The Lancer Fanfiction Archive

subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link | subglobal1 link
subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link | subglobal2 link
subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link | subglobal3 link
subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link | subglobal4 link
subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link | subglobal5 link
subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link | subglobal6 link
subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link | subglobal7 link
subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link | subglobal8 link

Anne

 

 

Haunted House
Jemimah Day series
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 28; Johnny is 23

"Shhh!"

Enrique glared at Jemimah, a finger pressed fervently to his lips. The girl dutifully stilled, holding her breath. She watched him crane his neck so that he could just about peer through the tiny gap in the rickety boards at the window. Suddenly, he dived back down, joining Jemimah where she lay sprawled like a lizard on her belly in the undergrowth.

"Well?" she mouthed, green eyes questioning.

Enrique's emphatic nod confirmed their suspicions - someone was in the old Randall house. Jemimah's mind flitted over possibilities. Whoever it was, they were up to no good; nothing more a cert! If the new occupant was bonafide, why had they not taken down the boards from the windows? Why had there not been a wagon laden with furniture? And how come no-one, not even Jelly who knew all goings-on in the entire neighbourhood, knew anything about it?

She gestured sharply to Enrique, clearly instructing him to have a better look. He shot her an exasperated frown (why didn't she get her nose up against the window if she wanted to know who was in there?!) but, not wishing to appear 'yitten' (as Jemimah called it) or 'yellow', he again raised himself up on his knees and peered into the dimly-lit room within.

He could make out the edge of a bedroll with a scraggy grey blanket. Next to that was a pair of boots - men's boots. The stub of an old candle flickered beside a tin plate smeared with something that looked suspiciously like gravy. Other than that, he could see nothing. There was no movement. However, the carpet of dust on the floor had been seriously disturbed, there were footprints and a scuff mark where the door to the next room had been opened and shut.

If anything, this soothed the boy; whoever was now in the house was definitely mortal and alive! Ghosts didn't use doors and they sure didn't leave footprints or wear boots.

Enrique scroamed around until he was almost nose-to-nose with Jemimah.

"Can't see anyone but there's a bedroll an' boots on the floor. An' they've been eatin' supper - something with gravy!" he whispered.

Jemimah rolled her eyes. Gravy - honestly! Of what significance was what they had for supper? The point was she had been right - someone had taken up residence in the Randall house. Scott would have to eat his words now that Enrique had seen it too. And, with this new evidence, Murdoch and Cipriano wouldn't actually be that miffed about them coming over to investigate in the dark... maybe... perhaps . Jemimah knew, in all probability, that they were both in for a severe scolding for sneaking out while they were supposed to be in bed but their fathers would have to admit that they had carried out a pretty impressive piece of detective work. Pinkertons watch out!

She pointed to the scrub behind her and Enrique, glad they were leaving at last, nodded with alacrity. Both youngsters shuffled backwards, crawling as silently as they could, until they reached the relative safety of the bushes. Only then did they scramble to their feet and push their way through to where their ponies were tethered. Now that they were about to leave, a sense of urgency spurred them on, panic and fear of being caught lending wings to their heels. Mounting up, they turned towards home, just managing to resist galloping away.

On the ride back to Lancer, they were glad of each other's company. The darkness seemed to press in on them from all sides and every snapping twig, every rustling branch and fluttering hoot owl became a foe ready to leap out and grab them. The moon was mostly hidden behind dense cloud and, though Jemimah had been thankful for its absence while they sneaked around the house, she missed its silvery light guiding them safely back. At long last, they saw the lights from the hacienda glinting through the trees and, only then, did they breathe a sigh of relief.

"I'd better get back before I'm missed," Enrique hissed as they paused behind the barn. Here, they were well-hidden from any prying eyes that might happen to be looking out from the house. "Catch ya' tomorrow!"

"Yeah, see ya'!"

Jemimah watched him ride quietly off towards the lane which led to their cottage. She took Amiga into the barn and, moving stealthily, settled her happily in her stall. Then, like a little shadow, she crept back around the side of the house, meaning to get back in the way she had left - via the trellis near Teresa's window, through her room then back along the landing to her own room. There was no danger of being caught by Teresa; she would still be in the kitchen or partaking of an evening sherry with Murdoch and the boys by the fireside. Even if she were in bed already, Jemimah knew she could sneak in without rousing her. The girl grinned. It was a little-known fact that Miss O' Brien snored nearly as loudly as Murdoch!

She reached the shadowy shrubbery beneath the trellis and, focusing on the wooden structure above her, began to climb. She had perhaps gone up about three feet when a voice pierced the silence behind her, making her nerve-endings jangle so hard that it felt like a bolt of lightning had struck her! Her heart almost in her throat and green eyes like saucers, she gripped the trellis and froze - unable to move an inch up or down.

"Alright, chica, what you been up to this time?"

Johnny.

Jemimah felt a firm hand grasp the seat of her pants and, before she could turn or even think of struggling, she was tugged sharply back down to earth, landing with such an unexpected thump that she needed his strong arm to steady her. Said strong arm held her in place, frustrating any thoughts of rashly attempting to run.

There was enough of a moon now and the added light from an upstairs window to be able to see his face. He was shaking his head, a dangerous blue fire in his eyes which stared her down. She shuffled nervously and swallowed. Her throat felt dry. Johnny was wonderful... mostly. Johnny in a bad mood or displeased with you was... scary!

Johnny whistled low. "I wouldn't want to be in your shoes when Murdoch gets a hold of you," he spoke softly, shaking his head.

"Is he really mad?"

"Well," Johnny smiled but Jemimah took no comfort from it. "He finds your bed empty, horse gone, dead of night an' you're out there all alone... what do you think?" Johnny cocked his head on one side and arched a black eyebrow at the way she guiltily lowered her eyes and her shoulders slumped.

"Alright, I know," she pouted. "I'm in for it!"

"Yep." Johnny saw no reason to disagree and his voice held no sympathy for her plight.

"I s'pose you wouldn't consider letting me climb in quietly?"

Johnny smiled and shook his head incredulously at her daring. That kid - she did beat all! His grip on her shoulder tightened. "You suppose right," he confirmed with a grin at her scowl. "In any case, wouldn't do you a blind bit o' good when the ol' man already knows you sneaked out without permission."

Jemimah shrugged, defeated and most unhappy about it. Her triumphant return, with another witness to corroborate her theory, the praise and congratulations she had been envisaging, dwindled rapidly, fizzling out like a bright firework, as another, much more horrible fate reared its ugly head.

Johnny now confirmed her worst fears.

"Besides, if Murdoch don't whup you, then maybe I will!" he gave her shoulder a little shake. "What kind of a crazy stunt... leavin' the ranch at night an' nobody knows where you've gone... it's dangerous, kid! How many more times we gotta tell you? Especially alone!" Johnny was angry and she knew he had been really worrying about her; they all had.

"I wasn't alone..." Jemimah's guilt made her tongue flap idly and the admission was out before she could stop herself.

Johnny nodded slowly, crinkling up his eyes. Just as he thought! He chewed his lower lip and huffed out a sharp breath. Fortunately for Enrique, he would now be tucked up in his bed in the room he shared with his two brothers for, if he had been within Johnny's reach, he would have been a very sorry young man.

"Enrique, huh?" Johnny asked quietly. "I'm gonna have me some words with that boy!" He had never forgotten the skinny-dipping incident from last October and considered the youth to be a bad influence on Jemimah, blithely ignoring the fact that, prior to her arrival, Enrique had hardly ever been in trouble with anyone.

Johnny's warm hand on the back of her neck, Jemimah was then turned and firmly steered in the direction of the kitchen. "Move it, kid!"

"Aw, Johnny, come on..."

The hand's presence left her neck and reappeared forcefully in an almighty crack to the dusty seat of her jeans that propelled her forwards and just about took her breath away. Wisely holding her tongue, she permitted him to march her inside... to her impending doom.

****

 

Jemimah shuffled a little. Her face was still burning red from the awful ear-blistering lecture Murdoch had delivered and her legs ached from standing in one place. If the ol' man was going to clobber her then she wished he would get it over and done with and quit keeping her in suspense!

"I thought I told you to stand still until I decided what to do with you," Murdoch's gravelly voice rumbled over to where she stood with her nose pressed into the corner.

Jemimah decided to push her luck. After all, she couldn't make him any angrier than he already was. "Well, Daddy," she said timidly, shamelessly employing the endearment - well, why not? She needed all the luck she could get! "If you're going to wallop me, can you just do it 'cos my legs are itchin' me standin' here and you know it's way past my bedtime!"

Scott and Johnny both snorted. The sassy little...! Murdoch, too, clamped his lips firmly together to suppress the smile. Lord... how that girl tried him... but she was home; she was safe, thank god! He could breathe easy again. And, now the worry was over, the pain in his back had resurfaced. Murdoch knew he undoubtedly should administer the spanking merited by her irresponsible, sneaky behaviour but, and he hated to admit it, he didn't think himself up to the task. He glanced across at his sons.

Both young men were awaiting his decision. Scott leaned patiently by the sideboard, calm blue eyes fixed on the child's back. Johnny (showing far less patience and darting furious glances at Jemimah) paced from the desk to the French windows and back again. Either son would willingly take over the responsibility should he ask it of them - Johnny more than willingly if his dark expression and gritted teeth were anything to go by! However, Murdoch opted for a different course of action.

"Alright, turn around and come here!" he ordered.

Alright - this was it! Gulping with dread, Jemimah about-faced. Johnny stopped his angry pacing and stood, hands on hips, watching her. When she was eventually trembling on the spot Murdoch had indicated, right in front of him, the big man eased himself up out of his leather chair and towered over her.

"There may be no school tomorrow but you are going to sit here," Murdoch indicated the desk behind him with a peremptory pointing finger. "And write out an essay on the dangers and imprudence of leaving the ranch without telling anyone where you're going." Murdoch glared hard at the child. Jemimah didn't have the temerity to hold his flinty gaze. She bowed her head, fairly sure the list of punishments was far from over.

She was correct!

"After your usual chores, you will clean out and whitewash the chicken coop. Then you will tidy out the shed in the garden. Maybe, if we can keep you busy enough, we can keep you out of mischief."

Jemimah grimaced at the procession of filthy unpleasant jobs he was lining up for her.

"As for the Randall house..." Murdoch went on. "You are confined to the ranch for a month and will not set a toenail off it unless I say so. I don't want you going out there again. In fact," Murdoch addressed Johnny and Scott too. "I don't want anyone going there."

The boys glanced at each other.

"I mean it," their father ground out. "Now, young lady, get yourself up to the bed you should have been in over three hours ago and I had better not hear another sound out of you before breakfast!"

Jemimah hardly dared believe her luck; she had expected a 'walloping to end all wallopings' on top of all the other punishments. With a gleeful glint in her green eyes, she started across the room but Johnny waylaid her, snatching hold of her arm.

"Wait a minute," he said incredulously, watching his father. " That's it? How many times has she done this now and all she gets is grounded and a few extra chores? Next time, maybe she won't be so lucky; supposin' she'd been hurt out there an' we didn't know where to find her? There's a reason we don't just take off without lettin' anyone know where we're headed, kid!" Johnny was still boiling mad and reckoned Jemimah could do with a short sharp shock! "Listen, Murdoch, she needs a lesson. If you don't feel up to it, I'll spank her for you..."

Jemimah narrowed her eyes and glared up at him in outrage, attempting to free herself.

"There'll be no spanking," Murdoch cut across him. " Tonight!" He didn't like the jubilant smirk that alighted on his daughter's elfin face.

Nor, if his scowl was anything to go by, did Johnny. With the greatest reluctance, he released Jemimah's arm and watched her race into the hall. They listened to her boots clattering up the stairs and heard her room door close.

"Murdoch..." Scott began but stopped when he saw the big man's hand raised to quiet him.

"Yes, Scott, I'm well aware that you and Johnny feel I should have been harder on her," he sighed. "But, with all the extra chores and being confined to the ranch, I think that'll be enough to curtail Miss Jemimah's lust for adventure."

The expressions on his son's faces told Murdoch that they were not so sure of that.

"Now, it being nearly half past eleven, I, for one, am going up to bed." Murdoch rubbed the small of his aching back and flinched at the relentless nagging pain. "I suggest you two follow me up. There's still a ranch to run tomorrow!"

****

 

Johnny narrowed his blue eyes, following Jemimah's progress along the porch. She was already halfway through her third chore of the day - sweeping the porch - having filled the wood box in the kitchen with kindling and helped Maria to wash and dry the breakfast dishes. She was doing her utmost to redeem herself. Johnny had to hand it to her - the kid always tried real hard to make amends whenever she'd landed herself in trouble.

He staggered a little as he hoisted the wooden blanket chest into the wagon while, at the opposite side, Scott deposited four chairs, stacking them neatly together so that they had enough room for the table and bed sections.

"What's Aggie want with all this old stuff anyway?" Johnny grumbled quietly to his brother but it was Murdoch who answered his query.

Stepping out onto the clean portion of the porch, Murdoch looked bright as a button. He had fallen asleep with one of Maria's hot stones wrapped in a cloth and placed at his back. As a result, the pain had eased considerably. He almost felt like a new man.

"All this old stuff , as you put it, Johnny, isn't exactly for Aggie," Murdoch explained. "She's kitting out that cottage she's renovating for her new lead hand and his family. I thought we'd be good neighbours and donate a few odds and ends from one of the old guest rooms in the west wing. We can spare them."

Maria and Juanita then came bustling out with huge armfuls of linen, dishcloths, curtains, a couple of ceramic basins and a few kitchen utensils, among them a hefty wooden spoon. Scott grinned as Maria handed them to him to place into the wagon.

"You sure you can spare that spoon, Maria?" he asked with a dubious frown and a pointed look over at Johnny.

"Si, todavía tengo otra cuchara para Juanito!" (Yes, I've still got another spoon for Juanito!) she gave her blue-eyed boy a sidelong glance and wagged a stern finger at his wicked grin.

Jemimah had paused in her sweeping to listen and Murdoch spotted her loitering in the background.

"If you've finished there, young lady, haven't you got a chicken coop needs sweeping and whitewashing?" His blunt reminder instantly wiped the smile from her face. She sighed heavily and trudged back inside to fetch the brush and bucket. Murdoch hailed Cip and crossed the yard to speak with the big Mexican.

"Hey, Scott!" Johnny beckoned his brother over, checking first to make sure no-one was within earshot. "If we're heading over to Aggie's place, you think we maybe should..."

"Check out the Randall house? You read my mind, little brother," Scott whispered out of the corner of his mouth.

"Well, it is right on the border between Lancer and Aggie's land," Johnny was delighted at Scott's unexpected compliance. "It'd be crazy to just drive past without at least givin' it the once-over." Johnny's eyes twinkled mischievously.

"I agree; it would be very short-sighted of us, as responsible ranchers, not to investigate the possibility of rustlers in the area. And we don't have to go inside or anything..." Scott busied himself with drawing the faded tarpaulin over the furniture heaped in the wagon. He tossed the end of the rope to Johnny who deftly caught it one-handed.

"Nah, just take a peek through the shutters, eh? See if the kid was right?"

****

 

Teresa brought a fresh cup of steaming coffee out to Murdoch and they stood together to wave the boys off. Noticing they had not tied down the tarp properly at the back, Murdoch clicked his tongue in reproof, hoping they didn't lose any of the load on the way there.

Teresa returned to her baking and Murdoch spied Jelly waving him over. Sauntering across the sunny yard, he sipped his coffee and sidestepped the bucket of fresh whitewash that Jemimah had placed in readiness by the chicken coop. He peered in as he passed but she was not there. Murdoch grunted. She'd better get it finished today; that girl was on thin ice as it was . He glanced back at the distant wagon and froze, sucking in a sharp breath. A skinny little arm had just darted out to tuck down the loose flap of the tarp.

****

 

"You sure we're doin' the right thing, Scott?" Johnny was feeling more and more on edge the closer they got to the Randall place. He thumbed back the brim of his hat and darted a wary glance at his older brother who was concentrating on the reins in his gloved hands. "Maybe we should go straight to Aggie's?"

"You're not scared of Murdoch, are you?" Scott asked.

Johnny shrugged and grinned, somewhat shamefaced. "A little bit, yeah," he admitted. "You?"

Scott shook his head emphatically.

"You're not at all worried that he told us not to go there and here we are, doing exactly what we were told not to?" Johnny probed.

"Murdoch doesn't scare me, little brother," Scott  reiterated. "I don't think he'll try to whup us."

Scott was being facetious and, though Johnny laughed, he quipped back, "You sure?"

Scott grinned and clapped a reassuring hand on Johnny's shoulder. "Well, in my capacity as your older, wiser and better-looking brother, I'll watch your behind!"

Johnny blew out a sharp breath and arched his dark eyebrows eloquently. "As long as you're not watchin' it gettin' whomped by the ol' mans belt, that's all!"

Scott laughed and, with a grin, Johnny joined in.

****

 

Johnny didn't even need to peek in at the window to verify that Jemimah had been right about intruders at the old house. A quick glance at the overgrown path, strewn with dandelions and crabgrass which had taken over much of what had once been an attractive front yard, showed that booted feet had stomped around on the walk up to the front porch.

He crouched behind Scott who was peering in through the same gap that Enrique had employed the previous night.

"Well?" he nudged his brother in the back and Scott turned.

"They were right. There's a bedroll, maybe two, on the floor, footprints all over the place. At least this tells us one thing..."

"What's that?" Johnny asked.

"This is no ghost so it's not an authentic haunted house after all. The locals will be disappointed," Scott announced. "It would have been something exciting for the widows to gossip over at their sewing circles."

Johnny raised his eyes to heaven and gave Scott a soft cuff to the head. "Never mind the sewing circles. Let's get in there an' take a closer look."

Scott hastily placed a restraining hand on Johnny's arm. "Whoa there, boy! I thought we were only going to peek in through the window? Remember Murdoch..."

But Johnny was not about to leave now without finding out who or what had moved in without the niceties of a formal introduction. He was already crawling around the side of the old building. "Murdoch ain't here an' what he don't know won't hurt him. Now you comin' or not?"

With that, he disappeared around the corner. Scott shrugged helplessly and, keeping low, crawled after him. He was just in time to witness his younger brother's boots sliding down through the trap-door to the cellar. Squinting into the murky darkness, he clamped his hand onto his hat and followed.

The air in the basement was heavy with the smell of mildew and earth. As they inched carefully around, the dust they disturbed tickled their noses and caught at the back of their throats. Johnny lifted a dirty sheet off a large shape which turned out to be an ancient iron bestead. A dank, mustiness rose up from the grimy cloth and, wrinkling his nose, he cast it aside with distaste. The further they ventured inside, the darker it became and Scott fumbled for a match, lighting it on a rickety packing case and holding it aloft. Johnny tossed him a fragment of old rag and Scott looked around for a stick or something to form a makeshift torch.

"Is this any good?"

The brothers nearly leaped out of their skins at the voice. Johnny's Colt cleared the leather of his holster in a flash and he spun around before his brain had even registered who the owner of the voice was.

"Damn it, kid!" he spat, his heart pounding.

"What on earth are you doing here?" Scott demanded, glaring down at Jemimah as she hopped jauntily down from the steps, proffering a stick of kindling from the woodpile outside.

She grinned and dusted off the legs of her overalls, tipping back her hat so that it hung on its strings down her back. Her long pigtails swung about her shoulders in thick glossy ropes.

"Investigating, just like you!" she beamed. "So, what've we found?" An excited grin lit her elfin face and she peered around the gloomy cellar. "Any dead bodies... or stolen gold?"

Scott angrily snatched the kindling from her and endeavoured to twist the rag around one end then he hastily lit it before the match could burn down to his fingers. He towered over her but, ignoring his very obvious displeasure at discovering her, she pushed eagerly past him and moved towards Johnny.

"Looks like we had a little stowaway," Johnny shook his head disapprovingly at her but she decided to brave it out and put on her most nonchalant expression. It wasn't easy. She hadn't forgotten that Johnny's patience had worn pretty thin the night before and, right now, his hands were planted angrily on his hips, his usual smile squashed into a firm exasperated line. "You get on back to the wagon, y'hear?" he hissed, pointing to the light coming from the open trapdoor.

"No! If you're here, why shouldn't I be?"

"Because Murdoch grounded you, that's why!" Scott whispered harshly, trying to keep his voice down. "You shouldn't even be off the ranch. And you definitely shouldn't be here!"

"Neither should you!" Jemimah countered, defiantly lifting her little pointed chin and narrowing her eyes furiously. "I heard you talking. You've got as much reason as I have to be worried." She nodded in satisfaction when she saw them both hesitate, exchanging furtive guilty looks. "Murdoch told all of us not to come out here, not just me. You'll be in trouble too if he finds out... especially if I tell him you brought me here!" A sly gleam lit her green eyes and Scott clenched his teeth.

"Why, you little..."

Just then, there was a scuffling noise from the far side of the cellar. They all froze at once. Johnny beckoned his brother and, pushing Jemimah behind them protectively, they inched forwards, easing past the filthy old packing cases and sticks of furniture festooned with swathes of dusty grey cobwebs. The noise came again and, silent as the grave, Johnny drew his gun, crouching low.

Jemimah jumped into the air and only just smothered a scream as, suddenly, a small grey shape darted out from behind an old mangle. Johnny managed to restrain himself and holstered his Colt as the racoon scampered off up the steps, making its bid for freedom.

They all drew a shaky breath, recovering from their fright - the relief making them want to laugh. A quick scout around showed that the cellar had not been touched by human hand for years. The dust and cobwebs were undisturbed except where they themselves had been. When they crept up the stairs, they discovered that the door at the top of the stairs was firmly locked and, again, the carpet of thick dust on the floorboards was untouched; no-one had opened the door at all.

"Think we could get in from the outside - maybe a window?" Jemimah whispered, itching to see the rooms upstairs and feeling brave now that her 'brothers' were with her.

Scott turned to her, scuffing dust from his dark blue shirt, and shook his head decisively. "Not with you here!"

