unnecessarily.
Jelly bristled, wanting to argue but knowing that he couldn't deny Scott Lancer's superior education. Surely to goodness, Scott wasn't going to erect such a mockery on his father's grave? Jelly stroked thoughtfully at his beard.
"Well, I'm comin' into Morley's with ya'," he announced. "If Scott has trusted you with the ordering of your pa's marker, then I aim to make sure it gets done right. Besides..." he raised his chin, not noticing the girl's look of dismay. "That ol' Morley would rob Saint Peter at the pearly gates if he give him half a chance. If'n I'm there, he won't try to squeeze no more outta you than his right."
"No Jelly," Jemimah argued. "Scott asked me to do it."
"I'm comin' with you an' that's final. T'ain't no job fer a young 'un." Jelly's chin went up with authority. "I got to make a little visit to the tailor's while we's in town but we can stop by Morley's first an' get it done. You can tell Scott I made sure that ol' skinflint didn't get more'n he oughtta."
Jemimah worried her lip, desperately trying to think of a way to get rid of Jelly. This was a complication she hadn't envisaged. When she and Johnny had composed the fake order, they hadn't meant for it to actually be delivered to the undertaker. Johnny just expected her to sneak into the shop there, look around until Jelly was busy at the tailor's then slip out again.
Jemimah sighed. There was nothing she could do; Jelly was bound and determined to do his bit it seemed. Shaking her head, she realised she would have to order the stone. Hopefully, Johnny could drop by the next day and cancel the order without too much bother.
"You told him what?" Aggie Conway's eyes sparkled with merriment and her mouth curved into a delighted grin. "Johnny, you're a devil! The poor man!"
Johnny stopped laughing and swept a hand through his black hair. "Aw, I'll come clean after he's ordered the suit. I don't want to upset the old rooster any; just thought he could do with some new duds before the others end up like one of Teresa's patchworks. There's no way Jelly was going to part with the cost of tailorin' a new suit without a real good reason."
"You might have let the rest of us in on your little scheme, brother," Scott smiled across from where he leaned against the kitchen table, sipping at his coffee cup.
"Well, the kid knows," Johnny admitted, grinning ruefully. "In fact, she's gone with Jelly into town. Make sure he visits the tailor and..."
"What else are you up to?" Aggie's twinkling eyes narrowed shrewdly.
Guiltily, Johnny dipped his head but his blue eyes, when he raised them, were full of mischief.
By the time the wagon rolled into the yard again, it was well after three in the afternoon and, having missed her lunch, Jemimah's stomach was growling with hunger. She hopped quickly down and was already racing towards the kitchen when Jelly called to her.
"Never mind fillin' your belly! Ain't you goin' to run in to see your pa? You oughtta show some respec..."
He clicked his tongue impatiently. The child had already vanished into the kitchen. Jelly clambered down from the wagon and, removing his hat as though he were entering a church, he shuffled quietly into the great room via the open French windows.
Aggie Conway was seated in the armchair beside the fire, talking to Murdoch who still lay flat out on the sofa, a pinched look to his tired face.
The two ceased their conversation when they caught sight of the old man, hovering uncertainly in the background. Murdoch sighed and prayed that Jelly wasn't going to start blathering on about foul liniments and vinegar poultices again.
"Jelly, come over and join us. There's some coffee in the pot still. Shall I pour you some?" Aggie gestured kindly to the tray on the side table.
"Thank you, no," Jelly shook his head and moved closer. "How you feelin' there, boss?"
Murdoch's blue-grey eyes slitted in annoyance. Why was Jelly speaking to him in that way; as though he were a fretful child who needed soothing? The big man tried to sit up a little and grunted, wincing at the persistent jabbing pain which fanned his bad temper.
"Now, don't you exert y'self there, boss," Jelly hurried over to the big man's side and flapped about like an old hen, trying to smooth down the quilt but merely managing to wrestle it off the invalid altogether. "You shouldn't be movin'. You jest lie still and rest."