Her mouth fell open in dismay and she swiped angrily at a drifting cobweb, stamping her boot in frustration. To be so near and now be thwarted, it was bloody aggravating! "What? Aw, come on, Scott!" she hissed, her lower lip protruding in a petulant pout.

"No!"

He herded Jemimah back down the stairs and through the cellar to the trapdoor. She resisted him until he lifted her off her feet, wincing as her booted heels connected with his knees. If it weren't for the fact that there'd be enough noise to wake the dead, he'd give the little madam what for!

Johnny preceded them and checked carefully before emerging fully into the daylight again. He stuck his head back in to beckon his brother. "All's clear, come on, we gotta be quick. Pass her up!"

Scott hefted Jemimah up and, one hand over her mouth, hoisted her through to Johnny's waiting arms like she was a sack of grain. Her mad squirming and kicking was futile; Johnny deposited her over his shoulder and, stooping as low as he could with his wriggling burden, he sped off towards the trees where they had hidden the wagon. Scott was hot on his heels and, dumping the girl on the seat between them, they headed carefully back to the road, keeping the cover of the trees between them and the house until they knew they were out of sight.

Once they were well and truly in the clear, almost at the bend in the road which curved around to the long sweeping stretch up to the Conway house, Scott slowed the team and turned a flinty blue eye on Jemimah. She seemed to shrink into the seat beside him and found herself leaning towards Johnny on her left. She chanced a furtive glance up at the dark haired young man. He was already watching her with a twinkling smile in his blue eyes, trying valiantly to produce a stern expression but failing miserably.

Jemimah perked up and risked a little smile of her own. Johnny frowned for Scott's benefit but winked when he knew his brother was no longer looking. Jemimah grinned but, wisely, kept her eyes on her hands which she clamped neatly together on her lap. Johnny could be such a pal; he never stayed mad at her for long and he enjoyed a bit of adventure as much as she did!

"Well, my girl," Scott began. "What have you to say for yourself?"

"Lo siento, Scott." Jemimah put on her best timid voice but couldn't hold back the giggle when she heard Johnny's snort of laughter.

He slung his arm around her shoulders and, knocking her hat off, hugged her to his side as he chuckled delightedly. She could not help but join him and even Scott, rolling his eyes with helpless exasperation at the pair of them, shook his head. Realising the futility of trying to deliver any kind of lecture now, he too gave a small chuckle. Truth be told, they were all mightily relieved to be out of the house unscathed. Smiling sheepishly at each other, they sat back in the warm sunshine.

They were drawing closer to Aggie's now. Scott nudged the girl. "Jemimah, I'll stop the wagon. Get under the cover and squeeze right to the back if you can. I don't want Aggie or anyone to see you."

At her enquiring look, he elaborated. "If we can get back to Lancer without you being discovered, maybe we can smuggle you in and Murdoch won't be any the wiser."

Both Johnny and Jemimah grinned at Scott's duplicity and, when he had stopped the team, Johnny lifted her down and helped her to hide in the back.

****

 

Aggie herself greeted them as they stepped down from the wagon outside the newly-painted cottage. She stepped quickly over to her visitors, wiping her hands on her apron and untying the kerchief from around her glossy hair. She was beaming in welcome and both Scott and Johnny grinned back.

There was no denying it, Aggie Conway was a handsome woman still. There was little wonder their father was so attached to her. But it was not merely her looks that Murdoch and his sons so admired; Aggie was charming, warm and, though the owner of one of the biggest spreads in the area, completely down-to-earth. She had evidently been pitching in with the cleaning and sported smudges of dirt on her nose and chin as she smiled up at them.

"Scott! Johnny!" she greeted them warmly. "Come to see how we're getting along?"

Scott gestured to the loaded wagon. "Not just that - Murdoch's sent over some furniture he thought you may be able to use."

Johnny was unfastening the tarp and peeling it back to reveal the large wooden bedstead and the table. Aggie's eyes lit up as she perused the wagon's contents and she clasped her hands together gleefully, reminding the boys of Jemimah and Pony on Christmas morning.

"Well, this is very kind of you, I must say," she beamed. She then turned to shout over her shoulder. "Carmelita! How about some coffee for our benefactors?"

The plump Mexican housekeeper bustled forth, grinning from ear to ear.

Aggie placed a hand on the shoulder of each young man. "Or perhaps you'd prefer a glass of sweet cider?" she twinkled shrewdly. "Too early in the day, d'you think?"

"Well, we've been up for about three hours," Johnny reasoned. "Sweet cider sounds real appealin' to me!"

Scott nodded in agreement. "I wouldn't say no. It's warm work being a benefactor!"

"See to it please, Carmelita," Aggie smiled.

" Sí, señora ," the woman nodded then, pausing, she eyed the young men knowingly. "And for the niña?"

Aggie frowned questioningly watching Carmelita point to the wagon bed. As they all peered around the end of the lowered gate, a fluttering white bow (looking very much like a large butterfly) could be glimpsed atop a glossy dark braid. There was no sign of the child to whom the braid was attached however, as Aggie planted her hands on her hips and gave them each a suspicious glance, the boys knew the game was up. Carmelita was Maria's niece; there was no way that word of Jemimah's presence in the wagon would not filter back to Lancer now.

"I think maybe some lemonade for Miss Jemimah?" Aggie enquired. "And perhaps you should allow the poor child to ride up front beside you in future instead of stuffing her under a dusty cover? Jemimah? Out you come, my dear!"

Little by little, Jemimah warily inched out from under the mound of furniture until she knelt uncertainly in full view. Aggie shrewdly eyed all three Lancers but bit back her smile. She would be sure to ask Murdoch the full story the next time she saw him. Some sort of shenanigans was going on here and, for once if their red faces were anything to go by, the boys were as deeply in the mire as the young miss. Aggie thought she would have a little fun of her own. She beckoned the girl to her and, slipping a motherly arm around her shoulders, helped her to hop down and began to walk her towards the kitchen.

"Look at you!" she clucked. "You're simply covered in dust and dirt! Did these two big bullies make you lie in the back of that filthy wagon under all that old stuff?" A sidelong glance at Scott and Johnny revealed their nonplussed expressions and Aggie turned away quickly lest they spot her smile. "Well, my dear," she continued. "You just come along with me. We'll see if we can't find some cake to go with that lemonade!"

She halted for a moment and, shaking her head in mock reproof at the two young men, added, "Just unload it all and take it into the cottage before you come inside, boys." With that, she led Jemimah into the house, leaving both Lancer men wondering how they had somehow ended up being blamed for the kid's deviousness.

"Cake." Johnny's expression was bereft. "You reckon there'll be any left for us by the time we've done with this lot?"

Scott sighed and turned to the huge mountain of furniture. "Come on, Johnny!"

Peeling back the tarpaulin, they set to work.

****

 

Johnny need not have worried; Aggie was not mean enough to withhold cake from any Lancer man. When they had finished unloading the wagon, both brothers were ready for the tall glasses of sweet cider they had been promised and, though Aggie feigned disapproval at their 'ill treatment' of the little girl, two enormous wedges of sticky lemon cake awaited them in the kitchen.

When she waved them off a short while later, Jemimah now on the seat between her 'brothers', Aggie smiled to herself. She wasn't sure what the full story might be but she wished she could be a fly on the wall to witness their reception back at Lancer. She shook her head. Murdoch, she predicted, was not going to be happy! The question was... who was going to pay?

****

 

"So... should I get back under the cover?" Jemimah asked. The closer they got to home, the more worried she felt.

"Nope. No point now," Johnny shook his head. "Carmelita will tell Maria, Maria will tell the ol' man."

"The only thing to do is come clean," Scott confirmed. "And pray that Murdoch's still in a good mood."

Jemimah snuggled into Johnny's side as he hugged her to him. She was a little frightened of her father's anger; there was no denying Murdoch could be a real grizzly bear when he had a mind to and she had disobeyed him. But she was not seriously concerned this time. After all, she was with Scott and Johnny and there was no way Murdoch would contemplate tanning them so, surely, she would be safe too!

As Scott drove the now empty wagon up to the house, they saw the tall figure of their father strolling out of the French windows and standing, hands on hips, scowling at their approach. The other hands who were still working near the barn, Cipriano and Jelly among them, paused to watch their steady progress. Murdoch eyed his sons and daughter as they drew ever nearer.

"Was ever a man cursed with such disobedient offspring?" he muttered to himself.

The wagon rolled to a standstill in front of his imposing bulk but none of the three left the safety of their elevated position. Murdoch smiled inwardly at the definite air of uncertainty that hung about the three miscreants.

"Y'know, if I had my way, all three of you would be on your way to the barn and wouldn't be able to sit down for a week!" he growled loudly.

As he eyed each one in turn, they had the grace to squirm uneasily.

Scott had been studying his gloved hands but now he raised his eyes to his father, a self-deprecating smirk lifting the corners of his mouth. "Sorry sir," he smiled ruefully and heard his parent grunt. "But I think we're a little too old to spank!"

Johnny thumbed back the brim of his hat, carefully watching the old man. He was by no means sure his irate father felt the same and was sticking close to Scott - safety in numbers and all that. When Murdoch's beady eye fell on him, he gave him his best disarming grin.

"Lo siento, Pa," he smiled. Murdoch emitted another short grunt. He knew full well that Johnny only used that title to butter him up.

Jemimah leaned a little closer to Johnny. If Murdoch couldn't whip his sons , then he wouldn't whip her either. She would escape and live to fight another day.

Murdoch drew himself up to his full impressive height and smiled inwardly when all three of his children looked worried.

"Yes Scott, you're right - I'm afraid you boys are too old... " he then turned his full attention to Jemimah, who shrank back against Johnny visibly. "... but Miss Jemimah isn't. Inside, young lady!" Murdoch pointed to the French windows.

"What? That's not fair!"

"I said 'inside'. Now!"

Jemimah pouted then leaped to her feet, a murderous gleam in her eye. Johnny hopped down and reached up to lift her from the wagon, catching her eye in sympathy as he held her around the waist . Huh! He'd changed his tune - it was only last night he'd been offering to do the job for Murdoch an' now he was givin' her the sorry look?! With a scowl directed fiercely at Murdoch, she stomped inside.

Murdoch, meanwhile, continued to eye his sons disapprovingly.

Johnny cleared his throat and ducked his head. "Murdoch, you can't punish Jemimah alone. We were as much to blame."

"You mean, you took her willingly out to that house after I had expressly forbidden it?"

"Well, no, we didn't know she was..." Johnny stopped. He could have kicked himself.

"Thank you, son. That's what I thought."

Murdoch chuckled inwardly. It never ceased to amaze him how gullible his children thought he was!

"I need you two to ride out to the North Mesa. I've had a report of some of the herd breaking through the fencing up there. They need rounding up and the wire replacing. Walt's already set off in the wagon."

"Now?" Johnny was dismayed.

"We've only just got back. That'll take hours!" Scott protested.

Murdoch arched an eyebrow. "Then you'd better saddle up and get moving. That's if you want to be back before suppertime." His tone brooked no argument.

With that parting shot, Murdoch turned and strode into the house. He had one more disobedient child to deal with.

Johnny sighed and slumped against the wheel. The ride up to the North Mesa would be long enough but then to have to round up a load of stupid cows, re-string the fence and ride back... suppertime? They would be lucky to see breakfast the next morning! And they both knew it.

"Y'know Scott, I'm beginning to think bein' whomped would've been a lot easier!"

"Brother, I'm starting to agree with you!"

Scott drove the wagon over to the barn, Johnny trudging after, then they went to saddle their horses.

****

 

Jemimah scuffed some of the dust off her old overalls with her hat. Little clouds of it flew around the room, landing on the paperwork neatly laid out on Murdoch's desk. She gaped at it and hastily moved away to the curtains by the French windows. She used them to scrub her hands clean and wipe her grimy face. This was the outfit she usually wore when she was just kicking about the ranch or riding so it was not unusual to see her dressed like a boy.

However, when Murdoch entered the room, the sight of her bedraggled, patched clothing somehow irked him even more and he bellowed across at her.

"Jemimah Rose Day! Look at the state of you! You're filthy!"

Jemimah jumped and gulped audibly. She vainly tried to polish the toes of her muddy boots on the back of her legs. From the look on the big man's face, she knew she was in for it; had known it ever since he ordered her inside but she still was going to give wheedling out of it her best shot. She looked down at herself as if noticing for the first time that she'd become dirty. She swiped her hat down her bare arms and brushed the short, fraying sleeves of her little flowered calico blouse with her fingers.

"Oh, hoo-whee," she whooped as though it were a game. " Yes, you're right, Murdoch. I'd better go and have a bath."

She spun on her heel, her long beribboned pigtails flying out behind her.

" Hold it right there, young lady!"

Jemimah froze, listening for movement behind her. Shit!

"Come back here. Before you even think about a bath, we have some unfinished business to take care of."

Jemimah heard the threat in his stern growl and felt a moment of panic. It was all she could do not to rush out of the room and race like a mad thing up the stairs, hoping he would not be able to catch her before she could make it to her bedroom and lock it. It took a supreme effort to raise her chin and, arranging a puzzled expression on her impish face, green eyes wide with innocence, turn to face him.

Murdoch was busy purposefully rolling up his shirtsleeves and, knowing full-well the reason why, even Jemimah's bravado was not up to the task. The puzzled look changed to one of defiance which, faced with his irate glare, then became dismay. She wrung her scruffy old hat in her hands and heard the whine in her own voice.

"I didn't suppose you meant it, Murdoch... not really."

He had now finished with both sleeves. "You disobey me and leave the ranch, again without telling anyone? Let me assure you... I did! Now, come here."

"Look, Murdoch," she reasoned, failing to note the way her father's face darkened or the little vein beginning to pulse at his temple. "I didn't leave alone ; I was with Scott an' Johnny and while I realise I may have... let's say, bent the rule a little, I didn't..."

"Young lady, I would suggest that you stop trying to talk yourself out of what you have coming and start doing as you're told!" Murdoch interrupted sharply. "Right now, the only bending you need to worry about is bending over my knee !"

She felt almost dizzy with anguish and put on her best wounded expression. "Oh, but you wouldn't really take it out on just me? That wouldn't be very fair. Scott and Johnny..."

Murdoch's voice was getting louder the longer she stayed on the other side of the room. "Scott and Johnny are riding out to the North Mesa to catch up on the work they missed while the three of you were off playing detective."

Jemimah was starting to feel really hot even in the cool shady room. Beads of perspiration were gathering on her brow and her heart was hammering like she had just run a race.

"But they..."

Murdoch snatched hold of a straight-backed chair which was placed against the wall. He plonked it down at the side of his desk, making sure there was plenty of free space around it.

Jemimah swallowed and eyed the chair miserably. She remembered it well; she was used to this chair and all its painful associations. It sat there, taunting her . 'Howdy, Jemimah, not long since we last met. Didn't think you'd be back so soon but here you are again!' it seemed to say. She glowered at it.

" They are, unfortunately, too big to fit over my knee, " Murdoch frowned. "You, however, still fit just fine! Now, come over here." He beckoned her ominously, his voice soft.

Jemimah glanced over her shoulder at the doorway to the hall, trying to gauge whether she could actually make it upstairs before the old man caught her. If he did, the licking she would get would be truly monumental but, if he didn't....  if she could get away...

As if reading her mind, Murdoch muttered darkly, "I wouldn't..."

She almost stomped her foot in frustration like a petulant kid having a temper tantrum. Wisely, she controlled the urge.

"I'm running out of patience." He pointed to the floor in front of him.

Sighing like a martyr, head down, she slumped over to the solid, immovable mountain that was her adopted father, dragging her booted feet every step of the way. When she was finally in front of him, she slowly raised her chin and looked up at him, her best sorrowful 'puppy dog' expression and eyelash fluttering at work. In vain, it seemed, for Murdoch's only response was a genuine rumbling chuckle and his huge warm right hand capturing hers.

"Daddy, please," she whined. Just like Johnny, she knew that the title could sometimes have magical properties.

Murdoch sat himself on the detested chair.

"Save your eyelashes and smiles for the boys at school, daughter. I'm immune!"

This could not be happening, not again, not so soon! She tried to pull away but his hand held her easily, his strength incredible. Lifting and positioning her carefully across his lap, Murdoch bit out, "And the next time, maybe you'll mind what I tell you!"

Then he set about impressing the importance of obedience on her, his huge hand snapping over her rear end with sharp rubbery cracks. It took some time but, finally, the kicking and howling died down to become sniffles and sobs.

Murdoch lifted his girl up and set her back on her feet, his hands on her waist. He remained still, allowing her a moment to set herself to rights again - to swipe away the tears which were smeared on her cheeks and to smooth down her little blouse, tucking it back into her overalls. When she had done, he gave her a gentle shake and she forced herself to meet his eyes.

He tried not to smile. The child's lower lip was what he would definitely term 'pouting'; she obviously felt hard-done-to.

"Jemimah, listen to me," he said, his tone grave. "There are many rules we have to follow living on a ranch but all of them are there to keep us safe. This is not the first time you've taken it into your head to disappear without letting someone else know where you're going."

She tried to interrupt.

"No, you need to listen!" She subsided into a sulky silence and Murdoch lifted her chin with a fingertip to make sure she paid attention. "The first time you ran off you were hurt and could have been killed. If it weren't for Johnny being such an expert tracker, we might never have found you."

They were both silent then, remembering that awful day in the storm and the horror of what had almost happened.

"Then there was the time you went... ahem ... skinny-dipping with Enrique and I thought I had made a decent enough impression on you to last. And now this is the umpteenth time you've left the ranch secretly even though Johnny discussed it with you not too long ago, didn't he?"

Jemimah nodded. Although, truth to tell, there hadn't been much of a discussion. Johnny had hardly said anything at all when he stumbled upon her in Morro Coyo. He didn't really say much on the ride back either but then his right hand had been pretty damn eloquent when he led her to the bench under the old peach tree and pitched her over his knee. Her abiding memory of that unpleasant incident was staring at the rowels on Johnny's left spur and trying not to loudly advertise the fact to the entire ranch that she was being soundly whupped... again!

Murdoch took in her sudden flush and knew she remembered very well. Yet still the lesson had not been learned. It was time for something a wee bit stronger.

"Now, young lady," Murdoch growled and his eyes were flinty. "You will follow our rules. Should you break this particular rule again, you will leave me no choice. I will take you out there to the barn, bare your behind and give you the hiding of your life... with a strap."

The child looked up in scandalised surprise, her tearful green eyes wide. He couldn't... he wouldn't! Murdoch only ever whomped her in her room or here on this blasted chair. He wouldn't really take her out there to the barn... like Cipriano did with Enrique!? And a, a strap? Jemimah had only experienced such a thing once and she aimed to keep it that way! Surely he wouldn't... would he?

"But you can't..."

"Oh yes I can, my girl... and I will," Murdoch contradicted sternly. "Maybe, when you feel tempted to disappear without telling anyone again, you'll think on what awaits you on your return. Now put those filthy clothes to soak before Maria catches you."

Murdoch stood and released her. Her eyes followed his and she had to tip her head back, he was so tall.

"Go on," he urged not unkindly.

Jemimah hung her head and, desperately gripping her hat to keep from rubbing at her poor stinging seat, she sloped across the room, scuffing her dusty boots on the rug at every step.

"Jemimah," Murdoch's call halted her in her tracks. He shook a warning finger at her. "The chicken coop still needs to be whitewashed. And that essay is still waiting to be written when you're done cleaning up. Don't go disappearing. This time you mind me, y'hear?"

It wasn't fair! It just wasn't fair! Scott and Johnny got to go riding all afternoon while she got .... The kid's shoulders slumped. Yet those two just got away with it. It was so unfair - they were all bastards! One or the other of them seemed to be whaling away on her every time she turned around! (Jemimah conveniently failed to make the connection between her poor choices or devious little tricks and their justifiable response.) When was she going to be too old to spank?

****

It was almost suppertime when Johnny wearily approached the corral fence where Jemimah was leaning, her feet on the second rail so that she could see over the top. She was now clean, dressed neatly in a pink checked frock and her hair, still damp, hanging loosely down her back. He took in her morose expression and the dejected slump of her shoulders. She didn't even turn to look at him as he leaned on the top rail, his chin, like hers, resting on his forearms.

"Hey kid," Johnny's voice was very soft. He glanced at her but she didn't show any sign of having even heard him. He dropped his gaze to the fingernails of his right hand and sighed. The kid looked like she was trying not to cry.  "Y'alright?" He slid his elbow along the fence rail and nudged her very gently, deliberately prolonging the contact.

Scott finished tying his horse to the rail and came to join them, leaning there too like a matching bookend.

"Did Murdoch... was he mad?" Scott asked quietly though he felt sure he already knew the answer.

Both Lancers watched her carefully and took in her tiny sad nod. She still hadn't looked at them. Her eyes, swimming with unshed tears, were riveted on the horses at the other side of the corral.

Johnny sighed and all three were silent; Jemimah reliving her latest punishment and the boys imagining it. At long last, she broke the silence.

"He was mad. I mean quiet mad; he didn't shout or anything but... boy , he was mad." Both men had to lean towards the child to hear her, so soft was her voice. Again the silence.

" I'm fed up of being treated like a child!" she suddenly spat, making both Scott and Johnny jump. "I'm nearly fourteen , well, I will be in two months. When am I going to be too old to get whomped?" She was undoubtedly miffed.

Scott grimaced, not really wanting to reveal that Murdoch would probably still think of her as a child until she was married and had little ones of her own. "Well..."

"We all three of us went out to that house. It wasn't just me! An' you never let on to anyone where you were goin' either!" Jemimah threw an accusing glare at both Lancers.

"That's true, in a way, and..." Johnny began to placate the girl.

"And Murdoch told all of us not to set foot there so I wasn't the only one who disobeyed him!"

"I guess you're right but..." Johnny could hardly get a word in edgeways.

"Then why am I the only one who ends up..." Jemimah was so irate the words failed her.

"Well now," Scott soothed, a little smile tugging at his lips as he thought of Murdoch trying to physically chastise him and Johnny at their age. "I guess if we were a little younger..."

"No! It's not fair! I should go right in there and tell him so!" Jemimah's scowl told them that she felt the injustice keenly. Jumping down from the rail on which she was standing, she turned to glare at the hacienda and, by association, the big man inside it.

Johnny laid a calming hand on her sleeve. "Whoa! Hold it there, kid!" He paused and waited for her to look at him then, smiling softly, his blue eyes met hers. "I don't think you wanna do that, honey. I mean, you just said it - Murdoch's pretty mad at you right now."

"He said... he said, next time, he'd... whip me!" her lip trembled afresh at the memory.

Johnny tilted his head as he took in her sad little face. Yes, she'd done a foolish dangerous thing and she'd done it far too often for his liking. If he was honest, he would say she had asked for everything she got! But she was such a feisty little soul; it made his heart ache to see her so down.

Scott spoke up gently. "Then the last thing you want to do is go blazing in there like an avenging angel, making demands. Murdoch might get it into his head to follow through with his threat."

"I don't care!" Jemimah fumed foolishly. She did care; of course she cared but, damn it, it wasn't fair! "It's not right that I get it and you don't..."

"So then... what?" Scott asked. "You're going to storm in to Murdoch's study and insist that we get whomped too?"

Jemimah paused. She realised just how ridiculous that sounded and also that the only one who was likely to suffer, should she do such a thing, would be her! She sighed deeply, the green fire fading from her eyes and her shoulders slumped again. Slowly, she turned back to the fence and, climbing up again, resumed her pose, leaning on the top rail and moodily staring off into the distance.

"But it isn't right," she whispered. "And you know it." Impatiently, she brushed away the lone tear that made its way down her cheek.

Johnny and Scott glanced at each other uncomfortably.

Johnny leaned his arm on the fence, his right hand warm and soft on the back of the child's neck.

"Jemimah, we may be grown but Murdoch... he still didn't let us off that easy. We sure did get whomped."

Jemimah made an irritated sort of snort without turning to look at Johnny.

"Don't you believe me?"

Still she did not look at him but now her green eyes narrowed angrily. "No," she stated stonily. "I know you didn't. You two have only just got back. Murdoch's been sitting by the fire reading ever since he... since I..." She let out a gusty sigh, the painful memory assailing her vividly once more, the injustice rankling. "I've whitewashed the chicken coop an' I've written that bloody essay for him an... anyway, he's been there alone an' I'd have heard if there'd been any more.... well, anyway, I'd have known."

The brothers exchanged a smile.

"I guess you're right," Scott agreed. "But Johnny doesn't mean that kind of 'whomping'..."

Clearly not in the mood for their games, she scowled into the distance. "I don't know what you're on about. Why don't you just leave me alone?" To her further mortification, the first tear was followed by another and then a third.

Scott leaned close while Johnny's hand stroked her long hair gently. "Jemimah, listen," Scott soothed kindly. "You're right; we only just got back. We've been in the saddle for over seven hours straight if you don't count the time it took to mend the fence line. Just look at us!"

He stood back, spreading his arms wide, to display his dusty clothes in all their 'glory'.

" Look at us?" Johnny sniggered. " Smell us more like! Even Barranca won't stand downwind of me!"

Reluctantly, the girl felt the corners of her mouth try to curve upwards as Johnny nudged at her again. He sighed deeply, adopting her pose at the fence. Scott followed suit.

"You think you got it bad?" Johnny groused miserably, a hand reaching back to rub at his dusty behind. "Honey, my rear's been bumping up and down on that saddle so hard I'd say Murdoch managed to give me the lickin' he felt I deserved!"

"Yep," Scott's sigh rivalled his brother's. "But he didn't have to wear out his arm. The old man's no fool."

Both brothers planted their chins on their hands and, again, sighed deeply in unison - a perfect comedy double act. Their performances had the desired effect. Jemimah smiled, feeling a little better. She straightened and hopped down from the rail.

"You're right, Johnny," she grinned as she looked up at the handsome cowboy in his scruffy blue shirt and dusty pants. He smiled back. "You do stink!"

His smile disappeared. "Hey!"

"Well, brother, you do!" Scott confirmed.

Jemimah giggled and both men felt a rush of warmth.

"You ain't exactly no prairie rose yourself, brother!" Johnny insulted, wrinkling his nose and pretending to waft away Scott's pungent odour.

"I guess we could both do with a scrub before dinner," Scott was trying hard to keep from smiling.

Jemimah instantly sobered. " Dinner . Sitting on those chairs... for an hour!"

"Maybe we can persuade Teresa to let us have ours on a tray in the tub?" Johnny's blue eyes shone at his idea but Jemimah wasn't having that.

"Oh no, if I've got to sit through it then you're going to join me!"

The two men regarded each other and shrugged. All three turning to go in, they slung their arms around each other's shoulders, Jemimah sandwiched between them. Suddenly, she broke free, ducking down to escape their embrace, and running off ahead. She looked back, grinning.

"Ugh! You really do stink!"

Scott and Johnny paused to look at each other then, whooping and threatening to 'get' her, they gave chase.

****

 

That evening, once Jemimah had been dispatched to bed, Johnny and Scott began to fill Murdoch in on all they had seen at the old Randall place.

At first, their father had been unwilling to hear any of it, still displeased at being disobeyed so blatantly by his sons who, as far as he was concerned, should have known better and ought to have set an example to the girl (she could hardly be blamed for her disobedience when they displayed such a reckless disregard for his rules!) However, Murdoch had no choice but to become intrigued when Scott and Johnny backed up the child's story. Someone was in the Randall house but, to all intents and purposes, it was deserted; still boarded up and supposedly empty.

"Alright, it could be a drifter squatting there, who knows?" Murdoch ruminated as he sipped his single malt. "It's only May - nights can sometimes be cold when you're sleeping rough. Even the old Randall house is better than a windswept prairie or lonely wood when you've nowhere else to go."

"It sure ain't no family moved in but it's more than one man," Johnny argued and Scott nodded, backing up his brother.

Murdoch rose to top up his glass and his expression was thoughtful.

"Alright, I'll look into it," he finally said. "And maybe someone should speak to Sheriff Crawford - Scott?" He looked to his eldest.

Johnny shot him a questioning glance.

"I want Val to receive the facts, Johnny," Murdoch explained his decision. "Not an adventurous dime store novel version of events." Before his son could protest, Murdoch continued, his voice and expression severe, brooking no argument. "In the meantime, I'll tell you both what I told Jemimah and I expect to be obeyed this time - stay away from the Randall house! We have a ranch to run and that takes priority over any further investigations into what may or may not be going on! Understood?"

Though it was patently obvious from their faces that neither of his sons liked being issued such an ultimatum, they both eventually muttered their assent.

****

 

Scott and Teresa watched Jemimah dive out of her seat and tussle her way through the milling congregation in a desperate bid to escape into the fresh air. Scott smirked and sniggered. These hard wooden pews were no picnic at the best of times, especially after sitting through one of Reverend Carmichael's endless sermons but, after Murdoch's ministrations the day before, it had been pure torture for the child. He had to hand it to her though; she had held up well - only the slightest squirming every now and then. He could not blame her for bolting away the first chance she got.

As he shook hands with the minister and descended the front steps with Teresa on his arm, Scott saw that his father was deep in conversation with a dapper little man that he did not recognise.

The man was dressed very smartly, almost ostentatiously. He had a large walrus-like moustache, the ends of which were twirled and waxed into contrived little needle-points that wobbled as he talked - which he seemed to do at length. His suit, though made of good cloth, was somewhat showy for Sunday services in Green River and, underneath, he wore a gaudy brocade waistcoat of a virulent bile-green which was stretched tightly over his well-upholstered middle - a gold watch chain on display.

The lady at his side, Scott guessed, was his wife. Similarly over-dressed (with a hat so be-feathered that she appeared to have a large fowl on her primped and coiffed head!), she was barely disguising her disinterest. Her plump gloved hand stifled her deliberate yawn - her actions only just this side of downright rude.

Murdoch, it was obvious, had noted the chubby woman's appalling lack of manners. He looked up in relief at his son and, though he smiled politely at the couple, Scott recognised the disdain in his eyes.

"Ah, Mr Porter, Mrs Porter, I'd like to introduce my eldest son, Scott and this is my ward, Miss O' Brien."

Murdoch gallantly made the introductions and Scott, ever the gentleman, displayed his good manners and charm, shaking hands and even wresting a simpering coquettish smile from Mrs Porter.

It transpired that Mr Porter was the new manager of the Green River Bank. He had taken the position, he confided, for his health - the climate was far warmer and drier than that of Chicago though, my goodness, what a God-forsaken backwater this place was; could hardly be called a town at all. He went on to complain about everything, particularly how the house they had been given was far from what they were accustomed to but he had great changes planned - indoor plumbing for one thing! After all, he could hardly expect his wife and daughter to be boiling water on the stove every time they wished to perform their ablutions - not that they themselves were expected to lift a finger; that's what servants were for! Porter chortled and both Murdoch and Scott experienced a strong dislike for the vain, foolish little man.

Murdoch tried to change the subject. "You have a daughter, you say, Mrs Porter?"

The woman preened. "Why yes, Martha-Mae. She's here somewhere." The fat little woman peered around the throng of church-goers, almost decapitating the good Reverend with the excessively wide brim of her ridiculous hat.

"How old is she?" Teresa inquired politely.

"Our little angel is fourteen now," Porter gushed.

"My adopted daughter, Jemimah is almost the same age," Murdoch smiled. "Perhaps we should introduce the girls."

" Adopted?" Mrs Porter's rather beefy nose had suddenly turned up as though there was a nasty smell in the air.

Murdoch faltered. If the daughter was anything like the parents, he could well imagine what Jemimah would make of her. Seeking an excuse to rid himself of the annoying pair, he looked about in search of the girl. "I wonder where she's got to."

There appeared to be no sign of her.

****

 

Behind the church, Jemimah was leaning on the fence and staring in amusement at the apparition that had just vacated the outhouse.

The girl, for Jemimah was sure that is what it was, was frilled, laced and beribboned to within an inch of her life. There did not seem to be a single space left on her fluffy white dress for one more flounce or satin bow. She wore white kid high-buttoned boots and white stockings too, making her look for all the world like a larger, more puffed-up relation of Dewdrop's. To make matters worse, when she turned around to close the door, the back of her dress was gathered into two swags to form an elaborate bustle which was then adorned with a sugary pink satin bow large enough to cover the girl's entire rear-end. She looked like her bum was being attacked by an enormous butterfly!

Rather rudely, Jemimah let out a derisive snort of laughter and hopped up onto the fence to better survey the stranger.

The girl turned around. From under her flowered straw bonnet and copious blonde ringlets, her grey eyes narrowed meanly. "What are you looking at?" she snapped.

Jemimah grinned and cocked her head to one side, studying the strange sight in front of her. "Well now," she drawled slowly. "I'm not exactly sure; you appear to have lost your label! Didn't know the circus was in town!"

The girl had never heard an accent quite like this dark little kid's but there was no mistaking the fact that she was being mocked and she did not like it one bit. "Just because you've never seen a lady before," she sneered.

"A lady?" Jemimah guffawed rudely and walked a few steps along the fence, balancing carefully and, it must be said, showing off somewhat.

The white fluffy girl came a little nearer, watching. "Didn't anyone tell you, you're meant to dress up for church?" she leered. "Oh, but maybe this is the best you have? Poor you!"

Jemimah smiled. If this was all the kid could do, it wasn't worth the bother! "Mangy birds pick at the best fruit!" she quipped with a cocky grin.

The white girl seethed, furious that her jibe had missed its mark. She tried again. "Your mother should have thrown you away and kept the stork though, by the look of them scrawny legs, maybe she did!"

Jemimah hopped a few more steps and chuckled. Feeble! Pitiful! It almost wasn't worth the effort putting her down but...

"Want to hear a story?" she asked the girl. Hopping down from her perch, she approached her and, though she was quite a few inches shorter, was pleased to note that the stranger backed away nervously. "It's a fairy tale, y'know," Jemimah went on conversationally.

The other girl looked uncertain, thrown by her pleasant tone. But there was nothing pleasant about the wicked glint in Jemimah's vivid green eyes as they bore into the fluffy white creature. "Once upon a time... nobody gave a shit! The End!" The white girl's mouth had dropped open in surprise. She was still backing away and Jemimah matched each step, following her, pressing her.

"You look like Jelly's goose!"

The girl had no idea who Jelly might be but she wasn't standing for that. "Don't you dare insult..."

"M'not insulting you, kid," Jemimah smirked. "I'm describing you. An' anyway, if you're offended by that opinion, you should hear the ones I kept to myself!"

Bump! The girl's overly padded rump backed up against the wall of the outhouse. Jemimah stopped and, feeling herself the undisputed winner of their little argument, she grinned triumphantly. She dropped a tiny mocking curtsey and began to turn away but paused when, from the corner of her eye, she spotted the girl stoop to scrape up a handful of mud. Jemimah narrowed her eyes, expecting her adversary to launch the missile at her. If she did, she'd better be prepared to eat some of it!

However, Jemimah watched in amazement as the girl, a nasty vindictive gleam in her cold eyes, clapped the mud to her bosom and proceeded to smear it down the front of her snowy frills. Before Jemimah knew what was happening, she had tugged off her flower-festooned bonnet and was stamping it into the ground while mussing up her own pretty ringlets, the mud clarting her golden hair into an untidy birds' nest.

Jemimah gasped. The crazy... she'd gone bonkers! Warily, she took a step backwards. The taller girl straightened, scooping up her ruined bonnet from the filthy puddle at her feet. She smiled and, as Jemimah gaped, suddenly let out a squeal like a stuck pig! Still shrieking and sobbing alternately, the girl (now a very bedraggled and sorry spectacle indeed) raced off around the side of the church - slamming into her astonished parents who were still prattling to an impatient Murdoch.

The group of adults reeled in shock as the tattered grey creature flung herself into their midst. If her appearance were not peculiar enough, she was emitting a high-pitched shrieking noise with an occasional hiccupping gasp for air making her sound like a spluttering steam whistle. Added to that, the hysterical girl was literally hopping on the spot in her distress.

The one or two remaining parishioners turned to gape at the spectacle. Murdoch, Scott and Teresa glanced questioningly at each other but Mrs Porter threw her arms around the sobbing girl, clutching her wildly to her ample bosom and smoothing a violet glove over the once shining curls. When her hand came away smeared with sticky brown mud, the woman's face resembled that of a bulldog who had swallowed a wasp!

"Oh, my poor darling," she twittered. "What has happened? Who did this to you?"

Martha-Mae lifted her tear-stained face from her mother's velvet trimmed coat and pointed towards the corner of the church. All eyes followed the direction of her trembling finger.

Jemimah stood alone, a sea of accusing faces fixed on her. But the face that concerned her most was that of her father.

He was marching over to her and she gasped. His mouth was set in a furious line and the tell-tale vein throbbed at his temple, his blue eyes glinting dangerously. Somehow, he seemed even bigger than usual and, as he bore rapidly down on her, Jemimah felt herself take a panicky breath. No sooner had his big hand grabbed hold of her sleeve than she found herself being yanked so hard over to the others that she swore her feet only touched the ground twice. He thrust her forwards and she was surrounded.

"This is my daughter, Jemimah!" Murdoch stated stonily. It clearly gave him no pleasure to claim ownership of her. "What do you have to say for yourself, young lady?"

The other girl began to sob noisily again. "She threw mud at me, mama! She called me names and then she threw mud at me!"

Mr and Mrs Porter glared down at the unspeakable villain. Jemimah felt Murdoch's hand nudge her shoulder. It was a very eloquent nudge; it said, " Speak up and it had better be good because, if you disgrace me any further in front of this ghastly pair, you will be sorry!"

Jemimah looked helplessly up at Murdoch and Scott. "I didn't do it. She did it herself! She's barmy!"

Mr Porter was spluttering like he had tried to swallow his moustache. "My daughter is hardly likely to throw mud on herself..."

"But that's just what she did do!"

"I didn't! She hates meeeeeeee!" Mrs Porter once again hugged her shrieking child protectively to her and scowled down at Jemimah with affronted fury.

Jemimah was starting to feel a little angry - why did nobody believe her?

"You will apologise right now, young lady!" Murdoch growled and prodded her forwards.

Jemimah refused to be prodded! "What for?" she demanded, rather unwisely considering the mood of the big man who stood directly behind her.

"Because I say so," Murdoch ground out the age-old retort of an irate parent, flashing an embarrassed glance at the Porters' indignant faces. He leaned closer to his daughter, his next words meant for her ears alone. "And, if you don't do it now, I will upend you right here and give you 'what for' ! Is that understood?"

Teresa caught Murdoch's threat and also leaned towards Jemimah. "Just apologise," she beseeched.

" You apologise!" Jemimah turned on the older girl.

Teresa gasped in surprise at the kid's vehemence and stepped back from her green glare. " I didn't do anything!" she remarked.

"Neither did I!" Jemimah snapped. "What's the difference?"

It was becoming more than evident that Jemimah was not going to apologise. Murdoch glared at her, speechless with shame, but she pinched her lips together in a sullen frown. Very well... if she refused to deliver the apology, he would have to deliver the very necessary bottom-warming he had promised! First, however, he would get rid of the Porters. Grasping Jemimah's hand in his, Murdoch took a deep cleansing breath.

"Mr and Mrs Porter, I can only apologise for my daughter's atrocious behaviour. Please, rest assured she will be punished..." he glared down at the child and gripped her hand when he saw her glaring right back. "And, obviously, I will pay for the damage to Martha-Mae's clothing."

"Hmph!" Mrs Porter gave a stiff little toss of her pug-like face, pointing her bulbous nose into the air and leading her snivelling daughter away from the little ruffian who had so abused her.

Before following his wife and child, Mr Porter shook his head in outrage. The furious movement caused his moustaches to tremble precariously. "That... child ... should be dealt with most severely, Mr Lancer!" He gave Jemimah another scalding stare. " Most severely!" With that, he clapped his odd pie-shaped hat on his balding head and wobbled off after his wife.

Jemimah watched them go, studiously trying to avoid looking at Murdoch for as long as possible. He still gripped her hand and she was very aware that he was scrutinising her closely. The hair was standing up on the back of her neck. Eventually, though she tried hard to resist, her gaze was drawn inexorably upwards and she looked fearfully into his steely blue eyes.

"Very well," his voice was low but so terrible that she felt her knees go weak. "You've asked for it, young lady..."

Scott and Teresa stood by helplessly as Murdoch, with Jemimah in tow, marched purposefully over to the now deserted steps. He planted his left foot onto the second step to make a knee and, quickly and efficiently, hoisted the wriggling girl up over it. His hand raised, Murdoch was about to mete out what he saw as some mightily deserved justice, when a voice shouted across the street.

"Mr Lancer! Mr Lancer! Stop!"

Jemimah raised her head, craning round to see who was making all the noise. From her upside-down position, she could not turn sufficiently but she could make out a pair of boots and she thought she recognised the voice.

"Mr Lancer, I saw it all from across the street!"

"Mr Quinn!" Murdoch's voice registered his surprise and he hastily lowered Jemimah to her feet, the hand he had been about to employ on her behind now resting on her shoulder.

"I saw it all," Mr Quinn repeated. "Jemimah wasn't to blame; she never went near the other girl. It was Mr Porter's daughter who smeared the dirt all over herself - just to land Jemimah in hot water, I would say!"

The young school master grinned down at Jemimah in a comradely fashion. After their shaky start and despite her occasional lapses, Dan Quinn was very fond of the plucky little English girl and she was a credit to his school - most of the time!

"Well, I'll be... and you saw all this, you say?" Murdoch gaped.

"Oh yes, I was changing my clothes after church and I saw everything from my window." Dan indicated the boarding house across the street then, blushing, gestured to his attire - he had removed his tie and collar and was now in his shirtsleeves. "Please forgive my appearance."

"There's nothing to forgive, Mr Quinn," Murdoch smiled and offered his hand. Dan shook it eagerly. "You've prevented me from making a serious mistake and..." he looked down at his girl, turning her gently to him. "I'm the one who should be asking for forgiveness." He paused, looking decidedly uncomfortable. Then he cleared his throat gruffly. "Jemimah, I'm sorry. You said you didn't do it and I should have known you wouldn't lie to me. I apologise. I nearly..."

Jemimah took in her father's embarrassed flush and, knowing how much it was costing him to admit his error, especially in front of a virtual stranger, she suddenly threw herself at him in a desperate hug. Murdoch closed his arms about her and breathed deeply.

"Mr Quinn... I... thank you." Murdoch was further mortified to feel himself choking up.

"Perhaps you would care to join us for lunch, Mr Quinn?" Scott stepped in. "I'm sure we'd all be very glad if you could."

Dan Quinn turned to see Scott smiling down at him. "Well, I..."

"Oh yes, please do!" Teresa added graciously. She smiled prettily and now it was the young man's turn to blush. "And why not stay on for dinner too?"

"You would be most welcome," Murdoch assured him.

Surrounded by smiles on all sides, Dan could not refuse their offer. "I'll just fetch my coat," he beamed.

As he dashed off to his room, Murdoch lifted Jemimah onto his hip and, planting a kiss on her shining hair, carried her to their wagon.

****

 

Over lunch, the whole episode was related to Johnny who variously scowled at the Porter girl's scheming or grinned at Jemimah's description of the kid and her own narrow escape.

"Sounds to me like this Martha-Mae oughtta be the one gettin' a lickin'," Johnny decided, wiping his napkin over his mouth and settling back in his chair, one arm slung around Jemimah's shoulders. "Can't stand sneaky young 'uns! Maybe someone should speak to her pa?"

Jemimah nodded righteously and glanced hopefully at Murdoch.

"I shall take great pleasure in acquainting Mr Porter with the true version of today's events," Murdoch agreed wryly. "I don't think that child should get away with such underhand behaviour either, Johnny."