Jelly was so solicitous that Murdoch had to grit his teeth lest he explode and do them both an injury. At last, when he could bear it no longer, he slapped the interfering hands away and snarled, "I cannot wait until I don't have to tolerate all this incessant fussing anymore!"
Catching sight of Aggie, he was further irked to realise that she was stifling a chuckle, tears of mirth shining in her eyes.
"God give me strength!" he ground out.
Shocked at his old friend's outburst and convinced that it meant Murdoch was actually praying for a quick death, Jelly dithered, torn between wanting to offer some comfort and a need to disappear quickly lest he burst into tears and shame himself completely. Aggie sobered as she took in Jelly's tortured stricken face; this was no longer funny and it was time Johnny put an end to it.
She rose and picked up the tray. "Jelly, let's leave the patient to rest a while, shall we? I think you're right; this coffee is cold. We could do with a fresh pot, hmm?" In her usual gentle but determined manner, she steered Jelly away from Murdoch and towards the kitchen.
"Johnny, listen. I got summat to tell you." Jemimah hissed through a mouthful of sandwich, liberally spraying her partner with soggy crumbs.
Johnny grinned. "It's alright, kid. You don't have to whisper now. Scott knows all about it."
Jemimah threw a wary glance at Scott who shook his head and waved a finger at her in mock rebuke. "Oh. Well anyway, you've got to listen. Y'see, I went to the undertaker like you told me an'..."
"Hush!" Johnny quieted her as the kitchen door opened and Aggie ushered a very forlorn-looking Jelly inside. She bade him sit at the table and it was a sign of his distress that he flopped down willingly and did not bristle at her command.
"Johnny, I'd like a word before I go," Aggie spoke and would have taken the young man aside to insist that it was high time he put Jelly out of his misery. However, at that moment, Maria bustled in and launched into a stream of agitated Spanish, gesticulating wildly and urging the señora to attend to something muy importante.
It seemed that Aggie's lead hand had been involved in an accident - something to do with a wagon and a skittish horse - and now there was talk of him maybe losing an arm. Doc Jenkins was already at the Conway place and she was expected back immediately.
"Por supuesto, Maria. Entiendo."(Of course, Maria. I understand.)
Aggie gathered her shawl and gloves and, darting a look at Johnny, headed for the great room.
"I'm sorry, Murdoch. I won't be able to stay to dinner after all."
"I know. I heard Maria. You should get off now. I hope it's not as bad as you fear." Murdoch held out a hand to her and she clasped it, smiling tightly down at him.
"And I hope you have a better night. Let Maria take care of you."
He scowled and pushed his fingers into the harness which was still tightly strapped around him. "Hmmph, I can't see that happening with these blessed stones digging into me. If I didn't know better, I'd say Sam was trying to kill me!"
Immediately, he quieted and blushed at his petulant outburst. A sore back was a trial, sure enough, but Sam was now struggling to save a man's arm. Murdoch was instantly ashamed of himself and he found he could no longer meet her eye. Patting her hand, he gruffly cleared his throat.
"You get along, Aggie and... send word if you can. We're all rooting for Bart. He's a good man."
"Yes, he is." Smiling down at him, Aggie squeezed his big, work-hardened hand and then headed for the door. "I'm holding you to that dinner invitation, Murdoch!" she called over her shoulder.
He heard the click of the door as it closed behind her and smiled.
News eventually came before dinner the next day. Bart Collins' arm had been saved but it was doubtful he would get much use out of it. The tendons had been irrevocably damaged and Sam had predicted that it would be virtually useless.
Aggie was tending to Bart herself with help from her housekeeper, Carmelita. His wife had passed away giving birth to their youngest boy and his oldest child, Daisy, was still only seven; she certainly could not be expected to take care of her father. Naturally, Aggie took up the reins. Of course, she would offer for Bart and his family to stay on if he wished or would help him to find new employment should he choose to start again elsewhere. But one thing was certain - Bart Collins could not remain as lead hand at the Conway ranch. She would have to begin looking for a new man soon.