"I fully intend to keep my eye on her when she starts school tomorrow," Dan Quinn announced.

To this, there was a general murmur of surprise - the Porters were sending their daughter to the school in Spanish Wells?

Dan shrugged. "They have little choice I'm afraid. Ms Campbell, the teacher at Green River, is leaving any day now. She had some bad news from home - a sick father I believe - and is returning straight away. The school there is to be closed until a new teacher is appointed so any children who can travel the distance to Spanish Wells will be joining us there." He smiled ruefully. "It'll be a squeeze but I'm sure we'll manage. I'll be looking to responsible members of my class to help the others settle in." At these words, he looked pointedly across the table to Jemimah.

The girl sat up and grinned wickedly. "Oh, I'll help her settle in, alright!"

Johnny lowered his head and smirked but Murdoch cast his daughter a warning glance and Scott wagged his finger at her, a stern expression on his face though his eyes smiled playfully.

After luncheon, Jemimah followed Johnny outside to sit near the bunkhouse, listening to Walt and Alfie playing respectively on guitar and fiddle. As she knelt there, leaning on Johnny's knee, she happened to glance across to the porch. Mr Quinn was following in Teresa's wake, assisting her in watering the various pots of flowers and gazing at her with undisguised admiration, rather like a besotted puppy dog. Jemimah snorted with laughter but desisted immediately when Johnny's hand gave her a gentle cuff around the ear and he admonished her to 'behave'.

****

 

Scott rode quietly along behind the two kids and politely kept his distance. He was well aware that they would find his presence intrusive. This ride to the school house was their chance to gossip and joke; he fully realised that an adult would only be in their way and magnanimously loitered a few yards behind. Besides, their inane prattle had begun to get on his nerves!

"Did you get caught going in on Friday night?" Jemimah whispered the question. She had not  been able to catch up with her friend all weekend; Murdoch had kept her very busy with extra chores.

Enrique beamed and shook his head. "No, me colé en tan tranquila como un ratón! (I sneaked in as quiet as a mouse!)" he gloated at his own cunning. "You?"

Jemimah shook her head. "Johnny caught me but I got away with it... well, 'til Saturday when I sneaked out again. Then I got it good! Murdoch ."

Enrique grimaced in sympathy. Comparing punishments and discussing their fathers' and brothers' wrath was a usual morning pastime. He shot a nervous glance behind at their companion.

"Why is Señor Scott riding into town with us?"

"He's not; he's goin' to Green River to see Sheriff Crawford an' tell him about the drifters at the ol' house. Anyway, shush a bit, will ya'... I've got something to tell."

Enrique recognised the glimmer in his amiga's green eyes and settled in for a juicy story while Jemimah filled him in on all that had occurred at church the day before; the strange outfit sported by the Porter girl, her downright deceitfulness and the fact that she would be joining them at school. Ever the loyal compadre, Enrique agreed with alacrity that the girl surely did need 'help' settling in and, winking at his little buddy, he leaned closer to her so they could plot a suitable revenge.

Scott took note of the sudden furtive whispers and was rather thankful that the turning for Green River was just up ahead; he had no desire to overhear whatever shenanigans they were plotting. He waved and turned his sorrel onto the lower trail.

"Right, now that he's gone, tell me about the Randall place!" Enrique grasped Jemimah's elbow. "We goin' back?"

However, the girl was shaking her head. " No fear! Murdoch wore me out for goin' there with Scott and Johnny. Scott's goin' to tell the Sheriff about what we saw an' then leave it up to him."

Enrique emitted a raucous whoop of laughter. Though somewhat relieved that he would not be dragged to the house again, he didn't intend to miss an opportunity to rub Jemimah's nose in the fact that she was the one backing off for a change. "Never thought I'd see the day!"

"What?" she frowned.

"You - too chicken to go back!" He was grinning from ear to ear, his brown eyes sparkling.

"I am not!"

"You are! You're afraid!" he taunted.

"I ain't afraid of the house , dummy!" she hissed. "But I don't mind admittin' I'm afraid of Murdoch when he's got his dander up. An' anyway, you should be worried too; Johnny was pretty riled at you for goin' with me on Friday night!"

Enrique's bright mocking smile disappeared like the sun going behind a dark cloud. "Señor Juanito?"

It was Jemimah's turn to grin. "Si amigo, he thinks you're leading me astray."

Enrique snorted and remarked, "He don't know you as well as he thinks!"

****

 

Val lounged back in his chair, his booted heels propped on the edge of the desk, totally oblivious to the smear of mud he had deposited on the paperwork liberally strewn about the surface.

Scott eyed the disorder and decided to remain silent, sipping gingerly at the brew Val had handed him when he walked into the office. Scott did his damnedest not to grimace; it tasted like mud! He stood up from where he was perched on the edge of the window sill. Naturally, Val's office did not provide an extra chair for the hospitality of visitors. Sheriff Crawford preferred folks to state their business then be on their way!

"So, that's about it, Val" Scott placed the half-full tin mug on the desk. "There's certainly someone in there. They don't appear to be doing any harm and it could be they're just drifters as Murdoch said."

Val allowed himself the luxury of a good belly scratch then rubbed his fingers along his stubbly jaw line. His scruffy blue pants, when he got to his feet, slid down his hips and may have gone further had his gun belt not hindered their progress. "I'll take a look, alright. I gotta head out that way later anyhow," he said. "Gotta see ol' Bertram there back to the bosom of his lovin' family."

He gestured to a seedy-looking drunk, snoring like an old boar, on the cot in the nearest cell. Val paced over and rattled his empty mug on the bars in an effort to rouse the man. Bertram snorted half awake then rolled over onto his copious belly and continued the rumbling snores.

Val turned back to Scott with an expression of despair. Smirking, Scott gathered up his hat, keen to be on his way home. "I think Murdoch's main concern is keeping the kids away from the place," Scott said. "Until we know who's taken up residence there and what they want, we need to prevent Jemimah from playing detective!"

"And Johnny too, eh?" Val smirked, knowing full well that his pal could be enough of a kid himself at times to land himself in a sticky situation.

At that point, the door opened and the bank manager, Mr Porter strode in, brandishing a small sheaf of papers. Scott turned, ready to allow the newcomer to approach Val but, realising it was the pompous little peacock, he decided to finish his conversation.

"Let's just say the Randall house is now off limits to all Lancer offspring!" he smiled, careful not to let on that he too had been instructed not to venture there either. Val shrewdly guessed that Scott had been included in Murdoch's edict but he hid his grin. He shook the tall man's hand, assuring him that he would see to it and let them know what he found out. "And, if I catch them kids out there, I'll send 'em on home with sore rear-ends!"

"Is that Lancer girl up to no good again?" Porter sniffed, catching the tail-end of the exchange.

Val's lip curled up with distaste as he eyed the rotund little man sharply. "No sir, Mr Porter, just fancyin' herself a bit of a detective," he did his best to keep his voice level though he actually felt like telling Porter to mind his own business! "We gotta persuade her to let the real Sheriff do the investigatin' 'til we know who's sneakin' around there."

"Around where?" Porter's eyes bugged out in alarm. "I trust there are no prowlers around Green River, Sheriff Crawford?"

Val sighed, scratching his fingers through the back of his unkempt curly hair and wishing the odious little man far enough. "Nope, we're talkin' about the ol' Randall house in the valley just beyond town. Mr Lancer here has seen sign of someone hanging about." At Porter's extreme consternation, Val hurried on. "S'nuthin' to worry yourself about; probably just some drifter but it won't hurt to take a look."

"Johnny says more than one man," Scott put in.

"He does? You can bet your life that he's right then. I'll see to it, Scott. Right after I have my elevenses." Sighing, he gestured again at the soundly sleeping drunk in the cell. "Gotta get ol' Bertram this side o' sensible first and that won't be easy; he ain't never had much sense in the first place!"

Porter interrupted. "Well, I hope you get to the bottom of this, Sheriff. I don't like to think of strangers lurking in the area, up to no good. It's your duty to keep the town free of undesirables and trouble-makers..."

Val nipped the pompous lecture in the bud. "I'm well aware of my duties, Porter!" he snapped, barely concealing his contempt. "Don't need you remindin' me, thank you kindly! Now, was there something I could do for you or did you just come in here to rattle my cage?"

Porter blinked. "Eh? What's that?"

"What did you want?" Val's voice got louder.

"Oh. Well, I just came in here to leave you these bill posters that arrived this morning. Bank in Sacramento sent them."

Val took the papers and, without even sparing them the most cursory glance, dumped them on the mess on his desk. "Seems you'd be better employed managing that bank o' yourn, Porter, instead o' playin' delivery boy. Ain't you got no junior clerk can do this for you?"

Porter began to splutter something and Scott hid a smile. "Now that you are here, Mr Porter there's something I'd like to mention about yesterday's... er ... kerfuffle after church," Scott decided to have some fun.

Porter turned to Scott with a thinly veiled sneer and endeavoured to increase his height by sticking out his neck and chin. Val stifled a chuckle, thinking that the man resembled an old turtle.

"Oh indeed? Come to apologise for that child, have you? I trust she's been suitably dealt with?"

Scott and Val exchanged a glance. "Not exactly, no."

"You mean to tell me, Mr Lancer that you don't think a whipping is merited? Martha's dress was ruined, totally ruined! And her hat... beyond repair! Not to mention the distress caused to my dear wife and..."

"Yes, Mr Porter, I would definitely say the person responsible deserves to be... chastised," Scott smiled pleasantly.

Porter seemed soothed by this answer and puffed himself up importantly. "I'm glad you agree with me..."

"Yes sir," Scott replied. "And that's why I know I can leave it in your more than capable hands to administer such punishment as you see fit... to Martha-Mae!"

Porter looked like he had been slapped. "Eh? What's that?" he spluttered.

Val chortled and folded his arms, leaning his saggy blue backside back against his desk to watch the scene.

"Martha-Mae, sir," Scott explained as though Porter was senile. "I'm happy to say that Jemimah was telling the truth; your daughter did spoil her clothes herself."

Porter took a step back from Scott as though his very presence offended him. Sneering nastily, he spat, "Oh, I see... so you believe that little scallywag, do you? I can't say I'm surprised; she's clearly an adept liar... has you all taken in. These orphan brats are all the same..."

Val rose up from his perch incredulously. " Orphan brats? Well, I'll be..."

Scott interrupted, his voice steely. "No sir. I'm ashamed to say I didn't believe Jemimah, not at first. However, I find the word of the Spanish Wells school master to be beyond reproach. He witnessed the whole sorry incident and has corroborated Jemimah's claim that it was indeed Martha who smeared the mud over herself."

Porter waved the idea away with a foppish flick of his wrist. "Hmph! Why would she do that?"

"Simple to guess, ain't it?" Val snapped. "Little sneak was tryin' to land the kid in trouble!"

Scott nodded. "I'd say that's about the size of it. So, Mr Porter, can I leave any... whipping you deem necessary to you or your good lady?"

Porter looked exactly like he had chewed on a lemon.

"That's right, Porter. Lay it on! Spare the rod, spoil the child, ain't that it?" Val grinned at the man's discomfort.

Porter seemed to be rapidly diminishing in stature. He stumbled backwards to the door and, fumbling with the handle, muttered his excuses. "Ahem! I have to be going. Busy morning at the bank... good day to you gentlemen."

Scott nodded politely. "Good day, Mr Porter."

"Good day, you..." Val followed him to the door and peered out to watch him stumble down the street. "...stuck-up, po-faced, little weasel! I'll betcha the daughter's as slippery as her ol' man. The kid'll make short work of her!"

Scott was sniggering to himself. "As long as she doesn't get herself into any more hot water. Murdoch's about ready to ship her off to a convent as it is!"

"Nuns wouldn't know what hit 'em!"

Val held the door open for Scott then, turning back inside with a stretch, he clapped his battered old hat onto his unruly hair and hiked up his gun belt. Unlocking Bertram's cell with a noisy clatter, he grimaced at the stale whisky smell emanating in pungent waves from the man inside. Val averted his head.

"Jeez, Bertram... I've a mind to drop you in the water trough afore we set off!"

The whiskery old man rolled over, burped richly and then waved blearily at Val, scratching his stained undershirt and smiling stupidly.

Val rolled his eyes to heaven. This he could have done without! "Come on, you ol' fart..."

****

 

Jemimah and Enrique took their seats at their desks. The little school room was somewhat overcrowded this morning, with strange children milling here and there in a 'lost' fashion. Jemimah spotted Martha-Mae standing haughtily near Mr Quinn's desk, surveying the chaos, and reached across the aisle to nudge Enrique.

"That's her!" she hissed.

Enrique followed Jemimah's pointing finger. Martha was smartly dressed, her clothes standing out from the other girls'; she wore obviously more expensive store-bought items. Over her demure navy blue dress, she wore a crisp white pinafore, adorned with myriad intricate pin tucks and a large bow again decorating her bustle. A neat little velvet-trimmed bolero jacket with ivory buttons set the ensemble off and, in her golden ringlets, she wore two navy velvet ribbons.

"Es bonita," Enrique breathed.

Jemimah scowled. "I'll be sure to tell Pony that when I write to her!" she snapped.

Instantly chastened, the boy jerked out of his reverie. "Oh, she's not anywhere near as pretty as Pony," he gabbled hastily. "An' she looks stuck up!"

Mr Quinn was rapidly organising the extra children and seated Martha-Mae at the desk in front of Jemimah. Once they were all settled, he looked about him. The room was very crowded, some of the little ones having to sit cross-legged on the floor at the front of the room. It was not long before the atmosphere became oppressively warm and the narrow windows had to be opened to let in some air.

When the class returned after morning recess, Martha removed her bolero, draping it carefully over the back of her chair. Enrique and Jemimah exchanged surreptitious smiles.

The morning progressed well and Dan Quinn was feeling somewhat relieved that the newcomers had been absorbed into his class with so little disruption. Lunchtime brought no unexpected difficulties, the children all seeming to get along well. During the spelling bee in the afternoon, he was able to assess the newcomers' abilities and was impressed with the standard of the Green River pupils. Martha-Mae Porter was especially good and even managed to give Jemimah, their as-yet undefeated champion, a run for her money, coming a close second.

"Es tan buena en la ortografia como es!" Enrique whispered to a highly disgruntled Jemimah. (She's nearly as good at spelling as you are!) Jemimah narrowed her eyes and made a little sign to Enrique who nodded secretively, grinning.

"All the upper school, take out your slates and copy down the passage on the board," Mr Quinn instructed as he strolled around the class, correcting his students' mistakes.

There was a general scraping and banging as the older children reached into their desks to fish out their slates and pencils. Jemimah bent her head instantly, industriously copying the text. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched the teacher approach. By the time he passed her, she was fairly bursting, actually having to bite on her fist, and wasn't at all sure she could contain her laughter.

Dan Quinn's shoes slowed and both Jemimah and Enrique kept their heads down.

"What is this?"

He had paused by Martha's side. The girl was feverishly trying to erase something from her otherwise pristine new slate but she had not been quick enough. There were sufficient remnants of the drawing for Dan to make out - a rather unkind caricature of himself with a pronounced nose and dozy expression. He lifted it from the desk and turned cold grey eyes on the unfortunate Martha-Mae.

"Miss Porter," his voice was hard. "Perhaps you would be so kind as to explain yourself."

Every eye turned to watch. As always, though each child had a terror of being singled out by the teacher for punishment, there was a morbid fascination in witnessing another poor unfortunate on the receiving end.

"I didn't do it!" Martha squeaked. "It must've been her! She hates me!" She pointed desperately at Jemimah who sat quietly in the seat behind.

Jemimah's green eyes widened in amazed innocence and she looked about her as though unable to understand what the girl was talking about. "I'm sorry?" she asked. " What must've been me?"

Dan Quinn raised the slate so that it could easily be seen and watched Jemimah closely. "Jemimah, tell me the truth," his voice was very grave. "Did you do this?"

The kid raised her chin and, like one of the sainted martyrs going to their deaths, she placed her hand over her heart and spoke. "I didn't, Mr Quinn. I swear it." (This was perfectly true; Enrique had done the drawing and secreted it in Martha's desk!)

"Hmm." Dan had seen quite enough of Martha's artifice on Sunday morning to start believing her now. "Miss Porter, I'm ashamed of you. Out of your seat!" Martha-Mae yelped as he grasped her arm and assisted her out of her place, marching her forthwith to the front of the school room. She was not at all sure what to expect but she knew for darn certain that she would get even with Jemimah Lancer if it was the last thing she ever did!

Mr Quinn deposited Martha in the corner behind his desk, with instructions that she keep her nose pressed to the wall for the rest of the day. What was more, she would be taking home a note for her father. "Shameful behaviour on your first day at school... but then, I can't say I was at all impressed by your shenanigans after church yesterday either!"

Jemimah and Enrique kept their eyes glued to their work though they struggled to hide their glee at the success of their plot. Both youngsters had served time in the same corner on several occasions and knew she was in for a long, tedious, back-breaking afternoon.

By the end of the day, a weary and fuming Martha was at last allowed to leave the corner to fetch her belongings. She gathered up her books and slate (still bearing the smudged likeness of Mr Quinn)and collected her lunch pail. Averting her furious little face so that she would not catch Jemimah's laughing eye, she shrugged into her bolero. She had perhaps taken three or four steps down the centre aisle when she emitted a loud shriek and seemed to perform a peculiar sort of wild jig on the spot, arms waving in the air and her neat little boots tapping out a curious rhythm on the boards. As she pranced, still shrieking, she shook her jacket madly until, at length, a large frog leaped from her pocket and bounded eagerly into the shadows under the desks.

Jemimah and Enrique bit their lips to control their mirth but could not fail to catch the filthy scowl the girl cast their way. Before she could accuse them, Mr Quinn's voice rang out.

"Miss Porter, when you've quite finished, you can come over here to collect this note... and I expect to receive a reply from your father tomorrow!"

Jemimah swiftly grabbed her stuff and shuffled out of her desk. Before she could escape, however, she could not stop herself from glancing across to the teacher's dais. To her everlasting joy, Mr Quinn suddenly gave her a wink! It was so fleeting, she almost thought she was mistaken but, no, though serious on the outside, his grey eyes were twinkling.

Jemimah hugged her bundle of books to her chest and ran outside with Enrique.

****

 

Two hours later, chores all done and dusted, Jemimah sat atop the highest rail of the corral fence - her usual post at this time, awaiting Johnny's return. She caught sight of him riding in on Barranca a good mile and a half away and sat there, grinning like the cat that got the cream, as he approached. Jumping lightly to the ground as he rode into the yard and slipped gracefully down from the saddle, she called out a welcome and waved to him cheerfully.

Johnny led his horse into the barn, looking back over his shoulder at the kid. He couldn't help smiling at her enthusiastic prancing; she reminded him of a sprightly little bird, hopping from place to place. It was obvious she was in high spirits. That was another thing he liked about the kid; she never stayed down for long.

Unsaddling Barranca, Johnny swiped at his brow with the back of his hand. He had felt tired and grimy on the ride home but she sure lifted him up somehow.

"Go on then," he urged softly as he treated the Palomino to a generous helping of oats.

Jemimah skipped around in front of the stall. "Go on then what?" she asked, still grinning.

"Go on an' tell me what it is has got you all lit up like a Christmas candle. You look fit to bust!"

Jemimah hugged herself and cackled. Johnny hefted his saddle and carried it over the stand, still smiling, his blue eyes shining. Her glee was infectious. Only when he was sitting on a hay bale did Jemimah begin to regale him with the story of the revenge she and Enrique had taken upon the Porter girl.

In no time, Johnny was grinning too and, when she recounted the part about the frog in the pocket, he couldn't hold back the chuckle at her audacity. However, he did play his part as dutiful big brother by wagging his finger sternly at her and mildly admonishing her for the trickery.

"Kid, you better watch yourself," he laughed. "If you ain't careful, you'll end up getting paddled!" He hooked an arm suddenly around her and dragged her into him, his strong fingers tickling around her waist. "Remember too that, if Murdoch finds out, he won't be laughing, no matter how much the Porter kid deserves it."

Jemimah, gasping and chortling, rolled away from him and scrabbled across the barn to escape. Panting for breath, she thought about what he had said and nodded. "She does deserve it... but she won't get it!"

He watched her. "You don't think?"

Suddenly looking very hacked-off, Jemimah kicked at the straw with the toe of her boot and thrust her hands boyishly into her pockets. "Nah, you've only got to take one look at her Dad an' you can see the ol' bugger ain't got the cajones to..."

Johnny sat up, blue eyes staring at her and a fierce desire to burst out laughing momentarily stunning him to silence. "The what?" His mouth gaped in shock but his eyes were filled with merriment. The little devil!

The kid froze and her green gaze was fixed on Johnny. Oops! She clapped a hand to her mouth. "Er... I mean ..."

Johnny got up very, very slowly and, as though he were stalking a wild animal, crouched low and circled around the bales towards her, shaking his head in reproach. "Oh, you've done it now, kid," he warned softly, the corners of his lips quirking in a wide smile. "You're gonna get it!" Step by ponderous step, his spurs jingling, he drew nearer and nearer. Jemimah grinned, backing away, keeping the stack of bales between them. "Looks like I'm gonna have to fetch that soap!" he said then, all at once, he pounced. Diving athletically across the hill of hay, he swooped down on the girl who screamed with horrified delight and tore off in the other direction. "Oh no, you don't!" Johnny was laughing, chasing after her, deliberately missing her several times and enjoying her shrieks of terrified glee as they bounded here and there.

Amiga and Barranca whickered and danced in their stalls as though keen to join the fun.

When, at last, he caught her, Johnny winced at the joyous squeal she emitted, plopping her over his shoulder and carting her back across the yard, both of them laughing and whooping like children

****

 

Val was sitting with Murdoch and the boys by the time Jemimah came down from washing and changing into a clean frock. All four men were deep in conversation and she perched on the arm of the sofa by Johnny, leaning on his shoulder to listen.