The sad news further added to the gloom which hung about Lancer. Bart was a good sort and well liked by all. Murdoch, now able to sit up but still encased in the detested harness, was moody and solemn. He had not seen Aggie since her sudden departure that day and knew that he would more than likely not see her again until Bart was back on his feet. He realised he greatly missed her company on a Wednesday evening - their usual dinner date - and the way she tended to drop by unannounced for a coffee and a chat. He had been counting on her visits especially while he was laid up and it did nothing for his disposition that she was now busy nursing another man. They had been neighbours for many years and were old friends. Murdoch was only just beginning to understand just how much he counted on her presence in his life.
Sprawled on the sofa, Murdoch chewed at his lower lip. Why was it that he felt such animosity towards Bart Collins? He was behaving like an irrational youth and he may be many things but youthful was not one of them! He flicked at a speck of smoldering tobacco from his pipe which had dropped onto his quilt. Then, impatient with himself, he flung the patchwork covering from him and lowered his feet to the carpet. He felt the warm stones in the harness pressing into his back and suddenly he could stand it no more.
Angrily, he plunked his pipe down into the dish he used and reached back to grapple with the buckles of the canvas girdle, muttering foul curses under his breath and twisting to free himself. The harder he yanked on the straps, the tighter they became until, with a final impatient roar, he ripped them off and hurled the hideous object into the fire, stones and all.
Striding to the hearth, Murdoch felt an immense satisfaction as he stood and watched the thing burn to ashes.
"Well, you've killed it. Happy now?" Murdoch spun around to see Scott watching him, hands on hips and an amused smirk playing about his lips.
Murdoch flushed and straightened.
"An' you're standing up," Johnny spoke from over by the table. He had obviously just come in from the kitchen and was munching on a mouthful of fried chicken, the half-gnawed leg still clutched in his hand. "Straight."
"You're feeling better, Murdoch." Scott tilted his head and regarded his father. It was a statement, not a question.
Tentatively, Murdoch reached a hand to his back and pressed in the usual spot. There was a dull ache; a tightness of which he would have to be wary for a few days but, yes, he felt better. Much better. For the first time in over a week, he smiled.
Delicious aromas of roasting beef and Maria's excellent spicy bread sauce drifted through from the kitchen and Murdoch sniffed appreciatively. He leaned back in his armchair, setting his book aside and anticipating an enjoyable evening.
Now that Bart Collins was on the mend at last (Sam had declared him fit to leave his bed and able to eat with his family) Aggie had accepted his invitation to family dinner. They had not talked since the day Bart had been injured so grievously and, truth to tell, Murdoch had missed her far more than he cared to admit, even to himself.
He gazed out of the window. It had been a mild day for mid February. The sky was a soft blue, flecked with wispy white clouds which sailed gently across the distant horizon above the tips of the trees, still bare but soon to be speckled with the buds of spring. All was well with Murdoch's world and he allowed himself a deep sigh of contentment.
The sigh was followed swiftly by a grin as he heard the wheels of a buggy drawing up in the yard. Aggie.
As usual, she did not bother to knock (something Murdoch had persuaded her to dispense with several years previously) and, within moments, she was beaming down at him, taking a seat on the sofa and asking how he was feeling.
Much better now you're here. "Much improved as you can see," Murdoch actually said, passing her a glass of whisky which he had poured earlier. "D'you know, I think I might live after all!"
She laughed. "That's the spirit, Murdoch."
Murdoch was about to ask after Bart when the sound of a cough from the hallway interrupted him and Jelly's head poked around the corner.
"Er... boss, you got a minute?"
"What is it, Jelly?"
Murdoch twisted a little in his seat and his eyebrows shot up almost into his hair. Before he knew it, he had half-risen from his chair and stood gaping, stunned into silence.
Jelly stumbled forwards, equally shocked to see Murdoch on his feet and standing up straight, seemingly without pain. "Why, you're walkin'!" he exclaimed, gesturing to the 6 feet 5 inches of evidence before him. "No pain? You shouldn't be up, Murdoch; you might give y'self a relapse!"
Murdoch beheld the apparition before him as his old friend rushed over in concern. "Jelly! You look positively regal!"
"Eh? Whassat?" In his surprise to see the Lancer patriarch up and about, Jelly had completely forgotten the reason he had wanted to see him in the first place. Now, he looked down at his attire and smiled bashfully. "Oh yeh, well... I wanted to git your opinion on my new suit... an' you too, Miz Conway."
"Oh Jelly, you look simply splendid!" Aggie praised him and smiled at his preening. "Most elegant."
"That must've set you back a bit, Jelly," Murdoch leaned to check out the cut of the jacket and, as Jelly pirouetted like a mannequin before them, he smirked and reached out to finger the plush brocade waistcoat.
"Y'ain't wrong there. I won't deny it made a pretty big hole in my savings but I reckon I needed it. Been thinking on a new suit o' clothes for some time; jest needed to decide on... on which material to go fer."
Aggie hid a smirk. Jelly had clearly convinced himself that the new suit was all his own idea.
"Is it for a special occasion?" Murdoch asked.
Jelly clammed up suddenly, the pride in his expression replaced with dismay. "Well... I... I thought I'd jest... but you're walkin' an'... well..."
"Yes, I'm walking. But what has that to do with...?"
A loud knocking at the front door cut Murdoch off mid-sentence.
"Excuse me a moment."
Jelly eyed Aggie in anguish, silently begging her to leap in and save him. The last thing he wanted to do was admit he had basically bought the suit for Murdoch's funeral. Though, come to think of it, the boss sure didn't look like a man with one foot in the grave.
Jelly turned to study him. No sir, Murdoch Lancer had some of the old spring in his step and there was colour in his cheeks. In fact, there was some pretty vivid colour in those cheeks and he certainly was moving along much better; in fact, he was positively marching.
"What is it, Murdoch?" Aggie immediately saw his agitation and could tell her old friend was working himself up to a storm of a temper.
"What in blue blazes is going on here?" he snorted, angrily waving a paper in the air.
She reached out for the paper and scanned it quickly as Murdoch slugged back his whisky, a fiery glint in his eye. "Eighty-five dollars!" Aggie gasped. "One marble headstone with reclining cherub. Murdoch, what is this?"
"I don't know but I intend to find out!"
"Why, I can tell you, boss." Jelly attempted to soothe the big man, his hands patting placatingly at him. "Sit y'self down here an'..."
"Just get it said, Jelly. I'm in no mood to sit."
"It was Scott's choice, y'see," the old man began. "I weren't at all sure you'd be acceptable to white marble an'... an' nekkid angels an' such. But Scott had the writing of it an' he was the one decided on what your marker should say."
"Why, your marker. Your headstone." Jelly looked very uncomfortable and eased his starched collar away from his scraggy throat. "T'ain't really fittin' that you be hearing about your own funeral arrangements like this but..."
"My what?" Murdoch roared again, a crimson hue now staining his face and the familiar twitching vein starting at his left temple.
"Your funeral. Like I said, I weren't so sure you'd be choosin' cherubs an' all that fancy stuff an' the sentiment they writ out sure sounded funny to me but..."
Murdoch strode to the door and out onto the front steps where Morley's delivery men were just unloading the headstone. Aggie and Jelly followed closely behind and all three gaped in amazement at the creation.
Sure enough, the stone was indeed a sophisticated, cool white marble; smooth and elegant. Sadly, that is where all attempts at dignified understatement ended. Atop the (very large) stone, a plump cheeky cherub had draped himself in all his naked glory. He was making no attempt whatsoever to cover his modesty and, probably due to the stone mason's wicked sense of humour, appeared to be winking most mischievously at the world in general.
Murdoch took a step closer to read the message carved into the surface of the marble. As he read, his jaw clenched and, if it were possible, his face darkened still more. "... What lied within him? He always said his back was killing..."
Aggie bit hard on the inside of her lip in an effort to contain the laughter that was building rapidly. Something told her that Murdoch would not appreciate her mirth at this time.