"So, that's about the size of it," Val was saying. "Looked like you were right, Johnny; a couple of men, drifters I'd guess, but they've moved on - probably for good. Nothing's been damaged and there's no bedrolls or belongings been left behind. Only things there are dust and spiders. One as big as a rat nearly fell on me!" Val shuddered and took a sip of his drink. Jemimah and Johnny chuckled. "Still like to keep the kids away for a while in case whoever it was comes back but I can't see it - drifters do just that... drift! "

Murdoch leaned forward in his armchair and patted the girl on her knee. "Y'hear that, Jemimah? The Sheriff would prefer it if you stayed away from the house. It appears the mystery occupants have moved on but..."

Jemimah sat up a little straighter. "Well, if they've gone, why can't we go out there?"

Murdoch eyed her seriously. "For one thing, you are grounded for a month, young lady!"

"The drifters may come back, Jemimah," Scott joined in. "We don't know for sure who they were. It's better to be safe than sorry, honey."

Johnny twisted in his seat on the sofa and seized her around the waist, tugging her down from her perch and onto his lap, trapping her firmly against him with his strong arms hugging around her middle. "Yeah, for once, kid... you do like we tell you, alright? I better not hear of you goin' anywhere near that ol' place."

She scowled at the gathering and slumped sulkily into Johnny's embrace. She hadn't had any notion of going out there but certainly didn't appreciate being ganged up on by all four of them. "Wasn't goin' out there anyway!" she huffed sullenly. "You don't have to make a meal of it!"

Johnny jostled her by bouncing his knees and, eventually, her mouth quirked at the corners.

Val got to his feet, draining his glass which he deposited on the mantelpiece. "Glad to hear it. I don't want to have to lock you up, kid."

Jemimah shot him a dirty look, green eyes narrowed, but softened somewhat when he winked back.

"You stayin' for supper, Sheriff Crawford?" She hopped down from Johnny's lap and smoothed her skirts, assuming the role of hacienda hostess. "You look like you could use a good home-cooked meal."

Val glanced quickly at Murdoch and, catching his nod, he smiled graciously back at the girl, nudging Johnny's shin with his scruffy boot when the young man stifled a snort of mirth.

"Miss Jemimah, I surely do thank you for your kind invitation," Val gave a tiny bow. "I'd be pleased to accept."

He held out his arm to escort her to the table. She accepted with a grown-up dignity and, Jemimah and Val in the lead, the family adjourned to the dining table.

****

 

Green River already bustled with activity. It was not yet ten on this fine sunny morning but the stores were doing a brisk trade, their goods stacked up out front to entice the browsing customers. Ladies, decked out in shawls and bonnets, poked eagerly into baskets of vegetables and perused jars of pickles and preserves.

Murdoch stepped onto the boardwalk in front of the bank, patting the envelope in his breast pocket for the tenth time that morning. Eleven hundred and forty-two dollars. The draft from the army for the beef Lancer had supplied - the reason for their ride into town. A most welcome payment, Murdoch intended to deposit it into their account at the bank. It was the result of the last three months' back-breaking work.

Scott too headed up the steps to the bank but, tying Barranca's reins to the hitching post outside the tiny office, Johnny glanced up the street towards the jail and grinned.

"I'll see you two in a little while; just goin' to drop in on Val," he announced. "I got a hankerin' for some of his famous frying-pan coffee!"

Scott crinkled his nose with distaste as he turned back to regard his little brother incredulously. "I'm amazed you can stomach that stuff!"

Johnny began to back across the street, still talking to Scott. "If Val makes it I can't," he grinned. "But I reckon he'll be about ready for a new batch by now so I'll do the honours this time."

Still not looking where he was going, Johnny collided with a man who was heading towards the bank. A ready smile on his face, he turned, his hands held up placatingly to steady the stranger. "Hey, sorry! Y'alright there?"

The fellow stopped and leered belligerently at the young man in front of him. He drew himself up to his full height and jutted out his unprepossessing face. "Watch what you're about, boy!" he growled, eyes flashing meanly.

Johnny chuckled. If he was meant to be afraid, the stranger's threatening manner missed its target. "Said I was sorry, mister!"

The man took a step closer to Johnny, a nasty sneer lifting his top lip to expose his yellowed teeth. "If I had more time I'd teach you some better manners, boy!"

Johnny paused. He was surprised; the man was overreacting. He had apologised for bumping into him and now he felt his hackles rising. Blue eyes raking the unkempt man intently, he answered with his deceptive soft drawl. "Well, mister, when you've got the time, I'm ready for the lesson." Johnny smiled but the stranger faltered; there was not a hint of humour in those cold blue eyes. This 'boy' was not all he seemed and the man was shocked to feel a sheen of sweat coat his dishevelled stubbly face.

A second stranger, obviously a friend of Johnny's challenger, appeared swiftly, laying a hand on the man's shoulder and attempting to move him on. The tall newcomer's eyes swept over the smiling young man and he nodded briefly. "Come on, Murph," he cajoled in a low voice. "Cool down there. We have business to attend to."

The ugly fellow stared at Johnny for a few seconds more but his far more genteel friend, seemingly desirous of keeping the peace, again chivvied him along, glancing up at Murdoch and Scott who were watching the scene anxiously.

As the man turned away with a last sneer, Johnny tipped his hat in a show of excessive good manners usually reserved for the ladies and, grinning, watched the two saunter off down the street before he continued on his way over to Val's.

Both Murdoch and Scott watched him go with a sense of relief that the incident had been diffused then, turning, they headed into the bank.

****

Murdoch breathed a deep sigh of relief. The draft had been deposited. The money was in the Lancer account. It was always good to know that the job had been done, and done well, and that the security of the ranch was assured - at least for the next few months. He smiled at the world in general and clapped an effusive hand on his son's shoulder.

"How about I treat us to a nice cold beer, son?"

Scott turned and his father's smile made his own face light up. "That does sound appealing," he agreed.

"How about Johnny?" Murdoch glanced up the street in the direction of the sheriff's office.

Scott chuckled, revolving his hat in his gloved hands. "I have never known Johnny to turn down a cold beer," he smiled. "Especially if someone else is buying!"

Father and son both grinned.

"You go on and fetch him," Murdoch patted Scott's arm as his oldest boy put on his hat and stepped down onto the road with one long easy stride. "I'll have them waiting for you."

Scott had only made it halfway across the street when the morning air was rent by the thundering of gunfire which seemed to bounce up against the azure blue sky. He spun around, crouching defensively, to witness three figures burst out of the bank, shooting wildly in every direction.

Women were suddenly screaming, doors banging shut, glass shattering, everyone desperately scattering and emptying the previously bustling street. Spotting a woman clutching a screaming toddler and rooted to the ground in terror, Scott found himself racing the rest of the way across the road and, grabbing them both bodily with no time to be gentle, he dived for cover behind a nearby wagon, covering them protectively, his heart pounding as he scanned the boardwalk for his father.

Murdoch grit his teeth against the pain and clapped his hand to his shoulder to stem the flow of blood which was already blooming on his white shirt like a crimson flower. It was a mere scratch; far more agonising was the burning pain in his back where he had jarred it against the stack of crates behind which he was now lying. He tried to raise his arm to aim his gun but the simple movement caused such a searing pain to slice through his side and down his right leg that he almost dropped the weapon. Gasping and trying in vain to focus on the men in front of him, Murdoch felt darkness fill his head, his whole body became light, weightless and he slid back against the dusty boards.

Further up the street and on the same side as Scott's hiding place, Johnny jackrabbited out of the jail house, his Colt already drawn at the ready, with Val following close behind.

Outside the tiny bank, the three robbers were mounting up onto horses held by two accomplices. One of these now turned to Johnny as he ducked out from behind a water trough and raced into the middle of the road. The man took aim at the interfering cowboy in the fancy red shirt.

Johnny curled his finger on the trigger. He had no time to think or feel anything. Coldly unemotional, every nerve alive and aware, Johnny's aim was true. His bullet sliced into the man just as he too fired off a shot. Johnny rolled but the shot was way off target and missed him by six feet, thudding into the ground and raising a small dust cloud. He watched as the man's head seemed to distort, unnaturally misshapen, and a bright spray of scarlet blood spurted out behind him as he arched back off his horse and thumped heavily to the ground. The riderless horse sped off into the distance.

The two extra men, wheeling their horses around now that their partners had mounted up, urged the prancing animals into a mad gallop and headed straight for Johnny who was crouching low and waiting for them.

Val tensed, a fresh cartridge in the breach of his rifle, and the gun crashed as one of the riders passed. He heard the man cry out, a frenzied atavistic noise with no words but he well understood its meaning - his bullet had found its mark. He glimpsed the man jerk in the saddle, falling forwards over his horse's neck but somehow managing to hold on as he careered out of town.

Johnny held his breath. A third rider was bearing down on him, approaching far too swiftly. His shots were instinctive; two bullets fired so rapidly that the noise of the second shot blended with the first - so close together they seemed to be one. He heard the wet slap of lead ploughing into flesh and then the horse was upon him. Leaping nimbly to the right, Johnny twisted and made a grab for the man's leg and stirrup leather, hanging on grimly so that he was borne alongside. His extra weight threw the already-terrified horse off balance just enough so that it reared to rid itself of its unwelcome burden. Johnny and the rider were both thrown off and went tumbling to the ground.

Tucking and rolling, Johnny was instantly up on his knees in one fluid movement so that he was again ready to fire at the robber who was randomly squeezing off shots like a kid at a fairground side-show. None of the man's bullets found their mark and the sound of their ricocheting pinged through the thick dusty air.

Johnny aimed quickly and his final shot was dead on target. The man spun wildly and sprawled back, his arms and legs spread-eagled , a hole gaping in his vest front and a last gurgling breath coming from his dry throat.

Before Johnny or Val could do anything more, the remaining two riders hurtled past and were soon swallowed in a cloud of thick choking dust.

Johnny slid his gun back into its holster and was rising to his feet when he felt a hand grasp his upper arm to help him.

"Y'alright there, buddy?" Val asked, his eyes grave with concern.

Johnny nodded then gestured to the dead man lying only yards away. "Yeah, Val... but he ain't!"

Val crossed to the body and squatted beside it to snatch the bandana away from its face. He studied for a moment then shook his head grimly. "Don't know him."

Val and Johnny walked down the centre of the road to the other dead man and, again, the sheriff checked him out, rising with a shake of his head. It was clear these men were strangers in the area.

"I hit one of the others," Val affirmed. "Don't know how bad but I got him."

Johnny suddenly lurched from his friend's side and raced down the street. Alarmed, Val followed at a run.

Scott was kneeling by some crates outside the store next to the bank, Murdoch cradled limply in his arms.

****

 

Minutes later, Scott and Johnny breathed a sigh of relief, watching their father come round. He was lying on the examining table in Doc Jenkins' surgery and had just grumbled about feeling like something in freak show and had they thought about selling tickets?

Sam had already staunched the bleeding in the shoulder from where the glancing shot had nicked it. The wound was superficial. It was the jolt to his friend's back that concerned him more. Though able to gripe about it, Murdoch's face was as white as a sheet and every tiny movement made him gasp with pain.

By the door, Val craned his neck to watch Sam's efficient ministrations. "Porter's having kittens in the bank. Old Evan Samuels was killed; seems one of the bastards done it deliberate 'cos he weren't movin' fast enough for his likin'!" Val leaned out of the partially open door and spat into the street with disgust. "Looks like they cleaned him out - bank vault is empty. Porter's ranting on about quittin' 'cos he came out here for his health. Never expected to be dealin' with robbers and gun fighters! Fat ol' fart's more worried about the money than old Evan!"

Murdoch winced and sighed heavily. Scott and Johnny too looked grim and Val quietened, finally realising that the Lancer account would also have been emptied. Val shuffled uneasily.

"You two boys be willing to join a posse? Gonna get one organised straight away."

"Just try to stop me!" Johnny answered.

"Count me in, Val," Scott agreed.

Sam Jenkins had finished dressing the shoulder wound and now beckoned Scott to assist him in carefully rolling Murdoch onto his side. "Let's see just what the damage is here, old friend," he said. "I hope you're not thinking of joining your boys on this posse; I'd say a lengthy spell of bed rest is in order before you'll be gallivanting around the countryside again!"

It was testament to the pain he felt that Murdoch was not inclined to argue with the doctor. As Sam gently probed his back, he grunted out, "You boys be careful! I've already lost enough for one day!"

Johnny smiled down at his old man and gently patted his arm. "We'll get the money back, Murdoch." He joined Val at the door and the two of them went out. As Scott followed, he paused at his father's side.

"Don't worry, sir. I'll keep my eye on him."

As Scott reached the door, Murdoch ground out, "Don't forget to take care of yourself too, son!"

****

 

Jemimah and Enrique were nearly home after an uneventful day at school. Martha-Mae Porter had avoided them as much as possible and, all in all, the day had been much like any other and Jemimah, in truth, was a little bored.

So it was that, as they approached the fork in the road which led to the Randall house, she slowed Amiga and grinned wickedly at her friend. Enrique, not entirely sure he wanted anything more to do with the blasted house, hung back warily.

"Jemimah, we can't!" he protested. "You know what they said - if'n we're caught there we'll really get it. I don't know about you but I'm in no hurry to get a lickin' from my papa."

"Me neither," she agreed, still smiling. "But... we won't go all the way up to the house. We'll stay in the trees near the road.That way, if anyone asks us, we can say truthfully that we didn't go there!"

Enrique still frowned uncertainly. "So, we won't even get off our horses, huh?"

"That's right," the girl nodded. "Just a quick gander through the trees to make sure everything's still sound as a pound!"

The youth wrinkled his nose in puzzlement. " Sound as a pound? What is this?"

Jemimah shook her head; they certainly didn't learn to speak proper English in America! "Oh, never mind," she sighed and turned her pony down the fork towards the Randall place.

A few minutes later, the children lurked in the trees at the top of the slope peering down through the foliage at the dilapidated house. Everything was much as it had been when Jemimah had last seen it with Scott and Johnny. A tad disappointed, they were about to leave the safety of their hiding place to return to the path home when the sound of hooves approaching made them freeze.

A buggy bumped into view and passed them close by as it wheeled down the track and came to a halt outside the front porch. A single figure, a man, alighted from the carriage and, brushing his coat, stepped up to the front door. There he paused and glanced around. Turning to scan the hillside, the man seemed to stare right at the two children and they held their breath.

Mr Porter!

Reassured that his arrival had not been witnessed, Porter straightened his squashed-looking little hat and furtively opened the door. When he had disappeared inside, the two kids turned to each other in amazement, not knowing what to make of it.

"That's Martha's daddy!" Jemimah whispered.

"Yeah, I know," Enrique hissed. "But what's he doin' out here? He lives in Green River, don't he? Bit far outta his way. What can he want in there?"

Jemimah shook her head, completely flummoxed. "Dunno but there's something funny goin' on, that's for darn sure! I'd better tell Johnny when..."

Enrique grasped her arm. "No, you can't!" he whispered harshly. "We're not supposed to be here! If you tell..."

"But we're only just off the path; we're not actually at the house!"

Enrique rolled his eyes. "That won't make no difference! We're supposed to go straight home. Dios! If you tell Señor Juanito, we'll both catch it! He'll murder us!"

Jemimah looked uneasy. She knew perfectly well that she had been instructed to stay far away from the Randall place and Johnny had been very specific that he did not expect to find out she had disobeyed them. He would be mad at her, no doubt. She nodded at Enrique who blew out a sigh of relief. "You're right," she agreed. "I won't say anything."

Both kids glanced back down at the house where all was once more still and silent.

"Wish we knew what the old git's up to though," she mused.

Wheeling their ponies around, they headed back through the trees towards home.

****

 

It was fast approaching seven o' clock, an hour after suppertime, when three riders trooped wearily into the yard and slid dejectedly down from their horses. Mateo and Alfie were leaning against the bunkhouse and, at Johnny's sharp whistle, they ambled over.

"You boys mind takin' Barranca and Charlie?" Johnny for once handed over his precious horse to someone else's care. "We really gotta get in and see how Murdoch's doin."

"That's fine, Johnny," Alfie readily took charge of the tired horses. "We'll take yours too Sheriff; he looks tuckered out."

"Appreciate it, kid," Val swept some of the trail dust from his pants with his equally scruffy hat then turned to follow the brothers inside.

For once, Maria and Teresa had waited to serve supper until they arrived home. Val was, of course, invited to join them and, while Scott and Johnny headed upstairs to check on their father, he settled himself to wait in the great room with Doc Jenkins and Jemimah.

By the time they were all seated at the table, Jemimah was so hungry she could have eaten the tablecloth, lacy trimming and all. The ladies had prepared a veritable feast, not knowing how many members of the posse were going to turn up and wanting to ensure they were well fed.

"The ol' man didn't look too happy at bein' stuck in that bed an' missin' out on a taste of this steak and creamed potatoes!" Johnny quipped, greatly relieved that he had found Murdoch a good deal more lively than when they left him earlier. His colour was back and, if his griping and grumbling was anything to go by, he was much improved. "Kinda good to see that even the almighty Murdoch Lancer gets chicken broth and Maria's herb tea when he's confined to bed, Sam!" Johnny couldn't help grinning like a naughty kid at the idea of his irate parent lying upstairs and sulkily sipping at the foul concoctions.

The others chuckled and Sam clicked his tongue in mock reproof. "I hope you remember this the next time you're laid up, Johnny," he warned. "You're smiling now but you know your father always has the last laugh somehow."

Stifling a snigger with a large mouthful of steak and potatoes, Johnny dipped his head and attempted to behave himself.

"How is he really, Sam?" Teresa pressed, a frown of concern creasing her brow.

Sam patted her hand reassuringly. "He gave his back a bad jolt, there's no denying. There's a bruise on his spine blacker than tar and naturally it's giving him some pain. The ice pack Maria sent up is bringing down the swelling so his muscles will ease some and he'll hopefully get a decent night's sleep. It's his old injury has me concerned the most. If he doesn't rest, it won't get a chance to settle down and he'll end up setting himself back again to how he was after..."

Sam glanced sharply at Teresa. She had gone very quiet and he could have kicked himself for reminding her so forcibly of the time when her father was killed. Again, he patted her hand. Teresa raised her head and flashed him a brief tight smile. She was no weeping willow and Sam didn't need to worry about her.

"So, if we can all keep him in bed, he should be alright?" she asked.

Sam nodded. "Ice packs to bring down the swelling and lying completely flat - no pillows for at least a day or two. And definitely no wandering about the ranch!"

"That ain't gonna be easy," Johnny remarked.

"If Murdoch's anything like you, little brother," Scott said. "We may have to hogtie him!"

"It'll be fine," Teresa confirmed. "If he gets out of line, Maria will just go up with her wooden spoon! That'll cure him!"

At this, the entire table erupted in laughter, Johnny and Jemimah laughing the loudest. Oh, what they would give to witness the feisty little housekeeper threatening their father with that instrument of torture! And trapped on his belly as he currently was, he could hardly avoid it!

When the merriment subsided, Teresa asked, "So, how did the search for the bank robbers go? Any luck?"

"We picked up their sign pretty easily," Scott explained. "But... we lost them. Johnny thinks they doubled back but... well..." Scott shook his head at the disappointing outcome.

"That 'posse' was worse than useless!" Johnny spat derisively, angry all over again. "You can't catch the likes o' them murderers with farmers and shopkeepers too scared of their own shadows to..."

"Johnny," Scott quietly calmed his brother.

The young man dropped his dark head and regarded his half-empty plate with a deep sigh. "One of them was injured; Val got him and another..." his blue eyes narrowed and his lips firmed into a thin line. "I'd remember him anywhere - the same son of a..."

"Johnny!" this time Scott's warning was sharper. He glanced pointedly at Jemimah, who was sitting there with eyes as wide as an owl, and Johnny stopped, a gentle smile curving his mouth once more.

"Sorry, ladies," he grinned. "The same fella who I bumped into an' who wanted to teach me some manners!"

"So we know we're on the look-out for three men, one of them hurt," Scott summed up.

"One thing's for sure," Val chipped in with a sarcastic smile. "Ol' Porter won't stick it much longer. The little weasel was just about bawling on my shoulder last I saw him!"

Jemimah sat up straighter and listened intently. Something just didn't add up here. Sheriff Crawford was now saying something about Mr Porter having to go home to lie down after the robbery; heart palpitations he'd claimed. Well, if he was that upset about the robbery, why on earth did he drive all the way out to the Randall house that very afternoon?

She tugged gently on Johnny's sleeve and leaned closer to him. "Johnny," she said in a low voice. "I've got something to tell you."

Johnny bent his head. "What is it, honey?"

At that moment, there came a lull in the conversation and the table was suddenly quiet while everyone gave the excellent meal the attention it deserved. Jemimah shifted uneasily. It was one thing to admit to Johnny that she'd been out to the house - and, yes, she was positive he'd be plenty mad about it - but she surely didn't fancy announcing her rule-breaking to the entire room! She averted her eyes and toyed with her dinner.

"Oh... it doesn't matter," she hedged.

Johnny watched her for a moment. The kid had seemed quite disturbed about something only seconds ago. Of course, it could be just that she was upset by all the hubbub - Murdoch being hurt and the robbery... but he would have thought the kid would find such dramatic events exciting rather than worrying about them. He went back to his own meal, privately thinking that he would keep his eye on her; something was definitely going on.

****

 

Ambrose Porter sat nervously on the chair and watched the tall man at the table wipe away the last smears of gravy from his tin plate.

"You sure I can't tempt you to a plate of stew, Mr Porter?" the man pleasantly pressed. He had been constantly watching the portly little bank manager and a twinkle of amusement shone in his eyes at the man's unease.

Porter almost jumped out of his skin; he had been concentrating so hard on the unhurried way that Jackson cleared his plate and marvelling on the man's calm that he was surprised to hear his own name.

"N,no... no... not for me, thank you," he stammered. Porter could more easily have flown to the moon than downed any kind of food; his stomach was churning.