"And this has cost me $85!! Is this someone's idea of a joke?"
Murdoch's bellow was so loud that the birds in the nearby trees were frightened into taking sudden flight.
"Murdoch..." Aggie attempted to calm him.
"I want to know exactly who ordered this... this monstrosity!" Murdoch ignored her.
"Well... I did." Jelly could understand that the marker was not exactly Murdoch's personal preference but he would hardly call it monstrous.
"You?!" The big man turned on Jelly who took a faltering step backwards in alarm.
"Well, Scott wrote the order out an' I took it to Morley with Jemimah. After all, it weren't an errand to trust to a young 'un like..."
"Jemimah!" Murdoch's eyes gleamed darkly and he strode past Jelly who was still stuttering weakly.
Arriving at the foot of the stairs, Murdoch yelled, "Jemimah Rose Day, get yourself down here this instant!"
Aggie, still trying valiantly not to laugh, took hold of his arm and drew him into the great room. "Murdoch, come and sit down."
"I don't want to sit down. I intend to get to the bottom of this."
"You can do that just as well sitting here by the fireside. Take a deep breath and calm down. Don't forget, you're only just recovering from a bad back. The last thing you want to do is go straining it again and being laid up for another week."
Murdoch mumbled under his breath but did as he was told. Jelly, meanwhile, had ambled closer, his nose wrinkled up at Aggie's words.
"Bad back? Recovering? You mean... you ain't dyin'?"
"Dying?" Murdoch spat. "Do I look like I'm dying?"
"Well, no... you sure don't." Jelly seemed anything but pleased about this revelation. "But they said... I done bought this here suit fer your funeral!" Jelly pointed at Murdoch with an accusing finger, almost as if he blamed the man for not being at death's door after all. "An' you're sure you ain't dyin'?"
"No. I am not dying." Murdoch's voice was a growl which came from behind clenched teeth. A movement by the doorway caught his eye and he glared. "Though somebody may well be in a minute!"
Jemimah lurked timidly in the shadows of the hallway. She was tracing tiny lines across the tiles with the toe of her boot and her hands were clasped nervously behind her back.
Aggie stifled a chuckle. If ever there were an image of guilt, it was Jemimah.
Murdoch saw nothing to chuckle about and shot Aggie a dark look as he beckoned the little girl with an ominous finger.
When she was at last standing before him, Murdoch spoke. His voice was low and quiet but the child was in no doubt that her father's temper was only simmering beneath the surface.
"I would like you to step outside, Jemimah. Take a look at what has been delivered and then come back and explain it to me if you can. Go on."
Obediently, Jemimah headed outside, relieved to be out of reach of those enormous paws.
Aggie could not prevent a tiny snigger escaping but renewed her efforts to conceal her laughter at a single quelling scowl from Murdoch.
The slow tapping of little boots on the polished floor heralded Jemimah's return as she hesitantly made her way back to the room. Her little elfin face was blanched white, green eyes vivid in shock. Murdoch swore he could actually see her knees trembling and he felt a glimmer of satisfaction.
Jemimah gulped. The silence was heavy in the room and her skin prickled with dread. Subconsciously, she wiped her sweating palms down the legs of her jeans.
"I'm waiting," Murdoch's voice was grave. "Did you order that... stone from Mr. Morley?"
The girl nodded slowly.
"I see. And is Jelly correct - did Scott write out the order?"
Jemimah glanced quickly at Jelly who waited indignantly. Then, fixing her eyes on the carpet, she shook her head. "No sir. I did."
"Hmm. And why did you lead Jelly to believe that I was dying?"
Jemimah's voice was small but there was no mistaking the hint of merriment as she replied. "We... I mean, I just thought he could do with a new suit an' there was no way he'd spend money unless he had a good reason so..."
"Why, you little varmint! I oughtta leather your caboose so's you don't set down fer a month o' Sundays!"