Jackson grinned, showing his even white teeth in his swarthy good-looking face. "Your loss," he chuckled. "Nothing better than a steaming plate of wild rabbit stew. Made it myself, y'know. It's a good thing I'm not easily offended - you might hurt my feelings."

He continued to beam widely. Porter attempted to return his smile but could only manage a sickly grimace, his pale face sweaty with nerves. Behind him, the other man still knelt by his injured friend's side and, suddenly, he rose to his feet with a savage curse.

"Christ! I ain't no nursemaid! I cain't stop the bleedin'!" he ground out, striding away from the prone youth sprawled back against the saddle on the grimy boards.

Porter glanced back at the young man, taking in the blood-soaked rag padded at his side. Before he could look away again, the youth caught his gaze and, for a moment, they stared at each other. Porter's watery blue eyes widened and, as inexperienced in such things as he was, he recognised the feverish glint and realised he was staring into the face of death.

He gripped his hat in his agitation and quickly looked away as though afraid of being contaminated by the dying boy.

"He's done for an' you know it, Jackson," the second man was saying.

Jackson, still seated at the table, continued to smile. "Shut up," he answered mildly.

"But we need to..."

"I said shut up!" Everyone in the room started at the shout. There was nothing mild or pleasant about Jackson now as he sprang to his feet and turned to his partner. Grabbing him by the front of his grubby shirt, he held him fast until the smaller man subsided into a sullen silence. When Jackson released him, the man lurked over to the window and peered sulkily out through the gaps in the slats.

Slowly, Jackson turned and Porter was astonished at the transformation. Gone was the furious, spitting face, filled with venom. In its place, the smooth, self-assured ex-army officer had returned. He sat once more at the table opposite the portly little man and reached for an apple from the bowl beside him, polishing its shiny skin on the lapel of his jacket.

"Now, Mr Porter," he began softly. "I thought we'd agreed to let things cool off for a few days before we met up to divide the money?"

He turned his dark eyes on Porter and, though smiling politely, the deadly light in their black depths chilled the silly little man to the bone.

"You coming out here was a mighty risky change of plan." Jackson had begun to peel the apple. Porter watched, fascinated, as the strip grew longer and longer, the fruit rotating in his strong capable hand, but did not break. "And I don't take too kindly to my plans being changed... by anyone but me, that is." Jackson's voice was calm and the look he threw Porter was almost apologetic that he was having to be so unmannerly as to point out the glaring error the novice 'bank robber' had made.

Porter wanted nothing more than to take his share of the loot and get out of there. A dying boy... that foul-mouthed uncouth Murphy... even Jackson himself with his Southern charm and soothing display of cultured society manners... they all repulsed him! They were nothing but scum. If it weren't for the money, he would certainly never have associated himself with such riff-raff!

"That's all very well, Jackson," Porter decided to present his case, twirling his moustaches with self-importance . After all, what could they do? He had been the one to get them into the bank vault; they owed him. "But the sheriff has organised a posse and..."

"We know," Murphy turned from his vigil at the window. His look was scornful and Porter bristled. "We lost 'em... easy as takin' candy from a baby. That dumb Crawford has already been out here to check this place. The asshole thinks it's empty; we're in the clear!"

Jackson chuckled quietly, still concentrating on peeling the apple. "Don't ever think that, Murph," he chided. "Remember, the day you let your guard down is probably the day you die."

Porter sat up straighter and found the courage to bang his pudgy fist on the table top. "Exactly!" he tried to make his voice sound authoritative though his mouth was dry and he had to swallow hard at Jackson's raised eyebrow. "Crawford may be a bumpkin but he has friends."

Jackson tilted his handsome dark head and regarded Porter with something akin to amusement. "What friends?" he asked.

"The Lancers - a powerful family in these parts. They're a force to be reckoned with... and I'd just rather take my share now and get out while I can. My family..."

"You figure on leaving us to take the blame while you whisk the wife and kiddie away to pastures new, hmm?" Jackson's expression and voice reflected the hurt Porter's suggestion had caused. Still, he merely gazed reprovingly at the flustered little man, disappointment etched on every line of his face.

It was an exceedingly handsome face with a powerful jaw. His hair was dark, shot through here and there with a fine sprinkling of silver - the first outward signs that Jackson was no longer a young man. The one thing that marred his good looks was a thin white scar which ran from his right eyebrow to almost the corner of his mouth.

"Blame?" Porter stuttered. "Why, no! I just..."

"Because I wouldn't like that, Mr Porter. No, sir. So far, we've taken all the risks. We're the men the law is after  so, if they get an idea where we might be, it'll be us that end up..."

"Why, you're quite wrong!" Porter blustered, not liking the dark gleam in Jackson's eye. "Now, didn't I give you all the information you needed? I told you when the best day would be to rob the bank and I made sure there was only old Samuels there at the time so you'd have no trouble..."

"He still tried to hold us up though until the law could get there," Murphy sneered from the window. "Had to shoot him!"

Jackson slightly turned his head towards his partner and spoke as though he were mildly admonishing a child for its bad behaviour. "You didn't have to, Murph... you enjoyed it!"

Porter swallowed but his throat felt as rough and dry as the bottom of a birdcage. Jackson leaned back in his chair and offered the now-peeled apple to Murphy - almost a fondly paternal gesture. Porter would not have been surprised to see him ruffle the smaller man's hair!

"N,now look here!" Porter rose unsteadily to his feet. "I kept my side of the bargain; I did what you asked. Why... why do you need me anymore?"

Jackson regarded him with a puzzled frown then, as though a sudden thought had enlightened him, he smiled. Rising from his chair, he stepped towards Porter. "Y'know, sir, you're absolutely right." He chuckled softly to himself, his whole demeanour admitting how foolish he had been. "What do we need you for?"

The next instant, his smiling countenance was gone, replaced by an expression of evil malevolence so potent that Porter drew back involuntarily. His whole attitude altered from affable gentleman to a blazing unnatural violence as he lunged forwards, tugging the fat little man towards him and the waiting knife thrust out at his gut.

The knife stabbed in deeply and Jackson twisted it with a sadistic leer, angling it upwards in a motion certain to kill. Porter's eyes bugged out and he grasped hold of Jackson's arm as though he were pleading with him. His face a mask of vicious cruelty, the big man again twisted the weapon in his callous grasp and he watched Porter feebly pluck at his arm before he gurgled, emitting a last pathetic whimper, and slumped, his knees buckling. Jackson backed off and Porter dropped to the floor. He did not move again.

It had only taken seconds, just the time it takes to draw in and release a single cleansing breath, but now a man lay dead at Jackson's feet and, to look at him, no-one would ever have imagined he had anything to do with it. His expression was one of calm nonchalance and his voice, when he spoke to Murphy, was soft and melodious.

"Murph, get rid of this, will you? And don't leave it near the house - we don't want the critters scratching around all night and keeping us awake."

As Murphy moved forwards, an evil grin pasted on his face, to drag the body out, Jackson wiped the blade of his knife on the ancient tattered curtains. The blood left a grisly dark smear on the greying lace. As though nothing untoward had taken place, Jackson sat down again, neatly crossing his elegant long legs at the ankle and grinning down at the pale sweating face of the boy in the corner.

****

 

Jemimah and Enrique sat cross-legged on the grass at the side of the school house to eat their lunch. Both were fairly quiet, still mulling over the recent dramatic events and the ramifications of Mr Porter's shifty appearance at the house. Jemimah watched Martha-Mae out of the corner of her eye. The girl was sitting alone, her lunch pail untouched by her side, and she was staring miserably off into the distance.

"Maybe Martha's dad grew a pair an' whomped her after all," Jemimah nudged Enrique and gestured to the sickly-looking girl.

Tommy Munson was ambling by and overheard. He squatted down beside them.

"No, haven't you heard?" he was eager to share his gossip. "Martha's poppa went out yesterday afternoon after the robbery an' he ain't come home yet. He didn't come back at all last night!" The boy was wide-eyed with glee at the juicy tale.

Jemimah considered this new piece of information. Tommy was one of the kids from Green River so he would definitely know. "Where's everyone saying he's gone?" she asked quietly.

Tommy shrugged then leaned closer. "Dunno but I heard Mrs Donnelly tell my Auntie Rachel that he's probably took his chance to get away from ol' Ma Porter. She's a scold an' no mistake! But... it's kinda strange that the bank gets robbed then up he goes an' disappears, ain't it? Mebbe he tried to catch the bandits but they caught him instead?"

All three children looked at each other then Enrique snorted. "Nah, that ol' buzzard ain't got the gumption!"

Tommy shrugged again and, hearing the other boys calling him to join in their game, he nodded and skipped off.

"This is getting stranger by the minute!" Jemimah whispered. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

Enrique's brown eyes were filled with worry; he sensed that his amiga was about to suggest something that could be potentially very damaging to his hide. "You think Porter was in on the robbery, don't you?"

She nodded, green eyes alight with excitement. She gripped his arm. "He must be hiding at the ol' Randall house with his gang of desperadoes, waitin' 'til the heat dies down so they can make their getaway!"

"Don't you dare speak about my poppa that way!"

The two friends spun around at the shrill angry voice. Martha stood behind them, her dainty booted feet planted furiously apart as she leaned over them. Though her face was red with anger, her blue eyes swam with tears. Jemimah and Enrique exchanged guilty looks.

The girl fairly shook with rage, her blonde ringlets bobbing. "If you know where he is, you'd better tell me... or I'll tell teacher!"

Jemimah raised a dark eyebrow and smiled innocently. "How on earth would we know where he is?"

But Martha-Mae was not to be put off so easily. "I heard you say the Randall house!"

Jemimah chuckled. "The what house? Never heard of it! Have you, Enrique?"

The boy pretended to consider it then shrugged. "Not me!"

Wagging her finger, Martha stamped her little white boot. "You just tell me right now or..."

Enrique stood up quickly. "Oh, go tell teacher then," he sneered. "Just like a girl! Now, leave us be; we're busy!"

Martha swiped the back of her hand impatiently across her brimming eyes and flounced away. Rising to her feet, Jemimah nudged Enrique.

"Come on, we got to go check if he's still there."

"You loco?" the boy hissed. "We can't go out there!"

"Yes, we can... and right now! If he's still there, we'll ride an' tell Johnny and Scott. They're goin' to be lookin' for those robbers anyway with the sheriff. I heard 'em say so last night!"

Enrique's face fell and, though he knew it was a foregone conclusion, he made one last attempt to dissuade her. "Jemimah, if we go out there, your papa and mine will have our hides!"

"Murdoch can't do anything at the moment; he's confined to bed!"

Enrique hissed with impatience. " Señor Scott and Señor Juanito are not in bed!"

Jemimah paused. Scott... the hairbrush! And Johnny... he would 'have words' with her for sure! She shivered and Enrique watched her carefully. Maybe the crazy chica would use her sense for once?

"It doesn't matter!" she suddenly said decisively. "We'll stay in the trees like before. We won't go close an' then at least we can tell them what we saw." Enrique was grimacing and she grasped his arm. "If we tell them now, they'll never believe us - grown-ups never listen to kids! They'll take no notice an', before you know it, Porter and his gang will have skipped town!"

The boy glanced longingly back at the school house. Never before had arithmetic and history seemed so appealing. He felt her fingers twine around his hand.

"Please, Enrique. We'll just take a look, see if we're right then we can ride on home an' tell them for sure. They might be mad at first but not after they know we've solved the whole thing for them. Hey... there might even be a reward!"

Enrique took in her vivid green eyes and her enthusiasm. A reward? He perked up a little at the idea and nodded his agreement. Then, furtively gathering up their things, they slipped away to fetch their horses.

****

 

Jemimah spied the fork in the road ahead and urged her pony on eagerly.

"Wait!" Enrique hissed and she wheeled around. "I hear it again. There is someone following us!"

"Alright, we'll hide in these bushes," she pointed at the dense brush on their right. Both children nudged their ponies up the slope and into the scrub to wait.

They did not have to sit there long. Within minutes, they heard the unmistakable sound of an approaching horse and a lone rider came into view.

" Martha-Mae!"

Incredulous, they left their hiding place and cantered down to intercept her on the path. The girl was surprised to be caught but her face was mutinous.

"Go on!" Jemimah snapped. "You stop followin' us!"

Martha clamped her lips together stubbornly. "If my poppa's out there an' you know where then I'm comin' too!"

"You're not dressed for exploring," Jemimah sneered, green eyes flashing contemptuously. "Get on back to school so's you don't get your pretty dress all dirty!"

Martha narrowed her blue gaze on the girl she considered her enemy. "I told you I'm comin'," she repeated, her voice low and steady. "You just let me worry about my pretty dress."

They stared at each other and the seconds ticked by. Jemimah had to admit, and she did so grudgingly, the girl was unexpectedly plucky. At last, she shrugged as though the matter was of complete indifference to her.

"Do what you like then," she sniffed. "But don't blame me if your frillies get all scruffy." She turned her pony back towards the house and grinned at Enrique by her side. "We won't need to worry anyway; she'd probably wet herself and run home to mama if we saw any of those bank robbers anyhow!"

"Oh no, I won't!" Martha piped up, urging her own little pony to follow the other two.

Minutes later, the three children lurked in the same spot on the hillside, hidden well by the thick foliage. There was no sign of Porter's buggy; it had gone. Scrambling forwards so that they were crouched on their bellies, they peered through the bushes.

"I can't see nothing!" Martha spat, turning crossly to Jemimah. "He ain't here! If this is a trick, I think it's really mean of..."

"Shut up!" Jemimah whispered harshly. "You want to get us caught?" Martha quieted but she continued to glare at the Lancer girl. Jemimah sighed and she tried to put herself in Martha's place - the kid had to be worried sick. Her daddy may be a low-down, sneaky, rotten bank robber but he was still her daddy. She knew she'd be beside herself were it Murdoch or Scott or... she gulped... Johnny. "It's no trick, Martha; I swear it! He was here. I don't know why but he was!"

All three kids stared down at the seemingly deserted house.

"I'm going down for a closer look!" Jemimah scrambled to her feet, her green checked dress now smeared with dirt and grass stains.

Enrique reached out wildly to grab her hand but she was too quick for him. "Jemimah, don't you dare! No!" She was already out of the safety of the trees, crouching low and speeding off down the grassy bank, heading for the side of the house.

Martha paused in indecision, watching the younger girl haring away then, biting her lip, she too sprang to her feet and, before she could lose her nerve, she followed at a run.

Jemimah had already reached the house and was crawling silently along the side wall when Martha raced up to her, panting as much from fear as from the run she had just made. The younger girl waved at her to tell her to get down then both of them crawled along the gravelly path, heedless of the rough stones which pricked into their knees and tore their stockings. When they finally made it to the corner, they stilled, almost too afraid to peek around.

Eventually, Jemimah  risked a quick look.

Mr Porter's buggy! It was still there parked by the derelict woodshed!

"See!" she whispered, pointing at the buggy. "He must still be in there. Told you!"

Martha seemed to wilt. All this time, she had believed it would turn out to be a trick or, at the very least, a mistake. "But... he can't be... he wouldn't..." Her eyes brimmed with tears and she sagged against the wall as though utterly defeated.

Jemimah regarded her for a moment, a horrible feeling of guilt prickling up her spine. Sure, she had no love for the girl but... she could not help but feel responsible now for the wretched lost look in her eyes. It was a hollow victory and, in truth, Jemimah felt ashamed. She could only imagine how horrible it must be to find out your father was no good.

Jemimah tentatively reached out a hand and gently patted Martha's shoulder.

Suddenly, a figure lunged at them from the back of the house, seizing both girls roughly by the arms and dragging them backwards into the shadows.

Both shrieking in fright, they were flung back hard against the wall and gaped up at the man who leered over them.

"Well now, what have we here?" he was grinning. "A coupla' real little pretties! Nice o' you gals to come join us!"

With that, he grabbed them again and hauled them up the steps, knocking back the screen door and shoving them inside.

Hiding in the trees still, Enrique gasped and swallowed, feeling suddenly sick. " Mierda! Jemimah!" he breathed.

Scrambling up, he threw himself onto his pony and wheeled it around, riding like the wind back to the trail and on to Lancer.

****

 

Hurtling wildly into the yard, Enrique shouted out for his father. He prayed he would be here but he could just as easily be out with a team of men somewhere else on the ranch.

"Papa! Papa!" Enrique's voice cracked as he hollered across to the barn.

There were a few hands still meandering around their daily chores and they hurried over, alarmed by the boy's frantic yelling. Enrique searched around him and, finally spotting his father's tall frame appearing from around the side of the barn, he threw himself down from his pony and raced over. Cipriano's face registered his amazement as his youngest child flung himself madly into his arms, clutching him and burying his face in the safety of the big man's shirt front.

"Enrique! Que pasa?" Cip asked, strong arms enfolding his trembling son.

For a moment, the boy could not speak, his throat constricted with unshed tears. It was not manly to cry and he was trying desperately to swallow them away. He felt his father gently stroke his thick black hair and it was almost his undoing. Lifting his face, he looked into the worried brown eyes.

"Come, my boy," Cip's voice was soothing as he led Enrique over to a nearby bench and sat him down. "What is wrong? What has happened?" The big Mexican knew that his son was not given to histrionics; something very serious had occurred. His large warm hand resting lightly on the lad's shoulder, he coaxed him, "Tell me, tell your Papa."

The youth swallowed, finally squashing down the terror that had driven him hard all the way back to the ranch. It would be alright now; his father would make it alright.

"The old Randall house..." he began, nervously watching his father's expression change from one of concern to a growing anger. "Jemimah is there and Martha Porter... they..."

Cip bit out a curse under his breath . That girl! The trouble she caused! Well, with the patron injured he would damn well put an end to her foolishness himself!

"A man was there. He took them - he took them!"

Cip's hand tightened on his son's shoulder. "Took them? They are in the house?"

"Si!"

"When was this? How long ago?"

"About half an hour... maybe less... I rode as fast as I could!"

Cipriano straightened immediately, calling for a horse.

"You want we should come with you?" Alfie had been listening and spoke Spanish well enough to understand what had happened.

Cip shook his head. "No, wait here. If you are needed, I will get word to you." The last thing he wanted was a whole 'posse' of cowboys riding over to the house. If this was what he suspected, it would merely put the children in more danger. That's if they were still alive. Cip sucked in a harsh breath and crossed himself. Dios - protect them! Now to find Scott and Johnny. He knew they were out searching for the robbers with Sheriff Crawford and he had a pretty good idea where. "Get on your horse, boy!" he snapped to his son.

Enrique rose, his face ashen with misery and fear. "Papa," he flinched when his father turned to him. "I tried to stop her..."

Cip's scowl softened and he patted Enrique's arm. "I know, boy, I know. Now come! There is no more time for talking."

In moments, they had mounted up, Cipriano's rifle stored at his side, and were galloping away.

****

Jemimah and Martha sat on the grimy tiles at the side of the stove. Neither girl said anything as they huddled there, keeping their heads down. Martha was still weeping silently but Jemimah surreptitiously watched everything around her, her green eyes narrowed. She was scared - boy, was she scared - but she was not about to let them know that.

The same man who had grabbed them stumped over and stood, leering down at his find. Watching the blonde girl snivelling, he grinned and crouched down at her side. Martha gasped at his unwelcome proximity and tried to lean away from him but his hand reached out to tweak a fat golden ringlet. She grimaced and whimpered as he fingered her shining hair and the pretty bows.

"Well," he breathed. "Ain't you a lil' darlin'? All dressed up..." his dirty stubby fingers were now trailing lower, down her neck and onto her collar. "... lookin' as fine as a candy box..." the fingers traced their insidious path further down until they hovered over the gentle swell of her young breast. "You look good enough to eat."

He leaned in closer, sniffing her, his greasy scrubby beard scraping on her cheek. Martha, panic building and her gorge rising with revulsion, tried to avert her head. His hand gripped her jaw and she felt him sniggering at the tears which spilled from her blue eyes and coursed down her pretty face in shining tracks.

"You don't have to cry, baby," he tittered. Inside, Murphy was loving her reaction. The girl was afraid of him and it made him feel powerful, strong... just like that ol' fool in the bank. He ran his tongue over his fleshy lips and lewdly adjusted his crotch to relieve the sudden tightness of his pants. Oh, he meant to have her and no mistake! The thought of ploughing a furrow in this little sweetie had him so hard that he might just take her upstairs and get her to give him some relief... until Jackson said it was alright to have her proper-like. 'Course, he wouldn't risk her mouth - she might get it into her head to use them pretty white teeth and a man had to be cautious... but she could use her hands . He chuckled. He bet she'd never done that for a man before. It would be fun teaching her how.

Cocking his head on one side as he studied her, Murphy laughed. Yes, a pretty little virgin - this had to be the best job they'd pulled in quite some time.

Almost feverish with fear, Martha gasped at the pungent stink of the man -stale sweat and the sour reek of his foul breath. His inane giggling in her ear made her want to retch and she bit back a sob as one hairy hand closed with determination over her breast, the other still rubbing lovingly at the bulge in his britches.

"How's about a little kiss, baby?" he crooned, his sneering mouth wet with his spit as he leaned in closer.

"Leave off her, you mangy stinkin'...!"

Jemimah hurled herself at the odious man, shoving him backwards so hard that he lost his balance and went sprawling to the floor. Her attack was so unexpected that, for a few moments, Murphy lay there, gaping like a landed catfish. Then, angry at being deprived so rudely of his pleasure, he jerked to his feet, crouching low and darted out a hand to grasp Jemimah by the front of her dress. Lifting her as easily as if she were a ragdoll, he shook her until her teeth rattled and, a malignant gleam in his dark eyes, he drew back his fist.

"Now, now, Murph," Jackson chided, catching the man's arm and restraining him easily. "We want our little goldmine in one piece, don't we?"

Undeterred, Murphy tried to shake his arm loose, determined to plant his fist in the little bitch's face! When his struggles came to nothing and he was still held fast, he turned to Jackson, almost pleadingly. "She pushed me!"

Jackson smiled soothingly, patting the irate man's arm but not letting go. "I know she did, Murph. I know. Don't worry, I won't let her do it again."

Murphy gave Jemimah one last flaming glare then, most unwillingly, he released her. She dropped to the floor, rubbing at the front of her neck where his grip had chafed her, and scooted back over to Martha by the stove.

Jackson took off his hat and dropped it lightly onto the table where he sat down, watching Jemimah speculatively. "The Lancers won't pay for damaged goods, Murph so, until we have the money in our saddle bags, we need to display a little more caution. Of course, when that time comes..." He eyed Jemimah and smiled softly, almost playfully. "Maybe I'll let you teach our young visitor some manners."

Jemimah said nothing. She remained still. But she watched the man, the one called Jackson, and he frightened her far more than Murphy. For all his smart appearance and overblown gentlemanly mannerisms, his eyes were like those of a wolf. She prayed for her family to come.

"Alright, I can wait," Murphy sneered, his mean eyes full of promise as he stared at the dark little girl. Then, turning his attention once more to Martha, he grinned. "But I can have me this little flower, cain't I? You already done for her Pa so ain't nobody gonna be payin' to get her back!"

Martha crumpled against Jemimah who clutched her in shock.

"I can have her, eh Jackson?" Murphy pressed.

The tall man regarded the child who was now weeping copiously. "Maybe later," he decreed. "Right now, go fetch us some water in. Miss Porter can make us some coffee. Let's see if she has other uses as well."

Disgruntled at being separated from his prize, Murphy slapped his greasy hat back on and sloped towards the door . But, before he went out, he grinned at Martha, making a gesture which said, ' you and me' to the pitiful girl.

Jackson stretched out his long legs and tapped Jemimah's knee with the toe of his polished boot. "Make yourself useful, Miss Lancer," he ordered. "Poor old Shifty stopped a bullet in town during the robbery and he's still feeling a mite poorly. Maybe all he needs is a little tender feminine care? You tend to him and see if you can stop the bleeding."

Jemimah gaped. The last thing she wanted was to go anywhere near the man. Besides, supposing he died - they might blame her for it! "I'm not a doctor," she protested. "I don't know how to do that!"

Jemimah drew back then at the cruel smile on Jackson's face as he stared unblinkingly at her. He whipped out a knife from his belt and casually turned it over and over in his long-fingered hands.

"Then what use are you?" he asked softly.

Jemimah stilled in fear. "You said you were going to get the Lancers to pay you a ransom for me. If... if you... kill me they won't pay you anything," she croaked.

Jackson leaned his head back against his chair and chuckled in genuine amusement. "Oh, they'll pay alright but, by the time they find you, we'll be long gone so... it won't matter if you're in one piece..." He stopped laughing suddenly and his eyes were almost black. Jemimah shivered. "... or lots and lots of itty-bitty pieces. You just remember that, Miss Smart-mouth!"

He laid the knife on the table at his side and grinned down at her.

Jemimah stiffly crawled to the injured man who lay back as though asleep. 'Old Shifty' was anything but! She looked at his face and realised with dismay that he was hardly more than a boy - probably Mateo's age. With distaste, she glanced at the filthy wadded rag at his side. It was soaked with blood. As gently as she could and with fingers stiff from fear, she peeled it away from the boy's body but hurriedly pressed it back into place when she saw the blood begin to ooze afresh from the hole in his side.

One of her family had done this to him she realised... or maybe Val. God, how she wished they were here now. Blinking back the tears which stung her eyes, she looked down helplessly at the injured youth. His face, drained of any colour, had a waxy sheen with a gloss of sweat. His blonde hair was plastered damply to his brow. Death was approaching rapidly, that much she knew. His eyes, when he opened them for a second, had a feverish glint and were unfocused. His breathing was shallow and rattled in his chest.

At the sound of Murphy tramping back into the room, Jemimah leaned closer to Martha and whispered to her. "My family will be coming for us, Martha. Don't worry. Just do as they ask and we'll be home soon, I promise." She tried valiantly to sound more certain than she actually felt.

"Hey, shut up whisperin'!" Murphy grated, landing a kick at Jemimah's rump so that she fell forwards and sprawled across the dying boy. She scooted away from him and he moaned pathetically. Instead of being worried about his friend, Murphy laughed harshly and beckoned to Martha. "Water's over there, girly. Git makin' us some coffee!"

"I can't," Martha wailed, distraught. "I don't know how."

"I'll do it!" Jemimah jumped in.

"You shut your mouth!" Murphy snarled. "Little princess here can learn how."

"But..." Jemimah tried to reason with the bully.

"I said shut your mouth, kid... or I'll shut it for ya' - permanent!"

"Just put some water in the kettle, Martha," Jemimah instructed calmly. "Set it to boil on the stove..."

Murphy took a single stride towards the interfering kid, drawing back his boot to aim another vicious kick at her. Jackson's voice, however, halted him.

"You don't seem to listen, girl. Murph here told you to be silent and, I warn you, he's not a patient man."

Screwing up her courage and clenching her fists, Jemimah narrowed her  green eyes at both men and raised her chin mutinously. "You want your coffee or not?" she shouted. "She don't know how; she's never done it before. Let me help her, at least tell her what to do... or you won't get it!"

" You'll get it!" Murphy lunged forwards, making as if to strike Jemimah who cringed back, arms raised protectively across her head in readiness for the blow.

"No, Murph! Leave her be!" Jackson ordered curtly and his partner grudgingly subsided. "You're not afraid of us, are you, child?" Jackson watched her, a slight smile playing about his sensuous mouth.

"Yes, I am. But, just 'cos I'm afraid, don't mean I can't use my common sense!"

Jackson chuckled. "Alright," his eyes weighed her up and something told Jemimah that this man approved of her. She was not entirely happy with this idea - it might keep her safe from his partner, who seemed to do his bidding like a faithful dog, but she in no way sought this man's approbation. "Teach Miss Porter how to make coffee."

Instructing Martha through each step, the coffee was soon ready and the blonde girl was leaning over the table, pouring the aromatic brew into their mugs. She poured one for Shifty and Jemimah held it to his lips, urging him softly to take a sip. Jackson and Murphy were both seated at the table, talking in low voices and seemed to have momentarily lost interest in both the youngsters. Jemimah rose to her knees and surreptitiously beckoned Martha over, indicating that she should kneel beside her. When they were side by side, and she was shielded from Jackson's view, Jemimah leaned closer to Shifty and whispered to him.

"You need a doctor really bad. If you help us get out of here, I can get one for you. Doc Jenkins - he's a real fine doctor an' he'll help you. I can't do it; I don't know what to do but he will. Hey! You hear me? Can you help us?"

There was no response from the young man and Jemimah sat back on her heels. She had suspected it was a vain hope from the start but she'd had to try it. Shifty was too far gone to be of any help to them and she knew it. Dejected, the girls exchanged despairing looks.

"Hey, princess!" Murphy called out and Martha turned warily. "Pour me some more coffee!" He held up his empty mug and, stiffly, Martha rose to her feet, collecting the pot from the stove.

When she returned, she backed up against Jemimah and nudged her leg with the heel of her boot.  The dark girl turned and gasped. Martha had the knife in her hand, holding it behind her back, and was slipping it into the pocket of her dress underneath her apron. When she calmly sat down on the floor, Jemimah regarded her with admiration. She would never have dreamed Martha-Mae Porter would have the nerve to try it! But, now she looked at her, there was something very different in the older girl's grey eyes. Yes... she was afraid just as Jemimah was afraid... but there was a new light burning there - anger, a furious cold vengeful anger!

****

 

Out near the pasture below the south line shack, Cipriano and Enrique finally ran the trio to ground. They spied Scott, Johnny and Val standing beside their horses and urged their own mounts over to them.

Johnny turned at the sound of the approaching riders and his expression was questioning when he realised just who it was. When the two stopped beside them, Val asked, "What you two doin' out here? You heard anythin'?"

"Si, Sheriff Crawford," Cip's voice was grave and the three men were instantly alarmed.

"Why is the boy here?" Scott inclined his head at Enrique.

The youth swallowed, fearful of the Lancers' anger, but his father reached a reassuring hand over to pat his son on the shoulder. "There is no time to tell it all," Cip said. He had made Enrique explain the whole incident and understood very well that it was the girls' own foolishness that had brought them to this perilous position. That did not mean, of course, that when this all was over he would not be having a very serious discussion with the boy... but all that would wait; there were far more important matters to be dealt with. "Jemimah and the Porter girl are at the Randall house..."

" Damn! I'm gonna blister that girl!" Johnny spat.

"Juanito!" Cip snapped. "There is more."

All eyes were on him now, knowing that Cipriano did not use that tone of voice without a very good reason.

"They were taken at the house..."

"Taken?" Scott repeated.

"Si. It appears Porter was in on the robbery..."

"That little piece of..." Val cursed the cowardly man for his greedy lying ways and spat eloquently into the grass.

"The banditos are at the Randall house and they have taken the children... hostages maybe..." Cip's face was grave. He knew their best hope was that the robbers meant to ask for a ransom; if not, then there was a good chance that the girls were already dead or...

Johnny and Val were already mounting up and wheeling their horses in the direction of the old house.

Scott lingered. "Cip, thank you," his voice was shaky and he looked pale. "We certainly would appreciate your skill with that rifle now if you'd come with us?"

"Of course, this was my intent," Cipriano replied. "I will speak with the boy. Do not wait for me; I will catch you up!"

Scott sprang to his horse and galloped after Val and his brother. The big Segundo turned to his son and his face was grave.

"Ride back to the ranch... and I mean straight back!" Enrique nodded with alacrity. "Tell the others what is happening. We need men out at the house quickly!"

"Si Papa!" Enrique turned to follow his father's orders but Cip called him back.

"They must not ride in with guns blazing. Explain about the chicas - their safety is the most important thing. Find Walt - he will know what to do. Now go!"

Enrique looked into his father's brown eyes and felt his strength. Somehow, he knew everything would be alright. Both of them turned and rode quickly in opposite directions.

****

 

Tying their horses in the cover of the trees, realising they were in the self-same spot that Jemimah had used several times to spy down on the house, all four men peered through the thick leaves. Scott smoothed his hand down the neck of Amiga, Jemimah's pony, which was still tethered there and prayed silently that her mistress would soon be with them too.

"I still cain't believe that slimy little polecat had the balls to be a part of this," Val whispered harshly. "He'd never hurt a kid though, surely?"

Johnny, a few yards away from the others, answered softly, his voice grim. "Val, I don't think Porter's gonna have any say in what happens now."

They glanced across at him. Johnny was standing, hands on hips, and staring at something.

"Johnny?" Scott walked over to join his brother.

Johnny pointed to the bushes. Lying in an undignified heap was Porter's body. It was face-down in the scrubby undergrowth. The exposed skin was alive with the black metallic writhing of hundreds of buzzing flies; clearly the corpse had been there some time.

"Porter," Scott grimaced. "Dear god!"

Val edged closer and flipped the dead man with his boot. They all winced and jerked back at the state of the body. Porter's face was almost all gone and what remained resembled rancid meat; obviously it had been mauled by some animal and the stench of rotting flesh rose up to assault their nostrils.

Val shook his head. "Jesus! The stupid bastard!"

Leaving the grisly sight, the four men crept along the top of the ridge, keeping an eye out for any movement at the house below them and safe in the cover of the trees. When they reached the final clump of bushes, they squatted to decide what they should do next.

"There's three of them in there an' one of 'em is the dirty piece of scum I winged," Val said. "Don't know exactly where I hit him but he didn't look too good. With any luck, he's dead."

Scott shook his head. "We can't bank on that, Val. Besides, we can't make a move with those kids in there."

Johnny's head whipped around and his expression clearly showed his surprise. "We ain't just gonna leave 'em either!"

"Johnny, that's not what I'm saying," Scott tried to placate his younger brother. He knew perfectly well that every minute Jemimah spent in that house with those men was wrenching at Johnny's gut. But he was afraid for her too; they had to tread softly. "This is no time for heroics. If we act rashly we could end up getting those girls killed!"

The blue of Johnny's eyes seemed to gleam with anger. "I'm not gonna ride in there shootin' my gun like a damn fool, Scott!"

Val placed a hand on the shoulder of each brother and watched as they both took a slow breath.

"I'm goin' to get as close as I can... as quiet as I can," Johnny spoke more calmly. "Check out the lie of the land..."

"Johnny..."

"They won't even see me," he insisted.

"Boy, you'd better be light on your feet," Val's warning was grim. "Remember Porter - these bastards ain't on no Sunday school picnic; they mean business!"

Johnny was already rising to his feet and he looked back at his friend. "You forget, Val... this is my business... and I'm good at my job. You, of all people, know that!"

Reluctantly, Scott and Val nodded their agreement. Cipriano reached out to pat the young man on the back as he edged forwards, using the scrub as cover to close in. They watched as Johnny sped to the side of the house, crouching low, then crept towards the back.

Inching to the corner, he darted a rapid glance at the deserted yard. A hired buggy from the Green River livery was there by a run-down old woodshed. Also there were four horses, tied to the wheels of the buggy. Quick as a flash and using the buggy as cover, Johnny leaped behind it then sneaked underneath, muttering soothing sounds to the nervous animals. Carefully, he untied them and softly pushed them away so that they turned and moved off, heading for the trees and the thick sweet grass.

****

 

Shifty had not stirred for some time. Jemimah, her eyes crinkled up with anxiety, knew he was sinking fast. Though she wiped his brow with a rag dunked in water, she knew he hardly felt it and that she was wasting her time. Still, she could not leave him. It felt wrong somehow - like leaving a dying animal to struggle alone. And this was no animal; this was a person - a boy not much older than herself. Sure, he had taken a wrong path but did he really deserve to die like this, with only a stranger to witness his passing?

Behind her, Murphy wandered over to the stove and dipped a wooden spoon into the stew pot. He shovelled a chunk of meat into his mouth with a vulgar slurping sound and proceeded to chew it with his mouth agape.

"Hey, this is ready," he called over. "Serve it up, princess!" Leering at Martha as she rose to her feet, he handed her the spoon and moved aside for her to get to the stove

As the girl reached for one of the tin plates and leaned over the pot, he wrapped his arms around her waist from behind, pressing the front of his body hard up against her. Then, cupping both her breasts roughly, he leaned into her hair. Martha squeaked and twisted, trying to wriggle free but Murphy simply guffawed, revelling in her prim fluttering. Finally, lips clamped together and grey eyes wild, the girl reached the spoon into the stew pot, ladling up a hefty dollop of the hot mess, and splattered it back into his grinning face.

Murphy jerked back, covering his eyes with both hands and roaring furiously. Again, his first instinct was to retaliate by raising his hand to strike her but Jemimah jumped in between them.

"Get outta my way, you little..."

Jemimah hopped before him, waving her arms and gabbling loudly - anything to draw his attention away from Martha who cringed back against the mantel. "Mister... it's your friend! Look at your friend! Look! Look!" She waved to the unconscious boy.

Eventually, Jemimah breathed a ragged sigh of relief to see the livid twist of Murphy's lips settle again, the fury in his eyes fading. He tore his gaze from Martha and glanced at Shifty.

"So? What am I lookin' at?" he muttered with a sneer.

Jemimah gaped, incredulous. "I think... I think... he's... dyin ', Mister."

The seconds stretched out while Murphy studied the boy in a detached way. Then, dismissing him, he turned back to Jemimah. "So what?"

"But, he's your friend!"

Murphy grinned, almost proudly. "I don't have no friends, kid. Nobody to cry over me an' I don't cry for nobody else. Best way to be. Friends jest drag you down." He flicked his eyes on Martha again. "Dish up that stew an' make it snappy!" With that, he turned away and went over to the table to wait for his meal.

Jemimah leaned closer to Martha who was busily slopping out the stew. "Why didn't you use the knife?" she whispered.

Martha merely shook her head and pinned the younger girl with a warning glare. Jemimah backed away. She sank down beside Shifty and watched Martha going about her orders with a calm she knew the girl did not feel. Looking at the plates of steaming food, she realised with a jolt that she had not eaten since breakfast that morning but the sight of the lumpy concoction turned her stomach. She watched Murphy too. He was wrong; friends didn't drag you down - friends watched out for you. She knew hers would be doing exactly that.

****

 

Johnny scanned the rear of the house. The ground floor windows were all boarded up with dry rickety slats, the same as at the front, but the upstairs casements were clear. Still lurking in the cover of the buggy, he cursed under his breath that he could no longer see Scott and the others without coming out into the open. So... he couldn't see into the house and he couldn't see his friends! Until he could be sure where those kids were, and what state they might be in, he didn't dare make a move. He was stuck!

Johnny thought about Jemimah and his stomach cramped with fear. The scrapes she constantly got into... they were child's play at the side of this! He knew what men like that were capable of doing to a little girl. They would not care that she was still a young innocent; if anything, that would make her all the more appealing. And when they had done with her, and she was broken, ruined beyond any hope of mending, they would not hesitate. They would snuff out her life as easily as dousing a candle's flame.

Johnny blinked hard to clear the moisture from his eyes. No time for that! She needed him right now and there was no way on God's green earth that he would fail her!

****

 

Jemimah beckoned Martha over and they knelt together at Shifty's side. Jemimah's green eyes tried to send a message to Martha, imploring her to understand. She saw the blonde girl glance at the boy and suddenly gape. He was dead.

Martha had never seen a dead person before but she found she could not feel sorry for him and wondered if that meant she was wicked and would go to hell. She didn't care - they could all die and rot! Somehow, knowing that one of them had died stiffened her resolve. She felt a rush of courage and her hand slipped into her pocket beneath her dirty apron to finger the smooth bone handle of the knife.

Jemimah was holding a finger to her lips; she meant that they should keep silent about the boy and Martha gave a tiny nod. She slipped back to her place at the stove and set about making another pot of coffee. Pretending nothing had changed, Jemimah too went about her task, pressing the damp cloth to the dead boy's forehead and kneeling in such a way that he was hidden from their view.

Murphy was licking the last vestiges of gravy from his fingers and called for more stew and a fresh mug of coffee. Martha moved slowly to obey and his eyes followed her every movement.

"How long d'ya reckon we're gonna be holed up here, Jackson?" He asked.

"You have somewhere pressing you need to be going?"

Murphy scowled. He didn't like it when Jackson used that smart tone. He didn't like being put down. "Just askin' is all. No need to bite my head off!"

Jackson sighed. Murphy was biddable; it was half the reason he kept him around. That, and a murdering psychopath came in handy now and then... as long as you kept him on a short leash and never turned your back. The man certainly wasn't the sharpest tool in the box though. "We're going nowhere right now. It's too dangerous for strangers to be seen travelling around these parts. We'll wait 'til things cool down some."

"An' what if that sheriff comes back?" Murphy pushed truculently. "What if them Lancers start pokin' around here, lookin' for their girly?"

"Why would they come here?" Jackson pointed out. "No-one knows we're here... no-one knows they're here." He glanced over at the dark girl with the long plaits. She was still tending to Shifty. "My guess is these two nosey parkers were off playing hooky and they won't have told anyone about that... don't want to get caught." He clicked his tongue. "Naughty... very naughty!"

Murphy grinned.

"Even if the Lancers do show up here, " Jackson mused. "We've got their kid. They won't make a move and risk losing her."

Jemimah listened intently to all of this but did not turn around. She knew that, by now, Enrique would have alerted someone back at the ranch. Surely, Johnny and Scott would be coming soon. The frightened girl said a silent prayer that they would hurry.

"Well, if we're goin' to be playin' a waitin' game, I'm gonna need something to keep me occupied," Murphy announced. He leered at Martha and snapped his fingers at her. "C'mere princess!"

Martha complied slowly. She moved with the wary gait of someone approaching a wild animal, the coffee pot clutched before her. Murphy grinned and held out his mug for her to fill. As she poured the scalding brew, his left hand dropped down and stroked at her calf. Though she flinched, Martha never stopped pouring steadily. The hand, like a hairy spider, was now inching up her leg... to the back of her knee and up... the stubby fingers teased the top of her stocking then continued their insidious meandering path upwards... under the leg of her lacy drawers, kneading at the smooth soft flesh of her thigh.

Martha had ceased pouring coffee but was frozen like a statue. Her only discernible movement was a trembling which made her whole body quiver.

Murphy was sniggering silently, beads of oily sweat on his forehead and his yellow crooked teeth exposed in the fleshy wide mouth. He leaned in his chair so that he could trail his hand higher up her leg. When he reached the supple curve of her buttock, his palm cupped the warm skin and, unable to hold back any longer, he squeezed hard.

With a yelp, Martha sprang away and upended the pot of burning liquid into his lap. Murphy hollered as loud as a steam whistle and leaped up, dancing on the spot and frantically brushing at his scalded skin in a futile attempt to ease the pain. Martha was backing slowly away, eyes riveted to the screaming man. She bumped back against the wall and flattened herself against it, the empty coffee pot slipping from her grasp with a thud.

Jackson, leaning back on two legs of his chair, whooped with raucous laughter at Murphy's predicament which only served to anger the injured man even more.

****

 

Still waiting anxiously, Johnny heard a man yelling inside the house. Taking his chance and hoping they were too busy to notice him, he left the safety of his hiding place and darted to the back door. Crouching low, he leaned back against the wall underneath the window. A man was still hollering and he could hear a second man laughing fit to bust. No sound of the girls.

Bobbing up like a gopher, he peered through the slats at the window and quickly took in the entire scene.

Jemimah was over by the far wall near what seemed to be the injured man. That must be the one Val winged and he seemed pretty well out of things. The Porter girl was standing by the stove. She looked scared stiff. One man (Johnny narrowed his blue eyes keenly, almost certain it was the same ornery snake who'd threatened to teach him a lesson)was jumping and yelling in the middle of the floor while the second man, a tall dark fellow who reminded Johnny forcibly, apart from his colouring, of Scott... was lolling gracefully at the table, laughing fit to bust.

Johnny bobbed down again, having seen all he needed. He listened hard.

"Fuckin' bitch!" Murphy screamed. "You wanna end up like your ol' man, huh? Stuck like a pig an' leakin' blood all over the floor?"