Aggie could hold it no longer. Her first laugh came out more like an explosion; a veritable snorting guffaw which was quite at odds with her usual well-mannered behaviour. She rocked forwards on the sofa and emitted a peal of laughter, her hand to her heart and tears trickling from her shining eyes. "Oh Murdoch," she hooted. "Forgive me... I'm so sorry... but you have to admit..." She could say no more. Another wave of laughter took her and she was helpless to resist.
Jemimah had been grinning at Aggie's display but Murdoch's next instruction wiped the smile from her face.
"Young lady, take yourself off to my study. I'll be in directly."
Forlornly, Jemimah sloped off, casting a beseeching glance over her shoulder at Aggie who was still cackling hysterically at the whole thing.
Jelly stomped after the girl, heading for the door and colliding with Johnny who was just coming in. He had seen the headstone on the front steps and had been on a mission to seek out Jemimah at once to find out how the hideous error could have occurred. She wasn't supposed to actually order the stone!
"Hey kid..." he hissed but she simply shot him a baleful look and slumped into the study, shutting the door behind her. Jelly eyed him beadily as they collided in the doorway.
"An' you!" Jelly pointed at him accusingly. "You oughtta be ashamed, makin' up such wild tales about your pa! I'm takin' this back!" He plucked at the lapel of his fine new jacket. "See if I can git my money back."
"Aw but Jelly," Johnny called after him as the old man stomped off down the front steps. "You look so pretty! All the ladies are talkin' about you!"
Jelly marched away in high dudgeon, almost bumping into Scott who was heading in after a hard day's work. Scott nimbly side-stepped the old man who was chuntering still. In avoiding Jelly, Scott very nearly fell backwards over the huge slab of marble which leaned up against the side of the house. Eyes wide, Scott quickly read the carved message on the marker, his mouth dropping open. Finally, shaking his head, he stepped in behind Johnny.
"Johnny, do you know..." Scott paused.
A woman was laughing... and most heartily.
"What is going on here?" Scott nudged his brother forwards so that he could see into the great room.
The two boys stood on the threshold, staring in wonder and not a little amusement at the scene.
Aggie Conway, collapsing in paroxysms of wild delight, appeared to be beside herself with glee while their father, hands on hips, stood over her. If the look on his face was anything to go by, Murdoch Lancer was not amused. He was greatly vexed and about to lose what little patience was left him.
"Agatha Ruth Conway!" Murdoch shook a warning finger at his friend who continued to giggle helplessly. "I've never put a woman, much less one near enough forty-five years old, over my knee but you ought to know you're mighty close to being the first!"
At this, Aggie ceased laughing and jumped to her feet, startling Murdoch somewhat. "Well! There's no need to cast my age up to me, Murdoch Lancer! I realise that a woman of my advanced years shouldn't be enjoying a good joke anymore! Why, I suppose I should be tucked in my rocking chair, busy at my needlepoint and gumming away at my bowl of mush!"
A moment ago, she had been laughing fit to bust. Now Aggie was pacing the rug in front of him, her temper a match for his own any day.
Murdoch frowned uncertainly. "Now, Aggie, that's not what I meant at all and you know it. Calm down."
"Me calm down?"
"Where's your sense of humour, you cantankerous old... haggis?!"
She tromped off outside, casting a sparkling eye at the marble marker as she passed. Lips still twitching, she paused at the barn so that she could lean on the wall and laugh her head off. Her sides were splitting but she simply had to let it out. She would go back in when she felt calmer and more able to soothe the savage beast and persuade her old friend to see the funny side before he dealt with his daughter.
Inside, Scott had more or less surmised the situation and was now pouring a much-needed whisky for his father. Johnny hung back near the table and studied his dusty boot, the toe of which was trailing little lines in the pile of the rug.
Murdoch knocked back his drink and, much more steadily now, released a deep breath. Then, eyeing his younger son beadily, he headed for the study.
"Wait! Murdoch, you're not... you're not goin' to...?"
Murdoch turned back to Johnny, his blue-grey eyes narrowed. "To what?"
"To... " He shrugged as if to indicate that his father knew exactly what he meant. It was almost as though he were trying to avoid uttering the words; as though, once spoken aloud, it would indeed come to pass.
"Aw Murdoch, you ain't gonna whomp her, are you?"
Murdoch remained grim but Johnny thought he glimpsed a twinkle in the big man's eye.
"That, Johnny, is exactly what I'm going to do. And right now." Murdoch turned but slowly as though he expected his son to say more and was waiting for it.
"Murdoch, wait! You can't!"
Johnny wanted to get the kid out of this if he could... and preferably without having to admit his part in it. He didn't fancy facing down his old man after all these shenanigans and that blasted stone turning up. Dios! What had happened? If there was anything the ol' man hated more than wasting good money... And something as big as that stone must've cost him dear. Johnny wondered what on earth he could possibly say to get both the kid and himself out of this one.
"Murdoch, don't you think...?"
"Well, all I mean is... she got a heck of a shock... I'm sure she didn't expect the man to actually carve the stone. (I sure as hell didn't expect it!) So wouldn't you say she's been punished enough?"
"No Johnny, I would not." Murdoch turned to go, the conversation over to his way of thinking. "That young lady has told some pretty tall stories lately and she knows how I feel about that. Wasting hard-earned money with her scheming was the final straw! She is going to feel the full force of my displeasure."
"Murdoch, you can't!" Johnny reached out a hand to waylay his father.
"Son, that's the second time you've said that. Now, perhaps you'd care to enlighten me? Why exactly shouldn't I be giving that little lady what for? I am her father and, after all her latest nonsense, wouldn't you say she deserves to be punished? Hmm?"
Johnny sighed, arms wrapped around himself and head down in his usual guilty pose. He knew the game was up; he would have to come clean.
"Murdoch, look... she ain't the only one deserves the blame. This is my fault too. The funeral and the whole thing about you... well, about you dyin' was my idea. It was only a joke on Jelly but... well... I guess now the joke's on me. I didn't think it would go this far. I mean... we never intended for the marker to be carved and..." He sighed heavily, feeling more than a little embarrassed. "It ain't fair that she should take all the punishment."
There was a heavy prickly silence for a long moment while Murdoch studied Johnny from under brows which had beetled together into a thunderous frown. Johnny felt about as big as an ant and found he could not look his parent in the eye.
"Go on, Murdoch... let me have it... both barrels!" Johnny winced in readiness.
It was Murdoch's turn to fold his arms and study his boy. "Son, I have no intention of letting Jemimah carry all the blame. I knew perfectly well that you were in this up to your neck."
The young man gaped. "You did?"
Murdoch snorted. "Of course! This has John Lancer written all over it! You think I can't recognise your handiwork by now, my boy? I'd be a pretty poor father to be so blind to your many talents."
Johnny saw that, despite the somewhat threatening voice, his father was almost smiling. He felt a surge of relief and couldn't prevent the impish grin. Seeing this, Murdoch jumped in to wipe the smile off his errant son's face.
"However, Jemimah most certainly played her part and, as she is my daughter now, I have a duty to guide her when she errs. Miss Jemimah is in the study awaiting the well-earned consequences of her actions and I have no intention of neglecting that particular duty."
"But Murdoch, it was my idea and you know that I..."
Murdoch stepped closer, straightening to his full impressive height, and had the infinite satisfaction of seeing his wicked son go pale beneath his tan. "Yes Johnny, I certainly do and, believe me, were you a few years younger, I can assure you that you would now be joining that little limmer. In fact, I'd be going a lot harder on you than Jemimah!"
Johnny flushed guiltily under Murdoch's stern scrutiny.
"However, knowing that the licking I would have to give you would probably be more than my poor back could stand..."
Johnny's eyes narrowed anxiously. Just what had his father got planned for him? His old man could be trickier than anyone!
"I am going to have to think of a different... but equally effective... method of reforming my grown up son."
Murdoch eyed Johnny a moment longer, taking in the guilty stance and bowed head. "Now, I've left that girl waiting long enough and I don't want to draw this out... or I'll probably get in there to find she's climbed out the window. Maybe next time you're tempted to drag her into one of your infamous pranks, you'll remember where you have landed her now?"