"Now, Murph, you're scaring Miss Porter," Jackson chided, wiping away tears of mirth. "She's a genteel young lady. I don't think she took too kindly to having your dirty paws all over her ass!"

Murphy stopped hopping around and, pinching away the hot sodden cloth of his britches from his smarting genitals, he gasped, his eyes watering. "Yeah? Well, I ain't touched her ass... yet!" He lumbered towards Martha. "But I mean to have you, princess so let's take a look at you. Git your clothes off... all of 'em... now!"

Martha remained flattened to the wall. She darted a beseeching glance at Jackson who merely shrugged and smiled, not exactly averse to seeing the pretty girl au naturel. If she was as tempting as he suspected, he would have her first. After all, Murph would need some time to cool down - literally!

Knowing there would be no reprieve coming from the tall well-spoken man, Martha stared back at Murphy and shook her head numbly.

Still wincing and clutching himself between his legs, he stumbled over and, grasping the helpless child by the shoulder, he flung her into the centre of the room. "I said 'strip'! Now!"

Martha's hand closed firmly around the handle of the knife. Murphy leaned over to strike her and she yelled - a wild atavistic sound, plunging the blade into his exposed throat, all the way up to the hilt. A bright fountain of scarlet blood sprayed into her face and across her white apron front. She was screaming now, watching him reel back, feebly trying to tug the knife from his neck and emitting a hideous gurgling, spitting cry.

Jemimah reached out a hand and seized the screaming girl by the wrist. Tugging her desperately, she raced from the room and into the hallway, searching for an exit. Through the next room, she spied the front door and heaved Martha along. They had to get out of there! Mercifully, the door was unlocked and Jemimah fumbled with the latch. Precious seconds ticked by. Jemimah heard a single shot and screamed, shaking the latch until it suddenly snapped upwards and she hefted the ancient door open. It was almost too wonderful; too unbelievable! They were free! Racing outside, Jemimah dragged Martha along behind her, screaming, "It's me! It's Jemimah! If you're out here, don't shoot... don't shoot... it's us!"

As they ran, the girls could hear loud shouting coming from the slope above the house, calling them to head to the trees. Legs feeling like they were wading through porridge, wishing they could move faster and yearning to be far from the house, the two girls ran and ran, gasping and sobbing from the effort and from the fear of being so close to safety and still so far away.

Suddenly, they felt strong arms clasping them, holding them tightly, soothing voices murmured that they were safe, that they were home, no-one could ever harm them again.

Scott clutched Jemimah tightly to his chest and, though he tried to speak the words in his heart, he found that his throat would not function; his voice was gone. Instead, he rocked her and his whole frame shuddered as, one hand thrown across his eyes, he found that he was weeping as much as she was.

Val grabbed hold of the Porter girl. Alarmed by the blood coating her skin and clothing, he ran his eyes expertly over her to ensure she was not injured, then he enfolded the weeping girl in his fatherly embrace, hushing her as gently as if she were a newborn. He held the child at arms' length to check her over once more, wondering about the blood. Whose was it?

"You hurt, child?"

"We're fine... we're alright," Jemimah gabbled over her shoulder. "Martha got us out of there!"

Martha, breathing hard as though she had run a hundred miles and not a hundred yards, sank to her knees in Val's secure embrace. "No..." she denied. "You did."

"She killed one of 'em!" Jemimah squealed, still overwhelmed by the way everything had turned. "Stabbed him in the neck! You should'a seen her!"

Scott and Val both turned to the Porter girl. She was so pale and was swaying dangerously, starting to shake. Settling her on the grass, Val draped his jacket around the girl. Jemimah was still prattling on about it so Scott hushed her softly.

"You did a mighty brave thing, young lady," Val soothed the quivering girl. "mighty brave. Saved you an' your friend here!"

Through eyes half-closed as the strain of the last few hours finally hit her, Martha glanced over at Jemimah who was grinning and nodding her agreement. Martha's face crumpled and, at last, the cleansing tears began to fall. "My poppa... they killed my poppa!" The tears cascaded down her cheeks in silvery rivulets.

Val reached out a gentle hand and wiped them away. "I know, honey. An' you done for one of them. We'll get the other two."

"One!"

Val jerked around, gaping at Jemimah.

" One? There's only one left?" Scott released the girl, his hands either side of her face so that he could look into her eyes. Perhaps she did not understand what she had said.

"Yes, just one," she affirmed, jerking her head from his grasp. Boy, did Scott think she couldn't count? "Other one was hurt bad; bleedin' too much for me to stop it. He died a few minutes ago. The others don't know though - I didn't tell 'em!"

"Wonder if Johnny knows there's only one left?" Val murmured.

****

 

Johnny crouched on the floor beside Murphy, trying to keep from stepping in the pool of dark thick blood that was rapidly spreading around the dead man. He grimaced at the pungent smell of the corpse and straightened. The dead man had drawn his gun and obviously tried to get off a shot but who he had fired at Johnny didn't know. He fervently hoped it was neither of the girls. So... two dead. One no more than a kid; not much older than Jemimah. Johnny dipped his head and hissed out a sharp breath then looked up. His blue eyes scanned the room. Empty. The third man had to be somewhere in the house. He had not come out the back way and Scott, Cip and Val would have picked him off if he'd attempted to leave by the front door.

Stepping carefully around the two dead men, Johnny headed through to the hallway and looked silently at the stairs.

The girls were out. Hopefully by now, they would be in the trees with Scott. Johnny silently rounded the corner and peeked into the other ground floor room. The front door was ajar but the room was deserted. He quickly gleaned that this must have been the way the kids escaped. So... the remaining man... he had to be in one of the rooms on the first floor! Silently, Johnny turned on his heel and, gun in his hand, he began to climb the stairs.

****

 

"Stay with the horses!" Scott eyed Jemimah and, in the sternest voice he could muster, repeated that she must not move. The girl nodded.

"You can be more use now, chica, by taking care of your friend," Cipriano told her. "She needs you. Do not leave her!" Again, Jemimah nodded her tousled dark head and laid an arm around Martha's limp shoulders. This time, they knew, she would obey them.

Alert and watching for any slight movement, all three men trotted down the slope to the house, approaching from the front, side and rear.

****

 

Almost at the top of the stairs, Johnny peered around the newel post, his hand brushing the dusty cobwebs. His boots made almost no sound. Like a cat, he stealthily picked his way along the landing, the thick carpet of dust deadening any noise. He hefted the familiar weight of his Colt in his right hand and the weapon felt good - an extension of his arm. Johnny's senses were zinging; alive and honed in on any slight movement or sound. Images of Jemimah rushed suddenly into his head but he cast them aside, shuddering as if he were shaking off a pesky fly. Now was not the time to think of her; now he must find the last man... before he found him .

Moving along the landing, Johnny headed for the bedroom at the far end. The door was ajar as though someone had just rushed in there. Step by silent step, he edged towards the end of the corridor and paused, listening for any sound which would give away the man he sought. On the wall by the door hung an old mirror. The glass was tarnished so badly that Johnny's reflection showed mere patches like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle. He glanced fleetingly at it and was about to look away again when a flicker of movement caught his eye.

Swinging around and twisting in mid-air, he hurled himself to the floor. In almost the same instant, a shot rang out which would have taken him high in the back. The mirror shattered and the bright shards scattered in a shower of myriad lights. Rolling and sweeping up his gun, Johnny knew he had to make this shot entirely on instinct; he could not see the man completely and had to gauge his position in his mind's eye. There was no time to hesitate.

In the flash and crack of the single shot, the wood of the far door frame splintered, tiny white chips zinging off and raining onto the boards. Johnny lay still until he heard a muffled thud and a low moan. He came up onto his knees, Colt at the ready, then stepped towards the sound.

Pushing the door fractionally open, Johnny could see the tall man. He was sprawled back against an ancient iron bedstead. His good-looking face had a bewildered expression of surprise. Johnny's bullet had been split by its journey through the flimsy door jamb so that, when it entered the man's lower abdomen, it was already misshapen. The hole it had made in Jackson's gut was ragged and gaping. His pelvis was shattered, bright arterial blood pumping in regular spurts from beneath a hand that clutched desperately at his torn flesh.

Johnny stood over the man and blue eyes held brown in a steady gaze. Jackson broke eye-contact at last to glance over at his gun. It was lying ten feet away, having spun from his grasp as his body was jammed backwards by the impetus of Johnny's fatal shot. Jackson strained to reach for it, shiny beads of perspiration budding out on his face with the effort. But he found he could not move an inch. The bullet had finally embedded itself in the soft muscles of his back, completely disabling him. Jackson laughed - a high self-mocking sound which ended on a whimper. To think he had made it through the whole war unscathed, only to end his life here in a ruined shell of a farmhouse, at the hands of a mere boy.

Johnny followed the man's yearning stare and crossed slowly to retrieve the gun. Then he crouched down by the dying man's side. He said nothing.

Jackson regarded the boy; young, Mexican... no, wait... the eyes were blue, a vivid steely blue. Jackson tried to draw back and he gasped loudly. Those eyes... he had been mistaken; this was no mere boy.

"Guess it was you taught us ... the lesson, eh? Who... are you?" Jackson hoarsely rasped his last dying words.

Johnny watched the feverish light fade from the robber's eyes and rose slowly to his feet.

"You worst nightmare," he replied softly.

 

Shouts from below echoed up through the empty hall. Johnny glanced once more at the dead man then turned and left the room.

Scott and Val were halfway up the stairs. They had heard the shots and, fearful for Johnny, had come running. The sight of him, casually brushing the dust from his green shirt and pants, halted them in their clattering rush up the stairs.

"Johnny!" Scott's expression was one of relief. "You alright?"

"Sure, why wouldn't I be?" he grinned, holstering his gun.

Suddenly, Cipriano's excited hail made them all turn around. "Hey! You want to see this, sheriff!"

Val ran back down, followed more sedately by the two brothers, Scott's arm slung about Johnny's shoulders. They grouped in the hallway. Cipriano was holding aloft two sets of saddle bags and kicking at two more with the toe of his boot. As if to illustrate beyond a doubt what he actually had in his hands, the grinning man pulled out a fistful of bank notes, waving them in their faces. Johnny laughed.

"Reckon there'll be a few folks glad to see this back in the bank," Val scooped up the two saddle bags from the dirty boards. "Porter got his rightful share - the same as all his buddies. Just wish ol' Evan were still around to see this!"

Val's mention of Porter subdued them all.

"The kids... where are they?" Johnny asked.

"They're fine. They're up there with the horses," Scott reassured him.

Johnny had one more pressing question. "They're... not.... hurt?"

Scott shook his head and smiled softly, knowing exactly what Johnny was implying; it was what they had all feared until they had seen the two children racing up the slope towards them. Hand on his brother's shoulder, Scott led him to the front door and, as they headed for the trees, they saw Jemimah waving at them.

Johnny's face registered his feeling of utter relief. Halfway up the hillside, when he could hold it back no longer, he left the others and ran to the child, falling to his knees and clamping his arms around her in a thankful embrace. She was crying anew, her slender frame racked with sobs. He held onto her as though he would never let her go again, his own cheeks damp with tears. All the while, his gentle voice muttered soothing endearments and his strong hand repeatedly stroked her ruffled hair. At length, she quietened and he held her away from him so he could look into her face.

Her green eyes were red-rimmed and swollen with tears, her nose pink and running. She gazed back into his loving blue eyes and hiccupped. "I knew you'd come."

Johnny smiled softly. "Are you alright, honey?" he asked, wiping her nose with his bandana.

She nodded. "Martha was so brave. She saved us. She... killed one of 'em... she... oh, Johnny!"

Throwing herself at him, she burst into fresh noisy tears, the strain of the last few terrible hours finally beginning to tell.

****

 

They deliberately rode home slowly. Johnny had insisted Jemimah ride with him and so she shared his saddle on Barranca, leaning into his warmth and revelling in his strong arms around her. He could feel the tension in her body still but he waited, saying nothing; not pressing her.

At last, when they could see the hacienda through the trees, Jemimah found her courage. "Johnny?" she asked in a very small voice.

The young man smiled softly, fairly sure he knew what she was about to ask him. He dipped his head to press a reassuring kiss to her smooth cheek. "Yes."

He felt her take a deep breath. "Am I goin' to get a lickin'?"

Johnny heard the dread in her timid voice and smiled, his arms tightening about her. "Aw, no honey," he soothed. He folded his right arm across her middle and hugged her to him, her slim hands clutching him in return. "I think you've learned your lesson; you won't leave the ranch without tellin' where you're headed ever again, will you?"

"I won't, Johnny. I promise I won't!" she vowed fervently and, right at that moment, she truly believed that she meant it with all her heart and soul.

"Good girl." Johnny planted another kiss on the top of her dark ruffled hair, exchanging a grin with Scott who had listened to her vehement words. Cipriano, trailing behind, gave a wry smile as if to say he was not entirely convinced. However, time would tell.

****

The entire family rested back into their soft cushions and gave a collective sigh.

"That was a splendid meal, Teresa," Murdoch beamed at his young ward in congratulations. It was perfectly true; Teresa was fast beginning to rival Maria in the culinary arts. The dinner had been made especially good by the fact that it was the first meal he had taken downstairs with his family since the day of the robbery. It was wonderful to be out of that bed, if only for a few hours. 'A little at a time' had been Sam's decree and the family had ensured that the Lancer patriarch had stuck to it!

Grateful for his praise, Teresa fussed with the pillows at his back. "Maria's warming one of her stones for later when you go back to bed," she announced and Murdoch groaned.

"Don't remind me of going back up there just yet, darling," he chided. "Let me at least pretend to be a free man for a while."

"I'd hardly call your bedroom a prison, sir," Scott chuckled as he handed a large single Malt whisky to his father.

Murdoch lifted the glass in thanks, smiling wryly. "You wouldn't say that if you had ever experienced these two formidable ladies in action!" he quipped back. "Two more ferocious jailers you could not hope to find! Believe me!" He grinned at their laughter. Then his eye caught the little girl who sat on the sofa at Johnny's side. She was not laughing, in fact, she still seemed very quiet and subdued. He gave her a warm smile.

The child had been clingy for days now, ever since they brought her home from the Randall house. Murdoch sipped his whisky and his thoughts drifted away from the chatter and laughter to the conversation he had had with her the day before.

Acting so clingy was very unusual for Jemimah and, the day after the rescue, Scott had allowed her to stay home from school. She wanted to be near Murdoch and had been on the verge of genuine tears at the thought of riding away to Spanish Wells. That had been the first day. When she wouldn't go to school the day after either, Scott had been worried and had spoken to his father who had asked for her to be brought up to see him.

Ensconced on the huge bed and leaning against his solid chest, the child had dissolved into noisy tears. It had taken Murdoch some time to discover that she was afraid she might go off to school and find that, while she was absent, something dreadful had happened to her father. She was terrified of losing him.

Astutely, Murdoch realised that Martha losing her father so horribly had reawakened memories of Andrew's death and the aching void his loss had created in Jemimah's young life. He had to make her understand that she was safe here; that he would be there for her and had no intentions of leaving her just yet.

He carefully lifted her onto his lap, ignoring the twinge of pain low in his back (it was nothing compared to the pain of a few days ago).

"Jemimah Rose," he soothed in his deep warm voice. "I intend to be here for many a year to come, d'you hear me?" She had gazed at him uncertainly, her face damp with tears. "Though I may be wizened and white or even bald as a coot..." he tickled her and managed to raise the glimmer of a smile. "...I will still be here to see you grown, married and with children of your own. And this, my sweet girl, I promise you."

Jemimah had thrown her arms around his neck and had hugged him so hard he thought she might well throttle him! Easing her away at last, his blue eyes had turned somewhat flinty and the girl had wanted to drop her gaze to the quilt which she was suddenly fingering nervously.

"Now, young lady," he said, the warning tone unmistakable. "That is my promise but now I want a promise from you - a solemn promise."

Jemimah's wide eyes were vivid green pools and she gulped.

"I want your promise that you will never wander off this ranch again without first letting us know and, if necessary, getting our permission." He eyed her beadily. "You remember what I said I would do if you disobeyed that particular rule?"

"Oh but..."

"Do you remember?" he pressed.

Jemimah flushed. "Yes, you said I'd get a proper whipping out in the barn. But I..."

"And," he interrupted her protestations. "You have had a taste of what is out there and how vital it is that we be able to get to you when you need us! You're an intelligent girl, Jemimah. You know very well the reason I ask this of you."

Jemimah could no longer hold his gaze. She dropped her head in shame. "I promise, Daddy. Really I do!"

Murdoch's hand gently lifted her chin so that he could look into her eyes. "A solemn promise?"

She nodded eagerly. "I'll never ever disobey you again!"

Murdoch chuckled. "Never? Never is an awfully long time, sweetheart. I'd settle for a month - give my poor aching back a chance to calm down, eh?" He stroked her long dark hair, revelling in the sensation of the slim little child's body in his arms. "I'd sooner have you sitting on my knee than bending over it, young lady. Y'hear me?"

Murdoch watched his girl now and gave her a wink. She perked up instantly, her smile altering her whole mood so that the atmosphere of the room seemed to shift, becoming genuinely buoyant and light hearted.

Scott was telling of what he had discovered on his trip into Green River earlier in the day. "So Martha and her mother have gone back to Chicago. It seems Mrs Porter has family there. I don't think she could have stomached staying out here with everyone knowing her husband had been part of it all. Besides, she has no money now; it would mean finding lodgings somewhere and more than likely a job."

"Yes, there'd be no servants or swanky big house with indoor plumbing and I can't see that suiting ol' Ma Porter," Johnny said, a brow lifted sardonically. He sipped his drink.

"Seems kind of a shame though," Jemimah suddenly murmured. She had been so quiet of late that they all turned to her now.

"What does, darling?" Murdoch asked.

"Well, Martha... turned out she wasn't that bad after all." She looked around the room at their expressions of surprise. "No, I mean it. She was really brave in there. I told you what she did - it was almost... almost like... she was trying to make up for what her dad did. Y'know, to set things right again. If she hadn't taken that knife and..." She shuddered at the memory of Murphy, capering around the room... dying horribly.

Johnny hugged her closer.

"Oh, don't," Teresa whispered. "I can't bear to think of it. I'm just glad it's all over and the old house is empty again."

"Ah yes, the Randall house..." Murdoch held his glass up to the light and idly studied the amber fluid within.

Scott leaned forward, intrigued. "Murdoch, is there something you're not telling us?"

"Yeah, you got a real glint in your eye!" Johnny smiled, watching his father keenly. "What's goin' on?"

Murdoch played for time, thoroughly enjoying his ability to keep his children dancing at the end of his line. Eventually, he decided to put them out of their misery.

"Well, let's see... you're now looking at the new owner!"

"What?" Scott was incredulous. "You've bought that tumble-down, old..."

"It is not tumble-down!" Teresa argued.

"It just needs some tender loving care..." Jemimah agreed, an excited gleam in her eyes.

"All that beautiful old wooden lace-work..." Teresa mused, a romantic dreamy expression on her face.

"And that great big bay window in the parlour..."

"Sure, it could use a new stove..."

"And a swing on the front porch..."

Scott and Johnny were laughing now.

"Alright, ladies, we get the picture," Murdoch chuckled. "You love the old place. I have to say, in the light of recent events, I find that quite remarkable but... why do you think I bought it?"

"So why did you buy it, Murdoch?" Scott watched him carefully. There was more to this than satisfying the girlish whims of Teresa and Jemimah.

The big man eased himself back into his pillows and took a thoughtful sip of his drink. "Oh... I don't quite know really," he admitted softly. "It's right on the border of our land and the Conway ranch. It's only ten acres but Aggie and I..." He paused and cleared his throat, suddenly losing the dreaminess and becoming typical practical Murdoch once more. "Ahem... we couldn't see it left to fall apart. Nor did we want it to fall into the hands of total strangers. I guess all this... business made us both realise that." He paused again, obviously deep in thought and the memory, if his faraway expression was anything to go by, was indeed a special one. "Besides, that old house... she's like an respectable old lady who deserves some... what was it, Jemimah?"

"Tender loving care?"

"That's right - tender loving care ." He paused again to finish his whisky. Johnny and Scott glanced at each other. There was more to this 'memory' of Murdoch's than met the eye and it surely sounded like Aggie Conway played a significant role. "I figured we can do up the old place little by little and... maybe you and Enrique can use it for a playhouse until it's finished?"

Jemimah raised one side of her lip comically in an expression of disgust. " Playhouse? I'm not six!"

Johnny grabbed her and mussed her hair. "You sure do act like it sometimes!"

"When it's finished," Murdoch ignored her outburst. "I wondered if Scott or Johnny might like it when they find the right girl and settle down; finally decide to start working on providing all those grandchildren for me!"

Jemimah's eyes lit up but both Scott and Johnny spluttered in shock.

"Scott, I think he's talkin' to you!"

"Why me?"

"You're the oldest, brother," Johnny pointed out. "It's your place to be first."

"Yes, but you're the one for the ladies, Johnny," Scott argued. "You'll be married long before I am!"

Teresa grinned up at Scott who had risen from his chair to debate with Johnny. Jemimah grinned at Johnny as he too got to his feet.

"I almost made that mistake before. I got no intention of tying myself down until I'm an old man of at least thirty," Johnny was insisting. "Hey... you're nearly thirty, ain't ya'? That's another reason you should go first. You can have the house for you an' Helen , huh? Or maybe that little Irish lassie of yours... or what about Zee?" He gave Scott a swift back-handed slap to his middle and grinned.

Scott smacked him lightly on the arm. "Now look here, little brother... if we're going to start listing names here what about Callie... or Melissa... and of course we could never forget Lucrece..."

" Lucrece? What, are you crazy ...?"

" Me crazy? ... it was you brought up Moira...!"

Murdoch sat back to enjoy the banter his teasing had provoked. He sighed deeply. Oh, what a good feeling it was to be a father!

 

~ end ~

Want to comment? Email Anne