Murdoch raised an imperious brow at his son then left the room.
Johnny felt like the lowest worm and cussed quietly at himself. He would have to make it up to the kid. He knew that Murdoch was right; it was his fault Jemimah was in trouble and he couldn't be more sorry. He almost hoped the old man came up with something really horrible for his penance.
"Here Johnny. You look like you could use this."
The soft voice startled him and he turned to see Scott holding out a tumbler of their father's finest single malt. Johnny took it and they regarded each other steadily before knocking back the amber liquor.
Scott patted his brother on the arm then headed towards the corridor for a much-needed bath.
Heaving a sigh and berating himself again, Johnny turned and quickly left the house. He knew full well Jemimah would soon be suffering on his account and could well imagine the scene; he didn't need to hear it too.
"Nope! There's no need for you to apologise to me, Johnny!"
Jemimah was sitting up in bed. She was already in her nightgown with the quilt tucked in around her knees. But it was the fact that she was sitting that had Johnny bewildered.
"You mean, the ol' man didn't whomp you after all?" He could hardly believe it.
"Nope! I got an ear-blistering lecture though an' I have to do extra chores to pay towards the cost of the headstone. So I reckon that's me bound in servitude for the rest of my life!" The child looked momentarily glum then, thinking back over the prank, she brightened. "But still, we had fun, didn't we?"
Johnny sat down on the bed at her side and, grinning, mussed her long dark hair. "But why'd you think he didn't wear you out? He said he was going to."
"Aggie. I s'pose she took my part an' stood up for me; talked him into showin' some mercy," the girl mused, her head cocked on one side. Then, a cheeky grin split her face. "Maybe Murdoch realised he'd get no more hanky-panky if he went against Aggie?"
Johnny's shock showed clearly on his handsome face and he shook a chiding finger at her. "You're too sassy for your own good, little devil!"
Jemimah giggled as he cuddled her to him, both relieved that things hadn't ended as badly as they had feared. When he released her and stood to go down to supper, Jemimah sat back against the fat pillows and smirked, a wicked gleam in her green eyes.
"Maybe Murdoch is saving his strength to whomp you instead, Johnny? After all, you truly deserve it; you're a powerful bad influence on me." She bit her lip and sniggered at his face.
"Yeah... well, I guess, for once, I might've gone a little too far... maybe." His voice was soft and he smiled almost shyly. "You might be right, chica."
Jemimah's smile disappeared. Johnny was obviously still feeling bad and she didn't want him to feel he should shoulder all the blame. After all was said and done, they were partners!
"You can make it up to me," she joked.
Jemimah saw the honest question in his blue eyes and her breath caught in her throat.
"We'ell... the next time you feel like you need to have words with me, maybe you should remember this moment and let me off with a warning?"
Johnny laughed and gave her a little 'thumbs up' sign as he stepped out onto the landing.
He moved to the top of the stairs, thinking about what she had said. Privately, he thought it was a darn good idea. She had taken the flack for him and maybe next time he felt tempted to warm her backside, he would hold back.
He could hear voices talking amicably downstairs. Aggie was here for dinner and she was making his father laugh.
Johnny smiled. He liked Miz Conway and she was good for the ol' man. He thought about what the kid had said and wondered just how close Aggie and Murdoch actually were. The kid was no fool; she could well be right about the depth of their relationship. Johnny grinned and, for once, chose to forego his usual slide down the banister. Perhaps it would be wiser to stay on Murdoch's good side, at least for a while.
Upstairs in her room, Jemimah smirked to herself. Tomorrow, she knew Murdoch was going to tell Johnny what his share of the punishment would be. He wouldn't be too pleased to find out that he was expected to pay off half of that hideous headstone. That'd be him stuck on the ranch for a while; no trips into town! Jemimah grinned. No more saloon girls dancing around her Johnny for a few weeks! This prank had turned out better than she had expected.
Anne Haslam. August 2014